The Art and Writing of David & Ping Henningham
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I

Five metres from a slipper bath filled with ice and cocktails, discussing Modernist Art with Paul Mason, Jenny Broom, Aysulu and Anna (from British Council Russia) we found we had experienced the same epiphany as Paul at the Tretyakov Gallery that day. We had been confronted by an alternative narrative of the origins of Modernist figurative painting; confronted by a different version of Malevich’s Black Square than we had previously seen mediated by magazines and text books.

The black pigment of the square was parched so that yellow and red oblongs were visible through the cracks. Where the black persisted the surface texture betrayed numerous oblongs underneath that crossed the threshold of the famous square.

An X-Ray of Malevich’s Black Suprematic Square, 1915

The didactic square from art history turned out to be the completion of numerous false starts and revisions towards simplicity. That’s a very different story. Black Square was preceded and followed by masterpieces we’d never seen. Marc Chagall on an epic scale was a revelation for many of us at the table. Exhilarated, we began flicking through everything we know between Beveridge and Woolf, wondering if we had been sold a partial version of Modernist art history.

This encounter with The Square was emblematic of our whole experience of Moscow. The painting and the place, when mediated, are both abridged. The Black Square loses its texture and presence, just as Russia becomes reduced to its foreign policy and Putin fridge magnets. My ignorance of Russia’s view of itself, which is the result of Russian politics and British media, prevents me from understanding the spectrum of their fears and ambitions. The red and yellow oblongs under the square remind me of the striking diversity of peoples within the Russian Federation. Their government very consciously celebrates this, and a new park will feature all four terrains found within the Federation. However, this cosmopolitan theme was already commonplace under the USSR, evident in the regenerated park at VDNKh where pavilions were built from the materials and styles of different distant Soviet Republics. Today, Russians from some of these races find actual social mobility within the Federation does not live up to the ideal. How familiar. Yet what I found embarrassing is that such an important tension within Russia was news to me. And is this any surprise when on Russian TV their politicians do normal things, like look at their smartphones, but British media employs the same old newsreel shorthand of earnest white faces bobbing on a sea of little communist claps. Russian ‘alternative media’ does no better, piping out mirror image foreign policy to Anglo-American discontents who are still hoping for one accurate news source. Its fanbase would do far better to visit Russia and get a sense of its diversity, contradictions and tensions over Georgian dumplings.

II

The British Council delegation we belonged to was assembled to represent the UK as guests of honour at Non/fiction Literature Fair during the UK Russia Year of Language and Literature 2016, and satellite events in bookshops, museums and galleries. Over dinner Jonathan Coe made the kind of fascinating, nuanced observations about innovation in contemporary fiction you would expect from an accomplished novelist who is also B.S. Johnson’s biographer.

Jonathan Coe introducing B.S. Johnson

Jonathan Coe introducing B.S. Johnson at Non/Fiction

Like A Fiery Elephant executes the manoeuvre of engendering sympathy and admiration for B.S. Johnson, at times an unpleasant person, salvaging his life and his art without employing the unsatisfactory excuse that they are distinct. He did the same for a Russian audience in the UK Pavilion, briefly a revivalist tent where the majority pledged to read some Johnson. I hope they also read Coe’s new book, Number 11.

Jim Crace

Jim Crace

Jim Crace, author of Harvest, was another inspiring personality. He has what my Russian friend calls ‘a face accustomed to smiling’ and his conversation alternates between humility and encouragement. Much like Paul Mason, who is always animated, active, alert to whatever political events are unfolding and the fact that news can appear from anyone anywhere at any time. He often interrupts himself mid-sentence to greet a new arrival at the table, “Hi, we haven’t met, I’m Paul.” There were many more people like this. These Islands produce some impressive people sometimes, and we were enjoying all this from ‘the kids’ table’, with Emma Healey, whose novel Elizabeth Is Missing I enjoyed greatly, delightful children’s author and publisher Jenny Broom, and comic artist Tom Gauld. The latter two and ourselves also spent some time working with students at the British Higher School of Art and Design; Russian students, primarily, taught in English in Christopher Rainbow’s groundbreaking BA Illustration department.

III

British Artists were a bit late to Modernism. It was a reaction to what was happening over there. Less a response to Modernity, than a plaintive “why can’t modernity happen here?” emerging from a stuffy sitting room. What better subject for my lecture at the British Higher School than the link between one of Moscow’s most enthusiastic citizens, Kandinsky, and London’s avant garde. Edward Wadsworth praised and reported On The Spiritual In Art in BLAST! for the advancement of abstract painting in Britain. I also told the story of David Bomberg at the Ballets Russes, and London’s rejection of Italian Futurism. The students contrasted Marinetti’s machine worship with our blasé use of technology, contemporary interest in the hand made and ecological design. They were brilliant students.

Next day I led a day-long collaborative workshop in which we would design a system of simple cut-out glyphs that we could use to screenprint sounds commonly used in both English and Russian. I had sent a lesson plan to prime them for my arrival, but so well prepared were these excellent students that we had done the pre-lunch part of my plan by eleven. Just as well, as I’d not realised how long lunch would be. Three students had pretty much fully realised alphabets of their own before we began, so we had plenty to work with, but it must belong to all of us. We worked through strategic questions. Would our glyphs refer to Cyrillic or Latin or ignore them? Would they be diagrammatic? Would they, like Kandinsky’s art, be forms that refer to gut feelings or the elements of art? In pairs, we made cut outs representing different sounds that had been distributed. In response to these questions we critiqued our results. Finally, my lesson plan long exhausted and pedagogical improvisation taking its place, we extracted elemental flourishes we could all agree on, then used these to make a final stab at our assigned sounds.

The BA Illustration Students' Final Glyphs

The BA Illustration Students’ Final Glyphs

We stopped short of creating modifying punctuation marks. And just as well, as I suddenly realised I was no less than four hours late for my next engagement and I had lost my voice. (Which is normal for work like this. Often that phone in your hotel room will ring soon after you enter it, knackered, and someone who has been looking after you and that you are yet to meet will ask you a question that you cannot answer about where you are supposed to be). Yet our process of refinement could easily have gone on to create a very minimal set of shapes with modifying dots and circles to create a universal phonic set. How Modernist is that!

David discussing the students' phonics with Dame Marina Warner

David discussing the students’ phonics with Marina Warner

IV

A screenprinting workshop was built for us within the British Pavilion. While talks and signings happened we contributed to the general hubbub as we worked with our groups of students to improvise screenprints; composing, choosing colours, binding sheets. The drying prints bobbed overhead while the public witnessed and contributed to our process of creation and execution. A favourite exchange was with a man who works in a screenprinting factory who couldn’t believe we could print with so little equipment. “How are you doing this!” he kept asking, as if we were magicians.

BA Illustration class continues in the UK Pavilion

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Preparing to print

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Learning to Screenprint freehand

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Two print stations running simultaneously

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Drying the prints

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Each colour represents a beat in the spoken rhythm. Each shape a phonetic sound.

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Reviewing the first print and composing the next design with cut out paper.

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Strips of five feet being bound into one book.

 

The dry prints were made into a massive book, five foot-long pages in each line, like the five metrical feet of Shakespeare’s Iambic Pentameter; ti-TUM ti-TUM ti-TUM ti-TUM ti-TUM. Here is a decoding of the concrete poem we wrote as we went, which became a kind of picture story about love, with two characters, or souls, living on a mountain in the spring. A betrayal leads to quarrelling, one soul leaves for the sea. Sorcery, dreams, comfort eating and finally forgiveness and reconciliation. How Shakespearean is that!

весна душа гора душа весна
мечта весна мечта весна мечта
весна душа гора измена весна
измена мечта измена мечта измена
гора душа хула душа коралл
душа гора хула коралл душа
гора немой немой немой коралл
гора ворожба мечта измена коралл
еда мечта немой мечта еда
мечта еда немой мечта еда
весна ворожба прощай измена весна
весна душа прощай душа весна
прощай душа гора душа прощай
село село маяк село немой

spring soul mountain soul spring
dream spring dream spring dream
spring soul mountain treason spring
treason dream treason dream treason
mountain soul reviling soul coral
soul mountain reviling coral soul
mountain dumb dumb dumb coral
mountain sorcery dream treason coral
food dream dumb dream food
dream food dumb dream food
spring sorcery forgive treason spring
spring soul forgive soul spring
forgive soul mountain soul forgive
country country lighthouse country dumb

Of course, in the original, the colour panels are like a tapestry creating rhythm through repetition and their position in space in a way that text on a page alone cannot. The panels are more like characters moving on a stage than tiny printed words. It concludes with a nod to Mayakovsky (маяковского), no stranger to recording tempestuous love affairs in print, in the form of a lighthouse (маяк) set in a landscape.

V

Representing Britain. The British Council (and Literature) made this easier, representing as they do the best of British. One Russian cab driver welcomed Brexit as a sign that white people everywhere can now federate at arms length in championing their ethno-national interests. Most Muscovites were far more cosmopolitan in their views. But international opinions I heard brought one moral dimension of Brexit to mind; envy.

The thing about coveting your neighbours wife, or their ass, is that the fantasy never includes the process by which it could come to pass. Fantasy demands the suspension of logistical realities. A person may think they’d be happier if they were married to the woman next door, but once the work of obtaining an ex-wife, breaking up the neighbours’ marriage, traumatising the kids, moving house, alimony and so on and on – it can hardly be the same dream in the end. Many, though not all, of British referendands displayed this kind of self-delusion about what we would get in terms of money, resources and trade outside the EU. Politics isn’t merely about declaring ones own wishes, but pursuing a civil society that includes those on the breadline and EU citizens now at home in the UK; those with the least say by volume and set to lose the most. Should the United Kingdom remain.. Can the United Kingdom remain united.? Apparently not.

This is a lesson from literature, from Shakespeare, where for centuries actors have committed the same mistakes, lusts and treasons, imagined the same delightful ends and fallen short with foolish means, staged twice daily so we don’t have to. What is the point in rehearsing tragedy when all the world insists on being a stage? And, in this era of global citizenship, will geriatric Britain be content with dishing out Cowerdly put-downs it believes give an air of sophistication, when in fact they betray British insecurity? The UK merely tolerated for the money it generates? Or conceals? Yet Britain, for now, is still admired for its culture; our biggest “export”. Is culture, like most exports, rarely consumed by the natives?

One Official, dressing wisdom as wit like a Shakespearean fool, made a speech in which they declared that we will unite the world through art. Solidarity! I agree. Building society is what art is really good at, delineating a territory for objective human cooperation and appreciation.

Our delegation’s experience would be valuable for all. Our Government can support the pioneering work of the British Council by cancelling costly visas, Russia could begin by making holiday and trade visa concessions to Moscow and St Petersburg. This would allow a groundswell of humanity to take root and bypass the old discredited, divisive diplomatic channels.

My lasting impression is that Muscovites and Londoners can scarcely ever have been so similar as we are now, and we must not let the populist opportunists and the politicians who pander to them keep us apart.

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We are honoured to be included in this wonderful visual poetry anthology from Hayward Publishing (Hayward Gallery) alongside the likes of Vito Acconci, Christian Bok, Fiona Banner, Peter Finch, Ian Hamilton Finlay, Cerith Wyn Evans… and I note several very smart people we can also call our friends:

The New Concrete

Visual Poetry Since 2000
Edited by Victoria Bean and Chris McCabe

The New Concrete

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Letters Home
The First World War Poetry Kit

Letters Home Poetry Kit

Letters Home Poetry Kit

Henningham Family Press and The Saison Poetry Library
14pp, ISBN: 9780956316615

The exhibition of An Unknown Soldier at the Royal Festival Hall that ran from November to January has now come down, but it will have a legacy in the Poetry Library for a few years yet.

We have collaborated on a book of exercises in writing Modernist poetry with Librarians Chris McCabe, Lorraine Mariner and Pascal O’Loughlin. This all ages resource (6+) introduces some of the movements in poetry that the First World War helped introduce to the world, such as Apollinaire’s Calligrammes, Imagism, Vorticism, Surrealism and Dada. It will primarily be used to guide school groups or individuals visiting the Saison Poetry Library off the more familiar paths through war poetry, but hopefully it will have legs far beyond the Royal Festival Hall.

Most of the letter games reference the enormous amount of correspondence between Home and Front; 2 billion letters and 114 million parcels. In keeping with our exhibition, inspired by the recent use of DNA on letters home to identify casualties, the book culminates in a game we devised that takes the rules DNA uses to build our bodies to build a strand of visual poetry that can be split and rewritten by a group. The negotiation and collaboration involved is intended as a contrast to the abuse of language and power that war entails. Just like a human body is built through the writing and reading of base-pairs, solidarity in a body of people is achieve through the honest use of arts and language. The pieces punch out of a die-cut sheet and are assembled as part of the collaborative writing process.

If you are interested in using this resource at the Poetry Library you can just pop in and ask for it, they are free and the Librarians can help. Bigger groups can arrange a visit with Chris McCabe via the form on the Library website. If you are interested in acquiring a batch of these for educational use offsite you can also contact us here directly, or Chris McCabe at the Library.

The Letter Games use simple steps, chance and basic word pairings that enable people of all abilities to do the book solo or as part of a group. So next time it is cold and rainy, remember you have been invited to take your children, spouse or literary best friend up to the Poetry Library and ask them for a Letters Home booklet:

Poetry Library
Level 5
Royal Festival Hall
London SE1 8XX

photographs: Harpreet Kalsi

Letter Game 1: Calligrammes

Letter Game 1: Calligrammes

Letter Game 6: 3D dna poetry

Letter Game 6: 3D DNA poetry

holo

Dazzle Foiling

 

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The Times Literary Supplement, ‘the leading international forum for literary culture’, has published a celebratory review of ‘An Unknown Soldier’. You can read the review here:

Against Unremembering

In the review David Collard puts our poem into context, saying:

Henningham’s mordant wit and avant-garde flair is part of another poetic tradition stretching back to Wyndham Lewis, Ezra Pound and the Dada pranksters of Zurich, although the first truly modernist treatment of the conflict in English emerged only in 1937 with the publication of David Jones’s In Parenthesis.

He says our current exhibition at The Saison Poetry Library, which continues until January 4th 2015:

brings a much-needed sense of indignation and disgust to present-day rituals of commemoration and gives a voice to the anonymous war dead of all nations without tapping into simple patriotic sentimentality.

Anyone interested in snapping up one of the remaining copies of the Paperback version of An Unknown Soldier will find it here:
Buy Now via Book Price 24 From £11.59
Buy Now on Amazon From £8.81
About An Unknown Soldier paperback

An Unknown Soldier paperback version

The exhibition at The Saison Poetry Library shows all the works to date associated with An Unknown Soldier:

The Saison Poetry Library,
Level 5, Royal Festival Hall
Southbank Centre
London SE1 8XX

FREE

Open Daily Tuesday – Sunday 11am – 8pm
Tuesday 4th November 2014 – Sunday 4th January 2015

Contact: David Henningham

An Unknown Soldier (detail)

An Unknown Soldier (detail)

An Unknown Soldier (installation)

An Unknown Soldier (installation)

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I gave a short talk in the Southbank Centre on Remembrance Sunday. Sir Andrew Motion began the day with a reading of Wilfred Owen’s Dulce Et Decorum Est, and the centrepiece was a performance of Britten’s War Requiem, chiefly featuring players representative of the age for military service. There’s a link at the end for the video that preceded that performance, a virtuoso bit of arts education. Between these two main events, numerous talks and workshops took place all over the Southbank Centre. Below you’ll find the notes for my talk, which some people have expressed an interest in reading.

The exhibition continues until 4th January 2015, and is open Tuesday – Sunday, 11am – 8pm
The Poetry Library, Level 5, Royal Festival Hall
(take the singing lift.)

 

An Unknown Soldier: Remembrance, Technology, Modernism

In the Old Testament, when God asks Cain about his brother’s whereabouts, and Cain says that he is not his brother’s keeper, God’s reply is very interesting. He says:

What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground. Now you are under a curse and driven from the ground, which opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. When you work the ground, it will no longer yield its crops for you. You will be a restless wanderer on the earth.

Cain then receives a mark, a memorial on his body of what he did. We’ve often seen new dimensions to this ancient story over the last few years as we’ve worked at the Henningham Family Press on this series of poems and prints entitled An Unknown Soldier.

The Henningham Family Press is the collaborative art and writing of my wife Ping, and myself. We write, print and bind our own books, and make them live through performances and readings.

We believe it is a vital function of art to commemorate wars. Yet in these works of Remembrance it is difficult not to sanitise and Romanticise the immediate past. It has become even more difficult because of the dehumanising effects of Industrial war in Europe with the Great War of 1914. This Industrial effect was at every level; factory produced munitions that were to be swallowed up by No-Man’s Land, industrial transport networks such as trains and iron ships to bring the soldiers to the Front, and industrial printing technology that would enable the propaganda to recruit a vast body of volunteers and the bureaucratic stationary needed to move them all. In the age of Henry V some men were not there on Crispins Day, and that was because of a lack of effective advertising.

When we realised we were making a piece of commemorative art, about the bodies of the fallen, we felt that the image of an intact fallen soldier, like Michelangelo’s statue of a Dying Slave, is too graceful. He appears to be swooning. But the real soldiers marched into No Man’s Land and disappeared. Their remains were bombarded year after year. These able bodied men became like a chorus of Abels crying out from the ground. This is why The Tomb of the Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey is such an apt memorial; it testifies to the fact that the destruction wrought by the First World War is beyond our comprehension or healing power.

The Tomb contains the remains of a soldier who died early on in the war, but whose body had no identifying marks. After an elaborate process of selection and impromptu rituals, he arrived in London on November 11th, 1920 and brought the city to a standstill. It was a former Army padre, the Rev David Railton, who’d had the original idea, and Westminster and the King wavered over it for almost four years. But their enthusiasm and the public approval of the gesture increased to suddenly become the focal point of national grief. At midnight, carrying a lantern, Brigadier General L.J. Wyatt selected the body at random from four bodies that lay under Union Flags in a hut in Ypres. This chosen soldier was met by a flotilla of six ships with Naval honours reserved for the King, as if he were now King over England’s underside, and his funeral was attended by a battalion of widows and grieving mothers. The biggest crowd ever seen in London silently paid their respects and a quarter of London’s population came to stand by the Tomb and wonder if he were their family. But today the remains of the fallen cry out from the ground in a new way.

When I heard a report on the radio about an Anglo-Australian experiment identifying soldier’s remains using DNA, extracted from their teeth to match with known relatives, or even the saliva on envelopes from their letters home, it immediately occurred to me that we would probably never use these techniques to identify the Unknown Warrior. Yet by refraining from identifying him we would still be changing his significance underground. Because of our deliberate decision to not identify him, in itself a proper mark of respect, he might now also alert us to a reluctance to uncover the past and learn from it. Yet this is entirely in keeping with his calling. This new brush with DNA technology intensifies his warning to us, that we must avoid a dangerous faith in technology to resolve conflict on its own. He continues to raise the question, ‘why are we still so dependant on industrial warfare, despite our wealth and experience?’ It is very significant that an advance in technology has threatened this soldier again; he is sensitive to hubris.

“Lest we forget” is everywhere engraved in stone, and this has taught us to be reluctant to go to war. But it is tempting to obscure the engraving with a neon sign that can alternate between “lest we forget” and “forget”. The Cabinet, under the immense pressures of government, will feel this temptation. The public feel the same temptation to assume our advanced weaponry can provide a quick fix. It is Realpolitik like this that encouraged me to write the first part of An Unknown Soldier, ‘Preparatory Oratory’. It is a satire on political abuses of Remembrance rites, and also the inherent risk that Remembrance can produce mass amnesia rather than solidarity, if we feel satisfied by the event but do not continue on towards efforts for peace today, or as I put it in the poem:

From the picking up of The Sun to the putting of it down again, we will remember them.

But I feel this year has been good for us. Numerous astute Centenary events, such as this one here at the Southbank Centre, have marshalled our respect for this important occasion. They have reminded us of the history, re-evaluated the history, and preserved it. Thousands of engraved memorials have received both physical and intergenerational maintenance in 2014.

[What I would have added at this point, had I known about it at the time, is the threat the Coalition Government pose to our WW1 heritage. Massive cuts to budgets for the Imperial War Museum will force the closure of the library, dispersal of the archives, and cessation of many education initiatives that continue the cautionary spirit of Remembrance Day year round. Not to mention that, from what I’ve overheard when I am there, the IWM is a regular port of call for people active in the armed services trying to explain the pressures they face to their children. It will only cost £4m to keep this cautionary heritage alive. We spent £248 million bombing Libya, according to Chalmers, and according to Jane’s that would buy us 4 or 5 Storm Shadow cruise missiles, which are currently being used in the Middle East. Again. It would also keep a Tornado in the air for just 110 hours – a mere 13 days of museum opening. Meanwhile David Cameron wants the museum to permanently host some ceramic poppies from the Tower of London because he thinks it is “the right place for it to be.” Are we really going to let our government mark the WW1 Centenary by treating our own archives with the same contempt they showed the National Museum of Iraq? A priceless collection dispersed simply to balance a temporary glitch in our national fortunes?

READ this article in the TLS explaining the situation

SIGN this petition at change.org

It is a vital function of art to commemorate wars because words are the alternative to violence. Art nurtures ‘democratic communication’, a use of language that equips itself as it goes along to strengthen our local and international community. George Orwell reminds us that words can be also used as Political Language, which distorts the present and rewrites the past, but art that discloses our intentions, rather than veiling them, civilises us. Art frames and preserves our peace and passes it onto future generations.

This is the context we were working in for our poem ‘An Unknown Soldier’. Lots of prints have come out of this project now, and these are all on display here in the gallery of the Saison Poetry Library. These prints take quotes from the central poem and rework them. The Imperial paper sizes allow us to hint at call-up posters, postcards, martial instruction manuals. The kind of industrial print that facilitated a new kind of war. They all feature patterns we drew that hint at security envelopes – carrying both letters, and DNA code, home.

‘An Unknown Soldier’, though, is composed of three documents housed in a screenprinted wooden box. It begins with a poem of instruction, ‘Preparatory Oratory’. This pamphlet is equally influenced by the Book of Common Prayer and the Vorticist manifesto BLAST. The artist Wyndham Lewis edited this manifesto in 1914, attacking both the stuffy Edwardian values of England and the dehumanising machine worship of Futurist abstract art on the Continent. The words in the Vorticist manifesto congregate and tumble as if they are being expelled from a whirlpool. This vortex is the individual human spirit of invention and reinvention.

The second part of our poem is a screenprinted text of thirteen panels. We imagined the remains of the fallen Soldier being called up from the earth for a second time, like the no-men of no-man’s land speaking all at once, recruited by you as you read the body of text. Confused by your proposal, as the recruiting sergeant, he takes you on a tour of no-man’s land, which is both his kingdom and his body, saying:

Un est something uf n master-path smith;
one foot n hammer, nuh other n anvil.

His dialect is a kind of hopeless Esperanto, a corrupted jumble of English, French, German, Flemish, and Latin. The conjunctions have decayed the most to leave the more solid vocabulary like disjointed bones. His personal pronoun is the nugatory ‘Un’, and the normal determiner a is replaced with the non-specific algebraic term n. In this way we have made the individual words in a sentence have a destabilising effect on each other and they tend towards uncertainty, like Dada. The more uplifting vowel sounds have been eliminated, creating a sombre percussive sound for the tongue and restricting the jaw movements of the reader. We also invented new letter forms, similar to the Vorticist art and Dazzle Camouflage of Edward Wadsworth from that period. He was employed as a camoufleur to create bright, disorienting patterns that were reproduced on warships and confounded First World War optics. In our font, slabs like limestone headstones are penetrated by various prisms to create voids and negative spaces that resemble both glyphs and trenches. These fragments of visual poetry cut into the page and simultaneously emphasise and mute the text, a kind of dumb shouting that hints at the important message repeated by the inarticulate warrior. These occur at all the key locations in his body.

In fact the position of the stanzas on the wall reflects the human frame like a mirror. For example, the phrase ‘Red Giant’ describes a dying star hovering over no-man’s land, and also shows where his heart used to be. ‘The Capital’ is at his belly, then he takes you on to ‘The Nobiskrug’ in his stomach, which is the little known legendary tavern on the road to hell. This is where he and his friends spend the ferryman’s wages on one last drink. The Nobiskrug, or ‘hourglass’, is a memento mori. It reminds us that life, just like a refreshing pint of beer, will come to an end and our glass will be collected, no matter how well we nurse it. Then you progress on to the ‘Semen’s Mission’, an absurd mixture between clinic and nightclub, where the soldier discusses the lost generation. Finally the ‘Labour Exchange’, at the knee, is where Miners arrived and exchanged their pits for trenches. This place continues to act as a portal between life and death, all the time receiving new recruits for the life underground who bring news of future wars.

Many horrors were never put into words, and there is a void at the heart of the stories recounted in An Unknown Soldier like no-man’s land itself. Part three of the poem, ‘Funeral, March’, is a triptych of verses that reflect on the legacy for my family, bound as a small Order of Service. It concludes with this affirmation of my enduring hope in technology; the tale of Grandad Jack, a veteran and an Engineer who made a copying machine. Machinery that proliferates life-giving words instead of killing boys and men. It goes:

At Roneo Works
Grandad Jack,
who I never met,
in his capacity as a toolmaker
constructed one of the first copying machines.

Many of the engineers gathered
to look at the marvellous blueprints
plotting constellations of cogs and gears
placed with uncommon precision
by the commissioning mathematician.
His clarity of vision
for this mimeographic microcosmos
suggested he could handle
the responsibility of the skies

Yet Wilf,
as Jack was also called,
performed an equal marvel
in that the machine worked first time
with no recourse to engineer’s blue
and no need of fine tuning.

 

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An Unknown Soldier: An Exhibition by Henningham Family Press

There will be a FREE Opening Event on Friday 7th November, 7.30pm at which we will be giving out a small, free limited edition print, and reading an extract from An Unknown Soldier with the assistance of James Wilkes and Erica Jarnes. Booking is essential by email to:

specialedition [at] poetrylibrary [dot] org [dot] uk
Open Daily Tuesday – Sunday 11am – 8pm
Tuesday 4th November 2014 – Sunday 4th January 2015

Poetry Library
Level 5
Royal Festival Hall
London SE1 8XX

ge_1

We are very honoured to announce that the Saison Poetry Library, which is the major British library for modern and contemporary poetry, has invited us to stage a solo exhibition of all our work from An Unknown Soldier to date. This will be part of the Southbank Centre‘s programme of First World War Centenary events. This will be a mini-retrospective of dozens of prints and books made between 2011 and 2014, some on display for the first time.

First World War casualties can now be identified with saliva gleaned from postage stamps on their letters home. This DNA technology unintentionally transforms the memorial to the Unknown Soldier in Westminster Abbey forever. In his anonymity he had stood for those lost to the destructive power of industrialised war. In our poem An Unknown Soldier we reconstruct him as a body of text, interrupted by trench-like letter forms, and ask: Has the Unknown Soldier, in the DNA age, become a symbol for our failure to learn from the past?

The exhibition will also include the four screenprint editions from our SGM Lifewords commission. The original 43 million Active Service John’s Gospels came off the same presses that printed recruitment propaganda, yet Father God and Fatherland presented contradictory visions of peace, both contending for the allegiance of soldiers in the form of printed words.

Details on Poetry Library website
Details on Southbank Centre website

An Unknown Soldier Project Page
An Unknown Soldier Blog Thread

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The recent collection of WG Sebald’s biographical writings, entitled A Place In the Country, invites us to consider the influence of six great writers that were dear to Sebald during his life, the implication being that he too belongs on the list. The six greats are ‘tormented souls,’ and it is ‘their absolute failure to accommodate life and art, to which Sebald returns again and again.’ The priority for this collection is the window it may open onto Sebald’s own corpus through his analysis of ‘those who devote their lives to literature, “the hapless writers trapped in their web of words.” Caught between a ‘nostalgic utopia’ and the ‘inexorable march of progress towards the brink of the abyss’. But I was surprised to find there was a far more definite connection running through these essays than that of the clairvoyant Romantic artist cliché, who apparently risks being claimed by this generation of scholars as a sort of first-trimester-Psychogeographer. The floppy word ‘life’ in the introduction obscures the word economics, a concern which comes up metronomically in these essays; the chief repetition that makes it clear that they form a complete work together.

This is economics in the specific sense of coming to terms with the demands of nature upon us; οἰκονομία (household management). Sebald meditates on how the artist should arrange their living while the shifting terms of our truce with Nature exacerbate an already precarious position. This very valuable book oscillates between two poles, the French Revolution and the Industrial Revolution. As we pass (roughly) chronologically with the six authors through these paradigm shifts Nazism looms, of course. But when we reach it Nazism is viewed through the lens of a German Agricultural political heritage, managed with a mailed fist.

Yet what is most interesting is the way in which Sebald returns so deliberately to this economic theme in each essay but completely fails to interrogate its significance, like a face-blind man confidently and repeatedly showing you a photographic portrait. What is absent is an account of the role capital has to play in making utopia affordable; some would say inevitable. The commemorative arts in antiquity encircled the Polis, and belonged to a way of life where ‘household management’ had been taken care of. For the Greeks this was when you could enjoy the scrutiny of your peers, or in the Modernist era, when you could afford a room of your own. Literature is life After Wealth. In these essays Sebald erroneously applies the Romantic Sublime to the overbearing endurance of capital; wealth that outlives its accumulators; a financial process that has been impiously elevated to the immortality of nature. The tiny human figure in this new picture doesn’t stand on top of a mountain – he stands on a mezzanine overlooking a vast Chongqing factory floor.

What inspires Sebald’s vertigo inducing vision of capital is his conflation of the Terror of political revolution with the Industrial Revolution:

There lurks the fear of the chaos of time spinning ever more rapidly out of control. When the young Mörike (1804-1875) begins writing, he has at his back the revolutionary upheavals of the end of the eighteenth century, while the terrors which herald the new age of industrialisation are already silhouetted on the horizon, the turmoil unleashed by the accumulation of capital and the moves towards the centralisation of a new, cast-iron state authority. The Swabian quietism Mörike subscribed to is – like all the Biedermeier arts – a kind of instinctive defence mechanism in the face of the calamity to come.

In the short-term this is an opinion that has its merits. The uprooting and redistribution of muscle power around the British Isles was a social calamity with effects that some argue are still felt today (I have no idea if the same was true in Germany). Political revolution and Industrial revolution both open up periods of innovation and experiment that bewilder and exploit those that live within them. Yet it seems clear enough that Sebald sees this ‘spinning out of control’ as an inherent and enduring property of Capitalism, rather than an extension of the disdain that landowners had already felt towards the working classes for generations. Yet the ‘precariousness’ of life in this new paradigm seems to me to be nothing more than the experience of its novelty.

Sebald’s view that capital is destabilising and spiritually corrosive is unconvincing given all the energy that has been harnessed and labour saved so far. I doubt any system has liberated more individuals to be able to enter education and spend time on the arts as Capitalism. I am one of those fortunate enough to have received the general life-long bursary of industrial commonwealth. Even unsuccessful artists like myself can persist in making art without starving to death. Mörike’s ‘defence mechanism’ is merely an inability to understand the forces at work, and the same nostalgic ‘wishful utopia against progress’ we find amongst the Stoke Newington Set.

But Sebald is not without insight into the ways that humanity can practice old sins with new capital. Keller’s character Heinrich describes the elaborate domestic rituals by which his mother lives on almost nothing. Sebald demonstrates ingeniously how this tale, which deliberately evokes saintliness and the legendary, does not provide an alternative to capitalism as it first appears, but is an exemplary case of capital accumulation. Keller (1819-1890) was ‘obliged to experience first hand how what has been painstakingly saved up by means of self-denial is carried over to the next generation as debt.’ The mother has created a perverse kind of ancestor worship whereby she can watch over Heinrich for the rest of his life even though they both know she cannot see him beyond her grave.

Yet Sebald goes on to repeat the erroneous mantra of this book, ‘Keller was one of the first to recognise the havoc which proliferation of capital inevitably unleashes upon the natural world, upon society, and upon the emotional life of mankind.’ The irony is that Keller’s critique does not go far enough for today’s reader. If one were to scale up the mother’s mode of living on almost nothing, as we find in the slums, we would discover it is in fact a highly inefficient and polluting way of life. Not only does she hand over an emotional debt to the son, these legions of modest dwellings deforest and pollute the natural world. What Sebald fails to appreciate in all of these essays is that Industry is the art of making a high standard of living available to billions, while reducing their effect on the environment. Capital creates thriving cities which reduce the area humanity occupies, while providing for their needs with far less energy. Capital dissolves social castes and provides myriad alternatives to prostitution in deprived zones. Capital allows people who were destined for the production line to obtain an emotional, intellectual life. The question isn’t how capitalism can be slowed down to an acceptable pace for middle class Europeans, but rather how we can get over ourselves more quickly while capital gives access to commonwealth for these others we once, perhaps we still consider inferior to ourselves. The more people involved in this process globally, the sooner climate and conflict can be resolved.

The middle class fear is that if all mod cons are given to everyone the planet will choke, but this is wrong-headed. The process of delivering technologies to the masses demands their constant reinvention – new forms that do the same work with less effort.

True gold, for Keller, is always spun with great effort from next to nothing… False gold, meanwhile, is the rampant proliferation of capital constantly reinvested, the perverter of all good instincts.

No. These common sense instincts are factually flawed, just as the observation that the sun goes round the earth is an anthropocentric illusion. Keller’s alternative to capitalism is a system of barter exemplified by Frau Margret who owns a junk shop. Junk is brought by customers who pay tribute to her with consumables, their pre-capitalist Matriarch (also idealised by Engels). No, Keller can keep his tribal obsequiousness. And his junk can be sorted into the fruits of Work and Labour, the latter to be scrapped and recast in better, life-affirming forms.

This praxis of living on nothing is reprised in Sebald’s praise for Robert Walser, (1878-1956) a transient exigence imposed to some extent by the Nazis. Walser’s life story testifies that when the world goes mad you must enter the asylum. Walser was key to Sebald’s realisation that ‘everything is connected across space and time’, which is the true kernel of his writing practice; currently being trudged into the mud by the new breed of professional psychogeographers. They can even obtain a Chair in Psychogeography in a respected university, not that they would dream of sitting down. One such synergy is ‘Natural history and the history of our industries’ – this is a profound connection of two categories usually treated as opposites, prominent in After Nature, and this is surely Sebald’s most rewarding observation about capital – that the rigours of nature, harnessed, are at the heart of Industry. This seems obvious, but most people behave as if nature is a gentle equilibrium that needs to be defended from our interventions. Sebald sees nature as something temporary on the face of the Earth, a senseless botcher that undoes the marvel it achieved blindly moments before. Industry exports this chaotic genius from the automatic operations of our cells. Motor proteins are directly related to motor cars. Sebald’s error is to be intimidated by this and join with these other great authors who claimed Agriculture as a stalemate; a compromise with nature. The allotment garden seems a good place to get off, and it is no accident that many academics hope to be allotted a quiet room where they can tend their books and papers like vegetables in a greenhouse. But there is ‘never a stop’, and as successive generations of engineers take it in turns to kick Malthus in the balls, we will find widespread equality, freedom and cooperation demand automation.

It is hard to explain why Sebald sees frustrated wisdom in these agricultural obsessions. He even goes on to explain that allotment settlements in Berlin in Mörike’s time were created as an expression of a desire to extend the Fatherland and create German colonies in Africa and Tahiti. In this case it is Agricultural idealism, not the manic stock market, which is fertile ground for nationalistic tyranny. Nazi Germany hid a beating industrial heart behind an Agricultural screen of blood and soil. German factory workers would mail-order peasant outfits from Nazi periodicals to wear at the weekend. So why does Sebald double-back and describe centralised state authority and capitalist accumulation as bedfellows when they have an inherent antipathy? Surely Germany was a very peculiar case in harbouring both. Without the failure of capitalism, stock market crashes and war reparations, it is hard to imagine Nazism would have had so much appeal. The slavish sameness of the Nazi production line isn’t one of productivity worship – it is emblematic of the death of the individual, consummated in death on the battlefield. The robot is their ideal citizen. The Nazi attitude to butter is famous: I can’t believe it’s not bullets.

This German heritage of agriculture and aristocratic authoritarianism is hinted at in Sebald’s essay on Hebel (1760-1826). He was the editor and principal contributor to an almanac, the Hausfreund, which can be considered emblematic of the importance of ‘household management’ to that particular writer.

At no point were his hopes and philosophy directed at a violent and bloody reversal of the status quo. His concern was only ever for the practical improvement of the living conditions of the people, such as promoted by Karl Friedrich, Grand Duke of Baden.

This member of the Aristocracy advocated the ideas of the French Physiocrats, whose ‘economic philosophy’ centred on Agriculture. Sebald’s judgement is that this group wished to inoculate the German Aristocracy against revolution with a dose of ‘Bourgeois rationality’, conserving the natural order of benevolent despotism. Germany would become ‘a large and flourishing garden’, where the lower orders were too blessed and busy to think of a revolution that could only return to terrorise them in turn.

Everywhere peace and satisfaction would reign, “If only all men would cultivate the fields and provide for themselves with the work of their hands”. In such nostalgic utopian views was the educated middle class wont to articulate its discomfiture at the rapid spread of the economy of goods and capital it had itself created, and which was now proliferating year on year.

These astute comments on middle class hypocrisy remind me of the comments of Engineer D in After Nature, who has lost his belief in the science he always served:

the revolutions of great
systems cannot be
righted, too diffuse are
the workings of power,
the one thing always
the other’s beginning

Again both Industrial and Political revolution are invoked in one stroke. But further, in Sebald’s marvellous poem the natural process of evolution, both iconographer and iconoclast, becomes identified with the technical ingenuity conjured up by the human mind. Industry is an extension of Evolution in the mass of interconnected entities. This is true. Metabolism is at the heart of cells, combustion engines and household management. Sebald demonstrates that evolution is not the more gradual, comfortable cousin of revolution; great systems cannot be righted. Nature has always threatened to overwhelm Civilisation, but now the same powers have been invited within the city walls by Industry.

Perhaps the life of Rousseau (1712-1778) weaves these threads together best. He shared the Physiocrat faith in Agriculture. When invited to draft a constitution for Corsica his ideal was to create a non-hierarchical society administered through rural communities. Bartering, again, would replace the monetary economy, and agriculture was seen as the ‘only possible basis for a truly good and free life’. Luckily for Corsica, Rousseau couldn’t face the journey from Ile St-Pierre that would be necessary to realise this dream. ‘A utopian dream in which bourgeois society, increasingly determined by the manufacture of goods and the accumulation of private wealth, is promised a return to more innocent times.’ But by depicting this as an ‘inherent contradiction’ between utopian nostalgia and the ‘inexorable march of progress towards the brink of the abyss’, Sebald overlooks the possibility that the powers unleashed by capitalism may improve the standard of living generally, and that ‘private wealth’ may increase individual freedoms. The question is really how these benefits should be managed with equity, and it seems inevitable Rousseau’s rural communes would become a way to distribute lack fairly rather than create prosperity.

Even the Bible, the handbook of so many Agrarian idealists and Adamites, bars the way back to Edenic innocence with a flaming sword. The future is a Holy City, furnished with parks; Eden was always a peaceful garden surrounded by wilderness under the rule of nature; its natives plucked fruit in the equatorial fashion; Adam didn’t need to delve or Eve to spin until they were in the muck. Agriculture has just as much toil about it as Industry, and the labourers in both field and factory either receive a safer, easier working life from machinery, or the chance to go to University. The word unemployment implies that employment is the natural order of things. I suggest disemployment. It makes it harder to justify these elitist tuition fees.

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