Friday Arts Diary

Our cultural picks for the week ahead.

Theatre

To Sir, With Love, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 6 - 28 September

Based on E R Braithwaite’s autobiography and adapted by for the stage East is East writer Ayub Khan Din, To Sir, With Love follows the difficulties of Ricky, a black ex-RAF pilot, as a teacher in post-war England. Although struggling initially to find work, after settling in an East London school, he finds common ground with pupils who themselves have been marginalised and shunned. Made famous by the 1967 film starring Richard Poitier, this adaptation will debut in Northampton before touring the UK.  It stars Matthew Kelly as the school’s headmaster and Ansu Kabia as Ricky.

Art

Urban & Iconic – The World Of Street Art Gallery, 5 - 10 September

A multi media extravaganza with stencil art, free hand sprayed art, oil and acrylic and oil art, sculptures and live graffiti, this free exhibition celebrates some of the best urban art from the world over. The gallery will be open from the sixth to the tenth of September with live music provided by Happenstance and Maya Schenk.  

Film

Peckham and Nunhead Free Film Festival, 5 - 15 September

With 30 events from now until September 15 and the chance to see a range of classic films for free, there’s bound to be something in the Peckham and Nunhead Free Film Festival that grabs your fancy. As well as film screenings, the festival also includes filmmaking workshops, such as animation classes for children, to help people gain new skills and interests.

Among the new releases this weekend are Richard Curtis’ All About Time, the Austrian film Museum Hours, and the winner of the Cinematography Award at the Sundance Film Festival Ain’t Them Bodies Saints.

Music

Last Night of the Proms, 7 September

For the world famous Last Night of the Proms, the music spreads across the UK with outdoor celebrations in Hyde Park, Glasgow Green, Belfast Titanic Slipways and Owain Glyndŵr Playing Fields. With an evening’s entertainment from a range of acts in a variety of musical styles, the events promise to be a spectacular conclusion to the festival. Umbrella advised.

Festival

Wigan Diggers Festival, 7 - 8 September

This free and annual open air event celebrates the life and work of Gerrard Winstanley and the associated seventeenth century “Diggers” movement. Calling themselves the “True Levellers” the Diggers were known for their egalitarian politics and are celebrated this weekend with poetry, music, film and a range of other activities.

 

Last Night of the Proms. Photograph: Getty Images.
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How The Mare throws gender, race and even language into flux

Mary Gaitskill's new novel presents an agonising world of "nice" and "nasty", where moral choice is always constrained.

I never loved pony books. Like many girls, I briefly tried to direct my longing for contact – primal and protosexual – into a dream of fusion with something more beautiful, more powerful than me: a horse. But then I found that riding was less sensual than political; it was to do with what you could afford to ride, and how often, and how you could afford to look while doing it. So far, so much like other teen courting rituals.

The Mare, like many of Mary Gaitskill’s works, is the story of a teenage girl. The Dominican-American Velveteen Vargas leaves her home in Brooklyn for “Friendly Town”, where a white couple – the childless Ginger and Paul – offer her a holiday under the Fresh Air Fund. “I’ve spent the last ten years nurturing myself and looking at my own shit,” Ginger says. “It’s time to nurture somebody else now.” She is attempting that most dangerous of things: to do good. She pays for Velvet to have riding lessons, which become an obsession, revealing society in miniature, or perhaps humanity itself.

Like other works by Gaitskill, The Mare is told polyphonically by means of interior monologues. Velvet is superbly articulate, especially about moments when she is not: “I felt, but not a normal feeling that you can say what it is.” She is also dyslexic: “although she could sound the words out perfectly and sometimes even understand their meanings individually, she could not really understand sentences put together”. No surprise; words are less than reliable. When Ginger talks to her contemporaries – biological mothers – she feels their “friendly unfriendliness” and wonders, “How do people make this simple sound into a mixture of real and false, the false mocking the real for the two seconds they rub together?”

Words are also to do with nurturing: “mare”, as Gaitskill notes, resembles the French “mère”, and motherhood is central here. “I am going down . . . like every woman in particular,” Ginger says, as if women crumbled more easily than men. She means menopause, the end of potential childbirth. As Velvet becomes a woman, her birth mother finds her to be “like a stupid animal”. Parallels are drawn between women and horses through the body: “She kicks because of hormones, because – well, basically, she’s just being a girl,” says Pat the trainer about Velvet’s horse.

Naming is a powerful force. The abused horse Funny Girl is rechristened “Fugly Girl” by the bitchy stable girls, then “Fiery Girl” by Velvet, who both identifies with her and wants to save her, just as Ginger wants to save Velvet.

Ginger at first sees Velvet as a cute animal: “Her skin was a rich brown; her lips were full, her cheekbones strong. She had a broad, gentle forehead, a broad nose, and enormous heavy-lashed eyes with intense brows . . . She was ours!” As Silvia Vargas says of her daughter, “some fool woman has made her into a pet”, yet neither people nor animals are easily petted.

“Human love”, says Ginger, “is the vilest thing” and “the most powerful drug in the world”. Paul says of Velvet: “I was beginning to feel we were doing some strange violence to her.” S&M has long been Gaitskill’s paradigm and in The Mare it sits in the ethics of the horse/rider relationship. Why do they care if you hit them with a whip?” Velvet asks. “It’s all psychological,” answers Beverly the sadistic trainer. “You control them from inside their heads. The physical is back-up. Mostly.” While Velvet uses horse behaviour to excuse her participation in bullying (“We ran together”), Ginger holds on to the distinction: “You are not a horse. You are a person.” Horses remain amoral: “one thousand pounds of unpredictable power”.

The Mare is a book about “nice” and “nasty” – words Gaitskill’s characters use to fumble at concepts of good and evil. Silvia finds Ginger “nice like a little girl is nice”. Velvet’s boyfriend, Shawn, says that “Ginger could be nice because people like her got other people to do the violence for them”. The difference is one of race. “Why is it that white people can walk their path in a way that black people – and people of my colour – cannot?” Velvet asks. At her lowest point (and Velvet’s), Ginger finds herself wondering if non-whites are “just different”, and discovers, “I’m racist. At least now I know.”

Gaitskill’s world is agonising because moral choice exists but is constrained by cruel circumstance. Silvia once had the privilege of riding a horse. Up there she saw “my life, going in different directions”. Thrown off, she has a vision of hell. “I was there, with the shit people.” Hell is a constant option. “I don’t think God would have to send people there, I think they would go there by themselves,” says Ginger who, like Velvet, has a vision of visiting it by “a door in our backyard”.

It is easy to question a white artist addressing dilemmas of white privilege. Yet not only does Gaitskill take this as her subject, but the act of writing The Mare is a direct challenge to what Justine in Two Girls, Fat and Thin (1991), noticing her white mother’s careful relationship with her black maid, calls the “bloodless world of decency and politeness”.

The Mare has little of the gleeful disgust of Gaitskill’s previous books but this makes it pricklier than her most outrageous sexual tragicomedies. I loved Gaitskill before The Mare because, with brutal hilarity, she gave humanity to bullies and mean girls. But here, like Ginger, she is telling me, relentlessly, painfully, that “any good thing might happen, anything”.

Joanna Walsh’s books include the collection “Vertigo” (And Other Stories) and “Hotel” (Bloomsbury Academic)

The Mare by Mary Gaitskill is published by Serpent’s Tail (441pp, £14.99)

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt