Nature Girl by Carl Hiaasen (2006)

‘Face it, we live in a stinking shitwash of cruelty and greed and rotten manners.’
(Honey Santana, the nature girl of the title, page 264)

Chapter one

Tommy Tigertail was the strong, silent Native American member of the four-strong eco-‘terrorist’ group led by renegade journalist Skip Wiley, who wreaked havoc in Hiaasen’s farcical first novel, Tourist Season. At the end of that novel, Tommy returned to south Florida’s reservation for Seminole Indians to help run their lucrative casinos.

Ten books and 20 years later, Hiaasen’s eleventh comedy crime thriller opens with Tommy’s young nephew, Sammy Tigertail, disposing of the body of a fat, drunk, middle-aged white tourist named Jeter Wilson. Tommy didn’t murder him. He was giving Wilson a tour of the Everglades when the airboat he was driving through some high grass accidentally threw a harmless, non-poisonous banded water snake up onto Wilson’s neck. Such was Wilson’s panic that he thrashed around screaming trying to get the snake off him till he dropped dead of a heart attack.

Knowing that if he contacted the racist authorities, he would immediately be blamed and arrested, Sammy weighted down Wilson’s body, dropped it in a deep point of a canal, drove to meet his half brother Lee, to collect his favourite belongings (including a spiffy Gibson electric guitar), then, rather than return to the reservation (where he might be tracked down by police and so cause trouble for  his community) hitch-hikes off into the boondocks (definition: ‘rough or isolated country.’)

At the start of a completely different storyline, in a trailer in a park not far away, single mum Honey Santana, aged 39 (p.353) explains to her son, Fry, that she’s lost her latest job at the fish market because the boss, Mr Louis Piejack, crept up and grabbed her right breast, whereupon she turned round and hit him with a crab hammer in the nuts.

In mid-explanation she gets a call from a phone sales company, Relentless Inc, based in a disused B-52 hanger in Fort Worth, Texas; specifically from smooth-talking Boyd Shreave, who tries to sell her a property in some new housing development. When Honey Santana, a smart cookie, effortlessly dances round his call, taking the mickey out of him, Shreave forgets the golden rule of telesales (which is never lose your temper), loses his temper and calls Honey ‘a dried-up old skank’.

This shocks sales operatives sitting in the booth next to Boyd, Eugenie Fonda with whom he’s having an affair. Eugenie herself has a colourful backstory. In 1999 she began an affair with a tree trimmer named Van Bonneville, who claimed to have lost his wife in the recent hurricane – until, that is, police found her body, badly beaten around the head and strapped into the seat of their car which had been dumped in the St John’s River. Van Bonneville was convicted of murdering her and the story became notorious, dubbed the ‘Hurricane Homicide’ trial in the press.

Eugenie, at that point going by her real name of Jean Leigh Hill, was offered a publishing deal whereby a ghost writer came down from New York and helped her knock out her account of the story which, titled Storm Ghoul, became a bestseller and netted her half a million dollars. By this point Eugenie had hooked up with a stockbroker who persuaded her to invest it all in shares in a red hot company from Texas named Enron. Two years later went spectacularly bankrupt in one of America’s largest cases of corporate fraud and Eugenie lost everything.

Which is why she now finds herself sitting in a booth in a converted B-52 hanger in Texas, trying to sell people shares in a new property development and having a sexual fling with not particularly appealing Boyd Shreave, more out of boredom than anything else. After ending the call to Honey, Shreave takes a coffee break and wonders if his career has finally hit rock bottom. And indeed, the call had been recorded, his managers listen to it, and fire him.

Meanwhile Honey, fulled by rage against Mr Piejack, men in general and Boyd’s hideous insult in particular, decides she is going to phone back the company, insist on speaking to Shreave’s supervisor, and generally make his life a misery. She discovers the company has one of those number blockers, so she calls her brother, Richard Santana, a journalist in upstate New York, and he uses his databases to quickly ascertain the telecompany’s phone number and give it to Honey, who commences bombarding its switchboard with calls. Eventually she uses the ploy of pretending to be an insurance company which is trying to find a ‘Boyd’ employed by Relentless Inc in order to give him his payout on a crash. The guileless HR person gives Honey Boyd’s full name and address. Right.

As the story has developed we have learned that Honey Santana has mental health issues. To be precise, she has an obsessively vengeful personality, bordering on the bipolar, which is easily triggered, much to the exasperation of her long-suffering son, Fry. The boy’s father is Perry Skinner, a reformed dope smuggler, who Honey fell in love with, got pregnant by, but who was then busted and sent to gaol.

An example of Honey’s obsessiveness is that, while Skinner was in Elgin prison, she wrote him 147 letters, none of them forgiving him for getting busted for drug smuggling (p.230). She once sent the White House 97 emails to complain about the president’s support for a bill to allow oil drilling in an Alaska national park, bringing her to the attention of the Secret Service, who gave her a full assessment and concluded she didn’t pose a threat. They were wrong. Her doctor has prescribed medication, which she throws away. Her long-suffering son, Fry, tries to help and support her but he’s only 12.

Meanwhile, after the novel has described Boyd’s casual flirting with Eugenie it comes as a surprise to learn that he has a wife, Lily Shreave, though less of a surprise to learn that she has hired a private detective, Dealey, to tail him and take incriminating photos of Boyd and his mistress, Eugenie.

We get to know Dealey, hear his backstory, and to understand why he is particularly proud of a long-lens photo he took of Eugenie fellating Boyd in the car park of a takeaway delicatessen. It’s a career best for Dealey, which he sends off to a private investigator magazine who publish it (faces blurred out), much to the admiration of his fellow professionals (p.148). Amusing.

Pause for breath

All this information, the range of characters and their dense backstories, are conveyed in just the first 40 pages of this 400-page book. It’s a lot of information to process, isn’t it?. The bombardment of facts, people and descriptions suggests both Hiaasen’s characteristic strengths and weaknesses. The strengths are:

  • lots of characters, with colourful and varied backgrounds
  • their backstories described in great detail with journalistic concision and precision
  • the certainty that these storylines are set to intersect and the pleasure of trying to figure out how and why
  • extremely crisp and pithy dialogue, brilliantly capturing the characters’ modern, slangy, abbreviated speech rhythms

The main weakness being that all the characters have the shallowness of people mentioned in newspaper articles. You get name, age, weight, hair colour, a bit of backstory, then they’re thrown into the tumultuous pell-mell of farcical events. Close the book, as you would put down a newspaper, and half an hour later you’ve forgotten about them.

There’s precious little psychology. The characters are what they are and mostly stay the same throughout the narrative. The sense you get in each novel of a large cast of well-defined but somehow shallow characters reminds me a bit of the extravagantly large cast of characters in The Simpsons. And just as in The Simpsons, Hiaasen’s novels offer the amusement and comfort of recurring characters (the main ones being the ex-governor and eco-warrior Skink and his trusty side-man, Highway Patrolman Jim Tile; or, as here, rather poignant references to Tommy Tigertail and Skip Wiley from way back in that first novel, p.150).

Characters from the Simpsons cartoon series

Characters from The Simpsons cartoon series

Characters tend to stand out form the general scum if they have one of two qualities:

  • they conform to well-established thriller or Hollywood stereotypes: strong manly heroes like Mick Stranahan, hero of the previous novel, Skinny Dip, or corporate crooks such as Red Hammernut, or preening, cocky but ultimately weak cowards like the would-be wife-killer, Charles Perrone, also from Skinny Dip
  • or they have grotesque qualities or meet a grotesque fate: such as the over-hairy man-bear ‘Tool’ in Skinny Dip, or the assassin in Double Whammy who is bitten by a pitbull whose jaws he can’t unclamp from his arm, even after he’s killed it, even after he’s sawed its head off, and so goes through the rest of the novel with a rotting dog’s head at the end of one arm

I suppose one way of accounting for the grotesque characters or events in Hiaasen (beside them being gruesomely funny in and of themselves) is the way their fictional garishness compensates for the general lack of psychological depth.

Plot developments

Honey Santana

As we read on we encounter Honey Santana’s back story. We learn about her impulsive marriage to a working man ten years older than her, Perry Skinner, dope smuggler, who discovers her wearing a prom dress by the side of the road next to the car where her drunken teenage prom date was busy throwing up (pages 121 to 123). Skinner took her away, they fell in love, he got busted for smuggling dope and served a few years inside, and was surprised to find Honey waiting for him when he got out (p.230). They got married, they had a son Fry and then her mental disorder, some kind of bipolar condition, never officially defined (her ‘manic spirals’), became steadily worse, till they parted by mutual consent.

One among the many symptoms her son has learned to recognise is when Honey can barely hear anything around her because of the deafening noise going on in her head, ‘the rising babel in Honey’s skull’ (p.171), being combinations of multiple pop music tracks playing inside her head at the same time (for example, ‘Bell Bottom Blues’ at the same time as ‘Karma Chamelon’, p.125, or a disco track and CSN’s ‘Marrakesh Express’, p.82, Smoke on the Water and ‘Rainy Days and Mondays’, p.170, Nat King Cole and Marilyn Manson, p.214).

(It’s noteworthy that Hiaasen had used this riff in the previous novel, Skinny Dip, where Skink, his most frequent recurring character, was having exactly the same problem, of hearing two loud and catchy pop tunes playing inside his head at the same time. I wonder whether the repeat of this idea is an indication that Hiaasen himself suffered from a similar condition. Or just the repetition of quite a good bizarre character angle. Odd that he uses it in two consecutive books, though, as if we wouldn’t notice.)

Honey conceives a Cunning Plan to take revenge on Boyd Shreave. Once she’s got his phone number  she rings him at home, herself pretending to be a real estate salesperson with the made-up name Pia Frampton (p.170). She spins him a line about how lucky buyers will get an all-expenses paid trip to stay in a wildlife lodge in Florida (remember that Boyd, Mrs Boyd and Eugenie all live up in Texas) and gets Boyd hooked. He thinks a city break for 2 in Florida is just what he needs to restart his relationship with Eugenie.

Eugenie

For her part Eugenie has already moved on and has seduced a new guy at work, Sacco, who she gets back to her flat and naked but he won’t stop talking about his obsessions with Bill Gates and Microsoft, so she’s becoming exasperated which is exactly when Boyd knocks on the door with a bunch of flowers and the offer of an all-expenses paid trip to Florida. Eugenie thinks, Well, why not?

Honey’s scam and Richard’s airmiles

So now Honey has suckered Boyd to think he’s going on an all-expenses-paid weekend break to a luxury Florida hotel, how is (slightly demented) Honey going to arrange all this? First the air tickets. She phones her successful journalist brother and persuades him to part with enough airmiles to pay for the  2 American Airlines tickets which she sends to Boyd.

As to the hotel, well, er… She lies to her son, Fry, that she’s got friends coming to stay and paints her double-wide trailer amateurish pictures of macaws and tropical foliage. Ha! Then she gets the boy’s father, Skinner, to take him for a few days, and sits back to wait for Boyd and Eugenie to arrive and their ritual humiliation to begin.

Lily and Dealey

Complicating things nicely is Boyd’s wife, Lily. Lily has all the evidence she needs that Boyd is being unfaithful, but flabbergasts the private investigator, Dealey, by telling him a photo of her husband getting a blowjob in a car park is not enough. She wants a photo of actual penetration. Dealey starts to protest but Lily says she’ll pay him $10,000 cash for it. She is good for the money because she runs a little chain of pizza parlours which she is on the brink of selling to a larger chain for a big figure plus stock options.

So, very reluctantly, Dealey establishes what flight Boyd and Eugenie are getting, books himself onto it, and sets off on his quest to take a photo of them unambiguously having penetrative sex for his client.

Boyd’s excuses

What lies is Boyd going to tell Lily to excuse his absence for a couple of days? He comes up with the story that he is not only still employed by Relentless Inc. but is their star salesman, but, alas, has only just been diagnosed with the very rare condition of aphenphosmphobia (page 122) which means he can’t bear to be touched. So work are going to send him to Florida to visit a clinic which may be able to cure his sad condition.

Lily knows he’s lying and so sets out to torment him, by presenting herself in sexually alluring guises i.e. in bra and panties, in skimpy thongs, and in one memorably pornographic scene, tells Boyd to sit on the sofa, close his eyes, and focus on the fact that she is not wearing any panties (p.132) to focus on her pussy, imagine her shape, the outline of her vulva against her tight jeans in its ‘velvet detail’… then Boyd hears the sound of her slipping out of her jeans and he opens her eyes to see his wife’s naked pussy only yards from him as he nurses what is by now a rearing and straining erection.

But now he’s come up with this preposterous phobia story, he has to stick to it and resist even Lily’s crudest advances. Comedy of a not particularly subtle type.

Sammy and Ginny

Remember how we left Sammy Tigertail canoeing deeper and deeper into the Florida Everglades? He’s not a very competent Indian, much though he wants to emulate his heroic Seminole ancestors. We learn that Sammy’s daddy was a white truck driver who impregnated an Indian woman but, when he was born, took him away to live with him and his white stepmom. They brought him up as a white boy named ‘Chad McQueen’ in the suburb of Broward, till the old guy died from a heart attack on a friend’s stag night, whereupon his Indian mom reclaimed him and took him to live in the Indian community of Big Cypress.

But the rest of the Indian community regarded him as not part of it, both on account of his half-white parentage and also that he seems to be endlessly unlucky (p.163). Sammy thinks of himself as ‘a fucked-up half-breed’ (p.286); ‘I’m only half Seminole… My father was white’ (p.309) and the narrator agrees he is dogged by ‘chronic bad luck’, (p.330).

Above all, Sammy is self-conscious and sensitive about his bright blue eyes, a permanent reminder that he is not pure-blood Indian (p.331).

Proving his bad luck, while he sleeps on an island that first night on the run, a high tide washes away his canoe. But then he hears noises coming from the other side of the island, sneaks over and discovers a fraternity party of students dancing to a boogie box round a campfire, stoned and drunk.

When they’ve all eventually passed out, Sammy tiptoes round to their canoes and starts to steal one. But he is stopped by a voice from among the comatose bodies, a girl’s voice, asking if she can come with him. It belongs to a girl whose name we will discover is Gillian St Croix.

Just as Honey’s prom night date turned out to be useless all those years ago, now this girl, Gillian St Croix (full name p.141; fully backstory p.172), also wants to get away from the lame man who brought her to the island, Ethan.

— Useless men. This is a recurring theme. Pieback, Boyd and Dealey are sorry apologies for masculinity and their womenfolk have correspondingly low opinions of the male sex.

‘One time a guy almost croaked on me in bed,’ [Eugenie] was saying. ‘Lucky I’d passed a CPR class. I kept him goin’ till the paramedics got there, and guess what? He still had his hard-on when they carried him out on the stretcher – that’s all you need to know about men.’ (p.277)

Sammy whispers no way is he going to take her, but Gillian threatens to scream and wake her comatose student buddies up, so, with massive reluctance, Sammy puts her in the canoe, stops once safe round round the headland, then fires a few shots of the rifle to wake the dopey students up, making them panic and hurriedly dress and head off in the remaining canoes.

Which leaves Sammy stuck with Gillian, who turns out to be an incredibly irritating chatterbox, who only stops wittering on when Sammy ties her hands and stuffs a sock in her mouth. But not for long. He paddles blindly for a while, having no compass or map of familiarity with this area, eventually arriving at a remote island called Dismal Key (p.136), though neither of them know it.

Clearly the four storylines of:

  1. Honey Santana setting up Body Shreave for some merciless humiliation at her trailer in Florida
  2. private detective Dealey’s attempts to photograph Boyd and Eugenie in flagrante
  3. Tommy Tigertail and his annoying ‘kidnap’ victim, Gillian, who refuses to leave him alone
  4. Perry Skinner and his son Fry

are going to crash into each other and create all kinds of comic complications. Nature Girl is very well written, elaborately structured, with detailed characterisation, snappy dialogue, vivid imagining of the exotic and outlandish scenes and settings. But somehow, hard to nail down, it lacks the really vehement outrageousness of the earlier novels.

Native American themes

All Hiaasen’s novels are interspersed with factual interludes giving backgrounders on the big issue of the novel. If they were in magazines, they’d be in call-out boxes or side panels, separate from the main text. In the previous novel, Skinny Dip, there were 3 or 4 of them explaining how the runoff of fertilisers and pesticides from vast agricultural landholdings were allowed to illegally leach into the Everglades and destroy their ecosystems.

In this novel we get a series of interludes giving factual background about native American tribes, namely the Seminole nation, which Sammy belongs to (pages 72, 152, 286), also background history of the Calusa people who inhabited Florida at the time of the Spanish conquest and who were decimated by European diseases (pages 202 to 203).

Native American themes are present in other ways throughout the book:

1. Sammy has vivid dreams, dreams in which spirits appear and talk to him, most notably dreams in which the spirit of the dead white man Jeter Wilson appears to him and complains about being weighted down with anchors in some canal where the water’s cold and he’s being bitten to pieces by sharks. In these dreams Wilson angrily asks Sammy to come back and move his body. Later, when Dealey pitches up on the island where Sammy’s taken Gillian, Sammy refuses to believe he’s real, considering him a spirit throughout all their interactions, which is both comic and genuinely a bit spooky. Thus Sammy’s dreams are so vivid that at several points he mistakes people, for example Gillian when she first speaks, for spirits talking to him.

2. Dismal Key turns out to be largely constructed of clam shells by the Indian tribes who lived in this part of Florida for over a thousand years, the Calusa people (p.175) and the story of how they dominated the area but were then wiped out by the diseases brought by the Spanish invaders is not only tragic, but also spooky. For Sammy, their long-gone presence still weighs heavily on his mind.

3. Sammy is also haunted by the memory of his great-great-great-grandfather, Chief Thlocklo Tustenuggee, tricked into signing a treaty with the white man then thrown into prison.

Manifest destiny, otherwise known as screwing native peoples out of their homelands, had been a holy crusade among white people of that era. (p.361)

4. One of these factual callout boxes explains the rise of the casinos and gambling empires which native Americans have built on their reservations to sucker gambling-addicted white folks out of their money (p.357), Many Indians have become very wealthy this way, Sammy describes them as the ‘new Arabs’ in terms of mushroom wealth. Sammy’s uncle Tommy, who we met way back in Hiaasen’s debut novel, is credited with being one of the architects of the Seminole nation’s rise to enormous wealth.

Once written off as a ragged band of heathens, the Seminole Nation grew into a formidable corporate power with its own brigade of lawyers and lobbyists. (p.357)

5. On a personal level, Gillian and Sammy spend a lot of time together and their conversation repeatedly rotates around the issue of ‘race’, her teasing him about having white girlfriends, he very self-conscious of his half-white heritage, determined not to submit to what his uncle calls white pussy’. Whenever  we enter Sammy’s storyline, the word ‘white’ recurs almost continually, and white people don’t come out well in Sammy’s worldview:

The first white person to betray Sammy Tigertail had been his stepmother… The second white person to betray him had been Cindy, his ex-girlfriend… (p.356)

The book bangs on, again and again, that you can’t trust white people and you can’t trust men, impeccably woke anti-men and anti-white attitudes but, as so often, expressed, without a shred of irony, by a…er… white man.

Nature Girl can may be considered Hiaasen’s novel about native Americans (in Florida), their history and current plight (Sammy’s mixed-blood heritage symbolises the way they’re caught between dying notions of their old culture and their full absorption into the capitalist white world) in maybe the same way that Lucky You is his novel about black people, with its feisty black heroine JoLayne and its pair of repellent white supremacists, Bode Gazzer and Chub, whose beliefs, values and temperaments are systematically ripped to shreds. (Note, again, the same tendency of the characterisations in Lucky You: black woman clever and good; white men very bad and very stupid.)

I’m not criticising or damning Hiaasen for the way the themes of race and gender run very loud through his novels. I’m just pointing out how their prominence reflects how dominant they have become in an American society which, over the period he’s been writing in (1986 to the present), he himself is the first to point out has become utterly dysfunctional through the triumph of greed and selfishness, the disappearance of manners and kindness.

In my opinion the two phenomena are connected, and represent twin aspects of a culture and society becoming ever-more putrid. Funny reading about it, but I wouldn’t want to live there, amid the ever-increasing inequality, violence and cultural disintegration.

Highlights of the rest of the novel

Boyd and Eugenie fly down to Florida and catch a cab to the address on the holiday brochure Honey has knocked up and mailed them. You can imagine that they are vastly disillusioned to arrive at Honey’s badly painted trashy trailer and discover that this is the destination of their supposed dream holiday. Eugenie is all for turning round and going straight back to the airport but a) it is now late at night b) it is raining c) Boyd is a cheapskate and despite the obvious crappiness of the situation, insists that they accept Honey’s ‘welcome’ and put up for the night in the trailer’s none -too-clean double bed.

Meanwhile, the private investigator Dealey had been on the same flight as Boyd and Eugenie and trailed them to this trailer park. He is loitering outside Honey’s trailer and is just peeking through a window, when he is surprised from behind by a guy with a shotgun. It turns out to be Mr Piejack from the fish market. He’s in bad shape. Not only did Honey hit him in the nuts with a crab-cracking hammer, but a day later some Latinos turned up and forced Piejack’s hand into a basket of angry live crabs. His screams brought colleagues and then paramedics who hammer the crabs off his fingers, but many of them are clinging onto his fingers. I.e. the fingers of his right hand are all severed. Paramedics rush Piejack to a hospital where an incompetent surgeon sews them back onto the wrong stumps, his thumb being reattached to his little finger stump.

There’s generally one major grotesque incident in a Hiaasen novel and this is it, the case of the wrongly sewn-on fingers. Despite this grotesque mishap, Piejack is more sexually obsessed by Honey than ever (backstory about PIejack, his fishy career and miserable marriage pages 248 to 250). Piejack takes Dealey off at gunpoint…

Next morning, Honey tells Boyd and Eugenie that the next part of the ‘holiday’ is packing some bags and going kayaking along nearby waterways, which Eugenie is rightly suspicious of, but Boyd insists they play along. Truth is Honey doesn’t know exactly where she is going and they kayak badly for a few hours till they arrive at an island in the middle of nowhere.

Little are they to know that this is the exact same island where Sammy Tigertail has brought irritating Gillian, who won’t stop talking, who keeps teasing Sammy about her whiteness, who keeps provoking him with her semi-nudity and asking why he won’t ‘bone’ her.

So that’s two of the groups of characters on the island. The third set consist of the sex-obsessed Piejack and Dealey. Having kept him under guard all night, next morning Pijack forces Dealey to accompany him as they drive to a boat hire place, rent a powerboat and set off to follow Honey and her two luckless kayakers to the unknown island.

Piejack and Dealey are able pick them up using binoculars, then trail them at a distance so as not to be seen and moor their boat on the other side of the island. Things quickly go wrong when Piejack, in the middle of threatening Dealey, is whacked from behind by Sammy, falling into a dense cactus patch. Sammy thinks he’s killed Piejack (damn! the second white man he’s killed in just a few days!) and takes Dealey off with him, poor Dealey, as one character comments, maybe the only person in history to be kidnapped twice in one day!

But that’s not all. The fourth component is Honey’s ex-husband Perry Skinner, the crab fisherman. That morning he spotted Piejack driving with a stranger through the streets of Everglade City (the tiny rural community where Honey and Perry live), realises something is up, quickly picks up his son, and takes out his crabbing boat to pursue Piejack and Dealey in their boat, at a safe distance.

And thus the narrative brings all four sets of characters – Sammy and Gillian; Honey, Boyd and Eugenie; Piejack and Dealey; Perry and his son – to the same remote, mosquito-infested island, with what blurb writers would call ‘hilarious consequences’.

What ensues is almost textbook farce, with a complex series of comings and goings, encounters, violence, threats, running away, and the couples splitting up and partnering off with someone from another pair, comic misunderstandings and confrontations.

It could almost be performed onstage as a Feydeau farce, set in one big room with multiple doors, and characters entering in various combinations, having comical mishaps before exiting and another little set of characters entering to perform their comic scene. The fact that it’s set on an island with four sets of characters and a lot of rueful comedy reminded me a little of The Tempest.

Among a welter of incidents, Boyd, the soulless lunkhead, manages to tazer his own penis. (He thinks it’s a gun and shoves it down his pants like a tough guy only for it to go off accidentally. Men, eh?)

At one point Sammy is confronted in the middle of the day with dead Mr Wilson’s spirit, whining about being stuck in the cold water and eaten by sharks. To get rid of it Sammy shoots his rifle but the bullet ricochets off a tree and hits Dealey, shattering his shoulder. He collapses, loses consciousness, the women tend him but he’s in a poor way.

In other scenes, Gillian wears Sammy down with her incessant chatter till he gives up and agrees to have sex with her, which mainly involves her vigorously riding his erection while continuing her endless chatter.

Boyd demonstrates in a hundred ways what a selfish, useless, spineless, soulless goon he is. Honey had arranged this whole scam in order to get Boyd into the back of beyond and then deliver a lecture about his bad morals and behaviour re. his rude telesales phone call to her which is where the entire narrative began.

And yet, when it comes to it, nothing works. As dawn rises the day after they came to the island, Honey marvels at the change in the quality of the light, the calmness of the water, the beauty of a flight of egrets across the sky. Boyd doesn’t get it, and announces he needs to have a crap.

The man was unreachable, a dry hole. For such a lunkhead there could be no awakening, no rebirth of wonderment. (p.296)

On one level the novel is simply about a mentally ill woman who tries to reform a soulless dolt and fails, leaving her feeling ‘foolhardy and defeated, the queen of lost causes’ (p.297). (By the way, Honey appears to be the ‘nature girl’ of the title.)

On day one on the island Sammy had snuck up on Piejack while the latter was pointing his shotgun at Dealey and whacked him real hard. Piejack was out for a long time, finally came to and crawled off to hide in a cistern tank where he fell on cactus, managing to get covered in prickles. Also a colony of fire ants discovers the juicy food of his recently transplanted fingers under the surgical gauze.

Thus he awakes on the second day on the island looking like a drooling, demented walking puffer fish ‘benumbed by the derangement of lust’ (p.302). He has metamorphosed into the Grotesque Figure who can be found in most of Hiaasen’s novels (cf Chemo, Tool etc al.) Piejack stumbles across Honey alone in her camp and kidnaps her, fitting a noose round her neck and dragging her off into the undergrowth.

Meanwhile, a coast guard helicopter arrives. Dealey had phoned for it with the last power in his cell phone.

Perry Skinner, who, despite his former prison sentence, emerges as the strong, manly hero of the book, doesn’t want to leave the island till he’s found his ex-wife, Honey, who he still loves. On the other hand he’s sort of in charge of the good guys and knows that Dealey is badly wounded by Sammy’s shot to his shoulder and so needs to be choppered out.

So he and Gillian and Sammy put Dealey’s half-conscious body into one of the brightly coloured kayaks and push it out into the main body of water where the coastguard quickly see it. Unfortunately, as the chopper hovers low, Dealey tries to stand up to signal to it and promptly capsizes the kayak, flailing in the water and likely to drown. So Gillian quickly strips to her mesh panties (for the umpteenth time) and swims out to save him. So she and Dealey are winched to safety by the coastguard chopper which flies away. Shame. Sammy was just starting to like her.

In another part of the island, Eugenie had been tending Skinner’s son, Fry, who is only 12 and managed to hit a truck while skateboarding before his dad collected him and brought him on this wild goose chase to some remote island in the Everglades.

Here, Fry has begun to suffer symptoms of concussion and gotten separated from his dad (I told you it’s a labyrinthine series of people getting split up, lost, encountering people from the other groups, with or without guns).

Fry has just fainted and been discovered by Eugenie, who is tending him when they both hear the Coast Guard chopper. Fry tells her not to worry about him and go and so, reluctantly, Eugenie runs off in the direction of the creek where the Coast Guard has spotted Dealey flailing round his kayak and Gillian swimming out to save him.

The narrative then cuts away to a factual account of the precise make and number of Coast Guard patrol, and explains how it had been called to the island after Dealey rang Lily Shreave (his client, remember; the one who sent him to get photos of Boyd actually penetrating Eugenie), describes how he has been kidnapped and brought to some godforsaken island in the ‘Glades. Lily rang the coastguard. Hence the helicopter.

Anyway, the net result is that by page 320 Eugenie, Gillian and Dealey have been choppered back to civilisation.

Leaving Sammy Tigertail and Perry Skinner and the latter’s ill son, Fry, looking for the gruesomely maimed pervert Piejack and Honey, who he’s kidnapped and is leading around on a leash, with the cowardly Boyd blundering around as a kind of wild card.

There is no subtlety about the characterisation. The narrator describes Boyd as a drooling moron, explaining to the reader at factual length what a GPS tracker is and why Boyd had to be an imbecile not to realise what it was and to mistake it for a radio (p.322). And he tazered his own penis.

Sorry apologies for men

Hiaasen’s novels usually have a central topic which is the butt of his factual exposures and satirical flaying. About half way through this book I began to wonder whether the subject being flayed in this one is men and masculinity. Boyd the useless creep. Piejack the pervert. Dealey the craven investigator. The narrative marshals a long list of evidence against men.

Eugenie remembers her former lover, Van Bonneville, who was useless the one and only time they had sex, and then didn’t get any better in the sack after she discovered he had murdered his wife.

We get a vivid scene where Eugenie tries to seduce Boyd’s replacement at the telesales centre, Sacco, who turns out to be a knock-kneed obsessive.

The text keeps up a steady barrage of criticism of the entire male gender, either via the narrator or the no-holds-barred comments of all the female characters:

Honey’s outlook on men was sinking to a point of abject revulsion. The day was new, and yet already she’d been ridiculed by a soulless twit and kidnapped by a reeking pervert. (p.304)

‘Don’t ever change,’ [Eugenie tells Fry]. ‘By that I mean don’t grow up to be a jerkoff like ninety percent of the men I meet.’
‘Mom always tells me the same thing, except she says it’s more like ninety-five.’ (p.307)

‘Don’t be a typical dumb-ass male and get yourself lost in the woods.’ (p.318)

Even the natural world is roped in to make the point. When Fry points out two chameleons on a branch to Eugenie he explains that the one puffing out its chest and doing what look like little press-ups is the male doing a mating dance.

‘That’s the male,’ said Fry. ‘He’s showin’ off.’
‘Go figure,’ said Eugenie. (p.316)

I wonder if an author wrote a book in which characters said 95% of the black people they met were jerkoffs, black people show off all the time, one character told another not to be a typical dumb-ass black, and so on – I wonder whether sweeping abuse and insults about blacks or Jews or Muslims would be seen as quite so funny as sweeping insults and abuse of white men.

When the narrative stops to reflect on the five men Honey dated after divorcing Perry, it’s really just another opportunity to give examples of piss-poor men, namely:

  • Dale Rozelle, ‘a duplicitous shithead’, who lies about being a member of the Sierra Club in order to get into Honey’s pants (or get her to ‘give up the velvet’), slaps his own bum and makes barnyard noises during sex (now there’s something I must try out :)).
  • Dr Tyler Teehorn, her son’s orthodontist, who she gives a ‘mercy fuck’ after his wife left him, but who then clings to her like a mollusc and is a suffocating bore.

When the Coast Guard helicopter appears, Hiaasen makes a joke of the way the routine rescue of a fat white guy in a kayak is transformed when the crew see a nubile woman strip virtually naked (down to just her mesh panties, for it is Gillian) and another hottie waving brightly coloured underwear at them (Eugenie). These sights invigorate the male rescuers, lending them, in the sardonic tones of the narrator, ‘unbreakable focus and esprit de corps‘ (p.323).

Gillian went on, ‘Ethan doesn’t really care about me. It’s just the sex.’
‘Well, he’s a boy.’
‘Why are they all like that?’ (p.364)

Men, eh. Do anything for the promise of poon. Pathetic. In the last hundred pages I collected adjectives used to describe men: lame (345) sonofabitches (351) bores (325), shitheads (324), schmucks, bumblefucks (343), sexual harassers (344), sex fiends (347), toads (352), dumb-ass drooling morons (322), brutish criminals (350) and rancid buckets of scum (347).

Admittedly most of this abuse is targeted at Piejack, the gangrenous, drug-addled, sex-obsessed stalker, but then he was invented precisely to be the butt of this torrent of anti-male abuse. And is unsubtly contrasted with the sterling qualities of the three female leads: confident knows-what-she-wants Gillian; tall, sexy Eugenie; and Honey, the nature girl who wanted to reform slimy Boyd Shreaver, who is a super-devoted loving mother to young Fry, and is ‘tough and outspoken and damn near fearless’ (p.355). Shit men, heroic women.

It’s a tiny comic detail when the Coast Guard tells Gillian that the single most common name men gave their dinghies and boats in Florida is Wet Dream (p.338). Ha ha. Men and their dicks and their dumb-ass sense of humour, eh.

One last thought: it isn’t a new theme for Hiaasen. Reviewing my notes on Strip Tease, I see that that novel, also, as you’d expect from a text all about the ‘erotic dancing’ industry, was crammed full of dismissive comments about men and their desperation for pussy.

  • ‘Men will try anything,’ Monique Jr said, sceptically. ‘Anything for pussy.’ (Strip Tease, page 16)
  • It taught Erin one of life’s great lessons: an attractive woman could get whatever she wanted, because men are so laughably weak. They would do anything for even the distant promise of sex. (p.26)
  • Erin was constantly reminded of the ridiculous power of sex; routine female nakedness reduced some men to stammering, clammy-fingered fools. (p.87)

Is this general statement true of men in the real world? Is it true for all men even just in Carl Hiaasen’s novels? Or is it a kind of satirical trope, the kind of predictable, fixed parameter which then enables savage satire to be written, alongside other generalisations such as all white people are racist, all politicians are corrupt, all property developers are evil, and so on.

In other words they are conventions of the genre. Certainly having read a dozen or so Restoration comedies a while ago, and then a set of Ben Jonson’s citizen comedies, sex and, more precisely, the sex-obsession of some men has always been a theme of comedy, and is cranked up to the max in the over-driven form of comedy which is farce.

The climax – Skinner kills Piejack

The climax of the novel comes when Skinner and Sammy come into a beach clearing to discover lurid, ill Piejack threatening Honey with the shotgun and ordering her to strip. Honey’s son, Fry, who got separated from his dad some time back, has snuck up behind Piejack and hits him with a plank but Piejack recovers and points the shotgun at both Fry and Honey.

Seeing this from the trees, Skinner goes running forward but Piejack shoots him in the knee, forcing him to flop to the sand. That just leaves Sammy, still standing on the edge of the clearing, witness to the entire scene, who has to make a choice. In his head he hears his wise uncle saying this is all white people craziness and  that he should walk away, and Piejack points the gun at him and tells him to do just that.

Now, among his personal belongings which his half-brother Lee had brought him to take into the boondocks right at the start of the story, was a lovely Gibson guitar (which he can’t actually play, although Gillian turns out to be able to play it).

Now Sammy sees the guitar has gotten tossed to one side of the beach and politely asks Piejack if he can retrieve it. He walks across with Piejack keeping the shotgun aimed at him, picks up the guitar walks a few paces but then, unexpectedly, hands it to Skinner, still on his knees. Skinner labours to his feet, staggers forward and, as Piejack shoots him, brings the guitar down like an axe and cleaves Piejack’s skull in two.

Postscript

So that’s the end of the jeopardy which had been driving the plot for the previous 100 pages. Now there’s just tying up the loose ends.

We are told Piejack’s last shot blew away part of Skinner’s hip and he is bleeding badly. Honey and Fry carry him to Piejack’s hire boat and she charts a course back to the dock at Everglades City and tells Fry to run as fast as the wind to get help and call an ambulance.

Sammy Tigertail loads Piejack’s corpse into a different boat and chugs back to the canal where he sank the body of Jeter Wilson. He does the same to Piejack’s corpse, stringing it with weights and dumping it in the same deep underwater hole. Almost immediately he starts seeing Jeter Wilson’s death spirit appearing to him, complaining about his new companion.

All this leaves flabby Boyd the coward still on the island. He had climbed up a huge poinciana tree to escape from the general mayhem and from up there he’d tried to the Coast Guard helicopter, though the pilots were, as Hiaasen emphasises, totally entranced when they saw the prospect of picking up not one but two scantily clad women.

When he hears the two shots Piejack fires, Boyd heads off in the opposite direction, eventually hitting another beach and discovering an untended canoe. He quickly sets off but is, of course, useless at paddling, plus night is falling.

In the middle of the night he hears a boat passing nearby and shines a small torch he has, but it is only Sammy in a powerboat towing the body of Piejack and the rest of the canoes, and he flips Boyd the bird, and putters off, leaving Boyd literally all at sea.

The First Resurrectionist Maritime Assembly for God

Then there is a weird comic afterlude. Boyd comes to a beach and finds himself landing on another island. Much earlier in the story Perry and Fry, in search of Honey, had briefly landed on this island and discovered it was being used as a retreat by a small group of revivalist Christians, to be precise, five members of the First Resurrectionist Maritime Assembly for God wearing only white gowns (p.371).

It had already been hinted that these folk are not as pure as they claim to be and, sure enough, Boyd staggers out of his canoe onto the beach and interrupts the Assembly’s leader, Brother Manual, gripping Sister Shirelle by the hips and boning her enthusiastically from behind. Hiaasen points out that Sister Shirelle’s formidable and unbound breasts are jouncing in tandem, which is good to know.

There follows an unexpected passage of broad, farcical satire, as Manuel and Shirelle hurriedly make themselves decent and greet Boyd (almost naked, with hands bloodied from climbing up then back down the big poinciana tree) as the Promised One and the Messiah. For a few days they devout Bible bashers worship, feed and water him. But Boyd turns out to be an obnoxious whiner and even the most deluded devotees quickly lose faith. The congregation depart the island leaving him with a few rations but no canoe.

Boyd is leaning back against the big cross the Assembly had erected on the beach in bleak despair when a huge wild eagle lands on its top and takes a big dump on him. Comedy.

He runs into the sea to wash himself and makes such a racket and commotion that he is spotted and picked up by Coastal Rangers out on patrol, returned to civilisation, hosed down, dressed in charity clothes.

Boyd‘s storyline comes to a savagely farcical conclusion when, thus tidied up, he is enjoying a few beers in a local bar when he overhears some tourists from up north fantasising about moving to the Sunshine State. Boyd smoothly introduces himself as the agent for some (totally fictional) prime beachfront properties and realises with a flash that this is the role which suits his worthless, soulless, slimeball character – he will be an estate agent in Florida!

Eugenie, Sammy and Skinner

Talking of agents, Eugenie quits her job in telesales and presents herself at the office of private investigator Dealey, now much restored after an operation to repair his shot-up shoulder.

Eugenie suggests that, after all the fuss and bother, they send Boyd’s wife, Lily, not a video of Boyd and herself boning, but a video she shot during the brief time she spent with young Fry, a sequence of two chameleons copulating on a tree branch. (Right till the end of this book, ‘boning’ in one form or another is the central subject.) Impressed by her confidence, sales skills and insights into relationships, Dealey decides to take her on as a partner in his detective agency.

Sammy finds peace on another island. He had recovered some parts of the smashed Gibson guitar after it was used to brain Piejack, and starts whittling a new body from treewood. He fishes, cooks and eats, lies under the huge sprawl of night-time stars. The same great eagle which shat on Boyd comes and roosts in the trees every evening. Sammy begins to think of him as a guardian spirit. Slowly, we get the sense of him becoming attuned to the wilderness and the simple life of his ancestors. A fairly happy ending.

And Skinner and Honey get back together. Her jaw is clamped shut while it heals from an almighty whack Piejack gave it back on the island which broke it, and Skinner is walking with a cane while his new artificial hip beds in, so they decided to move back in together and look after each other.

Twelve-and-a-half-year-old Fry is anxious that they’ll just end up arguing and splitting up again. But the novel ends with a symbolic scene. Once again Fry and Honey are sitting at dinner (with Skinner) when the phone rings. Honey gets irate about dinner being interrupted, just as she did at the very start of the novel.

However, both Fry and Skinner tell her to let it ring, let it go. It’s hard for such an obsessive, but Honey takes their advice and eventually it stops. People don’t really change, but they can learn new tricks. The book ends with the happy family joking together over dinner.

Construction

It should be obvious from this detailed summary that this novel, like all Hiaasen’s novels, is wonderfully constructed, the multiple storylines and the complex backstories of its large-ish cast of characters beautifully dovetailed and woven together by a master carpenter. He is an absolute master of narrative construction, it’s one of the most impressive things about his books.

More sex than previously

It might just be me, but it seemed to me that sex – almost pornographically explicit imaginings of naked pussies and willies, and jokey references to cocks and fannies and thongs and bras and breasts and vibrators – is far more present in this novel than any of the previous ones.

‘I’d blow Dick Cheney for a Corona,’ she said. (p.225)

We are casually told Eugenie loves straddling Boyd’s cock and was, indeed, starting to do the same to his replacement, Sacco, when the front door rings. Lily tries repeatedly to provoke Boyd into having sex with her, wearing thongs, straddling him, slipping under the table at a restaurant, unzipping his flies and starting to suck his cock. Later in the story, they haven’t been together long before irritating Gillian (see below) is presenting herself to Sammy Tigertail in ‘mesh panties and a white bikini top’ (p.163) to arouse him.

‘White pussy is bad medicine.’ (Tommy Tigertail, p.142)

All three of the women in the book – Honey, Eugenie and Gillian – are not only described as attractive:

  • ‘Sammy Tigertail had never seen a woman so lovely’ as Honey (p.290)
  • when the Coast Guard appear at the end of the story it is to rescue ‘two extremely attractive female evacuees’ (p.323)
  • Honey is ‘athletically built’ (p.358)

But are impressively sexually active. They are tall and shapely, with nice boobs (Eugenie has ‘outstanding breasts’, in Fry’s opinion, p.316), are continually slipping into thongs and mesh panties, offering blowjobs at the drop of a hat.

I know these are comic, escapist poolside paperbacks, but there does seem to be a more than usually amount of male wish fulfilment in this one.

Eugenie chuckled tiredly. ‘I’ll do whatever it takes to get off this island, and that includes hand jobs, blow jobs, butt jobs, even singin’ opera stark naked.’ (p.279)

When Sammy stumbles late at night into the little camp Honey, Eugenie and Boyd have made, he accidentally wakens Eugenie, who begs him for water, since they’re all thirsty. And she immediately offers to anything – ‘I’ll do whatever you want. And I mean whatever‘. She is, after all, very proud of her metal tongue stud and the pleasure it gives the men she fellates.

I suppose Eugenie leaping immediately to offer sex at every opportunity is meant to be a comic part of her over-sexed character.  But they’re all obsessed with sex, Piejack and Boyd and Lily, who is obsessed with seeing photos of her husband penetrating another woman, and Gillian uses every opportunity to propose sex to her handsome half-Indian abductor:

‘Meanwhile, Big Chief Thlocko, let me show you what my people call a “quickie”.’ (p.310)

Even the comic details have a more than usually sexual tinge: for example, part of Boyd’s general uselessness is the way he once had a domestic accident in such a way as to straddle a cactus and get his entire groin studded with painful cactus needles (p.341).

When they get to Dismal Island Boyd brandishes the implement he found under Honey’s bed and which he takes to be a gun, swirling it round his hand before sticking it back in his pants, like a tough guy with a revolver, only for it to jolt him with a phenomenal electric shock because it was not a gun but a taser; leaving him with ‘a half-barbecued cock’ (p.239).

We are told that the PI Dealey has only ever been subject to violence once in his career and, you could imagine thousands of forms this could take, but it is entirely in line with the book’s focus on sex that this attack took the shape of the woman he was illicitly photographing as part of a snooping job, spotting him and throwing her nine inch vibrator at him. (It hit him directly in the throat and he couldn’t speak for three weeks, p.196.)

‘Damn, boy, you could be quite the rock star… All the free poon and dope you can stand.’ (p.226)

When Boyd and Eugenie are paddling a two-person canoe, Boyd is so useless that Eugenie wants him to stop altogether. There are many ways she could do this, starting with using the gift of speech. Instead, it’s very much in line with the soft porn vibe of the book, that she prefers to express this wish by taking off her halter top so as to be topless. This appearance of her boobs distracts Boyd so much that he stops paddling alright, but it also… continues the tone of titillation which colours the whole text.

When Skinner and Fry come ashore on a remote island attracted by a fire on the beach, they discover it is in fact a small group of Christian zealots holding an unorthodox act of worship. The point is the narrator draws our attention to the fact that the prettiest one, Shirelle is dancing and gyrating without a bra… and when the leader of the congregation follows them to give them a leaflet, Skinner angrily confronts him with the shrewd guess that he has ‘balled’ Sister Shirelle, that she has kneeled down and worshipped him in a very special way (p.258). And, as we’ve seen, at the end of the book Boyd interrupts the group’s leader in the act of energetically boning Shirelle from behind. Of the religious devotee Sister Shirelle, not only do we learn that her big breasts jounce joyfully around but that, in Brother Manuel’s opinion, she would ‘go down on Judas Iscariot if he was a hottie’ (p.385).

And the entire character of Mr Piejack, the lecherous manager of the fish market who fires Honey after he grabs her breast as she’s placing fresh wahoo steaks on display, such that she turns round and hammers in the nuts (p.232), he is nothing more than sexual obsession personified. He goes to ridiculous lengths to try and see Honey nude and/or touch her, he is a slavering stalker, who’s played for laughs, but is also one more strand of the novel’s sex-obsession. When he abducts Honey, he says he’ll only turn her loose if she promises to ‘give up the velvet’ in a particularly creepy and repellent way (p.304).

Eventually, Gillian (the ‘rambunctious college girl in mesh panties’, p.394) wears Sammy down and he gives in to having sex with her, which is described as her boisterously riding him. That’s the sex position of choice in Hiaasen’s novels, in which all the female characters are depicted as modern, liberated and active, rather than passive recipients.

What stood out in this particular description is the way Hiaasen goes out of his way to describe the way Gillian clenches her cervical muscle around Sammy’s cock, describing it not once but twice (p.287) – just that bit more pornographic detail than we’ve had in the previous novels.

Boyd lies to his wife that his work are sending him to a special clinic in Florida to be cured of his aphenphosmphobia and she pretends to go along with the story, all the while knowing she’s sending Dealey the private dick to photograph his penetration of his mistress. This is the precise term that is used, repeatedly, on pages 112, 113, 115, 147. Lily rings up Dealey to check: ‘Penetration? You got penetration?’, p.242.) Lily wants an unambiguous photo of her husband’s cock entering his mistress’s vulva. If Dealey is unsure how to get the shot, Lily tells Dealey to hire some porn and study the technique and the angles. Which he does and which the novels gives us descriptions of.

I think I know that lots of people are sex mad. It’s not such a novel or informative theme as the bass fishing in Double Whammy or the agricultural pollution in Skinny Dip or the plastic surgery industry in Skin Tight or the extended satire on tacky theme parks in Native Tongue or the detailed explanations of corrupt property development in Sick Puppy. What industry or sector is being satirised here? Telesales, maybe, a bit, at the start. But mostly it’s sex-obsessed creepy men.

A critic might say that all this titillation is here to make up for a slight lack of something else, the lack of a really meaty political or social subject.

Words for sex

Small thing but I was struck by the way lots of characters use the word ‘bone’ for the f word. ‘He just wanted to bone me’, ‘Has he boned her yet?’, ‘She’s paying you twenty-five grand to tape her old man boning some bimbo?’ (p.241) etc. Gillian calls Sammy ‘a serious blue-eyed Bone Machine’ (p.316). Presumably that’s why an erection is referred to as a ‘boner’, because it’s what men use for ‘boning’.

Other synonyms include the more traditional ‘ball’ (‘so I’d ball him’); ‘sleep with’, or just plain ‘do’.

‘I’m getting a complex,’ she said; ‘why aren’t you trying to do me?’ (p.245)

Whatever word is used, ‘boning’ or characters obsessing about ‘boning’, is a much more central theme to the novel than in previous ones. It’s all Gillian or Eugenie or Lily or Piejack or Boyd seem to think about.

Dad rock

Having established in previous novels that the narrator – or at least all his sympathetic characters – are fans of 1970s Adult-Oriented Rockers such as Neil Young and the Rolling Stones and Creedence Clearwater Revival, Hiaasen keeps up the Dad Rock ambience with references throughout this novel to  more Dad Rock classics such as The Eagles (p.163), James Taylor (p.225), The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix (p.227), the Rolling Stones (p.245), Johnny Cash (p.266), the Allmann Brothers (p.312), Kiss (p.316), Neil Young again (p.393). Is it a deliberate marketing ploy, to appeal to boomer rock fans?

Having mulled it over, I think the recurring references to Dad Rock make up one of the 3 or 4 components of Hiaasen’s Good Place. Almost all Hiaasen’s energy goes into eviscerating the forces of evil and corruption at very great length, with often gruesome and violent consequences.

What is there to balance against a world of corruption and lies? Well, I think there is a handful of good things in Hiaasen’s world and good ole rock and roll is one of them. The epitome of Good is the image of the strong, competent, decent guy, Mick Stranahan (who features in Skin Tight and Skinny Dip) alone on his remote house built on stilts out in Biscayne Bay, quietly fishing with a loyal dog by his side and Neil Young on the cassette player as the dawn comes up over the ocean. Good times. Simple down-home values. Beautiful unspoilt scenery. Quiet fishing. Loyal dog. Cool sounds. Maybe light up a half-smoked doobie. Life is sweet. It is still possible to get away from all the crap, and the old-time music which recurs throughout the books are markers for that.

J.B.

Obligatory James Bond reference, p.303.


Credit

Nature Girl by Carl Hiaasen was published by Bantam Press in 2006. All references are to the 2007 Black Swan paperback edition.

Carl Hiaasen reviews

  1. Tourist Season (1986)
  2. Double Whammy (1987)
  3. Skin Tight (1989)
  4. Native Tongue (1991)
  5. Strip Tease (1993)
  6. Stormy Weather (1995)
  7. Lucky You (1997)
  8. Sick Puppy (2000)
  9. Basket Case (2002)
  10. Skinny Dip (2004)
  11. Nature Girl (2006)
  12. Star Island (2010)
  13. Bad Monkey (2013)
  14. Razor Girl (2016)
  15. Squeeze Me (2020)

Letters from Iceland by W.H. Auden and Louis MacNeice (1936)

A golden age of travel writing

We’ve spoken about the 1930s as the Age of Auden, dominated by the left-wing politics of most of the young writers and poets, who were responding to the Great Depression (1929-33) and then stricken by the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War (1936-39).

But it was also a golden age of travel writing. Posh Brits could wave their distinctive British passport and travel anywhere they wanted in what was, between the wars, the largest empire the world had ever seen, at its largest extent. There was a boom in high-end travel writing to cater for the well-heeled tourists who could travel in the new passenger planes or enjoy the new leisure concept of luxury cruises.

Almost by definition, though, the really adventurous types wanted to go beyond the usual itineraries and explore unknown parts. It’s no coincidence that they were buoyed up by the confidence of having gone to a jolly good public school, having networks of contacts and connections everywhere, and so knowing they could probably get themselves out of most scrapes with a quick phone call to cousin Algy at the Foreign Office.

Hence the ripping travel adventures of Peter Fleming (Eton and Oxford) in Brazil, Russia and China, or Robert Byron (Eton and Oxford) in Russia, China, Afghanistan and Tiber, or Patrick ‘Paddy’ Leigh Fermor (King’s School Canterbury) who, aged 18, decided to walk from London to Constantinople.

Hence the journeys Graham Greene (Berkhamsted and Oxford) undertook to Liberia and Mexico, or Evelyn Waugh (Lancing and Oxford)’s jolly journeys to Abyssinia, the Belgian Congo and British Guiana.

(Peter Fleming is actually name-checked twice in this book as the intimidating ideal of the modern travel writer who the authors are haplessly trying to live up to, p.159)

Taking the mickey

In the spring of 1936 a chance conversation with one of his former pupils at the private school where he’d taught in the early 30s revealed that he and friends and a teacher were going to Iceland that summer. Auden was instantly excited at the prospect and suggested to his publishers, Faber & Faber, that they fund him to go there and he’d write a travel book for them. Auden leapt at the chance of going to one of his childhood holy places. His family had Nordic ancestry, his father had read him all the Norse myths, and as a boy he had read lots of Icelandic sagas with their stern unforgiving heroes.

So he made his arrangements – to go by himself for a month or so, then rendezvous with the party of former schoolboys, and he persuaded one of the gang, the Ulsterman Louis MacNeice, to also make the sea voyage and meet him there. So in June 1936 he set off, and spent a little over a month travelling round Iceland, mainly by local bus with jaunts on horseback thrown in, hiring local guides and staying at whatever accommodation existed, often local farmers.

He’d been in the country for some time, fretting about how he was going to write something to repay his publishers’ advance, when he suddenly had the bright idea of making the entire book a collection of letters, letters to friends, containing appropriate content for them (‘so that each letter deals with its subject in a different and significant way’, p.140) – sending some friends straight travelogue, some jokes, some a selection of historic writing about the place, and so on.

And once MacNeice arrived (they rendezvoused in Rejkyavik on 9 August 1936), they developed the idea of poetic letters and of deliberately experimenting with different types of poetic genre (lyric, epic, eclogue etc). Once the third element, the four schoolboys and their master arrived, the party set off for a riding tour of Iceland’s central mountain range, and MacNeice had the idea of describing their rather bizarre party (two scruffy poets, a bespectacled teacher and four keen young boys) into a satirical diary of the trip as if written from one jolly upper-class girl guides leader to another (Hetty to Nancy), complaining about the bullying leader of the trip, and the other teachers and the girls, my dear, the girls! This is either very funny or revoltingly cliquey, according to taste.

Thus the idea evolved to make the book deliberately bitty and fragmented, a collage of different types of text, an anti-heroic travel book, in that it wouldn’t hold back on the realities of the trip i.e. runny noses, smelly barns, recalcitrant ponies and so on.

The original mish-mash effect was enhanced by the authors’s photos which were deliberately amateurish and scrappy, as Auden gleefully points out:

Every exciting letter has enclosures,
And so shall this – a bunch of photographs,
Some out of focus, some with wrong exposures,
Press cuttings, gossip, maps, statistics, graphs;
I don’t intend to do the thing by halves.
I’m going to be very up to date indeed.
It is a collage that you’re going to read.

There’s even a passage where Auden gives us his thoughts on photography, namely that it’s the most democratic art form, specially given all the technical advances of his day (what would he have thought of today’s camera-phones?) (p.139). Alas the authors’ photos aren’t reproduced in the rather cheap-feeling modern Faber paperback version, though you can glimpse them online.

The Letters from Iceland format allowed them to get away from the pompous smoothness of traditional travel writers, although it did tend to add fuel to the fire of the large number of critics who accused the Auden Gang of being a self-satisfied clique of insiders. This is particularly obvious in the Last Will and Testament with its references to their chums:

Next Edward Upward and Christopher Isherwood
I here appoint my joint executors
To judge my work if it be bad or good…

To our two distinguished colleagues in confidence,
To Stephen Spender and Cecil Day Lewis, we assign
Our minor talents to assist in the defence

Of the European Tradition and to carry on
The Human heritage.

For my friend Benjamin Britten, composer, I beg
That fortune send him soon a passionate affair.

Item – I leave my old friend Anthony Blunt
A copy of Marx and £1000 a year
And the picture of Love Locked Out by Holman Hunt.

Too chummy by half, it’s the one part of the book I didn’t like (and not just for this reason; it’s also just boring).

The most impressive letter, and binding the book together, are the five parts of a long poem by Auden titled Letter to Lord Byron. Again he explains his through processes in the text itself, telling us that he’d taken a copy of Byron’s immensely long rambling verse diary of his life, Don Juan, and had the inspiration of writing an updated version for his times. He liked Byron’s free and easy style, his ability to incorporate everything from thoughts about the meaning of life to the fact that he had a hangover that morning. He liked him because he was a townee i.e. urban, and heartily agreed with Byron’s dislike of the Wordsworth, nature-worshipping tradition which Auden cordially detested.

Part one of Letter to Lord Byron is the first thing you read and immediately establishes the chatty, witty tone of the book, starting by apologising to the shade of Lord Byron for bothering him.

Excuse, my lord, the liberty I take
In thus addressing you. I know that you
Will pay the price of authorship and make
The allowances an author has to do.
A poet’s fan-mail will be nothing new.
And then a lord – Good Lord, you must be peppered,
Like Gary Cooper, Coughlin, or Dick Sheppard,

With notes from perfect strangers starting, ‘Sir,
I liked your lyrics, but Childe Harold’s trash,’
‘My daughter writes, should I encourage her?’
Sometimes containing frank demands for cash,
Sometimes sly hints at a platonic pash,
And sometimes, though I think this rather crude,
The correspondent’s photo in the nude.

Light verse is difficult to bring off, but to sustain it over the 160 stanzas of the finished Letter To Lord Byron is a quite staggering achievement. Has anyone else in the entire twentieth century brought off such a sustained comic achievement in verse?

Besides this epic achievement, the book also contains quite a few other poems by Auden, including:

  • Journey to Iceland
  • a poetic letter to Richard Crossman (b.1907: head boy at Winchester then New College Oxford, went onto become a Labour MP and then cabinet member)
  • Detective Story – a sort of verse explanation of why we like and read thrillers
  • ‘O who can ever praise enough’ – a verse meditation on childhood books (note the characteristic us of ‘O’ starting a poem, a really characteristic Auden tic)
  • a free-verse letter to William Coldstream (painted, born 1908: private school, Slade Art School, met Auden at the GPO when they were making documentary films)
  • and a collaboration with MacNeice, ‘W. H. Auden and Louis MacNeice: Their Last Will and Testament’

MacNeice’s contributions include:

  • a verse letter to Graham and Anne Shepard
  • an Eclogue from Iceland which contains lines describing the bitter enmities of MacNeice’s native Ireland and why he has fled them, along with speeches by Grettir which capture the spirit of the saga hero, bloody-minded and doomed, and who tells the poets that their task is ‘the assertion of human values’ (p.134)
  • a verse Epilogue

In between all this poetry there are chunks of prose, namely:

  • a prose section ‘For Tourists’, which is quite thorough and might actually have been useful to contemporary tourists
  • a sardonic selection of writings on Iceland by other authors, ‘Sheaves from Sagaland’, addressed to John Betjeman, chosen for their odd surrealist details, the best of which is a page-long description of a huge feast endured by one William Jackson Hooker in 1809, and an eye-witness account of the eruption of an Icelandic volcano in 1727 (incidentally, we learn that the title Letters From Iceland had already been used by Joseph Banks in 1772)
  • Saga Laws, the Formula of Peacemaking, the Law of the Wager of Battle, the Viking Law
  • two prose letters from Auden to ‘E. M. Auden’ (E.M. was Erika Mann: it needs to be explained that Auden – who was gay – agreed to a marriage of convenience with Erika Mann who was the eldest daughter of novelist Thomas Mann, cabaret actress and racing driver, in order to give her a nationality when the Nazis cancelled her German nationalist because of her writings against them: they were married on 15 June 1935, the only time they ever met) – these are some of the most chatty and candid pieces Auden ever wrote, joking about the appalling food but explaining some of the Icelandic verse forms, his dislike of modern art, his fondness for caricatures
  • a prose letter to Kristian Andreirsson, Esq.;

The longest single section is a series of supposed letters sent by the fictional ‘Hetty’ to her friend ‘Nancy’. These were written by MacNeice in a lampoon of contemporary posh girls’ fiction, wherein Hetty moans endlessly about the jolly hockeysticks enthusiasm of the leader of the exhibition, Miss Greenhalge, and her tent-mate, the insufferable Maisie (a girl guide version of Auden) and makes campy comments:

The road to Kleppur suffers from ribbon development and nothing, my dear, can look worse than a corrugated iron suburb if it is not kept tidy.

Letters from Iceland is still hugely enjoyable after all these years, mainly because of the infectious good humour of both the protagonists. The advice for travellers is actually useful, albeit 84 years out of date. Auden says he paid 10 kroner for three days board and lodging and hire of horse at a farm in the north-west, but elsewhere tells us the exchange rate is 24 kroner to the pound sterling. So… did he get all that for 50p! Hiring a horse for the day costs 3 kroner i.e. 12.5p!

Last time I looked at a holiday in Iceland it was ruinously expensive, and packed with pre-arranged tours and photo opportunities by gushing geysers or bathing in hot springs i.e. it has been totally commodified.

There is a diagram of the highest mountains (we learn later that Auden pinched this postcard from an old lady who ran a home for decayed ladies, p.145); an extract from an 1805 parish register; bibliographies and suggested reading; there is a map showing new roads.

MacNeice struggles manfully to keep up with Auden’s super-abundant light verse:

So I came here to the land the Romans missed,
Left for the Irish saint and the Viking colonist.
But what am I doing here? Qu’allais-je faire
Among these volcanic rocks and this grey air?
Why go north when Cyprus and Madeira
De jure if not de facto are much nearer?
The reason for hereness is beyond conjecture,
There are no trees or trains or architecture
Fruits and greens are insufficient for health
And culture is limited by lack of wealth,
The tourist sights have nothing like stonehenge,
The literature is all about revenge.

(from Letter to Graham and Anne Shepard by Louis MacNeice)

10 out of 10 for effort, with some impressive hits:

The tourist sights have nothing like stonehenge,
The literature is all about revenge.

but Macneice can’t fully mask his more thoughtful approach which tends to make for slower reading, a slight air of puzzlement: it is Auden’s poetry which overshadows the enterprise, The Letter To Lord Byron whose five parts tie the ragbag together, but also the short but wonderful Journey to Iceland, which captures in just eleven stanzas the appeal of the cold and bleak north to some of us, so unlike the lotus-eating lure of the sunny Mediterranean where most travellers went.

And the traveller hopes: ‘Let me be far from any
Physician’; and the ports have names for the sea;
The citiless, the corroding, the sorrow;
And North means to all: ‘Reject’.

And the great plains are for ever where cold creatures are hunted,
And everywhere; the light birds flicker and flaunt;
Under a scolding flag the lover
Of islands may see at last,

Faintly, his limited hope; as he nears the glitter
Of glaciers; the sterile immature mountains intense
In the abnormal day of this world, and a river’s
Fan-like polyp of sand.

Wow! If you read my post about the monotonous diction of the poetry inspired by the Spanish Civil War, you can immediately see in these lines the use of novel vocabulary and uncannily imaginative phrasing.

In traditional poetry, birds do not ‘flicker and flaunt’; why are the mountains ‘immature’? why is the day ‘abnormal’? I don’t know, but it seems strange and true, the result of a disconcerted perception, appropriate to the cold and the bleak. And the simple statement that the bare North means to all Reject I find breath-taking.

In the short Foreword he added in 1965 Auden says:

The three months in Iceland upon which it is based stand out in my memory as among the happiest in a life which has, so far, been unusually happy, and, if something of this joy comes through the writing, I shall be content.

It does. It is a wonderful, funny, civilised book.

A few themes

In the pell-mell of poetry and comic prose it’s easy to overlook a couple of themes which emerge:

1. The He-man The concept of the ‘he-man’ was relatively new in pop culture – the muscley, Mr Universe types which came, like so much marketing bs, from America. Because they went to jolly good public schools and went on to have jolly successful careers, it’s easy to overlook how anxious these young men were, particularly about their masculinity.

Peter Fleming is referenced because he had already made a name for himself with his heroic account of his travels in Asia and his newspaper reporting for The Times, whereas Auden is all too well aware that he is short-sighted, he easily gets colds, he likes his creature comforts, and the first time he tries to mount a pony he galls right over its neck and onto the ground, in front of a party of picnickers. He is not made of heroic stuff.

The Auden Gang were, at the end of the day, bookish intellectuals, more at home chatting about Dante than building fires. They’d despised all that Officer Training Corps stuff they’d been forced to do at school and now found themselves having to take it seriously.

It can’t have helped that lots of them were gay or bisexual and so felt doubly alienated from the tough-guy, heterosexual men they saw up on cinema screens, always getting the girl. This helps explain why they couldn’t get over a permanent sense of feeling ridiculous. And then feeling anxious about feeling anxious.

It’s a small by symptomatic moment when Auden finally gets the hang of horse-riding and manages to stay on quite a frisky horse he’s been rented. ‘I was a real he-man after all,’ he says (p.142).

He says it as a joke, but it reveals an anxiety and a theme which crops up throughout his poetry of the 30s, another way in which he captured the anxiety of a generation.

(Similarly, when Auden and Isherwood travelled to China in 1938, Isherwood can’t sleep in a hotel near recently bombed ruins while he listens to Auden snoring ‘the long, calm snores of the truly strong’ – Journey To A War, p.75. The ‘truly strong’. It’s a joke, but still…)

2. Sensitivity Auden writes that traditional travel books are often boring but that there is a different thread to the genre, which consists more of essays on life prompted by things the traveller has seen. For him this is epitomised by the travel writing of D.H. Lawrence or Aldous Huxley, a style, writes Auden, which he is ‘neither clever nor sensitive enough to manage’ (p.140).

Now he’s being disingenuous when he says he’s not clever enough, he was a very clever man and he knew it. But I think he is being honest when he says that he was not sensitive enough. Sensitivity is not a word you associate with Auden. Cold, clinical detachment is his mode. He likes to categorise, he loves reeling off lists of things, from industrial equipment to types of civilian, from literary genres to psychoanalytical symptoms.

Thus it was Byron’s detached, urban and civilised irony which appealed to him, and when he deprecates Wordsworth he’s not joking.

I’m also glad to find I’ve your authority
For finding Wordsworth a most bleak old bore,
Though I’m afraid we’re in a sad minority
For every year his followers get more,
Their number must have doubled since the war.
They come in train-loads to the Lakes, and swarms
Of pupil-teachers study him in Storm’s.

For, oddly enough, although he spent three months travelling round one of Europe’s most unique landscapes, Auden doesn’t like landscapes. He likes people. He likes people and their cultures and ideas and attitudes and minds and histories and cultures. For him the landscape is just a backdrop to all this much more interesting stuff.

To me Art’s subject is the human clay,
And landscape but a background to a torso;
All Cézanne’s apples I would give away
For one small Goya or a Daumier.

It may be worth pointing out that Honoré Daumier (1808-79) was a French artists and printmaker most famous for his caricatures of urban life. The Royal Academy had an exhibition on him not so long ago:

Several other anecdotes reinforce your sense that the human subject came first, second and third with Auden. On a trivial level, he quotes a well-known clerihew in a letter to a friend he’s made on the island, to clarify his position:

The art of Biography
Is different from Geography.
Geography is about maps,
But Biography is about chaps.

Or take a longer anecdote: After quite a gruelling bus journey (Icelanders always seemed to be sick on bus journeys, Auden was told by a bus driver) he arrives at Akureyri to discover all the hotels are full. Fortunately, the young guide he’s travelling with, Ragnar, has a friend who has a brother-in-law who’s a butcher who happens to be out of town, so they’re put up at his house for the night. Next day Auden goes swimming at an open-air pool heated by geysers. So far, so touristy. But that evening, he tells us, he hunkers down for the night with two books.

Borrowed two volumes of caricatures, which are really my favourite kind of picture, and spent a very happy evening with Goya and Daumier and Max Beerbohm.

While others are trying to work themselves up into poetic visions worthy of Wordsworth, Auden doesn’t bother. He’s much more interesting in the sight of the driver of the bus struggling to change a tyre. In the evenings he doesn’t go out roistering like Ernest Hemingway, he much prefers to be snuggled up with books of entertaining cartoons. It’s very sweet and very honest.

I’ve learnt to ride, at least to ride a pony,
Taken a lot of healthy exercise,
On barren mountains and in valleys stony,
I’ve tasted a hot spring (a taste was wise),
And foods a man remembers till he dies.
All things considered, I consider Iceland,
Apart from Reykjavik, a very nice land.


Credit

Letters to Iceland by W.H. Auden and Louis MacNeice was first published by Faber and Faber in 1937. References are to the 1985 paperback edition.

Related links

1930s reviews

Reviews of Icelandic sagas

The Ascent of F6 by W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood (1936)

Very enjoyable, quite funny at moments, very clever and zips along at speed until the climax which I completely failed to understand.

Act I

A British colony, Sudoland, is troubled, the natives are restless, and our colonial rival, Ostnia, threatens to invade across the border. At  meeting of notables, the Foreign Secretary, Sir James Ransom, explains that there is a legendary mountain, F6, slap-bang on the border between the two colonies. Native tradition has it that a) the mountain is haunted and b) whoever climbs to the top of this mountain will rule over both colonies for a thousand years. Just recently we received a telegram telling us that the Ostnians have sent an expedition to climb the mountain, is on its way now.

The notables Ransom is addressing – General Dellaby-Couch, a fuddy duddy old general; excitable Lady Isabel Welwyn; and cynical newspaper magnate Lord Stagmantle – react with dismay… until Sir James announces that we, the British, are planning a counter-expedition. Who will lead it? Why, his own brother Michael Ransom, one of the world’s leading mountaineers!

But Michael is a completely different kettle of fish from his successful Establishment brother. They appear to have been twins and James was always the brash, confident, favoured one while Michael was slightly smaller, more private.

This explains the opening scene. The curtains rise to reveal Michael at the top of a peak in the Lake District very bitterly and cynically denouncing Dante, who he’s been reading. Michael mocks Dante for his fake high-mindedness, mocking the speech of Ulysses in Dante’s Inferno which mentions ‘Virtue’ and ‘Knowledge’. Michael doesn’t believe in that guff. After a lengthy monologue the voices of his mountaineering mates call him to climb back down with them.

Michael’s cynical, disillusioned attitude explains why, when his brother unexpectedly pays him a visit at the mountaineering hostel (actually a pub, the Lakeland Pub) where he’s hanging out with four of his mountaineering buddies (David Gunn, Teddy Lamp, Ian Shawcross and the Doctor, Tom), and makes him the offer of leading this fully-funded mountaineering expedition to one of the great mountains of the word… Michael turns him down. Michael’s not interested in being anyone’s hero.

Until that is, Sir James plays his trump card, introducing their mother, who walks through the door and asks him to climb the mountain for her. She gives a speech comparing the lives of the two brothers, how he was the smaller, weaker of the twins, but she always loved him best. Michael can’t refuse. He says yes.

Act II

Cut to a monastery on the Great Glacier of F6. Monks are chanting, carrying a funeral coffin. This is where Michael and his team are resting before starting the climb.

There is dissension in the team. Earnest Ian Shawcross is very upset by the way David Gunn is always mucking about and stealing things. Shawcross desperately wants to make sure he gets to the top.

In a strange scene a monk brings in a crystal to the room where the mountaineers are staying. One by one they all go over and look into the crystal and see visions in it, telling the others what they see. Only Michael (who they all jokily refer to as MF) is silent about what he saw.

The Abbot of the monastery enters and has a conversation with Michael. Michael confesses that what he saw in the crystal is the wild adulation which will greet him if he climbs to F6, the first European to do so. It’ll be reported in all the papers, he’ll get home to a hero’s welcome. And he’ll be offered power, people will want him to save the country and save them. He’s terrified by all this and asks the abbot how he can escape it. The Abbott says there is a way to escape: stay in the monastery and renounce his way of life.

This passage brings out what you could call the Christian negativity underpinning the whole play. It comes over in the play’s poor view of human nature, irredeemably corrupted. The Abbott tells Michael: ‘the human will is from the Demon’. From reading even this far you can see why Auden temperamentally could have no truck with communism, which is optimistic, confident that human beings can control their destiny and build a better future.

Michael sees himself as being tempted, like Christ on the mountain, tempted with visions of the adulation he will receive when gets home from the weak and unhappy. Acting on this, when the Abbot has left, Michael asks his comrades to cancel the climb, but they think he’s mad and insist they go on, they’ve come all this way, England expects etc. And so, feeling weak and wretched, he gives in and agrees to the climb going ahead.

In the next scene they’re on a rock ledge and, after various bits of banter, Lamp, the sweet 24-year-old botanist, climbs over the ledge and down a bit to look at some interesting flowers and a sudden avalanche carries him away.

In the next scene the doctor and Ransom are waiting in a tent on a ridge above the previous location for the other two to arrive. They discuss who Ransom is going to choose to make the final ascent with him. Only two men can go. The Doctor reviews MF’s options i.e. who should it be out of Shawcross and Gunn? In a weak moment he asks if he can go, but realises this is foolish, he is by far the oldest of the team and it will require stamina.

Ransom says he’s made his mind up. The other two (Shawcross and Gunn) arrive and Gunn is immediately all fuss and trivial, interested only in the hot chocolate and oatmeal and natters on and even sings a nonsense song… until Shawcross snaps. Shawcross is extremely tense and demands who Ransom has chosen to take to the summit. Is it him? The others try to calm Shawcross, but he is hysterical and demands to know.

Ransom announces he is taking David, the inspired amateur, scrounger, petty thief and irritating joker. Shawcross is distraught. He berates himself as a failure, says he isn’t a man. Ransom tries to explain that: now he recognises his weakness, now he has self knowledge, he is a man. Michael he is sending him back to England to live, to be useful, and not go on this mad cock-and-bull expedition up a bloody mountain precisely because he is a serious man who will do much good. But Shawcross can’t accept it, can’t cope, rising hysteria. Suddenly he breaks free of the others, struggles out of the tent, runs to the precipice and throws himself over the edge.

Scene IV Ransom is supporting Gunn in a blizzard as they struggle towards the summit. Gunn is exhausted, cannot walk, is delirious, has a short speech and dies of exhaustion. Not going well, is it? The extremity of this short scene (barely 2 pages) prompted Auden to write some of the worse verse of the play, sub-Shakespearian bombast.

Scene V I barely understood a word of the final scene. Michael has arrived at the top of the mountain. A veiled figure sites right at the top, is it the legendary Demon of the Mountain? The chorus recites some poetry, then his brother James appears wearing full Foreign Office ceremonial dress.

Michael staggers on stage wearing his mountain climbing gear. Suddenly onto the stage comes a full set of chess pieces. James’s pieces include the General, Lady Welwyn, Lord Stagmantle, Michael’s include Lamp, Shawcross and Gunn.

Mr and Mrs A – two characters who have commented on the action all the way through – ask questions about their miserable lives and the three named characters – then James – answer them in various shades of pompous officialdom.

Then James and Michael play chess with the life-size pieces, without dialogue, occasionally saying ‘Check’. Michael wins and James collapses. Michael appears to have killed him. The General, Lady Welwyn and Lord Stagmantle recite a poem accusing Michael of murdering one of England’s favourite sons, as they jostle each other, leap on each others’ backs and ‘behave in general like the Marx brothers.

A light goes up to illuminate the Abbot at the back of the stage wearing a judge’s wig and bearing the crystal. Monks enter, lift James’s body onto a stretcher and carry him out. Stagmantle and Isabel recite what was to become the most famous poem from the play

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

The Abbott accuses Michael of killing his brother. Michael hysterically points at the veiled figure on the summit of the mountain and says the Demon did it! The Abbott (wearing a judge’s wig, remember) calls his witnesses, and one by one Lamp, Shawcross and Gunn appear, worn and bloody from their deaths, to accuse Michael.

Bewildered Michael ‘appeals to the crystal’ and the Abbott lets him look at it again. Michael looks up and says he didn’t mean it, it’s not his fault. The Abbott tells him it’s too late and says ‘the case is being brought before the Crown’, indicating the veiled figure seated on the summit. A Chorus recites an Auden poem. The Chorus and all the characters cry at Ransom that he must die, die for us, die for England!

Panic-stricken Michael turns to the figure at the top of the mountain as there’s the sound of an avalanche and all the other characters disappear. The figure’s draperies fall away to reveal… Michael’s mother, lovely as a young woman. There follows a cryptic passage of verse alternating between the Chorus and the Mother sort of addressing the meaning of the play and the choice Michael has made.

During this chorus the stage slowly darkens, and then is reillumined by the red light of the rising son. The stage is empty except for the dead body of Ransom on the mountain top.


Thoughts

What was that about? Was it his confused fantasia, was it a stream of consciousness hallucination brought on by his extreme exhaustion? Or the opposite, a ‘realistic’ depiction of a highly modern, self-consciously staged and artificial poetic event?

The first audiences like the play but didn’t understand the ending. Auden and Isherwood revised it not once but twice, with the result that there were three published versions with different endings. Later in life, Isherwood acknowledged that they never did get the ending right. But you can see this is because they didn’t know what they wanted to say.

The first part – the setup taking the mickey out of Establishment types – was easy. The scenes on the mountain, once they’d decided they’d do away with the other mountaineers one by one, almost wrote themselves. But the climax where they had to explain what the play was about? They couldn’t.

Within a year, a critic had suggested that the play dramatised nothing about politics and society but really dramatised Auden’s own personal dilemma: he had become ‘the Voice of a Generation’ and he didn’t want to be. He seemed to be a leader of all these other poets and writers but was, himself, wracked with doubts. He seemed to be leading them along a path (of socially committed poetry) which would lead some to destruction (to betray their talents) and didn’t want the responsibility.

The only way out was to kill the Auden figure amid a welter of Chorus poetry, but unfortunately this personal psychological way out didn’t make for very satisfactory theatre. In fact it doesn’t make sense and invalidates much of the preceding. The heavy symbolism of the Establishment figures, the rivalry with Ostnia and the deaths of his comrades, all these important issues are just waved away.

The strong man and other themes

A recurrent feature of Auden and Isherwood’s writing of the time was anxiety about ‘the truly strong man’ (anxiety about whether they’re being true ‘he-man’ types run through the Letters From Iceland which were written immediately after F6).

Some critics work these up into being a ‘discussion’ of masculinity. In this play you could say Michael Ransom ‘represents’ the conflict in one figure between the idea of doing the Heroic Thing, making a Proud Achievement for the Nation (i.e. climbing F6) – everyone’s stereotype of the Strong Man — but he inside knows that this achievement and giving in to public adulation would be weakness; for him, being truly strong would be to cancel the expedition, not to climb the mountain and to return to a quiet life of anonymity in England.

It’s a sort of interesting issue but I can’t get very worked up about it for three reasons:

  1. it’s obviously such an entirely personal obsession of Auden’s, maybe Isherwood’s too, it feels very close to the other schoolboy obsessions and jokes which pepper their writings
  2. and indeed, from one angle, it feels like a dramatisation of the very common plight of all weedy intellectuals who are in awe of big strong types, the wallflower anxieties of the Rick Moranis character in Ghostbusters
  3. it has been swept away by 80 years of identity and gender politics so as to be barely detectable as an issue

For an up-to-the-minute discussion of masculinity I refer you to the Barbican’s recent enormous exhibition on the subject:

Finally, these issues – a bit like the Christian symbolism which sort of appears, now and then – feel trivial in comparison to the artistic inventiveness of the play – it’s quick and fun, full of special effects, and of dazzling poetry!

Auden’s verse

On one level there’s a plot and there’s some ‘themes’ and ‘ideas’ and ‘issues’ you’re meant to take seriously. Maybe. But on another level, the play amounts to a barrage of Auden’s verse. There’s reams of it. About 30 pages of the 84 pages are in verse, choruses and lyrics. They cover a wide range of subject matter and affects. There are larky lyrics:

The chimney sweepers
Wash their faces and forget to wash the neck;
The lighthouse keepers
Let the lamps go out and leave the ships to wreck;
The prosperous baker
Leaves the rolls in hundreds in the oven to burn;
The undertaker
Pins a small note on the coffin saying, ‘Wait till I return,
I’ve got a date with Love.’

There’s a Chorus which echoes the action in typically elliptical, hieratic verse.

Acts of justice done
Between the setting and the rising sun
In history lie like bones, each one.
Still the dark forest, quiet the deep,
Softly the clock ticks, baby must sleep!
The Pole Star is shining, bright the Great Bear,
Orion is watching, high in the air.

Descriptions of England’s countryside wasted by the Depression.

Let the eye of the traveller consider this country and weep,
For toads croak in the cistern; the aqueduct chokes with leaves:
The highways are out of repair and infested with thieves:
The ragged population are crazy for lack of sleep;
Our chimneys are smokeless; the implements rust in the field
And our tall constructions are felled.

Gossipy descriptions of types of profession and character.

The cat has died at Ivy Dene,
The Crowthers’ pimply son has passed Matric,
St Neots has put up light blue curtains,
Frankie is walking out with Winnie
And Georgie loves himself.

Highly schematic call and response verse reminiscent of T.S. Eliot at his most portentous.

Give me bread   Restore my dead
I am sick   Help me quick
Give me a car   Make me a star
Make me neat   Guide my feet
Make me strong   Teach me where I belong

And Mr and Mrs A with their eternal worrying and complaining:

Mrs A
Give me some money before you go
There are a number of bills we owe
And you can go to the bank today
During your lunch hour.

Mr A
I dare say;
But as it happens I’m overdrawn.

Mrs A
Overdrawn? What on earth have you done
With all the money? Where’s it gone?

Mr A
How does money always go?
Papers, lunches, tube-fares, teas,
Toothpaste, stamps and doctor’s fees,
Our trip to Hove coast a bit, you know?

Theatrical effects

So the play is not enjoyable because of its themes of the public versus the private man, or its garbled treatment of ‘redemption’ but despite them. Despite the garbled plot, the play is packed full of not only a very wide range of types and registers of verse, but this is combined with a load of snappy stage effects.

Central is the idea that the two boxes nearest the stage i.e. not on the stage but set back from all the action, are populated by Mr and Mrs A, a dowdy suburban pair, he with his wretched job as a clerk in a miserable office, she eternally grumbling and complaining.

They appear regularly throughout the play commenting directly or obliquely on the main action (when the newspapers announce Britain is sending an exhibition to climb F6 they spout patriotic pride, when it is announced that Lamb has died they recite a funeral poem). Their appearance is indicated when the lights onstage dim to darkness and lights come up to illuminate their box.

But the box idea is taken further when one of them is populated with a radio which blares out official BBC announcements. And then by the announcer themselves in BBC black tie making announcements which also commentate on the action. Lord Stagworthy even appears in the box to make a pompous radio announcement full of clichés, ‘no more fitting grave for our brave boy etc’.

But this entertaining piece of satire them segues into Mrs A declaiming a relatively serious stretch of verse saying that the dead man (Lamp) is not now subject to age and the slow decay of ideals and mind and body. When the Mother appears she declaims a long passage of Shakespearian blank verse to describe the childhood of the two boys.

There is a secret I have kept so long
My tongue is rusty. What you have said
I knew and have always known. Why do you start?
You are my Michael and I know my own…

This is immediately followed by the stage going to a dead blackout and the voices of a load of newspaper boys hawking the latest editions and shouting their headline.

Evening Moon: Late Night Final!
Young English Climber’s Daredevil Attempt!
The Haunted Mountain: Full Story and Pictures!
Monasteries in Sudoland: Amazing Revelations!

Then lights come up on the Mr & Mrs A stage box to reveal Mrs A who declaims, not in her usual nagging housewife voice, but in a more elevated, ‘poetic’ trance:

I read the papers; there is nothing there
But news of failure and despair:
The savage train-wreck in the dead of night,
The fire in the school, the children caught alight,
The starving actor in the oven lying,
The cashier shot in the grab-raid and left dying,
The young girl slain upon the surgeon’s table,
The poison bottle with the harmless label…

(The sort of thing Auden could rattle off by the yard). Some individual pieces are brilliant and were later published as stand-alone poems (for example the ‘Stop all the clocks’ lyric that became superfamous after Richard Curtis included it in the script of Four Weddings And A Funeral).

But the real point of the play is its imaginative stagecraft – the speed with which it changes scenes and lighting and tone, from naturalistic prose to a whole range of verse, all signalled and highlighted by cunning lighting and sound effects (and the incidental music of Benjamin Britten, impossible to recreate when you silently read the play). Even in a stone cold reading its tremendous energy and inventiveness comes over. it’s a shame Auden and Isherwood couldn’t devise a successful ending to the play but it doesn’t stop the journey through the play to its muddled conclusion from being thrilling and entertaining.


Related links

Works from or about the 1930s

Masculinities: Liberation through Photography @ the Barbican (2)

I went back to the Masculinities: Liberation through Photography exhibition at the Barbican for second helpings.

I spent another hour and a half going round again, but this time ignoring all the American photographers, and concentrating on everyone else from the rest of the world, the photographers I’d largely overlooked first time round, starting with the eight Brits.

First a few general points:

1. Liberation from heterosexual white men

Going round a second time, One Big Thing became much clearer: this exhibition isn’t even an attempt to represent what you could call ordinary or everyday masculinity. I hadn’t really grasped the significance of the title. When it says liberation it means gay liberation, women’s liberation and black liberation.

Liberation from whom? From heterosexual white men.

In the 1970s women, homosexuals and people of colour spontaneously generated nationwide and worldwide movements devoted to liberating themselves from what they felt was centuries of oppression, objectification and second class citizenship created and maintained by straight white men.

The fundamental impulse of this exhibition is to show how this worked through photography, through the work of gay, black and women photographers who rebelled against the straight white patriarchy.

This is an exhibition about the social and cultural liberation of these groups from heterosexual white male hegemony through photography.

This explains why Part One of the exhibition bombards us with a series of overblown, hypermasculine images – of American soldiers in Iraq (Wolfgang Tillmans), American cowboys (Isaac Julien and Collier Schorr) and American footballers (Catherine Opie). It’s a bit more mixed up than I’m implying but this first part of the exhibition establishes the images, concepts and behaviours of aggressive white masculinity which these groups are trying to flee.

So that Part Two of the exhibition shows us how these three key constituencies of progressive ideology – gay men, black men, and straight feminist women – achieved liberation from these toxic male stereotypes.

Photography is the medium, channel, gateway and door through which gay men, black men, and feminist women escaped from the grotesque, heteronormative hypermasculinity which we are bombarded with in the opening.

Huge though the exhibition is, it is not really about masculinity – it is about the escape from masculinity.

Which, for example, explains why the entire section on FATHERHOOD featured work by just four photographers (each of them good in their different ways) and this is the same number as the section devoted to FEMINIST photographers (and there are many more feminist photographers scattered round the show).

Simple maths shows you that, for the curators, feminist liberation from the patriarchy is more important, certainly more represented here, than what you or I might think of as a pretty a central element of any concept of masculinity – fatherhood.

Then again both feminists and father photos are swamped by the sheer number of gay artists and photographers.

I counted twenty gay snappers for definite, but had the impression that there were many more. Some were so popular with the curators that they featured more than once – notably gay Indian (score double) photographer Sunil Gupta, who was represented by three separate series of photographs, hung in different areas around the show:

  • Christopher Street – street photos of gay men in New York, 1976
  • Exiles – gay men in India, often forced to hide their true sexuality, 1987
  • Pretended Family relationships – a work lamenting the way gay couples had to disguise their relationships after the Section 28 legislation was passed by Mrs Thatcher’s government in 1988

The pretty obvious conclusion is that the image of masculinity the women curators, and the art world in general, is most comfortable with, is gay men. Almost all the images of heterosexual men were accompanied by labels criticising or chastising or scolding them.

2. Liberation from American masculinity

My first review ended up lamenting the way the exhibition is dominated by American photographers, American subjects, and American academic rhetoric.

But first time round I missed the significance of a big quote printed on the wall right at the start of the exhibition. It’s from the black, gay, American (score three points) writer, James Baldwin:

The American ideal, then, of sexuality, appears to be rooted in the American ideal of masculinity. This ideal has created cowboys and Indians, good guys and bad guys, punks and studs, tough guys and softies, butch and faggot, black and white. It is an ideal so paralytically infantile that it is virtually forbidden – as an unpatriotic act – that the American boy evolve into the complexity of manhood.

This is the Key Quote, right at the start of the exhibition, and it clearly signals the extent to which the curators really, deeply, and profoundly see the entire condition of masculinity through American eyes.

I read that quote and simply thought, well, this ‘American ideal of masculinity’ may have been a deeply problematic issue for Baldwin, for other Afro-American men, for other American gay men, and for a large number of American women who have to put up with it… But it has absolutely nothing to do with me’.

When I was a boy I wanted to be Michael Caine in The Battle of Britain or Richard Burton in Where Eagles Dare, I wanted to be John Hollins who played left half for Chelsea, and like my mates idolised Bobby Moore and Bobby Charlton. I envied John Noakes off Blue Peter for all the brilliant adventures he had like climbing up Nelson’s Column. At school we all tried to do impressions of the excitable naturalist David Bellamy. On Saturday nights I watched Patrick Troughton as Dr Who, followed by Morecambe and Wise lying in bed together making jokes, or maybe Dad’s Army with its cast of hilariously ramshackle amateurs. I loved Sid James’s laugh in the old Carry On films, and a little later on I was bowled over by Monty Python, and when I was about 15 my favourite radio DJ was Kenny Everett.

My point is that the chronically hyper-masculine, ridiculously macho and extremely violent world of the American Wild West or the corrupt streets of New York depicted in Starsky and Hutch or Kojak seemed, literally, thousands of miles away. Nothing to do with me or my life or my friends or my Dad or my uncle or my teachers. Nothing.

Thus the strange sense of disconnect as I walked round this Americanised exhibition for the second time, the sense of entering a wretchedly macho culture in which more or less the only way for a decent normal civilised man to escape the hyper-competitive, hyper-macho and hyper-violent world of American maleness is to be gay.

It struck me that it was a really profound mistake, and possibly a deceit and a lie, to view the entire concept of masculinity around the world through the prism of American masculinity.

Isn’t that a form of American imperialism? Judging everything according to American standards? Defining everything according to American ideas?

I was disappointed that the Barbican curators were such willing accomplices to American cultural imperialism.

Anyway, Fuck America and its bankrupt, corrupt and negative influence.

I went back specifically to ignore the Yanks and to pay more careful attention to everyone else, to the photographers from the rest of the world, starting with the Brits.

3. The Brits (8)

John Coplans – Frieze Number 2 (1994)

This is a grid of 12 large black-and-white prints of a big, hairy, overweight, naked man. They’re just some of the many self-portraits Coplans took of himself as – born in 1920 – he entered his 60s. in the 1980s. In fact this big grid is the first thing you see as you enter the exhibition, and is one of the many ways the curators set out to puncture the exaggerated images of masculinity which they depict elsewhere.

The most obvious thing that struck me as I confronted this sizeable display is that all the photos are artfully posed so you don’t see his willy. In fact, I must say I was surprised at the relative scarcity of willies on display.

It is a… a touching image of the male body, don’t you think? A realistic depiction of the middle-aged, naked male body, a photographic parallel to all those unglamorised paintings of fat male nudes by Lucien Freud.

Jeremy Deller – So many ways to hurt you (the life and times of Adrian Street) (2010)

This is a 30-minute video showing the life and times of the wrestler, ‘Exotic’ Adrian Street who was born in 1940 into a Welsh mining village. Street is a brilliant subject because he combines hard-edged working class attitude, with a taste for dressing in wigs and make-up as part of the identity or brand which distinguishes him from the other amateur wrestlers on the circuit.

The video was playing on a fairly big monitor which was itself embedded in a huge wall-sized painting by Deller, depicting a naive, stylised portrait of Street in his cross-dressing wrestler’s outfit, set against a stylised depiction of a Welsh town and the hills beyond.

The film reflects on the performativity of gender.

Anna Fox – My mother’s cupboards and my father’s words (1999)

On my first visit I was so dazzled by the Herb Ritts and Arnold Schwarzenegger and American soldiers in Iraq and Andy Warhol and all the New York queers that I completely overlooked this small and brilliant display. In many ways it’s one of the best things in the exhibition.

My Mother’s Cupboards and My Father’s Words consists of a grid of 15 frames each containing a small, precise photo of the contents of the cupboards in the artist’s mother’s home, each one neat and tidy and filled with banal kitchen utensils and belongings.

And very neatly, in a florid calligraphy reminiscent of wedding invitations, opposite these nice neat drawers is printed the ferocious, vile, poisonous rants of Fox’s father, overflowing with bile and abuse, but laid out as elegant free verse poems. For example:

I’m going to
tear your mother
to shreds
with
an oyster knife

Or:

She wants
her bum
scraped
with
a rusty saw

He threatens to cut his wife’s bum off and feed it to her like slices of ham. He threatens to fry her in hot oil. It’s a kind of anti-poetry, or maybe the poetry of the damned.

The smallness of the images just as much as the prissy tidiness of their contents, and the satirically ornate calligraphy of her father’s drunken ranting, create an incredibly charged display, a screaming sense of claustrophobia and misery.

This, I thought, captures the true English misery, the misery of Philip Larkin, rainy afternoons in provincial towns where couples who hate each other are forced to spend long Sunday afternoons, or weeks, months and years in each other’s unbearable company.

Ten million miles away from bloody American cowboys and footballers and Mad Men jocks striding up Madison Avenue. The curators spoil the effect by translating it into their sociological jargon:

Fox invites the viewer to reflect on how notions of hegemonic masculinity are sustained within patriarchal structures.

Is that what this delicate, subtle and intensely charged work of art is doing?

Isaac Julien – After Mazatlan (1999) and Looking For Langston (1989)

Julien is black and gay and a film-maker so he presses a lot of art world buttons, so much so that he is represented by not one but two entries:

  • After Mazatlan – In 1999 Julien made a film titled Long Road to Mazatlán, which tells a cowboy story ‘brimming with frustrated homoerotic desire’ and shot in Saint Antonio, Texas. The first installation was a grid of four large stills from the film, titled After Mazatlán.
  • Looking For Langston is a 44-minute-long black and white homage to the Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes, set in scenes which move between a sort of 1920s speakeasy and a 1980s nightclub, with archive recordings of readings of their poems by Harlem Renaissance poets. As you might expect, the film ‘reflects on the relationship between gay culture and the gaze, with the white gaze, the racist gaze.’

Note how the ‘white gaze’ is elided with the ‘racist gaze’. This is, frankly, insulting.

Note also how both Julien’s films are in thrall to American culture and stereotypes and thus, in my formulation, a kind of cultural betrayal.

Hilary Lloyd – Colin #2 (1999)

There are two TV monitors on raised stands. Underneath them are ancient VHS tape players. On one screen a fairly buff young man takes off a red vest, very, very slowly. On the other screen he puts it back on, very, very slowly.

Lloyd’s penetrating gaze and carefully orchestrated presentation demand that the viewer move back and forth between the screens in a dance of observation and voyeurism.

Not really. The main feature of this piece for me was the ancient VHS recorder/players – I’m amazed you can find any which still work. Like a lot of other things in the exhibition, somehow this super-annuated technology made you realise how old and out-of-date a lot of the stuff here is.

(By the way Hilary Lloyd is a woman.)

Peter Marlow – Magnum photos 1980s-90s

Marlow (1961-2016) helped set up the London office of the famous international photographers’ agency, Magnum. Unusually for this exhibition he doesn’t seem to have been gay, and is represented by a selection of fly-on-the-wall photos catching different types of very ordinary English men in various matey, group situations. These include:

This is something like the masculinity I experienced growing up.

At school I was forced to play rugby and then take communal showers afterwards, it was always bloody freezing. Photos like this bring back the sound of studs clattering on an unforgiving concrete floor and those shapes of mud punctuated with the round stud holes which used to get stuck to your boots and everyone banged against the doorframe or changing room benches so that the floor was covered in them with slivers of mud punctured by perfectly round holes.

Marlow’s photos of the shitty, windswept shopping centre at Runcorn perfectly convey the misery of English provincial life and the great betrayal of post-war town planning and architecture which turned so many English towns into concrete wind tunnels.

For the curator Marlow’s photos of the rugby players taking a communal bath:

highlight how sport has become synonymous with masculine hegemony and male solidarity.

Clare Strand – Men Only Tower (2017)

Strand has taken 68 copies of the softcore publication Men Only and piled them one on top of each other to create a ‘tower’. She has ‘subverted’ the sexist basis of the magazines by inserting into twenty of them twenty ‘images of resistance’ tucked into black envelopes and slipped between the pages of the lucky magazines.

The gushing feminist commentary points out that Strand choosing to ‘erect them in a vertical pile is a satirical reference to the male phallus, while also being an obvious reference to Trump Tower’. Of course.

When I was a teenager the top-shelf porn magazines at the local newsagent were Mayfair and Men Only and Penthouse. The point is that they were large, glossy, magazine-sized magazines, so I was intrigued that the objects in Strand’s art work are small, square-bound, with almost plain beige covers. They look disconcertingly like the cheap communist party editions I own of the works of Marx and Engels, or a set of obscure poetry magazine.

When I looked closely I saw that the editions Strand’s chosen of Men Only start in 1947! and the most recent is 1963. For me, then, this work was much more about a delve way back into post-war history, than anything at all to do with porn or men’s magazines or what the wall label called women’s exclusion from ‘the corridors of power’.

Richard Billingham – Ray’s A Laugh (1996)

Like the Anne Fox piece this is a deep dive into the profound misery of the really poor – the sick and alcoholic and uneducated poor whose lives are filled with drink and anger and violence.

It consists of ten very big colour prints of ragged, spontaneous, unposed documentary photos of Billingham’s alcoholic dad, Ray, and his obese mother, Liz. both caught in the seedy, shabby and poky-feeling flat in one of the crappier parts of Birmingham.

The curators blithely comment that this is a rare pictorial insight into English working class life and the visitor can’t help feeling this is partly because what gains commissions, wins prizes and gets you known is stylish films about cowboys and the Harlem Renaissance.

God, could anything be further away from the blow-dried queers of Christopher Street or Castro.

Brief summary

So that’s the work of the eight British photographers and artists and film-makers included in Masculinities: LIberation through Photography. I’m really glad I went back a second time and focused just on them, because taken together they do amount to a sort of sketch of British masculinity, a million miles away from the macho jocks or ‘faggots’ (I’m quoting James Baldwin) which dominate American culture.

The Peter Marlow photos are very good, but for me the top two were the grim and unrelenting insight into the lowest of lowlife existences in Ray’s A Laugh; but maybe the best is the hyper-charged, controlled explosion of Anne Fox’s sequence. Wow.


Europe (11)

Bas Jan Ader (Dutch)

I’m too sad to tell you is a black and white art film from 1971 in which performance artist Bas Jan Ader filmed himself crying.

Knut Åsdam (Norway)

Åsdam made a short art film titled Pissing showing a close-up of the slacks or sensible trousers of a man who proceeds to let himself go and wee himself.

While the film reflects on masculinity’s position in relation to the patriarchal order, it also highlights the significance of the phallus as a signifier of male power.

Rineke Dijkstra (Holland)

Dijkstra has a set of four fairly big colour photos of Portuguese bullfighters or forcados shown after they’ve finished the fight and exited the arena, looking elated and marked with blood

Dijkistra’s Bullfighters explores aspects of homosociality, a term coined by theorist Eve Kosofksy Sedgwick to describe ‘the structure of men’s relations with other men’.

Thomas Dworzak (Germany)

Dworzak is the guy who found a trove of photos taken by family photographic studios in Kandahar following the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, improbably showing them posing hand in hand in front of painted backdrops, using guns and flowers as props with kohl carefully applied to their eyes.

Taliban portrait. Kandahar, Afghanistan by Thomas Dworzak (2002) © Collection T. Dworzak/Magnum Photos

Hans Eijkelboom (Holland)

Eijkelboom is represented by two distinct photographic projects.

In With My Family from 1973 he went knocking on doors of a middle class suburb during the day when the husbands were away working, and asked if he could pose as the father in family photos with the wives and children of the absent men.

The result is pretty creepy and you suspect he’d get arrested if he tried that today. 1973 is quite a long time ago, nearly half a century ago. The curator comments:

With my family operates as a critique of the nuclear family as well as exposing outdated gender roles that demanded that women stay in the home caring for children while the father went to work and earned a living.

In The Ideal Man from 1978 Eijkelboom asked women to describe their ideal man, and then fashioned himself in self-portraits to fit the descriptions.  Mildly amusing.

Karen Knorr (Germany)

Karen Knorr’s series Gentlemen, 1981-83, comprised of 26 black and white photographs taken inside men-only private members’ clubs in central London and accompanied by texts drawn from snatched conversations, parliamentary records and contemporary news reports, invites viewers to reflect on notions of class, race and the exclusion of women from spaces of power during Margaret Thatcher’s premiership.

“Newspapers are no longer ironed, Coins no longer boiled So far have Standards fallen” from the series Gentlemen, by Karen Knorr (1981-83) © Karen Knorr

Annette Messager (France)

Talking of creepy, Messager is represented by a series from 1972 called The Approaches in which she took photographs of men’s crotches in the street using a concealed camera. I suppose it’s not quite upskirting, but if you tried this nowadays I wonder if you could be arrested.

In The Approaches, Messager trails men through the street and snaps photos of their crotches without permission. In this, she turns the tables on the traditional artistic norm of the male gaze, and in showing how uncomfortable and invasive this is, critique the viewing of women in a similar way, such as in gossip magazines. ‘It was a way of treating men as objects when it’s usually women who are treated as objects,’ Messager explained. ‘Men never stop checking out women’s bottoms, breasts, everything.’

Well that put paid to the male gaze, didn’t it. No longer a problem.

Richard Mosse (Ireland)

Artist Richard Mosse made a film by asking members of an American fraternity house to have a shouting competition, with the young student who could shout loudest and longest winning a keg of beer. Having contrived this artificial situation in which he films the faces of young American men shouting their heads off till they’re red in the face, Mosse then described his film as ‘a performance of masculinity and elite, white male rage’.

Wolfgang Tillmans (Germany)

The Soldiers, The Nineties (1999-2020) is an installation of newspaper front pages and photos, blown up and arranged into different size images across the wall which show NATO soldiers in a variety of conflict zones – Bosnia, Northern Ireland, the Gulf – in a number of poses – resting, smoking, reading, partying – accessed from different sources – press clippings, magazines, newspapers, TV screenshots.

Tillmans presents the viewer with images of hypermasculinity rubbing shoulders with male apprehension, camaraderie and vulnerability while also embedding the queer gaze and homoeroticism in military space.

Karlheinz Weinberger (Switzerland)

A series of black and white photos Weinberger took all the way back in the early 1960s of homosexual men dressed up in leather jackets, caps and other clichéd outfits in what was, back then, very much Zurich’s hidden, secret gay underground.

Horseshoe Buckle 1962 by Karlheinz Weinberger © Karlheinz Weinberger. Courtesy Esther Woerdehoff

Marianne Wex (Germany)

Let’s Take Back Our Space: Female and Male Body Language as a Result of Patriarchal Structures from 1976-9 is a series of large frames in which Wex arranged sets of contemporary magazine photos depicting a row of men sitting in public places, in the park etc with their legs wide open, and in a row underneath photos of women sitting with their knees primly together. Manspreading.

According to the wall label:

These differences in posture are, Wex concludes, products of a social conditioning that defines one sex as strong and the other as weak, perpetuating a hierarchical distinction between the sexes in the form of patterns of physical behaviour.

Latin America (1)

Ana Mendieta (Cuba)

A series of seven large-ish colour photos from 1972 titled Facial Hair Transplants in which Mendieta glued fragments of her fellow student, Morty Sklar’s facial hair to her own face.

Africa (4)

Liz Johnson Artur (Ghana)

Tableau vivant… if you cool the sun always shines (2002) a large embroidery with images of black people sewn or attached to it, around the central image of an embroidered version of Leonardo’s Last Supper.

Samuel Fosso (Cameroon)

70s Lifestyle, 1975-78.

By day Fosso ran a commercial studio photographing the residents of Bangui while at night he created highly performative black and white self-portraits in which he adopted a series of male personas, alluding to the idea that gender is an artificial proposition.

Kiluanji Kia Henda (Angola)

Represented by one piece, an absolutely enormous wall-sized photo The Last Journey of the Dictator Mussunda N’zombo Before the Great Extinction (Act I), 2017.

This is ‘Act I’ of a five-part series. the flamboyant figure in the centre is modelled on Mobutu Sese Seko, the kleptocratic president of Zaire. Kia Henda’s work:

reimagines the politics and history of Africa within shrewdly conjectured fictional scenarios.

Rotimi Fani-Kayode (Nigeria)

Stunningly posed, crystal clear studio art photos of black men’s bodies arranged in intriguing shapes and wonderfully aesthetic poses.

According to the wall label:

The work of the pioneering photographer Rotimi Fani-Kayode calls attention to the politics of race, representation and queer desire.

Mikhael Subotzky (South Africa)

I Was Looking Back is a large installation of 18 photos in which he revisited every photo he’d ever taken,

in an attempt to formulate a new narrative that actively exposes and deconstructs white masculine power, a defining feature of Subotzky’s experience as a white, privileged, South African male.

They include photos of blacks being beaten up and intimidated by the police, photos from inside prisons or from grim wasted slums. The photos are, apparently,

an attempt to expose and destabilise the systems of hegemonic male power that enable and normalise these acts of violence.

Middle East (2)

Fouad Elkoury (Lebanon)

Civil War 1977-86 a photo record of daily life in Beirut during the Lebanese civil war and its aftermath, including the series features here of militiamen posed against battle-scarred buildings.

Adi Nes (Israeli)

Soldiers a series in which Nes photographed young men posing as soldiers in the Israeli Defence Force i.e. they are not real soldiers. Nes is, naturally, gay.

Nes not only infuses his images of the military with homoeroticism but also reveals the strong homosocial bonds that exist between soldiers, as well as inscribing the queer body into the military imagination.

Untitled from the series Soldiers (1999) by Adi Nes. Courtesy Adi Nes & Praz-Delavallade Paris, Los Angeles

Akram Zaatari (Lebanon)

Zaatari found damaged negatives of bodybuilders in the archive of the Lebanese studio photographer Hashem El Madani and blew them up far beyond their original scale to emphasise the damaged, degraded effect, conveying a poignant sense of the passage of time.

According to the curator the photographs:

examine the construction of Middle Eastern masculinity and virility while also reflecting on Western, Orientalising perceptions of masculinity.

Asia (3)

Masahisa Fukase (Japan)

Two series:

Memories of my father (1971-90) – photographic record of the artist’s father, Sukezo, through life and death

Family (1971-90) – over two decades a series of formal posed photos of Fukase and his family but in each one of them a young woman is present, often half dressed, in stylised or parodic poses, so that they:

meditate on the ways in which women are still systematically subordinated to men.

Is that what you see in this photo?

Upper row, from left to right: A, a model; Toshiteru, Sukezo, Masahisa. Middle row, from left to right: Akiko, Mitsue, Hisashi Daikoji. Bottom row, from left to right: Gaku, Kyoko, Kanako, and a memorial portrait of Miyajo, 1985, from the series Family 1971-90 by Masahisa Fukase © Masahisa Fukase Archives

Sunil Gupta (India)

  • Christopher Street – street photos of gay men in New York, 1976
  • Exiles – gay men in India, often forced to hide their true sexuality, 1987
  • Pretended Family relationships – a work lamenting the way gay couples had to disguise their relationships after the Section 28 legislation was passed by Mrs Thatcher’s government in 1988

Untitled 22 from the series Christopher Street, 1976 by Sunil Gupta © Sunil Gupta. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2019

Australia

Tracey Moffatt – Heaven

This playful film from famed director and photographer Tracey Moffatt turns the tables on traditional representations of desire to examine the power of the female gaze in the objectification of men’s bodies. HEAVEN begins with surreptitiously filmed documentary footage of brawny surfers changing in and out of bathing and wet-suits. While the soundtrack switches between the ocean surf and male chanting, Moffatt moves closer to alternately flirt with and tease her subjects, who respond with a combination of preening and macho reticence. This witty piece is a potent and hilarious meditation on cinematic and everyday sex roles, voyeurism, power, and the thin line between admiration and invasiveness.

Russia (0)

China (0)

Summary

1. Lots of feminist women photographers (in the sense that all the women photographers were making points about men which were, as far as I could see, were entirely negative. None of them celebrating any aspect of maleness.)

2. At least half, if not more, of the male photographers are gay i.e. if the exhibition as a whole is about one particular type of masculinity, it is about gay masculinity.

3. No photographers and no photographs from Russia or China. Hmm. Because they don’t have men there? Or no photographers there? Or because not enough of them are gay (either the subjects or the photographers themselves)? Or because the curators don’t think Russia and China matter?

55 photographers in all, 23 from America, lots of the others covering American subjects – but none from Russia or China.


Related links

Reviews of other exhibitions at the Barbican

And concerts

Masculinities: Liberation through Photography @ the Barbican

Barbican Art does things big – exhaustively and exhaustingly BIG. To quote the press release:

Masculinities: Liberation through Photography is a major group exhibition that explores how masculinity is experienced, performed, coded and socially constructed as expressed and documented through photography and film from the 1960s to the present day.

The exhibition brings together over 300 works by over 50 pioneering international artists, photographers and filmmakers such as Richard Avedon, Peter Hujar, Isaac Julien, Rotimi Fani-Kayode, Robert Mapplethorpe, Annette Messager and Catherine Opie to show how photography and film have been central to the way masculinities are imagined and understood in contemporary culture.

300 works! I wonder if anyone’s ever done a study of the optimum number of works which should be included in an exhibition. Or the optimum number of contributors.

The Piranesi exhibition I went to last week contained 60 images and that was too many to process: I ended up studying about ten of the best. But 300 images! And over 50 contributors! Each with a long and detailed explanatory wall label explaining their career and motivation and the genesis and point of their particular exhibit.

It’s less like an exhibition than a degree course!

Untitled from the series Soldiers (1999) by Adi Nes. Courtesy Adi Nes & Praz-Delavallade Paris, Los Angeles

A degree course in Gender Studies. because Masculinities: Liberation through Photography tends to confirm my sense that, for many modern artists and for most modern art curators, gender and sexual identity are the only important subjects in the world. Thus, according to Jane Alison, Head of Visual Arts, Barbican:

‘In the wake of the #MeToo movement and the resurgence of feminist and men’s rights activism, traditional notions of masculinity have become the subject of fierce debate. This exhibition could not be more relevant and will certainly spark conversations surrounding our understanding of masculinity.’

In fact quoting this much makes me think it might be most effective simply to quote the entire press release, so you can see exactly where the Barbican Art curators are coming from, without any editorial comment by me. So here it is:

With ideas around masculinity undergoing a global crisis and terms such as ‘toxic’ and ‘fragile’ masculinity filling endless column inches, the exhibition surveys the representation of masculinity in all its myriad forms, rife with contradiction and complexity. Presented across six sections by over 50 international artists to explore the expansive nature of the subject, the exhibition touches on themes of queer identity, the black body, power and patriarchy, female perceptions of men, heteronormative hypermasculine stereotypes, fatherhood and family. The works in the show present masculinity as an unfixed performative identity shaped by cultural and social forces.

Seeking to disrupt and destabilise the myths surrounding modern masculinity, highlights include the work of artists who have consistently challenged stereotypical representations of hegemonic masculinity, including Collier Schorr, Adi Nes, Akram Zaatari and Sam Contis, whose series Deep Springs, 2018 draws on the mythology of the American West and the rugged cowboy. Contis spent four years immersed in an all-male liberal arts college north of Death Valley meditating on the
intimacy and violence that coexists in male-only spaces.

Untitled (Neck), 2015 by Sam Contis © Sam Contis

Complicating the conventional image of the fighter, Thomas Dworzak’s acclaimed series Taliban consists of portraits found in photographic studios in Kandahar following the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, these vibrant portraits depict Taliban fighters posing hand in hand in front of painted backdrops, using guns and flowers as props with kohl carefully applied to their eyes.

Taliban portrait. Kandahar, Afghanistan by Thomas Dworzak (2002) © Collection T. Dworzak/Magnum Photos

Trans masculine artist Cassils’ series Time Lapse, 2011, documents the radical transformation of their body through the use of steroids and a rigorous training programme reflecting on ideas of masculinity without men.

Elsewhere, artists Jeremy Deller, Robert Mapplethorpe and Rineke Dijkstra dismantle preconceptions of subjects such as the wrestler, the bodybuilder and the athlete and offer an alternative view of these hyper-masculinised stereotypes.

The exhibition examines patriarchy and the unequal power relations between gender, class and race. Karen Knorr’s series Gentlemen, 1981-83, comprised of 26 black and white photographs taken inside men-only private members’ clubs in central London and accompanied by texts drawn from snatched conversations, parliamentary records and contemporary news reports, invites viewers to reflect on notions of class, race and the exclusion of women from spaces of power during Margaret Thatcher’s premiership.

“Newspapers are no longer ironed, Coins no longer boiled So far have Standards fallen” from the series Gentlemen, by Karen Knorr (1981-83) © Karen Knorr

Toxic masculinity is further explored in Andrew Moisey’s 2018 photobook The American Fraternity: An Illustrated Ritual Manual which weaves together archival photographs of former US Presidents and Supreme Court Justices who all belonged to the fraternity system, alongside images depicting the initiation ceremonies and parties that characterise these male-only organisations.

With the rise of the Gay Liberation Movement through the 1960s followed by the AIDS epidemic in the early 1980s, the exhibition showcases artists such as Peter Hujar and David Wojnarowiz, who increasingly began to disrupt traditional representations of gender and sexuality.

Hal Fischer’s critical photo-text series Gay Semiotics, 1977, classified styles and types of gay men in San Francisco and Sunil Gupta’s street photographs captured the performance of gay public life as played out on New York’s Christopher Street, the site of the 1969 Stonewall Uprising.

Street Fashion: Jock from the series Gay Semiotics, 1977/2016 by Hal Fischer. Courtesy of the artist and Project Native Informant London

Other artists exploring the performative aspects of queer identity include Catherine Opie’s seminal series Being and Having, 1991, showing her close friends in the West Coast’s LGBTQ+ community sporting false moustaches, tattoos and other stereotypical masculine accessories.

Bo from Being and Having by Catherine Opie (1991) © Catherine Opie, Courtesy Regen Projects, Los Angeles; Thomas Dane Gallery, London; and Soloman R. Guggenheim Museum, New York

Elle Pérez’s luminous and tender photographs explore the representation of gender non-conformity and vulnerability, whilst Paul Mpagi Sepuya’s fragmented portraits explore the studio as a site of homoerotic desire.

During the 1970s women artists from the second wave feminist movement objectified male sexuality in a bid to subvert and expose the invasive and uncomfortable nature of the male gaze. In the exhibition, Laurie Anderson’s seminal work Fully Automated Nikon (Object/Objection/Objectivity), 1973, documents the men who cat-called her as she walked through New York’s Lower East Side, while Annette Messager’s series The Approaches (1972) covertly captures men’s trousered crotches with a long-lens camera.

German artist Marianne Wex’s encyclopaedic project Let’s Take Back Our Space: ‘Female’ and ‘Male’ Body Language as a Result of Patriarchal Structures (1977) presents a detailed analysis of male and female body language, and Australian indigenous artist Tracey Moffatt’s awkwardly humorous film Heaven (1997) portrays male surfers changing in and out of their wet suits…

Thus the press release for this huge exhibition. I’ve quoted it at length so you can:

  • get an overview of the exhibition’s contents
  • get a sense of the thinking behind the exhibition
  • get familiar with the dated sociological jargon which is used throughout – ‘interrogate’, ‘challenge’, ‘disrupt’, ‘heteronormative’, ‘male gaze’, ‘patriarchy’

So you can see the curators’ point of view and intentions before I start critiquing them.


The complete irrelevance of any of these ‘masculinities’ to my own life and experience

Almost none of the art or artists in this exhibition bore any relation to my experiences as a boy, teenager, young man, adult man, working man, husband, and then father of my own son. I thought it was quite an achievement to feature so much work by so many artists claiming to speak for or about ‘masculinity’ or men, but which managed to touch on so little of my own personal life experiences of ‘masculinity’.

I took photos of the wall captions as I went round the exhibition and so, as a sample, here are the subjects of the first 15 or so displays, with the exact subject matter of the sets of photographs highlighted in bold:

  1. Taliban warriors by Thomas Dworzak
  2. Beirut fighters by Fouad Elkoury
  3. Israeli soldiers by Adi Nes
  4. a video of a close-up of the trousers of a man who urinates in his pants and trousers, so you see the wet patch spreading by Knut Asadam (Pissing by Knut Asdam)
  5. American, German and British soldiers by Wolfgang Tillmans
  6. American cowboys by Collier Schorr
  7. a film by Isaac Julien about American cowboys, The Long Road to Mazatlan
  8. American photographer Sam Contis’s photos of a liberal arts college in the mid-West
  9. American photographer Catherine Opie’s photos of American footballers
  10. American artist Andy Warhol’s movies of male fashion models
  11. American photographer Herb Ritt’s photos of buff Hollywood garage attendants
  12. American photographer Robert Mapplethorpe’s photos of Arnold Schwarzenegger and female bodybuilder Lisa Lyon
  13. Akram Zaatari’s photos of Middle Eastern weightlifters
  14. 100 black and white photos of himself wearing y-fronts taken from all angles by Canadian transmasculine performance artist and bodybuilder Cassils
  15. a series of photos by a British photographer of London Fire Brigade firefighters at work and in the showers

Men I know

Down the road from me lives my neighbour Nigel. He regularly goes folk dancing with his wife. At weekends they go for long cycle rides in the country. I helped him with a bit of guerrilla gardening last autumn when we planted daffodils on a patch of waste ground at the end of our road, which are now flowering. Nigel tended one of the allotments at the end of our road, and we’d have lengthy chats about the best plants I could put in my back garden to encourage more birds and butterflies.

Occasionally, we see old Richard go slouching along the road to his allotment where he tends his bee hives and chain smokes. A few years ago he was in the papers, in a photo showing him wearing full beekeeping rig and handing a letter into Number 10 asking for more government help to protect bees.

I shared a house with two friends in my last year at university who did science subjects: Nowadays Tony works for the Worldwide Fund For Nature trying to save the rainforests, and David is a microbiologist who helps develop micro-devices which can be installed within the human body to secrete medicine at regular or required intervals, for example in diabetics.

My boyhood friend Jonathan runs a puppet theatre for schools. Tom works for a seaman’s charity in the East End. Adam works for The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds in Scotland, monitoring bird populations, nesting habits, tagging birds to follow their migration patterns.

My son is studying biology at university. He’s considering doing a PhD into plant biology with a view to developing more sustainable crops. We play chess when he comes home at the holidays, although I’m always nagging him for frittering away so much of his time playing online video games.

These are ‘masculinities’, aren’t they? These are ways of being male? At least I think Nigel and Richard and Tom and Jonathan and Tony and David, Adam and Luke and I are men. Aren’t we?

But there was nobody like us in this exhibition, what you could call ‘normal’ people. Not a hint of men who like birdwatching, or gardening, or keeping bees, or study plant science, or like folk dancing, or are helping the environment.

Instead this exhibition’s view of masculinity is almost deliriously narrow: alternating between ridiculous American stereotypes of huge steroid-grown athletes or shouting fraternity members, and equally stereotyped images of flamboyant, make-up wearing gays working in nightclubs or part of the uber-gay communities of downtown New York or San Francisco’s Castro district. It is an exhibition of extremes and stereotypes.

Rusty, 2008 by Catherine Opie © Catherine Opie, Courtesy Regen Projects, Los Angeles and Thomas Dane Gallery, London

Paul, who I worked with for all those years in TV, wasn’t camp or flamboyant, he was just a guy who liked a beer and a laugh and happened to be gay. As was his boyfriend. As was Edwin, the Viking-looking giant with a beard who I worked with at a government agency, who also just happened to be gay, it was no big deal, and really hated the way everyone expected him to conform to ‘gay’ stereotypes.

Exactly the kind of dated gay stereotypes which exhibitions like this promote and propagate.

Slavish worship of American culture

Once again I find it weirdly unself-aware that an exhibition which so smugly uses words like ‘transgressive’, ‘interrogate’, ‘disrupt’ and ‘subvert’ about its exhibits, is itself so completely and slavishly in thrall to American photographers and American subject matter and so utterly kowtows to the cultural dominance of The Greatest City in the World (if you’re an art curator) – which is, of course, New York.

The Barbican is in London. Which is in England. Not in New York or San Francisco. And yet only one of the first fifteen or so of the featured photographers was British, and I can only remember two or three other Brits among the remaining 35 or so exhibitors.

The art élite

So by about half way through the exhibition it had dawned on me that there is a very strong political element to this show, just not the one the curators intend. It is that:

Once again an exhibition about gender and race and identity proves beyond doubt the existence of a transnational art élite, made up of international-minded, jet-setting artists and photographers and film-makers, and their entourage of agents and gallery curators, who have more in common with each other than they do with the rest of the populations of their host countries.

What I mean is that the curators and critics who’ve selected the works and written the catalogue of a show like this have much more in common with their counterparts in the art worlds of New York or Berlin or Shanghai than they do with the men or women in the streets of their own cities. They speak the same art language, use the same art theory buzz words and jargon, all agree on the wonderfulness of New York, and all share the same supremely woke and politically correct attitudes to LGBT+ and transgender and BAME rights which, the exhibition strongly implies, are the most important political or social issues anywhere in the world.

They liberally throw around words like ‘elite’ and criticise pretty much all white men for their ‘privilege’. It obviously doesn’t occur to them that being part of the jetsetting, international circuit of artists and art curators is also to belong to a privileged élite.

As a small symbol of this, after having read a host of wall labels castigating élite, men-only, members-only clubs and fraternities – which had the result of hyper-sensitising me to the the wickedness of these restrictive organisations – I couldn’t help smiling when I read on the Barbican website about an ‘exclusive Members’ talk’ which is available to Barbican members only.

Preaching to the converted

And so when I watched the curator of the exhibition speaking to the assembled journalists, critics and reviewers about #MeToo and toxic masculinity, and watched the approving nods and murmurs of her audience, I realised she was praising the values and priorities of the art world and its ferociously politically correct denizens, to exactly the kinds of journalists and critics who inhabit that world and attend these kinds of launches. And it crossed my mind that I had rarely in my life seen a purer example of ‘preaching to the choir’ and reinforcing entrenched groupthink.

Horseshoe Buckle, 1962 by Karlheinz Weinberger © Karlheinz Weinberger

Initial summary

To summarise so far:

  • It felt to me that the exhibition is wildly, almost hallucinatorily partial, misleading and inaccurate about its purported subject matter – masculinity. It simply ignores and neglects almost everything I think about when I think about my own and other men’s masculinity.
  • But what it undoubtedly is, is a handy survey of the deeply entrenched anti-heterosexual, anti-male, anti-white, pro-feminist, pro-black, pro-queer attitudes which now dominate universities, colleges, the art world and art galleries. So the exhibition has this additional layer of interest which is as a fascinating sociological specimen of the current attitudes and terminology of the über-woke.

I’m not against or opposed to those positions and views, in fact I broadly support them (pro-feminism, pro-LGBT+, anti-racism etc). I’m just modestly suggesting that there’s more to the world of men than this polemical and extremely limited exhibition – either American footballers or street queens of New York – gets anywhere near suggesting. In fact there is much more to culture, and politics, and the world, than a relentless obsession with ‘gender’.

Highlights

Having got all that off my chest, you may be surprised to learn that I really enjoyed this exhibition. There’s so much stuff on show they can’t help having lots of really good and interesting art here, and – as usual with the Barbican – it is presented in a series of beautifully designed and arranged spaces. So:

I loved Herb Ritts‘ pinup-style black-and-white photos of incredibly buff and sexy (male) garage hands, stripped to the waist.

What’s not to love about Robert Mapplethorpe‘s photos of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Lisa Lyon in their bodybuilding prime?

I really liked Akram Zaatari‘s photos of Middle Eastern weightlifters: he found a trove of badly degraded, faded, marked and damaged photos, then blew them up to wall size, warts and all. The weightlifters are dressed in loose loincloths, a world away from the slick professionalism of Schwarzenegger et al, and then further removed by the spotty blotchy finish of the damaged negatives. I like all art which shows the marks of industrial processes, decay, found objects, Arte Povera etc, art which records its own struggle to emerge from a world of chaos and war.

Bodybuilders Printed From A Damaged Negative by Akram Zaatari (2011)

I liked the work of German feminist photographer Marianne Wex. In the 1970s she made a whole set of collages where she cut out magazine images of men sitting with their legs wide apart and juxtaposed these with magazine images of women sitting primly with their legs tight together. This was funny for all sorts of reason, but also had multiple levels of nostalgia: for the black and white world of 1960s and 70s magazines (and fashions – look at the hair and the flares on the men).

There was a room on the ground floor which I nicknamed ‘The Grid Room’ which contained three massive sets of images laid out as grids, and which I liked simply because I like big grids and matrices, geometric and mathematical designs, in the same way as I like Carl Andre’s bricks. The grids are:

1. German-American photographer Karen Knorr’s series Gentlemen, 1981-83, consists of 26 black-and-white photographs taken inside men-only, private members’ clubs in central London and accompanied by texts drawn from conversations Knorr claims to have overheard.

a) they’re strikingly composed and arranged photos
b) the overheard conversations are amusingly arrogant and pompous, if a little too pat to be totally plausible
c) but what makes this funniest of all is that Knorr is surprised that the inhabitants of expensive, members-only private clubs will be a bit, you know, pompous

2. Back in the 1990s Polish-American photographer Piotr Uklański created a vast, super-wall-sized collage of A4-sized publicity photos of Hollywood actors dressed as Nazis from a host of movies.

It is 18 columns by 9 rows, which means it shows the images of 162 actors playing Nazi. The wall label suggested that the work is an indictment of Hollywood and its trivialisation of atrocity and, in the context of this exhibition, it is also meant to be an indictment of ‘toxic masculinity’ and the hyper-masculinity promoted by the Nazis.

But look at it. It isn’t really either of those things. What it obviously is, is an invitation to identify the actors and the movies they’re in, lots of fun in a Where’s Wally kind of way. Can you spot Clint Eastwood from Where Eagles Dare, Lee Marvin in The Dirty Dozen, Leonard Nimoy from the spisode of Star Trek where they beam down to some planet which is having a Nazi phase?

And then, for me, any serious intention was undermined when I noticed that two of the belong to Monty Python actors Michael Palin and Eric Idle dressed as Nazis (6 rows down, 10 and 11 across). And when I noticed the face of Norman Wisdom (from his 1959 movie, The Square Peg, where Norman is asked to impersonate a Nazi general he happens to look like), I couldn’t help bursting out laughing.

(Having googled this artwork and studied the results, I realise that Uklański changes the arrangement of the photos from site to site, with the order of the faces different in each iteration. The version below gives you an immediate impression of the work’s overall impact – imagine this spread across an entire wall, a big art gallery wall – but in this version Norman’s photo, alas, is absent.)

The Nazis by Piotr Uklanski (1998)

3. The third big grid is a set of 69 black-and-white photos taken by American photographer Richard Avedon and ironically titled The Family, each one depicting key politicians, military men, lawmakers and captains of industry who held the reins of power in America in the Bicentennial year of 1976.

The overt aim is to shock and appal the modern social justice warrior with the fact that almost all the movers and shakers are white men (though I did, in fact, count six women in the grid and two or three black people). But it just didn’t seem too much of a surprise to me that nearly fifty years ago the make-up of the ruling class was different from now or, to put it another way, over the past fifty years the representation of women and black people at the highest levels of American power have changed and improved.

Anyway, any political message was, for me, eclipsed by the hazy memories of the 1970s which these photos evoked – the era when Gerald Ford hastily replaced that excellent American president, Richard Nixon and when Henry Kissinger won the Nobel Peace Prize (1973). There’s a youthful Jimmy Carter (elected Prez in 1977), a serious-faced Ronald Reagan (another most excellent American President), and gorgeously handsome Teddy Kennedy, for so long the poster boy for liberal Democrats.

Americana

As you can see from the three works in The Grid Room, even when I was trying to overlook it, I couldn’t help noticing the American subject matter or the American provenance of most of the photographers.

The America worship continues into the next room, which is devoted to the American tradition of the college fraternity, and the secret initiation rituals they apparently hold.

Thus artist Richard Mosse made a film by asking members of an American fraternity house to have a shouting competition, with the young student who could shout loudest and longest winning a keg of beer. Having contrived this artificial situation in which he films the faces of young American men shouting their heads off till they’re red in the face, Mosse then described his film as ‘a performance of masculinity and elite, white male rage’.

Is it, though? I’d have thought it was a highly contrived set-up, Mosse bribing the men to act out a certain kind of behaviour which he then turned round and criticised using his modish sociological jargon.

Also note how the word ‘white’ in sentences like that is slowly becoming a term of abuse. Mosse is, of course, himself ‘white’, but he’s the OK sort of ‘white’. He’s artist white.

Next to it is a work by American photographer Andrew Moisey, who spent seven years studying college fraternities and putting together The American Fraternity: An Illustrated Ritual Manual. This, you won’t be very surprised to learn,

explores the relationship between hegemonic masculinity and the toxic culture of American fraternities.

Toxic men. Toxic masculinity. White male rage.

The gay American photographer Duane Michals is represented by a series of photos depicting a grandfather and grandson with an eerie, surrealist vibe.

There’s a sequence of photos by American-based Indian photographer Sunil Gupta, who recorded New York’s gay scene in the 1970s.

Untitled 22 from the series Christopher Street, 1976 by Sunil Gupta © Sunil Gupta. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2019

Reclaiming the black body

Upstairs, in the section devoted to Reclaiming the Black Body, there’s a series by American photographer Kalen Na’il Roach which are described as explorations of ‘the construction of the African-American family and the absent father’.

Nearby is a set of brilliant photos by black American photographer Rotimi Fani-Kayode, who arranged human bodies in all manner of creative and interesting poses, all shot as clear and crisply as anything by Robert Mapplethorpe. There was a really beautiful, crystal clear and vivid and intimidating and erotic photo of a black man holding a pair of large scissors against his thigh, wow.

Untitled, 1985 by Rotimi Fani-Kayode © Rotimi Fani-Kayode

Queering masculinity

There’s an entire section of the exhibition devoted to gay masculinity titled Queering Masculinity. Among many others, this contains a set of photos by American photographer George Dureau, ‘a prominent figure in the queer and non-conformist communities in New Orleans’s French Quarter’, which included some disturbing images of a handsome young man with a hippy hairdo who had had both legs amputated right at the top of the thighs, images which didn’t make me think about masculinity at all, but about disability.

A corner is given to the technicolour experimental underground film Kustom Kar Kommandos (1965) by rebel film-maker Kenneth Anger, which explores the fetishist role of hot rod cars among young American men, and whose soundtrack – Dream Lover by Bobby Darin – wafted gently through the galleries as the visitors sauntered around, looking at these collections of cool, gay and black American photography.

And also upstairs was a fabulous series of black and white shots by American photographer David Wojnarowicz, who got his friends to wear a face mask of French poet Arthur Rimbaud and pose in unlikely locations around New York.

And there’s work by Peter Hujar, ‘a leading figure in New York‘s downtown cultural scene throughout the 1970s’ who photographed its various gay subcultures.

David Brintzenhofe Applying Makeup (II) 1982 by Peter Hujar © 1987 The Peter Hujar Archive LLC; Courtesy Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York and Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco

There’s photos by Paul Mpagi Sepuya, an American photographer from who explores ‘the studio and darkroom as a site of homoerotic desire’.

And photos by Elle Pérez from America which are concerned with ‘the artist’s relationship with their own body, their queerness and how their sexual, gender and cultural identities intersect and coalesce through photography’.

While ‘in her meticulously staged photos, American artist Deanna Lawson (b.1979) explores black intimacy, family, sexuality and spirituality.’

Then there’s American avant-garde artist, composer, musician and film director Laurie Anderson who is represented by her 1973 work Fully Automated Nikon (Object/Objection/Objectivity) which records the men who cat-called her as she walked through New York’s Lower East Side.

One of my favourite sections was black American Hank Willis Thomas’s ironic and funny collages, Unbranded: Reflections In Black by Corporate America which cut and paste together tacky old adverts featuring black people from the 70s, 80s and 90s. As the wall label explains:

Thomas sheds light on how corporate America continues to reproduce problematic notions of race, sexuality, class and gender through the white male gaze.

(Note: ‘the white male gaze’. The male gaze is bad enough but, God, it’s twice as bad when it’s the white male gaze. Just as male rage is bad, but white male rage, my God, that’s unforgiveable. You don’t have to read many of these wall labels to realise that everything is so much worse when it’s white.)

There are photographers and artists from other countries – from the Lebanon, Cameroon, Holland, Ghana, Norway and so on. Even, mirabile dictu, some British artists. But in every room there are American artists and wherever you look there are images of New York or San Francisco or Los Angeles, while an American pop song drifts over the images of American cowboys and American bodybuilders and New York gays.

It is a very America-dominated exhibition.

It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the woke, LGBT+-friendly, feminist, anti-patriarchal and anti-white curators are willing to disrupt, subvert, interrogate and question every received opinion, stereotype and shibboleth about the world today except for one – except for America’s stranglehold on global art and photography, except for America’s cultural imperialism, which goes unquestioned and uncommented-on.

Before this form of imperialism, British art curators bow down and worship.

Second summary

Well, if you’re a white man and you enjoy the experience of being made to feel like a privileged, white racist, elitist, misogynist, homophobic, transphobic, sexist pig by lots of righteous black, gay and women photographers, this exhibition will be right up your street.

But having said all that, I did, ultimately, and despite everything, really enjoy it. In fact I might go back for seconds. There is a huge amount of visually interesting and varied work in it and, as I’ve explained – to take the whole thing on a completely different level – it is a fascinating sociological study of up-to-date, woke and politically correct attitudes and sociological terminology.

And also because the picture of Norman Wisdom dressed as a Nazi was so utterly unexpected, so surreally incongruous among the rest of the po-faced, super-serious and angry feminist rhetoric that I was still smiling broadly as I walked out the door.

Norman Wisdom as General-major Otto Schreiber in the hit movie, The Square Peg (1959), subverting seriousness


Dated

Not only does the exhibition mostly deal in types and stereotypes, but so many of them are really dated.

The concept of the male gaze was invented in a 1975 essay by film critic film critic Laura Mulvey. Not one but two quotes from it are printed in large letters across the walls of feminist section of the exhibition, rather like the Ten Commandments used to be in a church.

Karlheinz Weinberger’s photos of leather-clad rebels date from the early 1960s.

Kenneth Anger’s film Kustom Kar Kommandos is from 1965.

Annette Messager’s series The Approaches is from 1972.

Laurie Anderson’s piece is from 1973.

Richard Avedon’s set, The Family, was shot in 1976.

Sunil Gupta’s street photographs of gay New Yorkers are from the mid-1970s

Hal Fischer’s amusing photos of gay street fashion are from 1977.

Marianne Wex’s project ‘Let’s Take Back Our Space: ‘Female’ and ‘Male’ Body Language as a Result of Patriarchal Structures’ dates from 1977.

David Wojnarowicz’s briliant series ‘Rimbaud in New York’ was taken between 1977 and 1979.

Andy Warhol’s film about Male Models is from 1979.

Hank Willis Thomas’s funny collages use magazine photos from the 70s and 80s

Karen Knorr’s series about knobs at posh clubs were shot from 1981 to 1983.

Herb Ritts photos of stunning hunky men date from 1984.

Now of course a lot of the other pieces are from more recently, from the 1990s, 2000s and 2010s, and I am deliberately cherry-picking my evidence, but you get my point.

If the whole issue of gender and masculinity is as hot and urgent and topical as the curators insist, why are they going back to the 1960s and 1970s to illustrate it? My answer would be that, although many of its details have been subsequently elaborated and extended, the basis of the curators (and most of the artists’) liberate worldview date back to the late 60s and early 70s, the era which saw the real breakthroughs for modern feminism, gay rights, and a more ambitious form of black civil rights.

In other words, when you go to a contemporary exhibition of feminist art or gay art or lesbian art or politically motivated black art, you are in fact tapping into movements which have been around for about fifty years. This what gives them a curiously dated, almost nostalgic feeling. The artists and the curators may try to dress these tried-and-tested approaches up in the latest buzzwords or drum up some fake outrage by mentioning the magic words ‘Donald Trump’, but I remember going to exhibitions by gay and lesbian and feminist and black artists in the 1980s, and 1990s, and 2000s, and 2010s which all said more or less what this one does: Blacks are oppressed, women are oppressed, gays and lesbians are oppressed.

For an exhibition which is claiming to address one of the burning issues of our time it seemed curiously… dated. All these carefully printed photographs and films, how very retro, how very 1970s they seem. It’s as if the internet, digital art and social media have never happened. I described the exhibition to my daughter (18, feminist, studied sociology, instagram and social media addict) and she said it sounded boring and preachy.


Counting the countries of origin

It’s good to count. Actually counting and analysing the data about almost any subject almost always proves your subjective impressions to be wrong, because all of our unconscious biases are so strong.

Thus when I looked up the countries of origin of all the photographers represented in this exhibition, I realised the raw facts prove me wrong in thinking that most of the exhibitors are American. Out of 54 exhibitors, some 23 were born in the States and another 3 or 4 emigrated there, so the number of ‘American’ photographers is only just about half of those included.

This exercise also highlighted the true range of other nationalities represented, which I had tended to underestimate. There are, for example, seven Brits, double the number I initially remembered.

However, these figures don’t quite tell the full story, since a number of contributors might not be from the USA, but are represented by their images of the USA. Thus Sunil Gupta is from India but is represented by a suite of photos from 1970s New York (as well as a second series of photos about gay life in India).

Isaac Julien is a British artist but is represented by two movies, one about American cowboys and one – a big one which has one of the Barbican’s entire alcoves devoted to it – a black-and-white movie set in a glamorous American cocktail bar, and set to evocative American cocktail jazz.

To really establish the facts on this one issue of American influence, I suppose you’d have to itemise every single one of the images or films on show and indicate whether they were American in origin or subject matter – which is a little beyond the scope of the present review, and possibly a little mad.

Here’s the complete list of photographers represented in this exhibition with their country of origin, which can be roughly summarised as: the exhibition includes as many American, American-based, or America-covering photographers as those from the rest of the world put together.

  1. Bas Jan Ader (Dutch)
  2. Laurie Anderson (USA)
  3. Kenneth Anger (USA)
  4. Liz Johnson Artur (Ghanaian-Russian)
  5. Knut Åsdam (Norway)
  6. Richard Avedon (USA)
  7. Aneta Bartos (Polish-American)
  8. Richard Billingham (UK)
  9. Cassils (Canada)
  10. Sam Contis (USA)
  11. John Coplans (UK emigrated to USA)
  12. Jeremy Deller (UK)
  13. Rineke Dijkstra (Holland)
  14. George Dureau (USA)
  15. Thomas Dworzak (Germany)
  16. Hans Eijkelboom (Holland)
  17. Fouad Elkoury (Lebanon)
  18. Hal Fischer (USA)
  19. Samuel Fosso (Cameroon)
  20. Anna Fox (UK)
  21. Masahisa Fukase (Japan)
  22. Sunil Gupta (India)
  23. Kiluanji Kia Henda (Angola)
  24. Peter Hujar (USA)
  25. Isaac Julien (UK)
  26. Rotimi Fani-Kayode (Nigeria)
  27. Karen Knorr (German-American)
  28. Deana Lawson (USA)
  29. Hilary Lloyd (UK)
  30. Robert Mapplethorpe (USA)
  31. Peter Marlow (UK)
  32. Ana Mendieta (Cuba, moved to New York)
  33. Annette Messager (France)
  34. Duane Michals (USA)
  35. Tracey Moffatt (Australia)
  36. Andrew Moisey (USA)
  37. Richard Mosse (Ireland)
  38. Adi Nes (Israeli)
  39. Catherine Opie (USA)
  40. Elle Pérez (USA)
  41. Herb Ritts (USA)
  42. Kalen Na’il Roach (USA)
  43. Paul Mpagi Sepuya (USA)
  44. Collier Schorr (USA)
  45. Clare Strand (UK)
  46. Mikhael Subotzky (South Africa)
  47. Larry Sultan (USA)
  48. Wolfgang Tillmans (Germany)
  49. Hank Willis Thomas (USA)
  50. Piotr Uklański (Polish-American)
  51. Andy Warhol (USA)
  52. Karlheinz Weinberger (Switzerland)
  53. Marianne Wex (Germany)
  54. David Wojnarowicz (USA)

Third summary – why American influence is so malign

The reliance on exaggerated American stereotypes of masculinity explains why the exhibition simply omits the vast majority of male experience

American attitudes to masculinity – American images of masculinity – are grossly exaggerated, hyper-commercialised, and do not represent the experience of masculinity of men from other countries.

(Possibly they don’t even represent the experience of most men in America itself: just on the curators’ favourite subject of ethnic minorities, about 18% of Americans are Latino, compared to only 12% or so who are black. But I don’t think I saw any images of Latinos, or the names of any Latino photographers or artists anywhere in the show. To adopt the curators’ own values of diversity: Why not?)

So one way to sum up this exhibition (it’s so huge I’m aware that there are, potentially, lots of ways to do this – a feminist take, a view which focused more on the gay or black or non-western perspectives) is to posit that the Americanness of half the exhibition, photos and photographers – and the overall sense you have of the exhibition’s cultural narrowness and exaggeration – are intimately connected.

Reading my way carefully around the exhibition reminded me all over again – as hundreds of documentaries and articles and news reports have over the past few decades –

  1. just how polarised American society has become
  2. how a great deal of this polarisation is in the realm of culture
  3. and how exhibitions like this tend to emphasise, exaggerate and exacerbate that atmosphere of poisonous polarisation

The relentless criticism of toxic masculinity and the male gaze and manspreading and men-only organisations, along with the continual suggestion that being white is a crime, have their ultimate source in the turbo-charged feminism, political correctness and woke culture of American universities, art schools and liberal media.

My point is that the the poisonous cultural politics of America are deeply rooted in the extremes images of masculinity which America developed since the Second World War – and that these extremes, along with the anger and vilification they prompt on both sides of the political and cultural divide – are just not applicable outside America.

Does Norway have a massive film industry devoted to promoting impossibly buff and hunky images of super-tough men? Is French culture dominated by the ideal of the gunslinging cowboy? Is Czech sporting life dominated by huge, testosterone-charged American footballers? In 1950s did Greek husbands throw open the doors to their suburban houses and shout, ‘Hi honey, I’m home!’

No. Since the war many European countries, led by France, have vehemently resisted the bubblegum stereotypes and crass vulgarity of American culture. The American example just doesn’t apply to Swiss watchmakers and French winegrowers and Greek hotel owners and Italian waiters.

Obviously accusations of patriarchy and sexism and toxic masculinity and the male gaze and white anger can be, and routinely are, levelled at all men in any Western society, but my suggestion is that the level of anger and rancour which politically correct and woke culture have reached in America is unique.

America has morphed during my lifetime into a violently aggressive and angry society which stands apart from all other industrialised countries (look at the levels of gun crime, or the number of its citizens which America locks up, 2.2 million adults, more than all the other OECD nations put together).

The anger of American liberals against Trump has to be witnessed to be believed, but so does the anger of American conservatives and the mid-West against the tide of immigrants and liberals who they think are ruining their country. America has become a swamp of hatreds, and it is an American civil war, it is not mine.

And here’s my point – an exhibition which defines ‘masculinity’ very heavily through the lens of such an unhealthy, sick and decadent society is giving a wildly twisted, biased, partial and inaccurate impression of what the word ‘masculine’ even means because it is deriving it very heavily from a culture which is tearing itself apart. We are not all American footballers or New York gay pioneers.

So although only half the exhibition is made up of American photographers and American subjects, nonetheless the poisonous rhetoric of the American cultural civil war (‘toxic masculinity’, ‘white rage’, ‘the male gaze’) infects the conception, selection and discourse of the exhibition so thoroughly from start to finish, that it helps explain why the vast majority of much more humdrum, down-to-earth types of non-American, everyday masculinity – the kinds you or I encounter among our families and friends and at work, the kind I experience when I help Nigel plant the daffodil bulbs in the waste ground at the end of our road – are so utterly absent from this blinkered and biased exhibition.


Related links

Reviews of other exhibitions at the Barbican

And concerts

Troy: Myth and Reality @ the British Museum

What Troy means to me

For me the Iliad will always be the greatest story ever told. The Christian story is hugely more rich and complicated and influential and subtle, but the tale of Troy is, for me, more true.

It is, for me, a description and investigation and celebration and commiseration of masculinity. It starts with two men fighting over a woman (Agamemnon and Achilles fall out over who should possess the slave girl Briseis, captured in a small Greek raid on an outlying Trojan temple), it climaxes in two tragic, avoidable deaths (Patroclus of the Greeks, Hector of the Trojans), and leads up to the most moving scene in all literature, when King Priam of Troy sneaks by night into the Greek camp and confronts Achilles in his tent, falling to his knees and weepingly imploring the mightiest warrior of the age to give him back the battered body of his dead son (Hector). And instead of slaughtering him on the spot and bringing the war to a swift end, Achilles also falls to his knees and both men weep unappeasable anguish at the loss of their beloved ones.

From a thousand years BC right up to the present day, how many parents and lovers have wept unassuageable tears of grief and anguish over the pointless deaths of their loved ones in pointless wars. That agony has been repeated over and over again hundreds of millions of times.

For me Achilles’ great scream of anguish when he learns that his lover Patroclus is dead and that it was he, Achilles, who sent him to his death, his huge superhuman cry of pain which rings out over the battlefield and brings the fighting to a terrified halt, is the cry of all men against a cruel, uncaring universe, the agony of realising we are our own worst enemies, the tormented howl of someone who has understood human nature to its bitterest depths.

The Iliad is truer than the Christian story because there is no redemption and no comfort anywhere. The human condition is endless conflict and the relentless death of the people we love most. Men are compelled to fight, they don’t know why, and then bewail the devastation they have caused and the lives they have pointlessly destroyed. Nothing changes and no-one can be saved. Syria. Yemen. Libya. Myanmar. Congo.

Achilles kills the Amazon queen Penthesilea, Athenian amphora (530 BC) © The Trustees of the British Museum

The exhibition

1. Long gallery of ancient artifacts

This epic blockbuster exhibition at the British Museum brings together over 300 objects to give a comprehensive overview of the myths and legends and long legacy surrounding the siege of Troy. It is, like most recent BM exhibitions, beautifully staged, with the wall of the long gallery painted black and evocatively decorated with archaic Greek patterns, while half way along the gallery the wooden ribs of enormous horse arch up over the visitor, obviously referencing the famous wooden horse.

Although it’s divided into lots of sections, Troy is essentially in two halves. The first, long narrow gallery displays umpteen red-figure vases, statues, sarcophagi, carved reliefs and so on from the era of the Athenian empire (5th century BC) onwards including and later Roman efforts, depicting numerous episodes from the long series of myths and legends connected with the epic story.

Roman sarcophagus lid including detail of the Trojan horse (late 2nd century AD) Photograph © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

The curators increase the size of their subject matter by including the legends surrounding Odysseus and his ten-year-long journey back from the war to be reunited with his brave long-suffering wife Penelope. Homer’s Odyssey is very different in tone and subject matter from the Iliad. It is more full of fairy stories and legends about the Sirens or Calypso or the one-eyed Cyclops or Scylla and Charybdis.

And they also devote some sections to Virgil’s epic poem, The Aeneid, which follows the adventures of Aeneas, a minor character in the Iliad, who is promoted by Virgil to become a semi-Odysseus in his own right, fleeing burning Troy to wander the Mediterranean, have a long love affair with Dido Queen of Carthage, before being compelled to fulfil his duty which is to sail to Italy and found the precursor of Rome.

Including Odysseus, Virgil and all their related stories in the exhibition gives the curators more subject matter but, in my purist eyes, weakens the impact of the Iliad material, the material solely about the war, which focuses on battle, conflict, male anger and destruction only.

There are informative sections about the Greek gods, the geography of the Homeric world, how the Romans co-opted the Greek legends for their own purposes, if you didn’t already know.

And then the first gallery comes to an end and you turn the corner and come back on yourself along a narrow gallery running parallel to the first one.

2. Archaeology and Schliemann

At this turning point is a section devoted to the excavations carried out on the coast of modern-day Turkey by a series of Victorian archaeologists, which climaxed in the German excavator Heinrich Schliemann who loudly claimed to have uncovered the true site of Troy in 1873.

Display of objects found by Schliemann at Troy along with books describing his excavations. Photo by the author

3. Troy in European art

And when you progress beyond Schliemann and turn the corner you discover that the second long corridor is – rather surprisingly – an art gallery.

If the first half of the exhibition shows how the legends of Troy were depicted in ancient Greek art and sculpture, this second gallery shows how the same legends were depicted by European artists from the Middle Ages onwards.

I enjoyed this second half more, partly because it was so unexpected. So, for example, there’s a section devoted to European literature on Troy which contains some marvellous medieval illuminated books. We see a copy of John Lydgate’s Troy Book (1420), learn that the first book printed in England by William Caxton was a translation of a French account of Troy. There are first editions of Chapman’s complete translation of Homer (1616), Dryden’s translation of the Aeneid (1697) and Pope’s translation of The Iliad (1715-20).

A page of a 1485 manuscript of Virgil’s works showing the wooden horse being taken into Troy, and Aeneas carrying his father on his back

But most of the space in the gallery is devoted to paintings, drawings and a handful of sculptures, of which the standout example is this masterpiece of sensuality by Filippo Albacini, a portrait of the wounded Achilles (apparently, the gilded arrow in the heel of this sculpture has been restored especially for this exhibition).

The Wounded Achilles (1825) by Filippo Albacini. Photograph © The Devonshire Collections, Chatsworth

But the main impression is of a long, narrow gallery space hung with lots of paintings and drawings and prints.

As well as surprise, another reason for enjoying this part of the exhibition more was that it was far less crowded: I arrived fifteen minutes after opening time but already the first, more archaeological half of the exhibition was packed with crowds of people shuffling very slowly past each red-figure vase and fragment of stone relief – and because the exhibit labels were at knee height almost all of them were completely unreadable, concealed by people packed as tight as commuters on a tube train.

By contrast, for the hour or more that I was there, the second half, the long gallery of paintings, stayed almost empty, with only a dozen or so people drifting through it – which meant that you could enjoy the paintings (or prints or drawings) and read the wall labels, at your leisure. Works on display include:

Clytemnestra, 1882, oil on canvas by John Collier (1850-1934) Image courtesy Guildhall Art Gallery, City of London

Clytemnestra, 1882, oil on canvas by John Collier (1850-1934) Image courtesy Guildhall Art Gallery, City of London

It’s amazing to learn that this is the first full-scale exhibition about Troy ever held in the UK. Among other treasures it features, at the very end, the gold jewelry Schliemann found buried deep in the ruins of the city he excavated on the Turkish coast and which he declared to the world must be the jewelry of Helen herself, a preposterous claim he sought to back up by getting his wife to pose for photos wearing them.

Sophia Schliemann wearing the ‘Jewels of Helen’ excavated by her husband, Heinrich Schliemann, in Hisarlik (photograph taken c. 1874)

Modern art interpretations

Right at the start of the show visitors are surprised by two big artifacts which are not at all historic, a vast painting, Vengeance of Achilles (1962) by American artist Cy Twombly and an assemblage of forty or so objects by British sculptor Anthony Caro which he titled The Trojan War.

Dominating the section about medieval manuscripts of Troy, rather jarringly some might feel, is a video screen showing an adaptation of Euripides’ play The Trojan Women acted by Syrian refugee women, whose wailing voices can be heard echoing across the second half of the exhibition.

And the show ends with a spectacular wall-sized creation of fluorescent tubes radiating out from a central point and named The Shield of Achilles by British artist Spencer Finch.

The Shield of Achilles by Spencer Finch (2019)

My point being that this is a very wide-ranging idea of what an exhibition about Troy should look and feel like, spilling out from the narrow fields of archaeology and ancient artifacts to encompass scores of works of European art, and even – as indicated here – up-to-the-minute contemporary art.

Feminist interpretations

The people who wrote the press release have just discovered that there are women (yes, women!) in this 3,000-year-old story, and are breathlessly excited to share this new discovery with us:

The cause of the Trojan War was a woman, Helen who was taken to Troy by Paris, This exhibition presents a chance to re-examine Helen, not just as a beautiful victim or a feared seductress, but as her own woman.

Artist Eleanor Antin (b. 1935) explores history and its characters as a way to examine issues in the present. In 2007 Antin created the photographic series Helen’s Odyssey. Here, Helen of Troy is allowed to speak for herself in a series of imagined scenes from her life. This exhibition will feature Judgment of Paris (after Rubens) – Dark Helen from this series, where Helen is pictured looking unhappy to be used as a bribe, prompting visitors to re-examine the representations of Helen that have gone before.

Judgement of Paris (after Reubens) – Dark/Light Helen by Eleanor Antin (2007)

And the wall label introducing the section on ‘Women of the Trojan War’ shares their discovery that:

Helen and other women play central roles in the story of Troy.

Helen is a pawn in a divine quarrel. Iphigeneia is sacrificed for a fair wind to Troy. Cassandra and the other surviving Trojan women are enslaved when Troy falls. Queen Clytemnestra acts fearlessly in taking revenge on Agamemnon, but pays for it with her life.

Unusual in having a happier ending, Helen has fascinated artists through the ages. Many have attempted to capture her irresistible beauty, while questioning whether she is an innocent victim or knowing seductress.

It’s no surprise that the curators disapprove of the whole idea of the Judgement of Paris, the first ever beauty parade. As the introduction to the feminist section laconically points out:

Even the powerful goddesses are subject to male judgement.

Yes, but you could also point out that the goddesses murder and doom men for their sport. But that central element of the story doesn’t fit the feminist women-are-always-victims paradigm and so is glossed over in preference for yet another condemnation of the male gaze. If only all men were blinded like Oedipus, what a better place the world would be for feminist academics 🙂

BP

Meanwhile, the exhibition is sponsored by BP, one of the world’s biggest producers and refiners of fossil fuels, the burning of which is propelling the earth and all its life forms towards a global warming disaster.

To me it is typical and symptomatic that a handful of fine art paintings of an ancient Greek myth get feminist curators and artists hot and bothered enough to criticise them and parody them – but destroying the planet and exterminating all the life forms on it… they’re happy to go along with that. After all, the profits from poisoning the planet pay their wages and sponsor their exhibitions.


Related links

Reviews of other British Museum exhibitions

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