Reading: Ben Aaronovitch — Rivers of London

Just as Gala handed off Moon Over Soho to me, so do I hand off Rivers of London. I finish it beside the Danube, just upstream from Ottensheim. It’s been my book for the week I’ve been there. I bought two because I’d mostly finished this, but that’s how much reading time I had. I pass it on to Kali Rose, I say, “I think you might like it,” ’cos as much as we’re all at reading the theory and non-fiction for what we’re up against, part of it is seeing ourselves, or just seeing representation in fiction. It’s a political act to write fiction, and to read it. (Also ’cos I didn’t have room in my bag to bring it back on the plane, which means I’ll have to buy it again.)

I’m way behind on my writing about reading at the moment, so this isn’t going to be a slab of text like I wrote for the Moon Over Soho, Ben Aaronovitch’s second novel in the PC Grant series. Rivers of London is the first, and is probably better. Whether that’s because of the foreshadowing hanging over it because I know where the story is going with face-mangling magic, and what it means for PCs Peter Grant and Leslie May. Equally a lot of the river story and characters in the second novel — which we’re supposed to know what he’s talking about with, ’cos we’ve read the first, eh? — take on their proper form. Still, yes, you can read second before first and it’s solid and stand-alone enough to not feel disappointment and confusion.

The crime story of Rivers of London is perhaps more grandiose — and goes on some real, deliberate trips — than that of Moon Over Soho — possibly because I was crossing the Danube multiple times a night and had only its waters for company, some of which is still in my lungs. Moon Over Soho, on the other hand brings PC Grant’s family into play, and that was what grabbed me so much, though there’s enough of growing up Black and BAME in London in the first novel that if I’d only read that one I’d still be ordering the whole set.

All of them. All seven of them. All large typeface so I can read them while I fall asleep and pretend I don’t need glasses. Better than Harry Potter? Yeah. Better than Charles Stross’ Laundry Files series? Yeah. All I want to do is order the rest and take a week off, shack up on a nice sofa in the autumn sun (in Berlin, Frances?) and read them all. Are you going to read them too? Yeah. Should they be movies? Yeah.

Ben Aaronovitch — Rivers of London
Ben Aaronovitch — Rivers of London

Reading: Ben Aaronovitch — Moon Over Soho

“What’s an Airwave?”
“umm … dunno. What’s the context?”
“‘I bunged a spare airwave in with my backup laptop just to be on the safe side. ’”
“Maybe a portable Wi-Fi hotspot?”

“… something something Hogwarts …”
“Gala, what are you reading?”
“Moon Over Soho, it’s by Ben Aaronovitch. Sort of magical police?”
“Never heard of him. Off to the Wikis, I s’pose?”
“I’ll give it to you when I’m done.”

And my backpack — which I can legit get at least a week of living out of if I don’t take climbing shoes — had just enough room in the front mesh pocket for me to take it on the plane. I began in the airport, stupidly early because I read boarding time as wheels up, kept going that evening, finished it off with peanut butter and jam on toast and accompanying coffee — which is how I want to go out (if I’m denied my, “What happens if I—oops,” moment somewhere high in the Central Asian mountains), because there is nothing better than PB&J, coffee, and a boffo novel.

Moon Over Soho is the second of Aaronovitch’s PC Grant Mystery series, currently numbering seven — but did you know he wrote for Blake’s 7 audio dramas? Blake’s 7! The best sci-fi series ever made. And Doctor Who, and Jupiter Moon (I dunno about that last one either). But his PC Grant series is him doing novels proper. Coincidentally (or not), Gala got me up for us watching Luther, starring Idris Elba as the PTSD’d detective. It was shite. Utter fucking cringe-inducing shite. But Elba would make a brilliant PC Grant, except he’s too old. Second novel, then. Doesn’t matter, I picked up most of the carry-over from the first novel, and it’s self-contained enough to make it enjoyable not knowing all the backstory. Enjoyable enough to order all seven? I reckon.

It reminded me plenty of Charles Stross’ Laundry Files series (and somewhat of Ayize Jama-Everett’s The Liminal People trilogy) — and obviously plays with post-’00s Harry Potter —so much I had to look to see who wrote what when, not convinced at first there wasn’t some heavy borrowing going on. But similarities are unavoidable lately. Everyone’s influenced by Potter in the same way previous generations were by Tolkien; Cthulhu Mythos accounts for a chunk of fantasy, post-Twilight for another, and for police procedurals of the British type, there’s 25 years of The Bill to contend with. So if I’m reminded so much of other novels, why am I all, “Woo! Gonna throw Euros at the whole series!”?

’Cos it’s good. ’Cos it’s the series I wish Stross had listened to. It’s the series for a London where the Mayor is the son of working-class bus driver, whose Muslim family immigrated from India to Pakistan post-partition and then on to South London; a London where Stormzy says, “I’m so London, I’m so South,”; the London of Peter Fryer’s Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain, where centuries of diligent, ceaseless effort could not stop Brown, Black, South Asian, everyone who is ‘not-white’, who was colonised, who came to the UK, becoming British and Londoners and making the place so, so much more and better than it could ever have been without. It’s a London of those clunky words that I still love for what they aspire to: diversity and multiculturalism.

It wasn’t until I read Moon Over Soho that I could articulate what’s been bothering me in Stross — as much as I like his novels, and as much as I’ve already articulated at length on his problems with representation. It’s the difference between describing a character’s skin colour or sexuality or gender, and leaving it at that, having them move through the white world as anyone else who can, and having a character like PC Grant, who goes home to his mother with all that entails as a child of a working-class, jazz musician father, and a Black British Fula mother of a very extended Sierra Leonean family. And there was a series of short scenes, introducing a recurring character, with a very much tough, butch dyke detective as the intermediary:

She clicked her fingers and a couple of Murder Team detectives came padding down the stairs with gloves and evidence bags. Stephanopoulis pointed at the staff door and they dutifully trooped past me to do a more thorough search of the cloakroom. One of them was a young Somali woman in a leather biker jacket and an expensive black silk hijab. She caught me looking and smiled.

“Muslim ninja,” she whispered.

[…]

Stephanopoulis lent me the Somali ninja girl whose name was Sahra Guleed and who turned out to be from Gospel Oak, which is just up the road from where I grew up—different school, though. When two ethnic officers meet for the first time the first question you ask can be about anything but the second question you ask is always, “Why did you join?”

“Are you kidding?” said Guleed. “You get to legally rough people up.”

This, I like. I get anxious when I pulled in like this, as with Legend of Korra, or Orphan Black, or quite a few others where the writers are doing necessary work, where they’re explicitly repping. What if they’re not, though? Or what if they fuck up? What if I’ve missed something obvious and it’s actually embarrassing how not good it is? What if it’s appropriation instead of representation? The appearance of ‘diversity’ so they don’t have to do the actual hard work, in art and their lives. What if the — so far — cisgender and hetero and male PC Grant comes to signify an entire world prioritising such characters and perspectives? I expect a shitload of effort once a writer reaches a critical mass of Getting It Right. I’m not saying they’re not allowed to fail, I’m not acting as an infallible arbiter, rather that the consequences for screwing up hurt me more as a reader than for the great wash of bollocks, inconsequential because firmly within the derivative norm. If I care about a novel and the characters and the story, it’s because it means something. I don’t want to trawl through a novel for morsels, scraps, and glimpses of representation, I want that to be the core, ’cos that’s the world, that’s real, it always has been.

Ben Aaronovitch — Moon Over Soho
Ben Aaronovitch — Moon Over Soho

The National Gallery

All the art I saw in The National Gallery.

Gallery

The National Gallery — Level 0, Gallery A

Level 0 is in the basement of The National Gallery. Or feels like it after the airy heights of Level 2 and the Sainsbury Wing. It contains a cruciform quintet of rooms, with a couple more off one side I blasted through. This was “Running out of time!” territory and “Really need to get to airport, Frances.” Gallery A, though, how could I not?

Honoré-Victorin Daumier’s Don Quixote and Sancho Panza was before all that, but appears at the end here, as chronologically it makes more sense, and was in one of those other small rooms. It’s a bit of an orphan. I would gladly steal it and have it break me into a smile every morning.

So much good art here! Gallery A is a rotating exhibition of the Gallery’s collection, and spans much of the last seven hundred years. On its own it could be a small town museum, like Musée des Beaux-Arts de Valenciennes with its walls of Rubens. And there’s a Rubens here: A Roman Triumph, which is frankly bonkers, more or less in keeping with him. A lot of mediæval and Renaissance Italian art, the dominant region for these periods in the gallery. It speaks of how vast and strong the collection is that some of these are only worthy of being in Gallery A and not upstairs.

Amidst all the mediæval art, Agnolo Gaddi’s The Coronation of the Virgin caught me for the delicate colour that needs to be seen up close, as does Benozzo Gozzoli’s The Virgin and Child Enthroned among Angels and Saints, almost sculptural in its flatness, like a bas relief. Yes, Rubens, elephants and a huge, thronging crowd of musicians, dancers, animals probably going to be slaughtered, fire, smoke, noise, they’re all well amped for a party, definitely one of my favourites of his.

Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo’s The Lamentation at the Foot of the Cross reminds me of Master of the Saint Bartholomew’s The Deposition though each such different works in style and technique. It’s the grotesque, visceral movement in both, frozen and posed, like a scene in a film. And I felt like I’d already written this exact sentence before realising there is an almost identical one by him in the Level 2, 1700–1930 collection, from a slightly different angle, like two moments in time by photographers standing side by side.

I was by then running late for the airport and now have been writing all day, so in both instances this where I stop. Abruptly.

Gallery

The National Gallery — Level 2, 1700-1930: Post-Impressionism

I did not spend much time on 19th century art. I was running out of time, my camera battery was looking shaky, and I’d already gorged myself on mediæval art. But I have a soft spot for Cézanne and Gauguin. And lately one for Toulouse-Lautrec, cos he made a habit of painting queer women.

So we have the beautiful Faa Iheihe by Paul Gauguin, from his time in Tahiti. And paraphrasing The National Gallery here (cos all their works are online, so why I spent so much time photographing and editing, I’ll never know), the title is his translation of the Tahitian “‘fa`ai`ei`e’ which means “to beautify, adorn, embellish”, in the sense of making oneself beautiful for a special occasion” and uses “a horizontal format inspired by Javanese sculptured friezes.”

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s The Two Friends is one of his paintings from his Paris brothel visits. The National Gallery says it “belongs to a series of paintings focusing on the friendships between the women which often, as here, portrayed intimate moments or gestures of companionship or sympathy”, but having seen some other of his paintings and drawings, I think it’s quite explicit this work and many others are of queer women, and he identified with this milieu. There’s a tendency, or rather a compulsion, in art history to refuse to see what’s there, or — being charitable here — to be ignorant of signifiers. The rest of us know when we’re being spoken to. There are works of his with two women that are clearly not queer, that are, as the Gallery says, friendships between women. And there are others, some which are so similar as raise the challenge, “How can you claim this and not that?” which are obviously more. We read the signifiers, we know what we’re seeing, even while art history erases them — and there’s at least one photograph of Henri dressed in the same clothes the women he drew wore, so there’s that to read too.

Lastly, there’s a Degas. He’s the opposite of everything Toulouse-Lautrec lived for, and today would vote to the right of Le Pen, as well as being well suss around all those young, female ballet dancers. I can be a bit of an apologist for Wagner, who I think gets a harsher rap than he earned (largely though not entirely because of his family), but Degas gets far, far less of a thrashing than he deserves. He’s well dodgy. But his art can be sublime. Plus it’s ballett, and I’m a sucker for seeing what I’ve lived for in art.

I didn’t mention the Cézanne. As with Gauguin, I just like Cézanne. I think it’s because they’re all Post-Impressionists, and whereas Impressionism leaves me cold (there were walls of Monet and Manet, plus rooms of 19th century stuff I did not touch) Expressionism reliably does it for me, and I see plenty of what moves me in that in artists like Toulouse-Lautrec, Gauguin, and Cézanne, so enjoy Bathers, cos it’s beautiful. (There were stacks of van Gogh too, including Sunflowers. The crowd though, like getting the Metro at rush hour.)

Gallery

The National Gallery — Level 2, 1700-1930: J. M. W. Turner

There are two museums here. The first painting, Life-Boat and Manby Apparatus Going Off to a Stranded Vessel Making Signal (Blue Lights) of Distress, is from the Victoria & Albert Museum which I’d visited a couple of days prior to my National Gallery jaunt. The blogging of my V&A trip was solid Mediæval and Renaissance, and along with everything non-North-East Eurasian European peninsula, there was no place for Joseph Mallord William Turner. The National Gallery put on a Turner trio for me, so I’ve rolled the V&A one in here.

Michel Serres loves Turner. I’m sure he resonated with me as well prior to my student years introduction to Serres, but I forever associate Turner with that time when my university philosophy friends, having already blown my mind on Butler and Deleuze said, “Well if you like them, you’re gonna love Serres.” It was probably Hermes: Literature, Science, Philosophy, and the chapter Turner Translates Carnot, seducing me with the interplay of these three subjects, with thermodynamics and art. It occurs to me now that the scene in Feersum Endjinn, where Count Sessine is in the bowels of a steam train with a younger, forked version of himself is a work of Turner.

It may be unremarkable to love both The Fighting Temeraire tugged to her Last Berth to be broken up and — especially — Rain, Steam and Speed — The Great Western Railway, but perhaps it is having seen them so often they serve as a mnemonic for Serres, who in turn leads me through the art of Turner, through science and aesthetics and ethics, and makes it so much more than just singular, remarkable paintings.

As with Joseph Wright of Derby’s An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump, I found myself in Room 34 faced with works I’ve seen for years in print unexpectedly there before me. I made some noise. The school kids were all, “What the fuck, tall old weird person?” They were being forced to stand before it and experience Art. I wonder if they could sense how remarkable these works are, or if that was drowned beneath the imperative to concur, that yes, like the Mona Lisa and Shakespeare these are masterpieces. The Mona Lisa is unremarkable, mediocre, forgettable. Turner, particularly in his 1830s and ’40s period, is a monster. You can see him moving toward the intensity of Rain, Steam, and Speed in much earlier works, in the cloud and circulating light, and you can see traces of where he came from in the Temeraire itself, sliding between Baroque, Romanticism, and Realism, going somewhere that superficially resembles Impressionism, but there’s no way to get to that from where Turner ended up.

To see these close up, shoving in a crowd to get close enough to marvel at the detail, to wait for that break in the throng to be able to photograph them, all while rushing to make the airport. The hare running before the train is a long diagonal blob, and the detailed photo misses it entirely, but look at the train, a black maw around a white-hot inferno, and on the shore between the bridges’ arcs, a group of dancers; like the wheels on the train precise in the raw chaos of brush strokes. Look at the sky in the rectangle of paddle-wheel tug, funnel, smoke and the Temeraire’s pale bow. It shimmers and burns in the heat, convection rising and falling, peeling off, dirtying and hazing the air. The slender black upright of the funnel links both these paintings; as Serres says, “the entire world becomes a steam engine … Turner entered into the boiler … the painting is inside”.

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The National Gallery — Level 2, 1700-1930: Joseph Wright of Derby: An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump

I know this painting from when I was a kid. I think it was in one of those Time Life books, of which we has piles, rescued from pulping at some point along the paper recycling process. There were a lot of good books coming from that way. It might have been in Life Science Library, or maybe Life Nature Library, but either way I stared at it often, and it’s engraved in my memory.

It’s a beautiful painting, An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump, and harrowing. Even more so stumbling on it in The National Gallery. There’s nothing better than turning a corner and bumping into paintings you’ve know your whole life but this time they’re real. The light is sublime, one of Joseph Wright of Derby’s greatest strengths, and I love how my eyes circulate around the composition, from the moon to the boy’s face, clockwise past the girl covering her eyes in horror, past the glowing glass bowl obscuring the light source behind, up the faces in profile, over the scientist — or charlatan — who stares directly at me, and finally back to the young girl. She’s comforting the older girl, or maybe also on the verge of looking away, but for the moment, she’s riveted. She sees death, science, technology, and she’s all there. She’s the only person we see actually looking at the glass air pump, paying unqualified attention to it and the white cockatoo suffocating inside. There are others who are looking, the trio on the lower left, but we see them only from behind, or in profile, and none of their attention is as sharp as hers. Her face though, it’s front on, closest to the light, the brightest and most central. I look at this painting and think, “There’s a scientist,” even as she is before vivisection. It’s the emotion on her face that balances this horror at power and death with dispassionate curiosity. She’s taking it all in, and of all those present around this table, she’s the only one thinking.

The bird though. This painting was done in 1768, the British Empire was about to get booted from the Americas and just before invading Australasia. It looks like a cockatoo, whose habitat is Australia and north through Indonesia and Philippines. A lot of the art from this period features wildlife brought back from expeditions, more frequently used as exotic signifiers (like the Dinglinger Werkstatt in Dresden) of dominion, but this work is naturalistic, yet has this rare and exotic bird from a distant land being snuffed out. Exotic signifiers, eh.

As for the girl, I hope shortly after the moment in the painting, she smashed the glass, grabbed the cockatoo, kicked the ‘scientist’ in the nuts, ran off with the boy in the background — cos he looks like he’s handy with equipment and would make a good lab assistant — and did mad science and invention, changing the world.

Gallery

The National Gallery — Level 2, 1700-1930

The last of The National Gallery‘s Level 2 collections, starting with Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun’s Self Portrait in a Straw Hat. I took far too many photos and edited far too many and trying to write about the art at a commensurate level of ill-discipline is — probably for the best — not happening, so I’m just making quick notes on some I liked. This one because it’s a woman artist, and museums do such a weak job of representing us on either side of the canvas, particularly once we get to the 1700s, plus she was talented as her self-portrait evinces, and looks like fun.

Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo’s The Lamentation at the Foot of the Cross reminds me of Master of the Saint Bartholomew’s The Deposition, also brutal and moves the setting back to the Middle East. His father, Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, has The Banquet of Cleopatra nearby. As with many of the Italian artists doing large works, it owes a heavy debt to Veronese, including having a little person in the scene.

William Hogarth’s Marriage A-la-Mode: 4. The Toilette is kinda grotesque and mainly I included it for that, and not in a praiseworthy way.

Giovanni Antonio Canal, or Canaletto as he’s better known, makes a solid appearance. I first saw him in the Gemäldegalerie and sometimes I feel a little ashamed for liking him so much, but I like Fast & Furious, so what do I know? There’s several of his, Venice: The Upper Reaches of the Grand Canal with S. Simeone Piccolo, The Feast Day of Saint Roch, and Campo S. Vidal and Santa Maria della Carità (‘The Stonemason’s Yard’) with a woman working stone in the sun. Following him is Pietro Longhi, who I thought was Canaletto at first — same time and place. Exhibition of a Rhinoceros at Venice for the strange masks, and the Rhino.

The National Gallery has all these works online, and Wikipedia has most of the artists, so I’ve been repeatedly wondering why I committed to so many photos and words. I think it’s because this is my experience of a museum or gallery I visit, and blogging serves as a kind of external memory. As well, in editing the photos I spend a long time looking at them all, revisiting my trip, looking at details, reading about the artists. So what was a short afternoon in the Gallery while heading airport-wards becomes days of looking at art as I do the editing and writing. This is for me what visiting a museum or gallery is, what being an audience in these places is, how I experience art. Perhaps too, long periods of unemployment combined with a tendency to get very involved in a task lead me to currently enjoy visual art like this. To be clear: it’s work. It’s not always fun, sometimes it’s to be endured, or I get through by persevering. I don’t know ‘what it’s for’ except for itself.

Gallery

The National Gallery — Level 2, 1600-1700: Salvator Rosa: Witches at their Incantations

Between the great religious and classical Italian Baroque works of Mattia Preti, Carlo Dolci, and Luca Giordano is Salvator Rosa. It is dark, blasted, full of nightmarish, skeletal creatures. It centres on the swollen, stretched and broken neck of a hanged man drooping from the bones of a destroyed tree. Women in pairs and trios, many naked and ravaged by age pull corpses from coffins, grind bones into brew, one pulls a baby from the carapace of a monster; a knight in silver armour and a bearded man with his unsheathed sword prepare the blade. For what? Who else will die after this rite is finished? The light gutters in a scrap of blue on the horizon, burning red the torn darkness. For a painter primarily of typical Baroque themes, Witches at their Incantations is a disturbing canvas, more so because he returned to the subject more than once.

I thought it deserves its own post, because it’s so horrific, because it’s so singular. It is a work of villainy and wickedness, not of the witches, rather of the artist and the European world of the 17th century. It debases women, age, unchristian lives, judges, yet cannot see itself as the the one who in fact is walking in darkness, who brings nightmares into the world. Part of me, the young me who was all about cool Satanic imagery loves this painting for all its Metal-ness. It’s a Black Sabbath album cover, or Slayer, proper Heavy Metal territory, screaming vocals and trashing noise to get kicked out of home by. I still love it for that, and any of the detailed photos would make most excellent album art. A more recent version of me sees this as when women were being pushed from European public life, when colonialism and the philosophy of white, European supremacy was greedily consuming the world: it’s a seductive painting of hate. Some may see traces of Goya in this, but there is no comparison. I don’t think Rosa’s rebellious or satirical streak extends so far as to make the kind of social commentary Goya did, or we might today pull from such a painting. Look at Los caprichos or Los desastres de la guerra or Goya’s late Pinturas negras series. He was painting from the other side, judging the history and morality of Europe.

Gallery

The National Gallery — Level 2, 1600-1700

Pushing on through the centuries in The National Gallery. I’d been blasting through, sated on mediæval stuff and just wanting to not leave without walking through every room, even if nothing moved me. We’re getting into Baroque here, and to be clear, my interest in European art diminishes from here on, really until the Expressionists and Post-Impressionists. It becomes wallpaper of rich white men who were doing all the colonialism and other barbarity; women dwindle and largely vanish, and the diversity of previous eras is replaced by a monotony of aggrandisement.

But there’s still a few pearls here, like Juan de Valdés’ The Immaculate Conception of the Virgin, with Two Donors, which — as with so many of my photos — fails to capture the depth and beauty, but just pretend the photo is as striking and profound as it actually is.

Later there is Mattia Preti’s The Marriage at Cana, a homage to Paolo Veronese’ Les Noces de Cana in the Louvre. It’s compositionally very different, and the use of light, contrast, and depth is closer to El Greco, than Veronese, as well as the naturalism. But what struck me is the figure pouring the wine, a black youth or maybe a little person. His face almost in profile and with the exception of the outline of his ear is a solid dark brown, there’s almost no variation in colour or tone. Nearby is Luca Giordano’s A Homage to Velázquez, with a similar figure in the bottom-left corner, not quite as singularly painted as Preti’s but pretty close, with again his ear highlighted, and faintly the contours of his face.

Lastly, Carlo Dolci’s The Adoration of the Kings. I think I traipse around Europe just looking at these. I love his white turban and the floral embroidery; he’s particularly finely dressed is our Balthazar here.

I’m writing these posts only slightly slower than I saw all the art, so next stop is the 1700–1930 bunch.