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Saturday, 8 August 2020

KATE BUSH’S ‘WUTHERING HEIGHTS’ + ‘THE MAN WITH THE CHILD IN HIS EYES’



I first saw Kate Bush the same way everybody else did - appearing on ‘Top Of the Pops’ in March 1978 with her debut single ‘Wuthering Heights’.

Accounts of first hearing the song normally focus on her unearthly wailing voice. Unsurprisingly so, for it was a country mile from the soothing cooing women usually went in for with pop songs. Yet most of us first saw her the time we 
first heard her.

In a gross and unfair maldistribution of human resources she was clearly beautiful as well as talented. And, then more than now, looks were a good commodity to trade on for a woman looking for a music career. Instead she threw her performance into evoking the nature of the song’s character. Which so closely matches that vocal they can’t really be disentangled, one just feels like a transposition of the other.

Playing a ghost, she decided to act ghostly. With her long black hair, white dress and strange angular gestures, all hands and elbows, she doesn’t look so far from Sadako in the ’Ring’ films. (Who, much like Cathy at the window, is always lurking at thresholds.) It might sound counter-intuitive to compare Bush, every young lad’s wholesome heart-throb, to the scary spectre from a horror film. Yet there is something siren-like about Sakado’s mesmerising appearances, as Murray Ewing has said she’s “horrific and beautiful at the same time.”



Despite all this subsequently becoming so iconic, the single’s cover actually depicted the b-side, ’Kite’. Which, it seems fair to assume, would have been a label decision. While Bush favoured spectral over sexy, they went for the image where she showed a bit of leg.


But if the vocals are all otherly, the string arrangement behind them is lush and romantic. A love song sung by a ghost is still a love song, after all. And this combination of romantic and sinister effectively defines the song. The luring siren may be a familiar trope. But is Cathy mouthing seductive invitations to lure her prey to his demise, or here because she couldn’t be parted from him, even in death?

The lyrics slip between both, as if she doesn’t really know herself. “Let me have it/ Let me grab your soul away” runs into “I’m coming back to his side/ To put it right.”

I’ve never seen the TV adaptation which inspired her. But the scene is normally played to show the effect Kathy’s apparition has on Heathcliffe. The narrative often starts out by showing him broken, then makes the majority of the film a flashback which slowly leads up to our finding the cause. But the song reverses this perspective. The song’s all about Cathy.

More so, in my case. From the start I knew it was based on a book. Not because I was well-read, but because my Dad told me. This added to its audacity. Top twenty pop songs, not only didn’t they sound like this they certainly weren’t based on books! But he didn’t think to tell me who Heathcliffe was, and my young ears glossed over her singing the name.

Which only worked to my advantage. It enhanced the sense that she was singing directly to me. The line blurred between Cathy at the window and Kate on the TV screen, the singer and character who virtually shared a name.

The opening lines frame Cathy in nature. The “wiley, windy moors” of Yorkshire to be precise, which would seem to match her tempestuous personality. (“Too hard, too greedy.”) So ‘Wuthering Heights’ is romantic in both senses, a love song which evokes the sublime force of nature but presents it as a lover. What you’re drawn to, where you belong, will destroy you. But that destruction will be rhapsodic. Which is pretty much the way you imagine a love affair at that young age, dramatic and utterly life-changing.



(Apologies for the ‘informative’ ’TOTP2’ captions, this was the only version the internet seemed to provide.)

I was too young to consciously think of ‘Wuthering Heights’ as a novelty hit. But it was so unique and so complete a package there was no natural lead-in for a follow-up.

But remember what I was saying about talent as a maldistributed resource? Bush wrote ‘Wuthering Heights’ at aged eighteen, and ‘The Man With The Child In His Eyes’ at thirteen. In, legend has it, pink felt tip. She made the recording when sixteen.


Style again perfectly fits content. But by going in the opposite direction. While ‘Wuthering Heights’ was audaciously strange (particularly at the time of its release), ’Child’ is classic songwriting - only unusual in doing usual things unusually well. Both vocals and instrumentation are straightforward and direct. There’s an orchestra, but it only supplies decoration - like a book with illustrated margins. Try to recall the song, it’s the voice and piano which come to you.

Above all, there’s no sense of her playing a character. (The ethereal “he’s here” voice was added to the single version, I suspect, to add some continuity to two otherwise dissimilar numbers.)

While almost the whole of ‘Wuthering Heights’ lay in imagining it being sung to you, this time the appeal of this song is the feeling of eavesdropping. We’ve come from a classic “you” song to a classic “me” song. Bush herself described it as “a very intimate song about a young girl almost voicing her inner thoughts, not really to anyone, but rather to herself.”

As ever, those who chase literal explanations have asked who it was written about. In one case an ex-boyfriend has claimed it was him. I’m not going to link to the right wing rag he sold his story to, and wouldn’t even if the claim wasn’t blatantly absurd. If, listening to ‘Wuthering Heights’, I liked to pretend she was singing to me, at least I knew I was pretending. It’s clear enough to those with ears to listen that she’s singing to a fantasy lover, and one who is some years older than her.


As Christine Kelly has said: “What we’re given with ’Child’ is that ever-so-rare thing in pop music: a young person’s vision of the world, undiluted by executive interference.” What pop music should surely be for, it sounds the strangest thing when we actually get to hear it. She also suggests that, not only has the song rarely been covered, Bush herself needed to drop it when she got just a little older.

Other songs on her first album are quite sexual (presumably because they were written later). But at that age, at least for us sensitive kids, your fantasies weren’t particularly carnal. As you start to separate from your parents, you first invent a replacement figure for them. It’s knowing your fantasy lover is merely a fantasy but luxuriating in that, the way it allows you to stitch together an expansive if rather hazy wish list.

You imagine someone worldly, a quality you’re aware you lack. But most of all, you imagine someone who gets you, to who you don’t have to try and explain yourself. “He’s very understanding, and he’s so aware/ Of all my situations.” “He’s always with me” makes him sound almost omnipresent. Bush said herself:

“I think it's a very natural, basic instinct that you look continually for your father for the rest of your life, as do men continually look for their mother in the women that they meet. I don't think we're all aware of it, but I think it is basically true. You look for that security that the opposite sex in your parenthood gave you as a child.”

She was nineteen by the time the song was released. Now, of course, my brain boggles at what she could do when so young. But when I first heard it I was eleven, and that age seemed impossibly mature. So inevitably a kind of flipping occurred, in singing about someone else to me she articulated the way I imagined her. Things shifted from a song you couldn’t help but pretend she was singing to you, to one you couldn’t help but imagine you were singing to her.

Kate Bush was the poster girl who got you in the heart.

Saturday, 1 August 2020

‘GAUGUIN PORTRAITS’

National Gallery, London


”I close my eyes to see.”
- Gauguin

Getting Your Own Good Side

The 2011 Tate retrospective on Gauguin being both comprehensive and incisive, the National smartly decide to focus on something in particular. (There’s a clue in the title.) So for the sake of convenience, let’s imagine that Tate’s still so fresh in our minds that we only need to look for new stuff here.

This being a portrait show and this being Gauguin, naturally there are self-portraits. In fact we start with a room if them. And the Tate show, that started the same way. There’s no other way to go into this, really.

We’re soon told “everything an artist does is in effect a self-portrait”. Even if you were disposed to disagree, you wouldn’t be likely to start from here. It concedes “his writings were emphatically self-centred”, but adds “making himself the chief subject was more than mere narcissism”. At which point you envision the word “discuss” magically forming out of the air. He may well have closed his eyes to see, but he still had a fixation for being seen. As one example, for his ’Christ in the Garden of Olives’ (1889) he modelled his Jesus on… yes, you guessed. Yes, he did.


’Self-Portrait’ (1185, above) is another artist-at-work image. Not only does that angled beam to his right suggest an artist’s garret, he looks hunched against it rather than sitting straight, as if its presence has gone on enough to be impregnated in his posture. Then the frame of (presumably) a canvas hems him in from the other side. He’s wearing a coat indoors. A shaft of light crosses across his face and drawing hand, a face looking pale and wan. Unlike the blocks of deep colour Gauguin’s known for, the only bright tones are found on his artworks within the artwork. Everything else is shades of brown, white and green. This is Gauguin pre-Gauguin, still under Impressionist influence.


But not for long. While ’Self-Portrait’ was unmistakably the self-portrait of an artist, ’Self-Portrait Dedicated to Carriere’ (1888/9, above) is equally obviously the self-portrait of Paul Gauguin. There might as well be a speech balloon saying “accept no substitute.”

This time he fills the frame, particularly with that shovel-sized chin, the confining beam replaced by a window view. Rather than gaze off mysteriously into the distance, thinking artist’s wistful thoughts, he firmly meets the viewer’s gaze. The composition seems to focus in on his left eye, everything else arranged around it. And if the colours aren’t quite as full as they’ll become, they’re more vibrant. Compare the two greens of the wall behind him.



Last show I said “the primitive ‘other’ he fetishised was simply a construct of contemporary Western society – not a window onto another world but an unshaven looking glass.” A line I wrote before seeing ’Self-Portrait’ (1890, above). Has he painted himself in brownface? Effectively, yes.

He had spent part of his youth in Peru and, much like Jim Morrison later fantasising about being Native American, had come to believe he had Inca heritage. (Unsurprisingly, he actually came from Spanish colonialists.) In something he’d indulge more and more this is the quasi-positive view of the ‘savage’, a word he often used to convey freedom from inhibition, something to proudly proclaim.

So this is the dashing and swarthy savage of a matinee movie rather than the bestial monster or idiotic clown of more overt racism. He’s captured less precisely than the earlier images, as if less graspable by Western art. (Somewhat ignoring the inconvenient fact that this is still Gauguin painting Gauguin.) But that is no break, it just makes it the opposite side of the same coin.

Let’s fast-forward to Tahiti, the era he’s best known for. (Besides the forthcoming Academy exhibition is titled ‘Gauguin and the Impressionists’, so it doesn’t seem too far-fetched to fancy that will deal more with his early years.)

It’s noticeable the self-portraits lessen from now on. The show comments: “While in Tahiti, with the French public far away, Gauguin stopped painting depictions of himself.” But this was more tendency than iron rule. For example…


’Self-Portrait With Manao Tupapua’ (1893/4), with that jutting beam now swapped to the other side, looks like the opposite book-end to the first self-portrait. The previously pallid garret-dwelling artist is now bathed in the yellow Tahitian light. Beneath an intrepid hat, his expression exudes confidence and insouciance. And why should this be?

In times past, a chief occupation of artists had been painting flattering portraits of the wealthy. Gradually these were replaced by the camera and ’Hello’ magazine. These would often flauntingly display things they owned which would include, somewhat recursively, other artworks. Here Gauguin effectively paints himself into this tradition, his own great man and flattering portraitist, bringing in one of his most recognisable works - ’Manao Tupapua’ (1894). Unlike ’Self-Portrait’ he’s not painting himself as a painter but as a possessor, we’re expected to know that work is his and accept what it confers upon him.


The show devotes a room to ‘surrogate portraits’, some more convincing than others. ’Still Life With ‘Hope” (1901, above) gets its title from the reproductions on the wall. Unlike the previous illo, this time neither are by Gauguin himself, the topmost being ’Hope’ by Pierre Puvis de Chavannes. (The other is a Degas.)

When Gauguin had gone to stay with Van Gogh in the south of France in 1888, as a welcome his room had been hung with the recently completed sunflower pictures, which has enthused him. The most famous of the series wasn’t painted till the next January, though it would seem to be the one referred to here. Its fame lies in it being almost entirely painted in bright yellows and oranges, with only a few touches of offsetting green. The resultant effect is dazzling.

The two prints may well be included as hints to lead us into seeing the sunflowers here as Gauguin’s take on another artist’s work. And the colour scheme could not be more sombre. Compare the two walls, Van Gogh’s vivid yellow which barely looks solid to Gauguin’s slew of deep orange browns. Moreover, while Van Gogh allowed some sunflowers to droop Gauguin permits none of of his to rise, even laying one out flat on the table. Van Gogh paints not just flowers but flowering, Gauguin does the opposite.

He’d gone to some trouble to paint this, having to send off to Paris for - and then growing - the seeds. And the motive was most likely a memento for his old compatriot, who’d died little more than a year after painting that famous work. Being a lowbrow type, it mostly reminds me of the Prince lyric: “All the flowers that you planted in the back yard/ All died when you went away”. De Chanannes had also died, in 1898, and part of Gaugin’s motive in including him might have been to place ‘Hope’ in those inverted commas. (Though the ever-obstinate Degas lived to 1917.)

Though of course Van Gogh had died nearly a decade before, and his clashes with Gauguin were one more thing which pushed him into breakdown and suicide, so why wait till now? The reason was, inevitably enough, egocentric. The displaced portrait of Van Gogh turns out to be a self-portrait twice removed. By this point his own health had been declining for some years, and this painting suggests he saw the end in sight.


If ’Self-Portrait With Manao Tupapua’ was the composition of ’Self-Portrait’ inverted, not a marginalised outsider but a proudly successful artist, ’Self-Portrait’ (1903) goes back to the face from the earlier work. He’s painted directly, in a collarless shirt, in soft pinks, off-whites and greys. Unlike all the earlier works in this sequence, even the very first one, there’s no sign of a persona. The gaze in the painting is the gaze not just of a painter but of this painter, weak (his eyesight was failing among much else) yet unyieldingly self-scrutinising. Seeing in this sequence makes it all the more affecting. He died later that year, aged only 54.

Colonialism And Its Discontents

And still on Tahiti…

Walking round this show I did start to wonder how we’d respond if Jeffrey Epstein was discovered to have been secretly painting, and found ourselves looking at works which showed some artistic value. There’s not a great deal of difference between that scenario and this, after all, besides the passage of time.

To briefly recap a story everyone already knows, shortly after arriving in Tahiti he took Tehamana as his ‘wife’ when she may have been no older than thirteen. (He would call her a “girl” in his writings.) He later abandoned the child with her own child, a trick he went on to play on others. Her “experience of their relationship is not recorded,” the show notes - perhaps dryly.

What’s significant is that the way Gauguin conceived of women and the way he conceived of Tahiti are effectively identical, so both are epitomised by his paintings of Tehamana. Each is defined by primitive ‘otherness’. But that’s not seen as a strangeness, something which challenges our comprehension. Instead Gauguin ‘feminised’ Tahiti, made it his wife, assumed its role was to provide for him things he wanted. Hence the apparent paradox of him travelling to Tahiti for inspiration, despite his “look within” credo. (As in the opening quote.)


See for example a more unusual focus on a Tahitian male. ’The Royal End’ (1892, above) was painted after witnessing a King’s funeral. Though, disappointed by what he’d seen, he simply made up something more to his liking. The lips, already accentuated in the stereotypical depiction of ‘the savage’, are made more prominent by the profile view. This is a culture chopped off at the neck and mounted like a trophy.

The show supplies two interesting biographical details. He first ‘saw’ Tahiti through a display at the 1889 World’s Fair, a West-friendly construction of the place. But also, in 1901 he moved from there to the more remote Marquesa islands. His motive, in his own words, was the feeling that colonialism - and in particular the Church - had robbed Tahiti of its cultural identity.

Of course the complaint that old places are ‘spoilt’ and new ones now need to be sought is more the attitude of the holiday-maker than the anti-imperialist. And significantly this coincided with his finally giving up on art sales in Paris, a return to France in 1893 not being the triumphant event he had imagined. So he’d slunk back to the South Seas, no longer frontiersman but exile. He was looking back at a broken bridge, and proudly proclaiming he’d burnt it himself.

Still, from this point his criticism of colonial rule did become more overt. On arrival, he got himself into a grudge match with the local Bishop, who beneath his pious proclamations was having some less-than-holy dalliances with his staff. Gauguin carved a totem of him as a snake-tailed devil, which he goadingly stuck on public show outside his house. (Somehow it’s survived and is included in the show.)

Those two events, the World’s Fair and the conversion to anti-colonialism, are a decade apart. Nevertheless there’s a clear contradiction between them, inside which the essence of Gauguin lurks. His loud railing against colonialism doesn’t counteract his implication in it. In fact it’s the reverse, we are best off seeing these battles with the Bishop as a projected blame game - castigating another for his own sins.

And one reason we can be sure of that is, if this comes to a head in Martinique, it was seeded in Tahiti if not before. ’Melancholic’ (1891, above) for example uses Tehamana as a model. She wears the modest, full-length ‘missionary dress’, so-called because they were what the Church tried to impress upon the local women rather than traditional clothing. Yet at the same time she’s barefoot.

That far-away look this does have much of the Romantic sense of the inscrutable allure of women, as featured heavily in the Tate Britain’s Pre-Raphaelite show. Yet there’s another and perhaps more interesting approach to ambiguity going on behind her. Is that a painting or a window view? The former would seem to lend more to the show’s preferred reading: “Gauguin possibly sought to evoke a mood of nostalgia for a way of life disappearing.” Tehamana’s in Tahiti. Logically, she should be able to see Tahiti out the window, or at least some portion of it. But the ambiguity raises a question. What if the real Tahiti’s now only preserved in art?

Gauguin, at least in this period, seems to have a dislike of interiors, often conveyed as confining to the point of being stunting. (The exceptions being when they seem more porous membranes to the outside world, such as the light bathing ’Self-Portrait With Manao Tupapua’.)

And this motif, of a painting of a figure placed before another painting, is established before Tahiti. The painting’s even larger in ‘Portrait of Madame Roulin’, painted in 1888 while he was still in France. Or perhaps further still.


Gauguin commented of his earlier ‘Vision After the Sermon’ (1888) that the background was formally separated because it existed only in the imagination of the foreground characters. Something similar is afoot with ’Tehamana Has Many Parents’ (1893, above), even if ‘imagination’ is being replaced by memory. Her whole past is lined up behind her, like she’s the living growth at the head of the coral. There’s the same ambiguity as ’Melancholic’, that background may or may not be literally present. But it’s best understood symbolically, as if her past is standing behind her.


There’s also a similarity to ’Young Christian Girl’ (1894, above), painted during his brief return to France and employing an unusual synthesis of Tahitian and Breton imagery. Both place a young woman before a backdrop, a separation enhanced by placing them both in so brightly coloured dresses. (And she’s in another missionary dress, not a native Breton costume.)

But the way this figure fills the frame, combined with her closed eyes and raised hands, recall votive art. We’re used to seeing Christian art where peripheral objects are placed around a main figure as a way of informing us about them, almost like cartouches in ancient art. And at the same time there’s more links between her and her background - the circles on her collar which are carried on past her right shoulder, the elongated paying hands echoed in the tall red trees. Perhaps, like her artist, she closes her eyes to better see what’s around her. If Tehamana remains linked to her past, she is associated with her world.


‘Barbarian Tales’ (1902, above) may be the projected guilt at its most extreme, depicting as a devil in Tahiti’s paradisiacal garden. Absurdly cross-dressed in another missionary dress, just to make it clear whose side this devil is on. He seems stitched into into the composition, as if he doesn’t really belong there. (Would anything seem absent or imbalanced if he wasn’t there?) And with the two other figures so otherworldly and oblivious to him, he looks poised to spill poisoned words into their unsuspecting ears.

The figure is one of Gauguin’s old painter compatriots, Meijer de Haan. What he did to deserve this dishonour isn’t clear, in fact by this point he’d been dead some years. The show suggests that by this point Gauguin was so isolated his companions had effectively been reduced to ghosts.

Gauguin’s growing critique of colonialism shouldn’t be seen as giving his story some sort of redemptive arc. Because his story hasn’t got one. But it is further evidence he was a great artist, even if less successful as a human being. Though it may have been a self-critique he could only express by displacing onto others, this doesn’t prevent his critique from having bite.

Saturday, 25 July 2020

“ALL THE WITS WE LEFT BEHIND US…”: AN INTRODUCTION TO BLYTH POWER

“We have no faith, we have no brothers
”Hang no picture on the wall
”Burn no lantern light to guide you through
”The failures and the falls”



Blyth Power get dubbed punk folk or sometimes anarcho-folk, but neither tag come close to covering it. Their mission statement gets closer - “a cross between The Clash, Steeleye Span and The Rubettes.” But the best bands all sound just like themselves, operating in a peer group of one. The Fall just sound like the Fall. Current 93 just sound like Current 93. The Magic Band just sound like the Magic Band. And Blyth Power just sound like Blyth Power. That’s it.

Except you’ve got to measure them against someone or this isn’t going to work. So let’s set up a compare and contrast…

Like the Waterboys, Blyth Power have revolved around one constant member - Joseph Porter - and exist as an outlet for his songwriting. Both came out of punk, retaining the self-reliant ethic but swapping its quick-fire sound and spraycan immediacy for the expansive. They come self-described as “epic… colourful… crashing…. impassioned”. Like the Waterboys they matched evocative lyrics to mighty-sounding music, song verging on a form of landscape painting.

Just compare…

”There's a black wind blowing
”A typhoon on the rise
”Pummelin' rain
”Murderous skies!”

…to…

”I'm gone to the moss now
”Packed my saddle bag as hard as I was able
”I turned in to the wind and slipped my cable”

(And they could both wax lyrical on the curative properties of trains, but that’s a tale for another time.)

But really, the comparison is there just to set up the contrast. First, the Waterboys were expansive through and through. Blyth Power sounded epic but at the same time extemporised, cottage industry, indie in the positive sense. (They very nearly called an album ‘Make Do And Mend’.)

Bill Drummond once said he saw the Teardrop Explodes “as a battered Second World War bomber heading back home across the Channel… [they] keep going, chugging away. And they’ll always make it back”. But the comment’s perhaps truer still of Blyth Power.

Waterboys songs were full of exploits, noble-jawed heroes throwing scarves around their throats as they set off on richly symbolic journeys. Despite - or more likely because of - Porter’s previous with the anarcho-punk scene, Blyth Power songs were characterised by misadventures. And populated by headstrong fools, black-hearted rogues, worm-tongued turncoats and malevolent tricksters. Normally in that order. The persistence of human folly was a prevalent theme of Porter’s.


So if both took a chess move from punk, Blyth Power’s was the greater turn. The Waterboys’ was a Rook’s move, taking themselves off to quite another section of the board. Blyth Power’s was a Knight’s move, a tangent from where they’d been before.

The Waterboys impassioned-self, first-person vocals retained a stretched kind of connection to the source. “I will put my soul and will to the test” isn’t so far from “for once in my life I’ve got something to say”. Porter’s vocals were more like the sardonic, omnipotent narrator of a farce.

So this time let’s contrast…

“Well I will not sleep
“And I will not rest
“I will put my soul
“And my will to the test”

…to…

“When I withheld from the rich what I stole from the poor
”I soon the inside of the citadel saw”

And as those lines might suggest Porter was possessed of wry humour, and much of the band’s appeal was hearing such a pumping, anthemic form being given such acerbic content. It’s like hearing a heckle delivered as if it’s a speech. Many a track sought to expose the tawdry truth beneath those grand and much-retold legends of yore. (For example ’After the Horse Has Bolted’.)

His lyrics also delighted in jarring anachronisms, where marching Crimean armies would segue into unanswered answerphone messages. Characters recurred across songs and down the ages - Jack, Shift, McArthur. Or the same situation is shown to repeat down the line, surely the worldview of a cynic in distilled form. To misquote Marx history just keeps repeating, and every time it’s a farce. Time is the parade of one damned fool after another, slipping up on the same banana skin until the stars go out.

Though he never seemed sure whether the greatest act of folly in Blyth Power’s world wasn’t Blyth Power themselves. Porter described the track ‘God’s Orders’ as “not about Templars at all, [but] about being in Blyth Power. What do you mean you're impervious to metaphor?”

But this metaphor-as-metafiction was at it’s height with the numerous numbers which dealt with the protracted siege of Troy and the legendary wooden horse. (Frequently described by Porter as “a really, really stupid plan.”) To the point where the title of the live video, ‘Do the One About the Horse’, could be an in-joke.

That silly shaped, splinter-inducing wooden box came to represent a group packed together on a transit van slowly traversing the M4, pressed up against one another’s bad jokes and armpits, keen to spring the doors and do the gig just to escape this torment.

And just as characters are always reappearing and time keeps getting tangled, the Blyth Power chronology is itself jumbled. Songs appear only to get re-recorded years later, on one occasion a whole album. This was largely by necessity, as fly-by-night labels came and went. (Much to Porter’s open dissatisfaction.) But even though it’s made much of the music hard to track down, it also feels fitting. Nothing Blyth Power-related takes place in linear time. 


Was everything grand on the good ship? Well the band’s Achilles heel, to use an appropriately Classical metaphor, was their penchant for pastiche songs. About one song per album of Porter putting on a funny voice was sufficient. He once said himself that an early number “sounds more like a school production of Gilbert and Sullivan.” And too often the magic blend of the Clash, Steeleye Span and the Rubettes was replaced by… well, I suppose I’ve given it away now.

Their third album (depending how you count it), 1989’s ‘Alynwick and Tyne’, marks the point where Blyth Power shook off punk and truly became Blyth Power. The importance of incorporating female backing vocals could not be overstated, they really weren’t kidding about that Rubettes influence. And so it makes for a good jumping-on point.

Though listen to it on-line but don’t expect to be able to buy a copy.  Porter has said “This won't be re-released until the suit holding the copyright decides it's profitable. Some claim home taping is killing music, but it's not the only thing.” Still, the later album ‘Out From Under the King’ is almost as good. Actually, that’s hard to get hold of too… look, just start where you can, okay? It’s hard to go wrong.

But if you want a taster before you take a dip, ’Inside The Horse’ is not atypically an anti-anthem, an avowal of unbelonging delivered as a rousing singalong….

”If we lose face we will still have others left
”To rescue and restore
”All the wits we left behind us…
”…inside the horse!”

Saturday, 18 July 2020

‘NATALIA GONCHAROVA’

Tate Modern, London

“Now I shake the dust from my feet and leave the West, considering its vulgarising significance trivial and unimportant – my path is toward the source of all arts, the East. The art of my country is incomparably more profound and important than anything that I know in the West.”
- Goncharova, 1913



Barbarism Begins At Home

Several shows on Russian Modernism had featured Natalia Goncharova (including the Royal Academy’s ‘Amazons of the Avant-Garde’ in 2000, and the Tate’s own ‘Futurism’ in 2009), all of which had left me primed for this solo retrospective.


The folk traditions of her homeland often inspired her art, with ’Washing the Canvases’ (1910, above) demonstrating a stage in textile production. Inserting this task into an idealised landscape creates a somewhat bucolic scene, suggesting that peasants remain ‘natural artists’. As Mureil Zagha of Apollo magazine puts it: “A vein of nostalgic pastoral – the dream of the Russian countryside as a lost Eden in the face of industrialisation – informed her work throughout.”

It’s idealised in both senses, not just utopian but also abstracted from the reality it’s based in. The dog for example is virtually a silhouette. And though the picture conveys the sense of an abundant nature stretching to a distant horizon, in a nod to folk art conventions it’s actually organised into distinct segments.


‘Peasant Woman From Tula Province’ (also 1910, above) relocates indoors, not even giving us much of a window view. Which throws focus on the patterns of those textiles, not just on the woman’s clothing but the curtain behind her. Though her face is modelled, this is very much a painting which knows its job is to arrange elements on a flat surface. And Goncharova not only took inspiration from fabric patterns, she designed them herself.

Like Malevich’s early work, from a similar time and place, the title asks us to see the woman not so much an individual as a type, as an example of peasantry. Which he came to use as “the emblem of Russia.” It may even be Goncharova gave him this motif.


In its use of vivid colours ‘Orchard in Autumn’ (1909, above) is quite Fauvist. Was the earth actually that strong a ruddy brown? Would a workman’s shirt really stay pure white long enough to get painted? But that’s not really the point. The colours aren’t beholden to accuracy so much as on the canvas to convey something to us. There’s only seven colours to the whole thing. But what originally looks like solid blocks, almost spot colours, turns out to be made up of painterly strokes. (Check out the tree trunks, for example.) Which gives the work a shimmering, enticing effect.

Like that nameless peasant woman Goncharova’s family came from Tula province, and had originally made their money from textiles. (Though much of it had dissipated by her day, the show describing her generation with the somewhat Checkovian term “impoverished aristocrats”.) But they had moved to Moscow when she was eleven. And while she made summer visits back there, these were really little more than holidays. As Jane A Sharp says “photographs show her playing peasant, dressed in local clothing but wearing city shoes.”

Some while ago I speculated that Moscow’s distance from Paris, the epicentre of Modernism, gave the movement a lustre and mystique. It seemed convincing at the time. As I was to find out, Muscovite merchants were such keen collectors they actually made the town a handy place to get up to date. Goncharova’s quote up top is a good polemic, reviews of this show often quoting it. But as was common with her it worked better as a sound-bite than it did statement of reality.

This style, which came to be called Neo-Primitivism, is best considered not as ‘the new primitivism’ so much as ‘the new combined with the primitive’. And this had a special piquancy, not just for Goncharova but for Russian art in general. As I said over the Academy’s ‘From Russia’ show:

“Modernism’s access to the primitive mostly came from the treasures of colonialism, the tribal masks of Picasso coming from France’s African colonies. Russia’s treasures, conversely, were domestic… This was perhaps a consequence of Russia’s unique status in Europe, its vast size and still-near-feudal relations in the countryside.”

Similarly, a review of the Russian section of the 1909 Vienna exhibition commented “a very short while ago it was a saying that if one scratched a Russian, one discovered a barbarian. Now… in the barbarian we find a great artistic advantage… the barbarian embraces us with the most elegant of modernists, and each completes the other.”

Neo-primitivism ensured that ‘Russian-ness’ was no longer something provincial but now exotic and alluring. You just needed some Moscow mixed in with that Tula.

…all of which fed precisely into Goncharova’s great talent, to blend ‘barbarism’ and Modernism so seamlessly you’d swear you were mistaken ever to see them as separate things. She could be country girl and Muscovite sophisticate, both at once. To quote Jane A Sharp again: “she initiated an interchange between fine and popular arts that became the focus of post-Revolutionary avant-garde projects.”

And so, in her writings, she was ever-insistent that Modernism needed to be ever-moving and polygamously assimilationist of styles, not tied to the mast of some restrictive manifesto. Artists should first create, and theorise later. She once wrote a stroppy letter to Marinetti, essentially accusing him of making rules under the guise of breaking them. This attitude allowed her to swallow up and digest influences like the Cyclops of Greek myth.


Yet the fact it was a good polemic is significant too, for she was someone who saw the value of a good blag. Her 1913 solo show was launched with a lecture on her by Ilia Zdanevich, sketching in her biography - elaborate, adventurous and almost entirely fictitious. She quite literally made an exhibition of herself, seeking out notoriety with zeal. John C Bowlt says she “turned her very life into a work of art”, while the show describes her “parading in the streets of Moscow with her face painted and wearing extravagant outfits” (see photo above). Wikipedia claims, in a pre-echo of Femen, she’d sometimes appear topless painted with symbols. 

More than once her pictures were seized from exhibitions and her put on trial for pornography. (Though she was never convicted.) Sergei Diaghilev commented “The young crowd […] don’t just emulate her as an artist; they imitate her appearance, too.” So she started a fashion house. She had a penchant for planning and designing extravagant parties.

Bohemian in spirit, she didn’t marry Larionov, her lifelong companion, until 1955 - when inheritance laws essentially bounced them into it. Once, mis-addressed as his wife, she angrily slapped the transgressor. But it’s perhaps more than that. Dedicating yourself to antagonising a bourgeoisie you feed from and belong to… the claim Modernists were the first rock stars would find much material in Goncharova. Her own personal image cannot be seen as something separate from her work. And as such, grand claims and fake biographies should be seen as creative statement.

Into Icons


All the previous illos have used some form of pictorial space, even if just enough to keep the viewer happy. Whereas ’Hay Cutting’ (1907/8, above) more foregrounds its compositional devices - with bold outlines and more defined colours. There’s little attempt to differentiate the two most foreground figures. Not just in their dress and poses but their impassively depersonalised faces, they’re more a symbol of a peasant than an example of one. And most of all, as if in emulation of folk art, they’re allowed to vary considerably in size from the left-hand figure with the scythe. Though an earlier work than the others, this condensed-down style would be her direction.

It shouldn’t be denied that her idealised views of peasant life were more easily indulged in by those who didn’t have to do the hard labour which came with it. And it was Moscow which allowed a woman to pursue this life of a free-spirited artist, she needed those city shoes to stand in. She and Larionov became set designers for Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes, who (in he show’s words) “manufactured an exotic version of the East for captivated audiences in the West”. So a shift away from seemingly literal depictions, to something more easily seen as the countryside of the mind, made sense. Contrast two works…


‘Winter; Gathering Firewood’ (1911, above) is a broadly similar composition to ‘Hay Cutting’, one working figure faced against two carriers, with a tree backdrop. But the notoriously harsh Russian winter is seen through a sentimentalised lens, as if gathering firewood is a fun way of getting out the house rather than labour necessary to keep you alive. Frankly, it wouldn’t look out of place on a Christmas card. (Is there a Russian tree which blossoms white in mid-winter, as seen at the top here? I feel mildly sceptical.)


Whereas in ’Frost’ (1910/11, above) the figures are reduced to trudging silhouettes, dwarfed by the expanse of icy white which occupies most of the picture. Winter here is an all-pervasive force. While ’Gathering Firewood’ bustles with activity, ’Winter’ is solemnly dominated by an overpowering silence, as if human society’s been muted by nature and is likely to stay that way all season long. ’Gathering Firewood’ seems intended to make us feel all warm inside, ’Winter’ the very opposite.

And this more iconic style came, at least in part, from Icons. Traditional religious painting either went alongside peasant art or was one form of it, it scarcely matters which. Here works are only concerned with their symbolic meaning, with what they represent. See for example ’The Evangelists’ (1911, below). These gained great attention almost straight away, and continue to be among the more widely known of her works. Not to mention controversial….


Some have seen a link between the relatively high number of women artists in Russian Modernism and its basis in folk arts and crafts. But as soon as we get to the Icons this reverses. Russian Orthodoxy was patriarchal, its head literally called the Patriarch. And it saw the creation of Icons as explicitly man’s work, so her versions became (in Wikipedia’s words) “transgressive and problematic”. More than once they were removed from shows by censors, ’The Evangelists’ among them.

Which does suggest this interest comes from the controversy rather than the art itself. In fact, the ‘pure’ Icons are not among my favourite of her works. The essence of Goncharova comes in her ability to mix and blend, where these can look merely imitative.

It ’s hard to reconstruct how much she intended this furore. It became common for Russian Modernists to take an interest in Icons, but only for their formal qualities. They were after all an avowedly atheist bunch, with Rodchenko dismissing painting as being “as useless as a Church”. But Goncharova, like the peasant art which inspired her, saw this the other way up - making no distinctions to be drawn between religion, art and daily life. Of the controversy she said “I believe in the Lord firmly enough. Who knows who believes and how?” Elsewhere she asserted “everybody, including women, has an intellect in the form and image of God.”

We should also remember that Russian Orthodoxy had repressed but not expunged paganism, leaving fertility symbolism latent for an artist to pick up on. So for example ’Christ the Saviour’ (1910) depicts Jesus in a traditional pose but garlanded with grapevines. Just as she absorbed art styles which came her way, she incorporated mythological systems into her own.

And for someone so attuned to art’s connections to performance, if not showbiz, she also had a strongly mystic side. Her lithographic services, ’Mystical Images of War’ reflected the outbreak of the First World War by “blending contemporary warfare and ancient prophecy.”

Malevich’s mysticism was ascetic, art’s value lay in pointing us away from this transient world to the ineffable. Whereas Goncharova’s is more like Blake’s, something which runs through our reality. Yet for all the drama there’s a fatalism, rather than any sense of taking sides the feeling persists that events must run their course. The ‘mystic’ can occupy the top third of the image, like heralds with messages in the sky. As in ’Angels Throwing Stones on the City’ (below), which seems to refer to the Biblical destruction of Sodom, even as the city under bombardment looks modern. Yet at other points the two vie with one another, as in ‘Angels and Aeroplanes’ (below below).




So ‘Peasants Picking Apples’ (1911, above) pushes the iconic path further, making only the vaguest gestures to a background. There’s some shifts between deep blue and black to suggest that’s not just a painted flat, but that’s all. Even the picked apple appears from outside the frame, rather than from a branch which would necessarily connect the tree to the figures. But there’s still just enough hand-holds for us to see the apple pickers as inside, and interacting with, an environment.


Whereas by the compositionally similar ’Peasants Gathering Grapes’ (1913/14, above) the hulking geometric figures monstrously dominate their surroundings, enhanced by a composition which makes them resemble a single central block. And unlike, say Bomberg’s ‘Mud Bath’, the picture doesn’t seem to be about individualism succumbing to a collectivised abstraction. Instead they look primordial giants.

If the influence of Cubism is clear here, ever the nativist Goncharova countered that Cubism was nothing new for Russia due to their heritage of Scythian art. However the Scythians were a historic group dating no more recently than the second century. It was akin to Picasso being influenced by Greek art, something at more of a remove than peasant art.


And if ’Peasants Gathering Grapes’ seems the figurative equivalent of stem cells ’Bathers’ (1922, above) suggests a primordial scene, where the figures seem to be emerging from the water and into human form simultaneously. The colour scheme, from black to brown to orange, does much to enhance this. But the figures themselves are pitched almost perfectly between abstraction and recognisable form. The triptych format, common in religious art, may also lead you to so cosmogenic areading.

The Charged City

Despite all these rural scenes, Goncharova neither neglected urban life nor necessarily saw it negatively. In Italy the deep contrasts between country and city spurred Futurism. So it did with Goncharova, but without the antipathy. She saw the country with the enthralled eye of a city dweller, but also vice versa. So she could recognise, and celebrate in art, what was unique to both - timelessness and time running at full speed.

Contemporary audiences seem to have trouble with this. Google-image her name and it’s predominantly rural scenes you find, while with Larionov it’s the reverse. Yet the truth is both painted both. And this was not unusual for Modernism. It was there from Impressionism, arguably the first of its many movements.


’The City’ (1911, above) is an exercise in packing level atop level, like a pictorial Jenga tower. The fence is taller than the figures, the houses taller than the fence, the tree than the houses, the tower blocks than the tree, the spire and chimney than the tower blocks, then the planes soar above all. Yet unlike, say ’Washing the Canvases’ there’s not even a simulation of perspective, just a stacking of objects behind one another. The urban world goes up, not back.

The composition is almost like ’Frost’ in placing a dwarfed line of human silhouettes at the base of the frame. While the comparison of the spire to the chimney seems almost emblematic of Russian Modernism at this time. Yet she is still painting in the same way she painted the country. Which was soon to change…

Russia took up Cubo-Futurism, a compound term used for the simultaneous adaptation of two Western styles. Goncharova and Larionov launched a particular strand they called Rayonism (or Rayism, depending on your translator) in 1913. (With accompanying manifesto, antipathy to all of that presumably temporarily suspended.) Her rural works, even when they portrayed an activity, seem fixed, suggesting what we’re seeing is reiterations of a timeless activity. Even active figures look solid and immutable. With the Rayonist works, even solid things no longer seem solid things.


Take for example ’Cyclist’ (1913, above). Perhaps not un-coincidentally for Cubo-Futurism it’s based on a kind of double vision. Reiterations of the rider’s outline create a blur effect, as if we see him speeding past us. The attempt to capture motion in art, you might want to call that Futurist.

Yet the window displays behind him are shown in a fragmentary fashion, a jumble of impressions passing too fast to fix on, so creating a kind of collage effect. The backwards pointing hand is a particularly nice touch. As the Rayonist manifesto put it, “the painting is revelaed as a skimmed impression”. The background, in other words, is Cubist. Which creates a rather literal version of Cubo-Futurism, where the two styles aren’t combined but kind of hitched together. It’s as if we see what he sees even as he see him,

But perhaps the significant this is how it doesn’t look like that, how effectively the two blend. We see the cyclist in the same frame as we see what he sees, but we just go with it.

This is possibly her best-known urban work. But it’s not the most radical. Their manifesto said:

“The objects that we see in life play no role here, but that which is the essence of painting itself can be shown here best of all – the combination of colour, it’s saturation, the relation of coloured masses, depth, texture. We do not sense the object with our eye, as it is depicted conventionally in pictures… in fact, we do not sense the object as such. We perceive a sum of rays proceeding from a source of light; these are reflected from the object and enter our field of vision.”

This takes something literally true, we ‘see’ via light entering the eye. We sometimes dismiss optical effects as ‘a trick of the light’, when vision is nothing but that. And like much of Futurism this builds directly from Impressionism. In art we should paint what we see – not just take what we assume to be there. But it then takes a poetic turn, by associating light with other forms of energy.

We should remember such things are electric street lighting were then still relatively novel. And if we cannot see electricity, we can still depict it artistically. Imagine if the sights in ‘The City’ had been shown not as solid objects, but via the electricity passing through those buildings. We would still get a sense of them, just as we would a living creature seen only through its veins and arteries. In this way the city is not an assemblage of things but pulses with energy.


‘Dynamo Machine’ (1913, above) is almost as diagrammatic as a blueprint, but at the same time gloriously irresolvable. If the lightbulb above the head signifies an idea, this suggests a near-cacophony of notions, all exploding at once. The title cheerily suggests the machine has no practical purpose other than to act dynamically. All those bolts fastened at the base lead you to believe that without them the painting itself might fly off.

The Ukrainian poet Shevchenko said at this time: “the world has been transformed into a single, monstrous, fantastic, perpetually-moving machine, into a single huge non-animal automatic organism… [this] cannot help but be reflected in our thinking and in our spiritual life: in Art”

Yet, rooted in a way of seeing, Rayonism didn’t solely restrict itself to urban themes. ‘Rayonist Lillies’ (1913), for example… well, it does what it says on the lid.

Art In Exile

In 1914, “at the peak of her Russian career” (to quote Jane a Sharp), Goncharova and Larionov went with Diaghilev to Paris. She never lived in her homeland again. A succession of events, from the First World War to the turmoil surrounding the Revolution to later artistic repression, kept her back.


It’s temptingly romantic to assume her work withered in exile, cut off from her muse. But, at least initially, that’s not how it was. The already-seen ’Bathers’ was produced in this time. And ’Orange Seller’ (1916, above) reflects a new-found fascination with the culture of Spain. As heads and hands jut out from a collage of flat fabrics, it’s almost a playing card image. It’s the step from ’Peasant Woman’ that ’Peasants Gathering Grapes’ was from ’Peasants Picking Apples’. (Why Spain should grab her, I couldn’t say. Provincial parts of France would have been just as rustic at this time. Perhaps it had a similar economic basis to Russia, islands of industry in a sea of agriculture.)

However, her era was soon over. After being the belle of the avant-garde ball, it wasn’t so long before she was sidelined. By the Forties, it’s generally agreed, the creative spirit finally left her. Jane A Sharp describes her later years as “unrecognised and impoverished”.

Perhaps there’s a problem of her not fitting our standard narrative, where the Revolution fired the starting gun for radical art, allowing it to climb out of that confining picture frame to directly engage with real life, and all the rest of it.

Just as her aristocratic origins were unusual for a Modernist artist, she was a feature of the tentatively liberal period between the revolutions of 1905 and ’17, when Russia looked both out to the West and into its own culture. In many ways Russia had its Roaring Twenties a decade early, and by the time everyone else had got to the party it had got down to more serious business. Though originally supportive of the revolution, Goncharova was more bohemian than Bolshevik. And soon replaced by the ‘cultural worker’, striving not to shock but remake society.

It can often take death to rekindle an artist’s reputation. Unfortunately here, even that didn’t really work. Laura Cummings states that she left the majority of her paintings to her homeland, doubtless a heartfelt gesture but one that left them languishing out of public view until glasnost. And even from there her climb back was slow. This is only the second solo show mounted since her death. (After Moscow in 2013.)

Sometimes you need to rediscover the artists who, through no lack of talent, languished in obscurity. But at others you need to take the once-famous and make them famous again.

NB Otherwise unattributed quotes are from ’Amazons of the Avant Garde’, the book accompanying the Royal Academy exhibition.

a

Saturday, 11 July 2020

TIME IT WAS A-CHANGIN' (HOW SCIENCE FICTION SHOWED TIME, THEN AND NOW)

(...with a few PLOT SPOILERS, albeit old ones, along the way - for ‘Doctor Who’, ‘Star Trek’ and the ‘X-Men’ films...)


Time Was Hard Then...

Time isn’t what it used to be.

But don’t take my word for it. Look to the first season 'Doctor Who' episode 'The Aztecs' (1964), where Barbara sets about cleaning up the past. Leading to the Doctor's well-known imploring response: "But you can't rewrite history! Not one line! What you are trying to do is utterly impossible.” He doesn't say “not one moment” but “not one line” - as if history is inscribed, an immutable book of law not written by human hands.

True, this firm rule would be subject to erosion even before the end of the Hartnell era. And yet not broken. When time stops being immutable, it's assailability just becomes a problem. Time needs Lords in the form of Lord Protectors, or someone will run off with the course of it. In the second season episode 'The Time Meddler' (1965) the now absent Barbara has her interventionist role given to an adversary.

As every fan knows, the Monk is the first Time Lord after the Doctor to appear on the show. (Though their species is not yet named.) And as he attempts to alter the outcome of the Battle of Hastings, every Britisher's idea of a pivotal date, the Doctor struggles to stop him. In short, a new character has to be introduced to suggest a new conception of time, like a new chess piece with an extra manoeuvre attached to it.



To show that time worked in similar ways in the Sixties, whether you were on GMT or Pacific Coast Time, let's turn to the 1967 'Star Trek' episode 'The City On the Edge of Forever'. Coming across the Guardian, a portal to time, McCoy (driven briefly mad by a plot device) leaps headlong into Earth's past. The episode follows Kirk and Spock trying to catch and stop him. It ups the ante considerably on 'Who' by taking them to a past within living memory. (Something too easily forgotten when we watch that episode now.) Its Ten Sixty Six is World War Two. And arguably we have both a Time Meddler in McCoy and a more unwitting Barbara in Edith. Whose pacifist inclinations, though as noble as Barbara's, will impede the defeat of the Nazis. Literally too good for this world, she has to go.


And in this case the sanctions for failure are worse. Worse even than the Nazis winning the War. Spock suggests “there could be some logic to the belief that time is fluid, like a river, with currents, eddies, backwash.” Yet the all-clear is sounded by the Guardian announcing “Time has resumed its shape.” Yep, shape. Time turns out not to be like water, capable of running down different paths, but a solid object like a tram on a line. And when you come off a tram line you crash.

As the M0vie Blog points out: “We discover that the non-existence of the 'right' reality is equivalent complete non-existence. McCoy’s trip back in time doesn’t create an alternate universe, it creates a dead and empty universe... there is 'no stardate'. Kirk’s log suggests that there is no reality because this reality has ceased to exist. 'For us, time does not exist.' … There is nothing. 'Earth’s not there,' Kirk tells Uhura. 'At least, not the Earth we know. We’re totally alone.'

“It’s telling that those two statements ('Earth’s not there' and 'not the Earth we know') are treated as equivalent. As far as Kirk is concerned, there is no possibility of Earth beyond the Earth that they know.” (Okay, as any fan knows Harlan Ellison's original script followed more the river metaphor of time meandering off course. We're going with the broadcast version here.)

Both stories add a fillip by adding costs to the restoration of time. Time is hard in the twin senses of the word. The Doctor's defeating of the Monk will lead to the slaughter and subjugation of the Saxons he meets, goodly folk all. In Edith Kirk is given a love interest he then has to let die. Both are essentially sacrifices to the correct passage of time.

And just as time is fixed, there's a sense that stories about it need be too. The implication is that there’s more space in space than in time. While the universe is broad and so contains scope for adventure, time travel is too narrow a form for much boldly going. There really is only one time travel story, because that story has already been written and we’re living in it.

Though there had already been another Star Trek time travel story, 'Tomorrow Is Yesterday' (1967) (with a similar emphasis on restoring time's path), 'City' seems to explicitly reject the notion of time travel as a motor for adventure stories. It ends with the Guardian intoning invitingly “Many such journeys are possible. Let me be your gateway.” To which Kirk's response is, and I quote, “Let's get the hell out of here.” While 'The Aztecs' ends with Barbara in impotent fury - “What is the point of travelling in time and space? You can't change anything – nothing!”

Of course in the Hartnell era the premise was for 'Who' to alternate historical stories with science fiction. But what did historical really mean? ’Star Trek’ essentially turned time into space, with eras manifesting as planets. So we get episodes set on the Roman planet, the Nazi planet and so on. And ’Who’ is not really that far from this.

'The Aztecs' was a tragic drama which foregrounded time travel to rub our noses in inevitability. But successors are more likely to be adventure stories, merely bookended by set-up bits of time travel, thereby sidestepping any serious consideration of it's consequences. Or be played as comedies which are virtually genre parodies. ’The Romans’ (1965) probably does both.

And when the historicals ended, even that tangential connection went. For most of it's history, Old Who was largely uninterested in time travel as a source of stories, merely as a magic door to set the next adventure up. (I have previously described the Tardis as a Narnian wardrobe, but it's possible Lewis showed more interest in the ramifications of time porting than the Doctor.)

With all the differences between 'Who' and 'Star Trek', why should their conceptions of time be so similar? The answer is – their time. The Doctor's inviolable rule of time now seems to stem from another time. A world where you never stopped wearing school ties even when exiled to outer space, where square jaws did their duty, where planning committee meetings were brought to order - a world of jobs for life, of clear-cut career paths, of children growing up to replace their parents.


‘Planning’ became a keystone word for the post-war era, as a positive alternative to what was sometimes called “the anarchy of the market”. Le Corbusier had said “the plan is the generator. Without a plan there is disorder, arbitrariness.” And though he’d said it in the Twenties, this was the period the notion came to fruition. Twin examples would be the Town and Country Planning Act of 1947, which effectively switched on planning permission as a requirement before development, and the New Towns movement, which sought to develop integrated and holistic communities from scratch.

The point isn't that we planned, people have always planned. The point is that we lived within plans made by Planners. And our lives became circumscribed by those plans, our thoughts channelled by blueprints. We passed through an ordered world, and knew our place within it. You leave school and start work. You work from nine to five. You retire at sixty-five. Of course you do. Perhaps it's summed up by the sample Chumbawamba used on their song 'Timebomb'. Allegedly from Disney, and hence aimed as a guide to children, it intones cheerily “you don't tell time, time tells you”.

...Then Time Started To Wime... (History Is Rewrites)


Things would reach the opposite extreme... well, with New Who. Compare the Doctor's quote above to this one from 'Blink' (2007): “People assume that time is a strict progression of cause to effect, but actually from a non-linear, non-subjective viewpoint - it's more like a big ball of wibbly wobbly... time-y wimey... stuff.”

And the “timey wimey” perhaps reached it's crescendo with 'The Big Bang', (2010) where the lines of time are rewritten and re-rewritten so frequently you think it must have been scripted on an etch-a-sketch. As Amy so rightly says “okay kid, this is where it gets complicated.” (So complicated, in fact, that kid she's talking to is her younger self.)

As of course it would. If Lucarotti's script to 'The Aztecs' reflects the rigid world of jobs for life, Moffat's mirrors our contemporary 'flexitime' era – of abstract labour, zero hours contracts and perpetually shifting goalposts. Even those of us in permanent work sit under ceaseless reorganisation; fall too deeply under its shadow and 'permanent' may well turn out to not have been permanent after all. We have come to coin the term 'always on', ostensibly about the devices our parents would patrol the house and diligently unplug at the end of every evening, now kept on perpetual standby. And yet of course under advanced capitalism it's us who are always on - we are the accoutrements of those devices and not the other way round.

Once-rigid boundaries between work and home life have been eroded by a combination of globalisation and technical innovations such as laptops and tele-conferencing. An increasing number of workers on ‘flexible’ contracts now wait for the next text calling them in for a shift, or cancelling at the last second. Those in salaried work find themselves checking their Blackberries in their supposed 'leisure' time, knowing an instant response is expected any time of day or night.

As Mark Fisher put it in 'Capitalist Realism', “[Capitalism] is a system no longer governed by any transcendent Law; on the contrary, it dismantles all such codes, only to reinstall them on an ad hoc basis. The limit of capitalism are not fixed by fiat, but defined (and re-defined) pragmatically and improvisationally… To function effectively as a component of just-in-time production you must develop a capacity to respond to unforeseen events, you must learn to live in conditions of total instability.” Or alternately read the tweet below. The only certainty which is left us is uncertainty.



Perhaps what's most interesting about this comparison is that it’s the old certainties which are shown most negatively. Suggesting perhaps that popular culture of the past was more willing to critique its society, perhaps surer of the hand that fed it. Lucarotti emphasises how his 'hard time' represents a hard life, a fatalistic world in which history is a given fact, something which simply happens to us. We have no agency, the measure of us lies in the degree of stoicism by which we accept this. Whereas with Moffat's 'soft time' we are encouraged to see our post-Fordist times through it's own eyes.

Ostensibly, ’Big Bang’ is about the collapse of time, which is at least formally presented as a threat. (In a strange way it’s conceptually, if not tonally, similar to the David Lynch film ’Inland Empire’, 2006, where reality has become so hole-ridden that it’s effectively falling to bits.) But it’s more an adventure park, a setting for a rollicking ride. It’s not scary so much as invigorating. The sense that the Doctor’s doing what he’s always done, just in a more concentrated dose, is underlined by the way old adversaries like the Daleks can guest star.

Ultimately, his adventurous leaps through time-streams represent the follow-your bliss era, where life appears as a bubbling series of glittery baubles ready for the daring to grab. Amy can settle down and get married yet still travel the universe, while previous companions such as Jo Grant or Leela were forced to choose.

This rests upon the masquerade that this brave new world somehow offers us flexibility, when that's precisely the thing we're giving up. We neither settle down nor travel. We learn to live with precarity. Yet when we discover this we assume we have no other option than to blame ourselves. We must have somehow been insufficiently modern, unable to grasp the opportunities offered, too retrograde for this brave and dazzling new world.

The concept of there being paradoxical “fixed points in time” may seem a get-out for plot cheats... well it is a get-out for plot cheats. But it also adds to this picture. Time flexes whenever we are told it is, then fixes again as soon as we are told that. Particularly for your next shift which, by the way, is now starting in twenty minutes.


But for a closer peep under the hood than allowed by the flamboyant, frenetic 'Big Bang', let's turn back to the earlier 'Blink' - the episode in which Moffat first introduced us to the “timey wimey”. This is but one of many storylines which at first resemble puzzle adventures. We're presented with a bizarre, seemingly incomprehensible string of events and try to find out what led to them.

But, as we discover, they have no cause – they simply happened. Moffat is fixated with predestination paradoxes. Let's be clear, these are not inherently Post-Fordist and in fact precede time travel stories themselves. But their use here is their causal loops. Events do not lead to other events but turn out to begat themselves. Like subatomic particles in quantum physics, causal loops handwave away the seemingly counter-intuitive. Things are the way they are because that is they way they are.

For example, in 'Blink' by making the video the Doctor changes nothing – he simply fulfils his role. Ultimately, time here is not mutable, it's still something that happens to us. Time still tells you. It just tells you any damn thing any damn time it feels like. And therefore the basic premise of the heroic individual, that through smarts or muscle he changes things, is implicitly undermined.

And the causal loop even precedes time wiming, like the acausal mulch from which it grew. In The Parting of the Ways' (2005), at the end of the first series, the transformed Rose states “I am the Bad Wolf. I create myself.” (Equally significantly, Moffat has kept up Davies' similar penchant for prophecies and predictions. Which might otherwise seem the preserve of hard time.)

We should also note that the predestination paradox is also referred to as the bootstrap paradox. Which relates to the American expression bootstrapping, a contraction of the saying ‘pulling yourself up by your bootstraps’ or “to better oneself by one's own unaided efforts”. This expression is a favourite of those who like to argue that social outcomes are simultaneously causes. “Why is there poverty? Because of the poor! Surely they bring it on themselves by being so poor in the first place” is itself a form of a predestination paradox.


This would seem to match other contemporary depictions of time travel. But let's do the same as before and focus on one example of cross-Atlantic congruence - 'Hot Tub Time Machine 2' (2015). No, only kidding. Let's pick the X-Men film 'Days Of Future Past' (2014), not least because it references an old 'Star Trek' time travel episode. (Though the one it uses is 'Naked Time, 1966.)

Yet it does the very opposite, raising the concept of locked, determined time only to dispel it with a waft of superstring theory. Victory comes through the future being rewritten before our eyes. Even scenes we've sat and watched throughout the movie become retrospectively undone. The empty room, non-existence, the terrible fate in 'City On The Edge' here demonstrates escape - and thereby success. Virtually the closing line is “the future is never truly set”.

But the main reason to pick this film is that it's not as embracing of modern conditions as 'Big Bang'. It's not the future being presented as “a dark despotic world”, so much as the sense of it as a cul-de-sac which we need to back out of in order to make it never was. And we need to do that not from now but by heading back to the Seventies, the decade before neoliberal 'reforms' first kicked in. There's a branch of history to be sawn off, despite it being the one we're sitting on. The paradox here is that it's the malleability of time which allows the escape from modernity.

Uncertainty is Certain

And there would seem a connection between all this and post-modernism's repeated critique of “meta-narratives”. Nobody, but nobody, now believes history has a plot structure like a Hollywood movie, which makes you wonder what those po-mo-ers are getting so vexed about when they tell us that all the time. But more importantly, too often this 'critique' merely replaces the teleological with its literal opposite - the tautological. We know we are at (to use Fukuyama’s phrase) the end of history, because the past is now all in the past. And we know we were always going to end up here because we have done.


...all of which is quite an accurate description of the paradoxical world of flexitime as we encounter it, a bewildering blizzard of unexpected events floating above an underlying sense that this will never change. Though some of the provisions of the post-war era still formally exist, the world they stemmed from seems remote to us now. We do still have some sense that to plan was in itself a plan, that once there was a social order which people had decided upon, even if precisely how could happen has been wiped from our conscious minds.

But in essence that is the very thing which now seems remote to us. The new world seems to have simply arrived. It's no longer somewhere where the wrong people give the wrong orders, and so can conceivably be opposed. Now shit simply happens, and we must adjust.

When the post-war consensus was first challenged by neoliberalism, the rhetoric was not about opposing one social model with another but unfettering the market from the ‘red tape’ of regulation. In its early days, when it still needed selling, it was sold to us as something which would release us from the nine to five routine. But it was to prove victorious, winning almost every one of its battles. So it increasingly became presented as an inescapable fact.

One of the ostensible benefits of capitalism is choice, that we can choose where we live or work to a degree not previously conceived of. And yet ironically so much is now held to be fixed and immutable. Jobs for life, guaranteed incomes, universal benefits, national health care… all now suddenly ‘impossible’ dreams. Perhaps what's most weird is that its never held to be something weird. In this way neoliberal 'flexi time' becomes just as fixed as old hard time.

Arguably, both of these conceptions (hard or soft) are in their own way reactionary. In neither of them does time travel broaden the mind or create any kind of conceptual breakthrough. Both are just metaphorical routes by which the era's own comprehension of time can be underlined. (Just as fictional journeys to other times or places are so often used to reinforce how universal our way of life is.) Perhaps some of that is inevitable. But there's a broader point...

Marx asserted that we make history. Notably, neither of these options offers us that chance. Shit still happens either way - just in differing forms. First because it's tough shit, shit set in stone, it's always been that way and so it always will. Then the shit hits the fan, flying everywhere in completely unpredictable patterns. Because it simply does. As things sped from one extreme to the other, that short-lived wooshing sound we heard marked our liberty passing us by.

Coming later! Hartnell’s final season will form part of our Autumn schedule...