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Oh Lord! Please Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood - Minding My Language in 12 Snapshots In and Out of Time

1

Picture this. A lazy, sunny Sunday afternoon in the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh a couple of decades back. I'm looking at a painting I can only remember as something busy with a multi-coloured, all-angles splurge, zinging off every which way so it grabs the attention, pop-eyed, and so wonkily off-kilter and sketch-book play-pen alive I can almost hear a prat-falling absurdist soundtrack to go with it.

“It's like the opening credits to a Mr Magoo cartoon,” I say to the person I'm with. “But that's not the sort of thing you can say about abstract art.”

“Why not?” she says back. “If the opening credits of a Mr Magoo cartoon are what a painting reminds you of, and if that's what you feel about it, then it's as valid as anything else. And besides, whoever the artists were drawing Mr Magoo, they would have known what was going on elsewhere in art movements, so of course they'd be bringing that to the table. They were artists too, after all. ”

Even though I can never remember the name of a painting which has become one of my favourites in the whole Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, that comment remains the wisest, single-most important piece of advice about interpreting modern art, or any art for that matter, I have ever received.


2

A girl I like arrives at a house party wearing a Bauhaus t-shirt.

It's some time in the early 1980s, and, in-between trying and failing to get off with each other, we're all finding out what we're about, making statements, finding a tribe to pledge our teenage allegiance to.

Mine was long overcoats, hand-me-down Penguin Modern Classics existentialism, severe hair, austerity chic.

The t-shirt the girl is wearing as I remember it is black with white lettering, or maybe the other way round, with the band's name in the trademark lower-case font that defines their logo. The band-name sits either above or beneath a vintage image from some horror movie flick to accompany the first Bauhaus record, Bela Lugosi's Dead. Possibly.

I knew nothing of the original Bauhaus art movement that gave the band their name, but the band's image and output – all pasty-faced cheekbones and Rocky Horror theatrics without the laughs – was pure Batcave Goth.

I never liked all that stuff ever since I saw Bauhaus the band support the equally theatrical but far cleverer Magazine on the Correct Use of Soap tour, and hated them on sight for their shape-throwing light-show as much as the faux melodrama of the music.

It just didn't ring true, somehow.

The Birthday Party were far better at it, as I'd seen watching Nick Cave rolling round the orchestra pit of Liverpool's Royal Court Theatre one night.

Judging by the manic, shrieking state of Nick Cave, The Birthday Party clearly weren't playing at it.


They were possessed with something scary that went beyond words, but was something altogether more primal.

The Birthday Party were first up on a triple bill that saw them followed by an out of place Vic Godard and the Subway Sect.

Vic and a band that would go on to have hit singles with the far less interesting but just as studiedly vintage JoBoxers were going through a Swing stage, all lounge-suit crooning and immaculately retro styling.

They were both a couple of decades too early and too late, which was maybe why one of the lacquered-up, black-clad hordes in the audience impatient for the headline act threw a bottle at Vic, which hit it's target, face-on.

We didn't stay to see the headliners, because New Order were on the telly at half ten, which, in the just-about pre-video age, counted.

Besides which, we'd already decided they were faking-it a couple of years before, and how Bauhaus had ever got to concert hall headlining status was anybody's guess.

I tell all this to the girl I like after commenting on her t-shirt and asking her if she liked the band she appeared to be supporting.

We got on quite well, and I'd never had her down for the Bauhaus type, whatever that was.

She's never heard any music by Bauhaus, she tells me. And she's really not that interested. She just liked the picture is all.

I don't get it, and puzzle awhile on this unexpected answer, the same as I would puzzle a few years later when someone said they were going to a party in a warehouse, where they'd play records, take their own drink, and, no, there weren't any bands playing.

Like Vic and the bottle, I just didn't see it coming.


3

In Paris a decade back on my first ever international press trip, with no French, no guide-book, no map and no sense of scale of the city. With an afternoon to kill after my interview with Romanian theatre director Silviu Purcarete, a man of few words who I will meet again a decade later when he brings his visually epic production of Faust to Edinburgh, I jump on the Metro, caught up in the adventure. With no idea where I am, and with only the image of old Godard films and the spirit of '68 to guide me, I jump off at La Republique, because it seems to fit. This isn't just a station, I figure. It's a revolutionary gesture.

Outside, I strike gold. There's a demo in full swing, attacking the government with megaphone-led chants, slogans, whistles and what, in French, looks like the urgent exchange of Gauloises-led ideas. 'Don't Be Realistic!' went the Situationist legend. 'Demand The Impossible!' Fired up with barricade-jumping, vanguard-raising fervour, I follow the march around the city, hanging on every word I didn't understand.

It's getting dark by the time the march disperses. Alone on a high-speed suburban thoroughfare that looks nothing like the Paris of my film-fired imagination, as the truth of the situation dawns on me, it turns out I'm being even slightly realistic, and am certainly demanding the impossible. I not only haven't a clue where I am, but the march has actually been a right-wing anti-immigration rally. After three exhausting hours tramping unfamiliar streets in search of my hotel, I stop a man who initially at least appears friendly, and offer up the only French I had.

“Scusez-moi,” I splutter pitifully, gesturing towards myself. “Anglaise.”

The man's formerly friendly face contorts into a sneer.

“Francais!” he shrugs, with what seems like a very French mix of indifference and contempt, and off he goes, on his way again.

Vive La Revolution...


4

Editing an English translation of a Polish short story. Set in contemporary Warsaw, it's an initially bleak little yarn about an ageing stoner type seemingly oblivious to ties or commitments who loses all sense of who he is and what or why anything matters as he careers his way through the city.

It's a good story, and in the main the translation reads well. Only a few of the words need changed or unpicked from literal colloquialisms which, in English, don't mean anything. Which, after several email exchanges with the translator, a Pole with exceptional English, is easily sorted.

My main concern is that all of the paragraphs seem to go on forever, as do some of the sentences, which stress their point again and again, insistently descriptive lists broken up by semi-colons. I've seen this before in other translations of Polish (and Czech) fiction, and wonder whether this is down to a particular tic of the original syntax. Either way, it makes for a dense and overly busy page.

Marta the Polish translator explains that this is just something they do. I suggest breaking the long sentences up into several small ones, and doing away with the semi-colons altogether. Marta's fine with this, and in my mind it makes things cleaner and clearer. We make a thing of the wannabe hip coffee chain that nobody will have heard of outside Poland trying too hard to be like Starbucks, turn a cat from a thug into a monster, and are pretty much sorted.

Taking such licenses makes me think of Raymond Carver, and how this most revered of twentieth century American writer's trademark short-sentence meat-and-two-veg minimalism was recently revealed by Carver's widow Tess Gallagher to have largely been down to his editor, Gordon Lish. In 2009, Gallagher published Beginners, a collection of Carver's original versions of the stories published in his 1981 collection, what We Talk About When We Talk About Love, before Lish. And I think about the generation of would-be Dirty Realists Carver – or was it Lish? - had such a profound staccato influence on.

Maybe we're doing the same to this Polish writer who's written this bleak but ultimately optimistic little story about a man finding himself just in the nick of time as Lish did to Carver. Maybe, if they know English, they'll hate what Marta and I have done to their story, and in twenty years time when they're famous, dead or both, will publish their original, unedited and untampered with creation.

And I think what a big responsibility this all is, getting things right.


5

Reservoir Dogs was released in 1992. Quentin Tarantino's debut feature film was shot through with a million nerd-u-like movie references peppering Tarantino's already baroque, bucket-mouthed and street-smart dialogue. Mouthed by a sharp-dressed and be-shaded cast of hip Hollywood outsiders inbetween indulging in bouts of choreographed violence set to a cool retro soundtrack, the film's post-modern sense of its own self made it iconic. Would be tough guys loved it, from the four-letter poetry of the critique of Madonna's Like A Virgin, to Michael Madsen dancing to Stealers Wheel's Stuck in the Middle With You while slicing off someone's ear.

The following year, Irvine Welsh's first novel, Trainspotting, was published. Written in Edinburgh-accented Scots, the book is actually a loose-knit collection of short stories that follow a group of young men's travails through the 1980s, when mass unemployment and cheap heroin blighted a generation of working-class men and women living under Margaret Thatcher's Conservative government in Britain.

Giving voice to a guttural, back-street demotic more polite literary types even now turn their nose up at, Trainspotting's arrival was the tipping point of a contemporary Scots lit-scene that had grown via James Kelman and others over the previous decade. It also marked the dawn of a new hedonism, as old punks, worn-out politicos and ex football casuals got all loved-up to become the Rave Generation, repetitive beats and all.

By the time it was adapted, first into a play, then into a film, Trainspotting too had become iconic. 'Choose life' went the trailer to its Iggy Pop soundtrack, like a Katherine Hamnett slogan t-shirt come to life in all its unambiguous Summer of '84 glory.

In 1994, the appearance of Loaded magazine tapped into what would become known as New Laddism, a beery, boorish, soft-porn slap n' tickle cartoon version of machismo, 'For men who should know better', as the magazine's slogan immortalised it. Initially, at least, it was a witty, if over-excited riposte, both to the drippy New Man stereotype and the rise of seemingly ball-breaking feminism that had so castrated him, and to the old-school soft-focus 'tastefulness' of Playboy, Penthouse and other middlebrow coffee table men's magazines beginning with P.

As its name filched from Primal Scream's indie-dance anthem so rudely suggested, Loaded looked to the speed-addled Gonzo journalism of Hunter S Thompson as its guide by way of a glossy Carry-On style romp. Gary Oldman graced the cover of the first issue, which also featured Rod Stewart, Paul Weller, Withnail and I and Eric Cantona. The first edition also featured two small black-and-white shots of a knicker-clad and then unknown Elizabeth Hurley, whose most private areas had clearly not been airbrushed.

Drug dealers, gangsters and bad boys became Loaded's stock-in-trade. Rock n' Roll excess was where it was at, and a self-parodic image of unreconstructed geezerdom was its calling card. Loaded lived fast, but, despite being half the mag it used to be as the irony and the good writers gave way to full-on tits n' ass tabloidese, is very much still with us. National Treasure status awaits.

And then came Oasis, the ultimate bad lad gang, who took on, not just the music scene, but the world, in 2004 with their first album, Definitely Maybe, a distillation of every English white-boy guitar band with attitude ever, from The Beatles to The Who to The Sex Pistols. What became knows as Brit-Pop burst open in a wave of stadium-sized euphoria as indie went mainstream.

As with Trainspotting and Reservoir Dogs, both championed on the pages of Loaded, Oasis, led by the hungry, studiedly snarling Gallagher brothers, Liam and Noel, tapped into a collective need to let off steam after the austerity-led 1980s had thrown them on the dole. They too were going to have a good time and live forever. By the second album, What's The Story Morning Glory?, Oasis' mission was accomplished, and Tony Blair's New Labour triumphalists were ready to pick up the slack.

Somewhere in the thick of all this, one night in 1993 eighteen year old Stephen Lawrence was murdered by a racist gang at a bus stop in South London. It took eighteen years two bring two of five main suspects to justice. It was an ugly incident, made even uglier by the countenance of the young men accused of the crime.

In 1998, all five of the suspects attended a public inquiry. They had already refused to answer questions at an inquest the previous year, while three had been acquitted at a 1996 trial.

All five suspects were filmed leaving the 1998 inquiry, swaggering, spitting and blowing kisses before squaring up to the angry mob of protesters who greeted them by pelting them with eggs. One picture in particular sums the day up, as art critic Jonathan Jones recently identified in the Guardian newspaper following the belated and this time successful prosecution of two of the suspects.

The picture in question appears to show a well-drilled gang under siege, their white shirts and black trousers spattered by missiles. One wears shades, pulling back his arm at the crowd gladitorially, as if rebelling all borders on a battlefield. It is a shocking image of collective thuggery, made even more so by the life sentences two of the men received at the recent trial.

'Is evil real?' Jones asked. 'Can it be caught on camera?'

Perhaps it's simpler than that.

Image and context are everything in this photograph. Here are a bunch of lads, New Lads maybe, wannabe tough guys who've never had it so good, and should but maybe really don’t know better. You get the impression they think they've stepped onto the set of a Guy Ritchie film, or else some straight-to-DVD, low-rent gangland porn. They're kings of their manor, untouchable, invincible, as if they really could live forever. And yet, like all of the above, they too are products of their time.

Where Reservoir Dogs, Trainspotting, Oasis and even Loaded turned all that chippy, white working-class wide-boy anger into art, the picture of the Stephen Lawrence suspects shows what can happen if you take on the style of something without trying to understand it. Fetishising violence is dangerous. These boys didn't choose life. They took it away.


6

Samuel Beckett

Comment Dire

pour Joe Chaikin

Folie —
folie que de —
que de —
comment dire —
folie que de ce —
depuis —
folie depuis ce —
donné —
folie donné ce que de —
vu —

folie vu ce —
ce —
comment dire —
ceci —
ce ceci —
ceci-ci —
tout ce ceci-ci —
folie donné tout ce —
vu —
folie vu tout ce ceci-ci que de —
que de —
comment dire —
voir —
entrevoir —
croire entrevoir —
vouloir croire entrevoir —
folie que de vouloir croire entrevoir quoi —
quoi —
comment dire —
et où —
que de vouloir croire entrevoir quoi où —
où —
comment dire —
là —
là-bas —
loin —
loin là là-bas —
à peine —
loin là là-bas à peine quoi —
quoi —
comment dire —
vu tout ceci —
tout ce ceci-ci —
folie que de voir quoi —
entrevoir —
croire entrevoir —
vouloir croire entrevoir —
loin là là-bas à peine quoi —
folie que d’y vouloir croire entrevoir quoi —
quoi —
comment dire —
comment dire'

Summer 2002. I'm on the phone, talking to a legend. Or rather, I'm listening, hanging onto every softly-spoken word I hear from the other side of the world, my eyes welling up as we go. I'm feeling more and more humbled every second, each sound a little epiphany of how lucky I am to be doing what I do, listening to this Zen-like affirmation of life.

The legend's name is Joseph Chaikin, although most friends and acolytes call him Joe. Always Joe. Joe is a theatre director who came through the American counter-culture, first with Julian Beck and Judith Malina's taboo-busting Living Theatre, then from 1963-73 with Joe's own Open Theatre, and beyond. The Open Theatre worked with sound and movement, developing work through improvisation in a laboratory-like environment.

The Open Theatre's first full ensemble piece, The Serpent, was a polyphonic collage that knitted together the assassinations of Martin Luther King and John F Kennedy alongside more biblical fare. An erotic depiction of the Garden of Eden and Cain's murder of Abel climaxed in a final roll call of the Old Testament choreographed into an umbilical orgy in which the begetting went on forever.

In sharp contrast, the company's next major work, Terminal, looked at death. Its audacious fusion of sound and vision influenced composer Lucio Berio's piece, Opera, and his very notion of music theatre. In 1966, Joe was invited to work with Peter Brook on US, a radicalised Royal Shakespeare Company's anti-Vietnam spectacle.

In 1969, Joe played Hamm in Endgame by Samuel Beckett, whose work Joe would perform and direct for the rest of his life. The same year, members of the Open Theatre simulated an orgy in Death Valley for Michaelangelo Antonioni's piece of wide-screen existential psychedelia, Zabriskie Point. The film, released in 1970, was scripted by playwright Sam Shepard.

Joe disbanded The Open Theatre in 1973 for fear of the company going mainstream and becoming part of the establishment. He formed The Winter Project, and, with Shepard, wrote and performed two plays in 1974, Tongues and Savage/Love, that experimented with the use of the voice and poetic narrative. In 1984, Chaikin and Shepard collaborated on The War in Heaven, a monologue about an angel who dies the day he was born.

The same year, Joe, who had a weak heart ever since he was a little boy, suffered a stroke during a second bout of open-heart surgery. This left him with partial aphasia, a language impairment which meant he was unable to communicate fully with words. Nuance may have been a struggle, but, Joe kept working, with Shepard incorporating Chaikin's stop-start aphasic syntax into a revised version of The War in Heaven.

Joe performed and directed worldwide, and visited Edinburgh in 1996 with Beckett's texts For Nothing. In 2002, his collaboration with Philadelphia's Pig Iron Theatre Company, a wild dreamscape called Shut Eye, was booked into Edinburgh's Traverse Theatre for its Festival Fringe season. Which is how I ended up being on the phone to a legend called Joe.

I'd been warned by Shut Eye co-director and Pig Iron artistic director Dan Rothenberg that the interview wasn't going to be easy, that Joe might not be able to say the words he wanted to, that it would take time. It could have been agony. In the end, it was a joy.

I don't remember much about our conversation, other than that there were lots of gaps as Dan had suggested there would be, and that Joe's brain was both as sharp and as filled with a child-like wonder as it had ever been. Most of all I remember Joe's sense of pride, not so much at what he'd achieved, but more about the connections he'd made through all the free-wheeling madness.

Beckett...My friend....,” he'd say eventually, but with a gleeful force behind it that almost beamed down the phone line. “Sam Shepard...My friend...”

Then we'd both pause, me to see if he'd finished yet, Joe because he had no choice.

I'd ask something else, something broad, about his past, and maybe Joe would laugh a little, indulging me.

“Beckett...My friend,” he'd say again, as if on a loop, stressing just how much it mattered to his still amazed self. “Sam Shepard...My friend....”

It was Joe's mantra, and could easily have been his epitaph.

A year later I'm writing Joe's obituary after his weak heart finally gave out. I'm writing about how, following his stroke, he spent a year learning how to say 'yes', and much the same again acquiring the word 'no'.

I'm writing about how Beckett wrote what turned out to be his last poem for Joe before his own death in 1989. Beckett had fallen over a year before, and he too suffered from aphasia, albeit temporarily. His last gift to Joe was written in French. Comment Dire, which translates as What Is The Word, has been dubbed by some as 'Aphasic Modernism.'. Whatever, the poem is a painstakingly two-steps-forward, one-step-back struggle to articulate...something, and which captures the essence of his and Joe's condition, paring language down to its very core.


Samuel Beckett

What Is The Word

for Joe Chaikin


'folly -
folly for to -
for to -
what is the word -
folly from this -
all this -
folly from all this -
given -
folly given all this -
seeing -
folly seeing all this -
this -
what is the word -
this this -
this this here -
all this this here -
folly given all this -
seeing -
folly seeing all this this here -
for to -
what is the word -
see -
glimpse -
seem to glimpse -
need to seem to glimpse -
folly for to need to seem to glimpse -
what -
what is the word -
and where -
folly for to need to seem to glimpse what where -
where -
what is the word -
there -
over there -
away over there -
afar -
afar away over there -
afaint -
afaint afar away over there what -
what -
what is the word -
seeing all this -
all this this -
all this this here -
folly for to see what -
glimpse -
seem to glimpse -
need to seem to glimpse -
afaint afar away over there what -
folly for to need to seem to glimpse afaint afar away over there what -
what -
what is the word -

what is the word'

Joe performed What Is the Word himself. Hearing the poem said out loud – incantatory, hypnotic, playful and questing – one can imagine Joe doing a duet with Glasgow-based artist Sue Tompkins, whose own voice-based performances become abstract little call-and-response symphonies.

“Yes!” you can imagine Joe beaming. “Yes!”


7

Listen to this.

Words and music mean everything. And nothing.

Joy Division's 1979 debut album, Unknown Pleasures, still sounds like nothing on earth. It's opening song, Disorder, which possesses such brittle, edgy urgency it sounds like the band's lives depended on it, and in one case it probably did, gets played in clubs nowadays. Heard loud in this context, it's easy to make out the opening line.

'I've been waiting for a guide to come and take me by the hand', Ian Curtis sings into himself with studied Ballardian intensity. But what if it was something different, and perhaps even more startling? What if he was actually singing 'I've been waiting for A GUY to come and take me by the hand'?

And what if, a year later, the chorus of Because You're Frightened, the opening track of Magazine's The Correct Use of Soap album, wasn't demanding the listener to 'Look what fear's done to my body', but was rather asking them to observe the far lairier 'Look what BEER's done to my body'.

For some, both these misnomers will forever be true.

And if it's hard enough to hear the words, what if the meaning behind the moaning has an equally different slant on things?

Was the early 90s club euphoria of One Dove's still magnificent White Love on the Dot Allison-led trio's sole album, 1993's Morning Dove White, for instance, really about spiritual purity? Or was it simply pure, pilled-up bliss?

And was the yearning of Kate Bush's This Woman's Work, on her erotically inclined 1989 album, The Sensual World, really about the near mystical status of the female orgasm and the bittersweet agony of getting there?

Given that Bush wrote the song from a man's point of view for a quite specific crisis scene in John Hughes' tellingly name film, She's Having A Baby, probably not.

But without being told otherwise, or learning to listen harder, some of us will never ever know any better.


8


On the phone again, this time interviewing a maker of cross-artform performance-based installation type work. She's explaining her new work, a performed installation involving sound, light and space.

She talks of how the process of making the work was like a journey for everyone involved, of how architecture changes everything, and how the different languages of each artist's practice has been an eye-opener.

I ask if she can tell me something more concrete about the work, but she's reluctant to as she doesn't want to give anything away for if and when I see it. All she can talk about is practice, process and the journey.

Finally, I ask her what it's about.

She can't tell me.

Words fail me.


9

A friend who works in marketing messages me.

She's giving a workshop to small-scale arts organisations, and asks what one piece of advice would I give them for writing press releases.

It's a no-brainer.

Tell them not to tie themselves up in knots with over-florid nonsense, I message her. Words like 'bold', 'radical', or 'innovative' mean nothing anymore.

Neither does box-ticking corporate funding-body speak. 'Cross-artform inclusivity with open-access policy and high-level accessibility for stakeholders'. That sort of thing.

They're two shades of the same bullshit, I tell her.

And never, not ever, use the word 'practice'.

I'm not sure where it comes from, but I blame the schools.

And the teachers.

And the funders.

Today, art is reduced to something that's somewhere between an essay and an application form.


10

On the phone, interviewing Max Legoube, a French theatre-maker, who's directing a puppet-based version of Hamletmachine, German playwright Heiner Muller's nine-page deconstruction of Shakespeare's Hamlet. Max can't speak English, and my French remains as non-existent as it was when I got over-excited and completely lost in Paris all those years ago. Because of that, I emailed my questions over earlier, and we're conducting the interview via an Australian lady called Deborah Lennie, who provides the female voices for the English language version of the show. I ask Deborah the questions she already has typed out in front of her, and she asks Max for answers he's presumably already thought about.

After I ask each question in an unintentionally exaggerated and over-loud voice – because Max and Deborah are in France, because they're 'foreign', and because Max at least can't understand me – like some hick from the sticks in a 1970s sit-com bog-deep in cultural stereotypes, I hear Deborah asking Max the question, only in French. I have no idea what they're saying. It could be anything.

Hamletmachine was made famous after a production by American director Robert Wilson applied multi-media aesthetics to it in 1986. Wilson and Muller recognised a way of working that mixed and matched ancient and modern in a cut-up, hi-tech, visual based form of total theatre. German industrial group, Einsturzende Neubaten, who once drilled a hole in the floor of the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London during an incendiary 1981 performance, performed a radio play version. Blixa Bargeld played Hamlet, with Gudrun Gut as Ophelia.

Muller himself did a seven hour version, with his Hamletmachine folded-in to Shakespeare's original as a play within a play. Max's version, which features recorded voices speaking in English, or whatever language is appropriate for the country they're performing in, lasts fifty-five minutes.

The only time I've ever seen Hamletmachine was in Edinburgh, the same summer I first saw the Mr Magoo painting at the Scottish Gallery of Modern Art. It was being performed as part of a week-long season at the Royal Lyceum Theatre hosted and curated by playwright Tom McGrath, who, like Joe Chaikin, had come through the 1960s counter-culture, as a poet performing alongside Allen Ginsberg at the Royal Albert Hall, and editing International Times in London, before running Glasgow's first alternative arts lab, The Third Eye Centre, on the site of what is now the Centre for Contemporary Arts.

The week was called Off The Wall, and showcased performed readings of work by Muller, Tankred Dorst and McGrath's fellow Scots Beat, Alexander Trocchi, with McGrath putting them all under the banner of something called 'The Deviant Tradition'. There was a version of Muller's play Quartet, which is based on Dangerous Liaisons and was here presented by a London-based company who did a wordless version set to a soundtrack of The Power, an electronic machine-age club anthem by German Eurodance trio, Snap!

The Power, which originally featured unlicensed samples by Jocelyn Brown and Mantronix, was a number 1 hit in the Netherlands, Switzerland and the UK. Brown's recording of Love's Gonna Get You provided the song's repeated hook-line, 'I've got the power', edited and looped in such a way so it hammers home its point like a martial mantra. As every dictator knows, repetition counts.

A version of Hamletmachine presented as part of 'The Deviant Tradition' at Off The Wall caused no little controversy, primarily because the director asked the cast to perform naked apart from wearing giant-sized heads of Stalin and other world leaders. I don't remember who, but, given the times, I expect Thatcher and Reagan were both in there. The cast refused to get their kits off unless the director did likewise. He agreed, and the performance went ahead.

Somehow, Max, Deborah and I make it through the interview, each of us adding our own little untranslatable slant on things. Form-wise, the three-way conversation is a microcosm of Hamletmachine itself, open to interpretation.

Later, Max's people emails Manipulate, the puppet and animation festival Max's company, Compagnie Sans Soucis, are going to be part of, to say how much they'd enjoyed the interview. This never happens. Not ever.

Simon who runs Manipulate emails me, and asks me if I'll record one of the speeches for the English version of Max's production of Hamletmachine. It seems he and Deborah liked my voice, and thought it would fit.

The timing's out, alas. The only time we can record the speeches is a day I'll be out of the country. So let's be clear. The voice in the English-language translation of Sans Soucis' Hamletmachine, it isn't mine.

In 1995, English writer and poet Marc von Henning, who directed the Edinburgh production of Quartet, published a collection of his English translations of Muller's work, including Hamletmachine. In his introduction he wrote the following.

'Translating is experience, not explanation. Apparent understanding of the content very quickly ceases to be of help, and it is the rhythms, caesuras, metre, shapes, sounds and images that take over, both as friend and enemy. Therefore, the aim cannot be to explain, but to create, to confront, not to circumvent. The translation cannot be assessed by the degree of its obedience to the original, but by the quality of its departure from it. Translation is more primitive conflict than sophisticated definition, it has much more in common with a wrestling bout than with a university seminar.'


11

Back at the house party, where most girls and boys are wearing uniform straight-leg Top Shop jeans, sweat-shirt and trainers, I don't know what to say to this girl in the Bauhaus t-shirt I really like, even though, if you take away the musical/Goth associations, it's actually a really nice t-shirt, and makes her look sexy and arty at the same time.

We sort-of have an almost-kind-of thing at a bus-stop late one night, and life goes on.

I still have a picture she drew of me, all skinny-malink lollop, Hovis-boy shaved hair, specs and grandad shirt, and a lit cigarette between each finger, like some grotesque caricature of a dole queue wannabe desperate to be taken seriously.

She wrapped it in some pages of the Record Mirror and gave it to me in an envelope marked 'Leaving Certificates'.

Turns out she just got lucky with a drummer sometime either before or after all this.

Many years later, long after Top Shop have started selling copies of vintage punk t-shirts where it's the image alone that counts, I discover the girl I liked in the Bauhaus t-shirt all those years ago is now a fairly successful artist, photographer and curator, albeit one who shares the same name as a celebrity female impressionist.

One of her recent photographic projects, I discover, is a series of stylised black-and-white portraits of women based on and inspired by a series by a pioneering nineteenth century female photographer, who cast her subjects as classical heroines.

These new images look studiedly expressionistic, only with the pale, interesting and oh-so-serious young women depicted betraying tell-tale 21st century tics that in a few years time will define a vintage all their own, the same as happens in any decade.

The word 'ghost' in the title of this series of sepulchral-looking images is all too appropriate on every level.

The pictures wouldn't look out of place on the cover of an album by a band of serious young men in the early 1980s, whose merch stands would be filled with similarly gloomy images laid out like corpses on overpriced t-shirts.

Eventually they would be worn by ice-cool young women with artistic intentions, for whom it's not just about the music.

They just like the picture is all.

Let's-Do-The-Time-Warp-Again.


12

Another sunny Sunday Edinburgh afternoon. Except, more than twenty years on, it's winter this time, and, rather than take a trip to the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, I'm indoors in front of a computer screen, trawling its website, listening to Radio 3 as I go. Because, in part, that's how it's done these days, an online archive at your fingertips, with no-one there beside you to listen to your half-absorbed observations about . Only your own curiosity to keep you clicking.

I'm trying to track down the painting I likened to a Mr Magoo cartoon this way because the entire two floors of the gallery have been given over to The Sculpture Show exhibition until summer 2012, so all the regular exhibits will have been tidied away. If I want to find cartoon needles in giant haystacks, I first of all have to start raking through the right barn.

The Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art archive is listed alphabetically by artist, and is banded together with all the other Scottish National Galleries, which necessitates me going through a couple of thousand names from A to Z, from Marina Abramovic's 1994 Star (from the portfolio 'Dear Stieglitz'), a photograph of a five-pointed star Abramovic carved on her own belly, to Two Infant Angels on Clouds Bearing A Cross [after Titian]. Somewhere inbetween, I stumble on a slew of favourites alongside some images I've never seen before, never quite sure what I'm looking for.

Was it Jared Adler's Homage to Naum Gobo, or David Bomberg's Vigilante? Pierre Nonnard's in there, as are Braque, Breton and Edward Burra. Alexander Calder's The Spider sticks out, as does William Crosbie's Heart Knife and Robert Colquhoun's Masked Figures and Horse, but none of them are quite right. Other paintings don’t even come close, but stand out anyway, like pat Douthwaite's Death of Amy Johnson, while Jean Dubuffet's Villa by The Road has all the familiar hallmarks, but no. Max Ernst is too science-fiction.

Sir William Gillies' The Harbour comes close. A portrait of Anstruther inspired by Klee, it's nearly, but not quite. Terry Frost's Pink Quay and Black and White Movement on Blue and Green II bubble under and bounce around, alongside Adrian Heath's Climbing Composition Green and Blue and Anthony Hill's Composition.

Clicking through each letter of the alphabet like this gets me thinking about Adrian Henri, the poet who, alongside Roger McGough and Brian Patten, was one of the 'Liverpool Poets', whose shared volume, The Mersey Sound, fused pop, art and poetry in an easy to trip off the page kind of way that was as swinging sixties as it came. When I first came across the book, I enjoyed Patten's angsty melancholia about terminal adolescence the best, then getting to grips with what appeared to be an after-hours lifetime of beautifully sad one-night stands by McGough. Henri I didn't take to at first. I didn't initially get all his references, like 'GO TO WORK ON A BRAQUE!, and stuff about 'Pere Ubu walking across Lime St' and 'Marcel Proust in the Kardomah eating Madeleine butties dipped in tea', all of which are in Henri's Liverpool Poems.

The one I really didn't get was a longer piece, just called Me. It was just a list, I reckoned, hip pop-cultural name-dropping to impress your friends with. How wrong could I be.

Me

if you weren't you, who would you like to be?

Paul McCartney Gustav Mahler
Alfred Jarry John Coltrane
Charlie Mingus Claude Debussy
Wordsworth Monet Bach and Blake

Charlie Parker Pierre Bonnard
Leonardo Bessie Smith
Fidel Castro Jackson Pollock
Gaudi Milton Munch and Berg

Belà Bartók Henri Rousseau
Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns
Lukas Cranach Shostakovich
Kropotkin Ringo George and John

William Burroughs Francis Bacon
Dylan Thomas Luther King
H. P. Lovecraft T. S. Eliot
D. H. Lawrence Roland Kirk

Salvatore Giuliano
Andy Warhol Paul Uzanne
Kafka Camus Ensor Rothko
Jacques Prévert and Manfred Mann

Marx Dostoevsky
Bakunin Ray Bradbury
Miles Davis Trotsky
Stravinsky and Poe

Danilo Dolci Napoleon Solo
St John of the Cross and
The Marquis de Sade

Charles Rennie Mackintosh
Rimbaud Claes Oldenburg
Adrian Mitchell and Marcel Duchamp

James Joyce and Hemingway
Hitchcock and Bunuel
Donald McKinlay Thelonius Monk

Alfred, Lord Tennyson
Matthias Grunewald
Philip Jones Grifths and Roger McGough

Guillaume Apollinaire
Cannonball Adderley
René Magritte
Hieronymus Bosch

Stéphane Mallarmé and Alfred de Vigny
Ernst Mayakovsky and Nicolas de Stael
Hindemith Mick Jagger Durer and Schwitters
Garcia Lorca
and
last of all
me.

For years I'd find myself going back to Me – nothing to do with Motown Records' one hit wonder Charlene's 1977/1982 sleeper hit, Never Been To Me, incidentally - and each time I did, it made a little more sense. The names would be that bit more familiar, until I started joining the dots between them and developed something resembling a context. Sure, some of Me is of its time – shut up, Charlene - , but as a mixed-up, shook-up cut-up primer of how art and artists criss-cross each other or else rub up against each other like the messiest parallel universe nightclub happening in the world, whatever their field, it's to die for. Best thing is, we're all invited too.

Back in the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art online archive, meanwhile, I've struck gold. I'm onto M by now, and I've just clicked on John Maxwell. Bingo!

Harbour With Three Boats dates from 1934, and, like Sir William Gillies' The Harbour, is a painting of a Fife harbour and is inspired by Paul Klee. No surprise there, though, as, according to the biographical detail on the site, Gillies and Maxwell went on painting trips together. 'A disregard for perspective,' it says, 'and a selective approach to detail.' And it's true, the tiny houses and far bigger boats lined up in brown and yellow hues set against a murky blue is all over the show, never settling for a minute, playing tricks with the eye so things zoom in and out of focus, just like, well, just like a Mr Magoo cartoon.

Really? No, really, though? It does, doesn't it? Or is it just me?

Nah, you're right. Nothing like it.

Memory may play tricks, but seeing is believing. Discuss.


A version of this appeared in Line Magazine issue 6 - Translation, April 2012

Quotes from: -

Comment Dire / What Is The Word - Samuel Beckett - 1988 - Selected poems 1930-1989 - Faber and Faber 2010

Theatremachine - Heiner Muller, translated and edited by Marc von Henning - Faber and Faber 1995

Me - Adrian Henri - The Mersey Sound - Penguin Modern Poets No 10 - 1967 /

ends
























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