Book Review: The Children Act

ChildrenAct_VintageAs the review of this book in the Guardian points out, Ian McEwan is fascinated by roles and institutions of authority, and how the playing of such a role affects his protagonists. In The Children Act, (which is a novella, really – I read it in an evening) we are invited to consider the intricacies of the life of a high court judge, both professional and personal. Fiona Maye is in her fifties, a distinctly-delineated character whose devotion to her work is only paralleled by her lack-lustre marriage to Jack, who wants to have an affair. Specialising in family law and with a history of difficult cases, she is haunted by the children who might have suffered from her decisions, and overwhelmed by the need to make the ‘right’ decision in the interests of children – whatever ‘right’ is. And this is the central question of the book: who gets to decide? Who knows what ‘right’ is? And ‘right’ in what sense?

The law collides with faith in Fiona’s next case, where a Jehovah’s Witness boy refuses a blood transfusion which will save his life. After meeting him, talking to him and agonising over her decision, she concludes that he is not old enough to make this decision, perhaps being unduly pressured by his family and church. I won’t spoil the novel by detailing what happens next, but the novel asks, ultimately, serious questions about what is important in life: relationships, art, career, faith? Are they reliable enough the build a life around? What happens whenMcEwan you lose one of the pillars which holds up your life? (Perhaps this is why, bizarrely, Amazon has categorised the book as ‘spiritual fiction’!) This uncertainty and questioning is played out against a well-researched background framework of topical legal issues (faith, the protection of children, the 1989 Children Act, etc).

It’s a novel with subtle shades as well as thumping great questions about life, but in some ways it feels flimsy: I wanted more – more detail, more of the characters, a more drawn-out plot. Nonetheless, it’s well worth reading for its often compelling prose, and for another, more unusual reason: in its unexpected exploration of psychology, considering what we value and how society constructs and reconstructs those values, it reminds me very much of Peter Shaffer’s play Equus. Here, a child psychologist, Dysart, is dealing with a troubled young man, Alan, and takes on Alan’s struggles himself, using the boy’s issues to explore – or repress – his own problems. Dysart concludes in many ways equusthat the freedom Alan has in expressing himself mean that, though psychologically disturbed, Alan is somehow happier – freer of society, able to pursue something primitive and wild which means he is somehow more alive than anyone else. In many ways, this aspect and the trajectory of the relationship between authority-figure and troubled child is parallel in the two texts, though of the two, Equus is the more lingering, perhaps because of the more extreme images it provides on stage and even on the page. McEwan’s version is more restrained – no stabbing of horses’ eyes here – but almost more horrific, when life and death, love and faith are at stake.

Love is Enough: William Morris and Andy Warhol

6257_lrYes, I thought this was an odd combination at first. Still, the appearance of the Holy Grail tapestries alone was enough to persuade me to visit the Love is Enough exhibition at Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery. And, in fact, I found it a more convincing juxtaposition than I’d expected. I quite like surprising combinations of things, and these two artists, a century apart, were, as the exhibition guide explains, both essential to modern art and culture, the most influential artists of their times, and with some surprising similarities in their approaches, at least. Both were innovative, commercially-engaged, with successful businesses; both believed in art for the masses and in bringing art into everyday life; Warhol is quoted as saying that an artwork or product must be available to all, which distinctly echoes Morris. Moreover, both were overtly political, as well as interested in creating iconic images, if very different ones. The exhibition opens with the amazing combination of Warhol’s image of Joan Collins and Rossetti’s La Donna della Finestra on William Morris’s Blackthorn paper – and the iconic beauties, so different, seemed to fit well together, oddly enough.1980M60

A section entitled ‘Camelot’ brings together the Grail tapestries produced by Morris & Co, which are, as I expected, stunning (this isn’t the first time I’ve seen some of them but they seem to offer something new every time) with Warhol’s 1960s America and images of the Kennedys and Marilyn Monroe. The Grail tapestries depict scenes from King Arthur’s court at Camelot, while of course Camelot is also used to refer to the presidency of JFK. Both artists were, of course, obsessed with mythology and beautiful (doomed) people (medieval, in Morris’s case; Hollywood, in Warhol’s) and recreated it endlessly in their work – both, however, from a position as outsiders looking in – however important their work seems now, and however crucial to the culture of the period, their status as excluded from the places they idolised made them significant observers. The ways in which we re1907M129make our dreams is perhaps a subject of the exhibition, and the contrast between the works is fascinating – the depth in the tapestries when compared with the perfect flatness of Warhol’s work, for example. The exhibition notes carefully point out that Warhol was in many ways a true devotee of Hollywood, not merely pointing out the ironic possibilities of reproducible images but genuinely paying homage to those he saw as beautiful or deserving.

Much is made of the men’s political leanings, as utopian socialists who wished to see a future filled with art and equality (sounds good to me!) in which beauty took priority over almost everything. Of course this necessarily raises questions about the availability of art, and both men focused on designs which were easily and frequently reproduced, allowing every home to have some form of art in it; of course, this is also a commercially brilliant scheme! Both had businesses – Morris & Co and The Factory – to produce and promote their work; Morris also wrote socialist pamphlets, some of which are on display here, while Warhol founded Interview magazine to provide a mouthpiece for himself and Warhol_Tapestry_lrthose of similar views.

The theory of the exhibition, then, is convincing (to me, anyway). But much, much more important is that the large, open
space central to the exhibition, with the Grail tapestries, a Marilyn Monroe tapestry and the Kennedy’s, is breathtaking. Somehow bringing the work of the two men together gives it even more relevance and appeal (though I confess I certainly still prefer Morris). The tapestries tell a story, of a doomed quest for the Grail, from its beginning in a hall with King Arthur to the finding of the Grail by Sir Galahad. In fact, there is so much in these Boy with flowerstapestries: they tell a story, and it includes love, death, fear, failure, fighting, betrayal, and dinner. One might argue the same is true in the echoes conjured up by Marilyn and the Kennedys.

The final section, entitled ‘Flower Power’, contains what you’d expect: a lot of Morris wallpaper – all beautiful, of course, and several printing blocks too, alongside some flower designs by Warhol, which are as much of their time – and as timeless – as Morris’s are. Printing blocks remind us of the interest in reproducibility that both men sustained. Some of the images are almost like a psychedelic version of Morris’s work; though no mention is made of whether Warhol was interested in Morris’s work, I can’t help but think he must at least have known of him. The exhibition makes Morris seem somehow more modern, and Warhol more traditional, than one might expect.

cropped-356559.jpgThe title of the exhibition is taken from one of William Morris’s poems – one which was read at my wedding, in fact. It suggests that both artists shared an intense love of art, people, and the world around them.

LOVE is enough: though the World be a-waning,

And the woods have no voice but the voice of complaining,

Though the sky be too dark for dim eyes to discover

The gold-cups and daisies fair blooming thereunder,

Though the hills be held shadows, and the sea a dark wonder,

And this day draw a veil over all deeds pass’d over,

Yet their hands shall not tremble, their feet shall not falter;

The void shall not weary, the fear shall not alter

These lips and these eyes of the loved and the lover.

Sunshine and music at Elgar’s Birthplace

Edward_ElgarI’ve always had a passion for the music of Edward Elgar, and living in Worcestershire where he was born there are clearly many others who share this enthusiasm. So on a sunny Saturday we decided it was time we visited the Elgar Birthplace Museum, in Broadheath not far from Worcester. In addition to the picturesque cottage where Elgar was born in 1857, there is now a visitor centre containing items belonging to Elgar, including a drum he had as a child, his violin, and several manuscripts. (An excellent audio guide accompanies this, though due to having a three-year-old with me I didn’t get to listen to all of it!)Though the Elgar family lived there for less than three years after the birth of Edward, the composer visited the village frequently, often staying on a local farm, and retained a deep affection for the place throughout his life. His family owned a music shop in Worcester, where the young Elgar learned a great deal about music, composition and playing, and became determined to follow a career in music.

It seems that Elgar felt his roots in the Worcestershire countryside were important, and elements of this are always present IMG_1761in his music, so to visit his place of birth feels significant, as if we can access a particular aspect of what made him the man – and composer – he became. When choosing a title in 1931, he chose First Baronet of Broadheath, an indication of the place’s lasting place in his mind. In a letter to a friend (quoted on the Museum’s website), he wrote:

So you have been to Broadheath. I fear you did not find the cottage – it is nearer the clump of Scotch firs – I can smell them now – in the hot sun. Oh! how cruel that I was not there – there’s nothing between that infancy & now and I want to see it.

The cottage, then, is a tranquil spot, with a beautiful cottage garden as well as the Jubilee Family Garden, where my son happily played the outdoor instruments for a while. The cottage itself is fascinating as a period piece, even aside from its illustrious IMG_1752connections; quite small, perhaps, for a growing family, but a perfect example of its time and filled with objects which both make it feel like a family home – some furniture, for example, including curtains which once hung in other houses Elgar lived in – and also a piano from the Elgar music shop, as well as Elgar’s HMV gramophone. I was interested to see the range of hobbies Elgar pursued as a man – as well as being an avid reader, he played golf, cycled, did woodwork, and pursued chemistry; his friend W H Reed said that Elgar used to ‘ease the burden of his destiny as a composer by pretending to be a chemist’!

I also found a Pre-Raphaelite connection which intrigued me: Elgar’s friend (to whom the letter quoted above was written), Alice, Lady Stuart of Wortley, was the daughter of Pre-Raphaelite painter John Everett Millais. Alice was a close friend of the composer and influenced and inspired his compositions, particularly the 1910 violin concerto, ‘Windflower’. In the house hangs an engraving of Millais’s portrait of John Henry IMG_1750Newman, whose poem ‘The Dream of Gerontius’ was orchestrated by Elgar; the engraving was given to Elgar by Alice.

I’m always drawn to places where people whose work I love were born, or lived; this is no exception. Though many of the rooms of the cottage contain exhibition items rather than furniture, somehow there is still a lovely sense of it as a home, and from all the windows the views remind me of the beauty of the county. There is a room guide with information about each room and its exhibits on the website if you’re interested, and I recommend the Museum for a visit!

Listen to ‘Pomp and Circumstance March No 1′ here: 

or better still, the Cello Concerto in E Minor Op 85: 

Poetry and Politics

In yesterday’s Sunday Times, Andrew Motion, in his role as head of the Campaign to Protect Rural England, writes about party leaders’ reluctance to commit to protecting greenbelt land. He also asks them for their favourite poems about the countryside. (You can read more about Motion’s interviews with the party leaders here). Their responses were:

David Cameron: Gray’s ‘Elegy

Nigel Farage: George Meredith, ‘The Lark Ascending

Natalie Bennett: Aemilia Lanyer, ‘Ode to Cooke-ham

Ed Miliband: Blake’s ‘Jerusalem

Nick Clegg: Blake, ‘Eternity

20130722-095212-PM.jpgCameron’s choice of Gray’s poem is not remarkable; he commented that it is a ‘magical’ poem which was a leaving present from his school – not surprisingly, since both were Eton men. The poem was once voted the UK’s most popular poem, and was also Gordon Brown’s favourite poem, though he more perceptively commented that the poem laments ‘talent wasted, potential unfulfilled and opportunities forgone’. It’s also a poem I love, but not one I’d describe as ‘magical’, exactly – it reminds us all to be humble, because ‘the paths of glory lead but to the grave’, and which reflects on the lives of those who are not ‘great’ in the world’s sense, but who have families to love and who love them, who appreciate home and hearth. While it is a beautiful (and very English) poem, Cameron’s choice of it seems a little glib; after all, though it’s set in a ‘country churchyard’, it is not so much about the countryside as it is about the fate of humanity and the choices in our lives. Here, the countryside is a setting rather than an intrinsic part of the narrative.

Farage’s choice – better known now for its musical version by Vaughan Williams (frequently voted the most popular piece in British classical music, so also hardly a radical choice) was perhaps chosen for dubious reasons, too: because the composer enjoyed a drink in “a country inn” – not unlike Farage himself, of course. The poem describes the beauty of the lark’s song, and is perhaps emblematic of an English summer evening, even indicating a symbol of the rural English way of life with which no doubt Farage would like to be equated.  The poem also suggests how the birdsong might touch the hearts of working men, worn down by the daily grind, ‘Because their love of Earth is deep’. It suggests that the bird can utter a divine song which is beyond humanity, which lifts our souls. I wonder how closely Farage engages with the words of the poem…?

Natalie Bennett’s choice is unsurprising, in its ‘green’ credentials (and also feminist, as this is one of the first poems published by a woman), but it is also the most surprising in that it suggests a level of genuine, personal engagement with the poem and the subject matter, nicely aligned with her politics, while the other politicians’ choices suggest a Cookehamdesire to be seen in a particular way. It’s a poem many won’t have heard of (do read it at the link above), and it’s also the longest; it eulogises a place where the writer ‘first obtained/Grace from that grace where perfect grace remained’, a country house where a community of women reside in perfect harmony. It is a learned poem, with references to other literary works, to classical myths, to Christianity, but most of all it is rooted in the beauty of a place, a sense of repose and confidence that all can be right with the world if we embrace nature and learn to live in peace with each other:

The trees with leaves, with fruits, with flowers clad,
Embraced each other, seeming to be glad,
Turning themselves to beauteous Canopies,
To shade the bright sun from your brighter eyes;
The crystal streams with silver spangles graced,
While by the glorious sun they were embraced;
The little birds in chirping notes did sing,
To entertain both you and that sweet spring.

I applaud Bennett’s choice and urge you to read the poem, and learn more about Lanyer and her work here.

Penseroso_&_L'Allegro_William_Blake2Ed Miliband’s choice, ‘Jerusalem’, is perhaps the most well-known of the poems selected. Set to Hubert Parry’s music it is a stirring piece of patriotism sung at the Last Night of the Proms, though Motion comments that Miliband ‘is drawn to Blake as a visionary figure’. Blake was indeed a mystic, a visionary, a kind of mad prophet who foresaw doom and beauty through the lens of his obsessions, and I admire the man (Blake) intensely but wonder to what extent it is wise for Miliband to align himself with this. Blake’s poem seeks to set Heaven in England, its ‘green and pleasant land’, though the England of Blake’s poem is both idealised and demonised, divided between the ‘dark satanic mills’ and the ‘pleasant pastures’. How much is this a poem of the countryside? Not at all, in my view: while the ‘green and pleasant land’ line is often quoted, it is not explored in the poem, which approaches England from Blake’s urban perspective as a Londoner  exercised by the poverty and repression of those he saw around him, Perhaps it is this aspect of the poem Miliband wishes to resonate with readers, but the poem when sung is all too often seen as misguided and idealistic. However, it is also a call to fight – and was set to music as a way of boosting recruitment in the First World War – so perhaps it is this fighting, revolutionary spirit which inspires the Labour leader (reflected in the singing of ‘Jersualem’ at the end of Labour Party conferences).

The shortest poem by far is Clegg’s:

He who binds to himself a joy
Does the winged life destroy;
But he who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternity’s sun rise.

Blake’s ‘Eternity’ is as brief as the life which it commemorates (Motion acerbically comments that perhaps Clegg ‘is subconsciously steeling himself for disappointment’). In a short space it constructs a conundrum – that if we focus too much on our pleasures they will fly from us; we cannot hold onto beauty or happiness, but must embrace them while we can and then allow eternity to take over. The sun rise with which the poem concludes suggests another fleeting joy, but one which will return, inevitably, though we may not always be there to see it. It is a poem which – in the context of a broadly Christian world-view – attempts to balance the pain and pleasure of human life. Though a short poem, it’s a thoughtful one. There’s a great post on ‘Eternity’ here.

The party leaders are well-educated, and acquainted, one would hope, with a reasonable range of poetry. Why did they choose these poems? How much thought did they really give it? I think these things can be telling, though, and in fact my opinion of some of them has slightly shifted due to their poetic choices. I have no doubt that these are political, as well as poetical, choices, and I wonder how these potential future leaders will live up to their poems.