This evening we were to be honoured by the attendance of the author himself. Eight o’clock came and went. Where was he? Should we begin our confabulation without him? A text message arrived. He had got onto the wrong bus. As a newcomer to Edinburgh (arriving late in the 20th century, provenance Glasgow), he had confused his bus routes.
Once Mr Mason had arrived and settled in, we buckled down to the business of the evening, which was to explore the origins and hinterland of his fascinating and unusual project ‘The Magazine’. This presents itself as a late nineteenth century monthly periodical, with contributors offering stories and poems, and the editorial staff providing articles and responses to readers’ letters. It is richly illustrated by surreal (but not Surrealist) imagery.
In reality, these monthly numbers are the work of Alan Mason alone, as writer and illustrator, and of Barrie Tullett as graphic designer and director of the Caseroom Press.
We were discussing the ‘January’ number, the result of several years’ work. The ‘February’ and ‘March’ issues have also now been given to the world, with the remaining monthly volumes, and one ‘extra’, still to be completed. Alan estimated that he was about 60% through the task.
The host for the evening, a long time colleague of the author as a fellow lecturer at Edinburgh College of Art, explained why he had chosen ‘The Magazine’. He had enjoyed its uniqueness, the dense and evocative writing -which was full of humour and original imagery and turns of phrase – and the intriguing illustrations.
The following, in no particular order, is a flavour of the remarks made by the group and the author:
It was noted that a favourite literary device employed was the use of words to do double duty – often expressing both a physical and a metaphorical meaning. Two brief examples:
“His voice, unlike his credit, carried to the bar” and “Strickland took his hat and his leave”.
It was remarked that it was nice sometimes to leave things hanging, and that the monthly numbers device facilitated a gap between setting things in motion and their eventual resolution. Of course in practice the intervals between issues will be considerably longer than one month, and therefore some re-reading will be desirable to follow the threads of the narratives. The author explained that these narratives would gradually reveal themselves to be germane to the narratives of their fictional writers and of the whole publication itself. It would become apparent that it was a financially failing publication, and that an overarching theme of the narrative content would be that of failure, both artistic and financial. The primary story was of the editorial staff themselves, who in the January issue are largely ‘off screen’, but whose presence will become more noticeable as the issues proceed.
The uniqueness of the project was acknowledged, but we engaged in some discussion of influences, drawing on sources as varied as Monty Python, Victorian magazines such as Blackwoods and The Strand, ‘B’ movies such as westerns, and James Joyce.
Like Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’, ‘The Magazine’ needs two or three close readings to extract all its meaning. The author remarked that Joyce was inspirational, and that the multiplicity of voices in ‘Ulysses’ could be emulated in some degree not only by the fictional cast of authors of ‘The Magazine’ but also due to the fact that as he was writing it over a period of years, he himself was evolving as a writer and thus developing different ‘voices’. He remarked also that in the writing process there comes a point where the work itself starts to talk to the writer, and that it was necessary to be open to new directions that arise in this way.
‘The Dashing of Hope’ was admired, with its strong images of sailing ships and the sea, and its evocation of an era when the sciences, philosophy and the arts were not delineated and demarcated as they are today. It is a voyage of exploration in which it is hoped that a solar eclipse will be ‘scientifically’ observed, but the cloudy sky obscures it. It is funny, has sly bawdy allusions, and is ultimately about failure – again!
A query about the origins of Alan’s skills in writing led us to discuss further the nature of compartmentalisation in today’s educational system. Alan referred to how artists in past eras would undertake the ‘grand tour’, acquiring knowledge of techniques and cultures in a sponge-like fashion. He felt that the hinterland of today’s students was less rich, and the host agreed, venturing to remark that a grounding in the history of an art form, and a breadth of cultural experience generally, were excellent springboards for a young artist. Alan remarked on the differences between film-making (he teaches Animation) and writing, and commented that he finds writing more liberating.
We talked a little about the female characters in ‘The Magazine’, and especially the article ‘About the House’, in which misogyny is evidenced by the (fictional) author through the unusual medium of furniture.
We discussed the two poems in the number, and admired the command of rhythm that was evident. Alan talked about the importance of rhythm in writing generally. He also offered the interesting notion of writing as being like creating a compost heap. Eventually a flower will bloom at the top, and the rubbish beneath can be discarded. (Not quite sure if that leaves the flower hovering in mid air…)
Further glimmerings from our wide-ranging discussion:
Imagery vivid, narrative elusive.
Not surrealist, and not stream-of-consciousness.
How seriously is it to be taken? Is it parody? Can it be labelled ‘post-modern’?
Contemporary artistic practice tends towards the ‘conceptual’. Does that bring in more of the public than the ‘old masters’? What do people want from art? To be made to think?
Formatting and layout of the work was much admired.
The coincidence of the launch today of ‘Boaty McBoatface’ (aka ‘The David Attenborough’) with the subject matter of ‘The Dashing of Hope’ was noted (two sturdily reinforced ships heading for polar waters).
As can be deduced from the above fragments, the discussion was wide-ranging and enjoyable, and the author gave us many insights into his writing process and the evolution of the project. We look forward to the day when all thirteen numbers of ‘The Magazine’ can be read at a (long) sitting, and the overarching architecture of the piece can be discerned in all its glory!