Monday, 6 February 2017

The Impressionist

T H E   I M P R E S S I O N I S T
2 1 st   C E N T U R Y   L O N D O N


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“…still have too many dreams…never seem to last…” 
– “Another World”, Antony & The Jonsons

I’m confused, constantly searching for a friend whose name I can’t remember and whose face I've forgotten. After several unfruitful searches, I find the concierge where an aloof man dressed in a formal burgundy suit reluctantly offers help. He points me to a room to his right, and curiously says something about him being in pieces, which concerns me. I reach for the brass handle, open the door and to my horror I find, stacked like trunks of luggage, the person I’m looking for, dissected and very neatly piled in a glossy, strangely exquisite, rose-red stack.

C R A N E S   I N   T H E   S K Y

Outside the vast patio door of my bedroom, the cranes and skyscrapers are doing yoga practice…rotating, revolving, stretching, reaching for that impossible sagging sky. From dawn til dusk, they operate in allegiance, as puppeteers, to the future. The belief is obliviously endorsed by all who pass by. 

Suddenly a trio of Romanians, in their mid-forties, enter the curious dance - lifted by the giant metal teeth of Canary Wharf's subway, impossibly flat glass reflects itself endlessly and it's a modern carousel. Previously to this moment, what they see was only considered to be true in films and books. All of a sudden it presents itself, as impossibly as a dream, before their eyes. They capture what they see on their phones, metallic wine overflows the cup. One spins on this slow-motion carousel, his arm outstretched… widely smiling as he becomes for a second the part in a classic Hollywood musical, always filming, to ensure this is in fact no dream at all. He has proof; digital, invisible.  

The glee, unpretentious and pouring from his eyes, crystallised in their almost-squealing voices, will move me when pen marries paper. A few days from now, I will cry. Who of us still has the capacity to wonder at this world created by our forefathers and inherited momentarily by us all? Who dares or allows wonder? These chaps have travelling a few thousand miles West, worlds away from their own, and now their proximity to what's before them is on par with having ascended Everest itself and, just for a second or less, this is the peak, amongst few peaks, of these men’s lives. They show a pride that's unrewarded beyond now. Maybe.

E  X  H  A  L  E

In a second breath, I pass a lonely mid-rise near the construction site whose large sign sobs To Let. A polished marble floor, abandoned from a musical set, and leather couches which have sat cigarette-smoking densely hairy men, now gape vacantly and aren't being danced around or sat upon. A gloomy waiting room the Future, failed, re-imagined but not yet, its youth fulfilled a few takes ago. Aeons. Now, better, soon. Then again. And the gorillas with their gelled hair, clad in frosted slate greys, laugh hard as the props gaze on. Their bodies gladiatorially bulge from the seams of their fitted suits and their hairlines, like their mouths, speak decisively. 

And I stand in front of a door, expectantly, and it doesn’t open. It somehow seems ridiculous that I have to actually push.    it.   open. I thought those days had gone with the Dodo bird and crimped hair. I am part of the problem. I am of that generation who is being frantically catered for. Underneath this soft lawn of comfort are hungry seductive snakes. Maybe.

A Muscovy duck bobs around on the smokey green water of the Thames then, almost immediately, is replaced by another that looks identical. They don't see me watching from a window, as I eat a Turkish goats cheese and tomato omelette and a freshly squeezed orange juice.  The Indian guy who never takes his gaze off the pot, freely pours Saxo salt from its chubby white and red tub into a saucepan of boiling water and Brussel sprouts. His expression is meaningless and intense. I trace his line of vision as if trying to catch a ball.

His partner, with thigh-length polished boot-leather hair prefers smoothies and is friendly. They go back to conversing, his eyes always fixed on the brightening green bobbing of sprouts, and the scene with Bengali is curt and tense. The Girl who shows me around the apartment, slight and dressed head-to-toe in black, sips on Starbucks-for-supermarkets Caffe Latte. She is oblivious to the other inhabitants, and quite content. A fat crayon-purple plane comically courses through the 50 shades of architectural grey. I’m convinced that, like that peculiar red-beaked bird, it’s a prop.

T H E   F O U R T H    P L O N K

On the 4th floor, a silver 2 1 0 gleams unwittingly above a large bare piece of MDF amongst the stiflingly hot corridors. Next to most of the lift numbers are slashes of a Stanley knife and a circle around them illuminates a stern Martian red when pushed. The lift can hold 360 kg and as I enter and hold my breath as if I could inflate should we plummet. The guy pinned against my rucksack reassures me that the sculpting is doing his abs the world of good. I wait for the next lift.

The host is indifferent to the front door being locked. She tells me the apartment offers no living room although the lights for my room can be found just outside room, in the kitchen. My room has 2 empty wardrobes with toiletries, as gifts, displayed like willing tombola prizes on top. I have an angled tubular mirror in which I can only see from my collarbone down unless I stand very far away. There are at least 22 pairs of shoes in what might be the hall. The light in the boiler room is always on.

I've waited over 15 minutes for the bathroom. I decide to find another in a different part of the building. When I return to the sound of water still gushing in the bathroom and a chapter passes, a record skips, my patience thins as my curiosity fattens. How dirty is this person? I knock on the door and exactly as it might in a cheap horror film, the door creeps open. All I see a tap lever lifted on full. No-one is there.

B  O  B  B  Y    B  A  L  L  'S

I wake up humming Norah Jones haunting Miriam. I sing it in the shower as I lather up with the Radox shower gel that was part of my welcome parcel from the AirBnB host. I have never used Radox. The goo is holiday-advert sky-blue and as I lather and sing, the smell is of middle aged male office workers in ill-fitting polyester suits. Next, a crumpled photograph appears, like a souvenir: my face, about 5 years old, agitated with the conundrum of how to build a taller sandcastle, inviting the audience to answer, sand and crushed shells like cracked pepper on my knees, my hair competing with the whiteness of the sand.

I soon discover that I have no towel. I can't remember the last time I actually bought a towel so it confused me more than it should. Unable to summon any thought of practical value, I outsource to Tourist Information. Are non-Tourists allowed? Until this point, I can either dry myself with a cashmere scarf or, pushing 6ft 2, unforgivable amounts of loo roll. I find a 2-for-1 in Argos. Soft blue wisps find themselves adorning the white bath as I dry.

The apartment is always hot and smells like Bobby Ball’s, a large and dreadful shoe shop my parents would take me to. I would quickly escape to the ball pool and determine to swim to its lowest point but with strenuous repeated breast-strokes that gave way to hysteria, I resolved that it must be as deep as the ocean. It occurs to me that if I lived in this apartment, similarly to the ball pool, I would asphyxiate in less than 24 hours. Maybe the cooking sprouts are little oxygen masks.

R E W I L D I N G

A strange thrill laps over me as I descend on bovine chewing metal steps into the concrete bowels of some mythical gargantuan beast. The station’s a museum, an example of prehistoric concrete megafauna and all of us pretend to be endlessly swallowed by the whale mouth then we all journey through the blank intestinal corridor before being whisked to another oversized fossil from which we emerge undigested.  Are the sci-fi rib-caged corridors leading to Pluto or Marylebone?

An impenetrable swathe of Chinese school children, faces like blushed balloons of youth, smile cautiously as they toddle after their teachers. They are less than 10 years old and their rucksacks and small plastic coats casts shadows on the giant whale-walls insides. Older Chinese uni students wear outfits in shades of oatmeal paired with black trousers. The girls coats are creased, their expressions sullen. 

The Girls at the very next table faux-seethe at having waited an inappropriate amount of time for hot chocolate. They are trying to take themselves seriously. Now the non-chalance of the 40-something agile Italian waitress softens the couple’s imagined distress. And I know they’ll be back tomorrow. They are a manifestation of the old metaphor of love: Treat ‘em mean.  The Italians have known this since the dawn of time, or chocolate, whichever came first. Agonizingly stylish sloppily hot chocolates are served, sipped, Instagrammable and extortionate. The majority of tables seat women who peer out from heavily painted eyes and an exposed rectangle of skin. I enjoy being in the Middle East of Nowhere and we play imaginary matchmaker.


T  R  A  I  N  S  P  O  T  T  I  N  G

On the train a large woman in a faded orange top and rectangular glasses briskly counts many lilac-purple and white £20 notes as we go under a succession of bridges at high speed and my ears suck inwards.  I almost wail out as I think the pressure won’t stop. I open my mouth, wide as if swallowing the egg of an exotic bird, then waggle my jaw as I continue to look at the woman, as if sizing her up like a domestic snake that considers devouring its owner. She licks her lips as coins, like a deck of cards, fan and nest in her curved fingers from hands that rest on the table. She mimes and frowns as she produces a receipt she doesn’t recognise. She shushes the disabled woman opposite her.

My friend suggests that what I drink is industrial cleaner - it's polypeptide pink. My offence is eclipsed and softened as a Turk with strong graceful hands unscrews the cap, pours the candy-pink fizz into a gently tinkling tumbler with all the elegance of a symphony conductor. I am enchnated, as I was by the Young Men who conversed in musical composition on a sweltering bus ride to Fethiye. He screws the cap back on. His precision is that of a surgeon and no time has passed as he approaches the table to pour water into our other glasses as if intimately reading poetry to us.

I see a book opened on the Strategy chapter from How To Run A Government. Over a smooth taupe shoulder, The man is only just a man, wears casual denim jeans and navy boaters. He has neat mousy hair and wears glasses. A girl passes with very long Vuitton-advert inspired baby-pink hair. I glance to challenge my suspicion that it’s a wig. It isn’t.

A black man, with slightly sunken cheeks and honest eyes, holds my gaze as he inquires if I’m an artist. The wide sun beams on my right encourage me to squint and I fight it so as not to appear suspicious of his intentions, while suddenly mystified as to why I answer “yes”. His cousin was a graffiti artist, I learn, – he died – and a poet, and now, more disturbingly, I am told he has recently been diagnosed with schizophrenia. He begins to rap soon after I choose “writer” under some umbrella of artistic professions. He stops abruptly to ask me for a £1 towards a cup of tea. I pass him the £1 I found in my gym locker two days ago. The restaurant behind us serves a full English breakfast for £17.


P  A  S  S  E  N  G  E  R  S

I escape the river of people and to turn the corner, a salmon upstream. I enter an invisible world inhabited by me and only 2 others including an older slightly dishevelled woman who thanks me, just out of habit. The other woman, Asian with classic lipstick-red streaked hair gathered on top of her head with a plastic clip, smiles insincerely. We are regularly reminded that our luggage may be destroyed if left unattended.

A young man, complexion creamy white, grows closer to me as a polished unavoidable voice informs that the train is almost here.  Atoms squeeze tighter and tighter until I can see the skin at the nape of the man's neck flush, then fragments into rosacae islands, seconds before the train’s speed dissolves to a frenzied halt. The bottles in his carrier bag clink pleasantly as we atomic molecules bounce each other out of the way. There is no sound other than the clinking and voice, certain that we are about to leave, punctuated with the windscreen wiper doors vacuuming open and closed. An Indian man, his expression and presentation ungendered, eyebrows nodding to those halcyon days of Joan Crawford et al., strides on.

The Runners, with their goosepimpled bare legs and slightly drawn features, resist hurtling through the crowd yet maintain their wildness even in their plastic shorts and plastic shoes. Their philosophy rather than their speed seems to have conquered the paradox of the urban jungle. The rest of us flop into London's landfill happily. The Rose looks at his reflection as if he might understand what others might also see.

I drop a pair of navy gloves. And the girl with the eyelashes becomes animated and inquires if they belong to me. The meeting, this minute dance, is exquisite. And then, Library Mode resumes.  An etiquette lives in The Tubes as a part of us briefly dies. We will never see anyone again. Except every day, again. Yet the moment we step off and individuate, the whole thing is no longer important enough to consider. It didn’t really exist.

A jolly Shakespearean theatre exhibits printed cashmere scarves, impossible amounts of scented candles, impeccably presented handbags, impossibly priced shoes and dazzling perfumes whose flowers dance foggily around the counters of fizzing chatter. I spritz rose, my friend iris on her wrists, kissing them together. Then the queer sloping mouth of that apologetic monster, TATE Morose. Or Modern. Or Morgue. Everything is so big, and everyone is so plentiful. We're looking at fragments of someone's past, intrigued. Remember when we used to starve in the Steppes?

When we get in the station, we’ll find a bin.

We are ushered up to the 2nd floor of a Victorian house, into a chalk grey bedroom, that now calls itself a restaurant and so it is. The tableware feels expensive, shows the folds of newness which deceives its otherwise attention to detail. My friend and I adopt the part of Gentle Lady & Man, bereft of an off-white lace umbrella and the children playing in the red-walled back garden. The waiter serves juice which a clumsy jab of my chopstick allows to dye the starch white cloth carrot-orange. A woman from the table behind us protests that her dish is lacking the peanut garnish. She hasn’t realised that the food is incidental. We suspend our roles as man and wife and I agree with my friend's observation that everyone, close-up, is beautiful.

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Wednesday, 1 February 2017

Dry As A Bone

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I've never been drunk. At least, I don't think so. Except one time after acupuncture when I drank cider and felt like I was on the moon. And sometimes I feel giddy after a Sunday roast.

But, we all have our vices, especially this post-Methodist boy from a non-practising Catholic family. What's mine? Cake. And not just cake, but pastries, cheesecake, polenta cake, gluten-free bullshit levels of cake. If it is flaky and buttery with a sweet edge, I will take it. However since it's Dry January, I thought I'd rise to the challenge of avoiding any kind of sugar plum. I have a will of iron. So, no problem, right?

 F is for FLOUR Failure

I've always wanted to be that cool guy...the hedonist, the rebel with the eager hand to receive any goodies on a night out with friends. He has a lovely colouring and wears flipflops even in Winter. But I'm a geek. Well, a more refined one - a pseudo academic, maybe. And with that comes with the self-consciousness that allows such keen observation.  So while the likeable cool guys are swanning around on the back of speedboats or hitchhiking across Patagonia, I'm usually to be found in my native habitat, perched on a chair in front of a screen or listening to a philosophy podcast. Thinking.

The Academic doesn't do drugs. At least not in my story. He summons an inventory from the cloisters of his mind about why it's implausible that he should. He tries to justify it with neuron ping pong yet in reality he simply can't bear the smell of weed nor the sight of people who have overindulged. His nose is tilted in the air so he couldn't possibly put anything up it. And labs are for rats, regrettably, not the playground for the invention of chemicals to be ingested while flailing around to 90s remixes. He can do that in the privacy of his home with his saluki. Wait, this may be The Snob.

Xocolatl

Alas this stiffness is too stifling after a while. So he reaches for some kind of chemical stimulation under the papery exterior and foil innard, pops a square of that innocent-looking glossy liquorice brown.... like a tiny photographic still... on to his tongue. And the popping continues until the entire moving picture is over. And then, the fun begins with all guise of civilisation in shreds on the floor with his clothes.

Addict

A friend is very open about his indulgence of carnal desires, different to mine, and yet his admissions leave him at the end of waggling fingers that spell A D D I C T, a word that has become ingrained in our every day vocabulary. So addicted to smashed avo on toast. So addicted to Netflix. Maybe he just likes it a lot.

Michael Pollan has a lot of curious things to say about the power of plants to transform consciousness. And not just the ones that your middle class friends go to see an Amazonian shaman for or that your dodgier friends whazz a text to the anonymous number on their phone for, but the ones you are probably digesting right now - the daily coffee, the afternoon piece of cake, the hot chocolate after that cold walk, the flapjack when we break from a long cycle. Apart from some of the obvious nutritional commentary on blood sugar dips and the like, what are those foods doing to our consciousness, our mood, our being...and do we really need them? Are we addicted? Or do we just like the feeling a lot?

It's Not Me, It's You

Screeching the wheels of dryness to a halt, the calendar has told us all that now is 1st February so contemplating the month reveals a bit of a train wreck. I see a notable decline in my humour, with seriousness bubbling up with all the grubby stench of ancient lecture theatres. January has been my angriest month, the most emotional, the most of everything... even more than when I first discovered journaling at 8 and thought all I should note is when my sister had unnecessarily but intentionally provoked me. I've once again felt torn from profound injustices even if my train was 6 minutes late. January was just too bloody much. And although I'm not solely pointing the angry cakeless finger at the Dryness, it hasn't escaped my attention. Cake. Such a great word.

I've attempted to be zen about the rainbow of emotions. I've studied and read about feelings, resilience, the transience, the importance of detachment. The semi Buddhist way. I have tended my spiritual garden. But it's been tough. And although I haven't craved the sweetness or frothed at the mouth when the person on the bus sits next to me eating a florentine, I've definitely craved the feeling it brings on its white wings. Baked goods are a 5 minute luxury spa break.

Another Dimension

The worry residue that it leaves me with is why do I find so many situations so stressful? Why did I scoff at the Java poster that said "Come inside and allow yourself to be transported to another world". I think I shouted, as if the poster was a private conversation, WHATS WRONG WITH HERE and I stomped off to the gym.

I made a pact with myself last year to slow down, to allow myself the time to act according to my intuition, to be more authentic with friends and family. But I seem to have opened Pandora's box because I have this bloated uncompromising idealism that the world can't meet, that I can't. And I'm not sure how to transform that except to float away on a toffee cloud.

A TED talk on addiction stuck in my mind, too and namely that addiction is the opposite to connection. Mindful of that, I am figuring out what am I not connecting to when I feel that stressed. And that's really tough. That makes me want to ride more toffee clouds and make the discomfort go away. But then comes to mind the mammal who eats lichen because he feels so good. So good that he eats it until all his teeth are gone and he dies quickly from hunger. Gulp. That'll learn him.







Wednesday, 25 January 2017

Honesty & Entitlement

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I read a quote a few weeks ago that said something like, "Breaking out of the prison only lets us into the slightly larger exercise yard of freedom" and it stuck. I likened it to my personal journey about developing a better understanding of my emotions and feelings, so they don't rule me, and so I understand what they're pointing to. What will that freedom bring?

I still find journal entries from when I was a teenager...describing how my sister's behaviour annoyed me or the contempt I had for my mum for sending me to my room. Pages and pages I would write. And I continued to believe that the more I was digging, the closer I would get to revealing a sense of transparency around the wells of upset, or happiness, or whatever I was feeling...in order that I could make sense of it all.

Underlying that assumption too was that a decrease in opacity around my thoughts and behaviours would somehow entitle me to truly communicate and level with another. So, the more I get what's going on and express that, the more able I am with another to make mutual sense of things and come to a rainbow happily ever after of a conversation. Fail!

Having been inspired on my travels by so many open-hearted folks, I have attempted in the 'normal world' back in my corner of the UK to speak as freely as I would in a liberal community. And I feel not only more ease but more connected to people, and more deeply connected to my closer friends. But those who aren't ready for that style of communication, I'm quickly learning that my honesty doesn't entitle me to theirs.

Living with my 90 year old grandmother, who was raised by her grandmother (born in the mid 1800s), I see that there's never been a grammar of emotional honesty, let alone an ease. Or the inclination to pursue one. Or the faintest idea of what I was talking about. Now that she has dementia and her memory has degenerated badly, the question of honesty and reasoning with her can, in a regretful moment, turn into a stick to beat her with. The frustration I can feel when she is unable to grasp an idea, repeated many times, is unbearable.

And yet, my honesty, my frustration, my disappointment, my impatience don't entitle me to behave any other way but kindly towards her. Feeling anger or sadness, or any way, doesn't entitle any of us to be rude, hurtful or disrespectful. I was brought up and rebelled much against those Methodist values of goodness, wholesomeness and morals. It's only now that I'm truly starting to understand those Sunday school classes.