Sunday 30 May 2010


(promising myself that during the long weekend I'll walk and think and look at flowers and art and absolutely no computer screens - posting this on Friday with a time delay)

Friday 28 May 2010

The writer as wounded healer

"...I was born too early. My lungs were underdeveloped, and the doctor told my parents I might die. For two weeks, I lay in an incubator while my mother and father waited for my fate to be decided. In those days, the nurses didn't touch or massage babies left in incubators. I was separated from my mother in the first days of my life, and I now think that experience marks the beginning of a particular personality. When I suffered from convulsions on the day of my christening party, I scared my mother yet again. If I felt warm, my mother gew alarmed, and a single sound from my crib brought her to me. I was the firstborn child of a loving mother who lived in fear that she might lose me. We can't remember our infancies, but they live in our bodies, and had I not been frail at birth, I would have been someone else, and I would have had other thoughts. When I look back, I can't remember a time when I didn't carry around inside me a sensation of being wounded. The feeling ranges from the very slight to the acute, but the ache in my chest, dim or strong, has remained a constant in my life. "
This is from the first page of an essay by Siri Hustvedt, Extracts from a Story of the Wounded Self, in her collection, A Plea for Eros.  She's one of my most beloved writers. I've read each of her most recent novels, What I Love and The Sorrows of an American, four or five times. I don't seem to tire of them, keep finding more to appreciate. Her book of essays, Mysteries of the Rectangle,  contains the most exciting and revelatory writing about art that I've ever encountered, and the novels too are wonderful writing about art (details of books are on the website linked above).

That this clever, talented, now famous woman of pale, haughty Scandinavian beauty and reserved demeanour, with her famous husband and famous daughter, chooses to break open the gilded image by writing about her personal experience of temperamental difficulties and disturbing neurological conditions is a gift, I think, to all of us who struggle and feel weak, a welcome affirmation that humanity's survival and creative flourishing require the fragile and difficult people along with the strong and equable.

This is not, of course, to proffer the illusion that all those who struggle are talented and lovely. Still, to know that among the talented and lovely are also some who struggle is important.

Thursday 27 May 2010

Emergency exit

Photo deleted: a young woman. Very, very blond. Dressed all in black - loose sweatshirt and trousers. The clothes strikingly plain against the bleached hair.  Squatting on the doorstep of closed double doors labelled 'alarmed doors',  face tipped downwards, half hidden, mobile phone pressed to her ear with one hand, the other hand holding out a lit cigarette. The comments made me feel that posting this photo was perhaps an undue invasion of privacy. I'm not sure about it. I'll probably never be sure. In the absence of sureness, better not. Better try to capture in words. Sometimes, of course, you can't: a particular stance and feeling, clear to see but very difficult to describe. And it's precisely the capturing of that, I suppose, that makes a photo seem an invasion of privacy, even if the face is not clearly visible.  So much easier with sheep.

Tuesday 25 May 2010


It's the worst place in London. Well, what do I know? I haven't seen everywhere in London, but the Elephant and Castle junction, where I often change buses, is down there with the worst: post-World-War-Two urban planning disaster at its most soullessly, dauntingly, hideously disastrous. Hordes of the more or less dispossessed queue for buses on both sides of a multi-lane race-track, hard up against the tawdry stalls and kiosks and the blocks of greasy, grey concrete.  The occasional posting of artworks on the slab walls of the adjoining London College of Communication is therefore more than welcome. They've done this a few times, but nothing strong enough to stand too well against the poweful, bleak blankness of the place. So last week's appearance of some massive photographic prints that work amazingly well in this scattered space of dead, polluted air and poor sight-lines was a wonderful surprise.

click on all pictures to enlarge

Static, full-frontal figures set against a background of calm sea, they are pale and ill-defined, yet immensely commanding. Persistent burrowing on the Web eventually yielded the information that these are the work of James Russell Cant, a 2009 MA graduate of LCC who is already gaining deserved artistic and commercial success. (This show deserves better publicity, surely? I hope word of mouth, word of blog perhaps, will grow).

Hard to tell at first, in these massively blown-up versions, if it's single photographic prints or photo-montages we're looking at. His website (see Projects: Divided to the Ocean - grrr, no separate link) tells me it's the latter:
" Using the sea and the tide as metaphors, this project considers the time, place and self as well as a potential for melancholy in the process of migration. These portraits of individuals who have migrated to England are composites, palimpsests of 24 images over a period of time punctuated by high water. The subsequent backgrounds are the seascapes of the waters they crossed on their arrival. Ebbing and flowing, they both connect and divide the subjects from their land of origin. "
Palimpsests. Hmm. Does this veer towards the pretentious, trying to make something complicated from something simple? The longer I look, the more I am moved and impressed, and the more I think not. The superimposition of multiple images has an extraordinary effect. It really does commensurately magnify the impact. The figures are quietly imposing and resonant, appearing to exist through time, through space, manifesting exactly what they represent. Moreover, these depictions of immigrants to London could not be exhibited in a more appropriate place, since the decaying high-rise public housing around Elephant provides cheap homes for many a new immigrant. The diffuse outlines of the figures chime with the grey diffuseness of the buildings, roadway, atmosphere. Their quiet, immovable contours stand in silent persistence alongside the dumb concrete boxes. Unlike their surroundings, though, they have soul and stories.

Meanwhile, much smaller prints of the series feature in an exhibition of recent graduates' work at the Photographers' Gallery. At the weekend I went to see them there and experienced the same powerful impact - images that compelled across the room. These snapshots can report, but not convey, how the pictures take one's breath away. Go to the photographer's website for a better look at individual images, and for details of each subject, but for the greatest effect you need to see them in situ at Elephant.


While recent words have been bleak, exhausted and pointlessly angry and self-pitying (nothing, on some fronts, changes) and thus met with well merited self-censorship before they made it onto here, taking pictures remains as always a blessed refocusing of my energy on the interesting and lovely things that lurk around on even the worst days and in even the worst places. Not, of course, that the British Museum is one of the worst places - nowhere better to go with a camera, no better relief from the particular madness of the twenty-first century, no grander entrance to the pregnant dreams of history and imagination.

The more I look at this, the more I am in awe of the timeless, superhuman - and yet very human - beauty, the more I want to touch it, somehow access it...  Feasting with my eyes will have to do. And savouring the name on my tongue: amenhotep, amenhotep.

Monday 24 May 2010

The street outside (heat rises)

The green copper trim, way up there above the street,
would burn your hand if you could fly up there and touch it.

Saturday 22 May 2010

Tuesday 18 May 2010

Fairy tales and real life

This fairy-tale creature is staying at the city farm while appearing in La Fille Mal Gardee at the Royal Opera House.


Returning to the subject I mentioned here, because I realise from the comments that I was less than clear about what kind of art-consumption experience I was thinking of.  It's not all art that I have qualms about.  It's mainly, I think, reading novels and watching films.

I overwhelmingly experience listening to music or looking at drawings, paintings, sculpture, or indeed reading poetry, as a here-and-now, joyful and fulfilling activity, and not as a form of escapism or gluttony (unless pushed to absolute excess, I suppose - if you were making or consuming music or paintings to the exclusion of all else in life, of course it would probably be a problem. But that would be true of such excessive focus on any particular activity). The Buddhist renunciation of music, which Dale mentioned in his comment the other day, persists as a requirement of Theravadin monastics, I believe, and I've always found it particularly harsh and shocking.

I have considerable qualms, however, about 'disappearing' into a book or a cinema screen, escaping so utterly into imagination, the imagined reality of fiction. I have serious questions about the value of expending time, energy and most of all emotions on a narrative that isn't true or on identification with a made-up character.  Like Lilian, I began to experience these qualms when I began a meditation practice, a conscious, focused practice of resting in and treasuring the present moment. Finding that the present moment could be so very precious, why seek any longer to escape from it?

At the same time, imagination - the mind's ability to lose itself in spinning a story or in a story spun by another, to meld with other, temporary identities - is obviously for many of us a fundamental, yet mysterious and indefinable, part of being human. So I'm not about to retreat from it. Anything but. It just seems important to interrogate my habitual behaviour. Escaping from - or, at the very least, adding to - the here-and-now is only useful and beneficial up to a point, and I know I often find it hard to identify that point.

Monday 17 May 2010


painting by A J Casson (via Wood s Lot)
photo of Dartmouth, Devon, 2010
click on pictures to enlarge

Sunday 16 May 2010


Photo set here and a view from further round the circle of onlookers here. We went to Vauxhall City Farm, mainly to see the women who spin gorgeous yarn from the fleeces of the sheep who live there and dye it with natural dyes from plants they grow themselves, but were diverted by the photogenic beasts lounging around the place, and especially by watching the sheep-shearer. He worked in a roofed-over, open-sided area on a day of moodily alternating sun and rain and the low light, shadowed by the bodies of spectators, turns out to have been very nice for taking pictures.

Saturday 15 May 2010

Beauty's edge

I went to see A Single Man and found it about as far as it could be from the glossy, hollow good looks, from the ad-man's dream, from everything I'd seen it accused of. Not a stylised, superficial thing redeemed by Colin Firth's incredible performance, not at all. Form and feeling don't conflict here, they conspire. Fulsome beauty of colour and light, seering elegance of line, do not (or at least don't only) indulge the director's aesthetic, but provide an exquisite, enhancing container for primal emotion. It was really almost overwhelmingy involving and moving. I staggered out with many tears behind my eyes and I was not the only one, I think. Having recently seen I am Love, with the glorious Tilda Swinton, which is in many ways similar in style and effect, I wondered: what is this all about, this staggering retro-beauty wrapped around deep and wild emotions? Wished too, perhaps, that all those tears behind my eyes would fall, wondered what might lie beyond them. But real life, alas, is not exquisitely intense enough to set them free, not close enough to beauty's edge.


The question keeps returning, about art as an emotional experience that for many years I craved and took and was unequivocally glad of, and about which I'm no longer enequivocal. Where the pleasure and satisfaction was, there is pleasure still, but accompanied by this huge uncertainty. Is this real? Is it healthy? Is it more like intoxicating oneself with drugs or alcohol?  It's an important, stimulating question, worth engaging with. Now it's there, it's not about to leave. I don't know, though, that I wholly welcome its advent. I suppose that's why my thoughts  of facing it as fully as possible, making it the organising principle of a new blog, remain so far only thoughts.

Thursday 13 May 2010

Wednesday 12 May 2010

Spring or Autumn?

It was close to freezing overnight, exceptional for the south of England in mid May. We woke to a blue, blue sky with tiny floating clouds and a new blue government with patches of yellow - a Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition. I suppose I'm only slightly more depressed by this than I would have been by a Labour-LibDem coalition, the option I hoped my vote would support. Your vote counts for nothing in our outdated electoral system unless you live in a very marginal parliamentary constituency. All the angry people prevented from voting by the also outdated organisation of polling stations can rest assured that - right as they are to be angry on principle - the lack of their votes made no difference! Being first, a long time ago, with all kinds of stuff is not serving us well these days, as demonstrated daily by the desperate inefficiency of the now very old transport, water and sewage systems under London.

So we have a new government and I dissent profoundly from many of its stated beliefs and priorities (well, actually not so much from its stated priorities, woolly and anodyne as most of those are. I strongly oppose the retention of Trident missiles, the commitment to cede no further powers to the European Union and the withdrawal of Child Tax Credits. But it's more the things they don't say, the priorities they don't have, that appall me. The lack of any willingness to admit the scale of the shit we're in, to do enough about it or to ensure that the weakest don't suffer most from what they do do.)

I suppose I'm a dissenter more deeply than I'm anything except a woman. I dissented from the triangular misery of my unhappy birth family, the inflexible, self-hating discipline wielded by parents who felt powerless elsewhere in their lives. I dissented throughout my school and university years from the education system. By the time I reached young adulthood, I'd joined the growing movement of women dissenting from the prevailing structure of gender relations. I dissent, silently, daily, from the globalised, automated, over-bureaucratised, over-informatised, compulsively driven culture of work. I dissent most of all from the power of money and brute force that rules the world, the obscene inequality and inconceivable suffering this results in.

And I'm just a small, mild, peaceable person, and I'm so tired of dissenting. Sometimes I wish I could go off with a group of like-minded people and live a very basic, very different life on a bit of land that no one else wants. I happen to live in a small, crowded country particularly unconducive to that option. For some years I belonged to a group attempting to establish a co-housing community - a very mild and unthreatening way of living slightly more cooperatively. Many such attempts have succeeded elsewhere in Northern Europe and in the US, but very few in this country. The British financial and land-planning systems are highly inimical to any deviation from the norms of property ownership.

So here I am, here we all are: part of each other. I don't much like it, but this is it. I can only try (with mixed success. It's very hard. I'm very tired and worn and a mass of impulses to anger and despair and selfishness) to represent something else in my daily dealings with others. Try to be kind, mild, honest and aspire to the wisdom my friend Peter at Slow Reads wrote about the other day. Try to hold a vision of something better. Try, and keep failing, and keep trying again.

Friday 7 May 2010


We laughed slightly hysterically and everyone drained their glass, I noticed, which they usually don't in the middle of a working day. Haha, we said, fancy raising our glasses today of all days, for certainly none of us is toasting - as we have in the past, and now wonder why - our hopes for a new government.

We hugged her hard, the new doctor fresh from the ordeal of her viva, with tears in some of our eyes. As the world spins out of control we fall back on the personal, the intimate - and we’re lucky to have them, the things and people that matter to our own small circle.

Hoping less and less from the public arena, we retreat into ourselves and the places where our voice does count. Fine to do this today, healthy to do this today, and so good to have this particular reason. But we need to beware of retreating for too long from wider concerns. I’ll be out there, right behind it, I tell myself, if this unedifying election leads to a serious campaign for electoral reform in the UK. Will I really, or is it the champagne talking?

Wednesday 5 May 2010

Agnès Varda

While it's wonderful of course to discover new artists who fill me with joy and set my mind buzzing, those I loved many years ago and love still have a special place. In a world, a life, where I feel adrift and dangerously unattached to place or people, they are a kind of home - a steady reflection of my own heart.  One such is the French film-maker, photographer and installation artist Agnès Varda, whose film One Sings, The Other Doesn't I fell in love with more than thirty years ago and whose 2008 autobiographical film Les Plages d'Agnès I loved as much, no, more. More because I brought to it a richer experience of... well 'art and life', which is what it's about - her life and her life as a film-maker, which are not separate.

It's a long time since 1977 and I must admit that I didn't recognise the clip from One Sings, The Other Doesn't that was shown last night at Ginette Vincendeau's talk on the opening night of the Agnès Varda retrospective at the BFI.  I really don't remember anything about that film apart from the exceptional pleasure and recognition I felt when I watched it, which made me thenceforth a huge fan of Varda. Sans Toit ni Loi (Vagabond), which launched Sandrine Bonnaire's career in the 1980s, I remember much better - I suppose because by then I'd acquired some of the artistic and political frame of reference I still have.

The talk and clips last night absorbed and excited me, even after a very hard day at work.  What  Agnès Varda does is what I want and need art to do - this raw depiction of the ordinary, along with disjunction, surprise, questioning of viewpoint, and also, always, this beauty of framing, of colour.

I have a lot more to say about what Varda and her art embody for me, if I can ever formulate my thoughts, which are messy and tentative and possibly a vain effort to put into words what she so wonderfully articulates through images.

Trailer for The Beaches of Agnès.

Tuesday 4 May 2010

Monday 3 May 2010


A break in the rain, but the pink snow of blossoms continues. When they slap you damply in the face, you really do not care that they are pink and deeply metaphorical. We've had a three-day weekend and I failed to get much done, tired out by work. When 'time off' is so precious, this feels like a terrible failure. Hard to set a course and hold to it, not to feel trapped and blinkered, not to hold so tight it hurts, but still to hold - holding on and letting go, both together. I read a novel that spins me in its sad tale, a poetry chapbook that, on second reading, opens itself and invites. These at least - the spark of response, the trap of preference - these whisper, you exist. You and the drifting blossoms, damp and pink and metaphors for something.

Sunday 2 May 2010

Poetry writing month

I don't think I could have done 30. Well, maybe I could. But I did do 20, having come back from holiday and remembered Na/IntPoWriMo ten days into April. Phew, that was interesting and rewarding, if more so for me, I'm afraid, than for this blog's few and now probably fewer readers. Twenty's probably as many poems as I'd written  in my life before, so it's not too surprising that most of them didn't do it.  And I knew, really, that I mostly don't have the wild and playful imagination or the musicality that make a poet, being someone who tends to  think and write in long, rolling, discursive periods. 

A lot goes on in my head, lots of push and pull, tunnelling and soaring, but it's all pretty literal and straightforward - not poetic. Not poetic, at least, by the most specific definition. There are other definitions. In a way, I think, all writers who write with the whole of themselves are poets, must bring to their writing a quality of attention and of opening that we  most associate with poetry. That's why I'm so glad to have done this. 

I found it demanding, absorbing and really quite wonderful to try and write a small poem every day. While I laughed at myself for feeling every time that I'd got something and then realising, once it was done, that I hadn't, it wasn't a laughable enterprise in the current and dismissive sense of that description. The endeavour to write poetry, however successful or unsuccessful, if you give it your all still takes you to that place, deep and far into the heart of words and feelings, as far as possible from the fast and skimming tempo of life in 2010. It's difficult and precious and can probably make me a better writer. So I shall try to keep on doing it, but rarely, I suspect, in public.

Flight of the tulip

Nature being weird and wonderful
on May Day. Many more examples of such beauty and weirdness, on a tree-sized scale, and of playful and artistic human responses are on the May Festival of the Trees, hosted this month by British blogger Jasmine at Nature's Whispers.