Albion’s Light: William Blake at the Tate Britain

William Blake critiqued the Enlightenment, industrialization, and the expansion of the British empire. His work shines at the Tate as the shadows of Brexit loom.

With England at a critical juncture in terms of national identity, the time seems right for a retrospective of William Blake’s artwork. The seminal poet of the Romantic Age famously cautioned against the expansion of the British empire, the Enlightenment, and mass industrialization. But his paintings, prints, and drawings had almost as much to say, and now, as Brexit freshly looms, the Tate Britain is displaying more than three hundred such works in a show billed as the largest exhibit of his art in more than a generation.

William Blake runs at the Tate Britain through February 2, 2020, and it doesn’t disappoint. Indeed, it opens with Blake’s iconic Albion Rose, which depicts a pristine white figure posed after Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man. He stands on a rock, arms outstretched, backlit by rays of gold, fiery Continue reading

Raymond Briggs: ‘Everything takes so bloody long when you’re old’ 

The Snowman author has always looked hard truths and bogeymen in the eye. He talks about his frank new illustrated memoir, Time for Lights Out

Famously, Raymond Briggs hates Christmas; it’s one of the ironies of modern publishing that this self-described “grumpy old man” has become inextricably linked with the juggernaut of the festive season. The animation of his picture book The Snowman, first screened in 1982, is now as traditional as mince pies and family rows. Stage shows, adverts, toys, toilet paper – “it’s a worldwide industry,” he marvels. “China, Japan: a world of Snowmen. The whole blessed world.” Time has done nothing to soften his irritation with the cheerful satsuma-nosed figure. “I was fed up with it years ago. I’m even more fed up with it now it’s been going on for nearly 40 bloody years.”

Of course, there’s not a frond of tinsel to be seen in Briggs’s original, which ends with a mournful heap of melted snow. It was the animation that brought in troops of dancing snowmen around a jolly Santa Claus – and it took many “liquid lunches” before Briggs agreed to sell the film rights to producer John Coates. “Every five minutes he’d raise the topic and I’d say no because I knew he’d commercialise it. Which he did. Done very well, at the same time.” Briggs had already conjured a far more characteristic vision of the festive season in 1973’s Father Christmas, which featured a solitary old curmudgeon toiling through bad weather on his sleigh in oilskins, complaining all the way. “Bloody awful job,” Briggs says. “He’s going to be a bit grumpy.”

The fact that the Snowman book and film have merged in the public imagination is a further source of frustration. “It annoys me that people think the book’s success is based on the film. It’s the other way around, for God’s sake! Not that I care,” he adds rather unconvincingly. The Snowman film is what’s responsible for all the “piles of Snowman tat” he’s been sent over the decades (a neighbour used to sell the overflow on eBay for charity). “Snowmen creep in everywhere!” he says. His reluctant fondness is perhaps indicated by the souvenir mug that crops up in a drawing for his new book, Time for Lights Out.

Raymond Briggs’ Time for Lights Out
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 A page from Raymond Briggs’s new book, Time for Lights Out. Illustration: Raymond Briggs

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AA Milne, Christopher Robin and the curse of Winnie-the-Pooh

Not only was AA Milne’s life eclipsed by the creation of Pooh Bear, so was that of his son, writes the screenwriter of the new biopic, Goodbye Christopher Robin

As Quentin Crisp once pointed out in a lecture: if he were to bring a distinguished old Yorkshireman on stage, the audience might be perplexed; but if he brought a polished abstract sculpture with a hole in the middle, the audience would cry out, “Ah! Henry Moore!” So AA Milne’s long career as poet, playwright, polemicist, peace campaigner and novelist is completely eclipsed by four short children’s books which, as he put it in 1952, he created, “little thinking / All my years of pen-and-inking / Would be almost lost among / Those four trifles for the young”.

That “almost” is no longer needed. Pooh is one of a tiny handful of creations that are so enormously successful we forget the infelicity of their names: Boots, the Beatles, Star Wars, Winnie-the-Pooh. One of the great secrets of success is that, more often than not, it is not the kind of success you were hoping for. You want to be Hamlet but you’re hailed as a clown, and now you can never be any kind of Hamlet. You want to move on but your global hit exerts all the gravity of a planet and you are trapped in its orbit. Failure at least has the comfort of hope. Milne’s life story brilliantly illuminates what it feels like to be tested by huge, unlooked-for success.

It isn’t easy. Frankenstein was so eclipsed by his own creation that it has robbed him of his name. Milne had a long, successful career in the theatre – a world in which the writer becomes accustomed to a certain amount of petting and caressing. He gets to hear the audience call “Author! Author!” No one did that at Pooh events. They wanted to see the bear and – more troublingly – the boy.

Milne isn’t of course the only writer to find himself swallowed up by his own creation. You could say his friend and hero JM Barrie wrote with great commercial success after Peter Pan, but what does “after Peter Pan” mean? Peter Pan was, is and always will be; Barrie’s other works are of their time. The overarching drama of the Sherlock Holmes stories is the great detective’s struggle, not with Moriarty, but with his creator’s attempts to kill him off.

Milne carved out his career in the suave, seductive world of London’s clubs in the 1920s and the green rooms of Shaftesbury Avenue. It’s good to be reminded of just how long and demanding an apprenticeship he had served before he discovered Pooh. His peerless dialogue has its roots in his playwriting career.

His study of classics and his work on Punch had given him the extraordinary ease and range he shows in the poems. Milne’s are probably the last poems written that really cry out to be memorised and recited. I can’t think of one more easily absorbed and enjoyed than “Disobedience”, nor one that captures so perfectly this childhood terror.

It’s good to be reminded, too, that Pooh was not universally adored, that writers who had admired Milne’s lightness of touch turned on what they saw as the mawkishness of Pooh. “Tonstant Weader,” said Dorothy Parker, “twowed up.” “Timothy Bobbin,” wrote PG Wodehouse, “goes Happily hoppity hoppity hop.” Cruellest of all is Richmal Crompton’s brilliant skewering of the cult of Christopher Robin in the poem “Homework”: “Anthony Martin is doing his sums.” Public adulation is salt in the wound of a writer who has lost the admiration of his peers. Milne’s letters to his brother Kenneth uncover the wellspring of his creativity with all its childish joys, shadowed by tragedy. They are a real find. Of course, when I was asked to write a film about Milne I left that out.

Biography looks for what makes the individual different; drama looks for what we have in common. You can sell a million books if you write a good story well but a cultural phenomenon like Pooh needs something else. It needs to touch a raw nerve. That terrible review by Parker also covered Christopher Morley’s children’s book I Know a Secret – which really is a pile of mawkish mush. There was a fashion for sentimentalising children on which people like Morley successfully cashed in. Milne on the other hand searched it for its source and found something true and terrible and enduring.

The House at Pooh Corner stands in a glade between two dark shadows – the aftermath of one war that had just finished and the dread of one coming. No one who fought in the first world war knew it was the first world war. On the contrary, they had been told that they were fighting the war that would end all wars. It must have been with the most bitter irony and failure, then, that Milne’s generation watched their children march away to a war that they had been told would never happen. The Milnes received that dreaded telegram telling them their son was missing in action and presumed he was dead. This could have happened to anyone; this was feared by everyone. It’s there – something you can build a film around. It’s the shadow that makes the carefree days in the Hundred Acre Wood tremble and shimmer with their own fragility. They are suffused with a sense that happiness is possible and valid even though we know it is short-lived. It’s a feeling that is expressed with peculiar intensity in the political situation of the between-the-war years, but which applies to everyone everywhere all the time.

It is there, too, in the child who plays in the woods – in Christopher Robin himself. On the one hand he is Robin Hood revelling in the freedom of the Greenwood but he’s also a babe lost in the wood. What marks Christopher Robin out from other children in literature – from William, say – is that he’s often absent from the adventures. Often his role is to come and put things right. He’s more like a kindly uncle than a child. Through the carefree forest he carries a burden of responsibility.

The other unusual thing about Christopher Robin of course is that he was – to some extent – a real boy. The difference between Winnie-the-Pooh and, say, Sherlock Holmes, is that Pooh did not just swallow Milne, it also swallowed Christopher Robin. Imagine if Barrie had called Peter Pan Peter Llewelyn Davies. When Czeslaw Milosz said, “When a writer is born into a family, the family is finished”, he meant that a writer will betray his parents and siblings. Milne on the other hand – however innocently – betrayed his son. The magic of the Hundred Acre Wood is that it takes something painfully fleeting and makes it stay for ever. The tragedy of Milne’s success is that it trapped a real child in that moment like a fly in amber and made it almost impossible for him to become that thing that every child wants to become – a grownup. Is there a threat more pathetic and painful than Christopher Robin’s cry “We’ll see how father likes it when I write poems about HIM”?

For all its shadow, what really abides about this story is the light, the sense that happiness – no matter how fleeting – is real. The fact that we are all moved and enchanted by the Hundred Acre Wood, that it calls to us, is proof that these passing moments are as real and essential as the more solid and enduring things with which we surround ourselves, that we find in them something true and paradoxically enduring, even eternal.

  • Goodbye Christopher Robin opens in cinemas on Wednesday.29 September. Goodbye Christopher Robin: AA Milne and the Making of Winnie-the-Pooh by Ann Thwaite is published by Pan.

Source: AA Milne, Christopher Robin and the curse of Winnie-the-Pooh | Books | The Guardian

Ophelia review – tragic no longer

Ophelia is one of Shakespeare’s most iconic yet underdeveloped dramatic roles. A sweet and naïve girl, she’s driven mad by Hamlet’s wavering affections and her father’s death. She was often the subject of paintings, yet rarely of novels until the 21st century. Ophelia, starring Daisy Ridley, is an adaptation of Lisa Klein’s 2006 book of the same name, and does a valiant job at not only filling in the blanks but bringing some flair of its own.Ophelia is a precocious child of the Danish court, handpicked by Queen Gertrude (Naomi Watts) to join her ladies-in-waiting. She soon becomes the Queen’s confidant, reading her stories and fulfilling errands. This access lends her privy to the royal family’s failing marriage and the machinations of the King’s brother, Claudius (Clive Owen). When Prince Hamlet (George MacKay) returns from university, she becomes entwined in the rise and fall of a dynasty.

Ophelia has a tough act balancing loyalty to the source material and finding its own rhythm. Key to what works is Daisy Ridley, who brings guile and fidelity to Ophelia without ever betraying the original role. She undoubtably looks the part, immediately bringing to mind John Everett Millais’s masterpiece (which is referenced in the cinematography), but adds an agency that’s sorely lacking in the play.

Semi Chellas’s script does a good job at expanding the women’s roles. Pivotal moments from Hamlet, such as the Queen’s remarriage or Ophelia’s mad singing, are no longer mysteries of the woman’s mind but logical steps to advance in a man’s world. Ophelia sees the folly in the men’s violent distractions, while the Queen numbs herself to them. In the end, they both reap what they sow.

Not everything works so well. It’s rather apt that Ridley stars, as at times it feels like watching one of Disney’s Star Wars films, shoehorning Shakespeare references with knowing winks. Some land neatly, such as Naomi Watts playing siblings like Claudius and the King are traditionally cast, and some come screeching in, such as a potion that mimics death. There’s also an attempt to mirror Shakespeare’s language without committing to new prose, which proves distracting.

Daisy Ridley and Naomi Watts in Ophelia

Ironically, at times it feels like the Hamlet scenes are getting in the way of Ophelia’s story, bending it out of shape to fit the pre-existing narrative. Scenes such as “The Mousetrap Play” are admirably staged, but Hamlet’s constant disappearances makes his relationship with Ophelia difficult to invest in. You can’t help but wonder why she doesn’t sack the unstable emo off altogether.

Still, it’s easier to forgive such inconsistencies when the film looks this good. Director Claire McCarthy and cinematographer Denson Baker rinse every drop of beauty from each frame. In an interview with theartsdesk earlier this week, McCarthy revealed the look is a tribute to Pre-Raphaelite art. It’s an apt comparison. Scenes feel tangibly historical but sumptuously composed, creating images that bely the likely small budget.

How well Ophelia works depends on what you’re expecting from it. As a partner piece to Hamlet, it’s an interesting twist on the traditional roles. As a standalone film, it somewhat suffers from its parent script. But particularly strong performances and beautiful imagery make it worth catching.

Source THE ARTS DESK: Ophelia review – tragic no longer

Does it matter if Mary Shelley was bisexual? 

Mary Shelley is a queen. Daughter of modern feminism’s founder, Mary Wollstonecraft, and the radical thinker William Godwin, this rebellious woman wrote one of the earliest and most influential gothic horror novels: Frankenstein. Published in 1818, when Shelley was just 20 years old, it remains a work of genius that can still horrify readers with the depths of man’s depravity and pursuit of knowledge at all costs. It is also a novel that places love, and the desire for love in its absence, at the heart of life. For this, and many other reasons, Shelley has become an idol for those whose souls search for belonging in dark times.

She’s also someone who I thought couldn’t really become any cooler. After all, this is the woman said to have married her lover, Percy Bysshe Shelley, after losing her virginity to him at the graveside of her mother. And then, after he drowned in a storm in 1822, carried his calcified heart – the only thing to survive his cremation – with her, wrapped in a silk shroud, until her death in 1851. (It was found in her desk, wrapped in the pages of one of his last poems.) But this week, Fiona Sampson, author of In Search of Mary Shelley, taught me something new: Shelley was bisexual. Continue reading

Mary Shelley is a queen. Daughter of modern feminism’s founder, Mary Wollstonecraft, and the radical thinker William Godwin, this rebellious woman wrote one of the earliest and most influential gothic horror novels: Frankenstein. Published in 1818, when Shelley was just 20 years old, it remains a work of genius that can still horrify readers with the depths of man’s depravity and pursuit of knowledge at all costs. It is also a novel that places love, and the desire for love in its absence, at the heart of life. For this, and many other reasons, Shelley has become an idol for those whose souls search for belonging in dark times.

She’s also someone who I thought couldn’t really become any cooler. After all, this is the woman said to have married her lover, Percy Bysshe Shelley, after losing her virginity to him at the graveside of her mother. And then, after he drowned in a storm in 1822, carried his calcified heart – the only thing to survive his cremation – with her, wrapped in a silk shroud, until her death in 1851. (It was found in her desk, wrapped in the pages of one of his last poems.) But this week, Fiona Sampson, author of In Search of Mary Shelley, taught me something new: Shelley was bisexual. Continue reading