Soul of a Nation

Soul of a Nation

Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power

Two weeks ago at Tate Britain Val Wilmer was in conversation with Zoe Whitley, co-curator with Mark Godfrey of the exhibition Soul of a Nation at Tate Modern. It was one of a programme of talks and events accompanying the exhibition.

Val told extraordinary stories of the extraordinary people, writers, musicians, photographers, she has interviewed and photographed throughout her career, including James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Sun Ra and Jayne Cortez. Interviewing James Baldwin she ran out of questions. Bravely she admitted this to him and his response was immediate. ‘No problem, let’s have a drink.’

Val Wilmer Tate Britain Soul of a Nation October 2017 (46)

Val Wilmer Tate Britain Soul of a Nation October 2017 (11)Today I went to the exhibition at Tate Modern. It was fascinating. Some of the issues I remembered, the Civil Rights Movement, the formation of the Black Panthers, Malcolm X, Bobby Seale, but other pieces and artists were completely new to me, as was the representation and imagery of the events. But the anger and the shame that I felt walking through the rooms were as fresh as they were in the 60s and 70s.

The show begins in 1963 with the formation of the Spiral Group, a New York–based collective who questioned how Black artists should relate to American society. They responded to current events in their photo-montages and abstract paintings. Artists also considered the locations and audiences for their art – from local murals to nationally circulated posters and newspapers – with many turning away from seeking mainstream gallery approval to show artwork in their own communities through Black-owned galleries and artist-curated shows. The exhibition uses archive photographs and documentary material to illustrate the mural movement, including the ‘Wall of Respect’ in Chicago.

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Soul of a Nation Tate Modern Oct 2017 (93)

Away from New York artists across the Unites States, in Chicago and Los Angeles, engaged in the Black Art debate.  AfriCOBRA (the African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists) in Chicago devised a manifesto for Black Art during this period. In Los Angeles the Watts Rebellion of 1965 had a direct impact on the art being produced there. Back in New York the Just Above Midtown gallery (JAM) was a pioneering commercial gallery that displayed the work of avant-garde Black artists.  Soul of a Nation ‘showcases the debate between figuration and abstraction’.

Taking photos was permitted in the exhibition, so I was able to capture a few of the images and exhibits. I am going to leave the art to speak for itself (accompanied by the excellent and helpful notes provided by the curators). Be appalled, uplifted, shocked, and thrilled. Thank you to the Tate Modern and the curators for producing such a powerful exhibition.

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The exhibition closes on Sunday, 22 October, and after that will go on tour to Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas and the Brooklyn Museum, New York. A wonderful exhibition, not to be missed.               

Intermission

Flowers 2

There has been a period of quiet on this side of the blog world. The summer has passed so quickly. We had so much hope – there was sunshine and heat. The promise of barbecues hung in the air. I unpacked all my summer clothes – shorts, linen dresses, linen trousers.

A June trip to Thessaloniki, on the mainland of Greece, was hot, so hot.

Thessaloniki (55)

Thessaloniki market 2     Thessaloniki modigliani (7)

And then, just as I began editing of The Essex Girls, illness struck. It was a cold – or, in the words of a long forgotten advert – was it flu? But flowers have adorned the house which has been very nice.

Flowers

But it means everything has slowed down, meetings missed, films abandoned, reservations ignored.

But as the days draw in and rain spatters the window, I’m feeling better. So, much to look forward to. And Strictly back on Saturday.

21 Rue la Boétie

Musee Maillol poster

In July I was in Paris, in time for the last days of this exhibition, 21 rue la Boétie, at the Musée Maillol. I wanted to see the paintings as examples of modern art – I had no idea of the story behind this particular collection.  On the very last day, 23 July 2017, a Sunday, I joined a small queue of people waiting patiently in a narrow street in the 7th Arrondisement, before the doors opened, our bags were searched and we were welcomed inside.

Musee Maillol 2

The exhibition brought together about 60 works of modern art (Picasso, Matisse, Léger, Laurencin…), many of which had transited through the Paris and New York galleries of Paul Rosenberg. Other paintings were ‘representative of the era’s historical and artistic context.’

Musee Maillol 21 rue la BoetieHowever, the main emphasis of the exhibition was the story of 21 rue la Boétie in Paris. This was the gallery of art dealer Paul Rosenberg (1881-1959). The gallery opened in 1910 and Rosenberg promoted the work of Picasso and Georges Braque. Later, alongside the work of impressionists like Renoir, he exhibited paintings by Seurat, Monet and Matisse.

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In 1940, the Nazis invaded Paris. Hitler had condemned modern artists like Picasso as ‘degenerate.’ In this context ‘degenerate’ meant works deemed to be ‘an insult to German feeling’. Rosenberg was a Jewish dealer in ‘degenerate’ art.

In one room where paintings from the Degenerate Art exhibition were displayed beside ‘Aryan’ paintings from Hitler’s art collection described by William Cook as ‘not entirely without merit, but all terribly samey.’ My own view was that they were simply boring – chubby faced children, meticulously transcribed horses, cheerful people, which lacked the energy and originality of the so-called degenerate art.

Rosenberg’s gallery was appropriated by the Gestapo as a centre for Anti-Semitic ‘research.’ Hundreds of his paintings, and as many as 20,000 other paintings were looted by the Nazis from national collections and private Jewish-owned art in France. They were placed in the Jeu de Paume gallery in Paris. Rose Valland, an art historian and member of the French Resistance, working in the Jeu de Paume, kept detailed lists of the paintings deposited there and where they were being transported, unbeknown to the Nazis.

Rose_Valland

In 1944, with the Allies closing in on Paris, the Nazis packed the last hundreds of the paintings onto a train to Germany. However, this train was hijacked by the Free French Army, and the paintings saved. One of the soldiers who stormed the train was Rosenberg’s son, Alexandre. This incident was the inspiration for the 1964 film, The Train.

After the war, Paul Rosenberg – whose French citizenship had been removed by the Nazis and who became an American citizen – worked to reassemble his collection. About 400 paintings had gone missing. Eventually, over 300 were retrieved.

The exhibition was fascinating, both for the art and for the story of the Nazis’ involvement between 1941 and 1944.

Musee Maillol

So it seemed appropriate to watch the film, which also features Jeanne Moreau, who has so recently left us. It’s a great film, and even though you know how it ends, it’s gripping and heartbreaking and powerful. Burt Lancaster is a wonderful railwayman, all grease and passion, and Paul Scofield is excellent as the Nazi officer, cold, cruel and obsessed. They have changed the story somewhat but it’s a fascinating depiction of an intriguing piece of social history and well worth watching.

The Train (1964)poster

Listening Bench

Listening Bench Chelmsford 18 July 2017 (11)

Unveiling the Chelmsford Listening Bench

On Tuesday 18 July on the banks of the River Chelmer, the Chelmsford Listening Bench was declared open.

At 1 o’clock the sun was shining, a light breeze was blowing and a crowd of fiends, passers-by, relatives of contributors and the volunteers who had worked on the selection of voices, gathered for the ceremony.  After a short speech from the mayor of Chelmsford Councillor Duncan Lumley, I cut the ribbon and pressed the first button. I was really delighted to have been asked.

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The night before I had been able to listen to the recordings – a selection made from a great number of oral history recordings for the Essex Record Office. One recording was from a man born in 1909 who remembered Chelmsford in WWI, another recording is from someone born in the 20s, who went out walking all day with her friend with a jam sandwich, when Chelmsford was so much smaller and surrounded by fields. Someone else remembered when Hoffmann’s ball-bearing factory was bombed in WWII.

After I had cut the ribbon a man came up to me to explain he was the son of the man born in 1909. What was also wonderful was that he had been a mod, with a scooter and had gone to the Corn Exchange on a Saturday night. We swopped a lot of names. Who knows, he may have stood behind me in the Orpheus in the queue for a frothy coffee and a glass of hot blackcurrant.

Listening Bench Chelmsford 18 July 2017 (104)

What is a listening bench?

It’s a bench with a panel of buttons that anyone can press and, through built-in speakers, hear local people telling stories and talking about the history of the area.

The benches are part of the Heritage Lottery Funded project, You Are Hear: sound and a sense of place, organised by the Essex Record Office.

Listen Hear

The idea is that through these benches, the Essex Sounds map,

Listening Bench map

and touring audio-video kiosks, sound and video recordings will help people develop their sense of place. The Essex Record Office is digitising and cataloguing a number of recordings from the Archive to make them available online, to preserve the county’s past, ‘for the enjoyment, interest and benefit of future generations.’

Listening benches have already been installed in communities across Essex. Each bench plays a selection of clips from Essex Sound and Video Archive recordings – clips about the area chosen by volunteers from that community.

Listening Bench Chelmsford 18 July 2017 (103)It really was a lovely occasion – and such a good idea!

Find the bench in Backnang Square, behind the Meadows shopping precinct.

Weekend in Rowhedge

The Anchor Rowhedge May 2017

The second book is on the way – working title The Girl in the Green Mac – and I have a deadline to meet. So to find somewhere cool, calm and beautiful to write is an absolute joy. And last weekend, that place was Rowhedge, in Essex. It’s just outside Colchester – where I did my A-levels – so I do know the area a little, but Rowhedge was somewhere quite new.

Rowhedge in a nutshell 3

I was staying with Eve, an old friend of my mum’s from way back in the 60s, CND, drama and trad jazz. She had a drama group that I joined, all black leotards and method, swaying across the stage. As I mixed Horlicks in the Milk Bar I dreamed of being an actress, nothing showy, not Hollywood, just doing rep in a small town in middle England – Derby? Leicester? – with a good crowd of chums and a new play every week. I hadn’t seen her for years, but dropped in for coffee when I was doing a talk in Brightlingsea in February this year. A pretty village, a river (the Colne) and a Co-op – what more could you want? ‘Can I come and write here?’ I asked.

And so last week I packed a bag, jumped on a train and arrived at 2.30 on a glorious, sunny afternoon. Eve showed me to my room – and what a joy! It was a real Room of Ones Own, as if Virginia Woolf had stood beside her as she arranged the furniture. A writing desk, a chaise longue (a chaise longue! how long I have yearned for a chaise longue…), a window onto a small terrace, and a view of the long, meandering garden down to the woods. A narrow bed and a teeny bathroom completed the magical scene.

Rowhedge Room May 2017 (3)And did I write? Readers, I did.  Possibly not as much as I should have.  There was so much to do – having breakfast in the garden, exploring the highways and byways of Rowhedge, finding the Co-op, dining at the Anchor, meeting Eve’s lovely friends, asking them about their memories of the Sixties (research!), and being a good guest. Maybe next time…

Rowhedge irises May 2017

Rowhedge breakfast May 2017

Rowhedge Chruch of St Lawrence May 2017

Zaffre-Banner

The news

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I have already written about my big news here but I’m so thrilled I just want to say it again.  My Sixties novel, Beyond the Beehive, has been acquired by Bonnier Zaffre.  They will publish a new edition in early 2018, which will have the trademark Z on the spine.

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Shortly after that a second Sixties novel will appear. Now I have to get down to writing it, which is quite a challenge, but I’m looking forward to it. There may be tears, laughter, sleepless nights and a certain amount of tearing my hair. I’m hoping that you will share this journey with me!

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It’s all happening

EW writing cafeA lot has been happening, but perhaps the most exciting – for me – is that I have a new book deal.  Beyond the Beehive is to be published in a new format, coming out in the New Year, followed closely by a sequel. What can I say? People have been crying out for a sequel. Yes you did, Marion.

So in order to have the new book finished by November I have set myself the task of writing 1000 words a day. This means that by the end of June I shall have written a book. Then the editing begins. And by mid July I shall have half a book.

In order to ensure that I keep to my quota I am now walking around with pen and paper in my pocket, ready to note down any gem of conversation that I hear or memory that strikes me.  I am also spending time in quiet, out of the way places, cafes and the like, where for a couple of hours I am out of internet or phone contact.

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And now I am off to join writing companion, Maureen Hanscomb, where I shall be obliged to keep my head down, so I scarcely notice the wonderful view – Ally Pally in all its splendour.

Maureen's view of Ally Pally

Nobody told me to oil my boots

Walton on the Naze (2)This has been a busy last few days – there was a trip to Walton-on-the-Naze, a place very close to my heart.  We went to Walton on our Sunday School Outings, my mum went there as a child, she had her honeymoon there, and we also went on family holidays.

Sunday School teachers at WaltonIt’s a small seaside town on the Essex coast between the brashness of Clacton and the primness of Frinton-on-Sea.  And it has a pier (the second or third longest in the UK, depending who provides the information), with an arcade with penny slot machines, and a ghost train and dodgems.  And we have braved wind and rain, and we have sat defiantly on the beach hugging our coats around us.  So a trip to Walton was something I was looking forward to.

But last week it was cold, really cold.  The clouds hung heavy and low in the sky.  And the pier where we went with a bag of 2p pieces (it is important to prepare for a trip to the seaside), was changed.  The rides were unsurprisingly closed, being spruced up for the forthcoming season.  The arcade was open – but where were the Tipping Point 2p slot machines? We had come to lose money and there was nowhere to lose it!

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And it was so cold.

Things brightened up with a trip to Rowhedge, outside Colchester.  We had come to visit an old friend of my mum’s, last seen 30 years ago, in her tiny, warm house in Rowhedge, across the estuary from Wivenhoe.  She’d put on a lovely spread of cheese scones, toast, honey, grapes, olives…

Rowhedge

She was a great CNDer and also a drama teacher of an evening class round at the Tec.  I was in that class and we put on an unforgotten, but occasionally overlooked performance of artistic scenes, during a Chelmsford Arts Festival of the late 60s.  We all wore black leotards.  It was also the year of my great success in The Crucible – I remember my lines as if it were yesterday. ‘The wings! The wings.’ An exhausting performance.

winter fest

Then there was Brightlingsea, on the other side of the estuary.  It was standing room only in the conservatory of the Rosebud pub, as people crowded in to hear local poets, writers, comedians, story tellers, exhibit their art.  It was a wonderful success, not least because the event was part of the the Winter Fest, on behalf of Mind.  Not to raise money so much as simply to get people out of their homes, to come and be sociable in the grim winter weather.  It was still cold.  And I was wearing my ‘performance outfit’ – which meant no vest, very few layers and boots not made of Spanish Leather but some very thin vinyl material. When it was my turn to read my hands could hardly turn the pages. However, once someone had rearranged the microphone and we got going people laughed in the right places, and later I was told people had asked ‘Who was that masked man?’

Winter Fest Brightlingsea

So it turned into a good weekend.  The highlight perhaps had occurred a couple of days before. I had listened in the night to a lovely half hour programme on R4 Extra. Nobody told me to oil my boots told the story of Isaac Rosenberg, a working-class Jewish lad, son of immigrants, a peace loving poet and artist from the East End, who felt it was his duty to join up and fight for his country in WWl. He joined a Bantam Regiment (for men who did not reach the required height of 5’3″). His war poetry is often overlooked, when people concentrate on poets like Wilfred Owen – who was advised to oil his boots. At the end, the R4 poet in residence,Daljit Nagra, summed up by talking about the numbers of Jews and Muslims and Hindus who fought and died in WWl for their country. First broadcast several years ago it is a delicate, powerful, heartbreaking story that is well worth listening to for 30 minutes.

Seagulls at Walton (2)

 

Radio Gorgeous

Wedding outfit

This is a brief post to alert you to the interview I did with Radio Gorgeous which is now up on their website as a podcast. *

Just before Christmas, on a wintery afternoon, Jo Pembroke and I sat in the John Snow pub in Soho, near Carnaby Street and talked – and talked. In the background you can hear the end of the lunchtime rush. Of course we discussed Chelmsford, mods and rockers, the Corn Exchange and music – and the interview opens, like the book, with the haunting organ chords of Green Onions. But the conversation ranged far and wide. Jo steered the conversation to Heybridge Basin in Essex where my dad grew up, Leytonstone in London where my mum was born, Woodford where the World War ll bomb fell on their house, then their meeting in the boom town of Chelmsford, where I was born and grew up.  Then on to Birmingham, Leicester and Tours, before landing back in London.  It’s all here

The picture that accompanies the interview is me in our back garden on the Woodhall Estate.  On the left of the picture is our shed.  People who have read Beyond the Beehive will know the importance of a shed in the life of a young person who wants to keep a secret. Behind me stretch the other houses on our block and far in the distance, on the right of the picture is the beginning of the shops. Important for chips, the purchase of wedding presents, the Off Licence and Sally the Baker’s. Plus the all important grocer’s.

I am wearing a black dress and a red beret. And for real fashion aficionados, the shoes were black patent with Louis heels and a flower detail. An interesting combination for a wedding outfit, and the basis of not a few jokes. But I take comfort from the fact that my niece (whose image is on the front cover of the book) saw this picture and asked me if I still had the dress as she liked it.  Or possibly because she was about to go to a fancy dress party.

beyond-the-beehive-shop

* Friend M writes ‘Last night …. could not absolutely could not get to sleep.  Cup of tea etc and then I found Radio Gorgeous and you being interviewed! After that I was ab… z z z z z’

2017 La La looking forward

la-la-land-wide-shotThe general prospects are as grim as two weeks ago, but in the meantime, in between time, there is art.

Yesterday idly scrolling through films that might be on at 2 o’clock, to finish before a 6pm dinner date, I noticed that La La Land was on.  There’s been so much advertising and trailing of the film that I was worried it might not be much cop – but I liked the sound of it (romance, Hollywood, romance) and Peter Bradshaw gave it 5 stars in the Guardian! We didn’t book, just strolled in to find an enormous queue.  It was a special preview in a packed cinema.  It was just before the Golden Globe awards last night – and we agreed with their verdict. It is a lovely, feel good, romantic, smiley, quirky movie.  There’s music, dancing, jazz, love and Paris. Ryan Gosling – now almost forgiven for the dreadful Nice Guys – has a lovely smile, and Emma Stone is a great wannabe, vulnerable, wide eyed, insecure and with another lovely smile.  Mia (Emma Stone) works in a coffee shop on the Warner Lot and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is a pianist who wants to open his own club. The story of their meeting and the start of their relationship is just what you want in a love story – unpleasantness, a bit of misunderstanding, hesitation, unity against a harsh world. And then they start dancing! The film tips its hat to the old Fred and Ginger movies, with a trip to la belle France (Les Parapluies de Cherbourg  and Les Demoiselles de Rochefort ) and of course there is more than a nod to Singin’ in the Rain.

Damien Chazelle the director also directed Whiplash. JK Simmons from Whiplash and Law and Order (and the underated but very satisfying New in Town) has a small but pivotal role. It’s always a pleasure to see those actors you vaguely recognise from your own living room.

And hurray for Meryl Streep

And with Moonlight and Manchester-by-the-Sea in the pipeline there’s a lot more to come.