Thursday, August 26, 2010

The Furniture

To things we are ghosts, soft shapes
in their blindness that push and pull,
a warm touch tugging on a stuck drawer,
a face glancing by in a mirror
like a pebble skipped across a passive pond.

They hear rumors of us, things, in their own rumble,
and notice they are not where they were in the last century,
and feel, perhaps, themselves lifted by tides
of desire, of coveting; a certain moisture
mildews their surfaces, and they guess that we have passed.

They decay, of course, but so slowly; a vase
or mug survives a thousand uses. Our successive
ownerships slip from them, our fury
flickers at their reverie’s dimmest edge.
Their numb solidity sleeps through our screams.

Daguerrotypes Victorian travellers
produced of tombs and temples still intact
contain, sometimes, a camel driver, or beggar: a brown
man in a galabia who moved his head, his life
a blur, a dark smear on the unchanging stone.

John Updike

Monday, August 23, 2010

Vigorous anonymity

The Healing of a Lunatic Boy (1986), Stephen Conroy

The first time I think I felt really excited about art was at an exhibition at the then newly-opened Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Belford Road, Edinburgh, in 1987. Entitled The Vigorous Imagination, it was a showcase for contemporary Scottish artists, many of them painters such as Stephen Conroy, John Bellany, Adrian Wizniewski, Ken Currie and Peter Howson. I was particularly taken with Stephen Conroy, whose painting above was used for the poster, which I had a precious copy of for years. I remember feeling such a sense of amazement, walking round the new, expansive space, taking in ideas, that I could hardly breathe. Before then, paintings and sculpture and installations had never really spoken to me, even though I grew up in a house where art was all around me; I had an appreciation of it that fell short of real engagement. The mystery and majesty of Conroy's paintings, as well as his undeniable skill, had a profound impact on me. I longed to own one.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The lone sands stretch far away

My first view of Dubai was from the window of an airport taxi at 8pm local time, with the oven turned down to 39°C. During the day I stayed in the hotel; it's Ramadan, Muslims are fasting between sunrise and sunset, and may not observe anyone else eating; so if you want to eat or drink, even water, it has to be behind closed doors and almost exclusively in hotels, which have solid doors, no windows and heavy, dark curtains screening off the restaurant areas.

Towards sundown I took a taxi through the city with my colleague. Through a slight haze the sun was a perfect burning orange disc over a flat landscape; the architecture outside the centre is anodyne and the streets were deserted. The taxi driver raced along pristine freeways at 120 kmph, still being passed at much greater speeds by dusty SUVs and sports cars with heavily tinted windows. From very far away the stalagmite shape of Burj al Khalifa, still, for the moment, the world's tallest building, can be seen, but other interesting buildings, bulbous and squat, sail-like or funnel-shaped, cluster around it. There's distance between buildings, unlike Hong Kong, where people's lives are crammed together, and a curiously bland feel to everything.

At Madinat Jumeirah (shown here by day) we walked through an entirely ersatz souk of about 5 years' pedigree, filled with brass lions, lanterns, tea glasses and other trinkets, to a Persian restaurant alongside a manmade creek along which wooden abra transport sightseers. The surroundings have the attractive, though inauthentic, feel of a luxury hotel complex (which part of it is). Heat gentle enough to sit outside, lights strung in the palm trees, a salad of walnuts, mint and goat's cheese, slow roasted chicken, peppermint tea, and the loud insistent sound of a waterpump as a constant, droning accompaniment to the meal.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

So long Marianne

Poster for Marianne Breslauer exhibition at the Berlinische Galerie, showing the Swiss photographer, journalist and androgyne Annemarie Schwarzenbach (1932): "She was neither a man nor a woman, but an angel, an archangel".

Friday, August 13, 2010

I'll be your mirror

It's a colour photograph of a young woman, in her early twenties. Her name is Anne. She has a bright, intelligent face and long brown hair, parted fractionally to the right and slightly messily gathered in a bunch at the back of her neck. She is wearing a chunky black poloneck and what appears to be a graduation gown with a white collar. It might just have been a slightly fancy late 1970s/early 1980s dress with an embroidered neckline, but I can see someone in the background wearing something similar and both of them are holding red rolls, the cardboard tubes containing degree certificates. There are people in the background: over her right shoulder, a blurred group of four, including the other girl in her graduation gown, are looking her way, with smiles on their faces. Something caught their eye; maybe the person who's taking the photo was saying something loud or funny to Anne which is why she's half smiling, slightly ruefully, slightly knowingly. She has a peculiar look on her face which suggests things unsaid to the person behind the camera. Over her left shoulder, there are three men in brown suits, also blurred, with their backs to us. Anne's right hand is in motion because she's putting what looks like a light blue blanket, but is probably a good winter coat, over her left arm. Her pale left hand appears under the coat, holding the red roll: a strong, thin hand. In the far background, grey sandstone tenements; I think the street is cobbled. It's unmistakeably Edinburgh. Anne is unmistakeably Scottish.

I know some things about Anne: she died when she was young, probably not long after the photo was taken, in a car crash on the A9, on her way home. She was from Wick. From this and the evidence in the photo, I deduce that the photo was taken at her graduation from Edinburgh University, somewhere near St Giles' Church in the High Street, at the latest in the very early 1980s.

A friend posted Anne's picture on Facebook and I've been returning to it without knowing why. I find it poignant that he's tagged her in the photograph, but there will never be anything for her name to link to in that prosaic, often uninvited Facebook way: pictures of her life, friends, marriage, children, laughing in the sunshine in the garden, raising a wine glass in an ironic toast, emerging grinning from the sea after a swim. It seems mawkish yet irresistible to conclude, from the expression on her face, that she somehow knew what was going to happen to her at that moment and transmitted the yearning for her lost life into the lens. This might be the only picture of her on the internet. And she's looking out of her short life and telling me to be happy.

Photograph courtesy of David Heavenor.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Kiss this thing goodbye

In my teens I used to proclaim (somewhat smugly, I think) that "nostalgia is the enemy of the future". Although most of the records of my teenage years (during the 1980s) are available on iTunes I've generally avoided revisiting them, with a few notable exceptions (Searching for the Young Soul Rebels, Scary Monsters, Sulk). This might be a reflection, cynics would suggest, of the generally ephemeral quality of much of the music I was passionate about in the 1980s, a lot of which now sounds amazingly dated (The Brilliant Corners? The Bodines? The Close Lobsters? The Woodentops?), but I also have a sense that there is more than enough interesting new music around without the need for retrospection.

In a conscious departure from usual practice (which in a strange way actually made me feel a little ashamed) I recently downloaded del Amitri's eponymous first album. Recorded in more innocent times (1985, to be precise), before they embraced Americana as many Scottish bands do, it still holds up fairly well: many of the lyrics are obvious juvenilia (the definition of "irony" in the lyric to "Former Owner" is as inaccurate as Alanis Morrissette's), but much of it still sounds as fresh, clean-cut, and passionate as Justin Currie used to be.

At the time, I was obsessed with the record; even now I can recite the lyrics by heart despite a gap of at least 20 years since I last listened to it. I wrote to them and got nice letters in reply. My sister and I went to see del Amitri in a club in Tollcross, Edinburgh, not long after the album came out. There were only a handful of people there and we stood slightly awkwardly on the dancefloor watching. Afterwards, leaving, we met the band packing their van for the return trip to Glasgow. They offered us a lift; we declined. They weren't looking for groupies; they just thought, being the nice boys they were, that we might need a lift home.

I moved to Glasgow in 1987. After the success of their subsequent records on the back of their second album "Waking Hours" (1989), which I of course snubbed, due in part to their massive popularity - no longer a minority taste to be proud of - and also to what I saw as their capitulation to the mores of mainstream success by embracing a much more laconic, lazily rockin', American, and accordingly less distinctive sound, I used to see Justin Currie loping along the streets with his pointy cowboy boots, skinny jeans and massive sideburns. I also met him a few times at the Cul de Sac in Ashton Lane, Glasgow, near the university. I told him how much I'd loved their first record and he smiled ruefully and said he loved it too. And listening to it now reminds me of things which are worth remembering.

From a distance

Being awake much too early with work preoccupations has its advantages. The view from my window towards the goddess of mercy at Kwan Yan Temple and Stanley Bay beyond, just after 6.30am.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Such great heights

The view from the CitySpace bar at the top of Swissotel the Stamford, Singapore, at sunset, with two apple martinis waiting to be devoured (in this instance, one by me, and one by my colleague from the UK office). Every time I go there I remind myself how lucky I am. And not just because of the apple martinis, although they are the best I've ever tasted.