Contagious Fiction Blog

Once you enter Hades the directions are straightforward, perhaps because evil eschews so many of the complications of the good; “you’ll see a road running downhill. But there’ll be no traffic on it. Climb through at once and the road will lead you straight to Pluto’s Palace.” Unfortunately I only made it as far as the entrance.

It takes a bit of application but a three hour drive from Kalamata to the very tip of the Mani Peninsula; a barren and brown spit of land once given to piracy and still dotted with tower houses, brings you to one of the ventilation holes by which the ancients accessed Hades. Beyond it, by-passing Crete is Africa. The location is multi-sourced, not least by Robert Graves, whose directions above were a translation of those given to Psyche on her way to pick up a mysterious casket that would restore Aphrodite’s beauty.

Back in the 1950s Patrick Leigh Fermor found the mouth of Hades underwater; he was forced to approach by boat and then swim, feeling his way along the dark cave walls. Now, however, the exact point sits on a small pebble beach with a scattering of fishing boats parked on the shore. Not much grows on the desolate Mani, but there are a clump of trees obscuring the cave. The beach was empty and in the distance a clutch of tourists were battling the elements to reach the lighthouse, other than that only a silence heard through the whistling wind. I doubt there are 2000 people living between the southern tip and Areopoli. Nothing is signposted, only guidebooks pinpoint travels to the underworld now.

Unfortunately, I have nothing to report. Behind the trees the cave descended a few metres and then I hit pure rock. I sat for 20 minutes in the cool dust, perhaps aware that certain metaphysical conditions might have to be brought about, musing on the historical impact my return from the underworld might have. My God, it would blow apart everything!

I also considered the tremendous gift that ancient Greece bestowed upon us (yet how sincerely we screw modern Greece), and how comparatively unacknowledged it is. Back in London the beautifully revamped King’s Cross Station now includes a mini-shrine to Platform nine and three quarters, where legend has it Harry Potter gained access to Hogwart’s School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. You can queue up between the tensa barriers to have your picture taken with a luggage trolley laden with old fashioned suitcases that seems to emanate straight from the wall. Maybe this is a health and safety feature, apparently station staff regularly had to tend to young Potter fans who had simply hurled themselves head first at the wall. There’s even a small Harry Potter gift shop.

Yet here at the point at which the gulfs of Messinia and Laconia meet there is nothing to mark the spot at which the bereaved Orpheus in search of Eurydice sang lullabies to Cerberus. Granted it is harder to get to than King’s Cross, and I can’t but help rejoice at its continued obscurity, but the lack of interest does seem sad when so much of Greek myth explains so much of our modern selves and the world, the civilized world that has been created for us. My own knowledge of so much of this is sorely lacking.

I studied Latin for three years at school, the school having recently given up on Greek (of the ancient variety). There was nothing of any of the Greek playwrights or poets, very little of the philosophy. There was certainly no Homer. The writing we studied for GCSE and A-Level centred on potted morality tales from America; Of Mice and Men and A View from the Bridge or To Kill a Mockingbird are wonderful works but looking back they seem so small fry – spoon feeding little life lessons. It always struck me as ironic that we now teach Arthur Miller’s the Crucible, parodying the social and professional alienation of people with a certain view, and then release kids into a world in which they can be disciplined at work for expressing the wrong sentiment.

Of course we have our Shakespeare, but it is perhaps only his great plays on the current curriculum that open up minds to the truly great questions of human existence, that demonstrate that individual and collective quest, the beautiful transformation of spirit that characterizes ancient Greek myth.

Somewhere along the line Classics (as opposed to the Classics) have been excised from the canon. They seem to have become entwined with the British Public School, Boris Johnson with his silly sausage Latinisms and Alexandrine pretensions.

If one is willing, the abstractions of the Odyssey and the Iliad hold true, they can guide you, lead you to the essential questions, because everything that holds true is the land the sea and the sky. Whether passed down via word of mouth, through Homer, or the modern Homerics; Alice Oswald’s Memorial, a reworking of the siege of Troy or the Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony by Roberto Calasso, with a little bit of discipline it is all so vibrantly readable.

Beyond the cave the sea gleamed. This month (October ’15) record numbers sailed from Africa fleeing war, arriving, if they are lucky, on the shores of modern Greece; the poorest country bearing the burden of all Europe. It is time we recognized how much this country, this civilization has given us.



Posted @ 14:02:32 on 08 November 2015  back to top

Towards Life Modelling

Des Esseintes, the hero of JK Huysmans’ 1884 novel A Rebours (a kind of young Brian Sewell in the making: RIP), waspish and dilettantish, independently wealthy and vain, retreats to his house outside Paris to immerse himself in art and literature and spend the rest of his life in aesthetic contemplation. He studies reprints of the paintings of Gustave Moreau, cultivates poisonous flowers, and experiments with different perfumes, initially happy, at least, in his world of human creativity. At one point he decides, whilst sitting at the ferry port, against crossing to England for a vacation on the grounds that he prefers the England of his active imagination.

Our Life Writing events have come to an end for the summer and they are moving quickly to establishing themselves as an artistic event in their own right. The final session at the Deptford Lounge incorporated the 6 senses; the music of John Coltrane, experiments with clay, the composition of a fruit salad, perfumed paper and of course our own life writing models. The 6th sense will remain a mystery unless you come to a session.

It has been a constant challenge to either succinctly explain Life Writing, or market the event in any way that doesn’t make it sound like an exam. You are ushered into a room in which paper and pens are laid out and fed several ‘prompts’. The timings of the prompts range from 5 to 15 minutes. Your task is to respond in writing. At the end of the session there is an optional reading in a strictly non-judgemental environment.

There’s an atmosphere of quiet concentration in the room, so our photographs of the event can make it seem rather undynamic. Nevertheless, most people report at how quickly the time goes and how much they’ve written.

For my part, sitting in on one of the sessions as a punter, I came up with about 8 pages worth. I experimented with different styles – there’s a tendency towards stream of consciousness – but sometimes it was just finding a word, the exact word, to describe what I was experiencing. It is also entertaining to just sit and watch the prompts, to live in the moment. I left all my writing behind, I simply never saw it again. That is not an indictment of what I came up with, more an acknowledgement that I wanted the evening to stand alone. You learn a lot about life at the point of a pen. That’s not to say that in future I won’t take my work home with me.

My hope (and Sean Bruno’s hope) is that a Tarts session will become like a visit to the theatre. After all, who doesn’t come out of a good play with a truckload of new ideas or quotes. With Prompt Arts we let you write them down.

Posted @ 06:25:22 on 02 October 2015  back to top

I wanted to share some thoughts on the clutch of Life Writing sessions run this summer. At the TSR Yann made salsa (in the picture he is just about to chop tomatoes) and Becky painted a portrait of a duelling Bruno brothers.

Both Becky and Yann have been superb, and quite quickly adapted to their task – not an easy thing because being a life model is not a performance. My favourite moment of the piece was Yann’s tears at chopping onions – it was wonderful watching them drip into the salad bowl.

It’s strange watching the ‘audience’ wrapped up in the moment. There is often a concentrated silence, and genuinely, most people write at a furious pace. They really are having a good time, but counter-intuitively they are often in silence, their face a picture of unsmiling concentration.

I wonder if ultimately we should just have one model for 45 minutes or so. On occasions it felt wrong to drag them away from what they were writing after 10 minutes, and I wonder if the reticence to share at TSR was down to the lack of time to plan or edit.

The NOW Festival gave us an entirely new audience, who similarly threw themselves into the tasks and had no qualms about sharing. We could perhaps have filled another 20 minutes or so. It was a good combination of prompts: music, salvaged objects from the Thames, Deptford Picture Prompts and our model fixing a phone.

Lots of talk about who our audience is, whether they can be defined, or even whether there is only one audience type. Two more dates in August and September at the Deptford Lounge. We’ll be debuting a sound prompt recorded at a market.

One small point is my own transcription of those pieces left by participants. We have a rule: if you leave your piece behind we can have it. If you want credit for it put your name at the top. If you wish to take it with you, then that is entirely your discretion. Anyway, I’m having real difficulty reading handwriting. The pieces in Marginalia Magazine are as faithful to the original as I could – but I couldn’t swear on every word.

Anyway, they’re such fun to do that I’m really looking forward to Thursday August 20th at the Lounge in Deptford. Be there for the princely sum of £5, tickets available through the Lounge.

Life Writing at the Shop Revolution