Paris… finally

Last month i realised a long time ambition to travel to Paris by Eurostar. What had took me so long? More than the cost it was the perception that Paris was far away. I couldn’t just nip over on the train for the day; yet that is exactly what i ended up doing. It was disorienting to find that this strange city, so different from London, wasn’t far away at all – at least not via high speed train: St Pancras International to the Gare du Nord took just over two hours. Not the most thrilling of journeys, mind: grass, concrete and barbed wire mostly.

I’m not sure what i expected Paris to be like but i know i approached it in a spirit of trepidation. Would it be too big, too busy to be enjoyable? Would the people be as unwelcoming as their reputation suggested? Would it be all Tourist Sights? Or would it feel just like anywhere – that is just like nowhere, just another city full of shops and streets?

In the event it was neither as overwhelming as i’d feared, nor as different as i’d expected… and yet in some ways more different. Walking down from the station i first passed a fifty-something man clad in slit-sided white pantaloons and a tight fitting gold lamé top and then found myself in a street full of Asian shops – that’s Asian in the British sense, i.e. South Asian. There were places with names like “Wembley Foods”. For a moment i felt as though i’d got on a train going the wrong way and ended up in Birmingham or Manchester instead!

But no, i truly was in Paris. Little Pakistan gave way to Middle Eastern shops and then i began to see signs to the Pompidou Centre. This houses the Museum of Modern Art and was on my list of probably-must-see sights. First though it was time to get coffee. When i’d visited France back in the 80s as a teenager cafe owners never seemed to speak English; but this time the proprietor switched to my language the instant he heard my accent. Nor did he seem particularly self-conscious or resentful about this (my other memory of communicating with the French in the 80s was that when they did speak English they gave the impression it was a great concession on their part).

On to the Museum which had some magnificent sculptures by Giacometti, Arp and Calder. The big discovery however was a sculptor i hadn’t heard of called Etienne-Martin: his work included strange sculpted ‘coats’ which reminded me of the armour that Samurai used to wear. In an immensely pretentious section celebrating porn as art i came across a poem i liked. I wrote down a fragment of it:

My image leaves the city… It crushes the fruit against its breasts / It spreads sand over its stomach / It slides fish in between its legs

Love the line about the fish. The artist (and poet?) was called Evelyn Axell.

After the museum i went to see the Seine. To my eyes it was a rather ordinary looking river for such a magnificent city but i did like the way the main road ran alongside it, much lower down than the city itself. The traffic seemed to flow by the city, rather than through it. And the bridges decorated with the heads of lions: wonderful. There were also pet shops – lots of them. I found that amazing, charming even. Think about it: can you imagine coming across streets of little neighbourhood style pet shops in a street right in the centre of London?

Notre Dame Cathedral is on one of the islands in the Seine. It was a disappointing place. From the salvation candles which were available at varying prices depending on the quality of the saint through to the priest waiting in a booth which resembled one of those cubicles you see at banks the whole thing felt like a money-making enterprise. There was nothing spiritual about the cathedral; it felt more like an IKEA store or garden centre, especially with the crowds snaking through the aisles.

The Louvre wasn’t disappointing, but it was bl**dy frustrating! I spent most of my time there lost. Still, i did get to see the Mona Lisa which isn’t as small as i’d been told. The bright colours of the Renaissance paintings in that part of the museum are wonderful but it was far too packed with tourists. I preferred the serenity of the Ancient World – even if, as with the British Museum, the wealth of exhibits is really a testament to colonial looting. Best of all were the turquoise tinted friezes in the Assyrian section. I also visited the special exhibition which traced the history of Saudi Arabia: from prehistoric stone tools through to early Islamic gravestones and beyond.

Then it was back to the Gare du Nord to catch the train home. So much remained unseen! Yet Paris did have one last surprise in store for me: the Gare du Nord has the most extraordinary installation – part sculpture, part machine, part dance, part dream. Impossible to describe, impossible not to watch.

Two more hours or so and i was back in London which felt like a much bigger, fiercer city than Paris despite being much more familiar to me. In fact, what struck me about the latter was that it felt less like a big city and more like a blend of small towns, most of which i never got to see. Next time though…

A happy day

For the past week i’ve had the hay fever from hell. So extreme did it become that on Wednesday morning it woke me from my sleep and on Thursday evening i had to abandon my plan to attend Bridget Riley‘s lecture at the British Museum. She was going to be talking about how figurative drawing eventually evolved into abstract art. It was a bitter disappointment.

The peak seems to have been reached however and now, thankfully, the blight is subsiding. On Saturday i woke feeling… well (yes, it took me a while to identify the feeling) and headed off with a friend to see the exhibition of Henry Moore‘s sheep at the Hertford Museum. It was only one small room but perhaps all the more delightful for that. At large exhibitions you tend to develop exhibit fatigue by the time you’re half way round and individual pieces, particularly the smaller, more delicate ones, get lost amidst the masses of objects you’re trying to experience, analyse, appreciate. I think there were no more than twenty-five etchings and a few sculptures at yesterday’s exhibition.

henry moore - lamb & mother

The fact that they were etchings was a surprise in itself. I have the book Henry Moore’s Sheep Sketchbook* and i’d assumed what we were going to see were the original ballpoint and pencil sketches from it. Not so. It seems the popularity of the sketches inspired Moore to produce a group of etchings from them. My two favourites: one of a black-faced sheep, its eyes fixing you with a suspicious glare, and one of lamb suckling from its mother, its legs bent as it twists its head beneath her belly to reach the udder. I love the fact that Moore is able to create pictures which are so touching and individual from animals which are usually experienced as blank, anonymous white blobs on the landscape. He says in the “Sketchbook”:

I began to realise that that underneath all that wool was a body, which moved in its own way, and that each sheep had an individual character.

Another advantage of small exhibitions – but also a disappointment – is how few people seem to visit them. You can wander back and forth between pieces, making new connections; whereas at major exhibitions the experience is often more like queuing at an ATM. I suppose a lot of it comes down to the lack of publicity but i think it also reflects the fact that most of the time people rarely look further than a few national museums when they’re searching for things to see. I include myself in those people. Londoners also tend to have a kind of mental block about venturing outside London, unless the event is a really big name affair.

River Lee - Hertford

After the sheep, the walk. This i did by myself as my friend doesn’t do long walks. My aim was to follow the River Lee as far as i could towards London. I made excellent progress, helped by the fact that the walk is all on the flat and, even more, by the fact that navigation is largely a no-brainer: you follow the river; where it goes, you go. It’s been canalised and a towpath runs along its edge. I missed the twists and turns of a natural river, but not as much as i’d expected and the reason for that was the river – and often the towpath – was crowded with ducklings, goslings, cygnets and baby coots. Plus their proud parents of course. At first it was mainly geese, who – be warned – are very protective of their young (one nearly ran me off the towpath); but later on i saw what looked like a duck nation: i have never seen so many at once and almost all of them had a fleet of ducklings in tow.

At Ponders End i was forced to accept that the light was fading and call it a day. A happy day.

* Henry Moore’s Sheep Sketchbook; ISBN: 978-0-500-28072-0; pub. Thames & Hudson (1998)

My brother in the snow

My brother has just moved back to Britain to take up a new job. It’s been ten years since he last lived here and he’s never lived in London, or any other big city at all. As a result he’s a bit shell-shocked. For me it’s an interesting experience. I’ve grown used to my brother being ebullient and independent – a successful man of the world; yet in a moment he seems to have been transformed back into my kid brother, the boy who was desperate for me to sew the legs of his trousers tighter, so he’d look cool at the school disco (tight jeans were the fashion at the time). I daresay it won’t take him long to find his feet, and then things will return to the way they were, but that only makes me treasure this period of vulnerability and dependence more.

Meeting with him in last week during the snow i was reminded of a time when it snowed particularly heavily when we were kids. The two of us decided to go down to the river – probably to see if it had frozen (it never did). The journey took us across fields and on our way back one of us fell into a ditch. Now the strange thing is i can’t remember which of us it was. Sometimes i’m sure it was him and other times i think it was me. One moment i can clearly recollect seeing my brother waist-deep in icy water, the next i can recall the sensation of being in the water myself. Yet of this i’m sure: only one us fell in.

I’d ask my brother, but i know he won’t be able to tell me. It’s just another of the many, many ways in which we’re complete opposites: i am full of – some might say weighted down with – childhood memories; he is virtually empty/free of them. I sometimes joke that he’s not my brother at all but an alien imposter. Not at the moment though. Right now he really does feel like my brother. My little brother.

You may have millions of stars and planets: Rabindranath Tagore

Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1942): Bengali polymath and Nobel laureate. He has been one of my literary heroes ever since i was introduced to his work as an undergraduate student studying – supposedly – Bangla (Bengali). I remember the first time i encountered his writing. It was a letter, which he wrote home while travelling from India to Britain. I no longer remember the exact contents, only that in it he mentioned the Suez Canal. What i do recall is being awestruck, even with my very limited command of Bangla, by the beauty of his writing.

Reading him in English is, by contrast, a much more frustrating experience. The songs and poems fare especially poorly. Translators seem obsessed with rendering the most minute details of Bengali life to the exclusion of the real essence of the poetry. Do we really need to know the name of every musical instrument, flower or season? Tagore’s is the poetry of transcendence, of the way in which the particular points towards the universal; footnoting and exotic vocabulary can only get in the way. Nevertheless, i enjoy the translations by Brother James, especially of the song lyrics. They communicate the rapture, the devotion which is at the poems’ heart:

“…

You may have millions of stars and planets,
but you don’t have me.

You won’t be able to tolerate that,
You’ll have to draw me to Your side,
for You are alone
if i am alone.”

(Gitali 77, excerpt)

Tagore also wrote novels, short stories and plays. He painted, he founded a school – in fact the breadth of his accomplishments is astonishing. I feel almost as if i’m trivialising him then when i say that of all his works it’s what Wikipedia describes as his “autobiographies” which are my great loves. Two books in particular, “Glimpses of Bengal” and “My Reminiscences”, go everywhere with me: I carry them round with me on my iPhone to turn to when i feel drained by life’s pressures. Tagore had a magical memory. I don’t just mean that his memory was good, but that he remembered what mattered, the things that could make a scene live again for a reader – even one who’d never seen his world or anything remotely like it.

I’ll conclude by giving two very different examples, one from each of the titles I’ve just mentioned. Not exactly favourite passages, but ones i’ve alighted on tonight as i’ve been flicking through the books. The first i find touching – although others will perhaps consider it a bit mawkish:

“I saw a dead bird floating down the current today. The history of its death may easily be divined. It had a nest in some mango tree at the edge of a village. It returned home in the evening, nestling there against soft-feathered companions, and resting a wearied little body in sleep. All of a sudden, in the night, the mighty Padma tossed slightly in her bed, and the earth was swept away from the roots of the mango tree…”

(“Glimpses of Bengal”)

The second is just funny, but to understand it you need to know that the arrival they are awaiting is that of their dreaded English language tutor:

“It is evening. The rain is pouring in lance-like showers. Our lane is under knee-deep water. The tank has overflown into the garden, and the bushy tops of the Bael trees are seen standing out over the waters. Our whole being, on this delightful rainy evening is radiating rapture like the Kadamba flower its fragrant spikes. The time for the arrival of our tutor is over by just a few minutes. Yet there is no certainty…! We are sitting on the verandah overlooking the lane watching and watching with a piteous gaze. All of a sudden, with a great big thump, our hearts seem to fall into a swoon. The familiar black umbrella has turned the corner undefeated by such weather! Could it not be somebody else? It certainly could not! In the wide world there might be found another, his equal in pertinacity, but never in this little lane of ours.”

(“My Reminiscences”)

So there you have it: my plea for Tagore. Do not be put off by translations which seem designed to convince you he is unreadable, or by the idea that his work is all esoteric and mystical. It isn’t. If at least one person who reads this post falls under Tagore’s spell then my work here will be done!

The grey mist

I was reading a blog the other day in which the author was talking about depression. Not for the first time I was struck by how misunderstood this is as a phenomenon. Even the name is misleading: depression – at least in my experience – is not so much an experience in which you feel ‘low’, as one in which you feel distant, separated even, from the world on the one hand and yourself on the other.

I suffered a serious bout of depression a few years ago and my most vivid memory, in so far as you can describe any memory from that period as vivid, is of sitting in a restaurant by the river with a friend and looking through the window at the people outside. I felt as if some invisible but unbridgeable chasm separated us; almost as if we were in two different worlds. Actually, it was as if I wasn’t really in the world at all. My emotions seemed to be enveloped in a kind of grey mist and I just couldn’t find them, no matter hard I tried.

The only way in which the depression lived up to its name was in its effect on my energy levels. I couldn’t run or exert myself in any way that required enthusiasm. Fortunately, walking – always one of my favourite things – was still possible; and so I would force myself to go out each day and walk as far as I could along the river.

This was during the ‘acute phase’, the five weeks I was off work. The depression lasted for about six months in all and for most of that period I had to work or at least try to. Looking back it’s clear I should have stayed off longer but, like many people afflicted by ‘the black dog’, the two feelings that didn’t desert me were shame and anxiety. The absence of physical symptoms – or at least symptoms that can be definitely attributed to depression – tends to make you feel like a fraud, or as though you’re perceived as a fraud by others. Returning to work before you’re ready is one of the ways in which you ‘apologise’ for your illness; and also one of the ways in which you try to hide it.

Signing up for prescriptions of anti-depressants is another way. This has the additional benefit of legitimising your sickness (you wouldn’t be taking ‘medicine’ if you weren’t ‘ill’); and provides everybody – including you -with the reassurance that something is being done. I know that for some people the drugs do work, but for me it was definitely more a case of showing willing. I didn’t notice the slightest impact on how i felt; whereas when I came off the drugs the withdrawal effects were, by contrast, all too noticeable.

In the end, the depression didn’t ‘lift’ any more than it ‘descended’ on me. What happened was simply that the mist cleared and the chasm narrowed; and I began to feel not necessarily more cheerful, but just something.

The next bend of the river

I was always running away from home as a child. Not, as you might assume, because i was desperately unhappy, but because i was desperate to see the amazing world i was sure was just round the next bend of the river. Or maybe the next bend after that. I was a keen reader of adventure stories of all kinds, especially those involving the Famous Five; but my great inspiration was a film (or possibly a TV programme) i saw about a boy who ended up living by himself next to a river in a forest. I think it might have been set in Canada, but what did that matter? There was no doubt in my mind that there was a forest just as vast, wild and magical just a bit further along my river. If only i could get there.

Two attempts at reaching it remain in my memory. On the first occasion i ran away with my brother. We planned it all quite carefully and made a stack of jam butties to keep us going on our journey. A mile or two along the river we discovered we were already hungry; so down we sat and ate a butty each… and then another. In no time at all they were all gone – much to our surprise. We’d never really thought about how many we would need for our trek; four had seemed quite adequate. Still we continued on and on, past E_____ village and into the uncharted territory which lay beyond it. I was starting to get quite excited. I had never been so far along the river before and was convinced we must be nearing my much imagined forest – after all, we’d walked miles! Then disaster struck: we encountered nettles. I was determined to carry on (we were so close!) but my brother started to cry as he was repeatedly and painfully stung. Our memories differ at this point, it has to be said: he is convinced that he (and only he) was wearing shorts, whereas i am convinced that we both were. Anyway, we were both starting to get hungry and so we turned back. End of attempt.

Later i tried again, this time with our dog Sally. Alas, the adventure was over even more quickly! First of all, it was impossible to get Sally to grasp the seriousness of our quest. She kept wandering off. And then only a mile or so along the river she decided to go for a swim (she loved swimming), but unfortunately then discovered that she couldn’t get back out; the bank was too steep and too slippy. There was no alternative: i would have to get into the river and help her. So i did. I hauled her, i pushed her and then i hauled her some more – all of this with no help from Sally herself. She seemed to think the whole thing was a game and didn’t appreciate that i was trying to get her out of the water. By the time she was back on dry land (none the worse for her ordeal) i was wet, cold and tired. And hungry, the food having been eaten even more quickly than the last time. Note to small would-be adventurers: provisions do not last long when they’re shared with a dog.

Perhaps i made more attempts, i’m not sure. In the end though my mission was doomed. Not just because the forest wasn’t there – although i grant you that was a factor – but because i was growing up. The geography of the real world was supplanting that of the imagination.

The beige years

What do you remember about the Seventies? I remember they were beige. The bank in which we used to queue for hours for example: beige carpets, beige wallpaper, beige uniforms – I swear, even the wood of the counters was beige. I could be misremembering this of course, not least because beige is contagious: once it gets into one of your memories it spreads until it contaminates them all.

So my school too was beige: the headmaster’s suit, his shoes, his hair. Actually, I lie: his shoes weren’t beige, they were tan (even worse!). And they squeaked. My main memory of the school, apart from the headmaster’s feet, was the odour of “posh” instant coffee. Does anyone remember when there was such a thing as posh instant? Douwe Egberts for instance, such a step above Nescafé – though even Nescafé was better than that stuff made of chicory which came in a bottle. What on earth was that called? The teachers drank posh coffee. Their staff room, that mysterious place strictly forbidden to us, stank of it when the door opened. But then they were middle class and that meant something then.

Looking back, the Seventies is all about school for me. When weren’t at school we were on holiday from school. The summer break (six weeks!) was heaven. In my memory every summer was hot and sunny. Health & Safety hadn’t yet been invented so we ran wild “down the meadows” and in “the woods”. We swam with our dog in a river full of whirlpools. We dared one another to walk along a high wall of crumbling brick – with concrete on either side. We played football. We got into fights.

Easter i’m a bit vague about but Christmas was “ace”: suddenly beige was no more! The ceiling would be covered with crêpe streamers: pink, orange, green, red and blue. There would be balloons, there would be cards, a real Christmas tree (always huge in my memories) which we’d cover with tinsel and shiny balls, and then top with a star. Of course there were presents, almost all of them from Woolworth’s and only a few of which i can recall: a blue bike, a Monopoly set, two Tell Me Why books. Food: brazil nuts and tangerines. Television: Morecambe and Wise.

All too soon though it was Twelfth Night and time to take the bright colours down. Back to beige and back to school.

— For “M” —