A Mexican Christmas

On a frigid winter’s morning, about half a year ago, I took a car service to Newark Airport with a little excitement tinged with some hesitation, as snow was possible. We had heard about it on the radio, but without commitment either way from the weatherman, and although the sky was heavy with low grey clouds brushing up against the stacked shipping containers that dominate this part of New Jersey it remained cold but dry that day. Approaching the airport with the habitual low grade sense of anxiety my thoughts were on what inconvenience awaits us; pre-Christmas lines, delayed flights, the senseless dismantling of our luggage by security, a lost document, a missing visa requirement or Covid test, the menu of all hazards of international travel were laid out in my mind forcing the inevitable question, is it worth it?  

Our immediate destination was Mexico City for a day before a three hour drive to St Miguel de Allende. My wife and I know Mexico City quite well, I have been many times on business and on at least one occasion conducted a meeting without leaving the airport grounds, so there was both a sense of familiarity about the journey and at the same time a feeling of freedom from the routines of the past eighteen months. Our first mistake was choosing to stay in the old center, full of tourists and a shrine to commerce, the hotel room was oppressive in is décor and narrow layout but after the flight and jarring taxi ride we were both grateful to sleep early without dinner. The next morning I walked alone around the local streets, watched workmen on ropes repairing a church wall, passed by a truck full of heavily armed police and sat with a Starbuck coffee in a small shady garden where the combination of a breeze and strong sunlight made the ground dance with shadows from the gently swaying tree’s overhead.

There are several ways to travel to San Miguel on Christmas Eve, a choice of buses, at least two local airports where planes depart from Mexico City but I decided some weeks before to use a private car as it was relatively inexpensive and we were still both a little wary of Covid. It was a little disappointing to see how small the car was but once underway we wound down the windows and tried not to let the smell of diesel fuel and scents from the cities crowded streets upset us too much. Once away from the suburbs the landscape opened up but we were still not free from the traffic that inexplicably slowed the drive down at times to walking pace and extended the journey time by a few hours. Who knows what the driver made of us, this inarticulate couple who couldn’t even string together a few words of Spanish and whose mood seemed to ebb and flow based upon the movements of traffic, it must be hard to imagine people like us whose only concern in life is being late.

The best view of San Miguel is on the approach by road at dusk when the spirals of its churches punctuate the fading light and the sleepy houses clustering the hillsides around the city show evidence of occupation only through a dim glow of lights. The skyline was already familiar thanks to internet searches the week before yet it was hard to reconcile the images that presented themselves on a computer screen with the slightly chaotic reality as our car wallowed and shuddered around the cobbled streets avoiding carts and motorcycles. The cities landscape is dominated by the Catholic churches, whose steeples rise skyward and bells reverberate down lanes making it hard not to ask yourself about this continued obedience to such domineering symbols after the trauma of colonialization. We bring with us the baggage of expectations and prejudices, conversations with friends already colored our view, someone said dismissively that they thought it was a place where rich Texans have second homes.

It took us some time to find our friends house and when we did get the address right it was a shock to see a just a simple entrance next to a larger closed Garage door. But once inside we were in a multilayered compound comprising of studios for both artists, bedrooms, several outhouses and highly planted multiple terraces. Our friends are true cosmopolitans and have lived in various countries since we first met them in New York almost thirty years ago. In each of their houses they manage to impose their personal visual language effortlessly, both being artists and designers, with a predominantly Southern European sensibility; white walls, flowers, natural light and comfort. An appreciation of books, music, art and food is evident when you allow yourself to take in the living room, multiple languages are spoken; French, Spanish and reluctantly English.

We spend Christmas and exchanged gifts, walk around the craft markets and leave empty handed, more tempting are the local antique shops which offer folk art, which I assume is genuine but not having the expertise to judge, let these pass also. Like many before me, I have an interest in retablo’s; small religious paintings on humble materials that began to be produced in the eighteenth century in Mexico that mimicked the devotional art found in Catholic churches. There is often a deep melancholy in the characters found in these tableaux’s, frequently portraits of saints that come to protect common folk from harm, physical or environmental. They tell stories of higher unseen powers affecting their destiny and the recipients of these images (they were commonly exchanged as gifts) understood the value of preying to domestic alter pieces. Today it seems contradictory to have an interest in religious iconography as I harbor unease at the negative impact of religion on society but also have grown to see some of the positive effects. There is a whole industry of mindfulness and yoga gurus who try to teach us to stop worrying, to not “know” or “care” all the time, to slow our speeding thoughts, to focus on an image or our breath, something that religious leaders have perhaps understood for centuries.     

We ate out several times in the warm evening on expensive hotel roof tops overlooking the city, delicious local food, beautifully presented and of world class quality. On Christmas Eve and into the early hours of Christmas Day I laid awake due to the sound of fire crackers, which could easily be mistaken for gun shots. I remembered that our host had told us that the reason they bought this property at such a reasonable price was the Americans who owned it before had a bad relationship with their Mexican neighbors, at one point they heard a rumor that their dog might be killed. Our friend would have no problem confronting any difficult situation or have fears of staking his claim to his ground but there was clearly some tension on the street and I’m both a little in awe of his attitude and feel a little afraid of his vulnerability within the community. I’ve always been wary of the Police in Mexico due to a few occasions where I’ve been pulled over while driving for no apparent reason which turned out to be a casual request for a bribe disguised as an infringement. When we left their house in the morning I saw a sullen girl watching us from a dim garage across the street who didn’t acknowledge our greeting and returning later that day there was a car parked in his space that needed to be moved, little micro aggressions to unsettle and test the newcomers resolve. At the same time I tell myself we should not be surprised at some degree of hostility; Donald Trump’s infamous remarks about Mexicans still hung in the air not because of his ignorance, but because typically his views are simply a reflection a much deeper set of prejudices amongst people who rarely travel.   

The return to Mexico City was problematic the day after Christmas, no private cars were available, and we were persuaded to take the bus which we were assured was quick and luxurious. It was neither, and it made countless stops in its five hour progress through the Mexican countryside, it was too late to fear Covid as the bus was so full passengers standing in the aisles, some holding children, unmasked. Worse still it was an unpleasant and ugly landscape, densely populated and the towns we passed lacked any charm.  Days later we were home in New York and I was reminded that the joy of travelling has always been a two part affair, firstly there is the adventure of new sights, tastes and encounters with different cultures, the second is the slow and unpredictable release of memories over the days, weeks and months after you are safely home. I know I will be staring at a group of numbers on a computer screen one moment and the next find myself on a rattling bus crammed with Mexican workers or on a steep, cobbled street where pensive children are taking turns to stroke a donkey’s velvet nose.   

A slow year

June is a good time to take stock of a year that is slowly slipping by. Time is dragging like it was in my adolescence, but now it is because of an over familiarity with its patterns; we live between upstate New York and the City, I know we will spend a long weekend in the Hamptons and possibly a short trip to Martha’s Vineyard. For many, and also perhaps one day for an older me, it seems idyllic yet I still long for an escape from these comfortable routines, I dream of travelling further. Is it the repetitiveness we dread or the inevitability of complacency, a blind or misplaced step into the quicksand of old age? It may also be the feeling of being held hostage to New York’s climate or even a sense of entitlement in these Post Covid days (if that is in fact where we are) which is visible everywhere, in the packed sidewalks and bars full of young people to the behavior of the older guard, some still anxiously wearing masks, those famously neurotic New Yorkers signaling their virtue to each other, a city full of unfathomable codes now more than ever.

But now the summer heat is up even this early and we fool ourselves into thinking that we are protecting ourselves by pulling down the shades permitting only a little of its young morning light to penetrate. It is that interior gloom, still air plus the slightly metallic smell of oatmeal that Mary has on the stove which brings back ghosts of my childhood, something I largely managed to escape from yet today they crept back into my thoughts it was also the sight of a notepaper on the breakfast table, embossed with a hotels name, which was a portal to our visit to Cornwall in South West England weeks ago where some time was spent with my sister and her husband.

It was in April, we had checked on the weather a week before on my i-phone, a fool’s errand when it comes to England but this routine was done and waterproofs were duly packed and never used as the sky remained consistently blue and the sun was naked in its ferocity at times. We travel these days like grownups. The cross Atlantic day flight, a car service to pick us up at the airport, the hotel receptionist alert to the fact that we would be checking in late and a cocktail in the bar before sleep. We stay in a sleepy village outside of London where the Thames sidles past, ducks and water fowl shriek into the over perfect, manicured landscapes which have matured over the years into perfection not because of nature’s design but because of money as every inch of this part of this world is spoken for. I don’t mind; I like the Michelin starred restaurants, I don’t object to the loud laugher and the indifferent tastes of the English middle classes and don’t use the phrase “it’s like Connecticut” as an insult. It’s beautiful to walk along the Thames, to peer voyeuristically into the houseboats, admire the freedom of their owners and to swoon enviously at the neat houses nearby and acknowledge shrewd investments.

Days later we drove five hours to Cornwall in a small car all the time looking at the glossy, rather tacky signs pointing to ancient places; Glastonbury Tor, the Cheddar Gorge, Tintagel. All evocative names from my childhood, dense with a fake romanticism, each exerting a sirens pull which was resisted in favor of a roadside service station where we could use the rest room and buy a Marks and Spencer sandwich. But even there, in the car park the sky possessed the drama of a sudden storm and several hawks circled ominously overhead as it is lambing season. We admired these fragile newborns throughout the drive as this is also sheep country, taking turns to point out their delicate leaps and the fragility of their posture, the sweetness of their vulnerability. The roads eventually narrowed as we approached the coast, almost comically so, and by the time we reached our hotel they were single-laned and the sight of an oncoming vehicle led to a mannerly reversal into a slightly wider patch on one of our parts, a wave of gratitude by the other as we squeezed by each other, holding our breath, hoping not to scratch precious paintwork.

The hotel itself sits on a sliver of rock overlooking a deep bay. From the hotel restaurant one can look down to the crescent shaped, stony beach surrounded on three sides by steep, unforgiving rocks. Over breakfast the next morning I saw a women searching the ground and occasionally putting something into a small plastic bag. Her concentration and attention was admirable, even from a distance I could see she had considerable expertise in something down there on her hands and knees, it must have been rough on that course surface with the soft salt air blowing in from the surf just a few meters away, dwarfed by her surroundings, by this slightly claustrophobic village where houses are packed together like barnacles. By chance I bumped into her later as I was leaving the hotel and she showed me the translucent findings, fragments of glass, broken bottles literally smashed and sandblasted by years on the Ocean floor only to be gathered with the goal of making handmade jewelry. And yet, some instinct or perhaps just the relentless voice of my current malaise, told me that all these efforts would lead to nothing of value. 

We walked along the cliffs, passing occasional walkers with their dogs and children, to our left there were significant steep drops into the sea. It was tiring work, navigating the stiles, the steep and sometime precarious drops and rises that the path took, but we had a destination; a hut in the neighboring town that made food and was a popular meeting place for hikers. When we arrived and found a bench overlooking the sea its local fame was easy to understand, serving largely Middle Eastern food in a picture perfect setting, emblematic in a way of what England has become, if you have the privilege of time and money to seek it out.  

Days later, we are back in London staying at the Chelsea Arts Club. It is beautiful and comfortable, just artfully shabby enough, I say to myself stepping over the sleeping house cat on the way to a shared bathroom. We took a cab to North London to meet our friends who had invited us to Passover dinner. I have mixed feelings about it, being an atheist and so wary of religious rituals and pomp. However these misgivings were soon overcome and I let myself be drawn into it ceremony and felt grateful to be included, to be even closer to our hosts, Kim and Sam and their son Noah. I admire the power and intelligence of these Jewish rituals, I like that they are inclusive and non-Jews like myself are made to feel more than welcome, that we are witnesses to their beliefs and connections that are old and profound. I recited the passages enthusiastically to make my appreciation known, but when Mary’s turn came, her voice broke and a tear appeared and it was all a bit too much, we all had Ukraine on our minds, this repetition of evil power in Europe so soon after the last one.  It was also emotional to be seeing our friends again after the long Covid absence and the meal itself is overwhelmingly rich in its symbols and tastes.

A few weeks earlier I had passed through the same Los Angeles airport as Kim but didn’t have the chance to meet, she was leaving after visiting her mother and I was arriving to teach for a few days in my companies LA office. I had the weekend alone before Mary arrived and as I had just come in on an early morning flight from a packed Chicago airport I just relaxed and walked around the suburban town on the Pacific coast where I was staying. It was warm and the first real sun I had enjoyed for three months, the winters in New York being bleak and unrelenting, and this was the first time I had faced it welcoming its rays to warm me since being in Mexico over the Christmas and New Year holidays. I was so happy when Mary’s taxi arrived at the hotel on Monday evening after I had finished the training and free to enjoy Los Angeles for a few days’ vacation. It is a place that inspires clichés, I’ve called it a playground before, as it has those childish dynamics; showoff’s and bullies, the passive, timid observers and exhibitionists. It is rough and dangerous on its fringes yet at its core there is unimagined wealth amongst these freeways and big box brands. When I first visited the city it had opportunities, apartments were a fraction of the price of the east coast and it had a very defined art scene where everyone knew everyone else, a heady place with genuine intellectuals and long before its celebrification, mimicking its film production neighbors and its pursuit of fame, the sad world of “a” list and “b’ lists. We moved to a hotel in what was once known as “the hood”, West Adams, but which predictably is in the process of gentrification and has now several art galleries and restaurants, the standard pattern. Our hotel was clinically modern situated in the midst of poor low rise bungalows and from our balcony guests could look down both literally and figuratively onto the mainly Latino residents who were happily barbecuing and drinking sweet soda while their large dogs slept in the shade.

The following evening we went straight to the heart of Californian anti-intellectualism, an art opening in Beverly Hills hosted by the son of a famous east coast artist, I later found out to my dismay the exhibition was a recreation of his childhood bedroom perhaps the most perfect illustration of this current art world’s narcissism. We were to meet the daughter of old friends and her French husband who had moved to LA and I was relieved when she arrived, an authentically eccentric beauty who stood out in a good way around this expensively dressed and pruned audience. I was proud to stand by this young couple, probably the most obviously creative in the room while the collectors and gallery artists looked on. As it was the week of the Oscars an actor who was a contender this year drew a small crowd but I was happy to escape into the night where the four of us walked in the evening warmth along a busy road, acting like the tourists we are, until we arrived at our expensive roof top destination. From the restaurant we looked at the neatly clustered homes of Beverly Hills as the light faded and eventually all we could see was the famous Hollywood sign lit up, the twinkling of street lamps and the restless movement of headlights on the freeway.      

One evening in Paris

Many years ago, perhaps decades even, Mary and I were walking along the right bank of Paris on one of those cobbled pathways that follow the sensuous curves river. It was a hot summer night in August when most Parisians were either out of town or were planning to leave. They knew how warm it could be during the day, when the streets are empty except for the acrid smell of garbage and the sewers, largely depleted of the chic and replaced by coach loads of tourists from all corners of the world. The sun was fading and the sky turning to a soft pink revealing the gorgeously familiar skyline. We were for once without plans for the evening, in my opinion it was still a city to get lost in, one where you could come across a restaurant and take a chance. Mary’s instinct took her across the river to the left bank while mine were to turn to the younger, more fashionable north east towards the Marais.

At some point we needed to make a decision, already we could see the spire of Notre Dame in front of us and we stood looking down at the river lost in our own thoughts. Below, a handsome couple were laying down a blanket on the edge of the river and I noticed Mary admiring the guy who was lean and tall, sure in his movements, smoothing the blanket and attentively positioning their small rucksacks so they could be used as a back rest. I had noticed the woman. She was slim, but not painfully so, of medium height with straw colored hair and dressed simply and modestly by this cities standards. She was the kind of woman that you notice not because of expensive clothes or high heels or make up but because of the lack of these devices. To my eye she carried a certain indefinable elegance and I wanted to add, intelligence, but I fear this is what psychologists would call projecting.  

Mary was keen to cross the river and I think she was thinking of a longer walk to La Coupole or Les Deux Magots which I was secretly opposed to, in my mind they were obvious choices and some snobbery in me feared being placed in a table next to British or American guests with Hemingway paperbacks peering out of their bags, requesting an English menu.

As we delayed longer I noticed that the couple were now extracting from their bag two China plates and silverware with napkins and then, carefully, a pair of crystal glasses into which they poured Champagne. Mary and I glanced at one another sardonically. We watched on when food was served by the young woman; what looked to be a simple salad, the man reached into his bag to retrieve an ornate antique candelabra which he lite up with five candles and then brought out a music player that seemed to be quietly playing Chopin.

When we finally walked away I laughed and said something inane like “that is the most French thing l’ve seen for a long while” but only to break the silence that had come over us both like an accusation.

We crossed the old steel bridge, where tourist lovers had already adopted the fad of padlocking locks with their names on, innocent to the fact that in years to come they would be removed by municipal workers with steel cutters to save the bridge from collapsing under the weight of their failed romances. Sometime later we found a perfectly acceptable restaurant off the main road, tucked into an eighteen century alley. It was almost full, cheerfully noisy and busy. Some of the diners did seem to be actually French but predictably at the nearest table I could hear the Southern accent of an American couple who seemed as disappointed by our intrusion into their evening as we were of theirs, leaving us feeling perhaps that our presence had diluted the authenticity of their overseas adventure. I performed my normal trick of translating the French menu for Mary, only to be contradicted by the unmistakably contemptuous waiter, who spoke perfect English saving me from mis-ordering. It wouldn’t be the first time that I had waited for a perfect medium rare steak only to be served a mound of uncooked red meat with a raw egg on top or other local conceit so I should have been happy at his intervention, yet still the mood of the evening shifted again.

I had woke that morning with a sense of unease, something beyond the dull fog of jet lag which still persisted several days after arrival. The city hadn’t changed but I had, or rather my sense of time had. I realized I no longer had the luxury of wandering at will, in love and with the city’s foreignness. Now everything had to be planned. It was a slight source of contention between Mary and I, but she was right, we had so few days here that we wanted to extract as much as we could and so the hours passed by quickly almost in a blur, we hadn’t accounted for the heat in August and between exhibitions and shops, had to seek out shade whenever we could and take plenty of rest stops.

Walking home that evening I had to ask myself why is this place still so irretrievably romantic and magical, why does it force us to speak in clichés against all logic and good sense. Earlier in the evening I had used a small digital camera to take photographs along the Seine but when I replayed them on the small screen they were all disappointing, instead of the inky blackness of the night and the warm reflections on the surface of the water, I saw the sky was an acidic purple and heavily pixelated, a cityscape washed out and lacking definition. Cars appeared as streaks on the boundaries of the image and people in the foreground ghost like; the images were a cruel distortion as if it was forbidden to capture the moment as I saw and felt it.

On that night I was also struck by the severe contrast between its formality and the Saturday night energy, the cars that crawled next to us as we walked the streets seemed to be either full of either predatory young men, smoking to the deep bass sounds of rap music vibrating inside the car or were driven by young women, usually in pairs, laughing and evaluating everything, apparently open to be preyed upon. From the base of the Eiffel tower laser beams projected into the night, a carnival or fairground atmosphere, while next to us the grand apartment building on the opposite side of the river were being revealed by spotlights coming from the party bateaux mouches for reasons I’ve never understood but imagine it is to annoy their wealthy residents.

We passed the place where our young French coupe had been sitting earlier in the evening and Mary said out of the blue “How pretentious was that couple earlier tonight with that candelabra?”, “I know!” I said hopefully, “It was so ridiculous, they were preposterous..” my complaint drifting into the heat of the still evening, and now satisfied with our rebuff of all things French, our happiness returned and I held her closer as we turned towards our little hotel.    

February 2021

Before Covid I worked out of a stale, windowless office in midtown Manhattan. I kept a note on the edge of my computer screen that read “What do you really want?” and liked it because what it lacked in profundity was made up for by its brevity. I could place different emphasis on each of the words when I read it aloud depending on the circumstances; usually stressful ones and perhaps even that career-saving moment of hesitation before pressing “send” on an angry e-mail. It was partly recognition that work conflicts are layered and stratified and that interactions with others can be intricate in the business world, so many ego’s and so much risk. And so is the journey towards self-knowledge. We rarely act in my own best interests under pressure and instead have acquired skills to avoid discomfort, to prevent the flow of certain brain chemicals and to crave others, making daily micro decisions with a bias towards continuity and comfort.

This time of year, late January to early February, is a time of assessments and evaluation. Working out what the next year should look and feel like, change should be in the air but this year again feels uncertain and another excuse for passivity. In the company I work for, we start the year with an annual conference which I dread a little. It’s held in a place like Miami or Atlanta which we are told is for practical and economic reasons but we all suspect it is just poverty of imagination. Apprehension comes from exposure to work colleagues, usually seen once a year, behaving with an over-abundance of positivity and joviality. For me at least it is the denial of problems that stings the most, the fear of raising them, of being seen in a bad light. This year it was only a little different, a virtual meeting via zoom and a new CEO at the helm. Both were a welcome relief, yet even in this new format it was impossible to escape that corporate cliché; loud pop music supposedly to get us energized and motivated, the fiction of aligning us – mainly exhausted middle aged men, with a more youthful generation.

It was good to get first hand views of our CEO whose career was famous for its purposeful jumps from position to position up the corporate ladder, approaching the organization like a rock face with transparent ambition to reach the top. The myth is that he absorbed rich experience on his assiduous journey and has become a kind of role model for anyone attempting the same exacting climb. He is young, lean and polished and thankfully in possession of a sense of humor, almost the complete opposite of his Trumpian predecessor, someone who would sap each meeting of its energy and leave its humiliated participants with resentment.

Yet there remained an air of false, fake positivity during those two days without a single challenging question nor alternative, conflicting view making it take on the air of an outdated and rather vapid theatre, everything that Beckett and Orwell imagined. I tell myself that this is not unexpected, corporations are not democracies although I wish they were sometimes, I would love to vote for our bosses, have them plead their case, and have forums where challenges and opportunities could be discussed openly with large and diverse groups of employee’s. This is not our reality and during the length of this conference I prayed that perhaps if someone would raise a hand and brave the wrath of the management, there might be a spark of electricity, I might be roused from my slumped position in front of the computer.

Some years ago I met, through one of my wife’s friends, the Swiss artist Urs Fischer. We went out a few times to dinner and joined some of the parties he had at his loft but I never got to know him well. At that time he was a solidly built guy with a thickly tattooed body, the ink extending up to his neck. On first sight you might have placed him as a soccer hooligan or, on hearing his Germanic accent and seeing his ruddy face close up, a forester or a wood carver. I could imagine him with an axe, an angular person; thick necked and hair fashionably but severely shaved on both sides. He was on the cusp of much wider fame and I assumed had already made considerable amounts of money from his work. One time when we met in his loft he made the most perfect roast chicken and when I opened the refrigerator door which was positioned strategically by his hand-made dining table, I saw that all it contained were rows of identical champagne bottles in a luxurious, Warholian repetition. On another occasion he produced loafs of bread that he had made to form a life sized log cabin that he was about to show while at the very back of the room, his deeply absorbed face up-lite from the blue flickering light of a computer screen, seemingly protected by an invisible barrier of fame preventing further trespass, was Rudolf Stingel, his presence merely ornamental that evening.

Fischer’s career is a blueprint for an artist’s career, the choice of galleries and museum shows, the scale of ambition and support were expertly calibrated. And of course, the response from collectors extraordinary thanks to this heady, sexy mix of dealers, museum curators and magazine editors. His artistic practice also followed a familiar formulaic projectary. Statuesque works made of unstable materials such as wax or bread progressing to wildly expensive bronze monstrosities placed on Park Avenue, the late 1990’s blueprint from Koons to Hirst. He also had an interest in new technologies and possibilities for printing which led to a groundbreaking show where he had made wall paper images of the previous show, including life sized guards and layered different work on top of this. It was deeply theatrical and I was mesmerized, I noted the artist Richard Prince at the opening equally as wide eyed at the audacity but the knowledge that Fisher was once involved in theater design informs and colors the way I now think of all his work. The other reason I’m thinking of his work now, and in a different context, is because of a sign over his studio door “If you do not have a plan for your life, someone else will.”

The conference drags on, a page full of numbers appears on my screen and a monosyllabic voice tells us about them, where they come from but not what they mean and so my mind drifts further. A midsummer’s day in 2019, the year before Covid. I’m sitting on my terrace on 57th street, next to me an absurdly handsome young English boy in his late teens or early twenties and opposite on a rocking chair, his younger sister. Acting as a mediator or interpreter is their mother, an old girlfriend of mine which they know all about, I assume it is a family joke and is the reason they are treating me with a mixture of mild contempt and curiosity. The boy has been in America for about 24 hours and has already made up his mind – it’s not for him, what is the fuss about? I sense his disappointment, travelling so far to a place he has heard so much about only to find it a little worn out and a little decrepit, is imperfections exaggerated and illuminated because of its boastful nature, its overblown reputation. I’m not the kind of person that recognizes beauty in another man and when Mary tells me some actor or other is good looking, I genuinely fail to see it. I suppose look at other men through a Darwinian lens and assumed women do the same, but I suspect their true leanings might be more towards Austin. So what would Jane Austin make of him? She would approve of his looks of course, but will also take note of his breeding like a canny horse trader and his inheritance like an accountant and he will pass each test. Perhaps that why I’m mildly annoyed at his confidence, the certainty of his pronouncements, his ill-informed prepossessions, but the truth is more convoluted, it’s because these criticisms remind me of my own at his age discovering America for the first time. I remind myself that he is the product of an education system that produces robust self-confidence or total snobbery depending on your world view. The night was still warm, I watched the building opposite in its nocturnal restlessness, lights blinking and dimming suddenly in the black well between us, from the shop downstairs the smell of freshly baked bagels leaked into the air and from time to time we caught a faint sight of that evening’s faint diaphanous moon.

The daughter has a passion; the environment, and can barely contain her need to express herself or the magnitude of her frustration. Her mother looks at me a little wearily, it’s been heard more than a few time before, she is told that she “singing to the choir” but I’m thankful for the small electric charge when I meet her eye again, for the intimacy we once had and my heart surprises me with a stolen beat. But what to do with her daughter, how can she find her purpose? She is that age. Hopefully she will fall in love and then her inability to save the world might be less pressing and cause less distress. Politics? I suggested – she looked at me with hopelessness, deflated, the very thought of that life of compromise, speeches and intrigue holds little appeal. Now I may have a better answer thanks to a throw away comment during the conference. It came from the head of human resources who said “ESG” will be “really big going forward” without further elaboration. And it came to me, that’s what I should have recommended to my friend’s daughter, this is exactly the kind of endeavor she could be throwing herself into. The idea that large corporations are not just machines for generating profits and cash for their stockholders but that they have a greater purpose, agents for change – improving their environmental responsibilities, their social interactions, and the governance structures to support themselves. Companies are now apparently no different from the individuals they employ, no different from artists and must have goals and a path to follow. But it’s also a reason to get lost into a corporation, generating data with pronouncements and key performance measurements to hand nervously to the public, it will blunt anyone’s ambition.

The Crown

Several years ago I took a last minute flight to London for a long weekend just to clear my head and get away from the intensity of New York for a while. One day I drove to the Cotswold Hills in my rental car without any fixed destination in mind, most likely if I am honest, to challenge the potency of my memories; a faintly remembered forest where I played in childhood, a treacherous fork in a road that scared me going to school, that mossy dry stone wall near my house that I climbed to get conker’s bruising and bloodying my knees, a short cut across a field with the risk of getting my best shoes dirty in the soft mud and where a dairy herd would sometimes block my route with the low lament of their sad voices. Little things in other words. This is a part of the world I knew intimately once as it was learnt the slow way, wandering by bicycle or on foot. It was more than the pull of sentiment, I wanted to know what it felt like again, being too old have film or even many photographs cataloguing every milestone of my youth like children today, instead I’m left with a handful of faded color photographs that I’ve scrutinized but result in a vacancy, an emptiness, so I thought naively that by actually being there and breathing in the damp climate that this stranger, my younger self, would somehow be revealed.  

Instead I was left with the predictable melancholy of driving through places changed beyond recognition. Perhaps it was thanks to the toxicity of a spruced up rental car or the creasing resistance of its thudding gearbox above the unpleasant roar of the road I resolved to lose my way; taking roads at random, turning left here, right there without aim. After while when I found myself on a long Roman road the unanticipated thrill of abandonment took over; no connection to place, a joyful certainty that there wasn’t anyone keep tracking of my movements and with all the time in the world to enjoy these foreign landscapes. Passing deeply furrowed fields that had to endure harsh cries of unlovable crows as they blew like black rags, trash in the wind. Pewter clouds were low on the horizon with the dull, but beautifully familiar and comforting promise of rain.

I was taken by surprise to find myself in a large unfamiliar town, houses and stores gathered around and soon pulled me involuntarily into a maze of roundabouts and busy traffic. With no idea where I was, on a whim, still buzzing with the heady feeling of exploration, I found a parking space. Within minutes I was seduced by the siren call of old Tudor alleyways, the luster of surprisingly upmarket stores, restaurants and handsome, self assured Georgian buildings, the pleasant crust of time. It took me by surprise, I must have lived close for years yet it was all new and now it seemed increasingly absurd to stop a passerby to ask its name, surely I told myself, before long I would find a sign or landmark to identify the city. It was a place soaked in history, cobbled stones worn down by millions of footsteps over centuries, paradoxically offering a sense of our inconsequence at the same time producing an instinct of protectiveness, even ownership over it.

I was concerned about getting lost and never finding the car again, already nervous about identifying the bland car amongst hundreds of equally generic ones, so I pulled myself away. On the road again, the light beginning to fade and soft rain, following a tense procession of traffic out of the city until finding a recognizable destination, in this case Oxford, from where I could easily find my way home I searched for clues in the rear view mirror, but all were just “city center”, “parking” “one way” apparently reluctant to reveal its name which to this day remains elusive thus creating a dreamlike quality to the day that has only multiplied over the years. Recently I took to research using Google concluding that was city of Worcester based on the distance and general direction travelled leaving me with a sense of regret that I didn’t visit the Cathedral and see the tomb of King John. Compared to his royal predecessors he was not a particularly remarkable one, more of an administrator than warrior, but he left us with two things; the Magna Carter and a juicy villainous role for B list actors in Robin Hood films.

I’m remembering this trip as this pandemic slouches to its final stages. We continue to socialize in small bubbles and some friendships have blossomed with new intensity during this captivity. I’m struck by nostalgia by some of our conversations, memories of growing up in the countryside where close relationships had greater significance due to their scarcity, we lived far apart and youthful bonds felt more precious. Our idle talk would frequently turn to television as there were just two channels and we all watched the same shows.  Something similar happened during Covid for opposite reasons; there are hundreds of choices and we rely on our friends for recommendations, which enhances or diminishes our faith in each other and if this sounds overly censorious, it is. But one show that has universal agreement has been the ongoing serialization of the life of Queen Elizabeth 2 “The Crown”. It is arguably highly fictionalized and does few favors for the current Royal Family. The main outcome from these beautifully acted and composed episodes is the conflict between the need for popularity, a reoccurring theme throughout English history, and presenting to the world what must be the fiction of contentment and stoicism, indifference even, in a time of adverse public opinion. This I guess will be apparent in the next series when Diana dies and the public anger at the lack of compassion shown by the Queen being forced out of hiding in the Palace to view the memorials being placed outside of Buckingham Palace.

I have seen her several times in the course of my life, each time by chance. The first occasion was in a Welsh town where I joined the tail end of a modest crowd, partially inquisitive and partially ironic, to find myself standing on the side of the road when she walked by, diminutive in stature and plastered with a harsh foundation making her look almost dead already to my youthful eyes. This was over forty years ago and she was younger than I am today yet she belonged to not just a different class and wealth bracket but another age and species altogether, existing outside the parameters of history. Then later, when I lived in Windsor, I would walk in the great park in all weathers and see various Royals drive past, always at the wheel themselves, dressed casually, or in their own language “country”, meaning that they were not on official duties and could indulge in Harris tweeds and woolen neck ties. I would usually give a wave and get a reluctant nod or smile back in return for my insouciance, certain that I was breaking all protocols. Diana was a different story, I saw her only once and from a distance getting out of a car, doe-like and awkward on her disproportionately long legs as if they belonged to a different person, one who already only inhabited the world of fashion magazines and television.  

English medieval history is a bloody, confusing period and sometimes and when I am engrossed in a book of that period I often think it reads more like a sensational fantasy. Richard was a distasteful character, born on Christmas Eve 1166 and dying fifty years later of dysentery. Abusive to all, particularly women, not unlike most men holding power then, but he took things farther by sleeping with a multitude of “noble” women and propagating scandal. To add to his unpopularity he spent much of his energy seeking ways to find income from his subjects. He signed the Magna Carta presented by the barons largely to pacify them and change the climate of hostility he had created during his reign.

His father, Henry the Second, was more interesting and yet it’s dizzying for a modern reader to attempt to understand and empathize with the lives of medieval kings. Any attempt to make sense of the person, to imagine their lives and beliefs, it’s necessary to put Shakespeare aside, peer through the smoke of Hollywood producer’s cigar’s, and allow yourself to be shaken by reality facts from historians leaving us with unprecedented drama thanks to the scale of ambition, the scope of power and the bloody stakes. There are many remarkable aspects of the life of Henry but the moment I keep coming back to is his discordant relationship with the low born Thomas Beckett, a brilliant man and once close friend who he promoted to Archbishop of Canterbury, the highest religious leader in the country. As soon as Becket had power he turned it against his former friend, the King, and a deathly competition was born. Out of frustration Henry offered to his knights the rhetorical question “who will rid me of this troublesome priest?” ambiguity was lost on these four assassins, probably already drunk when they hacked Beckett to pieces on the font of Canterbury Cathedral. Suddenly Becket was a martyr – public opinion favored the Church and in time Henry had to make penance, publicly wearing a hair shirt on a pilgrimage to his enemy’s tomb in an attempt to appease his subjects and recover their fickle favor again. Of course it is trite to think of Diana as Becket and Elizabeth as Henry but I keep returning to these conflicts between power and vulnerability, popularity and humility, public opinion and private truths. Perhaps it is because we are now showing the world a more studied and contemplative version of ourselves through staged zoom calls and select meetings of friends within our pods, where the Crown became a perfect thought provoking antidote to this lockdown.

High Anxiety

 It is good to be back in the city. We will stay here for the next few months, snow is already promised and looked forward to, at least the first few iterations. I am quick to turn off the radio when the dire warnings on Covid are repeated; most people I know are doing the same, more or less, attempting to turn the negativity of 2020 into something more positive, to cherish the Christmas period and hibernating in front of the television or with a good book. Winter has to be the most beautiful time of year to be in Manhattan, it’s a city of multiple identities and of all its dissociative challenges it is its Nordic persona that I relish most, when the nights draw in and it’s already dark before five o’clock. I’m reminded of a perfect time some years ago, in Denmark, Mary and I would have late afternoon tea and cake in candlelight, I felt and still feel that nothing is more intimate and romantic than early darkness in a foreign city, who knows why, perhaps it simply elevates our protective and caring instincts.

During my morning walk to Central Park I have been thinking about the nature and purpose of worry in my life, thoughts triggered by a book recommended to me during the course of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy I have been undertaking these last few months. The walk takes me through busy midtown streets, lost in my own thoughts and thankful for the anonymity the city offers, an almost migratory instinct takes me to same entry gate and an identical route through the park. Before I exit at the south end I take in the sheer wall of buildings on 59th street, always an awe inspiring sight and almost medieval, a town fortress, dominant and formidable. I love the ornate, enviable large windowed pre-war apartment buildings facing the park and behind them the art deco modern day cathedrals; the Empire State, the Chrysler landmarks seem to exist like their twelfth century counterparts to project authority and power. And later each day, my evening walk along the East River path where you can see the cities interior life in full display; the high rise buildings, offices and hospitals are fully lite and at their most dazzling, the highly stylized Pepsi Cola sign burning red on the other side, it is New York’s most majestic self, most handsome when seen through a monochrome lens, of Gershwin and Charlie Parker, Warhol and Basquiat, lives full of promise, teaming with ambition, talent and energy, it’s impossible not to think of it as being the center of the world, at least at this moment.    

The book left me with mixed feelings. On one side I confess to slight irritation with the need to have a seven step program, the language and mundane aesthetic of sales presentations; big ideas distilled into simple blocks without nuance or ambiguity. Equally the preponderance of questionnaires where degrees of feeling and anxieties are self-rated; the hunger for data is understood but I cannot help left with an inkling that this reductionism is one of the most counterproductive aspects of contemporary life. I spend so much of my professional life looking at data I don’t believe in frequently with good cause.

On the other side I was surprised almost from the first paragraph, which I returned to several times as I progressed through the book. The author asked us to imagine explaining worry to someone raised in the jungle and had no experience of modern life. It is an intriguing question designed to illustrate that such an individual would only need worry to manage his or her own survival, to fight or run, and have no other need for it. But it also caused me unease for reasons I didn’t understand at first and I tried without success to visualize this native for days.

Then it came to me, a late autumn day walking up the hillside by my house in Upstate New York, the first chill in the air, a metallic scent in the nose and my hands deep in my pockets, the ground carpeted in multiple rustic shades of fallen leaves and the sadness of newly denuded trees all around, I looked towards a favorite Oak tree on my neighbors land and thought for an irrational second that I saw a Native American disappear behind it. I approached with trepidation only to see the familiar jaunty leap and flash of the white tail of young deer, it wasn’t a Native American but I had found my subject, someone unfamiliar with the modern world to explain worry to. The notion that worry isn’t just a homogenous grey cloud but can be split between that which is useful, or productive and that which is worthless and harmful, was fresh for me. However how much of this distinction was foreign to my Native American was the cause of my doubts. Humans have always been social creatures, emotional, loving and envious, and a common thread across the emerging developing world is that they all created communities and leadership hierarchies. Do I really need to explain unproductive worry to my newly visualized friend? I suspect his worries could be not so far from my own; a sense of never being good enough, belief that there is something wrong. It occurred to me that it is particularly apt that he is a Native American, unpreoccupied with possessions, part of a nation that left only the slightest, most ephemeral touch on our landscape, so perhaps we can eliminate so many things associated with the modern day experience as being a cause of their worries. But he might be fearful of being a bad hunter or un-respected, his partner might have concerns about being an uncaring mother, an unskilled housekeeper; can I conclude from this imaginary encounter that whenever there are communities of people it is not unreasonable to predict social anxiety? People are both the problem and the solution.

Then my attention turned to the oak tree and specifically how interesting it would be to use it as a metaphor for my own anxieties. Firstly tree’s last generations and so I suspect does anxiety. My parents were worriers and my vague recollection of my grandparents suggest the same. I saw the core anxiety, my main negative beliefs like the tender center of the tree which is heavily protected by rough outer protective bark. It is hard to get to the center of things both because you struggle to identify it – to cut through the firm outer surface, and also to say the painful words that may give you shame. Trees have deep roots and are sustained by the earth, they have multiple branches which I visualized as the outcome of the core belief, one branch for example could be panic attacks, another social awkwardness and aversion to certain situations, another public speaking. But as I also recognized, there could be positive results from worry, one of the branches could be success in a career and a smaller twig could be always getting to a plane on time. And the tree changes as do my anxiety levels, at some time’s it is full bloom, in others bare. Finally, trees are much more complex than we think, they sustain their own eco-systems and micro climates, they warn each other of danger approaching, we are learning new things about them all the time; I sense the same about our understanding about the workings of our brain and the nature of our anxieties. I began to recognize that we need to be a skilled arborist, to take down the harmful branches, not to cut down the tree itself. 

The author presented seven steps to help manage worry and several of these interested me more than others; the least interesting were the need to commit to change, to manage your time and turn failure into opportunity all of which I feel is common sense. However the categorization of useful versus useless worry was compelling, focusing on the core of my problem, challenging current thought process are much more difficult and finally using emotion, my bête noir, were the four things that gave me the most discomfort and hence the things that I need to address.

I recognized that I have used productive worry to my advantage for the whole of my professional career; internal audit (that unloved corporate police man) Compliance (the ethical conscience of the company) project sponsorship and leadership (being the one who thinks of what could go wrong and ensures all the contingency plans are in place). But I realized it goes back further. In my youth I had to change schools a lot due to my father’s work and each time I interviewed with the new school I predictably asked about the soccer team and got the same response; don’t be upset, it’s really hard to get into the team. Within weeks I was on the squad, my success was a formula that was one part talent, two parts industry and three parts enthusiasm, all helped by taking the position no one else wanted, full back, and the last line in defense.  Sunday afternoons in the flat Berkshire countryside could be very cold and wet or at least it was these conditions I remember the most. Strategizing and worrying at the back of the field, anticipating the movements of the opponents attack and more often than not stopping it without drama and with a determined, clinical precision was my aim. Our coach was a formidable and stern teacher and the players were always fearful of being rotated out of the squad, which he did regularly, but each Wednesday when the announcement appeared on the school notice board, one certainty was I would see my name included. On several occasions I would thwart an attack at the very edge of our goal and whack the ball up to our attackers with full force, surprising the opposition only for it to land close to our own player who would slip it into their net. While all our side leapt on him in celebration, I would be panting at the other side of the pitch only to catch the eye of our coach looking not at them but at me, nodding in appreciation and giving me a rare smile, affirmation that I perhaps craved, a fleeting substitute for the indifference that I would receive when I returned home, shivering and covered in mud.

One of the most valuable things I learned during the CBT process was the systematic way in which current thought patterns can be challenged. I saw an immediate parallel to my own methodology for reading compliance reports; questioning the credibility of the evidence, really considering an alternative view, deciding on the best and worst case, placing it all in proportion and working out how to tell my boss. For reasons that might be obvious by now, I was focused more on my own creditability when I approached each case, the ability to be fair and equitable, and as most of the incidents happened in other countries, predominantly in Latin America I dwelt heavily on cultural and societal drivers.     

The hardest part was recognizing the core of my problem, and here it was necessary to face up to the past, and my childhood and teenagers memories are always painful. It’s hard to place a finger on a convenient trauma or incident. Instead it was the violence of my parents arguments at night while I lay awake feeling like the world was falling around me. It was the silence at the dinner table, the sound of knife and fork on plates and the burning need to get to my room and my book, the corruption of thinking that quietness represents proper behavior. Could have been in their mind twisted evidence of the rise in status from their own upbringing? The social misadventure of traversing from the working class north of England to the more gentile, class obsessed south. Being uprooted from a tight community where everyone is comfortable in themselves to a more un-navigable, dysfunctional environment where class mobility was universally frowned upon. There was also the matter of my father losing his own when he was a teenager which might have disabled his own parenting skills and the reason that anger hovered around him like a black dog. But at the center is perhaps the last piece of the puzzle; managing emotions.

About thirty years ago I was recommended to try therapy as I had disabling panic attacks on planes. The therapist was in a London suburb and her office inside the rambling old house was furnished in high Edwardian style, purple fabric and brown furniture. You could hear her family sometimes on the floor above preparing the evening meal. She was a dour individual and I wasted many costly hours with her before I finally left fuming after a few months. What prompted the decision was that she seemed fixated on my mother’s pernicious role within the family and her behavior towards me in my early childhood. It was almost as if she was seeking some form of confrontation between mother and son now I was an adult, and it happened. I tested my anger and her reaction was animalistic fury, as a result we didn’t talk for very long time and I placed all the blame on the therapist. In retrospect I wonder if this was not the plan all along in the hope that I would see for myself the consequence of expressing emotions and that I would be reflective and intuitive enough to learn something. In thinking all about this now I’m back on my walk, this time going to the park in the evening to take photographs. It’s such a cinematic city, too much so sometimes, avoiding clichés is the key. I pass fancy buildings with Doormen looking out with the same combination of resentment and self-pity that you see in a zoo, I see other pedestrians rushing by on their own missions, carrying their own anxieties. I consider what I have learned; to not dwell on the past or try to control the future, these worthless worries. To interrogate my own thoughts; act as judge, jury and executioner.  Scrutinize the evidence, consider the alternative view, how would I coach my closet friend is they were going through the same worries? Accept that some worries have use, those which can spur on action and deny those which are out of your control. Don’t live in fear of emotions, the people around you are more forgiving than you think, they might even appreciate this more authentic, vulnerable you. Most of all recognize and challenge your negative core beliefs’, consider how they arose, try to forgive the perpetrators. But the greatest benefit of the CBT process was the opportunity to talk to someone smart, who has empathy and deep understanding, that was the most priceless gift and I suspect the conversations will live and grow within me for a long time. 

More unreliable memories

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.   

This summer upstate, 1

The summer is closing. We race to enjoy its final offerings on the East Coast, a trip to Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, one to the quaint nineteenth century port of Hudson, a planned trip to Fire Island. The leaves here upstate are already changing, turning crimson, orange, giving us a hint of what is to come. Yesterday I looked up to see a flock of birds on their migration south and then beyond them saw a vapor trail of a transatlantic jet leaving JFK and had a deep pang of longing, to be headed to Europe, to France or Italy, but I know that has to wait.

We have spent much of Covid now in Upstate New York and I realized quite quickly when I first moved to the Catskills that it is a place brimming with unsubstantiated rumors and unreliable history. More charitably perhaps some of these we could call this insider jokes, usually at the expense of those of us who came up from New York City at weekends and during holidays; they are largely good humored and full of ironic, folksy country wisdom. One of these circulating is about mountain lions, sometime called “cougars, pumas or panthers” that do not exist in the region, except in the minds of those who have seen one, which is almost everyone I have met locally, and from last week I tentatively added myself to the list. Sceptics will tell us that we don’t know the difference between a Bob cat, which are much smaller, have a short tail and are common throughout the region, and a mountain lion. But before we get into details, we might consider the germination of the stories asserting that they do roam here and try not to get too embroiled in wider questions about Americans distain for authority and governance by experts.

Typing into your search engine “Upstate New York mountain lions” will take you on a strange adventure. Unsurprisingly, we start hearing about them in the eighteenth and nineteenth century when colonists wrote about and reported on their fearsome presence. Their predecessors, the Lennie Lenape Indians, had made their peace with all the occupants of the natural world; they called them ghost walkers on account of their solitary nature and near invisibility around humans. But they were hunted mercilessly by the Dutch and English and eventually by 1904 they were officially gone this side of the Mississippi. However their presence never really left the imaginations of the residents who needed to revive them during freezing and uneventful winters. The sightings reported in the press and on the internet forums seem credible and emphatic, and alarmingly many are very close to where I live in Andes near the Pepacton reservoir. Frequently they are reported by people who live within nature’s complex ways and have an understanding of its nuances, workers with the DEP or hunters who spend extended periods in forests and densely wooded areas. These are solitary people whose pride is hurt when their claims are dismissed as mis-sightings – they have seen a bob cat, a feral cat, a large dog, a small deer, prompting further postings or reports.

A common thread is the theory that the government is behind re-populations of big cats and that there presence is well known by the authorities and, like UFO’s, any evidence is quickly destroyed or hidden. But for what end? Is it like ‘Jaws” where fear of losing tourism is the reason for hiding facts? Or is it really to mask details of an unpopular tactical mission to repopulate the forests with these predators? What is undeniable is the contempt thrown at the DEC who dismiss all sightings and deny the presence of these animals. Reluctantly they note that lone cases might exist but these are long distance wanderers from the west and there is the potential for pets let loose into the wildness accidentally or on purpose.

On an early August morning we drove down our narrow street, Bussey Hollow Road, the sun painting broad strokes of light across the tarmac, the dazzling light somehow weaving its way through the density of green pine forests surrounding us and exposing sublime patches of the hillside. Suddenly something large leapt across the road in front of us, almost with a single bound. We looked at each other and grasped at rationality; it must have been a very large dog let loose? Wrong color and movement, a small deer, no. It had to be a bob cat but it seemed too large and I did I imagine a full tail rather than the bob cats small stump? I thought no more about it until later that day when standing at the front of the house and looking at the road I saw a sudden rapid movement, I was being observed by an animal with cat like posture which moved away at astonishing speed. Later I took a walk up the road and this is where I encountered the animal itself as it jumped from the side of the road into the deep woods. It was just a momentary glimpse from a distance, there was no certainty about anything except it was large, a caramel color, and an uncommon agility for an animal that size. Had a seen a large Bob cat? Probably, yet…..I was shaken and turned on my heels to go home being careful not to run or walk quickly away. Like that other unfairly feared local, the Bear, running way might just trigger latent predatory instincts in the wrong animal. Since then I have studied prints in the soft mud around the house and have talked myself into seeing some large paw prints. I have been close to large cats before, enough to make my heart race. In my thirties I spent a fair amount of time in Southern Africa and a component of that work trip would be weekends travelling to Pretoria or the Kruger National Park where from the safety of the car we would get very close to lazy, satiated Lions, close enough to smell them and to occasionally hear a bone chilling roar close up. One memory is seeing one run and note the bagginess of its flesh covering its bones. This is what I remembered also on this day as I walked up the road….yet the case against their existence here is strong, namely the absence of remains of their prey. We do not see mangled deer despite the fact that there is an abundance here, or the blackened, tattooed remains of Williamsburg hipsters caught unawares while walking in the forest. But also we don’t see them as road kill which is the most likely way we encounter these mountains shy residents.

Saul

saul

The term, the “new normal” has crept into our conversations a little too much now and increasingly we are all dealing it seems with health issues from the lock down, but in the case of the artist Saul Fletcher, whose work I loved, and who was almost a friend to me, mental illness must have been the hair trigger that ended his life, and that of his partner last week in a murder, suicide in Berlin. Nothing now feels normal.

Like every tragedy, his work has now been steamrolled by this awful event which will define his legacy, and it feels morally wrong to continue to admire it. Something similar happened to Carl Andre whose life has been the subject of continued rumors and folklore over the apparent suicide of his partner, and to this day I guess he struggles in public with the risk of confrontations from accusers with long memories and their own anger issues.

It seems a little poignant, or naive, to admit that I  was drawn to Saul Fletcher’s photographs for their darkness, frequently studio based and technically seductive portraits made on a medium format film camera, catching small details and delivering rich tones, one of the reasons that so many photographers did not move to a digital medium. The studio walls offered a richness to the imagery and drew the eye into the subject itself – the artist, his friends, his dog…sometimes assemblages of found items. The portraits dwelt on its subject’s vulnerabilities and fears; the artist disabled, a woman naked, the dog fearful.

I learned that he was largely self-taught and started taking images of the UK countryside of his Northern home. These pictures resonated most with me as I did the same when I was quite young, I connected immediately the mood he could create, something both slight and yet profound in the dark blurry hillsides. There was one picture in particular that might have been taken from a moving car….and as someone who drove a lot in England and saw these empty or near empty landscapes often wishing to stop and photograph them myself I felt an envy and admiration that these prosaic views were memorialized.

After his show in Anton Kern in New York I started following him on Instagram and found we had a few friends in common. I wrote him a note making clear my appreciation for his work and was surprised by a reply and over the course of a year or so we exchanged messages several times. But I was particularly happy when I received a note from him last week which said about my own photographs “I enjoy seeing your photos, they have a peacefulness and thoughtful composure, someone who “sees” it’s a rare thing…” we went on to discuss politics and share our desire for Trump to be out of office. I had hoped to be able to pass through Berlin and meet him in person, perhaps have dinner at the Paris Bar, there was a fantasy of laughter and shared insights across one of those familiar homey tables, but all that dissolved when the news broke that he was dead on July 22.

There were so many elements of the news that appalled me. Probably the most unsavory being the way the news was broken by the UK tabloid newspapers whose headline stated that he was Brad Pitt’s friend, based on images of him walking around the Venice Biennale with the famous actor. The implication and central admonishment of the story was that Brad Pitt had dangerous associations. Eventually, several days later the art press and his galleries eventually placed a news release confirming the event. For the first time we learnt the name of the victim, his longtime partner Rebeccah Blum an independent curator. The press reports earlier had told us that she had been stabbed to death by Fletcher in his apartment, who then phoned his daughter to confess and drove his Porsche to a piece of land he owned two hours from Berlin and committed suicide. When faced with such sparse details, how do we fill in the gaps? My imagination dwells heavily on the phone call and how he resolved to end his life and it chooses to avoid the true central tragedy of the story and what her family and friends must be going through.

I remember the words I had written after seeing his show and the urgent need to revise them. Yes there was a tenderness and sensitivity to the images which drew me in, but also a melancholy to them which I attributed to our shared English natures and upbringing in the rich but sometimes bleak landscape which lends itself to a hardy, wintery disposition. There was humor also and a kindness to the work, a caring for the underdog. His show had filled me with hope and optimism, to the extent that I bought a good camera and made my own little book of photographs – somehow it all seemed possible for me after seeing his work. And it was also an insight into how creativity works, there was no question that I was in a visual dialogue with him, trying to win his approval without making it too apparent or producing derivative versions of his work; his final note to me made me very happy. I feel horror about the event, and perhaps also my own error of judgement, but selfishly I’m also in possession of a deep loss, the fact that I will never be a friend to Saul, all I have left is his little drawing he made of Van Gogh and our slight, ephemeral notes on Instagram.

weeks 7 and 8

week8

The city seems to slip deeper into its swamp. The virus never leaves us, it reverberates in our apartments through the gloomy drip of the news, on the radio, television, our phones and I admit to have surrendered a little to an inevitable depression, it feels hopeless. The only part of our society that does see hope are those wall street princes who gamble on stocks, a slice of our society that typically does not inspire trust. The city has responded slowly to our needs, despite empty roads we have been forced together on narrow sidewalks, but last week we had news that some streets will be closed to traffic for a while, giving us the chance to keep a distance from the joggers; those most feared narcissists. It’s a time to question behavior now that the sun has started to burn down on the sidewalks and parks, there are more and more people outside, many still without masks and frequently on bicycles or running obliviously close; social distancing in this city might be futile, not so much for its architecture and urban planning but more for its demographics. There will be a time when city politicians will be basking in opening up the city and they will predictably call the citizens heroic, from what I have seen that is not the case.

Its clichéd, even tiresome, to say in these locked down days that the best and most satisfying, journeys are those made in your imagination. They lack the inconveniences and discomforts of an uncomfortable bed and poor food, there are no bags to pack or planes to catch, the stressful mechanics of travel are happily shelved. Newspapers are full of these stories of home bound travelers, recalling real or imagined adventures, and so predictably am I. A few months ago, when I was England putting some of my possessions into a storage container I took apart a couple of old photo albums which had neatly dated and registered photographs from my past and it was liberating to throw so many away. The few I kept were scattered into a box full of books where they are likely to be frayed and damaged, as fragile as memories they were intended to memorialize. But travelling in your imagination loses that joy of being lost in a strange city a long way from home, something that I realized early on was to become a central metaphor in my life.

Like so many before me travelling was as much escape as it was discovery. Not just running from dull monotony, but it was deeper than that, I was attempting to flee from the staid, unremarkable person I saw myself becoming. At that time I remember thinking that I needed to be more interesting in order to sustain friendships with the type of people I wanted to know. Something had happened that made me shy and withdrawn in groups, I possessed a fear of exposure, embarrassed at being the center of attention and I turned in on myself socially. This shyness in time became to be interpreted as aloofness at school and I wasn’t always a popular kid, worse, like any weakness, it was quickly exploited by the unkindness of children and mine was a difficult adolescence. As a result I behaved badly and I made it increasingly hard to extricate myself, particularly towards those I was close to. I lived in an interior world, there were moments of elation at discoveries found in books or on many of my solitary walks in the countryside, and yet also the seeds emerged of the psychological and physiological difficulties that would haunt me for most of my adult life; panic attacks, self-doubt, delusion. All I claim now, neatly and ruthlessly, derived from an absent, consistently contemptuous father and over compensating mother. It was not so simple, and I was not so innocent. Along with other solitary teenagers I was overwhelmed by my reaction to early adulthood, the sexuality rush that was unleashed on me. Yet I also felt detached like a bystander in all this, a solitary mountaineer observing an avalanche, I had no agency and this weighed heavily on me, throwing me into real and fantasy tableaux’ that shame to this day. Later, there was also a speech that I was unwillingly forced into, despite my young age to a large crowd, where I was consumed by overwhelming panic attack from the beginning and which crushed me, and even now so many decades later I concede that it caused carnage to my self-esteem. All this complex baggage evaporated when I could be alone, in another corner of the world where I could walk down rough alleys and lanes and pause to see dense schools of mosquito’s swimming in the lamp light, hear the foreign voices humming out onto the street from bars, absorb the cities sweet and tart fragrances, gaze at the suns descent, absurdly garish pinks and oranges, into a still sea; I was reborn, free, never homesick and rarely afraid.

My first love was Paris, partially because its proximity to England and it was cheap and easy to get to, but mainly for its legend. I had first seen the City when I was quite young – perhaps ten or eleven years old and so it would be around 1970. My parents had decided to stop there on the way home from a holiday in France driving their car, a Vauxhall Viva, I remember faint embarrassment at this; the stable of a middle managers employment package. My father cautiously parked on the outskirts, to my mother irritation, and we walked through the cobbled streets towards the center. I was shocked at the poverty, the neighborhood was run down to my country eyes and kids played in the dirty streets. At some point my Mother bought a Baguette and some ham and cheese and we sat on a wall to eat our lunch. Eventually we caught sight of the Eiffel Tower in the distance and paid homage like any other unsophisticated tourist, before turning back on ourselves and driving to a cheap hotel on the outskirts. I was left feeling that the city was a dangerous place, filthy and unfathomable and I was the age where I wanted to know more. Years later I would meet new friends in America and they would talk about their own first tours of Europe; Harrys Bar in Venice, the George V in Paris and I would have to inwardly laugh at the distance between us.

I returned as soon as I could by myself, I was sixteen or seventeen, 1977 I think. I took a train from London which rolled through the green Kent countryside to the docks at Dover. Then by Ferry to Calais and another train late in the evening. It arrived in the dawn glow, the city awaking, prostitutes still in their solitude or in small huddles on the lamp lite pavements, workers cleaning the streets, when we pulled into the Gare d’Nord. I found the cheapest Hotel and realized immediately that I had under estimated how much money I would need. There were no credit cards, just travelers checks – but the banks were closed for the holiday weekend, there were no phones to call my parents, and even if I could call them there was no way of getting money to me.

Thus began a kind of Orwellian “down and out” experience and being so young, enjoyed every dire moment, the best way to see any place first is from the perspective of its working classes. I wish I could brag that I found the cheapest, authentic local restaurants and ate with the workers, an environment that was charming and unchanged since the nineteenth century but that wasn’t the case. When I could afford a meal it was indeed with the workers, but it was under a harsh wash of bright neon and the smell of old oil in the fryer. I pounded the streets and became intimate with the sounds, rituals and rhythms of the city very much aware that I wasn’t the first young man to be exercising demons in this manner.

Of course the street theatre was extraordinary, the upper regions of the Rue St Denis was something to behold, its aging prostitutes apparently unchanged in their style and undress since the time of Toulouse-Lautrec. I couldn’t help myself meandering each evening to these narrow passages, in awe of the timeless congress taking place around, the deep shadows on the side walk, the hidden doorways leading to (I imagined) small unfurnished rooms, its subterfuge….married men looking for a moment of excitement. I had neither the money nor desire to go with any of these women, they were foreign in every sense – I was not physically drawn to these cartoonish parodies of femininity – most were voluptuous (I am being kind), in my eyes very old and absurd in appearance. Even if I could be interested in one, there was an air of fear in the street, the pimps were unmistakable and ever present making any transaction seem threatening, and I would never have had the courage. I wondered at whether any of these elderly professionals, many I guessed over fifty years old, had been in Paris during the war and quick arithmetic tells me they might have been. I was full of questions, but I was asking the wrong ones; the real question was what did the city make of me? Always looking about five years younger than I really was, the sex workers, the homeless, the shop girls, street cleaners were not nearly as indifferent as they looked, they must have been alert to this slightly lost, open mouthed boy, a uniform of jeans and sneakers, probably an army jacket on his daily and nightly circuits, his camera more a prop than functional object as film was expensive and so my shots rare. If they felt pity then it was never expressed, I encountered indifference and found how easy it was to disappear into a city, this too was an appealing, liberating revelation for someone like me, coming from the countryside and the suburbs; places where you were constantly observed and judged. Suddenly I got the point of cities, they don’t just exist to allow us to socialize and to absorb culture, they also allow us to disappear.

My walks also took to the more residential arrondissements and I enjoyed catching glimpses of the interior lives of the Parisians, their formality and taste, there was an unmistakable, enviable elegance to living here, something I would never forget. Unlike any place I had ever been before, it was a city where you can get lost in and rarely be disappointed at what you stumble across. Catching glimpses into inner courtyards created the ambience of secrecy, or discretion, to the city – it might at first seem snobbish and exclusionary and you make excuses, tell yourself its just pragmatism in a place that has endured riots and social unrest, offering security, but it felt to me both impenetrable and seductive.   Decades later this was a message I tried to get across with Mary, who is rigorous in her travel organization. She pushed me to raise my game with Paris, and so we covered the legendary restaurants like everyone else interested in its hay day, la Coupole, Deux Magots, we climbed up Montmartre and stayed in Pigalle, toured the great museums, the Parks and the Shops, and gave me a sense of how the wealthy live as well as the artist communities in the more fashionable neighborhoods. But I miss the randomness of a casual, unspecific walk with no aim.

I came back many times in my twenties, normally with a girl in tow. It was corny and even a little unchivalrous, a music hall risqué joke, to go for a weekend in Paris. In those days people would laugh about “dirty” weekends in Paris, it came with innuendo and expectations that often couldn’t be lived up to. On one occasion, for the first time I saw a girlfriend look at our shared room and single bed and saw a reluctant shadow cross her eyes, a honey moon pressure, or threat, associated with a trip like this that both of us felt and we endured a couple of joyless nights despite the days wandering the streets. There were good times also and in time I got to know people there, visited the apartments and hung out with locals which gives such better insight a place. I loved to see how people actually lived, the concessions they make to get by. One time I visited a shared apartment where one of the occupants actually slept in the bath, and on another occasion we climbed out onto the slate rooftops from an attic window in order to perch on a precocious ledge with the old left bank spread out as far as the eye could see, a view that had barely changed in two hundred years. However, in these lock down days my imagination has been taking me on strictly right bank walks, I would meander from the Marais or Bastille, cut either north or further to the East to the then rougher parts of town, to Bellville which like all cities it seems has been gentrified over the years. Are they sad imaginary walks? Not really, I was never emotionally invested in the city – it was too big for me, too much history, making it impossible for me to imagine and when I look back I feel a sense of disbelief at my our fearlessness, of racing through the city streets in whatever beat up car I had at the time, walking into immigrant neighborhoods with too much innocence, I am lucky to have survived it. The names still hold some expectant magic, the Eglise…, Manoir…, Palais…, Rue de.., but the place much less so, it has a museum like quality with the crowds and the tour buses, I can no longer feel the soft touch an ex-girlfriend’s hand in my own when I am back there.