Face-off: detail of Self-Portrait (2014) by Derren Brown
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Derren Brown’s tricks of the eye

Helen Lewis meets the illusionist and secret portrait painter. 

It began with drawing his teachers. The young Derren Brown – a quiet, nervous boy – discovered that he could impress his fellow pupils at the Whitgift School in Croydon by caricaturing authority figures. “It was all a big play for attention,” he says now. “Magic’s also a bit like that – a distancing measure; a way of being impressive if you don’t feel impressive.”

Performing tricks and illusions on television has been Brown’s day job for more than a decade now. Throughout that time, he has also painted celebrity caricatures on vast canvases, further cluttering his taxidermy-stuffed house. In 2009, he gathered them into a book called Portraits. Its cover features a monochrome Clint Eastwood, whose hard-eyed stare is perfectly recognisable despite being placed in a face shaped like a butternut squash.

At 43, though, Brown feels that he has finally grown out of the need to caricature. In his latest portraits, displayed at the Rebecca Hossack gallery in central London, he has resisted his natural urge to distort his subjects’ faces. “It was a conscious effort to move away,” he says. “I just feel more grown up.” Instead, the new paintings are hyperreal: layers of acrylic paint give astonishing detail to hair and skin.

Brown’s own appearance has followed a similar path away from the OTT – the Mephistophelian goatee has gone, as have the Gothic outfits. Today, he is wearing a flat cap; it’s warm, but it also reduces the chances of being recognised.

Being so well known must make it difficult to capture the street photographs that make up part of the exhibition, I say. “I’ve always been used to keeping my head down, but once you start taking pictures like this, it’s the opposite. You have to be very engaged and very open. I was very struck that it didn’t make any difference – I didn’t get any more stopped or less stopped.”

The controlling, superior image that it is necessary to project in order to be a successful hypnotist brings its own problems: “I have had friends who have said that, the first few times they met me, they thought I was ‘doing something’ to them.” It was only several meetings later that they realised he was honestly trying to be friendly, rather than playing an elaborate mind game.

I tell Brown that the caricatures seem more like the natural product of his stage persona. “Yes, because they’re warping and controlling. Once, a student had a massive go at me – he launched into a tirade about how I clearly have to take the world, and shift it, and control it . . . before I can accept it.” He smiles equably. “I don’t think that’s the case.”

Brown also feels that his magic has matured: he now does fewer television shows and concentrates instead on touring in theatres. “I’ve moved away from doing magic on TV now, because you’re in people’s homes. What we hear on TV, we’re used to that being gospel. That’s a different context to being on stage, where it’s a show and you’re clearly seeing an entertainer.”

What does that mean? “You have greater licence. Ultimately, my job is to entertain. There are a couple of magicians I really like, but they insist on never lying to the audience, which is an interesting choice. I think it’s misguided. When I see the show, I’m screaming in my head: just lie to me. It’s fine.”

He does not, however, apply that rationale to his portraits, which are honest to the point of brutality in recording laughter lines and other human flaws. “Mum doesn’t like hers,” Brown says. “She was a model when she was younger. She’s a beautiful lady but, clearly, it’s not very forgiving.” 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 November 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The rise of the insurgents

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Man in the mirror-ball: Simon Armitage's The Unaccompanied

With this mature, engaging and empathetic work, the poet softens the pain of passing years. 

The Unaccompanied, by Simon Armitage
Faber & Faber, 76pp, £14.99

“The centuries crawl past,” Simon Armitage notes in his new collection, “none of them going your way”. After a decade of acclaimed travelogues, transgressive prose poetry, and above all translation, Armitage has combed those centuries to produce innovative versions of ancient and medieval texts: Pearl, The Death of King Arthur, Homer’s Odyssey, Virgil’s Georgics. In The Unaccompanied he returns, refreshed from his sojourn in the past and bringing the classics with him; in the book’s dystopian present, in “Poundland”, Odysseus meets the ghost of his drunken comrade Elpenor not in the Underworld, but “slumped and shrunken by the Seasonal Products display”, the poem’s pseudo-archaic English underscoring its ironic rewriting of Homer. Meanwhile, the protagonist of “Prometheus”, holed up in a post-industrial wasteland, sees his father retrieve not fire, but a Champion spark plug.

To lighten its nightmarish visions, The Unaccompanied offers the same beguiling playfulness that has characterised Armitage’s verse from his 1989 debut, Zoom!, to the “Merrie England” of Tyrannosaurus Rex versus The Corduroy Kid (2006). “Tiny”, for instance, reads like an old-school Ladybird Book (“Simon has taken his father, Peter,/to the town’s museum”) and “The Poet Hosts His Annual Office Christmas Party” makes a mischievous nod to Yeats. As ever, there are pinpoint references to popular culture; in “Gravity”, it is the “six-minute-plus/album version” of Fleetwood Mac’s “Sara” that plays on the stereo in the sixth-form common room. Yet Armitage’s concern for the socially excluded – the “skinny kid in jeans and trainers” from “The Ice Age” to whom the poet offers a spurned coat, “brother to brother” – burns unabated.

This collection articulates a new anger that is more personal, a lament for individual mortality, the sadness of time moving on too far and too fast. In “The Present”, the poet attempts to take an icicle home to his daughter:

a taste of the glacier, a sense of the world

being pinned in place by a
diamond-like cold

at each pole, but I open my hand

and there’s nothing to pass on, nothing to hold.

Armitage’s fluid poetics are pitch-perfect and his imagery remains incisive. The bare winter larch trees become “widowed princesses in moth-eaten furs”. In “Poor Old Soul” an elderly man sits, “hunched and skeletal under a pile of clothes,/a Saxon king unearthed in a ditch”. This is the measured poetry of late middle-age, in which only the promise of more loss fills the “white paper, clean pages”. In “Kitchen Window”, the poet’s mother taps the smeared glass before she falls away “behind net curtains” and then further “to deeper/darker reaches and would not surface”. “Emergency” (published in the NS in 2013) could almost be his audition for Grumpy Old Men. “What is it we do now?” he asks as he details the closed banks, and pubs where “tin-foil wraps/change hands under cover/of Loot magazine”. W G Hoskins’s gentle topological classic is referenced in “The Making of the English Landscape”, though a very different country is seen at dusk from a satellite:

like a shipwreck’s carcass raised on a
sea-crane’s hook,

nothing but keel, beams, spars, down to its bare bones.

In “Harmonium”, the poet’s father – who, in 1993’s Book of Matches, berated him for having his ear pierced – helps his son lug an unwanted organ from their local church and reminds him “that the next box I’ll shoulder through this nave/will bear the load of his own dead weight”.

Armitage’s poetic world is instantly recognisable, always inclusive. We know the faded ballrooms that turn into even sadder discos in “The Empire”. Or the clumsy children’s shoe fitter of “The Cinderella of Ferndale”, who leaves her own footprints of disappointment. As the poet stumbles on a farmers’ fancy-dress parade for a breast cancer charity in “Tractors”, the slight incident bleeds into the universal shock of diagnosis: “the musket-ball/or distant star/in your left breast”. Critics often cite Philip Larkin as an influence on his work, but Armitage’s highly tuned sense of such “mirror-ball” moments – small but refracting repeatedly across time and lives – is all his own. Thankfully, with this mature, engaging and empathetic work, he is back to record them for us, softening the pain of passing years. 

Josephine Balmer is a poet and classical translator. “Letting Go: Mourning Sonnets” will be published by Agenda Editions in July

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

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