Blakespotting: August 2016

Unless you’re part of the Donald Trump race relations team, August was probably a quiet month for you. Certainly in the world of Blake news that was the case, even though this is the month that marks Blake’s death in 1827. Despite that fact, any major events seem to be waiting for a much bigger release in September – so much so that the beginning of August was dominated by actor Kit Harington, more famous for his role of “you know nothing” Jon Snow, promoting a new car – the Infiniti Q60 – with words from Blake’s “The Tyger”. You’ll have to wait until 2017 to see whether the Q60 really rivals the BMW 4 Series, but in the meantime you can enjoy Harington’s transfer of poetic appeal to the 400 hp machine in the clip below (and the full version does have nearly the entire poem, which is kind of impressive).

The 12 August marked the anniversary of Blake’s death and, as is traditional, the Blake Society marked his life at the memorial in Bunhill Fields. There will probably be a much more ecstatic celebration of his life in September as part of the Big Blake Project. I’ll be covering the forthcoming “Blakefest” in Sussex in more detail next month which – fingers crossed – will be a major event (and, hopefully, a recurring one). In August, however, it looked as though it was running into some difficulties as the ticketed event – which hopes to attract at least 5,000 visitors – failed to get financial backing from the local council. Another big event which I’ll be returning to in October, but which began to attract a lot of attention online, is the prospective opening of what has been billed as the “world’s largest William Blake gallery“, to be launched by John Windle in San Francisco. What that will actually mean remains to be determined, but Windle’s enthusiasm for Blake is certainly not in doubt.

Rick Pushinsky published his response to Blake’s eighteenth-century collection of poems in August. Songs of Innocence and of Experience: A Study Guide, is a series of beautiful photographs of found and fabricated sculptures, interpreted through the prism of Blake’s imagination. Several of them can be seen at www.pushinsky.com/project/songs-of-innocence/. Another very promising release was Michael Hughes’ novel, The Countenance Divine which, according to Paraic O’Donnell in The Guardian, “is a debut of high ambition that marks the arrival of a considerable talent” in its interweaving of narratives involving a blind Milton in 1666, Jack the Ripper and the Whitechapel murders of 1888, and Blake labouring over his illuminated books in 1790.

Musically, the artist P.J. Sauerteig (aka Slow Dakota) gave a fascinating interview in which he indicated the considerable influence of Blake on his work – not surprising for an album where the opening track deals with a man who submits his song to an angel, only to see it not selected in a contest organised by God. With that lead in, The Ascension of Slow Dakota is now firmly on my must-hear list. U2 has confirmed that the follow up to Songs of Innocence (perhaps one of the most disliked albums of all time because Apple forced iOS users to download it to their devices) will be Songs of Experience. There are few details as yet, other than the new album will be accompanied by a world tour in 2017.

Blakespotting: July 2016

Ronald Searle: image from A Grain of Sand, 1964.
Ronald Searle: image from A Grain of Sand, 1964.

The monthly roundup of sightings of William Blake in the media.

July began with a delightful tribute to drawings created by Ronald Searle for a movie for UNICEF, entitled A Grain of Sand. The first part of the film includes a narration of Blake’s Auguries of Innocence over Searle’s animation, while the second part features live footage depicting the day in the life of a Tunisian boy. The film doesn’t seem to be available (at least in any easily accessible format) but was made, according to the BFI database, by the UN in 1960 to illustrate the problems of overpopulation and the care of children throughout the world.

In Derry, Northern Ireland, award-winning artist Aislinn Cassidy staged an exhibition of her work, “The Sick Rose“, at the Playhouse Theatre. A science graduate and teacher, Cassidy draws parallels between the diffusion of colour in various substances – including the living form of roses – and draws on the religious, political and social symbolism of Blake’s poem. The exhibition was shown in mid-July at the Playhouse and is due to go on to the North West Regional College in September. Another artist showing work inspired by Blake was Emre Namyeter, whose various lightboxes on display in Istanbul drew upon the famous quotation from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell: “If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, Infinite.”

One of my favourite snippets from July was that the half brother of Barack Obama, Mark Obama Ndesandjo, has released an album entitled Reflections on William Blake. Ndesandjo, who lives in Shenzen, China, and is an accomplished pianist, has made two other albums as well as written a more famous memoir in which he accused Obama Snr of abuse. On his web site, he describes the source of inspiration for his album on Blake as a visit to the Tate, but I have yet to track copies of it down.

Staying with the musical theme, a concert at Chestnut Hill, Philadelphia, included a performance of Louis Andriessen’s Ahania Weeping as part of an evening of music devoted to Jeffrey Dinsmore, a musician who worked with Andriessen and others before his unexpected death in 2014. Meanwhile, in preparation for the Blakefest due to take place in Sussex in September, the music critic Chris Roberts traced some of Blake’s influences on popular music, while U2 confirmed a new 2017 tour and album entitled Songs of Experience.

During July, the photographer Rick Pushinsky published a collectionSongs of Innocence, inspired by the illuminated book of the same name, interweaving photos of found objects with fragments of Blake’s verse. The end of the month saw a one-off performance of Luke Welch’s play, Waiting for Robert, in Bournemouth as a follow up to the Big Blake project that took place this year. This is another one to track down, though according to the synopsis it centres around the struggles of Catherine Blake and William’s patron John [sic] Hayley, chasing the artist for a commission as William is haunted by the spectre of his Ghost of a Flea, which he believes only his dead brother can banish.

Blakespotting: June 2016

death_stranding111The monthly roundup of Blake sightings in the media.

June began as such an innocent month for Blake spotters. The Guardian reminded us that Blake, along with Yeats, Joyce and Eliot, was a primary inspiration for the brilliant Irish singer-songwriter Van Morrison, paying homage to the Romantic artist and poet in “Summertime in England”, while Vice magazine included an interview with King’s Cross poet Aidan Dun, an often neglected writer who I first encountered in the mid-nineties following  Iain Sinclair’s comparison of Dun’s Vale Royal with the works of Blake.

The anniversary of Allen Ginsberg’s birth on June 3 saw a number of paeans to the celebrated Beat poet, many of which noted Blake as one of his most important sources of inspiration, such as the post on Rubber Tramp Artist and Garrison Keillor’s The Writer’s AlmanacA few days later, the Blake Society invited anyone in Felpham to join them at the cottage where William and Catherine had once lived for tea and conversation, celebrating the fact that their home had been purchased by a charitable trust at the end of 2015, saving the place where Blake wrote the words to the hymn ‘Jerusalem’ for the nation.

One of the most delightful Blake sightings for me was the trailer for a new game on the PlayStation, Death Stranding, by Hideo Kojima, one of the greatest game designers of all time. Opening with lines from Blake’s Auguries of Innocence, “To see a world in a grain of sand/And a heaven in a wild flower,/Hold infinity in the palm of your hand/And eternity in an hour”, the three-minute clip invited a series of obsessive close-readings worthy of the finest biblical scholars as publications such as PC GamerArs Technica and PSLS tried to work out what the hell it all meant – introducing a new audience to the words of Blake in the process.

On June 16, Jennifer Davis Michael published a very neat piece of journalistic work puncturing a myth which has long been a favourite of mine: that Donald Trump has copies of the Proverbs of Hell on the wall of his library in Trump Tower. I first encountered this urban legend in Mike Goode’s article on “Blakespotting” (a title I have shamelessly exploited since I read it in 2006), and Michael shows how the original piece in the New Yorker could not have referred to Trump Tower. I shall – shamefacedly this time – add my own small correction to Michael’s excellent piece. She observes that Roger Whitson used the Trump anecdote in a blog post he published for an MLA panel – Roger actually got the story from me which I included in a book we wrote together in 2013.

Blake was the subject of a typically superb episode of Radio 4’s In Our Time, presented by Melvyn Bragg with guests Jon Mee, Sarah Haggarty and Jonathan Bate, which I heartily recommend any Blake fans listen to. If your curiosity is piqued still further, you can also take the quiz to see which pop groups Blake has inspired.

Some other beautiful, Blakean bits and pieces included a limited edition of plates from Songs of Innocence and of Experience printed by Michael Phillips, a trance version of “The Tyger” by Tiger Tooth, a new album by singer-songwriter John Paul White entitled Beulah, two fascinating articles on Blake as biological visionary and his influence on the great collector Paul Mellon,and a review of Bob Rodgers’ new book, The Devil’s Party: Who Killed The Sixties?which takes as its subject the two celebrated University of Toronto professors, Northrop Frye and Marshall McLuhan.

If June began as a song of innocence, however, it ended as one of experience. The UK referendum on whether to leave the European Union revealed a nation deeply divided, and – inevitably perhaps – the Blake/Parry hymn ‘Jerusalem’ was often invoked, usually on the side of those who believed that it was right to vote leave and take back control of Britain’s borders. The blog On an overgrown path, republished a post from the 2012 London Olympics as to why the hymn’s origins in 1916 were not necessarily as Blake would have wished them, while Fintan O’Toole argued in The Irish Times that many who invoked both ‘Jerusalem’ and Shakespeare’s famous speech on ‘This scepter’d isle’ frequently misunderstand the meanings of both texts. The culture wars for ‘Jerusalem’ and what it means are likely to continue for a very long time.

 

Blakespotting – April/May, 2016

O THOU with dewy locks, who lookest down
Through the clear windows of the morning, turn
Thine angel eyes upon our western isle,
Which in full choir hails thy approach, O Spring!
(“To Spring”, Poetical Sketches, 1789)

Blake once wrote that in Jerusalem that after “three years slumber on the banks of the Ocean” he was ready to display his giant forms to the public once more. Zoamorphosis has had a year’s slumber since I left the banks of the Ocean, but my Spring resolution is to start writing about Blake more regularly.

Blake biography coverRegarding recent and upcoming events, for those in London on May 25, the Blake Society and Waterstone’s will be presenting a talk by Tobias Churton on “The Religion of William Blake”. Churton, a composer and writer as well as a lecturer in Freemasonry at the University of Exeter Centre for the Study of Esotericism, has produced various films and books on the Rosicrucianism, Gnosticism, Aleister Crowley and, in 2015, published Jerusalem! The Real Life of William Blake. He will be discussing Blake’s own esotericism at the Picadilly branch of Waterstones.

(As a brief aside, for anyone interested in events taking place in Blake’s very own Jerusalem-Babylon, the Londonist has a wonderful collection of links tagged under William Blake.)

The end of April saw the premiere concerts in Pimlico and Framlingham, performed by Trinity Laban Conservatoire’s a capella ensemble, Rubythroat, of Dark Disputes and Artful Teasing, a song cycle composed by Julian Marshall and based on Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience. Marshall’s notes to the work describe it as somewhere between “American spiritual” and “a more genteel legato”.

For Blake scholars, the William Blake Archive has added searchable editions of the forty issues of Blake/An Illustrated Quarterly that were published between 1980 and 1990. BIQ has long been the leading publication devoted to Blake’s work, and the latest issues are part of the ongoing project at the Archive to make the journal freely available to the public.

On the web, there have been some interesting sightings of Blake in recent weeks. The New Yorker includes a profile of the poet and rapper Kate Tempest, who describes her work as influenced by William Blake and the Wu-Tang Clan and there’s a delightful video published by the Khan Academy and Tate in which Maurice Sendak, author of Where The Wild Things Are (the first book I can remember reading), discusses the inspiration of William Blake and how he loves Blake despite the fact that he often doesn’t know what the Romantic poet and artist was talking about. Meanwhile, while working on a photo shoot for Esquire magazine, the actor Idris Elba took out time to recite Blake’s poem “London”, filmed by Tom Craig and Alex F. Webb.

Finally, it’s worth pointing out that the phrase “Blakespotting” was taken from an excellent 2006 article by Mike Goode, in which he referred to a feature originally published in Vanity Fair in 2003 on the “library dining room” at Trump Tower. Ben McGrath, the author of the Vanity Fair piece, observed that there were framed proverbs from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, including “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom”. I’ve been thinking about that proverb a lot in recent weeks, and really hope that Blake could see something about the presumptive presidential nominee that a whole host of us might be overlooking at the moment…

William Blake’s Birthday Present

Blake-Cottage

On behalf of the Blake Society.

This Friday, 28 November is William Blake’s birthday and we’re organising a surprise present.

To say Happy Birthday to Mr Blake, please ask everyone you know to donate £1 by texting FEET111 to 70070 from a mobile phone (or you can make a more generous donation by selecting any number between 1 and 9 for the last digit, eg FEET117 donates £7 pounds).

The funds will be used to buy Blake’s Cottage on the Sussex coast where he wrote the words for our national anthem Jerusalem : And Did Those Feet …

Blake’s Cottage will become a home for artists, authors, thinkers, and anyone who shares with Blakea belief that Imagination is Britain’s gift and duty to the world.

Blake is our genius whose influence on the arts, poetry and creativity reverberates around the globe today. Yet 257 years after his birth, he still does not have a home in this ‘green and pleasant land’.

Cottage-in-MiltonWe will change that, creating a home for Blake, for visitors young & old, for everyone in the world who believes in the primacy of the Imagination – The Only Nation Is The Imagination!

So what better way to celebrate Blake’s birthday than to push ajar the door to his Cottage? We have already raised £92,000, so kick open the door a little more with your FEET111 The phone operators generously give on the whole amount of your gift to our registered charity without deduction.

So on Blake’s birthday help us open a Visionary Home where we can look forward to the pitter patter of feet and the fire of chariots for generations to come.

www.BlakeCottage.org

 

Golgonooza in Felpham

Blakes' cottage
The Blakes’ cottage at Felpham, image from The Blake Society

This weekend, the Golgonooza Festival will be taking place in Felpham, running from 18-20 September. The aim of the festival is to celebrate our cultural heritage, old and new, in the village where Blake lived from 1800-1803. It was during this time that he began work on his epic poem, Milton, and he described the village as a place where “Heaven opens here on all sides her golden gates”.

The Festival is part of the Big Blake Project, an umbrella project that brings together the Big Blake trail, Big Blake arts, Blake’s Cottage and the Golgonooza Festival itself. Set up by Rachel Searle, the project celebrates Blake’s life and work, regenerating culture and arts with a particular focus on public spaces around Felpham and Bognor Regis.

Among those participating in the Festival are the punk poet Attila the Stockbroker, the children’s writer K.M. Lockwood, and the storyteller Abbie Palanche. You can find out more details about the event at http://thebigblakeproject.org.uk/golgoonoza/.

As part of its efforts to emphasise Blake’s connections to the village, the Big Blake Project is also involved with the Blake Society in a plan to raise £520,000 via crowdfunding to purchase the cottage where Blake lived with his wife Catherine. The cottage came onto the market last year, the first time it has been available since 1928.

The Blake Society has until October 31st to raise the money needed and, if successful, will place the cottage in a charitable trust to be held in perpetuity for the benefit of the nation. The campaign is endorsed by Sir Andrew Motion, Philip Pullman, Stephen Fry, Tracy Chevalier, Russell Brand, Alan Moore, Cosmo Sheldrake and Jeremy Reed. You can find more details, as well as how to donate, at http://www.blakesociety.org/blakecottage/.

Apple, Blake and Songs of Innocence

U2's Songs of Innocence at the iPhone 6 launch. Image from 9to5Mac
U2’s Songs of Innocence at the iPhone 6 launch. Image from 9to5Mac

It’s not often that a writer on Blake gets an excuse to link to the biggest technology event of the year. In case you haven’t heard, Apple yesterday announced the launch of the new iPhone 6 (“bigger than bigger” according to their site) and Apple Watch. And the connection to William Blake, who died a couple of centuries before he could get his hands on either device? The release of U2’s new album, Songs of Innocence, free to iTunes users.

The link to Blake is not entirely out of the blue. Steve Jobs was once described as having an “inexhaustible interest” in the works of Blake, while U2 have more than a passing interest in the Romantic poet: the lyrics of “Beautiful Ghost” from the album are Blake’s “Introduction” to Songs of Experience. Obviously that link has remained engrained somewhere, leading to the latest album being made available exclusively via Apple this week.

Not everyone has been impressed by U2’s invocation of Blake, however (and John Doran’s opinion piece at http://thequietus.com/articles/16217-bono-u2-songs-of-experience is particularly worth reading).

As the equivalent of a graphic designer of his day, it’s pretty clear to me that Blake would have been a Mac user today (for all that I secretly desire him to have been a Linux hacker) – at least when he could have afforded any kind of computer. I’ll follow with a review on the U2 album shortly, but in the meantime you can listen to it at https://itunes.apple.com/us/album/songs-of-innocence/id915794155.