Wednesday 17 April 2024

'Cute' and Somerset House & 'The Cult of Beauty' at the Wellcome

 To try and lay aside my disastrous easter, I decided to check out a couple of exhibitions that I thought would go together nicely, Cute at Somerset House and The Cult of Beauty at the Wellcome Collection.

I’m not immune to cute, I’ve been to aww at the odd thing here and there, but I do find a lot of the things marketed as cute, those bulbous heads and big, sparkling eyes (and non-existent noses) to be mildly horrific. I’m also not the biggest fan of cats, so an exhibition funded by Hello Kitty’s Sanrio company may not have been exactly my thing.

There was an entire room full of Hello Kittys, with plushie upon plushie nailed to the walls and people taking selfies all over. Very much not my thing, but I did learn that Kitty herself is called Kitty White, and that she canonically lives in London. There was also a Hello Kitty disco, which was like stepping into a glitterball, with tunes chosen by Scritti-Politti’s David Gamson, I liked his picks.

I also liked an earlier room which mentioned twee-pop in the arena of cute and played songs by Orange Juice and Altered Images. Earlier parts of the exhibition also charted the rise of the cat as cute banner-holder. There were cat images known as the Brighton Cats’ from the 1870s, in which a man called Harry Pointer put the frisky felines in cute positions and took their photos. There were also some examples of Louis Wain’s cats - which I don’t think really count as cute but I have a fondness for as my local tube station is opposite a large mural of one, so they remind me of home.

Other items I enjoyed seeing were a collection of Daniel Johnston cassettes, I got the albums but never seen them in their original cassette form. There was a Pussy Riot balaclava, and a whole range of other assorted cute stuff. Despite a few unique pieces (I liked the big furry dragon monster thing) much of what was on show came from something designed by committee and mass-produced to be cute. I think that is where my ambivalence to cuteness comes from, it’s a very easy aesthetic to copy and mass-copy.

There were arguments about cuteness being able to sugar-coat a more subversive pill, that was where items like the balaclava came in. There was also an element of cuteness being a very welcoming, comforting thing - that it touches elements of childhood, of acceptance and is an allowed expression of the vulnerable. I could see these sides and their appeal but more than anything else, cute seemed more a consumerist trap then anything else. A conclusion re-enforced by the large, bustling gift shop.

A certain brand of politician must hate (or want to make hate-noises at) the Wellcome Collection because their exhibitions are frequently loudly and proudly woke. The Cult of Beauty is no different and uses its items to tell a story of beauty that has no set truths, varies across place and time and has been subject to colonial and commercial influences.

It starts with a Naomi Woolf quote, which I think is brave and the first item that caught my attention was a bust of Nefertiti. She gave herself this name and it meant ‘the beautiful one has come’. I like that confidence, and if the bust is a reliable indicator, she was not lying. There was another bust later, modelled in Queen Elizabeth I but with half of it as a mouldering skull with maggots in - the point of the bust was to train lookers out of vanity.

In that same area was a print of a windmill designed to grind ugly wives beautiful (rather like the windmill to grind old people young in Kit Smart’s The Midwife) and a picture of a woman who drank gold to keep herself young and probably died of it. That’s next to a modern beauty product with gold as its special ingredient. I also learned about St Rose of Lima, who used to rub peppercorns on her face to make her ugly, as she believed her beauty was a distraction from Christ’s. 

There were some fun collections of various historical beauty aids. There was a full kit for the eighteenth century woman wanting to youthen herself up with cheek plumpers, breast plumpers, mouse fur eyebrows and a pot of mouches to hide smallpox scars. There was a moustache nightcap, which I remember General Melchett having in a scene in Blackadder, and a mug with a moustache-guard for the heavily moustachioed gentleman. 

Things got more serious as we got to the modern day. There was a section about the colonial impact of beauty, with adverts for older and more modern skin whiteners, and a catalogue of beauty by race. There was a bit about cosmetic surgery that I moved through pretty quickly and a life sized Barbie, showing how ridiculous the doll would look as a real person.

Finally there were some of those artworks that get commissioned for exhibitions that I never really get. One of them was a mirror with the words, “I’ve mistaken social pressure for self expression.” Not being one of the beautiful people, and being the general kind of person I am, I’ve never really seen my body as much of a canvas for self expression. There are certain materials, colours and cuts I veer towards, I must have some sense of my personal style as I don’t walk about in a mishmash of whatever is around but generally my body is the thing that lugs me from one exhibition to another. 

Both exhibitions ended with this queasy feeling that something that is natural, a fondness for the vulnerable and slightly infantile, a desire to look good in our own eyes and others, have been mercilessly hijacked by the money making forces and that any true autonomy is pretty small. I’m not sure what to do with that information, but hair and beauty adverts seem more aggressive since.

Wednesday 10 April 2024

Dis-easter: Or, What I did on my holidays.


I thought it may be pleasant this Easter to visit my family and then head off to Lichfield, as my last visit had been nearly ten years ago. The plan was to visit Johnson’s Birthplace Museum, see some of the other sites of Johnson’s childhood and to visit the grave of Sarah, Michael and Nathaniel Johnson - partly out of interest and partly because it would help with the preparation of my novel about Samuel and Nathaniel.

My difficulties started early. My coach to go see my sister usually takes about three and a half hours. However, we had got near Luton airport and the coach pulled into the hard shoulder, then the driver got out. We sat for a little while, wondering what was happening and then a policeman came in, said the driver was ill and we needed to wait for a new one. We were loaded on two other passing coaches and taken to Luton airport. While Luton airport isn’t the most salubrious place to spend two and half hours, it was a beautiful day and the sky was lovely. 

The part with my family was very nice, then I boarded a train to Lichfield via Birmingham. Everything was fine until Birmingham, but then I had to get a rail-replacement bus to Lichfield City.  While this took twice as long, it was actually pretty great. The bus weaved in and around all the small towns and cities between the two and I saw a number of places that played a part in the Johnson’s early life. I also overheard a man on a phone asking if Deidre had received her Gretchen-chicker-shitter yet… I have no idea what one of those is, but the phrase has lingered with me.

I jumped off the bus and immediately came across St John’s Hospital, the chapel of which, Sarah, Michael and Nathaniel went to church when the roof of St Mary’s was being fixed. The chapel is newer than the one they knew, but it was still worth going to see. I wandered about, seeing Bore Street, where Michael had grown up, having moved to Lichfield as a young boy from a place called Cubely. Using the map from Young Samuel Johnson, I also discovered that his friend, Edmund Hector’s house is either now an Oxfam Bookshop or a Greggs - I hope it’s the Greggs, it’s the romantic in me.

I walked into the Birthplace Museum, to find that is is shut till the middle of April and only the bookshop was open. A little put out, as that was the main purpose of my visit, I made the best of things, having a nice chat with the volunteer there and comparing volunteering stories from the two Johnson houses. I then went across to St Mary’s church. The church itself is, again, not the one Samuel would have known, he’d have known it even less now, it’s become a public library. This is the point where my memory mixed up and I should have checked my notes. I assumed that the Johnson family were buried in their local church of St Mary’s, but actually they were buried in the slightly further away church of St Michael’s. Not remembering this yet, I searched the ex-church in vain.

Still trying to make the best of things, I headed to the Cathedral, had a lovely revisit of Darwin’s house, and then decided to look for the signposted item I simply couldn’t find on my previous visit, Micheal’s Parchment Factory. I couldn’t quite understand how it was still standing, as Samuel described it in a pretty ramshackle state when he was there… but there was a signpost. I wandered around the pool, saw ‘Johnson’s Willow’, St Chad’s church and well but not even a plaque to say where the parchment factory had been. This is where I had some luck. The woman I asked about it happens to live in a house named after the factory and on the original site. She took me down a little un-named alley, which she said is one of the oldest routes in Lichfield, and showed me the place. Score a little success.

Lichfield not being much of a twenty-four-hour city, I had a few drinks in the Angel before tucking myself in at my hotel - The George, the same coaching inn I’d stayed in on my first stay. On waking, I packed my little green rucksack, putting an un-drunk can of beer at the bottom and went my merry way. I carried on, ticking off streets and areas I wanted to visit and having a coffee in a place with quite the most hideous picture of Samuel Johnson I’ve ever seen. One halloween, three years ago, the staff put a bat on him as a bowtie and it’s been that way ever since.

I went an put my body back together by enjoying a fry up at ‘The Cosy Nook’, a very nice and affordable cafe in a seventeenth century building on Dam Street, the street where Sam learnt his ABCs. I then thought I’d knit the soul and visit Lichfield Cathedral. 

Dedicated to St Chad, the cathedral is a beautiful space, filled with characterful carved heads. I visited the ‘Chad’s Head Chapel’, a small chapel built into the upper walls of the cathedral, filled with painted angels, where pilgrims used to file up and pay their respects to St Chad’s sparkly, jewel encrusted skull. I also enjoyed the Chapter House, containing a range of fascinating books and a painting from the 1240s. It was sitting there, listening to a small service being played over the tannoy that I smelt something strange. The Chapter House smelt of beer… no, I smelt of beer. The can at the bottom of my bag had burst and the beer was leaking into my clothes, my coat and my bag. 

I had to shuffle back to the front of the church where the volunteer was. Luckily, I’d already been talking to her (and a fine example of a Lichfield Jacobite she’d been) so she helped me unpack my bag, flash my now beer soaked underwear to Lichfield Cathedral and sort myself out. By now, I was done with this disastrous trip, so decided to go back to London earlier than planned.

The city centre train station being closed, I had to walk to the one further towards the edge of town. As I walked along, I saw a church, St Michael’s, and it clicked - so I went inside, saw where the other members of the Johnson family were buried and paid my respects, even if I stank of stale beer. This was a great result for the purpose of my trip but it did mess my timings up and I got onto the platform just as the train I wanted left without me, leaving me sitting for an hour in the cold and drizzle for the next train. The next train I caught should have taken me home, but the next guard hadn’t come to work, so the train had to stop at Rugby, leaving me waiting on that station for another hour, before finally catching the train home. Then, my coat got caught at the ticket barrier and I was stuck till the next person could free me.

So, my spring-soaked, intellectual wander around the childhood neighbourhoods of Samuel Johnson turned into a beer-soaked, drifting around a fairly average small English town - with a few more pictures of Samuel Johnson on the wall. However, as Samuel himself said, "The pain of miscarriage is naturally proportionate to the desire of excellence.”

Wednesday 3 April 2024

Paper War! Two: The Smartiad by Samuel Derrick

 John Dennis Jr, one of Pope’s original dunces, said that he hoped to see “a Smartiad published” because he was sure “this little author” had picked his pocket because “he who would pun would pick a pocket.” Other writers felt similarly and one did indeed to create a Smartiad, that man was…Samuel Derrick.

Derrick was my first introduction to Grub Street. He is one of the key figures in Hallie Rubenhold’s Covent Garden Ladies, one of the first books about the eighteenth century I read. He was an Irish author, who seems to have been better at networking than writing. When Boswell first tried to get a meeting with Samuel Johnson, it was through Derrick that he most expected success. Johnson was fond of Derrick, and used to cause arguments when he “eagerly maintained that Derrick had merit as a writer.” Derrick later used his social connections to take over from Beau Nash as the Master of Ceremonies at Bath. Interestingly, one of Derrick’s works was a translation of Cyrano de Bergerac’s A Voyage from the Moon. He may also have been the writer behind Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies - a sort of ‘what prostitute’ guide and the subject of Rubenhold’s book.

I suppose it was the release of The Smartiad that prompted Johnson’s critical response that “there is no settling the point of precedency between a louse and a flea.” It’s an interesting response. He was known to be fond of Derrick, and he also had a friendship with Christopher Smart, later visiting him in Mr Potter’s private insane asylum and being thanked in Jubilate Agno. I think the key to Johnson’s comment is his choice of insects, both of them blood-suckers. (Incidentally he was asked about the relative merits of Derrick and Smart, meaning Derrick is the crawling louse and Smart the leaping flea). 

Johnson didn’t have much time for paper wars and the like. When Charles Churchill ragged him, he ignored it. When Samuel Foote was reported to be preparing an impression of him, he bought a stout cane and let Foote know he had it. When people asked him if he’d written a piece for Goldsmith in a paper war about kinds of comedy, he said that Goldsmith was clever enough to have been able to write it and stupid enough to publish it. He clearly thought that people taking little bites out of each other via periodicals was stupid, and if two men he was fond of were prepared to do it, they were just biting insects.

What of The Smartiad itself? Is it any good and what does it tell us about Smart?

The copy I read was an online digitised version from the British Library. The original owner of the copy took the liberty of filling in some lines and trying to fix the poem and “fill up the four lame lines.” I do love the fact that some reader tried to make it scan better. It’s certainly less smooth than The Hilliad, sometimes a little herky-jerky for eighteenth century verse. It also doesn’t seem to have any actual jokes in it.

Rather than painting a picture of Smart - and there was a lot to work with, Smart was short, dumpy, dressed in women’s clothing, given up a respectable career in academia for shift work and was a known drunkard… Derrick uses none of this. Nor does Derrick really create a mock epic like Smart had, with deities of grime and muck worshipping him. Instead, Derrick tries to give some advice in verse.

Derrick regrets that Smart lifted his pen unfairly against a decent writer and that he was unduly harsh to Hill. “Poet Beware! - - - Who blasts the Just Man’s Fame/ Is base, - - - the Mark of universal Blame.” He argues that Smart had no reason to lambast Hill, that the review that Hill gave “Styled thee Man of Parts, of Wit and Sense”, that it was a fair review and not provocative of such retaliation. This is a point I actually agree with Derrick on, Hill’s review actually seemed pretty reasonable. 

He then advices Smart to get out the writing game because, “Mean are all poets, and as poor as mean/ Take thou the Pestle then, - - - and lay down the pen” (which doesn’t really rhyme.. but hey). He suggests Smart should try and make a name for himself in botany and become a member of the Royal Scientific Society as Hill has done.

He then says that Smart’s attack was too severe, that it was cruel and unwarranted, that Smart had only written it to bring himself up and that such motivation will never succeed. Finally, he describes how such scrapping and fighting may serve Smart for a while, he be forgotten compared to true heroes, only to die like everyone else and be forgotten.

Smart never responded to The Smartiad, nor did he write a second part of The Hilliad. This isn’t because he was so shamed by Derrick’s poem, but because he was ill. Shortly after this illness, he wrote a prologue for Fielding’s translation of Molière, The Mock Doctor where he renounced writing under pseudonyms anymore. This was a big deal, as silly pseudonyms were one of Smart’s trademark devices. He also then stopped writing his Midwife papers and drifted away from his Mother Midnight review shows, though they carried on without him. The next few years were hard for Smart, largely translation (most notably his prose Horace) and other typical hackwork and piecework. Perhaps Derrick’s words of warning did hit their target.

Personally, I feel that Smart would have today been diagnosed with a bipolar disorder. His bursts of creativity and productivity cycling into his mysterious illnesses. If so, The Hilliad was written whilst on the rush of a manic phase, which would have been followed by a depressive phase when he was reported ill and then a stable phase where he put those resolutions he’d made in the depressive phase into action. Certainly the soul searching described in his Hymn to the Supreme Being. 

However, who is the greater poet between Smart and Derrick… Smart, no question.