Saturday, November 29, 2008


To celebrate a short round-the-world trip early next year (China, Australia, then Argentina and Brazil with travelling companion / amor de mi vida Darling Vicarage), I am reading Mike Davis’s magnificently detailed Planet of Slums. \Davis describes two trends which have defined how people have lived in the last 30 or so years.

The first is the inexorable movement of the world’s population from country to city. In 1950, there were 86 cities in the world; there are now more than 400. The urban workforce has more than doubled in my lifetime. Given the extraordinary numbers of people in every part of the world required to shift these percentages, this is one of the most extraordinary and exponential developments in human history.

The second, which Davis iterates and reiterates in Planet of Slums, is as fundamental: the rate at which the richest in the world have got richer and, by consequence, the poorest have got poorer. The harshest effects of neo-liberalism have roughly coincided with the accelerated urbanism described above, especially in China (in the 1980s) and India (in the 1990s). The broad-brush privatisation of Indian resources and the retreat of the State yielded a million new millionaires in the early 1990s, but during the same period, 56 million Indians were plunged into poverty.

Little of the world has escaped this polarisation of wealth. From the late 1970s onwards, the IMF imposed upon those nations of the Third World whose economies had been shattered by rocketing oil prices, falling commodity prices and rising debt, programmes of “structural adjustment” (SAPs): mass privatisation, devaluation, removal of subsidies, charging for health and education, and the forced withdrawal of the State.

The United Nations has described SAPs as “the main cause of increases in poverty and inequality during the 1980s and 1990s.” In Africa and Latin America – the playgrounds of adjustment – manufacturing collapsed, export incomes declined, prices soared, wages declined, and the public sector was emasculated. Latin American urban poverty rose by 50% in the early 1980s, and the average income of an Argentine worker fell by 30%. Between 1984 and 1989, the income-share of the richest 10% of Argentina’s population went from ten times that of the poorest 10% to 23 times.

These two facts – de-industrialised urbanisation and skyscraping inequality – combine to produce two very different, and utterly segregated, types of community: the slum and the gated community. The well-heeled, urbane elite no longer feels attached to the city – it sees it as a place of depravity, crime and danger – and so it has left the urban poor to fend for itself, retiring to its country clubs and gated communities with its Middle American dreams.

These “off worlds” – to use the terminology of Blade Runner – are often imagineered as replica Southern Californias. Thus, “Beverley Hill” does not exist only in the 90210 zip code; it is also, with Utopia and Dreamland, a suburb of Cairo, an affluent private city “whose inhabitants can keep their distance from the sight and severity of poverty and the violence and political Islam which is seemingly permeating the localities”. Likewise, “Orange County” is a gated estate of sprawling million-dollar California-style homes, designed by a Newport Beach architect and with Martha Stewart décor, on the northern outskirts of Beijing. (As the suburb’s developer explained to an American reporter: “People in the United States may think of Orange County as a place, but in China people feel Orange County is a brand name, something like Giorgio Armani.”)


Gated communities in Greater Buenos Aires are nothing new. The first, the Tortugas Country Club in Pilar, was built in 1932 and is still a successful polo club. But these early examples were only for the very wealthy; the great middle-class search for a rural nirvana began in the 1970s, when the fear of revolution and dictatorship was in the air, and reached its peak in the 1990s, as the neo-liberal policies pursued by Carlos Menem brought foreign investment to Argentina.

While the globalised free-market accelerated inequalities in Argentina, those who won, won big. The expanding Argentine elite, flush with assets, came to fear the city and its poorer inhabitants. It daydreamed about a life of purity in the country, where the natural decency of money and prestige could not be sullied by city life. This dream was set in the North American suburb, and specifically California, where everybody was beautiful and wealthy and happy (and, though this was never mentioned, bored).

The middle classes were helped in their rapid transit to the suburbs by a massive motorway expansion, begun during the junta and continued by the Alfonsin government, which connected Buenos Aires up with the rest of the country. A buzz of speculation soon followed the newly minted to their country clubs, and land values soared. During the last five years of the twentieth century, the number of gated communities in Greater Buenos Aires grew by 350%, and their permanent population grew by 430%. So great was the expansion, that megaemprendimientos (clusters of public services surrounded by gated communities) were introduced to service the new populations. This impossibly flighty website advertises one of the biggest and most Ballardian: the Nordelta, near Tigre.

At the turn of the century, it is estimated that up to 100,000 people lived in gated communities around Buenos Aires. But what is the effect of these communities? Firstly, they create an engineered society only open to a wealthy elite. Secondly, the communities themselves instil a rigid social order, re-creating the city as a place of order:

[I]n the Mayling country club, for instance, those who were caught passing over the speed limits of 30 km/h, or who had not fenced their swimming pool according to a decision of the neighbourhood council, were denounced by their names on a board hung in the club-house.

- Guy Thuillier, "Gated Communities in the Metropolitan Area of Buenos Aires"

Thirdly, gated communities are the flipside of the slum communities which flourish on the outskirts of the capital: self-made, unplanned clusters housing newly-arrived immigrants from the poorest provinces who have come to the capital in search of work building enclaves for their upper-class neighbours. Even after the 2001 crash burst the gated property bubble, an incongruous coexistence remains between the wealthy and the poor who each populate the peripheries. The poor surround the rich, who provide them with work in the construction industry, or as servants. Those who can’t access work hold cars up, or vandalise houses and marinas. By shining a light on Argentina’s inequalities, gated communities create the very envy, the very insecurity from which they were supposed to provide a refuge.


What is the meaning of slums and gated communities? We know why they started, but how will they end? How will the vast concentration of capital into the hands of the elite few affect the way we live? How will the much vaster concentration of desperately poor, animalised people, for whom there is little work or community, for whom every degrading act aspires merely to survival – how will they change the world?

One sixth of humanity, or one third of the world’s labour force, is currently unemployed or underemployed. This may still represent a proletariat of sorts, but it is far removed from the conscious class of people whom Marx predicted would unravel the knots of capitalism and reassemble them into socialism. The slum population of the world is growing by 25 million per year, according to the UN: 25 million extra people tripping into what an Iraqi quoted in a New York Times article in 2005 called a “semi-death.”


Mike Davis poses these very questions in the epilogue of Planet of Slums:

But if informal urbanism becomes a dead-end street, won’t the poor revolt? Aren’t the great slums – as Disraeli worried in 1871 or Kennedy fretted in 1961 – just volcanoes waiting to erupt? Or does ruthless Darwinian competition – as increasing numbers of poor people compete for the same informal scraps – generate, instead, self-annihilating communal violence as yet the highest form of “urban involution”? To what extent does an informal proletariat possess that most potent of Marxist talismans: “historical agency”?

The conclusion Davis draws is intuitive and disturbing. Rather than possessing a political doctrine borne out of self-knowledge and class consciousness and unity, the urban poor will lack a dogmatic political agenda. Instead, united only by a survival instinct, they will capitalise on the unplanned dilapidation of their urban environment, and wage war on the very humanity that has dehumanised them and allowed them to starve. Moreover, despite the best strategic efforts of the Pentagon, there will be nothing the US (or any other world policeman) can do, save to go “down the road that logically follows from the abdication of urban reform” and “support a low-intensity world war of unlimited duration against criminalised segments of the urban poor”.


This is not some science-fictitious, dystopian prophecy. We see it happening now in the streets of Sadr City, where the forces of Western civilisation wage an unending moral crusade against the poor and the dispossessed (described heatedly as terrorists or axes of evil). We see it too in the hellish slums and locked compounds of Buenos Aires.

This delusionary dialectic of securitised versus demonic urban places, in turn, dictates a sinister and unceasing duet: Night after night, hornetlike helicopter gunships stalk enigmatic enemies in the narrow streets of the slum districts, pouring hellfire into shanties or fleeing cars. Every morning the slums reply with suicide bombers and eloquent explosions. If the empire can deploy Orwellian technologies of repression, its outcasts have the gods of chaos on their side.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008


A simple and stunningly concise paragraph from Zizek, in this fortnight's LRB:

The financial meltdown has made it impossible to ignore the blatant irrationality of global capitalism. In the fight against Aids, hunger, lack of water or global warming, we may recognise the urgency of the problem, but there is always time to reflect, to postpone decisions. The main conclusion of the meeting of world leaders in Bali to talk about climate change, hailed as a success, was that they would meet again in two years to continue the talks. But with the financial meltdown, the urgency was unconditional; a sum beyond imagination was immediately found. Saving endangered species, saving the planet from global warming, finding a cure for Aids, saving the starving children . . . All that can wait a bit, but ‘Save the banks!’ is an unconditional imperative which demands and gets immediate action. The panic was absolute. A transnational and non-partisan unity was immediately established, all grudges among world leaders momentarily forgotten in order to avert the catastrophe. (Incidentally, what the much-praised ‘bi-partisanship’ effectively means is that democratic procedures were de facto suspended.) The sublimely enormous sum of money was spent not for some clear ‘real’ task, but in order to ‘restore confidence’ in the markets – i.e. for reasons of belief. Do we need any more proof that Capital is the Real of our lives, the Real whose demands are more absolute than even the most pressing demands of our social and natural reality?

Monday, November 17, 2008


You may have noticed that London is being slowly flattened. Brick by brick, walls are falling down and foundations are being exhumed by bulldozers, so that familiar landmarks (the Swiss clock in Leicester Square, the Astoria, my beloved Culross flats) are making way for grey, wintry skies. The diggers originally rushed in to knock down these buildings so that great structures, gifts to the gods of speculation, could be erected in their place. But now we know those gods are fakes.

In 2006, a consortium of banks, developers and magnates bought the Middlesex Hospital at the back of Tottenham Court Road, and demolished it to make way for 273 luxury apartments, known as Noho Square (ugh). Alas, the consortium’s majority shareholder, Kaupthing hf, was one of the Icelandic banks nationalised last month. Nick and Christian Candy, the multi-millionaire developers who owned a third of the stake, got cold feet and pulled out shortly afterwards. The value of the land has almost halved in the last two years, the Noho Square project is dead in the water, and the three-acre site has become an unloved wasteland.

Meanwhile, just down the Euston Road, another set of creditor banks – German, this time – have abandoned the good ship King’s Cross, leaving the developers to stump up the money themselves. (You can only imagine how my heart bleeds) The King’s Cross scheme, as it currently stands, is the very embodiment of a dogma that has been spectacularly disproved: that London’s future lies in the hands of finance and business services. Cheap housing, local job creation and facilities for the community have been discarded in favour of masses and masses of office-space.

It is reminiscent of the 1970s, when buildings like Centrepoint were left empty. What becomes of these sites depends largely on people providing better alternatives – and these, if successful, may realign the priorities of the city itself. Campaigners in Fitzrovia are arguing that the Middlesex Hospital should be turned into a park, and a local councillor has suggested that it might be used as allotments. Meanwhile, the King’s Cross Railway Lands Group, whose thoroughly sensible proposals for the site have previously been thrown out by the local authority, should now be listened to. They put forward a shift away from offices and towards social and affordable housing, both of which Camden has a chronic shortage of, and better access for cyclists.

These are modest plans, but if they are currently seen as radical because they don’t generate massive profits (neoliberalism ain’t dead yet), they may shortly become the only alternatives to these sites turning into lifeless deserts. As Michael Edwards, co-chair of the KXRLG writes,

Development at King’s Cross has twice come a cropper as the economy goes into crisis. This time we should use the opportunity to launch a more robust and more democratic London, or face another 15 years in which these wonderful 30 hectares remain unused.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

BACON III : with God, everything is permitted

Three studies for figures at the base of a crucifixion is, along with the series of Heads and Popes from the 1950s, an early culmination of Bacon’s primary concerns: meat, screams, the pure expression of horror. It is a furious scene: three grey bulgingly solid forms, each covered with an ashen crust, cower and rear and bawl over thick, waxy streaks of blood-red pastel and oil.

It is the most pressing of Bacon’s paintings (its 1988 re-make, a cool magenta oil painting with shallow Rembrandtish shadows, pales in comparison), and its insistence is derived from its colour, its use of the triptych form and its inexplicable forms. What are we to make of these images? Are they human? Are they gendered? Monsters, or Furies? There is a certain awful harmony in the way that the left-hand figure groans downwards, the right-hand yells upwards, and the middle figure scream straight ahead; in the way also that their lack of sight mirrors our own. This is Bacon’s most powerful and most dreadfully beautiful painting, and it tells us nothing.

His next crucifixion triptych, painted almost 20 years later, follows the structure of the triptych more strictly.

The three scenes do not complete each other – one cannot work from one to another and find a story. Nevertheless, unlike the isolated figures in the 1944 triptych, there is something resembling a conventional crucifixion scene here: dead and martyred figures are watched by onlookers (if not exactly worshippers or devotees).

In the left-hand panel, two claws of black and red and white meat and gristle grab at a gauche, smudged figure, his shadow better defined than his body. Another figure, or perhaps the same one a moment later, edges away, suspended in perpetual going where his double perpetually comes. In the right-hand panel, liquid flesh pours down the frame of an armchair, falls through the armature of a ribcage (“the bones,” writes Deleuze, “are like the trapeze apparatus upon which the flesh is the acrobat”), solidifies into a pillow onto which an arm, the head, the ruby-red screaming mouth lies bawling. The central panel is the unremittingly still arbitrator to these pulsating scenes. Unlike them, it holds, and returns, the gaze. Ostensibly a foetal bloodbath, the recumbent figure takes on a coquettish, seething, aggressive air when one links two small dots, two wide-open marble eyes just above and to either side of the ubiquitous scream. Suddenly, the white pillow, fleshy like the one in the right-hand panel, props up a face which freezes time.

In this painting, and even more in the 1965 Crucifixion, we see that Bacon’s antipathy towards religion and politics conceal something more significant. Bacon believed what every atheist should believe: that our lives are not directed towards any ultimate meaning, but that somehow we find a meaning in the irrelevance of our lives. He claims to seek inspiration in medieval crucifixion scenes, not for their religious significance, but because of the hopelessness of Christ’s situation, the dignified futility in his being (as we all are) a sack of meat.

But here is the paradox of atheism writ large. Why is the crucifixion, or the scene of Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane, such a compelling image for today’s atheist? The religious scene takes the painter beyond illustration because the religious scene or figure cannot literally be represented (it is blasphemous to portray God as man). Deleuze sees Giotto as the religious painter of pure sensation; and Bacon himself recognises the “religious possibilities” which compelled Velasquez to paint. Indeed, he seems to regret that those possibilities are not open to contemporary man: “all art has now become completely a game by which man distracts himself ... and what is fascinating now is that it’s going to become much more difficult for the artist, because he must really deepen the game to be any good at all.”

Bacon’s question is: why bother painting at all today? His response is (as far as I can think) unique among twentieth century painters. He rejects abstraction and abstract expressionism (and photography) and instead performs a kind of return-to-the-sacred. Man is infused with “secular possibilities,” and reclaims his divine aura. It is an artistic and a moral masterstroke, but one which demonstrates the interdependence of religious feeling and secular thought. Because these religious scenes have such an extraordinary structure, one can hang one’s psyche around them better than with a pure sensation. The mistake Bacon makes (and it shows up terribly in some of his more theoretical and less poetic paintings of the late 1970s and 1980s) is to assume that the application of pure unconscious sensation inevitably leads us to the pure human essence. The unconscious may be the engine-room of the psyche, but a person’s repressions and fantasies are far more interesting and sympathetic to witness than the involuntary drives at the core of his or her being. Bacon’s paintings are empty of fantasies, and without our fantasies, we cannot truly call ourselves human (or religious ... or atheist).

Nevertheless, there is something rather radical about Francis Bacon’s work, and its political content should be reclaimed regardless of his own views or pretensions. Look again at the 1965 Crucifixion. As in any conventional crucifixion scene, figures suffer and figures watch. Except that here, the watching figures do not notice the suffering, or are indifferent to it. The two men in the right-hand panel look through the crucified martyr, beyond the mutilated figures ahead of and behind them, and leer at the dancing girl. John Berger, who has been a critic of Bacon, notes that his paintings foresaw a world in which suffering was seen every day, was analysed, calculated, patronised ... and accepted. This raises an intriguing possibility, for it suggests that in a world where we must take sides, Bacon’s paintings force the faces of the evicted, the distraught and the too-far-gone upon us. These paintings – the crucifixions especially – possess a force which passes through and between people, causing one to gaze at or bully or get pulverised by another. This force is mysterious and intangible, but it makes its presence felt. It spreads indifference like a virus. And its shadow hangs from each of us, in some form or other.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

BACON II : one continuous accident mounting on top of another

Bacon’s project, far more than the abstract expressionism of Pollock, more even than the Surrealists, was to paint the unconscious, the stuff beyond representation. Bacon repeatedly refers to painting as something which happens to him, not something that he does. He does not claim to have a particular gift for anything except receiving images and sensations. In Bacon’s paintings, paint literally takes on a life of its own, and his task is to manipulate it as far as he can (“it does many things,” he says, “which are very much better than I could make it do”), and exploit its potential for “making the invisible visible.”

But if we say that Bacon’s paintings are determined by chance, we must be clear what we mean. On the one hand, Bacon knows that his conscious mind, the procedures and processes through which he plans a painting, can only go so far in creating the image he seeks. Because he does not paint scenes or stories, his figures must gain their reality from something intrinsic to themselves – something which may not be visible. Bacon’s complaint about photographs is not that they look too realistic, but that they do not look enough like the people they are supposed to represent.

For instance, I think that, of those two paintings of Michel Leiris, the one I did which is less literally like him is in fact more poignantly like him ... One doesn’t know what makes one thing seem more real than another. I really wanted those portraits of Michel to look like him: there’s no point in doing a portrait of somebody if you’re not going to make it look like him ... Being rather long and thin, that head in fact has nothing to do with what Michel’s head is really like, and yet it looks more him.

The limits of visual reality (and the attempt to paint beyond it) partially explains why Bacon never painted his portraits from life. He would instead refer to an old photo of his subject, a memory from last night, a postcard of the Sahara desert, a close-up of a rhinoceros’s skin – anything that might touch his responsiveness to suggestion, anything that might break through the clichés of representation. When that failed, he would scrub away at the canvas with a brush, take a broom to it, throw turps at it, throw thick handfuls of paint at it and wipe them off with a rag, in an almost literal attempt to erase the dull figuration and bring the pure sensation of the figure to life.

Cezanne said that he tried to paint the confused sensations that we bring with us at birth. Bacon attempts the same thing in his painting. A highlight of Gilles Deleuze’s analysis of Bacon’s work is his description of how Bacon scrubs, sweeps, wipes and marks the canvas in order to empty out convention, erase the cliché, and leave the ground clear for reality.

It is like the emergence of another world. For these marks, these traits, are irrational, involuntary, accidental, free, random. They are non-representative, non-illustrative, non-narrative. They are no longer either significant or signifiers: they are asignifying traits ... It is as if the hand assumed an independence and began to be guided by other forces, making marks that no longer depend on either our will or our sight. These almost blind manual marks attest to the intrusion of another world into the visual world of figuration.

Occasionally the marks work; more often than not they fail, or go too far; the germ of something vivid is lost under layers of doomed mistakes. When it does work, is it premeditated? According to Bacon, success comes from something almost divine, but one can be receptive to it; or, as David Sylvester put it, one can try to avoid the potency of the unconscious image being corrected by conscious thought. This study of George Dyer’s head is the most brilliant example of Bacon’s unconscious technique. It is impossible to imagine how it was painted, or what route Bacon took, or what spark ignited him. A brick-red face, the familiar curve of Dyer’s boxer’s nose, some swirls of brilliant white, a little shadow and light: it seems to us that it could not have taken more than an hour or two to pain; or more likely, it painted itself.

I think an awful lot of creation is made out of the self-criticism of the artist, and very often I think probably what makes one artist seem better than another is that his critical sense is more acute. It may not be that he is more gifted in any way but just that he has a better critical sense.


There is another form of chance which is more determined, though not necessarily by the artist. Bacon also understood chance to mean a set of possibilities, possibilities which are partially determined by the painter’s initial ideas about what he wants to paint, but which are also determined by each other. They are not accidental, as such, and unlike the asignifying marks which Deleuze describes, they are not non-representational. This conversation between Bacon and Sylvester, about one of his most beautiful of triptychs illustrates this “manipulated chance” very well.

DS: In the beach triptych, were the horses and riders an afterthought?

FB: They were certainly an afterthought, yes. I felt that I just wanted that distance and movement and so on.

DS: And the screens with images of heads?

FB: Those are images I’d often thought about.

DS: Those you foresaw then?

FB: Yes. I didn’t foresee how the central figure would come out.

DS: You didn’t know there was going to be nude between the screens?

FB: Yes, but I didn’t know how it was going to come out.

DS: You didn’t know it was going to be a figure from the back?

FB: No.

DS: And the sort of semi-human figure down in front, was that foreseen?

FB: No, that wasn’t foreseen.

DS: And the umbrellas?

FB: I didn’t foresee those. This was a very unforeseen painting.

DS: Except that you did foresee this extraordinary element of the two heads on screens. Was it in order to do them that you started on this particular triptych?

FB: Firstly I wanted to have something on the beach by the sea, although as it happens the central panel isn’t very much by the sea, but in the background I used the same colour as the sky in the outer panels. I think that, when images drop in to me, although the paintings don’t end up in the way the images drop in, the images themselves are suggestive of the way I can hope that chance and accident will work for me. I always think of myself not so much as a painter but as a medium for accident and chance.

BACON I : to paint the mouth like Monet painted a sunset

A visitor to the Tate’s sumptuous Francis Bacon exhibition – the first major posthumous retrospective of his work in the UK – may find that his paintings do not speak to the eye, that they do not articulate themselves except via a constant scream. S/he may become frustrated at their repetition, aggravated that they have nothing to say, no story to tell. Head after head, Pope after Pope, chimpanzee after chimpanzee, with no story to tell.

But this was Bacon’s mission, his obsession: to avoid illustration or narrative. Bacon assaults the senses, not the intellect, and by removing the story or the spectacle from his paintings, by painting what is not visible, they go beyond comprehension.

His attempts to paint the perfect image were astonishingly consistent in scale and approach. After 1960, his large paintings were almost always 198cm by 147.5cm. He seldom painted landscapes or still-lifes, and his figures are generally solitary even when there is more than one of them in a painting. The objects or backgrounds which fix the figures in place – rings, cages, clear or opaque structures – isolate them yet further.

Why is this image troubling? It has no situation for us to be troubled or upset by. The subject, a man dressed in a suit and tie, is barely legible, hidden behind a vertical diaphanous curtain. He sits on a raised couch with his hands beneath his legs and he looks at us, confronts us with a smile that is so impenetrable, that we cannot tell if it is really a smile or a scream. Gilles Deleuze describes the smile-scream as “scoffing ... untenable ... abominable ... hysterical.” The figure, whom Bacon also describes as “very neurotic and almost hysterical,” is trapped. There is noise and movement in the scene, but we cannot hear or feel it. We cannot share what he sees; we sense that its horror cannot match the horror of his response. If only this horror had a direct cause, then it might be overcome. But the smile-scream is pure sensation, immanent, uncaused.

The subject of Bacon’s Study for a Portrait defies analysis or explanation. His lack of subjectivity cannot be explained by his establishment dress – like Herr K, he becomes a subject only by surrendering his individual psychology. His smile is repeated in the left-hand panel of one of Bacon’s early triptychs:

An abominable smile, an abjection of a smile. And if one dreams of introducing an order into a triptych, I believe that the 1953 triptych imposes the following order, which is not to be confused with the succession of panels: the screaming mouth in the centre, the hysterical smile on the left, and finally, the inclined and dissipated head on the right.

More than the depressive Munch, the possessed Bacon (“I’ve never been able to sit in a comfortable chair ... It’s one of the reasons I’ve suffered all my life from high blood-pressure”) paints the scream as the irreducible sign of revulsion. Bacon admired the way in which Eisenstein had captured the scream so excessively in the Odessa Steps scene of Battleship Potemkin. Since the scream is a result of invisible forces, one cannot paint its cause ... or its sound. It is the way in which humans try to articulate something insensible, the method of heaving the body out through the mouth, the outraged realisation that we are, in fact, animal.

In what ways are Bacon’s figures animal? The crouched nudes and paralytic children from his early period are barely discernible from his dogs. None can perceive the future or reflect upon the past; all are stuck in an interminable present. Some paintings may depict more than one present at the same time (e.g. the multiple timescales in Three Studies of Isabel Rawsthorne) but, rather like the rare occasions when bodies confront each other but fail to merge, these simultaneous present-tense timescales jar with each other. Isabel Rawsthorne is trapped separately in each one, her three forms isolated from each other. Likewise, in the great triptych of George Dyer, the subject moves spasmodically through time from a seated position to a crouched position to a spectral floating position (the bat-like shadow of death hanging beneath him). All this is simply to say that Bacon’s figures cannot perceive each other or their surroundings. They are devoid of memory and insight. In the words of Deleuze, they “trundle about fitfully without ever leaving their circle”.

And Bacon’s figures are animal in another way. Like David Cronenburg, who wishes to host a beauty pageant of all that is beneath the skin, Bacon strove to release the head from out of or behind the human face. Humanity was a facade for Bacon: there must be, he felt, something beyond it. “I’ve always hoped in a sense to be able to paint the mouth like Monet painted a sunset.” Whereas Soutine and Rembrandt made the animal carcase appear human, Bacon does the opposite by painting the head beyond the face, the meat behind the skin.

Sunday, November 02, 2008


The biography of the kipper is a woolly and often apocryphal one. Each starts life as a herring, of course, and its life-story is similar to that of its nearest relatives the bloater and the buckling. It is gutted, butterflied (but not filleted), salted and dried in a very smoky chamber at room temperature. (The bloater and the buckling, by contrast, retain their guts when smoked, and the buckling is actually cooked by the smoking process) This much we know; but where did the kipper originate?

My dad and I visited the Northumberland coast the other week. There is a small fishing port there, just twenty or so miles from the Scottish border, called Seahouses. It hosts a terrific fishing pub, a small harbour and some biting winds, and it also claims to be the home of the kipper. One day (or so the story goes) a girl with dexterous fingers who had travelled down from Scotland to gut fish left a batch of herrings in a smoky room, and lo, the kipper was born. Or so the story goes.

If it doesn’t already exist, I might try my hand at writing a history of herring fishing one day. It was once an extraordinarily productive industry. In the late eighteenth century, around 60 billion fish were caught in the Atlantic and its eastern seas, and in 1913, 90 million fish were landed at Lowestoft and Yarmouth alone. The season would start in the Scottish waters, then the herring would move south, pursued by the fishermen, past Northumberland and East Yorkshire, towards the Suffolk coast, where the season would end. (Even the south coast would enjoy a brief herring harvest: the Dorset towns of Langport Herring and Chaldon Herring tell their own story.)

Herrings are fickle; you think you’ve worked them out, and then they confound you. W.G. Sebald explains that

it has been supposed that variations in the level of light and the prevailing winds influence the course of their wanderings, or geomagnetic fields, or the shifting marine isotherms, but none of these speculations has proved verifiable. For this reason, those who go in pursuit of herring have always relied on their traditional knowledge, which draws upon legend, and is based on their own observation of facts such as the tendency of the fish, swimming in even, wedge-shaped formations, to reflect a pulsating glow skyward when the sunlight falls at a particular angle.

The herring industry’s harvest reached such epic proportions in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that surpluses of herrings were sometimes left on beaches to rot in the summer sun (“affording the terrible sight of Nature suffocating on its own surfeit”). Since herring fishing is a seasonal business, the preservation of fish for the winter months became necessary to avoid this sort of waste. Our Scottish fish-gutter may not have realised, but curing, salting and smoking fish would become a hugely profitable affair.

But the Seahouses story doesn’t ring true. The etymology of the word "kipper" (which once described the salting, rather than the smoking, of the fish) pre-dates it by centuries. Thomas Nash, East Anglian author of picaresque dramas, describes a similar story as early as 1599. There are many such stories, and all of them claim that kippering was the result of an accident by simple folk. Such is the mystique we place around this dish.

But the north-east has perfected the art of smoking herrings. At the risk of going all Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, the kippers we bought in Craster were sublime, the best we'd eaten. The fish were fatty, and had been thoroughly cured, but only lightly smoked. We bought ten pairs, all but two of which have been gobbled up. Perhaps I should fulfil my new yearls resolution of smoking a couple of herrings (with a bread-bin as smoking chamber) after all.

(My apologies for the paucity of posts recently btw - I am entirely without internet, due to a defective wireless widget. Keep looking in - normal service will resume soon)