30 August 2009

Joe Orton and Leicester

The playwright Joe Orton (1933–67) was born into a working-class family in Leicester, UK, and is perhaps most noted for Entertaining Mr Sloane (1964) and Loot (1965). The family – his parents William and Elsie, John (later known as Joe), his brother Douglas and his sisters Marilyn and Leonie – moved to the Saffron Lane estate when the future writer was two years old. They lived in Fayrhurst Road, although the house has long since been demolished. A new house was built at 9 Fayrhurst about 20 years ago.

This house is occupied by Reg Salt, who used to know the Orton family:

Reg was the same age as Joe Orton, although he didn't go to the same school. He remembers Elsie's thick bottle-end glasses, and the City Arms pub a few hundred yards away from the house, at the end of Fayrhurst Road and on the other side of Saffron Lane, which is now the site of an Iceland supermarket.

Reg knew Joe when they were aged eleven and twelve, before Joe's sexual orientation was evident, although neighbours were obviously aware of a difference of some nature: the working-class child came across with a measure of superiority, and always carried pen and paper with him.

Leicester Town Council asked Reg if he had any objection to a commemorative plaque to Orton being erected on the house, Reg had none, and the plaque was put up without ceremony. And that was an initial problem, as Reg says that the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) objected to the fact that there had been no ceremony. As a consequence, Reg remembers, the GLF proposed, shortly after the installation of the plaque, that there be an official unveiling. Reg again had no objection to this, and the GLF unveiling took place, the only opposition being the wind. My sincere thanks to Reg Salt (who proudly shows his name tattoed on his fists) for his great hospitality, and for his appreciation of an outsider he refers to as 'a good lad'.

An exhibition entitled 'Ortonesque: Joe Orton 1933–1967' was shown at Leicester's New Walk Museum & Art Gallery from March to May, 2007, which included an event in which Joe's sister Leonie Orton–Barnett and Dr Francesca Coppa of Muhlenberg College, Allentown, PA, spoke about Orton's life in context.

Orton was a kind of anarchist who loved to shock people, and even in 2007 an advertisement for his exhibition had to warn: 'Please note: This exhibition contains strong language.' Best forewarned? How long is it since Lady Chatterley's Lover went legal? Oh yeah, four years before Orton died. Come on, please

29 August 2009

Susan Ketchin's The Christ-Haunted Landscape: Faith and Doubt in Southern Fiction

The Christ-Haunted Landscape: Faith and Doubt in Southern Fiction, by Susan Ketchin (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1994), is too good a book to leave on the sidelines, so initially I'll just describe its structure and post more about it in several weeks from now, as I've a bit more to write about Ted Hughes's (and Sylvia Plath's) Yorkshire, J. B. Priestley's Bradford, and a few other things of interest. Ketchin's book takes its half-title from a Flannery O'Connor comment, in which she describes the American South as not Christ-centred, but decidedly 'Christ-haunted'. Ketchin's book contains twelve religious-based pieces of fiction by Southern authors, and twelve interviews that she had with the same writers: Doris Betts, Sheila Bosworth, Larry Brown, Mary Ward Brown, Will Campbell, Harry Crews, Clyde Edgerton, Sandra Hollins Flowers, Allan Gurganus, Randall Kenan, Reynolds Price, and Lee Smith.

25 August 2009

A Celebration, and Robert Hughes Muses

Robert Hughes continues, relentlessly, to delve into his family history, which is also of course the history of Lionel Britton. Here, I let Robert do the thinking about this photo, merely adding a few words in square brackets to clarify where necessary:

'This picture is breathtaking: not because it shows great definition, but because the moment I saw it I instantly thought it had to be Marie–Antoinette [Thomas, wife of Samuel Thomas junior, Lionel Britton's maternal grandparents, with whom he and his siblings lived in Redditch for several years].

'I feel sure I have seen it before and simply had no idea who the people were, just Keebah [Bob, né Percy, Britton, Lionel's brother] when a young man, and some unknowns. Now after all this research it just leapt off the print at me. Just to make sure, I've been comparing it with other Marie pictures. Oddly enough, although it is a fairly convincing match with them, the real match is with my mother, of whom this picture reminds me. [...]. None of [my cousins] had ever been taken to see Irza [Britton, Lionel's mother] at all, and none had ever met Uncle Lionel, although Nicky knew all about his boat moored near Chertsey. (Nicky has always been a boating nut and they are just across the river from there to this day).

'Reading this image, I see one total certainty: Keebah in the middle. What would his age have been then? We think of guys with 'taches as fairly old, just as we would if we see them smoking a pipe, but I think in those days just about everyone had a 'tache unless they were male under twelve or female...maybe. As for pipes, I always remember my mother telling me Marie smoked one.

'The girl at top right could have been my Granny Maisie, but in that case I would tend to put the photo before the First World War.

'There is a bottle of champagne prominently displayed in the foreground. Let us suppose that Bob and Maisie were celebrating their engagement: wouldn't they be more centre stage?

'They went to Belgium by air at a time when this was a huge adventure, but I don't remember what the event was. Possibly it was a birthday for Marie, but it could also have been a wedding or something else. If this was Marie's 80th, she looks spry compared with the picture she sent out to her children and grandchildren: that image of which we have examples from at least three independent sources.

'Marie and Samuel Thomas do not appear on the 1911 census, and their house at 6 Hewell Rd [Redditch] is sold or rented out. Samuel dies the following year in Erquelinnes [in Belgium, where Samuel lived with Marie–Antoinette]. We have no real reason to suppose that Marie ever returned to England, so my best guess about this picture is that it was taken in Belgium. In that event I think we can rule out that it was taken any time between 1914 and 1918, because wasn't Belgium occupied by the Germans? What if this was Marie's 70th in about 1913, and Bob was 24? Alternatively, it could be the 80th and he was 34; or there is some other explanation.

'But I can't believe this is anybody other than Great-great-grandmother Marie-Antoinette.'

And a portrait of Bob/Keebah/Percy Britton.

24 August 2009

Rone Waugh Paints Lionel Britton

The Australian artist Rone Waugh is an admirer and a relative of the working-class writer Lionel Britton, and, inspired by Fredda Brilliant's bust of the wild man, has painted this tribute, which is 'a diptych, acrylic and beeswax on canvas 1.5m x 2m over the 2 panels':

Rone asked me to comment on this work, and my reply (after deleting a few spelling errors on my part), was:

'Hi Rone

'Many thanks for sending me this brilliant diptych. I was too tired, after a long drive yesterday, to make a coherent reply to your question, but have probably woken up and recovered sufficiently to make an acceptable response. I love the brown study of Britton's face, which is tremendously evocative of the suffering he went through, and his preoccupations etched out subtly in the background are very effective. The hunger and love dichotomy/marriage is of course more pronounced because hunger and love – the experiences and the book itself – were his central preoccupations. (It's significant that, some years after the publication of Hunger and Love, Britton told a journalist that he regularly returned to the novel and learned more things from it.) The Picassoeque blue girl aptly occupies the 'love' side.

'And then we come to the 'socialist realism' banner, running amost parallel to the preoccupations, which intrigues me. This was of course the prevailing Soviet aesthetic, and although not all Stalinist critics wholly identified with it in private, the majority of them toed the line in public, such as when Radek repeatedly denounced modernism, and Joyce in particular, as 'bourgeois'. So 'socialist realism' is at odds with the Cubist-inspired blue girl, and (in spite of the heavily realistic elements in Britton's work) at odds with Britton's politics (especially after his visit to Russia), and at odds with his aesthetic – he was very much in favour of avant-garde cinema, for instance, and tried to introduce strongly impressionistic elements into his writing. So I assume that 'socialist realism' is a piece of graffiti written on the painting by the upholders of the Stalinist aesthetic.

'But, of course, there seems to be a major contradiction: the graffiti is blue rather than red. Is this because red would have clashed too strongly with the other colours, and/or made the painting too simplistic? Is the blue the Stalinist graffitist's own contradictions – his or her rebellious thoughts – coming to the fore? Or is the Stalinist graffitist saying that Britton's work (associating the blue, perhaps, with Picasso) is a modernist bastardization of socialist realism? Or am I way off the mark? Not that it matters, of course, because any kind of artistic work should provoke ideas, and you've certainly done that.

'I'd welcome your comments on my comments, though.

'Cheers and well done!


Rone's response:

'Hi Tony.

'Many thanks for your positive response to my painting and your comments are right on the money.

'The rationale behind the graffiti is that it represents the misunderstanding by the Russians of Lionel's politics and also his book.

'Having said that I should explain I am very much an intuitive painter and don't try to over-analyse what I do either before or after. In fact paintings that rely on explanation have failed IMHO.

'In hindsight the reason for the use of blue graffiti is that red would have given undue emphasis and, as you suggest, been less thought provoking. The fact that I only have one can of spray paint probably has nothing to do with it :)

'The attached pic is a painting (also a diptych about the same size as the Britton work) I made recently of the prime minister of Australia Kevin Rudd. His uninformed comment on photographer Bill Henson's work is depicted with the same spray can.

'Cheers and thanks again for your comments.


'PS: The photos are not the best and don't show the texture which is an important element of my work. I hope to make a better effort soon.'

Lionel Britton Poses

This painting is by Betty Bramwell, about whom I know nothing, although, judging from a few times this image cropped up in the Lionel Britton Collection at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, IL, I suspect it dates from the 1930s and perhaps from about the time of the publication of Hunger and Love (1931). Many thanks to Robert Hughes for making the publication of this possible.

20 August 2009

Haworth and the Brontës

The most famous representation of the Brontë sisters – from left to right Anne (1820–49), Emily (1818–48), and Charlotte (1816–55) – and also the only one to show the sisters together. Brother Branwell, who painted the picture, was depicted between Emily and Charlotte, but decided to erase himself.

The museum is the parsonage where the family lived,

and the parish church is where their father The Reverend Patrick Brontë was incumbent.

Patrick built the school between the parsonage in 1832, and all four siblings are known to have taught there.

The Black Bull in the village was frequented by black sheep Branwell Brontë, and is proud to exhibit 'his' chair in a private area of the pub.

And the museum exploits a few rather more sensational aspects of Branwell's lifestyle:

My other Brontë posts:
Anne and Charlotte Brontë and Thackeray in Cornhill
Charlotte Brontë in Manchester

William Shakespeare and Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire

From this family tree, we see that John Shakespeare married Mary Arden in 1557, and that William Shakespeare (1564–1616) was their third child and first son.

For many years, Shakespeare's birthplace in Henley Street in Stratford-upon-Avon has been a shrine to Bard worshippers, and The Shakespeare Trust has preserved a window in the 'birthroom' where various people have etched their names in the glass, some of the more noteworthy including Shelley, Keats, Dickens, Carlyle, and Mark Twain. Towards the end of the 19th century, the working-class poet Joseph Skipsey (1802–1903) was the curator of the house/museum for two years.

Shakespeare's daughter Susanna married the physician Dr John Hall in 1607, and they lived in Hall's Croft in the town:

One of Hall's patients was the poet Michael Drayton (1563–1631), who was born in Hartshill, Warwickshire:

Susanna and John Hall's daughter Elizabeth married Thomas Nash, and William Shakespeare bought the very imposing house next door to Nash's House: New Place, where he spent his final years. The house has long since been demolished, although the Elizabethan-type knott gardens are open through Nash's House (shown below):

The stone below, in New Place gardens, tells the story:

'On this site stood from 1483 to 1702 the house called New Place, which Shakespeare purchased in 1597, and in which he died on 23, April 1616.

'The residence passed successively to Shakespeare's elder daughter Mrs Susanna Hall who died in 1649. And to Elizabeth, Shakespeare's only granddaughter and last surviving descendant, who died in 1670.

'Subsequently the house was owned in turn by Sir Edward Walker, Garter King of Arms, and by his son-in-law Sir Hugh Clopton.

'In 1702 the edifice was completely rebuilt by Sir Hugh Clopton and in 1756 it was acquired as a summer residence by the Rev. Francis Gaskrell, who demolished it in 1759 [to avoid paying taxes on the property]. Since that year the land has remained vacant.'

Not far from Nash's House, in Church Street, is Mason Croft, which is now the University of Birmingham's Shakespeare Institute, although it was once the home of another author.

The popular novelist Marie Corelli (1855–24) moved to Mason Croft in 1901, and believed that the building had belonged to Shakespeare's daughter. She was a very colourful character noted for activities such as having herself rowed along the River Avon in a gondola, and having a photo of herself altered on the frontispiece of her books to make her seem much more attractive than she really was. The Sorrows of Satan (1895), perhaps the only one of her novels still in print, is notable for its anti-New Woman stance. Corelli adored Shakespeare, worked hard to preserve Stratford's architectural heritage, and this plaque is close to the entrance to Mason Croft.

Shakespeare was probably educated at King Edward VI school.

The Gower Monument stands in Bancroft Gardens by the River Avon, and a plaque reads:

'These figures were designed and modelled by Lord Ronald Gower, who presented the Monument to the Town of Stratford-upon-Avon in 1888.

'The work was executed in Paris and took twelve years to complete. Associated with Lord Ronald in his task were his assistant, Monsieur L. Madrassi, the firm of Tassel, who made all the figures save that of Hamlet, which was entrusted to Messieurs Graux and Marley, and the House of de Cauville and Perzinku, who cast the wreaths, the masks, the fruit and the flowers.

'The Stone used in the Monument is partly Boxground Bath, partly York. The group was erected on its original site by Mr. Frederick Taylor, Contractor, under the supervision of the Architects, Messieurs Peigniet and Marlow, of Paris.'

A more recent interpretation panel adds more:

'In 1769, [David] Garrick's Stratford Jubilee festival in honour of William Shakespeare started a growing public appreciation of the Bard in Startford-upon-Avon, an appreciation which is reflected in the grandeur of this memorial statue.

'Each [figure] stands in front of individually-modelled bronze masks with flowers symbolic of each character. Hamlet represents Philosophy with ivy and cypress; Lady Macbeth is Tragedy with poppies and peonies; Comedy is represented by Falstaff with hops and roses; and History is represented by Prince Hal with English roses and French lilies.

'Originally, the statue group was situated on the other side of the theatre, with Falstaff aligned to face Holy Trinity Church. In 1926, the theatre was destroyed by fire. Following constructon of the new Memorial Theatre, the entire monument was moved to its present location in 1933 when the alignment was changed and the statues moved further from the base.'

The figures around the monument are very impressive, and of course very predictable: Hal's reformation glittering, like the crown he holds, o'er his faults; Hamlet telling Horatio he knew Yorick well; Lady Macbeth asking herself if these hands will ne'er come clean; and Falstaff after a cup of sack too many. Delightful.

Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway (1556–1623) in 1582: he was 18, and she was 26. Anne Hathaway's cottage is at Shottery, a very short distance from Stratford itself, and this is the Hathaway home where she lived before her marriage.

At Wilmcote in Warwickshire, Mary Arden's House, or Farm,– as it was continuously such – was the childhood home of Shakespeare's mother.

As we left Stratford in the afternoon on our way to Anne Hathaway's Cottage, car parks were full, the streets were becoming more crowded, and a thought occurs: is this town the most significant shrine in the world dedicated to a writer?

16 August 2009

Ted Hughes and Mytholmroyd

Ted Hughes (1930–98) was the British Poet Laureate from 1984 until his death. He was born in Mytholmroyd in West Yorkshire, a village just a mile away from the town of Hebden Bridge. He lived there for seven years before moving to Mexborough in South Yorkshire, and these early years were to prove a formative influence on his poetry. At the train station, five large panels show extracts from Hughes's children's story The Iron Man, and have been illustrated by local schoolchildren.
A plaque on the wall of 1 Aspinall Street informs us that Ted Hughes was born here. Aspinall is one of a small cluster of streets immediately north of the Rochdale Canal. Hughes's uncle on his mother Edith's side – Albert Farrar – lived at number 19, and is mentioned in the poem 'The Sacrifice'.
On Midgely Road, the surname is still present on Mount Pleasant Hill:
A two-minute walk along the south-east side of the towpath reveals a tunnel, described in Hughes's poem 'The Long Tunnel Ceiling'. This is where the A646 goes over the canal.
A very informative booklet, which contains the above information and much more about Hughes's early life around Mytholmroyd, often linking features mentioned with particular poems, is John Billingsley's A Laureate's Landscape: Walks around Ted Hughes' Mytholmroyd (Mytholmroyd: Northern Earth, 2007).

John Clare, Helpston (Northamptonshire and Cambridgeshire), and Working-Class Literature

I was delighted to discover, by casual Googling, that the house where the poet
John Clare (1793-1864) was born, in Helpston, Cambridgeshire (formerly Northamptonshire), has now been turned into a museum called Clare Cottage

This sign greets the visitor to Helpston village.

This museum was opened on 3 August 2009, the cottage has been wonderfully preserved, and the street-facing side carries the following plaque, which was unveiled by Edward Blunden:

Visitors to Clare's cottage are provided with audio wands to guide them through the cottage (as well as through the village), although photography is not permitted.

Very close to the village sign is the memorial to John Clare:

Around the monument are quotations from Clare's poetry:
Clare died in Northampton and his coffin was brought back to Helpston, where it was taken to the Exeter Arms before he was buried in the church nearby.

This memorial stone is in the south porch of St Botolph's Church in Helpston.

The north-facing side of John Clare's grave.

The south-facing side of John Clare's grave.

My other John Clare post:
John Clare, Mary Joyce, and Glinton