Grevel Lindop

Poet, biographer, critic, essayist and writer on just about everything

UNTIL WE CAN TRAVEL AGAIN…

I’m delighted to announce that The Book Mill, an excellent Northern publisher, has just published a new edition of Travels on the Dance Floor – my story of adventures pursuing dance in Latin America. It was a delight to write and a chance to share the adventures I had not only with dance and music but with magicians and poets, crooked cops and hustlers in seven countries!

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Right now travel is difficult – so maybe this is a time to dream and imagine, and get the feel of what life, music and dance are like in the places I visited – Cuba, Venezuela, Colombia, Panama, the Dominican Republic, and Miami, USA – before returning to sunny Manchester and of course Blackpool!

“Writes with charm about his experiences and the people he met and I found that I could see the places he visited in my minds eye. For anyone with an interest in Latin America this is a joy to read, and if you enjoy salsa so much the better.

If you have visited Latin America this will bring back memories – if you haven’t yet this will make you want to do so soon.”

Consult the Oracle

My grandfather, I’ve been told, was something of a magician. At any rate, he left behind him a substantial collection of occult books. Unfortunately, I never saw this collection: when he died, my parents (not from any motive of disapproval, but simply because they were tired, and had had enough of dealing with his possessions) disposed of the whole lot to a bookseller.

            Or almost the whole lot. Because, as in all the best fairy tales, one book survived. And – of course – when I was about ten years old, I found it, hidden amongst all kinds of clutter in a kind of attic, the room next to my bedroom. It’s on the desk in front of me as I write, a battered old volume called Consult the Oracle, or, How to Read the Future. Could there possibly be a more alluring title for a child to discover? I still feel a certain thrill as I look at it now, despite its desperate physical condition. The spine, which time has darkened almost to black, has split and nearly fallen off. The hard front cover (there was clearly never a dust-jacket) is a shiny, grubby brown, darkened at the edges with finger-marks. It shows an amateurish drawing of a priestess swathed in voluminous robes, perched atop a three-legged chair – no doubt the famous ‘tripod’ of the Delphic Oracle. She raises one crudely-drawn hand, whilst the other clutches a branch of some shrub: perhaps meant for laurel or olive, though it looks nothing like either. And from a hole in the dais under her chair emanate curly wreathes of smoke: those vapours from the depths of the earth which were supposed to inspire the oracle’s prophecies. Alongside her, to remind us of practicalities, is the book’s price: one shilling (that’s five new pence, or around six cents). In March 1901 when Grandfather bought the book that would have been cheap, but not absolutely dirt cheap. I know when he bought it, incidentally, because there’s the date, under pencilled initials, on a flyleaf which has now completely detached itself and lies loose inside the cover.

            The title page enlarges on what’s to be found within. ‘A GUIDE TO THE INTERPRETATION OF DREAMS,’ it promises, ‘AND TO OTHER MATTERS MAGICAL AND MYSTERIOUS: BEING THE WISDOM OF PAST TIMES AND PRESENT TIMES AS TO WHAT WILL SURELY COME TO PASS’. Who could resist that? As a ten-year-old, I certainly couldn’t. When you’re a child, the future is everything, a box of delights. Now, in my seventy-first year, I have a different idea of ‘what will surely come to pass’ and it’s not all good. Never mind. The contents page listed possibilities beyond my wildest dreams. And indeed, dreams were where the book began. The first chapter was ‘We Tell the Meaning of your Dreams’, and it started with some basic tips: for example, a warning that ‘the gift of dreaming with truth is withdrawn from those who either tell as dreams what they never dreamt, or refuse to tell their dreams at all.’ That was worth remembering. Also, ‘Morning dreams are more reliable than those of any other time.’ And certainly, I’ve often found those the most vivid; though ‘the most important dream of the week’ is, apparently, the one you dream on Friday night. And above all, ‘dreams are interpreted by symbolism. The most earnest and best-informed student of the symbolical will be the most reliable interpreter of dreams.’

            There followed an alphabetical list of dream images, with interpretations – some of them surprising. If you dream of an anchor, for example, then ‘one of whose affections you are doubtful really cares for you’; and to dream of riding a bicycle ‘means that for some years you will have constant change’. A stopped clock means a dangerous illness; and ‘Should you dream of catching fish it is a sure sign of bad luck.’ More predictably, ‘To hear whispering in a dream means that many people are talking ill of you’. Some of the topics seemed a little outré; would I ever dream, for example, of a tortoise (‘you will by plodding on reach a high position in life’)? Or of watching a woman make pies (‘Your experience in love is likely to prove disastrous’)? Six decades later, I’m not sure that either of these has yet cropped up. But the details didn’t really matter. What counted was the sense that dreams were worth attention, that they had meaning. I began to recall my dreams purposefully, and to reflect on them. A few years later, in a local library, I found a book called The Interpretation of Dreams and borrowed it, expecting a more reliable guide to prophecy. It turned out to be by Sigmund Freud; it introduced me to psychoanalysis, which has played a valuable part in my life.

            But there was much more to Consult the Oracle than dreams. Among the other chapters were ‘Lucky and Unlucky Numbers’; ‘Fortunes told by Cards’; ‘Character Shown by Handwriting’; ‘Fairy Folk’; ‘The Wonders of the Divining Rod’ and many more. Almost everything, it seemed, could have hidden meanings. The chapter on cartomancy offered what was probably a very old system for reading fortunes with ordinary playing-cards; in 1901, few people outside esoteric organisations had ever heard of Tarot cards. I didn’t get far with it: memorising the meanings of fifty-two cards, many of them apparently quite arbitrary, was too difficult (‘Five of Hearts: Unexpected news, generally of a good kind; Four of Hearts: An unfaithful friend. A secret betrayed…’). But it aroused my curiosity, and when I was sixteen I finally got a Tarot deck – which I’ve used ever since.

            More immediately valuable were the chapters called ‘We May Judge Character by the Hands and Fingers’ and ‘Fortune Read in the Palm of the Hand’. I studied my own hands closely. Easy enough to find the Life Line and even the lines of Head and Heart. But where was ‘the Plain or Triangle of Mars’? And what about the ‘Mount of Luna, or the Moon’? Not too worried about such minutiae, I scrutinised other people’s hands too. Somehow, without ever quite disentangling all the details, I began to develop a sense of how the hand, taken as a whole, with its fingers and wrist, as well as the maze of lines on the palm, spoke of a whole person. And a few years later, at teenage parties, what an asset palmistry turned out to be! What better passport could there be to sitting with a girl in a quiet corner, or halfway up the stairs, holding her hand and solemnly discussing her character, ambitions and dreams?

            The chapter on ‘Fairy Folk’ explained that

“The Land of Faerie is situated somewhere underground, and there the royal fairies hold their court. In their palaces all is beauty and splendour. Their pageants and processions are far more magnificent than any that Eastern sovereigns could get up or poets devise. They ride upon milk-white steeds. Their dresses, of brilliant green, are rich beyond conception; and when they mingle in the dance, or move in procession among the shady groves, or over the verdant lawns of the earth, they are entertained with delicious music, such as mortal lips or hands never could emit or produce.”

But apparently fairies would only be found where the grass grew ‘undisturbed by man’. ‘Once it is ploughed the spell is gone and they change their abode’. An old Scottish proverb was quoted: ‘Where the scythe cuts, and the sock [ploughshare] rives, hae done wi’ fairies and bee bykes!’ Bee bykes, it seemed, were nests of wild bees. And indeed, Consult the Oracle had a whole chapter on Bees: it was called ‘Bees Know More Than People Think’, a suggestion I still find very plausible. ‘Bees’, the Oracle explained, ‘are lovers of peace and will not thrive with a quarrelsome family.’ It also warned that ‘if there is a death in the family,’ the bees must be told, or they would leave: the correct formula was said to be ‘Little brownie, little brownie, [such a person] is dead.’ Once this was properly done, ‘the bees begin to hum by way of showing their consent to remain.’ It was also wise to ‘put a little sugar at the hive’s entrance on Christmas Eve’. ‘At the stroke of midnight’ the bees would come out to eat it. By contrast, some passages showed the casual cruelty of the Victorians: ‘Not to catch and kill the first butterfly seen in spring is unlucky’. That reads shockingly now; and is surely the exact opposite of the truth.

            The Oracle had a good deal to say about animals generally. Cats born in the month of May, it warned, ‘are good for catching neither mice nor rats.’ On the other hand, ‘The best mousers are cats that have been stolen.’ Did anyone truly ever steal a cat to improve its talents at pest-control? It seemed unlikely. More plausible were the notions that ‘Horses are able to see spirits’, and that it is lucky for a horse to have a white star on its forehead.

            It would take too long even to hint at all the wonders the Oracle had to offer. There was ‘Character Shown by Handwriting’; as well as ‘The Mysteries of Spiritualism’, ‘Taking a Hand at Table-Turning’ and even an introduction to astrology: ‘There is much to be Learned from the Heavenly Bodies’. I could go on; but this is enough. Foolish and simple-minded much of the book certainly is, as I gradually realised. But it told me something important: that the world round me was not just a world of material objects, nor a world merely governed by meaningless chance and physical laws. It showed that there was meaning and mystery in everything; and that on the margins of mainstream thought – the kind of thinking we were taught at school – there were intuitions, dreams, visions of other and deeper things. Consult the Oracle showed me that, as the poet Paul Eluard neatly put it, ‘There is indeed another world – but it is in this one’. The Oracle helped me make the transition from the fluid, metamorphic, non-rational world of childhood, into the partially (very partially!) rational and informed grown-up world – that world in which so many people are encouraged to close down their intuitive, psychic and imaginative faculties – without losing the sense of wonder and mystery. Some people – the naturally spiritual ones – may not need such support but I did; and I was lucky to find it.

            Having inherited Consult the Oracle – accidentally, as it were – from my grandfather, it would be good to report that I am passing it on to one of my own grandchildren. But that’s impossible. For – again as in a fairy tale – now that its work is done, the book is crumbling to dust. In writing this essay I have turned many of the pages, and each as I turned it has broken away from the binding. So acidic is the paper that the leaves are brown and brittle at the margins. The edges of the pages flake off as they are touched. Soon the book will be nothing but a heap of fragments. Everything has its season, and this book’s season is passed. But it came to me at the right time, and I’m grateful. I consulted the oracle, and it spoke.

[This essay first appeared in QUEST, Journal of the Theosophical Society in America, and is given here by permission.]

DO SOMETHING USEFUL TODAY!

We all know that many people have lost their jobs, or part-time work hours, owing to the pandemic. Not far from here, 49%of children in Clifford Ward, Old Trafford are living in poverty.* After the pandemic it could be worse.

This won’t be solved just with food parcels. People need long term solutions. But they also need immediate help. Imagine not knowing where the next meal is coming from.

You can do something to help right now by giving to Stretford Food Bank.

Just go to: stretford.foodbank.org.uk and click on the red DONATE button.

Warehouse Volunteers

Or to give without seeing more detail about the Foodbank, you could click on this link:

https://donate.justgiving.com/donation-amount?uri=aHR0cHM6Ly9kb25hdGUtYXBpLmp1c3RnaXZpbmcuY29tL2FwaS9kb25hdGlvbnMvZWUwZjkxNWU5ZDM0NDA0Njg5NGU2MDdhYjEyNTRjM2Q=

It’ll take two minutes at most; and at least you’ll know you’ve done one worthwhile thing today!

“The foodbank was there when we really needed it, it was an absolute lifeline.”

Thank you!

 * Figures from the ‘End Child Poverty Coalition’, whose major funders include  Barnardo’s, The Children’s Society, Action for Children, NSPCC, and Save the Children.

SAVE GRASMERE: please sign this petition!

We’re all appalled to hear that there are plans to put 10 hi-tech houseboats, with all the attendant infrastructure, noise and disruption, on the lake at Grasmere.

The plans are motivated purely by profit, and are the brainchild of the Lowther Estate, one of the largest and wealthiest landowners in the Lake District.

A petition to stop this greedy and ugly plan is already gathering signatures: please sign it now! – https://www.change.org/p/lowther-castle-and-gardens-houseboats-off-grasmere-save-our-lakes

The extraordinary idea – it’s hard to believe it’s not a nightmare – is to put no less than TEN large powered residential craft permanently onto the lake. Grasmere is one of the smaller lakes, and has always been particularly tranquil. You can hire a rowing boat there for a few hours, and you can fish or swim. But these large crowded permanent powered boats would change the character of the lake and the whole area very much for the worse.

The writer and broadcaster Melvyn Bragg has written to the press that the plan would ‘rip the heart out’ of the peace and beauty of Grasmere. ‘Should the estate get permission then I would argue that the Lake District could and should lose its status as a World Heritage Site’. The boats – to be used by well-heeled holidaymakers – would, he says, ‘end up as 24-hour music-throbbing discos’. They would also require all the support structures – access roads, charging terminals and many other things – which would destroy the tranquil margins of the lake.

The National Trust are firmly opposed to the plan but they need support as the legal position is unclear

UNESCO World Heritage status depends on the Lake District continuing as a living and working landscape but also preserving its environmental and aesthetic character as a traditional landscape. Its literary heritage has also to be preserved, and the plans would have a seriously negative impact on Town End, the lakeside part of Grasmere village where William and Dorothy Wordsworth lived after 1799.

Claims that opposition to the plans are ‘snobbery’ are totally misguided. For a start, the plans are hatched by Lakeland’s wealthiest private landowner purely for private gain. Secondly, it is important that the diverse character of the various lakes be preserved. Windermere already has a ferry, a year-round steamer service, pleasure boats and houseboats. Many of these features are also present on Derwentwater and Ullswater. That’s where this kind of plan belongs. The smaller and quieter lakes need to keep their separate and varied character, not be pressed into service as noisy, expensive playgrounds.

Grasmere has come into the line of fire simply because it belongs to the Lowther Estate. No doubt their accountants see it as an ‘asset’ that isn’t being properly ‘exploited’. If that attitude had prevailed in the past, we wouldn’t have the National Parks.

So please sign the petition, tell your friends, send them the link, and do all you can to oppose this unpleasant plan!

https://www.change.org/p/lowther-castle-and-gardens-houseboats-off-grasmere-save-our-lakes

L.S. Lowry (and Mum)

I want to recommend very strongly the excellent film Mrs Lowry and Son, starring Vanessa Redgrave and Timothy Spall and directed by Adrian Noble. Based on the play by Martin Hesford, and essentially a two-hander between Spall and Redgrave, the film is fascinating, intensely dramatic and moving, and well worth seeing even if you don’t particularly like Lowry as an artist. I have some doubts about his work myself (see below) but nonetheless this is not just a wonderfully watchable film but a real statement about the nature of art.

And don’t be put off if you didn’t like Spall’s portrayal of JMW Turner in Mr. Turner. I didn’t like that either; I found it overacted and unconvincing. But Mrs Lowry and Son is a completely different matter.

Redgrave is brilliant as the self-pitying, viciously manipulative but also pathetic Mrs Lowry; Spall is patient, understated, exhausted and yet at moments very close to the edge of violence as Lowry, relentlessly practising the unrewarded painting that obsesses him in the face of relentless hostility and discouragement from his terrifying mother. At one dreadful moment he loses his control and starts destroying his own paintings with a knife. You feel that he’s within an inch of turning the knife towards his mother. It’s emotionally wrenching and terrifying – even though we know that Lowry will eventually find success and acclaim.

No wonder that. long after his mother’s death, there was something a little strange in Lowry’s attitude to women. There is, in fact, another film to be made as a counterpart to this one: the film about Lowry and his young female protégées (notably Sheila Fell) later in his life. Like so many of these creative relations where an older artist features as mentor, there is something both profoundly valuable and deeply creepy in the interplay between young developing talent and old master, galvanised by an unexpressed sexual tension. I hope someone will make this second film too; it would be fascinating, and no less dramatic.

To give a broader view of Lowry, I’ll put in here a piece I wrote some years ago for the Times Literary Supplement, reviewing a biography of Lowry.

Shelley Rohde: L.S. Lowry: A Life  (Haus Publishing Ltd).  £25

ISBN 987-1-90495-049-3

Despite his huge popular following, L.S. Lowry remains enigmatic. To some he is an essential British artist of the twentieth century, to be spoken of in the same breath as Stanley Spencer or Francis Bacon. Others see him as sentimental and inept, a naïf in the wrong sense. Lowry died more than thirty years ago, but Shelley Rohde is still the only author to have attempted a comprehensive life, and although the dust jacket calls the present book a ‘new biography’, is essentially a greatly shortened version of the same author’s L.S. Lowry: A Biography, published in 1999.

An unashamed advocate, Rohde attributes resistance to Lowry’s work, bluntly, to ‘elitism’. This seems a misjudgement because, whether you like Lowry’s work or hate it, there is certainly something odd about it, and it contains elements which run strongly against artistic traditions which remained largely unquestioned even during the twentieth century. The major problem – or the great charm, depending on your point of view – arises from the disjunction in Lowry’s mature work between figures and landscape.

Lowry’s townscapes – his terrace houses, factories, churches, viaducts – are handled with a strong post-impressionist technique undoubtedly transmitted by Adolphe Valette, the French painter who was Lowry’s most significant tutor at the Manchester School of Art. Subtleties of colour and texture are fascinating, flake white (an essential ingredient in the luminous overall effect) and pale earth colours layered over one another to produce endless varieties of tone. The composition is masterly, combining an emphasis on height, depth and gradient with a decorative flattening of perspective.

Yet the figures which swarm in this setting might have been painted by another hand. Stylised, cartoonish, calligraphically drawn and without modelling, consisting most often of a few black lines and a blob of colour, they tend to caricature. The grotesque, the maimed and the mad figure largely amongst them.

In Lowry’s later paintings, mostly from the 1960s, groups of figures lack an architectural setting and formulaic elements become still stronger. Eyes are dots of black; all figures are round-shouldered, all feet encased in enormous black boots.

A strangeness in Lowry’s relation to people was not confined to canvas. Born in 1887, he was the only child of a Manchester ‘estate agent’ who was actually little more than a rent collector and took his family from one unaffordable house to another in pursuit of the gentility craved by his wife, a former pianist. Lowry’s mother spent most of adult life as an ‘invalid’, martyr to undefined ailments which kept her immobilised all day on a couch.

Lowry’s father died in 1932, leaving substantial debts which he had concealed from the family. His mother reacted by abandoning the couch and taking to her bed, where her son tended to her meticulously until the day of her death seven years later, brushing her hair, bathing her bedsores and reading her to sleep every night. His reward for this was merciless discouragement. She regarded his painting (which she referred to as ‘doing nothing’) with contempt, and when the Manchester Guardian invited him to write art criticism she squashed the idea by laughing uproariously and telling him ‘You could never do it, Laurie’. Lowry accepted her judgment but carried the Guardian’s letter in his pocket for years.

Painting was done mainly at night, by electric light, for like his father Lowry had become a rent collector – a job he did meticulously and without promotion for forty years, observing and sketching on his daily perambulations around Manchester. The people whose money he took found him friendly and considerate and seem not to have resented him.

Lowry kept this side of his life hidden from the art world, misleading interviewers and fellow-artists into thinking that he spent his time only in painting. This was part of a general policy: although he had friends, they were kept in sealed compartments, each allowed to see only a facet of his life and opinions. Those who had known him at work were quietly dropped when he retired.

It is perhaps the portraits which testify most strongly against a cosy view of Lowry. Lowry’s male sitters glare fixedly ahead, as if in a police mugshot. The heads are stylised and rigidly symmetrical, with much black outlining of the features. The effect is terrifying; according to Rohde more than one collector rapidly resold a portrait rather than live with it. Perhaps the most powerful of these works is Portrait of a Man (with Red Eyes), a self-portrait of 1938 (misdated 1927 in Rhode’s index), painted at a time when the stress of caring for his mother had brought Lowry to the brink of physical and mental breakdown.

Equally disturbing in a different way are the portraits of a woman, or series of women, whom Lowry identified only as ‘Ann’. Evidently representing a personal archetype rather than an individual, the ‘Ann’ pictures show a woman with oval face, strained-back smooth black hair, pillar-box-red lipstick and huge eyes thickly outlined in black eyeliner. The face is doll-like and expressionless, pallid and smooth as if carved in soapstone.

It would be easy to take ‘Ann’ as a fantasy were it not for the fact that in later life Lowry befriended, one after another, a series of very young women whom he helped financially and educationally. All valued his friendship immensely and they included the notable landscape painter Sheila Fell, who was eloquent in her gratitude for Lowry’s mentorship. His behaviour with these young ladies was entirely decorous but it is noteworthy that they conformed closely to a single physical type – the type represented by the ‘Ann’ portraits. That there was something fetishistic about all this is confirmed by the recollection of the artist Pat Cooke, one of his protégées, who recalled that Lowry

was fascinated by my make-up, particularly my eyes. He would watch me intently putting it on in the car, asking ‘Why do you do that?’ or saying ‘Put on some more black stuff.’ He was disappointed I didn’t wear nail varnish: he loved long red nails.

After Lowry’s death a collection of drawings came to light showing what appears to be the same girl dressed in a range of bizarre costumes: short, rufflike ballet-skirts; enormous collars or bows which imprison her and from which she hangs helpless like an unstrung puppet. In some drawings she is shown decapitated or wounded with swords or knives. They seem to reveal a fascinated terror of female sexuality.

Rhode’s adaptation of her biography for this new edition has entailed losses and gains. The new text is only half the length of the old, and, strangely, it also seems much worse written, containing sentences like this (on the 1976 Royal Academy retrospective): ‘It had been planned to take place in his life  time but Lowry, foiled the plans of the RA to uniquely honour the living artist by dying nine months previously.’ Admittedly this is a low point; but Rohde’s digressive and partisan style means that in the sparser narrative of the new book it is often hard to deduce in what year a given event happened, or what its actual significance might have been.

Unlike the 1999 text this one lacks a proper index, supplying merely an ‘index of names’. A substantial passage of text on page 95 reappears almost verbatim on page 120, and there are innumerable misprints, some of them risible – ‘cemetery’ appears as ‘ceremony’, ‘cited’ as ‘sited’ and ‘public’ as ‘pubic’. The quotation on the dust jacket, clearly intended as a keynote for the book, is attributed to Maurice Collis but is in fact by Eric Newton. The book has also been stripped of a large proportion of the previous edition’s fascinating black and white photographs of Lowry and his world.

A small amount of new material has been introduced, notably a 1964 interview with Lowry and an appendix giving a discussion by Professor Michael Fitzgerald of Lowry’s supposed autism, which inevitably, coming at the end of a biography, has a somewhat reductive impact. The space might better have been spent on exploring Lowry’s success in exhibiting in France around 1930, or his work as an Official War Artist, or his extensive collection of paintings by Rossetti, all of which are mentioned in this and the previous book but hardly investigated. No significant reference is  made to recent work in x-ray photography, which has revealed much about Lowry’s technique and his overpainting of earlier work. His reading and his love of music, both of which were profoundly important to him, are left unexamined.

Those who want a full life of Lowry will still need to go to Rohde’s 1999 book. 

The one area where the present work improves on its predecessor is in its addition of some two hundred well-chosen colour plates. In these Lowry’s art, however eccentric or technically fractured, speaks eloquently of an industrial landscape which no one else documented with such delicacy or obsessive thoroughness, and of people who, perhaps of necessity, could never fit into their surroundings.

Grevel Lindop