The dream archives

April 4, 2014 § 4 Comments

Georges Seurat, Le noeud noir (c. 1882)

Georges Seurat, Le noeud noir (c. 1882)

I went to Paris last weekend for the Salon du Dessin, as I’ve done every year for the last four years, but I must confess I was much more excited about seeing an exhibition at the Orangerie called Les archives du rêve (The dream archives – come to think of it, that would have made an excellent alternative name for this blog). An exhibition of more than 150 drawings from the collection of the Musée d’Orsay, it was selected by eminent art historian Werner Spies, who was given carte blanche as to a theme. Perhaps not surprisingly (given that he’s a specialist in Surrealism) he chose Dream.

Saying that it was an exhibition with my name written all over it is the understatement of the year. There were drawings and pastels and watercolours by Odilon Redon:

Odilon Redon, Joan of Arc (?) (1890s)

Odilon Redon, Joan of Arc (?) (1890s)


and Léon Spilliaert:

Léon Spilliaert, The Dike at night: reflected lights (1890s?)

Léon Spilliaert, The Dike at night: reflected lights (1890s?)


and by Seurat, whose drawings have always seemed to me the visual form of a pregnant silence, and by my beloved Degouve de Nuncques and a veritable roll-call of Symbolists and other artists who placed dreams at the heart of their work.

Yet peppered among them were drawings by artists I would never have thought to put in this oneiric company – Degas, Renoir, Jean-François Millet. At first this pulled me up short, but the longer I spent in their company, the less odd the juxtaposition became.

Edgar Degas, The Tub (1886)

Edgar Degas, The Tub (1886)


Jean-François Millet, The Fishermen (c. 1858)

Jean-François Millet, The Fishermen (c. 1858)

I hadn’t ever truly realised how dreamlike and strange these ostensibly ‘realist’ drawings are. Proof, perhaps, of Walter Benjamin’s conception of the entire nineteenth century as one vast collective dream?

Les archives du rêve runs to 30 June 2014.

A sculptor’s sketchbook

March 25, 2014 § Leave a comment

Jacques-Edmé Dumont, set of 101 sketches, terra cotta, n.d.

Jacques-Edmé Dumont, set of 101 sketches, terra cotta, n.d.

The weekend before last I went to Maastricht for the European Fine Art Fair (TEFAF). I think I can now – just! – call myself a veteran, as it was my third year going, and by this time I know how to navigate the dizzying riches of the nearly 300 stands without inducing Stendhal Syndrome (divide and conquer) and actually be able to come away with a respectable number of works of art surviving with surprising clarity in my memory.

I had been planning to write a post about one of my highlights from TEFAF, and although I could tell you about the amazing rare colour aquatint by Munch or the Rembrandt etching plate (yes, I was actually even more excited about the plate than by the print itself – what does that say about me?) or the marvellous late Samuel Palmer watercolour, but the object I became so enamoured of that I kept returning to it at every available opportunity was the work of a now-obscure French Neoclassical sculptor, something utterly unlike anything I’d ever encountered before.

Jacques-Edmé Dumont (1761-1844) was part of a dynasty of sculptors that first arose in the seventeenth century. He had the good fortune to not only survive the Revolution but to find favour with Napoleon, and his work is now dotted around Paris (on the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel and on the Louvre itself).

Like virtually all of his contemporaries he followed the time-honoured practice of working out his initial ideas on a small scale in an inexpensive material – terra cotta, in his case. I imagine he would have kept them around his studio while he worked on larger and more finished iterations of the figures. What’s extraordinary is the manner in which they’ve been preserved. For Jacques-Edmé was one of the last of the Dumont sculptors, and a branch of his descendants went into the printing business. One of them must one day have seized on the no doubt expedient, but also brilliant, idea of preserving his or her famous uncle’s or grandfather’s maquettes… by storing them in a typesetter’s box.

What a strange and fascinating assemblage it is, like a Joseph Cornell box made before Cornell drew breath. Whoever slotted the maquettes into the compartments (I’d like to think the original arrangement has been preserved) obviously did so with great care and aesthetic sense. At the same time there’s an unshakeable poignancy about the whole thing. Dumont’s finished sculptures tend to be forbiddingly grand and impersonal, like much Neoclassical sculpture (which is why I’ve never been able to warm to it). But on such a small scale (the largest measure only seven centimetres) they feel fragile and deeply personal. My first thought on seeing them was that they resemble toys or game pieces, put away by a child and frozen in time.

In the time since I’ve returned from Maastricht I’ve realised maybe this isn’t the most apt metaphor. Many sculptors draw on paper, but many others consider these maquettes to be their sketches, their notes for future projects. By assembling them thus, Dumont’s unnamed relation created and preserved a sculptor’s sketchbook and gave us a glimpse into his mind.

The secret souls of objects

March 12, 2014 § Leave a comment

Erik Desmazières, Sphère captive (2010)

Erik Desmazières, Sphère captive (2010)

As with Frans Pannekoek, I’ve been meaning to write about Erik Desmazières for some time. In a way they make a neat pair, and not only because their preferred medium is etching. It’s more of a pairing of opposites: where Pannekoek’s work draws much of its magic from flaws and happy accidents, Desmazières’s is all iron precision and control. There are no mistakes or chance occurrences in his world.

Erik Desmazières, Scarabattolo (2009)

Erik Desmazières, Scarabattolo (2009)

I can’t recall exactly when I first encountered his work, but I do know it was in an auction catalogue, and I remember my surprise at finding in the ‘contemporary prints’ section prints that were so wilfully, defiantly old-fashioned. I don’t just mean because they’re figurative. There’s an obvious pride in craft and skill honed over decades that harkens back to another age. There’s also Desmazières’s markedly backward-looking (and I don’t mean that as an insult in this context) choice of subject matter. His early work is dominated by fantastical, often nightmarish landscapes and cityscapes that earn frequent comparisons with the work of Escher and Piranesi, but to my mind his most interesting prints are inspired by the cabinets of curiosities – the ancestors of the modern museum – that first emerged in the sixteenth century.

Erik Desmazières, Le Magasin de Robert Capia (2008)

Erik Desmazières, Le Magasin de Robert Capia (2008)

The objects in these printed Wunderkammers seem to have been petrified or transformed into sculptures (a reverse Pygmalion effect?) by the passage of time, or by Desmazières’s etching needle. But the longer I’ve looked at these strange images, the more paradoxically alive the objects appear.

Xavier Mellery, Mon vestibule (1889)

Xavier Mellery, Mon vestibule (1889)

Comparing Desmazières to Piranesi and Escher is straightforward, but there’s another, far more obscure artist with whom his work seems to have affinities – the Belgian Symbolist Xavier Mellery. Mellery wrote passionately about l’âme des choses (the souls of things) and his eerie, foreboding drawings of ordinary interiors (including his own house) give form to his words.

Erik Desmazières, Atelier René Tazé VI (1993)

Erik Desmazières, Atelier René Tazé VI (1993)

Whether artfully arranged in a cabinet of curiosity or scattered haphazardly in the interior of an antique shop or a printer’s atelier, I think it’s fair to say that the objects in Desmazières’s world have souls, too.

My (not-so) brilliant career (as a film extra)

March 2, 2014 § Leave a comment

We all have lists of things we’d like to do once in a lifetime, and one of the more unusual items on mine is being an extra in a period film. Why? Well, I have a serious weakness for period films (and, let’s be honest, period costume), and as I haven’t a shred of acting ability (oh… wait, that hasn’t stopped a lot of people) it is the only way I’m ever likely to be part of the making of one.

So when, last week, I stumbled across a call for extras for a banquet scene to be filmed in Ely Cathedral for the upcoming version of Macbeth, I was pinching myself with delighted disbelief. Here was a film that ticked every conceivable box on my wish list.Ely_Cathedral_down_the_Nave

Set in one of the most awe-inspiring Gothic edifices on this fair isle? Check.


Shakespeare (and one of my favourite plays at that)? Check.

medieval costume

Medieval setting (important for practical as well as aesthetic reasons – no corsetry or towering wigs)? Check.


…oh yes, and the small matter of Macbeth being played by none other than Michael Fassbender? Check!

(In fairness I should also note that Marion Cotillard is Lady Macbeth, but… sorry Marion, you do happen to be one of my absolute favourite actresses, but I don’t have a massive crush on you.)

So without further ado, I clicked the link to the casting company’s website and that’s where things started to go downhill, fast. They wanted Caucasian men and women between the ages of 16-80 (okay, so far so good), and then I came to the fatal words: ‘Women should have very long hair as it will be worn in plaits.’

My hair, no matter how you look at it, could never be considered ‘very long’. In its natural state (curly) it’s shoulder-length. Straighten it and it falls to the middle of my back. I occasionally wear it in a single plait that only just makes it round my head. In short, about as far as imaginable from those dramatic knee-length tresses Ellen Terry sports in Sargent’s portrait of her as Lady Macbeth. Ellen_Terry_as_Lady_Macbeth

I weighed up my options. A wig? (Expensive, hideous and after all, the casting agents were asking for a headshot with the application, so unlikely to fool them.) Pouring Miracle-Grow on my head and waiting ten seconds for luxuriant Rapunzel-like growth? (Only works in cartoons.) Sitting in a corner and railing at the injustice of the casting requirements, as men are merely required to have full beards, which even a clean-shaven one can generally achieve in a few weeks? (Pointless.) Or…

What about extensions? They worked for David Tennant, after all (albeit not very flatteringly) so why not me?

I checked the website of my hairdresser’s salon. They didn’t do them. Nor did the posh salon round the corner from work, nor any of the more upmarket chains. Even Charles Worthington, which proudly proclaimed its status as the official salon of the BAFTAs, didn’t do them. Clearly it was a job for a specialist.

One Google search later I landed on Hair Extensions by Tatiana. This was when I began to realise that the world of hair extensions is a very alarming place indeed. Apparently the most desirable type of extension is ‘Russian Virgin’. Tatiana boasted of ‘personally sourcing’ the hair from a number of villages in deepest rural Russia. I had visions of a place on the steppes where the world of The Rite of Spring still exists, where every year the village elders sacrifice a chosen maiden by making her dance herself to death and then… sell her hair to the mysterious Tatiana.

The Rite of Spring

Do I really want that on my head? I think you can guess the answer to that.

Even putting my overactive imagination aside (the other, cheaper, option was ‘European Virgin’, which, sans the Rite of Spring associations, somehow sounded slightly less gruesome), there was also the matter of the cost. All right, it’s an incredibly laborious and finicky undertaking – you are, after all, asking someone to glue a strand of hair to each of yours, one at a time – but the least expensive option for a full head of extensions was nearly £700.

I found myself imagining the conversation I would have with my landlord.


Me: I’m very sorry sir, but I can’t pay my rent this month. I had to put the money toward getting hair extensions so that I could be an extra in Macbeth.

Him: ’Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished.* Don’t worry about the money. Your devotion to our national poet is far more important.

More likely:

Him: Out, damned tenant! Out, I say! (Aside) Now I can finally raise the rent…

…Right, back to the drawing board. How about DIY hair extensions? I could ring up my hairdresser, ask him to save all his cuttings, and then attempt to stick them on myself. That sounds like a fine plan. I might end up looking like something the cat dragged in, but given that most people in the UK associate the Middle Ages with plague, rain, mud and potatoes** I should look period-appropriate.

This hurdle cleared, the only other caveat is that, as shooting starts at 6 am, you should either live in Ely or have your own transport. I don’t live in Ely, I don’t have a car (more to the point, I belong to that bizarre and extremely rare subspecies, the American who doesn’t know how to drive) and the first train from London to Ely would get me there too late.

I suppose I could… I don’t know, get there the night before and sleep in the cathedral? That would be fine as long as the caretaker or a member of the film crew didn’t stumble across me, curled up in a corner under my coat, with my homemade hair extensions, looking, no doubt, even madder than Lady Macbeth. (Or maybe I’d be mistaken for one of the witches.)

At this point I have to admit that I’m insane to be considering doing any of the above, especially given that 1. I’m not even guaranteed to be selected and 2. even then, chances are that the shots I’d be in wouldn’t make the final cut.

My career as a film extra is over before it even began. And I’m okay with that. I’m sure I’ll feel a little wistful when I eventually watch Macbeth, but as its protagonist learns (the very hard way), sometimes what you want isn’t worth the sacrifice it requires.

I’ll still keep an eye out for period films in need of extras, though… ones that take place after 1800!

*Yes, I know that’s Hamlet!

**The results of a survey conducted by the V&A during the planning stages of the Medieval and Renaissance Galleries. Let’s not dwell too long on the fact that potatoes were unknown in Europe in the Middle Ages…

Virtue in imperfection

February 18, 2014 § 3 Comments

Frans Pannekoek, Hang Glider near Vejer, 1974 (etching)

Frans Pannekoek, Hang Glider near Vejer, 1974 (etching)

Three years ago I was in Paris for the Salon du Dessin, and as many of the museums and exhibition venues cleverly time shows of drawings and prints to coincide with the Salon, I went off in search of as many as I could find. My route took me to the Fondation Custodia, in whose basement galleries was an exhibition of etchings by a Dutch artist I’d never come across before: Frans Pannekoek.

Frans Pannekoek, Mountain landscape near Valls with a bare tree, 1968 (etching)

Frans Pannekoek, Mountain landscape near Valls with a bare tree, 1968 (etching)

My initial amusement at his surname (pannekoek is, as you’ll probably have guessed, Dutch for pancake) was soon replaced by a sense of quiet enchantment. He works on a small scale, with a fine, nervous line and a tremendous sensitivity both to the power of the reserve (the areas of paper left bare of ink) and to finely modulated blacks. There’s a sense of desolation, of the uncanny or the macabre rooted both his subject matter and his treatment of it – desolate landscapes dwarfed by skies that, even on such a diminutive scale, feel infinite; abandoned ships and gliders aloft over unpopulated hills; dead birds and live insects. (I’ll spare you images of the latter in case you’re sensitive, but if you’re not, they’re worth seeking out.)

Pannekoek has been working quietly but, it seems, prolifically since the 1960s. He’s mostly self-taught. He seems to have schooled himself by looking intensely at the work of his predecessors. His most obvious influence seems to be Rembrandt (indeed the exhibition I saw in Paris originated at the Rembrandthuis) but the longer I looked, the more I saw traces of more recent etchers – Whistler, Bresdin, Redon, Bracquemond.

I’ve been intending to write about Frans Pannekoek’s prints ever since I started this blog. (It looks like the old saw about the road to hell and good intentions is true in this case. Although I’ve always maintained that the road to hell is paved not with good intentions but by the same guys who pave all the roads in Chicago…) But in some ways I’m glad I waited this long – for one, because it meant that I had a chance to try my own hand at etching. And now, looking at Pannekoek’s etchings with the benefit of practical experience, what strikes me is how cleverly he turns imperfections and accidents in his plates, the etching process, even the inking and printing to his advantage.

Frans Pannekoek, Rock landscape in Vlieland, 1964 (etching)

Frans Pannekoek, Rock landscape in Vlieland, 1964 (etching)

The scratches in a too-zealously cleaned plate become swirling storm clouds.

Frans Pannekoek, Landscape near Sierra de Cadiz, with mountains in the distance, 2009 (etching and aquatint)

Frans Pannekoek, Landscape near Sierra de Cadiz, with mountains in the distance, 2009 (etching and aquatint)

Foul biting (areas where the acid has eaten into the plate through cracks in the ground) becomes rain, hail, a distant flock of birds.

Frans Pannekoek, Ruins at Valls, 1967 (etching and aquatint)

Frans Pannekoek, Ruins at Valls, 1967 (etching and aquatint)

Even the jagged edges of a damaged plate can become a startling echo to the ruined buildings they enclose.

I know now from personal experience that such mistakes can either ruin a print or be the happy accident that makes it unique and oddly perfect. Pannekoek has a marvellous way of finding virtue in imperfection.

Rome through the looking glass

February 10, 2014 § 2 Comments

The Colosseum (Speculum Romanae Magnificentiae)

The Colosseum (Speculum Romanae Magnificentiae)

I’ve begun working on my next exhibition, and although most of the objects going into it I know quite well, one is a new discovery (well, to me at least): a book that, more than three centuries before Mallarmé or choose-your-own-adventure, could exist in endless different configurations depending on the whim of the owner.

Antoine Lafréry was one of the leading print publishers in Renaissance Rome, a Frenchman from Besançon whose bread and butter was engravings of the monuments and antiquities of his adopted city. His shop became an essential stop for travellers and collectors who wanted a memento of their visit to pore over years later. (He would probably turn in his grave if he knew that the descendants of his prints are the postcards and souvenir guides with their gaudy, badly registered colours for sale on every corner in the Centro Storico.)

The Pantheon (Speculum Romanae Magnificentiae)

The Pantheon (Speculum Romanae Magnificentiae)

In 1573 Lafréry published a title page for a work called the Speculum Romanae Magnificentiae (Mirror of Rome’s Magnificence). The twist was that it wasn’t for a book in the conventional sense – a set of pages bound in one set order. No, Lafréry’s customers could come to his shop, make their selection from his huge stock of prints, and have them bound in whatever order they desired, with the title page at the front. There are Specula surviving in libraries, museums and private collections the world over, but no two are the same.

The Colosseum as a ruin (Speculum Romanae Magnificentiae)

The Colosseum as a ruin (Speculum Romanae Magnificentiae)

Is each Speculum as much a mirror of its owner’s tastes and interests as it is a mirror of Rome? Hard to say, as many of those that survive have been altered over the centuries – prints removed or added, sometimes two or more bound together as a single book. Sometimes the prints added have nothing to do with Lafréry or the original Speculum, apart from their Roman subjects. The largest one known today, at the University of Chicago, contains nearly a thousand prints. (The one I’m working with has a more modest 153.)

Garden of ruined sculptures (Speculum Romanae Magnificentiae)

Garden of ruined sculptures (Speculum Romanae Magnificentiae)

Even so, it’s possible to come away with a sense – however muddled or fractured – of the person who originally compiled each Speculum. The first owner of mine, for example, seems to have been primarily interested in architecture, and he (I think we can fairly safely assume it was a man) liked to look at it reconstructed, pristine – apart from one plate showing the Colosseum as a weed-sprouting ruin, there are few of the images of dereliction that other collectors prized. (I can’t help being slightly disappointed that mine doesn’t include the garden full of crumbling sculptures that features in others.) There are others where sculpture dominates, or where present-day Rome (St Peter’s, the Castel Sant’ Angelo) has a greater presence.

Hundreds of these must have existed once, records of their owners’ journeys – whether physical or psychological – through Rome. (Was Lafréry an accidental psychogeographer, hundreds of years before the term was coined?) Today’s guidebooks are neater, cheaper, smaller and easier to carry, but, gingerly turning the enormous pages of my Speculum, I can’t help but feel that we’ve lost something…

Can you go home again?, part 3: Highbury

February 3, 2014 § 2 Comments

Highbury Hill, London N5

Highbury Hill, London N5

(The original post is here.)

Of the three places I lived as a student, my tenure in Highbury was by far the longest – nearly four years. I suppose it’s inevitable, then, that my feelings about it are the most mixed.

I’ve already written here about my dislike of Highbury and Islington, so I won’t belabour the point now, but suffice it to say I went in with a sunnier attitude, despite the fact that my ending up there was in large part a matter of chance.

I ended up in Highbury because I wanted to move back to Stoke Newington. If that sounds odd, let me explain: I moved out of Stoke Newington at the start of the second year of my PhD and spent three lonely, cold but extremely productive months of research in Paris. Before I left, a friend and I had talked about getting a place together when I returned. I was very keen that that place should be in Stoke Newington. She was… less keen. (The main bone of contention was the lack of Tube. I could sing the praises of the bus and train until I was blue in the face, but it didn’t do a lot of good.) Finally, less than two weeks before I was due to return to London, I had an email from her: ‘Sorry, I’ve decided to move in with my boyfriend. Best of luck with the flat-hunting.’ I felt shocked (particularly as said boyfriend had only been in the picture a couple of months), upset and not a little betrayed, but there was nothing for it but to start searching on my own.

If I couldn’t share a flat with a friend, I decided the next-best thing would to put the drama and chaos of living in an overcrowded student house behind me. (My return to London meant, among other things, that I would have to start writing my thesis, and I couldn’t imagine doing so in the not-always-congenial company of seven other people.) So I started combing through online ads for flatshares in north London. There was nothing in my price range available in Stoke Newington, so I cast my net a little further west.

Arsenal Station

I somehow booked myself four different viewings in the space of an afternoon. The last was for a room in a three-bedroom maisonette just up the street from Arsenal station. The other two tenants were P, an Irishman who was doing IT consulting for the BBC, and S, a Londoner and science journalist. They were charming, welcoming and desperate to find a new flatmate; I was thrilled to find a good-sized room in a nice area with what I thought were a couple of sane, mature, interesting flatmates. A week later I was sweating and cursing under my breath in the middle of the room as I attempted to conjure my first ever flat-packs from Ikea into something resembling a wardrobe and a chest of drawers.

The fact that the room had come unfurnished was definitely one of the pluses of that flat – it meant that this was the first time since I left university that I had furniture to call my own, and even if it was just bottom-of-the-range Ikea stuff it was amazing how much more settled it made me feel. The location was another plus. I was literally a thirty-second walk (I timed it) to Arsenal station, and an only slightly longer walk to Highbury Fields. (Islington has the smallest amount of green space of any London borough, and the proximity to one of the borough’s only decent-sized parks had a lot to do with me being able to maintain my sanity during the most stressful periods of writing up.)

Several months in, though, things began to pall. I began to feel increasingly disenchanted with my flatmates. P, whom I’d initially thought was interesting and a great conversationalist, turned out merely to love the sound of his own voice. He could also be alarmingly moody and was, for reasons that eluded me, always rude to my friends whenever I invited them round (to the point that I stopped having anyone over, apart from my boyfriend whom P never spoke a word to but always stared at as if he had three heads). S, although a decent person and someone with whom I might easily have been friends had I met him in other circumstances, turned out to be not terribly well house-trained. His portion of the fridge and pantry (which was well more than a third of it) looked like a science experiment gone awry (ironic considering his profession). Neither of the two was particularly keen on doing their share of the cleaning. I came, gradually and unhappily, to realise that I was, in essence, living with two overgrown students.

The house itself had its share of problems. One of them was the location. Remember I said it was a thirty-second walk from Arsenal station? Well, that also meant it was across the street from one of the entrances to the old Arsenal Stadium. Match days were a nightmare – if I wanted to go anywhere, I’d have to leave at least two hours before and not come back until two hours after it had finished. The crowds and the noise were something to behold. My bedroom faced onto the street and I still shudder at the memory of the hours I spent at my desk, trying to grind out part of a chapter in the face of the not-at-all-distant roar of the home supporters. From feeling completely neutral about the sport, I turned, over the course of those four years, into a passionate hater of football in general and the Gunners in particular.

The other problem was the landlord – or the lack thereof. For the first two years I actually thought we didn’t have one, as whenever we had a problem in the flat we’d have to turn to the (fairly useless) management company. And things did go wrong. The boiler broke once (in mid-winter); it took two weeks to get it fixed. We had mice in the kitchen; it took even longer (and much begging and pleading) to get pest control in. But the worst was a tenacious crop of ivy that grew over the kitchen window, blocking out all the light and threatening to burst through into the flat. We would have taken matters into our own hands except that the vines were so thick that it was impossible to open the window, and so we were forced to tolerate a kitchen plunged into submarine gloom by a plant scarcely less frightening than Audrey II. (Granted, I never actually heard it whispering ‘feed me, Seymour’, but I wouldn’t have been entirely surprised if it had.) The only time the actual landlord bothered to make his existence known was when, a month before I moved out, he wrote to us to tell us that he was raising the rent. As if I hadn’t already been glad to be leaving…

Unlike my two previous houses, I actually have been back to the Highbury one before – nine months after I moved out, I was back in London to speak at a conference and I went there to collect my post. I hadn’t moved out in happy circumstances – I’d stayed on in London for a year after finishing my PhD and, having spectacularly failed to find a museum job, was reduced to a miserable string of temping jobs before I admitted defeat and moved back to the States – and although I was in a much better place when I returned (I’d been offered a job at a museum in Los Angeles and was to move there a few months later) I naturally felt anxious about coming back and seeing the flatmates I’d had a fairly uneasy relationship with.

It turned out to be nowhere near as bad as I’d dreaded. P wasn’t home, but S was and in his usual good spirits. I hardly recognised the place – he had a new girlfriend and she’d transformed it. The kitchen was bright and cheerful and nicely decorated, the evil vine vanquished. They hadn’t found another person to take my room after I’d left, but had instead converted my former room into a lounge. Although I’m sure that vastly improved the quality of life in the flat, I couldn’t help but feel a bit weird about that, as if my departure had caused them to decide they had actually never needed a third flatmate at all.

So I chatted for a few minutes over a cup of tea, picked up my post and walked out the door for what I now knew was the last time, feeling nothing but relief.


My decision to go to Highbury on a Saturday is dictated by – what else? – an Arsenal match on the Sunday. They’re playing Crystal Palace, an irony I find delicious (my despised former neighbourhood squaring off against my much-loved current one), and although a contest doesn’t get more David-and-Goliath than that, and despite my above-mentioned hatred of football, I spare a thought for the Eagles as I head for the bus from Highbury & Islington station.

It’s a cold, sunny day, with that thin, bright, watery quality to it that I noticed when I walked through Harringay two weeks ago, and the journey up Highbury Park is much the same as I remember it – the handsome, solid-looking redbrick terraces bordering Highbury Fields, the neat row of shops around Highbury Barn, the gradual slide into slight grittiness as the bus descends the hill. As in Stoke Newington, I misremember my old stop and get off one too late, forcing me to backtrack to Gillespie Road. The off-license at the corner of Blackstock and Gillespie Roads is still there; I peek in just long enough to see whether the terminally grumpy Turkish Cypriot who used to hold court at the till is still there. (He is, and is still scowling.)

Gillespie Road

Turning into Gillespie Road is slightly disconcerting. I remember it grey and down-at-heel, the very obvious borderline between snooty Highbury and grubby Finsbury Park, and in my memory it is, for some reason, always raining as I walk along it. In reality it’s discernibly scrubbed and spruced up – the effect of the conversion of the old stadium into expensive new flats, no doubt. Even so, there are still enough reminders that I’m in Arsenal Land – the scarf and sausage stalls, shuttered today, due to be mobbed tomorrow.

Highbury Hill

Gillespie Road is longer than I remembered it, but the walk from the Tube station to my old house still takes the same length of time – thirty seconds. And here it looks as if time has stood still. I would be willing to bet that it’s still got the same landlord – it is very noticeably in the worst condition of any house in the street. Two miniature trees are sprouting from the gutters on the roof; the front garden is choked with weeds. As for the hedges, it looks as if someone has recently gone at them with an axe rather than secateurs. It’s probably a good thing I can’t see round to the back – I imagine the Ivy of Doom has probably re-conquered the kitchen window.

What I can see from the street is my old window. This is the only one of my three old houses where this is the case (my rooms in Harringay and Stoke Newington both faced onto the back garden), and gazing up at this innocuous-looking window makes me shiver with more than cold. How strange to think that on the other side of the glass is the room that contained four years’ worth of nerves, guilt and self-doubt as I first wrestled my thesis into existence, then struggled fruitlessly to find a job.

There are a number of pedestrians passing the house so I don’t linger – not wanting to look suspicious staring at it – but as I turn away and head up Highbury Hill I don’t feel a sense of peace, as I did in Harringay, or nostalgia, as I did in Stoke Newington. I feel nothing but relief, even stronger and purer than on my previous ‘last’ visit. I no longer belong here, and that is more than all right with me.

There’s a new café tucked among the Highbury Barn shops called Highness, and despite the cringeworthy name I can’t help wishing, as I sit at an old Singer sewing table with a cup of tea and a piece of orange cake, that it had existed when I was a student – it would have been an infinitely more pleasant (and warmer) place to sit and write than my old room. Then again, given the price of the cake, maybe it’s a good thing it didn’t…

Highbury FieldsHighbury Fields is as green and pleasant as I remember, apart from the laminated signs tied to the backs of all the benches that border the path warning us that the ground is waterlogged and would we kindly keep off the grass so that it can recover. It’s just as well that it’s too cold to make defying the signs a tempting prospect. I hurry past the green and the terrace of houses, past Walter Sickert’s old house at the end of the row, in the slanting late-afternoon light.


Can you go home again? Yes and no. Sometimes it’s good to make the attempt, if only to discover that you don’t actually need or want to go home again after all.


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