French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson at the Arles Photography Festival in 1994. Photo: Getty
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The Essay: Finish the Bottle on Radio 3

In week of short monologues about being up close with well-known artists, Martin Gayford recalls a stressful ecounter with Henri Cartier-Bresson.

The Essay: Finish the Bottle
BBC Radio 3

During a week of short monologues about being up close with well-known artists (24-28 March, 10.45pm), the critic Martin Gayford amusingly described a stressful encounter with the then 93-year-old Henri Cartier-Bresson. Taking out a tape recorder, Gayford was poised to press record when HCB boomed that he did not approve of having his words captured by a mechanical device (“To the best questions there is no answer!”). Since Gayford had been charged to conduct a major interview for a national newspaper, this development was a disaster. But he fished out a pen and notebook and managed, with his “scrawls”, to quote the photographer on exotic irrationalism, his nanny from Wolverhampton and the Russian Revolution.

“There is only one thing,” HCB told him. “The glance. It’s a joy. It’s an orgasm. You can teach everything except sensitivity and sensuality. Can you imagine a professor of sensitivity at the Sorbonne?” Your reviewer was impressed. Gayford’s note-taking skills must have been exemplary. I once conducted an interview with Oliver Stone, which – let’s put it down to nerves – I convinced myself that I could do in shorthand. As the director spoke in a low, meandering voice, I filled the pages of my notebook with enormous swirls, as though these were an obscure but ingenious form of notation. At the time, the loops made sense – but when I came to write it all up, it was like trying to decipher cave markings.

Martin Gayford is possibly the one person on earth who would have been able to make something of them. His skill with reconstructed speech is deeply mysterious. In his memoir about sitting for Lucian Freud, Man with a Blue Scarf, Gayford quotes the painter chapter and verse and yet couldn’t possibly have been sitting there for seven months with a pen and paper (Freud objected to a mere move of the leg), or surreptitiously changing batteries on a hidden tape recorder. Yet Freud’s easel-talk in that book reads just right, never more so than when he slams Rossetti as “the nearest painting gets to bad breath”. How does Gayford do it? Is he the ultimate mimic? Does he have a kind of photographic memory? Either way, it’s a skill as unique as most things his subjects have to say.

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 03 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, NEW COLD WAR

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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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