|Blog||19th May 2013|
3rd September 2012Mimic
It was our favourite beach because there was no seaweed, only smooth, white rocks. It felt safe and hygienic, like a new fridge. The only other creatures we’d ever seen there were two dead eagles right at the back near the cave.
You swam ahead and spotted the thing before I did. You pulled back your snorkel and shouted. You thought it was a shredded t-shirt, or maybe a plastic bag. It hung a meter or so below the surface, just near the diving rocks, billowing blackly, perfectly suspended. It gaped at the front, frilled at the rear, and sent us panic-swimming back to the boat. Breathless, we rowed up to it, hoping to prod it with our oars, but it was already gone.
Now we’ve been home for nearly a week, but the black thing still won’t vanish entirely. By chance I watch a documentary and learn that, millions of years ago, octopods gave up their shells and exposed their soft flesh to the sea. Without armor, they had to come up with new tricks. Some of them became experts at looking like things they are not: rocks, plants, other animals. I spend hours online studying films of morphing squid and cuttlefish, an octopus turning itself into a piece of coral. I convince myself that this puckered, wrinkled thing was one of them; frightened, puffed-up, angular, desperate to appear invulnerable.
In my carpeted house, listening to the clatter of next door’s plates, I get confused about what was and what wasn’t. The peace of the white rocks, the living/dead thing, and us, seeing if we could drop our familiar armor without immediately coming up with new kinds of protection.
31st August 2012Frogs
I often worried about the frogs. The pond is so tiny and there was so much spawn. How would they all fit?
I’d been away for three weeks and rain and neglect had allowed the grass to grow long enough fall over in clumps. I love long grass, but not when it’s in my own garden. I live in a tight terrace and people can see. I don’t want to be thought of as someone who doesn’t look after things.
I get the lawnmower out, ready for use in the small pockets of free time I have scattered throughout the day. But something is moving in the grass, making it quiver. There are perfect, thumbnail-sized frogs everywhere. To mow the lawn would be a massacre. But when might the frogs leave? The tumbling garden is a daily reproach: ‘You need to look after things better. You go on holiday without your daughter. Your cats cough up hairballs. You’re getting old and your bank account is empty. Please, at least take care of the grass.’
I go back to my study, the conflicting needs of frogs and lawns battling in the back of my mind. An idea forms; the ten-minute gaps in work, the nervousness of wild animals. In my next break I switch on the engine and mow a narrow strip around the edge of the lawn furthest from the pond. Fifty minutes later I mow another band, just inside the first one. And so on. By my fourth break I can see it’s worked — there are no more frogs in the grass. But are they all back in the pond now? And, if so, how do they fit? When will they feel safe enough to come out again? And will they fight in the confines of the small, muddy basin? I loved the spawn when it appeared, a first sign of spring. But now I’m afraid I’ll never stop worrying about it, about those poor, motherless creatures trying to grow up in the face of almost unbelievable opposition.
30th August 2012The Accidental Theatre
In the late seventeenth century, when wealthy Londoners got sick of fires and deadly diseases, they moved away from the city centre. Builders leased land from rich landowners and built little developments, often around central gardens, which came to be known as ‘squares’. Squares didn’t have to be square, they just had to be patches of green overlooked by a large number of windows. The point was to get as much mileage as possible out of a small patch of grass. By laying the buildings out around a central green, you could make a single lawn go a very long way. This made the builders happy.
Kensington Square was one of the first of these suburban developments. It was originally laid out in 1687. People thought it was too far away from the City to be viable and the project kept running out of money. The result was a funny mixture of architectural styles as fashions changed and building work stopped and started. This now makes estate agents happy.
Throughout the nineteenth century a number of painters, writers, musicians and actors lived and worked there, including Edward Burne-Jones, William Makepeace Thackeray, Sir Hubert Parry and John Stuart Mill. The reason they lived there was because it was cheap. It’s now the most expensive street in London. One of the artists who lived there was Isadora Duncan. Unlike the others, she doesn’t have a blue plaque.
Isadora Duncan had been living in an unfurnished studio in Chelsea with her mother and brother, eating penny soups and sleeping all day, while intermittently being told to go away by London’s theatre directors. She was a self-taught dancer. Maybe even to say ‘self-taught’ is to make it sound a bit too laborious. She tells us in her autobiography that she started dancing the minute she was born and simply carried on: ‘I began to agitate my arms and legs in such a fury that my mother cried, “…the child is a maniac!” But later on, placed in a baby jumper in the centre of the table, I was the amusement of the entire family and friends, dancing to any music that was played.’ She hated the codified stuffiness of ballet and believed the body’s movements should be unmediated by formal constraints. All of which meant she couldn’t get a job in the theatre. All of which meant penny soups. And all of which meant cheap housing.
Luckily her sister, Elizabeth, found teaching work in New York and began sending money. The Duncans moved from their threadbare studio to a furnished house in Kensington Square.
Finally, thanks to a combined miracle of chance and stingy urban planning, Isadora could finally become the star she knew she was born to be.
I grew up in Kensington Square. It was still cheap in the 1970s. Biba was just around the corner, as well as a shabby branch of C&A. Our flat had previously been inhabited by spiritualists and there were pentagrams on the floor. The shared hallways were covered with curling blue linoleum. Our primary school was built on a bombsite; there was a big hole in the ground that had been turned into an amphitheatre.
I played in the square as a child. Thanks to the fact that it was overlooked by so many windows, my friends and I were often in trouble for breaking the strict rules: no balls, no bicycles, no pets, no radios, no climbing trees, no peeing in the bushes and possibly even no running. Every time the rules were broken one of an army of frighteningly genteel old ladies would appear almost immediately and tell us off, as if they had been watching and waiting. This made us unhappy. But our unhappiness was partly our fault. We had failed to work out a way to use the square well.
One evening somewhere towards the end of the nineteenth century, possibly thanks to the unseasonally hot weather, or perhaps due to the sudden arrival of furniture into their living space, Isadora and her brother Raymond went to dance outside. If there was a rule against dancing in the square, they ignored it. And, instead of an angry old lady, ‘an extremely beautiful woman in a large black hat appeared and said, “Where on earth did you people come from?”
“Not from the earth at all,” replied Isadora, “but from the moon.”
“Well,” said the woman, “whether from the earth or the moon, you are very sweet; won’t you come and see me?”
The woman turned out to be the actress, Mrs Patrick Campbell. Isadora went to tea at her house and danced for her. The actress was so impressed she introduced her immediately to her friend, Mrs George Wyndham. Mrs Wyndham was also charmed and introduced her to everyone she could think of, and so it went on until Isadora found herself being introduced to the Prince of Wales and, soon after, King Edward. She never had to eat cheap soup again.
All of which goes to show that it can sometimes be a good idea to get out of your studio. Or maybe that a studio can be anything. Or even that spaces designed according to one lot of people’s penny-pinching agenda might turn out to be just the thing for someone else. A hole in the ground can be a theatre. As can a shared lawn. Artists have to use space cleverly. Space can be hard to find. But with the wrong use of the right space or the right use of the wrong space, or at least a bit of luck and ingenuity in any space, it should be possible to make things anywhere.
7th August 2012Riddle
I often dream of being back at school. But on this particular day I really was; not my own school but the one my daughter would be going to. I noticed how much I wanted people to like me; it seemed the most important thing. The English teacher asked the parents to write a poem. It had to be a riddle about our favourite food, and it should contain at least one metaphor. We had ten minutes. I wrote:
Pulled from cold, blue water
Sweet, salt sea taste
Its orange tongue licks back.
Three lined up,
A neat ellipsis
On a scribble of weed.
The teacher asked if anyone would volunteer to read their poem. In a flash of desperate idiocy, my arm shot up. I read the poem, carelessly exposing my competitiveness, my vanity, my prissy, expensive taste in food. Of course everyone would hate me.
Writing is almost always a catastrophe. I don’t know why schools encourage it.
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