A kind of magic, foreign to the English? I hope not.

I received this gift courtesy of Robin Sutcliffe:


I haven’t blogged for a while, and while my playwork-related writings remain on hold (for reasons related to my blogging hiatus) I am moved to type this. I say type, because this crudely fashioned assemblage cannot be considered to be anything other than a draft.

Firstly Robin’s found quote:


“I have spent my life in revolt against convention, trying to bring colour and light and a sense of the mysterious to daily existence.

“But the English urge towards philistinism is impossible to avoid, though one may fight it root and branch.

“One must have a hunger for new colour, new shapes and new possibilities of discovery.

“The twentieth century has begun to realise that most of life’s meaning is lost without a spirit of play. In play, all that is lovely and soaring in the human spirit strives to find expression.

“To play is to yield oneself to a kind of magic, and to give a lie to the inconvenient world of fact.”

The last two sentences are the significant ones, although I have also included the lead-in. Eileen Agar was a brilliant painter from the middle of the last century, perhaps most famous for her association with Paul Nash …


… and several other artists and writers associated with surrealism (thank you, Wikipedia, for making me look better-read than I is).

Bear with me as I develop a half-cocked and poorly expressed thesis, it is, in part, this: that we as a nation are continuously refreshed by immigration. Were we to send them all back, were it possible (given that we would have to start with black people in Elizabethan times, then Huguenots, and what about the Norman French?) then we would be a nation of lumpen Anglo-Saxons huddled in our huts. Thus I find it fascinating that she talks about English philistinism, I think she is correct in her critique. She was born in Buenos Aires to a Scottish father and American mother, lived in London and married a Hungarian. So not a grocer’s daughter from Lincolnshire.

If we trawl back beyond surrealism we encounter Goethe (1749 – 1832) who was attempting to develop a ‘science of qualities’ (my clumsy phrase) to be on a par with the ‘science of quantities’ (again my own ugly phrasing). We forget that in Newton’s time (1642 – 1727) science was not as we know it, Jim – the term ‘natural philosophy’ embraced much of what we now exclude from our narrow definition of science, and Goethe and others moved freely between what we now know as the twin silos of art and science. Newton was from Lincolnshire, but not a grocer’s daughter.

Brian Goodwin (“was one of the prominent scientists who suggested that a reductionist view of nature will fail to explain complex features”, Wikipedia) has, more recently, attempted to advance Goethe’s thinking. His thinking, in turn, was behind my development of the ‘skylark indicator’ a nascent process for the assessment of playfulness in an environment. I digress.

But our English merchants eagerly took up our nascent technology and the Industrial Revolution roared into dark satanic being. In the process much of our finer sensibilities (one example John Clare, poet and farm-worker) were sacrificed on the altar of industry and trade.

Without our pesky immigrants would we have any civilisation left? There is one I would send back, Rupert, architect of Sky, crass persecutor of our public service bastion of civilisation, our glorious, advert-free BBC. The English are famously tolerant, but there are limits.

“The twentieth century has begun to realise that most of life’s meaning is lost without a spirit of play. In play, all that is lovely and soaring in the human spirit strives to find expression.

“To play is to yield oneself to a kind of magic, and to give a lie to the inconvenient world of fact.”

Indeed. Thank you so much for this, Robin.

Is the tide turning? Is the UK rediscovering that lost meaning? Is our culture once more yielding to a kind of magic?

God, I hope so.

6 thoughts on “A kind of magic, foreign to the English? I hope not.

  1. I haven’t read Faust, but I am a huge fan of Jan Svankmajer’s film adaptation. At once utterly creepy (resplendent in it’s stop-motion diabolic horrors) and darkly very funny. I first saw it stoned on skunk when I was eighteen and nearly fudged my duds.

    • Thanks for lowering the tone so splendidly, Eduardo.

      I know what’s going on, you obviously really liked this piece and you think you’ll look gay if you tell me that. Give us a kiss, you poncy soft Southerner with a job.

      (NB: We are Northern: this is how we express emotion.)

  2. Well I am flattered! to have started such a train of thought. I got this quote from our good friend Pennie Denton, who, I believe, found it when she was researching Eileen Agar for a talk she was giving on Agar and Nash in Swanage.

  3. Please note that I have changed my copyright and now require you to seek my permission to republish my work. Drop me a line, I will usually say yes: arthur.battram.plexityATgmail.com

    (You’ll have to copy that email and replace the AT with @ . If I didn’t do the AT thing, my email would be harvested by spammers. Sorry for the inconvenience).

      • Thank you, Ed. I may not have many followers, and even fewer who comment (although statistically a few is a large number in blog terms) but those that do comment are of the highest calibre, just like the Magnum .357.

        I notice on re-reading that that yes, it has a nice flow, and there are parts which please me still, andnotbut, I used ‘nascent’ twice. Oops. Please delete second ‘nascent’ and replace with Faustian.

        Note to self: re-read Michael Swanwick’s Faust novel, which might simply be called ‘Faust’. Context: pacts with the devil, golems, robota, Metropolis, mentats and cyborgs, super-soldiers, Bill Gates and Larry Ellison and now Apple and Facebook. Already I use a paper notebook, gonna get me one a them filofax thingies, I reckon, yes sir.

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