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About penwithlit

Freelance writer and radio presenter

Ida Car (Ида Карамян 8 April 1908 – 24 December 1974) in Truro;

“In 1960 Ida Kar (1908-74) became the first photographer to have a retrospective exhibition at a major London art gallery. Her portraits offer a fascinating insight into post-war cultural life and her subjects included some of the most celebrated figures from the art world of 1950s and 1960s Europe and Russia. A number of the artists Kar photographed also included artists from the St Ives School.” as it says at

I saw this exhibition on Saturday and was truly moved at this small but fascinating exhibition and the sculptures that came with it which included Hepworth and Epstein. Lovely picture of Ida with Victor Musgrave with whom she lived in the 1940s in Cairo. Delightfully bohemian, her work is taken from the studios and ateliers of Paris and London. Even more exciting I found her photographs of St Ives in the 1950s. Her Braque portrait captures the essence of the artist-his eye sockets look as though they were a Picasso portrait brought to life. The portraits of Leach, Denis Mitchell whose reputation is still growing and Hepworth forming an armature from wire for a sculpture are all lively and moving. The original exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery is reviewed at There is a great review of her photographs at Should you get to Truro Museum at the moment there is an intriguing collection, A Century of St Ives Art 1840-1940.

The Wharf, St Ives
The Wharf, St Ives
Ida with Victor Musgrave
Ida with Victor Musgrave

Schiller “Das Mädchen aus der Fremde”

Das Mädchen aus der Fremde


In einem Tal bei armen Hirten
Erschien mit jedem jungen Jahr,
Sobald die ersten Lerchen schwirrten,
Ein Mädchen, schön und wunderbar.
Sie war nicht in dem Tal geboren,
Man wußte nicht, woher sie kam,
Und schnell war ihre Spur verloren,
Sobald das Mädchen Abschied nahm.

Beseligend war ihre Nähe,
Und alle Herzen wurden weit,
Doch eine Würde, eine Höhe
Entfernte die Vertraulichkeit.

Sie brachte Blumen mit und Früchte,
Gereift auf einer andern Flur,
In einem andern Sonnenlichte,
In einer glücklichern Natur.Beautiful-scenery-of-Saxon-Switzerland-in-Dresden-Germany-03

Und teilte jedem eine Gabe,
dem Früchte, jenem Blumen aus,
Der Jüngling und der Greis am Stabe,
Ein jeder ging beschenkt nach Haus.

Willkommen waren alle Gäste,
Doch nahte sich ein liebend Paar,
Dem reichte sie der Gaben beste,
Der Blumen allerschönste dar.Lena-Hoschek_Dirndl-HELENE_Lupi-Spuma

Friedrich von Schiller (1759-1805)

Speaking the Murderous and Marvelous – A Brief Tribute to Seamus Heaney

Thom Dawkins

ImageThis tribute was originally given at Case Western Reserve University on Friday, August 30th, several hours after learning that Seamus Heaney had passed that morning. 

Poets have a particular way of greeting one another, and it seems to always involve the same question. You’ll hear it at every AWP conference, every poetry reading, and every shady bar where poets have a tendency to gather.

Who do you read?

It’s a variation of the question we’ve been asked to consider today, and that variation makes for a ridiculous question. First of all, the tense of that question is strange – Who DO you read –  and second it ignores the fact that any poet or devoted reader of poetry is at all times reading everything that we can get our hands on.

Or at least we should be.

But no matter who asks the question, I always start with Seamus Heaney…

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Raising questions about Odilon Redon (1840-1916)

  • A_Edgar-Poe_(Devant_le_noir_soleil_de_la_Melancolie,_Lenore_apparait

    « L’artiste vient à la vie pour un accomplissement qui est mystérieux. Il est un accident. Rien ne l’attend dans le monde social. » What exactly did Redon mean by this remark? In general he had a penchant for the mysterious, the half defined, chiaroscuro and the symbolic image which might suggest several meanings at the same time. This very shy man sought for many years to gain recognition and attained it through his literary friends but not at first in the way that he had sought it. Perhaps he had a tendency not to want to gain recognition except in a manner which he found acceptable. This he attained quite late in life among the artists that are known as the Nabis.

  • For many years in his charcoals and lithographs he struggled to express inner fears and traumas that were the result of a difficult childhood with by his uncle. As the French version of Wikipedia expresses it:-  “D’une nature fragile, il est confié à une nourrice puis à son oncle, à la campagne, et passe son enfance entre Bordeaux et le domaine de Peyrelebade, près de Listrac dans le Médoc ; c’est là vers six ans « en plein isolement de la campagne » que les fusains voient le jour, dans cette nature pleine de clairs-obscurs et de nuances propres à éveiller chez le jeune garçon ce monde étrange et fantasmagorique, ce sentiment subjectif qui est l’essence même de son œuvre, et qui est encore aujourd’hui une énigme. ” The strange and suggestive charcoals emerged from his experience of life in the moist, atmospheric wine region that now produces bottles of fruity Médoc from €11.00 to €69.73.

    Peyrelebade by Redon
    Peyrelebade by Redon
  • The images which Redon made during his earlier “noir” period when his use of black and white was an attempt to struggle against a form of naturalism of which he disapproved. He might be considered a late romantic or on the other hand a very early surrealist. His imagery  reflected his obsessions with mortality and his interests in Hindu mysticism.
    Pierre Bonnard by Odilon Redon
    Pierre Bonnard by Odilon Redon

    Armand Clavaud his close friend was interested in botany and there is evidence of his influence in terms of images which might be viewed under the microscope. These were becoming capable of increasing resolution and chromatic aberration, which might have interested Odilon Redon might be compensated. After all this was the time when small micro-organisms were the subject of research in Paris by Pasteur.

    Maurice Dennis by Odilon Redon
    Maurice Dennis by Odilon Redon
  • Were the traumatic images in the charcoals and lithographs an early exloration that might be associated with some early form of psychoanalysis? In some way theredownload (3) appears to have been a kind of theraputic working through of dreams and images( part-objects) associated with infant trauma. The Zeitgeist of romanticism included a renewed respect for childhood fantasy and philosophers such as David Hartley (1705 – 28 August 1757) who was an English philosopher and founder of ideas of association and psychic structure. Of course Charcot  (See  )twas using hypnosis to treat hysteria at Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital where Sigmund Freud was studying and researching in 1885. Charcot used drawings and photography widely in his, now shocking and unacceptable, observations of his (2)
  • Some of the spider imagery seems to evoke uncanny associations with Kafka’s work
  • What were the factors which moved Redon towards the brilliant and beautiful colours of his later pastels?

    Golden Cell
    Golden Cell
  • To quote Fr. Wikipedia again “Les années 1890 et le début du siècle sont une période de transformation, de mutation, c’est l’abandon de ses « noirs », il commence à utiliser lepastel et l’huile, et la couleur domine les œuvres du reste de sa vie. Eve est son premier nu féminin réalisé d’après modèle. En 1899, il est présenté parMaurice Denis aux Nabis, groupe d’artistes qui compte parmi ses membres Gauguin.”

Berlin, city of archives

In a Berlin Wunderkammer:-

Helen Finch

Museum of Industrial Objects

Berlin archives everything

I travelled from the German Literary Archive in Marbach to the archives of the Akademie der Künste in Berlin two weeks ago, making it an August buried in carbon copies, contracts with amendments scrawled on them, occasionally angry letters, random bills and ominous pronouncements from the Ministerium für Staatssicherheit. Archival work is not what I feel trained to do; I started my life in books as a close reader of texts, and that’s still where I feel my skills lie. For Sebald’s Bachelors, I moved beyond text to theory, but for this next project, I am moving beyond text to paratexts and into the dark terrain of biography: trawling through reams of correspondence to try and discover the origins and careers of individual texts.
Every author’s archive is different; Sebald’s is notoriously neatly curated, others are completely exhaustive, others thin and reticent, others random, with…

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A Very British Killing: The Death of Baha Mousa by A.T.Williams

Almost ten years ago on a Sunday morning back in September 2003, British Troops raided a hotel in Basra. It was a difficult period in the occupation, six months on from the U.S. led invasion. Temperatures were more than 50 degrees centigrade. Members of the Queen’s Lancashire Regiment (QLR) took ten suspects in for questioning from a hotel in the vicinity of insurgent weaponry. The Iraqis were hooded, plasticuffed, forced into stress positions and subjected to karate chops and kidney punches by the British. Other men and officers watched, walked by or wondered at the stench that resulted from vicious punishment. After 36 hours of torture, a 26 year-old hotel receptionist lay dead by asphyxiation. His grossly disfigured body bore 93 individual injuries. There are now in the region of another 250 individuals, men and women, whose families are making legal claims to have been killed in further encounters with British patrols or prison guards.A Very

Concern about what had happened, rather than why, quickly went upward through the ranks after the event. Those initially reporting the death, showing concern included a TA Intelligence officer whose normal specialism lay in the Russian language and East-West issues. The personalities involved are carefully delineated including the able and ambitious CO, Colonel Mendonca and his adjutant, Captain Moutarde. The latter had to report the incident to the Special Investigation Branch of the Royal Military Police. The description of the roles and responsibilities various officers and how their reactions combines detail with the pace of a thriller. The ambiguous functions of the investigators, the RMP, are clearly explained and the high level of feelings were also fresh in the recent memories of all the troops in the wake of the six members of the police that died in the horrific attack on the Basra police station.

The Author A.T.Williams
The Author A.T.Williams

The response of Daoud Mousa, the father of the dead man, who had himself served in the Iraqi police force for some 24 years was initially trusting. He had been present when his son was arrested. His eventual discovery of his son’s fate in the very same buildings where Saddam’s forces had caused so many individuals to ‘disappear’ is heart-rending. This is but one example of how the events are thoroughly grounded in a long and difficult history similar to that between Iraq and Britain over the key resource of oil. After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1918, Mespotamia as it was then known was under a British mandate. The discovery by members of the QLR1 of the ill-conditioned graves of earlier Empire troops, neglected by the dictator, in Basra supplies another poignant instance of this sad past.

A.T. Williams who is a Professor of Law as well as a director of the Centre of Human Rights at WarwickUniversity is especially effective when writing about the legal procedures at the subsequent court martial in 2006. He describes everything from the blue-carpet and fresh polished pine walls of the Bulford Court Martial Centre with the collection of be-gowned criminal barristers looking as ominous as ravens. The collective noun for ravens, he reminds the reader, with more than a touch of irony is”unkindness”. The Iraqi witnesses have been pitched into an entirely different context and closely questioned about identity of their attackers even though they might have been doubly hooded.

The highly skilled team of defence lawyers for the seven defendants are trained to build a coherent argument. As Williams deftly explains, the focus is on establishing the guilt or innocence of the defendants. The witnesses were subject to techniques which do nothing to ease the psychological pressure upon the witnesses who had previously been grilled, beaten and kicked. This description of the trial is uncomfortable to read but the clarity of the writing shows that from the witness box this process feels like abuse over again. These talents explain why this book gained its author The Orwell Prize for Political Writing in May 2013.

Aba Mousa and his family
Aba Mousa and his family

In July 2008, the Ministry of Defence agreed to pay £2.83 million in compensation to Mousa’s family and nine other men, after admitting that the British Army had committed “substantive breaches” of the European Convention of Human Rights.

The Public Inquiry in 2011 was known as the Gage Report and called for by the Defence Secretary cost more than £12 million. This is discussed in the epilogue where the institutional knowledge of the BritishState that acts such as these are likely to happen is critiqued. This is especially true when final consequences of involvement have not been considered. This is not new; flogging and torture of the Mau Mau, callous brutality towards civilian populations in Cyprus, Northern Ireland and Oman raise deeply worrying concerns about our own institutions and our values.

More about the Orwell Prize at

Russian Stories by Francesc Serés -A Review

imagesRP2This brilliant and varied collection of short stories is the product of a current academic interest in cross-cultural translation. Francisco Guillen Serés is a Catalan professor of Art History from Aragon. A Russophile, he has travelled widely to collect stories from those writing during the past hundred years of Russian history. These have been translated into Catalan and then into English. These unusual and delightful stories, some 21 of them written by 5 writers read fluently and engagingly. They form an informative tapestry of Soviet and post-Soviet life, moving back in time with the older, earlier writers like Bergchenko, who died in the siege of Stalingrad, at the end.  Ranging over mythic and symbolic tales to realistic portrayals of personal relationships; love Trysts in St Petersberg, ferocious bears in the deep heart of the Taiga to the perils of becoming lost in continuous orbit in space. All aspects are impressively recounted.


In the preface Russian translator, Anastasia Maximova, sets the changing scene in an industrial suburb where she grew up in the 1990s. The esplanade in front of steel blast furnaces is littered with defunct statues of Stalin and Lenin about to be reprocessed. Unforgettable, is her description of the trucked in lines of heads made from incredibly tough alloys. These are so durable that a special technique must be evolved such that the heads must be drilled with holes, and then buried below ground where inserted explosive charges are necessary to blow them apart. Throughout these stories, such descriptions also represent hazardous transitions in Russian society, the effects on individuals are sometimes stultifying, often painful but also meliorated and transformed by generosity, friendship and kindness.

The first two authors, both of whom are women, born in 1967 and 1949 respectively, deal with personal issues against the backdrop of economic failure and authoritarian misrule. In Low Cost Life, Low Cost Love, Ola Yevgueniyeva writes of the sad and drab lives of the ground staff hostesses on the Russian airline, SAS outside St Petersburg. There is a feeling of being unable to attain the attractive standards of the more fortunate western European crews. Even the bus transport to the airfield has hard wooden benches and the roads contain bumps and potholes. This disappointed sadness creeps into relationships with men; low self-esteem leading to lowered expectation of their dates. A sorrowful but somehow poetic realism penetrates this writer’s stories. She writes too of resurgent nobility in St Petersburg’s great houses by the Neva which have survived the revolution, war and famine. In “The Russian Doll’s House” the ardent but impoverished Juri must wait for years distanced from the aristocratic and beautiful Mia. She must marry an oafish industrialist in accordance with her family’s demands. The story is written in a spell bounding, elegant style that brings out the tragedy of restricted, almost unrequited love.51DKTx6AjlL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_SX385_SY500_CR,0,0,385,500_SH20_OU02_

These stories have all been carefully chosen and reminiscent of the language and tradition in which Chekhov and Gorky once wrote. Indeed the book is dedicated to Mikhail Bulgakov. There are tragic-comic stories about the possibility that Elvis might have sung in Red Square, of the last lonely hours of an orbiting spaceman suffering the consequences of yet another system failure. Here then is a parable of a superpower in a state of freefall. The terrible ecological disasters of the Aral Sea and Chernobyl are treated. The latter portraying the return of an old, yet determined, couple to the dangers of an irradiated countryside and how their dutiful daughter is torn between fulfilling their wishes and what she thinks is their imminent demise.

downloadFrancesc SerésAs the tales pass backwards along the brutal path of Soviet history, misplaced idealism and naivety are revealed. “The Russian Road ”  long, hot and dusty finds the exhausted revolutionary Akaki returning the many versts to his home village. When he arrives he finds that among the peasants in the countryside little if anything has changed. His attempts to persuade folk there that in exchange for their potatoes they will receive a transforming new culture are met with astonished disbelief. Curious, thought-provoking and allegorical, Volkov’s “The War against the Voromians” tells of a peculiar area where there is a gravitational field anomaly. The inhabitants are subject to a corresponding increase in weight, have thicker necks and an affection for their homeland. They sadly become subject to state sponsored research and suspicion by the authorities. Population dispersal is forced upon these unfortunate Voromians, victims of external manipulation that seems to prevail in so many of  these accounts.

Kafka once wrote, “A book should become an axe for the frozen sea within us.” This collection, carefully selected, fulfils such a criterion. They have the transformative edge of original writing.

Further details at