Poetry Comics

For several years I wrote poems and published them in newspapers, magazines and anthologies. Then the mood passed, I stopped and turned to prose. Until recently.

A friend who is an artist wanted a poem to illustrate and checked a few of them out. She chose Philosophy is Forced Upon the Frog and submitted her work for inclusion in a new book; Over The Line, an introduction to poetry comics, edited by Chrissy Williams and Tom Humberstone.


Their book not only contains a varied selection of poems illustrated in ‘comic’ manner but also an excellent introduction to the subject. Since I knew nothing about it, I learned a lot. So I now have a new addition to the shelf with my work in it and learned today that Over The LIne is up for a Saboteur Award (Best Anthology category).


The friend is Zyzanna Dominiak and this is her work.

frog 1

In the fourth frame Zyzanna has neatly subverted my negative conclusion (We’re doomed!) by the introduction of hope in the shape of tadpoles. Good for her.

frog 2


Art and China

BBC 4 recently broadcast a series of programmes on Chinese art presented by Andrew Graham-Dixon. It is not possible to cover this subject in three hours, but Graham-Dixon attempted to do it by going for what might be called the essential underlying ideas. Though each of the three programmes was excellent in itself, I don’t think the grand plan worked since so much was left out. For me, the most enlightening programme was the first since it covered recent research into the earliest periods of Chinese art. These had largely passed me by because the sources on which I have relied do not cover it.

The first of these sources is ‘Chinese Painting An Expression of a Civilization’, by Nicole Vandier-Nicolas. In order to account for Chinese art, the author has provided a history of China along the way. Despite her strong academic credentials there is, unaccountably, not a single word about her anywhere on the outside or inside covers, so it is worth pointing out that she was Professor in Chinese Art at the Ecole du Louvre and Professor of Chinese civilization at the National School of Modern Oriental Languages.

The second source is that wonderful book by Lin Yutang, ‘The Chinese Theory of Art, Translations from the Masters of Chinese Art.’ The quotations range from the sixth century BC to the eighteenth century and we are helped throughout by Lin Yutang’s explanations. What a labour of love this book is. If we really want to understand Chinese art, not just in itself but in its social context, this title is essential reading. I believe it is about to be re-published, and not before time.

That said, back to the programmes. The first dealt with Sanxingdui, located in the city of Guanghan, 40 km from Chengdu in the Sichuan Province. The first finds were made in 1929 but the bulk of what we now have was discovered in two pits in 1986. As far as is known, this culture was largely self-contained and wrote nothing down. So we are left to infer from their art what they may have been like. For example, one of the artefacts appears to be a tree of life, which may give a clue as to their beliefs. Then again  . . .



There have been other cultures like this and they do not tend to do well in the long view. Having no story they have no history either. The Picts, who lived in north-east Scotland, were masters of stone carving and finely crafted silver jewellery, but they did not write. So when they came into conflict with the Scots, who had a written culture, they were likely to lose out in the end. Unlike the people of Sanxingdui, the Picts had weapons and we know from non-Pictish sources that they used them when they had to. But now, like the people of Sanxingdui, they are the subject of much speculation and conjecture because they left no written records to guide us.

A cautionary note. Having a written culture does not of itself guarantee success. The first known example of an alphabet was developed by the Ougarit, who lived close enough both to the Hittites and the Egyptians to be under their sway from time to time.  And what happened to them? Their culture was destroyed by ‘the people of the sea’, who appear to have been the local equivalent of the Vikings – given to rape, pillage, looting and destruction.  What’s mine is mine, what’s yours is mine. Including your life. The Ougarit are less well known than they should be because the archaeologists studying them are French and, guess what, just like Nicole Vandier-Nicolas they write in their native language! Good for them, I say. (A search in English should be made under Ugarit.)

I believe that Chinese script is the only remaining hieroglyphic language. It could be argued that it leaves a lot to be desired: who is going to master 50,000 different characters? But it does have advantages. Since it uses ideograms and is not connected in any way with pronunciation, it has remained comprehensible for thousands of years to all who use it, regardless of their dialect or the many changes in pronunciation which have taken place.

Just as important, and more so when considering Chinese art, is the fact that calligraphy is itself an art. Can you control your brush and ink and still let it flow? If not, resort to Zen and the art of calligraphy or, failing that, the hip flask. We have only to look at the use of calligraphy in Chinese (and Japanese) art to see how important it is. For example, the painting may illustrate a poem, part of which is included in the picture to aid the viewer. Which means that unless you can understand the calligraphy then you cannot fully appreciate the picture.

And lastly, a little wrinkle. I have read that dyslexia is not a problem among the Chinese precisely because they do not use an alphabet. Chinese characters, which may be classed as ideograms – or pictograms at one remove – do not pose the problems to some that letters of the alphabet do. Not that I would advocate learning Chinese to work round the problem, even though here where I live we are fortunate to have a Confucius Institute.



Two Dogs, One Bishop

My friend Fiona is an artist who, among other things, paints portraits of horses. So it was not surprising that she went to a horse fair with her dog, Fly. There she met her friend Cynthia, who was also accompanied by her dog. So far, so good – we have the two dogs.

As these ladies were sitting chatting on a grassy knoll, who should appear but the Right Reverend Doctor Robert Gillies, Bishop of Aberdeen and Orkney. (Robert is a bishop of the Scottish Episcopal Church.)

As he progressed around the fair he took time out to bless the two dogs, which got me thinking. Were these two animals any better – or even any different – than they had been before achieving their blesséd status? And, here’s a tricky one for the theologians, would their souls ascend to heaven when they died, now that they had been blessed?

But possibly the most important of these questions was this: why had the bishop blessed the dogs but not their owners? Were Fiona and Cynthia not in need of blessing? Fiona, after all, has been known to partake of gin – an accusation which could not be leveled at Fly.

I can’t help visualising the scene as a Victorian narrative painting, with the bishop in his robes stretching out the ecclesiastical arm as he blesses the dogs, each of the fortunate animals have the slight but perceptible glow of a halo as they look up at their spiritual benefactor.

Okay, maybe not a halo, but a dog collar at least.

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Life imitating art

I recently published a novel called Time to Talk and today I find an article under the heading ‘Talking literally saved my life’. The story is about Jonny Benjamin, a mental health campaigner who has had ‘schizoaffective disorder’ – defined in the article as a combination of schizophrenia and depression.

A panel within the article is headed ‘It’s Time to Talk’. In it we learn that Time to Change is an anti-stigma programme run by leading mental health charities Mind and Rethink. Time to Change ‘is holding the first national Time To Talk Day’ with the aim of starting ‘a million conversations about mental health’. Good luck with that.

Last week I discovered that my narrator, Max, has found his way into a dissertation. In the likely event you think I’m making this up, the subject was resilience considered from a transactional analysis point of view and the method of questioning used with respondents was interpretative phenomenological analysis. (Don’t ask me, I just live here!)

According to several sources, one being the BBC News website, scientists from Sydney University have come to the view that shivering for 10-15 minutes a day could be equivalent to doing an hour of exercise. ‘They found that the process triggered hormonal changes producing brown fat – which burns energy to keep warm.’

In my forthcoming book, A Serious Business, one of the characters is already using this technique. ‘Ah yes,’ I hear you say, ‘but your book’s not out yet. Maybe art is copying life here?’ At this point I have to reveal that I finished the first draft in November  2006. Right, so what on earth have I been doing since then?

Revising. It’s a long story, but it’s shorter now.

Alice looked bemused. ‘And who came up with this one?’
‘Jefferson P Dangerfield, an America vet. You’ll find his recent best-seller in June’s drawer beside the biscuits: The Keep Cool Weight Loss Program, Homeostasis and Health.’

And finally, as they used to say introducing a ‘human interest’ story to round off the news, and finally I have to report that my character, Max Frei, has had a geranium named after him. It doesn’t get better than that.  Where’s your Nobel prize for literature now?


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Bush with Blackbird

[This is the latest in an occasional series offering titles to artists.]

The bush was not tall and I estimate the blackbird was sitting on short branch some six feet from the ground. Also in the bush was a bird feeder of a type which small birds could use – coal tits, for example – but a blackbird or robin could not. Part of the feeder consisted of yellow plastic, calling to mind the colour of the blackbird’s beak. The bird’s head was pointing towards the feeder.


The painter would impart a feeling of cold to this picture. Being mid-December the pickings are slim, the outlook for the blackbird bleak. It is contemplating the feeder, knowing what is in it but also knowing it can do nothing about it. The blackbird has come to a conclusion: the fact that there is a problem does not mean there is a solution.

[Though robins will take a keen interest in what you’re doing, blackbirds are unique in my experience in that they will actively seek help when the ground is frozen and they’ve run out of food. Even the beautiful pheasant who used to visit me every morning did not do this.]

Six Rules for Spotting Great Art

These were in article I read. The purpose of the the article was to help those who wanted to buy art as an investment – not something I would ever do.
That said, here are the rules.

1 Choose the work of an artist with an identifiable style.                                          This one is so obvious I’d thought of it myself and included it in a forthcoming book.

2 Choose an artist with a sophisticated technique.                                                      The explanation given as to what this actually means has nothing to do with technique, so I am none the wiser.

3 The artist should use quality materials.                                                                           This makes sense. You don’t want the colour to start fading a month after you bought the piece.

4 Commitment.                                                                                                                      An artist may have produced first rate work but you want to know that he/she will continue to do so.  This has absolutely nothing to do with the quality of the work to date and everything to do with the artist boosting his/her profile and, with it, the value of the work.

5 Professionalism.                                                                                                               The sole sign of this offered in the article is that the artist is not emotionally tied to the work but willing to sell. This suggests a solution to a problem which does not exist. If the artist is unwilling to sell then you wouldn’t be buying in the first place.

6 The enthusiasm of experts.                                                                                              The category of expert mentioned is the art college tutor. Presumably art critcs come into it too, and owners of art galleries. I am now looking for my bow tie.

Some artists were given as examples: Alice Dyba, Agata Czeremuszkin-Chrut, Brian Cheeswright, Bartosz Beda, Rebecca Fontaine-Wolf and Slavomir Zombek.

There is an additional section on buying online, which I find inconceivable, since colour rendition cannot be trusted this way and texture is a problem. Buying art without seeing the real thing does not strike me as a sharp idea.

The author of the article was Sarah Ryan.

A picture is worth a thousand words

‘The camera never lies’, a statement which is plainly untrue. There is reason to believe that Alexander Gardner improved on what his camera saw before taking certain pictures of war dead during the American Civil War, and darkroom techniques for manipulating images were common decades before Photoshop was thought of. Sometimes the image is manipulated for artistic purposes, no attempt being made to conceal the fact, but when a photographer screws a rainbow filter to the business end of his lens, the camera is made to lie. And by the simple expedient of pointing the camera to exclude information visible to the photographer, the camera is prevented from telling the whole truth. Fortunately, most people don’t seem to believe that the camera never lies, popular as the saying has been.

More pernicious altogether is the statement, ‘A picture is worth a thousand words.’ A Stockholm photographer uses it as the title of her blog. There may be occasions when it is true, but there are many where it is not. There are various ways of testing this idea. Dreams are a series of pictures, but often the dreamer has no idea what the dream signifies. In his book, ‘The Interpretation of Dreams’, Freud placed great emphasis on the use of words as a way into deciphering what a dream might mean. His advice was to write down what had been dreamt as soon as possible before the memory of it faded, the starting point of the interpretation being the specific words of the written account. (As for whether dreams tell the future, Xenophon had it cracked. His advice was to wait and see.)

Or consider how people react to a camera when they are aware of it. We want to know how Aunt Mildred was when she was celebrating her eightieth birthday in the eventide home. A picture or two will do the trick. Or will they? She looks happy. Good. That’s nice to see. But did she really feel like smiling for the camera when her nephew pointed it at her and said ‘cheese’? And looking over the family photograph album there is a marked lack of down looks. Why is that? Did it never rain? What were these people on?

Which brings us to the question of Aunt Mildred’s false teeth. She normally finds them too much of a chore to bother with and keeps them in a tobacco tin in the top drawer of her bedside cabinet. But she’s flashing them at us in these pictures. In this case you could say that it isn’t the camera which is lying, but Aunt Mildred herself. But you could also say that people often alter their behaviour when a camera is pointed at them, and why would Aunt Mildred be any different?

Architectural photographers don’t have this problem – buildings don’t play up to the photographer. But here at Railroad Realty we want to move our properties, so what do we do? We make that puddle in front of the house look like a duck-pond and hold the property in trust for nation.

Moving on to the serious stuff, when it comes to developing an argument pictures can’t compete with words. Take an essay on existential philosophy and try recasting it as a series of visual images. Pictures have trouble dealing with concepts. They can’t deal with them at all. Which brings us back to Alexander Gardner. You can photograph a dead body alright, but how do you photograph death? You can’t. Concepts are invisible. Pictures can’t handle them, language can.