Amateur hour: Una Stubbs and a contestant.
Show Hide image

A brush with boredom: The Big Painting Challenge wants to do for easels what Bake Off did for whisks

Plus Suffragettes Forever! – a good series let down by its tone and speed.

The Big Painting Challenge
BBC1

Suffragettes Forever!
BBC2
 

In the 1970s and early 1980s, there wasn’t much by way of daytime televisual entertainment for a kid who was skiving school. Pipkins was a puppet show featuring a horrible Brummie pig. Pebble Mill at One was an amateurish magazine programme that always seemed to end with Marti Webb bawling out her latest “hit”. Sons and Daughters was an Australian soap with scripts that had clearly been written 20 minutes before the cast arrived on set. Then there was Paint Along With Nancy, in which an American “artist” called Nancy Kominsky aimed to demystify the world of oils and acrylics for her (possibly colour-blind) viewers. Nancy treated her canvases with such hilarious straightforwardness that she might as well have been applying haemorrhoid cream to a sore bottom.

When it comes to boring, semi-educational television, Paint Along With Nancy was my benchmark – until the other Sunday, when I suddenly found myself longing for her voluminous smocks, her car-crash still lifes and her encouraging descriptions of the human head (“just like an egg”). For even she was more entertaining than the BBC’s latest talent show, The Big Painting Challenge (Sundays, 6pm), which aims to do for easels what The Great British Bake Off did for whisks.

On screen, ten mostly middle-aged men and women were trying to capture the “essence” of Alnwick Castle in Northumberland. For some, this consisted of reproducing it in miniature, brick by brick. Others homed in on a single image (one had a rampant lion straddling an unfeasibly large canon, which seemed inappropriate given that the show is co-presented by Una Stubbs, who is 77 and a former girlfriend of Cliff Richard to boot). A tiny minority had gone bonkers for colour. “Do you like David Hockney?” asked Richard Bacon, Stubbs’s colleague, approaching a canvas that was mostly yellow. When the amateur artist replied that she did, back he came, quick as a shot: “I can tell.” Eat your heart out, Kenneth Clark.

If The Big Painting Challenge is boring for the viewer, think how tedious it must be for Stubbs and Bacon. What, I wonder, do they get up to while the artists are busy with their palette knives? It’s pretty clear that neither spends the hours leafing through E H Gombrich. When Stubbs visited Constable’s Hay Wain at the National Gallery to “learn a little more” about landscape painting, her only comment was: “It’s a bit chocolate boxy.” Bacon has boasted to the Radio Times that he’s a keen collector of “aggressively” contemporary art – he’s got a Hirst, you know – but he seems chary of encouraging any of the contestants to stand aside and let an assistant do all the work. Meanwhile, the show’s charisma-free artist judges, Lachlan Goudie and Daphne Todd OBE, wander around making comments about perspective. Both look somewhat sheepish, as well they might. This isn’t going to look good down at the Royal Academy.

But let’s move on. If Stubbs is being paid the same as Bacon to front this tedium, she owes this good fortune to women who fought for such rights as equal pay to be enshrined in law. Amanda Vickery’s documentary series Suffragettes Forever! (Wed­nesdays, 8pm) tells the stories of these crusaders, although she doesn’t begin with Emily Davison and the Pankhursts – her account goes right back to the Levellers.

I have nothing against Vickery and I’d rather that her series existed than not. But the way in which she and her producer whip through the centuries so quickly has a woefully flattening effect, reducing Mary Wollstonecraft and several other heroines to a footnote. Worse, Vickery’s ceaselessly emphatic delivery allows for no light and shade. When everything is very important and highly significant, somehow nothing is. But perhaps this is just me. I must admit that my tolerance for documentaries that are presented rather than authored shrinks by the hour. With the honourable exception of Jonathan Meades, give me a behind-the-camera merchant (Vanessa Engle, Michael Cockerell, Adam Curtis) any day of the week. I’d rather be shown than told, especially in the matter of how I should feel. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 27 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Russia vs the west

DREW KELLY/NEW YORK TIMES/REDUX/EYEVINE
Show Hide image

Yiyun Li: Can reading help you conquer depression?

In her memoir of depression and reading, Yiyun Li speaks to all those with unquiet minds.

Most sufferers of severe depression will tell you that the condition is incommunicable: it cannot be expressed, except through metaphors, and then those, too, are pitifully inadequate. How does one talk about a great, centrifugal force that spins the self away to fragments, or towards annihilation, leaving no stable, immutable self to write about?

Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life (the title is a quotation from a letter by Katherine Mansfield) is a memoir of depression and reading, and the first work of non-fiction by the acclaimed Chinese-American writer Yiyun Li, whose books include the prize-winning debut collection A Thousand Years of Good Prayers and The Vagrants, her astonishing and bleak first novel. In Dear Friend, she grapples with the question that lies at the heart of books as diverse as William Styron’s Darkness Visible and Andrew Solomon’s Noonday Demon, but from the outset Li swerves away: she never once mentions depression by name, talking instead about “a difficult time”, or her mind being in “poor shape”, and about “this emptiness in me”.

A severe reluctance to talk about herself has led her to devise a way of writing about emotions in a forensically intellectual manner, subjecting each feeling to the rigours of close reading and an investigation-by-argument not a million miles from the practice of philosophers. In fact, the first chapter of the book is divided into 24 short subsections, of anything between four lines and just over a page: a collection of thoughts, observations, memories, aphoristic distillations, even propositions.

This sets the formal template for what follows: the titles of the subsequent chapters lead one to expect thematic unity, but the greater coherence comes from Li’s overarching project in Dear Friend of thinking about time. She starts out with the notion that the book “would be a way to test – to assay – thoughts about time. There was even a vision of an after, when my confusions would be sorted out.” To talk of a “before” and “after” is to acknowledge an intervening present; all posit an experience unfolding in time. But right from the start she is acutely conscious of a self-defeating task: “To assay one’s ideas about time while time remains unsettled and elusive feels futile.”

This compulsive argumentation and dissection of feelings into ever finer strands can produce the occasionally cloudy culmination, usually aphoristic or epigrammatic in style, almost always paradoxical. Even context fails to illuminate fully, for example, these sentences on Elizabeth Bowen: “‘The moment one is sad one is ordinary,’ she [Bowen] wrote. But that is not enough. The moment one feels anything one feels fatal.” Or: “To say nothing matters is to admit that everything matters.” Li’s emotions are thoughts, a pre-emptive mechanism to salvage a frangible self; perhaps this is the only way one can talk about an illness that eats the very faculty that produces thought. “As a body suffers from an auto-immune disease,” she writes, “my mind targets every feeling and thought it creates.”

Slowly, a bare-bones biographical narrative emerges: an immature, unstable monster of a mother; a quiet, fatalistic and long-suffering father; episodes from a childhood in China; a career in science cast aside for writing; two stays in hospital for serious depressive episodes (we find out their exact nature only in the afterword).

But, other than the self-consuming mind, the one constant running through this ­deliberately fractured memoir, like a flowing stream whose noise is always present, sometimes near, sometimes far, is the theme of reading. Here, too, Li is original in her approach, in describing how writers speak to her unquiet mind or to the darkness at her core. Take her love of biography or writers’ correspondence. She tells us that it springs from “the need – the neediness – to find shelter from one’s uncertain self in other lives”. It is heart-rending to read that she finds her “real context” in books: “. . . all that could not be solved in my life was merely a trifle as long as I kept it at a distance. Between that suspended life and myself were these dead people and imagined characters. One could spend one’s days among them as a child arranges a circle of stuffed animals when the darkness of night closes in.”

Li is a writer who has made her name in the lyrical-realist school, producing pellucidly moving works that enrich our understanding of psychological interiority and affect, so it is not surprising to note her admiration and love for Turgenev and Chekhov, Mansfield, John McGahern, William Trevor, Stefan Zweig, Bowen. More unpredictable, at least when these first occur, are the names of Marianne Moore, Graham Greene and Philip Larkin; the Moore and Larkin connections with her life are particularly unexpected when they unfurl.

There is a beautiful and profound chapter on renouncing her mother tongue – even though Li never wrote in Chinese – and the decision to adopt English. She gives the ­penultimate chapter of her book, fittingly, to the writer who has mattered to her most: Trevor, a writer she “aspired to be”, “to see as he does”. At the end of her assay there is a sense of endurance; this book is “an experiment in establishing a truce with what cannot be changed”, a terribly beautiful gift to the reader, who will always remain locked in her own life as the author is in hers.

Neel Mukherjee’s most recent novel is “The Lives of Others” (Vintage)

Neel Mukherjee is an Indian writer writing in English. His book The Lives of Others was shortlisted for the 2014 Man Booker Prize and he reviews fiction for the New Statesman. 

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit