Grevel Lindop

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

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

SOLAR SALSA: Checking Out Manchester Salsa 1

This week I’m writing about Solar Salsa – first of a series in which I plan to review as many Manchester salsa classes & events as I can. There’s so much going on in the city that it’s easy to miss good things. And for beginners it can be hard to know where to start. Hopefully these reviews can help – and I can have some fun doing the research!

SolarWithKerry

Solar Salsa: Special session last year with visiting teacher Kerry Ribchester of Key2Cuba (centre, in black); Pauline at front, in white

SOLAR SALSA is an easy place for me to start: I’ve been a regular for some years. Classes take place on Tuesdays and Thursdays downstairs at the Spread Eagle in Chorlton (526-528 Wilbraham Rd, Manchester M21 9LD) with Beginners’ and Improvers’ classes at 7.30 pm, Intermediate and Advanced at 9 pm. The style is emphatically Cuban. The main emphasis is on RUEDA: salsa circle dancing, changing partners with someone calling the moves.

DSC02979

Mandy explains the finer points of the next move!

There’s a team of experienced teachers: Pauline and Mandy mainly taking Improvers and Advanced classes, with Mike and Christine taking Beginners and Intermediate.

For me the biggest feature of Solar (and the reason I started going) is that it’s FUN! It’s consistently friendly, totally welcoming and there’s a lot of laughter, particularly owing to Pauline’s incredibly positive attitude. I don’t know how she does it, but Pauline is the most positive person I’ve ever met: I think the title Solar Salsa must reflect not just her belief in renewable energy but her sunny disposition! That’s not to say everyone doesn’t work hard, but the atmosphere is always very happy. It’s a class that’s guaranteed to cheer you up if you need it. No other class I’ve been to is quite so consistently positive. GREAT FOR BEGINNERS!

A close second in importance is that Solar is one of the very few classes which teach authentic Cuban body movement. Mandy goes to Cuba often, works with Cuban teachers and has danced on stage with Cuban bands. She has a full understanding of Cuban styling and ‘body isolation’ – as Mike also has from a male point of view. Cuban body movement is something that very few classes in the UK can genuinely offer. But it makes all the difference: without it, salsa is just a lot of footsteps and arm movements. But once you have the body core movement, the whole experience is different, and even dancers knowing only a few moves become elegant and exciting. There is no substitute.

The emphasis on Rueda is something that might not suit everyone. It’s a very good way for beginners to learn, but some people find it daunting to start couple-dancing alone when they’re only used to dancing rueda. The Thursday classes try to emphasise couple dancing more, but still the rueda emphasis can creep in. If you hate rueda, this might not be the class for you.

Numbers of dancers are currently good: classes are well-attended without being crowded and generally there’s a good balance of men and women. In the more advanced classes there are normally some female leaders: great if you’re a woman and want to learn to lead, not quite so great if you’re a woman and really want to dance all the time with guys!

 

Classes are good value: currently £6 for the whole evening, no matter if you take one class or two; plus you get some free dancing – usually about three tracks between classes. That said, there isn’t a great deal of free dancing.

(Check out the video above, with Los Van Van and Key2Cuba: can you spot Mandy (orange, pink and green dress) in the rueda?)

A couple of things to watch out for: (1) Classes begin very punctually (unusual in the salsa world)! If you’re not on time you’ll miss the warm-ups. (2) Dancing is mostly on carpet – though this isn’t nearly as much of a problem as you might think. It’s a thin hard carpet and mostly I forget I’m on it. Plus this is due to change: a new floor is supposed to be installed sometime soon. But if you have knee problems and need a totally smooth floor it could be a deterrent.

Overall this is a fun class, good value, excellent for beginners, with an authentic Cuban connection. Points to consider: Emphasis on Rueda; short period of free dancing; dancing on carpet. RECOMMENDED.

And finally: to cheer up your winter with a salsa adventure in Cuba, Venezuela, Colombia, Panama, Puerto Rico and Miami, why not read my book Travels on the Dance Floor, availabl;e by following this link (quote code DANCE for a 30% discount!):

http://www.carltonbooks.co.uk/books/products/travels-on-the-dance-floor-one-mans-journey-to-the-heart-of-salsa-1

 

 

SIMON CURTIS

Simon Curtis, who died a few days ago, was one of the unsung heroes of our culture: the kind of person who brings intelligence, illumination and enjoyment to countless people in a quiet way without ever becoming well known.

simoncurtis[1]

I first met Simon in the 1970s, when we were both teaching at Manchester University. He’d done a Ph D on Charles Darwin – viewing him as writer as well as scientist – and was teaching comparative literature. Simon’s style was always conservative: at a time when I was coming to work in purple flares, beads and a kaftan (it was the hippy era!) Simon sported a tweed jacket, brown brogues and a pipe. We seemed poles apart.

But we were both writing poetry. Simon’s was – and remained all his life – what’s now called ‘formalist’: it rhymed and scanned, and it was noticed by Kingsley Amis, with whom he corresponded for some years. His work also appeared in Faber’s Poetry Introduction 6 in 1985.

Simon was a versatile man: besides teaching French literature (he was fluent in the language) he was deeply knowledgeable about Thomas Hardy and taught a course on him. He also found time to do a lot of work for the CPRE and became an expert on planning laws and nature conservation. He also spent a spell as an academic for a semester or two in Australia, which he loved. He eventually left Manchester and moved to Dorchester: by that time he was a leading figure in the Hardy Society, and took over the editorship of the Thomas Hardy journal, which he did excellently.

Unfortunately literary societies are fraught with faction, and the Hardy Society was no exception. Simon became fed up and resigned after one particularly nasty conflict (no fault of his).

He moved to Plymouth, where he had family, and became editor (following Merryn Williams) of an excellent small poetry magazine, The Interpreter’s House. He was an exemplary editor: catholic in taste, lively in his editorials, balanced in his choice. And he gave talks locally on literary and historical subjects.

Despite being so different, we’d kept in touch and kept up a regular exchange of letters – real ones, not just emails. Simon was a great letter-writer: lively, varied, amusing; full of news about local theatre, opera and books, but also about wildlife, the landscape, the seasons. And he would usually send a new poem or two with his letters. We’d criticise each other’s work and often make small revisions in response.

Then – I suppose it was a couple of years ago – he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. It remitted but left him paralysed from the waist down. He went into a care home near Plymouth where he was wonderfully looked after and had many visitors. He remained as mentally lively as ever and after a while was able to go out – even to theatre and opera – in a powered wheelchair. But it couldn’t last, and he died quietly last week.

Here’s one of his poems:

READING A RIVER

A heron lifts away as we approach
Where cloud-grey Hodder and grey Ribble meet;
A spit of stones, an eddy-knuckled reach,
And glassy patch downstream as dark as peat.

 

There’s movement in that pool, see? and you’re sure
It’s grayling, moving gently to large duns;
The Hodder, there, is acid, from the moor;
That’s why it’s good for autumn sea-trout runs.

 

What strikes my eye as surface, April-cool,
You read like braille, uncannily and clear,
Connecting signs of life in flow or pool;
A river’s script, and palaeographer.

 

All waters have their temper, temperament,
Each river-face, its moods and tics and traits,
As individual as a finger-print;
The shoals and shallows, lies below still glaze,

 

And alders, stoneflies, sedges, each month’s hatch
On Coquet, Lathkill, Driffield Beck or Dee;
A living web, I’d say, where you’re in touch …
It’s practice, pal, not flaming ESP;

 

It’s try and try, a knack you pick up, right?
And ‘knack’ for ‘art’, you speak the northern way,
To deprecate what works like second sight,
Transforming all I saw that cloud-dulled day.

 

Simon wasn’t a ‘major’ poet; he didn’t publish a big scholarly tome; not so many people have heard of him. But he published several delightful small books of poems (I particularly like Views, with fine wood engravings by Ian Stephens), and a last ‘New and Selected’ volume of his poems, Comet over Greens Norton, came out just before his death from Shoestring Press. He was a fine teacher, who inspired hundreds of students, and an energetic worker for environmental and literary causes. And some of his poems deserve to last. He contributed in countless ways. And he was a good friend to many people besides myself. A lot of us are going to miss him deeply.

Before I put in the link to Simon’s own website, here’s a quote from Matt Simpson reviewing Simon’s book Reading a River :

there isn’t scope here to do justice to all the pleasures to be had from this book – for instance, Curtis’s gentle satire, his wit, his quiet irony, his ventures in Australia, The blurb simply hopes readers will enjoy the poems. Well, here is one who does. What he does splendidly is summed up in the last two lines of ‘Weymouth Nightingale’

So much floods back to mind, of worth, of loss,
Of time that’s gone, and debt of thanks I owe.

That just about sums it up. And here’s the link:

http://simoncurtis.net/index.html

A Cuban Poet in Manchester: Victor Rodriguez Nuñez (and of course The Smiths)

Victor and Kate enjoy a drink at Manchester's Cuba Cafe

Spent many happy hours this week with my friends Victor and Kate. Victor Rodriguez Nuñez is a leading Cuban poet, and his wife Kate Hedeen is a gifted translator of Latin American poetry.

 

Victor was here for the Manchester International Literature festival last autumn, and liked it so much that he wanted to show Kate around. Plus, Kate is a huge fan of The Smiths, who provided the soundtrack to her early life in Portland, Oregon. So naturally we had to take the Smiths Tour of Manchester, expertly provided by Craig of Manchester Music Tours.

Kate and Craig: a visit to the Shrine!

We had a wonderful morning exploring everything from the Free Trade Hall to the Salford Lads’ Club and the famous Iron Bridge of the song. Craig was a fine, friendly guide (as well as being drummer with the renowned Inspiral Carpets) and we came away fully educated about Morrissey, the Smiths and the whole Manchester music scene.

We also enjoyed a few other quintessentially Mancunian delights – dinner at Mr Thomas’s Chop House, drinks at the Peveril of the Peak pub, and (of course) I couldn’t resist taking Victor and Kate on Friday night up to the amazing Cuba Cafe, in Port Street, Manchester’s small but glittering Cuban bar and club, where we had a couple of Cuba Libres made with real Havana Club rum and watched one of Michal’s excellent bachata classes. I must get along there and improve my bachata dancing next week.

 

The famous Iron Bridge: to think I drove past it every day and never knew...

 

Kate paid Manchester what I take to be the ultimate compliment, saying that to her it felt like a Latin American city – gritty but friendly, hugely mixed and cosmopolitan, creative and non-touristy. A thoroughly happy few days with two close friends who are also great literary artists and a link back to my beloved Cuba. They’ve gone now but they’ll definitely be back for more. I miss them already.

Don’t Miss Diáspora Latin Band

You have a big chance on Sunday 1 May. Diaspora are playing at Matt and Phred’s in Manchester and, frankly, you seriously need to go and hear them. Really.

Diaspora: Get Up and Move It!

I first heard Diáspora playing at last year’s Manchester Jazz Festival. They were backing Mojito in Albert Square, and I wrote then that their music “just forced you to get up and move… all of it was highly listenable. I hope to hear a lot more of Diaspora”.

Well, since then I have heard quite a bit more of them, and the good news is that they’ve just got better and better. Currently I’d say that they are one of the UK’s finest salsa/Latin orchestras and, of the larger bands, the absolute best in the NorthWest.

Their gig at Matt and Phred’s on 31 March was really fabulous. Diáspora have definitely got that magic ingredient – the one that makes or breaks a Latin band. I’m sure you know what I mean. Anyone who dances salsa and the like knows that some bands play very well technically, but they just haven’t got it – the magic ingredient that forces you to move your body, to forget everything and get out there on the floor.

Grooving at Matt and Phred's

I don’t know the full personnel of Diáspora in detail, but I gather they have a nucleus at least of musicians who came through the RNCM. You might wonder if that would be the best background for this genre – you might imagine players who can do the notes faultlessly but don’t pack that salsa punch – but in this case you’d be wrong. These people are clearly addicted to the music and soaked in the tradition, or maybe it’s just that Eleggua, Chango, Ochun, Yemaya and Ogun have paid a visit to Manchester and given them a special blessing. I don’t know. But the physical fact – the thing your body will tell you – is that they have the weaving, dancing, battering percussion, the precise, hard-hitting brass, the rippling piano montuno (one of the rarest things to hear played properly in British salsa) and the intense, flexible vocals that characterise the best Latin music the world over. They are the real thing.

It was great to hear Rich Sliva guesting with them on drumkit in April: Rich is a master percussionist, initiated and trained in Cuba, and he knows what he’s doing. You may have heard him playing with Mojito, another top local band.

Alyss Rose: Latin Melody Plus Toughness

Alyss Rose has a superbly engaging vocal style that’s tough, sexy and also melodious: amazing for an English singer and exactly right for the Latin and AfroCuban lyrics she puts over so expressively. It’s hard to believe she’s not a native Spanish speaker.

On 1 May they’ll be playing with a full brass section, so it will definitely be a night to remember. The gig starts at 8.30. If you don’t know Matt and Phred’s in Tib Street, you’ll enjoy the ambience: a real funky jazz club with drinks and excellent pizzas available (mine’s a Charlie Parker, please). I’m often enthusiastic on this blog, but it isn’t hype, it’s because I write about what I love and when I think something is that good, I want to share it. I want to share Diáspora with you. Please be there.