Becoming a Londoner by David Plante and The Animals: Love Letters between Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy
Andrew O’Hagen writes in the LRB: “The much gossiped about George Eliot absolutely hated the idea of people talking behind their hands. The year she took up with a married man was also the year Ruskin’s wife revealed her husband’s impotence during court proceedings. ‘Gossip is a sort of smoke that comes from the dirty tobacco-pipes of those who diffuse it,’ Eliot wrote ironically in Daniel Deronda. But she also meant it. ‘It proves nothing but the bad taste of the smoker.’
Cough, cough, splutter.
But surely a bit of relief lies in the notion that one doesn’t necessarily have the last (or even the first) say on how one appears. That’s the gossip’s privilege, and damnable as it might be, it can’t be much worse than the opposite, where everybody gets to be his own oily publicity machine. Not many writers have the gift of seeing themselves as others see them, and gossips, like critics, can be tolerated, and might even be enjoyed, as piano-players in the funhouse of letters.
Early in David Plante’s diaries, we find him tinkling away, dropping names in basso profundo, as if knowing people and knowing what they do in private can be the thing that makes one special. He is 28 years old when he comes to London from the US (a little younger than his beloved Henry James) and meets the love of his life, a unique Greek called Nikos Stangos. The boys were fascinated by Bloomsbury – the books, the people, the scarves, the gossip – which led them to venerate Stephen Spender as one of its last links. Squeezed into a narrow bed, they would read Spender’s World within World together and admire ‘that entirely English’ set-up in which, Plante wrote at the time, ‘I fantasise having a place, even if that world no longer exists in itself. It exists in the witness of Stephen Spender.’ While they were watching Stephen, Natasha Spender was watching them, and after a while her watching them turned into befriending them, all part of the terrific denial machine that kept everything going. Right to the end of her life, Natasha Spender behaved, in public, as if the other side of Stephen wasn’t even a bit trying. A dozen years after he died, she was telling the presenter of Desert Island Discs that her late husband was always very happily anything and everything he decided to be. Among much talk of the ‘we were very good friends with the Stravinskys’ variety, I recall her putting the matter of her marriage rather briskly. ‘Husbands are not possessions and I don’t want the sort of love that is demanded at pistol-point,’ she said. ‘He was very tall and very beautiful. I’m so lucky. I had 55 years with that glorious man.’
Some of those years, however, seem somewhat lighter on their feet once you’ve had the gossip from Plante. It’s not exactly news – everybody knew Spender swung like a wrecking ball – but literary gossip, when it comes to it, is always more about individual views than actual news, and Plante purrs the details as if there could be no worldly difference between having friends and having material. Let’s applaud him, though. So many diaries and memoirs keep it zipped, going quiet at the good bits, censoring any scandal, allowing the writer to puff and genuflect and conceal his way to glory. Take Frank Kermode’s Not Entitled, a memoir typical of a generation of men who thought things were best said by not being said at all.
Plante, however, is a throwback to the days of Barbara Skelton and the Comtesse de Boigne. In the years covered by his diary, he seems to have had an ear permanently cocked. Or was it his leg? Or was it his cock? Whichever, he was alert to the possibility that somebody close at hand might be about to offer some sort of gratification, even if only by saying something riveting and awful about Morgan Forster. His diaries are good because they are true to his own narcissism, revealing how, in the magic spectacle of London literary life, he is always able to pull his own self out of the hat. ‘Nikos was eager to show me something he had received from Stephen Spender, in Washington, which is on his desk in the sitting room. “Look,” he said, “a reproduction of Andrea del Castagno’s The Youthful David.” He said he was not sure how he would tell Spender about me when Spender returned to London.’ Plante’s later diaries may tell a different story, but the present selection is full of the kind of youth-mongering that appears to slide naturally into young-fogeyism. You won’t find David and Nikos smoking the hard stuff with Mick and Keith. Plante is living out the fantasy of being a Jamesian personality in Europe and would be more likely to swoon at the sight of Frances Partridge than, say, Jimi Hendrix. We hear of lunches at Chez Victor, where Spender and Isherwood giggle at jokes ‘all about Stephen’s boyfriends in Berlin’. And with every story young David rises in his own steely estimation.
Stephen asked me to lunch with him at his club, the Garrick. I had never before been in a gentleman’s club. He told me to wear a tie. I always wear a tie. In the dining room of the club, Stephen said, pointing with two fingers at a table across from us: ‘There’s Benjamin Britten.’ Against the light from the window, I saw a man with dense curly grey hair talking with someone at his table. Stephen kept looking toward him, but Britten never looked our way. As we were leaving the club, Stephen said, having, it seemed, thought a lot about it: ‘I don’t think he’s ever liked me.’”
In his series ‘Totems’ set in Shanghai, China French photographer Alain Delorme pays homage to the underdog heroes of the city, migrant bicycle workers lugging around heaps of cargo to keep the ever-expanding city afloat. Delorme turns this real injustice into a surreal circus whereby he digitally alters his photos to better convey his message about the wealth disparity in China. Hereby the migrants’ loads have been digitally retouched and purposefully exaggerated to draw attention to the symbolism within Delorme’s work. In addition, the photographer uses candy-coated hues to veer away from reality.
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Stunning Photos of Architectural Density in Hong Kong
With seven million people, Hong Kong is one of the most densely populated areas in the world. While the plain numbers may not sound too intriguing, the pictures look absolutely mind-blowing. In his ‘Architecture of Density’ photo series, German photographer Michael Wolf explores the incredible urban landscapes of Hong Kong.
Stripped of all outer context like sky or ground, his photos only show fragments of massive blocks of flats, both crumbling or still in construction. The way their monotone and repetitive details occupy the whole frame is mesmerizing, and makes you think about all the walls we build around ourselves.Pictures by Michael Wolf
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Web Audio Theremin
A simple online sound toy to play around with that reacts to your input:
A fun timewaster - try it out for yourself here