Monday, 31 May 2010

The Gourmet Mr Ripley

Tom made a batch of martinis, and arranged the glasses and a plate of canapes on a tray in the living-room. When he heard the door-knocker, he went to the door and swung it open.

This weekend the book artist Sarah Bodman served up a macabre feast at her Bristol home: a seven-hour dinner party composed of every meal that 'The Talented Mr Ripley' consumes in between more nefarious activities in the novels written by Patricia Highsmith. The meal initiates a collaboration between Sarah and I on Dinner and a Rose, a book commissioned by Poetry Beyond Text.

Tom slid one leg over a stool and faced the door challengingly, yet with a flagrant casualness.
'Gin and tonic, please,' he said to the barman.

The night began with gin and tonics, the drink Ripley orders in the Manhattan bar Raoul's where he meets Herbert Greenleaf - a billionaire whose son he will later murder in the small Italian village of Mongibello, before embezzling his fortune. A whole cold chicken in aspic lay on the table alongside a bowl of celeri remoulade. Guests sipped tentatively at a lobster bisque, and those who had read the novels may well have wondered what devious plots were simmering on the stove in the next room.

Perhaps canelloni to begin with, creamy sauce over delicate pasta, and a good valpolicella to sip while he dreamed about his future and planned where he went from here ...

We enjoyed a bottle of Margaux with lamb chops and one guest nobly managed a sip of Dubonnet. Then beef consomme, followed by calves' liver and artichokes. Costoletta di vitello, much as it must have tasted from a small Mongibello cafe. Sole veronique. Cold roast beef. Crab sandwiches. Steak with ragout and whiskies.

Tom regretted very much that the main dish was ... a fabulously expensive item on the Italian market.

Sated, we approached the final course: chocolate mousse, strawberries soaked in liqueurs and shortbread galettes, accompanied by champagne and coffees, as fine as if prepared by Mme Annette, the housekeeper at Ripley's French estate, Belle Ombre. With a Bach harpsichord solo playing in the next room, I half-expected to hear the music abruptly stop and see Ripley wander in to mix a last martini.

By midnight we felt much as Ripley had done, sitting in a deckchair on a cruise ship bound for Europe at the start of his adventures, 'fortified morally by the luxurious surroundings and inwardly by the abundance of well-prepared food'. In advance of the publication, Sarah has put together this film of the event.

Friday, 21 May 2010

Word and Warp

My father's wedding gift to my mother was a wooden floor loom, not unlike the Great Bed of Ware in its dimensions. The gift calls to mind another patient wife, Penelope, who in her husband's absence was instructed by her son Telemachus to "Go within the house and busy yourself with your daily duties, your loom, your distaff, and the ordering of your servants; for speech is man's matter."

I spent my childhood playing between wooden treadles, helping to thread heddles and wind wool around shuttle cones. It's no co-incidence that one of my mother's favourite poems is Yeats' romantic fabrication:

Had I the heavens' embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet...

Now, each time I hear my mother talk about her process – keeping the tension of each line consistent, the need for restraint in the use of colour – I'm reminded of the old but apt comparison of weaving and writing.

So I was intrigued to find that almost everyone I met in the Netherlands last week was discussing Irma Boom, the great Dutch book designer, whose work Weaving as Metaphor, a book about the weaver and artist Sheila Hicks, won the Leipzig Book Fair’s prestigious designation of the “most beautiful book in the world.”

Boom's trademark tonal austerity is always enlivened by radical play on book structure: perforated slipcases, dovetailed fore-edges, distressed deckles. The design for Weaving as Metaphor is surprising yet inviting. A brick of a book, its pure white boards are subtley textured by a blind-embossed fabric motif, and the paper at the head is rough as a snipped selvedge. Inside, justified lines of type run bravely to the extreme edges of the page, as in well-woven cloth.

Sheila Hicks' work is very different to my mother's. Hicks approaches fabric like an existential argument; my mother was formerly a landscape painter, and weaving allows her to explore colour and line in the abstract. While a horizontal weft may suggest a landscape, it is one built up like geological strata, rather than rolling hills freely expressed with brushstrokes. Of course, the boustrophedon work of the shuttle also suggests the accumulation of lines of text, sewing a narrative in time rather than space, like an epic poem.

But the poetry in my mother's work is quietly spoken; two recent projects began in graveyards. The first draws on the landscape seen from the church in the hamlet of Milbourne, Northumberland, where my grandfather is buried: sheep fields bordered by cow-parsely and hawthorn, green spring grass tempered by dark yews. The last cloth to come off the loom was more equivocal, rust red and yellow, inspired by shepherds' gravestones at a small ruined chapel that we discovered last summer near Hermitage Castle in the Scottish Borders. I admire her bravery in evoking through wool alone these carved letter forms, eroded by weather and lichen, unravelling the stories on the stones.

Monday, 17 May 2010

Sardines sur la Tyne

I always like to encourage the positive representation of sardines in public life, so I was delighted to find them honoured, albeit canned, on The Blacksmith's Needle, a contemporary sculpture opposite the Baltic on Newcastle's Quayside. The Blacksmith's Needle is a large cone of forged steel, with a maritime bell hanging within (the bell was rung - probably for the last time - when the work was inaugurated in 1997 by the percussionist Evelyn Glennie).

The Needle is divided into six sections, intended to represent the six senses, each designed by a different blacksmith from the British Artist Blacksmiths' Association. Sardines, it goes without saying, satisfy all five human senses. But when Stephen Lunn, from The Forge at Red Row in Northumberland, pulled the short straw for the elusive sixth sense, he admitted, “It was hard work to represent the sixth sense in ironwork.” He finally decided on “beach stones and pebbles, because just as they are worn down by the sea, I wear down metal into the shape I want it to be.”

"Mermaids on toast?"

Monday, 10 May 2010

Not the last post ...

... but the one hundredth. In the last 100 posts I've encountered empty museums in the Arctic, tried to find the shape of time, faked Nevelsons in West London and snoozed in the Lit & Phil Library. What next?

I'm celebrating my centennial post with the news that the British Library have requested permission to add the blog to their digital archive of UK websites that are 'considered to be of long term research value'. In case one gets big-headed about such an honour, the curator adds that some of the sites selected may be considered 'trivial' and 'basic', but are nevertheless chosen for being representative of particular interests in society. There's no grand plan behind this blog and I'm sure it doesn't represent any broader interests than my own very peculiar ones. But I've always liked talking to myself ...

Sunday, 9 May 2010

Messing about with words

Regular visitors to this blog will have noticed a sharp decline in posts since I returned from Upernavik. It's time to make my excuses.

If only I could plead that I'd been languishing in the American Bar at The Savoy! I've just been ploughing through a phenomenal amount of work. Not just the heavy labour of re-reading Highsmith's Ripley novels. Not just rearranging stray commas in my sestinas or talking about climate change here and there. There are other, covert projects afoot, of which more anon. But yesterday evening I allowed myself out to go to a poetry reading at Greenwich Yacht Club organised by Fiona Moore. Even if I hadn't been under house arrest for the last month I'd have enjoyed the apocalyptic post-election sunset over the river. The glass building sat like an eyrie above the boatyard with Swallows & Amazons pennants draped from its rafters. It was like sitting inside Ian Hamilton Finlay's head. Bits of boat clinked and water lapped, providing an obliging soundscape for writing that ranged from Conradian meditations on the river to ballads echoing Ratty's view that "There is nothing - absolutely nothing - half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats."

Those of you who found the Arctic posts of interest are invited to come and see me perform new poems at Sketch Gallery in Conduit Street, London, on 22nd May (2-4pm). Then I'm setting off by bus to the Netherlands, to paint Amsterdam a typewriter-ribbon shade of red with the artist Lynne Avadenka, who will be visiting from Detroit (if the volcano behaves itself), and to talk books with binder and writer Anik See and friends at the Meermanno Museum (Museum of the Book) in The Hague. Sometimes work is not so bad ...

Meanwhile, even death doesn't stop some people blogging conscientiously. The Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge has had the wonderful idea of putting Scott's Antarctic journals online, so that day by day you can follow his perilous journey to the pole.

Monday, 3 May 2010

The Bow Wow Shop

You can read my essay on poetry and the Arctic environment - 'No More Words for Snow'- in the latest issue of the online poetry journal, The Bow Wow Shop.

In Greenland the dogs say "Vaa Vaa Vaa" not "Bow Wow", but the journal is determined not to alienate its British canine readership by changing its name. Next up, I'll be writing a short feature for Huskies Today.