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A Mile In Your Moccasins

By Warwick Cairns

There’s an old Red Indian saying.

I know, I know.

But the ‘American’ part of ‘Native American’ – well, that takes you back to Amerigo Vespucci, doesn’t it? Amerigo Vespucci was the Italian explorer who, along with his chum Christopher Columbus, could be said to have kicked the whole thing off, that whole ‘Europeans conquer the New World’ thing.

Where do you start with this correct terminology thing, and where do you stop?

But as I was saying: there’s an old Red Indian saying.

Or is there?

I mean, there is a saying that I’m thinking of, but whether it’s really old, and whether it really originated where it’s meant to have done, well, that’s a whole other question.

It’s a bit like the ‘Old African Saying’ you hear quoted every now and then.

You know the one: “It takes a village to raise a child.”

Big place, Africa.

No-one seems to be able to be any more precise about it than that.

Anyway, the saying I have in mind on this particular occasion is this:

“Never criticise a man until you have walked a mile in his moccasins.”

You can sort of tell it’s meant to be from the Wild West, can’t you?

It has the word ‘moccasins’ in it, see? If it had been from somewhere else -  Ancient Rome, say - it would have had something like ‘gladiator sandals’ in it. It probably would have had miles in it too, being as how the mile is a Roman measure. But I’d have imagined that the Red Indians would have come up with some other measure of distance. Something buffalo-related, perhaps.

I think, sometimes, people like having that sort of provenance to their proverbs. Sort of noble and wise, yet unsullied by the sophistry of progress and still in touch with the earth and the fundamental truths of life.

You can imagine the venerable old chief, sitting there in his fringed buckskins and his feathered war-bonnet, sucking slowly at his pipe as he considers his next words, the medicine-man at his shoulder, doing things with a bag of bones, while all the tribe sit cross-legged before him, waiting rapt.

And then he speaks.

“Never criticise a man,” he says.

And you cannot help but listen.

You cannot help but listen, even as the young braves come cup-handed, bringing smouldering leaves to the pile of wood heaped beneath the timber frame from which you hang suspended by your ankles. Even as the young women gather up their pointed sticks.

You cannot help but listen, even though you don’t even speak their bloody language.

But how wise, you think, nevertheless: how very, very wise.

I suppose where this is all leading to, this walking a mile in another man’s moccasins, is the importance of empathy. The ability to understand – and share – the feelings of another.

I would say that it’s one of the things that makes us human, except that it isn’t, really.

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You can have empathy and not be human.

And you can be human and not have empathy.

Dogs, for example.

One of the few species, they are, who ‘catch’ yawning from seeing people yawn.

And it’s not just a matter of seeing a mouth opening and copying - if the researchers at the University of Tokyo are to be believed. What they found – what they published in their report this past couple of months – is that dogs, humankind’s oldest animal companion, catch yawns from people in a way that shows empathy between the species. Which is to say, they respond more to real yawns than to fake ones, and they respond more to their owner’s yawns than to the yawns of a stranger.

Meanwhile, researchers at the University of Porto in Portugal have found that dogs’ stress hormone levels rise and fall in direct relation to their owners’.

Empathy, you see.

Non-humans with empathy.

And meanwhile. Meanwhile, back in the human world, you have psychopaths. Now, it used to be thought that psychopaths had no empathy at all, being as how they’re such unfeeling, self-centred bastards and all. They were thought to have no empathy whatever kind of psychopath they might be - whether the mad axe-wielding serial-killer variety or else the more common manipulative, self-serving sociopath kind that many people rightly or wrongly believe their bosses to be.

Rightly, most probably.

According to studies, there are, proportionately, four times more psychopaths in the boardrooms and management suites of big businesses than there are in society as a whole. Psychopaths know how to get ahead in business, you see.

But here’s the thing – it used to be thought that psychopaths had no empathy at all. Now, however, it turns out that they do – but just as an optional extra.

Again, just this past couple of months, at around the time the dog-yawning study went to press, researchers at the University of Groningen, in the Netherlands, were publishing their report on psychopaths and how they feel. And it’s not quite how we thought they felt.

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According to Christian Keysers, the author of the Dutch report, “The predominant notion had been that they are callous individuals, unable to feel emotions themselves and therefore unable to feel emotions in others. Our work shows it’s not that simple. They don’t lack empathy but they have a switch to turn it on and off. By default, it seems to be off.”

That must be nice for them, the psychopaths.

I mean, if you have no insight into how others feel, then you’d wonder why you’d go to all the trouble of doing something really bonkers – I don’t know, building an underground torture-chamber in your basement and kidnapping people off of the street to do unspeakable things to. Because if you did that, and if you had no sense of the effects of it on your victims, no appreciation of it – well, you’d be bound to question whether it was worth all the effort of doing it. Maybe you’d take up a less demanding hobby instead.

Whereas it turns out that they can feel what others feel, after all.

But only when they want to.

There is a link, I think, between empathy and cruelty.

There was an interview I read a while back with what you might call a ‘champion’ torturer from Cambodia, or somewhere like that. I don’t know if there was an actual championship, or any sort of award for it, but he was one of the best, if there is such a thing – if not the very best. He was much in demand for his skills, and frequently called upon to do the honours whenever a local paramilitary thug needed to be particularly beastly to someone.

What he said was this: he said that he hadn’t always been good at it. He’d actually started out being quite a rubbish torturer. It wasn’t that he didn’t hurt people enough – quite the reverse, in fact. He beat some people senseless, and beat others to death. Blood everywhere. But he was crude, you see. He had no style, no panache. He was a long way from being the respected figure in the torturing community that he later came to be. But then, he said, gradually and with practice, he began to get a feel for his trade. He learned to vary the pace and severity. He learned to watch the signs and cues given out by his victims, rather than bludgeoning blindly ahead. He learned when to offer small mercies like a glass of cold water to drink; and when, suddenly, to snatch those small mercies away – the water flung in the face, the glass smashed and… well, we’ll draw a veil over that.

But what he did was more than just a technical thing. It was an emotional one. He learnt to establish a bond of empathy with his victims, and this made his skill as a torturer all the more terrible. Because of this bond he was able to see inside them and sense exactly what they were feeling; and because of this he was able to devise ever more cruel and subtle refinements.

Writers do the same. In tragedy and in comedy, from Macbeth to Alan Partridge, they allow you insight into a character’s inner world – and at the same time they heap misfortune and embarrassment upon him – deserved or otherwise. And you feel for him, while at the same time relishing the feeling.

The bond of empathy is a knife that cuts two ways.

Which sounds rather like it ought to be some kind of old Red Indian saying.

Posted on Sunday, September 1st 2013, by I Am Dan Eastmond

Tags Warwick Cairns empathy literature yawning psychopaths

Write Away the Night: Mother's Day

ella-perpetual:

in elementary school,

every may,

we’d break out the glitter and crayons

and make cards for our mothers.

thing was, they were pre-made,

so we would just have to color them in.

and every may,

i took my crayons

and marked out “mom”

and put “grandma.”

and when you found out,

you were furious.

it took you a while, though,

you never being around and all.

and every may,

the kids would make fun of me

and tell me you didn’t want me.

grandma tried to say you did—

really, you loved me, you did,

you were just having a hard time getting on your feet.

which would be understandable, i suppose,

if you ever managed to do it.

.

and now i’m here, in high school,

and we don’t make cards in school,

and i don’t mark out mom

because i haven’t seen you in years

and i console my little sister,

who you messed up too.

and i try to keep it together

when the kids in her class make fun of her

and say her mother doesn’t want her.

and i’m not going to lie for you,

because i’m not grandma.

i’m your daughter.

and i deserve better than this.

Posted on Sunday, May 12th 2013, by I Am Dan Eastmond

Tags poetry mothers daughters literature

Reblogged from write away the night 

Eugene Onegin at Rich Mix

Rachel Dakin

There are two great things about the live screening of performances in cinemas: the reduced price and multiple venues enable wider accessibility to a more diverse audience, it also softens the blow when you see a complete travesty and have avoided buying tickets at the Royal Opera House.

Tchaikovsky’s lyrical adaptation of Pushkin’s verse novel ‘Eugene Onegin’, directed by Kasper Holten at the ROH, carried great expectations. Sadly, Holten’s directorial debut became an unfortunate example of life reflecting art: naïve and chaotic, much like Tatyana’s impassioned and impulsive letter.

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Although Shoreditch’s Rich Mix cinema lacks the sophistication and grandeur of the Opera house, the screening compensated for this with a useful introduction to the performance, including interviews with the cast, costume and set designers, conductor and Holten, revealing some directorial decisions and aspects of the rehearsal process.

Holten expressed a desire to channel Tchaikovsky’s vision of a simple and direct performance, in contrast with the grand operas so popular in the 1870s. Whereas Pushkin’s novel is elaborate, highly-stylsed and embedded with textual references, Tchaikovsky’s interpretation is essentially reduced to romantic tragedy and the familiar pain of regret. Holten’s production emphasizes this focus on nostalgia and the power of memory. However, rather than maximizing its simplicity and sincerity, his decisions overcomplicate the lyrical opera. 

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This confusion is primarily caused by Holten’s decision to cast younger versions of Tatyana and Onegin, in the hope of exaggerating the nostalgia and regret for mistakes made in their youth. Initially, this seems relatively effective: the dancer, VIgdIs Hentze Olsen, depicting a young Tatyana provides a spectral, fleeting reminder of the past. The counterparts linked by their bold and recognizable red dresses, suggesting Tatyana’s passionate sentiment. However, this double-act soon becomes irritating and distracting. The poignancy of the famous letter-scene, in particular, was ruined by the dizzying sensation of double vision. Melodramatic pirouettes and gyrations detracted from Krassimira Stoyanoya’s performance, which alone would have been more powerful and moving.

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Another pivotal scene in the Opera is similarly tainted: the fatal duel between Onegin and Lensky, following Onegin’s flagrant flirtation with his best friend’s lover and Tatyana’s younger sister, Olga. Simon Keenlyside portrays Onegin as an unsophisticated flirt, rather than the imperious and bored aristocrat that Pushkin notoriously modeled on himself. The tragic duel is confused and verges on the ridiculous, as the old Onegin observes the unfolding scene with angst, whispering into his younger self’s ear in a hopeless effort to reverse fate. Tchaikovsky’s masterpiece dissolves into a crude take on ‘A Christmas Carol’, with the protagonist clumsily re-encountering the ghosts of his past. After Lensky is shot dead, the scene is similarly assassinated when the old Onegin takes the pistol from the young Onegin’s hands and gestures at suicide. Not only is this a glaring inconsistency, as the pair suddenly acknowledge each other, but the poignancy of this central scene is reduced to pantomime.

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As the performance lurches on, the stage is increasingly strewn with the wreckage of these memories: piles of novels belonging to the bookish young Tatyana; bales of hay representing their provincial youth in the country; snow lacing the surfaces; the large incumbent tree branch present at the duel, and the dead body of Lensky lying centre-stage, inert. These objects effectively signify the events that haunt Onegin’s mind and traumatise his present, though they also clutter the stage and interfere with the sleek minimalism of the set design.

The performance was saved by the endurance and magnificence of Tchaikovsky’s score, conducted by the young and energetic Robin Ticciati, leading the tremendous Orchestra. Pavol Breslik’s Lensky received the biggest applause, and rightly so. Equally captivating was Elena Maximova’s Olga, which suggests that casting doubles for Tatyana and Onegin was the show’s main downfall.

During the introduction, Holten inadvertently revealed what was perhaps the cause of his muddled direction: ‘This opera has a very special place in my heart […] When you do a piece that you really love, it’s almost sometimes harder than when you do a piece that you find tricky.’


Download the music now: Tchaikovsky: Eugene Onegin - Dmitri Hvorostovsky, Nuccia Focile, Orchestre de Paris, Sarah Walker & St. Petersburg Chamber Choir

http://www.richmix.org.uk/

http://www.roh.org.uk/

Posted on Thursday, February 28th 2013, by Beat Magazine: Art & Culture

Tags Eugene Onegin Royal Opera House Opera Kaspar Holten RichMix cinema screening Shoreditch Tchaikovsky Pushkin Russian Literature directing choreography orchestra Robin Ticciati tragedy romance

Interview: Marika Hackman

Rachel Dakin

Between supporting Ethan Johns on his February tour and headlining her own UK tour in March, Marika Hackman’s debut album That Iron Taste is released today via Dirty Hit. 

On the night of the album’s release, Marika gave a haunting and thought-provoking performance at the Southbank Centre’s Purcell Room. Marika’s lyrics are richly poetic, vivid with imagery and suggestive narrative, whilst remaining sparse, direct and presented with an unnervingly restrained and self-controlled vocal delivery that makes it hard to believe this artist is only 20. What comes across most strongly from speaking to Marika is her almost childlike sense of playful experimentalism. The quietly surrealist and psychedelic quality of her music sets her apart from an industry saturated with singer-songwriters, providing somewhat of a folk-antidote.

Marika reveals some of the ideas behind her enigmatic music in an interview with Beat below.  

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The first thing that strikes me about your music is the rich poetic quality of your lyrics. Cannibal in particular reminds me of Sylvia Plath’s poem ‘Cut’.

Yeah, I’m a massive fan of Sylvia Plath. In fact, my mum gave me loads of her books for my birthday! Literature has a big influence on my music.

You obviously have an incredible imagination, your lyrics are so vivid… and morbid!

Yeah, it’s weird that that side of me sort of comes out in my lyrics, maybe it’s good that it does through song rather than anything else.

Haha, rather than anything else? Like an axe?

Yeah, like that film Psycho haha. But yeah, we lived in the countryside and my mum was very strict about how much TV we watched, and she’d literally force me and my brother outside and then we’d go off and run around and start inventing things and playing games and spying on people and stuff like that.

I was going to say, I think there’s a quite a childish imagination at play in your lyrics.

 I think I must be quite immature!

No! The thing that’s incredible is that your lyrics are so imaginative and vivid and morbid, which is brilliant, but you have this very mature, minimal delivery.

Yeah, I also think that you can use the simplest words to convey meaning, so I don’t use fancy words. It’s about the imagery you can create with basic language.

There’s no point just alienating an audience is there?

Yeah, and also, longer words are harder to fit into a lyric. I definitely think about the sounds of words and the amount of syllables they have. When I write the words have to just ‘fit’ in the line. So for instance, with Cannibal, I came up with the melody, and usually when I come up with the melody I say words randomly that sort of fit, and literally the first thing I said was: ‘have you seen my nose?’

Ah, and then it just comes from there? So it’s a very organic process?

Yeah, and the same with ‘Here I Lie’, coming up with it I just said ‘I have no head’ and it went from there.

That’s interesting. I think your singing has a very luxurious quality, where you let the lyrics almost take over. I think that you really tap into the musicality of language

Well it’s a major compliment that you said that because that’s what I try and do. Even though people always comment on my lyrics, they are there because they are, in effect, the melody. They are the music, it’s the same thing.

Yes, I recognise certain recurring melodies, but really your music is quite paired-down, it’s quite raw.

When I find a melody I like, I stick with it and keep it quite simple. Even though something like Mountain Spines changes key continuously, I set myself the challenge to stick to and end up with this quite strange melody. If I take the guitar out from underneath it, it’s actually quite hard to sing.

Right, because you haven’t got anything to guide you? The guitar is almost like a ladder?

Exactly. Everything has to go together and with the lyrics all coming in at the same time, it just means that you get the layers without having to be really fancy with what you’re doing.

It’s a really interesting quality to be complex and minimal at the same time. So yeah, spot on!

Yay!

On the topic of setting yourself parameters, I’ve read that you’re quite experimental with some of your songs, like Retina Television, using only sounds made with your body rather than relying on instruments.

It’s just one of those things where you sit down and think ‘let’s try something a bit different, let’s do something fun’. If you put parameters on things, it tends to make you more creative. I was on an art foundation and they would set projects that were so vague and I found that really hard. But if someone had said: ‘Ok, you’re only allowed to use this, and you’ve got to do it like this’, then you have to find a route out of it.

You referred to your art foundation, and we spoke previously about how literature feeds into your lyrics, I wondered if there’s an exchange with art?

I think there probably is. Everything goes into it in some way. I love Egon Schiele, and Klimt obviously, but I prefer Schiele. Bosch, because he’s mad. I love Turner, I love Heemskerck, do you know Heemskerck?

No, I must look him up!

He’s a Dutch painter. There are these rooms with lights and the figures are always from behind. It’s very still, but it’s mysterious and very calm.

That mysteriousness definitely translates in your music. I’ve heard that you’re thinking about getting a band?

Yeah, we’re in the process of doing that. Just a couple of guys who are multi-instrumentalists. We’re not going to try and recreate the records, we’re going to try and do a live show. So many artists have a record out, and then when they do their concerts they basically have a backing track so it makes it sound identical to what you hear on your radio or whatever. But I want the live show to be different. Even if people have bought the record, they should come and see the live show because it’s going to be something different, because the song’s performed in a different way.

Of course, like ‘Retina Televison’ had to be different, I was really interested to see how you would translate that into a live performance.

I think I’m going to keep that stripped down, with me hitting the guitar.

After talking about songs like ‘Mountain Spines’ being quite complex, how do you think that would work with a band coming in? Do you think you’d have to change your sound a bit?

Maybe. We’ll see how it evolves. We’ll maintain quite a natural, organic process and play around with it. I mean, there are obviously things we can recreate from the record. But it would be fun to play around. Again, it’s a case of setting parameters. Having a live band, there’s only so much you can do, there’s only three of us. So that’s where the creativity starts over again, working on top of these songs. So it’s going to be really exciting to see what we come up with.

Yes, your music has such an experimental, and quite psychedelic, quality. I was thinking your music is almost anti-folk. Would you say that?

Yeah, people try and bracket you straight away and label you as ‘the new folk singer-songwriter’, so you’re the next Laura Marling, or the next Lucy Rose or whatever. And it’s kind of like, have you actually listened to my records? I love Laura Marling, but I don’t think our music is the same.

It’s so different. I think it’s almost sexist, because people wouldn’t make those comparisons between two male artists.

Yeah that’s true.

Obviously, it’s really exciting that you’ve got this EP launching today! And your tour. You’ve been on tour for a while haven’t you?

Yeah, since the 1st of February with Ethan.

And you’re headlining your own independent tour? You must be really excited about that.

Yeah, it starts on Thursday the 28th. I love doing supports, especially at a venue like this (Southbank Centre’s Purcell Room) with Ethan Johns, where people actually listen.

Yeah, you’re not competing with a rowdy crowd.

But with the headline tour there’s added pressure because people have actually paid to come and see me. But it’s very interesting to see, at this stage in the game, how many people turn up. And chatting to people afterwards, I really love doing that.

That must be really helpful.

Yeah, just like, ‘inflating my ego’! But yeah, it’s nice to mingle.

Well yes, because you are really quite new on the scene, aren’t you? You’ve only released three songs before this EP, right?

Well, I had released ‘You Come Down’ and ‘Mountain Spine’. ‘You Come Down’ was a single, and ‘Mountain Spine’ was an AA side, and then ‘Cannibal’ has been played as the sort of preview to the album, but it hasn’t actually been released to buy. It’s released today. 

So you’ve been active for just a year? And you’ve just rocketed! It’s exciting.

Yeah, it’s exciting. I just take each day as it comes.

 

You can download ‘That Iron Taste' today and a free Covers EP at: http://www.marikahackman.com/ 

Find Marika’s tour dates here: http://www.songkick.com/artists/5015008-marika-hackman


Posted on Monday, February 25th 2013, by Beat Magazine: Art & Culture

Tags Marika Hackman That Iron Taste Music Interview Literature Poetry Sylvia Plath Surrealist Psychedelic Lyrics Southbank Centre London Tour Ethan Johns Album Release Dirty Hit experimentalism Schiele

Bookart Bookshop – Old Street

Rachel Dakin

Last Christmas my mum bought me a Kindle. As a die-hard English Lit student, I ceremoniously threw it back at her across the sitting room, much to the alarm of my grandparents. I refused to betray the musty pages of hardbacks, the safe confines of the library; in retrospect, this was definitely a sign of final-year-induced Stockholm syndrome, whereby I had fallen in love with my captor: the book.

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A year later, at a safe distance from the Modernist section of the library and with a more regular sleep pattern, I can see the appeal of the Kindle and, dare I admit, regret my violent rejection of it. Books are increasingly redundant, an anachronism which may soon be comparable to lugging scrolls or stone tablets around on the tube. A book is essentially a container for a text to be consumed by the reader. 

Bookart, however, posits the book itself as the primary experience of reading: the text is secondary. The avant-garde artists of the 20th century began interrogating the conceptual and material form of the book, partly as a strategy to bypass the hierarchy of the traditional gallery system. The aim being, that ideas could be disseminated in accessible, democratic forms available to people who might not otherwise enter art galleries. Bookart, or Artists’s Books, are works of art realized in bookform. If the text is transferred to a digital medium, the work loses its significance.

In other words, Bookart HAS to be experienced as a book. No Kindles allowed here!

Bookart theorist Johanna Drucker insists upon the ‘difficulty of trying to make a single, simple statement about what constitutes an artists’s book’, and excitedly questions the many different interpretations produced by this ambiguity:  

Is a book restricted to the codex form? Does it include scrolls? Tablets? Decks of cards? A block of wood with one end painted with a title, like a conventional spine? A walk-in space of oversized panels hinged together? A metaphysical concept, disembodied, but invoked in performance or ritual?

Luckily for us, this unique and innovative genre of art can be found, perused and purchased at the little red bookshop just off Old Street: the Bookart Bookshop. I made a visit on a snowy Friday afternoon to investigate.

I was met with a treasure-trove of beautiful and innovative creations. 

The first artist to catch my attention was Susan Johanknecht, lecturer at Camberwell Arts College. Her pieces include a small box to be opened, which is filled with cards of text and images reading ‘Who Will It Be’? Another piece by Johanknecht is a small black square that opens as a concertina of images, a popular technique in Bookart, gesturing at artisanal practices. Already, the bookshop was undermining my conventional expectations of what a book might be.

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Another piece, by artist Uriel Orlow, is found in a cardboard box. Inside lies a small pink notebook with the title ‘What the Billboard Saw – La Ville Mode d’Emploi’.

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The excitement of experiencing these objects is not in reading them, but reveling in their material qualities: the tactile nature of the works and the childlike experience of opening them, unsure of what might be found inside.

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Another artist worthy of mention is John Bentley. His extensive selection of bookworks displayed in the shop includes a piece that catalogues paper debris found in Harrow, entitled Concerning the poetry of Lost Things.

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His works displays an interest in the poetics of place, with bookworks exploring Brixton, and other London boroughs.

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Tom Philips work, ‘A Humument’, has become somewhat of a canonical work in the Bookart field.

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His book is a re-working of the Victorian novel ‘A Human Document’, in which he painstakingly illustrates each page, revealing only fragments of text in his intricate reworking of the found material.

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The bookshop houses bookart across the scale, ranging from more expensive, limited edition pieces, that really make collectible items, to more inexpensive pieces designed to be produced in multiple copies, tapping into Drucker’s idea of the ‘democratic multiple’.

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The cheaper items are just as endearing and whimsical, including a £1 pamphlet entitled ‘I love you’ (a quirky potential V day present!) and a funny little piece called ‘Interviews with Gary’.

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The Bookart Bookshop was founded by Tanya Peixoto in 2002, and she has done an inspirational job of bringing a specialist walk-in bookart bookshop into the heart of East London’s art world. 

As well as a place to find, sell and buy books, the Bookart Bookshop also presents discussions, meetings, exhibitions, lectures, book launches and educational activities, all focusing on the never-ending debate surrounding bookart.

The bookshop presented me with an alternative concept of the book as an art object: not just a carrier of text. I can see the appeal of reading novels on a handy digital device, but these unique and beautiful creations reminded me of the enduring power of the book!

I definitely recommend a visit.

http://www.bookartbookshop.com/

For an overview of Bookart, Beat recommends: 1000 Artists’ Booksimage , Book Arts - Major Work by Leading Mastersimage

Posted on Tuesday, January 29th 2013, by Beat Magazine: Art & Culture

Tags bookart books art innovation culture oldstreet eatlondon artistsbooks literature

Vampires in fiction: A Brief History

by Jessica Howard

Post image for Vampires in fiction: A Brief HistoryVampire fiction has changed a great deal in the past 200 years; from the classics to the modern day phenomenon Twilight, the vampire has been transformed since the rise of Dracula. But how has it changed, and why?

It was Bram Stoker’s Dracula that really marked the beginning of popular vampire fiction and gave rise to the ‘modern’ vampire in 1897. In this classic novel, the vampire Dracula is depicted as a soulless and dark creature, an aristocrat who lives in an ancient castle, sleeps in a coffin, and can seduce a victim by merely looking into their eyes.

One commonly accepted supposition is that Dracula is a metaphor for cholera or tuberculosis. The symptoms and the way that the illness took hold of its victims until death are very similar to the effects of having your blood drained by Dracula; the patient, or victim, would grow weaker and weaker in both body and mind, until they were taken over completely by the disease and all that was left was a slow, lingering death. If Dracula wanted to change a mortal into a vampire, he would feed them a little of his blood, ‘infecting’ the victim with the ‘vampire’ disease.

This is the first notable instance of the vampire having a direct correlation with the society it inhabits. Throughout the past couple of hundred years, society has progressed, and the vampire itself has changed to reflect this.

The next prominent contribution to the genre came roughly 80 years later with Anne Rice’sVampire Chronicles, the first book in the series being Interview With The Vampire in 1976. Lestat de Lioncourt, is a French Nobleman with a very aristocratic manner similar to Dracula, and has more in common with Stoker’s vampire than the vampires of today. This was a period in history where society began to change rapidly; promiscuity and the free love movement began a rebellion against the Church and the commonly accepted Christian morals that governed society.  Contraceptives became more readily available, taking illegal drugs became a popular pastime and people were pushing the boundaries of what was socially acceptable. They say that change is good, but is it moral? The Vampire Lestat represented the selfish, indulgent side of human nature and the questions of morality surrounding this new way of life. Now vampires seemed to harbour human-like emotions and exhibited biological and psychological motivations for their actions.

Reflecting this new openness in society, Interview With The Vampire is more erotic than previous vampire novels, a trend which was to continue as the genre progressed.

The twenty first century has seen the Twilight phenomena explode onto the scene, and whilst its popularity cannot be denied, it also attracted much criticism. Whilst there are vampires in the series that do adhere to the traditional archetype – they seduce their victims and drink their blood-it was the main characters that caused controversy. These vampires redefined how the modern vampire was perceived. These vampires no longer retained the refined, aristocratic nature of vampires before them; instead they wore denim, put gel in their hair and went to the local state school like your average human. Unlike the traditional vampires, these could walk around in the sunlight; they just chose not to, because instead of bursting into fire and dying painfully, their skin simply sparkles like glitter. Possibly the biggest difference between these vampires and the vampires of previous stories is that these vampires have chosen not to drink human blood, only the blood of animals. Everything that previously made vampires threatening, and symbolized their soulless nature had been compromised. Whilst the vampires of previous novels seduced their victims for their blood, the Twilight vampires seduce purely out of love even though love between a human and a vampire is depicted as frowned upon by the rest of the vampire community.

It would appear that nothing is out of reach within our current society, not even the vampire. Twilight is as much, maybe more so, about a mortal seducing a vampire rather than the other way round. The vampire is no longer an aristocratic and mysterious stranger; he is the boy next door.

We now control the vampire, bending even his ‘natural’ and blood-thirsty impulses to our own desires, fitting it nicely around our own wants and needs.

So what does the future hold for the vampire? That all depends on the direction we as a society choose to take, but one thing is for sure; vampires have changed a great deal over the past two hundred years, and will continue to change in ways that are impossible to predict.

Posted on Friday, February 3rd 2012, by I Am Dan Eastmond

Tags culture film Jessica Howard Literature

Maggie: A Short Story

By Alice Stride

CakeThere is a woman standing on the street. She has two arms, two legs, the correct number of fingers and toes, knees, elbows, eyes, ears, a nose, teeth and all the bits inbetween. She is looking in a shop window, and her face is full of melancholy.

I’ll say that she is plump, with coiffed blonde hair, and she wears good leather shoes and carries a designer handbag. Chanel? What about Hermès, a Birkin? Too expensive. Mulberry is the one: classic, British and stoic – quite like the lady herself. That’s what she thought when she handed over her credit card – this Mulberry bag reflects who I am.  I think she wonders sometimes, though, if the tasteful brown leather really is her, for how can ‘tasteful brown leather’ tell her story, the story of -

Susan? Jane? No. Anna, Louise? No. What about Margaret? Maggie to her friends and family, Magpie to her husband because she likes a diamond ring or five. This is his only joke, which is why he says it at every single party they go to, and why he has the nickname ‘Boring Brian’.

As the years have passed, Margaret’s body has been taken over by aliens. She hacks the labels off her clothes and hides sausage rolls in the garage so Brian doesn’t see her eat them. Her marshmallow-blub unleashed her vanity on pricey accessories (she knows deep down that the Mulberry bag doesn’t ‘reflect’ her; she bought it because she is too piggish for pretty dresses). She swaddles herself with the comfort that she can carry her handbag, even though she is fat. Very, very fat – obese, actually – and she always wants to eat. Last week, when she was at her friend Julie’s, there was a packet of frozen peas on the table; she grabbed a handful and hurriedly threw them down her throat. She knew Julie wouldn’t say anything. She needs to lose a stone herself, though she’s not so enormous that she’s verging on diabetes like Maggie – I mean, Margaret. Their bi-weekly ritual (often tri-weekly) is to drink a bottle of red wine, a few gin and tonics, and discuss how to lose weight.  They’ll have a takeaway curry to wash it all down, followed by a box of Milk Tray. “It’s all about discipline, but not denial,” says Julie through a mouthful of masala, and Margaret nods as she attacks her Bombay potatoes.

What sort of shop is Margaret looking into? A cake shop? Yes – she could be staring into the window of a lovely little patisserie, lusting over voluptuous meringues and mounds of soft buttercream and feeling her gargantuan thighs tingle as she wonders what the chocolate ganache will feel like as it lazily oozes into her gaping mouth, and as she stares she starts to sweat as she -

No. I’m not happy with that. We’ll write her off as the big fat blonde who puts too much in her mouth. Lazy, we’ll call her, lazyand disgusting and lacking in self-control. I do not think that’s right for Margaret; there is more to her than cake. We know that her face is full of melancholy as that is the fact we were given at the start, and this face does not match the face of perspiring cake-induced greed. What then, is the shop-window she peers into that makes her look so sad?

A clothes shop? Possibly – she may be mourning her once admired waist, now drowning under layers of greying putty flesh, and remembering how she and her husband used to fuck like beasts before he became boring and she started fucking food instead, swapping coital for chocolate and pretending to be asleep when his hand snaked across her burgeoning stomach.

Maybe if I wasn’t fat, she could muse, he wouldn’t have slept with his secretary.

A-ha! That’s it! Brian, tired of her ‘headaches’, has an affair, so Margaret gets fatter and fatter until she’s almost spherical. She eats because he cheats, the dirty little bastard. Really, it’s all about self-esteem. Poor hefty heifer Margaret needs to work on her self-esteem, that’s all. Just a simple bit of work on her self-esteem, we’ll say, smugly and gently and with the air of those in the know. We do wonder, though, how Brian managed to bed a 25 year-old as he’s so chronically dull. Then again, we’ll whisper over soya cappuccinos, he is wealthy.

In a few years time the 25 year-old gets bored and Brian realises the errors of his ways. Margaret drops a stone or two (she doesn’t keep it off for long), and they’ll resume an intermittent sex life. It won’t be passionate; Margaret usually feels like a big empty vessel into which Brian grunts his way to an orgasm that has all the eroticism of a dishcloth. But, she’s thrilled to once again be the chosen sperm-depository, so lies back and stays quiet. The marriage will continue in impassive fashion until he drops dead from a heart-attack at the age of 70. Margaret dies at 85, and is buried in an extra-large coffin. She is now figured out, and thus we can resume our thinner and more important lives. Occasionally, we’ll call to tell her that there is a simplyfantastic feature on ‘Building Confidence:  The Way to a Better You’ in ‘Convenient Theories’ magazine – and she simply mustread it. It’ll be such a help, we say, as warmly as we can muster before dashing off to the gym.

We don’t know it all, though, and what we don’t know is this:

Margaret has been having a recurring dream that deeply disturbs her. She is embarrassed to talk about it, because everyone knows that listening to someone talk about their dreams makes you want to eat your own ear. She mentioned it once to Brian, and he turned up the television. It was Top Gear night, and “you know how I feel about Top Gear, Magpie.”

BeachThe dream is this:

Maggie is standing on a pebbled beach. The sea is slate-grey and the sky an insipid shade of pale pink, the pink of baby clothes for girls and cheap roséwine. She knows that she is in the presence of God, whatever that may be – but as something of a nihilist she doesn’t quite believe it. It’s a terribly odd sensation, to dream and to sense that God is there, but to know that you do not believe God and tell yourself so in the dream, so that you wake up muttering, “I do not believe in the existence of God”, to which your husband says, “ShutupgobacktosleepMagpie.”

She stands still for a long time, watching the sea slosh and the sky fade into darkness, and just when she thinks it’s time to go home she sees Carmel walking towards her across the water. The biblical overtones of this amuse her. She knows that the Christians are trying to get her on side.

Carmel is Maggie’s mother. She insisted Maggie call her that because ‘Mum’ made her feel old.  As Carmel draws closer, Maggie remembers why she doesn’t believe, and says it to herself over and over: “I do not believe in the existence of God.”

If God existed, Maggie would not be having this dream. He wouldn’t have let Carmel die when Maggie was fourteen, ravaging her with a slow and terrible death, stewing her in that wrung-out body as the cancer wormed its way in. He wouldn’t have left Maggie with a father who didn’t notice when she ran off at 16 with a punk-rocker boyfriend (who subsequently ran off with a dancer and broke her heart). He wouldn’t have let her vanquish her dreams and marry a man with the charisma of a Tupperware box. And, He wouldn’t have let her get so fat. Maggie has, therefore, spent much of her life thinking, “Why me?”

This question is the narcissistic problem of evil. Maggie mistakes the ache of grief for the ache of hunger, and she fails to see that evil is everywhere and not just happening to her. The problem of evil is, really, why is there so much of it in this world? But Maggie does not think of this. Instead, she gorges on self-pity, along with cheese, bread and ice-cream. This is her greatest flaw.

The thing she hates most about the dream is that her mother is younger than her.  Death kills the aging process, “the best thing about it”, Carmel said, pale and wan in hospital. “I’ll never have to know what I’ll look like at fifty.” The teenage Maggie didn’t understand what she meant. She does now, at fifty-two, especially as her mother is more beautiful than her. Maggie isn’t ugly, sure – but Carmel was exquisite, like a dark-haired Julie Christie. Nine-year old Maggie had once heard her say at a dinner party when she was hiding under the table, “My genes and Margaret’s father’s genes didn’t mesh well.”

Carmel did not want another child after Maggie because she couldn’t bear to get big again. She is ashamed of how her daughter looks now, and has told her so in the dream. Carmel had an affair with Maggie’s Latin teacher, the talk of the town until she got sick. Maggie’s father acted like the ‘mishap’, as he called it, had never happened. The Latin teacher came to the funeral, and Maggie saw them talking over soggy tuna sandwiches and noticed how her father’s face sagged, and suddenly realised that her mother was a bitch.  She has forgiven her since then, but the thought had never gone away. It is an odd thing, to realise as a child that your parent is human. Maggie and I agree that they should be infallible until you’re at least 21. This is what she was thinking as she stared into the window of the beauty salon, gazing at the prices of facials and fake-tans and wondering if they would make her a better person.

Carmel moves across the shore until they are face to face, aged 52 and 40. Maggie waits for the harsh reproach, the reminder that “slim is a state of mind” and to “imagine what people must think of you as you wobble down the street.” Her words wake Maggie up in the morning filled with a hot red shame that sends her straight to the fridge for bacon and black-pudding.

This time, though, Carmel can see that her daughter is reaching the edge. It is her job to claw her back from the abyss. She knows this, despite the fact that she hasn’t a maternal bone in her size 6 body.

She takes Maggie’s hand in hers – and it feels so real that Maggie wants to scream, and says:

“Death is quite alright, Margaret.”

And then she turns, and walks gracefully into the sea, and now Maggie moves after her. Her heavy body feels as light as spun sugar, and she knows that when the sea closes over her she will be gone. This seems better to her than staying in the life she is in now, in which she is pitied by her friends, fucked by her unfeeling husband, loathed by herself and loved only by food. And, she thinks as the waves draw her in, it might so happen that God does exist, and she’d probably get to heaven, where all the food is calorie-free.

In the morning, Brian finds Maggie in the bath, submerged in tepid water. He pulls her out and sees a scar on her left breast that he had forgotten was there. She is weightless. He shakes as he wraps her in a towel and calls for help.

The cause of death is “accidental drowning”, because suicide is a dirty word and everyone agrees that Maggie had no reason whatsoever to take her own life. At the wake, soggy tuna sandwiches are served. The thin friends pick at the filling and discard the bread. Julie weeps over the scotch eggs and bakes extravagant chocolate cake for the occasion. “It’s what she would have wanted,” she sobs, and ends up eating most of it herself.

The secretary comes to pay her respects (though she never takes off her dark glasses). She’d seen her in town a few times, and noticed that despite her gigantic body she was quite an attractive woman, and wondered why she looked so sad. She comes because she’s still fond of dull-but-rich old Brian, and she knows that he loved his wife. He cried to her about Maggie’s sadness after they’d been to bed at her flat, and said he didn’t know how to make his Magpie smile anymore.

Posted on Friday, February 3rd 2012, by I Am Dan Eastmond

Tags Alice Stride story literature writing