Friday Arts Diary

Our cultural picks for the week ahead.

Film

I Am Breathing, directed by Emma Davie and Morag Mckinnon, cinemas nationwide, Friday 21st June

This documentary charts the final days of Scottish architect Neil Platt, who was diagnosed with Motor Neuron Disease in 2008. In a caption at the beginning of the film, Platt promises ‘a tale of fun and laughs with a smattering of upset and devastation’ and he isn’t lying; as well as deeply poignant moments, there is also a fair amount of dark humour. Recently, there have been several films of a similar theme, but critics have called I am Breathing “by far the most honest and poignant”.

Exhibition

Dieter Roth: Diaries, Camden Arts Centre, 22nd June-14th July

In the year leading up to his death, artist Dieter Roth went through the meticulous and gargantuan process of recording his entire existence, using a vast range of media. One of the more dominant pieces in the exhibition is the ‘solo scenes’ - 128 video tapes replaying the everyday actions which constitute our lives. Installations, books, sculpture, drawing and assemblages are also used to create “a record of his relentless and impassioned engagement with life”.

Concert

Die Antwoord, O2 Academy Brixton, Saturday 22nd June

The talented, albeit controversial South-African hip-hop trio are bringing their electro beats and intelligent lyrics to the O2 Academy Brixton this weekend. Described by some as “futuristic rap-rave”, Die Antwoord’s music breaks the mould of generic, popular electronic music, associated with such music artists as David Guetta, and introduces the genre to a level of talent with which it is seldom associated.

TV

Andy Murray: The Man Behind the Racquet, BBC 1, 22:25, Sunday 23rd June

With Wimbledon kicking off on Monday 24th June, this documentary will provide a glimpse into the life of one of Britain’s most prominent sporting figures, promising to reveal “just what it takes to be a global sports star”. Murray suggested recently that he intentionally comes across as dull in press conferences to avoid the brutal scrutiny of media attention. Can it be then that, behind the expressionless face and monotonous voice, Andy Murray lives a wild celebrity lifestyle? Probably not, but this documentary may prove to be an interesting appetizer in the lead up to Wimbledon.

Festival

Night + Day, Hatfield House, Saturday 22nd June

The “enigmatic and artfully moody” electro-pop stars, The XX, have put together this festival on the outskirts of London. From early afternoon, their own favourite artists (Solange, Polica, Kindness, Mount Kimbie and many more) will perform across two stages, culminating in a performance from the organizers themselves. The show debuted at a 16th century defence tower in Lisbon before stopping off at an abandoned amusement park in Berlin on its way to London, leaving very impressed critics in its wake.

Die Antwoord's lead vocalist, Ninja, performs at Outside Lands music festival in 2012.
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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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