The Story of John Nightly by Tot Taylor

I began writing this review in September 2017 shortly after I had received my copy of the book in August. Much, good and bad, disrupted our lives in the autumn of 2017 and we have since moved house so, many months too late, here are my thoughts on The Story of John Nightly.

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My reading for August 2017. The artworks are now complete and the books all read.

 

I had great confidence when I pledged the small purchase price towards the eventual publication of this novel at the crowdfunding publishers Unbound. Apart from the fact that Tot Taylor is the co-founder of Riflemaker, my favourite London gallery, I was fascinated by the idea of a book that had been so long in the gestation (rather like Alasdair Gray’s Lanark or my own biography of Frances Darlington which I had gradually worked on for decades) and which seemed to bind so many of my own interests together. Glimpses of images on social media while the book was in production teased followers with enigmatic reference points from a long litany of British musical, literary and visual culture. I seemed to be rather far down the mailing list for while others were tweeting jubilantly about the arrival of their copy, I still waited and in my anticipation, there was a niggling doubt about why the book had not been pounced upon by a publisher – surely this was publishing gold?

When my copy finally did arrive I leapt in, as if into a much longed for pool of water. There are immediately identifiable voices in the text, as popular newspaper / magazine copy is matched with the narrative of a shy beautiful teenager from Cambridge and John Nightly surely references the trajectory and later hermit-like life of Syd Barrett, the flash of youthful success followed by years of seclusion. The first introduction to John Nightly sets a familiar cinematic scene of sixties cinema, think “Hard Day’s Night” or “Smashing Time” where the trendsetting officials on Carnaby Street rocket teenagers to stardom on the new pop vocabulary of “gear and fab”. But this bright, Day-Glo world of instant thrills and pop is almost immediately contrasted with Nightly’s deeper, reflective and creative background of Cambridge, a contrast which immediately instances the current observations of many contemporary artists (including myself and Grayson Perry), the essential tension between the popular and the exclusive art form. (This motif continues throughout the book, indeed right to the core of the central work, Nightly’s magnum opus “Mink Bungalow Requiem” which seems to be a composite of the weave and straying threads of the book and Nightly’s life).

For where the object of the London record company is for their bands,

“To be literally popular with a cultural impact equal to that of cat food…”

with the result that “By the spring of 1962, “pop” had become its own dirty word.”

Counter this with John Nightly’s esoteric sound collages, which in creative description sound sublime and echo the poetic experimentations of Pink Floyd with birdsong, Grantchester, snatches of T. S. Eliot and R.A.C. manuals working their way into aural hybrids.

I have long been of the opinion that a great artwork should stand alone, and be accessible without prior knowledge, but that if you did possess the particular knowledge it was built on, or proceeded to acquire more of it, then the artwork would resonate, its meaning would deepen, and the more you learnt or knew the more that artwork would mean and its intrinsic value as a player in this ongoing conversation would increase. If they are not obvious in the text, Tot Taylor has provided an extensive bibliography and a formidable list of references at the back of his novel. These are a fascinating work in themselves and do much to deepen the perspective of the book. The careful footnotes to each point of reference, which add diverse resonances of English thought throughout history, transform the reading of the novel, a work of fiction, into a play upon preceding literature, astronomy, music, so that the novel becomes an educational journey. Initially, I was worried this might be a peacock-like display of knowledge, a showing off of glorious feathers, but no less a showing off, but the footnotes enlarge upon the text as a thing in itself establishing the entirety of the novel as compassed by the opening quote, the notes and bibliography as in an essay. This shifts the form of the novel in a fascinating way: the appendix parts are part of this art form, a hugely generous thing, and each note elucidates the character and story of John Nightly locating not only the character, but the book’s location within our culture.

As a novel the book is highly readable, creating situations that are desirable to inhabit, Swinging London, the Cambridge that incubated Pink Floyd; like Woolf’s Orlando we are transported to a London of the past, crucially to 77 Beak Street (next door to the very site of Riflemaker Gallery) where a John Pond in 1806 prefigures a 1960s John Pond, both are connected with occasions at The Royal Society. The parallels are written into a chapter that focuses upon the books concern with astronomers, with time and space. The first John Pond is Astronomer Royal about to give his lecture “On the Declination of Principle Fixed Stars”; the sixties John Pond is John Nightly’s manager, who is also dealing with another decline of a not so fixed star while Nightly himself composes a piece with the same title “Principle Fixed Stars”. Those familiar with Riflemaker and its run of exhibitions which has hosted “Stardust” a collaboration between kinetic artist and concrete poet Liliane Lijn and NASA and which reinstated Indica Gallery (where Yoko met John) and where the same intellect exhibited a collaboration between Francesca Lowe and Alasdair Gray (whose epic novel Lanark was as long in the gestation as this book) in the magnificent painting installation Terminus, will recognise much.

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Terminus : Francesca Lowe & Alasdair Gray at Riflemaker Gallery, 2008.

Alasdair Gray Talks about Terminus

Terminus was my initiation to Riflemaker. I remember each step of the old creaky wooden stairs that lead up to the next floor being lit with a votive candle. This memory was instanced again in the book (p. 246) where Nightly insists on one occasion, recounted in the text, on the use of candles instead of electric light.

Those familiar with 1960s British culture will recognize many resonances, I cannot think of the book’s “Mawgan” (who recalibrates Mink Bungalow Requiem causing a renaissance for Nightly) and Nightly’s housekeeper, “Endy”, without thinking of David Warner and Irene Handl and her pronunciation of “Morgan” in the 1966 film, “Morgan A Suitable Case for Treatment”. At a critical distance the novel occasionally reads like a collage of source material and sometimes the weighty references and complicated pinning to actual facts obscures the delicate narrative, but in its entirety, the bibliographies and notes included, it approaches a shifted art form and doubles as a reader on a vein of British cultural inheritance. The intense detail is at times rather like Richard Dadd’s The Fairy Feller’s Masterstroke but in this, I recognize much of Terminus and the hyper criss-crossing over of cultural landmarks, concerns, emotions, facts and figures in the human state of existence.

The text opens with a quote from lines from John Donne:

Who makes the Past, a patterne for next yeare

Turnes no new leafe but still the same things reads,

Seene things, he sees again, heard things doth hear, 

And makes his life, but like a pair of beads

(John Donne: Letter to Sir Henry Goodyere Doctor of Divinity, Cambridge University, 31 March 1631)

Just as in the gyres of Yeats, time and instances, words and happenings, rhyme through time and history and this is beautifully achieved in The Story of John Nightly. Each chapter begins with seasonal gardening advice and the text is punctuated with excerpts from astronomical treatises which along with the insertion of certain illustrations add to the sense of the cut-up collage and this novel as something else beyond the usual bounds of “the novel”.

Like the metaphysical poetry that Taylor begins his book with there are verbal conceits: after his mental breakdown, Nightly is attended by a trained nurse and friend, John Daly, whose order and safe rationality counters the irrational and chaotic head of Nightly. Add this to the intertextuality with the output of Pink Floyd and the real life of Syd Barrett and John Nightly himself instances The Dark Side of the Moon.  Nightly’s wife is called Iona, an echo of his own name. Johns, in fact, move back and forth through the text, notes, and bibliography – it is as though this “John” like Woolf’s Orlando, travels down the ages, resonating back and forth with other British Johns. Once again this points at various ontological and existential themes and the confused state of Nightly’s head which becomes understandably disturbed by the layer upon layer of coincidences in which he seems to be at the utmost central knot. I have had similar experiences and it is possible that each one of us sees ourselves at the centre of our own universe, not through any colossal arrogance, but as we recognise resemblances and repeats of ourselves, in the past and present, that are singly particular to ourselves and which would not necessarily bear much significance to others. The book then works as something of an assistance in navigating such an existence and I think that is the greatest compliment I can pay it! The gardening tips are most useful too.

 

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Reflecting

Self Portrait with Pink Hair

During a recent conversation, I was prompted to dig out an old self-portrait of myself, made in May 1994, when as may be apparent I was strongly influenced by the portraits of Lucian Freud. When I drew it I was still recovering from a serious case of pneumonia some months earlier which had seen me miss most of the winter term and had left me very thin and weak. It took me quite a while to recover my strength. In May 1994 Kurt Cobain had committed suicide. I had been in a state that I might call quasi-living – I only just managed to exist when I was ill and I think the illness made me recognise with some urgency the shortness of life. Certainly, as Heidegger suggests, my greater consciousness of death allowed me a greater consciousness of my free will and so it was that I decided to cut off all my hair and have it dyed pink and do other radical things in my life. The pink hair was partly in reaction to the death of Kurt Cobain and partly to the feminist texts I was studying, partly in reaction to a lot of the Riot Grrrl culture that was increasingly apparent and partly, it has to be said, inspired by a photograph of a woman with a pixie cut dyed pale blue in Parisian Vogue.

I didn’t have very much money so I opted for a £5 student cut at Vidal Sassoon in central Glasgow. I had very long hair and the girl was pretty nervous when I told her what I wanted and she kept saying “Are you sure”? “Are you really sure?” I felt a bit like Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday, when she repeatedly tells the reluctant hairdresser “All off!”

It took hours, first cutting the hair and then bleaching it – which took quite a lot as my hair is dark and then the dye. It was beautiful, she had mixed the bright pink with little marblings of purple. On my way back from the salon I popped into King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut where I had enquired about a job, Frankie, the bar manager, saw me straight away and I walked out with a job.

I drew this picture shortly afterwards. It was the beginning of a new and exciting phase of my life where looking back, I was incredibly brave. The shoulders look large because I was wearing my brother’s striped t-shirt and it hung off my shoulders, which are quite square due to my love of swimming! I wish I had worn something daintier now!

Lead Kindly Light

The coincidences are often manifold. I have had some spiritual counselling about them, but sometimes I think I need more.  Often it isn’t just one phenomenon but a series of things which all resonate with one another like sentences in a book. Sometimes the crossover of things is so complex and far reaching into my past that it feels like a series of machine gun bullets, bullets of realisation through my very soul. This is one set of these things which although may count against my sanity, and any future employment, I recount here hopefully to give hope.

It is hard to draw a line as to when these started but for storytelling’s sake (and I must stress that all of this is true) I will begin at the moment I sat down at the kitchen table on the first day of the school holidays in 2015 with no work in hand, no money for a summer holiday and feeling utterly alone. I have two children but I lacked adult company, my children quite naturally and properly have their own friends. So I had sat down to a very lonely lunch – my daughter in town with friends, my son upstairs working on his latest creative scheme. I missed my friends from university – we have drifted apart and live all over the world – I’ve never really bonded in the same way with any other set of people. Possibly my own fault, but I’d been a single parent for 13 years and had little social life. In any case I was in one of those deeply morbid self pitying states and tears of long time loneliness were beginning to well in my eyes. In a moment of desperation, (was it?) I fished a prayer card out of my purse. I’ve always had slightly mixed feelings about “The Light of the World” by Holman Hunt but what followed and continued to follow in the subsequent months has rather changed my mind about it. It’s a very pretty, even elegant, painting but I always found it ever so slightly cloying and precious – no more. It is deeply holy or perhaps it is because of what it illustrates. What happened was I turned the card over, on the other side is an extract from The Book of Revelation of St. John the Divine.

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Behold I stand at the door and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come to him, and will sup with him, and he with me.

If it is possible to imagine it felt as though my soul urgently reached out to meet Christ, literally lurched out from inside me. I was so alone – I wanted someone to sup with!  At that split second the telephone rang. I was rather shocked: it was my father. We had been on bad terms over the past few weeks, but he was ringing to tell me that my Uncle and Aunt were at a family reunion of my Aunt’s American family in Northumberland, that we were all invited. My Aunt’s cousin is an Anglican priest in Newcastle and he had arranged for the family to stay in a large rambling Arts and Crafts Anglican retreat house. Many members of my aunts family had trekked across the globe to be there. They had been there two or three days already and we might catch the last couple of days. We were still welcome to join them if we wished. I have no idea why my father neglected to tell me about this sooner but I had to accept his apology. Thus immediately (we had to pack right away) we had an instant mini break, in the most beautiful Edwardian Arts & Crafts house, a house right out of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe with panelling and huge fireplaces and William Morris wallpaper – the family welcomed us and we were all suddenly immersed in love. The house was set in beautiful grounds conducive to reflection. There was a bright little library where I found a book by my Granny’s cousin – the same side of the family about which I later relate! There was a croquet lawn and we had several games before we had to pack up and go home.

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On our return, perhaps out of pity,  my father offered us £200 to help us to go away for a little holiday – with two teenage children this does not go far, so we searched for inexpensive stays. We had longed to stay in Oxford for years and looked at the college accommodation. At the lower end of the price list was St. Edmund Hall  which had a triple room we could afford for a couple of nights but as I waited for the money to clear I watched those rooms slip out of reach. By the time I had the ready funds we had to move our dates and choose a different college –  the only one with suitable / affordable rooms was Keble. I had to ring my father to check the new dates were ok since he was looking after our elderly dog, he didn’t mind so we went ahead and booked to stay at Keble on 25th August. We were so excited!

Whenever my children and I travel I always try to make the holiday last longer by having mini adventures on the journey. In a previous year we had stopped off in Oxford on our way to stay with a relative. This time we decided to break our journey in Leicester. This was due to two strands of interest: firstly in Richard III who had recently been found in a car park there, and secondly because of some family research I had come across obliquely whilst researching background to our family for my book on Frances Darlington. Brought up with the belief about the Richard III conspiracy fostered by the Tudors, my parents and I had attended a talk in Ripon by Philippa Langley on her book on Richard III and her amazing journey of discovery, (more extraordinary coincidences). My ancestor, my granny’s uncle Sir Hayes Marriott had done a lot of family research and found the family tree going way back to the Plantagenets on one side and members of their court, the Tuchets, on the other. Intrigued and with all the new accessibility the internet affords I had found that they had joined the Yorkist cause when they met Edward and Richard in Flanders and had attended the coronations of both brothers. Under Edward, John Tuchet had been Master of the King’s Dogs which appealed greatly to my sensibilities. So a visit to Leicester seemed quite the most important thing to do, we planned our afternoon visit there so as to arrive in Oxford in time for dinner. It was as we went around the fascinating museum in Leicester that I began to realise how amazing our date change had been, for it was thought to be the anniversary of Richard’s original burial in the original grave by his Franciscan hosts.

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Standing on the glass floor which is now above the original grave of Richard III with projection of his skeleton as it was found.

If you know me, and my research on Frances Darlington, you will realise the tremendous significance of these being Franciscan monks. I have had a life long affection for St. Francis and his order. This was the first year in all those centuries that Richard had not been in that grave; the first anniversary of his original burial when he had been properly buried as a King in the Cathedral across the road.  The museum had thoughtfully put fresh white roses around the empty tomb and there was a tape of monks chanting which felt very moving and holy.  Prominent relatives such as Benedict Cumberbatch had attended the reburial and as we crossed the Cathedral precinct to pay our respects I mused upon the ordinariness of our visit which was really special to me but no one else.

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We entered the cathedral via a small path at the side and this felt small and humble, quite in keeping with the idea of Richard that has formed in my head, a man who liked St. Anthony of Egypt and his medieval celebrants who toured the country with those beloved pigs he took for his crest, the Richard who gave tax relief to booksellers and hoped to build universities in the North of England. The cathedral felt filled with quiet energy, cool and calm but powerful in an enduring and gentle way. It made me question my notion of “Peace” as nothingness. It is not nothingness, it is something very positive, gentle and beneficent, a golden calm, a warmth in quiet, a chorus in coolness, majesty in humility. When we say Rest in Peace – it is not death or the end at all, no, something much more like “be at ease in a place devoid of worry or harm and filled with kindly light”. The vergers were very welcoming and the place had bright contemporary tapestries.

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Modern Replica of the Bosworth Processional Cross

Looking around I thought of Bosworth field and of my valiant ancestors, of the loss and sorrow (and in one case a humiliating execution) they suffered under Henry VII. I wondered whether they had attended to the body of their dead King and whether they were present at the burial. The tomb is in an inner sanctuary of the church, right in the heart of the building. It was fairly busy with a light and quiet chatter among the visitors. I had quite a lump in my throat and faced with the white roses of York, there were more here on the tomb, pure white roses nestled into a crown of thorns. I thought of York where I went to school, and Richard, he of every rainbow I’d learned to spell out – as an artist this runs deep with me: Red Orange Yellow Green Blue Indigo Violet – Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain.

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The Tomb of Richard III – Loyalty Binds Me

To the shock and consternation of everyone around me I knelt by the side of his tomb and prayed. This was of course hugely embarrassing to my two teens and I was possibly blushing myself, but I felt so much – I was so overwhelmed by it all. When I read this back it is quite comical, I don’t think I can write it properly, I was a clown dabbing my eyes as I got back into the car and drove the rest of our journey to Oxford.

I always tend to do a bit of research as to where I’m going and I had been intrigued by the coincidence that Keble was intrinsically connected to The Oxford Movement. I have been heavily absorbed by the Pre-Raphaelites on and off since I was a teenager when I wrote my A-level art dissertation on Pre-Raphaelite influences on the Aesthetic Movement. The Pre-Raphaelites of course have connections to this religious movement and John Keble may be a familiar name to some from hymn books. I’d also had spiritual experiences connected with John Henry Newman – also connected with my research into Frances Darlington – I’d come across an autographed letter in a scrap book in the West Yorkshire archive and could not resist stroking my hand across his original handwriting. It was opposite the most exquisitely ornamented work where the scrapbook owner had written out the lyrics to Lead Kindly Light in careful calligraphy and painted embellishments around the edge. I had felt tremendous beatification in the moment and had a waking dream about Newman the following morning which was also incidentally my birthday, in it Newman, apparently outside the walls of my school, (what used to be the Bar Convent) was waving vigorously, cheerfully with such nervous energy I felt exhilarated and enormously happy. It was with some shock I realised my children had bought me one of his texts for my birthday which they presented to me soon after this dream.

We were exhausted by the time we had found dinner in Oxford and decided to explore more the next day. The first thing, perhaps to be expected in a college so closely connected with The Oxford Movement, was a wonderful and fairly casual looking portrait of Cardinal Newman – not in Cardinal robes as I had seen him before, but in ordinary priest clothes – normal, much much more accessible, I ate my breakfast opposite this painting in some deep thought!

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After breakfast we decided to explore the college and visited the chapel. perhaps it is common knowledge and anyone reading this will have been waiting for this point, but it was to my own personal amazement to see a side chapel extended to the right of the main chapel dedicated to the painting “The Light of the World”. That which had been on my prayer card, still in my purse. This had not been our first choice of college or our first choice of date, outside factors had chosen for us!

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It seems only appropriate to include the lyrics to Lead Kindly Light. My last little coincidence is that I have always referred to my best and dearest as “Angel-face”. Perhaps that will stick now. Apologies for any embarrassment caused.

Lead, kindly Light, amid the encircling gloom,

Lead thou me on!

The night is dark, and I am far from home,–

Lead thou me on!

Keep thou my feet; I do not ask to see

The distant scene,–one step enough for me.

I was not ever thus, nor prayed that thou

Shouldst lead me on:

I loved to choose and see my path, but now

Lead thou me on!

I loved the garish days, and, spite of fears,

Pride ruled my will: remember not past years.

So long thy power hath blessed me, sure it still

Will lead me on;

O’er moor and fen, o’er crag and torrent, till

The night is gone;

And with the morn those angel faces smile

Which I have loved long since, and lost awhile. 

John Henry Newman (1801-1890)

 

 

An article about the poem and hymn is here https://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/music/3668066/The-story-behind-the-hymn.html

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XZ-wST3Ej0g

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