Thursday, 28 May 2020

THINK ABOUT IT #55: Alain de Botton

Without sex, we would be dangerously invulnerable.  We might believe we were not ridiculous.  We wouldn’t know rejection and humiliation so intimately.  We could age respectably, get used to our privileges and think we understood what was going on.  We might disappear into numbers and words alone.  It is sex that creates a necessary havoc in the ordinary hierarchies of power, status, money and intelligence… We might even embrace the pain sex causes us, for without it we wouldn’t know art and music quite so well… When every contemptuous but fair thing has been said about our infernal sexual desires, we can still celebrate them for not allowing us to forget for more than a few days at a time what is really involved in living an embodied, chemical and largely insane human life.

How To Think More About Sex (2012)

Click HERE to visit the website of Swiss-born British writer and philosopher ALAIN DE BOTTON.

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Thursday, 21 May 2020

DEBORAH CURTIS Touching from a Distance: Ian Curtis and Joy Division (1995)

Faber and Faber first UK edition, 1995

When I went into the dressing room to look for Ian, two of the lads were in there talking to a couple of young female fans.  I thought nothing of it at the time, but the day after the gig Ian asked me not to go any more unless I had the other girls with me, as it wasn't fair if I went without them.  It was gradually made plain to us that wives and girlfriends were no longer welcome.  It had been OK for us to boost the numbers in the audience in the early days and we had become used to sitting on the amplifiers to stop them being stolen.  It was taken for granted that we would wash and iron clothes, pack cases and make excuses to employers, but now it seemed we were bad for the image.  Rob Gretton shouldered the blame, but to be fair all the boys had tongues in their heads.  If they had disagreed with the 'no women' policy, they could have spoken up.  I was very disappointed –– the whole scenario was reminiscent of when I was pregnant.  Too big for my jeans, I had been panicked into borrowing a dress from my mother.  That evening as Tony gave me the once over and then looked away without greeting or comment, I felt for the first time that my presence might be unwelcome or even unsuitable.

The Memoir:  There have been dozens of reviews of this book published online, nearly all of which focus on the suicide of Ian Curtis on 18 May 1980 on the eve of what would have been the debut US tour by his band Joy Division.  What prompted me to add to this avalanche of words was not any particular fascination with Curtis himself –– I respect his talent but have always preferred the music of other Manchester bands like The Fall and The Buzzcocks to that of Joy Division –– but rather the fact that his story is told in this brief but gripping memoir by his wife, the person who discovered his corpse hanging from a clothes rack in their kitchen on that chilly spring morning and knew him for much longer and in a far more intimate way than any of his bandmates or fans can claim to have known him.  In the minds of many people, particularly those who share the delusion that listening to and/or liking an artist's music is the same thing as 'knowing' or 'understanding' them, Deborah Curtis is the villain in his life and even regarded by some as the person whose 'selfishness' inspired him to end it –– fallacies this strikingly honest book sets out to challenge and permanently correct. 

Deborah Woodruff met her future husband Ian Curtis through the latter's best friend Tony Nuttall.  In fact, it was Nuttall whose girlfriend she originally became and Nuttall she would have 'a kiss and a cuddle with' whenever the three of them would spend time together in the flat owned by the Curtis family.  Curtis himself was an unmissable figure in the relatively affluent Cheshire town of Macclesfield, a kid who wrote poetry, smoked incessantly, regularly took pills and wore eyeliner and black nail varnish in public in imitation of his musical heroes David Bowie and Lou Reed.  Whatever else he may have been, Curtis was clearly not your average teenage boy.

Deborah's romantic relationship with Curtis began when he took her to a Bowie concert in December 1972, several months after her relationship with Nuttall had abruptly ended without warning or explanation.  'What thrilled me,' she recalls, 'was not particularly the opportunity of going out with Ian, but more the chance to get out of Macclesfield and to be included in a crowd of people who did more than catch the train to Stockport for a weekly shopping trip.'  After she became involved with Curtis 'life seemed one long round of parties, pop concerts and pub crawls.'  Deborah was also exposed to her new boyfriend's obsession with James Dean and Jim Morrison and other figures from the music and entertainment worlds who, like them, had died young.  'When he told me that he had no intention of living beyond his early twenties, I took it with a pinch of salt, assumed it was a phase and that he would grow out of it.'  She adopted a similar attitude to his plan to start a 'proper' band of his own some day to succeed the one he and Nuttall had formed as schoolboys.  The fact that he couldn't play an instrument and seemed uninterested in learning how to do so did nothing to dampen his enthusiasm for his plan.  Curtis could be a very entertaining person when he chose to be and was determined to be as famous as his prematurely deceased idols were some day.

Faber and Faber UK, 2007
Curtis's relationship with Deborah was totally one-sided, with him always taking the dominant role and making every decision for both of them.  While this arrangement would rightly be viewed today as being completely unacceptable by most young women, it was very much the norm in the 1970s for a girl to put up with behaviour from her boyfriend –– which, in Curtis's case, included mood swings, prolonged bouts of depression, possessive jealousy and refusing to allow her to wear make-up –– that would now be classified as manipulative if not borderline abusive.  (And let's face it, there's no shortage of relationships out there in 2020 which continue to function, or not, in precisely the same way.)  But Curtis also had his gentle and romantic side which expressed itself by reading the work of Oscar Wilde and other writers he admired aloud to Deborah and in the sympathy he displayed toward marginalised members of society like the disabled, the mentally ill and the homeless.  The latter was reflected in the hard work he did as an Assistant Disablement Resettlement Officer after being transferred from his former civil service job at the Ministry of Defence to a new position at the Macclesfield Employment Exchange. 

Deborah's parents were against the idea of her marrying a strange moody boy like Curtis but marry him she did, becoming his wife on 23 August 1975 at St Thomas's Church in Henbury and then honeymooning with him in Paris.  She too had left school and was working by this time –– as a receptionist at ICI Chemicals among other jobs –– and they returned to England to live with his grandparents while they saved the money needed to buy a home of their own.  They were nineteen years old but determined to show their families their marriage could work despite the early warning signs that it had been a terrible mistake.  'One night,' Deborah remembered, 'I was in a giggly mood.  I waited until Ian went to the bathroom and hid… at the bottom of the stairs.  When Ian passed by, I leaped out and gave a loud cry.  I was stunned when he scurried on all fours to a corner of the landing and cowered there, whimpering.  Seconds later he was up on his feet again.  He descended the rest of the stairs as if nothing had happened and resumed his television viewing.  I wanted to ask him about the incident, but I could tell that he was completely oblivious to what had happened.  I sat and watched him for a while and soon even I was scarcely able to believe what I had seen.  I pushed it to the back of my mind once the moment had passed.'

Choosing not to discuss this behaviour with her husband proved, as she readily admits, to be another serious mistake.  Curtis was later diagnosed with epilepsy, one of the symptoms of which is exactly this type of 'forgotten' disassociative episode.  But that was still in the future at this point in their relationship.  For now, Curtis was more concerned that he was making no headway with his plan to start a band –– a concern brought into even sharper focus in July 1976 after he took Deborah to see The Sex Pistols perform live at Manchester's Lesser Free Trade Hall.  As it would for so many other would-be musicians and performers, attending a gig by the doyens of British punk proved to be a life-changing experience for Curtis.  Also in the audience that night, sitting a few rows away from himself and Deborah, were Bernard Sumner, Peter Hook and Terry Mason –– young men he had known since his schooldays and with whom he would shortly go on to form a band that briefly called itself Warsaw (after the opening track on Side Two of the newly released David Bowie LP Low) before changing its name to Joy Division.  By May 1977, with new drummer Steve Morris recruited to replace Mason, they were regularly performing in and around Manchester with Curtis writing their lyrics in addition to serving as their lead vocalist.  

In September 1978 Joy Division made its first appearance on So It Goes, a local TV program hosted by Tony Wilson, club owner and co-founder of the new Manchester-based independent record label Factory Records.  With the help of Wilson and new manager Rob Gretton the band became a local and then a national phenomenon, as famous for its starkly minimalistic stage performances as it was for refusing to cooperate with journalists during interviews and its intense and challenging music.  Nothing, it seemed, could now stand in the way of Curtis's long-held dreams of stardom.

Nothing, that is, except epilepsy.  He had his first seizure in December 1978 and, after seeking medical advice, was prescribed a variety of anti-convulsive medications to control the condition –– medications that were continuously being changed and which were not in any way compatible with the alcohol and other recreational drugs he had regularly been using and abusing since his teenage years.  Joy Division might have been a new wave band, but they proved no less immune to the trappings of stardom than their old wave predecessors had been.  Soon Deborah, who had been there from the beginning, was being told by Rob Gretton not to come to gigs anymore or, worse, being denied access to her husband altogether by not being given contact numbers so she could telephone him while the band was touring.  This was partly due to the band's growing success and the need to keep it a solid indivisible unit and partly due to the fact that Curtis had begun having an affair with Annik Honoré, a Belgian journalist and music promoter, in October 1979.  (Honoré claimed in a 2010 interview that theirs had been a platonic relationship, a claim I find difficult to accept given that they regularly shared hotel rooms and Curtis chose to keep their so-called 'friendship' a secret from his wife.)  That the affair had begun a mere seven months after the birth of their daughter Natalie on 16 April did not make Deborah's understandable feelings of anger and rejection any easier to bear.  But she does not use her memoir as an excuse to vilify her rival.  'During the time he spent with Annik,' she notes, 'Ian's personality became more serious.  She seemed to have quite an influence on him and almost managed to talk him into becoming a vegetarian.  At home, Ian stopped sharing his life with me.  Rather than tell me amusing stories and gossip, he began to name drop and use catch-phrases which meant nothing to me.'

Many believe that Curtis's relationship with Honoré was a motivating factor in his decision to commit suicide.  Whether this was true or not, there is no denying that he was a deeply troubled individual by this time, attempting to juggle his responsibilites as a husband and father with a tremendous amount of guilt, plus epilepsy and the artistic demands placed upon him as a member of what was now a successful full-time band.  (Joy Division played over 120 gigs in roughly two and a half years in addition to recording an EP, several tracks for various compilation albums plus two full length studio albums of its own –– a punishing schedule even for a healthy twenty-three year old not afflicted with a debilitating medical condition.)  But Deborah suffered just as much if not more from his frequent absences, some of which were explained or quickly glossed over but many of which were not.  'My only communication with the rest of the band,' she recalled, 'was through Ian and, although he was causing them some concern too, I felt they blamed me for many of Ian's problems.  People weren't as friendly as they used to be and it was understandable.  Ian had fallen into a routine of telling his comrades how unhappy I was making his life… Our marriage was over and he hadn't told me.'

The situation could not continue.  The moment of realisation came when, as Curtis and Deborah were walking home from a friend's housewarming party that he had uncharacteristically agreed to attend with her, he turned to her and said that he would not be upset if she wanted to sleep with another man.  Always possessively jealous before this –– to the point where his parting words to her each time she left the house were 'Watch yourself,' his domineering way of warning her not to flirt with any other men she might encounter –– it was undeniable proof of the fact that he no longer loved her.  'Every day I wanted Ian to come up behind me, put his arms around me and tell me he hadn't meant it.  After eight years of him telling me what to wear, what make-up to use and what music to listen to, I suddenly felt lost, as if I had been given my freedom and didn't know what to do with it.'  A visit to his parents, in front of whom he was always careful to maintain a cheerful demeanour, gave her brief cause to hope that their problems might one day be resolved, but this proved not to be the case.  After searching his notebooks and finding Honoré's name and London address written in one of them, Deborah confronted him and had her hitherto unspoken suspicions immediately confirmed.  'My reaction,' she says, 'was to run to the blue room [the room in their house where Curtis did his writing], break David Bowie's Low into pieces and then smack Ian around the head… Eventually, when I asked him what he intended to do, he asked for time to break off their relationship.  I agreed.  I was relieved that there were no protestations of love for her and no threats to leave.  I was appeased by his promise to put things right, but still kept my distance in anticipation –– I wasn't prepared to lose him.  He didn't ask for my forgiveness; I just assumed that he would want it.'  Again, this proved to be an unjustified assumption on her part.  Several weeks passed –– weeks during which Joy Division recorded what would become their final album Closer, now considered one of the most influential post-punk recordings of all time –– before he could bring himself to make a half-hearted attempt to stop seeing his mistress, who would occasionally call the house looking for him when Deborah was there.

In early April 1980, while playing a three night residency in London, Curtis allegedly had an epileptic fit onstage –– an episode he found profoundly humiliating but which Joy Division fans assumed to be a new element of his increasingly erratic but frequently rivetting performance style.  Nor did he immediately return home following these shows.  He stayed in London with Honoré until 7 April, when he returned to Deborah and announced, while they were getting ready for bed that night, that he had taken an overdose of phenobarbitone, a narcotic barbituate drug often prescribed for the treatment of epilepsy.  The fact that he had left a suicide note, stating that there 'was no need to fight now' and asking its discoverer to 'give his love to Annik' should have provided a clue to his state of mind.  But these warnings went unheeded.  He was admitted to hospital, with Deborah completely unaware that his suicide attempt had not been prompted by the still unresolved problems in their marriage but by an argument with his mistress.  The hospital's attending psychiatrist judged him to be non-suicidal and released him into the custody of Tony Wilson.  Once again, Deborah was left with no way to contact her husband and the father of her child.  The next night Joy Division played a gig in Bury, with Curtis watching from the wings because he was still too sick to join his bandmates on-stage.

In hindsight, which is always perfect and unclouded by variables like circumstance and shifts in allegiance and personality, Curtis's death just over one month later should have shocked nobody.  He was severely depressed and suffering from some form of emotional paralysis which prevented him from choosing between returning to his wife and daughter or staying with his mistress –– a paralysis so crippling that at one point he asked his bandmate Bernard Sumner to make the decision for him (which Sumner very wisely declined to do).  Deborah, still kept in the dark, finally cracked and told her parents what was happening in the marriage, prompting them to contact Curtis's parents and inform them of the situation –– a 'betrayal' met with stony silence by her husband.  'I took it for granted that once the secret was out I would lose him forever, but it was different now.  It was clear I would have to lose him in order to start living again, and deep down inside he must have wanted to lose me too.'  She contacted Honoré and screamed at her that she was going to divorce him, to which Honoré calmly replied that she would cooperate in every way with whatever choice she made.  'It was difficult initiating the divorce, but once I had made the decision it felt wonderful… For that short time, I honestly believed that Ian was not my problem any more… I believed I had done him a favour by eliminating one of his biggest worries –– me.'  

Curtis moved back in with his parents after this, but did pay several visits to Macclesfield during the next few weeks to catch up with Deborah and Natalie.  He was there on the weekend of 16–18 May, having come, he said, to watch the Werner Herzog film Stroszek –– about a man who kills himself because he's unable to choose between the two very different women in his life –– that would have 'upset his father' had he attempted to watch it at his parents' house.  He and Deborah spoke after she got home from working as a waitress at a wedding reception where, in typically polite fashion, she had told the guests who knew them both that their own marriage was fine.  Curtis asked her to drop the idea of divorcing him but the matter was left unresolved when she took Natalie to stay with her parents and then returned to spend the night with him.  But Curtis had changed his mind about that during the short time she was out dropping off their daughter, telling her he needed to be alone and that she should not return to the house before ten o'clock the following morning, when he planned to leave Macclesfield to catch a train back to Manchester.  

In the end, Deborah did not return to the house until nearly midday, which was when she found her husband hanging from the wooden ceiling-mounted clothes drying rack in their kitchen and a long letter in which he spoke of their life together, his love for her and Natalie and his hatred of Annik Honoré.  'I never heard him say he hated anyone.  I think he wrote that to try to please me.  He told me,' Deborah adds, 'that he couldn't bring himself to be so cruel as to tell her he didn't want to see her again, even to save his marriage.  The pages were full of contradictions.  He asked me not to get in touch for a while as it was hard for him to talk to me.  By the time he had finished writing, he told me, it was dawn and he could hear the birds singing.' 

IAN CURTIS, c 1979
Touching from a Distance is mostly described by other reviewers as a 'brave book' and it is, offering the reader a glimpse into the tormented physical and emotional life of a musician who has become something of a cult figure since his death and, like other cult figures before and after him, the subject of much fervent speculation regarding what inspired him, drove him and ultimately led him to take the irrevocable step of hanging himself at the age of twenty-three.  What makes it even more valuable, however, is the perspective it offers into the day-to-day workings of the music business and the means by which the abstractions (and distractions) of 'fame' and 'success' became more important to those around Curtis than his physical and mental well-being and, eventually, his life.  Deborah was even advised to hold off on divorcing him for a few more months, by which time he was sure to be rich and would then be in the position to pay her larger amounts of alimony and child support.  Throughout the book she reveals herself as someone who had no power over her husband, who accepted what he told her and did what he wanted her to do because she was too naïve and trusting to question his decisions and those made on his behalf by his manager and record company.  'I was just totally besotted,' she confessed to a journalist during a 2005 interview she gave to promote a new edition of her memoir.  'I think the fact I didn't stand out was an attraction for him.  I think he thought I would be easy to mould, to control.'

They say that no man can ever be a hero to his wife and a book like this proves the truth of that adage.  Ian Curtis may or may not have been the genius that so many fans and music critics claim he was –– I leave that to better qualified minds than mine to decide –– but there is little doubt that he could be a selfish control freak when it suited him and that his attitude to his loving and supportive young wife could be appallingly callous at times.  He was a man who consistently refused to take responsibility for his own actions, behaving for much of his life like a dependent child who managed to convince everyone he knew that he was an autonomous human being capable of making rational adult decisions when, as the evidence all too sadly confirms, this was seldom if ever the case.  Deborah Curtis is to be commended for the honesty it took to reveal the human side of a legend –– someone, according to her, who enjoyed a good practical joke and spent several hours listening to Frank Sinatra prior to recording the vocal for Love Will Tear Us Apart, the biggest selling song that Joy Division would ever release –– without succumbing to the urge to practise the art of hagiography on her subject or excuse her own role in what was probably always going to be his unpreventable death.

The Writer:  Deborah Curtis (née Woodruff) was born in the northern English city of Liverpool on 13 December 1956.  Her parents, wanting to raise her and her younger sister in a more suburban environment than this large bustling sea port could offer at the time, moved to Wiltshire and then to Sussex before permanently settling in the town of Macclesfield in the county of Cheshire in (or around) 1961.  Deborah attended Sutton Primary School before moving on to Macclesfield High School for Girls, considered the sister school to the boys only King's School attended by her future husband Ian Kevin Curtis.  Her childhood, she wrote, 'had been spent looking for birds' nests, building dams across the river Bollin, and feeding orphan lambs.'  She also spent many hours at the youth club sponsored by her local church.

Deborah began dating Ian Curtis in December 1972, shortly after he had entered hospital to have his stomach pumped following an overdose of Largactil, an anti-psychotic medication he had stolen from the medicine cabinet of an old age pensioner he was visiting as part of his school's 'social service' program.  She had initially been the girlfriend of Curtis's close childhood friend Tony Nuttall, with whom they would gradually lose contact after becoming a couple and eventually marrying, at the ages of eighteen and nineteen respectively, on 23 August 1975.  Three years after their wedding her husband experienced his first epileptic seizure, casting her in the role of his primary caregiver for the remainder of his life.

Deborah Curtis was supportive of her husband's desire to write his own songs and start his own band and attended the first-ever Joy Division gig –– they were then known as Warsaw –– on Sunday 29 May 1977 at a club called the Electric Circus in Manchester.  She would remain closely involved with the band until the birth of her daughter Natalie on 16 April 1979, shortly after which her husband began a relationship with Belgian journalist, concert promoter and embassy employee Annik Honoré.  This affair, along with her husband's successful music career, elevated drug intake and worsening health problems, was the catalyst for her decision to divorce him in 1980 –– a divorce that never occurred because neither party could make up their mind to go through with it before his death by suicide on 18 April of that same year.

In 1995 Curtis, now happily remarried, broke her fifteen year silence about the true nature of relationship with her first husband by publishing the memoir Touching from a Distance: Ian Curtis and Joy Division.  The book went on to inspire the 2007 film Control, directed by Dutch photographer Anton Corbijn, for which she served as co-Executive Producer with journalist, impresario and former record label/nightclub owner Tony Wilson (who died of cancer two months prior to its UK premiere on 5 October).  Curtis was portrayed in the film by Samantha Morton with the role of Ian Curtis played by musician Sam Riley.  Annik Honoré, who left the music business in 1985 and also died of cancer on 3 July 2014, was played by German-Romanian actress Alexandra Maria Lara.

Click HERE to read a short 2005 interview with DEBORAH CURTIS posted in the online archive of The Guardian newspaper.

Touching from a Distance: Ian Curtis and Joy Division is currently in print and should be obtainable from your local library, bookstore or preferred online retailer.

The 2007 biopic Control, written by Mancunian journalist and screenwriter MATT GREENHALGH and directed by Dutch photographer and filmmaker ANTON CORBIJN, remains widely available on DVD and many online streaming services.

Film poster, 2007

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Thursday, 14 May 2020

THE WRITE ADVICE #131: Charles Webb

…that's how I view writing and the creative process altogether –– as a personal thing where you need to do something for a reason of your own.  You do it and it's done and what happens afterwards is interesting but not really the important part.
    I've always wanted to be a writer ever since I can remember.  I think I might have wanted to be President before that for a short time, but other than that it's been writing I've always thought about.  I haven't always known what form it would take and I still don't think I've quite reached the form I probably should have reached…

Meeting With An Author [2007 Canal+ documentary]

Click HERE to read an article about the life and career of North American novelist CHARLES WEBB –– author of The Graduate (1963) and many other fine but now out-of-print novels –– posted on the website.

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Thursday, 7 May 2020

POET OF THE MONTH #63: Gabriela Mistral

7 April 1889 – 10 January 1957


This timorous, sorrowful water
Like a child that suffers,
Before it touches the earth,
    Falls fainting.

The tree and the wind are quiet
And in the stupendous silence,
These clear and bitter tears
    Keep falling.

The sky is like an immense heart
Which opens bitterly.
It does not rain:  it is bleeding, slowly,

Men indoors at the hearthstone
Feel none of this bitterness,
This gift of sorrowful water
    From above us.

This wide and weary descent
Of conquered waters
Toward the earth, reclining
    And exhausted.

The lifeless water is falling
As quietly as in a dream,
Like the slight creations
    Dreams are full of.

It rains… and like a tragic jackal
Night lies in wait in the mountains.
Out of the earth, in darkness,
    What will rise up?

And shall you sleep, while, outside,
This sickly lifeless water of death
    Is falling?

Published May 1943

Translated by HR HAYS

The Poet:  'Gabriela Mistral' was the pseudonym of Chilean poet, educator, diplomat, social activist and Nobel Prize winner Lucila de María del Perpetuo Socorro Godoy Alcayaga.  

Alcayaga was born in the small town of Vicuña on 7 April 1889 and spent her childhood in the village of Monte Grande, nestled in an arid valley of the Andes mountains, where she attended the local primary school run by her sister Emelina who was fifteen years her senior.  Her father, also a teacher who loved to sing and carouse, abandoned his family when she was three years old, returning only rarely to visit his wife and daughters before disappearing for good and probably dying in 1911.  Alcayaga would always recall her days in Monte Grande as an idyllic time of her life where she was able to indulge her lifelong love of nature to her heart's content. 

In 1910 she qualified as a teacher, having already spent several years supporting her mother by working as a teaching assistant in the seaside village of Compañia near the southern town of La Serena.  She was also a published writer, with several of her poems appearing in local newspapers in 1904 (when she was just fifteen) and an important if controversial article La instruccíon de la mujer [The Education of Women] following them into print two years later.  The publication of the latter probably explains why she was refused entry to the teaching course at the Normal School in La Serena, its Catholic chaplain marking her out as a potential troublemaker because he considered her so-called 'radical' ideas to be at odds with those of a dutiful Catholic woman and future moulder of young minds.  Alcayaga overcame this setback by studying for and obtaining her teaching certificate on her own, although she remained bitter all her life at being denied such an important educational opportunity.

Her lack of formal education did not prevent Alcayaga from rising swiftly through the ranks of the Chilean education system after gaining her teaching credentials.  She was sent to many different parts of Chile to teach and serve as an educational administrator and came to know her country and its inhabitants very well.  She also continued to write, sending several poems and a short story to the Spanish language magazine Elegancias, published in Paris by the Nicaraguan editor Rubén Darío.  Her work appeared in this magazine in 1913 while she was working in a liceo, or high school, in the city of Los Andes –– a six year appointment that allowed her to pay regular visits to the Chilean capital Santiago and participate to some degree in the city's intellectual life.  A year later her collection of poems titled Sonetos de la Muerte [Sonnets of Death], inspired by the suicide of her first love Romelio Ureta in 1909, was awarded first prize in the Juegos Florales, a prestigious national literary contest.  It was after winning this prize that Alcayaga permanently adopted the pseudonym 'Gabriela Mistral,' allegedly created by combining the names of two of her favourite poets, the Italian Gabriele D'Annunzio and the Frenchman Frédéric Mistral.  But this success in no way diminished her devotion to her pupils or prevented her from running the night classes she offered for free to poor workers, none of whom had access to any other form of education.

After spending time in Punta Arenas, the southernmost town in Chile located in the desolate Patagonia region, and then in the largely native community of Temuco (where she encouraged the teenaged Pablo Neruda to pursue his literary ambitions and began a lifelong friendship with him), Alcayaga returned to Santiago where she was appointed principal of the Liceo des Niñas #6 [Girls High School #6].  Although this was a much coveted position, she only remained in the job a year, leaving Chile in 1922 for Mexico where she had accepted an invitation from that country's Minister of Education to help him construct a national education system based upon the successful Chilean model.  

Her poems and other writings continued to appear in magazines, newspapers, education journals and literary periodicals, with her showing no interest in publishing a book until Desolacíon [Desolation], featuring some of the bleak poems she had written while living in Punta Arenas, appeared in 1922.  The fact that this collection was published in New York by the Spanish language Instituto de las Españas helped to consolidate her growing international reputation, as did the lectures she gave in several US cities and the time she spent in Europe prior to the publication of her second poetry collection Ternura [Tenderness], which appeared in Madrid in 1924.  Although she returned to Chile in 1925, Alcayaga did not remain at home for long.  With the passing of new government legislation which forbade anybody without a recognized university degree to teach in the national school system, she found herself suddenly jobless and accepted a post at the Institute for Intellectual Cooperation sponsored by the League of Nations.  In early 1926 she left for Paris and a new life of entirely self-imposed exile from her native land.

Alcayaga spent the rest of her life combining her work as a poet and essayist with that of a lecturer on education-related subjects and, from 1932 onward, as Chilean consul in cities including Naples, Lisbon, Los Angeles and New York.  Her third volume of poetry, titled Tala, appeared in 1938, with all proceeds from its sale being donated to children orphaned in the Spanish Civil War.  In November 1945 she made history by becoming the first Latin American writer to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, an honour that her former pupil Pablo Neruda would also receive in 1971.  

An enthusiastic traveler throughout her life, failing health eventually forced Alcayaga to settle in the New York town of Roslyn with her final female partner Doris Dana.  She was transferred from Roslyn to Hempstead Hospital in New York City where she died, of pancreatic cancer, on 10 January 1957 with Dana, who had been named her literary executor, at her bedside.  Her body was returned to Chile, with its government declaring three days of national mourning which saw her remains visited by thousands of Chileans who rightly considered her a champion of the poor and underprivileged and a legitimate national treasure.

Click HERE to read more poems by Chilean poet, essayist, educator and diplomat GABRIELA MISTRAL posted on the website of the Poetry Foundation.

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Thursday, 30 April 2020


3 December 1857 – 3 August 1924

Joseph Conrad, who was born Józef Teodor Konrad Nalecz Korzeniowski on 3 December 1857 in what had recently become the Ukrainian city of Berdyczów, is now considered to be one of the key figures of early literary Modernism, a novelist whose work became a profound influence on many of the writers –– André Gide (who was for a time his French translator), Virginia Woolf, William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway to name just four –– who would themselves go on to become important novelists in the years preceding and following World War One.  While Conrad is perhaps best remembered today as the author of the groundbreaking 1899 novella The Heart of Darkness, it was in his full scale novels Lord Jim (1900), Nostromo (1904), The Secret Agent (1907) and Under Western Eyes (1911) that he truly pushed the boundaries of the form, creating ironic, multi-layered narratives which dragged the English novel out of its cosy Victorian rectitude into what would prove to be a bleak and frequently terrifying new century.  

That Conrad, a Pole by birth whose second language was French, achieved this by writing in his third language (or fourth as there is evidence to suggest that he was also fluent in German) was nothing short of miraculous, as was his apparently instinctual understanding of evil and heroism and the vital role that integrity and personal responsibility play in all human undertakings.  He is the subject of innumerable works of criticism and at least half a dozen major biographies, with the numbers of each growing by the year as critics, cultural as well as literary, continue to mine his work for clues to the various moral and political dilemmas the world still finds itself confronted by today.

Pelican/Penguin Books UK, 1971
JOCELYN BAINES Joseph Conrad: A Critical Biography (1960)

Unlike most literary biographers, Jocelyn Baines was not an academic as such.  He was born in London in the same year that his one and only biographical subject died and worked for most of his professional life as an antiquarian bookseller, leaving that honourable profession for a brief stint as an editor at the English publishing firm of Longmans, Green.  Although he read law at Oxford University and obtained an English degree, his study of Conrad's life –– the first major English biography of the novelist to appear in almost forty years –– is anything but donnish.   

The book is divided into fourteen chapters, each of which is further subdivided into sections to facilitate the reading experience and ensure the presentation of facts never becomes so relentless that they can not be easily assimilated.  While this may seem a trivial observation, it is not.  Many literary biographies, particularly those which focus on towering figures like Conrad, can quickly become a drain on the reader's endurance, turning what should be a pleasurable and informative experience into a dull unedifying chore.  Baines presents the facts of Conrad's life –– his birth in a section of Poland which had recently been annexed by Russia, the exile of his father for reasons of political expediency and the deaths of both his parents while he was still a young boy, his struggle to go to sea against the wishes of his autocratic uncle first in France and eventually in England, his gaining of his first (and only) maritime command and subsequent desertion of the sea for what became the even more uncertain career of professional writer –– in a clear straightforward manner, providing enough in the way of supplementary detail to convincingly recreate what, even by action-packed nineteenth and early twentieth century standards, was an extraordinarily rich and fascinating life.  

Baines does this, in part, by including a generous selection of quotations drawn from the hundreds if not thousands of letters Conrad wrote throughout his life, including those composed in French to people like Marguerite Poradowska, the Polish-born Belgian novelist who was his maternal cousin by marriage and the woman, nine years his senior, whom he may have unsuccessfully proposed to before marrying Jessie George, eldest daughter of his London landlady, in March 1896.  (Unfortunately, the letters written in French are untranslated, an oversight which should have been corrected in the reprinted edition of the book published in 1993.)  By allowing Conrad to tell key parts of his own story in his own words, Baines provides the reader with unusually lucid insights into his subject's character, state of mind and literary preoccupations.  He also has a gift for analysing Conrad's novels without becoming mired in esoteric academic language, of which his comments about Under Western Eyes should serve as a typically concise example:

There is a very successful attempt to present what Razumov [the novel's protagonist] thought … indeed, the characters in Under Western Eyes are more subtly and convincingly developed than those in any other of Conrad's novels.  Razumov himself is the most considerable character that Conrad created; his thoughts, words, and actions reveal depths of personality which show that Conrad succeeded in identifying himself imaginatively with him. 

While Joseph Conrad: A Critical Biography is not the most erudite book ever published about this great and still much studied novelist, it remains one of the more accessible in terms of style and length.  It is also something practically never encountered in today's cut-throat and rapidly shrinking book market –– a reliable, uncondescending biography written for the non-specialist by a fellow (passionate and well-read) non-specialist that I would unhesitatingly recommend to anybody seeking to broaden their knowledge of Conrad's life as a means of acquiring a deeper understanding of his fiction. 

Joseph Conrad: A Critical Biography is no longer in print.  The Amazon-owned used bookseller ABE Books has many copies available on its website.

Ecco Press, 1989
FORD MADOX FORD Joseph Conrad: A Personal Remembrance (1924)

'He was small rather than large in height,' Ford Madox Ford states in the opening paragraph of the 'monograph' he published about his friend and collaborator shortly after Conrad's death on 3 August 1924, '…very broad in the shoulder and long in the arm; dark in complexion with black hair and a clipped black beard.  He had the gestures of a Frenchman who shrugs his shoulders frequently.  When you had really secured his attention he would insert a monocle into his right eye and scrutinise your face from very near as a watchmaker looks into the works of a watchHe entered a room with his head held high, rather stiffly and with a haughty manner, moving his head once semicircularly.  In this one movement he had expressed to himself the room and its contents; his haughtiness was due to his determination to master that room, not to dominate its occupants, his chief passion being the realisation of aspects of himself.'  This is an astonishingly vivid description of Conrad the human being as opposed to Conrad the literary icon, entirely characteristic of Ford and what he set out to achieve in this short, affectionate, elegantly composed memoir. 

Ford was the perfect person to write such a book, having collaborated with Conrad on three 'minor' novels –– The Inheritors (1901), Romance (1903) and The Nature of a Crime (written in 1906 but published, like this memoir, in 1924) –– after being introduced to him in 1898 by Conrad's friend and literary advisor Edward Garnett.  Theirs quickly became a mutually instructive friendship which naturally lent itself to collaboration and the devising of a literary technique they dubbed 'progression d'effet' or, in English, progression of effect.  'In writing a novel,' Ford explains, 'we agreed that every word set on paper –– every word set on paper –– must carry the story forward and, that as the story progressed, the story must be carried forward faster and faster and with more and more intensity.'  This method of writing, which became a core principle of what would come to be known as literary impressionism (and the modern spy and detective novel), is now considered to be one of Conrad's most essential contributions to Western literature –– a contribution it may have been impossible for him to make had he not met and worked so closely with the man he originally knew as Ford Madox Hueffer.  (Ford changed his surname after World War One in an effort to reinvent himself following his military service in the trenches of France and the entirely understandable nervous breakdown he suffered as a result of that altogether horrific experience.)

Although their friendship was no longer as strong by 1909 –– it became strained after they quarrelled about Conrad's contributions to The English Review, a new periodical that Ford was editing at the time, and was further compromised by the affair the still-married Ford had recently begun with journalist Violet Hunt –– Ford's genuine affection for Conrad and his memories of the many hours they spent discussing the art and practise of writing at Pent Farm in rural Kent shines through in every word.  It closes with a moving addendum, composed in (again untranslated) French, of Ford's thoughts written immediately after learning of Conrad's death that originally appeared in the Journal Littéraire on 26 August 1924.

As generous and laudatory as it is, Ford's memoir was vehemently disliked by the widow of his friend and former collaborator.  Jessie Conrad –– who would go on to write several newspaper articles and two interesting if unreliable memoirs of her own about the husband whose genius she claimed not to have understood –– never warmed to Ford, whom she considered too bohemian in his outlook in addition to being a shameless exploiter of Conrad's overly generous nature.  She publicly criticized Ford after his memoir appeared, going so far as to describe his reminiscences as 'detestable' to one Fleet Street journalist.  

Personally, I think Mrs Conrad got it wrong.  For all his faults, of which he possessed as many as the next person, Ford could not count insincerity or the failure to pay his friends due homage among them.  A Personal Remembrance stands as an eloquent heartfelt tribute to a man he genuinely respected and admired and what they accomplished as novelists both individually and collectively. 

Joseph Conrad: A Personal Remembrance is still in print and should be obtainable from your local library, bookstore or preferred online retailer.  

Joseph Conrad As I Knew Him (1927) and Joseph Conrad and His Circle (1935), both written by JESSIE CONRAD, are long out of print, as is Joseph Conrad: Times Remembered the better memoir by the writer's youngest son JOHN CONRAD published by the Cambridge University Press in 1981.  The Amazon-owned used bookseller ABE Books has many copies of the latter available on its website. 

Farrar Straus Giroux first US edition, 1979
FREDERICK R KARL Joseph Conrad: The Three Lives (1979)

It is hard to believe that this was only the third Conrad biography published since his death, following the previously mentioned work by Jocelyn Baines and Gérard Jean-Aubry's Joseph Conrad: Life and Letters (1927) and Vie de Conrad (1947, translated ten years later as The Sea-Dreamer: A Definitive Biography of Joseph Conrad).  What Baines lacked in detail and Jean-Aubry lacked in verisimilitude –– although he knew Conrad and translated much of his work into French, the Frenchman had a worrying tendency to extrapolate Conrad's fiction into his life and vice versa, making many of his claims and assumptions unreliable –– Frederick R Karl more than made up for in this massive tome, a book which remains one of the truly great author biographies ever published and a landmark of modern literary scholarship.

A critic of no small repute and a published novelist in his own right, Karl combines extensive research with a keen appreciation of Conrad's literary achievements and scrupulous analysis of his subject's novels, short stories, memoirs and even the three plays he wrote in his always urgent quest to obtain a steady source of income for his family.  He depicts Conrad's life as a voyage of discovery divided into three distinct but overlapping phases –– the young self-exiled Pole struggling to find a purpose and make his way in the world, the apprentice seaman who taught himself to speak and read English and rose through the ranks of the British merchant service to become master of the Otago in 1885 only to be denied the captaincy he undoubtedly deserved, and finally the writer who faced a different kind of struggle to earn enough by his pen to support his ailing wife and sons.  Building upon what was unearthed by Conrad's previous biographers, Karl refutes many of their unsubstantiated claims (particularly those of Jean-Aubry) while confirming and elaborating on others, doing it all in a style that never patronises the reader or becomes so academic as to become off-putting or tedious to read.  He is refreshingly honest about the uneven quality of much of Conrad's later output, unafraid to state which, in his view, are his important works and which, like his last published novel The Rover (1923), would probably not have seen the light of day had their author not been so chronically strapped for cash throughout so much of his career. 

The Three Lives was recognised as the masterpiece it is by many leading reviewers of the day, including Anthony Burgess who described it as '…a model of American scholarship in which not even the most recherché reference has gone unresearchedIt tells the story of a very sad man, a hopeless warrior, and of the heroinism of a wife who… suffered not only in herself but for him.'  There have, of course, been many other Conrad biographies published since 1979 but none, I dare to venture, that compare with Professor Karl's work in terms of erudition and sheer attention to detail.  

Joseph Conrad: The Three Lives is no longer in print.  The Amazon-owned used bookseller ABE Books has many copies available on its website. 

FREDERICK R KARL was the co-editor, along with his colleague LAURENCE DAVIES, of The Collected Letters of Joseph Conrad which were published in nine volumes by the Cambridge University Press between 1983 and 2007.

Oxford University Press, 2000
OWEN KNOWLES and GENE MOORE Oxford Reader's Companion to Conrad (2000)

This slim but densely packed book, first published in hardback by the Oxford University Press in 2000, is very aptly named.  Edited by two of the world's leading Conrad scholars, with contributions from four of their colleagues including Zdzislaw Najder who was Conrad's first Polish biographer, it delivers exactly what its title promises –– an easy to use, cross-referenced guide to its subject's life and career which provides effective short analyses of all his published works (no story, tale, novel, play or significant piece of journalism or non-fiction is omitted), including summaries of their plots, overviews of past and current critical responses along with many helpful suggestions for further reading.  

This is the book I find myself automatically reaching for when I need clarification of a particular point of Conrad's life or work.  (This post would have been difficult to write without it.)  It is informative, concise and helpfully separated into categories like 'Private Life and Attitudes,' 'Reputation' and 'Critical Approaches' which make it an indispensable research tool for the scholar and non-specialist alike.  It also contains a well-structured chronology, a family tree and four maps of, respectively, Conrad's divided Poland, Conrad's Malay Archipelago (the setting for Lord Jim and much of his finest short fiction), the River Congo (the setting for The Heart of Darkness and a river he personally navigated in 1890 as first mate of the paddle steamer Roi des Belges) and his various Homes in southeast England.  What more could any Conrad enthusiast reasonably expect from a reference book?  This truly is a work designed for the so-called 'ordinary reader' (if there is such a thing), dating from a time before the internet became the preferred source of information not just about literature but about everything else on our factoid obsessed planet. 

The Oxford Reader's Companion to Joseph Conrad is still in print (in paperback only) and should be obtainable from your local library, bookstore or preferred online retailer.

Click HERE to visit the THE JOSEPH CONRAD SOCIETY, a UK-based organisation (with an allied branch in the United States) devoted to 'the study of all aspects of the writings and life of Joseph Conrad' which aims to 'provide a forum and resource for Conrad scholars throughout the world and those with a strong interest in things Conradian.'

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JOSEPH CONRAD The Secret Agent: A Simple Tale (1907)
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FORD MADOX FORD A Call: The Tale of Two Passions (1910)

Tuesday, 21 April 2020

WORDS FOR THE MUSIC #17: Sandy Denny

6 January 1947 – 21 April 1978

John Peel Session – BBC Radio
11 September 1973


Across the evening sky 
All the birds are leaving
But how they can know 
It's time for them to go
Before the winter fire 
I shall still be dreaming
I do not count the time

For who knows where the time goes?
Who knows where the time goes?

Sad deserted shore 
Your fickle friends are leaving
Ah but then you know 
It's time for them to go
But I shall still be here 
I have no thought of leaving
I have no thought of time

For who knows where the time goes?
Who knows where the time goes?

And I am not alone 
While my love is near me
And I know it shall be so 
Until it's time to go
So come the storms of winter 
And then the birds in spring again
I do not fear the time

For who knows how my love grows?
And who knows where the time goes?

Words and music by Sandy Denny
© 1967 Sony/ATV & Universal Music Publishing

The Songwriter:  Alexandra Elene MacLean Denny, who was born in the London suburb of Merton Park on 6 January 1947, was another supremely gifted human being who proved unable to curb her appetite for wilful self-destruction.  Her 1978 death, several weeks after falling down a flight of stairs in the Cornwall holiday home belonging to her parents, was the culmination of years of protracted drug and alcohol abuse and came as a profound if not entirely unexpected shock to her friends and ex-bandmates in The Strawbs, Fairport Convention and Fotheringay.  As Dave Swarbrick, one of those former bandmates, recalled: '…Looking back I think she was suffering from some kind of post-natal problem.  I very much regret that it wasn't picked up by me.  She was drinking and taking coke and smoking dope.  She wasn't happy in her marriage; it wasn't going anywhere but down.  I think suspicion ate her.  I feel as if she left mid-sentence and I mourn her leaving almost daily.'

While Denny's is not a story of talent completely wasted –– she made dozens of fine recordings, many of which are justifiably considered to be impeccable examples of traditional British folk and folk-rock at their finest –– it is a story of talent misdirected and, to a certain degree, misunderstood by her various record companies and, more tragically, by herself.  Her career always seemed to lack a clear sense of direction, costing her the opportunity to become the household name that everyone who worked with her agreed she deserved to become.

Who Knows Where The Times Goes? is possibly her most famous original song, a haunting blend of her majestically expressive voice, a subtle modal melody and her restrained poetic lyrics.  It is the seamless blending of these elements which make the song so powerful, evoking a mood of aching wistfulness that lingers in the mind long after its final note has faded.  

For me Denny's lyrics can stand comparison with the work of great English poets like Thomas Hardy and AE Housman. There is a similar emphasis on contrasting the behaviour of the natural world with the narrator's state of mind, the passing of the seasons directly equated with the inevitable passing of time.  The imagery is as sparse as the music, demanding the listener's attention and retaining it at the same intense level from beginning to end.  Very few singers are capable of achieving this using only their voice and an acoustic guitar.  Many try, but few succeed because a special kind of talent is required –– a talent the sorely missed Sandy Denny possessed in obvious abundance.

Click HERE to visit the website of British singer/songwriter SANDY DENNY (1947–1978).

Special thanks to everyone who takes the time to upload music to YouTube.  Your efforts are appreciated by music lovers everywhere.

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WORDS FOR THE MUSIC #9: Victoria Wood