To The Riviera

I tried my hand at writing a short story in 2020. It was based on something a friend said to me. I tried to give it a unique voice. This was the result.

Cannes, M.D. Sohel

Abril and I. Sook. Don’t ask. 

We stole a boat. We sailed it to the French Riviera. Abril said we sailed it, I said I drove it, and she laughed. We stole it on the spur of the moment. From a marina. Easy. Really surprisingly easy. As easy as thinking about it. As easy as talking about it. Abril teased me about saying “drove” all the way there. Every time we moored or lay at anchor for the night, she’d tell me to park the boat! It was funny first time. I’d wanted to go to Iceland. Abril said no. The French Riviera. That way. She pointed South, her arm making a big half-circle. If we don’t do it now, she said, we never will.

We had nothing with us except what she carried in her bag. That was a problem. We raided the lockers and the spaces under the bunks. Found some rough weather clothes and wore them commando. To save what we’d come on board wearing. She had her makeup and still managed to look good. I looked rough. Like a rough sleeper. When we risked stopping for a night in a quiet place in Asturias, I took my credit card to the village supermarket and bought stuff. An armload of groceries and cheap underwear. T-shirts. Abril took all the ones in pretty colours and I didn’t mind. Same with the underwear.

As long as the food lasted we parked in coves. Avoided marinas. Avoided harbours. Unless we needed fuel. Then we’d risk it. Abril sweet-talked harbour-masters and the like. She has a way of talking that makes you feel mean if you don’t do what she says. There was a set of bins on board the boat, and we could scope out the shore with them. Sometimes I switched on the marine radio. More often I didn’t. I didn’t need other voices. I was most at the wheel. Abril came and stood with me, or sat and looked at the ocean. Then she spelled me while I went to the loo. Or I got her to spell me so I could stand and look at her. At the wheel. Me with my hands on my hips, all relaxed. Just looking. No charge for looking. 

We took turns cooking. I guess we got bored but neither of us said so.

There were two bunks on the boat. A double and a single. I let Abril have the double. We argued about that after I’d fallen out of the single bunk twice. Abril said she’d offered me the double bunk. I said she hadn’t. There was no one to settle the argument, so I shut up. We shared the big bunk after that. Abril threw me out of the cabin while she got ready to sleep. Not threw me literally, but yeah, threw me. I went on deck and did sailor stuff. Coiled ropes. Or got rained on, until she’d finished and was under the covers. The light was always off at that point. I had to feel my way. We slept with a sword between us. If you know what I mean. That’s what they say in old stories. Mornings, same thing. I had to be out and on deck while she got up.

I thought we’d never get there. The Riviera. There was a storm once. It was all we could do to hang onto the wheel. Both of us. We pointed the prow of the boat into the waves. I prayed. I don’t know if Abril did. When the storm was over, there was a swell. We were too close to a shore where the rollers broke. I steered us away. Abril said we were losing sight of the shore. The Atlantic rollers were getting bigger. I prayed again. For a day we played this game with our lives. Letting the swell take us towards the shore, then steering away from it. Later, in calm water, we talked about giving up. Beaching the boat somewhere. Hitchhiking instead. Abril said she wanted to arrive by boat. If we didn’t see this through, she said, we’d never do it. We went on.

High moments. Passing Gibraltar, seeing it above us. Stopping in the Balearics and gate-crashing a dance party. The lights made us dizzy. What was in the drinks did too. Finding a book in the boat and reading it by the yellow light in the cabin. Henry Herman’s His Angel: A Romance of the Far West. In English. Getting fixated on the words “tiny, pointed, psychic, rosy-tipped hands.” Looking at Abril and thinking “tiny, pointed, psychic, rosy-tipped hands.” Abril asking me what the hell I was looking at. Still looking. No charge for looking.

On the last night, Abril didn’t throw me out. We sat on the edge of the bunk and she talked. She talked more than she had since we’d talked about stealing the boat. She talked about the house where she grew up. She talked about the scent of cooking coming from the kitchen. She talked about the crystal hanging in her window and how it made a rainbow when the sun caught it. She talked about the rhythm of footsteps on the stairs. She talked about someone singing outside her window. She talked about a bookshelf where the books were arranged by colour. She talked about a brother’s bathrobe. Taking it down from a peg. Dancing with it. Wearing it as a mysterious cloak. Fixing it on a walking stick like a muleta, and making passes with it. Arching her back, looking fierce. She talked about the speeches she made to herself and the songs she sang. It was all happy stuff, but she never looked up, never looked at me. She seemed sad. After a long time, after it had gone really dark, we just lay down.

Just before dawn. I woke up to find we had been holding hands while we slept. The light was greying up. I lay and looked at Abril’s face on the pillow. Looked and looked. Then I saw she was awake and looking at me too. I got up. Went on deck. Did sailor stuff. Coiled rope. Scoped the shore through the bins. Looked at the French Riviera. Called Abril up to look at it too.

There was a helicopter. It came pretty close. Gendarmerie Maritime. I read that on the side of it. It kicked the water up with its downdraught. They shouted at us in French through a loudspeaker. I couldn’t hear much, but I pointed towards the town on shore. Jabbed with my whole arm. They flew off. 

I drove the boat as slow as I could. As slow as it would go. Abril stood next to me. Close. Watching the Riviera get nearer. I stopped at the end of a jetty and jumped onto it. Tied the boat to something. Abril said to look. I saw there were French police coming along the jetty. We went back into the cabin. We put our arms round each other and held tight. We had to. I could hear the police boots on deck. We still held tight. If we didn’t hold each other now, we never would. That was the most important thing. The police came into the cabin, shouting. They tried to pull us apart, but we held tight. I started howling, because it was like having part of my own body ripped away. I kept howling when Abril and I couldn’t hold each other any more. I kept howling as the Police dragged us down the jetty. I looked at Abril all the time. She looked at me. Until they threw us into different vans. I couldn’t see her any more. I kept howling. Howling like a bloody animal. Howling till my lungs and throat hurt. I don’t know when I stopped. I don’t know if I stopped. They slammed the van door. They slammed the door on the French Riviera.

__________

S is for Sage

Tomorrow is never (1955)

Kay Sage (1898-1963), Surrealist painter and poet.

WEIGHT

:

It’s heavy, 

all that weighs 

is heavy. 

:

They tell us in vain 

that weight over there 

above the earth 

does not exist 

nonsense… 

:

in your heart 

and in your head 

all that weighs 

is heavy.

:

(1962)

Unusual Thursday (1951)

__________

An iconic photograph of the 20c: Elizabeth Taylor

In 1997 Elizabeth Taylor underwent surgery for a brain tumour. Whilst recovering, and before her hair had grown back, she allowed photographer Herb Ritts to make the portrait above. For someone who was known through her acting career for her beauty, it is honest, human, dignified, serene, and truly beautiful. Someone once described it as her “Roman coin portrait.”

It is perhaps not my favourite photograph of Elizabeth Taylor. I love the intimacy of the photograph below, taken by Richard Miller in 1955, showing her with her great friend James Dean.

Three Design Icons of the 20c

I want to introduce what I believe to be three of the most iconic design statements of the 20th century. Each is instantly recognisable, and each may be defended around drinks in a bar as never having been bettered. 

There are actually four designs on this page, because I decided to give one an “Honourable Mention.” The late 1960s Lambretta GT200, a development of a basic model devised by aircraft designers Cesare Pallavicino and Pier Luigi Torre, is a piece of urban chic. It belongs to the era of the Hush Puppy and the Madras blazer, the Marquee Club and the Purple Heart. It is a string quartet of curves and straight edges, never meretricious, always cheap but always classy. It gave mobility to a generation of newly-affluent teenagers, and although I love clip-on handlebars, bum-stop seats, and the roar of a four-stroke, I still secretly long for the runabout my mother wouldn’t let me have when I was sixteen, and to ride down the high street with a soundtrack by Booker T and the MGs.

On to the podium places, then.

Number 3 – The Supermarine Spitfire
I remember hearing on the BBC, when I was a child, that the Supermarine Spitfire had been declared obsolete, and had been withdrawn from the Royal Air Force. As far as I could, as someone that young, I felt as though an era had passed. More, I felt as though a friend had died. I can’t understand why I felt like that, as my family had absolutely no connection with this fighter plane. I think it is because it had already become mythic, the chariot of the heroes of war films and war comics. 

The Spitfire was designed first by R. J. Mitchell at Supermarine Aviation Works, and developed after his death by his colleague Joseph Smith. It was fast and agile, and was pitted against the Luftwaffe’s Messerchmitt Bf 109E. And it was beautiful.

Just looking at the Spitfire, the word “balance” comes into one’s mind. A generation of children could trace the lines of the 1/32 scale Airfix model kit with their fingers, and smile in recognition. I don’t think anything more beautiful ever flew.

Number 2 – The Fender Stratocaster
As Mitchell and Smith’s design was waning, over in the USA the design quartet of Leo Fender, Bill Carson, George Fullerton, and Freddie Tavares were creating something that has simply never died. It has waxed to fullness and remained in the sky. The Stratocaster – if you want to know all the ins and outs of its history get Googling, because I’m not going to bore you with them here – was born in the early 1950s, but still looks futuristic. It is one of those designs where the basic idea is functional but the beauty of the result is so overwhelming that the functionality is forgettable, forgotten, irrelevant. 

It was first seen in Britain in the hands of Hank Marvin, lead guitarist of The Shadows, who inspired a generation to pick up cricket bats, tennis rackets, anything they could lay their hands on, and mime to the sound of an amplified guitar coming over a transistor radio set. Just look at it – I’ll say no more.

Number 1 – The 1968 Gulf Oil Ford GT40
Wyndham Lewis once said that “every engineer knows that machines gain in sightliness as their efficiency increases, and it has become almost a commonplace in aesthetics where architecture and the design of articles in common use are concerned that utility brings with it its own reward of beauty.”* After one article of chic and two of obvious beauty, there must be some of my readers who wonder why I have picked this particular object. After all, it could be argued that it is not as aesthetically pleasing as the car on which it is based – the Lola Mk6. 

I think that’s the point. When I look at the Ford GT40, which was made with one purpose – to win the 24 Heures du Mans race – I see an object which, with one small twist, could have been ugly. It is certainly functional, everything about it states that. It is that very marginality, however, that emphasises its beauty. There is nothing about it that is there for its aesthetic effect. What is aesthetic about it comes purely from the Wyndham Lewis principle of gain in sightliness due to efficiency. It is the epitome of the Bauhaus principle that form follows function. No, its apotheosis. It is not sculptured; it is simply executed.

Please, argue with me about all this. I would be surprised and disappointed if you didn’t.

__________ 

*Lewis, Wyndham. “Essay on the Objective of Plastic Art in Our Time.” The Tyro, No.2, 1922. p.14.

James David Forbes Collecting Prize 2021

Every year (apart from 2020, due to covid-19 restrictions) the University of St Andrews offers a prize to an outstanding collector. The James David Forbes Collecting Prize is named after the eminent scientist and glaciologist, who was Principal of the United College of St Salvator and St Leonard at St Andrews from 1859. His library was presented to the University in 1929 by his son George Forbes. The prize, part of the Scottish Universities Book Collecting Prize Scheme, was founded in 2015, and endowed by Dr William Zachs, an avid collector. It aims to encourage students of the University to build their own coherent collection of written material – be it books, manuscripts, photographs, postcards, ephemera, or a combination of these.

This year, I entered the competition with an essay and annotated bibliography entitled ‘From Salt to Satan: An introduction to a collection of “lesbian pulp” as cultural items’, which focussed on the covers and paratext of my lesbian-themed fiction from 1950s and early 1960s America. I was asked to appear before the judging panel, which included Dr Zachs and Professor Sally Mapstone, Principal and Vice-Chancellor of the University in late July – the interview was carried out online, and I was sitting at home, surrounded by paperback books, looking at several MS Teams windows on my computer screen.

Then about half-way through this month I received a letter from Prof. Mapstone informing me that I had won!

To say that I was delighted would be an understatement. The spin-offs from this are becoming far-reaching. I have already put in motion the purchase of some books, funded by a library grant, which will become the first of a new academic collection at the University library. The University has put me forward for a national competition. This is just one of the things I find myself doing, as a PhD candidate, that I had no idea I would get involved with…

An iconic photo of the 20c: Louisiana, 1960

Uncredited photo. Thanks to St Peter’s House Library for bringing it to our attention.

“Racism is a grown-up disease, and we should stop using our children to spread it.” These are the words of Ruby Bridges, later in life. She is shown in the above photo, as a child, being escorted by US Marshalls to a school in Louisiana in 1960.

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

Any advertisement on this page, or elsewhere in this blog, is a product of the platform, and should not be considered an endorsement by the blogger.

R is for Rothko

In the TV series Mad Men, word has it that the senior partner in the advertising firm has a new painting hanging in his office. A secretary and several of the junior executives sneak into the office to look at it. It’s a Mark Rothko. Later, one of the junior executives is called into the senior partner’s office for a discussion, and an awkward and inconclusive conversation about the painting ensues, during which the senior partner hints that the painting will increase in value…

What is the meaning of Rothko’s large canvases of “fuzzy blocks of colours” anyway? I know that I can stand in front of a Rothko for an hour with an incredible sense of tranquility. I also know that that is unlikely to be what the artists intended. “If you are only moved by colour relationships,” he said, “you are missing the point. I am interested in expressing the big emotions – tragedy, ecstasy, doom.” But as with any work of art – so runs an argument – once it leaves the hands of its creator then the audience takes over ownership and, by interpreting it, takes part in the creative process. As an observer my reaction to a Rothko is as valid as any other’s.

What does it say to you? Or, more to the point and considering it phenomenologically, what does it cause you to say, to not say, or to think, or to feel? What associations come uninvited in the wake of settling your eyes upon it?

#Juneteenth

It’s 19th June, Juneteenth, a national holiday in the U.S.A.

It’s also my birthday. I don’t want to make this all about me, and I don’t want to reduce African-Americans’ contribution to the world to music. That is not my intention as I nevertheless honour the people whose work was my aural wallpaper when I was a teenager.

I belong to that generation of white British youth who heard the records brought over by Black GIs and were stunned. This music became what we played at home and what we danced to in our clubs. It was almost underground, because it got very little airplay on radio in the UK. It took the effort of Dusty Springfield to organise a tour of Tamla Motown artistes in Britain, and even that amazing event got comparatively little publicity…

So hail to the African-American heroes of my youth, some of whom are pictured above – Otis Redding, the Modern Jazz Quartet, Muddy Waters, Ella Fitzgerald, James Brown, John Coltrane, John Lee Hooker. That’s only a few. I dare say you’re thinking “What about so-and-so?” Please do add more names in the comments section if you wish.

At the time I was listening to these wonderful performers, one hundred years and more had passed since the abolition of slavery in the U.S.A. Notwithstanding that century, the fact that African-Americans might have been emancipated but they were nowhere near being liberated was signalled by the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. Half a century on from that time, we have Black Lives Matter, and we have to ask just what the heck has actually changed in 150 years?

Black Lives Matter. They matter so much. They always have.

What is human intelligence?

Still from Stalker, dir. Andrei Tarkovsky, Mosfilm 1979.

Valentine and Noonan are speculating why aliens visited Earth. It is this exchange that leads Valentine to describe the effect of their visit as the reaction of beasts and insects to the aftermath of a human picnic:

“I have to warn you, Richard, that your question falls under the umbrella of a pseudoscience called xenology. Xenology is an unnatural mixture of science fiction and formal logic. At its core is a flawed assumption – that an alien race would be psychologically human.”

“Why flawed?” asked Noonan.

“Because biologists have already been burned attempting to apply human psychology to animals. Earth animals, I note.”

“Just a second,” said Noonan. “That’s totally different. We’re talking about the psychology of intelligent beings.”

“True. And that would be just fine, if we knew what intelligence was.”

“And we don’t?” asked Noonan in surprise.

“Believe it or not, we don’t. We usually proceed from a trivial definition: intelligence is the attribute of man that separates his activity from that of the animals. It’s a kind of attempt to distinguish the master from his dog, who seems to understand everything but can’t speak. However, this trivial definition does lead to wittier ones. They are based on depressing observations of the aforementioned human activity. For example: intelligence is the ability of a living creature to perform pointless or unnatural acts.”

“Yes, that’s us,” agreed Noonan.

“Unfortunately. Or here’s a definition-hypothesis. Intelligence is a complex instinct which hasn’t yet fully matured. The idea is that instinctive activity is always natural and useful. A million years will pass, the instinct will mature, and we will cease making the mistakes which are probably an integral part of intelligence. And then, if anything in the universe changes, we will happily become extinct – again, precisely because we’ve lost the art of making mistakes, that is, trying various things not prescribed by a rigid code.”

“Somehow this all sounds so… demeaning.”

“All right, then here’s another definition – a very lofty and noble one. Intelligence is the ability to harness the powers of the surrounding world without destroying the said world.”

Noonan grimaced and shook his head. “No,” he said. “That’s a but much… That’s not us. Well, how about the idea that humans, unlike animals, have an overpowering need for knowledge? I’ve read that somewhere.”

“So have I,” said Valentine. “But the issue is that man, at least the average man, can easily overcome this need. In my opinion, the need doesn’t exist at all. There’s a need to understand, but that doesn’t require knowledge. The God hypothesis, for example, allows you to have an unparalleled understanding of absolutely everything while knowing absolutely nothing… Give a man a highly simplified model of the world and interpret every event on the basis of this simple model. This approach requires no knowledge. A few rote formulas, plus some so-called intuition, some so-called practical acumen, and some so-called common sense.”

“Wait,” said Noonan […] “Don’t get off the track. Let’s put it this way. A man meets an alien. How does each figure out that the other is intelligent?”

“No idea,” Valentine said merrily. “All I’ve read on the subject reduces to a vicious circle. If they are capable of contact, then they are intelligent. And conversely, if they are intelligent. Then they are capable of contact. And in general: if an alien creature has the honour of being psychologically human, then it’s intelligent. That’s how it is, Richard. Read Vonnegut?”

“Damn it,” said Noonan. And here I thought you’d sorted everything out.”

“Even a monkey can sort things,” observed Valentine.

__________ 

Taken from pp.129-131 of Roadside Picnic by Arkady & Boris Strugatsky, tr. Olena Bormashenko. Orion, 2012. (Original Russian version 1972).