Stolen light: some highlights of 2020

Last week, I hoped to see the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn, below the moon at dusk in the south-western sky. Cloud cover prevented this, which seems an appropriate end to a year of frustrated hopes.

Late 2019: I’ve been thinking about the highlights of 2020. 2019 ended promisingly with the exhibition, Rembrandt’s Light at the Dulwich Picture Gallery. Thieves were foiled trying to steal one of the paintings. The gallery wouldn’t say which – perhaps the keystone, ‘Girl at a Window’ (1645). In the final few days of last year, I also picked up a last-minute ticket to Death of a Salesman with Wendell Pierce, a brilliant production of Arthur Miller’s play (Marianne Elliott, Picadilly Theatre, 2019). For my money, Miller is the great playwright of the American family and the intimate connection between public and private suffering. It felt like a great end to the year, and – I didn’t know then – a somewhat prophetic one. When great economies shake, it is Miller who comes to mind.

2020. Novels: I found the first lockdown, surprisingly, a time of reading and writing less poetry. Certainly, I turned to more novels. Of these, Luke Brown’s new work, Theft (2020), is a social satire set during the Brexit referendum of 2016. I also thoroughly enjoyed the historical novel, Laurus (Oneworld, Trans. Lisa Hayden, 2015), by medievalist, Eugene Vodolazkin, as well as other authors I was new to, like Sally Rooney’s first two titles. I reviewed the televisation of Normal People (BBC, 2020), here.

I think the best novel I read was Anna Burns’ brilliant work about the Troubles in Northern Ireland, Milkman (Faber, 2018). An experimental book set in the 1970s. The story concerns the insular life of the unnamed eighteen year-old narrator whose only escape is into distance running and the eccentric practice of reading nineteenth-century novels while walking alone in public. Both of which place her ‘beyond the pale’ and attract the attentions of the sinister paramilitary character, Milkman. Burns taps into ambiguity, rumour, suspicion, implication. Little is stated directly, sometimes with frightening consequences. By turns gripping, claustrophobic, menacing and touching, even playful – Anna Burns has created her own language for the Troubles, just as Seamus Heaney found his central emblem of Iron Age human sacrifice in his landmark collection, North (1975). Burns now lives in Sussex, the way Heaney himself left the north for County Wicklow in the Republic of Ireland in the early 1970s.

Music: I missed Nick Cave at the O2 Arena in April. Early this year, I was listening to his haunting requiem for his son, Ghosteen (AWAL Recordings, 2019). An incredible album. Followed by Bob Dylan’s new work, Rough & Rowdy Ways (Columbia, 2020), which dominated my listening after its release. In many ways both albums are meditations on the role of art – and especially music – in the healing process (individual grief and cultural trauma, respectively). Art as consolation, I think, runs through all great work. I reviewed Dylan’s two ballads, ‘Murder Most Foul’ and ‘Key West’ on this blog.  

I also greatly enjoyed Jim Causley’s, Cyprus Well (WildGoose Records, 2013), folk versions of his relation, Charles Causley’s poems. These ballads also featured on the documentary about Causley, Cornwall’s Native Poet (BBC4, 2020). Jim Causley recorded the album in the living room of the poet’s house, Cyprus Well, using his (Charles Causley’s) old upright piano. When the CD arrived, it came with a postcard and the note, “I was once taken for a memorable night out to the Star & Pebble!” (A pub with a reputation for extravagance, round the corner from where I live – not its real name).

Titian, The Death of Actaeon

The visual arts: Between lockdowns, the best/only exhibition I saw was Titian: Love, Desire, Death at the National Gallery. Two rooms with half a dozen of Titian’s masterpieces – based on Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Large-scale canvases painted for King Philip II of Spain in the 1550s, brought together for the first time. In his great diptych, ‘Diana & Actaeon’ and ‘The Death of Actaeon’, we more or less share Actaeon’s view of Diana and her nymphs in the first canvas (featured image) – in which he stumbles upon them bathing. This shifts to her view in the painting in which he is torn apart by his own hounds (above). In the first picture, Actaeon is essentially depicted as taking an image, an impression of her. (I think of the more down-to-earth tone of Philip Larkin’s poem ‘Lines on a Young Lady’s Photograph Album’ – “I wonder if you’d spot the theft/ Of this one of you bathing.”) In the second painting, above, the goddess Diana takes back this image as the cerulean blue of the sky has become drained of light; the muted browns of dusk in the forest.

Reduced numbers meant that I had the real pleasure of being left almost entirely alone with these paintings in the half hour before the gallery closed. When I left, it had grown dark outside. Though, unlike Actaeon, I escaped with the light.

I reviewed a BBC4 documentary about Titian here. I’ve also written a short poem, ‘Diana & Actaeon’, about this diptych in the Poetry Section of this blog.


Andrew Motion, Philip Larkin: A Writer’s Life (Faber: 1993; 2018)

Featured images: Public domain, Wikimedia Commons

Content: © Benedict Gilbert 2020