Edward Burra lived just up the coast- at Playden on the outskirts of Rye. I'm currently reading his biography by Jane Stevenson. It was a peculiar life. He was the frail little man sitting in the corner of the nightclub, cafe or dive, with a bunch of glamorous mates- making the odd witty remark- and drinking everything in. Photographic memory, says Stevenson. Otherwise, when he wasn't ill in bed, he was sitting at a table- with pencil or paintbrush shoved into his arthritic hands- producing the watercolours that can now sell for millions.  It was only when he was painting, he said, that he could shut out the pain.

He had rheumatoid arthritis and an inherited blood disease. He was scurrilous, kindly, asexual. The critics had and have a hard time pigeon-holing him. Unlike most British modernist painters he wasn't afraid of colour. His friend and mentor Paul Nash co-opted him into surrealism and he sort of shrugged and went "If it gets my work into exhibitions I'll be a surrealist" but he wouldn't, couldn't work to a programme. His early work is cheery if a little peculiar but then war cut across his psyche- the Spanish Civil War and then the World War- and he became a war artist- but not a chronicler of  what happens on the outside when there's a war going on but of what happens on the inside. Lumpy, deformed figures, cowled or masked, are engaged in unpleasant pursuits that need some explaining. Only explanation there will be none. He didn't like giving his pictures names. Or talking about them at all.  He was a just the channel . Let others interpret. There's a documentary made when he was in his sixties in which he sits and is sulky and swats away the interviewer's questions like they were mosquitoes. "I never tell anytone anything," he says. And then he smiles.

Towards the end of his life (he died in 1976) he turned to landscape. Andrew Graham Dixon says this is when he stopped being an observer and was gathered up into the quiddity of things,- and death was no longer something that occured to other people but the fog that was rising up over the hill he was being driven towards. He never learned to drive, of course. How could he? There was always someone else at the wheel.

I look at his work and think, "Does this stuff repel me or do I love it immoderately?" I can't work him out...

But I'll go on trying


"Why am I not asleep?" I asked the universe at 2.45 this morning. "Please let me be asleep."

"Did you know," replied the universe, "That 'asleep' is an anagram of 'please'?"

"So it is," I said, as I checked to be sure.  "How jolly."

And I started composing this post in my head.

"To answer the question that started this conversation,"said the universe,"Your mother is about to call you to help her use the commode so what would have been the point? Hearken! There she is now..."


Night Vision

I woke in the night and my bedside clock was displaying the numbers 1.11. "Wow," I thought- "A symbol of the Trinity- three in one and one in three- also of the Egyptian Triad, Isis, Osiris, Horus. Surely I've been seeing those numbers everywhere recently. It must mean something...." On getting up I wasn't so sure about any of this- but as I took my shower (always a good time and place for inspirational thought) I reflected that my nighttime self- which is constantly popping off onto the astral- and beyond- may well be better attuned to ultimate reality than my daytime self which isn't.

Last night- as most nights- I slept fitfully. Once, earlier or later- there was thunder and lightning and a heavy downpour. Another time-  earlier or later- I came out of a dream in which I had been revisiting my old school chapel. The chapel is a Victorian gothic building, narrow and spectacularly high, modelled, I'm told, on the cathedral at Amiens. In the dream it was smaller, more intimate, with painted walls and velvet hangings.  I went into a side chapel expecting to see Graham Sutherland's huge tapestry of Christ in Glory  (which in mundane reality hangs behind the high altar of Coventry cathedral) only to find it had been covered over. 

Yes, But, However...

It's nice to see that world-bestriding corporation Amazon is still vulnerable to the requirements (with menaces) of small sovereign states.

But when the state happens to be the medieval autocracy known as the UAE and the requirement is that Amazon censor the LGBTQ+ content on its platforms one wishes it had shown a little more backbone.

Still, there's a lesson here for the rest of us if we care to take it on board: hit the bastards in the pocket and they fold.

Another Problem

Another problem with historical fiction is the one pinpointed by Imogen Hermes Gowar in her Guardian review of Jessie Burton's new novel The House of Fortune. Burton's characters she says, "read sometimes like expats from the 21st century, coolly reflecting on the culture they exist alongside, internalising none of it."

But how could it ever be otherwise? People in the past had their heads filled with all sorts of junk that no longer interests us- and we too have our heads filled with all sorts of junk that they would have found incomprehensible. Giving their junk full weight while rigorously keping our junk out of the picture- even if it were possible- would result in historical fiction that no-one would care to engage with- dead-alive stuff, insufferably antiquarian and boring.

All fiction- historical and otherwise is of its time. It's talking to us, not to our ancestors. It's about our junk not theirs. Jessie Burton isn't going to show us what it felt like to live in 18th century Amsterdam- and we wouldn't thank her if she did-  only what 18th century Amsterdam looks like to a mind that is aware of everything- and it's an awful lot- that has happened since. By the same token Catriona (which I've just finished) shows us 18th century Scotland (and Holland as it happens) through the eyes of a hero who writes in a colourful late romantic style and whose values- regarding sex and honour in particular- are staunchly and stuffily Victorian. Historical fiction is always about the present day- and how it measures up against the past. If you want to know what it actually felt like to be alive in the 18th century then read Henry Fielding or Lawrence Sterne. I did- a long time ago- and it was hard work.

Fighting Is One Thing, Hatred Quite Another

We live in duality. For every yea there's a nay and for every utopia a dystopia- and the person you think dystopian thinks they're utopian and you're dystopian. It's a free world- and you can hate those whose opinions you deplore if that's what you really want to do but hate just leads to more hate- and hate corrodes the hater. What Jesus said is the only sane way forward: "Love your enemies".

"How can you be a Christian and also kill people?" I once asked a retired General who'd come to sermonize at our school. I forget his exact words but the gist of them was, "You can love a person even as you're fighting them." I've been thinking about this ever since...

Old Folks

Paul McCartney (80) just played a three hour set at Glasto, the surviving Stones (75 and over) are touring again, while Madonna (63) has been outraging the easily outraged (as ever) by miming cunnilingus on stage with Tokischa (who is young enough to be her grand daughter.)

Ain't it nice to see the old folks having fun.

One Of Two

I had two dreams last night I wanted to remember but the first of them has escaped me. Here's the second.

I'm an inmate at a Reform School and have been given the job of stripping wallpaper from the rooms in the attic. Another inmate- older and bigger than me- steps in and removes the plaster as well- revealing an ancient wall with blind arches in it. I am aghast, afraid I'll get into trouble for exceeding orders. "Lets put it to the Governor" the other guy suggests. "He'll take your side because your crimes were less heinous than mine- though the drug dealer you were involved with did die eventually." By now I'm coming round to his way of thinking. The wall with the blind arches is very much to my taste. "What can be more heinous than murder?" I ask...

An Insoluble Problem?

A problem with historical fiction is that your fictional characters can only ever operate at the margins of the great historical events they get caught up in. Marat must die but it will always be Charlotte Corday who kills him and not the fictional heroine you've placed in the house next door, while this same heroine's plan to rescue Marie Antoinette from the scaffold is always going to fail- and leave not a trace behind.  In Stevenson's Kidnapped and Catriona David Balfour is heavily implicated in the murder of Colin Campbell and the judicial murder of James Stewart that follows but for all the running around he does remains without agency. He bangs up against real people, takes them to task and outwits them- and all to no effect. He huffs and he puffs and nothing happens. He can't help but be a shadow, a figment, an airy nothing.

One way round the problem is to fictionalise an actual historical personage, the way Hilary Mantell does in her Cromwell books, turning that piggy-eyed butcher into someone a modern reader can feel for. Another is to do as A.S. Byatt does in Possession and The Children's Book and rub out a historical person  and insert your fictional creation in their place. So out goes E. Nesbit and in comes the fictional Olive Wellwood who lives something very like Nesbit's life, filling her place in the historical record, without exactly needing to be her.  Neither strategy pleases me greatly. I find them disrespectful...


Catriona begins exactly where Kidnapped breaks off. It has never been as popular as its predecessor- and that's unsurprising given that it's full of politicians and lawyers whose canny talk is entertaining but not  as breathlessly entertaining as being in company with Alan Breck Stewart and having to fight for your life on board a hell ship and flee from red coats across the heather. Besides, the plot  is complicated- and there are too many people called James and too many people called Stewart and it's easy to confuse and conflate them.  I'm about halfway through, Alan Breck Stewart has reappeared (hooray!) and he and Davie are having a lively time (at last).  I got out my map book and located all the towns and villages  they pass through as they try to evade pursuit  along the coast of East Lothian. I do like a book that has real places in it...