Welcome to GIBBIN HOUSE!

When I first started this blog about the misadventures of a nascent author, I had only a small novel under my belt, titled Gibbin House. The building that bears the name is a fictitious postwar era safe-house, as many might have existed, and the London home of my motley crew of exiles. I could not anticipate then the degree to which I would join its ranks of writers and artists, but since publishing my book in 2011, I have had the greatest privilege of opening my own art gallery and of exploring my love of the written word through visual poetry and paper sculptures. Yet much like the girl who first started blogging two years ago, I suspect I don't know what I'm doing half the time. As such, Gibbin House remains a refuge for ramblings...and on occasion a haven for little triumphs.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Visual Inspirations: Crown Colony Suffragettes of 1911

Women's Coronation Procession 1911 - copyright Museum of London
London, June17, 1911

Gibbin House - an excerpt

“How did it all start? Oh dear…well, I suppose it’s all due to Lysander.”
Alfred rose from his chaise, as if he were about to recite a gospel, and sat on the sofa arm beside their guest.
 “You see, he’s the gentleman I told you about earlier, the owner of the house.  We were at Cambridge together.  We kept in touch, and when I returned to London in 1930 from my teaching stint in Vienna, he offered me rooms here.  His mother, Mrs. Morrison was in need of a little company.  She was a very lively, pragmatic, capable sort of woman – very English.  Eventually, realizing I was much more at home here than I ever had been in Austria, I decided to become a British national and stayed on at Gibbin House.  I could teach in the city, and Lysander always had a friend to visit on holidays.  It was an arrangement that suited everyone very well.  Of course, after the Anschluss, it happened that from time to time some old friend or other, on his way to somewhere in the Americas, might pass through.  And Mrs. Morrison was very inclined to help the disenfranchised.  In her earlier days, she had been a suffragette.  There is a picture I’ll show you later in one of the upstairs halls, of Mrs. Morrison leading with her banner at the Coronation Procession in 1911.”
“Followed by an exquisite contingent from the Crown Colonies, delicious things,” Emil mused. (Page 63)

And here they are - the exquisite contingent: Indian suffragettes, captured in a moment of tremulous hope, on a summer's day one hundred years ago, almost to the week.  
I serendipitously fell upon this postcard at the Museum of London in 2004, when I was trying to get a sense of a bygone England any way I could. 
It's not easily done.  In 1949, at the time my story takes place, the South African novelist Doris Lessing talked in her book 'In Pursuit of the English' at length about the difficulty of defining the English character as an outsider.  And W.H. Maugham makes a similar point in 'Razor's Edge' about how non-English writers can never quite reproduce the English cadence and subtleties, forever sounding just a little off, a little pastiched. 
But I never deluded myself into thinking I could capture a war era English atmosphere with any sense of complete authenticity, no matter how much I researched.  Moreover, I was very aware of the period stereotypes I might be tempted to raid, from the multitudes of Agatha Christie mysteries and BBC costume dramas I regularly gorge on.  Particularly regarding the women - the dowdy housekeepers, the pub slappers, the East End parlor maids, the skeletal debuttantes with ghostly complexions.  Just the thought of this retinue makes me want to summon Poirot to discover who really poisoned the squire's afternoon tea.  And what happened to the second will?
All the same, from the onset of my creating the English characters in the story, I knew our Mrs. Morrison had to be one of these proverbial figures - the Edwardian suffragette
I reasoned that as the deceased former owner of Gibbin House, Mrs. Morrison had to serve as a sort of invisible compass , a reminder of the dedication and temerity the present characters can't seem to embody.   The brassy type of woman who would roll up her sleeves and 'just get on with it'. 

And then I saw this photo, this brilliant bit of truth and reality. 

The Winslow Boy -Sony Pictures
Instead of the hard nail militant English woman one might expect in 1911 London, it gave quite another face to the suffragette figure I was complacently imagening.   It held a small key to the possiblity that Mrs. Morrison could indeed have existed as the charitable, judicious, and embracing woman I needed her to have been to give rise to Gibbin House in the first place.

I have often glanced at this photo during my years writing this book, even when it had nothing at all to do with the parts I was working on.  I felt mezmerized by the exotic beauty of these women in silks and gauze (as our good Emil was, even if he does call them 'things').  I kept thinking -  there they stand, weeks of ship travel behind them, unaccompanied and surrounded by police escorts and royal officers, no doubt coming across the very vocal opposition to their cause that was typical of the day, all to march for the right to vote.  They are  inspiring and something of a marvel, but then, I suppose I never cease to be amazed by acts of social courage.
So, though I may not be as adroit at performing them myself, in the spirit of the civil triumphs of this past week, I salute these daring, interpid women.  Let's see what the next hundred years bring...

(For a good film portrayal of a British suffragette, watch Mamet's version of the 'Winslow Boy - I reference the original in the book's first chapter, but the 1999 version with the divine Jeremy Northam is incisive and charming.  Incidentally, the director of the 1948 version is Anthony Asquith, who shares the same last name with the 1910s British Prime Minister who instigated the militant behavior of the suffragette movement, when at the last minute he withdrew his support for the women's vote because he feared women would not reelect him...) 

Friday, June 17, 2011

GIBBIN HOUSE: Bouts of Courage: Saudi Women Challenge the Drivin...

GIBBIN HOUSE: Bouts of Courage: Saudi Women Challenge the Drivin...: "Bouts of Courage: Saudi Women Challenge the Driving Ban This Friday morning, some 40 women around Saudi Arabia challenged their cou..."
Bouts of Courage: Saudi Women Challenge the Driving Ban 


This Friday morning, some 40 women around Saudi Arabia challenged their country's driving ban by taking the wheel on the streets of several Saudi cities.  It was meant as the kickstart to the WOMEN2DRIVE campaign.  As some news reports point out, this morning's protest can hardly be considered a wide-spread movement in light of the country's 28 million population.  Certainly it does not compare to the violence and mass uprisings that have characterized the region's recent 'Arab Spring'. 

But that does not mean its participants had nothing to fear.  Punishment for ignoring the ban (the only one of its kind in the world)  includes imprisonment and the revokement of travel permission.  The latter is a significant consequence, as most Saudi women who can drive learned to do so outside the country.  For the most part, police allowed the small demonstration - assumably ordered to stand down because the orchestrated protest had garned international media attention.  It remains to be seen whether the campaign, version of which have existed since the 1990s will have any effect on the state of women's rights in Saudi Arabia.  Women there are required to leave the house with a male companion, and the reasoning behind the driving ban seems to be that it prevents women from contact with strange men.  As they are forced to hire male drivers, however, one wonders how that reasoning makes any sense at all.  

When I read the news about this today, it left me with one question.  A question I often asked myself while writing GIBBIN HOUSE, which is: would I have the courage to do the same?

I suppose that is the betwitching aspect of writing fiction - creating characters that lead the sort of lives and take the sort of decisions we would never be able to ourselves.  In Gibbin House, I tell the story of a woman who despite her speech-impairment moves thousands of kilometers from her home to live with complete strangers, after having suffered indignity after indignity.  To say nothing of her mother's story.  It's easy to say, well, that's war.  Terrible things happen and one moves on, and a day when you are not hungry or threatened is a good day. 

But what if it's not war?  What if it's not everyone whose suffering, only some people?  Do you have the courage to stand up and change things?  

I'm reminded of this group of grad students I befriended at FSU in the 90s, who had gone to Bosnia during the war to run supply trucks and work in a medical station outside Mostar.  They went there with the idea of being humanitarian aid workers.  They came back traumatized and jaded.  And I wondered then, would I have had the guts to go there, even if I didn't know just how bad it would be?  Were these pot-smoking former frat-boys heroes or just bored with comfort and complacency?  I don't know.  But doubtless, they were driven by the idea of adventure. 

The amazing Afghan Women's National Football Team
I assume these women today did not approach their protest today as an adventure, (although one woman is reported to have been quite thrilled and itching to do it again:))  Nor the hundreds of women in Afghanistan who brave an education or a sport, at the risk of being attacked or having their school burned to the ground.  They put their safety on the line in order to exercise a right afforded to everyone around them.  They are not threatened by a common enemy, their threat is all around them, in their families even.  How does one find the courage to act against it all?  How did the women in my own family, faced with similar dangers, find the will to take a stand.  I suppose they didn't always.  On the whole, I am consistently astounded at how easy my life is (my biggest gripe as a woman is why a man won't pay for dinner), I can hardly wrap my mind around such brave acts of defiance.  I only hope I do my characters who are stronger than me, justice.  I suppose it's up to my readers to be the judge of that.

On an aside, I have to mention the husbands who this morning got out of their car to make room for their wives (The Guardian UK).  Every little act is a step forward.   

Monday, June 13, 2011

GIBBIN HOUSE: Visual Inspirations - Aboard Gericault's Raft of t...

GIBBIN HOUSE: Visual Inspirations - Aboard Gericault's Raft of t...: "Raft of the Medusa Gericault's Raft of the Medusa Excerpt from GIBBIN HOUSE: ...But after hours of vigilance and wide-eyed awake-ness,..."

Visual Inspirations - Aboard Gericault's Raft of the Medusa

Raft of the Medusa
Gericault's Raft of the Medusa

Excerpt from GIBBIN HOUSE:

...But after hours of vigilance and wide-eyed awake-ness, one adopts patience.  Or as it ought to be known, the self-congratulatory brother of fatigue.  Patience then gives way to indifference, and in time one becomes a heretic to the creed of goals and ends and satin-ribboned resolutions.  One stops caring about the names of foreign cities, stops seeking out their hearts from window seats.  Eventually one realizes they are all disfigured, all the same sketch of blasted glass and ruins and fire-retardant weeds, anonymous to the fickle gazes that graze them.  One drifts among them, a shipwrecked figure on Gericault’s raft, gaunt and delirious, running one’s arm through the air outside without hope or aim. 
In the past week I have not been alone on this Medusa. 
There were soldiers on my train, boys in pieces - paralyzed by the fear of not recognizing the home they were headed back to, and of not being recognized by it.  They knew the damage that awaited them, because they had inflicted the same damage somewhere else.  And there were the older veterans, those who proved the fears of the younger ones founded, having been rejected, because they had the misfortune to return during the phase of recrimination which always follows the initial relief of having survived.  They now wandered in a transfixed state, as if all they saw anymore were memories superimposed on the actual life around them.  Erratic in sleep as in consciousness, they sometimes snarled and gawked and other times pounced on kindness with the eerie licentiousness of a ghost starved for a soul. (Page 37-38)

Gericault Study
The above belongs to Anka's reflections shortly after her arrival in London.  In this instance,  she likens train travel through a war-ravaged Europe to what she imagines it must have been like aboard the raft of the Medusa - the French vessel that so infamously shipwrecked in 1816 and was interpreted by the young Romantic painter Theodore Gericault two years later.  
We assume that she knows the painting from a book or postcard her art-minded parents might have kept at home, and that they would have related the background story of the horrific incident.  Gericault's painting would easily have stood out to Anka for the isolation, despair and inhumanity the image represents - much of what she feels as she comes to term with her unwanted relocation - and so she draws on it now, picturing herself floating aimlessly and uncertain, on trains filled with men as desperate as those French passengers a century before her.

I will never forget the day I first encountered this painting.  It was the autumn of 98' and I was sitting in Professor W.'s 19th Century Art class - we had just finished up Neo-Classicism and endured three days of W. pronouncing Ingre's name 'ang' (took me half of that to recognize who the heck she was talking about...oh, 'ongrrr'...)  In any case, the next movement was Romanticism, that wild and vivid era of Delacroix, chockabock full of Morroccan brothels, moody seascapes and revolutionary battle scenes (Anka references artists like Delacroix, Turner, and Goya in later passages.)  But Gericault, whom I was not familiar with, came as a surprise.

Professor W. went into great detail about the shipwreck that inspired it, the Meduse Frigate that capsized near Mauritania on July 5, 1816.  127 people set adrift a roughly constructed raft.  13 days before their rescue, only 15 remained alive.  What transpired between the wreck and the raft's rescue was a grotesque tale of madness, illness, and cannibalism that shocked the French public.

Gericault's decision to paint a life-size version of this incident, so fresh in the public's memory, was indeed audacious - such giant canvases had until then been reserved for political figures, military triumphs, and religious themes.  But here he was, elevating a contemporary subject and everyday people, and moreover, capturing them at the brink of their health and sanity.  He met with survivors to learn about the men on board and their intimate tragedies.  He conducted extensive research into the stages of starvation and decomposition, visiting hospital wards and morgues.  Professor W. showed us slides of these early sketches.  I knew very well that previous artists had drawn from corpses, but Gericault's obsession with morbid authenticity was luridly fascinating. 
But what really struck me, was the composition of the painting.  Because, as it happens, there was a point before the raft's rescue, when they were passed by the Argus without being seen.  And it is this moment Gericault focuses on, rather than the eventual rescue, when the men attempt to flag down a ship that is blind to them.  One has to imagine the utter utter despondency of knowing their one chance of survival is lost.

Liberation - Photo Frank ScherschelTime & Life PicturesGetty Images
There were few lectures I remember as fondly as this, and when writing this passage I eagerly included the piece, because I like to think of Anka as a little like me - a little melodramatic and fatalistic but always atune to the symphony of beauty. 
In writing Gibbin House, I was ever aware of the historic context, the physical destruction and precariousness of post-war life, particularly between 1945-50', and I hope I never give the impression of glossing over the bare struggles or romanticizing that time.  But recalling art, music, the things one loves, by which we define ourselves, I can't imagine I would be able to stop myself doing it.  I want to think I would be sitting in a train car, staring out over empty cities and blank faces, and comparing myself to a figure of Gericault's, if for no other reason than to retain my own humanity. 

Monday, June 6, 2011

GIBBIN HOUSE: ATELIER 1022 Studio and Fine Art Gallery in Wynwoo...

GIBBIN HOUSE: ATELIER 1022 Studio and Fine Art Gallery in Wynwoo...: "Artvergnügen... the pleasure of KUNST ...now in 3-D ! It's a beautiful thing when art and and the printed page merge! June 11th this very ..."

ATELIER 1022 Studio and Fine Art Gallery in Wynwood Art District and TASCHEN MIAMI present “3-D ArtVergnügen!” - a time- limited unique exhibit of 3-D books and 3-D photography

Artvergnügen...the pleasure of KUNST...now in 3-D!

It's a beautiful thing when art and and the printed page merge!  June 11th this very thing will be happening at the Atelier 1022 Gallery in Miami's Wynwood Art District.  Read on for more information about a temporary exhibit that's a little cheeky, a little rique, a little vintage, and a lot of "Artvergnügen!"...in 3-D:

ATELIER 1022 Studio and Fine Art Gallery in Wynwood Art District and TASCHEN MIAMI are partnering to present a time-limited unique exhibit of 3-D books and 3-D photography “3-D ArtVergnügen!on June 11, 2011, from 6:00 PM to 11:00 PM; at Atelier 1022 Gallery on 2732 NW 2nd Avenue.  The exhibit will showcase a large selection of 3-D photographs by Ellie Perla and Carlos Rodriguez-Feo, as well as the newly launched books in 3-D by TASCHEN: The Big Penis Book and The Big Book of Breasts.  The event coincides with Wynwood’s Second Saturday Art Gallery Walk for the month of June.  The 3-D photography exhibit will continue on display at the gallery until the 5th of July, 2011.    
             "Always adventurous publisher TASCHEN is launching its first line of 3D books, and, as you’d expect from a house known for its outsize books—and subjects—the first TASCHEN books getting the 3D treatment are TASCHEN’s Big Body Parts series: The Big Penis Book and The Big Book of Breasts."  Publisher’s Weekly, New York, United States  
            The “3-D ArtVergnügen!exhibit also presents over 160 3-D STEREOCARDS™ - contemporary three-dimensional prints (color and infrared) captured by Atelier 1022’s team of photographers, with the help of the newest photo technology in 3-D, as they traveled the world to immortalize a true view of places and people of the 21st Century.  Atelier 1022 is thus reviving the idea of Stereocards, 3-D photographs that were once mass produced from the mid 19th century on through the early 20th century.  In the spirit of this history, the exhibit will showcase over 100 vintage black and white 3-D images, paralleling Atelier 1022’s modern photos.  Together, this collection of old and new highlights the changes experienced by our society, our creativity and growth. 
            Contemporary three-dimensional photographs on exhibit display images of: London, Bath and Oxford in the UK; Paris, Versailles and Avignon, in France; New York, Miami Beach, and Key West in the US; and Mexico City.  A selection of special effects/infrared 3-D photos and NASA images are added to convey the extent of 3-D use in photography today.
            Among the vintage images on display are scenes of urban and country living of past American life; European masterpieces; plus exceptional 3-D photography of remote corners of the world such as China, India, Japan, Palestine, Peru, Syria and others.
            “Younger generations barely remember that our great-grandfather and great-great-grandfathers were delighted by 3-D viewing as much as we are today. We hope that 3-D books and 3-D STEREOCARDS™ will entice people to preserve tangible and authentic images of today for future generations, images that will not disappear in a computer crash or become obsolete as a new operating system is installed” said Ellie Perla.
            “We are living among a generation that will have no past”, added Carlos Rodriguez-Feo, “and I personally hope we can make a small contribution by saving a 3-D hard copy of this fleeting moment for posterity.”

Thursday, June 2, 2011

GIBBIN HOUSE: Visual Inspirations - Hampstead: Then and Now

GIBBIN HOUSE: Visual Inspirations - Hampstead: Then and Now: "HAMPSTEAD Hampstead Heath Within the hour, the sign flashed “Hampstead”. By this point, we were few on the train. I had now achieved..."

Visual Inspirations - Hampstead: Then and Now


Hampstead Heath
Within the hour, the sign flashed “Hampstead”.  By this point, we were few on the train.  I had now achieved almost absolute exhaustion, a condition not alleviated by the professor telling me I was about to ascend from the deepest station in the whole city.  But when at last I emerged, the scene was like nothing else.
It had miraculously broken through the English shroud, and bathed everything in loveliness.  A more concentrated look, and I beheld a swelling village sidewalk.  Around us bloomed rows of tiny, crowded storefront facades, painted in various bright colors that almost hurt my eyes.  Some bore pretty striped awnings.  And everywhere, people went casually about their errands, chatting with tradesmen and carrying their shopping.  One woman toted a flower bunch, wrapped in mint-hued paper, and I was passed by a small boy who reeked naughtily of caramel and cherry candy. 
Parliament Hill 2006
It was such a simple thing, and yet I felt overwhelmed.  I might have easily collapsed, had the professor not driven me on.
“The postmaster, Fräulein.”
Yes, of course.
“So, this you see is Hampstead," he started out, breaking off to excuse himself to a pedestrian for the inconvenience of my suitcase.  “If it looks like a village, it’s because it was once a rural retreat, with parkland and spas for the wealthy. In 1889 it was then integrated into the London municipality.” 
Another example of Professor Deisler’s didactic Ausführlichkeit.  I was only sorry to make such a distracted and tired audience.
“We coped with our share during the Blitz,” he kept on, “but luckily, the main elements of its bucolic charm remain preserved.  Of course, Hampstead can hardly claim to resemble the quaint farmland it was in Keat’s time.” 
Another excused swing of my luggage.
“No fairy queens here, I’m afraid, even before the bombing.  And Constable!”  The professor’s voice billowed to an amused pitch, “if he stood in this place today, he’d be likely to turn about like a ninny, wondering where all the heifers went!”
The evocation of these former Hampstead residents apparently tickled him to no end, and he had several times to readjust his grip on my suitcase.  For my part, I basked in the sound of beautiful names like Keats and Constable. Being that I hadn’t heard anyone mention artists and writers in such a painfully long time.  And I was especially glad Professor Deisler credited me enough education to not bother elucidating further on them.  In that respect, at least, I was my parent’s daughter. Page 22-23

Oh, Hampstead...that bucolic London suburb, home to British artists and writers for close to two hundred years.  Among them some of my very favorite names, like John Constable, Charles Dickens, Lord Byron, T.S. Eliot, Agatha Christie, and George Orwell.  I would give my right arm to own even a 50sf broom closet in this "suburban Nirvana" that is apparently home to the wealthiest people in the UK. 

Hampstead Heath with a rainbow (1836) by John Constable

But I had more specific considerations in choosing this neighborhood as the backdrop for GIBBIN HOUSE - namely its history of attracting European exiles in the early 20th Century.  Sigmund Freud settled here, as did Ernst Gombrich, Walter Gropius, Lucian Freud, Hans Heller, etc.  It didn't seem entirely implausible that a safehouse might have existed in this bohemian enclave, a combination of Anna Segher's rundown Riviera digs in 'Transit' and Doris Lessing's East End basement flat, with an element of Rick's Place thrown in...I suppose safehouses are usually set up in more inconspicuous, urban sort of areas.  I could have gone the opposite route and picked a tenament in Stockwell.  But who are we kidding?  I am way to sentimental and fanciful for that.  I wanted to afford my characters the luxury I would never have of finding themselves tucked away in the charming neverland that inspired Keat's "Endymion".
John Keat's House in Hampstead (Qwiki)

When Anka first arrives from Vienna in London, she feels at least as downcast I did the very first time I visited England in 1997.  I landed in London in the middle of summer, and it was grey, wet, and freezing, and I was beside myself with initial disappointment.  But of course, this city has way of redeeming itself.  Next thing I know I'm lying in Hyde Park, eating pheasant pie from Harrods' while reading a collection of Rossetti poems...ahh...I have since returned three times, twice with the object of researching the book.  Walking Hampstead's undulating streets, I tried to reconcile the posh boutiques and tidy manses with what it must have been like in those first years after the war.  Few images remain that capture the period between 1946-1952 (the London Museum had few display and I have to admit I have often had the sensation during my research that this time frame is a strange blackhole, a no man's land, and that life did not really begin again until 1953 with young Queen Elizabeth's coronation.)

But luckily nature does not change as fast, and when I visited Hampstead Heath in November of 2006, I witnessed the same brooding skies and experienced the same fierce winds Anka would have fifty years earlier.  In that sense, it seemed the heath offered the perfect bridge between the past and the present, a massively verdant and poetic constant inthe midst of our capricious tendencies and ever-shifting cityscapes.

 It was going on past sunset when Theodor finally started his way back to Gibbin House.   From his park bench on Parliament Hill he had until now sat watching entire London sink into a purple moor.  Darkness already enveloped him from behind, where across the northern portions of the heath stretched impenetrable layers of black wood.  Over the village alone the sky still glimmered orange.
Theodor was reluctant to return.  He didn’t want to cling to day, to the warm illusion of those last washes of light.  He wanted to drown with the city, throw himself downhill into the damp grass and the brambly thickets. 
Listlessly he rose and trekked the abandoned trails towards Spaniards Road.  Occasionally he rolled his shoulders or scratched the bristly growth peppered on his jaw.  Out here in the open he was very aware of his body, of every wheezing whistle in his nose as he inhaled the chilly air.  He felt the prickle of wool on his legs and the slight rheumatic throbbing in his lower spine.  Sniffling, arching his back, Theodor advanced along the winding footpaths, feeling himself cut quite the haggard figure against an ever-consuming dusk.  Page 47