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.

Weeks five and six

week five

While we are locked down, the homeless have become kings and queens of the city carving out their sidewalk domains, sitting amongst their possessions, shirtless and fierce in the sunshine, grey bearded and laughing at us with our new timidity and anxiety. On a recent walk one started to approach me – his stomach extended, fiery cheeked, the authority of a medieval prince in streets free of the Police – now you know how it feels…. we are the real long term outsiders. I walked home under a cloud of guilt, this lack of empathy and generosity, typically blaming the city for my cold heartedness, someone capable of histrionic sidewalk swerves, theatrically, unnecessarily, walking in the road to keep a cowardly distance. Despite what we hear about the rich leaving town, it has been a leveler for some of on the near empty streets of New York, this is a democratic pandemic.

Now on a dark rainy morning I’m both comforted and disorientated by a deep feeling of nostalgia, forgetting how pleasant a gloomy day can be when you safe and warm inside, the patter from the rain, the freshness of the breeze creeping through open windows and inside, dark interior shadows. Everything about this experience has returned me to childhood partially due to the rigor and tenderness of shared meals cooked at home, evenings structured around television programs, an adolescent absorption in books during long weekends and faint memories of an existence before city life with all it’s grown up distractions.

Recently I have been thinking of an eerie, unforgettable evening I spent as a teenager, which I only recently realized must have been subconsciously triggered by the homeless people I’ve been encountering during occasional evening walks. At my school we had the opportunity to go to an “outward bound” center, a camp inside an old school building in the middle of Wales where we hiked and caved, canoed, climbed and descended small mountains. It wasn’t voluntary, and I’m not sure I enjoyed it all the time. The weather was notoriously cold, the food terrible but there was also the potential for school romances, adolescent mating displays of new found manliness and femininity. We were driven around in old Land Rover Defenders, ex-military and so drafty and uncomfortable, but it was 1976 and the radio was constantly on to the honeyed sound of Fleetwood Mac’s “Rumors”, songs we sang along to and even now possess a gossamer grip on my past so I am afraid of playing them now, fearful towards diminution of the past. On the record itself, which we all bought, there is a photograph of the five band members sitting on a wall in California, dressed as latter day hippies, indifferent to the emerging punk scene and I imagined myself being one of them, the joy of being in a group, being free to play music. Of course I found out later of the turmoil and drugs, disastrous choices, deep divisions and romances going on. I was part of a little group also, there were six of us, three of each gender and we identified as one, not letting anyone inside our tight circle and romances between us were hinted at but never realized. I never understood why but perhaps it was a risk of harming and unsettling this delicate and precious unit that we had formed together. It is a powerful thing, to be part of a group.

One evening some of us were told that we would be bivouacking in a forest, rain was not forecast and so several were selected from the class – perhaps ten or more – and we strode confidently out into the night and through firebreaks and land marks in the forest using flash lights to guide us. These were not ancient woods, the trees were evergreens industrially planted in vast numbers for forestry as farms were not commercially viable; they had a militaristic feel and possessed dark canopies where little grew below. When we found a suitable spot, we made crude bedding in ditches and learnt how to find branches and moss to cover our heads and then tried to fall asleep in the uncomfortable silence of the forest.

After what an hour or so I thought I saw a flash of light but then settled once more. Then another light, this time real followed by alarming sounds in the night – a large branch breaking and short, chilling howls by an unknown but large sounding creature, other noises headed in our direction were now unmistakable. Heartbeat racing, bones frozen, I imagined evil in the soil, in the haunting rustle in the trees above, ghosts in the absent sky. It must have continued for a few minutes, more sudden lights, increasingly human sounds, then suddenly, very close by, laughter and relief; it was only another group that had come to terrify us. They had found our location by the leaders signaling each other….when they asked if any of us were really scared I said I was half way down my sleeping bag and got a big laugh. But I was genuinely, authentically frightened – I sound nieve and a little stupid to admit it, but all senses are heightened in the forest, we hear each sound and imagine the worst. These activities are meant to build confidence in youth, and it’s true, I felt an unprecedented sense of achievement when I woke that morning in the frigid undergrowth in the pale welsh mountain light. It was more about my admitted cowardice, which gained me some credibility, at least with the smart ones in the group, who I knew felt the same way.

I have rarely slept out of doors since then, and only on one occasion on city streets, and in that case it was in Nice in the South of France, and that’s another story. It was enough to alert me to the fears of a city at night, something the New York homeless must deal with at the end of each day, so I should let them growl at us and allow them this temporal superiority.

Week Six

Another passes with domestic routines and new structures. It’s disheartening to hear there is another four weeks at home, but worse, there is no real end in sight and that this will likely get worse towards the end of the year. It is obvious now that we will not recover the city we knew, perhaps we never will if a vaccine is not developed. New Yorkers have reacted to the lock down in characteristically diverse ways, many left the city to their vacation homes, others stayed and abided strictly to being indoors, in my case I take a walk every few days but what I see leaves little hope; the mask less African American guy standing outside of a chemist store coughing relentlessly into the street, the cashier chatting with her mask pulled down, many families with young children running to the park with abandon to meet their friends. We are not going to get over this soon, I say to myself, like everyone else suddenly an expert on viruses. It is becoming the defining topic of my age – our parents dealt with the fall out of wars – for us it is the spread of viruses, Bird Flu, SARS, Ebola, Mers and AIDS hung over us; an unnatural relationship with wildlife? Or a natural culling of our race, a stark reminder that we don’t all have the right to live forever? Either theory lends itself well to my fatalistic worldview.

Two common themes emerged from this period, the first being the fears of intrusion into our hermetically sealed world where packages and items bought from supermarkets are all viewed with fear; our dentist told Mary that if he gets a delivery he keeps in in the closet for three days before he touches it – so we are dogmatically clean and ape the rituals of orthodox religions and for the first time understand their suspicions. Passed down through generations, this is history repeating itself over centuries. Perhaps they are right, we should step back from progress, from globalization and constant travel, and I had a premonition last year when I was herded through Venice with a mass of Asian tourists that this will all end somehow.

The second is the prevalence of rich dreams that I and others have been experiencing during the lock down. Perhaps it is because of the new, narrow intense lens that we view the world through, being surrounded by our possessions every day. These I have been scrutinizing, brushing off the dust of history and viewing in a new more critical light perhaps with the understanding of the increasing ephemeral bind. Being a frustrated designer, I have always had a dialogue with the things around me, it is important to know who made the things I own and to understand their objectives. For example, the glass and steel table I work off was designed by Gae Aulenti, an Italian architect who also worked on furniture, it was bought in the early 1990’s from a member of the rock band, the B52’s. We have owned this for almost 30 years without knowing much about it, but this lost period of time allowed me to discover that it is called the Gaetano table, made by the Italian company Zanotta around 1973, and the internet helpfully directed me to the Repertorio design book, specifically page 385 for more information, which I have so far resisted to seek out. It is sturdy and handsome, made of quality materials with only the slightest nod decorative and modernist flourishes, a handle bar rubber protects the glass table and there is a dashing red detail taken from car designs of that period.

Across from where I sit is an aluminum chair designed by Ettore Sottsass, another Italian designer, famous for creating the Memphis design group which was the design world’s answer to Punk Rock, where good taste was challenged and rational solutions gleefully dismissed. I’m drawn to his maverick spirit and vision, which seemingly came out of nowhere as well as his ability to look towards the USA for inspiration while so many other Europeans scorned it, Memphis was a wink to the modern US city as well as the ancient one. It seemed exciting to support design objects saddled between the past world and the future one, in a way it is a metaphor for this period where we are facing a historic plague, medieval in scale and in its origin which puts our future in doubt, so we too are straddled between worlds for now, until we assume and have faith that the modern scientists can fix it…….

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Week four

onions

Another week accompanied by the score of ambulances and birdsong. We can now add new the elements of drama thanks to increasingly dire warnings from the radio and television, alerting us of “War” and “Pearl Harbor” moments ahead, which always seem to be still two weeks away, more often than not I turn off the news; there is nothing hopeful to report. We stayed at home almost all week but last weekend, in need of some supplies, we masked up and ventured outside. Within minutes we found ourselves sniping at each other, the other pedestrians being too close, too inconsiderate and the streets were navigated as if walking through a landmine. They illustrate a social injustice which did indeed have a war time feeling, the homeless abandoned in mid-town emptiness, delivery boys on bicycles riding down the center of car-less Avenues, the middle classes – those us who stayed – wearily scared of what lies ahead. Those who frightened us most were the indifferent ones; couples walking without masks, laughing, brushing close, the runners throwing out plums of breath, the young huddled in happy groups, the strays and the lost peering into closed store windows.

At seven o’clock each evening there is the jungle noise of cheering and applause from apartment buildings around us intended for the doctors and nurses but instead of being encouraging, it sounds eerie, thin, echoing off concrete buildings offering only a sense of frailty rather than endurance.  Banalities and tautologies are shared with the doormen, “I’ve never known a time like this” I tell them, they sarcastically agree, its done ritualistically because the fear is infectious, a moment where my throat feels sore and a cough generates self-incrimination, you walk backwards in time and ask what you have touched, who you were close to, question if bodily defenses were risked in the name of intimacy or laziness.

Surprisingly the days don’t drag at all. The air lacks its familiar dirty fragrance, it is country fresh, the sun razor sharp. During the week I set up office and look south to apartment blocks over the disheveled roofs of lower tenements, mysteriously adorning old and new technology which we speculate might be cell phone towers or something worse (we hint surreptitiously to friends who love a good conspiracy theory). Along with these suspicious bolted-on machines, there are also chairs and an old sofa that has been exposed to the weather all winter, on another roof top the promiscuous scatter of cigarette butts and a coffee mug thrown from windows above. The sun catches the far roof and miraculously drifts towards me during the day so that our small terrace is warm and burning from its rays by mid-afternoon.

At weekends we have a cocktail hour of Martini’s then dinner with a French sparkling wine from the borders of the Champagne region, bought in bulk creating an illusion that we are riding out the pandemic with Churchillian style. It is at lunch and dinner times that we get to talk about our days, hers in the living room where she has breathing and yoga lessons on line, and mine staring into my computer screen with headphones on connecting with India, Colombia, Portland, Miami, and Basle on any typical day, everyone working from home. In the background there are sometimes the unsettled sounds of children, dogs, traffic.

At dinner last night we talked about a Polish friend who is going through a divorce from her American husband and how hard it must be for the youngest of her four children. Mary told me again about the time she stayed in her frigid house in Pittsburgh once and the shocking austerity of their lifestyle. To reciprocate I started talking about the time in my youth when I took a British Airways flight out to Warsaw, still very much a communist state, one Sunday in February to visit her and her family for a week. Arriving at night I was immediately shocked when the door of the plane opened and I stepped out into the coldest night I had ever experienced, it was like walking into a metallic wall and I laughed out loud at its surprise, it was immediately obvious that my coat was inadequate for a Polish winter. At the foot of the plane, observing every passenger was a soldier in a large coat of fur trimmed with thrilling flashes of red and gold insignia, holding a world war two semi-automatic rifle with its distinctive round canister, something I had only ever seen from old newsreels and a quintessentially Iron Curtain image. Was I afraid? Not at all, I was of an age where I was fearful of all the wrong things, I was occupied by the predictable youthful male anxieties and self doubt, oblivious to the real hazards of life; I shrugged off the fact that I was stepping into a country very soon to go through political revolution and a visit which at least part of the time will be monitored by the seriously unscrupulous authorities. Even during the short walk from plane to terminal building the cold etched into my eyes, froze the hairs in my nose, stung the roots of every hair on my head, it was impossible not to smell and taste its grip it seemed like the atoms in the air around me were shivering.

After a short time with a bemused customs agent I passed into arrivals and met my friend and her parents who were both distinguished doctors. Despite this fact, I found myself in a tiny car which took me to their house, it was clear that this rattling, boxy car was the only one available to the Polish people as during the journey I didn’t see any other kind. Their house was rambling and beautiful, I stayed up into the early hours with my friend talking about American Jazz legends, Miles Davies and Chick Corea who surprisingly were like Gods to the Poles, I was slow to realize at the time that there was a meandering freedom in their music, unstructured and individualistic that spoke to them.

I was lent a women’s fur coat which was necessary even to step out the door and taken to a variety of their friends and relatives who were curious to meet a westerner and all of them served me watery soup based on Cabbage. On one occasion I was taken to a severe concrete apartment building to meet an “explorer”. He and his wife had managed to combine two apartments into one and kept it open by knocking down the walls, something I had never seen before, a bedroom with just a mattress on the floor abutting the wide living room, polished wood floors, rugs from South America, artful African spears on the white walls. I remember being impressed and a little intimidated as it felt ahead of its time and hinted at a lifetime of adventure. His wife was kind and attentive, but I suspect I disappointed the bearded husband with my lack of worldliness and adventure, and he soon disappeared to explore the other side of his apartment. They had arranged a taxi, apparently a rare event, to take me back and by the time I left them night had already fallen, it was lightly snowing, a large policeman stepped out in front of us from nowhere making the driver slam on the brakes just in time, he walked to the empty front seat and threw himself in and barked his address, the reek of vodka was overwhelming, as was his complete authority, so we had to drop him off first and I sat in silent terror in the back.

So over dinner last night I wanted to tell this story of my trip to Communist Poland in the 1980’s where food was rationed, lines extended around the block and shelves were empty, Lech Walesa and Solidarity was on every one’s icy lips, the time when we went to the Cathedral followed by the Polish Secret Police but across the dinner table I could see that Mary was already lost in her cell phone and had no sincere interest, perhaps I had told it to her already once or twice before.

Week three

wokingham

You might think during these mostly silent days, punctuated by the occasional plaintive wail of an ambulance echoing down Second Avenue, that it would be a fertile period to slow down and reflect; to be inward looking and use this time to seek resolutions on what to do when the pandemic is over. It is the Chinese year of the rat, one I say resentfully that is supposed to be my year, yet it is the most tempestuous start to any I can remember. In early February I slipped into England, arriving at Heathrow hours before storm Ciara rushed in, trampling over gardens, snapped down fences and belligerently pushed over trees. I took a photograph leaning out of the window just before dawn when the storm was at its height, shooting into its blackness, worrying that the windows elderly wooden frame would break as a rush of air was sucked into the room and the house shivered, its doors and frame complaining at the intrusion. And now at the end of March back in New York I am in the eye of another storm, insidious, invisible and complicated. Yet on days like this the sun is shining weakly and there is a suburban complacency in the City, lunches and dinners cooked at home and until recently, each evening I was able to take a walk in Central Park which seems painted in watercolor tones this time of year and wears the weak, northern, thorny palette of grey’s and browns which I love so much.

I’ve discovered how to stream British TV programs from the not so distant past; Grand Designs and Antique Roadshows, at first glance shows that have nothing in common; the first explores the building of radical modern homes and the second is all about explorations of the past through objects brought under the scrutiny of experts in the antiques field. Both offer comfort as they are both nostalgic and optimistic in their own way, but I increasingly realize provide cynical insight into our desires.

The premise behind Grand Designs is that the presenter follows the life of a new building or construction from the project beginning until the final reveal. Whatever the scenario, similar patterns and dramas unfolds, money typically runs out, being England – there are extreme weather events (normally rain and flooding) leading to costly delays, unplanned and seemingly absurd regulations, contractors quitting but the end result is the unfolding of a new beautiful space, sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t and sometimes I want to shout at the television.

Antiques Roadshow is something to watch more for people than objects under scrutiny, nothing beats that clash of English civility and naked greed as the guests agonize in poorly concealed anticipation of the valuation. While Experts delight in their knowledge and build a sense of drama on this intimate stage, (and many are truly brilliant in their abilities; to read five hundred year old Japanese markings on the underside of a vase is not untypical) the excitement or disappointment on the faces of the owners is tangible. There will be a small audience gathered around, grey haired and elderly, inevitably reminding me of my parents, who look on in amazement when a genuine treasure is found. In the English show the reaction of the owner is predictable, suddenly aware of the consequences of being on TV, the response is usually that old cliche “of course I would never sell, but how much for insurance purposes?” While in the American version it’s become common now for the owner to cry, a profound difference during the Warholian moment of fame that says everything about these two cultures.

But doing the time of Covid 19 I’m forced to ask myself, what is the point of ownership, until we have a cure for this (and the next one) why treasure possessions? On a video call last night with friends in New Orleans Carmen asked, do you think this is survival of the fittest? This reference to Darwin being much on my mind as I was at the same time remembering during AIDS right wing thugs saying that it was nature’s, or even hypocritically “Gods”, revenge. In today’s newspaper a columnist was hinting that we should all expose ourselves to the virus and just allow the strongest immune systems win. Years ago, when I lived in Shrewsbury, I would often walk past the house Charles Darwin was born in on the Mount, a surprisingly modest low lying white property, and visited the school he went to. Later in life I would see reminders of him in obscure places, South Africa, Chile and Argentina, Australia and I was always thrilled to walk in a small park dedicated to him and see plants brought from other corners of the world through his own and later voyages.

Other than watching old television shows, this voluntary confinement allowed me to read more than usual and this included finishing the final book in Hilary Mantels Cromwell trilogy. A little overlong, as others have commented, but it allowed me the luxury of drifting off into my own thoughts while scaling its mountains of dialogue and then returning with envy to its valleys of lyricism. I sat on a rocking chair on our terrace finding myself drawn in and out of her world until I realized it was harder and harder to read the page and then looked up to see the sky fading from blue to black and the soft light windows in the buildings around me letting me know it is time to go in. Would they recognize us, Darwin and Cromwell, to whom a viral outbreak and financial collapse such as this might seem trivial? I try to imagine their world view, Darwin’s journeys in cramped spaces were measured in years not weeks or months and the fear of illness and immediate death was ever present and for Cromwell it was the fragility of an insult or rumor that could spell his downfall. I imagine they would be appalled at us; we who are furious if our flight is an hour late, or it is a twenty minute wait for a restaurant table, they will probably tell us that we need this break in our lives so we can re-evaluate what progress means.

 

 

Week two

bird

Like everyone without the luxury of a home office, my computer has become a slightly sinister presence in the bedroom, being the portal to another more serious world and I cannot ignore a certain menace in its dark form when I go to sleep and wake each day. It doesn’t help that I am familiar with the objects history, the severe German designer Richard Sapper was behind its first evolution many years ago and his design has kept close to its roots despite several updates, portraying functionality and elegance in its matt black housing suggesting ruthless efficiency. But these days I fear cold corporate perfection a little and seek something more human and trustworthy. This entails a walk daily to Central Park, which is almost empty, to admire the progress of spring as nature ignores, and rejoices in, the pandemic. The crab apple trees don’t disappoint, heavy under pale bloom nor the cherry trees clothed in shocking pink. Normally at this time of year we might expect to see sweet Asian couples in wedding attire being photographed under their canopies, peeking shyly into the lens in order to send their fantasy to the other side of the world.

Today the Park is quieter than I have ever seen it, except the songs of the birds who sense our predicament and are fearless, a red cardinal poses for my camera with a new and striking indifference and I think I hear their laughter in the air around me. I walk there up Park Avenue, silent and formidable, a doorman came out and took a photograph with his cell phone, equally amazed at the sight of the empty city. Melancholic church bells followed me up the wide street, dreadful in the stark repetition, somehow linking this time with others in history when plagues took hold. I don’t trust that guy ahead who has a baseball cap the wrong way around, suspicious of a person who would own such an ugly dog or walk out in his slippers, nor the jogger suddenly behind me who leaves behind him an imaginary slipstream of viral cells, in my mind as fiery and pink as the leaves in the park. Glancing at the mansion blocks and houses, sedate in their wealth but now if feels like they could be turned to dust by this outbreak.

The other major event in my lifetime, AIDS, was also a time when we had fear of others. For me it was the very worst time as I was in my twenties and largely single. Then like now I imagined a family tree of dangerous connections, who I had slept with became tied to everyone she had slept with, and on and on. Today we are doing the same thing, it feels reckless to have invited a guest to dinner last week as it was impossible not to think of her recent travel and social contacts, and despite the cautionary measures (we show each other our hands in disbelief, elderly looking, white and wrinkled thanks to constant washing) there is some lingering doubts and the potential for blame and accusation.

An event such as this pandemic can leave you questioning what a city is for. Without culture, socializing and places to eat and shop it is a suburb. I wonder if by enduring these hardships I will feel closer to this city, it has always been an in-between place for me, one that I should have stayed in for three or four years, rather than the twenty or so I have lived here. I am comfortable with this paradox, staying in the place I like least. Mary always quotes the line from Miles Davies, when asked why he doesn’t play ballad’s any more….it’s because he loves ballad’s. There is something overwhelming about living in a place you love, in a place you identify personally with, one full of possibilities and hope. I have placed this emotion on a handful of towns and cities; Shrewsbury on the Welsh border of England, Brussels, a grey, quirky city of hidden elegance and charm and Sydney which, when I knew it, was part English garden suburb and part California. All had the benefits of being walking towns, offering themselves for up discovery, tempting you with reasonably priced real estate and hopeful signs of creativity and charm in the cafes and shops, places where you might find like-minded people. New York will never be one of my aspirations. Instead I think of a small road of honey toned Georgian houses by the Abbey, perfectly proportioned, right sized, tall windows and disrespectable meadow gardens, each house a different personality and a shabbiness that money cannot buy. Then, to complete this retrospective sentimentality, a night walking up to the old church passing men and women in evening dress despite the cold, heading to the choir for Handel or Mozart and a pint at the pub later.

It strange on this grey wet day, confined to our home and feeling sorry for myself, to be staring out at the tall apartment blocks outside my window, too far away to be interesting, too close to be ignored in this low lighted early spring evening, with flickering movements just slight enough to hint at other fearful indoor lives, and be dreaming of an English market town, such illicit fantasies. In front of the apartment blocks on 56th street there is a small tenement building, a memory of the older city and soon, I would guess, to be torn down like many others. It seems empty today, the window across from me has its curtains pulled tight for a week with a neat long slash like opening, a Fontana painting, and from time to time I think I see a slim hand on them, next to that apartment a cat is occasionally sitting by a window a self-composed sentinel for the shadowy presence I sometimes see briefly stalking that tiny space.

An empty city

park

New Yorkers typically like to boast a little about the real and perhaps over-blown disasters the city has endured; the blizzards, 1996 in particular, the hurricanes, the electrical blackouts and the perhaps the only real one, September 11 2001, which also took place cruelly on a perfect blue clear cloudless day such as this. The Coronavirus outbreak feels different, there is a lack of goodwill in the city and we don’t feel drawn together, there is no nodding or kind smiles towards the others on near empty streets, no acknowledging fellow survivors but instead we view each other with suspicion and maintain a safe distance. Worse, there is a perception that those of us out belong to an underclass, we must go out to work rather than doing it from home and so walk furtively with the homeless, but also amongst the care givers, the nurses and doctors. On the streets I am tense if someone gets too close and occupies my space, there is a ballet of wide arc’s to avoid those approaching or to circumnavigate those ahead walking slowly, I imagine a toxicity on their person and fantasize that I can see microscopic viruses like dust around them when they breathe or sneeze; sometimes, ridiculously, I hold my breath if I get too near, as if taking a plunge into the Ocean.

Yesterday in the park I witnessed (or imagined) strange behavior by the dogs, who would normally engage in intimate sensory explorations when they meet, but now remained socially aloof to these delights, mimicking their owners and sparing them at least that further embarrassment. I suspected something else; it was impossible to ignore the elevated, joyous birdsong in the elm trees when I walked through the grove and the excitable birds daring close proximity when I arrived home, fearlessly nesting under air conditioning units nearby. I have certainty that they know more than we do about what is really going on.

As I was walking on the Upper West Side I caught sight of a sun bleached poster of John Lennon in a pharmacy window and realized I was close to the Dakota building where he had lived. I assumed this must have been the place he would come to pick up prescriptions, just an ordinary shopper and then to clear my head of sentiment and sadness thought of his sickly sweet song “Imagine” as an antidote. But he had entered my thoughts again and I remembered that a few days ago, over brunch, we heard his music in the background, reduced to being just pale noise to enhance an atmosphere of nostalgia. This is turn had triggered another recent encounter, seeing on one of the new electronic bill boards in our street, his face with the other three Beatles and the message that in February 1964, seventy three million Americas watched them on the Ed Sullivan show. It’s strange and incongruous how a kid from Liverpool still haunts this corner of the city, I felt again his ghost was trailing me, walking by my side when we pulled away from that strange little park within the park where amateurish versions of his songs are sung to hapless bystanders and enthusiasts. From where I stood you could just make out the outline of the Plaza hotel, where the Beatles stayed on their first night in America, John, George, Paul, Ringo collegiately sharing a suite before the short trip to the theatre, already surrounded by screaming fans and later the indignity of John’s subtitle on the black and white television screens “Sorry Girls, he is married” under the scrutiny of forty percent of the United States; he with the strong face and none of the boyish cuteness of Paul and George. I found myself flirting with guilty misplaced optimism, one that characteristically ignored the hardship of others. John’s naivety was that there would be world peace, mine today was that Cities like New York might empty themselves of hedge fund millionaires and so artists could afford to return, young people would discover the countryside and build communities, planes are grounded and the Earth starts to heal itself, tourism slows to a halt and historic places regain their culture. I walked around the city recklessly, the sun cold and bright, casting shadows as sharp as a blade, amazingly I saw that the local massage spa was open, testing my resolve.

In the blizzard of 1996 I left home early in the morning with the knowledge that snow had fallen deeply and was not about to slow down. I boarded the train in Grand Central destined for Darien Connecticut where I worked at the time.  It was delayed but eventually pulled out slowly deep below the City, past Harlem and then ten minutes later stopped in the shadows of the tall towers of the Bronx projects. The train cars had no heating and I was thankful for my parka, and more for the tiny FM radio I used to carry and prayed for its battery to last. The day dragged on, the coldness intensified and the anger of the passengers was palpable thanks to the lack of information from the conductors helplessly walking through the crippled train. At last some action; an angry commuter walked to the train door, looked down at the deep snow and threw first his briefcase and then himself onto the tracks. Someone said he was crazy, the rail lines held the reputation of danger, the tracks alive with electricity, but he stumbled up from his knees, waded up to a gap he must have seen earlier in the fence and was gone soon into the empty whiteness of the Bronx, a few people cheered for the great escape. But the conductor was furious and said that all the trains couldn’t move now, a rescue train was on its way, comically old fashioned but still functional enough to bring us back to the city.

Hours later I was home again in the warmth of the Loft, recovering from an anguished argument that had my stupidity (for going to the office) at its source and Mary’s worry in its periphery; these were days before cell phones were common and every movement accounted for. If I am honest, I enjoyed the solitary walk through SoHo after getting back downtown, freed from the tyranny of the train and walking down deep pathways cleared despite the heaviness of the snow, feeling a sense of ownership and taking sole possession of the streets if only for a short time. It reminding me of a solitary night walk in the countryside a life time ago when the raucous nocturnal noises told tales of frenzied activity all around; of hunters and the hunted, the starving and the satiated, a short moment in the core of the natural world when you never feel so alive. With September 11 we endured weeks of uncertainty, of future attacks and plane crashes. With this virus we have to admit we are walking in the dark, yet clues have been offered on how it may end as long as we possess the will and discipline of the Chinese and South Koreans who self-quarantined and obeyed. It doesn’t feel very American, this dilemma facing the choice of internment and isolation, the humiliation of not trading or being entertained, just for the sake of a tiny agent, smaller than a human cell.

February/Early March 2020

canada

A pair of weeks in late February, early March that in now feel like they were monopolized by cold panoramas and high profile art exhibitions consisting of straight lines, strict volumes mixed with diffuse, poorly focused imagery. The first week was spent in Canada, in an industrial area abutting Toronto airport, which I was wistfully told on a slippery drive to the local fast food restaurant, was “just fields” three decades ago.  Today, thanks to town planners with a Roman preference for straight roads, there are precise blocks of square buildings, largely indistinguishable from one another with the exception of a beaming corporate logo on the side of the office, announcing familiar brands.

I walked around these severe streets in the early evenings, sometimes with snow settling around me and finding its way inside my hood and while trucks and cars growled past, treading carefully on sidewalks which hide their perils well. Snow brings back early childhood memories and I stuck my tongue out to allow a flake settle and then melt onto it. It was a week lacking convergence yet full of anxieties that had grown since arrival and which seemed to play out subconsciously at night rather than during waking, work hours. One morning I woke suddenly at 3.00 am to the sound of the roads being de-iced by a fleet of heavy vehicles, but the suddenness of waking allowed me to grasp hold of the tail of an escaping dream; I was staring at the desert sky, surrounded by a small group of people under the intense clarity of the stars. It was quickly apparent that reflected into the sky was the rest of the planet, I could make out the outlines of Scandinavia, Europe and North Africa, all slowly revolving as if there was a reflector projecting the image of the world into the blackness above. The others around me were expressing wonder, but I was already fearful, attempting to work out what had shifted in the planets but hiding my panic by casually pointing out the countries I could recognize. It was this celestial paradox that occupied my thoughts over the next hour or so as I watched the snow coming down, making the car park and the urban boxes seem new, the world refreshed for a while, the pure snowflakes circulating the lamps like a swarm of mosquito’s. Is this a dream of death? I had concluded it was over the next few days and it became a constant dark companion during the trip, slowing my movements and steadying my walk, when I studied menus it insisted on healthy options; how easy it is to embrace the disquietude of the elderly.

It all disappeared as I arrived back in New York. Even as the taxi sped back into the city and I saw the inky skyline lite up in that ultramarine night my worries subsided.  I remembered it was a week of art fairs, gallery openings and all the social life that swirls around it despite threats of Chinese viruses. During my Friday lunch break I had promised to pick up a little artwork at the Marian Goodman gallery that they had been holding for us. It was by the Italian artist, and sometime prankster, Maurizio Cattelan. He was recently in the news for exhibiting a banana taped to the wall in an art fair in Miami and the press and social media addicts waited in line to photograph it. Somehow it stole all the headlines, and sucked all the air out of the fair for its silliness and absurd price, confirming every ones worst fears about contemporary art.

The piece I was collecting was a “multiple” consisting of a light bulb in the shape of his head, something I confess bought less for its artistic merits and more in the manner of an optimist buying an underrated stock. But I enjoyed the fuss being made of me by the gallery staff and even more when I bumped into the artist himself a few minutes later walking down one of the narrow corridors. We chatted for a while even though it is clear that he only vaguely recognized me from brief meetings over the years and didn’t know my name, yet still I was the subject of his considerable charm, how proud he was of the piece and how happy he was that we had one. He has the physique and haircut of a soccer player and is undeniably handsome in an almost cartoonishly Italian way and presumably he now is very rich. But I have seen him in action over the years, strategic in his alliances, socially calculating, attending art events where the crowd was sparse and we have talked until someone more important arrives, I guess everyone does this but I am over conscious of etiquette in such transparent arena’s.

The gallery was full because it was the first day of the Gerhard Richter exhibition. One of the gallery employee’s, a friend, walked me around the show which was almost identical to the one last year. She whispered to me that only three paintings were for sale and I felt surrounded by serious groups of men who looked as if they could afford to buy one. But this work, the paintings he refers to as “Abstraktes Bild” are to my mind pure (but gorgeous) decoration, now status symbols that are on par with an owners car or wrist watch and can be swooned over with the same kind of desire. They feel industrialized and carry the weight of their price tag which most of us can make a reasonable guess at based on auction results. I once asked the monochrome painter Marcia Hafif what she thinks of them and she just scoffed.

There is one body of work that I love in Richter’s past. This is the exploration of German history through paintings based upon black and white photographs. There is a series of paintings based upon Baader Meinhof images that I covet and also deeply personal family images including his Uncle Rudi, a smiling optimistic young man in a Nazi uniform. Not only are they visually seductive, but the notion of elevating an image that might normally occupy a police report or newspaper clipping onto canvas and playing it in a gallery or museum was a risky move at the time and the power of the transformation was unexpected. He seemed to be partially answering several questions in this body of work; How to make a painting in the era of photography? And even what is the purpose of painting? Using a photograph as a base is political in itself, beyond its inflammatory, painful subject matter. This guilt is paired down purposefully by the imperfection of the image, deliberately blurred. “Distressed” might be the word used by an interior designer, deliberately aging an item to add a layer of time despite the artifice that is surely apparent to all.

It’s not just Richter, the city seems like it is heavy with nostalgia thanks also to Donald Judd, who is flexing his posthumous muscle in MoMA, the cold elegant forms which are brash and bullish in their authority. Like with Richter his work triggers memories of my past and I sometimes feel I am stuck now in this aesthetic, of raw plywood and simple volumes, and unfocused images. One of the ironies of my love of Judd is that it less because of his severe sculptures and more because his warm interiors and architectural interests. I love perusing his bookshelves, his drinks cabinet and kitchen fittings, his wardrobe….and so I’m drawn to his decorative sensibilities yet find myself criticizing the popular abstract work of Richter for exactly the same reason.

Following on from these two masters I attended, against all good judgement, the “Spring Break” fair, an event showcasing the new in contemporary art. Within an hour I had quietly renamed it the Spring Break despair. What does it tell us about the minds of young artists? That they despise the market, that they make art that is sloppy and relate to childhood in both execution and subject, they are not interested in exploring large themes or making luxury totemic commodities? I’m making this sound better than it is….. There is a punkish-ness to this puerility, the bad, lazy paintings, the dollar store materials, my annoyance left me grasping for a word that I don’t think exists in the English language, a word that describes that intransigent moment in life when you have derision for the young and the new.  And while searching for the word memories crept up on me.

A day in 1973 or 1974, it must have been a Sunday and we were on a family drive, my sister and I both newly in possession of teenage anger. We might have been drifting directionless on the roads by the side of the Thames looking for an unpopulated foot path, the gnarly thick trucks of Burnham Beaches or headed to Stanley Spencer’s village to look at his paintings. It might have been raining, it probably was, and the humidity inside the car made the trip stifling and the landscape outside washed out through steamed up car windows. My father as always was in control of the radio and that meant Brahms and Beethoven, our childhood objections over ruled. But for a moment my Mother stepped in with some diplomacy and allowed a switch to Radio 1 the pop channel and miraculously to my delight “Angie” by the Rolling Stones came on. My father must have been in his early forties then, quite young by today’s standards to despise his contemporary culture, but I suspect he knew vaguely who the Rolling Stones were and what they represented and snapped off the radio after the song started, and we suffered in silence as if I had committed an unmentionable crime.

Not so long ago, a few years perhaps, we had been invited to a dinner party in Connecticut. The hosts were generous in their entertainment, a wonderful historic modernist house in the woods, one a talented chef placing her energy into the meal, the other an artist. Again the topic of music came up, and their love of Neil Young and music from the 1970’s which became the predictable soundscape that evening. Trying to engage them with more modern music was pointless, a discussion that was cut off with ridicule, as if it was shameful to go beyond their established tight parameters, and I took this personally and left in a silent fury.

Famously two UK artists got into a fight about being open to new ideas in art. One was Tracey Emin, a moderately successfully, questionably conceptual artist prone to self-promotion and the other a painter called Billy Childish who borrows heavily, and inexpertly, from Edvard Munch and Peter Doig. Childish’s dictatorial position is that all artist must paint and Emin’s reply was that he was “stuck, stuck, stuck”. So he created an idea of a “Stuckist” movement that enjoyed a brief few minutes of fame thanks to the overly generous English newspapers during slow news days.

They wore their stuckism with pride, whereas my own I am a little concerned about, I hope I can over it and find some enthusiasm again for the young art world. I hope that I don’t become someone stuck in a particular era for music, or in a fixed period for art and most of all – like many of us – that I don’t turn into my father.

 

 

 

 

January, February 2020

january

January is well known as a bad month, the beginning of a trilogy that ends in April when the first warm breezes of spring are felt in the air, at last, sweeping up from the South. There is a sense of remorse felt when opening credit card statements and scanning bank accounts where the multiple modest purchases never seem to add up to the large final balance owed and I fume with anti-institutional mistrust. But the real issue for the East Coast is its weather. Its on mornings like this that trouble me the most; ones where we glimpse our mirrored reflections in the damp sidewalk on the way to work and question our purpose, look up at the skyscrapers disappearing into the fog and see a solitary glove abandoned in the road echoing our despondent mood. This year more than most has been harrowing due to the politics around the Trump impeachment where something was lost, but it’s difficult to say what. Most of us are less upset by his policies than his person which makes us participants in a class, or more accurately, education war and one that we are helplessly on the losing side.

The answer is apathy and distraction. And so we found ourselves at the Opera a few times, perhaps subconsciously to enrage Trump supporters more. To the Magic Flute, a gorgeous nonsense by Mozart, brought to life by the spectacular set designs of Julie Tamor, possessing its own mesmerizing alchemy. Like the best productions its memory griped me for weeks, its arias echoed in my head, and I felt like sneaking off from work to see it again during the day time.

Then the annual Burns night party at our friends Liz and Adam broke the misery that comes with the third week of January, well known to be the most dispiriting week of the year. Dancing and drinking, bad poetry read with perhaps the worst Scottish accents I have ever heard, honoring a reckless individual who got his family housemaid pregnant when he was far too young. How could that not be fun?

A day trip upstate, the stark tree’s bare and leaves rusting on wet ground.

At daybreak on a cool Saturday morning early in February I got in a car service which swept me down the FDR and on to Newark airport where a full mustard colored moon hung low in the sky. Eight hours later I saw it again, this time clear and watery through the arrivals hall in Heathrow. After all these years it’s still strange how you can be transported like this. Later that night lying in bed with jet lag in English suburbia a storm came in and 90 mile an hour winds, tearing down trees and garden fences. There was naked violence to the storm, a treacherous lack of consistency to its pitch and inclinations, at some moments a hum and drone and at others a shrill destructive gust. In the soft guilty-hangover light of morning the garden was examined, a large tree branch on the grass, another tree downed, leaning against a fence, and portions of a neighboring fence gone. But the rain persisted, freezing at times, and I fought against it when walking into the small town. At night, when I went for a walk before bed, I snuck into a local pub and sat alone with a pint happy to be out of the house. Listening to the inane conversations around me I realized how far I have come and, with a sinking feeling, knew I couldn’t return.

Home to an evening where some pendants I had made were to be shown in a fashion designers shop, thanks to a lazy conversation one evening in January. Our friend Yeohlee had lost her husband suddenly. It was a shock to all of us mainly because he was so full of life and youthfully optimistic, he had no outwards signs of ill health and we were heartbroken when we got the news. So she came to dinner and saw Mary wearing an Owl pendant and made the proposition. A crate of champagne was ordered, invitations and press releases sent giving me a sense of detachment from myself. I regretted not using an alias.

I needed to talk about the images and the ideas behind it and so to format my feelings wrote this a few hours before the event:

Sometimes ideas can come to you with the pace and quietude of an owl in flight. They can take you by complete surprise and no matter how slight and insubstantial, you have to honor them somehow with action, or they will just slip through your fingers and drift silently back into the night woods.

A big part of this little project was to answer a question much on my mind, how do you memorialize a day that held special meaning for you? We all can, and do, take a photographs nowadays with our phones but rapidly these become mislaid and forgotten in the ephemeral cloud of social media, quickly dismissed with a “like” or two. For reasons that remain mysterious to me I made a pendant for Mary using a photograph I took that day simply so we could remember this windy but perfectly clear spring morning in South West England in the company of some hawks and owls.

I had hoped that we could fly a hawk but the handler told us in a tone (used by country people when talking to city people) that it was lambing season so “obviously” that was out of the question. Mary and I looked at each other and with a serious expressions nodding vigorously in agreement in the way that city people do when they are too embarrassed to ask why.

The Owls were the real treat and I was able to photograph plenty and in one case had an errant subject fly directly at me from quite a distance and land on my leg. It stood there for several minutes digging its talons into my skin, each of us I felt were recognizing the absurdity of the other. I felt no fear but I was glad at the time that I didn’t know about the photographer Eric Hosking who in 1937 lost his left eye while photographing a Tawny Owl. I photographed one of these that day called Bowie given perhaps a little predictably because one eye is a different color from the other.

Later I thought how it was impossible not to be struck both by their vulnerability and curiosity when you are close up, there is something spellbinding about their presence and you can understand why in ancient times they were both worshiped and feared. Instinctively you know they were in existence before ourselves and that they will surely outlive us. So that’s why I made a pendant of my favorite Barn Owl for Mary and she started wearing it, she would be stopped at art openings and on subways, a few of her friends admired it and so the idea took flight.

 

New Years Day, 2020

grafita1

On a stale, watery day we found ourselves on the way to an art world party in a loft in Brooklyn to celebrate the New Year. It was not the kind of gathering that you might see in a Hollywood movie, there was a lack of beautiful young people with brightly colored, asymmetrical hair styles wearing revealing clothes and there was no conceptual artwork to perplex onlookers and ridicule artists. The couple throwing the party are friends, but we are not close, their lives being so different from our own. They are artists in the old fashioned sense, sticking it out with their work and being part of a real community. My guess is that they are not altogether successful in a commercial sense, their work is good but not fought over, yet they seem to make a living one way or another doing what they want to do. and it’s inspiring that this possibility still exists in New York, at least for this generation. But I also confess to being struck by its conformity; his art is fashionably cartoonish, softly political, her ceramic’s possess a punkish-ness just on the right side of kitsch, both strategies a cynic might conclude is a little too targeted towards the market.

The Uber driver made a compelling case, getting us from midtown to our destination in thirteen minutes. No wonder Brooklyn’s real estate is so valuable. However, driving through this part of the borough I was dismayed by the cheaply built, indifferently designed suburban neighborhoods. I predicted correctly that Mary would say that she could never live here, she picks up something in the mood of the place that I don’t. I think it may be the scent of dreams failing, adolescent fears of never escaping the suburbs and adult dread of returning to them which we both share. I am haunted by the ghosts of lost weekends in places like this and she in turn is someone who invests a lot of emotion and pride in her surroundings; for her New York City still shouts success, most other places, failure.  Whereas I see something both familiar and alien, the concrete industrial landscape, its 1970’s architecture, it’s down market brands and forlorn demeanor, yet in my case the objection is much more prosaic; it is the subway I couldn’t manage, I need a city to walk in.

At the party there was no effort to dress well, in fact the opposite seemed true; the men greying, wearing their clothes with indifference, the women equally apathetic; no makeup, homey, comfortable shoes. There were some academics and critics and a couple of artists whose names you might know if you cared about the art scene of the 1990’s. Even I, who want no part of this world, knew it was not an “A List” event, there wasn’t any evidence of the electricity that follows those with real power and influence in the tight art world cartel. For that reason it should have been a relaxed affair, but walking around the room knowing so few people I detected an edge of hostility at my presence, I quickly felt regret for coming.

It’s not always easy to mingle in the New York art world as you cannot be sure of the outcome. There doesn’t seem to be any of those easy going, mature social skills that you find in other professional worlds, where strangers will introduce themselves, jump into polite small talk and seek common ground. I sensed a jungle mentality in this lofty space, an edgy social vulnerability. Perhaps it is the solitary studio life that makes this so awkward? The internal dialogues that take place when making their work, or perhaps it is a career chosen precisely to avoid people. It is also a bitter place sometimes, I have found myself being put down by art critics and artists during social events for no other reason than cruel territorialism and so I too am wary.

I had started to chat to a couple nearby. There was a stack of business cards selling natural tick spray which became a prop to start a conversation as I knew it is a subject much on the minds of those who go upstate during the summer months, Lyme’s disease being a disproportionate and constant anxiety. The woman, who I imagined was just a little older than myself was dressed with the typical casualness that screamed “feminist artist!”, a wildness to her un-kept, apparently never brushed hair and clothes that might not be so far away from someone sleeping in a homeless shelter. But if her appearance had a predictable artists anarchic left wing conventionality, this was nothing compared to her conversation. I learned that she once had Lyme disease but “did I know it was introduced by the Government?”, from a small Island off Montauk, where an infected deer had swam to Connecticut. Unfortunately this led to how all information was suppressed by the government, at which her partner abruptly walked away, a red flag I should have paid attention to, which I later guessed was because he knew the ugly direction this conversation was headed.

She started to become visibly agitated at any sign of reasonableness, the fact I loved NPR (“Government broadcasters!) That I thought that the media was doing a great job against Trump (“you need to do some research! All the news is fake”) when I suggested that calling the news fake is as much a right wing stance as it is left wing (“Ha! You need to do some research!”) I felt a new stillness to the room, other conversations had drifted within earshot, the sound of a siren outside of a window which had been open to allow a soft breeze to circulate.  Then I noticed in a moment of shock that she had angrily stormed away leaving me alone, a few heads turned quizzically in my direction. I had apparently committed the crime of being balanced in this apparently radically left, anti-government, anti-establishment cabal, and left by myself wondering what had given away conservative tendencies.

It was a hurtful way to behave towards a stranger and I felt perhaps a little angrier than I should. The root of this is the presumption that she knew me and didn’t possess the ability to respect a different position, that I was the enemy. Could she have heard misogyny in my voice or prejudice towards my accent, or seen something in my appearance that told her I was not worth her time? It was that cold certainty on her part, a dangerous inability to listen, a misguided sense of her own value, at one point she said she had “a responsibility” to tell the world about what she knew. She reminded me of Donald Trump in her arrogance and unearned self-belief, which is the worst insult that comes immediately to hand. I could have allowed anger to take hold, but this was supposed to be a party. If I had time I could have thrown things into the mix, that both my parents were signed up members of the communist party having joined in Paris in the late 1950’s, but that was style over substance I suspect and never felt real urgency or depth in their politics.

A little later I saw her talking to an art dealer I knew, and when I asked him later who she was, I heard her once famous name in disbelief. Going home in the taxi Mary said sadly to me, well maybe next year I’ll go by myself and I gratefully agreed. The New Year was not supposed to start like this and over the next few days the conversation crept back, but my true feelings remained partially opaque to me, I was weary to unravel and reopen that minor but persistent wound, it was as if I had drank a cocktail which was two parts anger and one part self-remorse. Naturally I blamed myself at least a little for the exchange and the clumsiness of the social engagement, but that is my burden. Most of all I faulted myself for not being someone of substance, someone big in the art or political world, who would have made her think twice before steamrollering the conversation, I wasn’t looking for her approval, but the opposite, to squash her in return, and again heard the whisper of Auden in my ear, those to whom evil is done…..

 

 

Christmas Eve

donut

There is a predictability to every journey with Mary; we are going to be late, not enough to actually miss the bus, train, plane but late enough to require a taxi and on some occasions, a breathless sprint to the gate. Despite, or because, being a frequent traveler I am also a slightly nervous one. So on Christmas Eve we bumped and rattled through midtown in an old yellow taxi to be deposited into a good natured, noticeably multicultural – and presumably-multi-faith – line of passengers waiting for the bus to Philadelphia. Although it was Christmas, a pale sun could be seen in the cloudless sky and, as I looked up at a new glass walled building, those old ones around it were seen anew, shimmering and vibrating in their refection like looking at the surface skin of gently disrupted water. We had picked up some takeaway snacks, for me a cheese and tomato sandwich and for Mary a salad, and we sat eating them on the bus before it started moving like an old couple on a day out, and those strangely comforting minutes filled me with the dueling sentiments of childhood nostalgia and elderly premonitions.

We did our duty that evening, Christmas Eve rituals passed with self-control, without drama. Families behaved. Later we took an Uber back to the center city apartment of our friend Ester McManus, one of the world’s great pastry chefs and someone who famously taught Julia Child’s how to make a croissant on her 1960’s black and white television show watched by half of America. She was the wife of one of Mary’s great friends Charlie McManus, someone she describes as her “mentor” but it’s a description I treat with skepticism, she is too strong willed to participate in anything that hints at servility, and Charlie, who was the definition of subversion, would despise being thought of as a guide. He was an old Philadelphian, too casually occupied with the East Coast class hierarchies to ever be encumbered by them, a joyful eccentric and formidable outsider, wonderfully entertaining to be around. His Mansion, just off Rittenhouse Square, was formally the French consulate for Philadelphia, purchased, he claimed by a phone call with General De Gaulle. He was also a furniture dealer and accomplished decorator, his dimly lit home was full of antiques of genuine and roguishly dubious quality.

We were married in his small, overgrown garden on 12 June, 1993 over twenty six years ago. It was thick with un-kept plants and the air, with the over bearing summer heat, was dense and humid. The men were all sweating in stiff shirts and ties, the women in their best outfits which were never intended for this sudden tropical blast. This burning sunshine plus the free flowing cocktails gave the day a new orientation and unexpected characteristics, now laconic and lazy, and so the formalities were done fearlessly in what felt to me like a mumbled rush. We stood on a platform, Mary in a cream laced dress with her hair pulled upwards, me in a dark suit and newly bought shirt, wearing a tie made by my friend Nadia. The judge used a word I never heard before (we didn’t bother with a rehearsal) and I gained some good willed laughter from the audience when I questioned her about it mid ceremony. Afterwards a lunch prepared by Ester followed by Cake brought over form the kitchen of George Perrier. A chamber orchestra were playing until, domestic legend has it, someone paid for them to stop, bad poetry was read and despite my pleading for there to be no speeches, this was a group of large egos who I knew would not be able to help themselves. For a short while I hid in the bathroom, recited to myself the cliché’s, this is life, it’s no longer a dress rehearsal, but had no sense regret then or since.

Back to 2019 and sitting in Esters kitchen later that night, her making Sufganiyah, delicious Jewish Doughnuts for the Hanukkah holidays, these memories of our wedding flooded back. Everything was new and exotic then, I can recollect with absolute clarity the deep blue shadows of the sidewalk tree’s, the extended 1970’s cars on the roads still totally foreign and perplexing to me, the taste of even the simplest of food’s – the American amusement at my encounters with strawberry flavored cream cheese, hazelnut coffee. I also remember the stillness of the smouldering city summer when we greedily searched for and occupied shade, its slovenly pace, endless days and short sleepless nights.