‘A day which lay sly and unseen’

Life drawing (A1 charcoal 2017)

The London Book Fair starts today and my mind is on meetings and future publications and sales forecasts. I therefore offer you a recent life drawing and three excerpts from The Book of Barry*.

First, from Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles:

She philosophically noted dates as they came past in the revolution of the year. Her own birthday, and every other day individualised by incidents in which she had taken some share. She suddenly thought, one afternoon, that there was another date, of greater importance than all those; that of her own death; a day which lay sly and unseen among the other days of the year, giving no sign or sound when she annually passed over it; but not the less surely there. When was it?

My admiration for novelist Colm Tóibín knows few bounds. He was one of the many who paid tribute to the painter Howard Hodgkin, who died last week. Unlike most of the other obituarists, however, Tóibín, understood that

[Hodgkin] found a style as a painter that matched who he was as a man, and he stuck with that. There were times, he must have known, when the emotion in the work seemed to exceed its cause. That was part of the risk he took. Each painting was a balance between released emotion and something coiled, concealed, withheld.

And finally, two quotations from writer Ray Bradbury, who died in 2012:

Looking back over a lifetime, you see that love was the answer to everything.

“Everyone must leave something behind when he dies,” my grandfather said, “A child or a book or a painting or a house or a wall built or a pair of shoes made. Or a garden planted. Something your hand touched in some way so your soul has somewhere to go when you die, and when people look at that tree or that flower you planted, you’re there.”

* The Book of Barry is a small Moleskine filled with newspaper clippings and things I read and enjoyed in books or magazines and wanted to keep. Some are mean, some are moving, many are funny – at least to me – and some turn a light on human folly or pretension, while others are simply weird or just too good to forget. I once gave it to someone as a gift but she found it less engaging than I, and kindly let me have it back. Really, everyone should keep a book like this for all those fleeting things one reads online and in print.




In Heaven there’ll be no algebra

Henry James blog

Henry James (A3 charcoal and graphite 2016)


I’ll always be grateful to Peter Kemp – one of my teachers when I was a literature student (he later became Fiction Editor of the Sunday Times) – for introducing me to the work of Henry James, who died a hundred years ago on February 28th.

Apart from Peter and Colm Toibín, I don’t know anyone who reads Henry James for pleasure. This, to me, is baffling. There is a wonderful arc of discovery and development from his early novellas, such as Daisy Miller and The Europeans, to his beautiful, nuanced masterpiece, The Portrait of a Lady.

There is so much to admire in Portrait, such as this: “She dropped her secret sadness into the silence of lonely places, where its very modern quality detached itself and grew objective, so that as she sat in a sun-warmed angle on a winter’s day…she could almost smile at it and think of its smallness.” Mindfulness, 1881.

This rather Expressionist portrait of James is based on three sources: John Singer Sargent’s masterly portrait of the writer at 70, a photograph of James with his brother, William; and a rather cruel drawing by Edward Gorey in a book called Instant Lives. Despite – or perhaps because of – his towering genius, James was a conflicted figure: not least about his sexuality (whatever it might have been).

So celebrate the passing of genius a century ago and treat yourself to a nicely-bound edition of The Portrait of a Lady. You won’t regret the investment. I’ll leave you with an anonymous poem from a postcard I bought from Henry James’ house in Rye, which I’ve carried with me through numerous moves over the past thirty years:

In Heaven there’ll be no algebra,

No learning dates and names;

But only playing golden harps

And reading Henry James.



Cast away with Colm Tóibín

CT Greyscale blog

Colm Tóibín (A5 pencil on sketchbook page 2015)

For many years on BBC Radio Four, Sunday mornings have been rounded off by a programme called Desert Island Discs. A celebrity is asked to imagine themselves as a castaway on an uninhabited island and to choose eight records, a book and a luxury item.

Recently this rather tired format was enlivened by Irish writer, Colm Tóibín. The author of The Master and Brooklyn demonstrated what a supreme story-teller he is with wonderful evocations of his sisters and aunts talking about buying clothes, his late Mother’s way of laying a table, and repeatedly not winning the Booker Prize. He also provided insights into the life of a creative writer (“Swimming is fun; sitting on a chair in the corner writing is not”) and why a novelist cannot spare the feelings of his grandmother.

Most of all, Tóibín’s good-natured, kind personality came across in his moving account of the Irish vote on gay marriage and his feelings on the loss of his Father. His chosen book was Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady (“I discover something new every time I read it.”) – a choice I agree with wholeheartedly.

If rights issues prevent you from hearing it on the BBC iPlayer at the link above, do head over to Apple iTunes and download the free podcast. I’m sure you’ll be as charmed as I was.

This drawing is from last year. Tóibín has a charming, not conventionally handsome but very attractive face, and this pencil sketch was drawn from a photograph in the Guardian. He is also, I’m pleased to say, a fan of New York’s Pearl Oyster Bar.