Folio Prize Nominee: How to be Both by Ali Smith

Posted on 18th March 2015 by Ali Smith
Our look at the shortlist for the Folio Prize continues with How to be Both by Ali Smith.

Ho this is a mighty twisting thing fast as a

fish being pulled by its mouth on a hook if a fish could be fished through a

6 foot thick wall made of bricks or an arrow if an arrow could fly in a leisurely

curl like the coil of a snail or a star with a tail if the star was shot

upwards past maggots and worms and

the bones and the rockwork as fast coming up as the fast coming down

of the horses in the story of the chariot of the sun when the

bold boy drove them though

his father told him not to and

he did anyway and couldnt hold them he was too small too weak they nosedived

crashed to the ground killed the crowds of folk and a fieldful of sheep beneath

and now me falling upward at the rate of 40 horses dear God old

Fathermother please spread extempore wherever I’m meant to be hitting whatever your target (begging your

pardon) (urgent) a flock of the nice soft fleecy just to cushion (ow) what the

just caught my (what)

on a (ouch)

dodged a (whew) (biff) (bash) (ow)


wait though

look  is that

blue sky the white drift the blue through it

rising to darker blue


start with green-blue underpaint add indigo under lazzurrite mix in lead white or ashes glaze with lapis

same old sky? earth? again?

home again home again

jiggety down through the up

like a seed off a tree with a wing cause when the

roots on their way to the surface

break the surface they turn into stems and the stems push up over themselves into stalks

and up at the ends of the stalks there are flowers that open for

all the world like eyes :

hello :

whats this?

A boy in front of a painting

Good : I like a good back : the best thing about a turned back is the face you can’t see stays a secret : hey : you : can’t hear me? Can’t hear? No? My chin on your shoulder right next to your ear and you still can’t hear, ha well, old argument about eye or ear being mightier all goes to show it’s neither here nor there when you’re neither here nor there so call me Cosmo call me Lorenzo call me Ercole call me unknown painter of the school of whatever you like I forgive you I don’t care – don’t have to care – good – somebody else can care, cause listen, once an old man slept for winters tucked in a bed with my Marsyas (early work, gone for ever, linen, canvas, rot) stiff with colours on top of his bedclothes, he hadn’t many bedclothes but my Marsyas kept him warm, nice heavy extra skin kept him alive I think :

I mean he died, yes, but not till later and not of the cold, see?

No one remembering that old man. Except, I just did, there
though very faint, the colours now
can hardly remember my own name, can hardly rememb anyth
though I do like, I did like a fine piece of cloth
and the way the fall of a ribboned bit off a shirt or sleeve will twist as it falls
and how the faintest lightest nearly not-there charcoal line can conjure a sprig that splits open a rock
and I like a nice bold curve in a line, his back has a curve at the shoulder : a sadness?

Or just the eternal age-old sorrow of the initiate
(put beautifully though I say so myself)
but oh God dear Christ and all the saints – that picture he’s – it’s – mine, I did it,
who’s it again?
not St Paolo though St Paolo’s always bald cause bald’s how you’re supposed to do St Paolo –

wait, I – yes I, think I – the face, the –

cause where are the others? Cause it wasn’t just it, it was a piece belonged with others : someone’s put it in a frame

very nice frame
and the stonework in it, uh huh, the cloakwork good, no, very good the black of it to show the power, see how the cloak opens to more fabric

where you’d expect flesh to be, that’s clever, revealing nothing and ah, small forest of baby conifers tucked on the top of the broken column behind his head –

but what about that old Christ at the top of it? Old?


like He made it after all all the way to old man when everyone knows Christ’s never to be anything other than unwrinkled eyes shining hair the colour of ripe nut from the hazel tree and parted neatly in the middle like the Nazarenes straight on top falling curlier from the ears down countenance more liable to weep than laugh forehead wide smooth serene no older than 33 and still a most beautiful child of men old man Christ, why would I paint an old (blaspheming)?

Wait – cause – think I remember : something : yes, I put some hands, 2 hands below his (I mean His) feet : something you’d only see if you really looked, hands that belong to the angels but all the same look like they don’t belong to anyone : like they’re corroded with gold, gold all over them like sores turned into gold, a velvet soup of gold lentils, gold mould as if blisters of the body can become precious metal

but why on earth did I? (Can’t remem)

Look at all the angels round Him pretty with their whips and scourges, I was good

no, no, step back take a look at a proper distance at the whole thing

and other pictures in this room : stop looking at your own : look at others for edification.

Think I recog

oh Christ – that’s a – Cosmo, isn’t it?

A Cosmo.

St Gerolamo –?

but ha ha oh dear God look at it piece of oh ho ho ho ridiculous nonsense

(from whom my saint averts his eyes with proper restraint and dignity)

showy Cosmo’s showy saint, mad, laughable, his hand in the air holding the rock up high about to stone himself so the patrons get their money’s worth : look at the tree all gesture-bent unnatural behind him and the blood all adrippy on his chest : dear God dear Motherfather did I come the hard way back through the wall of the earth the stratifications the rocks and the soil the worms and the crusts the stars and the gods the vicissitudes

and the histories the broke bits of forgettings and rememberings all the long road from gone to here – for Cosmo to be almost the first thing as soon as I open my

Cosmo bloody Cosmo with his father a cobbler, no higher than mine, lower even : Cosmo high on nothing but court frippery vain as vain can : veering as ever in all his finery towards the gnarled and the unbeautiful : the fawning troupe of assistants attending to each mark he made like his every gesture was a ducal procession.

For the second year running, The Folio Society and the British Library host a festival devoted to the art of storytelling from 20-22nd March. Find out more details here.


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