Friday, 1 January 2021

White horses

 I've only just got Lenny off to bed. New Year's Eve is strange, isn't it, or is it? Ordinary experiences, movements or gestures even, begin to feel more and more loaded, potentially momentous, or maybe just ponderous, as midnight approaches. I have plenty to say but also I'm quite happy to be on my own - I don't feel particularly the lack of a person here right now to say my things to. But I can imagine sitting here writing till they're all said, or till I fall asleep, whichever comes first, and why not? What a very much okay way to be, right. 

Today I found and instantly bought a book that is such a potent example of the loadedness imbuing everything today, I already doubt that I can adequately convey the quality of this experience to you. I read it this evening while pretending to watch Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure. Poor Lenny, so much of the screen-watching I do with him I do halfheartedly and grudgingly. Well, he enjoyed it despite never having had any previous exposure to the key concepts of, variously, History oral presentations, flunking of said presentations, threats about military school, hot stepmoms, Eddie Van Halen, Napoleon, Socrates, Billy the Kid, Freud, Ozzy Osbourne, Joan of Arc, Abraham Lincoln, Genghis Khan or flying Vs. He had some knowledge of Beethoven though. 

We went to the National Gallery (of Victoria) today and on impulse I enquired in the bookshop if they might have the catalogue of a retrospective of Eric Ravilious I saw last time I was in London and have been thinking about a lot the last couple of months, especially when I've been out of the city driving across the plains of western and central Victoria. They didn't have that book but they did have this one. 

It's a 're-imagining' (the jacket flap's term) of a projected Puffin picture book Ravilious was apparently commissioned to make, around 1939, about Neolithic hill monuments in the South Downs, but never got further with than making a rough mock-up, which surfaced ten years ago in someone's papers, and is just sketches of page layouts with reproductions of some of these mesmerising, & already by then celebrated, watercolours of his pasted in. So a pastiche of the kind of text you might find in an educational book for British children, about British landscape and history and traces of connection with the deep past, at the beginning of the Second World War, was commissioned, and a contemporary illustrator chosen to do some pastiche illustrations of stone tools, barrows, archeological sites etc, to complete the book. 

The book is a very beautiful object, designed sensitively, printed expensively, quiet but kind of lavish too, it really could almost pass for a replica of a genuine 1940s publication. It must've been an honour and also a terrifically interesting project to be involved in the making of this. But of course what it also is, is a phenomenally strange and impudent simulacra, a headlong new assault mounted by the forces of Keep Calm and Carry On upon the senses and faculties of those of us who smugly shook our heads at that immense folly. It's a thing that makes the already risky nostalgic facsimile publications look like sober, respectable textual objects. There is a deep, deep madness in this book and I am, I admit, pleasantly puzzled about whether the madness is wholly a symptom of that familiar, grotesque fascination with the aesthetics of wartime Austerity (cf Owen Hatherley) which has happened to land for once upon cultural material with enough substance to survive the messing around, or is it that, plus a bat's squeak of an echo of the genuine, mysterious thrilling madness of an image of an animal cut deep into a hill three thousand years ago and cared for and renewed by people across that stretch of time, glimpsed from the windows of a train rushing across the landscape and drawn in light and colour by someone who saw how it all belongs together, the moment in the train and the thousands and thousands of years on the hillside.

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