August 29, 2014 § Leave a comment
I was meant to spend my summer holiday in the Loire Valley and instead I ended up in western Ireland.
No, it isn’t because I’m cursed with a particularly poor sense of direction. Let me explain…
I don’t usually talk much about my personal life here, but there’s no way to explain the turn my travels took without temporarily breaking that self-imposed rule. Just over four months ago, my boyfriend and I split up. We had been together ten and a half years so as you might imagine, my life went through some drastic changes. Among other things, I suddenly found my holiday plans in ruins. We’d been talking about renting a cottage in the Loire Valley; it would have been my first time back there since my year teaching English in Tours. Even if I could have afforded the cottage by myself (I couldn’t) or could drive (I can’t), there was no way I could have faced going there alone.
Two days after we split up, I went to the cinema in desperate need of distraction. I ended up seeing Tracks and came out deeply moved and inspired by Robyn Davidson’s journey. I wasn’t deluded enough to decide to go on my own 1700-mile trek across the Australian desert in the company of three camels, but I decided to do something similar, on a more manageable scale, that I had never done before – a multi-day solo hike. Somewhere beautiful and relatively unpeopled, so I could clear my head and take stock, but not so far from civilisation that I wouldn’t be able to have a roof over my head at night.
The first place I thought of was Ireland and it immediately felt right. I’ve always felt a very strong affinity with the place – perhaps it has something to do with having grown up in Chicago, which has a huge Irish community and celebrates St Patrick’s Day like a national holiday (complete with dyeing the river emerald green – I also remember my dad coming home one year with green-tinted bagels for my brother and me and being simultaneously relieved and disappointed when they tasted just like ordinary bagels), or perhaps it’s more to do with my love of the literature and the music (and the wide, deep streak of melancholy that runs through both).
The rub, though, is that Ireland and I have ‘previous’. I had visited once before, eight years ago when I was a student. I was travelling with my mother, and as I don’t drive (see above) and she won’t drive on the left, the only really feasible option for us to see the country was a coach tour. We were fortunate to have good guides, I will say that in its favour, but after three days of being hustled on and off the coach, allowed only a few minutes to look at places where I could easily have spent hours or days (and, conversely, having to visit a few I could gladly have skipped – Blarney Castle, I’m looking at you), I was seething with frustration. To cap it all, I ended up having my bag (with my wallet, keys and passport inside it) stolen in Dublin. Everyone I dealt with in the aftermath couldn’t have been kinder or more helpful, but suffice it to say it didn’t make me particularly eager to return to Dublin (which by that point I felt I had properly ‘done’ anyway). So I spent the next eight years telling myself that someday I would go back to Ireland, avoid Dublin, and see the places I wanted to see at my own pace.
So now was the time to conquer my demons. One of the better aspects of that previous trip was a day spent zipping up and down the Dingle Peninsula, and even in that brief time (and rotten weather) I fell in love with the dramatic landscape. Eight days walking the Dingle Way sounded perfect. I spent the summer reading all I could about it, from guidebooks to J M Synge’s excellent In Wicklow, West Kerry and Connemara (the ‘West Kerry’ section being devoted almost exclusively to the Dingle Peninsula), and gathering the various bits of gear I’d need for my walk.
And last week I landed at Kerry airport with my rucksack, about to embark on one of the best adventures of my life.
Day 1: Tralee
Distance covered: 4 km (approx); total ascent: 0 m
One of the places I stayed on that coach tour eight years ago was Killarney – which the tour visited while totally bypassing Killarney Lakes National Park (something which to my mind is akin to going to Paris and never leaving the Gare du Nord). I have encountered few places in my life (at least in Europe) as aggressively and unapologetically touristy. If towns posted ‘welcome’ signs that were brutally honest, Killarney’s would probably read ‘Killarney: The only good thing we’ve ever given the world is Michael Fassbender.’
If Tralee had a similar sign, it would likely say ‘Tralee: At least we’re not Killarney.’
Tralee may be the county town of Kerry, but it is deeply unprepossessing. My heart sinks as I come out of the station and doesn’t really rise again on the walk to my B&B. The town is nearly 700 years old but you’d never know to look at it – most of the architecture is modern and drab, or 19th-century and drab, and there are a disproportionate number of shops (for a town its size, anyway) selling really ugly shoes. (Not that I will be scaling Mount Brandon wearing faux-snakeskin platforms, of course, so I don’t linger to gape at their awfulness.) It is also the day after this year’s Rose of Tralee Festival, so the town appears to be in the throes of a collective hangover (not entirely of the alcoholic kind, more of the nostalgic kind, which, given the tackiness of the contest, I find it a bit hard to sympathise with).
The one interesting thing to do in Tralee is to visit the Kerry County Museum, which, although it initially looks small and poky, provides a good and thorough introduction to the history of the area. I end up learning a surprising amount about places and archaeological remains I’ll end up encountering along the Dingle Way. There’s also a moving display of photos of Kerry in the 1950s and 1960s (a time of continuing rural poverty and emigration) and an unintentionally comical one of dresses worn by past Roses of Tralee (okay, I’m being mean, but…)
The trailhead of the Dingle Way is just outside the museum, but I superstitiously avoid it. Instead I end up going for a walk upstream along a path that runs beside the River Lee. It’s quiet and pretty but very definitely still hemmed in by buildings. Apart from this walk and a turn around a rather dull rose garden, I seem to have exhausted Tralee’s possibilities already. I could wait until late enough to go to one of the trad sessions in the pubs, but as I had to get up at 4 am to catch my flight (there is only one per day from London, it’s early and from Luton of all places – damn you, Ryanair) I am already starting to melt with exhaustion. Despite my fatigue I still feel rather like a bird hurling itself against the bars of a cage.
I do manage to keep myself awake long enough after dinner to discover that Tralee has one wonderful surprise to offer – the sunset. I take my camera and walk down to a bridge over the Lee where it broadens out into a marsh. The Slieve Mish mountains loom in the near distance and every time I glance in their direction I shiver with anticipation – this is where I’ll be hiking tomorrow. The sky blazes and the water gives back the blaze in soft blur. Two swans glide silently by. A grey heron stands in elegantly frozen profile under the next bridge along. My eye is captured by the constant to-and-fro of a small fluttering creature that I think at first is a bird but then realise is a bat (the first time I’ve ever seen one in the wild).
Once the sun has completely set, I head back to my B&B. As I’m laying out my clothes for the next day, I know exactly what t-shirt I’ll wear.
One with two birds in flight on the front and a golden cage, its door burst open, on the side.
August 14, 2014 § Leave a comment
Last weekend M, one of my oldest friends, visited me from Brussels. By now he’s been to see me in London loads of times, so the pressure to spend every waking minute dashing around sightseeing was off. Although we managed to get to the theatre (the Young Vic’s extraordinary A Streetcar Named Desire) and an exhibition (Matisse Cut-Outs), one of the best bits of the weekend was a few hours spent lying in the grass in St James’s Park talking about everything and nothing – as you do when you’ve known each other for nearly half your lives – and watching the clouds. (The same afternoon we ended up mooching around Foyles and came across a book published by the Cloud Appreciation Society and I was intrigued to the point of wanting to join… until I found out that you have to pay to be a member. It wasn’t the cost I quibbled with – a mere £7 for a lifetime – more the principle of having to pay for something that is everyone’s by right. So I think I’d rather have my own two-person chapter, free as it should be.)
I didn’t have my Diana on me, but I did have my (less glam but no less useful) little digital camera (the one responsible for the rest of the photos on this blog). And so, a spot of cloud photography, as random and rambling and spontaneous as our conversation.
August 11, 2014 § Leave a comment
I’ve been wanting to go to the Edinburgh Fringe for as long as I’ve lived in London, but year after year, it didn’t happen. Lack of money, lack of time, lack of willing partner in crime – every time August rolled around, I’d sigh and think, ‘ah well, maybe next year…’
It probably says a great deal about the shape of my life over the last several months that the first time I finally made it to the Fringe, two weekends ago, it was almost entirely by accident.
I should probably back up a bit. Several months ago, a magazine for which I occasionally write exhibition and book reviews asked me to review a show at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. The only weekend I could make it up to Edinburgh before the deadline was the first weekend in August, so I booked train tickets and gave it no more thought… until I went to book a room for the Saturday night two weeks before and to my surprise and dismay found very few left in my price range. Oh… right… first weekend in August… the penny finally dropped. (In the end I did manage to bag a room that didn’t cost an arm and a leg. It may well have been one of the last in all of Edinburgh.)
And so, the Saturday before last, without any prior planning, I landed in my first ever Fringe.
About ten minutes north of Berwick-upon-Tweed, the heavens open. It’s as if we’ve crossed a magic boundary – or, more likely, the Scottish border. (The day after I get back I tell a Northumbrian colleague about this stark border between decent weather and rain and she shakes her head and says ‘next time, just stay in Northumberland’). By the time my train pulls into Waverley, the only appropriate adjective for the weather is disgusting: leaden clouds, unending rain, Arthur’s Seat buried in fog and the streets streaming. Edinburgh is a grand and beautiful city in any weather but right now I would put it in a dictionary as an illustration for the entry for ‘dour’.
Only a few minutes out of the station on the way to my hostel, I notice an extraordinary difference to my previous four visits to Edinburgh. Despite the rotten weather, the streets are teeming. All the walls and street furniture are plastered with posters and flyers for performances, usually four or five deep. It looks as if every third doorway boasts an official ‘Fringe Venue’ sign. The Royal Mile is packed with street performers and, even more surprisingly given the rain, people watching them. Niddry Street is a gauntlet of performers and festival workers shouting ‘free comedy in five minutes’ and thrusting postcards for shows into the hands of any and all comers. (I acquire five in the space of about two minutes.)
There’s an air of joyful anarchy over the whole city, and the rain and cold and all that wet dark stone throws it into much higher relief than any more forgiving setting ever could. I’ve never experienced Venice during Carnival but I suspect this isn’t a million miles away from it. Outlandishness – in dress, in behaviour – isn’t just accepted, it’s expected. This quartet of men in rainbow-coloured suits I saw walking down Cockburn Street is actually a fairly mild example. I’ve no idea if they were performers or just taking advantage of the chance to cut loose…
You find yourself having all manner of conversations with total strangers, which, when you live in London and are used to keeping yourself to yourself, takes some getting used to. To wit: on my first pass down the Royal Mile I’m accosted by a young guy who must be at least 6’6”, with a head of shockingly ginger hair and a huge, guileless but slightly mad grin. He wants me to come to his play, a romantic comedy. I make what I assume are suitably noncommittal interested noises and his smile broadens alarmingly.
‘Hey, you’re our target audience! You’ve simply got to come!’
I must admit I’m slightly baffled. What is their target audience? American? In their 30s? People carrying umbrellas and wearing sodden ballerina flats? ‘How so?’ I ask, rushing in where angels fear to tread.
‘You’re a woman!’ he exclaims triumphantly. I observe that he is indeed perceptive and make my escape from the ginger madman. The play actually sounds mildly intriguing, but it’s at 3 and I have to be at the gallery before then.
A few hours later I’m walking up the George IV Bridge and a worried-looking man with a broad Leeds accent hails me. ‘Oi, miss, you know you’ve got blue paint on your forehead, don’t you?’
‘Yeah, I know,’ I shrug. (I acquired it at the play I just saw, one of the occupational hazards of the Fringe is that an actor might just come over and daub blue paint on your face.) This doesn’t seem to assuage his worry at all.
‘Is it for religious reasons?’ he wants to know.
‘Nope, it’s from the play I just saw,’ I laugh and head off before he can ask anything else, because he still looks unpersuaded. Later I regret not telling him that I’m actually a Celtic warrior princess and the blue paint is in fact woad.
The first show I choose is something I first saw when I was sixteen: Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind. It’s a show created by the Neo-Futurists (who originated in Chicago – hometown pride! – but have since spread to New York and San Francisco) and it consists of a troupe of writer/actors performing thirty plays in sixty minutes, against the clock. The audience dictates the order of the plays (the titles are hung on numbered sheets strung up on a clothesline at the front of the stage) and as they add and subtract new plays at every performance, it’s impossible to see the same show twice. It is as absurd, madcap, occasionally annoying and mostly sheer fun as it sounds.
The Edinburgh performers are a combination of members of the San Francisco and New York groups. A few of the plays fall flat – that’s the nature of the beast – but the vast majority are excellent, running from surreal to ironic to surprisingly touching (one actor doing a monologue about his extreme shyness and how performing the written word has freed him of it really strikes a chord with me). One of the plays is called ‘All my friends are here tonight’ and there is no dialogue at all – it consists of one of the actors smearing blue paint on the faces of his fellow performers, then everyone in the audience, and bringing us all up on stage to dance together.
If this had happened in the performance I saw when I was sixteen, I would have died of embarrassment. As it is now, I just laugh and go with it. Because, clearly, that’s what you do at the Fringe.
The second show I hit isn’t a play, it’s a gig: Camille O’Sullivan, an Irish cabaret singer whom I’ve wanted to see several times in London but have never managed to before. She’s a veteran of the Fringe (this is her tenth year) and this grants her the privilege of performing in the Assembly Rooms, which are rather larger and more glamorous than the back room of a pub.
The previous act overruns and the queuing system is downright Byzantine, so by the time we’re all into the hall the air is crackling with tension – which turns into an expectant hush when O’Sullivan sweeps down a side aisle onto the stage, a black lace cloak streaming from her shoulders, gently brushing a hand over the tops of the heads nearest her path. Even before she opens her mouth, it’s obvious we’re in the presence of an enchantress.
O’Sullivan doesn’t write her own songs – she interprets those of other artists, and that list of artists runs from Jacques Brel and Edith Piaf to Radiohead and Arcade Fire. She has a powerful voice, clear and soaring with an undercurrent of gravel and grit, but it’s only one (important) element of her interpretations, which are as much about drama and storytelling as they are about singing. She seems to inhabit a different character with each song, from butter-wouldn’t-melt piousness (Nick Cave’s ‘God is in the house’) to heart-wrenching pain (Nine Inch Nails, ‘Hurt’) to glorious ribaldry (Kirsty MacColl’s ‘In these shoes’). She sings Brel’s ‘Amsterdam’ a cappella, with the only accompaniment the occasional stamping of her bare foot, and I know I’ll never hear the song the same way again.
There isn’t a false note in the entire set, but the high point, for me at least, comes near the end. O’Sullivan, kneeling at the front of the stage, dons a beret covered in silver sequins as the stage goes dark and a single spotlight falls on her. It transforms her into a human disco ball as she gently sways her head back and forth over a shimmering, undulating guitar line. It takes me a while to pick out the melody but when she begins to sing, almost in a whisper, I realise it’s Radiohead’s ‘True love waits’. And I was wrong, her head isn’t a disco ball, it’s projecting a galaxy of stars onto the ceiling and walls. Halfway through the song, her voice vibrating with love and yearning, she raises her hands above her head and reaches out for the beams of light, as if trying to pull the stars out of the sky. By the time the last note dies away, tears are streaming down my cheeks. I don’t dare look at any of my neighbours but I’d wager I’m not the only one.
She announces her last song will be by Leonard Cohen and I find myself praying Oh no, please, not ‘Hallelujah’, I’ll go completely to pieces but thankfully it’s ‘Anthem’ instead, which is about as happy as Leonard Cohen ever gets. There are two encores and she says her goodbyes a few minutes before midnight, leaving me to float home in a tearfully joyful cloud.
Talking of clouds, they’ve finally cleared. I can even see a few stars.
Sunday morning, after a lazy breakfast, I’m in such a good mood I decide to take pot luck. I head over to the venue next door to where I saw Too Much Light…, ask what they have on at 11, and buy a ticket.
The 11 o’clock show turns out to be a new play, The Moth of August, written and performed by students from Cambridge in a tiny room with a set consisting of a table, four chairs, and a couple of biscuit tins. It’s a play being performed at the Fringe, about four performers at the Fringe, whose names are James, Conrad, Hannah and Claudia… played by actors named James, Conrad, Hannah and Claudia. It’s all a bit too meta for its own good. But there’s no doubting the sincerity of the actors, and even if I might quibble a little (okay, a lot) with the script, I can’t help feeling moved by the ending. And it’s always nice to take a chance on something new. I think back over my theatregoing experiences over the last year, realise it’s been solid NT/RSC/West End and decide I could stand to do this a bit more often. I’ve missed it.
There’s another exhibition I want to see – a show about John Ruskin as an artist that is, rather randomly, on at the National Portrait Gallery of Scotland – so I only have time for one more show, which ends up being a street performer who’s set up outside the National Gallery. His act is traditional to the point of cliché on the surface – juggling knives, riding an eight-foot-high unicycle (while juggling knives) – but it turns out to be less about the tricks and more about working the audience and playing with expectations. Anyone who stands too close risks getting pulled into the performance, and I narrowly miss being chosen to throw the knives up to him while he’s perched on his unicycle – saved only by a woman standing right next to me who’s either more game or more foolhardy (so, Rona from Glasgow, thank you from the bottom of my heart for sparing me certain humiliation).
The Ruskin exhibition is excellent (if I’m honest, I prefer it to the one I was sent to Edinburgh to review) but after two shows and an exhibition with little break in between I’m starting to flag. Luckily, in addition to 3677 different Fringe shows and a decent number of museums, Edinburgh also contains a den of iniquity delights called Valvona & Crolla.
After I’ve polished off lunch (which, let’s be honest, was just an excuse for the chocolate tartlet and espresso), it’s too late in the day to take in another show without risking missing my train. I can’t help regretting what I’ll miss – a choreographed version of Macbeth, the ‘stand-up tragedy’ sessions in one of the venues in Niddry Street, the modern-dress staging of The Duchess of Malfi that I could have seen instead of The Moth of August, all the shows whose postcards I picked up (a mixed bag, I’m sure, but I’ll never know without taking a chance)… to name only a very tiny fraction.
As my train pulls out of Waverley (this time, in a sun shower), I make a resolution. Next year I’m going to come back for longer and do the Fringe properly.
But this wasn’t a bad introduction at all.
August 1, 2014 § Leave a comment
I took a group of students to the Print Room at the British Museum a couple of days ago (definitely one of the highlights of my week), and while I waited for them to arrive, I found myself with enough time to look round the current display in the adjoining gallery.
The British Museum recently acquired a trove of drawings by Richard Hamilton, all preparatory studies for the illustrations for Ulysses that occupied him for more than half a century. If ever there was an artist better suited to the task, I can’t think who it could be – his Leopold Bloom is the one I see in my mind’s eye when I read the novel (or even think about it), and the other figures – louche, stubble-jawed Buck Mulligan (as precisely stately and plump as Joyce paints him), the gap-toothed, red-haired barmaid Miss Douce, Molly and Bloom sleeping head to foot as their bed drifts in a starry sky – feel no less true.
But in the middle of these tremendously accomplished drawings was a bizarre intruder. The painstaking scribbles of a child. How on earth did that get into the British Museum?
The label cleared up the confusion. This, too, was a drawing by Hamilton – to be precise, a faithful rendering of one of the treasures Bloom keeps in his desk drawer, a portrait of him drawn by his beloved daughter Milly when she was small. Hamilton obeyed Joyce’s description to the word:
‘a large globular head with 5 hairs erect, 2 eyes in profile, the trunk full front with 3 large buttons, 1 triangular foot’ … inscribed with Milly’s childish term of endearment for her father, ‘Papli’.
It looks so astonishingly like a real child’s drawing that I can’t help wondering how easy – or difficult – Hamilton found it to lay aside his cool and exquisitely controlled draughtsmanship to draw like Milly. Was it (literally or figuratively) child’s play, or was the experience every bit as effortful as it must have been for Milly herself?
There are times when an unskilful or naive work of art can be every bit as powerful – or more so – than one made with skill and panache. That doesn’t mean I like Hamilton’s other Ulysses drawings any less.
But perhaps Papli is the most affecting of them all.
July 13, 2014 § 2 Comments
I was staying at my aunt and uncle’s house near Saint-Malo last week and, as is par for the course in Brittany, it was raining – on and off but so frequently that going for a walk or to the beach was out of the question. Luckily, their house is well stocked with books, and the first one I happened upon was a Taschen edition of Eugène Atget’s photos.
Several pages in, I noticed something I never had before, despite having spent hours over the years poring over Atget’s work.
There are people in Atget’s photos. That sounds blindingly obvious, but I don’t mean the tradesmen and women he photographed for his Petits Métiers, or the prostitutes lounging in doorways or skulking on corners or the waiters or policemen or idlers gazing at adverts on Morris columns.
No, what I mean is the diaphanous grey blurs and smudges that very occasionally appear in otherwise empty streets, the seemingly deserted spaces that look like stage sets waiting for the actors to appear, that Walter Benjamin famously likened to crime scenes. They’re so small and slight that it would be easy to mistake them for a shadow, or perhaps a smudge on the lens, or a darkroom accident. I probably have made the same mistake myself up to now, if indeed I ever noticed them at all.
But they’re none of the above. They’re people, hurrying along the street, that Atget’s long exposures couldn’t pin down before they vanished. All they left on the glass plates were traces of themselves, records of movement rather than of tangible existence. Or ghosts, perhaps? This was, after all, the age of Spiritualism and séances. But Atget’s camera was more powerful than the tricks of any nineteenth-century medium.
Gazing at these ectoplasmic blurs reminded me of the work of a contemporary of Atget’s, who by neat coincidence shared his name – Eugène Carrière. Although he’s best known for his dark, vaporous portraits of women and children (which prompted Degas to snipe, ‘Someone has been smoking in the nursery’) one of his most extraordinary canvases is a view of the Place Clichy at night, with the passersby rendered as mere shadows, less substantial even than the glow of the streetlamps.
Were both Eugènes aware of each other’s work? Fairly likely, I’d guess. Even if not, it’s fair to say that I’ll never again assume that Atget’s deserted streets are so unpeopled without looking carefully to see whether he captured a ghost crossing his lens, some anonymous, ordinary Parisian who unwittingly, poignantly, left a trace on history.
June 19, 2014 § 2 Comments
A few weekends ago I signed up for a photography workshop. The subject was macro lenses, and we were meant to try them out at the Chelsea Physic Garden. Unfortunately, the workshop organiser hadn’t thought to check whether the garden is open on Saturdays… so an idyllic day in one of London’s greenest corners turned into a rather grittier, but still enjoyable, wander around Soho in search of flowers. It was my first attempt at still life, after many rolls of landscape, and although I could certainly do with more practice the results weren’t bad for a beginner.
So here is a little florilegium (in the most literal sense of the word) of Soho in early June…
(Okay, that’s obviously not a flower. I was just mystified as to why someone slapped a sticker protesting the current state of Paris-St Germain and the Parc des Princes on the side of a building in Soho. Not exactly preaching to the converted, is it?)
Technical specs: Diana F+ camera, 55mm wide-angle/close-up lens, colour slide 200 film (cross-processed)
June 12, 2014 § 2 Comments
No, not THAT Grey Gardens, just a roll of film I shot at Kew Gardens several months ago and didn’t get round to developing until last week. I went there with a roll of black and white film and my wide-angle lens, hoping to capture some of the strangeness of the shape of the Palm House. I’ve always had a soft spot for late-19th-century iron and glass architecture and was hoping that this particular combination of film and lens would bring out its melancholy and strangeness, making it look like a lost and stranded spaceship from Planet Victoria…
I think I still have a good deal to learn about this particular film – to wit, very few of my interior shots came out. I would blame it all on the cloudy weather, but I have a horrible sinking feeling that I may have used the wrong aperture setting.
Oh well, nothing for it but to go back another time and try again…