Withholding Patterns

the host

This essay was first published in Underline Issue 4, ‘The Abadan Issue’, Autumn 2018.

Miranda Pennell’s hour-long documentary The Host (2015) is a work of striking contrasts: between the apparent simplicity of its narration and use of photographic images, and the abundance of historical information it conveys; between the avowed lack of a clearly delineated arc and the intricately stitched patterning in the film; and between the economy of artistic means Pennell uses as against the story of capitalistic exploitation that the history of Abadan reveals. Without being didactic, Pennell underscores the distinction between official histories and the public image on the one hand, and private experience and the perspective of the individual on the other. Finally, unable to gain any all-enveloping vantage point, the filmmaker reminds us of what is always off screen, in the margins of written texts and behind the camera, waiting to reveal itself to us.

Ostensibly, The Host follows Pennell’s investigation into her family connections to the oil trade in Iran, her father having been employed by the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC) in the 1960s during her childhood, some of which she spent living in Abadan. But rather than simply revealing secrets and coming to firm moral conclusions about the activities of British interests in the region in general and her father in particular, her exploration of public archives, private memory, testimony and speculative fiction affirms and undermines clear judgements. Pennell begins the film by mentioning a curious connection between the rare form of leukaemia that affected both her mother and her father – as if to embark on a scientific enquiry into the working conditions of those in Abadan in its heyday as Iran’s ‘Oil City’. But this track is left and Pennell becomes lost in the volumes of records held in the BP archives at the University of Warwick; in an obscure text by a former Abadan worker that leads her to the author’s later fantastical alternative to the Genesis myth of humanity’s origins; meeting’s with the author’s wife and family friend, and finally the touristic images drawn from the Pennell family photo albums.

Lines of questioning open further out, while Pennell expertly weaves together all these disparate materials as well as found sounds to emphasise visual resemblances across eras, cultures and subjects. The snaking lines on a geological diagram match the appearance of the thin cable trailing from the earbuds of headphones. The towering columns of ancient Persian ruins are shown alongside the billowing smoke stacks of the Abadan refinery. Christian O’Brien’s account of the ‘Shining Ones’, mysterious visitors whom he believed initiated human culture and society from above, is set against the condemning evidence of British power interests and the manipulation of the public image of their affairs in Iran. The eyes are repeatedly drawn to these resemblances, to provoke attention, to spur interrogation and to suggest credible links between what might previously have been kept apart.

And yet, while these unexpected connections are forming throughout the course of the film, the way in which Pennell withholds information and shapes our perspective becomes ever more conspicuous. There is the initial reference to the sickness that affected her parents, which is never returned to. And there is a subliminal image, one presumes of Pennell, that appears only once again – almost as briefly – towards the end as we see more of the family pictures from 1960s Iran. Her slog through the unending BP archives and her reports on the poor metadata in the holdings – which, for instance make it impossible to search by her father’s name – contrasts with the manner in which Pennell primes us to look at the photographs she chooses to include.

Pennell introduces many images by first withholding them, while describing them in the voiceover narration, which is played over another image. Rather than allowing our eyes to roam over the images, as viewers are able to do at the beginning of the film, Pennell increasingly comes to limit our perspective. She refers us to the background elements of a seemingly uninteresting domestic scene – two ashtrays in the form of figures – before scanning quickly through a succession of private holiday photos without commentary. In this way, one gets a sense in The Host of the way that investigations into the past, especially one’s genealogical history, and autobiography is both complicated by emotion and driven by a compulsive need to answer questions. Add to this the public interest of reviewing Britain’s national and imperial interests in the twentieth century and the complexities of perspective multiply.

In looking over personal and public history, details are uncovered, perspectives shift, but other elements are pushed out of the frame, other troubling matters are masked – whether consciously or not. In showing the history of Abadan, and the workings of the AIOC, the British government and BP in a new light; by showing us the faces of the workers, as if they wish to tell us all that has been forgotten or left out of the public records; drawing on autobiographical details to make crucial history more personal to us, Pennell makes judicious, poetic use of audiovisual materials to connect historical memory with criticism. In doing so, however, Pennell reminds us of the ways in which she is limited, in the ways she wishes to shape our experience of her materials, to see the connections she sees. As enthralling and curious as this process is in The Host, what remains is the question: what else are we not seeing?

Our compulsion to look, our lives as voracious viewers makes the act of reading an image second nature. But it is the second look that The Host encourages us to take, time and again. And there will certainly be elements of Pennell’s film itself that will be missed on first viewing. Subtle evasions, unremarked details, connections between images that appear at different ends of the film. The ability to suggest the seeming inexhaustibility of information, the impossibility of gaining a firm footing on which to view the past while making such economical use of old-fashioned media – as well as imaginative use of online resources (YouTube and audio files from freesound.org) – make The Host at once a work of remarkable concision and depth. It is full of untold stories, unfinished histories, people just outside our purview. But it gives us a profound sense of relationships that are compelled to make themselves evident; of details that demand magnification.

There is no way of viewing the past but from a specific point of view, and there is always more buried history to dig up. Pennell is aware of all this, and in showing us what she remembers and what she sees one feels that she is a welcoming host, inviting us in – not an unwanted guest, imposing on us.


Wavelengths – Archipelago (2010)


On the living room wall of the holiday house on Tresco there is a square of paint that is a lighter shade, where a picture once hung. The Leighton family, who are staying for the first time in years, took the painting down because none of them could stand to look at it. At the end of Archipelago (2010) it is replaced. A neatly framed mass of a water building to a wave. It is like the film in miniature; it mimics the way in which director Joanna Hogg carefully assigns the camera its place, and lets the emotions swell between the characters within the frame; the way in which the quiet, polite Leightons each try to maintain composure despite their growing upset. But the noise will not be contained. The winds whipping around the small island are heard offscreen, and arguments suddenly break out.

At the beginning of the film, Edward arrives to join his mother Patricia and sister Cynthia, who have planned a send-off for him. Edward is leaving a job in the City to spend time in Africa raising awareness about the risks of AIDS. Their father, neither seen nor heard in the film, calls each day making excuses for his delay, to the increasing distress of Patricia. Meanwhile, the rest of the family spend their days picnicking and painting, riding and conversing. They are joined by Rose, who has been hired as a cook, and Christopher, who is teaching Patricia about painting. During their brief time on the island, Edward is increasingly drawn to Rose, wishing to include her in more of the family’s activities, while his mother and sister are worried that he will embarrass her, and leave her without much of the work that she is being paid to do. Besides, Edward already has a girlfriend, Chloe, who will not be able to join him in Africa and whom, to his disappointment, his family declined to invite on the holiday.

Archipelago is a film about a group of people unable to get on the same wavelength. Cynthia cannot understand why Edward is giving up his secure job to go to Africa, dismissing it as a “gap year”. She is also incredulous about Edward’s anxieties around Rose. Patricia places her faith in her husband appearing and cannot understand what the hold-up is. She is also reluctant to raise a complaint about the guinea fowl served in a restaurant that Cynthia is adamant is “dangerous”. Edward has doubts about his trip and spends more and more time in the kitchen with Rose, who seems unsure how best to handle his interest and concern for her, but appears to enjoy his company and their conversation. (There is a moment, both sweet and awkward, when Edward assists Rose in pinning her Remembrance poppy to her clothing and one senses that he might attempt a kiss, but doesn’t.) And Christopher attempts to give Edward a pep talk, but can only manage masculine cliché, which he later explains was a needless parroting of advice he was given and could not use as a young man.

There are tensions beneath the calm surface, of fine dining, relaxing rides through the landscape and patient art instruction. Between the uncomfortable discussions are documentary like scenes; first of a local fisherman explaining to Rose the difference between male and female lobsters, and a hunter who details the method of skinning and preparing a pheasant for dinner.

Cynthia’s judgmental attitude towards her brother and Patricia’s rising impatience on the phone to her husband soon dissolve the etiquette. The restaurant scene is a masterpiece of middle-class horror, of fraught cuisine. Appearances are of no concern, since there are no other diners, but Cynthia’s dissatisfaction with the food and her interactions with the staff show up her isolation among those she supposes to be closest to her – the family to which she compares Edward’s relationship with Chloe unfavourably. Edward, fed up of his sister’s treatment of others, storms out of the restaurant.


The tentative peace is finally shattered not with a gunshot, but when Cynthia bites down on a piece of shot that has not been removed from the pheasant cooked by Rose. Disappearing for hours, she returns after dark to a waiting Edward and Patricia and heads straight to her room. The camera stays on Edward, who sits quietly in the growing darkness, while offscreen, on the floor above, Cynthia unleashes her rage at her mother. It is an extraordinary directorial choice, to allow the distress to flood onto the soundtrack, while keeping the viewer’s eyes out of the room, on a clearly upset Edward. Without the dramatic use of facial and other bodily gestures so commonly associated with flare-ups on film, Hogg is confident in the effects of sound alone – of the psychological power of the argument heard through walls, more typical of the type of family incapable of expressing such raw emotion openly, or so long intent above all to keep up appearances of the contented family – even within the privacy of their own home. It also allows the argument to be seen (and heard) to register on all members of the household – there is a cut to Rose, made uncomfortable by being present in the house during the row – rather than simply those engaging in the argument directly.

The waves subside and Edward makes a touching, apologetic gesture using a sock puppet around the edge of Cynthia’s bedroom door. But another crash comes when Patricia realises that her husband will not make it to the house before Edward has to leave to spend his last night with Chloe.

The metaphor of the archipelago is obvious; that of each person as an island, even the members of a seemingly perfect, well-to-do family. But they are not so far apart, they are dear to one another, only unsure of how to connect. Each has their own ideas about how to conduct oneself, of obligations to family and others, but struggle to maintain expectations in the face of the decisions of the others. They take in the same view, but paint their own pictures of it, in different colours and tones.


The scenes of relaxed eating in the outdoors, of shooting and cycling the countryside might remind us of Renoir’s countryside stories and the still frames of Ozu, or the domestic scenes of Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975). But there is a final reference that suggests the more experimental interest that Hogg takes in Archipelago. As the seascape painting in replaced on the living room wall, suggesting a resolution – if an uneasy one – there are two successive close-ups that finally show the picture without its frame, only the water. It is a clear homage to Michael Snow’s Wavelength (1967), a film as equally attentive to the possibilities of drama within a limited formal setup; of the play of tonal and chromatic variation and the sensitivity to the way in which what is within the shot and outside the shot can give equal life to a film. And how subtle focus and patience can elicit such remarkable effects.

Bad Blood at 18


In her introduction to Katherine Mansfield’s The Garden Party and Other Stories, Lorna Sage identifies an approach to short storytelling characterised by, ‘a different kind of continuity made up of allusions, cross-references and affiliations among the separate stories in the book.’ In lieu of writing a novel, Sage points out, Mansfield had found within another genre, a distinct way to connect characters, images and themes. Sage’s analysis here applies to her own memoir Bad Blood, for which she is best known, remarkable in part because of the way it uses similar techniques to tell the story of her childhood and teenage years living in the Shropshire village of Hanmer. Literature was how Sage survived that upbringing and it is how she made her living, as a critic and teacher, so it is not surprising that Bad Blood – charting the first, turbulent eighteen years of her life – would be written with a subtle and imaginative interplay of the literal and the figurative. The book met with widespread acclaim on publication, winning the Whitbread Award for Biography in 2000. Yet the repeated motifs, the fine balance and intricacy of allusions and echoes in it have been little remarked upon, no doubt given the already startling facts of Sage’s youth.

Sage reconstructs social life in postwar Britain with an exacting attention to emotional and physical texture. Hers is a story of growing up in a village of long traditions and fast-changing realities – the emergence of council houses, the mechanisation of agricultural methods, the tricky adaptations of soldiers to civvy street and the arrival of rock ‘n’ roll from the US are all touched on. The members of Sage’s family and their tempestuous relationships, secrets and disappointments make of a seemingly idyllic rural life a psychodrama of sometimes gothic power. Sage’s close connection to her clergyman grandfather – described by her grandmother as ‘Old Devil’ (from whom she is said to have inherited ‘bad blood’) is the source of a difficult relationship with her own mother. Later, the facts of the vicar’s affairs (one with a teenage friend of Sage’s mother) are made known to Sage, who nevertheless feels her kinship with her grandfather undiminished.

Perhaps most insistently underlined by reviewers, however, has been the story of Sage’s pregnancy at the age of 16 and her determination, in the light of local disapproval and Sage’s dependence on Latin and ancient literature for survival, to enter university – which she did, alongside the child’s father, Victor, and from which both would graduate with firsts (a first). Sage went on to become a respected literary critic and teacher at the University of East Anglia. Her death not long after the publication of Bad Blood meant that the press coverage of the book complemented, and sometimes doubled as, personal tributes from former students and colleagues.

Hers is an extraordinary story and the way in which Sage tells it is precisely by making ordinary occurrences into something else; making metaphors out of drab details and finding resonances among the episodes and personalities in her life. All of the elements are combined to give a sense that her account of a vicarage upbringing is a sort of sacrilegious retelling of a religious story – complete with its own ‘travesty of the immaculate conception’ and young lovers ‘crucified on each other’ in the act of that conception; a parable for women, for whom the ‘nervous 1950s’ would give way to the freedoms of the following decades, when so many rules and barriers broke.

In addition, the diary of Sage’s bookworm grandfather and her night-through readings of fairytales, classics and thrillers seem to provide a genetic code for her memoir. The language and the various types of literature that Sage discovered and devoured as a child are all used to help shape the narrative that she makes of her adolescence. There is throughout the book a longing to escape, to break through strictures, to mix genres. Sage blurs boundaries between the abstract and concrete; between generations and between individual characters. This better enables her to draw the reader’s attention to connections, intimacies and rhymes (as well as hypocrisies) among those people and events that might usually be kept at a respectable distance in the rationed, provincial propriety of 1940s Britain.

Against the hyper-literacy of Sage’s story is an unconventional numeracy, which begins at school with her inability to abstract mathematical concepts (‘sums were my cross’) from real ‘things’; continuing through the emotionally fraught triangles among her and her friends (as well as her grandparents and her grandfather’s lover, MB) and finally the merging of Lorna Stockton and Victor Sage in their shared intensity. She describes this passionate intimacy by which their daughter Sharon was conceived as, ‘this childish mathematics of two into one won’t go’ – and later of her bond with Victor, ‘We were each other’s other half, or even closer. We were one and the same, we’d abolished the differences of the conventional world assumed between the sexes, we had a union of true minds as much as bodies.’ There is also mathematical recourse in Sage’s mode of emphasis, which extends to her critical writing on numerous subjects: not just embarrassment but ‘embarrassment squared’; not simply sin but ‘sin squared’.

In order to push at the edges of logic and convention in this way, the ‘bad faith’ of the past (a term Sage learned from Simone de Beauvoir and which Marina Warner suggests might have been an inspiration for the title of Bad Blood) has to be reckoned with. Sage’s depiction of disrespectable vicarage life pulls apart the old order not only of religious authority but also authority between one generation and the next. Though Sage’s closeness to her vicar grandfather is underscored from the first lines of the book (a description of her hanging from his skirts around the church) any sense of old-fashioned fear of God is dissolved. There is an exemplary recollection early on, as Sage remarks on the vicar’s habit of drinking the church wine, leading the authorities to limit the supply and her grandfather replacing it with ‘watered-down Sanatogen from Boots the chemist in Whitchurch’. Already the biblical act of turning water into wine has been replaced by that of watering down cheap fortified wine; the miraculous made mundane.

Just as the unconventional arithmetic challenges everyday understanding, so too there is an unusual evolutionary chain that can be traced through Bad Blood. It’s also a feature that Sage sees in common among the twelve women writers whom she discusses in her collection of essays, Moments of Truth: ‘there is a recurrent evolutionary theme, starting with Darwinian echoes in Wharton and Woolf, surfacing again in Rhys, Stead and Barnes… through to Carter and the wolfish metamorphoses of The Bloody Chamber.’ To progress through her perceptive commentaries on these writers’ works is to simultaneously glimpse Sage describing key elements that characterise her own memoir, not least this recourse to troubled ancestry and freakish mutations as a way of dealing with personal and historical inheritances – and the attempt to free oneself from them.

At the prosaic level of everyday sustenance in 1950s Hanmer, the feeding of the 5,000 finds its modern, secular equivalent in Sage’s account of the fish finger – a revelation in home economics, especially for her mother who could not cook: ‘In fish fingers nature was grandly snubbed and outdone. Their very name mocked the unreasonable design evolution had come up with for fish; and their bland and boneless insides left her nothing to worry about.’ There is a ghastly depiction of nature throughout the book, attuned to the realities of farming and industry. But there is also another narrative of the ‘facts of life’ that complicates the Darwinian story.

Sage’s determination to survive her upbringing is encouraged by what she sees as a regressive tendency among the generations in her family. And even, on her grandmother’s part, a revulsion towards the sexual act as a means of procreation. Her mother’s mother, according to Sage, longs to return to her childhood, when her family ran Hereford Stores in Tonypandy and had skivvies to do the housework. In her discontented marriage, which involves endless rows and the manipulation of her cheating husband for money, the shopping trips and latest cinema screenings by which she spends her time represent, for Sage, ‘the prospect of never growing up’. Similarly her mother embraces fantasy and buys outfits beyond her means while playing the role of housemaid and helpless wife she seems both resentful towards, yet resigned to – to Sage’s horror: ‘it seemed that nobody inside our family wanted to be mother, everyone was a daughter in perpetuity.’ This goes some way to explaining why the gravity of Sage’s sudden pregnancy and its disruption of these comforting illusions, of living out fantasies through others, is conveyed in such shocking terms: ‘I made my mother pregnant’.

Sage even admits to the pull of the ancestral, the lure and threat of the Rhondda, representing as it does a ‘smothering, spongy womb’. But she makes what moves forward she can, as stuttering as they are at first, shuttled back and forth between Whitchurch High School and Hanmer, before Durham with Victor. Film and theatre are the magical escape routes for the adults around her, but they don’t get very far that way. Sage sees through the pretence, sees for instance how her father remains ‘a prisoner of war, although he was never captured’. There is a sense of confinement, and a desire to leave and transform (at the level of the language, too, in that way in which Sage repeatedly makes metaphors from the ground level at which she is apparently stuck). For her grandfather the local pantomime is a means of bearing the strain of his affair with the nurse, MB. For her grandmother the lives of actors are treated as being of equal importance to those of the family. But Sage reserves her strictest judgement for her mother:

‘My mother’s acting seemed to me like a monstrous display of bad faith, she was pretending to be outgoing and self-possessed when “really” she was helpless. Or, even worse, on the stage she was revealing the way she always pretended, for the helplessness she put on in real life was an act too…’

Sage recognises how ‘hemmed in’ everything is in Hanmer. And it is literature that provides the means of her own escape, first psychologically, then physically as well.  Along with the transmutations of traditional religious imagery, Sage also describes her early years as if they are a grey, grubby Welsh fairytale, seeing stock characters in those around her: ‘Also, they measured up to the magical monsters in the story books.’ But the white rabbits are here stricken with myxomatosis and the dwarf is a dentist, who helps Lorna to fix the teeth that do not suit the bad jaw she has inherited (another evolutionary misstep). She even compares her own pregnancy indirectly to Dennis Wheatley’s horror story To the Devil a Daughter (extending the ‘bad blood’ of the ‘Old Devil’).

Literature allows  Sage to transform the cloistered existence of the vicarage and council house in Hanmer into figurative language that raises her experiences, and those of her family, into sublime expressions. Warner writes, ‘Lorna Sage has discerned a pattern in the way women writers of the last century made their exits from bargains involving bad faith – both on their part and on the part of others.’ The philosophical instincts of Sage’s early years in the classroom also appear to be key: ‘I developed a dauntingly Platonic conception of arithmetical truths. The real answer must exist, but in some far-removed misty empyrean.’

But it happens that the answer to Sage’s youthful desires is not so far removed. With Victor, Sage describes, ‘The boundaries between us had been breached… You could track back this kind of alchemy in books’ – and she finds it, for the reader, in Plato’s Symposium. And it is not in some misty empyrean but the University of Durham where the pair find new prospects. As against her mother’s ‘secret, shifting system of taboos’, her father’s ‘mythic realism’, grandfather’s ‘cocoon of distraction’, grandmother’s ‘fantasy gratifications’ and the ‘mind-forged manacles of Hanmer and Whitchurch’ they make a new ‘mutant myth out of poems and stories and sheer necessity’.

To Read the Commedia Undaunted


Reading Dante: From Here to Eternity by Prue Shaw (Liveright)

There is a vast amount of history contained in Dante’s Commedia. I refer not only to those events and lives that came before the poem’s composition and helped to shape it but also to its status as a wellspring of ideas and lines that found their way into some of the most accomplished writing that flowed afterwards – much of which readers today are likely to be more familiar with than they are with Dante’s poetry. That this history can be conveyed in such a relatively short volume as Reading Dante: From Here to Eternity, with clarity and close attention paid to significant contextual details and the nuances of literary technique, appealing both to a non-specialist reader and those familiar with the Commedia, is astonishing.

One prompt for writing Reading Dante, according to author Prue Shaw, was a conversation with two well-read friends:

‘Two writers I know, liberal humanists both, on being asked if they had read Dante, answered almost in unison: why would I bother? In this book I try to show why they should bother.’

A scholar of Dante’s work for decades, currently Emeritus Reader of Italian studies at University College London, the editor of an authoritative edition of the Monarchia and of an online Commedia manuscript resource, Shaw has achieved with this book a wonderful balance of critical depth and intelligibility. Intent on encouraging readers with scant knowledge of the poem, rather than merely adding another exegetical thesis on a detail of Dante’s work to a towering pile of scholarship, Shaw’s book will no doubt impress her fellow academics for its integration of the historical literature around the Commedia and the scrutiny towards the precise metre and varied vernacular elements of the poem.

Some reviewers have drawn a comparison between Virgil’s role in the Commedia as Dante’s guide and Shaw’s role as the author of Reading Dante, leading us through episodes of Florence’s complex political history, of that little of Dante’s life that is known from the few relevant documents that survive, and through the specific structure and thematic content of the poem, its allusions and those echoes found in later works of literature. But there is a deeper sense in which Shaw’s book reflects her subject, in the simple chapter headings: familiar abstract concepts that admit of myriad particular experiences, such as Friendship, Love and Power, reminiscent of the ordering of Dante’s universe according to moral types. The schematic of Dante’s afterlife, Shaw admits, ‘projects a view of the moral universe – of good and bad actions, of virtue and sin – that can be described (and not unfairly) as hierarchical and judgmental: two adjectives not best designed to arouse interest or sympathy’. Sins, punishments and angels grouped neatly and hinting at a religious stricture might be one of the reasons that more readers are not drawn to the Commedia. But as Shaw makes clear, this organisational clarity belies the complexity of the work:

‘The poem may embody moral certainties in its design, but the telling of the tale confronts us with the ambiguities, the reticences, and the self-deceptions of real human behaviour in a real human world.’

Shaw’s thematic structure allows her to range freely through the poem and the history around the poem, to highlight recurring images, draw connections between details that are spaced far apart, all to give a better sense of the intricacy of Dante’s art, which itself takes real events and figures into a timeline and architectural structure of its own:

‘The interweaving of past, present and future becomes a part of the poem’s fabric and fashioning, handled with great virtuosity as Dante moves between these different planes, orchestrating his various themes.’

Published in three cantiche, or parts – Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso – the Commedia was written between 1307-1308 and 1320 in political exile, but it is set in 1300. It features Dante himself as the central figure, a pilgrim led by the classical poet Virgil into Hell, up Mount Purgatory and finally towards Paradise and an encounter with the love of his life, Beatrice and finally his creator. Along the way Dante encounters many people familiar to him from his past – some of whom were still living in 1300 – and from literary history. Their discussions explore the spectrum of human relations, desires and errors. In Hell and Purgatory, specific instances of wrongdoing in the world are echoed in the punishments that Dante observes.

Each chapter, indeed every page of Shaw’s book brings our attention to another aspect of this apparently inexhaustible poem, considers the major aspects of Dante’s religious and political worldview, the depth of his infatuation with Beatrice and also the smaller, but no less insightful, details:

‘[E]ach section of the poem ends with the word stelle (“stars”). Each occurrence of the word marks the completion of a stage in the protagonist’s journey.’

There are helpful repetitions throughout, Shaw returning to certain points to remind and clarify. Again, this mark of a fine teacher bringing the learner along also seems to reflect the expertly woven fabric of Dante’s poem, with its terza rima scheme balancing forward motion and reference back:

‘The first and third lines of the tercet rhyme, but the middle line introduces a new rhyme, which will then become the paired rhyme of the following tercet.’

Shaw considers the politics of Italy in the Middle Ages, of the conflict between the anti-imperial Guelfs and anti-papal Ghibellines in thirteenth-century Italy – and the later split between Black Guelfs and White Guelfs, and the corruption of Pope Boniface VIII – on Dante’s life and writing. With equal brilliance, Shaw unpacks the history of two types of allegory in European and Biblical literature and the way in which allegory is manifested in particular in the Commedia. Shaw’s text is also complemented by several of Botticelli’s drawings, among other selected illustrations, offering perceptive comments on the art relating to her subject as well.


In the chapter on Numbers, Shaw shows a self-awareness as enthusiastic scholar, in her discussion of trinitarian conceptions in the Commedia and wider literature. A convincing case is made for the centrality of the idea of ‘three-in-one’ – from the cantiche focusing on the three realms of the afterlife, to the form of the terza rima. But Shaw admits that it is easy to get carried away with such patterns, finding instances in ever more places, within or beyond the margins of the poem:

‘While it is wise to be wary of the literal-mindedness that detects a trinitarian allusion in every instance of the number three in the Commedia, it remains true that the resonance of the number enriches the poem by connecting it meaningfully with the view of the world it celebrates.’

Still, Shaw’s reference to codons, part of the human genetic code, adds to the sense that Dante’s vision of a cosmic order finds a mirror not only in human psychology but also at the deepest level of modern scientific research:

‘Dante would surely have felt awe and delight had he lived to hear what molecular biologists discovered as recently as 1959 – that a principle of three-in-one is the very basis of life itself at the molecular level. The unit of meaning in the genetic code is a triplet – a sequence of three base pairs which specifies a particular amino acid.’

The pair who had the biggest influence on the Commedia are Virgil and Beatrice, ‘the one a literary passion, the other an enigmatic, elusive real-life relationship.’ Shaw also considers how Dante’s friendships with two contemporaries, Guido Cavalcanti and Guido Guinizzelli also fed into the Commedia’s conception of love, and how he pondered two metaphorical approaches to life, represented as a ‘journey’, as expressed by Ovid in the story of Ulysses and Virgil, in that of Aeneas.

In the final chapter, on Words, perhaps the most illuminating of all the chapters – again, just as the Commedia ends in the heavens – the richness of Dante’s language is confirmed, especially in the skill with which he drew on a range of Italian dialects, including the Tuscan songs of troubadour Arnaut Daniel, as well as Biblical and Latin references, all transformed within the confines of a strict poetic metre to express fundamental aspects of humanity. Shaw’s analysis of an early line when the pilgrim calls for help using the word Miserere is masterful:

‘Only by keeping it in Latin can he preserve the double allusiveness, to the Bible and to the Aeneid. But it is fitted here into a vernacular context: Miserere di me, where di me is Italian and where the hybrid phrase forms a perfect first half of a 6, 10 hendecasyllable. The Latin form Miserere mei would not have worked here metrically.’

Shaw explains, as well as anyone might, why Dante is considered to have invented the Italian language as it is today. The ways in which his words have echoed down the ages is also addressed by Shaw, by reference to the work of the Romantic poets, Tennyson, TS Eliot and Ezra Pound, Primo Levi and more recently Seamus Heaney. Far from being unappreciated in his time, though, Shaw draws attention to examples of verses from the Commedia written on legal documents in the fourteenth-century:

‘Lawyers at the time took pains to avoid leaving any blank space in legal documents, in order to prevent the amending of the documents by the addition of codicils. Fragments of poetic text, probably cited from memory, were often used as a space filler. In 1317 and again in 1319, while Dante was still alive and well before he had finished writing the Paradiso, we find lines from the Inferno quoted for this purpose in Bolognese documents. We can safely conclude that the Inferno had been released to the public before the poem was complete, and that it was widely popular.’

I finished Reading Dante with a sense that there is perhaps no more finely crafted work of literature in existence, one which is both drawn from a very specific historical context whilst exploring universal questions and emotions; one in which use of language and musicality are interwoven so precisely with thematic content, and which has found its way into the everyday language of modern Europe and underpinned some of the finest poetry written since. Shaw has won me over, for certain. Her book will leave any reader prepared to go forward, or back, to Dante’s masterpiece.

2001: A Space Odyssey – in 2001 characters (with spaces)


Written for the catalogue to accompany the 2018 Il Cinema Ritrovato film festival in Bologna. The character limit was 2000 characters (with spaces) – I have made it 2001, to echo the film’s title. The text did not appear in print because the screening was cancelled, due to a rights issue with the 70mm print.

With space exploration, videophones and voice commanded computers now commonplace, the negative potential of technological breakthroughs and extraterrestrial endeavours are still downplayed in favour of blind optimism, making Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 masterpiece as vital as ever.

Working in close collaboration with Arthur C. Clarke, taking us from 4 million years BC to an exploration of Jupiter’s moons in the early third millennium, Kubrick achieved some of the most stunning cinematic moments to date, and touched on fundamental questions.

The film set the stylistic and thematic template for much of his subsequent work. Note how 2001: A Space Odyssey’s Dawn of Man sequence prefigures the gang violence of A Clockwork Orange – here as an evolutionary necessity.

Despite Kubrick’s influence on contemporary filmmakers, no inheritor has constructed similarly indelible images. The attention to sound too, as in all of Kubrick’s later films, is masterful. Not only the use of source music by Strauss, Strauss, Khachaturian and Ligeti – which spawned a thousand parodies and clichés – but also the restricted focus to breath and silence for long passages.

The invention and choreography, wonder and terror are so richly balanced, with both sensual and cerebral aspects. The Star Gate may have turned on spaced out hippies but the sense of menace and emptiness is unavoidable. Just as Kubrick posits that attempts to transcend Kantian human understanding are by definition bound to run into a big black block – with the director shrewdly avoiding little green men – the transposition of human intelligence into artificial technology is shown to intensify both man’s ingenuity and destructive capability.

Simple ideas of chronology and progress are powerfully disrupted. HAL’s final, low singsong approximates the grunts of the apes. The dawn of a new civilisation is the known writ larger. While humankind reaches forward for the ungraspable, it is brought back to the memory and trauma of its origins.



The Future Tense


It was only after I had finished reading Christine Brooke-Rose’s short experimental novel Amalgamemnon that I noted its original year of publication: 1984, shorthand for dystopia. While George Orwell’s 1949 book of that name is often referred to nowadays to describe not some imagined future but aspects of the present, proof of that writer’s ‘prescience’, I wondered to what extent writers creating fiction in 1984 reflected on Orwell’s vision, and whether they sought to confirm or challenge it.

Despite the inclusion of Orwellian phrases in everyday English, I’m reluctant to grant Orwell the all-encompassing foresight that he is sometimes credited with, especially since Nineteen Eighty-Four was concerned with criticisms of the ideologies of his own time, transposed to a fictionalised future. Nevertheless I found myself reacting to Amalgamemnon with a shock of recognition. Its fictional world seems to catch something of the texture of the contemporary era – and it is entirely distinct from Orwell’s totalitarian nightmare. The game of Which Author Can Best Foresee The Future falters.

Amalgamemnon’s predictive quality is the necessary result of a stylistic constraint on the part of the author, a constraint grounded in what Brooke-Rose saw as a specific  characteristic of public and private communication in 1984.

As the author explained in an interview with Ellen G Friedman and Miriam Fuchs,

“in Amalgamemnon I decided to use only non-realizing tenses and moods like the future, the conditional, the imperative.” [1]

Brooke-Rose continues:

“The future is theoretically impossible over a whole narrative; it occurs only in a mini-narrative such as a prophecy or a marching order. Even SF is written in the past and post-dated, so is the Apocalypse. This is because the reader needs to know that the story he is reading has happened or is happening. So that was a challenge, a purely technical one. But the more I explored narrative in the future tense the more I realized that we’re all living in the future. I don’t mean an actual event that hasn’t happened yet, but there’s a tremendous amount of speculation like, ‘Tomorrow the Prime Minister will meet the President of . . . and they will probably discuss . . .’ By the time they’ve met and discussed it, it’s gone, and they’re speculating about something else, when will the summit be, and so on. We’re always living in this kind of future so that when a thing happens, it’s always a big letdown, not to mention THE future of the death of the planet, which is hovering over all of us. This is something new that I wanted to explore, the sort of predictability of discourse in private situations.”

Amalgamemnon, then, has much to say about how language is used, how it changes and what it is possible to do with it. The ‘predictability’ Brooke-Rose identifies might even go some way to explaining the endless comparisons of the tense present to Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. But Brooke-Rose does not simply use the present as a basis from which to project forward, away from the past. A deeper sense of historical disorientation is created by drawing on Greek myths in Amalgamemnon, as indicated by the novel’s title.

Brooke-Rose’s tense future is conveyed in writing that is by turns puzzling, playful and caustic. Deeply allusive, surreal and given to puns, its 144 pages are amalgams of parable, bureaucratese, media rhetoric, conspiracy and (un)romantic drama, all interleaved across multiple narratives that leave open to the reader how many characters are but aspects or alter egos of the novel’s protagonist, Mira Enketei. Mira is a classical scholar and college professor who foretells the time when there will be no call, no social utility, for her specialist knowledge.

‘I shall soon be quite redundant at last despite of all, as redundant as you after queue and as totally predictable, information-content zero.’

This, Brooke-Rose’s opening line, immediately gives the reader a sense of the multivalent effects of a single sentence. Ordinarily one might read ‘despite’ or ‘in spite of’. ‘Despite of’ seems, well, redundant. An internet language forum cites several examples from Shakespeare. One in particular resonates with Brooke-Rose’s anticipation of an authority out of the job:

‘Deposed he shall be, in despite of all.’ (William Shakespeare, Henry VI, Part III)

Then there’s Brooke-Rose’s first pun, ‘you after queue’. Not only does the author confirm her attention to the linguistic features that have developed within the English language, with which she can experiment even as she questions their use function; she is also giving us the sense of Mira’s character, a teacher steeped in Greek and Latin. The same words also point towards a narrative episode that will soon be described, involving Mira in the queue at the Job Centre, where she is to first encounter the figure known variously throughout the novel as Wally and Amalgamemnon. The fact that the identity of ‘you’ cannot be limited to Mira, the reader or the soon-to-appear Wally also establishes the  possibilities for figural gameplay that Brooke-Rose revels in.

As Mira predicts her coming redundancy, ‘information-content zero’, Brooke-Rose compresses such allusion, wordplay, narrative foreshadowing and characterisation into one opening line as if in resistance to that fate. There is much that is waiting for the reader in this line.

The book proceeds by following Mira’s anticipation of a fraudulent relationship, of feigned love for an overweight administrator of the new technological age – a relationship not only lacking sexual passion but also intellectual communion. As Mira carries this line of thought, Cassandra like, to its almost misandrist endpoint, Brooke-Rose develops, until Amalgamemnon’s last pages, a scathing commentary on the failure of relations between men and women in a society that still will not grant women the joys of their own intelligence and self-sufficiency. One of Brooke-Rose’s memorable phrases comes as she describes the consolation that Mira finds in her solitude and reverie, and the ‘utterly other discourse’ that is to be found there – a discourse unconstrained by the mores and hang-ups of wider society.

Interpolated between these extrapolations of Mira’s coming loveless life on a smallholding are imagined chat show discussions about Third World poverty, radio call-ins, a rock singer contriving his latest hit in the studio, scenes from the political frontline as beamed in via television, with accompanying rumours denied, spokesmen obfuscating. There is a also a lengthy tale of the efforts of gallants attempting to liberate a princess from the clutches of a dragon, a kidnap plot involving Mira and a band of subversives led by a German called Gisela, and the love story of an English officer and a Somali woman in wartime. The reader is left to fathom the echoes, linkages, mirrorings and transformations that hold these images, characters, voices and myths together, if there is any holding on to them at all in the electronic age to come:

‘When the magic cycle of genuine shit will have been replaced by the chemicycle of pure electronic thought ever expanding, more and more unbiodegradable, the heart of the earth will stop, shrivel to a curled up foetus to be ejected lifeless and wither to a moon without even the attracting planet to encircle except the distant sungod dead because unseen unfelt by anyone.’

I do not claim to be familiar with all of the classical allusions that run through Amalgamemnon, from the title onwards. There is evidently far more going on here than even two readings would yield up to an attentive reader, even one steeped in Greek myth, linguistics and post-structuralism. Still, the dizzying, breathless passages often have a phantasmagorical power that captivates and baffles, and the most trenchant lines are not in the slightest undermined by playful puns: ‘fidgetal’, ‘direlogue’ and ‘daytaunt’ among them, that again one cannot help associating with habits of social media and failures of political diplomacy today.

Shortly after I had finished reading Amalgamemnon I turned to the writings of visual artist and writer Hito Steyerl, who maps the uneven contours of the current digital era with marvellous perception and whose style blends technical insight and wit, with an awareness of the myriad forces behind the disruption of artistic, political and technological paradigms. Reading Amalgamemnon alongside Steyerl’s recent essay collection Duty Free Art reveals curious overlaps,

‘Spam’s takeover transforms a pseudo-scientific account of history (and its “progress”) into a performative chaos in which actors, consumers, spam and service workers become indistinguishable. The linear and teleological progression of history, complete with its narration by academic administrators, is discontinued. The unity created by the frontal address of class is gone. The mood shifts from education to celebration.’ (Hito Steyerl, Duty Free Art)

Steyerl’s predictions being similarly dispiriting:

‘But you too might get trapped in your own singular hell of a future repeating invented pasts, with one part of the population hell-bent on getting rid of another. People will peer in from afar, conclude they can’t understand what’s going on, and keep watching cat videos.’

Does Steyerl here indicate a clairvoyance on the part of Brooke-Rose? Has the contemporary world of communications, media, economy and politics modulated in ways that now make the inscrutable, the anachronistic and the disruptive – qualities of much experimental writing – a more faithful ‘mirror’ of daily experience than Orwell’s Oceania? In Amalgamemnon a teacher is harangued by a student. Terrorists conspire. Men patronise women. Europe is in trouble. The media spew rumours that spokespersons deny. This all sounds familiar. But then a cold reading can always give us what we want, confirm what we always suspected would be the case.

Brooke-Rose will need a more astute reader, one willing to read back and forth, to pay witness to all the sonic, graphic and allusive aspects of Amalgamemnon, which is foremost a work of literary experiment. Whether there will soon be any enthusiastic, capable readers left qualified for that undertaking, whether there will be any place left for them, is another matter. As Brooke-Rose has it,

‘[W]e shall all become oracular computers, Draculas sucking endless information from the napetrough of a wavelength…’

The future still sucks. But literature need not face redundancy just yet.



[1] A Conversation with Christine Brooke-Rose By Ellen G. Friedman and Miriam Fuchs, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Fall 1989, Vol. 9.3. Published online at http://www.dalkeyarchive.com/a-conversation-with-christine-brooke-rose-by-ellen-g-friedman-and-miriam-fuchs/



The Long and Windy Road


This essay was first published in Underline Issue 2, February 2018. The theme of the issue was ‘Journeys’.

In terms of the geographical space covered, one might not readily consider Willow and Wind (Beed-o baad, 1999) to be a film about a journey – the action being restricted to a sparsely populated Iranian village. But in its protagonist’s race against time to get from point A to point B, in its exploration of locale, its visual emphasis on the distances travelled between a few local landmarks, and the emotional shifts experienced in between, Mohammad-Ali Talebi’s children’s tale plays like a road movie of sorts – with several roadblocks along the way, and an eventual return.

It follows an unnamed young boy’s attempt to source a pane of glass, with which he must glaze a window at his school that he broke during a football game. He is pressed for time. Having left the task unattended for two weeks, hoping his father would make amends on his behalf, he faces expulsion. Unaided by his teacher, who does not accept his excuses and expectations of help, the boy must find money, reach the glazier’s shop before closing, and then carry the glass frame back precariously through his home village, in the midst of howling winds, making sure not to break it.

Two other boys become involved in the task. They each have a practical sense of what must be done, who can help and how to manage priorities. Moreover, there is an acceptance that all one’s efforts might be in vain, as the film’s final moments underscore. Willow and Wind could be viewed as a children’s take on William Friedkin’s Sorcerer (1977), a gruelling, atmospheric cinematic realisation of Georges Arnaud’s novel Le salaire de la peur about the joint efforts of four men in undertaking a potentially fatal transportation through jungle terrain.

The film was written by Abbas Kiarostami. As with several of his own films, particularly Where is the Friend’s Home? (1987) and the sombre and philosophical Taste of Cherry (1997), the movements made to complete a task are foregrounded, so as to go places even within a restricted context. This movement is often slow, or even circular – typically roaming a single Iranian city or village by car or on foot. But what is also conveyed is the sense of an emotional trajectory. Resolutions are not guaranteed, however, or else may be accompanied by unexpected negative consequences. The same elements are found in other Iranian filmmakers’ works, a more recent example being Jafar Panahi’s Taxi Tehran (2015), a film determined by the director’s own legal restrictions on movement, in which the end of the cab driver’s journey is soured by a theft, witnessed only by the viewer.

In English speaking cultures today, the metaphorical sense conveyed by the word ‘journey’ is increasingly common. Especially in the UK, one is used to hearing of the journeys undergone by others. Not recollections of recent trips but rather accounts of personal experiences and particular difficulties overcome. This tendency, a side effect of important campaigns to lessen any stigma surrounding mental health problems by promoting awareness of acute psychological conditions and encouraging sufferers to seek help for stresses and strains, regularly gives the impression of a whole society lacking will and resilience; having little or no sense of another, stoical attitude. It has come to seem an expectation to account for even relatively commonplace matters of life in terms usually reserved for a mythical story, with a premium placed by publishers and broadcasters on conveying the most ordinary experiences of loss, regret and pain as having been uniquely felt, and heroically overcome. How much many grown-ups could learn from the experiences of the children in Willow and Wind.

Of course, in the context of the film’s production in Iran, such an attitude might be read as an internalisation of a sense of invisibility, powerlessness, or hopelessness. And there are likely to be those who, in keeping with the turn described above, see in Willow and Wind only neglect and cruelty – from an uncaring adult world that instils a fear of failure in youngsters. References to the boys’ fathers are characterised by a sense of absence, or of limited time spent with their sons owing to work obligations. But consider the way in which the school teacher allows newcomer Ardakani to leave his mathematics class to watch the rain, which he has never seen before. Talebi gives us a moment, too, to revel in the physicality and sensation of the rain – more distracting because of the broken window – before the boys move off. Ardakini’s father is happy to assist when he is asked for money, although he is busy on an engineering project. And the glazier treats his customer with fairness.

Talebi’s film encourages a necessary practicality, responsibility and self-reliance in the face of difficulties that ought to appeal to many audiences, young and old. For a national film industry diminished by problems of censorship, much of Iranian cinema, including its children’s cinema, is unsparing in its view of the travails of living and the need to find ways forward in the most testing circumstances. The young boys in Talebi’s film must negotiate their own contracts, resolve their own problems, make reparations. “True the rain is beautiful,” the maths teacher tells his students. “But everything must be done in its proper time.” Even the other schoolchildren, whose studies are being disrupted, have their say: “Glaze the window!”

Certainly, one’s sympathies are sharpened when the realisation dawns on the protagonist that he has the wrong piece of paper, after he has sought out the measurements his father has written down. And one frets with him as he is carried unsteadily on the back of a fellow boy’s motorcycle, terrified that the successfully acquired glass is going to shatter. His attempts to get the attention of a teacher in the school grounds while he is struggling to install the glass is also moving. But despite everything there is admiration – at the unwillingness to abandon the task, and the instinct and empathy the boys show to one another.

Talebi here also gives us a powerful metaphor for the difficulties of the creative process in general, and filmmaking in Iran in particular: the necessity of carrying a frame through which the world can be viewed, undamaged, through numerous trials and obstacles; to secure it, and to share it with others.

As the director told film writer and researcher Neil McGlone in an interview in 2014:

‘Filmmaking in Iran today is like carrying that piece of glass on an uneven landscape… If you want to make a film in Iran, you will see some old men who talk very slowly and make long speeches, and the bureaucracy, which becomes insane. You have to be patient for every shot you shoot. That’s why I think Iranian filmmakers are the most patient, stubborn filmmakers in the world. Only after finishing the film, like bringing the piece of glass to the classroom, the main troubles begin, such as not being able to distribute the film or problems with censorship and that’s when they have to start all over again.’ [1]

The sense of a resolution that is sought in all accounts of personal journeys is not a given here. The journey of the filmmaker, and of the boy whose task remains incomplete at the end of Talebi’s film, just as with the personal experiences that we each face, is if anything without end. Willow and Wind reminds us of this truth in a visceral, simple way.


[1] Neil McGlone, ‘To the Wonder’ in Vérité, July 2014. Available to read online at https://issuu.com/veritefilmmagazine/docs/verite_july_2014/27

The current issue of Underline is available to download for free via the British Council.

Bonjintan – Giovanni Di Domenico interview extra

In recent years, Giovanni Di Domenico has recorded and performed in numerous contexts, in duos and ensembles, with Akira Sakata, Tatsuhisa Yamamoto and Jim O’Rourke. A new jazz quartet, Bonjintan, features all four musicians playing compositions written and arranged by Sakata. Following two tours of Japan in two years, a first CD has been released which contains a live performance, recorded in January 2017 at Pit Inn, Tokyo.

Inspired at a young age by John Coltrane, whom he saw perform in Japan in 1966, Sakata’s own activities as a saxophonist flow from his early connections with Kaoru Abe and his involvement with the Yosuke Yamashita Trio in the 1970s. In a recent interview with Lasse Marhaug for Personal Best, Sakata describes how a hiatus from performing in the 1990s was in large part ended because of the energy and encouragement he found among O’Rourke and other younger players, such as Chris Corsano, who were then playing in Japan, in the 2000s.

O’Rourke, resident in Japan for the past eleven years, has his own extensive background of playing in free improvisational contexts in the US, Europe and Japan since the 1990s, with collaborators including Eddie Prévost, Han Bennink, Peter Brötzmann and Mats Gustafsson  among countless others. The Bonjintan quartet is the first time that he has exclusively played upright bass.

Yamamoto, the youngest member of the quartet has kept a relentless schedule of concerts and recording over the past several years, including tours with Di Domenico outside of Japan, and with O’Rourke and Eiko Ishibashi in the group Kafka’s Ibiki. Domenico, Yamamoto and O’Rourke have also recorded and released two albums as a trio, Delivery Health.

Bonjintan’s self-titled album is released on Sakata’s own Daphnia label. Along with two originals, ‘Dance’ and ‘Nosagyo’, the concert includes ‘Ondo no Hunauta’, a folk song from Sakata’s home city Hiroshima –previously recorded in a distinctly different, electronic funk version on his solo album Fishermans.com (2000) – as well Ornette Coleman’s ‘Lonely Woman’. Sakata’s fiery sax, his silences and impassioned vocal passages are here complemented by Di Domenico’s expansive piano explorations, flowing from relentless, melodic flurries to agitated, staccato accents; Yamamoto’s textured, eruptive percussion and O’Rourke’s articulate, anchoring bass.

Di Domenico explains that “Bonjintan means The Diary (Tan) of the ‘Bon’ Man (where ‘Jin’ is man, ‘Bon’ is an almost untranslatable kanji – it is deep, spiritual, totally Japanese in feeling…).”

Below he shares a diary of his own, from the most recent tour of northern Japan in June 2017.


“The first stage we played on the 2017 tour. It’s a Buddhist temple, close to the city of Sendai. I am not at all for religion, nor churches, so the ‘holy’ feeling did not affect me so much – but it was nice to receive a cup of extremely good tea the morning after. We were shown into a special room for that, everything was very ceremonial and so ‘wabi’, it can’t fail to affect you somehow. I love that side of Japan, the care they take to be good hosts and the kindness (even if sometimes it’s just a matter of etiquette) they show you.”


“Our ‘tour van’ at one of the dozens of rest stations we stopped by. Since the 2016 Bonjintan tour, I have started to travel Japan by car. Previously, I only travelled the country by bus, slow train, extra slow train and fast train (a couple of times). By car it was something else. We covered close to 6,000km across the two tours, from north to south and west. And it’s wonderful to do that with Sakata, Jim and Tatsuhisa. I had the ‘older’ guy’s vision, the younger man’s and the ‘expat’ (albeit almost Japanese now!) and western eye on things. Having Jim there helped also in terms of translating and just chatting in English. He made me discover ways of seeing Japan that I could have not have done without him. In general, touring with Sakata in Japan made me discover a whole lot of things about the country and its customs, something I cherish a lot.”


“Warning: birds shitting. Outside the gas station. The Japanese are very concerned about everybody.”



“These two pictures were taken in the 2011 tsunami region. The wall is intended to stop the next tsunamis (all comments are superfluous, obviously…). The factory was torn down as a result of the disaster.”


“The trio behind Sakata is already a band, Delivery Health. So for me all this is really a dream! As a trio we have a sound that we had to put at the service of Sakata’s sound. It was at times difficult but I think in doing it we discovered how to make these two worlds work together. Jim on double bass is just as you would imagine him to be. He might not have the ‘chops’ and technique of Dave Holland or Gary Peacock, but his musical mind makes him do things that not even those bass gods would do. He thinks as a musician and producer of music – and he actually has pretty damn good timing!”


“A session of CD-R making (and signing) just before a show. In Japan, people like to have a souvenir from a particular place or moment of their life. After the first shows the CDs had all sold out, so we had to make new CD-Rs featuring a previous show from the tour. This was mixed in the car by Jim. The over the top, lo-fi cover was printed at a 7-Eleven! That was great fun, having to be a CD factory. Thanks to this we sold over 50 of these CD-Rs.”


“A ‘Soapland’ opposite the club we played in Niigata. Soaplands are ostensibly massage parlours – in reality they are brothels. During the two times we have toured Japan, we played all sorts of concerts spaces: big halls, jazz clubs, rock clubs, sake breweries, Buddhist temples, private houses (of eccentric scientists, friends of Sakata who is a marine biologist), hotels… So I had the chance to see the very different ways of occupying oneself as a musician in Japan. Depending on the place, the audience would also change. In big halls (generally in smaller towns) the audience was almost all over 60. Some of the towns we visited looked like ghost cities. You feel enormously the aging of the townsfolk and the fact that almost everybody moved to Tokyo or other large cities in the last 20-30 years or more. Some places had a somewhat dark and sad feel to them. But then we also played big city clubs, often full of youngsters with a much more ‘urban’ feel.”



“This is one of the coolest places we played, a jazz kissa called Basie. The owner (the guy with the sunglasses) is a real figure of the jazz scene of Tohoku (northern Japan). He befriended a lot of jazz greats and has a record collection and a hi-fi system that people all over the world come to listen to. It is really something amazing. The whole place just feels so ‘jazz’, but the kind of jazz feel you find in Japan; this type of bar was where you would go to listen to music in the ’50s/’60s/’70s when it was too expensive to buy records. The bar owner would buy it and you’d go there to listen. After our show they put the chairs into the ‘listening’ position, in front of the speakers, as if they were a band – fantastic!”


“The ‘forest bed’, on a walk I took on one of our days off. The forests in Japan look beautiful from the outside and are mesmerising on the inside.”


“A mega screen in the lobby of one of the hotels.”


“The advertising of yaki soba in a restaurant. I liked the metaphysical aspect of it, flying chopsticks and all…”



“Sakata is one gem of a musician, that I knew already. But doing these two tours with him made this belief even stronger. Having previously toured with him only outside of Japan, I feel I understand something more about his unique personality when he is in his home country, putting his story and musicianship into a new perspective. It is a wonderful experience for me to be able to play with these fabulous musicians.”


All images courtesy of Giovanni Di Domenico.

Bonjintan’s first CD is released by Daphnia. For orders outside Japan, contact silentwaterlabel@gmail.com

Insalata Statica – Giovanni Di Domenico Interview

di domenico autoportrait 1
Autoportraits by Giovanni Di Domenico (2017) – used with permission

Born in Rome in 1977, pianist Giovanni Di Domenico spent much of his youth in Africa as well as Italy, absorbing a multitude of musical styles – with folk traditions, opera, prayer calls, classical repertoire, jazz and punk all shaping his expansive approach to sound. In his twenties Di Domenico enrolled in the prestigious Santa Cecilia music conservatory in Rome and later the Royal Conservatory in The Hague, undertaking piano studies with a free-spirited, rebellious ethic. Now resident in Brussels, he has garnered much respect for his energetic, inventive musicality – in recent years he has honed his talents in solo and group playing contexts with Akira Sakata, Jim O’Rourke, Tatsuhisa Yamamoto, John Edwards, Alexandra Grimal, Keiji Haino, Manuel Mota and Chris Corsano among others. Through his label Silent Water, he has showcased the work of frequent collaborators including Norberto Lobo, Pak Yan Lau and João Lobo as well as the Japan based trio Delivery Health – comprising Domenico, O’Rourke and Yamamoto.

A new LP, Insalata Statica, pushes Di Domenico’s capabilities as a composer into the foreground. It also reflects a hitherto under-acknowledged pop sensibility. Written and performed almost in its entirety by Di Domenico, the album takes listeners from passages of melancholic introspection through to fuzz-laden melodic exuberance. Those who have witnessed Di Domenico in a live performance setting recognise the expansive variety of tonalities and voices he is able to express across a range of keyboard based instruments, including Rhodes, Hammond and grand piano – all of which feature on the album. But Insalata Statica also sees Di Domenico returning to his first instrument, the guitar, as well as calling on guests to lend extra elements to the kaleidoscopic sound – with Niels Van Heertum on euphonium, João Lobo on drums, Jordi Grognard on clarinets, harpist Vera Cavallin and Ananta Roosens on trumpet.

Insalata Statica’s flowing, shifting harmonies, rhythms and textures are deftly arranged – often blurring lines between a wide variety of acoustic and electronic instrumentation. While largely recorded in the studio in his current city of residence, it seems only fitting that for a peripatetic musician such as Di Domenico the album should suggest the experience of travel throughout its ever shifting movements. Listening to Insalata Statica, one can imagine the character of different landscapes – and their effect on mood and energy. The music seems to convey the haze of early departure; the romance of new climates; sleepy intervals and the hectic rush of transit; the feeling of sudden inspiration and the lasting traces of memory.

Moving through delicate motifs for horns, woodwind, percussion, harp, guitar and electronics into more stately piano-led choruses and even hectic, Hammond-led jazz sections, there are evocations of Franco Battiato’s 70s albums, Brazilian folk flourishes, the spacious, harmonically rich jazz of ECM recordings and oddball pop. Ushering such influences into a vibrant whole, revealing a skilful ear and an ability to blend instrumental timbres and melodic lines in surprising ways, Insalata Statica has a charm all its own.

I spoke with Di Domenico about his musical activities over the years and the process of writing and recording Insalata Statica.

Insalata Statica was five years in the making. Was there a specific compositional idea behind it from the beginning that you were interested in exploring?

I did not have a specific idea before writing the music for it. I was actually writing for another band at that point, and was planning on using that material for them. Then things changed and it made sense to me to use that material as a whole, for a single piece. The actual music, six different ‘tunes’, were written in a couple of days, then it took me five years, to arrange, record and edit everything and to turn it into an album. Insalata Statica means ‘static salad’ in Italian. It’s like I prepared the musical salad in no time and then took a long time to dress it.

Was the length of time it took a matter of figuring the transitions ­– were there different versions with those original tunes ordered differently? Or was it a more linear process that other demands and travelling simply took you away from for extended periods?

I guess it was a bit of both: a lack of time, that without my wanting it to, ended up lengthening the process of arranging and recording – but also way too many ideas during the same process. In the end I had to stop, or else I felt it could have gone on forever.

Basically, when I wrote the material and then decided what to do with it, I knew it could work but did not know quite how – making the songs separate entities or else try to make it into a whole. I think the order of the different passages came pretty easily and quickly. Then I thought about calling it Insalata Statica. The name comes from a joke made by an old friend: he was always saying that I was preparing ‘static’ salads. I thought that was a brilliant name and I had to use it! I thought it was ideal to have a more static beginning that slowly unfolds, taking different twists and turns, to reach a much less static ending. In reality the record isn’t static at all, it moves a lot and has a lot of rhythmical and harmonic layers. I was, and still am really, a lot into Jim O’Rourke’s The Visitor during that period, which certainly helped shape my approach.

I’m interested in how the piece transformed and how your thinking may have changed throughout that long a period.

I usually worked for several days on it, then let some days pass, then listened to it again to see what could be changed, added, or thrown away. I was hearing too many different things and at times I could not make up my mind. I knew, with the way I was approaching the whole thing, that a very simple idea could take me very far, if I could just give the right weight to that idea.

Sometimes other records I was into at that moment, or other stuff I was doing would give me other ideas and I had to hold them till the moment I was sure what to do with them. Other times I would just start to ‘jam’ with the tracks that were already there and something just right came up that had to be used no matter what. But I had to stick at this. At times I got fed up with it and wanted to throw everything in the garbage. I then left it for a couple of months unattended and went straight back to it. I could not leave it, it had to be finished.

As with much of your work, you are exploring an array of approaches to keyboard instruments – electronic textures, Rhodes, organ drones, Hammond, reflective interludes, all weaved together without a jarring effect. Not an easy feat. But there’s a whole orchestra here. I can also hear guitar. At first I thought some technique applied to the inside of the piano might have been behind some of the pizzicato sounds because some of the instrumentation blurs wonderfully in timbre and colour. Did you play most of the instruments on the record?

I played almost everything, except euphonium, clarinet, harp and some drum parts. Yes it’s a guitar! I am actually glad that you thought it was plucked piano, that’s a great idea you have given me – albeit quite difficult to make it sound like a guitar should sound, I guess.

Me and the guitar have a long history, actually. That’s the first instrument I learned to play, and I left it behind as I was discovering the piano, the drums and everything else I could put my hands on. But it stayed a very important instrument for me, although I never dared to play it again, until the point when I was in Japan playing with Jim [O’Rourke] and Tatsu [Yamamoto] and all. Jim asked me ‘Do you play guitar? You should!’ This was a kind of revelation, in the sense that it gave me the guts to do it, and although I am not a very good guitar player I regained the thrill of playing it and I liked it a lot. This happiness led me to want to do this record, that’s why I think it sounds like it does. I was really having fun!

The tactile aspects of the instrumentation seem very important to you – I can’t picture you using midi controls with computer software. When I’ve seen you play live, you are often moving between piano and Rhodes, between the outside and the inside of the piano.

In the beginning, while I was writing the music, I just had piano, Rhodes, Hammond, other keyboards and also electric guitar and electric bass – all within reaching distance. I would just pass from one to the other in a very simple but deep way, sometimes not caring too much about the precision and cleanness of things. That is why at times it sounds ‘loose’. You are right, I have never used any midi or software based computer thing. I am not able to do so. I need this tactility, which you mention. I need to put my hands on the instruments and try to do everything that I ‘hear’ through actual manipulation.

But another part of the process that excites me more than words can say is the editing and mixing side of things. I really like to sit down and listen to things while just imagining sounds changing their colour, contrast and weight – a bit like Photoshopping a picture. And through that a lot of the qualities of a single instrument can change. For me it is important that this production process is a vital part of the compositional development of the music.

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You have said that the album encompasses most of your strongest influences. Rather than simply ask what those are, I’m interested in how easily or otherwise you found that you could weave them together into something distinctly your own. Do you think there is a common denominator among those, apparently various, influences that allows them to combine? Or connections between things that only occurred to you after some time?

There’s a fundamental thing that connects those ‘influences’  – not the specific influences but the act of thinking about them – and the fact that this is my first solo LP: I passed beyond any sense of pressure I might have felt before, of having to stick to one style, to put it crudely. I said to myself that I had to do what I like most – that is, to put all that I hear into organised sounds. Although, if I had to enumerate all those influences and styles I’d still find that there are some very significant ones that are missing from this record. For example, the most radical and fierce ways of playing, like I do with Akira Sakata – and the more extreme sounding ones. That stuff I like to listen to and make my own as well.

I did what I had to do and it came so easily that soon I forgot about all the doubts and insecurities that have been lingering since, basically, always.

Where do you think those particular doubts come from?

I’ve taken kind of a strange path in music. I haven’t done anything else since I was 12 but I’ve moved along, taking many different roads, constantly immersing myself of course but not quite finding my own voice, or voices. Now if I go backwards I am happy with all of this but some time ago I found myself getting frustrated for not having discovered something before – that same something, which at that precise moment was freaking me out because of its beauty!

When making this record, it was not difficult to combine everything. It all made a lot of sense to me finally. Of course, it might be that I’m saying all this because I just turned 40, and perhaps I finally feel mature! These things took time to find their shape, but once they did all the rest came pretty quickly and easily.

This is your first solo album under your own name, made largely in isolation. Despite the obvious pleasure that editing and mixing has given you, do you still prefer to be playing amongst other musicians?

I don’t really treat it all that differently – playing alone, composing, recording and staying in the studio as much as I can by myself, and playing with others. I mean Bonjintan [jazz quartet with Akira Sakata, O’Rourke and Yamamoto] is great. Playing is always great when it’s with great people, it gives me a lot and I would never drop it. But I’ve gotten more and more picky in choosing my musical pals and I don’t have a problem with saying no to something that I just don’t ‘hear’.

I have done other solo albums, but I always used a pseudonym. I wanted them to be only electroacoustic and in keeping with a certain niche, or style, or whatever. I don’t hate them but I clearly feel that they were part of this research and I can hear that they are very naïve in a way. Now I probably would not release them.

Tell me a bit about your experiences of going to school to study piano and what your feelings were/are about the value of that – as opposed to the learning you continue to do in the context of relentless live performance and collaboration. I know some musicians are not keen on studying music in an academic sense.

I didn’t go to music school until I was 24. I went to the Royal Conservatory in The Hague, where I studied jazz piano. That conservatory is famous for its adherence to jazz tradition, especially bebop. Before that I spent one year at the Santa Cecilia conservatory in Rome where I studied composition. That was 1998, but I only lasted a year, as I was not really keen on doing solfège. I was always very rebellious when it came to academia. I don’t even have a high school degree. And so they kicked me out, I was expelled. But during this time I was playing in all sorts of punk, surf and hardcore bands in Rome. There was quite a scene back then, a lot of groups that didn’t go anywhere really but that shaped me a great deal – although I didn’t realise that until much later.

As I was telling you before, for a long time I felt frustrated for having taken what I see as a somewhat tortuous path through music. When I arrived at the conservatory in Holland, I remember being so angry at myself because I was hearing very young musicians of 18 or so playing their asses off. I thought I’d lost so much time. And in The Hague there is the amazing Sonology department, but at that time I was not really aware of what it is. If I were there now, I would spend more time in that facility than practising scales and chords!

But I got over all that as I continued, discovering that all the things I had in me came from that same path. I accepted it and started to like it and make it my strength. Of course I feel it’s still in progress, it will never end. The most important thing I gained from those academic years was some of my very best ‘musical’ friends  – and overall just friends – having grown up together, having tried so many different things and learned things about producing/recording etc.

The resources in that place were really amazing. But I also remember having an instant allergy to courses dealing with the business side of the profession. I just thought that was total crap, that I should not get even close to that sort of thing, I still think so! I have the feeling that my aversion to ‘business’ comes from my aversion to ‘being there’, to exposing myself to the infinite tentacles of the culture of promotion. I mean I am already doing a job that exposes me: I create something that people are supposed to consume and enjoy, but I’d rather be known and, if fortunate enough, appreciated for my music, not for how much it sells or anything like that. I know there’s a contradiction in all this, but I just can’t get too much into the social media culture, even for promoting my work. I would certainly not put anything of my private life out there. I feel my music would be affected if I did so. I absolutely cannot compromise on that.

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Yet you do run your own label, Silent Water, which is putting out releases fairly regularly. What was the impetus for doing that and what are some of the difficulties and benefits you have experienced?

The idea of having a label has always been there. But the timing to set up Silent Water was a bit of a coincidence. I always had the idea that I would set up ‘my label’ with my first ‘solo’ record, then in 2012 I had a disagreement with another label owner about the release of one of my LPs. So I decided, ‘Fuck it, I am going to do it myself’. I was not prepared for that, though, so that LP had the SW002 catalogue number!

It just makes everything easier for me to have my own label to put out my own music. For a period I was thinking that it would have been the worst idea to put out things on my own label – it seems too ‘simple’. Then I would think of all the great musicians since the ’70s who have started their own record companies, and also see the freedom that being your own boss brings you. I think it’s a great way to push yourself, to always go further and feed your ideas and projects. Of course I was lucky enough to have some money to put into it, and to have folks around me who agreed to paying something when it was needed – and understood that the profitability of all this was going to be almost non-existent. Neither I nor we will get rich from Silent Water, but that’s exactly what I like about it. I just want to be able to pay for the next record. Now, with 15 releases in five years, I have to say it has gone much further then I could ever expect.

You are now planning to do live shows around Insalata Statica with an eight-piece band. How do you think you might approach it in this different context?

After all the time I spent on Insalata Statica, I thought it would be a shame not to tour it around, and the first thing that was clear to me was that it had to be with a band. For technical reasons: the fact that some parts of the record have over 100 layers makes it impossible to play it live by myself, at least without using samples and pre-recorded tracks. But I can’t do that! Insalata Statica is a very ‘lived’ piece. I simply can’t think about having it be played by a software. So I decided I was going to put together a band for it, with the same people that helped me do the record – and the addition of a bass player and a guitar player. That prospect excites me a lot, as I have to rewrite or at least rethink many of the parts, to be able to make it sound like it should. In any case it will sound somewhat different. I’ve realised I will have to change certain parts of the orchestration but I’m curious and looking forward to hearing it. After having been ‘inside’ this music for so long, I want to get ‘outside’ of it, and to share it with others. There is the social reason too: I want to give something back to the great musicians that helped me so much. Although it’s going to be a financial disaster, travelling with eight people with instruments in Europe, I don’t care and I want to do it no matter what.

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Insalata Statica is released by Silent Water (https://silentwaterlabel.com/).

Down in the Flood – Housekeeping (1987)

For Notebook at MUBI, I wrote about Bill Forsyth’s adaptation of Marilynne Robinson’s novel Housekeeping. The full article text is reproduced below.


On first viewing Bill Forsyth’s film Housekeeping (1987) I was somewhat unimpressed by its low-key television-movie feel; a small town family drama lacking cinematic spectacle, featuring relatively unknown actors. It seemed thrifty, in keeping with the unfussiness of the story’s central character, Sylvie. By contrast, Marilynne Robinson’s novel, on which the film is based, describes moments of fantastical prophecy, strengthened by the author’s knowledge of Scripture, in images of dead souls recovered from a deep lake resonant of the Bible’s account of the Flood and Apocalypse. Forsyth’s better-known Local Hero (1983), a comedy set in a remote Scottish village, gives viewers a meteor shower, the Northern Lights and Burt Lancaster descending from the sky, so the director’s use of Robinson’s text could certainly have reached for very different effects.

Though the film retains the perspective of the book’s youthful narrator, Ruth, inclined to the imaginings of childhood, Forsyth makes no attempt to visualise these poetic evocations, and divests the township of Fingerbone of any overt religious associations, preferring to let the natural landscape present a majesty of its own, and working on the delicate personal bonds between the three protagonists. On closer inspection, though, Housekeeping belies an eloquent audiovisual arrangement, submerging profound aspects of the original material in an unpretentious style, leaving them to rise to the surface of their own accord.

Sylvie, a young itinerant woman, returns to her hometown of Fingerbone to become the primary carer of her two nieces, Ruth (Sara Walker) and Lucille (Andrea Burchill), following the suicide of their mother. Like Robinson’s novel, and contrary to the melodramatics of the average ‘real life issues’ soap opera, Forsyth’s film makes no explicit reference to the mental health of Sylvie. But the history of spectacular death in the family, the symbolism of the lake which claimed the bodies of both Sylvie’s father and her sister—the former in the train accident that has become the town’s most famous episode—and the increasingly manifest unconventionality of Sylvie’s behaviour (with actress Christine Lahti skillfully revealing layer beneath layer of her character, from untroubled eccentricity to painful self-awareness and misgivings about her relationships) suggest a shadowy realm populated by ghosts of the past that threatens to encompass the young girls. Lucille senses it, expressing her discomfort primarily in relation to the embarrassment it brings to her as a typical high schooler, and the townsfolk sense it.


Water and flooding are here more simply but subtly associated with the irruption of different currents—of emotion; of memories of events, images and sounds—that risk pulling the characters into their undertow. While Ruth remarks that the family have always been comforted by the fact that their home was built on a hill and so less liable to floodwaters, they are nevertheless inextricably tied to the lake and continually drawn to it. Ruth and Sylvie spend days playing truant, idling down by the water, near the railroad bridge off which their grandfather’s train slipped “like a weasel sliding off a rock.”

Sylvie is eager to show Ruth a valley unknown to many among the mountainous surroundings, and accessible only by boat, which sees the pair staying out all night on the lake in a leaking vessel. This striking image is an intensification of a more humorous early scene when the family home is first flooded by several inches of water. Ruth’s relative acceptance of these commonly disruptive circumstances and her growing fascination with her aunt—whom we come to see, with both empathy and concern, as a reflection of her and her own mother—is transformed into the image of the two women on the perilous waters, under the railway tracks in the dead of night.

It is in this scene, too, that the evocative use of sound is made more apparent, and creates an ambiguity that is not suggested in Robinson’s novel. When Sylvie pulls herself up, hugging the rickety skeleton of the railway bridge, we loudly hear the cross-country locomotive shuttling through Fingerbone. But we don’t see it. The sound of clanking metal on the bridge and the lapping currents against the boat are, again, a kind of amplification of the earlier scene, where the gentle bumping of metal tins and other household items bobbing in the flood water is heard as Lucille tries to sweep them into a closet to no avail.

The passing train is also suggested by the use of intermittent light, to simulate the illuminated carriage windows at night, but perhaps owing to nothing more than budget limitations and/or logistics, this key symbol of the town’s identity and the family’s history is at this moment invisible. It is now that we might question whether Ruth and Sylvie have seen a train at all, or rather if we are aware finally of a folie á deux—or less dramatically, a shared poetic sense—that has been deepening throughout the film. And then one recalls that in the novel, too, Ruth tells us that nobody in Fingerbone actually saw the famous crash.


Robinson’s prose, too, emphasises the auditory, with descriptions of the sloshes of water, and the distant sound of the ice on the lake breaking in thunderous cracks. The latter phenomenon is again presented in the film only as something beyond the screen, beyond the window of the girls’ bedroom. Lucille worries that the sound is like that of a train crashing off the bridge. Ruth assures her that it is only the ice. By now, Ruth is growing comfortable with her unusual lifestyle, living with her aunt, in a house of compulsively stacked newspapers and food cans, growing used to Sylvie’s odd habits.

The sound of ice breaking is, then, both comforting and unsettling. Getting to know their wayward aunt, uncovering some of the mysteries of their past, learning more about themselves and the women they are starting to become places new stresses on the girls’ precarious young lives. The way in which the past haunts the present and the consequent difficulties of intimacy between people are ideas that Robinson would return to in her following three novels, GileadHome and Lila, all set in the town of Gilead. In these stories, everyday gestures, words and apparently unremarkable objects are again invested with a miraculous quality. In doing this, Robinson avoids the prophetic visions of her first novel, and brings the books closer in feel to Forsyth’s subtle, moving adaptation—suggesting that Forsyth had indeed grasped from the start the underlying poetic qualities that make Robinson’s prose so affecting.