Lucy and Todd

Archive for January, 2018|Monthly archive page

Carrington’s Letters — edited by Anne Chisolm

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on January 22, 2018 at 1:34 pm



Ah, the Bloomsbury crowd. There must be fewer people every year who covet details of their every ménage à trois. They produced one great writer: Virginia Woolf. The rest were hangers-on and lazybones.

‘The world is rather tiresome,’ wrote Lytton Strachey, one of the lesser figures, ‘…ladies in love with buggers, and buggers in love with womanisers, and the price of coal going up too. Where will it all end?’ This languid, elusive companion was to be the love of Dora Carrington’s life – and the source of much pain. She describes herself sitting ‘like a poached egg’ on his blue chair, soaking up his ‘unreality, and coldness’. Within weeks of his death in 1932, she shot herself with the gun she customarily used to hunt his dinner.

Carrington trained at the Slade but, under the cloying influence of the Bloomsbury crowd’s bent for decorative arts, ended up spending a good deal of her time producing pub signs, trompe l’oeil glass-paintings, book plates, tiles and lampshades for the Omega Workshop, and book covers she was never happy with for the Hogarth Press. But she was primarily consumed by her adoration of Lytton.

He tolerated this unexpected passion good-naturedly, and benefited from it hugely. Carrington tended to his every need for more than a decade and a half, including the excremental at times of severe illness. ‘Please start taking your Sanatogen instantly,’ she pleaded.

For his part, Strachey encouraged her to paint, and to read, in between jaunts to London where he badmouthed her to the ‘Woolves’ (Leonard and Virginia) and shared her letters with enemies. Indiscretion, betrayal and deceit were the Bloomsbury set’s meat and potatoes.

Introduced to us here by a sexploitative cover photo reminiscent of naturist magazines, Carrington first seems a bit of a flibbertigibbet who does not know herself. Like the rest of the Bloomsbury bunch, she’s a name-dropping, skinny-dipping, punt-hogging, house-hunting, knee-jerk Jew-hating snob, and a habitual, Trump-style, self-appointed evaluator of ‘attractiveness’.

She and Lytton sport sickening epistolary nicknames: he Count Lytoff, grandfather, Bugger-wug, Old Egotistical HumBug, and Toad in the Hole; she Doric, Mopsa, incubus, Pollypuss, your pen wiper, votre grosse bébé, and periwinkle Crinkle Crinkle.

With the complicity of other Bloomsburyites (and lectures on virginity from their patroness, Lady Ottoline Morrell), Carrington was treated as a skittish coquette and bullied, often simultaneously, by several needy, possessive men. Everybody wanted her to just grow up and be heterosexual.

But a long honest letter to Lytton on the eve of her marriage to her major oppressor, Ralph Partridge, transforms Carrington halfway through the book. Suddenly she’s the real deal, though abject – a thinking, feeling, breathing person.

Imagining that it’s all over now with Lytton (it wasn’t), she says their friends ‘all wondered how you could’ve stood me for so long…as I didn’t understand a word of literature and we had nothing in common intellectually or physically. That was wrong… I had one of the most self abasing loves that a person could have… How I adored every hair, every curl on your beard. How I devoured you whilst you read to me at night. How I loved the smell of your face in your sponge.’

She starts to come across as endearingly confused, dreamy, fun-loving, thoughtful, tender, clingy and curious. She’s better-read than they all made out too, mentioning Blake here, Rimbaud there – though Daisy Ashford was her favourite. Amongst visual artists, she valued Goya, Cézanne and Matisse.

The letters reveal a painterly eye. ‘Does one ever see two hares fight in London?’ she asks. She preferred a nine-mile walk in the country, ‘with only a half sucked acid-drop of a moon for company’. And, ‘Do you ever go out when everything is over at night? The corn field was greeny purple, & poppies making dark black red stains, and you grabbed at them, for they seemed only stains on the waving mane of wheat, and Lane’s nightdress shone a wonderful colour in the midst of the field.”

Self-critical, she’s a much better letter-writer than she realizes. She compares Lady Ottoline’s literary salon at Garsington to ‘a lunatic asylum at tea. Everybody equally enchanted.’ She characterizes nostalgia as a form of masturbation. She mocks D. H. Lawrence. And, though a pacifist, she wishes the Germans would bomb Cheltenham, ‘of all English towns the most stagnant and over grown with seedy colonels & their wives.’

Though she liked sex with women, she complains bitterly about being female herself, loathing menstruation and being ‘tied with female encumbrances, & hanging flesh.’ Explaining why Lytton was right for her, ‘Somehow it is always easier if I am treated negatively, a little as if I was not a female.’

Parturition revolted her, and she’s even more pained by the insouciance of mothers once it’s over, looking so happy ‘with a grub in the cot’ beside them. She despised her own do-use-the-proper-butter-knife mother too, writing of ‘the sordidness of her life & the lives of all these people who live in these neat little houses with closed windows’.

Bloomsbury freed Carrington from that, but ultimately disappointed her with its incestuous hypocrisies. She herself had a real talent for love, concluding that ‘if one wasn’t reserved, and hadn’t a sense of “what is possible” one could be very fond of certainly two or three people at a time.’ In her life and letters she threw a spanner into the conventions of sexual desire. Always worth doing.



(This review first appeared in The Herald on January 14, 2018)


Fire and Fury — Michael Wolff

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on January 22, 2018 at 1:23 pm


The terms used to describe the President of the United States in this book include clown, idiot, moron and fucking moron. And those are from the people who work for him. Last weekend, defending himself against some of the many charges in Fire and Fury, Donald Trump tweeted that he is a ‘stable genius’. The jury’s out on the genius part, but he certainly belongs in a stable.

This president is the definition of a moving target. In order to get him to think about something essential, even for a single second, his helpers have to convince him that it was his idea. Except that he doesn’t have any ideas. On top of this, he has several hours of total irrationality per day, cause unknown.

Dealing with him is ‘like trying to figure out what a child wants,’ according to one member of his transition team. The last person to speak to the president, at any given moment, is the only influence on his thinking. It can take hours to get him steered in the right direction.

But. Then he goes to bed, eats a shedload of cheeseburgers, and watches right-wing cable news until he’s foaming at the mouth. (Trump’s supposed 35% base of support in the population will never see anything wrong in his conduct, because they get their ‘news’ from the same filthy outlets that he does.)

In the middle of the night he phones his billionaire pals for long rambling confabs. Any American over the age of eight knows this is not the way to run the White House, but it sounds like Trump’s mental age is lower than that.

He eschews preparation or scripts and ad-libs instead, creating many a ‘wackadoo moment’, as Michael Wolff puts it. Trump prefers EOs (Executive Orders) to legislation – he seems never to have heard of the other two branches of government. And he longs for his old chums, Rudy Giuliani and Chris Christie, to join his team, but so far can’t find jobs for which they’d ever be confirmed.

Trump believes it’s perfectly okay to lie to the media, but feels they get him all wrong: ‘My exaggerations are exaggerated’. He’s fixated on Time Magazine covers, which he figures should portray him every week, and longs for the New York Times’s ‘nut job’ Maggie Haberman to write just one nice article about him, which seems unlikely.

The White House is now a cross between King Lear and an episode of “Dallas”, a maelstrom of brainlessness, founded on bigotry, vulgarity, inertia and family. Trump’s an ‘idiot surrounded by clowns’, as one insider put it. They’re all dumber than each other, and Trump’s putty in their hands. Silly putty.

Having nothing but contempt for expertise, he put his own kids in charge. ‘Jared has this’, Trump said about his son-in-law and the Russia investigation. No, Jared screwed it up. Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump, or Jarvanka as Steve Bannon named the couple, are good at putting their yuppie oar in and making everything even worse.

Psychologically incapable of taking a close look at himself, Trump never wanted to win the election. He was just hoping to expand his brand. With no real ideology, no principles either guiding or otherwise, the White House under Trump has descended into one long damage-limitation exercise.

He is tended by an undisciplined team of back-stabbers, who chase behind him, sweeping things under the carpet. They’re now all agreed that the job is to muffle him as much as possible, and stifle incoming information under the blankets of their own fear. Melania often doesn’t know where her husband is. Isn’t she lucky?

Michael Wolff, for some reason, was allowed to take a seat amongst them all in the West Wing. He was like a real fly on the wall, unwanted and unnoticed. A good writer, probably a real wit, he seems to be applying a curious restraint here, given the grand guignol he found himself in.

But he unearthed a genuine narrative in the middle of this giant political disaster, by focusing on what’s really dangerous and chilling. When the going got tough, there was Wolff, still sitting on his little sofa! By that point, everybody had probably permanently forgotten who he was, because they forget everything around that place.

This is not a gossipy book, as the Trumparatchik Sarah Huckabee Sanders has tried to characterize it, but a serious look at the predicament we’re all in, at the mercy of a mentally challenged man with his fingers on that ‘big’ nuclear button.

‘He’s a guy who really hated school’, says Bannon, Trump’s head anarchist. Trump won’t read. He can’t. Not even the shortest position paper. He’s ‘total television’. If you try to brief him on something, his eyes roll back into his head and he flees the room. He can’t even sit still for a PowerPoint.

But neither, in a real sense, do any of these people read. Kushner went to Harvard, so he may have read at least one book. Bannon seems dimly aware of Shakespeare – perhaps he thinks he’s Iago. Mike Pence, as we know, reads the bible. Does that count? Where there is no reading there is no thought.

This is quite a portrait of the ‘postliterate’ pussy-grabber-in-chief. Trump speaks of himself in the third person: he’s ‘the Trumpster’. He’s afraid everybody wants to touch his toothbrush. He finds the White House slummy, can’t work the light switches, and is phobic about its rodent problems. The bigger rats he hired himself.

He has a craving for other men’s wives, whom he occasionally wins by painstakingly convincing them of their husbands’ infidelity. He assesses everyone, including potential government appointees, by how they look: he goes for second-rate generals with plenty of ‘fruit salad’ on their chests. Just a sucker for a guy in uniform.

Our faults are not in our stars. They are in the President of the United States, and he’s moving on us like a bitch.

LE and TMcE


(This review originally appeared in The Herald on January 13, 2018.)

Books of 2017

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd, The Gloves Are Off : Thoughts on Literature on January 2, 2018 at 8:15 am

Todd McEwen’s choice:

Gila Lustiger’s We Are Not Afraid (Notting Hill Editions, £14.99), written in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris, is a ferocious evaluation of both ISIS and our governments. A must for all the complacent on your Christmas list. Buy in quantity.

David Thomson in Warner Bros (Yale University Press, £16.99) offers a compelling précis of the Hollywood studio that ‘was’ America from the 20s through the 70s: ‘America has become a tedious doom-ridden country now, but in those precious years it hated to be boring. It would kiss you if it hadn’t just washed its hair.’

Novel of the year simply has to be Lincoln in the Bardo, by the almost-can’t-stand-it incredible George Saunders (Bloomsbury, £18.99), an urgent cacophony of American confusion and rage. Regret and sorrow seep from it as rust dripping from the iron letters on a marble tomb. You’ll feel like a bug stuck on a pin, your legs wriggling. And you won’t want it to stop.


Lucy Ellmann’s choice:

How many people in the UK have been wasted, do you think, because they happened to be black? Not just wasted but trampled and tormented. Journalist and campaigner Reni Eddo-Lodge hasn’t really stopped talking to white people (yet). In Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People about Race (Bloomsbury, £16.99), she tells of Britain’s ignoble history of discrimination, the Stephen Lawrence charade, the craven prioritization of the white working-class, and the ‘white feminism’ endorsed by establishment fakes. She’s great when she’s angry. Echoing the eloquent James Baldwin (whose appearance in the film, I Am Not Your Negro, was one of the highlights of my year), Eddo-Lodge says ‘The onus is not on me to change…racism is a white problem.’ Brava! She’s begging white people to acknowledge their complicity in racism and do something about it. ‘White privilege is a manipulative, suffocating blanket of power that envelops everything we know, like a snowy day.’ Enough of these white Christmases!

(From The Herald, December, 2017)