It has been a year of marvellous exhibitions – Sargent, Ravilious, the Impressionists at the National Gallery – but there isn’t one I’ve enjoyed more than Joseph Cornell at the RA. Cornell (1903-1972) was a textile salesman living in Queens when he encountered the Surrealists in a Manhattan Gallery during his lunch hour. He started to make his own surrealist objects from found materials – cuttings from old prints and newspapers, boxes and other objects found in junk shops. Despite his lack of training he was not a naive or outsider artist. He was much admired by other surrealists like Duchamp and had considerable success in his lifetime. He never left the US, barely even left New York State, and lived with his mother and brother, who suffered from cerebral palsy, until their deaths in the 1960s.
I’ve been intrigued by him for a while, but had never seen more than one or two of his works at a time until now. This exhibition bowled me over. His work is not about the external world, it’s about memory and nostalgia and the worlds we have in our heads. It made me think a little of Proust. Cornell admired Max Ernst and the other surrealists, but his own work doesn’t have the sinister elements and the disturbing eroticism that theirs sometimes has. Instead it has an innocence and a poignancy. He himself referred to it as ‘white magic.’ He was the real thing alright: a true artist.
Susy, played by Audrey Hepburn, is still adjusting to the loss of her sight in an accident. Her husband is away. She doesn’t know that there is a doll stuffed with heroine hidden in her flat. Three villains, one of whom is a violent psychopath, played by Alan Arkin, know it’s there. They just don’t know exactly where. But hey, how difficult can it be to put one over on a blind lady, who can’t recognise anyone or see what they are doing? And at first it seems they are right. Susy falls for the elaborate line that they spin. But slowly she becomes suspicious. Why has this man got shoes that squeak in exactly the same way as those of someone who came earlier, when one is the father and one, the son. Why does that man who is supposed to be a policeman constantly move the blinds up and down . . . Is he perhaps signalling to someone outside?
The truth about these people begins to dawn on her. The only chance she has is to wait until dark and smash all the lights. Now at last the odds might be in her favour. . . There is a falling out among thieves and Alan Arkin is the only one left . . . The last quarter of an hour of the film had me on the edge of my seat and one particular plot twist made me gasp.
It’s a brilliant idea, though it’s not quite perfect as a film. It was originally a stage play and that shows. But still . . . truly a classic.
I met Amanda Jennings for the first time at Crimefest this year and I am hoping that our paths will cross again soon. For me one of the pleasures of moderating a panel is when I get to read the work of authors new to me. Once I’d started reading Amanda’s novel, The Judas Scar, I couldn’t put it down. Amanda has kindly agreed to be my guest on the blog today. I’ll begin by asking, In The Judas Scar a terrible crime casts its shadow over the present and threatens to destroy a marriage. How did you come to write it?
It all started with a phone call my husband received from a police officer whilst he was at work. She was investigating historical abuse at his old school. It was a boarding school, and it wasn’t the happiest of times for him. Though he wasn’t directly affected by what went on there, he knew some of his peers were having a difficult time but didn’t understand what they were experiencing or why. The phone call unearthed a lot of buried emotions and watching him recall those memories was profoundly inspiring. I became fascinated with taking one childhood incident and creating characters who deal with that incident in very different ways, then throwing them together twenty years laters and watching how their presents are affected, how their coping mechanisms are challenged.
What’s your writing routine?
Once the children are at school, I head out with my dog, Saffie – a husky collie cross – and go for a long walk. I love being outdoors and having space to think is good preparation for writing. I tend to think about the scene I am about to write, try to work through any sticking points, and then when I get home, I load the dishwasher, drag a cursory cloth over the kitchen worktops – missing a lot of crumbs – and then sit down to write for a couple of hours. I’ll eat lunch at my computer. It’s a bad habit, but I like to catch up on Twitter and answer emails, and it seems like a good way to multitask, and then I’ll either write for another hour or two, or, more likely, procrastinate hugely whilst making endless cups of tea. I think most writers are dreadful procrastinators. I blame all the daydreaming we did as children!
What single thing would make your writing life easier?
A second ‘me’. I think I doppelganger would be brilliant. My doppelganger would do all the house work, see friends, keep fit, go to Tesco, answer emails, handle all my social media, talk at book events, cook for the children, and also have time to lie in the sun and read. That would leave me just needing to walk the dog, write all day then watch Game of Thrones in the evening with a glass of wine. In fact, that sounds great. Do you know where I can buy a second ‘me’?
What a great idea! I’d like one too!
Do you have a favourite bookshop?
I have two local bookshops which I love. The Bell Book Shop in Henley is where I shopped as a child, where I now buy all my Christmas presents, and where I occasionally go to see my books resting on the shelf near PD James. Chapter One in Woodley is amazingly supportive and I often go in, always with cake, to chat to shoppers. They organise author events and are incredibly proactive when it comes to selling books and sharing their love of the written word. But my all time favourite bookshop is Goldsboro Books in London. I have had both my book launches there and David Headley who owns and runs it has become a dear friend. They host amazing events there. Crime in the Court was a few weeks ago – hundreds of crime loving readers, writers and industry professionals spilling out on to the cobbled street, drinking wine and catching up. Brilliant. Goldsboro is also home to the most stunning collection of books. Well worth a trip for any book lover visiting central London.
What are you working on now?
My third book, In Her Wake, a psychological thriller set in Cornwall, is due to be published in Spring 2016 with the ebook coming out around Christmas. I’m about to get the final edits through and then I’ll be finishing up over the summer. I’ve just seen the first idea for the cover. And I love it! This is such an thrilling stage, the best bit perhaps, when you have a deal with an editor who loves the book and is excited about it, but before the mayhem of publication kicks in! The calm before the storm.
Thanks, Amanda. It’s been lovely getting to know you better. There is more about Amanda on her web-site http://amandajennings.co.uk
There is a hugely enjoyable exhibition of the work of Eric Ravilious at Dulwich Art Gallery. It’s on until August (and the gallery itself is well worth a visit). As I looked at the pictures some lines from Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem, ‘Pied Beauty’ came to mind. They so much seem to sum up the subjects Ravilious was drawn to:
‘Glory be to God for dappled things . . .
Landscapes plotted and pierced – fold, fallow, and plough:
And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim
All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who know how?) . . .’
Ravilious loved to see rusting farm equipment in a field, boat tackle in a harbour, the contours of the cultivated landscape. His was a quintessentially English sensibility.
For all the pleasure that his work offers, there was sadness, too. He died at thirty-nine, when the reconnaissance plane that he was on was lost over Norway.
It’s a gallery that very familiar to me from the years that I lived in south London – I used to take my Open University students there – and I always enjoy going back. I went on what turned out to be the hottest July day on record and the air-conditioning was welcome. There’s a good cafe and afterwards we sat outside and drank tea in the shade of a tree.