Thursday 30 September 2010

Tuesday 28 September 2010

Sunday 26 September 2010

Friday 24 September 2010

Going through the motions

Really, I shouldn't condemn those endlessly rushing people referred to below because, even if I refuse to be pushed to extremes, I'm not so different. I get up in the morning and consult my mental 'to do' list and when I get to work there's a physical list. I quickly scan and reprioritise and then start charging through it, ticking things off - my sole aim to reduce that list. I keep going till it seems like a reasonably acceptable time to stop. Then I slump into a corner, usually with a book, and usually I fall asleep over it. Occasionally I manage to tick off every item on one sub-section of the list. I pause and look around me, scanning my emotions for some sense of completion, vindication. It's never there. What's usually there is a more or less distinct anguish, verging on fear. Sometimes I slump for days in this vague anguish. Eventually I go back to the next sub-section of my list. What else is there? 

I tell myself it's like this because my life is particularly lonely and unfulfilled, signally lacking in those basic satisfactions as defined by Freud, with work and love. This is true to some extent. But I see the same compulsive behaviour in those around me, most of whom do have partners and children and some of whom do have interesting, high-status, well-paid jobs, so it isn't the whole truth.  A basic motivation for all of us seems to be this compulsive busy-ness, this accumulation and rote fulfilment of duties. The fact that I question it, often and deeply, resolve and sincerely attempt to pause and return to and savour the moment, not just to be driven mindlessly forward: this makes a difference, it does, but only a small one, perhaps.


I scribbled this at 5 in the morning, unable to go back to sleep and gripped by dread, and afterwards did drift off again - always remember dreams when I do that. I was speeding along on one of the new, blue, London rental bikes, leapt off and parked it hurriedly. As I walked away, it fell over and when I came back it had morphed into a toppled mobility scooter, a hunched and groaning old man face-down in the seat. I bent to right it and it morphed back into a bicycle, with a tiny, sobbing child in a baby-seat on the back. As I picked him up and soothed him, I woke up, with a hot spot where his damp, bruised little face had pressed against my chest.

Thursday 23 September 2010

Time in our times

In the mornings, going to work
, I board the bus while it waits at its terminus - lucky for me that this is near my house, since boarding a bus to central London anywhere else in the locality I probably wouldn't get a seat at rush hour. Departures are frequent, every five to eight minutes.

Today, while we sat on the bus waiting for it to leave the terminus, a woman came rushing up and shouted breathlessly to the driver: how long till you leave?  Three minutes, said the driver. The woman sighed heavily and and took off at a run for the next bus stop, where more buses also pass.  One minute later: another woman, same question - leaving in 2 minutes - and same response, off at a run - this one towing a suitcase!

To arrive at the next bus stop, it's fifty yards, a pedestrian crossing with lights at a big junction, then fifty yards again. If the lights are against you, the wait at the crossing is about three minutes. Even at a run, therefore, you may well not arrive at the next stop in time for this bus, never mind one ahead of it. So, this behaviour is nuts! What's it about, this need to keep rushing, rushing, even if it gets you there more slowly than standing still? Best to keep moving at all costs, I suppose - whatever you do, don't stop and have any time to think, or you might just notice you're nuts!

I'm not buying into this: nooo!  There is a price, though, for not buying it... in guilt, in alienation.

Tuesday 21 September 2010


Totally irrelevant photo - pretty colours they paint on the roads these days!

It's the silly season again. Silly amounts of work, that is. Yesterday I sat working at my computer for almost twelve hours with scarcely a pause to regain my breath.  Finished the target urgent task, but, oh, the price is high! By the evening I was yawning and stumbling, eyes on stalks, too tired to sleep well, and this morning I feel nauseous, with that horrible feeling of tight, burning skin over cold bones that I associate with over-tiredness.

Hard to believe that once, and for many years, I did this all the time, several days a week, with many much later nights and stretches of weeks at a time with no weekend breaks. I couldn't do that now, although in a way I am better at pacing myself, remaining attentive and focused on the moment, not on that fatal, futile "how much longer is this going to take me?" - the sweet benefits of a meditation practice.

Is it age, then, pure and simple - I just don't have as much energy? Or is it rather a basic unwillingness, an increasing inability to just 'not feel' the physical toll it takes (perhaps also down to the mindfulness meditation)?

Where is the woman who worked all night, downed a whole pot of strong, percolated coffee and carried on right through another day?  Gone, I think, and unregretted. But one hard day and it all floods back, a bit like a single drink to a recovering alcoholic.

Sunday 19 September 2010

Last slanting sun...

...of a September afternoon - on the way home from a friend's house in Rotherhithe yesterday.

Saturday 18 September 2010


I took this photo months ago and passing the second-hand furniture stall in our small, local street market earlier today I noticed that, while mirrors have come and gone in many shapes and sizes, they still have the painted bedhead. I guess it's become a kind of unofficial signboard for the stall holder, like the long-ago symbols of all the different trades. I like that: in the city, in the midst of so much flux, this solid, bright pink object hanging around and acquiring significance.

Friday 17 September 2010

Little piles of leaves

Slowly, with the advancing season, small accretions of dry leaves appear on the pavements.
Likewise, the stresses of the imminent new term start to pile up and, less expectedly, new pleasures and interests pile up too as some sweet new faces peer around my door and publicity arrives for alluring cultural events. I find myself marshalling the latter, trying to ensure they are the larger pile. This doesn't really work, though, any more than blowing hopefully on a tree would bring the leaves down - these accretions happen through the natural forces of things.

Thursday 16 September 2010

The old subjects

Reflections in the window of a disused bookshop, Cambridge.

Tuesday 14 September 2010

Certified Copy

This was my first Kiarostami film. The attractions were Juliette Binoche and Tuscany, and I'm so glad I saw it: gripping, troubling and intelligent.

The story unfurls almost in real time. A middle-aged English man and French woman spend a few hours together. At first their conversation makes us think they are strangers. Then we start to think they are pretending to be a couple. Then that perhaps they are a couple, who at first pretended to be strangers. A couple who separated after something bad happened? Finally, we're not sure it matters - after all, they're only acting, anyway. As all certainties fluctuate, we're just watching two fine actors act (opera singer William Shimell, in his first film role, is a riveting blend of raw and sophisticated and a worthy match for his starry partner), with the additional pleasure of dialogue in French, English and Italian and of a gorgeous setting in rural and small-town Tuscany.  But they make us care a lot about the characters and relationship portrayed, whatever the status of these. As the narrative waivers, the intense macro focus is all on the two personas and their interplay.

I was somewhat reminded of Vanya on 42nd Street, the film of an uncostumed read-through of Chekhov's Uncle Vanya, which I saw some fifteen  years ago and still remember vividly for the powerful way it transports you to a disused theatre in New York and yet simultaneously and not less powerfully to nineteenth-century Russia - the explicit unveiling of the illusion somehow undermining the play not at all, but increasing its depth and poignancy. 

Threaded through the story of Certified Copy, which may be the story of a real relationship or of two strangers meeting briefly and pretending to have a relationship, is a discourse on originals and copies of Italian old masters, the male protagonist having written a book on this subject. It's all terribly clever and self-reflective and shows that it is possible to be clever, self-reflective, undermining and provocative without sacrificing the pleasures of involvement and emotion. A fine and difficult balance is successfully achieved -  wonderful stuff, beautifully done.

Sunday 12 September 2010

Now and then

This is where I was a student, an unconscionably long time ago: New Hall, Cambridge, lately renamed Murray Edwards College, which grates of course on alumnae, but down the ages such places have often changed their names to honour new benefactors.  The college was just a few years old when I was there in the 1970s and in the intervening decades it has changed, become both softer and more solid - it's aging alongside my own. I always rather liked the bald, hard buildings, but their considerable beauty eluded me back then. I had no aesthetic sense. Now, of course, I can see them as an artefact, know something of the architects, but I've never been able to photograph them successfully. Last weekend, with the low, seductive September light and the pre-term lack of busy human figures to invade the pure lines, was a good opportunity for another attempt.

I went there to see a very interesting exhibition, which turned out disappointing - that same low light blasting horizontally into the delicate, multi-layered works and making them hard to see; perhaps I need to go again on a resolutely cloudy day.  The water, though - still, shallow water around the stilled fountain outside the window - that was art. And when I went back upstairs and along the central walkway, the whole place was preening itself. So I hung about for a while trying to capture the beauty of these once familiar surroundings, looking around me from somewhere between past and present.  

I was happy on and off as a very young woman in Cambridge - free of my miserable family and free to do the silly, adolescent things I'd never done as an adolescent: that was good. And also lost, disappointed by my failure at learning and disappointed by confused attempts at relationships. Above all, full of hope. Hoping and trusting that my life would find a shape. The truth is it never has, I was thinking from behind the camera, looking at these big, strong architectural shapes and tunnels of light. But the now embedded reality of this place and the sunshine pouring through it was somehow a comfort, an intimation of continuity and growth. And taking photographs, that is a comfort - oh, yes.

More photos here.

Saturday 11 September 2010

Friday 10 September 2010

Wednesday 8 September 2010

Tuesday 7 September 2010

Monday 6 September 2010

Sally Mann

"Time, memory, loss and love are my artistic concerns, but time among all of them becomes the determinant"
Sally Mann
So how, at this melancholy end of summertime, could I fail to be deeply affected by her photos?

The currrent exhibition at the Photographers' Gallery is, extraordinarily, Sally Mann's first solo London show. As by the show of Alice Neel's paintings (which I still haven't written about, but I will, I will) I was bowled over, moved to aesthetic delight and a wide gamut of emotions. Over-Americanised as we tend to think we are, much of the best of American art and culture still reaches us late or little or not at all and still it's hard not to feel that this is especially true of women's work. Is women's art less globalised? Certainly it's often most concerned with the local: Alice Neel painted the people she knew in New York, while Sally Mann photographs her family, her farm, her state of Virginia - the wider American South the furthest her subject matter seems to stray. But local does not equate with small or narrow. The subjects here are the big ones: love, identity, life, death.

I'm so glad, anyway, to have seen this work. The large-format images, especially the ones taken by the historic wet-plate collodion process, need to be seen at gallery size and quality. The exhibition is quite small, but beautifully, atmospherically hung and includes work from the famous/infamous, intense studies of the artist's prepubescent children, her damp, melting, magical landscapes of the South, and the death photos - photos of corpses decaying in nature at a forensic anthropology research centre.

Powerful and unsettling, none of these, not the naked children or the dead bodies, struck me as shocking or, as some feel, cynically pitched to shock. I was moved and provoked in a positive way and above all delighted by the beauty and can only trust my instincts on this - and oddly, really, when I'm such a sad, disastrous person, I do on the whole trust them.  The family photos put me in mind of Angela Carter's dirty-gothic fairy tales, the landscapes of the Faulkner novels Beth and Peter have been discussing, while the corpses seem to hover somewhere close, but interestingly removed - which is perhaps why they are more intriguing than distressing. The whole achieves the feat of being simultaneously dreamy and visceral, as well as cyclical, wholistic: life, heat, rot, death, life... and all of it frighteningly beautiful.

In a world of too little beauty, a beauty that is finely crafted, intelligent and unflinching is something to cherish. I shall cherish having seen these. 

Pondering the exhibition catalogue over a glass of wine.

Sunday 5 September 2010

Deckchairs in September

More seasonality. No longer lounged in, stacked but not yet stored away, lifted by the wind and caught by the sun, they pass through a brief stage of existing purely as strange, but strangely satisfying, aesthetic objects.

Friday 3 September 2010


The end of summer, end of long, light days - not end of too much else for this has been a gloomy summer, but it does have its own unmistakeable atmosphere. The low sunshine through trees whose leaves begin to curl. A certain febrile resonance in the air of busy streets and corridors as colleagues hurry back from summer diversions elsewhere. Fiercely deadline-ridden conversations as the new academic year looms just three weeks away. An ending is always a beginning, but this ending and beginning that comes around relentlessly every year cannot but evoke all the preceding years marked by the same rhythm. So these photos taken in the park the other day blur into past images, trees of past late summers, repetitions going back and back in time. Retro season.

Lots more retro photos on Picasa (best viewed as Slideshow - you can adjust the interval down to just one second).

Thursday 2 September 2010

Wednesday 1 September 2010


Last day of August: the hovering figures outlined against the low, bright light of Summer's end and the eerie glow of tunnels, projected on the pavement, glimpsed through smeared and dusty glass, have a fragile, temporary quality.