Tuesday, 29 September 2009

The Book of English Magic

I have contributed a reader review of The Book of English Magic to History Today's books blog.

Saturday, 19 September 2009

The Pitmen Painters

Lee Hall's The Pitmen Painters is revived for the second time at the National Theatre, still with its original principal cast - led by Ian Kelly (himself something of a Renaissance man, being an award-winning biographer as well as an actor and director) as art lecturer Robert Lyon, and Christopher Connel (also recently seen in Newcastle as Alan Shearer in You Really Couldn't Make It Up, alongside Mark Benton as Newcastle United chairman Mike Ashley) as the 'star' of the Ashington Group of painters, Oliver Kilbourn. My placing of the tutor before the student may be unintentionally revelatory, but inadequately represents how far the painters led their own development. Ideology is a theme - principally the inadequacy of any of the dogmas current in the 1930s to explain what the pitmen painters did, and the packaging of the mining painters as a 'group' by the art establishment of professionals and patrons, obscuring their varied talent as individuals. The first half is practically a play in itself; the second, a coda set during the Second World War and after on the eve of nationalization, dwells on the aspirations of the Attlee era, building up to the unfurling of Kilbourn's Ellington Colliery banner and its promise of mock Tudor houses and gardens for the workers, symbolizing in the play the storming of the bastions of cultural privilege by the working class. As a surtitle notes as the end, as Hetton Silver Band's recording of the mining composer Robert Saint's hymn tune Gresford, the miners' University of Ashington never arose, and there are today no working collieries in the area. Perhaps the most powerful scene for our times, though, shortly before the end, comes when Oliver Kilbourn visits Robert Lyon in his studio, relocated from Newcastle to Edinburgh after Lyon was appointed professor at Edinburgh College of Art largely (the play suggests) on the back of his self-promotion as tutor of the Ashington Group, and is rendered in chalk and charcoal by Lyon as a sentimentalized rustic labourer. The exchange on privilege, where it lies, who has it and what it means to use it is certainly one for today's cultural commentators to chew upon.

Saturday, 12 September 2009

British comic reprints in The Guardian and The Observer

The Guardian this week launched a week of 1970s and 1980s comic reprints with a 1975 edition of Jackie. I was never in its target audience, though a long time ago I met a housing journalist who claimed to have worked at D C Thomson writing the letters page. Pages of small text (minuscule by today's standards - though I seem to recall that Jackie in the mid-70s was published in a larger format than the A4 size used by The Guardian reprint) reflect the readers' interest in David Essex and Donny Osmond, likewise text-heavy adverts for the WRNS and Barclays Clearing Department aim to lure the mid-teenage girls who would soon be leaving school, while adverts for Anadin and Feminax help the reader cope with the state of being "well on the way to being a woman." Though generally promoting positive images of womanhood, the advert for the Woman's Royal Army Corps still shows an uncertain looking girl being instructed in cooking by a moustachioed male chef. Tomorrow, the 2000th issue of The Beano - the copy which I bought on publication is in a box at my parents' somewhere - and then on Monday over from D C Thomson to IPC (now Egmont) for the football-led Roy of the Rovers, which was as little my territory as Jackie.

The decline of British comics is as much the result of underinvestment and the freezing out within the businesses concerned of many of those with the mental agility and sense of the market which could have found avenues to perpetuate them, as it is the result of the growth of alternative forms of entertainment for the target audience. Memorabilia magazine published an article in 2002 examining the place of girls' comics in the magazine world in what we might call the age of Bunty - the longest running of a generation of girls' titles, and published by D C Thomson between 1958 and 1991 - written by John Freeman (himself a comics editor, writer and designer of note) and which was reprinted on the very informative official fan site for IPC's gothic girls' title Misty here.

That The Guardian and The Observer are running this promotion at all shows how long ago the age of these comics is. The target audience is presumably those thirty- and fortysomethings who juggle mortgages with employment instability which defies the security promised by those adverts in Jackie, while battling to comprehend, let alone meet, the demands made by their children, inspired by today's globalized youth consumer culture. A dose of escapism into a remote comfort zone, when five pence a week bought you another thirty-six, thirty-two or twenty-four pages of turf in a shared world (though only sixteen if you were one of the hapless loyal readers of Polystyle's TV Comic after spring 1979) perhaps less universally accessible, and perhaps less immediate, than today's piped forms of information and entertainment, might be a tempting proposition. Jackie in 1975 looks like a product of a transitional age, fascinated by visual culture but in its heart wanting to converse with its readers through densely-composited text stories and the stark monochrome Helvetica and Roman of its problem pages. The rest of the week is dominated by boys' and humour titles, both more self-consciously visual forms.