I once met, and befriended, a girl during one of those painful gaps in relationships when I was in my early thirties, a time when I needed someone to go out with to art openings and day trips out of London, to take me away from the sorrow of loneliness, the endless autopsy of the last break up and the catastrophizing that came naturally to me then. It seems a long time ago. She was originally from the Lebanon and possessed strong Semitic, unmistakably middle eastern features; olive skin, a strong proud nose and carried great self-assurance, projected ambition beyond her years.
She could also be great fun to be with. We couldn’t have had a more different upbringing despite being the same age. She had been part of a distinguished Jewish family in Beirut but became a migrant first to France then London during the 1960’s upheavals. What made her so unique to me was that she was the first artist I had met with a genuine sense of purpose and belief, including taking (I whispered disloyally later to my regular artist friends) a notebook to openings so she could fearlessly take phone numbers of anyone in power who could further her agenda. This contrasted so powerfully with my own circle of friends in Bethnal Green who had already adopted an air of resignation on their choice of profession, assuming poverty, approaching the world with unrealistic hopefulness. Their strategy was a miracle of discovery by a gallery owner or collector, a fairy tale ending to a long day in the studio that we all secretly knew would never happen.
In describing my friends work I risk sounding cynical. There is an additional challenge; my ability to remember clearly, as I said, it was a long time ago and some things stick and others have been swept away. I know that at the time she was a painter of some success and that the body of work that had brought her lime light were small boxes with flowers and fauna rendered a little naively out of traditional techniques and ancient materials, wax and wood as well as paint and canvass. But what impressed me most, and here is when I am on risky ground, were small landscapes of memories of the Lebanon. I was so impressed by these almost outsider art images, they were clearly out of proportion without any attempt towards perspective of reality, but work made without the filters of contemporary good taste or rationality, beautiful and covertible none the less. Of course it was relevant work, something easily discussed by a curator, ticking many boxes but that doesn’t make it inauthentic or calculated, that would be unfair and anyway I liked it very much.
The friendship ended quite abruptly when we realized that we both wanted something different from each other, we had contrasting expectations. Yet she remains a friend all these years later and I’m happy to see her when she passes through New York even though I bring with me an apologetic sense that it wasn’t my finest hour and she remains the one with the generous, forgiving spirit. But I never forgot these memory paintings, they seem particularly urgent now as we are trapping in place thanks to Covid-19, and I’m thinking a lot about my own unreliable memories, of travel, meals I have eaten, friends that I miss. I’m thinking particularly about a City in England called Lincoln and a time when I took a trip there in my drafty Mini one winter’s day to attend a course as part of a Master Degree I was taking. I had approached the City with the best frame of mind, one of low expectations as it was “up North”, and I had everything to discover.
The drive from London takes you down dark corridors, this was industrial England, a mass of distribution centers, logistics, IT call centers and the last remnants of manufacturing. In time the neon signs boasting of well-known brands faded and the countryside revealed itself. The air got clearer and the road flatter. The farmland was barely illuminated by the grey Flemish light. I took my eyes off the road when I dared to glimpse at the dense green fields, a copse of trees passed in an ephemeral blur giving me an inexplicable sense of regret, places I would never see, or capture on watercolor or black and white film. When I eased down the car window the wind was moist and cold, there was no sight of the sun that day but that makes the density of the colors more intense, the green forests and the slow brown rivers looked comfortable and right under such a gloomy sky. As I approached my destination I noticed that the traffic was less frenetic than the South, it moved at a slower pace, the cars weren’t so flashy, I liked it already.
By the end of the week of study I decided to skip the last communal dinner with the slightly earnest, parochial business students and walked the now familiar lanes up to the Cathedral. The first time I did this, shortly after I arrived, my breath was taken by the view, there was a canopy of trees, and a slight shock forestry still existed so close to the city, it seemed remarkable that such green space could be so available and full of promise, or is another unreliable recollection? This last evening however I was drawn into the city, stalking the narrow, uphill streets, slightly breathless when I arrived at the top.
I had dinner in a bustling Indian restaurant, served by a young man in a Leeds United top with a regional accent that put my own, uncommitted mid-Atlantic one to shame. Despite his physiognomy which showed his origins were South East Asian, he seemed more English than I am now. While I sat there surrounded by loud laughter, sizzling dishes rushed past by dangerously held up high by daredevil waiters as we looked on enviously, I was struggling with my own fiery order smothered partially by pints of Kingfisher, I asked myself what was so comforting to me about this place?
In one sense it is typical of any English large town; there are the same well known stores for magazines and clothes, small bakeries and betting shops, cinemas and restaurants, it is a student town and that injects life into any place but mostly it is just familiar to those of us who envy domestic comforts. Beyond this is the fact that it discloses itself so easily, shares its history, and there are countless discoveries to be made if you have an inquiring mind. The local people coexist so comfortably with the past, I suspect many don’t even notice the buildings they pass. Yet it succinctly tells the story of England from the Iron Age to today, taking in the Roman settlements, Normans, Vikings, Saxon’s….the Industrial revolution and the two twentieth century wars left plenty of scars of the City’s psyche. Each of the invading forces left their mark, but so did the non-invading forces, the Nazi’s and the Victorian entrepreneurs, the post war town planners and architects its fate riding in waves of prosperity and desolation.
How much of this led to the vote to leave Europe in 2016? In Lincoln it was unambiguous; 70% of the town came out to vote and 57% voted to leave the European Union. I have no scientific or statistical facts to support my opinion that it was pure nationalism, a vote for xenophobia, but I do understand the complexities around the economic and trading arguments enough to say that this all went over the heads of most voters, instead what they could understand was the perception of being ruled by Brussels and the influx of Eastern European and fears of Middle Eastern immigrants.
The pathos of all this can be lost on no one, immigrants are the first to deny other immigrants on the same road behind them. Yet the English do not see themselves as being the outcome of their history, they consider themselves as being a homogenous nation and it’s true we don’t yet have the diversity of my adopted home town, New York, yet we are undeniably the product of European adventures long before the European Union, we seem to be afraid of immigrants yet devour Indian food on a Friday night.
And so to the present tense, or few weeks ago at least, where we spent a weekend on Fire Island, almost deserted at this time of year yet still warm in the sunlight and cold in its shadows. We walked along near empty beaches and when we occasionally encountered another footprint in the sand reacted with a Robinson Crusoe like indignation, absurdly, possessive towards the wildness of the landscape and our solitude.
We were guests of our friends Jim and Joe. It requires a short ferry ride and then a water taxi service to their part of the Island, Water Island. Days are spent walking on the sand with the Atlantic pounding aggressively to one side and with whisper of grasses to the other. The seabirds are fearless and lazy daring you to approach before they lazily move away a few feet, flocks of shorebirds skim over the water, wings glistening in the cool sunlight.
Complaining about the lockdown from Covid Joe started telling me about how much he would like to discover an England beyond what he had already seen, London. This was the trigger that raised these slightly shaky memories of my only visit to Lincoln, but I resolved that this is where I would take him first. To the Jews House, to the astonishing Gothic Cathedral commissioned by William the Conqueror, for two hundred years the tallest building in the world and the thousand year old Castle and walk along its city walls. Most of all, I would like to get lost in its streets, to join the fray and the purposeful, to remark on its potential and its layers, and maybe end the day in one of its Indian restaurants and talk about the rarely discussed benefits of migration and immigration in voices loud enough to be heard above the other diners.