Bench Press

by Sven Lindqvist
Granta (2003)

bench-press

I’ll admit to being a sucker for a self-help book. There are a few from that particular genre tucked away in a quiet corner of my bedroom bookshelf, on the opposite end from the sports books. Bench Press, sits half way between them.

It’s a book that belongs to neither category, though it contains elements of both. In fact, I’m not even sure what kind of book it is – it’s an essay made up of lots of essays, it’s a kind of fragmentary memoir, a selective history of body-building that’s also a book of dreams, a book about self-improvement that offers its reader none of the usual pointers and platitudes.

Ultimately, it’s a book about finding oneself which is possibly why I return to it so often. I love the way it’s composed, almost like music. Like a song-cycle of thematically linked, individually discrete, perfectly formed chapters that each sing out resoundingly on their own. Taken together, they make a strange and compelling whole.

Bench Press seems to lack any kind of central narrative. If it’s a quest, as many such autobiographical explorations are, it’s not about a search for anything obvious – a missing father, a family mystery etc. And I don’t think the author began writing it with a clear idea of what he was looking for. There’s nothing to hook you, to propel you forwards. Instead, it seems to propel you downwards. It’s a book that takes you deeper into its subject, deeper into the author’s dreamworld, deeper into the source of whatever it is – and we have only a few clues to go on – that incited him to begin writing in the first place.

There are a number of recurring images: a new-born’s fontanelle, fire-eaters, desert divers, falling keys. The thread that sews it all together is body-building, specifically his entry into the discipline of weight training. Lindqvist intersperses snappy little chunks of sporting history, from the development of weight-lifting machines to the training techniques of successful athletes, alongside a report on a body-building contest held in Gothenburg. But the aspect of the book that provides its centre of gravity, as it were, is where Lindqvist recounts the effects of weight training on his interior life as his exterior body adjusts to the demands of his new discipline. I can relate to all of it. Reading this book always unleashes surprising recollections and associations.

Body-building was the first sport I got interested in as a teenager. I bought a set of dumb-bells and a chest expander (!) which I worked with at home until I got the confidence to start going to a gym. I bought a book on body-building, read Arnold Schwarzenegger’s biography, studied all the main muscle groups and how to work them: learned my deltoids from my trapezius, my lats from my pecs from my quads, my glutes from my abs. I bought some disgusting protein shake stuff from the health food shop and trained ardently but aimlessly for a while until America came calling.

When I enrolled in high school in El Paso, I expressed an interest in attending the gym. My host brother was a varsity quarterback. He took me to where they worked out, the only time I ever went there – the kids here were operating on an altogether different level. I met boys my age but twice my size, huge mustachioed Mexicans in their early teens built like refrigerators, freshmen that could bench their fathers, all of them proving their might and muscle in a range of vigorous team pursuits that required strength and bulk and power. I felt weak and wan. I tried out for the wrestling team because I had been practising a martial art called Tukido at home for a while and I fancied I could handle myself. I lasted a couple of gruelling training sessions and finally balked after being tangled painfully to the mat during practice by a boy made seemingly entirely of knuckle.

The gym habit never entirely left me, though I’ve never quite felt at home with the heavy mob, the Muscle Marys, the grunters and humphers heaving into floor length mirrors. The vocabulary I had picked up came in useful when I started teaching in Turkey. I met an ambitious young man called Ozdenir, a former Junior Mr Turkey who trained at a gym across the road from the school where I worked. Ozdenir’s plan was to work in the posh hotels in Ankara, to become a personal trainer to rich Westerners, make his fortune, move to America. He was in that school every single day attending every extra class he could, as well as my own elementary class. We became friends – Ozdenir was friends with everybody – and I offered to give him personal English tuition in exchange for a bit of weight training. I taught him the language of the gym: sets and reps, pull-downs and push-ups, curls and squats. All that. And in return he helped me put together a training programme, showed me how to use a few machines, got me to think about my diet. It worked perfectly until we both had what we needed. His English continued to improve at an amazing rate; I trained on my own for a while until my social life started to get in the way.

I still go to the gym a couple of times a week, still lift tiny weights – I kid myself on that I’m building endurance, not mass. Which is kind of also true, but I prefer to annihilate myself on the stationary bike and rowing machines, plunging my heart rate into and out of the red repeatedly until I can barely see. I love that.

And I’m talking about self-annihilation here in the metaphorical sense, of course; the best sense. I realised, not long after my mother died, that I needed to have exercise in my life to keep me happy. I was smoking, I was over-weight, I was in a job I hated, I was in a relationship that was making me miserable. Everything was connected but I couldn’t find a way out.

I had been suicidal before so I knew that I was prone to extremely dark and dangerous thoughts relating to my lack of self-worth. These thoughts weren’t connected to any particular event or situation, it was like it was just in me, like the way you get a really bad cold every few years that keeps you off work. Feeling suicidal was a bit like that. It came over me like a virus.

I took to exercise as a way of staving off the demons. And it worked. But it’s a lesson I repeatedly forget to remember. So much of our psychology is bound up with our physiology. This should not be news to us, but it is. It repeatedly is. We forget we are flesh. We get so lost in our heads and hearts that we let our bodies that carry them turn to mush. Every time I feel the wave of crushing self-hate crashing over me, it takes ages – sometimes months – to realise that I’ve stopped exercising. Or that I’m tired. Or that I’ve been eating shit food. And, yes, they’re all related, one begets the other, but it’s relatively easy to stop the rot. Go to the gym. Get on the bike. Go for a run.

I’m not really interested in why I’m like this. I’m not looking for a narrative, not looking for a reason. I just am, and kind of always have been, kind of always will be – to one extent or another. And I love it when you meet a fellow traveller, someone like Lindqvist, to remind you that your faults and failings and frailties, along with your delts and quads and abs and glutes, are the very things that make you a human, just like everybody else.

I send you this Cadmium Red…

John Berger & John Christie
Actar (2000)

I Send You This Cadmium RedI must have been feeling flush when I bought this. It’s a beautiful book, lavishly illustrated, impeccably realised. It feels expensive.

Essentially, it’s a dialogue, an exchange of correspondence, between two exemplary artists on the subject of colour: John Berger, the novelist, critic, painter, poet; and John Christie, the filmmaker and artist.

Berger I’d heard of. His Ways of Seeing was a key text in my studies, first as a student of Media and Communication, then later as a student of English literature and linguistics. The university course that most shaped my learning, that best trained my mind, that forever changed the way I looked at the world, was called Ways of Reading, after Berger. I have a few of his books of essays on my shelves, and as much as I love his voice I do find him a difficult read.

I send you this Cadmium Red… is a book that requires no prior knowledge, no specialist learning, no fancy vocab. Just a bit of time to call your own for a while. Big thoughts like the ones contained in here need space to land. I think about this book from time to time for lots of reasons: as an example of the best in mass print reproduction; as a text that sings the virtues of a fine editor; as a paragon of the kind of connection I tend to seek out in friendships; and as an inspiration for the kinds of places quiet, mindful contemplation can take you when artfully applied.

In a series of letters, Berger and Christie discuss colour in all its complexity and variety: where colour comes from (crushed beetles, rust, chlorophyll); its qualities (“slippery” gold, “luminous” blue, “liquid, undulating, mobile, pushy” green); and its application by various painters (a Caravaggio red, a Joseph Beuys brown, an Yves Klein blue), alongside anecdotes, life stories, quotations, allusions, associations. It’s a quirky history of 20th Century western art written up as an epistolary chinwag. It so happens that the chinwags in question are learned, erudite, insightful, candid and make for joyful company. You just want to hang out with them all the time. You want to be part of their gang. As well as the letters they exchange, sometimes, they send poems, or pictures, or – best of all – unique, hand-made artists’ books.

I bought Cadmium Red… when I was getting into making my own books. I think perhaps because I was getting into making my own books. And I got into making books around the same time I was thinking about getting into writing more seriously. As such, making books and the writing that goes into them have always been inextricably entwined for me. I feel happier when the two things come together.

In 2001, at the suggestion of a close friend, A-, we both went up to Aberdeen for the weekend to attend a crash course in book-binding at Peacock Visual Arts in Aberdeen. A- had studied fine art photography at the Glasgow School of Art and already knew a wee bit about making books. I was a total newbie.

Marking. Measuring. Cutting. Scoring. Folding. Stitching. Gluing. Pressing. The tutor took us through all the basic bookbinding techniques. I learned that paper has a grain, which you can use (or choose to work against) when folding. I learned how to stitch stacks of sheets laid flat, how to stitch pamphlets. I learned what a folio is and how to stitch several of them together to make a hard-back book block. I learned the astonishing versatility of the bone folder: a genius piece of technology and, of the many tools in the bookbinder’s arsenal, weapon of first resort.

I came away from that weekend with the feeling, for the first time in my life, that I was capable of making art. That art was something I could do. Imagine that.

A- I and I embarked on a project soon after our Peacock weekend called Praties is Tatties, a series of six hand-stitched books incorporating A-‘s photography and my text on the subject of, well, potatoes. We sold a few at the Glasgow Art Fair and returned to Peacock a year later with another project called Inventories, where I interviewed various people about an object and A- photographed it.

I’ve made countless books since. When I studied for my Masters in creative writing, my submissions were always presented as hand-made books. I continue to make books when the situation seems to require one and I think the intended recipient might enjoy it. I’ve made books for many of my friends. I made many for a difficult girl I once loved. I made one earlier this year for my dad’s 70th birthday celebration – a collection of postcards from guests at his birthday lunch last year, recalling a memorable event with him, accompanied by three words to describe him. Recently, a dear friend from the old country whom I hadn’t heard from for over 20 years sent me a letter. I was surprised and touched and delighted. It seemed fitting – inevitable, really – to respond with a book.

And, looking back, I realise that the act of making books as a way of connecting in a very personal way with people I hold dear comes from the correspondence collected in I send you this Cadmium Red.

Ideas take shape in infinite ways. And sometimes the best way is with a book.

The Art of Miles Davis

Art of Miles DavisMiles Davis takes up a lot of room on my shelves. His autobiography sits among my books. His music proliferates among the cassettes and LPs and CDs. I’ve got a couple of VHS tapes kicking about somewhere, stuff I recorded off the telly when he died, a Live in Paris concert. The film Ascenseur pour l’échafaud, for which Miles created the soundtrack, sits between À bout de souffle and Diva among the DVDs.

But this post takes its title from the one item that doesn’t fit on any of my shelves: The Art of Miles Davis. An outsized paperback edition that reproduces 70 odd drawings and paintings alongside an extended interview with the book’s editor. I ordered my copy from Waterstone’s in town, I think, when it still occupied the Ca’d’oro Building in Union Street, 1991. It’s great to see it again.

The book was a total revelation to me. I had been slowly broadening my appreciation of his music, mostly through cut price Fopp purchases (when they still occupied their original shop further up Renfield Street) and the occasional EK library borrowing. I wrote about how I got into Miles’s music, here, but this book acted as a gateway drug into another form of artistic expression entirely. It made a powerful connection between music and images. It made me want to make art.

From reading the interview with Miles in the book, I learned that he was influenced by Picasso and Kandinsky – names I’d heard, but didn’t know anything about, and which I subsequently set out to discover. I learned about African tribal art, and the influence that had on Miles’s painting. I started doing paintings of my own, out in the greenhouse, while listening to the murky funk of Miles’s mid 70s period, albums like Dark Magus and Get Up With It – which the Guardian describes as “a tremendously odd record, one that begins with a tribute to the just deceased Duke Ellington, a 32-minute piece of colossally-cool ambient space jazz” – perfect for creating the necessary conditions for the dreamy headspace needed for creating art.

Looking back at the book after many, many years, I’m struck by the vibrancy of the colours, the fluidity of movement. Robots mingle with dancers, faces peer out at you, figures stand and pose proud and indifferent. It doesn’t come to me as music, exactly, but there is a definite rhythmic quality to the compositions of many of them, and an improvisational element going on throughout. I’m drawn to the textures of the oil paintings as well as to his sinewy, figurative drawings. I can identify many techniques I’ve used myself – masking off areas with tape, gestural brushwork, scratching into the paint, I can immediately see Picasso and Kandinksy, also Klee and Rothko, a lot of abstract expressionism – a style I love, possibly because of this book.