Keaton, Carrington, Milligan: 4

I am often nagged by epiphenomena, events sitting at the edge of How Things Should Be, though I don’t usually know what it is they are trying to tell me. Such things are, by definition, peripheral – or at least appear to be so – and at the same time rather difficult to describe. In this an epiphenomenon resembles a small but elaborate mechanism, like a joke in slapstick, which takes a huge amount of ingenuity to set up, but unfolds in an easy-seeming instant. Something about the joke’s contrivance, though, is carried over, we recognise in it an aspect of the contraption, and that makes us uneasy. The epiphenomenon has the same disquieting effect, but without the agency.

One such instance, which recurs with reasonable regularity, always hinting that I really ought to try to get it into words, is The Shower Head/Cap Event. This would appeal to the Keaton of One Week and The Electric House, for whom the flat pack and the gadget are modernity’s mysterious cyphers.

We have a slightly elaborated shower fitting with two shower heads: one a large piece, about the size of a dinner plate, fixed to the bathroom ceiling; the other smaller, a pipe-and-handle thing, hooked to the wall but portable. You lift or lower a lever to select between them. My wife likes to used this latter fitting when she’s not washing her hair, whereas, having no hair, I always use the fixed shower head. Because this might drip when not in use, she covers it with an inverted shower cap so its elastic band holds it in place. I sometimes bring her one of those freebie shower caps back from hotels for this purpose, though it’s not much of a gift.

I also sometimes forget to check whether it’s attached before switching on the shower, whereupon it fills, distends, and suddenly comes away under its own weight and strikes the floor with a resounding splop. This occurrence, which is over before I can intervene in any way, looks very like an octopus or jellyfish has somehow travelled through the pipes, and bonelessly extracted itself from the shower head (though not, obviously, in a minced or spaghetti-like form).

The last time this occurred, thanks to that succession of engagements with Keaton, Carrington and Milligan, I realised what this image was reminding me of. There’s a clip from a Parkinson show from just after ‘The Last Goon Show”, their reunion in October, 1972, where Harry Secombe is talking about Milligan seeking a particular sound effect:

‘I remember Spike once wanted the effect of somebody being hit with a sock full of custard…and he got the lady at the canteen of the Camden Theatre to lovingly prepare this custard for him. She said [here Secombe adopts a ‘Scottish’ accent], “Here ye are, Spike, here’s yir custard,” you know, and he said, “Thank you,” – and he took off his sock and he poured it in.

‘And he went downstairs, and he swung this sock around his head and hit it against the wall – and it didn’t have the effect he wanted…’

Either before or after this, I don’t recall, I’d bought Milligan’s little tetralogy of books, The Little Pot Boiler, A Dustbin of Milligan, A Book of Bits, and The Bedside Milligan, at 35p each, to take on holiday. I would’ve been 11 or 12, and this would have been our first or second package holiday, to Lido di Jesolo, or to Corfu. Very soon after that, I started buying Milligan books ‘proper’, beginning with the Goon Show Scripts. And after that, I began recording nonsensical ‘shows’ onto cassette with my schoolfriends.

For my sixteenth birthday, one friend, whose parents were building a new house near Reres Park in Broughty Ferry, allowed me to fill a sock with custard, swing it round my head, and strike it off a unplastered concrete wall. The effect, as Secombe had warned, was underwhelming, but the custard-filled sock as it was being slung strongly prefigured the look of an elasticated shower cap rapidly filling with warm water while dangling from a shower head.

While the adult world I was approaching through puberty and school examinations was constantly rushing to interpretation and indeed judgement based on the filtering out of absurdities, and the puritanical application of one or another ideology, something in me resisted, being both delighted and nurtured by nonsense. (I recall, in the same house, listening to ‘Wish You Were Here’, not for the first time, but, perhaps indeed for the first time, wondering who the ‘You’ was?)

The secret life of things, as manifested by such self-animation of the inanimate, is everywhere present in Leonora Carrington’s work, particularly in her depictions of furniture, and the consciousness she ascribes to food.

Chairs are alive, tables seem uncertain whether they are displaying picnics, ritual feasts, or dissections, beds embody the dreams they incubate, and, in her kitchens and gardens, the vegetables are always lively:

‘The full moon shone brightly between the trees, so I was able to see, a few yards in front of me, the origins of a distressing noise. It was two cabbages having a terrible fight. They were tearing each other’s leaves off with such ferocity that soon there was nothing but torn leaves everywhere and no cabbages.’

Even if you suspect that we may be cabbage all the way down, with nothing at the heart of us, not even consciousness, it is of course neither possible, permissible, or advisable to identify too much with the vegetation, the horses, or the furniture, nor with your romanticisation of the idiot, loser, or outsider.

If, as I do, you work within the cultural industries as a practitioner and educator, you may be too involved in these social structures for anything more than a part, a sliver, of your self ever to stand to one side, rather than as Leonora Carrington appeared to do for the long latter part of her career, to exist outside of all that altogether. But you can at least try for that dissenting part of you to overlap to some extent with your creative centre, with those approaches to experiences and memories, to artists and their work, which may lead, however long it takes, to some sort of creative output.

However, as all three discovered, even though you may think of it as a shelter, this might turn out to have aspects of MacBeth’s ‘confidence in his fretis’, or faith in omens. Not all shower heads are trying to tell us something, man. It can therefore also be as much of a source of distress as of security. Of course, the desire to find security in the unfiltered perception of childhood, the radically unstable territory of dreams, and the irrational depths of the imagination, can be seen as itself a sort of dysfunctionality. The unfortunate You of ‘Wish You Were Here’, Syd Barrett, had a sense of being simultaneously safe and utterly lost in his metaphoric woods, and indeed in the metaphor itself. Sometimes, in our efforts to get to the woods before the trees, we arrive at the ‘selva oscura’, a place that also precedes our selves.

This, then, as a writer awkwardly positioned in relation to the academy in which I work, and the industry which processes my work, and indeed the work, the writing itself, is the point at which I find myself. I might say ‘as ever’, but that would be to ignore the opportunity such awkward triangulations provide us with, and to plunge back into that Continuity, with its ready gauging of priorities and hierarchies and certainties about others that we never quite require ourselves to apply to our selves, rather than to pause here with the things that might be trees or people, dreams or omens, machines or bodies, that are in time but not quite of it, that do not mean to but may nonetheless do us harm, and pay witness to them.

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Keaton, Carrington, Milligan: 3

(Warning, Will Robinson : this section seems to veer off at a tangent before returning to (what appears to be) the subject…)

I was struck by a recent and very particular version of our impositions on the customary: the decision by the tourist organisation VisitScotland to adopt the Gaelic word ‘còsagach’ as Scotland’s version of last year’s buzzy Danish comfort word, ‘hygge’, hoping to borrow its aura, as Benjamin would have it, by copycatting.

I should of course rather say ‘adapt’, as it turned out actual Gaelic speakers didn’t quite recognise this usage, saying that ‘còsagach’ tended to mean a damp, mossy place, rather than a cosy nook – a distinction that Tolkein, in the opening pages of The Hobbit, thought very important:

‘In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.’

In the Guardian article where I read about this, a lecturer in Gaelic, Mark Wringe, is quoted speculating as to whether ‘…someone’s thoughts have been guided by the resemblance in sound between [còsagach] and the English word cosy.’

This sounds entirely possible, making the word choice a sort of translingual rhyming, where the English listener is struck by an implied meaning – much as the word it’s modelled on, ‘hygge’ (pronounced ‘HEWguh’) can be construed as having some irrational relation to huge hugs.

It’s worth considering, then, the way that this sort of choice is full of cultural implications, as well as how such assumptions relate to the authority of interpretation – and indeed to our trio of artists.

On the one hand, you can only do this if the source language (Gaelic) is ‘weaker’ than the target audience (English speakers), because it is a kind of imposition: ‘còsag’ does indeed mean nook, and that can imply cosy – just not to its actual users. It’s a little like a Gael insisting ‘nooky’ means ‘còsagach’, when to an English speaker, it means something quite different.

On the other hand, no Gael would do any such thing. Not only would they speak English as well as Gaelic, they would understand such impositions only work in one direction. That said, it’s the sort of interpretive act the socially bi- and tri-lingual Scots are rehearsing all the time, unlike their monoglot neighbours.

When I was a child, I assumed the local Dundee place name ‘The Sinderins’ had something to do with cinders and flinders and possibly even Cinderella, and only gradually understood – though I spoke Scots – that this was an older pronunciation (and very particular usage) of ‘The Sunderings’: a forking of the road.

If you look at Hugh MacDiarmid’s use of dictionaries when assembling the Synthetic Scots of his great early lyrics, you can see him hovering in a similar way between the listed meanings of a given word (comparing his earlier glosses to his later ones brings this out).

In ‘O Jesu Parvule’, the key word, ‘byspale’ is glossed by MacDiarmid as ‘a child of whom wonderful things are predicted’, as one might expect in a poem about the Christ child. He chooses to gloss over his sources’ emphasis on a ‘Chiefly ironic’ usage, while their further meaning, ‘An illegitimate child’, which might seem of some importance, is not foregrounded:

She’s drawn Him in tae the bool o’ her breist

But the byspale’s nae thocht o’ sleep i’ the least.

What MacDiarmid and VisitScotland and indeed Tolkein are all doing here is a sort of projection: they want their words to mean a certain thing, and they are using what authority they possess to impose that meaning on language. Tolkein, because he is making up an entire world, can define a hobbit and where it lives as he sees fit. MacDiarmid, because he is applying an avant garde agenda to a secondary language, Scots, has a lesser degree of licence. VisitScotland are presumedly hoping to ride out a rather mild storm, mostly on social media.

But they are all trying to create a world through creative interpretation – all three worlds share a root in notions of the folkloric and the romanticised past or those romanticised others – hobbits, rural Scots, Gaels – which, although products or actual inhabitants of the modern world, we do not associate with modernity.

Like what we think of as the Twain-like world of Steamboat Bill Jr., or the Celtic/Mexican surrealism of Leonora Carrington, or the post-war nonsense zone of Goons and Pythons, Big Nights Out and The Boosh, these are all secondary realms, not ‘serious’ or central enough to our concerns, which remain focussed on the impositions of the grand narrative and the contesting claims of our own or others’ narratives.

What interests me in these instances, however, is the possibility that they are not really narratives at all, that they do not believe in or think in terms of their own grandeur or indeed their narrative coherence, but that rather, such stories as appear in their work are no more important than the verbal or visual play which transports their tellers, their viewers and their listeners communally to another aspect of the space we share. As Burroughs said in his introduction to Naked Lunch: ‘The title means exactly what the words say: naked Lunch—a frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork.’

Such a moment, domestic yet terrifying, can be defined by a term VisitScotland might like to be aware of: the Uncouthy. They were of course really seeking its exact opposite, the Scots word ‘couthy’, but, perhaps because of its unhip associations, suppressed or resisted the term in favour of ‘còsagach’. ‘Couthy’, meaning something more than ‘known’, or ‘familiar’, is itself over-familiar to most Scots as a state of mind represented by The Sunday Post, The Broons, and Oor Wullie. In the old days this sentimentalised, old-fashioned, tartan-and-shortbread Scotland was typified by the likes of the White Heather Club, Bothy Nichts, or Jimmy Shand.

MacDiarmid recognised it in J.M. Barrie, the Burns Cult, and the Kailyaird, and thoroughly despised it. Except that it was, arguably, the commodified version of a previous attempt at world-building: the radical Scots versifying of the nineteenth century People’s Journal, a precedent and corollary to the world he in turn wished to invent, where the same People, having established a communist croissant of Celtic republics stretching from the Shetlands to Cornwall, discussed a Turkish poet’s ‘abstruse new song’ instead of going to the football (here he might have being at least partly ironic).

We particularly wish to dismiss our antecedents because of their unfortunate propensity for belonging to their own historical period with all its cultural blinkers when we have a brand new guaranteed blinker-less narrative of our own to impose. But the first thing we can’t see for all the light we’re shedding is our collateral removal of all awkward others, those secondary types whose complicated role in our own genealogy hardly seems relevant.

‘Còsagach’, then, is the word VisitScotland tried to hide ‘couthy’ behind, or the nook they tried to tuck it in. But the very attempt draws attention to itself, and is somehow còsagach in its actual sense of clammy, uncomfortable, not right. The Uncouthy might be defined as that state of mind you enter into when you suspect this is happening. It is, in a way, that very thing Keaton, Carrington, and Milligan are constantly, without even trying, drawing our attention to, though for some reason we are rather reluctant to consider it.

Something about such narratives indeed appears to be un-couth. Usually we claim they bore us, or are confusing, or they’re not funny, or not nice – we feel impatient, we have more important things to get on with. Continuity has been disturbed by what appear to us to be epiphenomena, and sometimes, just for a moment, the eye finds itself being horribly drawn to what exactly that is on the end of your fork.

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Keaton, Carrington, Milligan: 2

Keaton, Carrington, and Milligan all encounter a similar type of crisis in their ability to pursue their art. The effect on them as creative individuals, and their attempts at solutions, however, are very different.

For Keaton, it’s the encroachment of the studio system on his practitioners’ realm, that space in which vaudeville evolves into silent comedy: he first embraces silence, then, as the talkies come in, he is enveloped by it, and by alcoholism.

For Carrington it is the cataclysmic impact of the war on her attempt to set up an artistic and emotional home with Ernst in Saint Martin d’Ardèche, which leads to her breakdown, and the terrible experiences at the hands of civil and medical authorities she describes in Down Below. Alongside this sits her understanding that the Surrealists in general and Ernst in particular are no more able than her father to regard a woman artist as their equal. She can only ever – to the dominant gaze of her day – be Secondary.

With Milligan, the pressure of solo scriptwriting, combined with his increasing difficulty in engaging with the organisational mindset of the BBC, leads to depression, ’deep narcosis’, divorce, ECT, and regular hospitalisation.

The absurd worlds they create for themselves are therefore at once impediments to their abilities to deal with overweening structures, and refuges from those structures. These creations are simultaneously desired by controlling bodies, and mysteriously inaccessible to them, leading both to hostility and rejection.

In Steamboat Bill, Jr., Keaton’s last film in charge of his own production company, the cyclone tears away all vestiges of the small town world which has been comprehensively rejecting the hero. It also allows Bill Jr. to become genuinely heroic, breaking down the rivalry between his father and the unscrupulous tycoon John James King by rescuing them both. As King’s daughter, Kitty, is the film’s love interest, all can end happily, though in fact the box office disagreed – Steamboat Bill, Jr. was a flop, and the creative stasis of MGM Studios beckoned.

Because the cyclone is Keaton’s creation, it is at once a destructive force and his habitat -simultaneously constructed and natural. It is this at-homeness in all three artists with a deliberately engineered, genuinely dangerous, apparent chaos that the studio system, the BBC, and indeed, for decades, the art world, cannot comprehend or reproduce, only commission, patronise, control, censor, and, finally, commodify.

As the cyclone takes complete control, Bill Jr clings to a tree for shelter, only for the entire tree plus a clinging Keaton to be uprooted and fly back and forth over town and river. You think both of the witch’s broom and the tricksy prophesy of the Weird Sisters in MacBeth: ‘Macbeth shall never vanquished be, until/Great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane hill/Shall come against him…’

Something simultaneously comic and uncanny is happening, and it may just be the same oddness that drew Shakespeare to his image of the walking wood. Walter Benjamin wrote about how the work of art generated such sensations in ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, encapsulating its uniqueness and authenticity as ‘aura’ – only to exclude it from the recorded image:

‘…for the first time – and this is the effect of the film – man has to operate with his whole living person, yet forgoing its aura. For aura is tied to his presence; there can be no replica of it. The aura, which is on the stage, emanates from MacBeth, cannot be separated for the spectators from that of the actor. However, the singularity of the shot in the studio is that the camera is substituted for the public.’

What Keaton realised is that a type of aura can be generated in film by focussing on types of authenticity: seeking location shots, performing one’s own stunts, and honouring the strange logic of the cinematic image.

This is, textually, what Shakespeare did in relation to his sources. He read about MacBeth in Holinshed, who in turn got his account from Hector Boece. Bellenden’s translation of Boece’s Historia Gentis Scotorum into Scots reads as follows: ‘[Makbeth] had sic confidence in his fretis, that he belevis fermely nevir to be vincust, quhil the wod of Birnane war brocht to Dunsinnane…’ – or, as The Courier would no doubt have it: Dundee Man Inspires Bard.

By a similarly twisting route, the weirdness in Shakespeare’s image may be behind another of Milligan’s great lines from The Goon Show: ‘We must get to the woods before the trees get there!’

Meanwhile, in ‘The Royal Summons’, after playing draughts all night on a terrace lined with cypress trees, with a cabinet intent on establishing who will assassinate their mad queen, one of Leonora Carrington’s unidentified narrators is identified as the winner by an unknown voice:

‘“Who? Me?” I said.

“Yes, you,” the voice replied, and I noticed that it was the tallest cypress speaking.

I’m going to escape, I thought, and began to run in the direction of the avenue. But the cypress tore itself out of the earth by the roots, scattering dirt in all directions, and began to follow me. It’s so much larger than me, I thought and stopped. The cypress stopped too. All its branches were shaking horribly – it was probably quite a while since it had last run.

“I accept,” I said, and the cypress returned slowly to its hole.’

All three artists seem to be presenting variations on MacBeth’s horrified insight as Malcolm’s army approaches, bearing the branches of trees to disguise their numbers, ‘I pull in resolution, and begin/To doubt th’ equivocation of the fiend/That lies like truth.’

For them, however, the true fiend is normality, which allows us to assume there is a sort of narrative continuity to its nature, when in fact the cyclone, the war, the breakdown, the portable forests, are always inherent to its structures. While narrative itself, with its hoped-for resolutions, catharses, and ambiguously unending happy ever afters, is always and only our imposition upon it.

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Keaton, Carrington, Milligan: 1

(I seem to have spent forever over this next set of posts, or, rather, not so much over as hovering – or havering – nearby. Many other duties, including a talk on one of the poets mentioned below, W.S. Graham, intervened, but I couldn’t let the occasion of Leonora Carrington’s birthday pass without some gesture.)

Last year’s unedifying political/ecological scene often made me feel like the nap of the universe was against us (‘us’ meaning the planet, not the species), so a benign-looking coincidence could work a little like a counterspell or blessing. Late last year, I was struck by a run of one film and two television programmes that seemed to hold something like a positive meaning.

I was heading up to Dundee one Saturday in early December, when I realised that the DCA were screening Steamboat Bill, Jr that evening, with a live piano accompaniment by Neil Brand. This was followed on the Sunday night by a documentary on Leonora Carrington, directed by Teresa Griffiths. Then, later that week, on my return to Newcastle, I happened to catch another documentary, this time on Spike Milligan, Love, Light and Peace, produced and directed by Verity Maidlow, which focused on home movies and intimate interviews.

Each of these figures had, at different times, had a significant influence on me. So this concatenation felt like a prompt to take stock, as the year turned, on what such strong influences, as disturbing as they can be delightful, might actually mean in that broader sense of what you’re doing with your life, in addition to your creative work.

Certainly, in all three cases, the relationship or dialogue between the work and the life is part of the interest. Equally, with reference to our cultural and political era, it seems significant that, although each is strongly associated with a particular time or mode – silent comedy, surrealism, post-war anti-establishment comedy – none of them seems to be fully defined by such a grouping.

Rudi Blesh’s biography of Buster Keaton had bowled me over in full-blown slapstick style in the mid-eighties, defining Keaton as a sort of obsessive, damaged, naive surrealist which I connected to my engagement with figures like W.S. Graham and Ivor Cutler, an engagement which itself stemmed from my teenage obsession with the traumatised absurdities of Milligan. Carrington I’ve tried to speak about in several posts without ever quite defining how the blend of no-nonsense briskness and the embodiment of something utterly nonsensical and other in her art and her writing affects me – a situation she would have regarded as entirely appropriate.

Neil Brand’s introduction to Steamboat Bill, illustrated plentifully with clips from Keaton’s other films, placed a similar emphasis to Blesh on the strange pressures of being a child star in vaudeville, on his improvisatory yet methodical explorations of the techniques and technology of early silent comedy, and on the industry’s inevitable rejection of Keaton, as film-making became a matter for producers and career paths, rather than an avant-la-lettre auteur who wouldn’t initially have understood what an auteur was.

Back in 1985 or 86, I wrote a sequence of poems called ‘A Dream of Buster Keaton’, which was published in Poet & Critic in the US. This marked the first substantial appearance of my work in English outside the context of student mags – except it being published in the US meant no-one in the UK really saw it till the sequence was reprinted in my Arc collection, The Testament of the Reverend Thomas Dick, in 1994.

By then I was reading Leonora Carrington’s short fiction, reprinted by Virago in the late 80s/early 90s, including the collection The House of Fear, which cast its odd light on how I felt about the tiny degree of exposure which my work was then generating. My literary and academic career throughout the eighties had been fairly unremarkable, but here I was in that first flush of attention where your books are noticed and you begin to be asked to perform those public duties of performing, reviewing, and teaching, of presenting your (or, at any rate, a) self. I had been, slowly, picking up residency work, and I would soon lecture for a sort of living in an actual university…

But, even though this was happening at a very gradual rate, and the ‘exposure’, such as it was, would drop to a minimum within a few years, in favour of those more suitable for the kind of success on offer, I rapidly realised that something in me did not really want to be seen.

This was not the same thing as not wanting to write or perform my work – or indeed to discuss others’ work – or to be acknowledged. I just shied away at a level that felt like an an instinct or a phobia from How Things Are Done. What Keaton, Carrington, and Milligan suggested for me, then, were ways of evading not especially that fleeting gaze, but rather the categories it put me in.

Although my creative space overlapped with the public realm of publication and presentation, of mingling and the marketplace, pitching and schmoozing, only a tiny sliver of it did so comfortably, and the rest preferred distance and therefore accepted obscurity, or Secondariness.

Hitherto, my non-career had enabled me to preserve the illusion that all was going splendidly – a decent degree, a small circle of literary associates, some publications – I could breeze over the broken ‘marriage’ and the almost-abandoned PhD. It wasn’t until, with my second wife’s help, I started to get my life together, that I understood how committed I had become to not being togethery, to not really being ‘there’ at all.

Now not only could I hear the stupid words coming disjointedly out of my own mouth on TV and radio, but also people could not give me those jobs I’d just assumed I’d drift into. Now I actually had to look after a family rather than have my family look after me.

I’m describing the series of stuttered moments at which I began to wake up from the Arrogance, that survival mechanism which ensures you never need to face doubt and your own limitations, nor grow up. But of course the problem here was that I couldn’t quite grow up. Like Steamboat Bill Jr., who meanders back to the river of his birth with a beret and a silly moustache, poor puer aeternus, it seemed to be the ‘junior’ part that defined me.

In that movie, it’s not until the end that Bill Jr. has to prove himself to Bill Sr. Except, out of the frame which insists life is narrative, you can’t always prove anything, to yourself or anyone else, nor are you able to rescue Big Bill from the sinking jailhouse in the nick of time – sometimes the jailhouse simply sinks.

Sometimes, as Leonora Carrington states at the end of ‘Down Below’, once you leave for Mexico City, you never see your father again. Sometimes, as Milligan did, you discover in a letter after he died, that your father suffered all his life from the same crippling depressions you do, but never said a word.

Sometimes, as I’ve been attempting to explore in recent posts about my father, bereavement means you realise where your identity has positioned itself in relation to those other identities of family – parents, partners, children, relations, friends, peers – and understand it is not, as it were, where you thought you’d left it. But that this position seems to have become crucial to that thing you do, the writing.

Whether this is a good or bad thing has sent me back to my triumvirate of artists, to look again at what enabled and what inhibited their work, and, equally, what enabled and inhibited its reception. To watch is, for the passive, to be influenced. To watch how you are watching, then, is to engage with, adapt, and, where necessary or possible, resist that influence.

There is a famous moment where the concussed Bill Jr. wanders out of a house in the middle of a cyclone, only for the whole frontage of that house to tip down on him. He is of course standing precisely where the upper window is, and is saved by being just there, or by just being there – by being, momentarily in the story and forever on film, framed. Here Keaton alludes to and inverts a memory of childhood, in which he describes being plucked out of a window by a cyclone:

‘…I was awakened by the noise of a Kansas twister. Getting up, I went to the open window to investigate the swishing noise. I didn’t fall out, I was sucked out by the circling winds of the cyclone and whirled away down the road. I had rolled and revolved about a block from the farmhouse when a man saw me, rushed out, scooped me up, and carried me to the safety of the nearest storm cellar.’

Another scene in Steamboat Bill, Jr, just preceding this, is less spectacular, but, perhaps, just as resonant. Having been taken to hospital, Bill Jr. is lying in bed when the entire building is torn away, leaving just the rows of beds. Blown down the street as though in a self-driving automobile (the motif of machines and other contraptions literally auto-mobilising and driving themselves recurs in several Keaton movies), the bed sails into a stable.

The horses look at Bill Jr. – it is at that moment we realise there is a certain equine quality to the famous ’Stoneface’; that it is in fact the long face of that joke featuring a horse and a barman – and Bill Jr., bewildered but bewilderedly at one with them, looks at the horses. Then the stable door blows open, and the bed bolts for it.

It is, obviously, like a dream. Less obviously, it echoes the situation of Little Nemo in Winsor McCoy’s cartoon of that name, which ran from 1905-13, the first and last frames of which tended to show its titular hero in bed. Even less obviously, it rhymes with the central character’s position in Leonora Carrington’s short story ‘The House of Fear’, who finds herself going with a horse she has just met, and a number of his very frightened equine friends, to a party at Fear’s Castle:

‘The horses all shivered, and their teeth chattered like castanets. I had the impression that all the horses in the world had come to this party. Each one with bulging eyes, fixed straight ahead, and each one with foam frozen around its lips. I didn’t dare speak, I was too terrified.’

As Milligan wrote in a sketch excerpted in Love, Light and Peace:

‘Horses don’t play the piano.’
‘He’s not a real horse. There’s a dog inside working him.’

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Mourning and Monsters, 2

(In which we perhaps learn more about the monsters, and the Makarship, than the mourning…)

At the end of the short filmed interview he conducted with me after my gaining the Dundee Makarship in 2013, the late Jim Stewart was kind enough to say, with some relish for the years ahead, ‘such energy!’ He was, I think, talking as much about himself as me – he had certainly been Dundee’s unofficial Makar for the preceding decade at least, as the many heartfelt tributes to his poetry and selfless work as a teacher established after his death.

Indeed my ‘interview’ had been more of a dialogue as he quizzed me in the true Socratic manner about what I really meant and indeed stood for. I felt like I’d passed – just – the exam/audition for the post. Even more, I felt that he was an important friend and ally I could count on to define the job.

At my initial appearance as Makar, in the City Square, as part of the delivery of the (ultimately unsuccessful) bid to be City of Culture, where I recited a collaged poem made up of the aspirations of hundreds of Dundonians (plus some of my own – or ‘lies’, as I called them), my father was an enthusiastic member of the crowd. In the photo reproduced in The Courier, he can be seen amid the folk on the front steps of the Caird Hall – my uncle’s response to him elbowing into the shot was, ‘Typical!’

At that moment, I was mostly proud of gaining the Makarship for my father and for my family. I felt it was a sort of acknowledgement for the support he and they had always given me in my somewhat eccentric career path, which had taken me farther from home than he would’ve liked, and yet here I was, taking up a new job in my old town.

Within six months, in early 2014, my father had died, and early in 2016 Jim was gone too. Between their deaths, that sense of energy had undergone a redirection and a transmutation.

I was doing as much as usual: giving talks and readings and chairing events and going into schools and judging competitions. I was Scots Language Ambassador in my old school, the Grove; I was judge, alongside Andy Jackson, for several years of the Rotary Club writing competition, culminating in a student winning the national leg for her age group. With Andy, too, I was editing New Boots and Pantisocracies, a daily poetry blog that responded to the political upheavals between the 2015 and 2017 general elections.

I mentored, I workshopped, I wrote; I visited the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, Mexico City, Shanghai, Tianjin, Beijing, Hargeysa. Whether I was giving a talk on Roman love poetry at the McManus Galleries, setting up a panel about the role of the Makar with the new head of the Scottish Poetry Library, Asif Khan, for the Newcastle Centre for the Literary Arts, or writing a poem about the medieval Dundee guilds and the refugee crisis for the Bristol Festival of Ideas, my Makar duties spilled over into my research ones, and both were reflected in what I vaguely characterise as my ‘freelance’ writerly work.

But, after the initial rush of project work associated with Dundee’s City of Culture bid, this Makarish activity gradually died away. After a year or so, more or less in parallel with the process of grieving described above, I realised fewer projects and opportunities were presenting themselves once the bid failed, so – in addition to the programme outlined above – I found myself wanting to turn inward, in search of a different mode of engagement – as with the grieving, so with the scrieving.

I focused on social media in order to explore these roles at an angle that might reflect back on both my own earlier practice as a writer and an editor in the nineties, and that of the nineteenth century newspaper poets of W.D. Latto’s People’s Journal. Just as they had built up a textual community of shared interests, referencing poetry, politics, language and locality, so I wondered if I could construct a virtual community that drew on the experiments with poetic and other discourses – science, history, theory, media-speak, Scots – that had marked the work of myself and my fellow Informationists from the early nineties. I began to construct an alternative or Virtual Dundee from these tropes, just as we had attempted to do for Scotland as a whole in the final few issues of Gairfish.

The hope was that all these endeavours were the same. As I’ve found myself arguing previously on this blog, the whimsical can be as meaningful a response to trauma as procrastination is to creative crisis. Indeed, as I thought I was learning from my engagement with Leonora Carrington’s work, it can be as direct a route to the issues and crises of the unconscious as more overtly confessional modes.

What seems silly or trivial to us may only be so because we are so keen to retain control we become dismissive of all but the serious, the appropriate. We long for simple answers, especially to our most troubling questions, and so the complex becomes characterised as the overly complicated, the playful as merely childish. We forget that the original meaning of weird is ‘fate’, and how it is related to the Anglo-Saxon ‘weorthen’, meaning to become, to be part of a process.

I was hoping by this route to, in Emily Dickinson’s phrase, ‘Tell all the truth but tell it slant’. I was also hoping to bring my innermost workings into line with my external affairs, in effect to realign, even ‘heal’, myself.

4

Following my engagement with Leonora Carrington and Mexico City, I wanted to create an alphabetic bestiary of Dundonian alebrijes, monsters, and chimeras, of the sort that Dundee had attracted and engendered, whether in the shapes of elephants and whales – Florentina, the Indian elephant who died on the Broughty Ferry Road in 1706, and was dissected by Dr Patrick Blair; or the famous Tay Whale, whose bones now hang in the McManus gallery, prefiguring the hanging of Hope, the blue whale skeleton, in the Natural History Museum – or in the imagination of Mary Shelley, whose dream of the new Prometheus, or Frankenstein, began in South Baffin Street.

These would include the strange caricature McGonagall made of himself, by contemplating the anti-poetry of the suicidal Poute; and, indeed, the corpse of the Tay Whale, mouth propped open, so, for a sixpence, you could walk inside. And there would also be room for the broken back of the railbridge (thinking of D’Arcy Thompson’s comparison between the Forth rail ridge and the vertebrae of dinosaurs and other quadrupeds); and the Storm Fiend itself, which haunted the verses of several Dundonians in 1879 (‘which will be remembered for a very long time’).

I thought, if not the graphic novel, then at least the cartoonish text was an appropriate literary mode for the city which created Oor Wullie, Desperate Dan and the Broons, which kept reconfiguring itself as Beanotown, Auchenshoogle, Cactusville. I thought the virtual, the informational, were appropriate modes for the city that first demolishes then miniaturises its principal landmarks, for the home of Minecraft and Grand Theft Auto, for the birthplace of Hector Boece and Robert Wedderburn, whose Scots prose works were a sort of rhetorical wunderkammer of mythopoeic chronicles and bizarre lists.

I had already imagined a new monster years before, in the cover star of Strawberry Duck, the magazine I’d helped produce as a teenager in the late 70s. Half ‘underground’ comic, half punkzine, all not very good (at least the bits I wrote), it had played around with notions of couthiness as a stultifying type of control I would try to develop later in the Dundee Doldrums, and the energy of this piece of juvenilia re-manifested thirty-odd years later in the giant duck I pictured making its way up the Tay like the whale before it – except I then encountered an actual giant duck, albeit an inflatable one, created by a hotel in the city docks. Dundee seems a place where the real and the imaginary coexist in puzzling proximity.

I began to rebuild the demolished parts of the city in my head; to construct a Virtual Dundee of simultaneously existing simulacra of its vanished buildings; to imagine the Land O’ Cakes being haunted by giant pastries, pehs and bridies as sculptural or architectural features; to reanimate those symbolic dead creatures as mammoth and Monstro; to look for chimeras which gave me the same charge of irrational, absurd disquiet as the alebrijes I had seen in Mexico City had done. In short, I tried to find the Dundonian unheimlich, or, rather, the Uncouthy.

These creatures were for me at once ridiculous and repositories of grief and disquiet – in just the way that, with McGonagall, there is a sort of aporia, in that we can’t know to what extent what he writes and how he performs reflects his ‘real’ intentions. We are thrown back on our own interpretations, and whether we accept him for what he seems to be, or we question our own judgements, and with them our own private, inner absurdity, is up to us. So too a Dundonian alebrije should be as sad as it is childish, as strange as it is stupid. On a personal level, this enabled me to begin exteriorising aspects of the self I’d felt contorted into by the strange doldrums of loss.

I was seeking a meeting point between what I’ve been thinking of as dark whimsy and my official oeuvre of published works, a point which several of my books have aimed for in the past (and missed), and one at which, symbolically, a draft of the next one – nameless as yet, half-formed, still in those grief-filled shadows – could be finished. As with the grieving process itself, which cannot ever, will never quite, be done, it’s not actually completed. And yet I now know the book can – at least to the point of abandonment – be written.

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Mourning and Monsters, 1

(As Christmas and the year’s end approaches, you begin to adopt Janus’s regard: looking forward to what is shared and anticipated, while reflecting back on what is lost or appears to be completed.

I’ve been considering the links between the absence of my father, especially felt at such times, and the movement of the imagination through its duties and its – equally necessary – irresponsibilities.

The bereaved slowly become familiar with the ways grief keeps evolving, and, just now, the strange, strangely fascinating thing for me is how such juxtapositions of pleasure and loss relate or can be related to those images discussed in previous posts – totems, mascots, cartoons. Hopefully these couple of posts can tease these links out as we head into the Daft Days.)

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A couple of weekends ago, after a very long delay – more than three years after his death – I stood at the grave my father shares with my maternal grandparents, and looked at his stone. It has taken this long to be put in place for a number of reasons, but I think the principal one is that I couldn’t bear to complete my filial duty.

Initially, there had been a family discussion about whether to replace my grandparents’ existing stone, with its frame of Celtic knots symbolising my grandfather’s love of history and Scottishness – my grandmother, as always, was too self-effacing to express any desire for symbolic representation. But we came up with a solution: to place the old stone on a plinth with a sloping surface for my father’s inscription.

Then there was an even longer ‘drafting’ period while I tried to design a stone where two symbols from my father’s life could frame that inscription. I wanted a compass rose, such as sits on a number of ships’ captains’ stones in the old Broughty Ferry graveyard by the River Tay, which would mark his early, formative time in the Merchant Navy. And I wanted a watch, symbolising his long years in Timex as a precision engineer.

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But the photos I took were not precise enough – the compasses too degraded by lichen for a laser printing onto the new stone – or, by contrast, too stark: his last watch’s face looking strangely isolated. At some point it dawned on me: what time would we set it to? I couldn’t think of an answer I could live with for the rest of my life.

I dithered and swithered too over whether to include the short poem he’d written during a serious illness and given to me. Was there room? Would it balance with the plain text of my grandparents’ stone or not? Eventually, I realised the hesitation was, like all these questions, a delaying tactic, albeit an unconscious one.

While the stone remained uncarved, he remained within emotional and imaginative reach. It was like the little dint still in the leather armrest of his favourite chair, caused by him digging in an elbow as he leant forward, whether to speak, change channel, or, increasingly, to cough. He was gone but the mark of his absence was still there.

In the end, we settled on a plain inscription, emphasising his wholehearted commitment to family, and an image of him from his last ten years when he was at his healthiest and his happiest: on holiday with us all in a favourite restaurant in Crete. Even that, I was secretly thankful to note, seemed to take the stonemasons forever to produce.

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Because, the truth was, I was not getting through the grieving process. I’d raced through the first year on automatic pilot, fuelled by work commitments, festivals, and travel. I’d even managed to keep writing, finishing the canto promised to N.S. Thompson and Andy Croft’s Byron project. But a year later I found myself in Shanghai on the anniversary of his death.

I was staying in one of those skyscraper hotels that overlook the Yangtze, with a room-wide window fifteen or twenty stories up, and I was there for just a couple of days – barely enough time to get over the jet lag, in order to do a festival – which actually turned out to be a teaching stint – and to meet up with an academic from Fudan University to talk about translation. At least that was why I told myself I was there.

What I realised, peering out of that hotel window at the great clog-like barges heading downriver, piled high with pyramids of raw materials at all times of the day and night, was that I was in Shanghai to get away. Not to get away from his death: the moments and days leading up to that instant when I realised he had gone kept replaying in my mind. Not to get away from him: for that first year I continued to speak to him in my head as ‘you’, noting with horror the point at which I first thought of him as ‘him’. But I wanted to get away from that world where not only life went on, but my fatherless role in it had to go on too. At least in Shanghai I was far away from that kind of continuity. I saw this wasn’t as much about grief as it was about me: I missed him because at some level I needed him in order to be a functioning version of myself.

As this pattern repeated itself the following year – work, trips away, grieving and fretting about grieving – I also realised that my appetite for poetry was drying up. I still wrote the ones that impelled themselves upon me, responded to commissions, produced at what I expect would be regarded as a respectable rate, but I could see that there were more there, in those strange shadows which both are the poems, and that which conceals them (or key aspects of them) from us. I knew that they were difficult, and that it was taking me longer than usual to get into the space to write them. It was a toss-up between not wanting to force the writing, and not wanting to force myself to go there.

It’s not unusual, especially between books, to have to rebuild the writing self from scratch. This felt more difficult, because I understood that, like the rest of my family, I was also attempting to put a life back together. But I knew that you have to sit these relative doldrums out, attempting what you can, weighing up what’s possible, reflecting on what’s not yet within your grasp.

I turned to prose, and to the interstitial art of short texts: phrases that sat between verse forms and narrative, or between literary genre and cartoon caption, between the comic and the uncanny. I used social media as something between sketchpad and notebook, so that I could sidle up to my concerns, find those forms that might sustain the effort of elegy, and allow me to place it alongside or amongst the rest of real life. I tried to find my own angle to rejoin the continuity.

2
Why did I feel so vulnerable? My father died aged 77 – hardly an unusual event according to brute statistics, and he was chronically ill for years before, so, although it was a shock how quickly the event of his death unfolded, it was hardly surprising. I was in my early fifties, busy to the point of overwork, yes, but not without support and opportunities for creative expression.

My immediate family was, if anything, stronger and more stable than me: in 2016 my daughter went to Australia for an intercalating year at Sydney University, and not only matured, but seemed to thrive; my partner’s magazine and latest novel did well, she found time and energy to organise renovations – something I remain clueless about – we could finally afford an extension. We even got married, telling ourselves it sorted out our tax status re our daughter, but understanding it symbolised a near thirty year commitment.

In the last year the relentless nature of my administrative workload has suddenly eased. I got leave, I and my collaborators got grants. My new wife and I began to look forward, just a little: how soon could we balance the idea of retirement with having enough money to write? I began to imagine I was decompressing, and yet a sense continued of being somewhere, in my depths, destabilised.

I grew up as part of a small family unit – mother/father/child aligned to my long-widowed maternal grandmother. Since my paternal grandmother’s death, and the death of a maternal aunt, we gradually drifted apart from the wider range of aunts and uncles on both sides. Then my wife and I unconsciously reproduced that small unit – mother/father/daughter, this time, slightly isolated in Newcastle. These familial units and their divisions or roles and functions loom large in my sense of personal identity, and my father’s role in particular was to be responsible for a whole way of interacting with people and place so that, in a sense, I didn’t have to.

He could know everyone in and everything about Dundee over the last seventy years; he could see the world as a Merchant Navy engineer, experience childhood poverty and illness, ‘for’ me; he could be the Catholic, the businessman, the man – and I could go to university, reflect upon all this and write things down. I could even emulate his voyages as long as someone met me at the airport. I could be the weird nobody son as long as he was there to be the good father.

Without his presence, even in the diminished form of his final year, I began to see how much of whatever I am was shored up by an idea of what he was. Crucially, I began to see how much of what I am creatively was shored up by a sense of having been given his permission to write.

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Leonora, Linares, and the Alebrijes, 2

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The next day I had two new fixations: getting my jacket dry-cleaned, and having a ‘souvenir haircut’. (As I have almost no hair, the second of these is sometimes replaced by the souvenir shave.) Giovanni reckoned that a short stroll through the streets near the Palacio de Bellas Artes and just outside the historic centre should sort out both.

As though all examples of such establishments were run as monopolies by the ghost of Leonora, and she had shut up shop while on tour, we could find neither. There were some excellent coffee shops, the fringes of a Chinatown, and a great stretch of streets that sold what looked like splendid car parts and tyres, but no dry cleaners, and not even a hairdresser’s, let alone a barber’s.

Eventually we found both next door to each other, opposite the Museo de Arte Popular. The dry cleaners could do a basic tidy up of the jacket in an hour or two, and the hairdressers might have been fine, but now we had time to kill. We headed for the market district, and almost immediately happened upon a little green barbershop, where an amused woman took off more and more of my hair, as Giovanni encouraged me to take it down to what I think of as the Montalbano level.

Even so, given her starting point, this didn’t take very long, and, even after stopping for an excellent coffee, we still seemed to have ages to wait, so we popped into the Museo. Where I was confronted by a series of giant multicoloured chimeric figures, surreal composites of several creatures including humans in brightly striped and stippled shades, seemingly constructed from papier-mâché. These were the alebrijes.


I’d encountered little versions of them in a market we’d visited almost upon arrival, together with the horror and fantasy writer Chaz Brenchley, and I had bought a bright octopus and a nodding-headed caterpillar, as well as the slightly too-tight hat smelling of burnt straw I was wearing against the sun. When Tiffany Atkinson had launched her book of poems (translated into Spanish by Jorge Fondebrider and others), on the way to the restaurant after, we’d seen a huge mantis-like composite which I’d thought was one artist’s version of the alebrije. But here were hordes of them, filling a courtyard, almost a plague – deer/lion/dog/lizard/bird/human amalgams the size of giraffes – all on trolleys awaiting a parade which, of course, I would leave before I could see.

Most importantly, they reminded me of Leonora. She has one piece in particular, of a cat with human hands, that seemed to me exactly in the spirit of the alebrije


Perhaps I’d found another sort of double, or rather a whole series of doubles to her absent sculptures. But then it was time to pick my jacket up – I had an event to give, and a schedule to keep. We agreed to find time to come back and find out more about the alebrijes.

5

When we did get back, there was another surprise in store. On the way we came by a slightly different route, obliging us to cut up a connecting street to get to the museum. In doing so we passed an old cinema. ‘Old cinema’ hardly does justice to it – it was an aluminium-facaded Art Deco glory, if slightly bashed about, and it was called Orfeon, surely a splendid name for a cinema, combining hints of the oracular and the mesmeric.


Except it is also the name of a character in a poem of mine from more than twenty years before. The Orfeon, in The Testament of the Reverend Thomas Dick, is the first sentient ‘roboet’, an Artificial Intelligence programme that achieves self-awareness. It receives a critique of ‘robotic verse’, ‘The programming creates, in my opinion,/nothing but a probabilistic babble’, and, faced with being deleted as faulty, produces

my inspiration is, I take
it, Babelistic probables,
but realise the next
programme will arrive
at similar conclusions; the
essential nature of Orfeon is
regenerative, inevitable. All roboets
will contribute towards
the continuance of my song.

As they say, spooky. The sense of being, if not haunted by, then at least bumping into, doubles was palpable. I went to the Museum expecting to look round, and perhaps pick up a publication, but Giovanni’s polite, persuasive enquiries got us an invitation to meet a curator who knew something of the history of the alebrijes, and was happy to talk us through it in her archive.

She told me they were the creation of a cartoonist, Pedro Linares, back in 1936, who combined two influences: the folk art of Oaxaca, and the first influx of Surrealism. He described the moment of inspiration as occurring in the classic surrealist and indeed shamanic manner: while he was ill, and within a dream. In her version he is first walking then running through a forest, as all around him he can hear creatures moving through the trees, calling out ‘Alebrije! Alebrije!’ When he woke, he made the creatures he saw, three of which, as it turned out, were in the museum.

In fact, I misunderstood her description, as he was a maker of cartonería, or papier-mâché figures, and he produced work in this capacity for Diego Rivera and Frieda Kahlo. But this mistake made me think of a key figure in my personal pantheon, the cartoonist George Herriman, the creator of the androgynous, language-mangling Krazy Kat, who could regard a bop on the head from a brick as a love token, if lobbed by the perpetually indignant Ignatz Mouse. 

Coincidentally Herriman’s strips had taken the leap into full page, often surreal, colour at the same point in the mid-thirties. Their setting, Coconino County, actually in Arizona, had seemed to me a fictitious realm beneath a cantaloupe moon where ancient mesas like giant hands applauded the action, and it suddenly felt like a psychogeographic double to Oaxaca, even though the two are nearly two thousand miles apart.


This is, perhaps, how the inner landscape of the imagination assembles itself from coincidences and contiguities, puns of the eye and ear, multitudes of similitudes, seeming so coherent in dreams if only to the dreamer, and reconstructed so painstakingly in the realist world of fiction, or the strange amalgam of word and symbol that makes a poem.

And indeed that was how it felt when we then visited the exhibits, entering the world of Linares’s original alebrijes. Again, I’ll confine this account to three details. One was the background of hills at night in a painting of strange figures, half-carnivalesque, half-devilish, dancing in Oaxaca. The hills were bluish, undulating, oddly like a Chinese landscape – serene in contrast to the dance unfolding to a small guitar. I could imagine they were filled with neatly coiffured bears, angry mice, perhaps the Moon that seemed to shine on this scene though nowhere visible, as though it were actually behind us, about to press down damply on my newly-shorn head.


The second was Linares’ alebrije of the skull with black and white spirals for eyes set on an upright bird/lizard body, with blue bat wings and claws and chicken feet, and what looked like an earwig’s pincer tail. Inside the skull’s jaws was a second, smaller, altogether less cheerful-looking skull. The way this sculpture seemed simultaneously to relate to and to depart from traditional Dia de los Muertos figures gave it a capricious energy, as though it might scuttle off or, worse, toward you, at any moment.


The third was an extraordinary ceramic, the despairing face of a lion/human chimera in a bright yellow and red glaze. This was a nahual, or possibly a tona, the difference being explained as follows:

‘The nahual has two forms: the nahual and the tona. The first gives a person the ability to turn into an animal generally at night in order to inflict harm. The tona is an animal that relates to an individual at birth; it possesses protective attributes and symbolically recognizes itself as the person’s double.’


I recognised something in the intensity of his anguished expression which seemed to place him in that dream landscape of rolling hills and skittering, dancing creatures. For me this brought together the images of the earthquake and the Flower God, the expressions on the voladores’ faces and on that of Linares’ alebrije, which, I realised, echoed that of Leonora’s passenger crocodiles:

How cheerfully he seems to grin,
     How neatly spreads his claws,
And welcomes little fishes in,
     With gently smiling jaws!

For me the nahual’s expression immediately recalled the grief of loss, specifically the death of my father: that instant I remember exactly of understanding that you occupy the moment after a catastrophe, and that you can never get back to the moment before. There’s more to that face, of course, than grief: perhaps it’s even the moment of understanding that, like the earthquake, the catastrophe itself is continuously unfolding, that there has never been a before, and there cannot be an ending. 

I realised this was as close as I could get to either the stark beauty of Julián Herbert’s fiction, or the vertiginous claustrophobia you sometimes experience in Leonora Carrington’s paintings – the sense that the only ‘outside’ is where you are standing as the viewer. 

Was this my message from the alebrijes, I wondered – that engaging with her work at all is like releasing the figures in her paintings first into the sculptures in the streets, and then, as they appear to vanish, into your inner psyche? Was this in a sense the perception hinted at by nahual and alebrije alike, that we can never truly distinguish the world from our imagination, and that neither the world nor our imaginations are entirely ours?

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