What a summer

I made up my mind when i came back from Turkey in April that i was going to make the most of this summer and not let it ebb away the way most of those before it have done. I set myself to searching online to find out what was happening in London over the next few months, particularly things that were free or cheap.

Many adventures followed – far too numerous to list, but two events, both exhibitions, stand out:

The first featured sea paintings, etchings and sculptures by Maggi Hambling. I hesitated to attend it, unsure of the welcome i would get at the posh private gallery where it was being held, but decided to stick to my promise to myself and not be deflected by nervousness. I’m glad i did. The sculptures (bronze reliefs) i wasn’t keen on, the etchings were nice but forgettable – but the paintings! There were only three but they were spellbinding. It was as though she’d trapped the Sea itself in her whirls of paint. Looking at one of the paintings I noted:

Shades of white, blue and navy – sometimes so dark it almost looks black. No edges. Utterly still and silent yet full of movement and you’d swear you can hear it roar. It makes me feel drenched.

The other exhibition was very different. It featured the work of not one but many artists whose names however are long since lost. They lived in a state which falls within the boundaries of modern Nigeria and were contemporaries of the European Renaissance artists – and every bit as marvellous.

This was the exhibition of sculptures from the Kingdom of Ife.  Held at the British Museum it was visibly playing second fiddle to the exhibition of Renaissance drawings – including some by Leonardo da Vinci – that was showing at the same time. It saddened me that so few of those queuing up to see the sketches of the great Italian Masters would bother to see the works of their African near-contemporaries, but in truth i nearly didn’t go and see them myself. The ticket was bought on a moment’s impulse.

Inside i wrote:

Incredible! Some exhibitions are interesting; this is mesmerising.

About the sculptures themselves i noted:

Each figure is subtly unique, to the extent that you feel they contain real people, present with you in the rooms of the British Museum. And they’re old: some date to the 800s it seems (the Anglo-Saxon period in England).

The one that has made the greatest impact on me so far: a seated figure (one leg crossed) made from copper which has been dated to the 13th Century. Eyes closed, lips slightly parted, as though drifting into sleep. One arm is missing as is the lower half of the other arm, but the round, narrow shoulders are beautiful. Interestingly androgynous: I think it’s a plump, slightly built male but it could be a boyish small-breasted girl. Revered as a fertility symbol it seems. Naturalism is exquisite: tiny folds of fat above the hips.

Other figures are more stylised/monstrous: one from the 14th Century has bulging eyes, tiny clenched fists & an elongated torso.

They still haunt me those long-dead Africans immortalised, albeit anonymously, in copper. It haunts me too how close i came to not going. Even once i’d bought the ticket i wasn’t sure – would it just be an endless array of near-identical, earnestly exhibited antiquities? Then on the day itself i had transport problems and almost turned around and went home.

Not everything i’ve been to this summer has been that good; indeed some of the events have fallen rather flat. But those moments of wonder make the rest of it worthwhile. How glad i am that i stuck to my guns and made the effort to do, see, hear and go this year.

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Tin can cookers and bakewell tart

On Saturday I went to my boss’s house for lunch. Arriving in the neighbourhood where my boss lives, my friend and I couldn’t help laughing at what her reaction might be if she ever came out to those where we live. My neck of the woods is bleak, 60s concrete; while M’s area is going for the early 20th Century grotty look. In no time at all M had devised a brand new detective duo: step forward Ed Bleak and Sandra Grotty, private eyes* in search of a story. Alas, we reached the house before we’d had a chance to take the project much further.

We were late (my fault) and so most of the other guests had already arrived. There is nothing like the sensation of walking into a party midway through. Everyone seems to have found their place. People you don’t recognise are chatting easily to people you do, which always induces in me an irrational feeling that the latter have ‘gone over to the other side’. Still we had come armed: we brandished our contribution to the food at our hostess and got a drink in return. Then came the real ordeal – entering the circle of the already arrived. I always dread this moment, not least because in making my way round to shake hands and introduce myself, i inevitably step on someone’s foot or knock their drink over**.

Yet it actually went quite smoothly. What’s more, once i got over my discomfort at seeing my colleagues, especially my boss, outside of their every day roles, i found i was really enjoying myself. It was fascinating to see people’s partners: so often referred to in conversation but never before glimpsed. Most interesting of all though was to get to chat with individuals that i rarely talk to at work, as our roles are so separate.

For example, one of my colleagues, S, is from a Somali background. At work she’s very quiet, so it was a real surprise to encounter her sociable off-duty alter ego. We got into a conversation about her family and how they came to live in the UK: they went into exile in Dubai in the 70s before moving to England in the 80s. Her mother, who appeared to be the head of the household, had begun her life as a nomad, living a traditional existence in the desert. Imagine making the transition from that culture to life in modern Britain!

S went over to Somalia when she was eighteen. She experienced first hand what it’s like to use a perforated tin can as a cooker and to bury a hot coal in the remains of the fire so that you’ll be able to relight it the next day. The first night she was there she didn’t realise what she was supposed to do and had to go round the neighbours in the morning to beg a piece of coal from them.

I was shocked. As a student i’d stayed in a village in India where life was very basic, but in comparison with what S was describing that place was a world of comfort. More than that though i was surprised to realise how many assumptions i had internalised about Somali women. Without even being aware of it i had formed a picture of them as essentially silent and passive, which is not how S portrayed her mother at all. Religious, conservative: yes. But also a woman of strong opinions and considerable pragmatism. A survivor.

Good food at that lunch too, especially another colleague’s bakewell tart. We definitely need to do it again. But in the meantime, does anyone have any suggestions for the adventures of Bleak & Grotty? Ed’s character needs a bit of fleshing out for a start: he’s a bit too ‘enigmatic’ for my liking right now. And Sandra seems to be getting all the best lines…

* We always imagine ourselves as private eyes. It would take too long to explain why here!
** Indeed, i have an earlier post on this very topic