The Friday Arts Diary

Our cultural picks for the week ahead.

Art 

Serpentine Gallery, London, W2: Yoko Ono: To The Light, 19 June – 9 September

The first London exhibition of Yoko Ono’s work for a decade, To The Lights surveys the 50-year career of an artist who may, after her lifetime achievement award at the 2009 Venice Biennale, have finally succeeded in turning the spotlight away from her marriage to John Lennon and onto her art. Featuring key works, archive material and new installations, films and performances, the exhibition will draw out enduring themes in Ono’s work, not least her faith in the sixties’ ideals of ‘peace and love’, seen in new participatory project SMILE, which uses multimedia to collate the smiles of those who view her work.

Film    

BFI Southbank, London, SE1: Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry + Q&A with Alison Klayman, 17 June

Alison Klayman’s timely and engrossing documentary follows dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei over three years, from the Tate Modern sunflower seeds installation of 2009 to his two-and-a-half month detention by the Chinese authorities in 2011.  Klayman gains unprecedented access to Weiwei at a time when his social networking activity and growing international reputation are met by intensified government censorship. Catch this sensitive and ultimately celebratory film at BFI Southbank together with a Q&A with Klayman.

Theatre 

New Diorama Theatre, London, NW1: Borges and I, Idle Motion Theatre Company, 19 – 23 June

Fringe success Idle Motion return with their award-winning show about Argentinian writer and poet Jorge Luis Borges. Borges and I interweaves scenes from Borges’s life and writings, which lend themselves to Idle Motion’s distinctive blend of prop-based visual and physical theatre, honed since the actors’ met at school. The multimedia show portrays Borges on the brink of blindness, and features fantastical imagery from labyrinths and tigers to a love story and universe of libraries.

Music

Barbican Hall, London, EC2Y: Sir Simon Rattle/Vienna Philharmonic, 17 June

Grab a ticket to see Sir Simon Rattle and the Vienna Philharmonic perform the Third Symphonies of Schumann and Brahms in a programme of musical borrowing. Brahms’s romantic, evocative work, written in 1883, borrows from Schumann’s symphony, known as the "Rhenish" after a happy visit to the Rhineland with his wife Clara. Rattle’s much-publicised tenure at the Berlin Philharmonic has seen a focus on the German Expressionist canon, notably at the Proms in 2010. Here he conducts the dramatic and challenging Six Pieces for Orchestra by Webern, who continued the German musical legacy by borrowing from Brahms, with an orchestra no less renowned for its skill and sound.

Festivals  

Various UK locations: London Festival 2012, 21 June – 9 September

Thursday sees the start of the London 2012 Festival, the culmination of the four-year Cultural Olympiad leading up to the Olympic Games. The festival will be Britain’s biggest, with some 12,000 events and performances of dance, music, theatre, film and much more across the country. Highlights include the World Shakespeare Festival and Big Dance 2012, the country’s largest ever celebration of dance. Events to mark the opening include The Voyage, an interactive spectacle from 21 – 24 June in Birmingham city centre; a pyrotechnic firework extravaganza above Lake Windermere on 21 June; and the Peace One Day Global Truce concert in Londonderry. Visit the website to download a brochure.

Thinker and dissident: Ai Weiwei is the subject of a new documentary (Photo: Peter Parks/Getty Images)
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The Day That Went Missing: a memoir that breaks all the rules

Richard Beard's book is brimful of anger and guilt, fails to deliver an uplifting ending and opens with a death.

The Day That Went Missing: a Family’s Story, by Richard Beard

Harvill Secker, 278pp, £14.99

This memoir breaks all the rules. It’s brimful of anger and guilt, fails to deliver an uplifting ending and opens with a death. In the sea off the Cornish coast, the author, aged 11, is jumping the waves along with his brother Nicky, aged nine. It is August 1978. They are trying to outdo each other, joshing in the water; but then a rip current catches Nicky, pulling him out and sucking the sand from beneath his feet. A last image is burned in Beard’s brain: Nicky paddling madly and whining, “his head back, ligaments straining in his neck, his mouth in a tight line to keep out the seawater”. The next moment, responding to a deep instinct to save himself, Beard turns his back on his brother in a frenzied break for the shore.

All his life, Beard writes, he has “made a habit of looking away”. With this book – born of a midlife wobble, a dissatisfaction with being “insufficient in feeling” – he is determined to face down the dreadful events of that day and bulldoze the walls of denial that his family began erecting immediately after Nicky’s funeral, when they returned to the same house (and beach) in Cornwall to finish their holiday as if nothing had happened.

But now there’s so little of Nicky left: a gravestone that gives no date of death, a memorial at the boys’ Berkshire boarding school, a chapel dedication. Beard’s father, who with his determined silence imposed a moratorium on discussing Nicky, is now dead, too, and his living brothers’ recollections are as hazy as his own. At his mother’s house, a suitcase in the attic stows Nicky’s scant belongings, out of sight and mind, and there is a bunch of condolence letters whose well-intentioned inanities Beard quotes to good effect throughout the book, ­showing up the poverty of our language in acknowledging grief. “Death in these letters is character-forming, like a traditional English education,” he remarks at one point.

Beard revisits the holiday house, where difficult memories surface of his boyhood self, pretending to cope while falling apart. He cries uncontrollably as he walks along the cliffs to the beach where Nicky died. “My eyes are leaking,” he writes, another reminder of how he has been drilled not to feel (his boarding school, co-conspirator in denial, does not come off well here).

Beard’s mother hides behind revisionism. She tells him that Nicky was “hopeless at games, and not very brainy”. By believing this, he writes, she can believe that he didn’t have the strength or cleverness to outwit the sea. Another distancing mechanism: his mother points out that Nicky bore little physical resemblance to his three brothers. Beard drily notes how this helps account for Nicky’s erasure: “He wasn’t genuinely one of us – a reason for forgetting him that would make sense, in a novel.”

Making sense of life in novels is what Beard does for a living: in 2011’s Lazarus Is Dead, he even gave his central character a brother who drowns. And his novelist self protects him still, here. While reading (and finding flaws with) the condolence letters, he relies on his inner literary critic to “fend away the risk of genuine empathy”; stumbling on precious references to Nicky’s personality in school reports, he expresses a wariness of short cuts to character. Yet even the denial that serves him professionally breaks down when he comes across stories he published in his school magazine when he was 12 and 13 – one about a diver crippled by fear of water, another about a consummate actor who can’t keep up a performance: he keeps fluffing his lines.

Scraping away this final layer of self-protection creates a certain freedom. It allows Beard to be crazy angry at his father, who had cancer in 1978 and a lousy prognosis with it, and therefore had nothing to lose by jumping into the waves to save his son. And yet he didn’t do it.

Beard is angry at Nicky, too – “stubborn little bastard”. His brother, it turns out, was far from hopeless at sport. School reports indicate that he excelled at it, that he was ­indefatigable, competitive, ambitious. Beard hated him for that, for showing him up, for being the more talented sibling. Once, he punched Nicky in the face but there was no running away to tell on him in response. Nicky bore the punch, showing his brother who was the bigger of them. “I didn’t like him,” writes Beard, and so he goaded Nicky into the sea. “I was older and it was my idea. I left him out of his depth and drowning and I didn’t try to save him, not really. I was busy saving myself.” This is the stuff of true grieving and remorse, the acid peel of genuine soul-searching, whose sting few of us are capable of bearing. And it sings.

Beard has written an enriching rather than uplifting book. It deals in difficult truths. It insists that we can hate those we love; that forgetting is hard work and more damaging than remembering; and that grief will hound us to the end. It also tells us that brothers are more important than we might ever credit. 

Marina Benjamin’s “The Middlepause” (Scribe) is now available in paperback

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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