The thankful ones

memorial

Is there any place in Australia which does not have a war memorial?

No matter how small the town, you always see a reminder of those who left to fight for the British Empire in 1914-18 and never came home again. Teenage boys mostly, who had rarely travelled more than a day’s ride from home, they died on the other side of the planet, in France, Turkey, or the lands of the Ottoman Empire. Their names are engraved in countless plaques on the walls of Soldiers’ Memorial Halls, town halls and post offices, or most often beneath the statue of a slouch-hatted soldier in order arms position, rifle resting on the ground and head bowed in respect.

Over 400,000 Australians volunteered to fight in the First World War, out of a population of just 4.4 million– almost a quarter of the entire male population. Of these, over 60,000 never returned. For Britain, with a population ten times greater, the number of casualties was a similarly high at 700,000. The UK too, of course, has a war memorial prominent in every town and parish. Yet of all the thousands of villages in Britain, there are a few dozen where there is no memorial. Remarkably, every soldier from those places returned home alive from the trenches.

They are known as the Thankful Villages.

One of these lies in the remote west of Wales, comfortably nestled between the mountains and the sea: a place called Llanfihangel-y-Creuddyn, a farming community of rich dairy land clustered around a thirteenth century church. All around, black-and-white cows graze contentedly in tilting fields of deepest green. This is my father’s family home. I can confidently say that my family have lived here for hundreds, and almost certainly for thousands of years, working as farmers and blacksmiths – a specialty of the area. Over the years, they will have gone away to fight the Germans, the French, the Spanish, the French again, the Normans, and probably even the Romans. A dozen local men joined up in 1914 and left for the Front, serving as gunners, infantrymen, and drivers. Even the local vicar went to be a curate with the army in what is now Iraq. Every one of them came back alive, including three of my own family.

My great-uncle Silvan served in the fledgling Tanks Corps, manning a gun in one of those early metal monsters which lumbered across the hellscape of the Somme. I remember him as a sprightly farmer in his seventies. On family visits, he rescued my brothers and me from the boredom of teatime conversation, beckoning us out with a wink to help with milking the cows. An hour later, we all returned, faces streaked with milk, shoes caked in mud, and wide grins on our faces.

But not all the returned soldiers had grins, even those without bodily wounds. Growing up, we were all familiar with ‘Dai Trolley’. Every morning he walked from one end of the town to the other, pushing a trolley in front of him, turned to go back, then turned again and again until it was time to stop and go home for tea. Dai had suffered brain damage after a shell exploded near him during the allied landings in Italy. Walking all day at least kept him fit. His family knew where he was, and everyone in town kept an eye out for him. He even served as an impromptu courier service. If you wanted something delivered, you dropped it on the trolley, slipped a tip in his pocket, and phoned ahead to say, ‘Dai coming with those bulbs I promised you!’

And there was another Uncle too, a cousin of my mother. He had been in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp. As children, we had heard about the camps, and talked in horrified whispers about the bamboo slivers pushed under fingernails and men crucified alive. It was almost scary to meet someone who had actually been a prisoner there. After tea with my aunt, we were taken to say hello. He spent his time in a room at the back of the house. The curtains were drawn and a coal fire burned there even on the warmest summer’s day. Here he sat, huddled by the fire, chain-smoking and staring into the flames. He tried to smile and talk to us, but his voice stuttered as he spoke and his hand never stopped trembling, sending cigarette ash tumbling over his waistcoat. His presence frightened me. In the decades since the war ended, he had rarely moved from the room. It was his safe place.

We don’t only remember the dead on Anzac Day then, but those who returned from the wars. They too paid a price which some have kept on paying.

When Actors Kiss

kiss2

   In dreams begin responsibilities   WB Yeats

Two enormous faces – each the size of a house, it seemed – leaned towards each other. Slowly they kissed, lips grazing against each other in unashamed Technicolor before the two mouths opened to each other. As I realised what was happening, I was overcome with unease and felt sick at the sight before me. Something felt terribly wrong.

I was too young to see this movie. At the age of eight, I was already in love with films. Every Saturday morning, I took myself to the local cinema where we lived in a quiet suburb of London, My taste was Disney classics or science fiction adventures, however, not the romantic drama projected in front of me now. But why was I seeing this very adult film? I can only think that my parents had tickets for a special showing and a babysitter had let them down. Off went the three of us on the Tube to the Leicester Square Odeon (half an hour distant on the Northern Line). I clutched my mother’s hand tight, always terrified of being swept off the platform by the draft of an approaching Underground train. Settled into my seat at the Odeon at last with a packet of toffee Poppets, I watched the inexplicable film. Why was nothing happening? This was so boring . . . no fights, no space rockets, no faithful animal jumping on the villain like Shadow the Sheepdog. It was just people talking! And then the climactic scene, a gigantic close-up of the two stars kissing. Who were they? Grace Kelly and Cary Grant in To Catch a Thief? Or Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift in A Place in the Sun, their beautiful faces contending for our attention?

What had shocked me was this. I understood that it was two actors on the screen, simulating fictional characters, but how could they possibly act something so intimate as a kiss? Could grown-ups pretend to have emotions? A whole world of potential deceit opened up before me. It was a disturbing discovery, like finding out that Father Christmas did not exist, or that my parents had sex. (And perhaps there was an unspoken fear, that they only pretended to love me!)

Ten years later, in a philosophy class at school, I discovered that Plato shared my confusion and concerns. In the ideal state he describes in The Republic, poets and actors are banished for giving a false representation of reality. By imitating actual people, they commit a crime by leading their audience away from the truth. This is a bizarre and reductionist view of theatre and the arts, of course, but I could understand the philosopher’s horror at people pretending to be other people and simulating emotions they do not have. It’s not so far from the horror we experience when watching a zombie movie, as familiar, homely characters become the Living Dead. This reaction also recalls the fascination of ‘did they or didn’t they?’ Decades after they appeared together in Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973), Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie still get asked whether the rumour is true that they actually had sex on camera during a bedroom scene. We continue to be intrigued, confused, and sometimes troubled by the phenomenon of people acting someone completely different.

Acting is a very strange profession. Our relationships, and society in general, rely on individuals behaving consistently and ‘in character’. To pretend to be someone else, or about how we feel, is to be suspicious, untrustworthy, and possibly criminal. In a theatre, however, we give an entire profession a licence to lie. Actors ‘shape-change’ into other people, in a way that would be terrifying in real life. They not only behave, dress, and move differently, they kiss people they hardly know, as though they were lovers. They lie in bed together naked and pretend to have passionate sex. It is as though they were possessed by demons.

Over a year, a single actor might need to behave convincingly as half a dozen different people. A Tudor princess. A NSW cop. Someone in an ad, overwhelmed with joy by a new breakfast cereal. It’s a curious job description, that makes actors very special people. Does the regular pretence of emotion and intimacy affect how actors relate to others? Of course not. But they are human too. In secret imaginings, we have all done things quite unlike our usual selves. We may all have dreamed of behaving in ways quite unacceptable in real life. To have such fantasies is entirely normal. ‘The virtuous man contents himself with dreaming that which the wicked man does in actual life,’ wrote Freud in The Interpretation of Dreams.

Transgression only occurs when private dreams leak across into ‘actual life,’ when other people are affected – for example, if the fantasy of a flirtatious relationship with a colleague slips into unwelcome touching and harassment. In dreams begin responsibilities: we might imagine something in our heads, but are culpable for acting on it in a way unwanted by another person. Recognising that distinction is an important part of growing up, and one that I was still too young to understand as those gigantic lips met above my head at the Leicester Square Odeon. For some people, however, it seems this distinction eludes them long after childhood.


Image: Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift in A Place in the Sun (1951).

Odyssey

Twin Towers (Image: Simon Leventhal)

Review
THE YEAR EVERYTHING CHANGED
Phillipa McGuinness (Vintage, 2018)

Every era imagines its own future. We always get it wrong, of course; often comically, sometimes tragically. The year 2001 was emblematic of ‘the future’ for decades, thanks to Stanley Kubrick’s visionary film of the same name. Videophones! Robots! Spaceships elegantly ascending to a Strauss waltz!

With the approach of the new millennium, we imagined The End of History, as Francis Fukuyama put it in his 1992 book. In the post-Cold War world, nuclear weapons would be dismantled and conflicts peacefully resolved. The ‘world wide web’ would dispel ignorance and distribute knowledge to all. Liberal democracy would spread inevitably as market forces created educated, progressive middle classes around the world.

How the gods must have laughed at our hubris as reality unfolded . . .


See the rest of this review in the June 2018 issue of Australia Book Review.

Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll

heroA HERO FOR HIGH TIMES
Ian Marchant (Cape, 2018)

When punk hit the fan in the late 1970s, I was already at university, writing a thesis on Nabokov’s Lolita. At Friday night dances, the ancient timbers of our college trembled as we pogo-danced on the spot, arms raised in the air and singing along at the top of our voices: ‘SEX . . . DRUGS . . . ROCK . . . ROLL!’ The song was a punk anthem by Ian Dury. The band was the Repeaters. I know them well, and the singer, 20 year-old Ian Marchant, was a chum of mine. After the gig, the night was still young – it’s remarkable that so many of us survived those years with our mental and physical health more-or-less intact.

Click your heels three times, and in 2018 Ian is a respectable grandfather, novelist, author of three acclaimed travel memoirs, and regular broadcaster on BBC Radio 4. In all other respects, he is thankfully just the same. Ian’s new book – A Hero for High Times – is an attempt to write a history of what was once known as the ‘counter culture’, or in his word, ‘the freaks’.  From the 1950s Beats via hippies and punks to the New Age travellers of the 1990s, he traces the lineage of these groups which revolted against society to embrace a life of self-exploration (not to mention, self-indulgence) with wilful, adolescent exuberance. You get the picture.

Every generation believes it is unique and special. There is a good case to be made, however, that those who grew up in the second half of the twentieth century were indeed exceptional. A combination of factors contributed to this, especially free access to health services and university education in post-war Britain. The big three reasons, though, were celebrated in Dury’s song: sexual freedom following introduction of the contraceptive pill (remember Larkin’s much-quoted lines from ‘Annus Mirabilis’: ‘Sexual intercourse began/ In nineteen sixty-three (which was rather late for me) /Between the end of the “Chatterley” ban/ And the Beatles’ first LP’). Recreational drug use went mainstream in the 1960s – for good or ill – with everything from cannabis to LSD and heroin easily available. Most important was rock’n’roll; the 1960s were to music what the 1590s were to the English language.

Coming of age in this era which Ian Marchant records was a joy we took for granted at the time. Ian does a good job of tracking the antecedents of this beat-hippy-punk-traveller DNA, noting early-century enthusiasm in Germany and California for ‘natural living’ (i.e. nudity, free love, soyburgers). He is an experienced, natural teacher and raconteur, skilfully explaining a complex thread of social history over the course of a century. Yet the book would have been closer to a sociological study if this were all it did. And after all,  a number of other works have already attempted to write a history of the counter culture. The genius of A Hero for High Times is that Ian alternates chapters of social history with a biography of his friend, Bob Rowberry, who lived these times in the fullest sense.

Bob’s story reads like a picaresque novel: Tom Jones’ adventures updated to Cool Britannia. He came of age in the late 1950s and early 1960s as a Soho ne’re-do-well (doing a little bit of this, a little bit of that). He recalls a teenage Eric Clapton practising his banjo in a coffee bar. Within a few years, helped by his entrepreneurial spirit and a rich girlfriend, Bob had a successful business running a clothes shop on Carnaby Street (featured in Vogue) with some drug-dealing on the side. Needing a little more entertainment, he set off for Afghanistan, armed and leading a convoy of vehicles to smuggle back an industrial quantity of cannabis hidden beneath hundreds of afghan coats (the hippie uniform) – the first to be sold in Europe. You feel his time in Kabul was Bob’s golden age: living with his glamorous ‘posh’ girlfriend on their own estate, doing deals, and riding off on a motorbike with a rifle on his back, to shoot a deer for dinner. Through the 1960s and 1970s, he is everywhere where it’s at, and with anyone who is anyone. He sold acid to RD Laing and half the performers at Glastonbury. (The drug was produced at Europe’s biggest LSD laboratory, hidden in the Welsh mountains near where Ian and I lived at the time.) Similar dealings with another band led to them adopting the name of Bob’s cat, Procol Harum. He was a behind-the-scenes fixer at the legendary Isle of Wight Festival. Caught smuggling in Iraq, he was interrogated by Saddam Hussein but managed to escape. Living in Mexico, he is imprisoned by a corrupt police chief, but freed by a popular uprising. And on the tales go on.

It’s possible half of Bob’s stories are as tall as they are wide-boy. But that is their charm. If even a quarter of his tales are true, that’s a bonus. Alternating Bob’s life with Ian’s chronicles of alternative culture gives the book a dynamic authenticity that either alone would have lacked. The history peters out in the mid 1990s, a time when, Ian claims, the counter culture faltered and failed. Youff no longer celebrated authentic music, rebellion, and innocent hedonism as he did at their age. But isn’t this the complaint of every passing generation? A more likely explanation is that the author, like his hero Bob, belatedly entered middle age around that time, settled down after a fashion, and began to see things differently. For example, like him or not, Jeremy Corbyn is barely mentioned, and  there is no mention of the massive push for social change driven by young people, which has made Labour the biggest party in Europe, with over half a million members. The index has a fulsome entry on Hippies, but nothing about the importance of Hip-hop (in the year Kendrick Lamar has been recognised with a Pulitzer Prize). Music made by young people today is as creative and exciting as it has ever been, from southern California (Knower, The Internet) to the current London jazz explosion (Nubya Garcia, Shabaka Hutchings).

It is the fate of youth to be idealistic and exuberant. It is the fate of age to decry that fings ain’t wot they used to be. In A Hero for High Times, Ian Marchant manages to keep both perspectives in focus with this thoughtful and highly entertaining book.

What becomes of the broken-hearted?

Cover: Bookshop of the Broken-Hearted

The Bookshop of the Broken-Hearted
Robert Hillman (Text Publishing, 2018)

‘To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric,’ wrote Theodor Adorno.

For a whole generation after World War Two, few novels were written about the Holocaust. It seemed too soon. Only in the nineteen-eighties did writers feel more confident that they could write about it without throwing the typewriter across the room with a cry of horror and despair. Sophie’s Choice by William Styron and Thomas Keneally Schindler’s Ark (both published in 1982) showed it was possible to write about the fate of the Jewish people under the Nazi regime with sensitivity as well as a clear artistic purpose. Since then, the Holocaust has become a frequent background for both fiction and movies, including the highly-praised Book Thief by Markus Zusak, another Australian like Keneally. For any writer, the dangers of writing about that period are legion; how easy to stray into treating what happened with mere sentimentality, a lack of the right kind of respect, or – almost worse – to bring that cruelty and horror into the domain of the normal through familiarity.

Robert Hillman ventures into this perilous territory with a new novel, The Bookshop of the Broken-Hearted. The year is 1968. A farmer, Tom Hope, has lost his wife, Trudy, not once, but twice. She runs away first to be with another man, and then again to join a religious cult. To add injury to injury, she abandons a child with him for a few years – long enough for the farmer and the boy to bond and love each other – and then takes him away again. Bemused and alone again, Tom considers himself a hopeless husband, a hopeless man. At this point, a newcomer opens a bookshop in the local town: Hannah Babel, an immigrant from Hungary. The plot is sprung.

Tom Hope is a simple man. A dab hand with farm equipment, metalwork, or a sick sheep, he is ‘soft,’ reluctant even to shoot a wild dog that is killing his sheep. He has few words, seems ignorant of the wider world, is passive, dull even – just the sort of man a wife would leave, you imagine. Hannah appears a familiar literary character at first. An attractive ‘continental’ (read, ‘Jewish’) woman arriving in a conservative country town: sophisticated, educated, well-dressed, and setting the feathers flying among the men.

The town is full of memorable characters, from the randy butcher to the eternal spinster. There is a flood. There is a wedding. There is a murder. More than one, in fact . . . around six million in total, including Hannah’s first husband and little boy who are killed in Auschwitz. Here, then, is the challenge Hillman sets his characters: how can you bear to live, let alone love, after such tragedy, such loss? How can you have hope? Into this maze, Robert Hillman leads his characters in The Bookshop of the Broken-Hearted.

Hillman is a practised and masterful storyteller. The plot is ‘frictionless,’ carrying the reader forward eagerly as the pages are turned. Description of people and places is spare; the narrative pauses only occasionally with a telling detail. This is most obvious with ‘Hometown’. ‘You can’t have a wedding without sausage rolls,’ Hannah is firmly told by Bev from the CWA. Anyone who has lived in the country will recognise Hillman’s affectionate, sharply-drawn evocation of the suffocating yet also comforting familiarity of small town life. Once Tom and Hannah become lovers and marry, they begin to change. The reader’s initial impressions of them are forced to change too.

In Hannah’s presence, Tom is forced to grow up. His relationship with his first wife, Trudy, was in monochrome, either adoration or bleak despair. With Hannah, he learns about love as coming to understand that someone else actually exists in the same way he does, and the extraordinary struggle to accommodate sharing one’s existence with another person. This is profoundly true as he discovers Hannah’s past; she even has to educate him about the existence of the death camps and who the SS were. He learns the tenderness with which to manage her feelings, while at the same time, preserving his own integrity as a person. This becomes a crisis when his little step-son, Peter, runs away from his mother to be with Tom. The thought of having a little boy in the house and developing affection for him is unbearable to Hanna, whose own son was taken from her at Auschwitz to be murdered. She feels there is no choice but to flee.

Hannah, too, changes in Tom’s presence. We learn more about her experiences in the 1940s. It is as though the reader sees a pencil sketch turn to an oil painting with colour and subtle depths. Her initial exotic ‘cosmopolitan’ persona is revealed as a protective outer layer to her character, as she lowers her defences with Tom. He (and the reader) begin to see her complexity and pain and courage to somehow carry on living with the burden of horror she has known.

Among other things, The Bookshop of the Broken-Hearted is a portrait of a good marriage. Being together challenges Hannah and Tom to mature and to become better people. They learn when to compromise and when to not. They learn when to be together and how to be happily apart. Tom can never completely know Hannah’s pain, but he knows its shape and how to respect its presence. In Rilke’s telling phrase, ‘Love consists in this, that two solitudes protect and touch and greet each other.’

In Robert Hillman’s impressive canon, The Bookshop of the Broken-Hearted is possibly the best book he has ever written.

 

Image: Text Publishing

The Lampeter Brethren: A Victorian Sex Cult

St David’s College, Lampeter, is the smallest university in the UK. It’s the oldest in England or Wales after Oxford and Cambridge.  It’s also the furthest away from, well . . . anywhere really. When I arrived – after leaving school and a year away in Germany – I was charmed. It’s a feeling that’s never left me.

Lampeter is an ancient market town nestled comfortably in the hills of mid-Wales, hundreds of kilometres and across a mountain range from the nearest city, distant from any motorway or railway line. The only way to get there is to drive for hours along winding narrow roads sheltered by high hedges tangled with honeysuckle. It’s a bother to get there, and I suspect that’s just the way the locals like it. Listen to conversations on the High Street for ten minutes and you will learn the price of a cow, that the beer at the Black Lion hasn’t been the same since the brewery took over, or that Daniel Price was seen sneaking in the back door of Mrs Jones the baker’s again.

Across an ivy-covered wall lies the College. Wide lawns lead to a tower and spires enclosing a peaceful quad where a fountain plays next to the Gothic chapel. It is the last place you would expect to find after driving for the day across the Cambrian Mountains. There were fewer than a thousand students. A typical day could involve a morning tutorial discussing Beowulf and the intricacies of Anglo-Saxon poetry; an afternoon walking or horse-riding in the hills, and then an evening in a pub with some local girls. After midnight, a group of us might solemnly place tablets of LSD on our tongues to see the true nature of the world revealed.  We would wander in the woods all night, able to stop and start time with a wave of the hand, hiding from neon dragons and following mermaids floating among the branches. In those years, it was as if pages of Brideshead Revisited, Under Milk Wood, and The Electric Kool-Acid Acid Test had been sewn together at random to tell our story.

Like every generation, we believed ourselves unique, with a special understanding of the world. Over a century before, another student at Lampeter had a more dramatic revelation. Henry Prince studied divinity at the College before becoming an Anglican priest. He was convinced that the end of the world was near, and that he alone knew the key to salvation. To be saved, the sinful flesh would need to be united with the Holy Spirit. The sinful flesh would belong to the richer, female members his congregation. The Holy Spirit was himself. This was a clever  and convenient reversal of centuries of Christian tradition. Instead of condemning and repressing sexuality, original sin would be expunged by celebrating the pleasures of the flesh.

Prince had considerable gifts of persuasion, using charm and evangelical enthusiasm to excite the audience in more ways than one. His first congregation was converted en masse, no mean achievement in Victorian England. Men and women of all classes flocked to his sermons. After moving Prince around various parishes in an attempt to reduce his influence, the Church of England eventually defrocked him. This was the making of the renegade priest.

Followers of the Lampeter Brethren now numbered several hundred, including many wealthy families and professional people who looked after its affairs. There were lawyers, a doctor, and even an estate manager. Together, they bought a 200-acre estate near Glastonbury in Somerset and built a village clustered around a mansion and protected from prying eyes by a 4-metre high wall. The community was called the Abode of Love. Here, Prince introduced the Holy Spirit into one of his many ‘spiritual wives’ by having sex with her in front of the congregation as an organ played a celebratory hymn. This was called, ‘the Great Manifestation’. There is no record of whether this was followed by applause.

A journalist from the Illustrated London News managed to penetrate the Abode in 1851, expecting to find scenes of depravity to delight his prurient readership. He was disappointed. Apart from the swinging culture, as we would call it now, the place was the epitome of cultured upper-class comfort. Unlike most Victorian men with their bushy sideburns and beards, the males kept their hair short and were clean-shaven. The women, too, cut their hair short and dressed in simple, comfortable clothes. Billiards was apparently a passion of the women at the Abode. They loved to be in the fresh air too, and had their own hockey teams. They kept horses and hunted with hounds. In a peculiarly English manner, this ‘sex cult’ served its own blend of tea every afternoon at 4 pm.  With an unconvincing attempt at disapproval, the journalist noted that ‘they have converted the chapel into a banqueting house, and substitute feasting and enjoyment for privation and prayer’.

‘If God be not life, happiness, and love,’ said one of the family, ‘then we do not know what God is.’

Prince was undoubtedly a rogue who financially and sexually exploited some of his female followers. At the same time, many of the most enthusiastic members of the Lampeter Brethren were women of all ages who seem to have relished the personal and sexual freedom which the Abode gave them in the repressive Victorian age.

They were ‘very willing followers – his recommendations are so pleasant,’ the journalist acknowledged. This willingness caused a scandal when three daughters of the wealthy Nottidge family joined the Brethren. After the fourth sister, Louisa, ran away to join them, it was one heiress too many for the family. They had Louisa kidnapped and certified insane by a compliant doctor. After nearly two years locked away in an asylum, she managed to escape and sued her family for abduction and illegal imprisonment. Louisa won the case, and returned to spend the rest of her life happily at the Abode with her sisters and friends.

The Nottidge case was one of Wilkie Collins’ inspirations for his famous suspense novel, The Woman in White. There are interesting associations between Collins and the Lampeter Brethren (apart from his own domestic arrangements – living with two mistresses and their children). Louisa Nottidge was declared sane and freed from the asylum after being examined by the Metropolitan Commissioner in Lunacy. It so happened that the Commissioner was Bryan Procter, a friend of Collins (as was his daughter, the feminist, Adelaide Procter). Wilkie Collins also knew Adelaide’s friend, Frances Cobbe, whose brother was a a senior member of the Lampeter Brethren and married to one of the other Nottidge sisters. Frances was a lifelong friend of Collins, and became one of the leading feminist theorists of the Victorian era – producing provocative pamphlets such as What Shall We do with Our Old Maids? And Celibacy vs Marriage, arguing for female economic and personal independence. There is a final link. When Henry Prince died, his associate John Pigott took over as leader of the Lampeter Brethren. He was the nephew of Wilkie Collins closest friend, Henry Pigott.

As new members joined and funds flooded in, the Brethren decided to build a mighty centre in London. It was called the Ark. At first sight, it seemed a regular church, built in the Gothic Revival style with a tall spire. The four corner turrets bear stone scrolls bearing the ambiguous words, ‘God is Love’. The Art Nouveau stained glass windows were designed by the celebrated artist, Walter Crane, inspired by mystical scenes from William Blake’s writings. Two women from the Brethren community were closely involved in this building: the architect, Violet Morris and her sister, Olive, who had trained as an engineer as well as being an expert wood carver (responsible for the Ark’s pulpit and lectern).

Henry Prince died in 1899. The world, after all, had not come to an end as he predicted. The Lampeter Brethren accepted this disappointment bravely, ‘uniting the spirit with the flesh’ in the comfort of their country estate, with free love, fox-hunting, and good food and wine to soften the blow. The community slowly dwindled in the twentieth century, as changing social mores lessened the need for it. In 1957, the last member, one of the Pigott’s ‘spiritual wives,’ died and the properties were sold.

And what of St David’s College where it all started? The little town of Lampeter is almost unchanged. The college is now a campus of the University of Wales, specialising in the humanities. There are still fewer than a thousand students, and the divinity school has been cleverly broadened with courses in Islamic studies, Daoism, and Confucianism. Saudi and Chinese donors have been persuaded to make generous endowments, contributing to the survival of the College. I like to think that Henry Prince would have smiled and approved.

The Christmas nurses

Georgione. Adoration of the Shepherds

Here’s a handy tip for the festive season. If you fall ill at Christmas –  and I’m talking about collapsed on the floor, in pain, with blood everywhere, the works – then try not to do as I did a few years ago: stay in a remote cottage without mobile coverage and far from the nearest road.

Despite spasms of pain, I felt strangely calm. There was absolutely nothing I could do to make a difference. Everything was out of my hands. It was up to others now, especially my wife speeding to the coast where there was a mobile signal to call triple-zero. At last I saw her car returning across the paddock toward the house; behind it, a bulky ambulance bobbed up and down across the rough ground.

The ambulance crew took charge of the scene like angels in bright, reflective clothing. My wound was dressed. Question after question was gently but persistently asked. How wonderful it felt to be lifted up, carried into the ambulance and driven away! How good that first injection felt to take away the pain! How pleased I felt with my presence of mind, hugging a plastic bag with book, phone, and charger safely inside!

It took almost an hour to reach the nearest hospital, spread out on the hillside over a seaside town. The ambulance doors opened, unfolding a view of paperbark trees, rooftops, and a harbour far below with fishing boats bobbing at anchor. The view disappeared as I was swiftly wheeled into the emergency department. My curious calmness had not gone away. How interesting it was to be taken away on an adventure with my new friends in their hi-vis uniforms – what would happen next?

I lay alone in a room for a few minutes before two young women walked in wearing t-shirts with Happy Birthday Jesus! in sparkly letters on the front. More questions. Blood pressure check. A blood sample taken. Cannula inserted onto the back of my hand (interesting, I thought, examining the device.)

A bearded man entered, in a white coat and a stethoscope around his neck, those universal symbols. After a murmured conversation with the nurses, he came forward.

‘Hi, I’m Brendan. Sorry about the fucking Christians,’ he said, gesturing towards the nurses’ t-shirts. ‘There’s a lot of it about this time of year . . ’

One of the nurses stuck her tongue out at him then grinned. They obviously knew each other well.

‘We’ll keep you under observation for a few days,’ said the doctor after examining me. ‘If you’re lucky, it’ll heal by itself. If not, the surgeon will take a look and probably want to operate. You’ll need to recuperate after that, so you’ll miss Santa calling, I’m afraid.’

‘But look on the bright side,’ said one of the nurses. ‘You’ll be here for our carol service on Sunday.’

Now it was the doctor’s turn to roll his eyes.

I was with Brendan. Christmas in Australian meant nothing to me, after a childhood in northern Europe. As a nine-year-old in Wales, it had been easy to imagine Good King Wencelas and his page trudging through the snow on the hill right behind our house. So how could it be Christmas in mid-summer? Reindeer and snowflake decorations hung listlessly from lamp-posts in town, looking cheap and tawdry in the bright sunlight. If we were staying near the coast, there would be swimming in the afternoon, then dinner cooked on a barbecue. But Christmas? It just didn’t feel right. The magic wasn’t there.

A real Christmas, I knew well, took place in dark and bitterly cold weather. My bedroom window was crazed with frost patterns when I woke to find a pillow case full of presents at the foot of my bed. A coal fire burned high as we gathered around the table to eat a turkey lunch. Afterwards, there might be time for a walk before darkness fell by four-o-clock in the afternoon. In the evening, we sat around the fire, watching television, passing around a Terry’s Chocolate Orange in its golden wrapper. When we tired of chocolate, there was a box of dates (never eaten at any other time), the lid bearing an old-fashioned illustration of two camels strolling nonchanantly past a pyramid.

On Christmas Eve, I had gone out carol singing with the choir from the local church. Wrapped in coats and balaclavas and sheepskin gloves, we walked through the snow to every house in the village. We took turns to carry a wooden pole with a candle glowing inside a lantern. At some houses, we were ushered inside (‘Don’t worry about your shoes’) to the bright fireside where mugs of hot chocolate and mince pies were passed around and we sang another verse of ‘Silent Night, Holy Night’.

I had a secret disdain for Christmas in Australia, therefore, and no interest in staying in hospital to endure the carol service. But as Doctor Brendan had warned me, the surgeon decided I needed an operation the very next day. When the following Sunday came around, then, I found myself being pushed in a wheelchair into the hospital forecourt.

The place was crowded. It looked like half the town was there. The Hospital Carol Service was obviously a big deal in the social calendar. Over by the car park, a pair of barbecues was being fired up, sending a smoky hint of sausages into the air. A fisherman in waders had just arrived, a bucket of prawns in each hand. I spotted members of the Rural Fire Service, too, directing traffic and showing people where to go. Filling the forecourt were local families and holidaymakers from nearby campsites, some in saris or turbans, with their children at the front so they could see. Some were dressed in costumes they had unwrapped as presents that morning. The whole scene was like a Qantas ad. Then there were hospital staff, patients like myself, and in the centre, a choir of nurses. There must have been a dozen of them, all wearing sparkly Happy birthday Jesus! t-shirts. Elaborate, home-made tiaras rose from their heads, with lights flashing on and off. It was an extraordinary sight. I spotted Brendan nearby and raised my eyebrows, but he just grinned back.

An electric keyboard played the opening notes of ‘Once in Royal David’s City.’ The crowd began to sing, raggedly at first, then picking up confidence with every verse. The familiar canon of carols followed, all those tender songs I had once known by heart as I made my way through the snow in faraway Wales, carrying a lantern on a pole from house to house. You couldn’t have imagined a more different scene. My eyes were drawn more and more, though, to the children at the front of the crowd, with here and there an eight-year-old Wonder Woman, cowboy, or Princess Leia. All were staring at the Christmas nurses, moved to silence by their glittering lights and costumes and the strength and harmony of their singing.

Wasn’t this the magical excitement I had once felt and now lost for so many years? When you are a child, so much is new and for the first time, and full of a wonder that cannot be repeated. Maybe Christmas for them in Australia was the same as it had been for me at home, after all. The heartfelt letter to Santa Claus. Counting down the days. A special trip into town to see the department store window display. Standing quietly in front of the nativity scene, seeing the stable, the kind-faced cow watching on, and the noble orient kings appearing on their camels to kneel before a new-born baby whose name was love.

But I had walked away from Bethlehem a long time ago. Around the age of fifteen, like many people, I become entranced by the beauty and logic of Darwin’s writings. I was baffled at the need for religion, for a child-like explanation of the entire universe, mysteriously imparted to some mammals on the third planet from the sun. It was sad to realise I would never know those Christmas feelings again. I was exiled from that safe and cosy world of cardboard certainties, but it was a willing exile. There was a price to pay, though, I now understood. The beauty of Christmas, childhood, and the past can be treasured as memories, as a part of who you are, but you can never go back. You betray your existence by clinging to the past.

I was grateful to the Christmas nurses for the care they’d given me, but had no time for the comforting fairy stories they advertised. Thanks to them and to the doctors, I would be on my legs again in a few days. I would leave the hospital and, a few weeks later, be back at work. I would be an agent not a patient. I would walk alone and be strong.

Image: Georgiono, Adoration of the Shepherds. National Gallery, Washington.

Nabokov’s Blade Runner

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‘[Pale Fire] unlocked my understanding of K.’
Ryan Gosling

Spoiler alert
Recent years have seen a succession of thoughtful movies about robots, artificial intelligence, and aliens: Her, Ex Machina, and Under the Skin, among others. As well as concerns about technology, these also explore current anxieties about society and what it means to be human. Also noticeable is the sympathy invited for non-human entities (a strategy cleverly exploited by the plot twist in Ex Machina). In this, they are faithful to the origin of almost all robot-themed stories for the last two centuries, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein:

‘I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine show signs of life and stir with an uneasy, half-vital motion.’

It was not only Frankenstein’s monster which was ‘born’ in 1818, but one model of the Romantic hero: a misunderstood outsider, persecuted and hunted by society for being different. This archetype has lived on in books and movies, evolving to reflect our changing concerns and anxieties.

Blade Runner 2049 must have surprised even avid fans of director, Denis de Villeneuve, by its beauty and depth. The terrible and majestic visions it conjures (reminiscent of the paintings of John Martin) combine with a poignant attention to the emotional life of the characters. First among these is Agent K, a replicant employed by the LAPD to find and destroy any surviving Nexus-8 replicants, which had developed free will and revolted in the 2020s. Ryan Gosling’s muted characterisation perfectly conveys the replicant’s calm, ruthless efficiency at killing.

When all is said and done, Agent K is, after all, just a very smart toaster with good looks, who’s handy with a gun.

Gosling also hints, though, at the curiosity and emotional turmoil which well up inside K after discovering the mysterious ‘6.10.21’ inscription which sets the plot in train. As a Nexus-9 replicant, K is designed to be obedient and truthful; increasingly, though, he learns to lie and disobey, as though experience and memory inevitably lead to development of free will and imagination, despite his programming.  Like the protagonist, K, in Kafka’s The Castle, Gosling’s character is alone and treated with disdain in an indifferent, broken world. LA in 2049 has little civil framework and seems dominated by a technology corporation expert in AI and contemptuous of the law (does that sound familiar?).

As the Shelleys and others recognised 200 hundred years ago, the new industrial capitalist economy would break down existing social relationships and drive people into isolation as individual workers and consumers. To recognise and revolt against this is to be condemned as an outsider: a Romantic tragic hero, like Frankenstein’s monster and all his children, like Agent K.

Blade Runner 2049 is not shy about acknowledging this literary and cultural context which contributes to its richness. The most prominent – insistent – presence in the movie, though, is Vladimir Nabokov’s brilliant, perplexing 1962 follow-up to Lolita: the novel Pale Fire. Lines from the work are twice used in a ‘Post-Trauma Baseline Test’ on K, and he has a copy of the novel at home. His virtual girlfriend, Joi, offers to read it to him, but he says, ‘no, you hate that book,’ showing that they have discussed it before.

Pale Fire has variously been called, ‘a Jack-in-the-box, a Faberge gem, a clockwork toy, a chess problem, an infernal machine, a trap to catch reviewers, a cat-and-mouse game, a do-it-yourself novel’ (New Republic), and ‘the great gay comic novel’ (Edmund White in the TLS). The novel purports to be the critical edition of a 999-line poem by John Shade, with a copious critical apparatus by his supposed friend, Charles Kinbote. The poem concerns Shade’s drowned daughter, time, and death, but Kinbote’s notes soon reveal him as a quite unreliable, mad fantasist, interpreting the entire poem as being about him and his secret life as the exiled king of a non-existent Ruritanian kingdom. It is perplexing, delightful, funny and moving all at the same time.


The parallels between Blade Runner 2049 and Pale Fire run deep, beyond the overt references, to enrich our understanding of the movie.

Worlds within worlds
In 2049, Agent K is an artificial being (with the same initial as Kinbote). As a replicant being, he seems defined by the corporation which created him. After discovering the mysterious inscription which matches a childhood memory, though, he begins to imagine himself within an alternative narrative: that he is actually the secret child of Deckard and Rachel. He then finds this is not true: that he was given the DNA and memories of their daughter, Ana, as a way of hiding her existence. By the end, we are left with the question of whether K was actually programmed to find Ana, not operating under free will after all?

In Pale Fire, a poem by John Shade, is published within a critical apparatus by scholar, Charles Kinbote. The reader knows these are actually both characters in a novel, each with their own conflicting fictional world. Kinbote’s mad reveries are actually no more ‘real,’ then, than Shade’s moving reflections on death and the imagination. A convincing case has been made that Shade is intended by the author to be the invention of Kinbote. An equally convincing case can be made that Shade playfully invented Kinbote, and is not even dead when the work is published. Nabokov himself stayed mum on the topic, just as the films’ makers cannot be drawn on whether Deckard is a replicant.

Pale Fire also has a little-known place in the history of computer science. The novel was well-known to Ted Nelson, renowned inventor of hypertext and one of the fathers of the World Wide Web. Working at Brown University in 1969, he recognised Pale Fire as a revolutionary literary metafiction and received permission from Nabokov’s publisher to create an electronic version, to demonstrate the possibilities of a hypertext document.

 

Agent K’s pale fire
‘The moon’s an arrant thief, And her pale fire she snatches from the sun,’ wrote Shakespeare in Timon of Athens – the source of Nabokov’s title. He uses this quotation to muse on whether memories and imagination can be as ‘true’ as actual events. In Blade Runner 2049, a major theme is whether a replicant with ‘memories,’ experience, emotions, and free will – a pale reflection of a human – can be as real as natural-born person. If so, we bear them the same responsibility as a god to its creations, as a parent to its children.

 

Blade Runner 2049 - eyeCheck the eyes
Eyes – the ‘windows of the soul’ to the ancient Romans – are a dominant motif in the Blade Runner movies. In both, examining the eye is a way of identifying a replicant. Eyes and sight are important in Pale Fire too. In the opening lines, we read:

All colors made me happy: even gray.
My eyes were such that literally they
Took photographs. Whenever I’d permit
Or, with a silent shiver, order it, Whatever in my field of vision dwelt –
An indoor scene, hickory leaves, the svelte Stilettos of a frozen stillicide –
Was printed on my eyelids’ nether side
Where it would tarry for an hour or two,
And while this lasted all I had to do
Was close my eyes to reproduce the leaves,
Or indoor scene, or trophies of the eaves.

There are 15 references to eyes in Pale Fire, principally as a way of recording memories or conjuring imagined or remembered scenes. Ridley Scott explains this in an interview: ‘The eye is really the most important organ in the human body. It’s like a two-way mirror; the eye doesn’t only see a lot, the eye gives away a lot.’

 

The secret letters
When K examines DNA records to search for Deckard and Rachel’s child, he finds two identical people: a dead female and a male. (This is a rare scene in the movie that doesn’t work: he identifies the matching records by supposedly scanning millions of GATC sequences with his bare eyes. It would also mean the two people would look identical, which K and Ana do not.) Nevertheless, this typographic discovery is a revelation to K: he realises that the child existed, is a male, and still alive. He discovers otherwise later, but this typographic sequence starts him on the trail that leads to Ana.

In Pale Fire, Shade recounts a vision he saw while having a heart attack:

A sun of rubber was convulsed and set:
And blood black nothingness began to spin
A system of cells interlinked within Cells interlinked within cells interlinked
Within one stem, And dreadfully distinct
Against the dark,  tall white fountain played.

This is the exact wording chosen by the scriptwriters for K’s post-mission test on K in Blade Runner 2049. Coming across another person’s near-death experience which also mentions ‘a tall white fountain,’ Shade seizes this as evidence of an after-life, that his daughter may still exist after death. Soon, though, he discovers it was a cruel misprint – the word was ‘mountain’ not ‘fountain’.

This mistake was the point, Shade realises: that he is somehow being played with, stumbling through life in search of patterns. He has a revelation that he is part of ‘a game of worlds promoting pawns/ To ivory unicorns.’ In the original Blade Runner, of course, a much-discussed topic is the unicorn dreamed of by Deckard, and then seen as an origami figure left by his colleague, Gaff in the final scene, suggesting that Deckard may be replicant himself. In Blade Runner 2049, K’s DNA sequence of GATC similarly contains misleading typography which inspires, disappoints, and finally takes him nearer the truth.

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Snow falling on replicants
Snow is a persistent motif in Blade Runner 2049. Joi, K’s AI companion, holds out her hand to catch snowflakes, but sees them pass through her hologram body. Later, Ana (Deckard’s daughter) creates a virtual mini snow-storm which falls just over her, saying, ‘Isn’t it beautiful?’ to her father. What neither of them know is that K is dying outside at that moment, lying supine while real snow falls on him. He has a faint smile on his lips, happy that he has given his own life to save Deckard and reunite him with his daughter – proving to himself that he is not just a machine but a living thing. At this moment, the ‘Tears in the rain’ music from the original Blade Runner plays. It inexorably reminds us of replicant Ray Batty’s dying words after saving Deckard’s life 30 years before: ‘I watched c-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.’

In Pale Fire, snow is also mentioned a total of five times, evoking ‘that crystal land’ of his imagination where all things might be possible, where his dead daughter might still be alive. As in the movie, Nabokov’s novel ends in a death which is accepted and valued as a necessary part of life; the poem is ‘completed’ by an absent 1000th line, missing because the poet has been shot at that moment.

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Father and daughters
Despite the extraordinary visuals of Blade Runner 2049 and the literary pyrotechnics of Pale Fire, the emotional power of both movie and novel is drawn from their quiet heart: a father’s love and loss of a daughter.

After the death of Rachel in childbirth, Deckard lives in hiding with their daughter, Ana, first-born of a replicant. While she is still young, he gives her up and deliberately loses contact as a way of saving her life if he is ever hunted down. As far as Deckard knows, he will never see again the only person he loves – sacrificing his feelings for her sake. The climax of Blade Runner 2049 is their reunion, brought about by K, who has willingly sacrificed his own life for their sake.

In Pale Fire, John Shade has lost his daughter – awkward, unhappy Hazel – to suicide or an accident. He is riven by grief, yearning to be reunited with her. The entire poem is a meditation on how this might happen, dabbling and rejecting absurd spiritualism, and finally realising that, while accepting her death, they can be together through the power of memory, imagination, and art which transcend time.

For Deckard, Ana, and Agent K – and for us as the audience – this is as good as it gets, and that is good enough. As John Shade writes:

But all at once it dawned on me that this
Was the real point, the contrapuntal theme;
Just this: not text, but texture; not the dream
But topsy-turvical coincidence,
Not flimsy nonsense, but a web of sense.

Yes! It sufficed that I in life could find
Some kind of link and bobolink, some kind
Of correlated pattern in the game,
Plexed artistry, and something of the same
Pleasure in it as they who played it found.

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The school of pain

Total eclipse of the Sun, Turkey, 29 March 2006.

It’s not easy to write about pain . . .

After all, there is something humiliating about it, isn’t there? Whoever you are, there inevitably comes a time in life to bow down and submit to this physical torture your body is suffering which knows no mercy. Pain feels almost shameful. It advertises our vulnerability and mortality. Even animals seem to know this, creeping away to suffer alone. A fox licking a crushed and bloody paw beneath some bush where it cannot be seen.

By middle age, most of us know a little about pain. For women, there’s childbirth, or course, and then there are accidents and injuries, surgery, disease and chronic conditions, and trauma too. All pain feels personal, like a torture technique designed with you alone in mind. I once asked a surgeon how a wound would feel after that day’s procedure. ‘Imagine there’s a long strand of barbed wire inside you,’ he said, ‘and someone is slowly pulling it out through your skin.’ He was remarkably accurate. Pain comes in many colours: aching, acute, referred, grumbling, and everyone’s favourite – breakout pain, the sudden stab that make you gasp and cry out for mercy.

‘No one needs to feel pain these days,’ doctors reassure us. Somehow, though, medication and other measures can struggle to keep up with that jagged line in our bodies screaming out for relief. It is not only the pain which hurts, but the awful awareness that we cannot do anything about it. Like you, perhaps, I have had my moments. Kept awake all night long, turning constantly from side to side, trying to fool myself that one position hurts less than another. Days spent in hospital on a morphine drip, greedily watching the clock until I can press the pump again for another blessed spurt into my bloodstream. These are the times when we crash into the cruel, sharp edges of life at last.  How we respond becomes a part of who we are, learning hard lessons in the school of pain.

This is pain, then. Imagine being in utter darkness apart from a point of sharp, bright light in front of you. It hurts intensely, even with eyes closed, yet there is nowhere else to look. It might as well be the spotlight trained on your face by a torturer, or the fierce glow of the blowtorch he is holding. Like nothing else in life, except the sexual climax, pain totally drains awareness of anything else and focuses you exclusively on that one bright and savage point where you hurt. Unlike an orgasm, though, it goes mercilessly on and on. It has a single all-consuming effect – a desperate desire for it to stop.

Pain is personal. It feels like being beaten up by invisible thugs every day. Wherever the hurt is, it shows on your face. Humiliated by the experience, you curl up internally. It becomes difficult to give attention to anything beyond what you are feeling. The world beyond ceases to exist, or at least it hardly seems to matter. You are unresponsive when someone tells you about their day – there’s little sympathy left over for anyone apart from yourself – and then follows the inevitable guilt, making you feel even more cut off from the world, with only your pain for company.

But pain also teaches us that we are embodied beings. Our body and mind suffer as one entity; they are not separate. This at least is a positive discovery, if we can manage to be philosophical and stoic about it. We learn another important and terrible lesson, too: that sometimes we are powerless and have to surrender to what seems unendurable. You must train yourself to let it pass through you, like a wave through water. To do this with as much grace as we can muster seems the most important thing in the world. And then we can wait for that far-off hour when the pain fades away – when it becomes, at last, merely something to write about.

 

The diamond skull

Damien Hirst: For the Love of God

What is happening to Australia’s art market?

Ten years ago, Damien Hirst’s work, For the Love of God, sold for a reputed $100 million. A platinum cast of a human skull inlaid with over 8,000 diamonds, the sculpture was said to be the most expensive work by a living artist ever sold. It also ignited a controversy over the direction of contemporary art and its relationship with wealthy patrons.

Art is big business. The global market is reported to be worth over $80 billion a year. Today, as throughout human history, the rich and powerful buy and display art works to signal their wealth, good taste, and prestige. There is nothing new about this.  Public enthusiasm for art is healthy too (2.6 million visitors came to the National Gallery of Victoria in 2016). Plenty of people are making money from art it seems – but very little of this reaches the average artist. The vast majority of them are poor, and becoming poorer, with very few able to make a living from their art alone. Commercial art galleries, too, are struggling to survive. What’s going on? In particular, what’s happening to Australia’s art market, which has been devastated over the past ten years? And is it connected to the disruptions happening in the book, music, and movie markets? A conversation at Heide Gallery with Melbourne art dealer, Angela Tandori, intrigued me enough  to investigate.

At first glance, the art market looks very different to that for other media. While music and movies can be reproduced and distributed digitally in infinite numbers, each art work is a unique object. You can’t download an ‘original’ of a work by Fiona Hall as you can with a new album by John Adams, say. Nevertheless, the Internet has affected the market in other ways, creating a confusing and fast-changing market governing how artists and buyers connect.

The first thing to understand is that there is no monolithic ‘art market’, but rather a series of markets which operate more or less independently: the wealthy collector and museum market (serviced by high-end galleries such as Roslyn Oxley9 and Arc One); the experimental and avant-garde; Aboriginal art; the ‘mid-market’ of respected artists with established careers; corporate art, and emerging artists, among others.

Artists’ income also falls into a Pareto pattern, with a small number of them earning the majority of the income, and a long tail of ‘the rest’ on a modest or low income. Only around 1% of Australian artists earn $250,000 or more; some make a living, but the majority have to supplement artistic income by teaching or other means. (There are also the fortunate ‘trust fund artists,’ of course, who are supported by their families.) With the ‘superstar’ outliers excluded, the mean income for most Australian artists is around A$20,000 per annum, a figure which isn’t rising. This makes it harder to run a gallery profitably too, in a vicious circle which further denies artists access to potential buyers.[i]

The impact of the Internet on the arts was famously foreseen by Walter Benjamin in his 1935 essay, ‘The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction’.[iii] Ironically, however, it is other disciplines which have experienced the greatest technological disruption rather than the traditional visual arts. The income of writers and musicians has dropped in the digital economy because of free or cheap availability of products via piracy, micro-income arrangements with streaming services such as Spotify and Apple Music, reluctance of many online publishers to pay for content, and the simple competition for time and eyeballs from online entertainment and information. There are only so many hours in the day, and in a contest between a book and Youtube at bedtime, the latter will often win.

For artists, on the other hand, a whole range of different factors has combined to have a major effect on how they distribute and sell their works.

Firstly, the impact of the Global Financial Crisis in 2007 led to a drastic reduction in discretionary expenditure, including on purchase of art works.

Secondly, before the market had time to recover, the Artist’s Resale Royalty Right (ARR) was introduced by the Australian Government in 2010: a 5% premium on secondary sales with a gross sale price over A$1,000. This was ‘a good thing’ intended to benefit creators of artworks, especially Aboriginal artists. Unfortunately, it had the perverse outcome of depressing the market further – 5% of gross sale price can consume much of the profit on an average sale, inhibiting trade between artists and collectors, and reducing both turnover and prices. Artist, John Walker, has written caustically of the harm done by this government intervention, and quotes a remark by fellow-painter, Ben Quilty, that only established ‘rich, white artists’ would benefit in any significant way from the ARR.[iv]

A third factor was the 2016 change in rules relating to purchase of art works as assets by self-managed superannuation funds (SMSF). New restrictions have made this impractical and expensive, with a two-fold effect of depressing the market, and of deflating prices by flooding the market with ‘must sell’ works no longer recognised as super fund assets (SMSFs were responsible for 15-20% of sales in the period after the change was announced).

The result of this ‘perfect storm’ has been dramatic.

  • The total value of collectibles (mainly art) in SMSF dwindled from $700 million in 2009 to $385 within 5 years, and is now said to be ‘negligible’.[v]
  • The number of commercial art galleries in Australia has halved from 514 in the year 2000 to around 250 today.[vi]
  • Within a few years of these changes, art sales dropped by as much as 40% by some accounts, and prices fetched at auction were also halved.[vii]

These straitened times have forced the remaining galleries to increase commission rates up to 40% or even 50% of the sale price. Other less concrete factors have an impact too. One is the numbers of professional artists practising in Australia today – some 30,000 in the estimation of Professor Sasha Griffin who has conducted invaluable research in this area.[viii] Our revenue-driven universities continue to produce thousands of graduates in visual arts every year, very few of whom will be able to make a living from their work. That is not the primary purpose of an arts degree, or course, but unarguably produces a large pool of artists destined to be disappointed.

A final, important factor is the standing of Australian art on the international scene; this has an impact on price and reputation locally as well as in New York and Shanghai. The local market is valued at just 0.6% of the global art market.[ix] The tyranny of distance, the logistics and cost of exhibiting internationally, poor marketing, and attitudes both within Australia and overseas have all hampered recognition of Australian artists overseas. A provincial market has not adapted to a global culture and economy, and is paying the price, Grishin argues. As commentator, James Valentine has noted, the Art Price Index for 2016 lists only two Australians: Tim Storrier and Rick Amor: ‘Our giants such as Brett Whiteley, John Olsen or Fred Williams can sell in the millions here,’ he writes, ‘but take them to New York – the world art-buying centre – and only the expats will turn up to bid.’[x] As Valentine continues:

For the wealthy collector in Manhattan or Monaco, there are not quite the same bragging rights in displaying work from Melbourne as there is in a piece made by a Chinese dissident . . . Like everything else, China may turn out to be the saviour. China buys 40 per cent of the world’s contemporary art. We just need to convince them that a Ben Quilty Torana is perfect for their Shanghai penthouse. [x]

Grishin makes the same point, noting that a drawing by David Hockney costs about the same in Australia as one by Brett Whiteley, but the Whiteley will only get that price here, while the Hockney can be sold anywhere in the world. [ix]

With the volume and prices of art works dropping and the traditional commercial gallery model dying, it is undeniable that the art market is in need of a radical shakeup. Duncan Ballantyne-Way observes, ‘Mired in opacity and steeped in inefficiency, the largest unregulated market in the world has been ready for digital disruption for some time.’[xi] But it would be naïve to think that the whole sprawling, complex, highly personal business of selling and buying art could move online wholesale as a sort of ebay for cultural products. It’s not that simple. Massive disruptions have happened before in the arts before settling into a new model, and we can see the same is beginning to happen in the art market today. Imagine the fate of jobbing portrait painters after the advent of photography; of sheet music sellers and music hall singers after the phonograph was invented; of typesetters and graphic designers who didn’t adapt to digital publishing in the 1980s, or musicians today who hope to be picked up by an A&R talent scout but haven’t bothered to establish their own channels on Soundcloud and Youtube.

Who will be the survivors in the Australian art market?

Generalisation about the overall drop in the local market’s fortunes masks more interesting movement in the prices gained by individual artists at auction. This can be a consequence of fashion changing, over-supply, or any number of factors. The average sale price of paintings by David Bromley, Robert Dickerson, and David Boyd for example, halved between 2007 and 2013. Yet during the same period, prices for works by Dale Frank and Ben Quilty doubled.[xii] The survivors will be the galleries which take note of Tandori’s distinction between Stars, Cash Cows, Problem Children, and Dogs, and ensure they have the right balance of artists – not over-reliant on the bestsellers of last year and nurturing those more likely be Stars in the future.

The Internet has started to make business practices for artists and dealers more efficient – for example, through services such as invaluable which provides online bidding for art auctions around the world, or artnet which conducts online auctions itself. The Berlin-based fineartmultiple site also offers an impressive and comprehensive marketplace to bring artists, sellers, and buyers together. In the burgeoning Chinese market (where the average age of art dealers is 25, rather than 50-plus in the West), the ubiquitous WeChat message app has become a major platform for buyers, collectors and dealers due to its speed and ease-of-use.[xiii] While Internet sales are now estimated at 25% of the market globally, many Australian artists and commercial galleries have yet to fully embrace this fundamental disruption of their marketplace. It’s not just a matter of setting up a website and then carrying on business as usual, waiting for the tinkle of a bell as the gallery door opens. The survivors will be the ones who make a total strategic re-think of how they use technology to relate to artists and buyers.

The roller-coaster fate of bookshops over the last ten years provides a lesson in how commercial galleries will fare. In the face of multiple challenges – ebooks, audiobooks, competition from Amazon and other online retailers – bookshops began closing at an alarming rate, including some big-name chains like Borders. In 2011, a government minister predicted that every bookshop in Australia would be gone by 2016, sharing the fate of video rental stores. It could have happened, but it didn’t. Many bookshops did close, but others adapted and have thrived. The same evolutionary process is happening with commercial art galleries. In the face of a different set of challenges, the survivors know it is not enough to rely on launch parties or the dwindling number of walk-in buyers. We can see, already, that the galleries which will adapt and succeed are those that focus on, and invest in, building trusting relationships with buyers as well as artists. It is this ongoing, hedonic experience of the relationship itself that they will nurture. They will promote a ‘wraparound’ service including advice on purchasing, investment, hanging, and valuation. They will build highly visible brands online, in social media and discussions, and at art fairs. As well as formal provenance, telling beguiling stories about the works they sell will become even more important, giving them an appealing aura.

Artists, too, need to adapt how they promote themselves in order to survive commercially. As for galleries, just having a website is not enough: an Instagram account with regular updates of images is essential, meshed with other social media and online promotion. A key goal is building up a ‘fanbase’ of people who have an interest in the artist’s work: people who will share images, talk about them, give support, attend events, and eventually purchase. The increasingly-influential independent curators of exhibitions need to be cultivated. If it’s a challenge or financially unattractive to deal with a commercial gallery, rent a space or empty shop as a pop-up gallery to exhibit your own works. For some ambitious artists, it can be worth the effort to mount exhibitions overseas, promoting yourself as an international artist based in Australia (rather than being self-consciously ‘Australian’ and pigeon-holed as such).

In the end, artists will still create, because they must. Buyers will still purchase. The business model which links them, however, has become inefficient and unhelpful to both. It is not just that it needs disruption; it has already fallen into a chaos of its own making (with generous help from government legislation). The survivors – galleries, dealers, and others – will be the ones who recognise that things will never go back to how they once were. Through a Darwinian process of elimination, those who succeed in the twenty-first century will be the ones who embrace new ways of using technology and building closer relationships with the creators and purchasers of art.

In a postscript to the sale of the diamond skull, it later emerged that this was purchased by a consortium in which Damien Hirst himself was the major partner. The artist effectively used the auction as a piece of performance art to boost his reputation and the value of his works. As Germaine Greer sardonically commented, ‘[Damien Hirst’s] undeniable genius consists in getting people to buy them. [He] is a brand, because the art form of the 21st century is marketing. To develop so strong a brand on so conspicuously threadbare a rationale is hugely creative – revolutionary even.’[xiv]

Notes

[i] Throsby, D and Zednik, A 2010, Do you really expect to get paid? An economic study of professional artists in Australia, Australia Council for the Arts, Strawberry Hills

[ii] Henderson, B 1970, ‘The product portfolio’. BCG perspectives.
Available from: <www.bcg.com/publications/2014/growth-share-matrix-bcg-classics-revisited.aspx> [6 June 2017]

[iii] Benjamin, W 1968, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, in Illuminations (ed. H Arendt), Fontana, London

[iv] Walker, JR 2015, ‘Artist’s Resale Royalty in Australia – Strong Evidence Of A Catastrophic Decline In Both Sales & Prices’, Art, Antiques, Design. Available from: <www.art-antiques-design.com/art/519-artist-s-resale-royalty-in-australia-strong-evidence-of-a-catastrophic-decline-in-both-sales-and-prices> [6 June 2017]

[v] Boland, M 2016, ‘Investment: art market painted into a corner’, The Australian, 20 June 2016. Available from: <www.theaustralian.com.au/business/investment-art-market-painted-into-a-corner/news-story/ae3b92c820cdf1980bee88519ce1f925> [6 June 2017]

[vi] Australian Bureau of Statistics 2001, 8651.0 – Commercial art galleries, 1999-2000, Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra

[vii] Taylor, A 2013, ‘Brush with riches short-lived as prices tumble,’ Sydney Morning Herald, 20 February 2013. Available from: <www.smh.com.au/entertainment/art-and-design/brush-with-riches-shortlived-as-prices-tumble-20130219-2epjh.html> [6 June 2017]

[viii] Grishin, S 2014, ‘How hierarchies happen in contemporary Australian art,’ The Conversation, 8 December 2014. Available from: <theconversation.com/how-hierarchies-happen-in-contemporary-australian-art-35088> [6 June 2017]

[ix] Grishin, S 2015, Friday essay: ‘Friday essay: the art market is failing Australian artists,’ The Conversation, 26 November 2015. Available from: <theconversation.com/friday-essay-the-art-market-is-failing-australian-artists-51314) [6 June 2017]

[x] Valentine, J 2017, ‘Where are the Australian visual artists?,’ ABC News, 6 March 2017. Available from: <ww.abc.net.au/news/2017-03-07/where-are-the-australian-visual-artists/8331658> [6 June 2017]

[xi] Ballantyne-Way, D 2017, ‘Disruption in the Art Market – Is that it?’ fineartmultiple, January 2017. Available from: <fineartmultiple.com/blog/disruption-art-market> [6 June 2017]

[xii] Taylor, A 2013, ‘Brush with riches short-lived as prices tumble,’ Sydney Morning Herald, 20 February 2013. Available from: <www.smh.com.au/entertainment/art-and-design/brush-with-riches-shortlived-as-prices-tumble-20130219-2epjh.html> [6 June 2017]

[xiii] Chester, L 2016, ‘Digital technology drives younger dealers and the art market in China,’ Antiques Trade Gazette, 7 November 2016. Available from: <www.antiquestradegazette.com/news/2016/digital-technology-will-disrupt-the-art-market-next-generation-of-asian-art-experts-predict-trends> (6 June 2017]

[xiv] Greer, G 2008, ‘Germaine Greer Note to Robert Hughes: Bob, dear, Damien Hirst is just one of many artists you don’t get,’ The Guardian, 22 September 2008. Available from: <www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2008/sep/22/1> [6 June 2017].

I am grateful to the following for sparing me their time and knowledge: Angela Tandori, Annabel Nowlan, Fran Clark, Trevor Sellick, and Jonathan Cecil.