Carry On, Leonora: 5

This summer I went to Liverpool to see the large Carrington show in the Tate. I stayed, as is my wont, in a mid-range hotel, part of a chain so, wherever you go, the rooms and the menus are much the same. Except, being Liverpool, my room was themed after a McCartney song, ‘The Long and Winding Road’ – and, instead of being reasonably priced, it was extremely expensive. I didn’t understand why until, the following the morning, I got up to find that the streets – which I’d strolled easily enough around the previous evening, getting my bearings – were completely packed with people.

Streams of folk paced slowly up and down the pavements. Some roads were choked with them, so that the cars sat with their engines idling or switched off, and it seemed that, not just was everyone in Liverpool out and about, but that crowds had arrived at dawn to do the same, meandering in packs that meant it took half an hour to cover a distance I’d managed in five or ten minutes the night before.

I thought about Eliot’s re-visioning of Dante: of the countless dead crossing London’s bridges on their way to the office. This had a more holiday air, as though it were some daytrip across the Mersey-as-Styx, or a few million souls on day release.

Of course, when I finally made it to the docks I could see the cause if not particularly the focus of all this activity: the three Cunard vessels known as the Queens – the Alexandra, the Mary, and the Elizabeth. They were performing a slow synchronised twirl as though the Mersey were some ballroom for royal female metal giants, while the famous ferry, painted in psychedelic dazzleship style by Peter Blake, carefully skirted round them like a harlequin waiter.



The Tate itself, where I’d bargained a decent prize for a couple of days’ entry, and casually previewed Leonora’s paintings and drawings (and doll and costumes and poems and cradle) the afternoon before, was embedded in a thick wad of people, like bales of sticks or giant clothes pegs jammed upright, as though they’d been offloaded during the night from flotillas of now-evaporated ships.

When I got upstairs to the three rooms Leonora had been given, I found them packed with people, but people who were all doing the opposite of what you might expect: instead of looking at the pictures, they were looking at or rather out of the windows. They were in fact almost all there because of the excellent view of the river and therefore of the Three Queens that access to the Leonora Carrington exhibition afforded them.

While I’d been trying to weave my way through the crowds on the way to the gallery, I’d been struck by that sense one sometimes gets that the nap of the universe is against you. They were all tending in one direction in their tens of thousands while I alone was struggling towards Leonora. Here too there seemed to be some basic subversion of the space – what a gallery was for – that meant I alone appeared to be here for the paintings. I was, in a sense, and like many of the images I was studying, an apparition stranded in another reality, another way of engaging with history and culture and community.

There were queens here too: the benign-seeming great giantess, the unsettled cradle-as-yacht, the reflected image of Leonora herself from a series of photographs entitled ‘Necrophilia’. But these were somehow queens in exile, royals so without subjects they had themselves been reduced to mere subjects in an artwork, or rulers with only one commoner to acknowledge their command. 

Meanwhile, the great intricate floating machines, carefully preserved and carrying within them their highly specialised retinues, continued to receive the unquestioning universal worship of an entire city, swollen by thousands upon thousands of day trippers. They were like robot versions of the fates, or the maiden, mother, and wise woman of Norse myth, believed in in a way that Leonora was not to the extent that to look over at them was, in this room at least, literally to overlook her, in just the way that I had failed to see her painting those years before in Venice.

All this, of course, seemed exactly right. Most of us do indeed mostly invest in the greater myth of narrative, of the story of our days, of the way history unfolds in a single direction that concurs with time through its great men or women or states or machines. It all felt much as the playwright James Graham put it, discussing his work about the 2015 General Election: ‘It is only by applying structure to life’s random events, in the way that films, plays and novels do, that anything makes any sense.’

Our selves, it feels to us, must have beginnings, middles and ends, and it is only now and then that the great continuity in which we are immersed drains away and leaves us gasping in an element others find perfectly natural.

There was, as it happened, a film playing as part of the exhibition, about a madman who ruled over a remote asylum, but no-one watched for long enough to establish whether it did indeed apply any structure to life’s random events, or to ponder, if these events were indeed random, whether applying structure wasn’t a bit misleading.

If, as the neuroscientists hint, memory is a combination of recreations and interpretations, of intentional and unintentional confabulations, then everything we think has happened to us up to our experience of this present moment – which is, even in its few seconds of opportunity, overshadowed by how we have habitually come to regard such opportunities – is story.

The issue then becomes: why do we trust story to the extent of supposing that what it makes of our memories and experiences is ‘sense’? Is it even possible not to, as Strawsen claims we ‘episodics’ do?

It is this moment of questioning, of exposure, of disturbance, that Leonora’s work returns to again and again, as the spirits spread out their picnic cloth, and the tiny red-coated hunters pursue the massive weasel, and the head inside the beard of the saint has another head inside it with another beard, and the dreamers inside the labyrinth find themselves dreaming of a large liner passing directly overhead.

The figures may or may not suspect their continuity has been interrupted; they may or may not have felt as absurd as I did, visiting an art gallery to look at, of all things, the art, but the viewer, the reader, the interpreting self who finds themself stranded before these images may well think, as Leonora continually thought in relation to herself, ‘My main task is to try and spot which one is this – they’re all me, whatever that is, whatever “me” is – it’s a word…’

About Bill Herbert

Poet and pseudo-scholar W.N. Herbert was born in Dundee in 1961, educated there and at Oxford, where he completed his DPhil thesis on Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid, and now lives and works in Newcastle. He is Professor of Poetry and Creative Writing at Newcastle University, and his books are published by, among others, northern publisher Bloodaxe Books. He is also the Dundee Makar, or city laureate.
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2 Responses to Carry On, Leonora: 5

  1. Neil Astley says:

    We stayed at the Dolby chain hotel down the quay when we saw it, no Beatles theme and usual mid-range price. Wonderful exhibition. And very different coincidences: both Catriona McAra and Nicholas Serota were there to see it at the same time. I wonder if the Cunard watchers filled the Cathy Wilkes space alongside also? That would also have been quite surreal.

  2. Bill Herbert says:

    They did, Neil, and it was.

    There were several incidents where the observers infringed on the personal space of the pieces, as it were, and the attendant had to chase around after them to tell them not to do it. But actually they hadn’t realised there was a space to infringe, and often didn’t notice they were being addressed, so attendants would trail after people calling ‘Sir…sir…’, and be unintentionally ignored, then would have to break off because someone else had unwittingly performed the same infringement. ‘Madam… madam…’

    I got quite (even more) distracted.

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