Archive for July, 2011

Book | This is For You: 4th Instalment

Friday, July 29th, 2011


This is For You
An autobiography of sorts
The new novel by Pedro Silmon, serialised, exclusively for you on The Blog

As previously explained, the characters within this book are fictitious and any similarities to persons living, or dead, are coincidental but, like many first novels, This is for you, is an autobiography of sorts. At 26,000 words, it is relatively short, however, it was written, re-written, edited and refined over a five year period, spanning 2001-2007, in Germany and the UK. I am endebted to David Miller at the prestigious UK literary agency, Rogers, Coleridge & White, to whom I was kindly introduced by Sarah Spankie, Deputy Editor of the Condé Nast Traveller; having read a draft of the text, David suggested a few changes which improved it enormously.


Part 1 continued…
Bede managed to get a place at a good university on the strength of his writing talents, having, much to his own bewilderment and annoyance, just scraped through the entrance exams. Once there, he expected to become something of a shining light, but soon realised that many lights shone far more brightly and attracted more attention than his. He tried hard, but never managed to become anything more than a distant satellite of the in-crowd, the select club that was never going to accept him as a member. He told himself that he was an individual, that he did not need them, and that, anyway, they would come around eventually. They never did. Nevertheless, he did gain some followers of his own. They were excited by his apparently nihilistic attitude, by the fact that he really did not seem to care about anything. His admirers failed to realise that he was taking no political stance: apart from his collecting obsession, he genuinely cared only about himself. He used them all and ruthlessly took advantage of anything they had to offer. To him they were idiots, and later, after the degree ceremony, he dumped them.

**********

During Bede’s undergradute years, a growing sense of disillusionment was building up throughout the country, against the long-serving, centre-left government. At Bede’s university, as at many others, the student union became more and more radical. Its leaders, who would have no truck with the right-wing opposition parties, loudly condoned anarchy, and urged the student body to take part in anti-government marches and rallies. To raise funds, which they claimed were to support anti-racist organisations, homeless people and striking miners, they held concerts with live bands, in the main hall of the college every Friday evening. It was the punk era and things tended to get a bit wild.

At one such event, when, as usual, the band sneered and spat at the audience frantically pogoing and slithering around below them on the beer-swilled dance floor, everyone, including Bede, got very drunk. The first floor hall was jam-packed and the music was fast and loud. Close to midnight, when the event was scheduled to end, he found himself staggering through and down towards the toilets. A group of two or three figures, one of whom he vaguely recognised, hurried towards him. At the very last second, they grudgingly separated to allow him to pass. Unusually, the lights on the stairs, on which he now slipped and fell and got soaked, had been switched off. There was water everywhere. He struggled to his feet and reached the ground floor. In the dim, greenish light emanating from the open door of the toilets at the far end of the corridor, he could make out large, sodden pieces of heavy, cream-coloured paper, floating past his shoes. During its four-hundred-year history, the university had amassed a world-renowned collection of ancient and modern books, prints and manuscripts. Ex-students who had gone on to become national, and sometimes world-famous authors, had donated many signed first editions to the archive. In front of him, the doors of the university library stood wide; an abandoned fire-hose lay uncoiled on the floor between them. Bede switched on the light only briefly, but for long enough to see that someone had been inside and thoroughly drenched the lot. He ran outside and threw up.

**********

Bede looked himself up and down in the mirror. In his adolescence, he knew that he was never going to be very big, but he told himself to think tall and was sure that it had at least made some difference. And though he eventually grew to only average height, he was certainly not small. He stood very straight, walked with his head held up and shoulders back. His body was not noticeably muscular, but he had reasonably broad shoulders; he was slim and had what he considered to be a nicely shaped bottom. Bede made the best of himself. Clothes looked good on him. He took great pains to dress well, to go to a good hairdresser, and to make sure he was always clean-shaven. He considered that he was lucky to get few spots. To ensure his skin retained a smooth, even texture, he used a moisturising cream every day and ate a lot of fruit. He regularly trimmed and buffed the nails on both his hands and feet, and always removed any stray hairs protruding from his nose or ears. Having read somewhere that it was the done thing, he even thought about trimming his pubic hair, but the idea of actually getting down to doing it, made him cringe, so he never did.

When he was still living at home, his father and mother had pressured him into doing something to help out around the house. They had become angry when they found Bede loafing about, apparently doing nothing, so they attempted to make him do little jobs. However, he was always doing something; most of the time his mind was totally occupied with thoughts of girls, or in trying to devise ways of avoiding any type of work that they might thrust upon him. He spent many long hours dreaming up schemes that would enable him to simply come by money, rather than earn it, so that he could afford his various pleasures, including buying more books for his collection.

Bede was fond of ironing his own clothes. He regarded ironing as a pastime rather than a chore, and derived great pleasure from carefully fastening the top button of each freshly-ironed shirt as he placed it lovingly on a wooden coathanger to air. He even ran the iron swiftly over his underpants, and occasionally his socks, before arranging them in their appropriate drawers. This obsession had begun from the dissatisfaction he felt with the way his mother ironed his shirts: the fabric on the cuffs was always creased, and where she ironed over the buttons, shiny indentations appeared on the reverse side. One day he decided to intervene. He stepped in – oblivious of the upset he might cause – and usurped his mother’s position at the ironing board. He would have gained nothing by doing the washing-up or the vacuuming, activities which he loathed and had so far managed to avoid. Taking over the ironing of his own clothes had been a calculated ploy, which resulted in a smarter Bede never being asked to do anything else at home.

At university and when he began working, ordinary, regular leisure pursuits existed perhaps less in Bede’s life than in those of his peers, with the exception that, every morning, almost without fail, even in the most atrocious weather, he would get up early and go out jogging. He could not bear the thought of ever getting fat, and went out and spent a lot of money on the right sports clothes, because he felt he could perform much better when he looked good. His hair was straight, but it was the kind that stuck out in all directions after it had been slept on, and, as the thought of wearing a hat was repugnant to him, his departure was always delayed while he attempted to flatten it with water. He tried to run normally, but he could never come to terms with what normally meant. Most other people, he noted, seemed to have no problem with the concept, and just got on and ran. Why, then, he asked himself, did he find it so much trouble just to let his body and limbs do their jobs to create a running motion that simply propelled him from A to B, without his ever having to consciously think about it? He did not really know. It was like that, and there was nothing he could do about it. Nevertheless, it bothered him. If all went well – if he was not chased by a barking dog, or accosted by a pervert –  he would be away for about an hour. Afterwards, he would shave, shower and have a leisurely breakfast, during which he would read one or other of the books he was trying to get through so he could move on to the next.

He had dismissed the idea that he might one day need glasses: always having had an amazing ability to pick out details at very long distance, he had boasted that he had perfect vision, although he had never, since he was a small child, had an eye test. The fact was that, as he entered his twenties, he slowly became conscious of being no longer capable of focusing on anything close up to his face. Attempts to do so, especially in poor light, resulted in his becoming irritated and developing a fuzzy headache. Lying in bed at night with a book propped in front of him he found that he had to hold it farther away than before, in order to be able to read the type. It was only a matter of a few centimetres, but all the same it worried him.

Bede stared at a tiny red-and-white house at the end of a long driveway, while three little puffs of air, which made him start violently, were directed into each eye. The optician explained that this was to check the eye pressure. He sat before a large machine in a darkened corner, as the optician scurried about, making adjustments to it. She had helped him to place his chin in a little plastic mould, and made sure that the seat height was properly set, so that he could lean slightly forward, comfortably, with his head in an upright position. To him, the dim light and her close proximity and gentle prodding, made for an intense sense of intimacy.

Next, he had to sit at another machine and identify various numbers of little spots of light that were flashed up in different positions behind a glass screen. This was, apparently, to check his peripheral vision. The optician then steered him towards another, much smaller, slightly less dimly-lit room, and asked him a series of standard questions, the answers to which she carefully wrote down on a printed form, and there was a lot of ticking of boxes. Though it was so crammed with furniture and equipment that their knees almost touched as they sat facing one another, the room was well organised and had a peaceful, capsule-like atmosphere. Rapt, Bede felt far away from the outside world. She placed a complex adjustable spectacle frame in front of his eyes. As she rapidly tried various strengths of lenses in each side, he heard her slightly husky voice very near, enquiring gently the whole time, as to how each change affected his ability to read some small text. When this was done, she leaned towards him and came very close up to his face, so that she could shine a light into his eyes. As he swivelled them from side to side and up and down, according to her quiet directions, almost totally enveloped in the blurry, voluminous mass of her dark hair, all that he could hear was her light, even breathing. Unwelcome, harsh, bright sunlight stung his eyes, when she abruptly drew back, pulled open the Venetian blind and sat down in her seat. It bounced off the shiny equipment and created little, twinkling rainbow effects around each of the lenses scattered about the desk. She smiled, telling him that he needed only reading glasses, handed him a slip of paper with his prescription written on it and that was that.

Never imagining that he would ever have to wear spectacles, Bede had previously dismissed all spectacle-wearers as inferior, but now, faced with having to don them regularly himself, he was filled with unexpected excitement. He never wore jewellery of any sort, although he liked to have a few neat, unflamboyant wristwatches. The reading glasses would have to merge smoothly with his image.

As with most good-looking young men, he was attractive and attracted to good-looking girls. During the courtship period, when he was not so sure of himself, he made a point of being exceedingly charming, but he was careful to end each date by saying vaguely that he would be in touch. Then, as soon as he felt that a girl was hooked, he pretended that he was very busy and was not really bothered whether or not he saw her from one week to the next. Occasionally, his method failed and he never saw the girl again, but for the most part it worked insidiously, so that, after a few weeks, he achieved his aim of seeing them regularly, two or three times every week.

At first, he made no fuss if a girlfriend smoked, but he detested it. He derived tremendous pleasure from kissing, but sour, nicotine-laden breath made him retch, and before long he made it evident that he was not happy. Mostly, the girls reluctantly gave in and stopped, because he was such a good kisser, and they did not want to have to forgo their pleasure. There were a couple of independent ones, however, who just would not take the hint, and had to be given the cold shoulder. However, as he matured, he began to realise that the tougher ones were more intriguing: they represented a more interesting game, and he gradually became aware that it was their intelligence that he found irresistible, so he began actively to pursue them.

**********

By the time he reached his thirtieth birthday, there were around five thousand books in Bede’s collection. He had rented a lock-up garage in the eastern sector of the city when he first left home, and, although at that time the space had been adequate to accommodate his books with room to spare, it had quickly filled up. Lock-ups were in great demand and not that easy to come by. When he found himself in need of additional storage capacity, it was only after dogged persistence that he eventually managed to find another, tucked away in a remote area that had been given over to well-tended allotments, way out on the distant fringes of the city’s endless suburbs. The isolated and almost rural location appealed to Bede’s appetite for secrecy. The garage was in a reasonable condition when he took it over, except for some dark-red smears and scratches on the wall at the back. Not that the knowledge of its former use would have made much difference to him one way or another. If he had been the kind of person who read the tabloids, or paid much attention to the television news, he might have been aware that, some months before, the police had raided a lock-up in that vicinity, which had been being used as a torture chamber by a sadistic rapist.

Bede’s only concern was to secure safe storage for his beloved books. He was not really the most practical sort of person, but when it came to looking after his collection, his relentless enthusiasm made mincemeat of any problems that blocked his way. His new garage contained some old tyres and a few oily bits of car engine, and there were used and half-empty, spray-paint cans lying about on its stained concrete floor. Having noticed another, rather neglected-looking, garage further along the row, which had no padlock, he looked inside. There seemed to be quite a lot of vacant space around the dusty old car that had been left there to die, so he filled it with all of the junk from his.

His doors did not fit very well, and he was afraid that the rain might blow inside through the gaps so he tacked odd off-cuts of linoleum, which he found abandoned at the side of yet another lock-up, all around the inside edges. Very soon, the garage was neatly weatherproofed. Oblivious of its recent history, he sluiced down the walls, swept the floor and stacked his first boxes of books inside. Before leaving, happy with his work, he broke into the tiny store of provisions he planned to leave there, and made himself a well-earned cup of tea.
©Pedro Silmon, 2011

Don’t miss the fifth instalment of This is for you, which follows next Friday,
5th August

What do you think of the story so far?

Please leave a comment and look out for The Blog’s posts on Art, Architecture, Books, Design, etc, which will continue to run alongside the This is for you serialisation

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Fashion | Smithestablishmentarianism?

Tuesday, July 26th, 2011

Paul Smith & Henry Moore
Autumn/Winter 2011 Fashion Collection

I got married in a Paul Smith suit. Not unusual now, when even Nick Clegg wears one for work, but that was in 1981. Paul, himself, sold the suit to me. Upstairs at his first, tiny shop in Floral Street where I was a regular visitor – having first bought his clothes from Bombacha (his wife’s shop) in the Fulham Road when I was still a student at the Royal College of Art – Paul went down on his knees and pinned-up the bottoms of the trouser legs so that they sat, just so, on my Bass-Weejuns.

It’s been Sir Paul Smith, of course, since the designer bent his knee before the Queen in 2000 to receive his well-earned knighthood, thus becoming part of the establishment. The sculptor, Henry Moore (1898 – 1986), however, fearing that the bestowal would lead to a perception of him as an establishment figure, turned down a knighthood in 1951. I wonder, then, how Henry might have felt about wearing the tie (above), from the Paul Smith Autumn/Winter 2011 fashion collection.

Having been granted unprecedented access by the Henry Moore Foundation to Moore’s graphics, drawings and sculpture archive, Smith, who has long been a fan, used the artist’s original artworks in contrasting patterns, colours and textures across a range of  clothing and accessories. The fluid lines and shapes, too, in this collection pay homage to Moore’s sculptural aesthetic.

Photographed in the early evening, in March this year, at RHS Wisley in Surrey, the image below is my own homage to Henry Moore.

See more of my photographic work at Pedro Silmon Garden Photography

Do you think we’ll see Nick Clegg in one?

Please leave a comment

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Book | This is For You: 3rd Instalment

Thursday, July 21st, 2011


This is For You An autobiography of sorts
The new novel by Pedro Silmon, serialised, exclusively for you on The Blog

As previously explained, the characters within this book are fictitious and any similarities to persons living, or dead, are coincidental but, like many first novels, This is for you, is an autobiography of sorts. At 26,000 words, it is relatively short, however, it was written, re-written, edited and refined over a five year period, spanning 2001-2007, in Germany and the UK. I am endebted to David Miller at the prestigious UK literary agency, Rogers, Coleridge & White, to whom I was kindly introduced by Sarah Spankie, Deputy Editor of the Condé Nast Traveller; having read a draft of the text, David suggested a few changes which improved it enormously.


Part 1 continued…

Since then, he had read a lot. In fact, clearly, having read a lot was, for him, what really mattered. He did not read books in order to appreciate and to learn from what they contained: Bede simply devoured them and, once they were behind him, their pages were rarely even flicked open again. But he was choosy: he did not read just anything. He wanted the collection he had begun, to contain the right kind of books. After all, it was conceivable that one day someone other than his parents might get access to it, and if they did, it was important that they came away with the right impression. No book entered his collection unread, and, although he raced through them so that they all ran into one another and melded, making it difficult for his memory to separate one from the next, certain aspects of the contents of each naturally rubbed off, making him, almost by default, a fairly knowledgeable person. He let it be known that he was well read, but whenever he was asked a direct question about a book, even one that he had finished relatively recently, he found it difficult to remember its title, the author’s name and anything more than a few sparse details of what it was about.

His selection method was to choose an author who, he had heard, was interesting and topical, then to flick through one of this author’s books, reading odd snatches here and there, seeing if the style appealed to him. If it did, and if the cover design was not too offensive to his taste, and the type inside was not too tiny, that was it. He would immediately buy it, or, it must be said, even occasionally steal it if he was short of funds. Keen to start without delay, he often began reading books before he left the shop, and would become irritated when an assistant asked him to leave as closing time arrived. He was always particularly pleased to find an author who had been prolific, which meant he could go full steam ahead through the entire oeuvre, one book after another, excepting any volumes of short stories, which he hated, until the supply was exhausted and another of his shelves was filled.

**********

By the age of eleven, Bede had done quite well at school, so he progressed to the local grammar. He never got anywhere near top of the class in the academic subjects, but, although, generally speaking, sport was not his forte, he had been reasonably good at football. In fact, he knew he could have played like a demon if he had wanted to. The trouble was, his vanity got in the way. It was not until he entered the lower sixth that he was at last selected for the school team, and then he turned the chance down, saying that he had to help his father on Saturdays, when most games were played. Really, he was afraid of getting his nose broken, and, anyway, he hated getting dirty, or at least to let anyone else see him covered in mud and with his hair all messed up. Besides, he had better things to do with his Saturdays than to have to get up early, to put on his school uniform, to travel for goodness knows how long to some obscure corner of the city, there to run up and down a soggy, godforsaken field for an hour-and-a-half, then to find his own way home. Besides, he also realised that, if his best friend was playing, his best friend’s girlfriend would obviously be at a loose end, so perhaps the two of them might wander around the shops or go to the cinema together, and one thing could lead to another – as it eventually did. But later, in a mutual truth-telling session with her boyfriend, his best friend’s girlfriend admitted that the only other person whom she had ever kissed in the whole world, during the entire time that they had been going out together, was Bede. The next day, Bede lost his best friend, got a black eye and narrowly missed getting the broken nose he had been trying to avoid in the first place. He decided right then and there that best friends were more trouble than they were worth, and, throughout the rest of his life, he never had another.

As he became more self-aware, uncertain and concerned about what the future might hold, Bede was determined to make the best use of any opportunities that materialised to assure his own survival. The thought of going to some wild place, where he would be required to sleep for ten days in a bunk bed, sharing a hut with half-a-dozen other farting schoolboys, held no immediate appeal. Still, with foresight, he realised that the Outward Bound courses organised by the school, might provide him with certain knowledge and experiences, which could come in useful if ever he found himself in a desperate situation. Among other things, he learnt how to light fires without matches, and to cook potatoes in their ashes; which wild berries and fungi were edible, and how to find north by observing on which side of a tree moss was growing. He absorbed this new information and stored it away deep in his brain for future reference. During the regular orienteering exercises, realising that he had absolutely no talent with either a map or a compass, but, rather, possessed an infallible, instinctive sense of direction, Bede gained the respect of the other boys, who came to rely on him to get them out of situations where they might otherwise have been hopelessly lost. In gratitude, they treated him with deference, and consequently, at night, after the 10 o’clock curfew and lights out, while the wanking competitions and fun-fights raged all around, Bede was left to read his books in peace, with the help of his torch, under his tented blanket.

**********

From an early age, Bede had taken complete and utter advantage of his doting mother. Most of his books had been either paid for directly by her, or bought with money he regularly pilfered from the purse she left lying around at home, either naively or on purpose, content in the knowledge that he would help himself to whatever he needed. Although, in his heart, he thought he loved her, he was not blind to the fact that she would do anything he wished. She was one of those selfless individuals whose sole interest in life is to make others happy and had watched him grow from a greedy, selfish child into an insolent, self-centred, manipulative teenager, but had never once denied him her love. He ruthlessly walked all over her kindness, using her as his personal taxi service and servant. Spoiling him had not been anything she was conscious of: to her it was only natural to give her son anything he desired, and if that meant putting her own needs and requirements to one side, then so be it.

This state of harmony was not to last. One weekday morning, when he happened to be off school, drawing out his recuperation after a stomach bug, Bede came downstairs to find his mother dozing in an armchair. She wore full make-up, and looked at her most glamorous and attractive. He was fifteen and had never kissed a girl. He saw how they did it in films, and was sure that kissing would not be too much of a problem for him, once the opportunity to try it arose. The problem was, the opportunity did not seem to be arising, with the result that his curiosity was becoming an obsession. He did not intend actually to kiss his mother, and, indeed, he never did. But the thought had been there, and, as he leaned in close to her, closing his eyes just to get some vague idea of what it might be like, the hard, sharp slap had come as a painful shock. His ear glowed bright red, and continued to do so for the next couple of days – almost as red as his mother’s angry face. Henceforth, their whole relationship dramatically changed: his mother withdrew his privileges and began to treat him warily, just as his father, whom Bede barely saw or knew, had always done. It began to dawn on him that they considered him odd.

He kept every single book he ever read, including all of the set schoolbooks that he should have handed back. His collection, which had begun modestly on a tiny shelf in his bedroom, had grown quickly. He demanded that his mother get him extra shelves, and kept on asking for more, until all of the walls were filled up to the ceiling. At one point, he threw out his bed and began sleeping on piles of neatly-stacked novels, on top of which he placed his mattress. It was not an entirely successful arrangement; often the piles would collapse during the night, and he would wake up sprawled uncomfortably on the floor, the hard edges of the book covers jabbing into his ribs. He did not really mind, but he was concerned about the damage that might be caused to his books, which had to be protected at all costs. The problem was solved when he began putting the books into boxes, which provided a sturdy and more stable base.

On either side of his door, along the narrow landing, he lined-up bookcases, so it became necessary for his father and mother, and himself, to turn sideways in order to pass by one another. He expanded into the spare bedroom, in which he left space for the door to swing open just far enough to allow him access, his parents having firmly rejected his plan to take the door off and replace it with a curtain. Later, his father called in a surveyor to check that the wooden joists in the loft were strong enough to support the weight of the large number of boxes of books that Bede had begun to store there, which filled it almost to bursting. His mother remarked that, once upon a time, a few family things had been stored in the roof space but he pretended not to have heard her. Space had been at a premium, and everything that was in the way, had been stealthily got rid of.

His parents were more relieved than proud when he left home to go to university in the capital, especially when Bede, having rarely been separated from his books for longer than a few days, realised that he could not live without them, and decided they all had to go with him. A strange and disturbing dream, which was to recur irregularly throughout his life, made its debut the night before he left. It ran roughly as follows:

He has died and his pale body is laid out naked, flat on its back, in a compartment that has been hollowed out inside an enormous pile of books, which stands in the middle, and threatens to overflow the sides of a small, wooden ship. No land is in sight. The low sky is almost black, and a strong, cold wind whips the vessel, tossing it around on the heaving, dark waves of the rolling sea. Now and again, the movement dislodges a few books, which fall overboard and sink, then resurface and begin to disintegrate. A fire has been lit inside the compartment, and smoke seeps out through the books stacked high against the mast. Small, orange flames emerge to struggle and flicker, fighting against the wind. Bigger, more insistent ones burst out behind them. Suddenly, the roof caves in…
©Pedro Silmon, 2011

Don’t miss the fourth instalment of This is for you, which follows next Friday, 29th July

Do you know anyone like Bede?

What do you think of the story so far?

Please leave a comment and look out for The Blog’s posts on Art, Architecture, Books, Design, etc, which will continue to run alongside the This is for you serialisation

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Garden | The Other Garden at Giverny

Sunday, July 17th, 2011

The garden at the Musée des Impressionnismes
Giverny, France. Planted by Mark Rudkin

Whenever I visit a gallery, unless it’s on an opening night when one is there to see and socialise rather than to look very closely at the work, I take care to go when it’s unlikely to be busy. The same is true of the gardens I go to see and to photograph – see examples of my work at Pedro Silmon Garden Photography www.pedrosilmon.com. As a garden photographer, I often have the pleasure of seeing gardens without people, which is a great priviledge.

Having made no special arrangement beforehand and going as an ordinary visitor to Claude Monet’s garden at Giverny, I found it difficult to form any real – if you’ll excuse the pun – impression of it. Mostly, the roses weren’t in bloom and the clematis were over so perhaps it wasn’t the best time to go. The numbers of visitors that had been allowed in, to file along the narrow pathways between the crowded beds and to queue to be photographed on the Japanese bridge over a section of the lily pond, in my opinion, was too many. Robbed of its tranquility – the garden, established by Monet, who created it for himself as inspiration and for his family and occasional guests to enjoy – it was reduced to just another tourist attraction. For fear of being poked from behind by a Japanese parasol or knocking the lens hood of someone else’s oversized camera, had the roses been in flower, there would have been precious little opportunity to stop and smell them.

There is, however, another garden, just along the street, in Giverny at the Musée des Impressionnismes Giverny. Far more open in plan than its neighbour, conceived in 1991 by architects Reichen and Robert and planted by the landscape artist Mark Rudkin, who redeveloped the Palais-Royale Gardens in Paris, this contemporary garden, opened in 2009, is made up of a series of colour-themed rooms in blue, white, yellow, purple and pink, laid out on an elongated grid. Each room is informally planted, each separated from the next by tall beech or emerald thuja (Thuja occidentalis ‘Smaragd’) hedges, and linked together by a single, wide, straight path. Nodding to Monet’s garden – like my images above, in which I try to capture the mood, rather than the individual plants – the garden has wistaria-covered pergolas and to the rear of the discreet, limestone-clad, single-storey museum building – the galleries are below ground level – a wildflower meadow.

Have you visited the gardens at Giverny?

How do you think the two gardens compare?

Please leave a comment

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Book | This is For You: Second Instalment

Friday, July 15th, 2011


Prologue posted on 8th July:
This is for you  An autobiography of sorts

The new novel by Pedro Silmon, serialised, exclusively for you on The Blog

As previously explained, the characters within this book are fictitious and any similarities to persons living, or dead, are coincidental but, like many first novels, This is for you, is an autobiography of sorts. At 26,000 words, it is relatively short, however, it was written, re-written, edited and refined over a five year period, spanning 2001-2007, in Germany and the UK. I am endebted to David Miller at the prestigious UK literary agency, Rogers, Coleridge & White, to whom I was kindly introduced by Sarah Spankie, Deputy Editor of the Condé Nast Traveller; having read a draft of the text, David suggested a few changes which improved it enormously.

If you missed the Prologue, posted on 8th July, please, before continuing, go to it now.


I was only a means of making him live, he was my raison d’etre, he had freed me from myself.
What am I going to do now? Jean-Paul Satre, Nausea

When I was an adolescent, I preferred books to the world of reality, and something of that has remained with me – a slight taste for eternity. Simone de Beauvoir, The Mandarins


Part 1
The lingering morning chill, at odds with the sun’s harsh glare, forced Bede to pull his coat more tightly to his body. He sat on his usual bench, watching a well-dressed man who, on the pretext of teaching a small boy how to sail a sleek, model catamaran, was having the time of his life. Making the boat glide in sweeping curves across the glittery water, the man’s eyes never left it for a second. The child, wearing a serious expression and standing rather stiffly, gave his full attention to the adult’s loud, running commentary.

Bede’s first, big, bright, satisfying cloud of blue smoke sailed up into the air above him. He reopened his book and, having found his place, began again to read. Instantly, a confusion of violent shadows leapt across the pages. Hands grabbed at his hair and shoulders. The book was ripped away and he was pushed to the ground. Gravel bit sharply into his forehead and cheek. It was all over in seconds. They said nothing, just kicked him hard a few times and reached into his pocket to remove his food coupons and identification papers. Wrenching the pipe from his tightly-clenched fingers, they knocked out the burning tobacco on top of his head, and were gone.

Reading in public places had been banned. Bede was unaware of the new rule.

**********

There had been little doubt in anyone’s mind that Bede would one day become a rich and famous man. There was, however, little chance of him convincing himself that he would find real success. Bede had not been satisfied with his life. So far, it had been full of disappointments. In his mind, he had always been a mute observer, watching helplessly as his chances slipped away. Nagging self-doubt was his constant companion, and, despite an outward show of arrogance and an inner conviction that he was always, in terms of talent and style at least, streets ahead of his peers he was, not so very deep down, convinced that failure was his fate.

Bede led a stressful sort of existence, but he had chosen it for himself, and, knowing himself so well, he was satisfied that things could not have been any different. He was a highly secretive person, and was careful never to reveal more than was necessary to anyone about himself. Cool and calculating, he gave the appearance of being open, so as to be able to gain other people’s trust, a tactic that seemed to him to work especially well with women. Although he knew what could be considered to be rather a lot of people, many – in fact most of them – were entirely unfamiliar with one other. If he discovered that any of them were acquainted, Bede took the greatest care to avoid meeting those particular people at the same time. When circumstances made group meetings unavoidable, he kept the numbers small and the meetings short. He compartmentalised those he knew, never mixing business colleagues with personal friends, or older acquaintances with new ones. Inevitably, there was some crossover, but the very few people who got anywhere near close to him during his short life, were able to gather little more than the selective information that he wanted each one to have. It would have been impossible for any of them to form a complete picture, in any case, because, although he was clever enough to tell each of them what seemed to them like a lot, there were many things that he kept entirely to himself.

He told no one – well, only ever one person, apart from his parents – about his book collecting. It was not really that he wanted to keep it secret – on the contrary, he would have loved to tell the whole world about his great obsession – but he was afraid of not being able to answer the inevitable and unavoidable questions that were bound to follow. His problem was that, although he constantly racked his brain in an effort to come up with some reason to explain why he collected books, he simply did not know. All he knew for certain was that it was a passion, and he had a passionate need for something, apart from himself, to feel passionate about. Without adequate explanation, he suspected that everyone else might think that it was just a dull, rather pointless and uninteresting occupation. Their indifference would be unbearable, so he said nothing. As far as he was concerned, the less they knew, the better. The more mysterious everyone thought he was, the more he liked it, because that meant they did not think he was boring; in consequence, the more mysterious he became.

**********

Bede’s first book was on the verge of publication. More of a novella than any heavyweight tome, it had been a long time in coming, but, in the end, he had actually produced it quite quickly. To his mild surprise and great satisfaction, the rumours about the first draft caused an immediate stir. Now, the rough-bound, advance copies had all gone out, and, despite the government’s tightening of restrictions and censorship, excellent reviews had already appeared in all the important newspapers and literary journals. They said he was the one to watch. In their excitement, recklessly tossing to one side all their pressing concerns about the alarming developments in the country’s domestic politics, his agent and everyone at his publishers – indeed, in the entire book industry – became caught up in a wave of hysteria about the book’s imminent publication. There had been some talk about nominations for literary prizes; even the big foreign film studios were cautiously sniffing around. In anticipation of massive orders from the bookshops, his publishers had told him that they were increasing the print run.

Bede liked to tell anyone who asked, and even quite a lot of those who did not, that his book would be an autobiography of sorts. He had got the idea into his head that the implied ambiguity would give him licence to write just what he liked, and allow him the opportunity to disown anything that might cast him in too unflattering a light. On the other hand, it would also enable him to use his imagination to fantasise, or embroider the truth, wherever he felt it necessary. In fact, from the very beginning, this was how he had planned to describe the book to his first TV chat show host – his tongue, of course, stuck very firmly in his cheek. Although he knew he would probably never be able to pluck up the courage to pull it off, his idea was to start by carefully explaining that Western conventions of segregating fiction from chronicle were only one way of constructing literature: to that end, he had executed a limited amount of research to back up his argument. He would go on to talk authoritatively, if briefly – because his knowledge on the subject was scant, he had never himself actually read one – about the ‘I-novel’, a dominant and accepted form in oriental literature, which is essentially an autobiographical narrative but contains invented episodes. He had even found the correct foreign term to describe the genre, but he knew that, from fear of stumbling over the pronunciation, he would never run the risk of using it.

**********

Without warning, his teacher suddenly announced to the whole class that he would be playing Father Bear in the school’s forthcoming mid-winter theatre production. Bede was seven years old. He was one of those children who never put their hands up to answer a question. It was not that he did not know the right answers: he was of the opinion that he could provide considerably more correct answers than most of the others, but, whenever he was singled out, he would blush and become tongue-tied. Public praise or being told off had the same effect on him, so he kept a low profile. He thought the bear story was babyish and silly, but he struggled through the rehearsals, head stooped, knees trembling, mumbling the lines into his chest, and when the opening night arrived, stepped into the dark-brown, fur suit with the greatest reluctance. His teacher grabbed hold of him, turned him swiftly around and zipped up the back; smeared black make-up on his nose, and without a backward glance, moved immediately on to the next child. This was the closest he had ever been to her. He wished he had the courage to tell her how beautiful he thought she was and how he loved the way she dressed and the car her dapper husband drove her to school in. Another teacher handed him a brown, woollen balaclava with paler brown, sugar-paper ears sewn on to the sides, which he pulled on over his head. The windows were all closed and the radiators had been turned up high, and he immediately began to sweat. The balaclava felt rough and made his scalp and ears itch. There were five minutes to go before he was due on stage, so he ran outside to the toilets. The drizzle and the cold air exacerbated his urgent need to pee, but there was no way he could get his willie out. Mournfully, he glanced at his reflection in the rain-spotted window of a dark, empty classroom, and was surprised to find his disguised appearance pleased him.

When the performance was finally over, all of the participants were lined up on stage, under the glaring lights, in front of a vast sea of smiling, clapping parents, uncles and aunts, grandfathers, grandmothers, little sisters, big brothers, family friends… The other bears removed their balaclavas: Bede stood there soaked in sweat but kept his on. His lower back ached and his stomach was tied in knots from his efforts to hold in his pee, which he desperately tried not to think about. The headmistress made what seemed to him, an immeasurably-long, boring speech, then came along the line, smilingly handing everyone in turn, a present wrapped in shiny Christmas paper. He could tell immediately what his was. He held it tightly in both hands and stared at it. Three cheers were called for. A clatter of applause went up and died away, to be quickly replaced by the sound of chairs scraping the floor as the audience stood up to leave. As the house lights came on, Bede rushed out of the side entrance and into the dark yard. He had managed to work the zip of the bear suit down during the presentation, and now he wrenched the top half forward, pushing it and his underpants down over his bottom and thighs. Just then, an older, bigger boy rushed up and stood beside him and immediately began to pee, casually sloshing great steaming arcs across the wall in front of the two of them. Bede looked down and willed his pee to come out, but nothing happened. He could feel the other boy peering at him in the darkness. As nonchalantly as possible under the circumstances, Bede pulled his underpants and bear suit up again, and strolled back inside, where he quickly hid behind a door, biting his lip and tightly clenching the cheeks of his bottom. Through the narrow crack between door and frame, he watched the smirking older boy appear, swaggering around, searching for him. He held his breath and stepped back so that his eye moved away from the crack, as his pursuer passed and continued on into the building. In agony, Bede continued to listen and to wait. When he was absolutely sure that the coast was clear, he shot back outside.

His hot, steaming pee blasted against the wall. His head slumped forward: he blew all of the breath slowly out of his lungs, as a tide of glorious relief surged outwards from his groin and on through his entire body. In mid-flow, with dripping fingers, Bede pulled off the balaclava and tossed it away. Some of the pee bounced warmly back, sprinkling his bare thighs and stomach. Errant, warm droplets even reached his face, and he noticed a few fall on the package that was wedged tightly between his elbow and ribs. He tried to manoeuvre it farther back, but then it fell. He twisted his body, and deftly flicked the precious gift away with his foot; the pee whipped wildly across the wall. The final squirt ended up inside his underpants as he bent to retrieve his present. The damp paper tore easily away and there it was. For the first time in his life, he owned a book. And it was his. Nobody else was ever going to read it, or read it to him, or even touch it.
©Pedro Silmon, 2011

Don’t miss the third instalment of This is for you, which follows next Friday, 22nd July, when Bede, looks himself up and down in the mirror

What do you think of it so far?

Please leave a comment and look out for The Blog’s posts on Art, Architecture, Books, Design, etc, which will continue to run alongside the This is for you serialisation

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Book | This is For You: First Instalment

Friday, July 8th, 2011


Starting today: This is for you An autobiography of sorts
The new novel by Pedro Silmon, serialised, exclusively for you on The Blog

The characters within this book are fictitious and any similarities to persons living, or dead, are coincidental but, like many first novels, This is for you, is an autobiography of sorts. At 26,000 words, it is relatively short, however, it was written, re-written, edited and refined over a five year period, spanning 2001-2007, in Germany and the UK. I am endebted to David Miller at the prestigious UK literary agency, Rogers, Coleridge & White, to whom I was kindly introduced by Sarah Spankie, Deputy Editor of the Condé Nast Traveller; having read a draft of the text David suggested some revisions which improved it enormously.

Epilogue: the story is over before it begins
It is difficult to imagine the full extent of the damage that the anarchists caused. Although much has since been written about the destruction that they wrought, documentary evidence is sparse. The destruction began, spread insidiously then geared up immediately they gained power, continuing unabated for 20 years, until foreign intervention helped to assure the regime’s demise. By definition disorderly and impossible to maintain, the economic disaster that this so-called government brought about, will afflict this country for many years to come.

From a cultural perspective, however, the implications are far greater and in many ways, more permanent; during their brief tenure, with what can be equated with a religious zeal, the anarchists destroyed almost the entire recorded history of this once-great nation.

That summer was one of the hottest on record, resulting in nationwide water shortages. The high temperatures put everyone on edge, but for once the country seemed united in jingoistic support for what was, by all accounts, one of its finest-ever national cricket teams. The trouble seems to have started when, against all predictions, the team received a crushing defeat in the final test of that year’s major international series. The nation’s anger, disappointment and damaged pride manifested itself in numerous street fights that sometimes involved hundreds, if not thousands, of people. Then the arson attacks started. Some say that this may have been early manifestations of anarchist activity. Predictably, the stretched police force targeted the ethnic minorities, whom they blamed for starting the fires and accused, apparently not without some reason, of the looting that followed. Race riots flared up in the suburbs of many of the larger cities the length and breadth of the country, and thereafter never really died down. Civil unrest bubbled away for the next few years, until suddenly it reached boiling point when the ruling Labour government took the decision – despite a massive public outcry, and fierce opposition from within the party – to dispense with the national currency, and to replace it with that being used by all of its close continental neighbours.

Information gathered by foreign security agencies suggests that the anarchists doubled their efforts to foment unrest, after deafening calls for a general election were ignored, and when the electorate refused to be fobbed off by generous tax breaks on drink and consumer goods promised in a swiftly announced mini-budget. Without any apparent organisation, so that they remained an invisible force against which the government and their agents found it impossible to act, the anarchists stealthily, cranked up the pressure. The army was called in but proved powerless against a target it could not identify, elements of which may already have been concealed within its own ranks.

No crisis point was ever reached; the government did not actually fall, but, rather, became overwhelmed by its own powerlessness and inability to govern. In the hiatus, the anarchists appeared out of the walls and almost casually took over the reins of power. The character of national TV and radio announcements began to change, and it gradually became clear that it was the anarchists and their charismatic leader, rather than the government, who were now in control of the country. Once firmly in position, they would prove to be a ruling body truly worthy of their descriptive title, that wasted no time in pursuing its lawless objectives. Their first target were the media: the very instruments they had used to cement their position, were now eradicated, so promoting the chaos they craved. Television studios were levelled, their equipment wantonly wrecked, thousands of miles of videotape publicly burned. All communications masts were torn down. Radio recordings going back over fifty years were piled up in bonfires and set alight. It has been possible to establish that, although the passionate and brave staff at the film archives fought valiantly in bloody battle to preserve whatever they could, there was never any hope, and they were easily overrun by the vast hordes intent on their complete annihilation. The newspapers and publishing houses came next: all were closed down overnight; the printing presses were smashed, and whatever was found in the warehouses, burned. From this point onwards, only scant indications remain; however, it seems that the education establishments were the anarchists’ next objective. University students were told to go home. Distressed professors and tutors were forced to watch as every archived item was incinerated. All schools were closed. Mass book-burnings took place at public libraries. Data from public records, large corporations and limited companies were erased. The anarchists imposed a general ban on all forms of organised religion, torching sacred texts, regalia and historic documents, then desecrating every church, synagogue and mosque. To demonstrate their resolve, in one city, a cathedral that had stood for over a thousand years was levelled; no vestige of it remains today. They smashed all stone monuments and effaced any carved lettering they could find. Graveyards were bulldozed. Significant private collections of anything at all were weeded out, their contents despoiled.

Afterwards, while mopping-up operations continued at home, the anarchists shifted their focus abroad, buying whatever items of literary material or artefacts associated with the home country they were able to lay their hands on, often for vast sums, then hastily trashing them. Many foreign governments, alerted to what was happening, became alarmed and took preventive action, at which point, the anarchists changed tack, sending out undercover agents to work alone or with local sympathisers, to continue the destruction of our culture by any feasible means.

Individuals from all levels and sections of society had been involved in the perpetration of the anarchist revolution, in those dark years when the country was more-or-less sealed off from the rest of the globe. Thus, when the anarchists were finally toppled, and democracy reasserted itself, it was immediately evident that it would be impossible to find independent witnesses to what had actually gone on. It is understood that, from the start, intellectuals were persecuted, tortured, demeaned and sometimes killed. On the other hand, it has also been stated that a significant proportion of them, after initial misgivings, or acting out of fear, openly welcomed the idea of a society in which they perceived the possibility of throwing off the burden of accumulated knowledge, in favour of a return to a more primitive, stress-free existence.
©Pedro Silmon, 2011

Don’t miss the second instalment of This is for you, which follows next Friday, 15th July, when Bede, the central character, makes his appearance

What do you think of it so far?

Please leave a comment and look out for The Blog’s posts on Art, Architecture, Books, Design, etc, which will continue to run alongside the This is for you serialisation

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Photography | André Kertész: A Given Moment

Friday, July 1st, 2011

André Kertész – Photographs
Martin-Gropius Bau, Berlin, Germany. Until 11th September 2011

In the caption to the first image by André Kertész in Bruce Bernard’s marvellous and indispensable, great slab-of-a-book, Century (Phaidon, 1999), in typical understatement, the author describes Kertész as: ‘…an Austrian soldier destined to become a great photographer’.

Berlin’s Martin-Gropius-Bau in collaboration with Jeu de Paume in Paris is showing a retrospective of over 300 photographs by Kertész, one of the most influential photographers of the 20th century, whose early photojournalist work impacted on that of others, including writer and photographer, Brassï and Henri Cartier-Bresson, both also destined to merit the description great photographer.

Bernard goes on to tell us that André Kertész first acquired a camera in 1913 – he was eighteen years old – just prior to his drafting into the Austro-Hungarian army. Whilst on active service he was wounded and paralysed for a whole year but still managed to produce his first serious works – photographs of soldiers on the Eastern front. A few prints remain, however, the negatives of all the photographer’s early work were, unfortunately, destroyed in 1918.

Born in Hungary, to jewish middle-class parents, Andor Kertész (later André) lived in Budapest working at the stock exchange before, after the war, moving to Paris where he joined fellow emigrés, László Moholy-Nagy, Robert Capa and Brassaï.

“I interpret my feeling at a given moment. Not what I see, but what I feel,” Kertész once said, seeing photography as an instrument for describing contemporary life. In Paris, to make ends meet, he produced reportage photography for the Berliner Illustrierte Zeitung and The Times (London) and made contact with the avant garde artists of Montparnasse: Piet Mondrian, Fernand Léger, Alexander Calder and Brancusi, among others. He also met and discovered he had much in common with the Surrealism group led by André Breton that included the American photographer and artist, Man Ray. He had taken the famous photograph Underwater Swimmer while recuperating in 1917; the optically distorted body beneath light reflections on the surface of the water would appear to anticipate his later works – and of some of the surrealists – and it wasn’t until some 10 years later the aesthetic effects of reflection were to become popular at the Bauhaus. In 1933 Kertész went on to produce the series entitled Distortions, in which female figures, distorted by mirrors, lead a life of their own between caricature and eroticism.

Despite the often complex nature of the thinking that the photographer put into them, like the best photojournalism, Kertész’s images are always simple, uncompromisingly direct and carefully cropped to include only those elements the eye demands. One of my particular favourites, which is included in the Martin-Gropius-Bau exhibition is the Magritte-like Martinique, shot on New Year’s Day, 1972. The image is rich, yet so reduced that it appears almost flat, almost but not quite devoid of perspective and with the very minimal shape of the upper torso of a man, who we know instinctively is alone on the other side of the translucent, frosted glass screen that separates the balconies of this hotel near the water’s edge. I love Washington Square, too, for similar reasons: again, the simplicity, the reduction of the features of the park scene in deepest winter to almost but not quite pure black and pure white. As a photographer specialising mostly in garden and plant photography, myself – click here to access my website – I’m drawn towards Melancholic Tulip, an earlier work produced during the year that WWII began in Europe. It’s not difficult to imagine the uneasiness of Kertész, who moved to New York City only three years before.

In New York City where, struggling to make ends meet he accepted a post on House & Garden. Later, Kertész began working for the fashion magazine Look and for Harper’s Bazaar , with legendary art director Alexey Brodovitch, who was previously with VU in Paris, one of the French publications, including Art et Médecine, Paris Magazine and UHU that the photographer had contributed to. In 1942, accepting an offer to work exclusively for Condé Nast, he remained with the company until 1963. That year, on a trip to Paris Kertész discovered a large number of his old negatives that fired his enthusiasm to begin experimenting again, bringing him much wider recognition and international recognition. His work has appeared in numerous books and in exhibitions around the world.

André Kertész, most certainly a great photographer, was awarded the Legion of Honour by the French government in 1983 and died on 28th September 1985, leaving an archive of 100,000 negatives.

Images above from top:
Melancholic Tulip New York, 1939
Gelatin silver print. Printed c. 1980. Courtesy Bruce Silverstein Gallery

Martinique January 1st 1972
Gelatin silver print. Vintage print. Courtesy Attila Pocze, Vintage Galéria, Budapest, Hungary

Washington Square
January 9th, 1954
Gelatin silver print. Vintage print. Collection of Leslie, Judith and Gabrielle Schreyer

Also showing
Eyewitness: Hungarian Photography in the 20th Century,
Brassaï, Capa, Kertész, Moholy-Nagy, Munkácsi
Royal Academy, London, UK. Until 2nd October 2011

Are you familiar with Kertész’s work?
What do you see as its merits?

Please leave a comment

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