Entries in trips (15)

Monday
Oct142013

interiority

'I have always thought there was such beauty about a room like that [empty], even though there weren't any people in it, perhaps precisely when there weren't any.' Vilhelm Hammershoi 1907

I find myself drawn to unpeopled rooms as a subject for art and photography. Then the focus shifts to the slant of light on an object - highlighting a detail, re-shaping the contours of the space, emphasising the silence.  

A few years ago I went to a stunning Hammershoi exhibition. Many of his paintings are of interiors, executed in muted variations of black, grey, beige, white. Sometimes a woman is glimpsed, her back to us, holding a plate perhaps or disappearing through a doorway. Rooms only recently deserted have a different energy to those that have been empty a long time, as if you can still feel the human molecules. Somehow, Hammershoi conveys in his paintings that sense of rooms where absence is recent. But even the paintings containing a figure imply that their presence is transitory; undisturbing. I circled the room over and over, taking in the cool delicacy of the palette and the absorbing quality of the empty canvasses.

Eventually I stepped out into the noise, colour and movement of Piccadilly and felt like Alice slipping down the rabbit hole with a feeling that the world was topsy turvy and I'd left reality behind, in that gallery.

 

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. 

 

Monday
Feb272012

break

It was another brief weekend at the cottages. A perfect pair of spring days with a sudden warmth that had me stripping off my layers in disbelief. Arriving late morning, we unpacked and ate a hasty make-do sort of lunch before heading out and up to walk the forest tracks to the ridge of hills that give us a favourite view over the area. The snow layer has been slow to go so the ground was surprisingly muddy. Joel soon regretted his decision to mountain bike and there was not a little bartering about who would push the bike on the steep sections. Back home, in front of the fire, a few slices of intensely lemony drizzle cake with a good thick crust of sugar made the efforts worthwhile, and eased the hour or two until the grown ups reclaimed the evening.  

I woke the next morning to silence as the boys had slipped next door to have breakfast with John's mother. Cup of tea in hand and a stack of old Country Living magazines weighing down the bed covers, I listened to the birds calling happily through the window until the light forced me to get up, and get out my camera. It was a day of rainbows, scattered through the house and briefly cresting the distant trees. Football and more cycling, this time on the flat, before we had to pack up and make the journey home. The grind of unpacking made more palatable by the sheer pleasure of knowing we'd each be sleeping in our own beds with all the familiar sounds of home. 

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? 

 

Tuesday
Jan172012

la mer

On Sunday, John and I were thrown an unexpected couple of hours alone. As Joel disappeared on a hunt for flints with his visiting Italian uncle, we stood bewildered by what to do. Desperate for air after the celebrations of the night before, but away for the weekend without our walking boots, we struck out for the sea. 

Fiercely cold and intensely bright, it was a perfect day for a stomp along the promenade. The sea dazzled and the wind blew strong but - oh joy and pleasure - it miraculously blew behind us each way. So my long coat and untamed hair moved smoothly around me and we moved swiftly along together; discussing, looking and breathing in all that good air.

There are some days just made for fish & chips and this was one of them. Hurrying the short steps from our favourite fish restaurant to beach with our paper wrapped food, we settled on the shingle and dived in. Eating hastily, gloriously burning fingers and mouths, we stared in companionable silence at the surf and the gulls scudding and darting over the waves.  Denise's post beautifully captures how the sea can heal and settle. I've lived near the coast on and off for years but when living away it's the shift and swell and empty horizon that I crave. 

Refreshed and restored we retraced our steps, more slowly now, back towards the cliffs and to the cottage, where a ring of flints were joined by two perfect shells. It was a good day. 

Tuesday
Oct182011

barely beautiful

One of the four Royal Horticultural Society gardens, Wisley, is very close to us and we visit regularly: John to get inspiration (disappearing into the centre of a bed or clump of trees muttering in Latin) and me and Joel to collect leaves and cones and marvel again at the orchids, cacti and tropical plants in the huge greenhouse.

Some of the flower beds, while beautiful, are a little too brightly coloured and regimented for me. I prefer the loose planting of Piet Oudulf with his painterly drifts of flowers and grasses, especially at this time of year when the petals fade, leaving the bare brown outlines of seed-head and stem. 

Even with the abruptly darkened sky during our visit last weekend, there was still a stark beauty in their outlines and darkened palette. 

Tuesday
Jun142011

familiar ground

 A weekend away in the depths of the Kent countryside; a ten minute drive from Canterbury but a curiously remote and rural world of wheat fields, high hedges and ancient lanes. We stayed just down the road from the house we once lived in. And possibly made the mistake of visiting it. Or rather, trailing muddily alongside down a footpath, peeping into the garden as we went.

I pointed out the field that Joel knows only from one of my favourite photos of him, at a little over a year, running topless back from our blackberry gathering. The greenhouse where he took his first steps and helped John water tomatoes and me pot up seeds. The gates that he walked with John to open each morning. The grounds that I wheel-barrowed him round in when he was too heavy to carry and our return journeys laden with vegetables we'd picked. Searingly vivid moments of remembered happiness stand out amidst the background grey of profound isolation I felt during our year there. And our visit brought that remembered unhappiness to the fore.

Was this the cause of my snippiness and critical eye this weekend? Easy to say so. But despite it all we managed to make a lot of happy little memories. Fresh fish on the beach at Whitstable, and discovering scores of fresh oysters hiding in the sand (reader: we left them). A trip to the new Turner Contemporary Gallery in Margate that surprised and pleased us all and Joel's first stick of rock. Tree climbing, flower sniffing and hide and seek in the glorious garden of the cottage we were staying in. No TV, computer or radio so quiet nights of reading and just a bit too much wine.

And the relief of coming home and appreciating again that then isn't now.

Monday
Jun132011

grand oasis

my photo of Russell Crotty installation, Turner Contemporary Gallery, Margate

 

 

Then I looked down and saw

the world I was entering, that would be my home.

And I turned to my companion, and I said 'Where are we?'

And he replied 'Nirvana'.

And I said again, 'But the light will give me no peace.'

 

from 'Fable' The Seven Ages, Louise Glück 

 

Monday
May302011

travellers' tales

 

On Friday night, I slipped out of the cottage to listen to Colin Thubron in conversation with Paul Theroux, as part of the Charleston Festival. Discussing their respective new travel books, the similarities and differences between their motivations and methods were revealing.

The impetus to travel comes from a similar feeling that the world 'out there' is inherently more interesting than home and offers a bracing corollary to the writer's desk. Both men prefer to travel alone. For Thubron, however, the impulse to travel and choice of destination arise from a more complex and internally generated desire. Theroux takes a more pragmatic approach that stems from a need to see and to find out about the world. Neither carries more than a notebook.

As I listened, I considered what travelling without a camera would mean to me. And I realised that I 'look' differently with a camera in my hand. Seen through a lens, the world tends to distill to the elusive and the incidental: a moment, a colour, a pose, a shape, a texture. To catch what my eye sees reminds me what I value and adds depth to my memories rather than simply acting as a substitute for memory.

So the shadows on a tent roof, bunting fluttering in the darkening sky and the impressionistic blur of a flower bed at dusk evoke memories of a cool glass of sparkling wine, sipped in shivery haste amidst the blooms as house-martins swooped overhead. And a starlit welcome back to the cottage and the comfort of fresh mint tea and a very hot, very unseasonal but very necessary, hot-water bottle.

 

Sunday
May292011

forest getaway

There is another little house we visit regularly, a tiny forest-enclosed cottage belonging to John's family. With no TV or mobile reception it offers a welcome step away from normal life. And that's where we were this weekend. Breakfast is early for the boys, before they take a walk to look for flints. I prefer to eat alone, a little later, after I've wandered through the garden to see what's happened overnight. A new set of blooms or piece of pottery unearthed by an industrious rabbit, perhaps.

Later, some football will be played, bikes ridden and more walks taken through the forest. The piano will get a workout and tea with cake will be eaten.  For the grown-ups, the day ends with a quiet supper, some reading and a nightcap. 

It does us good to take time away together and makes returning home, to our own beds and our own lives, seem so much more enticing!

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.

 

Wednesday
May182011

camping

                  

For the last couple of years I've tried to persuade the other half to try a bit of camping. But he has memories of army cadets and bivvy bags and a pathological dislike of holidaying near anyone. I, meanwhile, doggedly pursue a vision of us with our lovely bell tent, sipping wine fireside with friends while the children sleep, weary from a day of fun. Perhaps he suspects that, if I finally get the tent of my dreams, my desire to actually use it might evaporate. Perhaps, to be honest, he suspects that I wouldn't be very good at camping.

The closest we've got as a family was a long weekend at a Feather Down Farm in Dorset. The 'tent' (really a canvas sided chalet) was cosy and the wind-battered canvas made those spooky sounds I remember from my childhood. The little bed in a cupboard was a child's dream and the suppers eaten by candlelight, with the radio playing softly, were lovely. Fossils were unearthed on the nearby Jurassic coast with a real fossil hunter's hammer. 

Interleaved with these triumphs were: a dash to A&E as our son developed a full body rash and one eye sealed shut; and again as both my eyes swelled and sealed. It seems we reacted to what they were spraying in the field outside our tent. We looked like boxers and I could only see by tilting my head backwards. And yet. Sitting outside our neighbours' tent that evening with our pooled food and booze was one of the best nights we'd had for a while. 

Who knows? The promised warmth of summer and a new telescope may yet make nights under canvas more enticing. Do you have any camping  tips or special locations to share?

Tuesday
May172011

upstairs downstairs

I love to wander around an historic house but it isn't the grand reception rooms that principally draw me in. The kitchens and the servants' quarters are where I prefer to spend my time. Walking through these rooms on a recent trip to Uppark, it was the beauty of the everyday objects that compelled me. The cool smoothness of a worn chopping board; the subtle lustre of storage jugs and jars that bring to mind Vermeer's milkmaid; the weighty intricacy of a cake mould or a saucepan.

I wonder about the hands that scrubbed those boards and poured from those jugs, day after day after day. Did they sometimes appreciate the unexpected beauty of a shaft of light on a just polished pan or the satisfaction of a cake that slips, perfectly and smoothly, from its mould? Did small moments like this lift a day for them as they can for me?

Tuesday
May172011

coast

Some days (perversely it's usually when the sun isn't at its hottest) we have a yearning for the coast. The British beachfront is a curious one; spectacularly beautiful and frequently unpopulated beaches interspersed with shabbyish towns with beach, pier, fried food smells and too many people. The wild and empty ones are favourites with the grown-ups but for a small boy, the tacky town wins hands down. Something to do with the ice-cream, the playgrounds and the shiny lights.

But even a town beach can offer space, wildness and small, unexpected pleasures such as 'angel wing' shells and a seaweed tree. And who doesn't need fish and chips and an ice-cream from time to time?