QUITE BEAUTIFULLY NOT: Always Open Always Closed by Caitlin Merrett King

By CD Boyland


The Writer’s left ankle hurts. The Writer’s left ankle always hurts, ever since he tore a hamstring running through a mostly-empty part of LHR airport, trying to catch a flight to New York.

Since then, although the hamstring has technically healed, it still aches on a more-or-less permanent basis. It is a thing which, simply, will never be right again. He is about to write, ‘like a broken heart’, then realises how ridiculous comparing a torn hamstring to a broken heart would be.

That said, for all that the ankle’s soreness throbs like the red-light on an old-fashioned telephone answering machine, the discomfort is haloed, somehow by the sense of gratitude the Writer feels, to the colleague who stood at the gate at LHR and didn’t get on the flight until the Writer, finally, arrived – hobbling. They have never really spoken or mentioned this, since – but, in the Writer’s mind, this is one of the kinder things anyone has done for him lately.

Another colleague (not the one who stood at the gate at LHR and waited) stops by the Writer’s desk, in the office he goes to once a week, and mentions that the latest text published on The White Pube is called, ‘The Entire History of Art School’ and this makes the Writer think that an article on ‘The Entire History of Art School’ sounds like it might generate some helpful, creative thoughts for this review he wants to write, about  Caitlin Merrett King’s new book, Always Open Always Closed.

Colleague says they like what Zarina has written, towards the end of her essay, about the transition from art school to arts university . . .

The way arts education has been professionalised to such an extent that students approach their degrees with a value mindset: looking for an educational experience that warrants the ungodly amount of debt they’re being saddled with.

The Writer didn’t go to art school, although he knows people who did – and here he’s thinking abruptly about a pair of platform Converse All-Star baseball boots he once saw on the feet of someone he knows definitely went to art-school (because they were very good at telling people just this fact about themselves), and how those shoes resonated as something he thought, at the time, was clever and cool – but now he sees those platform All-Stars everywhere (though, isn’t that just how commodification captures and sells creative collateral and isn’t the idea that there is such an agreed quality as ‘cool’ anymore kind’ve faintly ridiculous) and, anyway, he isn’t sure how relevant this may/may not be to the review he wants to write but Colleague isn’t paying attention to non-verbal cues . . .

I was taught by tutors who had a much more radical education than I was getting. They were able to shrug and roll their eyes at the bullshit hoops they were asking me to jump through, egg me on to challenge the hoop even existing in the first place.

Umm . . . okay . . .

The Writer is thinking that what he really likes about Zarina’s writing is its feist and energy, how it reads like something that’s being told to you from across a train table, or the aisle on a bus home, maybe late-at-night, maybe daytime, and how that’s such a refreshing change from art-writing that thinks it’s totally okay to start with a sentence like . . .

I argue that there is a constitutive emptiness within subjectivity and the sign, and that this interplay is evidenced as style in the work of the artists I discuss. The ontological surety (given to the subject, object and the act) is questioned, and the heretical/ethical interplay of all three is stressed. 

Also, how Merrett King’s book (from which he has stolen the Alex Kennedy thing he’s just written – or, rather, from which he has stolen the idea that Alex Kennedy is someone it’s okay to include in the category of ‘problematic art writing’) is zesty, lively White Pube-type writing, at least ‘til you get to the end and she unloads her scholarship and it’s like – ‘Surprise! Because you thought this was, maybe, a Paris-by-Hope-Mirrlees thing, for want of a holophrase, mais non! It is in fact . . .

Maybe we can come back to that later . . .? (Also, maybe there should be a ‘Spoiler’ warning at some point, in the review that he wants to write, so the surprise at the end can maybe/if needs be remain a surprise. Or not – as the reader will have noticed, the Writer never included a spoiler alert.)

Sure. And I think it’s great that petites bourgeoises with tight lips and strident voices are counting out the change . . .like, finally!

 . . . ‘and saying Messieursetdames’ . . .  the Writer thinks, but doesn’t say the words out loud, though he does want to mark on a map or in a street-atlas, all the places Merret King’s protagonist Ms Real visits in her perambulation through the Glasgow of her text. Partly, but not entirely, because of that article by Jerry Saltz which the Writer read the night before last, in which Saltz recalled his experience as a long-distance truck driver, sitting alone in truck-stop booths reading ‘the only thing I ever read on the road: my road atlas’ and the aching beauty and loneliness of that . . .

You know, I can totally relate. Maps, are another system I love getting lost in. I can still tell you the distance between almost any two cities on the East Coast.

This thought – if books were always only books of maps, then how would we tell stories in our books – made the Writer love maps even more than he did already. And also, to think that more art writers should begin their careers as truck drivers.

It makes him wonder about a map of that ‘Glasgow of the mind’, which inhabits an anthology (called ‘Glasgow’) that he wrote a review of, almost exactly a year before he decided to write this review (and which would be, exclusively, a map of areas in the West of the city), and how that book was very much a Covid lockdown book while Merrett King’s narrative takes place in the just-post-lockdown world but clearly was born in the same state of imprisoned isolation, where a pile of books was a more effective connection to the world than a door, or even a window.

This (by way of one of those mental finger-snaps which bring the mind suddenly back into focus) reminds him that Merrett King’s protagonist is named for Lynne Tillman’s Madame Realism, which is from a book the Writer hasn’t read, but maybe will now – or, at least, maybe will buy and attempt to read before adding it to a pile of other unread books, as that’s usually how these things go these days.

 . . . a new genre of writing that melds fiction and theory, sensation, and critical thought, disseminating third-person art writer’s observations in a variety of magazines and books, that sounds like fun, yeah . . .

It’s fun the way Merrett King does it, the Writer thinks, the way Zarina and Gabrielle do it – that lightness of accent and touch, the way Always Open Always Closed mixes kimchi cheese, and Greggs vegan sausage rolls, and shoes that make your feet hurt (these days, nearly all of the Writer’s shoes do this), with art criticism and you don’t realise the depth of research/thought that’s unfolding in front of your eyes (well, maybe you do, sometimes) until you get to the end, and then there’s that big ‘Zowie!’ reveal . . .

And it’s not-at-all like Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov, except it is, a bit, in the sense that the text and the end-notes are, kind’ve, in opposition to each other – one’s very light, the other is sometimes quite heavy and you don’t properly appreciate how the two are in balance until you do understand that there is a balancing going on and that something very heavy and dense is being balanced in a way that makes it seem light and airy.

Airy, because flight is a magical thing when you’re human and on permanent lockdown to the ground – a thing that, in the absence of magic requires engines and airports, and check-in desks and blue plastic tray/crates- and those things, in their weight, ubiquitous dullness and surfaces that are sometimes reflective but also totally opaque are as good as any metaphor the Writer thinks he’s likely to come up with, for precisely the kind of dull art writing that Always Open Always Closed is quite beautifully not. If art writing is a torn hamstring, and a miserable hobble through LHR’s least welcoming halls, then this book is a colleague, still waiting at the gate.

And that, the Writer thinks, but does not say, is probably where he should stop.


  1. Zarina Muhammad; 2023, The Entire History of Art School, The White Pube, 08/10/23.
  2. Alex Kennedy; 2015, Empty Subjects – Empty Signs, Contemporary Art Glasgow, 12/03/2015.
  3. Hope Mirrlees; 1920, Paris: A Poem, Faber & Faber, 2020.
  4. Jerry Saltz; 2020, My Appetites (pub. In Art is Life: Icons & Iconoclasts, Visionaries & Vigilantes, & Flashes of Hope in the Night), Ilex Press, 15/05/2020.
  5. Lynne Tillman; The Complete Madam Realism and Other Stories (website description), MIT Press, 2016.

About our contributor

CD Boyland is a poet, visual poet and editor who lives in Cumbernauld near Glasgow. His first, full-length collection of poems (‘Mephistopheles‘) will be published by Blue Diode Publishing in December 2023. He has also published pamphlets (‘User Stories‘; Stewed Rhubarb, 2020 and ‘Vessel‘; Red Squirrel, 2022) alongside collections of visual/experimental work. Together with artist/poet, Julie Laing, he curates ‘Off-page‘, an ongoing series of anthology/exhibitions centering visual poetry and the poetic visual. He also co-edits The Glasgow Review of Books

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The Glasgow Review of Books (ISSN 2053-0560) is an online journal which publishes critical reviews, essays and interviews as well as writing on translation. We accept work in any of the languages of Scotland – English, Gàidhlig and Scots.

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