The Art and Writing of David & Ping Henningham
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We have a gig to announce, happening in just two weeks time!

Henningham Family Press have teamed up again with the golden voiced Jon Bilbrough (Wilderthorn), to compose a collaborative piece of art and music. We will be playing from an oversized book; a bestiary depicting twelve animals in pigment and melody. For inspiration we plucked twelve animal related titles from Sir Thomas Browne’s 1646 book ‘Pseudodoxia Epidemica’, chapters such as “That the Ostridge digesteth Iron.” and “That a Badger hath the Legs of one side shorter than of the other.”

Jon Bilbrough playing with us at STK during LWF 2010

At Kahalia Cafe twelve indie players will perform this instrumental animal arrangement that loops like the DNA sheet music of our biosphere. This piece accompanies an exhibition of scrolls, screenprints and drawings that celebrate the publishing of the paperback and limited edition versions of our book “The Erroneous Disposition of the People” (James Wilkes, Julie Rafalski, Eddie Farrell, David Henningham & David Barnes). These five authors plunder Browne’s fascinating catalogue of extinct opinions. They lampoon our tendency to exchange fact for factoid; our insatiable appetite for facts that fuels an entire entertainment industry.

Date: Thursday 6th June 2013
Doors: 7.30
Entry: £3
Venue: Kahalia, 135 Brick Lane, E1 6SB
Exhibition continues for one month at Kahalia and is free.

We do hope you can join us for this evening of music/art/lampooning/fun!

Just to whet your appetites, here’s a YouTube clip from our last collaboration with Jon Bilbrough…

 

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The London Word Festival team have put up loads of wonderful pictures from that seminal evening of entertainment, Keep Printing and Carry On at STK. Darren Hayman, Jo Neary, and Murray Macaulay all in collaboration with the Henningham Family Press. And if that wasn’t enough, Universettee with guest mini-lecturers Sophie Mackay and David Barnes…

Pictures

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So it emerges that Nick Clegg has been a Samuel Beckett fan all along. I couldn’t help wondering what an election scripted by Beckett would look like:

The stage light slowly illuminates a rocky plateau. Buried in pebbles up to their necks are BROWN, CLEG and CAM.

BROWN. Finished, all finished now. Old Brown’s gone down, down to the ground.

CLEG. The old parties.

CAM. Yes, the old parties, the old times, just as it was back on the playing fields, the old times, boat rocking slowly under Magdalen Bridge, the old times, the old days. Why can’t things be like they used to be?

BROWN. Finished, all gone, a disaster.

CLEG. There they go again.

CAM. The old days, the old times, the old parties, tra-la-la-la-la. Why can’t I be Prime Minister?

All three sink further into the stones. A spotlight reveals a hung parliament, festooned with paper MPs.

BROWN. All is lost. Woe, woe!

CAM. Why can’t I be Prime Minister? I want to be Prime Minister!

Enter VOTERS.

VOTERS. Let’s go.

Nobody moves.

Beckett’s endings provide us with a range of possible responses to electoral outcomes. The novel The Unnameable ends with the resigned but ambiguous ‘you must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on’ from the unnamed narrator. This is rather more stoical and less hysterical than the Tories’ ‘We can’t go on like this’. At the close of Endgame, all Hamm can be certain of is his handkerchief – the ‘old stancher’ – which survives. Dry your eyes, Dave. You too, Gordon.

With all the uncertainties of the current political environment, Beckett leaves us, like poor Winnie who still sings while buried up to her neck at the end of Happy Days, to face the music and be grateful. As the wise (or not) journalist said, ‘The only certainty here is that everything is uncertain’.

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The other week I gave a lecture (the subject of which is not the subject of this blog) at the Universettee. As its name suggests, the Universettee is interested in shifting the seat of learning from the academy to the home – university to universettee. It’s a university of the comfy chair, and takes place in various people’s houses and flats around London. Lecturers are not paid, and neither are those who host the lectures.

Later on in the same week, I attended a concert. We arrived at a house in Hackney, deposited our coats on top of the bed as we would at a party, and were serenaded with Dvorak, Brahms and Schuman in a downstairs room. Interval drinks and nibbles were informal. Again, the event was free. Both evenings had the feel of a party, and involved the free and easy exchange of thoughts and culture in a homely setting.

It seems to me that these groups, events and projects are forming a new kind of public space – or, perhaps, are drawing our attention to the potential of the public space. For the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas the ‘public sphere’ could be a space for the radical renewing of democracy. Free from the atmosphere of oppression and coercion or the pressures of the bourgeois market, the ‘public sphere’ might be an exciting clamour of voices and ideas.
Perhaps – and only perhaps, because I teach in a university and see their essential value – the removing of the pressured culture of the academy can renew a practical and impassioned curiosity. Perhaps the ability to see a concert outside of its normal context – a context that to some extent is historically conditioned and not absolute – allows listeners to truly grapple with the music.

In other words, there may sometimes be a weight of expectation and rarification that hangs in the air of university halls, concert auditoriums, art galleries and the like. This isn’t a call for dumbing down, nor for a kind of hideous mercantilising of all cultural activity, as Peter Mandelson seems intent on pursuing. His proposals to tie university funding to some sort of basic economic performance indicator will kill scholarship, which thrives on the obscure.

What I am saying is that grand spaces – big institutional public spaces – sometimes terrify or oppress. We don’t want to and shouldn’t get rid of these spaces. But sometimes, just sometimes, shifting the centre of gravity can re-energise our engagement with ‘culture’.  Bringing the ‘public sphere’ into the private space once in a while may just enable us to re-evaluate the place and role of ‘culture’ in contemporary Britain.

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On Saturday February 27th, from 11am to 4pm, we’ll be at the Finsbury Art Festival. Our little contribution to this positive cornucopia of fun things to do in the Art Zone will be showing off the pamphlet stitch. This simple little stitch, used for centuries by anyone from teeth-grinding political radicals to quaint little crafts-people, only takes seconds to learn yet will hold your bits of paper together in the form of a pamphlet for hundreds of years! And for those of you who like reading as much as fiddling with bits of paper and string, we’ll be binding some of the contributions from our guest bloggers, David Barnes, Eddie Farrell and Julie Rafalski. Plus one of the stories by David Henningham from Erroneous Disposition of the People.  All this and much more, absolutely free! Can it be true?

Come and find out! I gather it will be a very child-friendly, as well as adult-friendly event. What better way to spend a lazy Saturday afternoon?

St Luke’s Centre
90 Central Street EC1V 8AJ
020 7549 8181

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Hearing David Cameron’s speech at the Conservative Party conference, I felt the urge to liberate the avant-garde, existentialist poem that lay behind the surface, a hidden subtext:

I want to get straight
To the point.
We all know
What I want to talk about.
Don’t get me wrong,
I’m ready for that
But I tell you this.
I know that.
I know about
Liam Fox.
We need a strategy.
We need to be clear.
Frankly, time is short.
And I have something
Else to say.

We could have played it safe.
When I stood on that stage
It was to lead Eric Pickles.
I am not a complicated person.
I have some simple beliefs.

I want everyone
To understand
That’s twice as big.
Right now.
We have three choices.
I know there are some who say:
PENSIONERS.

I got an email.
But it never happens.
Well.
Let’s be clear.
I always put the same questions
To attractive Ken Clarke.

It is a plan to boost.
This is what it means.
There’s nothing to stop me.

In Britain today
We must be the people
Who release Gordon Brown.

We’ll start with what is most important.
I believe that a stable cannot be neutral.
I don’t live in some fantasy land.
It’s about what we all do.
It’s about the way we live.
It’s about our crazy signals.

But no –
It’s not funny.
We have got to turn it around
We’re going to make it clear
So we have to reform
So we will never change
But that doesn’t mean
But it’s not a machine
It has got to stop
That’s why we can look the British people in the eye and say…
the progressive thing to do in a way that brings the country together showing

leadership at the top we’re all in this together which is why we’ll have made

some tough choices in British politics is out of date and it has to

meet challenges head on and show tough country and

together leadership and community tough and

challenges meet we’ll make some British

progressive politics head challenge

family tough challenge country

challenge challenge challenge

More on the experimental modernism of David Cameron later.

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‘If you walk with Jesus
he’s going to save your soul.
You gotta keep the devil
Way down in the hole’.

As the whole of the chattering classes emerges bereft from the last series of the American police drama The Wire (screened on BBC2 years after the original series ran in the States), it’s worth asking what, if anything, the series’ message was. The lines quoted above are from its theme tune, the Tom Waits song ‘Down in the Hole’.

‘Down in the Hole’ itself is taken from Waits’ album Frank’s Wild Years, a work that reflects musical influences such as cabaret and Kurt Weill’s musical theatre. As such, ‘Down in the Hole’ is performed in the persona of a crazed preacher, one of many ‘voices’ that Waits adopts on the album. In this sense, the song appears to ‘perform’ belief, the lyrics a theatricalisation of faith. Waits seems to perform what it is like to believe in Jesus (and the devil) rather than actually believing in them.

So we might think of Waits’ song, and The Wire, as exercising a sort of ironic distancing. In the ‘real world’, simplistic beliefs about morality, good and evil, and God are naïve and as such can only be ‘performed’. Going down this route, The Wire’s world of cycles of drug addiction, narcotics dealing, police and political corruption is left untouched by its ironic preface. In other words, we may want to be able to ‘keep the devil down in the hole’, but it ‘ain’t gonna happen’.
But here is the problem. For The Wire seems to strive to find moral and ethical solutions to the problems it describes. Its cynicism has a limit; it still allows the viewer to hope. Indeed its very anger at the world is also a longing for things to be different, to be right. So perhaps could the song’s role be not to shrug off the certainties of faith but rather to kindle a nostalgia for faith?

Slavoj Žižek, the Slovenian psychoanalyst, Marxist and ubiquitous cultural commentator is one of the most prominent intellectuals to articulate this nostalgia for Christianity. Except, for Žižek, it isn’t really nostalgia; on the contrary, the ethical core of Christianity allows this radical Marxist to critique the vapid spirituality of late capitalism, embodied in fads for the New Age and pseudo-buddhism.

Instead, he argues for the radical-revolutionary heart of Christianity to be rediscovered. In contrast to modernity’s insistence on keeping faith as a private ‘obscene secret’, he follows his master G.K. Chesterton in recommending the topsy-turvy public values of Christianity. Here, strong moral boundaries are the way to true pleasure, belief in mystery the only way to really rational thinking.

Following this thread, The Wire’s ‘nostalgia for faith’ becomes more than misty-eyed. It is real; churches (black ones especially) are some of the few places in the series where real good can be accomplished. Individuals are redeemed. The heroin addict Bubbles’ speeches at the Narcotics Anonymous meetings in Series Five are framed beneath a central crucifix. In the third series the rogue detective Jimmy McNulty is told by his colleague Lester Freamon that ‘the job won’t save you’. But what will?

It is in this space that the radical, redemptive message of Christianity can step in. In breaking the cycles of corruption and violence what may be needed is the kind of regeneration that can’t be dreamt up by property developers and politicians. I mean by this not to urge a bland ‘let’s all understand faith’, à la Tony Blair. The core of Christianity is much more radical and world-changing than that, and the flattening of all religions into one-size-fits-all does none of them any favours.

I acknowledge this reading of The Wire as my own, and partial. But is the space between The Wire’s keeping ‘the devil down in the hole’ and the Anglican Book of Common Prayer’s ‘beating down Satan under our feet’ so big?

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Apparently there are moves to expel Italy from the G8 group following its disastrous handling of the recent conference in L’Aquila. The story has run in parallel with the lurid pyramid of revelations around the sexual shenanigans of Silvio Berlusconi, a story which has eclipsed all other Italian news. For most commentators, such is the logical endgame of seven years of Berlusconian buffoonery played out in the world press. But behind this lies an older attitude – the old refusal to take Italy seriously. The country is all show – or rather all showbusiness, behind which nothing of substance rests.

Similar feelings were expressed in the 1920s in foreign reactions to the rise of another northern Italian strongman. Berlusconi is no Benito Mussolini, but the political lessons remain. Within 13 years of the Fascist rise to power, Italy had illegally invaded Abyssinia, gassed thousands of Africans and was under League of Nations sanctions. But outside commentary in the early years of what the Fascists portentously called the New Era more or less restricted itself to poking fun at its inflated rhetoric and delusions of grandeur.

A 1920s French cartoon, typical for its time, showed the Fascists as Romulus and Remus blowing on the udders of a she-wolf, grotesquely blown up like a balloon. Talk from the Duce about a new Roman empire was treated with ridicule, as hot air. Whilst the political cant was laughed off, British newspapers, magazines and travel guides were often heartily enthusiastic about the improved conditions of Italy: tourist sites restored, transport made efficient, bureaucracy cut.

Nowadays what we ignore when we snigger at Italy is an increasingly dramatic turn towards racism and insularity. In visits to Berlusconi’s Italy over the last eight years I have seen swastikas daubed on walls, graffiti urging the expulsion of Romanians, and most chillingly, the simple words ‘Muslims in the ovens’ scrawled on a twenty euro note. Berlusconi says he doesn’t like the idea of a ‘multi-ethnic’ Italy; and his alliance with the post-Fascist National Alliance and the increasingly anti-immigrant Northern League suggest he won’t be changing his tune any time soon. Laughing at Berlusconi won’t make any difference. His bluff, ‘man on the street’ crassness is also the core of his support.

The Italian Left respond with soporific, academic lectures that have little broad-base appeal. Whilst Berlusconi is known as the ‘cavaliere’, ‘the knight’, the centre-left leader Romano Prodi (whose spell in power briefly broke Berlusconi’s reign in 2006 to 2008) has always been referred to as the ‘Professor’. On the left, bookish owlishness; on the right, theatrical clowning interpreted as ‘man of action’ valour. On the sidelines, the world laughs. When travellers like Goethe, Byron and Shelley came to Italy in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, they tended to imagine that no-one lived there – that Italy was a country of ruins. The ruins remain, but a potentially explosive mixture of xenophobia and rightist politics is brewing behind the palazzo façades. If we and the leaders of the EU treated the clown king Berlusconi with less indulgence, we might find his antics rather less amusing.

David Barnes is a poet, prose writer, and academic who recently completed his PhD on portrayals of Venice. He has delivered papers on Ezra Pound internationally, and is a contributor to our ‘Erroneous Disposition of the People’ publication.

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