Monthly Archives: February 2014

Shades of Blue

Far be it from me to suggest that the Supreme Being is anything other than totally infallible. All I’d say is that if I were the omnipotent master of the universe, there one or two things I would have done a little differently:
1) Chocolate – was it really necessary to laden it with quite so many calories? I mean come on, God is supposed to love us.
2) Cauliflower – mushy, bland but with a weirdly repugnant aftertaste; definitely one vegetable too many.
3) World peace, universal harmony etc etc – so far not nearly enough progress.
4) February – need I say more? Seriously, what purpose does it serve other than to drag winter out for a further four interminable grey, wet, miserable weeks? I really don’t see why we can’t we just hop straight from a crisp and frosty 31st January to daffodils and baby lambs on the 1st March. And if February wasn’t bad enough, God had to go and put St Valentine’s Day right in the middle of it, just so you can experience that extra wallop of rejection and heartache that accompanies an empty mailbox on 14th of the month.
Still, one mustn’t grumble. Actually on second thoughts, one definitely should grumble; grumbling is what makes so many of life’s grievances just that little bit more tolerable. Or so I find.

I’m consoling myself by re-reading Isaac Babel’s Red Cavalry stories, which I first encountered when I was at university. I have to say, three years spent obtaining a degree in Russian is worth it for Babel alone. He’s a wonderfully elastic and eccentric writer and a fantastic observer of human nature which he records with great generosity, humanity and compassion. The Red Cavalry Stories were written in the early 1920s, and cover the period Babel spent as a journalist with General Budyonny’s forces, which were fighting in Poland at the time as part of the civil war unleashed by the Russian revolution.
Short, dumpy, bespectacled and Jewish, Babel was not by any stretch of the imagination a natural soldier. But whatever he may have lacked in athleticism, he more than made up for in his writing. His stories present a delightful rogues’ gallery, peopled by worldly priests and rabbis, romantic soldiers and shopkeepers, village artists, inn-keepers, prostitutes and dreamers. What comes across most strongly, however, is the uneasy mix of appalled admiration and inadequacy Babel experienced as a result of living in close proximity with Budyonny’s Red Cossack warriors. These are often described as big, strapping, handsome lads whose muscles strain the fabric of their clothing and who strut around in metal-capped boots in thrall to their own strength and capacity for extreme violence. Babel was attracted and horrified by them in equal measure.
A writer as clear-sighted and compassionate as Babel was bound sooner or later to find himself in conflict with the ever more authoritarian and paranoid Soviet regime. He was arrested in May 1939 and held at the Lubyanka Prison in Moscow for six months before being tortured into making a false confession of espionage. On 27th January 1940, despite attempts to recant, Babel was shot. Those of his unpublished manuscripts the NKVD managed to get their hands on were burned and lost forever, along with the works that Babel never lived to create. Babel wasn’t by any means the only writer who fell victim to Stalin’s purges, but there’s something particularly sad about the silencing of such a warm and wise voice. Where oh where was the angel sitting on your shoulder?

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So true

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A Surfeit of Art

Over the weekend, I took part in a performance of Faure’s Requiem. I don’t kid myself for one moment that my voice is good enough to take on solo parts. I can just about hold a note well enough to not completely embarrass myself when singing along with the other members of my choir. When it comes to music, that’s fine as far as I’m concerned; I have no desire to step into that particular limelight. The requiem itself is sombre, intensely personal and extremely beautiful and it was both moving and an immense pleasure just to be a part of it.
It was rather a sad coincidence then, to awake this morning to the tragic news about the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman from what appears to have been a drug overdose. He was a terrifically subtle and intelligent actor with a commanding screen presence and he’ll undoubtedly be very much missed. The obvious question is why a man of such prodigious talent and abundant gifts would destroy himself in this way, a man who was much loved, hugely successful and the father of three young children.
Philip Seymour Hoffman’s passing cannot help but bring to mind the untimely demise of a great number of other highly gifted artists, among them Heath Ledger and Amy Winehouse, who died in similar circumstances. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that there’s something about great artists that makes them particularly vulnerable, not to drugs per se, but to a particular intensity in the way they experience life and what life throws at them.
Perhaps the defining characteristic of all truly great artists is their ability to discern what is essential and true and to project it through art so that what was hitherto unimagined becomes freely comprehensible, obvious even, to everyone. The ability to do this is an incredibly rare gift and also a responsibility. Those who aspire to being artists require a complete openness of spirit, an unfiltered receptiveness and sensitivity to experience, that must at times feel like an unbearable burden. No wonder the temptation to quieten the endless, babbling stream of consciousness is sometimes overwhelming. What’s more, the concomitant of such openness is perpetual self-doubt and dissatisfaction. The creative life is a journey that never reaches its destination. Nothing is ever finished, nothing is ever as good as it could be. As an artist, there’s an obligation to strip yourself down to the soul and let the world make of it what it will; however often you’re told you’re a genius, you never really quite believe it.
I ask myself on a daily basis what it is that compels me to try to write and to improve. I’m broke and frequently discouraged but still I go on. I’m becoming more inured to the endless knock-backs, but they still hurt. Is it wise to have chosen this path? Is it logical? Is it improving my psychic well-being? I look at my friends and neighbours, who are completely happy to live their lives without this freakish need to write and I feel genuinely envious. What am I even trying to express? Shadows, or perhaps secrets I don’t know myself. There’s something in my heart that’s demanding to be put down and recorded on the page and it won’t take no for an answer. To be honest, at times it feels like a form of insanity; it comes as no surprise that many artists feel the need to self-medicate.

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