Thursday, 12 October 2017

Walking The Tightrope: a review of 'City Of Circles' by Jess Richards

I'm a big fan of Jess Richards' work, having loved her two earlier novels "Snake Ropes" and "Cooking With Bones". Like those stories, "City Of Circles" creates a powerfully original fantasy world through which the author can explore very human emotions.

As she points out in the book's afterword, "perhaps all fiction in in some way autobiographical." Written while the author was going through a period of isolation and transience after the breakup of her marriage, "City of Circles" is about a circus performer called Danu whose grief and guilt over the death of her parents has caused her to withdraw emotionally. With the help of older mentor Morrie, Danu learns to walk a tightrope - both literally and metaphorically - between her desire to belong and her need to find something authentically her own.

Rejecting the camaraderie of the circus and the chance of a lasting relationship with Morrie, she eventually goes in search of herself within the strange geometry of Matryoshka - a city that reads like a puzzle, designed by a visionary architect out of three concentric circles built over a slumbering volcano. The metaphor is a powerful one, and casting herself adrift on the city, she tastes experience after experience - all of which only serve to underline her outsider status. Armed only with a clue from her dead mother's locket, she must search for the missing piece of her identity and put an end to her isolation.

Meanwhile, lovelorn and lonely, Morrie tries to reach Danu - both physically and then mentally, when he learns to travel the ether in a dreamlike state to watch over her from a distance. The concept of the ether permeates the book, drawing on fringe science as much as folklore to establish the idea of a field or a fabric of which the universe is made and through which consciousness can move. It's an idea which is also explored in various ways within science fiction, fantasy and magic realist narratives, from Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy to Christopher Nolan's film Interstellar (2014) and the new Star Trek TV series, Discovery.

The novel riffs on notions of duality and reflection; from Morrie and Danu’s circus act in which they mirror each other’s movements, to the painting Danu discovers which is an impossible depiction of her by someone she’s never met. The strange geography of the city is also beautifully realised - recalling both Venice at carnival time and a clockwork Minas Tirith. Some time into her stay, Danu discovers that the circles on which it is built slowly revolve at different speeds, making it seem even more like a puzzle to be solved rather than a landscape to be explored. Why is the second circle so different in character? Why is it impossible to gain access to the secretive Inner Circle, and why did her mother have the address of someone who lives there? If she does gain entrance, will she be able to get out again? The answers to these riddles may serve to release Danu from her self-imposed isolation - or they may cut her off forever from the world, and the people, she knows.

Perhaps that's the conundrum that faces every artist - whether to stay in the everyday world where you may be alienated but at least you feel safe, or follow the white rabbit down the hole and face the unknown. In this memorable fable, Jess Richards expertly projects these very human challenges onto a world which despite its complex artifice, always feels vividly real.

Monday, 21 August 2017

The bodies are coming back

Commander Bolton: The tide's turning now.
Captain Winnant: How can you tell?
Commander Bolton: The bodies are coming back.

Dunkirk doesn’t obey any of the rules of modern commercial moviemaking. It doesn’t bother with backstory for its characters, it doesn’t linger on explosions or the human wreckage they cause, there is no “romantic interest” – there are barely even any women. 

What it does instead is concentrate on the seemingly random.  We follow a group of soldiers fleeing gunfire along French streets, picked off one by one until a single man is left. We see a mute survivor recycle the uniform from a corpse he happens upon, before burying it in the sand. We watch a shellshocked officer, rescued from wreckage by chance, cower in the belly of a boat. We see interminable lines of men standing on the piers, in the shallows, strafed by Stukas as they wait for deliverance. Some survive; others don’t. This is what was real.

Chrisptopher Nolan has been criticised for overwhelming his characters with artifice.  I think that’s a misunderstanding of his method.  Although it deals with history rather than speculative fantasy or magic realism, the film’s three nested timeframes work in essentially the same way as the layered dreamscapes of Inception, or the variable timeframes wrought by relativity in Interstellar.  We see events from the space of a week on the beach, containing a single day on a rescue boat at sea and finally one desperate hour in the air.  The procession is not linear, and events are sometimes repeated from different viewpoints. What seems at first to be random is in fact connected at every level.

There are no star turns: Mark Rylance’s sober boat captain is as understated as Tom Hardy’s pragmatic Spitfire pilot, his face half-hidden under his oxygen mask. Cillian Murphy’s nameless, context-less “shivering soldier” displays the raw emotion of a man who has seen too much and can take no more. Even pop star Harry Styles subverts his charisma to the demands of a not entirely sympathetic role. And relative newcomer Fionn Whitehead fulfills the role of viewpoint character - his name is "Tommy" - with a workmanlike credibility.

If there is one single voice to unify the action and draw all these experiences together, it’s not an actor's; it's that of Hans Zimmer, whose score moves from the urgently atonal to an evisceration of Elgar’s Nimrod theme from the Enigma Variations. It’s as much sound design as music, yet it’s an aural environment which stays in the head for many hours after the film has ended.

Thursday, 20 July 2017

Birthday Letter

It’s been over two months since Chris Cornell died.  Today would have been his 53rd birthday. Shock affects people in different ways, but for me, the days and weeks following his death went by in a blur. Helping to organise his funeral gave way to listening to his elegies.  So many of his friends, family and colleagues spoke or wrote beautiful things in his memory, but I couldn’t seem to do the same.  In Hollywood, Jacaranda blossoms were blooming across a summer he’d never see.  The night after his funeral, I sat on the hill outside Griffith Observatory and watched the shadows lengthen.  And I couldn’t think of a thing to say.

I’ve been told that just as physical injury can trigger a natural anaesthetic which protects the victim, the sudden death of a loved one can produce a numbness of the mind and heart which only gradually gives way to anger and grief.  I think that’s what happened to me.

Still, it’s pretty pathetic when a writer runs out of words.

Lately, there have been signs that my heart is coming out of hibernation.  I’ve been getting angry. With myself.  With people who write stupid things on the internet.   Even with Chris, who left all of us high and dry without the chance to offer help, to understand, even to say goodbye.   I’m told that anger is a normal part of grief; that it helps with the healing process and eventually gives way to acceptance.   But I’m still a long way, a very long way, from that.

So I’ve been trying to remember all the good things.

Like the day in 2007 I first met Chris, backstage at the Astoria in London.  For such a tall man he had a way of moving silently, almost stealthily, and I was still setting up to record my interview when Chris walked over to the room’s single window and with his back to me, said “Have I been here before?”

He never cared much for hellos and goodbyes, the routine enquiries after health or wellbeing with which most people bookend their conversations.  Choosing to take him literally rather than metaphorically, I reminded him of the last time he’d played the venue; with Audioslave, four years before, fresh out of rehab.  He laughed as I fumbled with my recorder and sent its batteries skittering across the floor. Then he distributed himself over three rickety chairs and talked for an hour, not just about music but about physics and history and psychology and politics.  They’ve knocked the Astoria down now, but whatever they do with the space where it stood, it’ll always be a haunted place for me.

originally posted to Flickr What remains of the Astoria.
That interview, and the one which followed back home in Scotland, eventually led to Chris hiring me.  For the next decade, I wrote PR, did research, kept archives, proofread everything, became part of the management team, helped his family, and looked after social media for him and for his bands and projects.  One of the greatest things about the internet is that for those of us dealing in art and ideas, it enables almost anyone to work from almost anywhere. Which is exactly what I did.

Visiting Chris and Vicky for the first time in Paris, I remember the exact moment when a small blond figure in a nappy appeared in the sitting room doorway and fixed me with a basilisk stare just like his father’s.  Then Chris appeared, crouched beside him and picked up a ball which he rolled slowly towards me as he told his son my name.   I’m not sure that Dad quite allayed the little boy’s natural suspicion of this strange lady, but it was a nice way to make his, and his big sister’s acquaintance.

Chris loved his family profoundly. Whatever he was doing, whatever else was in his mind, he was always a devoted husband and father, as he was always an appreciative friend. Despite his rock star cool, he had a natural gentility which seemed to come from a different age.   It’s the little things, really.  Stopping to help his wife who was making slow progress in heels down an elderly staircase at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire, and then opening the door to let me step into the wings ahead of him.  Walking with him through the centre of the crowd at Hyde Park after Soundgarden’s wonderful ‘Superunknown20’ show to watch Black Sabbath from the VIP viewing platform, a child on his shoulders like a hundred other dads down on the grass below on that summer evening.

I remember him phoning to cheer me up when the response to his album “Scream” wasn’t all we’d hoped.  Carefully spelling out my 12 year old son’s Gaelic name in the cover of a children’s book he was autographing for him, anxious not to get it wrong;  then ten years later, writing to congratulate that same son on getting his degree.  Doing everything he could to help friends or fans through bereavement, or to send little presents or organise special backstage meetings for those who were sick or disabled.  I remember his abundant kindness, his keen intelligence, his all-encompassing warmth for those he trusted and his disdain for those he did not.  I remember how little he cared for status, or power, or riches, and how much he cared for talent and loyalty.

On Twitter, which for a while he embraced with all the delight of a kid with a new toy, he could be as surreal as Spike Milligan.  He always saw the scope for comic confusion in language -  once, he asked me about the Highland Clearances, and then confessed that he’d never been able to shake the mental connection with department store clearance sales.

He was a brilliant mimic, copying or creating characters at will. He once called me and adopted the persona of an extravagantly gay and terminally confused international telephone operator - if he hadn’t dropped the pretence I don’t think I’d ever have got the joke.  During a discussion of British gangster films while we were driving to a show in New Jersey, he suddenly became Ben Kingsley's foulmouthed cockney psychopath Don Logan from Jonathan Glazer's ‘Sexy Beast’.  The language wasn’t a big stretch – Chris swore like a sailor – but all the insane black humour of the character was there in a flash ("Yes Grosvenor! Yes Roundtree! Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes!") before he lapsed back into his usual conversational calm.  He had many actor friends, but always insisted he’d never try it himself. Perhaps he should have done.

 Because of the physical distance, I didn’t know Chris as well or see him as often as some.   But what I remember most of all is the way he’d pick up exactly where we had left off, weeks, months or even years before. As he had at that very first meeting, he would just start talking: no greetings, no awkwardness, no catching up, whether it was a chat about our respective children, a dive into his musical seascape or a discussion of psychogeographic geometry (Chris felt north/south or east/west divides were artificial, and the real divisions in the world were diagonal).  He rarely felt very far away.  As he wrote to his friend Eric Esrailian, “we are neighbours in a modern world where proximity is relative and the threshold to our hearts moves outside time and space”.

But I will miss the little light on my phone, colour-coded blue,  that told me there was an email or a message from him.  I’ll miss watching him wind down with his family after a show.  I’ll miss his irritation with his staff when we couldn’t keep up with his alarming pace.  I will miss sending him birthday wishes every July 20th.  I will miss his hugs.  I will miss his smile.

Chris knew all about darkness.  It suffused his work and was part of the ocean he swam in as an artist. But darkness is not always destructive. It's just the other side of light, and that nocturnal imaginative world was part of his nature. It would never have taken him away from the people and the music he loved. The alien darkness around him that night in Detroit was chemical. Drugs change brain chemistry, and I think that in the benzodiazepine delirium that engulfed him, Chris became not-Chris. And he was lost, to himself, his family, and to the world.

This isn't the place to talk about the evils of prescription drug culture in America. And I don’t think Chris would want us to sit by the side of the road and cry.  He'd want us to push on with our lives and make him proud. But I do know that the world is the poorer now that he can’t construct a future for himself, for his songs, for the wife and children he adored, and for all of us.


[Postscript: the other day I came across an old song I wrote with my husband, The Size Of Dreaming. The inspiration had a lot to do with Shakespeare's Antony & Cleopatra, and a little to do with the sound of Chris Cornell. We wrote and recorded it twelve years ago, but it feels strangely appropriate now. You can listen to it and read the lyrics here.]

Sunday, 19 March 2017

The Nature Of Art: Lynn Bennett-Mackenzie at the Sawyer Gallery, Poolewe

Lynn Bennett Mackenzie's solo exhibition at Inverewe Garden & Estate's new Sawyer Gallery in Poolewe, Wester Ross opened last night. The theme - Art In Nature, or The Nature Of Art - was a powerful one, well-suited to a small gallery in the midst of a rural landscape. It would probably have been easy for Lynn to present something innocuously pastoral, but she's a much better artist than that.

So like the natural world which inspired it, the works were both raw and subtle, often combining both qualities within a single piece.  A piece of driftwood hid waxen pearls which could have been eggs but suggested teeth, as though some unnamed baby animal with a savage need to chew and tear had left them embedded in the wood.   Birth and flight were everywhere through the repeated motifs of eggs and feathers, but always with the threat of violence and destruction hovering in the wings.

Also evoked was the sense of idea of watching and being watched. A pair of wooden eyes stared out of a museum display case like a found tribal artefact; the quiet gaze of still painted faces ringed the room.  Most powerful of all was a sculptural figure made entirely of sheep's wool which sat like a sentry at the room's focal point. Both serene and strangely threatening, he seemed to encapsulate the equivocal nature of the art on show, and the landscape from which it was drawn.

© Clare O'Brien 2017