Iconic photographs of the 20c, No.3

Edith Tudor-Hart was a refugee from Austria, having fled with her British husband in 1933. She had trained in photography at the Bauhaus. Her strong left-wing views led her to work as a covert agent for the Soviet Union; however it also led her to make photographs like this one below, which were high in social commentary.

Edith Tudor-Hart - estate W Scschitzky - undated
A deprived girl outside a baker’s shop, by Edith Tudor-Hart. ©Estate of W. Suschitzky.

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A quick visit to StAnza

Firstly, a message of thanks to the folk at StAnza for continuing to grant me media accreditation; and secondly, an apology for the tardiness of this article. Instead of writing individual reviews, on this occasion I’m going to post a kind of general summary, mentioning the events and readings I went to.

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It has been two years since I last came to StAnza, and in between times I have parted company with the review site for which I used to write, migrating my reviews here. Even my visit this year, cut short by my having to spend three days away at a conference for International Women’s Day, felt nothing like the immersion that StAnza offers, nor the response that this offer deserves.

Up to now, my experience/attendance at the festival has been governed by the amount of reviews I thought I could complete quickly enough to get them onto the web site while the festival was still running. This year I have a base in the School of English at the University of St Andrews, so you’d think I had less of an excuse for sticking to a meagre platter. Oh well…

As I lounged on my guest house bed, just over the River Taff from the Principality Stadium, I was able to keep up with the StAnza Twitterstorm – something was always going on, poets and events were being tagged, tweets were being retweeted. I thought back to the two or three times I had stood in queues outside the Byre Studio or Parliament Hall and heard people saying “We’ve just been to see such-and-such, and after this reading we’re off to see so-and-so…” It’s a marathon, a marathon at a gentle pace, as most of the festival-goers are retired. There’s nothing surprising in that, as the first four days of StAnza are weekdays, and anyone younger is probably working.

I do see some younger folk around – I spot a student or two from the university in an audience – and I feel young myself, as a student, although that’s a wee bit of a conceit.

Coastlines poets
The ‘Coastlines’ poets.

I have a question: why is it that I saw so many tweets saying that StAnza “opened” on Thursday 5th? There were two events on Tuesday 3rd, and six on Wednesday 4th, and they were right there in the festival brochure. Certainly when I attended ‘Coastlines’ I was not in any doubt that this was a festival event, not a pre-festival event. The brochure advertised poetry from Anna Crowe, nature writer Jim Crumley, and Valerie Gilles, but there was much more to the event. In addition to the advertised poets, there was a presentation by PAMIS (Promoting A More Inclusive Society), giving an opportunity to wheelchair users Rachel Frame and Arianne Holmes to provide multi-media additions to the words of Maureen Phillip; after that we were treated to readings of poems about Tentsmuir – the coastline between the Tay and the Eden in Fife – from the competitors, runners up, and winner of the Scottish National Heritage / National Nature Reserves competition.

Coastlines poet
Valerie Gilles

If I had to pick one of the headline poets from this event, with all due respect to Anna Crowe and Jim Crumley, it would have to be Valerie Gillies, whose poems took us on a journey from the source of the River Tay in a corrie on Ben Lui, to “Sheughie Dykes” as Tentsmuir was once known. “Sheugh… sheugh… sheughie dykes…” we joined in, and then “seugh… seugh.. seugh…” followed by a soft intake of breath to represent the sound of waves on the sand.

Perhaps the idea that StAnza “opened” on the 5th had something to do with the fact that there was a “sneak peek of some of the highlights” of the festival on the evening of the 4th, under the title ‘Festival Launch Extravaganza’, my emphasis. But then the very next item on the 4th refers to “Opening Night.” Make your minds up! If you wanted to see younger faces and hear younger voices, by the way, then the place to be was the Inklight open mic, once again in the no-man’s-land of Wednesday evening. I was in that myself, having recently started to write poems (like I said, I feel young!). I can tell you this: it was a thrill.

Let’s grant, anyway, that by the time I went to the first ‘Border Crossings’ event on Thursday, the festival had started. I’m a fan of the ‘Border Crossings’ event, and I hope they continue to be an integral part of StAnza. The eight events under this banner during the festival juxtapose two poets per event, each of whom has poetry that either crosses borders, or springs from the poet’s experience of having crossed borders. Sometimes they find things in common – for Yorkshireman Tim Turnbull and Bangladeshi Shehzar Doja it was cricket, and even I joined in the ensuing twanter (banter on Twitter). Let me do a thumbnail summary of each of the four poets I managed to catch…

Shehzar Doja, Tim Turnbull, Johan Sandberg McGuinne, Gerry Cambridge.

Shehzar Doja: rich, rich, rich language coupled with a deliberate delivery. Often he seemed to be musing, capturing words out of the air, rather than reciting already-composed pieces.

Tim Turnbull: dry, laconic humour, coupled with the ability to use rhythm and rhyme when necessary. The simplicity of those devices never fell into doggerel, and when he cocked one side of his mouth up to mimic the louche lingo of Heckle and Jeckle, he almost sounded like – dare I say this? – a contemporary of mine, a poet from the other side of the Pennines (*ducks).

Johan Sandberg McGuinne: a large and colourful presence. Multilingual, Gaelic, Southern Sami, English, resonances between the Sami joik and puirt à beul. Each language struck its own rhythmic pattern.

Gerry Cambridge: probably enough to say that he founded Dark Horse! The fact that his latest collection was taken up by HappenStance Press says more.

I missed such a lot – not only poetry events but all the peripheral performances, exhibitions, and displays. Next year, with my feet even more comfortably under the table at the School of English, I may miss less and may be able to do more justice to the featured poets.

K is for Klee

Paul Klee, ‘Senecio’, 1920. Kunstmuseum, Basel.

Paul Klee (1879-1940)
The most frequent epithet used of Klee’s painting, and his Senecio (1922) in particular, is “childlike.” I believe that belies that painting’s sophistication. The painting is often subtitled Head of a Man Going Senile, and yet the artist has selected a palette of reds, oranges, and yellows that are hardly associated with old age, and has assembled them into almost careless geometric shapes, each shape roughly textured. Despite the balloon-like regularity of the circular head, the facial features are asymmetrical as though youthful proportions have been slightly contorted by age. One eye is lower than the other, and though the dense pupils seem to stare straight at the viewer, one is displaced into the corner of the eye. The mouth is represented by four tiny, pinched, snagged quadrilaterals. The hint of an orange descent behind the head could be wisps of uncared-for hair; it is orange, it says “grey.”

But again, this could be a caricature of age, not a representation or an expression of it. This could be a performer taking the part of the lean and slippered pantaloon. Klee’s art doesn’t fit any more comfortably into a school or a category than the artist did into nationality; he was born in Switzerland but was only granted Swiss citizenship six days after he died. I think he would have appreciated the irony, even though his death from scleroderma was an uncomfortable one. Tod und Feuer, shown below, was one of his final, more simple paintings; it shows a distorted skull, and plays with the letters T, O, and D which spell the German word for “death.”

Paul Klee, ‘Tod und Feuer’, 1940. Zentrum Paul Klee, Bern.

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Another iconic photograph from the 20c

Photograph by Don McPhee.

When I started this blog, I decided it would not be political in nature. But I couldn’t leave 2019 without looking back at what I call “the off-set 20th century,” the period from the Great War to this year. It is the century that saw the rise and fall of the working class. Even now I can hear the objections that I, as a lower-middle-class person, am bourgeoisplaining because I pretend to speak for the working class. As we look forward to 2020, I reply that someone bloody well has to, as they have just voted for their own extinction.

During the off-set 20c we have seen movements that were supposed to liberate the working class degenerate into oligarchies. Mikhail Bakunin said “If you took the most ardent revolutionary, vested him in absolute power, within a year he would be worse than the Tsar himself,” and he wasn’t far wrong. On the other side we have seen trans-national corporations exert, retain, and consolidate their grip on our minds and pockets. Under Xi, China now enjoys (?) the worst of both worlds.

In the early-mid-1980s, Margaret Thatcher set about her programme of dismantling British pluralism. Her telos was that power should reside in the hands of large business, facilitated by a light-touch, laissez faire government. All other influences – public corporations, the civil service, the trades unions – were to be abolished or neutered. By proxy, she took on the most powerful trades union in the land, the NUM, and defeated it. The miners were on a hiding to nothing from the start, the strike ruined them financially and the media ruined their reputation. The country did not realise what they were witnessing.

Leaving aside – hard though it might be – the dreariness of the subject, let me turn to yet another iconic photo of the 20c. Don McPhee happened to be in the right place at the right time, to take a picture of an almost friendly face-off between a young policeman and a striking miner. It carries with it just one ray of hope – that people can find a spark of humour at the worst of times. That is a message I would like to broadcast for 2020.

There’s not going to be much to laugh about. So have a good holiday season, enjoy that the longest night is behind us, light a Hanukkah candle, haul in a Yule log, remember the birth of Christ, raise a glass on Hogmanay and toast double-visaged Janus. Or just keep yourselves warm and wait for the snowdrops and crocuses. See you next year.

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Playing with (my?) gender: a phenomenological view

People like simple explanations. Unfortunately it doesn’t work like that. Nothing works like that except for the inevitability that this life will end. What comes between birth and death is uncertainty in all its glorious dynamism, and maddening complexity. In vain do we try to set up, in our imagination, an unassailable dais from which we, as gods, can look down and analyse what we see. Try as we may, what we think we are looking down on tantalises us by being annoyingly different from the sum of its parts. And try as we may, we cannot forget – if it is little more than a niggling for the most ‘rational’ amongst us – that we have put our imagination into play, that most irrational of psychic playthings.

To create that dais, we have tried to divorce ourselves from the very experience of being human, our head-on collision with a million-million-million instantaneous phenomena each waking day, and the consequences of each collision – what Gaston Bachelard calls “the phenomenological doublet of resonances and repercussions” (7). Each encounter with a phenomenon evokes something born of memory; it associates with something we already know or, rather, with an array of things we know, and even with images that we can’t see any connection to. Some of these associations dissipate and disappear immediately, others brighten even to the point of being eidetic; those that last beyond the instant blend, to extents we cannot measure, with the next phenomenon. Or they die as suddenly as they came, despite their brilliance. Memories, even those of eidetic brilliance, are never pure recordings of the past, however, but are fleshed out with the imagination, that “major power of human nature” as Bachelard calls it (18). And this cannot in any way be analysed: “[…] the poetic act itself, the sudden image, the flare-up of being in the imagination, are inaccessible” to investigation (2).

Nothing about us, nothing in us, can be static, even that which we ‘know’ to be the most static. Each of these experiences changes us, and because a change no matter how small it is alters the relationships between those inaccessible, analysis-resistant components of our whole, each moment we are alive brings a metanoia – a change in the state of being – which may be only slight but, even if we do not realise it, can be as radical as that of Saul on the Damascus road.

I have looked at my own gender ever since I was a child. Sometimes the issues this introspection has thrown up have been profoundly disturbing, distressing, and puzzling. Feeling that one has to ask not “who am I?” but “what am I?” is a dysphoric, chaotic thing. It is only since I have approached the philosophy of human experience that I have had the courage to regard this chaos as a ride!

I’ll come back to that ride shortly. Meanwhile…

Studying gender in literature – studying gender in any context, let’s face it – brings one hard up against the fact that language governs thought. By and large we are not developing the language we speak and write, we have developed it (discuss!). Usage and argot are tinkered with, so that odd things change here and there, and things slip a little over time; but by and large we do not express what we directly experience, rather we speak in pre-existing metaphors replete with pre-existing meaning, a process which makes us interpret those experiences according to those meanings. Our expectations are informed and governed, our behaviour is informed and governed, our physical actions are informed and governed, our sense of who we are or who we ought to be is informed and governed, all these and more things in our lives are informed and governed by these pre-existing meanings. We use this to shore up our pitiful defences against the onslaught of psyche-altering phenomena, as we cling on desperately to what we hope is ‘reality’.

In my research, which looks at, inter alia, the way gender attaches to bodies within specific texts, I have noticed that despite attempts to disassociate one from the other, one of the factors that keeps pulling us back is the etymology of the language we use. One of the ways in which people who examine their own gender approach this problem is to experiment with the use of pronouns, to make them the subject of their choice rather than labels hung round their neck by custom and usage. They recognise no societal control over their appropriation of “he” or “she.” Or they take “they” and make an epicene singular of it, and fair dos to them.

What they can’t shake off, however, is the etymology of the words “he” and “she.” The etymology, the common usage, the semiotics of these words, all attach to sex-gender (I use the term “sex-gender” to convey the general understanding out there of linked body and behaviour) whether we like it or not. Users seeking an expression of their own identity actually import and appropriate an existing identity, which they then allow to define them, and if that identity is governed by a sex-gender vocabulary, then they run into the danger of taxonomising themselves by that terrible ‘either/or’. And taxonomy is a system not of gathering together likes, but of rejecting supposed unlikes.

All this contributes to the reasoning behind my playing around with new epicene words, starting with the pronoun “choy,” which is a substitute for the masculine pronoun, and enables me to conceive of applying it outside of sex-gender, and from this point I can avoid further use of the m-word. A caveat here: I am not proposing yet another pronoun to join the alphabet soup of epicene alternatives to he/she/they that already exist and are deployed out there, I am simply using my own as an experimental tool for the purposes of this article; if you have a better word yourself, then use it. The ‘other’ to “choy” in my arsenal of pronouns would be “zhai” (analogous to the f side of sex-gender, but etymologically and therefore conceptually detached from it).

Having dreamt up (if you like!) these terms I can begin to play, to enjoy the ride, to recognise in the way I react to the myriad phenomena, my residual choy-ness and/or my wonderful zhai-ness, to choose to deploy one more than the other or to acknowledge that one is operating more than the other in me, and to accept the counter-dance that happens when the next phenomenon and/or the next memory challenges my choice. All this seems to take me away from Judith Butler’s notion of “performative” gender, or gender as performance (24), and turns it into a matter of play. A fairground ride, but one where the track is being continuously built, and where the performative statements “I am choy-ish” or “I am zhai-ish” have meanings which remake themselves, or are remade, with every utterance silent or spoken.

To many people this topic can never be a matter of play, however, and I recognise only too well the privilege I am exercising by suggesting that, for me, it can be. To those people it is a struggle, and mainly a struggle not of their own making. To other people, including at least one regular reader of this blog, it is a puzzle and an irritation as to why people can’t simply align, and acknowledge the alignment of, their bodies and their gender – it would make life a lot simpler. But that’s where we return to my original point – there is no simplicity, the god’s-eye-view dais has fallen under our feet, and with it analysis fails, simplicity fails. Much as we want the world to stand still for us eppur si muove!

And don’t forget it’s not simply gender that is constantly on the move in us, but everything else about us. (Discuss!)

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Bachelard, Gaston. The Poetics of Space. Translated by Marie Jolas,

Penguin Classics, 2014.

Butler, Judith. “Imitation and Gender Insubordination.” Inside/Out:

Lesbian Theories, Gay Theories, ed. Diana Fuss, Routledge,

1991, pp13-31.

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Only a pawn in their game

Medgar Evers. Legacy.com

In a recent tweet, pithy and to the point, Dr. Oni Blackstock reminded us that: “Intersectionality is not just the concept of intersecting identities. Intersectionality is specifically about the intersection of marginalized identities and how intersecting systems of oppression serve to further marginalize and disempower.”

I wouldn’t disagree with a word of that, except perhaps to say that marginalisation is more indiscriminate than we imagine, and sometimes mocks the categories and identities that we set up.

On the 12th of June 1963, WW2 veteran and Civil Rights activist Medgar Evers was murdered outside his own home in Jackson, Mississippi. He was buried with full military honours in Arlington Cemetery, on the 19th of June. His murderer, white supremacist Byron De La Beckwith, evaded punishment until 1994, when he was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment; he died in prison in 2001.

Bob Dylan commemorated the murder of Medgar Evers in his song ‘Only a Pawn in their Game’. In order to make it a piece of social commentary, however, he fictionalised and anonymised his murderer. He did so to remind us that systems of oppression do not simply exert oppression, they also contain it. The ‘poor white’ of Dylan’s ballad is at the bottom of the social heap, but his marginalisation within the system means that he can be easily recruited as a foot soldier in the exertion of that external oppression – the familiar concept of victim becoming victimiser.

Though the message of the song was specific to the era of Civil Rights protests, it has new resonances now. The concept amongst the resurgent nationalist and supremacist right, that they have been forgotten and pushed to the back of the queue, may be more tenuous than it was back in the days of “poverty shacks,” but the rhetoric of the powerful – the billionaire and Eton-bred politicians – has been tailored to incite them to push back at the advances that the likes of Medgar Evers died in the struggle for. This is something we need to keep in mind.

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J is for Jawlensky

Alexei von Jawlensky did a series of very similar ‘Abstract Head’ paintings, of which this is one. Like many early 20c European artists, Jawlensky was fascinated by face masks that came out of the cultures of Africa. Like many such artists, he probably misinterpreted them, failing to see their sophistication; but what that misinterpretation went on to produce was very bold and striking art in its own right. African culture had given something unexpected to European art.

In this painting, a series of simple lines and patches of colour suggest an impassive face, the eyes hidden by shade, the head possible topped by a hat or simple headdress, or perhaps just by a flick of hair. The colours in this painting are less garish than in some others in the series, and as Jawlensky believed that colour spoke directly to the viewer’s emotions, this may be why the face seems impassive to me. Other paintings in this series use different colours to different effect, in what is essentially the same composition.

[Note: The paintings in this series are all over the internet. It is hardly worth attempting to give a citation!]