Raymond Soltysek's Blog

Funny or Die: Robert de Niro and Johan van Vogt

Posted in Art, Media review by raymondsoltysek on May 27, 2012

The great Funny or Die website did a piece on celebrities that look like figures from history: I mentioned the resemblance I’d noticed between Robert de Niro and a portrait I discovered in the National Gallery in Wroclaw of Johan van Vogt.  I know some people have been looking for it, so, to ease your way, here’s the evidence that Robert de Niro is a time-travelling celebrity:

Separated at birth centuries apart?

Separated at birth centuries apart?

Jings, I’ve just noticed that both picture have a logo to the right of the subject’s head! Spooky or what?

Sacred Music: the Story of Allegri’s Miserere, BBC 4, 18/5/12

Posted in Art, Media review, Music review by raymondsoltysek on May 18, 2012
Link to the sixteen

Elin Manhan Thomas, The Sixteen choir

I’ve just watched a lovely BBC4 documentary on Allegri’s “Miserere”, that most mysterious piece of devotional music that was held like a state secret by the Vatican for so long.  Simon Russell Beale tells its story, and then The Sixteen, a cool choir led by Harry Christophers I’ve never come across before, deliver a spellbinding performance.

Like magnificent cathedrals and devotional masterpieces on the walls of luxurious religious palaces, I baulk at the idea of such beauty being owned by the corrupt bureaucrats of organised, brutalised religions: I can’t think of anyone who deserves access to this wonder less than a privileged, self-serving clergy who fatten themselves on the patronage of the rich while failing to give a shit about the poor; to claim this genius as your own is as perverse as the notion of land ownership or the disappearance of masterpieces of art into the private collections of billionaire criminal oligarchs or the corporate patenting of DNA.  And let’s not forget that they were happy to castrate boys to sing this,  and that  if it hadn’t been for the sneakiness of Mozart and Mendelssohn,  this would still be locked in the Sistine Chapel.

But that is what the world is, damn it.  Plebeians like me can only drop our jaws in wonder at what the rich take for granted as their entitlement.  And this is jaw dropping, and those four bars containing the high C – so wondrously sung by  Elin Manhan Thomas   – are the most jaw dropping of all.  I don’t believe in God – cannot believe in God – but I envy the music and art and architecture men have created and have had created in His praise.

I wonder how beautiful the world would be if all that ingenuity had been devoted to man instead of myth.

All arted out: Madrid, May 2012

Posted in Art, Travel by raymondsoltysek on May 9, 2012

My annual wee weekend away with pals takes us to Madrid, the first time I’ve ever visited Spain. It’s a lovely city, but odd in a number of ways. It doesn’t seem to have an identifiable vista like Paris or London or Edinburgh, and is a little like Glasgow in that the fantastic architecture is hidden at ground level by retail outlets.

There’s also highly visible long term poverty, including one poor bloke who camped outside a multiplex cinema virtually 24/7 for the duration of our visit. I’m in no way suggesting the many, many beggars we saw should be moved out of tourists’ view, nor that Madrid is any worse than any other capital city for its long term homeless: it just seems to me scandalous that in any civilised city – particularly one dominated so much by the Church – anyone still has to live on the streets, regardless of their social or mental or physical needs.

Finally, I’m quite discomfited by the guns everywhere: it seems store and hotel security men are licensed to carry guns too. I’m never happy around such people: they may ostensibly be there for “our protection”, but I firmly believe violence breeds violence. I remember being on a safari holiday in Kenya, and an armed soldier accompanied us on a walk along the banks of a crocodile infested river. He was ten times more threatening than those crocs who we never got within a hundred yards of us and who were separated by a wide river, and if he had extorted cash from us – as we were warned he might – we’d have handed it over  pretty damn quick.

Las Meninas

But it’s probably the most beautiful city I’ve been to for art, save Paris perhaps. The Prado, the traditional museum, is fantastic. Heavy on Velásquez, it includes the great Las Meninas. It’s an undoubted masterpiece, a clever, clever painting with it’s mirror image of the subject of the painting being painted in the painting (!) and the paintings of paintings on the far wall, along with the artist cocky and confident peering over the heads of the nosy royal family. It doesn’t do it for me, though, representing as it does the horrendous privilege of the Spanish court, led by the cruellest bunch of genetically compromised arrogant uglies you could ever imagine: chief amongst them is Felipe IV, one of the vainest men ever born given the number of portraits of him. The corruption is clear in the preponderance of dwarves and mental defectives brought to court to “entertain” this idle lot, and they were supported wholeheartedly by the most corrupt branch of the Catholic Church ever known. In celebration of my visit, I’m reading Antony Beevor’s magisterial The Battle for Spain, and he makes it absolutely clear just how repressive Church and State were in maintaining a vicious and primitive feudal state all the way to the mid-20th Century. You can see the sense of entitlement in their faces.

He is a stunning painter, though, even if he did buy into the whole privilege thing. His Christ on the Cross is rightly one of the most famous of those images, and his Apollo in the Forge of Vulcan is fantastic. Forget the cheesy mythological subject matter, just look at the face of the guy second from the right. He could be your next door neighbour.

There’s a whole lot more. Goya is great too: I especially respond to his black paintings. Half Submerged Dog is one of the saddest paintings I’ve ever seen, even though there’s hardly anything in it, and Saturn Devouring his Son is surely one of the most disturbing paintings ever committed to canvas and one you don’t want in your head. Well, not actually: they were murals in his house transferred to canvas after his death. These were Goya’s idea of wallpaper. Eeek.

Obviously, royalty and religion figure heavily, and for a socialist, atheist republican, these don’t hold much significance for me. Some, though, are wonderful, such as Rogier van der Weyden’s Descent from the Cross. The excellent audio guide points out why I find it visually so arresting and satisfying: it’s all about design and symmetry, the parenthetical figures right and left framing the group, the echoed body shapes of Christ and Mary. It’s gorgeous and vivid and nearly six hundred years old.

The painting I’m really here to see is almost as old and just as vivid and much, much stranger. Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden Of Earthly Delight is one of the most famous paintings in the world, largely because of its inspiration of a thousand prog rock album covers, Monty Python’s cartoon style and weirdos like Dali. I remember buying a book about it when I was sixteen and being amazed at the modernity of its imagery; in the flesh, so to speak, it is even more dazzling. Hell, of course, is the big draw here. It’s amazing how closely the darkened skyline lit by burning buildings and shafts of eerie light resemble a 20th century Blitz scene, and that’s echoed in his The Haywain and Pieter Breughel’s awful Passchendale landscape in The Triumph of Death.

There are two truly beautiful nudes that catch my eye. The first is Mariano Fortuny’s Male Nude in the Sun; I just love the old man’s expression, sunlight lighting and warming his face, the folds of skin on his belly speaking of a once hard and beautiful body now as fragile as a bird. The most stunning, I think, is Paul Baudry’s The Pearl and the Wave. Those perfect skin tones, those foaming waves, that look of promise over the shoulder make for as innocently erotic a painting as I’ve seen.

There’s one other that is quite stunning, but I’ll leave her for later.

The Reina Sofia at the end of the Paseo del Arte is a modern art gallery, and therefore, I’m afraid, much lost on me. I did, however, find another gobsmackingly beautiful nude, Roberto Fernández Balbuena’s utterly gorgeous Desnudo. However, I’m again here for the big one: Guernica, perhaps the most famous painting of the 20th century. I do admire and even like Picasso, and since visiting the Paris Picasso museum I have a huge respect for his technical skill: he was a fantastic draughtsman, for instance. Therefore, the surrounding exhibits tell a fascinating story of his preparatory work and his later revisions, as well as displaying some of the images of the Civil War that inspired him. The painting itself is truly monumental, and a real treasure. Standing in front of that renowned image of the wounded, terrified horse centre stage is truly visceral, and slowly but surely the other horrors – that mother off left, howling as she cradles her dead child in a tangle of misshapen limbs, for instance – beat down on the senses. It’s absolutely magnificent.

Madrid rail station

There are some fantastic spaces in the city. The CentroCentro building, housed in the old post office, is brilliant. Refurbished, it retains the old marble counter tops and brass edgings and fittings that so many transactions took place on, retaining a sense of history, and yet it is cool and utterly modern. Brand spanking new, it’s housing some photographic exhibitions just now, most notably Luis Baylon’s A Pair of Twos sequence that wittily recounts humans’ need to copy, to ape, to belong. Another great building is the train station (yes, I went to visit a train station – anorak) which has been extended and the platforms ripped out of the old building to house a huge, primeval forest that dinosaurs should inhabit. It’s great, and quite the loveliest rail waiting area I’ve ever been in.

There’s plenty of green space too, such as the Parque del Retiro, home to the lovely Velásquez and Crystal Palaces (which have been gutted to house – urgh – conceptual art works), or the Ptolemaic Temple of Debod, reconstructed after being given as a gift by the Egyptian government in the 1950s, overlooking the Casa de Campo.

The third big museum is the Thyssen- Bornemisza. I hate it because it’s the tax-dodging fiddle of a filthy rich dynasty that should never have been allowed to squirrel away this much art, but in many ways it’s the best of the lot and I love it for that. Take a deep breath: over three compact floors, you can see, among many others, Holbein (younger and elder), van Eyck, El Greco, Breughel, Canaletto, Rubens, Rembrandt, Hals, Goya, Renoir, Monet, Van Gogh, Degas, Cezanne, Gaugin, Lautrec, Picasso, Kandinsky, Klee, Chagal, Dali, Rothko and Lichtenstein.

My favourites? Caravaggio’s beautiful Saint Catherine; Franz Hals’ Fisherman Playing the Violin, just because of the vitality of his face; Hopper’s Hotel Room because of it’s utter loneliness; Bacon’s Portrait of George Dyer in a Mirror because I love Bacon, so there, and it’s weird and brilliant; Lucien Freud’s Portrait of Baron H. H. Thyssen-Bornemisza because I think Freud is one of the most honest portrait painters ever; Grosz’s Metropolis because of its utterly modern apocalyptic take on the city; and Estes’ People’s Flowers for it’s American reportage.

However, the paintings I most jump out of my skin at are two soppy Romantic portraits, each of a woman of whom I thoroughly disapprove. Amalia de Llano y Dotres, Countess of Vilches, whose portrait hangs in the Prado, was a monarchist writer in Spain when Federico de Madrazo y Kuntz painted her in 1854. Again, she represents corruption, privilege, cruelty; and yet she’s lovely. She was a friend of Madrazo y Kuntz , and that relationship comes across so beautifully in the seductive, playful tilt of her head and the cheeky, come-hither smile she gives the painter. The texture of her dress is beautifully realised too.  It’s  sickly sweet and yet just gorgeous.

Millicent, Duchess of Sutherland

Millicent, Duchess of Sutherland

In the Thyssen, though, there’s a painting I have to sit for fifteen minutes in front of. John Singer Sargent is well known to Scottish people for his world famous and breathtaking portrait of Lady Agnew in the National Gallery, but he does an even better job of Millicent, Duchess of Sutherland. Full size, romantic, straight-backed, utterly confident, she is magnificent. I know I shouldn’t like it politically (although she was said to be “liberal”, just ask any Scotsman what the Sutherlands did for Scotland) or artistically (all that merging into the natural world, all that floatiness), but I can’t help it. Singer Sargent may well be a relatively minor figure in art history, but by gum, he knew how to burn the image of a beautiful woman into your consciousness.

Strangely, it’s one the Thyssen doesn’t seem to value: its not an image used on postcards or tea towels or mugs; nor does she appear in any of the general guides. I don’t care; I loved it and would quite happily spend some time in her company again.

Ps – walking miles every day, getting out to eat late, we don’t manage any live flamenco, which I would have liked to see. However, I’ve brought back some interesting CDs of Copla music (a bit overwrought, for my taste, I have to say), nuevo flamenco and nuevo tango. The car’s jumping at the moment.

“A Thousand Cranes”, 2nd Edition launch, 25/2/12

Posted in Art, fiction, Publications by raymondsoltysek on January 17, 2012
"A Thousand Cranes" cover - click to buy

"A Thousand Cranes" cover - click to buy

“A Thousand Cranes”, the Scottish writing anthology published in support of Japanese earthquake relief, is being relaunched at The Arches 2 on Saturday 25th February.  The new edition, in a handy-sized format and with a new foreword by man of the moment Alex Salmond, will retail at £11.99, with all profits going to the Japanese Red Cross disaster relief.

The event is part of the new Margins book and music festival which has an eclectic and interesting three days planned.   Christopher Brookmyre, Roddy Woomble, Don Paterson, Tom Leonard and Alasdair Gray are all highlights.  Well worth checking out.

I’ll be joining Helen Sedgwick, Andrea Mullaney and Katy McAulay in reading from the anthology.  Tickets are £3, available here.

Many thanks again to Cargo publishing and Iain Paton and the editors for all their hard work.

Ludovico Sforza: the luckiest man who ever lived?

Posted in Art by raymondsoltysek on January 7, 2012

A usurper to the throne of Milan (a very Shakespearean thing to do), a Duke of Milan at the time when the city-state was one of the most powerful in Europe, patron to one of the greatest minds who ever lived and he went to bed with women who are the subjects of two of the most beautiful paintings I’ve ever seen.  Respect.

I’ve already written about Cecelia Gallerani, the “Lady with Ermine”, and I spent a lovely half hour in her company today.  Other jostling art bibbers were a bit unhappy with me standing there for so long – hey, there’s so much else to see, and we’ve got to get to the souvenir shop (I did too) – but I couldn’t help it.  I stood there, drinking in her absolute beauty, then worked my way round the preparatory sketches and studies – a bear that was the source of the ermine’s head, the dogs’ paws that became the rodent’s claws, the hand studies that became Cecelia’s strangely elongated, oversized, dirty-nailed right hand, the page of sketch upon sketch of the turns of a woman’s head that became the perfection of her glance, the line of her shoulders – and then went back to suck her in again.  Sod ‘em all;  I wasn’t passing up a single solitary second with her.  Really, she is that life-affirming.  “You can’t help falling in love with Cecilia Gallerani,” says the audio guide, “and that’s just what da Vinci intended.” Clever bugger.

La Belle Ferrioniére

But there’s another, only slightly lesser star.  La Belle Ferrioniére may well be a portrait of Ludovico’s wife, Beatrice d’Este.  How ironic that she should remain unidentified, but his sixteen-year old mistress has become the stuff of fantasy.  The Belle is nevertheless gorgeous in the extreme, idealised, we are told, to a perfectly oval head, lit in the classic da Vinci way, a statement of intent of the great man that sets out exactly what beauty should be and how it should look.  How accurate an image of the real woman it is we’ll never know, but she’s breathtaking nonetheless.  It’s this room, his appreciation of female beauty, which is the highlight of the exhibition for me.

But it’s all just fabulous anyway.  The two versions of The Virgin of the Rocks, the unfinished St Jerome, the Salvator Mundi, the sketches and copy of The Last Supper and, most fantastic of all, the Burlington House Cartoon, are all magnificent, and that magnificence is reinforced by the drawings, such utterly wonderful creations thrown off in a matter of minutes like the sketch of a youth for the fabulous face of James the Greater, or of drapery, or a hand, or a shoulder.

What it must have been to be Ludovico Sforza, to have all that power and beauty at his disposal, and to be remembered for providing the greatest artist the world has ever known with the means to flourish and leave to us, 600 years later, all this transcendental beauty.  I don’t care if he was a Machiavellian bastard:  I’m grateful.

Sex on Stage Weekend II: WPM, The Arches, 13/11/11

Posted in Art, fiction, Reading review by raymondsoltysek on November 13, 2011
Link to Zoe Strachan site

Zoe Strachan

Words Per Minute hold a “Sex Special”, later than usual and closeted in a red-lit dungeon way, way at the back of The Arches.  It’s the usual blend of able readings, but it doesn’t quite live up to the billing for me.

I can’t help remembering  the Paisley Writers’ Group as a result of seeing Derek McLuckie last night.  We had a full on attitude to sex as one of the drivers of human behaviour and, therefore, as fertile ground for the most challenging writing we could push.  Suhayl Saadi’s lyrical aesthetic saw him write the wild, Baroque S&M fantasy “The Snake” under the pseudonym of Melanie Desmoulins.  Graham Fulton – whose latest book launch I hope to attend next week – wrote about adolescents wanking off at the back of classrooms during biology lessons (“Sex Education”) or desperate casual sex and flushed johnnies on a Friday night (“Love Finds a Way at the Liberal Club”).  Derek was… well, just Derek.  As for me, I wrote stories like “Twitchy” and “The Bus Fare Down the Tubes” because sex and danger were inextricably linked.  By my mid-twenties, in a catastrophically dysfunctional relationship, I had learned that dark things can happen between two people.

This evening’s readers are all perfectly fine writers.  Lynsay May is charming and  Alan Gillespie is as engaging and witty as ever.  Derek Taylor and Kei Miller are fantastic voices, full of verve and wit and humour.  Taylor’s “Ode to Penis”, with the knowingly delivered line “I’m a lot to take in” is a hoot, as is Miller’s beautifully read, enigmatic opening to his novel in progress about the life and death of an 80-something Jamaican immigrant.  Caroline Bowditch introduces a film of Scottish Dance Theatre’s rather lovely “The Long and Short of It”, and Tragic O’Hara ends proceedings with some pretty nifty songs (his CD is unfeasibly good value).  It’s all solid, mildly sexy stuff.

However, only Zoe Strachan fulfills the remit for me.  Sharing a scene from her new novel “Ever Fallen in Love” in which a young gay man DPs a suspiciously compliant girl with the object of his desire, it is, I think, the only truly erotic reading.  Full of the unsaid motivations that underpin what people do in bed, it’s absolutely emotionally – and sexually – honest. The smell and the sweat and the ambivalence and the pain tingle the senses:  this is sex.

Of course, this is a pre-watershed show, and so the organisers have perhaps wisely gone for material that is charmingly rude but hardly challenging.  It’s another good event – just, I feel, more akin to a Safe Sex Special.

Paintings that make you go “ooh”: da Vinci, BBC 1, 9pm, 30/10/11

Posted in Art, Media review by raymondsoltysek on October 30, 2011
Cecilia Gallerani, "The Lady with an Ermine"

Cecilia Gallerani, “The Lady with an Ermine”

What a fantastic programme on BBC1 tonight, and it had nothing to do with watching the quite wonderful Fiona Bruce in a yellow summer dress drinking white wine in Florence.  It was more to do with an even more beautiful woman, da Vinci’s “Lady with an Ermine” Cecilia Gallerani, who is starring in an exhibition at the National Gallery from November.

I remember seeing the “Lady” in Krakow in 2004.   The fact that I didn’t know the city was home to the most stunning da Vinci of them all shows just how little I knew at the time of the history of what I thought was a provincial capital.  It was my first visit to Poland, and had a profound effect on me because I realised that my father’s homeland wasn’t some far off, uncultured backwater that was only worth fighting over for coal and farmland, as school history books had always led me to believe: it was the very Heart of Europe.

The Lady was housed in the The Czartoryskis Museum, a tiny place compared to the great museums of Paris or London or Rome.  And, as it was November, the museum was pretty much deserted.  So my time with her was relatively intimate, and she utterly dazzled me.  It’s one of only two paintings that have made me breathlessly weak at the knees and given me heart palpitations: the other, Caravaggio’s “The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist” in St John’s Co-Cathedral in Valletta, is the type of painting that bludgeons you with its audacious use of empty space, its utter inhumanity and its sheer bloody size.  The “Lady” is different: tiny, elegant, seductive.  I love her.  I can’t wait to see her again.  I’ve booked my ticket.

There will be other da Vinci delights, including the newly rediscovered “Salvator Mundi” featured in the programme.  It looks ethereal, odd, wonderful.  I’d like to see the Oxford copy of the Last Supper too. It’s going to be a ground breaking event because never before have so many da Vincis been under one roof together.  And I’m going to be there and, despite the crowds, I’m going to say a little private hello to Cecilia and hope she remembers me.  I’m odd that way…

Wroclaw II: religion, art, nationalism

Posted in Art by raymondsoltysek on August 1, 2011
Mary Magdalene church interior

Mary Magdalene church interior

Polish churches are different.  I visited St Mary’s Basilica in Krakow a few years ago and marvelled at the interior; made of brick rather than grey stone, the inside walls are plastered and every surface painted.  In Krakow, it was in warm red and mustard tones, a bit like my own house; here, in Wroclaw, it is in cool, refreshing whites. The effect is airy and almost informal.

The faithful turn up in droves, whole bus parties of them.  Healthy and sick.  Old and young. Blind, on crutches, in wheelchairs.  One child rolls down the aisle of the cathedral towards me; her front wheels flash neon, like those daft trainers you get in the shopping centre at Braehead.

There is no pattern to their piety; gruff middle-aged men kneel and clasp their hands for minutes, old grey ladies cast off a quick one-two-three-four as they scurry past, perhaps to get the priest’s attention first.   Odd bods, I think, and then I slap myself.  They are in groups, families, friends; I’m sitting in the pews in my solitary atheist smugness.  Serves me right.

Virgin and Child

Virgin and Child

In the National Museum, Catholicism in all its Gothic scariness is predominant.  Don’t let anyone tell you Mel Gibson’s “Passion” is the most brutal representation of the Crucifixion story around; you should see what 12th to 14th century Silesia made of it.  The images of flagellation are bloody and visceral, the faces, like that of the veil of St Veronica, are  tortured and alien, the landscapes are hellish; and then there are real beauties, such as the Virgin and Child from St John the Baptist’s Cathedral, painted by… well, some drone in a master’s workshop.

There’s nothing of great interest after the Gothic period – the modern art is drab and uninspiring – except that I come across one portrait that proves that Robert de Niro existed in a former life, and his name was Johan van Vogt, and one lovely portrait of Elisabeth Schroeter.

Raclawice Panorama

Raclawice Panorama

The nationalism is supplied by the rather stunning Raclawice Panorama.  120 metres long, 15 metres high, it is one of the few surviving European panorama paintings.  Completed in 1894, it commemorates the Polish nationalist uprising of exactly 100 years earlier.  Housed in its own circular building, it’s Wroclaw’s biggest tourist attraction.  While the quality of the painting is so-so, the effect is truly monumental.  Unfortunately, I found it extraordinarily difficult to get focussed photographs of the huge landscape and few images appear on the web – so take my word for it, it’s well worth a visit.

ps – I did this on my Macbook, and I hate it.  Nothing works right, it’s too slow, text editing is crazy without an easy right-click button, copying and pasting is a footer, do something wrong and it fucks you up and downloading is a bastard.  I also object to iPhotos telling me what to do all the time, when I just want to know where my photos are.  I truly hate to admit it, but I’m a Windows boy…

A wee weekend in Nice

Posted in Art, Family, Travel by raymondsoltysek on May 14, 2011

Me in the sun

Very Nice too.  Some pals and I go away for a long weekend every year around this time.  Last year was Venice (possibly my favourite ever city), the year before Aix-en-Provence (utterly magical).  Nice is a different kettle of fish; built up, it’s a place where the eddies of wealth and power and consumption all come together; it’s obviously a place where the rich come to recycle their wealth through the casinos, marinas and yacht merchants, fabulously expensive designer stores, eye-wateringly plush hotels and fancy restaurants.  As such, it’s not really my kind of place, but time with my friends is always welcome.

And it’s a great place for dotting about.  Lunch over the border in Italy at Ventimiglia was lovely, though the town is awash with North African migrant workers fleeing the troubles in Libya; at the station,  Red Cross workers handed out food parcels to dozens of desperate young men while their numbers were matched by threatening looking police.  A long walk along the coast to Villfranche was great too.  Trips to Monaco (lots of high-rise hotels and big fuck-off yachts) and Cannes (setting up tat for the film festival amongst the genteel hotels) kept us busy too.

The Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Nice is well worth a visit.  I’m a bit ambivalent about modern art, largely because I think the language used to discuss it is deliberately designed to exclude ordinary people, and to create an artistic class that is self-referential in the extreme: a recent visit to the Scottish Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh had me spitting feathers at the utter pretentiousness of much of the rubbish there.

Assan Smati, "Centaur"

Assan Smati, "Centaur"

However,  as with all art, there is stuff that has the capacity to move deeply, and the Nice museum – a striking modern building that closes in on itself while at the same time looking out across the panorama of the city – contains some terrific work.  I particularly liked Assan Smati in the temporary collections: his big pink centaur was stunning.  I also like Sara Sze’s installations, one (“The Uncountables”) a dazzling collection of tiny bric a brac that invites you to mull and browse and speculate.

The permanent collection is great too.  Best of all for me was Yves Klein’s “Portrait Relief de Claude Pascal, Arman et Martial Raysse“.  A photo doesn’t do the depth of blue and the gorgeous topography of the sculpture justice. It really is a wonderful piece of art.  So too is Niki de St Phalle’s “La mariée sous l’arbre”, a sculpture of tiny things, again drawing the audience in to little secret places where little secret things lurk.

Nice has its charms too, including a lovely Russian Orthodox Cathedral.  And if you do go and need a place to eat, Pelican’s Station  in Rue de la Prefecture is great; classic French food, reasonable prices and a very charming host, Laurent, who is obviously hugely proud of his restaurant.

Asking Difficult Questions: “From Glasgow to Saturn” Reading Party, 24/2/11

Posted in Art, fiction, Reading review by raymondsoltysek on February 25, 2011
Glasgow to Saturn Reading Party

Glasgow to Saturn Reading Party

An excellent line up at the Glasgow to Saturn party, despite the absence of Alan Bissett, an outstanding writer and performer.  Duncan Muir, Kirsty Logan and  Anneliese Mackintosh are all graduates of the Creative Writing programme at Glasgow University, and all have very distinctive, confident voices.  JoAnne McKay is a scream: fantastic, witty, sexy poetry delivered in a dizzying variety of characters – although she confesses to being unable to do a Glasgow accent.

For my own reading, this was the first time I’d rewritten a third person story as a first-person performance piece, and I’m pleased with how it went.  Faced with the microphone, my head tends to go completely blank for a second, but then the adrenalin kicks in, and I got through it making minimal reference to my cue cards.  A new technique discovered!

I had a really interesting conversation with a guest after the reading who, quite rightly, asked serious questions about the purpose of a story that reveals sexual abuse in such graphic detail; is it justifiable to portray such scenes for entertainment?  The guest was a psychiatrist who sees people every day suffering from the kinds of events I described: there is a huge ethical question, then, about how my fiction relates to the horror of their fact.

I can’t begin to answer those questions in any kind of satisfactory way: I just do what I do.  Perhaps I have a wider sense of what “entertainment” is: for me, it includes challenge, the capacity to make someone feel angry or uncomfortable or, basically, to make them think.  I don’t do it for shock value – well, not only for shock value – but if such things are to be spoken of, then they should be spoken of in ways that convey the reality of it.   Ugliness shouldn’t be sanitised, it shouldn’t be buffed up and given a 15 rating; it should be out there, in all its squirm-inducing glory, for all to see if they want to see it.

As I say, it’s what I do, it’s where I go in my head when I write.  There is often confusion between me and the characters I write about.   I remember after one reading many years ago, a member of the audience said to me, “You’re either a really good writer or a complete and total bastard”: I was young and  not a little hurt that I’d made someone think that about me, but I wish I’d had the presence of mind to pull her leg a bit and say, “Actually, I’m both.”   It’s not easy, psychologically, emotionally or socially, to go down those dark alleyways – but I can’t turn away at the entrance to them because what might be down there could offend others.

Of course, we’re talking about matters of taste, and many find much of what I write and how I write and perform it distasteful.  I’ll defend to my last breath their right to feel that way.  But thank goodness taste is such a moveable feast, because it makes the world so much more interesting a place.  My thanks to the elderly lady who tugged my sleeve at the end of the reading and described my writing as “astonishing” and “brave”: I can’t think of two words I’d rather have used to describe my work.

Thanks again to Alan, Nick and Sheila, and to Louise Welsh for hosting the evening.

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