Thursday, 28 April 2011



Wim Wenders in London

Alerted (from Canada - I love how this happens) by wood s lot, I went to see the exhibition of Wim Wenders' photographs, Places, strange and quiet, at the palatial Haunch of Venison gallery. Attracted by the sort of scene that draws him, the unexpected beauty of the odd and lost and out of scale, neglected or abandoned, I was none the less inclined to mutter that he only gets a show in these fabulous surroundings because he's a famous film director. It's true I didn't mind this in the of case Nuri Bilge Ceylan, was happy to see another facet of the work, adored his photos. And anyway, when I think about how little fashionable photography excites me, I'm not complaining about anything I find beautiful or intriguing. The photos move through bold, but modest black and white scenes to large-format shots of corners pale and lost, stark and lurid, with a lovely, often painterly eye for colour and abstraction. The last is a strange, engrossing wide-screen wonder: a damp, decaying wall painted with a mural by Os Gemeos of figures lined up as if for a firing squad. I would have taken it for a painting. Thoughts continue about photographing art. I was quite won over.

The exhibition coincides with the London opening of Wenders' new film, Pina, about the Tanztheater Wuppertal of Pina Bausch. My first experience of 3D. I was apprehensive. The bulky glasses perched over my own left deep and painful furrows in my nose, but it wasn't, as I'd feared, headache-inducing. Squirm-inducing, though, my limbs inclined to move in synch with movements that seemed so 'real', seemed to come towards me, and tiring on the eyes, which kept wanting to close. And wonderful, worth the discomforts, viscerally gorgeous and disturbing. The music, the dancing, the faces of the dancers and their words in many languages about their dead choreographer - all utterly compelling and absorbing. I wasn't familiar with Pina Bausch's work. I can see why some dislike it, call the often writhing and repetitive movements a 'pornography of pain'. But it seemed to me just bruisingly evocative of the texture of life and emotions, and the dancers a peerless animation of music. The film is a mixture of theatre and rehearsal scenes and dancing out in the streets of Wuppertal, in countryside and beside the sea. Both enclosed and open spaces work beautifully. I've always loved films about dance, how they let you get close to the dancers, their faces and muscles, and see from many viewpoints - Carlos Saura's films of Antonio Gades and his flamenco company remain vivid in my mind many years after I saw them - and 3D does deepen the experience, takes you right into space and movement. Here again in the realm of the beyond-words - is everything this week about that?

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

A place that is not me

This one reminded me of a drawing in ink and watercolour.
.. always moving, blown by wind, dissolving into the moisture in the air evoked by the mixture of ink and water on the paper. They are always out there in a place that is not me.
From Paul Kahn's review of drawings by Gao Xingjian in the latest issue of Cerise Press
A place that is not me: what a wonderful evocation of looking at art!  And it struck me in particular because T J Clark, in a recent talk at the London Review Bookshop, said something related, in less poetic but not less shockingly resonant words. 

I'd encountered T J Clark through his recent writing in the LRB. These few articles were not enough for me to form a view of his approach to art history, but I was quickly engaged by writing as exhilaratingly personal as it was knowledgeable. I especially liked his piece on the Cezanne exhibition at the Courtauld Gallery a few months ago  - both the paintings and the review spoke so much to the thoughts stirred up by the blogpost Parmanu had written around the same time on Edward Hopper and the eternal moment.    

Tim Clark and Wendy Lesser, talking at the LRBookshop about their books*, which share the impossible project of putting into words that which defies words, but is conveyed by painting or music, were exciting if frustrating, as such brief discussions perhaps always are. The ultimate appeal of a work of art, he said - and Paul Kahn's words reminded me of this - is all about escape from self, escape from here. [Another kind of moment - the 'yes!' moment when someone articulates the thing you've always known.]

Painting, Clark went on to say, offers the non-textual, non-grammatical; it exceeds or eludes verbal language. So is there a contradiction, a violence even, in approaching the non verbal through words?, Wendy Lesser asked (she was fascinating too - I have to read one of her books). Not violence, he responded; it's a contradiction, yes, but it's what people do, what language does. Language must struggle, he said, with what it is in a fine painting that most compels - the momentary, the uncontrollable that materialises, confirming or undermining the structure, the form of the work.   

These notions dance in my mind: 'the momentary', 'escape', 'a place that is not me'.

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Finding this much-needed time off insanely difficult. Longing to float outside routine, recover a bit from too much work and not enough of anything else, but hopelessly out of practice at floating. I suppose this is why so many people drink too much on holiday, and argue. Words become pathetic. Maybe photos reassert a kind of aspiration.

Can you see the dancer? Keep looking. 

Monday, 25 April 2011

Three, no - four, no...

Venturing out yesterday from my sheltering space to spend the day with some new friends, this is how they seemed to me, perhaps: ordinary and extraordinary, fluctuating, multiplying, not quite there. Or was it me who wasn't quite there, sporadically unable to look into their eyes, away from the reflections on the wall?

Sunday, 24 April 2011

Saturday, 23 April 2011

Without shared rituals

I know it's a bit pointless to keep raving on about Antonio Munoz Molina, when his articles and blog are in Spanish. On the other hand, so much of his writing is interesting and beautiful enough to be worth sharing even at second hand. Today he writes of the great processions of Holy Week in Spain; of how alienated he felt, as an awkward, questioning youngster, from these obligatory public manifestations - obligatory like so much of the stifling conformity of life under dictatorship and therefore inextricable for him from state oppression. He pleads eloquently for the right to not take part, whether your motive is profound dissent or just not being in the mood.

Munoz Molina's is a sensibility that resonates deeply with me. I can imagine sharing these feelings if, like him, I'd grown up in a provincial city in the long decades of Franco's Spain. And yet, and yet... don't collective, universal rituals exist, haven't they always existed, because they express a deep need to lose ourselves in something bigger, for catharsis? Isn't there a great psychic cost to a life without them? And doesn't the Easter ritual, happening over several days and explicitly passing through horror, mourning, contemplation and deliverance, express and help to hold some great truths of life?

Antonio Munoz Molina has recently become part of my near-daily reading. Beth Adams' blog, the cassandra pages, has long been part of it and I've been following her account of Easter services in the Anglican Christchurch Cathedral in Montreal, where she sings in the choir. She's the blogger par excellence, sharing through music, sketches and photographs as well as words - a gentle, informal drawing into her daily reality. I have found myself riveted and ambivalent. Brought up Anglican, I was not much engaged and often bored by services and, by adolescence, increasingly alienated by the working-class Protestant ethic (work and cleanliness are next to godliness; we don't have much and that's what we deserve, but we're more deserving than they are). Not hard, then, to identify with the young Spanish boy's alienation from his church and its cooption by a repressive ideology. But also, there's a deep pleasure in hymns and readings familiar so early they can never be forgotten, and the sheltering space and light of a church is something I learned to love as an adult seeking respite from the crowded chaos of the world outside. So there's considerable allure in what Beth recounts, and the subtle, thoughtful interpretations of which she speaks, of which Anglican writer Esther de Waal speaks, are vastly different from those which affronted me as a child.

I have a yen to experience a Greek Orthodox Easter, and one of these years will make sure I'm there for it. The disturbing and wonderful Orthodox singing, the whole village in church for candles lit at midnight and the cry of Christ is Risen! - my heart longs for this, for a ritual of renewal that clearly goes back further than Christianity.

My own slow yearning in middle age for a recognition of the spiritual has led me to Buddhism. The minimalism of the Vipassana and Zen traditions have been, and remain, compelling and have led in their own way to huge, surging feelings and an experience as collective as it is individual. But the more extroverted kind of public religious expression is not part of these, and I yearn for that too, even though, like Antonio Munoz Molina, I dissented from it so early and so thoroughly I can never take part without reservation. If I get to Greece for Easter one day, I will only be a tourist. 

All white, not quite

Azaleas in Dulwich Park: photographed every year since I got a camera. Thinking that I look more now at light and shade and shapes, abstractions and less at blossoms. More sense of something I do all the time, and these pass through it, than of a flowering moment that comes and soon goes. This is both satisfying and alarming. Important to hold in mind the ways in which photography is eye-opening, expansive, but also exploitative, reductive.

Friday, 22 April 2011


I'd like to think such photographic doodling is not just self-obsession, but part of trying to repair myself and be able again to move beyond only self. The week off work has been mostly solitary: sleep and culture and walking and reading. At an LRBookshop talk on Tuesday, I ran into a lovely woman I used to see at a meditation group and we both had a lot to say, in the break, in the street and outside the tube station, about art and music, about Italy, where she's from originally, and mainly about writing - her MA in creative writing, my blogging and inspiration by fine writers and artists met on line, most notably of late, of course, Teju Cole's novel, Open City. Her face lit up. A Spanish friend had phoned her to recommend Antonio Munoz Molina's big review of the book in El Pais. She had loved the review and marked it down as a novel she must read. Then back to solitude. I could wish, perhaps, that this was not what I need for self-repair, but it's the bedrock. Relaxing with others can only come after - next week, I hope.


Sunlit: through a window in the members' cafe, Tate Britain.

Moonlit: painting of his studio (1826) by Carl Gustav Carus, from a current exhibition I very much wish I could see at the New York Metropolitan Museum.  Carus was new to me. Lots of darkness and 'throughness' (windows, archways) in his work, more mysterious than menacing, which is interesting in the light of Jung's crediting him as one of the first physicians to evoke the role of the unconscious.  

Thursday, 21 April 2011

4 pm

The hour the worker never sees! Today I'm in Hoxton, the fashionable, arty area not born or thought of in this incarnation when I lived North of the River. It has charm, on a quiet afternoon at least: low-key, tasteful conversions of Victorian warehouses and tenements; narrow streets of glancing light, and then the open square. Here is the famed Real Greek restaurant, the original one, before it became a chain. The place is almost empty, with just one group at the largest outside table. Talk reaches me of 'the tour' and 'the album'. One of them makes notes.  

Lahanosalata with lots of dill, and retsina which tastes of the holidays. Guilty as hell because I've called no one and accomplished few chores, but enjoying this quiet self-indulgence. A visit to the Bookartbookshop brought me here. I bought some hand-folded booklets of photos and poetry, hoping for inspiration for a very small project of my own. 

There are intimations, yes, of energy and hope. No doubt these will be brief, but the memory at least may stick. This has been a good time of finding words, slowly, and ideas. The recent feeling that now, if ever, I'd be doing creative stuff if only life were less constraining and draining seems not to have been illusion. Hold that thought, even if it goes nowhere. The sun, which was really hot today, dips behind the buildings of Hoxton Square. It's a place I might have frequented in a different life.

Watercolour: Lucia Nogueira

I'd never heard of her when I passed the window of Kettle's Yard in February and noticed the nice light, casting interesting shadows and reflections around a sculpture installation of a chair. The resulting photo had a nice, watery resonance. Lucia Nogueira. I looked her up: a Brazilian woman about my own age who went to art school here and had considerable success before dying, sadly, in her forties.

Once you know a name it tends to recur, so, although I knew her only as a sculptor, it was no surprise to find her in the Watercolour exhibition. The light, small drawings washed with flattish colour reminded me not so much of the sculptures as of - my photo! There was the pregnant, watery colour, the dark-hearted lightness. I sat down opposite (a lovely, uncrowded day at Tate Britain, with room to sit and space to contemplate) and looked again at a quality I'd captured all unconsciously. There's nothing mysterious in this, I think. It's the normal osmosis of art. A lot of the seeing is not amenable to thought, but goes on at quite a different level. You don't 'know' it in words, can't speak about it, but you might photograph it.

So, an inkling, perhaps, of why paintings and statues ask to be photographed. Yes, they offer easy subjects - obligingly still, slowly changing as the light moves on them. But it's not just that.

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Reflection, shadow, photograph

A late Spring day, late afternoon. A sunny courtyard near the British Museum. The courtyard is divided from the street by railings and bounded by buildings on the other three sides. To my left, as I face the street, are a windowless wall, a plant in a tub, and on the wall the shadow of the railings. To my right, a large window holds a reflection: wall, plant, shadow. I point the camera one way, then the other, capturing the same trio twice. The photographed reflection is paler.  Later, with the editing software, I adjust the contrast and the two photos converge, become mirror images.  Remove the heightened contrast and the mirror becomes window again.  Light, memory, interpretation. 

Door men

Rather at a loss, so this rather odd photo finds its day.
Look, through the smudged glass of an old door, pale but discernible: place, moment. 

Monday, 18 April 2011

No structure

Monday morning with no work at all, since I finished that copyediting last night. I've been let out for two whole weeks and it's a strange, tremulous feeling. Too much hangs on it. No plans, and too many. The weather's fine too - greyish this morning, but warm and dry, with more sunshine forecast. 

No plans, just a list scribbled on the air of chores practical and cultural, names of friends I ought to phone, would like to see. Home leave from prison, I've always thought, must be very difficult. Freedom it's not, when you have to go back.  Who can live in the present, not project forward in every moment to the prison gates clanging shut again? Few. Not me. 

Birdsong: quiet chirruping and a pigeon's insistent bleat. Cars, just quietly too, in the parallel street that takes almost all the traffic. Between these small sounds, space, but space already shrinking. Seize the precious space, then, and stuff it with activity? Stay here in stillness, let the space be, feel it, be it? Or let sleep, the compelling, thwarted lover, beckon me back?  I'm sick of myself already, wincing at the voice I ache for when too busy to hear it. 

Switch on the radio: only twelve percent of women in Afghanistan are literate, someone is saying; their life expectancy is 34.

Sunday, 17 April 2011

Saturday, 16 April 2011

Friday, 15 April 2011

Une québécoise calico

Immensely cheered this morning to learn that I have named a cat

Just like my much-missed Emma, Manon was rescued after being hit by a car and she now has a new home with Beth of the cassandra pages and her husband, J.

Calico cats are so pretty, like the one who lives near me.  

 photo by Beth

Thursday, 14 April 2011

What I've learned from Buddhists

For all the astonishing spread of Buddhism in the West in the last 40 years, Western misunderstanding of Buddhist concepts like 'non attachment' and 'acceptance' persists. This is not really surprising, so drastic is their difference from the notions many of us grew up with (I don't mean to imply that Judeo-Christian beliefs can really be reduced to this, or that Buddhism is any less subject, perhaps, to distortions in countries where it has been institutionalised): that life was mostly unacceptably vile, we did well to reject it and aspire to more, and if we aspired hard enough there might be something better - after death.

Acceptance doesn't mean having no problem with violence, pain, cruelty or injustice, not doing anything to oppose or alleviate them. It means accepting that they're already here, right now, in this moment, and there's nothing we can do to change that; that denial achieves nothing, so we'd better practice facing up to what is and doing the best we can with it. Facing up: the hardest lesson, especially if you're, like me, a classic example of what psychologists would call an 'avoidant' personality (my very earliest memories are of shutting down, pretending: I'm not here, this isn't happening).

Learning, through Buddhist practice, that bad feelings aren't going to kill me, they only feel as if they are, that the only way out is through them, has been a deeper lesson than I've culled from any intellectual learning or from psychotherapy, a slow lesson, and one I've only learned... oh, perhaps one percent of. But still, astonishingly deep. For one reason and another, I haven't done much formal sitting meditation or hung out much with Buddhists recently. But the lesson, this deep change in one percent of me, feels irreversible.

I was thinking about this yesterday. I woke up feeling dreadful, so full of fear and despair it took me two hours to get out of bed (I'm mostly just very tired, really - horribly, horribly tired). I felt so awful, got up and went to work thinking, can I cope with this and carry on? And, as the day went on, to my surprise, I felt better... much better... maybe turned a corner - felt this, I realised, not because anything had changed, but because I'd held the bad feelings, faced them, not shut down to them. I'd felt awful, awful, breathed into awful, still awful, more awful... and come out the other side, found some better energy, renewed resilience.

In all the years that I didn't do this, just shut down - I'm not here, not feeling this - there was no end, no other side to come out of fear, despair or anger. For this tiny bit of ability to feel the worst and not flinch, for the incredible perception that my mind has learned to occasionally do what it couldn't do before, I'm so enormously grateful.

Heavy lifting

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Monday, 11 April 2011


I want to write and can't, wrung so dry by the small, relentless, tedious mental calisthenics of work that there are no words left. It hurts. So I find myself photographing shop-window signs and graffiti, clutching at found words, tossing in play-words.  Place, self, colour, word: take a picture, make a pattern of perceptions, give me some reflection of existence.


Sunday, 10 April 2011

Saturday, 9 April 2011

Friday, 8 April 2011

David Lodge

" I wouldn’t want to fall into the banal assumption that it’s better not to actually meet those you know and admire from afar through their work, that you’re setting yourself up for inevitable disappointment. It depends. Most of the writers, painters, film-makers I wish I’d never met were those whose work I didn’t like either. The odd writer whose books I found loathsome was even more loathsome in the flesh. But almost all those I met after greatly admiring them turned out to be even more sympathetic in person, even more worthy of my liking and respect. " 
Antonio Muñoz Molina, whose blog is unmissable if you read Spanish.

This is my experience too, though I've met far fewer famous writers and artists than Antonio Muñoz Molina has, of course, since I'm not one myself.  Last night I went to hear David Lodge talk at the London Review Bookshop on his new book, A Man of Parts, a biographical novel about HG Wells.  I wasn't disappointed, after thirty-some years of adoring his novels. What a pleasure to sit there while he overflowed, in measured and communicative tone (the long-time university lecturer), with encyclopedic knowledge and affectionate interest in his subject.

Not my photo of David Lodge - I wish!

Thursday, 7 April 2011

La Vie en Rosé

This idyllically verdant scene is just outside La Rive, the fictional village in la France profonde which is backdrop to Natalie d'Arbeloff's illustrated serial story, La Vie en Rosé, appearing at intervals on her blog, Blaugustine.

When Natalie first began spinning this tale, I enjoyed her usual fluent, sparkling prose and her talent for glorious whimsy, along with some lovely illustrations in her trademark style - another flight of outrageous fancy from my brilliant artist friend.

But the story grew, and has grown on me. The two pictured above are pretty primal characters: insecure, alcoholic ex-pat Susan, unhappy wife of an egocentric writer, and gruff, introverted village priest, Père Lafitte. Reading the latest episode, it occurred to me that here, in words as well as pictures, was much of what I most love in Natalie’s Augustine cartoons and comic strips: great skill and acuity in the service of something that at first appears to be delightful caricature, but on reflection – yes, here you are, reflecting – has serious and moving things to say about human habits, what we’re like and what we want.

Episode 17 is online now. Read from the beginning here. Please join me in reading and begging Natalie to get on with it!

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Monday, 4 April 2011

Less is more: tiny poems

Thanks to the Internet, US National Poetry Month now embraces me and a myriad others outside the US.  Last year I was away on a Zen retreat in early April, but surprised myself when I got home by joining in and attempting to write a poem every day for the rest of the month and, despite the mixed results, enjoying it. So this time, three months into writing daily small stones (and equally surprised by that), I thought I’d steer these, for the month of April, more towards the form of tiny, haiku-ish poems. This very small daily exercise is already proving hugely enlightening, for I find I have to start from somewhere I don’t usually go, to stop thinking, stop grabbing at words, be quiet with a feeling or image until it speaks.

Sunday, 3 April 2011

Saturday, 2 April 2011

>Language >Place Blog Carnival - Edition 5

The new edition is on line. It's hosted by Parmanu, whose blog is a gem, a model of reflective acuity, so I knew it would be something special. It is - it takes the blog carnival to a whole new conceptual level. I'm so completely delighted to be part of this.  Enjoy!


Friday, 1 April 2011

With boats

There were more boats on the river than usual.