Entries in friendship (7)

Wednesday
May162012

secret light

top: Woman in a Beret, bottom: Woman in a Fur Coat

At the weekend, I went with a friend to the Lucien Freud hoopla in London. Squeezing between the fractious, shuffling crowd, we tried our best to actually look at the paintings. Ignoring the passive-aggressive glares and sniffs (thank you middle-class English reticence) I sidled into the respectful space that people left between themselves and the canvasses to place my face a nose breadth away from the paint. 

I've seen some of his work in the flesh and almost all of it in reproduction, but was still startled by my visceral reaction to the canvasses and the complete turnabout of all I thought I loved. The fastidious smoothness and precision of paint in the very early works has always discomfited me and I've erred towards the later, larger, looser work. But I found myself drawn to a series of portraits that displayed such an acute drive to render the reality of a person in paint that my dislike of the hand-cramping, fine-brushed stippling was overcome by a frank wonder at his eye and technique. 

With the large nudes, the inherent problem of chronologically curated exhibitions took hold. Coming one after the other, room after room, I became desensitized and - rather bored. With a few extraordinary exceptions, I realised that I actually disliked a number of the canvasses I've long admired in reproduction. Even now I find it hard to determine why. Partly a growing aversion to his palette and the obsessive dry stippling that he layered on over faces and contours, but more that his objective eye became colder and more relentless; more obsessed with paint yet less acute. What lingered most as I walked slowly through those rooms: what would that cold, clear, judgmental eye see hidden in me? 

The work that caught me most off guard was tucked into the very corner of a wall. Stepping close to the unassuming little head and shoulders of a woman hunched into a fur coat, intrigued only because she resembled an old friend, I was stilled. The extraordinary amber capture of light at the base of her pupils is a little slice straight into who she is. If you ever have a chance to see it, get close and peer at her. The technical mastery and sheer power of looking revealed in those moments redeemed Freud's genius for me. I have that little postcard on my desk and although her eye light is dimmed and dull in reproduction, I take pleasure in knowing that it's there. 

All that looking and shuffling made us suddenly starving and we practically sprinted through the crowds massed around the exit. Once we'd taken our comedy ride up and down in the lift to find ourselves always outside the same beautiful (expensive) restaurant overlooking the rooftops, then wound our way down endless flights of stairs finally to find our place in the basement cafe, we fell upon salads and frittata and beer and coffees with hungry happiness.

Watching clouds and crowds moving across the street level skylight above our heads, eating and talking and taking our time, worked to gradually soothe my ruffled inner self. Remembering that afternoon now, it's the time talking together and a handful of paintings that settle inside me as a firm memory. That, and a reminder always to look for the little unexpected sliver of light in the eye. 

 

Tuesday
Apr102012

weekending

This weekend we swapped our rural spot for urban Brighton, staying in the home from home that belongs to friends while they stayed at ours. We've been doing swaps for a few years now and it works perfectly. Only an hour's drive away, it's as welcome a change as any fancy hotel. Simply stepping out of our square little house and into their long, elegant terrace makes us live differently for a few days and allows for a type of relaxation that has everything to do with the small things. The certain pleasure of corridors. A cat again. Excellent radios in every room. Walking to a shop. More than anything, though, is just being away from those little obligations that call from your own home.

Our days moved happily and just slowly enough. We caught up with local friends, created a number of Lego magnificences, raced motor boats on the pier and wandered the narrow lanes of the old town. Two Easter egg hunts yielded Joel a full basket of eggs. I ate a lot of cinnamon buns. The local bakery is famous for its hot-cross buns but I'm a raisin hater and once you've picked the raisins out of a bun it no longer holds much pleasure.

There was a Sunday lunch at the cottages where I felt such fury for one of my extended in-laws that I actually shook throughout my body. It was an interesting moment in the middle of a maelstrom. I've never been as happy to get back to that comfortable house as I did that day. 

And then there's coming home. To a lovely bottle of wine; a fine wooden raft to float on the stream and the new buds and blossoms that have opened in our absence. All's well etc. 

 

Thursday
Mar292012

how are you?

A while back, I bought a trio of these postcards from Kerry at Seventy Tree and immediately knew that I'd have to claim one for my own. Just looking at it makes me happy - and reminds me daily that there is a long list of people I need to say hello to. 

If you know me in person, you'll have many examples of phone calls left unreturned for far too long. The phone and I are not friends and it's too easy for me to let a call go to voice mail. Then begins a self-perpetuating circle. I don't return a call promptly - time goes by - and it becomes too hard to easily answer the question 'what have you been up to?' More time goes by. It becomes even harder. And the worst thing is, it's the friends I think of almost daily - but who live at a distance - that I neglect most. I too often assume that we will always pick up where we left off. The loose, local acquaintances based on proximity and children have calls and coffees and no hint of my elusive ways.

But at this point in a new year, I realise that it isn't enough to say that I've thought a lot about someone (though entirely true). I need to accept that a regular phone call is better than a perfect phone call. To answer that call instead of leaving it to the more convenient moment that never comes. So these cheery lovelies are not going to be used to avoid a call but as an adjunct to one. And if one of them arrives on your mat then I hope it comes with a light-hearted hello, unweighted by lengthy apologies. It means I've managed at long last to break one of my most unhappy habits. 

Tuesday
Mar132012

correspondence

It's odd how things come together. Yesterday, to make space for a new piano, I had to find a place for everything that currently lives in a large and accommodating chest of drawers. And in a small house, that means sorting and throwing and finding new containers for things that fit perfectly well in their current home but seem utterly wrong anywhere else. 

I wasn't full of joy about my task. And the sun was shining so warmly that it seemed ungrateful to be indoors, so I made a strong espresso and told myself briskly that after a short break I'd get back to the job with no more excuses. Grabbing a well-thumbed copy of Barbara Pym's Excellent Women from the pile of books that no longer had a home, I settled on a bench outside. 

It was a full two hours later when I rushed back in, full of guilty zeal, to fling books and boxes into at least an approximate order before making a dash to collect Joel from school.  I'd been charmed again by the irresistible voice of Mildred. Regarding herself with that particularly English form of self-deprecation and reluctant self-knowledge, and others with an eye that vacillates between dutiful generosity and sharp accuity, she's a perfect guide through a small slice of post-war English life.   

And then, while hastily sorting a drawer stuffed with cards and notebooks I came across an old postcard that I picked up years ago. I'd bought it solely because I was amused by the text. Who was the rather imperious, leggy Cynthia and why need Joan buy her stockings? But coming straight after my reading of Pym's book, it was as if the characters had come to life. I immediately imagined that Joan was a sort of Mildred; living alone in a relatively smart address, but perhaps in a small series of rooms, with washing drying on a rack and simple suppers that she resented eating. And Cynthia her glamorous friend, too busy with her romantic dramas to buy something so banal as stockings.

The synchronicity pleased me and made me feel that my distraction had a higher purpose. Plus, I had topped up my levels of vitamin D. Rather a satisfactory day after all. 

Sunday
Feb122012

hindsight

I spent Saturday with a friend I rarely see alone. As we wandered through the busy streets and in and out of vintage clothes shops, we caught up on each other's lives and plans and vacillating priorities. As that point in the afternoon when the sun dipped and the air cooled further, we stopped for a cortado in a fashionable new coffee shop and talked longer and deeper. Then a moment when I realised how far I've come in tamping down my people-pleasing tendency, but also that I could have strayed too far the other way.

A waitress reached silently between the two of us and snatched my (not yet empty) glass away. I reached out silently to take it back. Something in my look made her step back, silently, and stand there a moment or two longer at my shoulder after I'd turned away. Then she moved on. I found Nicole watching me wryly. All she had to do was ask first. I've been a waitress: I would have asked. I still care what people think of me and I care what I think of me. I should have acted with more grace. Does it make it better that I'm thinking of it even now? 

 

Friday
Oct212011

love and dancing  

 

Some lovely friends married recently in a tiny, private ceremony, a moment all the more joyful to me because it comes after some years and two children. I've written before about the particular romance of long love. To marry early in a relationship is arguably a simpler thing, with the critical tests of love still ahead. To marry years later, with a full understanding of each other and having endured difficult times, is a special symbol of love and hope.

P & A, this song's for you. Dance on!  x

 

Wednesday
May252011

big smoke

I stepped onto London's South Bank to find myself at the seaside. Beach-huts, bunting, even a strip of sand. A very short strip - not quite the Paris city beach experience. Enough for a toddler or two, but not a sun lounger. Anyway. There was a general perkiness about the place; perhaps we were temporarily stunned by the colour scattered amongst the brutalist architecture, and by seeing both sun and blue sky for the first time in a while. 

After lunch with a friend I haven't seen in too long a time, I headed to the Hayward Gallery to see the Tracey Emin exhibition Love is What You Want. It steps away from many of the infamous pieces that have been featured so frequently and instead shows quieter, more crafted but still acutely personal works. What I returned to over and again were the large-scale sewn drawings. The juxtaposition of the beautifully finished stitching with the aching acuity of the emotions the drawings described, gave the pieces a real power. Worked onto fine, cool, vintage sheeting or blankets, some were given an unexpected, vivid and lovely scattering of applique flowers that I longed to try at home.

I found myself thinking of them in the context of the generations of women for whom sewing was, variously, a means of making a living; a solace; a necessary social skill. And I wondered at the emotions that were stitched into the fabrics I sometimes find discarded in thrift shops, or gaze at in awe in museums. Emin acknowledges this tradition, and the role of craft in her work, in an interesting Radio 4 interview

Too soon, it was time to bolt for the station. And no matter how much I enjoy my days in London, I always love to catch the train away. I lived in London for several years and have so many memories associated with it. But now, when I come home to my little house, step through my gate and hear .... nothing, except birdsong, I feel - to quote Sinatra - that yes, it's so much nicer to come home.