Saturday, 3 March 2018

Pan Review Of The Arts - No. 6

Welcome back to all Pan's readers from me and a very grateful goat-foot god Himself, who's only just emerged, belatedly, from hibernation. The arts combo here touches upon both painting and - as ever and always - books. While this blog has long been an admittedly self-centered indulgence, (as is His wont), we are always open to new ideas; these, with regard to what aspects of the arts you'd like to see that have yet to be covered. What will be a constant will be the preference for short tale collections over novels, though, as with author HELEN GRANT, those known for both would never be ignored. First up is New Zealand artist VIKY GARDEN, whose uncanny depictions of the self through the years has, I'm pleased to say, quite some way to go. The sole collection from a future BBC scripter in children's fantasy ends this entry. Enjoy...

You've written on your site that you're 'still painting that very first self-referencing painting – and I can’t or won’t finish doing so until I feel I’ve got it - which will probably never happen.' Reflecting on this, what do you feel might be the obstacles to achieving finality?

Viky Garden: I think it’s my way of saying I never want to finish – or that I’m aware there really is no end until the big sleep. All of these paintings are a continuing conversation I’m having with myself and deep down in my marrow it’s not something I want to stop. Each time I start a new work I’m giving myself total freedom but at the same time I’m literally looking to myself for answers as to how this latest relationship – mere pigment scraped on canvas, will resolve – what question will it ask?

Do you vary the ways you work – and / or the materials used - when you begin your latest self-portrait, or is there always a set routine?

VG: Until a month ago, my studio used to be a room in the house – so it was very easy for me to nip in and out at any time and within seconds, be working. Now I’ve got a separate studio out in the yard and it requires dedicated time. I make a point of getting all the admin/chores sorted in the morning and that gives me the afternoons to spend in the studio.
  For the first 25 years I painted with oils because I had this insane bias against acrylic paint. Something along the lines of ‘good artists use oils’ – an embarrassing prejudice based solely on the idea that one learned technique has more value than another. But I found that I was using smaller and smaller brushes and working with my nose to the canvas – I was slowly suffocating. I felt the need to challenge my approach but wasn't sure how to go about it. So I stopped painting.
  This is a financially suicidal thing to do and I don’t recommend it. But for two months at the end of 2015, that’s exactly what I did. With time, I slowly began to give myself permission to think in broader terms until I got to a point where nothing was standing in my way (it never had been of course, I was the sole obstacle). In those two months over summer, I played a lot of backgammon. I’m certain it helped in a contemplative way because in February 2016 I went back into the studio, put away the oils and paintbrushes and began painting with liquid acrylic and using bits of cardboard. I didn’t want anything to remind me of the practice of oil painting – no paint in tubes and no brushes. It was an enormous risk because I had no idea how to paint with acrylics or even what it was I was hoping to achieve.
  If there’s a set routine, it’s a loose one with a much more random approach to what’s going to appear on the canvas and why. Working with abstraction has given me much more opportunity to discover ‘happy accidents’, those wonderful moments of time where a splash or smear of paint can determine or reveal an aspect of light or form that conscious thought and practice often stifles.

Have there been occasions when your art and the music of your husband Steve, of Rattle Records, have come together in multimedia projects?

VG: We tend to stay in our own paddock with our work. The only time there’s been any overlapping is when my photography has been used for Rattle cover artwork and my choosing Rattle music for two of my Youtube clips. We both work from home so we’re together all the time and often Steve’s work can be intense (he not only runs Rattle but he engineers and produces most of the music). To be honest, I’ve never thought about the possibility of doing any kind of project together because there never seems to be enough time in the day. That’s not to say that if something presented itself we wouldn’t consider it.

From your website, I see you have also sculpted variations of the female torso. Are you also the model for these and do they represent, as much as the paintings, this same ongoing search?

VG: In the summer of 2013 I produced about a dozen small sculptures. At the time it was as much about giving myself a break from painting as it was the desire to learn a new process. The great thing about the torsos was that for the most part, I was able to think less and simply produce. There’s something to be said for the physical process of producing work in this manner – making moulds and casting pieces (each torso is in a limited edition of 5) and finally, sanding for hours on end. I was curious and keen to teach myself how to make sculpture. Apart from a couple of works, they are mostly female torsos – it wasn’t a conscious decision to base these on me, but the tendency for me is always to do what I know. These are like talisman pieces, they each fit in the palm of my hand and are beautiful forms to hold. I’ve since had one of the pieces printed larger (using 3D technology) so that in the future I can made an edition of it.

So far, what have your self-portraits helped you learn about yourself since the age of fifteen?

VG: It’s so tempting to say ‘everything and nothing’. Everything in the sense that they are a visual record of my life for the past 30 years. While I haven’t been too obvious with my narratives, I clearly recall what was happening at the time when I look back at the majority of my work. If I was to say nothing, it’s because ‘needing to know’ keeps me standing in front of that easel. In all this time, nothing about ‘our’ language – the language that exists between me and her – has changed. I’ve learned that what feels personal, even intimate, is really universal – aspects of love and loss, the transitory nature of everything, change and impermanence. Collectors aren’t buying ‘a portrait of Viky Garden’, they’re seeing something that resonates their own life experience.

Do you think you'd still have wanted to be a painter if consistently using yourself as the subject hadn't originally occurred?

VG: Life is serendipitous; opportunities arise and if we have the talent, time, and understanding, we make of it what we will. I didn’t get the chance to go to art school, however at eighteen I met Steve and for as long as we’ve been able to, we’ve given ourselves the freedom to make our own path and trust our own vision. In a parallel life I could very well have gone to art school, applied myself and perhaps found influence in a different discipline or practice. I’ve often wondered, if I wasn’t painting at all and could choose a different interest, it would probably be based around some sort of archaeology. I can think of nothing more meditative than carefully revealing and discovering aspects of our past, what makes us who we are now. In many ways, I find its very much the same purpose painting serves.

A big thank you to Viky for her time and contribution.

You can find Viky's official website here:


I first heard about HELEN GRANT from her 2013 Swan River Press collection, The Sea Change & Other Stories. Known mainly as a popular novelist for the Young Adult range, her latest - Ghost (Fledgling Press) - cleverly defies reader expectation, with its young protagonist of the title and the resonant echoes of a historical past. 

What inspired the plot and choice of setting for Ghost?

Helen Grant: I've always found real life locations a great source of inspiration; all my novels and most of my short stories are set in real places that I have visited. I think an atmospheric location is not only a rich backdrop to a story, it can also suggest elements of the plot. For me, an interesting setting is like an empty stage set, waiting for the characters to appear, and the details of the stage scenery suggest to me what kind of action might take place.
  Ghost is set in Perthshire, Scotland, where we have lived since 2011. One aspect of living here that I've always found fascinating is being able to see the traces of the past in the landscape. I'm fascinated by the vanished country houses of Scotland – many of them built in the 1800s and then abandoned in the mid twentieth century when they became impractical to maintain. Langlands House, the setting for the book, is not a real place, but it is inspired by some of the derelict houses I've visited. Most of them are ruinous because when they were abandoned they were unroofed, and the weather has got in. I thought: supposing there was a house like this, but someone had just locked the door and walked away, leaving all the contents inside? Who would be living in a place like that, and why? And that is where the story of Ghost came from.
  Innerpeffray Library, an antiquarian library near Crieff, was also a source of inspiration for the fictional library at Langlands House. I liked the idea of a library that has so many interesting and beautiful books on such a wide range of topics, but all of them outdated. My heroine does her best to interpret the world around her with nothing to rely on but that.

Without wishing to give away any plot elements, did you decide at the outset of Ghost's writing that the old adage of what-goes-around-comes-around would be a key part of the climax?

HG: I knew from the outset what the ending of the book would be. The final scenes were very clear in my mind even before I started writing. But I don't really see the ending as being all about what-goes-around-comes-around. I think it's more about the difficulty of escaping who we are, and the history that has shaped us. It's very hard to say any more about this topic without offering any massive spoilers!

A real strength of the novel's first half are the tropes of supernatural fiction being at first suggested, then changed. Was this always your intention, during the drafting, or did you change your mind and decide to defy the reader's expectations?

HG: This was one hundred per cent intentional. I wanted the reader to ask themselves what was really happening, and perhaps to make some assumptions before more of the truth of the situation was revealed. Ghost was a very difficult book to write, and I did more rewriting and editing on it than I have done on any of my other novels. But the rewriting was largely about the characterisation and some plot details. I was very clear about the supernatural tropes and their role in the novel throughout the writing process.

The feel of the novel reminded me of Nina Bawden's Carrie's War. The house, the lone girl protagonist, the family feud and consequence for which she feels profound guilt, etc. Were such novels for older children, and / or their TV adaptations, a major influence on your writing?

HG: No. I recall Carrie's War being on television when I was a child but I have never read it, and I can't think of any other novel for older children which was an influence here. I would say that a big influence was Gothic literature, which also favours tropes such as the isolated heroine and the intriguingly dilapidated ruin, and often has a supernatural element. I've always loved classic Gothic fiction, ever since I was a teenager myself, devouring The Mysteries of Udolpho and Dracula. Combining my Gothic tastes with my environment of rural Scotland was what produced Ghost.

While the novel form has long been considered – by agents and publishers - as more commercial than collections of short tales, still might we hope for a follow-up to The Sea Change (Swan River Press (2013)) in the future?

HG: Yes, definitely. I have now written more than enough new stories to create a new collection, and I really hope to see one come out in future. However, a few readers did comment after reading The Sea Change, that they would like to have seen some completely new fiction in it. It would be ideal if a future collection included some totally unseen work - and I haven't had time to sit down and write anything!
  I agree that collections of short stories are seen as a harder sell than a novel. All the same, ghost stories remain perennially popular. Personally, I love writing them. A novel of 120,000 words is a big undertaking, whereas a story of 5,000 words gives a sense of satisfaction and completion but takes a comparatively short amount of time to write. I think also that as a novelist there is always this pressure to produce something similar to the thing you wrote last time, probably because it's confusing for the readership if you write a crime thriller and then follow it up with a Gothic romance. But there isn't the same pressure with short stories. You can experiment a bit more. I sometimes write ghost stories with quite traditional settings but just recently I've been experimenting with more existential stuff and I really enjoy doing that.

For me, the traditional ghost-in-a-haunted-house type tale is way past its use-by date. What is your own view of the ghost in modern literature?

HG: This is an interesting question. My daughter, who loves classic ghost stories, admits that some of the traditional tropes are now clichés but says that to a certain extent she reads the stories for those clichés. And I think that the traditional setting of the decaying old house or dank mossy churchyard is used for a reason: those places genuinely are creepy. I should know – I spend my spare time exploring places like that! In the hands of a really good writer, I think they can still come to full and creepy life. An excellent example in my mind is Neil Gaiman's short story October in the Chair, which features both haunted house and graveyard. It's a story which fills me with tension and dread – and also sadness - every single time I read it.
  I think though that when we say "traditional ghost…" we are thinking of a very specific type of ghost: the lingering spirit of the recently dead. For me, a ghost can be very different from that. In a recent interview, I was asked (as I often am) whether I believe in ghosts myself, to which I answered: Yes. I don't believe in things in white sheets and chains hanging around a graveyard going "Wooooo….!" But I think it's possible to be haunted. I've occasionally seen someone in a crowd and thought that it was someone I know to be dead, and I've dreamed very vividly about people who have died. Now, I know that I am not really seeing a ghost when I "see" people in this way, but I think these experiences are a kind of haunting, because they show that the lost person is still very present in my mind. I think Ghost is a book in which the past very much haunts the present, and the dead reach out of their graves to exert their influence on the living. Isn't that the definition of a ghost story?

Huge thanks to Helen for her contribution.

Helen's official website is at:

The Other Passenger by John Keir Cross, Valancourt Books

The arrival of John Keir Cross (1914-67) spearheaded the post-war second wave of BBC script writers for radio and TV. He was mainly known for his children's fiction under the pen-name, Stephen Macfarlane. The Other Passenger (1944) was his only collection for adults; issued under his own.
  Of the Portraits, 'The Glass Eye,' 'Clair de Lune' and 'Miss Thing and the Surrealist' are the best. Of the Mysteries, 'Liebestraum' and 'Cyclamen Brown.' These avoid the usual overwrought reactionism, in most contemporary horror, where the reader is supposed to respond, with robotic obedience, to the author's most lurid descriptions, leaving little room for imagination. These five – though featuring horrific elements – are as much reliant upon strangeness and, yes, the uncanny.
  In 'The Glass Eye,' the black humour is beautifully judged, triggered from a lovely fable of Eastern philosophy, worthy of M.P. Shiel or Vernon Lee. A woman in her late thirties, unlucky in love, falls for one she perceives as a handsome ventriloquist at a local theatre. She initiates an amorous correspondence. When – too late - she learns the secret behind the act's success, her bitter vengeance reflects the impotence at her heart – as well as his. This tale may have not only inspired the memorable 'Ventriloquist's Dummy' entry of the film Dead Of Night the following year; it might also have gained Keir Cross entry into screenwriting itself.
  'Clair de Lune' opens on an invitation by a platonic girlfriend to stay at a country retreat amongst a group of bohmeian highbrows, initiating a dark attachment eternally awaiting the spirit of a fearful young girl who appears in the garden for the protagonist alone. The title alludes to the beckoning tune played by ghostly hands upon a stationary lute in the house. A tale that succeeds, mainly, for its manifestation of the girl and the period descriptions of the guests. Intriguing, but not quite followed through, is the raison d'etre of the shadowy enemy that comes between them both.
  Of the sad-older-man-obsessed-with-pretty-young-girl entries, 'Liebestraum' possesses a subtlety and heart, harbouring a sympathy for both main characters, right up to the end. A sanitary inspector loses his wife. Neither husband nor wife loved each other – each knew it - and when the wife dies while having an affair, he, understandably, feels the need to break out and find a very different replacement of his own. Things go well enough, platonically, but something else is going on within him.
  'Miss Thing and the Surrealist' features an artist (of guess which former movement) and the disparate, disguised identity of his greatest work that somehow maintains a psychological hold on its creator and followers; a refreshingly odd diversion from the genre and its sub-genres depicted elsewhere. 'Cyclamen Brown' is the first-person narrative about a meeting with a commercial writer of popular song, who ducks and dives amid the 'racketeers, sharks and toughs' of Forties London. The character Eddie Wheeler is convincingly drawn. (Convincing in that he reminded me of someone I know); fast-talking, no-nonsense, with a depracating wit to his speech. The title alludes to his mysterious, torch-singing muse who wears a permanent mask on and off-stage. This is, in truth, her story.
  Subsequently, Keir Cross's most resonant contribution to the genre were, first, with the BBC, as radio script-adapter for anthology series The Man In Black (1949), (introduced by the sepulchral-voiced actor, Valentine Dyall), then, in the 50s' and 60s', a return to children's fantasy with entries for Children's Hour. He ended his career with a one-off production of The Box Of Delights for Saturday Night Theatre (1966).
  To J.F. Norris's credit – whose new introduction gives precious background on the career – he leaves the reader hungry to proceed. The remaining tales, however, don't truly deliver. The title tale, a doppelganger re-run, displays much stylish form for little real substance.
  Keir Cross's approach is hardly ahead of its time, being very much of it. Like his contemporaries, he has a particular disdain for the metropolitan lower middle-class. Men are henpecked, wig-wearing, denture-wearing impotents eager to cave-in their spouse's heads as a delusional shortcut to dominance. His women are ideal targets for that era's casual misogyny, depicted as 'little,' 'loathsome' or excessively fat; sex-jaded burdens on their long-suffering husbands. Next to Valancourt's exemplary reissues by Forrest Reid, Claude Houghton, Lord Dunsany and many others, The Other Passenger proves we'd been spoiled; but, the best of Keir Cross shows what might have been had he remained longer on the page.

Pan Review Of The Arts No.7 will appear in May.