Friday 9 February 2024

Reposting: Surrealism Against War - Ceasefire Now!

 I decided to repost Jay Blackwood's short, but to the point, and wholly valid, call for a ceasefire in Gaza. Jay posted this in November, what has changed, except that things have got worse and politicians have revealed a lack od spine and a lack of principle?

Surrealism Against War - Ceasefire Now!

Wednesday 6 December 2023


 I don't usually explain my poems, you may not understand them, but the explanation is almost always redundant. However, this is one of the odd ones out.

Years ago I got rid of all my early work, deliberately losing at least ten years of poems and then, by accident, lost some more. The other week, thinking back on some of these poems, I thought that, perhaps, I could recover something in a slightly less ghoulish way than Dante Gabriel Rossetti recovered his poems from Lizzie Siddal's grave. I found words and phrases and lines bubble up, but mixed with my concern over the increasingly psychotic nature of the public realm. I jotted as much as possible down and then, unexpectedly had a crisis in my health that nearly killed me. 

A week later, at home I assembled the fragments in some kind of order. The word 'unlost' rang a bell and I think that a translator of Paul Celan used it, but am at this time unsure. It seemed better than 'rediscovered'. Anyway, there are fragments here of very old work, held together by faulty memory along with fresh yammerings of an uneasy mind. You may still not understand this poem, but that is the context.

Poem Unlost (Fragmenta)

Between these parallel lines

I can neither live nor breathe

The squeezed space

Matters not

The crossing is infinite

Alternations of black and white light


Great Pearl-of-Light



Into the Place-of-Shells

And our burning world

Locked in a skull



Your hidden face

Your lost face

Gone and gone

In the frazzled glass



The great evil of little men

Grotesque dazzle

Of the burning world



Terrae of lost words

Within submergence and abandonment

The long crawl to terrestrial paradise

And the cthonic urge

Where the tongue is a desert          

Sunday 19 November 2023


 I recently paid a visit to the Victoria Gallery in Bath to see the exhibition "When Dreams Confront Reality: Surrealism in Britain". ( The works are mostly from the collection of the late Jeffrey Sherwin, a doctor and local tory politician in Leeds, so when the exhibition blurb claims that one will "Experience the magical visions of Surrealism – but from an unusual perspective" that may well be true.

Some of the works are indeed excellent, but the general feel of the exhibition is of nostalgia for the 30s, a surrealism largely shorn of its greater purpose, those nasty men, Breton and Mesens demanding poor artists to be more than whimsical fantasists. It is often as challenging as a nice cup of tea. (Such as that held by the figure in F.E. McWilliams' rather spiffing sculpture, above).

This cosy impression of the first half of the show is rather punctured by an awareness of the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War and a small leaflet on display seemed horribly contemporary:

The second half of the show had for me a note of personal nostalgia, with works by Conroy Maddox, Toni del Renzio and Tony Earnshaw, all of whom were friends. Toni del Renzio even joined the London Surrealist Group in 2005, making him by far the oldest member at 90, the youngest at that time being 16! The home video of Sherwin's visit to Conroy's flat was oddly familiar, very much like my own visit, seeing some of the same things. It also featured both Toni and Tony and Conroy's partner, Des Mogg. 

I don't want to overdo this impression of something old, warm and comfy, several works, back in the day, provoked severe reactions and demands that they should be destroyed, presumably from Daily Mail readers or their equivalent, and plenty of them still have a subversive charge and the power to disconcert, but the context of this exhibition gave me the sense that they'd been wrapped in cotton wool, the sharp edges all blunted. It's all rather nice...even when a tad naughty (Conroy's nuns etc.) 

At the same time that surrealism's past has been evoked in Bath, in Lancaster a possible future of surrealism has appeared in the form of the Lancaster Surrealist Group and their magazine "Vile Bird".

 The group developed, as far as I can make out, from student societies at Lancaster University and improbable amounts of Pinot Grigio, somehow developed into an understanding of surrealism and thus to self-identify as surrealists and seek the surrealist adventure in the streets of Lancaster. The magazine is already sold out, although I think one might get electronic copies if you ask nicely.

When somebody is drawn to the orbit of surrealism, they are not there as a subordinate to the elders* of the movement, such a hierarchy is properly anathema and we meet on an equal footing. Caution on both sides is understandable, "Oh, I'm a surrealist" can mean so many things to different people and have very little to do with surrealism, so it's a bit premature to get too excited about a new group, although any new manifestation is more than welcome, and potentially something to get excited about. However, Vile Bird attracted a number of contributors outside the group, including myself, people who felt this is a worthwhile venture that we can support with some enthusiasm. I have seen so much that is so much worse than what the Lancaster group has manifested so far, and if I find that manifestation still not wholly matured or realised, I can't condescend (no, I really can't! let me finish!) given my own earliest attempts at surrealist activity and the number of people who were, nevertheless, willing to take me seriously.

My point is that we have here an activity in its early stages and that has already shown some real awareness of what surrealism is, has managed to get out there and relate to other surrealists, demonstrated knowledge and understanding and that is all rather exciting. I do feel the need to ring a note of caution, it is a new activity and in many ways still unproven and undeveloped, but their sense of rebellion is strong and their activity is growing. Given that I sometimes tend to get lost in deep deliberation on theoretical matters, I also find it refreshing to see a manifestation of surrealism that's fun! 

* Sorry, we don't have elders!

Saturday 28 October 2023

Accepting Or Refusing Atrocity

 This seems to be quite difficult to write, not least because each time I consider it, I become so overwhelmed by a fiercely depressive mood, but mostly because it should be so easy as to not require explanation and not even need to be said, it should be obvious to all but the most warped psychopaths, but genocide is always wrong, whoever commits it.

The context is, of course, the conflict between Israel and Palestine and it fills the news as well as online comment like a baleful cloud, obscuring all reasonable debate. No doubt much of this is down to cowardice, if Israel's bombing of  Gaza were committed by any other country, it would be condemned on all sides of the Commons for instance, but the utter spinelessness of our political leaders on this matter leaves me in no doubt that they are afraid to stick to anything resembling a principle.

While really putting yourself out there, taking real risks to life and limb does take great courage, simply speaking up against genocide,wherever it occurs, while at a safe distance from the action, should be a simple matter of decency. It's simple at this level, denounce the atrocities of Hamas, denounce the retaliations of the Israeli military against the citizens of Gaza. But a campaign of intimidation is underway to prevent any such decency prevailing. A friend of mine who has done no more than speak against the revenge killings perpetrated by Israel has been told by at least a couple of people he'd considered friends that they had screen-shot his posts and "passed them on", to whom he has no idea. It's worth pointing out that he is Jewish, something I'd not normally mention with regard to him as it rarely comes up. In any case, he was not intimidated, but understandably found their attitude distasteful and upsetting.

A more serious case of intimidation occurred with the sacking of Artforum editor David Velasco for publishing an open letter supporting Palestine. The list of signatories of this letter is considerable and frequently eminent. Articles concerning the case can be found here:

and here:

and the letter is at this link:

While there's a very large number of signatories, some apparently went on to have second thoughts:

I'll return to this in a moment. Not everybody felt so intimidated by the backlash:

It's ridiculous, but it seems necessary to mention that criticisms of the actions of the government of Israel is not anti-semitism. I repeat, criticisms of the actions of the government of Israel is NOT anti-semitism. To claim it is is either very stupid or very disingenuous and only serves to create cover for genuine anti-semitism. Let's not doubt that anti-semitism does really exist, it is foul and needs to be exposed, but we should not privilege anti-semitism above other kinds of racism. Both hatred of jews and hatred of arabs is of the same fabric as any other kind of racism, especially in its most extreme and humanity-denying manifestations. The many thousands of people in the streets of London (and, I'm gratified to see, Edinburgh, and no doubt many other cities, are certainly not guilty of jew-hatred, no doubt many are jews.

I wanted to make a point about that open letter. The very first name on the list of signatories is Nan Goldin, who is, of course, Jewish and many other names, some familiar, some not so, are also obviously Jewish. I refuse to believe that they are all somehow not sufficiently Jewish, or "self-hating jews" - surely they must be sufficiently self-aware to know that some people will condemn them for what is, after all, primarily a call to our common humanity?

Perhaps it would have been wise to include a condemnation of Hamas in that letter, make it clear that Hamas is not the whole of the Palestinian people, especially the children who, we are told make up a half of the population of Gaza. Similarly, the murderous, far-right government of Netanyahu is not all of Israel, far less all jews. (It isn't so long since Netanyahu was regarded as a dangerous extremist everywhere, somebody who should never be allowed anywhere near power.) But regarding Bibi Netanyahu and Hamas, read this article in Haaretz:

I do realise that finding any kind of real solution in the Middle East is very difficult, very complex and fraught with all sorts of problems that are monstrously intractable. There's hatred and a complete lack of trust on both sides. I don't have any answers, except for one. that both sides remember the other is also human and that the only alternatives to finding a reasoned and reasonable solution are either perpetual war or that one side or the other is wholly exterminated, which to any remotely normal person should be unthinkable.


(Image: Peter Kennard)

Friday 12 May 2023

Coming Home To Painting

 This might not mean a huge amount to a lot of people, but I am starting a new painting and it is actually the second largest painting I have ever made. I only realised this the other day when I set the stretchers against what had previously been my second largest painting and it was larger by a few inches than the old work. Now, some people might wonder about how large this massive work may be and will probably be a bit disappointed to learn it is 3ft x 4ft, 36"x48" or roughly 91 x 122 cm. This isn't huge for many people and for some, used to working on a large scale, even diminutive.

However, for me it means a lot. I gave up painting in oils in 1992, when I seemed to be overwhelmed with anxiety and a kind of revulsion towards my painting every time I set foot in the studio. I could only outpace this anxiety by drawing extremely rapidly and more or less automatically. So my work for the rest of the decade, and into the early years of the 21st century were, typically, A1 sized drawings, usually on very smooth hot-pressed paper, in pencil and occasional touches of wax crayon. (See here for a couple of not wholly typical examples:

For several years I did very little drawing, focusing on photography, (My photography Flickr page is here: and while I found the pursuit of the strange images discovered in the streets to be well worth the effort, I was not firing on all creative cylinders while I was not painting and drawing. Then I was able to retire and move to Wiltshire with Jane and suddenly had a decent studio space for the first time in many years. Within a few weeks I had my space assembled and bought a couple of canvases and made a start.

In fact, I made a number of false starts. Fortunately, I didn't feel that old anxiety, and kept plugging on. After a few weeks I decided that I needed to come to terms with this new (for me), but ancient landscape and, by degrees, started to become a landscape painter. If I had any qualms, it was that the majority of these new works could not, in any way, be called surrealist. I have given over such a large part of my life to the surrealist vision, this seemed odd, and maybe even odder, I wasn't that bothered. I don't mean that I had dropped surrealist ideas, just that they were at most in the background of the new works, if at all, and mostly not.

I started to develop a new technique for myself, starting in acrylic, many washes over a drawing, reasserting the drawing, spattering and dripping the paint, sealing it with acrylic medium, then repeating the process, then at some point switching to oil paint. Sometimes the whole work would become so hopeless that I'd overpaint it with something else. I made a series of small paintings based on drawings from the 80s, which at least were more imagination-based, and a new version of a painting from the same period that I had sold, it is of a staircase in the house I lived in back in the late 70s, in Bloomsbury. So, it was already a memory painting back then, now, a memory of a memory. I started to play with the forms just a little, letting them not quite work. Instead of correcting proportions, just letting them be awkward and difficult to navigate, as places in a dream or a memory can be, but apparently crisp and sharply outlined, at least in part.

The new work is also a memory painting and set in Bloomsbury. I originally thought of setting it in Little Russell Street, where I lived,, but because I had conceived it, not only as something very personal around my own memories, but as a sort of homage to Balthus' great canvas Passage du Commerce-Saint-AndrĂ©,  and the view into Bury Place from Gilbert Place (where Austin Spare had once lived) was closer in aspect to the Parisian scene. (Near here:

So, I have sized and primed the canvas and now need to wait a week or two before starting, letting the priming cure thoroughly. (For those interested in such things, I am using a casein priming, which I have used a couple of times on small works.)  I'm expecting the painting to take months, at the very least, probably letting each layer settle down possibly revising it for years while undertaking any number of new works as well as revising older ones. I have found that very few works simply feel finished and in adding new layers I can add to the emotional and perceptive weight of the painting as well as developing it more intellectually, it is a matter of seeing where to take it, whether a matter of slight adjustments, major revision or complete reinvention.

I have not posted any of my work for a very long time, but promise to do so in future, the lack of it really isn't down to shyness, but mostly the unfinished nature of most of it. Time for that to change?

Wednesday 10 May 2023

Two More Reviews: Oystercatcher #20 and 'Patastrophe! #7


I received two new magazines in one week and, very superficially, they looked oddly similar, although they are quite different in many ways and both maybe quite unique.

The Oystercatcher is the brainchild, or lovechild of Ron Sakolsky and he produces it every year, officially on the First of May. 2023 brings us up to issue 20 and I really hope he continues for many more years because it is very worthwhile. Ron situates The Oystercatcher fairly and squarely within the contemporary surrealist movement and from an avowedly anarchist perspective. It contains rants, reviews and more considered articles by Joel Gayraud, Penelope Rosemont and others. There are illustrations by Janice Hathaway, Rik Lina, Steven Cline, Guy Girard and others, including a very small one by John Welson.

Welson also makes an appearance in 'Patastrophe!, a rather more significant one, taking up a whole page., along with other surrealist luminaries including Doug Campbell, Jay Blackwood and John Richardson (who also appears in Oystercatcher, so I'm sure I could have made a better segue...never mind...)

'Patastrophe! is the journal/zine of Surrealerpool, which is a sort of meeting point for varied surrealists, 'pataphysicians and others, and I must admit I originally approached it with some doubts as to what it was intended to be. Anybody who knows me or has followed this blog will know I can get a bit exercised at stuff that purports to represent surrealism but fails to understand where surrealism is coming from in any way. My feeling is that 'Patastrophe! has very little interest in representing itself as some kind of official surrealist publication and intends to remain somewhat eclectic and quite fun. It sometimes, but not always, does this well. As an interface between surrealism, 'pataphysics and general weirdness it works well enough, with some high points and few low points too. It is well produced and illustrated, occasionally suffering from a what seems to me at any rate to be a self-conscious eccentricity that grates a bit. For instance, the article "Clarimonde - A Lost Weimar Film?" is so very obviously nothing of the kind, it feels a little embarrassing in its pretence. If one is going to write a spoof, one needs to be more convincing I think. The supposed film still of Clarimonde doesn't belong to the 1920s, but very obviously shows a modern woman dressed in Goth fashion. They provide a link to the film, ( and I have to say that it is, in its own terms, a successful and poetic interpretation of a story by Theophile Gautier, constructed of still photographs, and presumably made on a zero budget.

Two profile pieces are, by themselves, sufficient to make the purchase of this issue worthwhile as far as I'm concerned, one on Arthur Adamov, absurdist playwright and occasional participant in surrealism, and Jean Ferry, an important but too little known surrealist.

There's a good deal to be gleaned from both publications, I was fascinated by Abigail Susik's interview with the anarchist Ben Morea in Oystercatcher. It is in fact Part 2, the first part published a year ago and I'd forgotten, so obviously I need to look at the previous issue. Abigail's presence is felt in a review of "Resurgence! Jonathan leake, Radical Surrealism and the Resurgence Youth Movement 1964-1967" edited by Abigail Susik and published by the Eberhardt Press. I have my copy, but have not had time to read it yet. The effect is that these two magazines have done quite a lot to keep me busy over the next few weeks as I catch up with my reading, that must be a sign of a good publication, surely?

Oystercatcher #20 can be obtained from: 

Ron Sakolsky/The Oystercatcher, A-4062 Wren Road,Denman Island, BC Sla-Dai-Aich/Taystayic, Canada V0R 1T0


'Patastrophe! #7 can be obtained from:  or from their ebay shop:

Saturday 29 April 2023

Surrealpolitik by John Schoneboom: A Review


John Schoneboom's new book Surrealpolitik: Surreality and the National Security State is by turns a frustrating, occasionally annoying, sometimes fascinating and, in concept at least, a quite necessary book, but not, to my mind, the book it should have been. Let's break this down slightly.

Frustrating because, although Schoneboom is clearly advocating a surrealist "mode of enquiry", and he obviously has some understanding of surrealism, he nevertheless falls short of developing this thesis into something really concrete. Rather, he tends to describe the "National Security State" in terms of dream, fascism and antifascism, paranoia, black humour, despite giving examples of surrealist and pre-surrealist writing, he ends in each case by suggesting that a surrealist mode of enquiry could be fruitful.

Annoying, partly because he sometimes seems to chant "National Security State" and "surrealist mode of enquiry" like mantras, which I must admit I find a bit irritating. He also seems at times to be rather uncertain as to who the surrealists are, he names Boris Vian as a surrealist for instance. As far as I know, Vian never participated in surrealist activities and never subscribed to specifically surrealist ideas. He was, of course, a prominent member of OuLiPo, which does have some connections with surrealism at  a distance, but simply can't be thought of as a surrealist group. See below for a further discussion of this problematic attitude.

Fascinating because Schoneboom provides a lens to view to contemporary political world that exposes its meanness and monstrosity and the obscuration of truth and he is often a lively and cogent commentator.

Necessary because surrealists should be writing books like this and getting them out into the world. They should be, but often are not. I include myself in this accusation. My excuse is a lack of access to publishing beyond the surrealist echo chamber, whatever its faults, Surrealpolitik addresses, if not quite the world, at least a broader public than most surrealist publications can achieve, and I am increasingly convinced that this is essential for our future. It often seems to me, not that surrealism has become too inward-looking so much as too inward-publishing and discussing, the echo-chamber I mentioned earlier.

Schoneboom seems to waver between quite a good understanding of who and what is surrealist and a confusion that depends far more on the critics (academic or otherwise) than on the surrealists themselves:

"My reference to the term "surrealism" is not intended to be limited specifically to Andre Breton's historical movement and its ever-shifting (and usually dwindling) formal membership. Rather, proceeding from the notion that "a state of mind survives" the surrealist school (Blanchot 1995 [1949], p. 85), I'm trying to locate an affinity within a more generously defined, yet still coherent, set of ideas and practices, predominantly originating in surrealist thinking but inclusive of related ideas from the movement's heirs, precursors, renegades, critics, competitors, and  usurpers."  

( Accessed 28/4/23

He often discusses writers like Conrad or Chesterton at greater length than he does Breton or Aragon and apparently conflates Baudrillard's 'hyperreality' with surreality:

"For example, when Jean Baudrillard describes a hyperreality that "can no longer dream" because images have become indistinguishable from the real "as though things had swallowed their own mirrors" (Baudrillard 2008, p. 4), one can, without going so far as to theorize a grand unified neo-surrealism, identify a certain specular resonance with Louis Aragon's statement in A Wave of Dreams, that "[t]he only way to look at Man is as the victim of his mirrors." (2010 [1924]). (Ibid)

I also find Schoneboom's range of surrealist references oddly narrow. I found ten surrealists in a bibliography that stretches over 30 pages, and only arrived at that number by including Bataille, who although not actually a surrealist as such, did at least participate at times and helped define the surrealist spirit.  He refers to Terry Gilliam (his film Brazil) but not Jan Svankmajer, who is both surrealist and relevant to Schoneboom's arguments, but as he considers the surrealist movement a thing of the past, which, of course, it is not. Now, one might feel inclined to criticise the state of the surrealist movement, many do, including surrealists, but it has never ceased to exist, despite as Breton remarked, 'gravediggers' announcing the death of surrealism almost as soon as the Manifesto of Surrealism was published.

Schoneboom believes that "But isn't surrealism dead? Yes and no. Certainly the original movement rose, sustained itself, and fell in close parallel with the original fascist movement" (Schoneboom, 2022. P.6.) and he speaks "therefore not of resuscitating the exquisite surrealist corpse, but of adapting some of its surviving virtues in order to inform a particularly appropriate way of interrogating the incongruities and delusions of our present political condition." (Ibid. p.6). So here's the problem, claiming that the surrealist movement in non-existent is, quite simply wrong, he doesn't know what he is talking about at this point. He could claim that the present surrealist movement either lacks its historical prestige, or a cogent position on the problems of our time, or even many great artists, and one could argue about this, but he either chooses to ignore the existence of a contemporary surrealist movement that exist in continuity with the historical movement (which is to say, not a half-arsed revivalism) or he is simply ignorant.

Another problem is that although Schoneboom sets out his chapter headings with bold surrealist themes such as dreams, paranoia and black humour, much of the content appears to derive from postmodernism, which he believes "...can fairly be described as a descendent of surrealism, with both endeavours engaged principally in the disruption of semiotic systems." (Ibid. P.6) and goes on: "One suggested term for a post-postmodernist surrealism-plus-simulacra is hyper-surrealism....which has a certain appeal but may not add anything that wasn't already there. Ultimately, of course, the label is not as important as what's in the can." (Ibid. P.6) On that last point a least, I can agree, but the rest of it is pointless fluff.

It's this level of misconception that holds the book back, take out all references to surrealism and "a surrealist mode of enquiry" and you have almost the same book, a bit shorter, giving a more-or-less postmodern account of the "national security state". The latter seems to be his equivalent of the Spectacle or of the coming together of surveillance-fascism-capitalism. I'd have thought that enlarging on Debord's concept of the Spectacle would have been very relevant to Schoneboom's argument, but Debord does not appear in his bibliography and Vaneigem only as the author of the utterly wretched "Cavalier History of Surrealism" and the situationists have a stronger relationship to surrealism than most of the authors discussed in this book, despite their somewhat fractious attitude to surrealism back in the day. 

I hope I have conveyed my sense of this book being, above all, a missed opportunity. It's not that it should be an entirely surrealist account of the political problems that beset us (although, actually, why not?) but I do think that when one employs the word 'surrealism' it should mean surrealism and not something close to its opposite. (Postmodernism might be described as, in some senses as a descendent of surrealism, but, for better or worse, an illegitimate one, not only the wrong side of the blanket, but a different blanket!) By all means employ surrealist terms and concepts, but don't relabel non-surrealist concepts as surrealist. By all means go beyond the strict purview of the surrealist movement, but be clear about it, such confusionism helps nobody.

I would also suggest that although his chapter headings reflect areas of surrealist concern, they are very far from comprehensive. The ones I have mentioned, dream, paranoia and black humour are accompanied by anti-fascism and 'spectacular crime'. I have no issue with any of these, but suggest that, for a possible future project on might add desire, automatism, dialectic, analogy, wandering, atopia - I could go on, but all of these add both to an appreciation of both the surrealist view of daily life and of the bigger political picture. The National Security State is indeed oppressive and needs to be combatted, both critically and practically, but it is only one facet of a bigger problem which is why I mentioned both The Spectacle and Capitalism and all are ways in which corporations and the state come together, the very definition of fascism given by Mussolini.

Perhaps this somewhat half-arsed book can provide sufficient provocation to help develop a renewed critique from the surrealists and their allies. Anybody who reads this review should be in no doubt that it is greatly needed. 

The great thing about blog entries is that they can remain a bit rough and, if necessary, can be revised and polished later. The less good thing can be that the revision and polish can be a consequence of reactions and criticisms of the original article, and that can be sometimes sadly lacking. I hope that I might have cause to revise this, or add comments...let's see.

Schoneboom, John (2022) SURREALPOLITIK: Surreality and the National Security State. Wincester UK and Washington USA. Zero Books.

Surrealpolitik website @