Sunday, 14 December 2008

The power of the sub-editor

Let me preface this tirade by saying that I really, really like our sub-editors. They are both brilliantly cool, intelligent creatures and I quite like them a lot.

Having said that, I never knew such a thing as a sub-editor even existed until I started working on the magazine. After I wrote my first review for publication, I filed my copy blissfully unaware of the torture the subs would put it through in the sake of cutting the word count (which was only 18 words over I might add) and generally making the piece 'more to their liking.' When the review was published, I hardly recognised the writing as my own. I felt violated - perhaps an overreaction - but at least in academic discourse, if someone doesn't like what you've written you have the scope to argue it out - they don't just rewrite or chop whole sections of your paper.

There's a brilliant, and surprisingly well known, email from Giles Coran about this very same issue. In his email, he positively flips out on the subs at the Times for removing the letter 'a' from the final sentence of his copy. While I always found his rant amusing (which you can check out here:, I never really understood the depth of his raging frustration until now.

My most recently published review, the Polidori bit I just posted, has also been forced to kneel and beg for mercy in front of the subs desk. The crazy thing is that you don't actually get to see the changes made by the subs until the piece is in print. Very sneaky! So I thought it would be fun (and perhaps cathartic?) to post the actual copy that made it into print so you see for yourself the damages inflicted by the power of the subs...


It's disadvantageous to know that the pictures in Canadian photographer Rober Polidori's show are of the Palace of Versailles before seeing them. The Disney-esque mythology of Louis XIV's royal château in the suburbs of Paris is power enough to threaten Polidori's beautiful collection, taken over the last 20 years. (I added this sentence, but it said something like, 'The Disney-esque mythology of the royal château is powerful enough to overwhelm the delicacy of Polidori's beautiful collection of photographs, taken over the last 20 years' - and also calling it Louis XIV's is technically inaccurate, as it was Louis XIII who constructed the initial hunting lodge).

In contrast to the usual attempts to capture the palace's grandeur in wide-angled panorama, Polidori has taken a micro approach, capturing fragmentary views of the palace. Although the photographs are spatially restricted, they remain visually demanding; partly because of the decorative nature of the interiors, but also because of Polidori's excellent framing. Seemingly arbitrary crops juxtapose intricate wallpapering with wooden mouldings and richly textured paintings.

Polidori is a meticulous technician, but what gives his pictures such impact is his use of large-format film - a Kipp Wettstien aerial photography camera is his weapon of choice ('weapon of choice' - may that my prince come to awaken me from my cliché-ridden nightmares). Images of coloured wallpaper are so lifelike, they look like the real thing (this just makes me sound like a poor writer - the sentences, at least to me, now feel so robotic it's a machine writing them, not a person).

The intellectual forces behind this series is restoration and revisionism. This is intriguing, given Polidori is primarily know for his exquisite, controversial images of destruction in Chernobyl and post-Katrina New Orleans. Change, natural or man-made, the selective process of curation of the destructive force of nature obsesses Polidori (completely alters the emphasis).

(The brilliant bit about the painting of the revolutionary, Marat, is entirely removed, which is a central example of the kind of historic anachronism brought about because of the restoration process)

There is also the question of how the act of restoration is in some way subsumed by a nostalgia complex. Though nostalgia often saves historic buildings, the saving is typically accompanied by shocking anachronism. Consider Versailles' latest restoration programme and its proposed removal of king Louis-Philippe's grand staircase, added during the last major rebuild of the château in 1837. Constructed during the Bourbon restoration, it doesn't complement our fantasy of Versailles as a 17th-century fairytale palace and so must be removed (I included this in my final draft, mostly because it's good stuff).

Polidori's cleverly framed images highlight our fascination with antiquity while also mocking anachronistic intrusions. An image juxtaposing a CCTV camera with the elaborate panelling of Louis XV's daughter's salon is similarly witty (not if you don't understand the historical context which makes it so witty - also cut). Each provide a loaded snapshot of modernity versus history; a reminder that 21st-century Versailles was made by us, for us (the snappy for of aphorism loved by subs. Of course the last line evades the chopping block).

Wednesday, 3 December 2008

Transitional States: Robert Polidori at Versailles

It’s something of a disadvantage to know beforehand that the images in Robert Polidori’s new show are of the palace of Versailles. In contrast to most artists, who make futile attempts to capture the palace’s grandeur in wide-angled panoramas, Polidori’s micro approach means that interior treasures of Versailles can be appreciated in their own right.

Though the photographs are quite restricted in their spatial focus, they remain visually demanding; partly because of the decorative nature of the palace, but also because of Polidori’s excellent framing. Cut off’s which appear arbitrary – the tops of chairs, for example - are beautifully juxtaposed onto intricate wallpapering, wooden mouldings, and richly textured paintings. The overall effect provides a striking and novel perspective on one of the most overexposed historical buildings.

This is in part possible because Polidori is a meticulous technician, but equally because he still uses a large format film camera. Large format makes an immeasurable difference to the final print, so much so that one wonders why photographers bother with digital at all. Images of nothing more than boldly coloured wallpaper are so lifelike and vivid that they make the plain wall of the gallery look like an imitation of the real thing.

The intellectual premise lurking behind these paintings is one of restoration and revisionism. This is intriguing given that Polidori is primarily known for his exquisite, though controversial, images of destruction – Chernobyl and post-Katrina New Orleans. Nevertheless, it is evident that change, natural or manmade - the selective process of curation or the destructive force of nature – is a theme important to Polidori’s work.

There is also the question of how the act of restoration is in some way subsumed by a modern-day nostalgia complex, and though this complex acts as a saviour to historic buildings, it is also a plague, as the saving is typically accompanied by shocking anachronism. Polidori’s cleverly framed images highlight both our fascination with these antiquities while also gently mocking the anachronistic intrusions.

There is a photograph, not in the current exhibition, of a ground-floor room in the palace, where Jérome-Martin Longlois’ copy of David’s giant, Death of Marat, rests on the floor waiting to be hung. Longlois’ painting, and subsequently Polidori’s photograph, make an absolute mockery of all Versailles symbolises; Marat, of course being one of the most famous French Revolutionaries as well as a supporter of the abolition of the Borboun Monarchy, the very kings who built Versailles.

For a bit of 21st century irony, Polidori has taken a witty image of the elaborate panelling in the salon of Louis XV’s daughter, Madame Victoire, highlighting one of Versailles’ many CCTV cameras. This image works on multiple levels: the formal court procedures instituted by Louis XIV meant that the king and queen were nearly always under surveillance, the court acting as 18th century CCTV cameras; and, on another level, it reveals those glaring architectural inconsistencies inevitable in the restoration of any heritage building.

Polidori’s photographs each provide a loaded snapshot of modernity versus history: a reminder that the 21st century Versailles was made by us for us.

Friday, 31 October 2008

The darker side of love

“Love does this to us / shows us its darker side as loss.”

Move me. Imperative. This is what I want poetry/painting/music to do.

The best art rubs against us, makes us tectonic plates, and like the moving of land masses, reveals us as greater, at the very least different, than before our moment of experience. Especially now, when we’ve all become so post-modernly cynical – indeed, I feel cynical just writing about humanism and I am a humanist. We need art to reflect beauty, but also truth. This reads like some vague bohemian manifesto, unless you’ve experienced an “encounter” which brings the immediacy of the importance of “truth” as an ideal to light.

Dooley’s poem (which I’ve copied out in full below) serves as a fine example. She transcends metaphor and avoids being trapped by the modernist obsession with linguistic novelty. In my mind she manages to make a remarkably beautiful statement of truth about a rather commonplace truism: that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone (courtesy of Joni Mitchell) or as my mother always used to say, you need the bad times to appreciate the good times. But using the loss of a lover’s gift of earrings as a wider metaphor for the darker side of love is subtle and haunting.

I’m not afraid to reveal my aesthetic prejudices: I think, especially as a humanist, it’s important to understand and use language to explain why I find beautiful what the girl sitting next to me on the tube in the morning finds disinteresting at best. I like beauty in its traditional sense, of course, but I also need that spark (which having gone on about defining prejudices is quite a flighty use of language, I realise); that quality which moves, provokes, and surprises. But what I really find interesting about the idea of truth is its companion, recognition: the idea that this “other,” entirely separate human being sees the same thing, the same truth, but in a completely different way. You read the poem and you think, ah yes, loss of love, of course, but you now, because of this person’s alternate understanding, conceive of the commonplace in an entirely fresh way. And that is what gets me really excited.

In which Paula loses an earring and has it restored to her

An orb spinning
slips from its ken,
from your certain touch,
and is lost.
We search all that can be held
try to picture all that cannot.

It matters terribly at such a moment,
this shift in your earth’s axis,
the disappearance of a nameless planet.

Good then, that at the water’s edge
and just in time,
ornament resurfaces as lucky charm.

You hold it now, in trembling hands, joyous.

Love does this to us,
shows us its darker side as loss.

For now, your head is straight again,
you are well-balanced.
Those earrings catch the happy salty light.

Maura Dooley

Tuesday, 7 October 2008

Sleepless nights

Ryoji Ikeda, spectra [paris]
Commissioned for Nuit Blanche Paris, 2008
Paris may be the ‘City of Lights’ but Ryoji Ikeda’s blinding tower of light, spectra [paris], elevates the cliché from banal to stratospheric. This new work by the Japanese artist was commissioned for Nuit Blanche, the city’s annual all night contemporary arts festival. Ikeda’s initial proposal was to make the 210-metre tall Montparnasse Tower disappear by surrounding it on all four sides with light. This proved to be a technical impossibility but also a stroke of luck, for the installation undoubtedly benefits from the Tower despite its unpopular appearance. A ghostly and compelling alternative imagining of the Tower, spectra [paris] softens the skyscraper’s harsh façade, supplying an awe and delicacy lacking in the original.

The 64 floodlights are arranged in an 8 x 8 formation, two metres apart, so that visitors can walk between and interact with the lights. The grid of lamps is accompanied by a matrix of speakers, broadcasting a 30 minute looped pattern of sine waves of varying frequencies. The audio element transforms the ephemeral lights into an altogether more physical sensation: an aural skin for floodlit bones.

While spectra [paris] acts as an artistic affirmation of the Tower, it’s also a sublime experience in its own right. The lights and sounds of spectra teeter precariously between sensory pleasure and pain: the high-pitched frequencies are sometimes unbearable and the lights are too bright to look at directly. But this environment is primal and addictive and when you start to walk away, an immediate desire to return takes over.

Initially I wasn’t convinced the installation would work, given the relatively low lines of Paris’s skyline. Ultimately the location couldn’t have been more appropriate. Had spectra [paris] been near the Eiffel Tower, it would have been obvious and self-defeating; anywhere else, and it would have been operating in a vacuum. Ikeda’s installation provides a new lens with which to view this sky-scraping behemoth, rendering it simply stunning, no mean feat given this is one of the least attractive buildings in a very beautiful city.

Friday, 19 September 2008

It’s time we all suffered for the sake of our art

This is the most interesting news comment I've read on the "recession" thus far. That it's written by a Professor of History is perhaps surprising... You'll probably have missed it given that it was in today's Evening Standard.

Felipe Fernández-Armesto, professor of history at Queen Mary College, London

Bad times are just around the corner. We can't even enjoy the schadenfreude of the fat cats' failures. Central banks throw good money after bad, down the sewers of the City and Wall Street.

There is no escape from the apparent meltdown of capitalism. Portents of cataclysm multiply. AIG teeters, with trillions of dollars sunk in bad bonds. Merrill Lynch sells out for a pittance. Even Goldman loses the Midas touch and is left with the ass's ears.

But can it really be that bad? While people are suffering, it may seem cheeky to celebrate financial ­catastrophe. Yet history is full of ­examples of poverty redeemed by great achievements.

For one thing, the arts tend to benefit. The Renaissance would probably never have happened without the hard times that made investors in 15th-century Italy turn away from get-rich-quick schemes and invest in culture. Botticelli did some of his best, highest-minded paintings after the Medici Bank crashed in 1494.

In the Bonfire of the Vanities the revolutionaries burned the glitz and erotica that passed for art but the new generation of artists who stepped into the vacant niche included Michelangelo and Leonardo.

When the South Sea bubble burst, England enjoyed the glories of the “Augustan” age of poetry and design. The recession of the Thirties inspired Hollywood with a wonderful series of riches-to-rags, rags-to-riches movies, which in their turn helped ordinary people follow Fred Astaire's advice: “Dust yourself off and start all over again.”

Though art requires patronage, most of it comes pretty cheap. Most great art happens in garrets. Short rations stimulate vast visions.

Unemployment pay has done more than the Arts
Council to keep the arts alive. The arts in Britain have been corrupted into trashiness by high prices, easy money, and the curse of celebrity ­values. Austerity might trigger a new era that may not glisten but may yield real gold. And some things that are better even than art thrive in adversity: love, ­spirituality, friendship, humanity, trust. Clichés have one great virtue: they tend to be true. It really is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven. Money really can't buy love. Mimi showed great taste in loving Rodolfo and leaving her fat-cat protector in La Bohème.

Comfort induces bovine contentment but is hostile to happiness, which is a dynamic state that emerges from ­struggle. Unemployment is evil but can be turned to good: enforced leisure is, at least, leisure. Financial worries ­corrode the soul and can poison ­relationships; but when extreme ­adversity teaches us to cope with them, their menace ebbs.

Abundance is bad for you. A tighter-belted Britain would be less obese, less profligate, less self-indulgent, less stuffed with junk food and trash values. The less surplus you have to splurge, the less likely you are to take the kind of mad risks that have wrecked so many big businesses.

The common culture we have discarded over the past half-century was never very good. The patriotism was jingoistic, the religion shallow, the “family values” sometimes oppressive, the social disciplines tainted by class-consciousness. But we have discarded them without finding anything worthwhile to share in their place.

A spell of austerity will concentrate our minds. We will rethink the ­economic dogmas inherited from the era of Reagan and Thatcher. We'll see the virtues of democratically regulated economies. We'll close the wealth gaps that have disfigured society with unconscionable inequalities.

We'll start relying more on the networks of families, friendships and neighbourliness in revulsion from unrestrained individualism and the cult of competition. I hope we'll regulate the markets so that incompetent executives can no longer work up billions of dollars of debt before taxpayers have to rescue them.

And if we really learn from experience, we'll never again allow predatory directors to milk their businesses, stiff their shareholders and insult their workers with obscene differentials in pay. We may even end up happier.

When Wall Street suffered its worst-ever crash in 1929, the media overflowed with stories of financiers' suicides. Most turned out to be hysterical inventions that passed into urban legend. There is life after losses. People who can find the strength and support among their families and friends to live through austerity will recover some, at least, of their lost comforts.

Disaster makes people rethink their lives. People who realise, through hard experience, that they can do without luxuries cannot be corrupted by their possessions. Prosperity will re-emerge, and it may again threaten to infect us with greed. The question is not whether we will get through straitened circumstances but whether we will use them to make society better.

With little to lose, I feel indemnified against the worst effects of the current disaster. As I watch financial panic from the security of my own modest circumstances, the spectacle reminds me of the closing scene of an adventure movie. Disaster buries the longed-for treasure or the forbidden city. The heroes escape, safe but impoverished. The baddies, who cannot bear to abandon their hoard, get squashed in the crash.

It's one of the oldest story-lines in the world. The Bible has a formula for dealing with the debacle that follows ­corruption, materialism and greed. When Sodom and Gomorrah buckle and crumble, anyone who looks back is lost. But Lot is happy to escape with his life. The moral is clear. Don't look back.

Wednesday, 17 September 2008

We're warmongerers. Deal with it.

Reading a book on Aeschylus' The Orestia this evening I came across a quote by Jean-Pierre Vernant on fifth-century Athenians: "War is to a man what marriage is to a woman." Which means war is everything to an Athenian man. Like everything. Really. War makes men men. Chest thumping all around.

And now a comparative perspective: "I've been to war. I've raised twins. If I had a choice, I'd rather go to war." Guess who? None other than our own, inimitable G.W. Bush.

So what I want to know is why so many liberal intellectuals are anti-war if warring is clearly just keeping in line with the heritage of Western civilization? War is just another thing we inherited from our ancient Greek forefathers, along with all those other great Greek institutions - like, um, the "Olympics" (nekkid wrestling!), citizenship (pride, patriotism, and passports! Sieg Heil), and uhh...democracy (we would like to take this opportunity to direct your attention to the above G.W. Bush quote and ask you to reflect upon the state of democracy in the Western world - apologies for the lack of subtlety). We love democracy, patriotism, and especially our Olympians, so why don't we love war too?

Monday, 15 September 2008

And now for something personal...

The most frequent complaint of these wayward sentiments (made by my motley crew of loyal readers) is that, though they appear as if belonging to a blog, do not actually constitute a blog, rather a mere collection of essays. 'Tis true to be sure - I like essays - it means I can make believe I'm writing my own newspaper column, but without the pressure of deadlines or word count. Nevertheless, I shall endeavour to occasionally take on the mantle of confessional (compulsive?) bloggette.

Starting now.

Two firsts for Monday the 15th of September. I started a new job, and given that "working" is a concept I find in every way unpalatable and reprehensible (academia partially excepted, of course), I was looking forward to today with trepidation and apprehension. I needed not worry, however, as my new post is pretty swish. I am, as of today, the newest editorial assistant at the Architects' Journal - part time so I can still PhD (yes, it
is a verb), good pay (the publishing industry's equivalent of spotting a narwhal in the middle of a desert), cool editor, and an equally groovy editorial team (afternoon "water cooler" chat consisted of a discussion of the merits (or not!) of Kurt Vonnegut's "Breakfast of Champions"). I'm quite fond of writing, keen on architecture, too opinionated for my own good, and a fascist pig dog when it comes to editing AND I've already snagged an invitation to the private viewing of Gerhard Richter's new show at the Serpentine next week. Me and the AJ are going to get along just fine. Oh yeah!

In an attempt to ensure my bottom spends good time on a chair in the library, especially now that twenty hours of my week are now dedicated to the AJ, in a whimsical fever of, uh, whimsy, I joined the London Library a few weeks ago. Today was the first opportunity I'd had to consummate my membership and I wasn't disappointed. There's a nice frisson of sexual tension given that the overwhelming majority of LL users are either male or very masculine looking women. It also doesn't help that the floors in the stacks are metal grates, meaning that anyone on the floor below looking up may have caught an eyeful of my stockings and knickers. Needless to say, I won't be wearing dresses in the library anymore. Don't want to encourage the pervy old men. The selection of books is ace and open stacks are such a good idea, especially compared to the Fort Knoxness that is the British Library. But the best thing I discovered in the library this afternoon was in the Members' Room where I retired after a few hours of reading to revive myself with a cup of tea. I picked up the magazine nearest me to page through and then noticed it wasn't actually a magazine. The cover letter on the manuscript politely explained that the author of the screenplay resting in my hands had been unsuccessfully pitching said manuscript for the last three months. He had bribed a friend, a member of the Library (which incidentally is rather costly to join), to surreptitiously sneak the manuscript into the Members' Room so that any directors or producers (who happened to be members of the Library) might take pity (or interest, whatever) on his script and make his dream come true. The best bit was the post script which indicated that, for their trouble, the kindly producer/director would be treated to a "large drink" and that the author would make a "small donation" to the library. Though I am neither kindly nor a producer nor even a director, I was intrigued by the gumption of the author and turned to page one only to find (not unexpectedly) that the writing was terrible and the story even worse. If you're going to go through the trouble to hob-nob with the great and glorious of the LL, at least make sure you've got a good story to tell and then do it justice by telling it well. For all the awfulness of the script, I was quite taken with my studious afternoon in the reading room and look forward to many more such productive sessions surrounded by the charms of the library. In trousers mind...

Friday, 22 August 2008

Cy Twombly: Il Miglior Fabbro

So occasionally I get a bit sick of living in London and want to pack it all in for a more exciting existence in Zambia or Puglia or anywhere "exciting." Generally though, I'm pretty content living in this city, and some days I even thank my lucky stars that I get to call the capital home. Today was most definitely a star thanking kind of day. I suppose it might seem odd that it only takes an art exhibition to garner such praise, but I need my humanist batteries charged regularly. Otherwise I tend to get grouchy. And I'm not much fun when I'm grouchy...

I had been putting off going to the Cy Twombly exhibition because I didn't want to be disappointed. Although I find the building magnificent, the exhibitions drive me to despair: Duchamps, Dali, Gilbert and George, yawn, yawn, yawn. Surely it would be far more inspiring and educational for the art-viewing public to have regular exposure to less well known artists. When Nicholas Penny was appointed as the new director of the National Gallery earlier this year, one of the first things he said to the press was that blockbuster exhibitions don't teach anyone anything, and insisted he would concentrate instead on erudite shows of lesser-known artists. Finally, I thought, a man with some bloody good sense. As of yet, he hasn’t been director long enough to make good on his word, but he appears to have struck a chord with other galleries if this exhibition is anything to judge by.

The human mind must derive immense pleasure in the making of cross references, patterns, and connections in works of art; whether literature, music, or the visual, as we seem to love saying things like, “this band sounds like a cross between early David Bowie and Brahms!” or “this author is the new Hemmingway.” Twombly excels at this sort of cross-pollination and there are references, both ancient and modern, aplenty. Twombly makes no secret of his love of great poets, especially Rilke and Homer, but for me, the subtle or even unacknowledged connections were more intriguing. Twombly's early works, for instance, reminded me very much of some of the commercial work of Gary Fernandez, a modern illustrator. While the similarities are entirely tenuous (though I suppose it is possible Fernandez takes Twombly as inspiration), the vibrant, fresh, looseness of the Twombly is very evident in the illustrations of Fernandez. There’s something very illustratory (nice word, I know) in general about Twombly's early pieces which give them a surprisingly modern sensibility.

One of my favourite paintings from the exhibition,
Treatise on the Veil, was entirely different from any other work displayed. Evidently these paintings were inspired by an Eadweard Muybridge photograph of a bride in motion. Muybridge was a photographic pioneer, using multiple cameras to create stop-motion action sequences of things like horses galloping or a couple dancing. Twombly’s series of six interlinked panels brilliantly echoes the concept (and the inspiration of a stop motion bride seemingly floating under her veil) while simultaneously remaking the technique into something completely new.

Quattro Stagioni
, perhaps Twombly’s most well known work (the Modern's publicity for the exhibition is taken from this work), is hung in two different versions, completed roughly around the same time, 1993-95. These reminded me of something, but it took me a while to remember that, especially Estate, echoed the work of Clyfford Still, which I'd seen at an exhibition
in Washington DC in 2003. You can see the difference between the two immediately, but that's hardly the point. The stylistic similarities are perhaps more intriguing. Still is far more controlled; he’s cleaner, harsher, more primitive, while Twombly is all whimsy, ragged, carefree, reckless insouciance, but it was Still's yellow painting below that I remembered and brought the resemblance to mind. I love discovering connections like these – as I'm not approaching this from an academic perspective, I don't have to consider the implications of whether they actually knew each other. I can simply enjoy the thrill of recognition and the remembrance and clarification of that recognition. I suppose it's this sort of thing that makes an unpersonal gallery exhibition into a far more personal experience.

The first two are the Twombly's, and Still's work is below.

The last series of work in the exhibition is from Twombly’s 2005 Bacchus, Psilax, Mainomenos (for
those non Greek speaking, anti-mythologists, Bacchus is the Roman equivalent of the Greek god of wine Dionysus, and even if you do know that, you probably don’t know that his rites were celebrated with orgies and animals being torn to pieces and their raw flesh consumed – see Euripides’ The Bacchae for more fun and games). This was the only time where I felt the work on display represented something quite different to me than it did to the curators. The accompanying blurb indicated that Twombly’s initial inspiration for the work was Homer’s Iliad, which seemed sensible enough given Twombly’s classical leanings. The curators then went on to say that the brilliant, massive, red looped paintings were an expression of pure drunken abandon. Having three of the paintings in the room at once, there was little euphoria to be felt. They are marvellous pieces of work, but all I could think of was Christopher Logue’s War Music, a contemporary, pseudo-translation of the Iliad, with its haunting evocation of war, “Dust like red mist/Pain like chalk on slate. Heat like Arctic” and also “Moving at speed, but absolutely still/The arrow in the air. Death in a man/as something first perceived by accident.” In particular, the long streaks of dripped down red paint create a sense of morbid frenzy, the body exploding into a fine red mist. Not exactly jubilant...

Still, I found the exhibition to be absolutely superb (how many adverbs in one post?). I was so enamoured that I sought out a feedback form from the information desk and filled it in then and there. It basically said, “more like this please.” I hope they take my advice.

Monday, 18 August 2008

When did the Labour Party turn into the BNP?

I'm seriously reconsidering my views on whether I actually want to become a British resident/citizen after the flurry of new and ridiculous regulations spat out by the Home Office in the past few months...

Border and Immigration Minister Liam Byrne:

“Britain is not anti-foreigner, we're a welcoming, tolerant place. But we do expect newcomers to sign up to a deal if they want to stay and build a life in Britain.”

If the Devil asked you to trade your soul for permanent residency, would it be worth it? I think not. But what I perhaps find most difficult to stomach is that Britons apparently have little to no interest about what rules and regulations their government passes, with or without their consent. Where are these 70 percent who think newcomers should “earn the right to stay?” If you think it doesn’t concern you, fine, hooray for apathy, but without sounding completely apocalyptic, natives will be next. I met a woman today who just got a job at the Home Office as a project manager working on the ID card project. She’s being sent to the US to learn how JFK and LAX airports use the new retina scanners to keep track of everyone entering the country. I don’t understand why this doesn’t bother the people in this country enough to take some kind of (at the very least) ideological stand.

Kids, apathy is nothing to be proud of.

14 July 2008

Foreign nationals wishing to become British citizens will have to earn the right to stay, the Government announced today.

The tough new approach will require all migrants to speak English and obey the law if they want to gain citizenship and stay permanently in Britain, while speeding up the path to citizenship for those who contribute to the community.

The reforms are at the centre of a sweeping overhaul of all immigration laws dating back to 1971 and confirm new modern laws reserving full access to benefits and social housing will be reserved for citizens and permanent residents.

Foreign nationals who commit serious offences will face automatic consideration for deportation - and even minor offences will delay access to citizenship by up to three years.

Public support for the proposals was confirmed by new Home Office polling released today. A Mori poll carried out for the Home Office revealed that:

70 per cent of the public think that newcomers should earn the right to stay in Britain;
83 per cent think that immigrants in Britain should be made to learn English; and
69 per cent agree that newcomers should be penalised on the path to citizenship if they don't obey Britain's laws.

Home Secretary Jacqui Smith said:

"In recent months we have listened to people across Britain and the message is clear - they want those who want to make Britain their home to speak English, to work hard, and to earn the right to stay here.

"We are making the biggest changes to our immigration system for a generation, and part of that is making sure those who stay in the UK make a positive impact on their local community."

The draft Immigration and Citizenship Bill published today replaces ten Acts of Parliament and enshrines into law the Government's biggest ever shake-up of the immigration system. The key measures are:

Strong borders
1. new powers for frontline UKBA officers at foreign ports and airports to cancel visas.
2. bringing customs and immigration powers at the border into the 21st century, consolidating and strengthening civil penalties for bringing passengers without the right papers and clandestine entrants to the UK.

Selective migration
3. the Bill proposes a clear legal duty on migrants to ensure they have permission to be in the UK, for example under our new points system.
4. the Bill introduces a single, streamlined power of expulsion for those without permission.
Earning the right to stay
5. migrants will now have to earn their right to stay in the UK.
6. automatic bans on returns with new powers to exclude offenders and powers to require those who are expelled to repay costs to taxpayers if we allow them to come back.

Playing by the rules
7. the Bill gives a new power to require large 'bail bonds' for those awaiting decisions or expulsion, part of a tough menu of conditions for "Immigration bail" as an alternative to detention.
8. confirming tough measures to prevent organised illegal immigration by attacking illegal working with civil penalties for employers who do not make the necessary checks.
9. simplifying our appeals system to cut red-tape; ensuring that the system is properly sensitive to the needs of vulnerable groups: honouring our international obligations to refugees and ensuring the UKBA safeguards and promotes the welfare of children.

Managing any local impacts
10. full access to benefits for citizens and permanent residents, with migrants contributing a little extra to the cost of local services.

The Home Office confirmed that newcomers will have to pay a little extra before they become citizens to create a fund of tens of millions of pounds a year to help police, schools, councils and local health services to use the money to deal with the short-term pressures of migration in their areas.

Border and Immigration Minister Liam Byrne said:

"Britain is not anti-foreigner, we're a welcoming, tolerant place. But we do expect newcomers to sign up to a deal if they want to stay and build a life in Britain.

"The public overwhelmingly supports the idea of newcomers earning their right to stay. Today we show how we'll make these ideas law, hand in hand with our new points system for selective migration, like the one that's worked so well in Australia."

These changes are part of the biggest shake-up to the immigration system for a generation, and to make sure these changes stick today's Bill will see the currently complex immigration laws replaced by one simplified piece of legislation. By updating the law, and getting rid of any room for misinterpretation, the UK Border Agency can cut red tape and accelerate the speed of its work.

The Kielder Observatory

Sunday, 17 August 2008

State of the Art

I recently had the pleasure of an unintended viewing of Martin Creed’s new Work No. 850. Unintended in that I wrongly assumed the work was showing in the Tate Modern, which meant I was quite surprised when a runner whizzed past me in the Great Hall at Tate Britain. My mistaken assumption is revealing: Creed’s work is contemporary and conceptual; one expects it to be housed in the Modern, which only emphasises the work’s significance. Generally, I find little to admire about installation art, but Creed’s No. 850 says so much, not only about modern art, but about the actual experience of viewing art in modern times, that I was absolutely delighted.

The Britain's enormous hall spans the length of the
nineteenth-century neoclassical building and Creed has recruited an army of runners to sprint from one end of the hall to the other every 30 seconds. The Guardian’s Adrian Searle called the work “gloriously pointless,” which, excuse the phrase, misses the point entirely. In these increasingly paternalistic, health and safety obsessed times, I expected the Museum would contain Creed’s runners in a cordoned off space. But because they haven’t sectioned off the hall, visitors and runners must interact, the latter dodging the former. This statement of (perhaps unintentional) defiance, not only to our patronising society, but also to the hush-hush reverence now fostered in museums, is refreshing. I kept expecting a guard to appear and shout, “no running allowed!” And though it is not presented as such, in a city always telling you what to and not to do this is a superb show of artistic anarchy in one of Britain’s most revered cultural spaces.

Another provocative point made by Creed’s runners addresses the nature of museums; in particular, the adjustments required to accommodate modern consumerist culture, in tandem with government spending cuts in the arts. While we are at least lucky that most of our museums are free, unlike Paris or New York where the price of admission is discouraging to say the least, the pressure to be cost-effective and self maintaining is increasingly altering the way museums “do business.” At £10 a pop, exhibitions provide a significant source of revenue (in 2006/07 the National Gallery took in £1.1 million from exhibitions), but perhaps unsurprisingly the consumerist side to art is where the big money is made. Last year, the National Gallery’s shops took in just over £6 million pounds, which is quite an impressive feat considering about five million people visit the gallery each year.

This is why Creed’s No. 850 is not only seditious
and compelling, but also timely and relevant. It confronts the strain of throw-away consumerism that has infected major museums. The pressured feelings which accompany trips to vast museums (e.g. the Louvre) result in compulsions to speed through so as to take in everything on display in a manageable time frame. The more cynical would point to those who nearly do run through museums, ignoring a wealth of art, in order to have a look at the "star" of a museum's collection. One could even go so far as to say that we may as well just run through museums anyway, as even if we languidly amble, we're so distracted by taking photographs, noisy children, or inquisitive friends that we hardly have the time or the attention to properly take in the art.

So go, see, linger, and enjoy Creed’s Work No. 850. It’s at the Tate Britain until 16 November, which leaves plenty of time. And let me know what you think.

Tuesday, 15 July 2008

Phoenix Sunsets

A few of those sunsets I was talking about. Taken by me last week. I could almost forgive the heat for such beauty.

Into the wild

Further Observations from the US of "god-damn it's hot" A.

What follows are some mostly random observations made over the course of the past week:

An entertaining table at my local (chain) bookshop piled high with “Dummies” books. Titles include:

Overcoming Anxiety for Dummies
U.S. History for Dummies

Menopause for Dummies

IBS for Dummies

Bipolar Disorder for Dummies (I’m not joking)

Foreclosure Self-Defense for Dummies

Depression for Dummies

Stress Management for Dummies

I think you can tell a lot about the state of a nation from its Dummies books…

It’s 40 degrees Centigrade (about 110 Fahrenheit) and the fast-food restaurants a) have patios OUTSIDE and b) have MISTERS on the patios OUTSIDE. There is something quintessentially American about having misters outside on the patio of a fast-food joint to cool off the people who aren’t sitting there, but who might, you know, feel like it. How no one seems to notice that all the water is evaporating before it reaches the tables is beyond me.

Petrol costs an average of $4.10 per gallon. Milk is going for about $3.50 per gallon. No one seems to mind that milk is so expensive, but they don’t seem to be able to have a conversation about anything other than how expensive it is to “fill up.” Discussing the outrageous cost of petrol has become the new national pastime. At least it isn’t whinging…

Despite the fact that petrol now costs a small fortune, four-wheel drive, gas guzzling vehicles still seem to be as popular as ever.

You can’t actually buy food in the supermarket any more. You can buy Cheez-its, Apple Jacks, frozen TV dinners, Coca-cola, Starbucks coffee, Twizzlers, Ramen Noodles, and oh yes, expensive milk. Fresh produce is by far the smallest section in most grocery stores. And the self-styled “European” grocery stores (don’t ask) sell produce bundled up, which is incredibly annoying. If you only want one courgette, it’s impossible to purchase – you have to buy a pre-wrapped package of at least ten of them.

In the interest of balance, let me mention the good things, because despite the above, saving graces abound:
  • Phoenix sunsets are pretty unbelievable
  • As are the monsoon storms
  • National Public Radio – BBC Radio 4 ain’t got nothing on my beloved NPR
  • Eliana's Authentic Salvadorian Cuisine, an El Salvadorian restaurant which provokes an aesthetically unappealing bout of Pavlovian slobbering
  • Air conditioning
  • Bookman’s Bookshop
I fear visit is bringing out the worst in me. Daily, I veer wildly between misanthrope and humanist. Perhaps this is why I work with dead people…

On a completely different note, I read Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead
last night. Absolutely cracking stuff: Beckett marries Shakespeare and then convinces Descartes to join in for a threesome. I’ve never seen a production of it, so if anyone comes across a staging, let me know. I was crushed to discover (thanks Max) that this is standard school reading, which means most likely everyone else has already read it, but hey, it feels like a new discovery to me, and thus it shall remain. Exciting stuff.

Tuesday, 8 July 2008

I have a dream...

Disclaimer: The following was written under a state of extreme annoyance using some rather large-scale generalisations. I like to generalise. It’s my blog. I’ll write what I want. Nice one me.

Having been back in my home country for all of three days, it still surprises me that no one has yet juxtaposed the famously held view of Greece, by Byron, Massimo, and others (lovely place, shame about the people) onto the United States. Get out of most of the cities and much of the country is astonishingly beautiful; some of the national parks are stunning bits of the planet, but in the cities, the endless idiocy of the people subsumes any potential aesthetic merit. For me, the primary annoyance of American people stems from their general lack of awareness that they share their cities with other individuals. On the West Coast anyway, I think people pretend that the abundance of physical, geographical space means that there’s no accountability to others who live in the same city. Why would we need to consider other people, there’s plenty of room for everyone, seems to be the mentality. Arizona, and correspondingly, Phoenix are very large places, with plenty of room for people to spread. In London there’s no room anywhere; people live on top of you, you get crushed on the tube in the morning, navigating a Saturday walk on Oxford Street requires SatNav just to avoid the throngs. Consequently, an “awareness” of other people takes place, consciously or not, all of the time. But here people pretend that no one else exists on planet Earth. No man is an island simply does not apply. It’s why everyone lives in a huge house (flat-sharing is pretty much unheard of), drives a giant 4 x 4, petrol prices be damned, eats too much, talks too loudly, and generally does what ever the hell they please. As Prince of Planet Me, why act otherwise?

My European friends never fail to offer the counter argument that Americans are “lovely people, so friendly and helpful.” Let me clarify: Americans love strangers (qualifier – white, European strangers. Top marks scored by the Anglo-Irish in particular) and hate their neighbours. Don’t be fooled for a second by the Obama “change” fervour. Americans don’t want change – there is no love of the social welfare here. They just want their cheap petrol back and no negative equity on their mortgages. The NHS is suspiciously viewed by Americans (those who know what it is anyway) as a borderline socialist farce, hence the perpetuation of the sometimes efficient, yet financially inane US healthcare system. Friends pay $80-200 per month for health insurance policies - and this is only their cost, the remainder is met by your employer - they may use once every two years, if that, yet which in no way subsidises the cost of health care for the poor. In essence this means not paying a health insurance premium means no health care, full stop.

Public transportation is impossible in cities designed to subsidise the American motor industry. There is no social responsibility, least of all where environmental issues are concerned. No one carries a bag for shopping. A supermarket charging for plastic bags would probably start a riot. Yesterday at the supermarket I bought some houmous (which was disgusting), some radishes, a bunch of celery, and a bottle of water. Not only did this cost me $7.63 (sales tax results in annoyingly odd prices), but the cashier put my FOUR items in TWO bags. When I took them out altogether to carry, he looked at me like I ought to be committed to an insane asylum. If I would have faked a public school girl accent and said something like “Oh no really dahling, I have no need for a carrier bag,” he would have smiled brightly and said “Oh my god! Are you Irish? Do you guys, like, have supermarkets in Ireland? My great-great-great-great-grandfather’s from Galway? Do you know it/them/my relatives/etc.” Nutters. A dear friend has suggested I look at this involuntary exile as a learning opportunity for personal growth or some other such nonsense, but what I really want is just to go home. Now that I finally know where that is…

More observations from the “big island” coming soon. Less generalisations next time. I promise…

Thursday, 12 June 2008

This one's for the ladies

Lately, I’ve been lamenting the loss of my headphones. In London, I walk pretty much everywhere, one of the benefits of living in the middle of town and I like to listen to music or the radio when I walk. Last week my headphones broke, and at first I hated it. I wanted my music back. I didn’t want to listen to babies crying or stupid tourist conversations. I wanted to etherize myself with music.

But then something brilliant happened and that brilliant something was Wednesday. I was walking down Gray’s Inn Road in the morning, on my way to work, when I overheard an interesting exchange. A taxi driver pulled a medium-sized suitcase out of the back of his cab and set it aside. As he headed up the steps (only about six or seven or them) to the office building on the side of the road, the woman in the back started shouting at him to stop. “No” she screeched, “just leave it down there.” The cabbie looked completely bewildered, asked her if she was sure, and when she insisted she could do it herself, toted the case back down the steps. I think there may have been more to it than that, but I was walking quickly and didn’t catch everything, but I got the general gist, and more importantly, I heard the unmistakably American accent.

What is it with American women and feminism? The poor guy was just trying to be helpful and your woman went and verbally castrated him. Perhaps she assumed he was fishing for a tip, or maybe she was just in a foul mood, but my guess is that it’s another case of the curse of the “I can do it myself” woman. Being a) female and b) American, I occasionally fall prey to similar expressions of over-the-top self-sufficiency. Growing up in America, the building blocks of my personality are created from an overwhelming sense of self-belief; coupled with the legacy of militant American feminism, not only does this spell disaster for cabbies everywhere, but for relations between men and women in general.

I can’t be bothered with a no-holds-barred academic diatribe on feminism, which strikes me as contradictory to the ethos of blogging, but this lady’s tirade cracked me up. While I appreciate her feeble attempt at an assertion of independence, the fight for feminism has, in some respects, seriously screwed women over. In general the women of my mother’s generation are so obsessed with the perception of equality that they don’t see how farcical and meaningless this “equality” really is. The grass is always greener symptom infects us all, but I think women especially. The bra-burners were so fixated on the power/gender status quo, that their efforts, while commendable, seem to have brought forth repercussions no one anticipated. First of all, there’s the “demise” of modern men, but I’ll come back to this.

Then there’s the idea that women must have it all, be it all, and do it all single handily. The 21st century feminine ideal, let’s take Angelina Jolie for argument’s sake: a wonder-mom, brilliant career, gorgeous husband, evidentially spectacular sex life (look at all those kids), humanitarian, etc. Whereas our mothers and grandmothers were chiefly expected to be good wives and caretakers, they weren’t necessarily burdened by the pressure to have sterling careers as well. Now, we’ve got to be Jolie about everything; feminism means that we’ve got to do everything that men do, better, but for less money, AND be full-time, bad-ass mothers too. What really enervates me about feminism is that it seems to have made femininity a pejorative word amongst women of my generation. Look at our role models now: Paris Hilton (and every other useless celebutante), Hilary Clinton (has buried her femininity so far underground, you wonder if there isn’t a penis hiding under those pantsuits), or the ubiquitous Joile (we all know a limitless supply of money and flexible working hours means motherhood – even if you do have twenty-six children – is a snap). We have to be good at school, good at sport, look physically impeccable, generate brilliant careers, have the perfect wedding, care for the children, make a beautiful home, and hold the family together, without showing any “feminine” weakness. We are made to feel guilty asking for, or even accepting, assistance, especially from men. We aren’t supposed to need help from anyone, and if we can’t do it ourselves, then we’re weak and womanly.

Sometimes we want him to carry our suitcase, or open the door, or pay for our dinner, or cheekily flirt with us in the office, or buy us sexy lingerie for no reason at all. This brings me back to my earlier point, about what’s happening to modern men. We’ve got Maureen Dowd asking whether men are even necessary any more and Steve Jones proclaiming the decent of the Y chromosome. More than this, when Puff Diddy (or Diddy or D or Puff the freaking Magic Dragon) boasts that it takes him longer to get ready than any of his ex girlfriends, including Jennifer Lopez, we know there must be a serious problem with 21st century men. Both biology and sociology are forwarding the ideas, flipping gender stereotypes on their heads, that men are in fact the fairer sex. Not only does men’s extra testosterone make then shorter-lived, but it also makes them more prone to disease and suicide. Jones thinks men are less able than women to cope in contemporary society and are ultimately doomed to descent in the coming “age of women.” How’s that for depressing? Personally, I can think of nothing worse than an "age of women" (at least in the literal sense), and whoever thinks that a world run by women will feature National Cuddle a Teddy Bear Day and a general sense of kum ba yah has another thing coming. That old philosophical maxim “power corrupts” is sad but true. Women can be loving and motherly and supportive, but they can also be conniving, and manipulative, and secretive. And they're just as capable of aggression and violence as men: British teenage girls are now more likely to smoke and drink than their male counterparts. But all of this also overlooks the unassailable fact that, despite what we occasionally tell our girlfriends, women like men. I like men. A world without men wouldn’t be a world at all. And even if we aren’t heading for a literal absence of men in post-modern society, we are perhaps already in the midst of a crisis of masculinity. I like it that men want to look nice and wear moisturiser or whatever, but when a man takes two hours to get ready, turns on the waterworks at the first sign of catastrophe, or doesn’t comprehend what taking some initiative means, I begin to loose faith. And what I really don’t understand is that smug female wink-wink knowingness, that “I’ve got my man under my thumb and I know it, he knows it, everyone knows it.” There is absolutely nothing sexy or equal or liberated or in any way positive about a “she’s the boss” attitude in a relationship of supposed equals. I’m not saying that I want to devolve into a Tarzan and Jane conception of male/female relations, but equality must surely be about more than “getting one over” on those bastardly men.

In trying to be and do everything to and for everyone, women are making it too hard for themselves, and perversely screwing up our men by stripping them of any responsibility and accountability, i.e. their masculinity. So, what do we do? I haven’t the slightest idea. But surely it couldn’t hurt to start by letting the taxi driver carry your suitcase up the stairs next time he offers.

Sunday, 8 June 2008


Today is the first official day of summer. Not that this is the official, official first day of summer. I haven't any idea when that is. I could Google it, but I don't really want to. The point is that it finally FELT like summer to me today. I don't know why today; it's not like there haven't been other sunny, summery, wonderful, skirt wearing, ice cream eating days, but today just felt like summer. Actually, I know what it is. I had lunch on the terrace at Somerset House this afternoon (gin and tonic for starters; fig, roasted tomato, buffalo mozzarella, and rocket salad for the main). Unfortunately it isn't the sort of place you go for the food, rather for the scenery. Someday someone will get the balance right and we'll have a café/restaurant with superb food and scenery, but alas, until then, I'll make do with feeling like I'm at a very civilised version of one of Gatsby's parties. The terrace itself is wonderful and for those who haven't been, you really are missing out on one of the hidden-ish pleasures of London.

But I'm getting sidetracked here. Summer. Somerset House. There wasn't anything particularly summery about my terrace lunch, though it was pleasant enough. But when I walked through the main courtyard it slapped me in the face. All the screaming, shrieking children running around like Tasmanian devils, playing, crazed and half naked in the fountains. It took me a second to place the smell. Ah ha! Chlorine! If there is one smell that sums up summer for me, chlorine is it. A childhood spent almost entirely in swimming pools is to blame for this curious Pavlovian response. Chlorine = summer.

And now, after all of today's exertion, I'm going to watch a borrowed DVD of Transformers. Because perhaps even more than chlorine, nothing says summer quite like a really crap film.

Thursday, 5 June 2008

Thought of the day

Oscar Wilde was hot.

America is the only country that went from barbarism
to decadence without civilization in between.

Thursday, 22 May 2008

les oignons

I’ve been doing a lot of writing lately, and I do mean a lot. With a looming thesis deadline, I’ve been up to my ears in Rousseau, Montesquieu, and other classically mad eighteenth-century Frenchies, but in an effort to maintain my sanity, I’ve been sneakily writing essays, poems, stories, radio scripts, and all manner of other procrastinatory things on the side. Sneaky, sneaky.

Sometimes thinking of things to write about is disgustingly easy – ideas flying over both shoulders like mnemonic devils. Other times, I can sit and stare at blank paper for hours. But lately I keep remembering all sorts of “writing exercises” we used to do in the creative writing courses I took as an undergrad (yes, they were as poncy as they sound), my personal favourite being the word association.

The recipe is painless: take one word, write, and enjoy.


Papery skin peels like silk under her
fingers. Their pearlescent sheen taunts with
thoughts of another woman’s skin. She cries
and she chops and she chops and she cries,
for the tears will not come without this prompt.
He buzzes downstairs and without missing
a beat, she wipes her hands, lets him in,
returns to her tears, and her mother’s recipe
for French Onion Soup.

I can never remember exactly what it is about onions that make people cry when cutting them. I’m sure I’ve looked it up a few times, heard someone explain the reason before, but it’s one of those facts that just never seems to stick. When I was a child I detested onions. Though to be equitable I refused to eat most things (for fun), then at ten, I began refusing to eat pretty much everything (on principle) when I opted for the life of a vegetarian.

While I’ve become quite fond of many things that I refused to let pass my lips as a child (this isn’t as impressive as it sounds), my adult relationship with onions hasn’t really evolved much since childhood. There is really only one respect where a deep-seated, covert love affair exists with these papery tear machines and that is the miracle which is French Onion Soup.

In some respects, onions, like garlic, salt, and other “condiment” cursed food stuffs have become standard issue rations; items to seemingly be added to every twenty-first century recipe. I don’t particularly care for onions in stuff – in sauces or omelettes or salads, but I do appreciate them when their uniqueness and individuality can shine, hence French Onion soup or onion purée (don’t ask), a friend even made onion ice cream once, not the most enjoyable thing I’ve ever eaten, but she was at least on the right culinary track.

Onions’ infamous layers are another reason I love the pungent little bulbs. One of the most over-used metaphors is that one about onions, perpetuating the mistaken belief that humans are full of hidden layers. What no one ever seems to mention is that, excepting the skin, the outer layers of an onion are exactly the same as its heart.

There’s a useful lesson in human psychology here I’m sure. I just can't quite make it what it is. You know, through the tears and all.

Wednesday, 7 May 2008

It all starts with a toothbrush...

I'm pretty sure he didn't ask if he could leave it; one day it suddenly appeared, and I didn't notice it until after he had gone. White and pristine, standing out proudly in a sea of blues and greens. One thing particularly amusing about this orally-hygienic intruder is that normally The Boy leaves no trace. He constantly teases me about how much of my hair I leave behind: in his bed, his clothes, his house. He informs me cheerily that, should he desire to do so, it would be no trouble at all to construct an effigy of me out of my stray hairs. But when he leaves my flat in the morning, there is never any trace, no sign he was ever there. When he disrobes, he does so with a dispassionate exactitude; laying out coat precisely underneath, neatly folding trousers and jumper, phone on top of wallet on top of dresser. I find this ritual all very amusing - it is so particular to him, so of him, that I cannot find fault with it.

When he leaves the ritual is reversed until shoes are laced and wallet is safely cradled back in pocket, then out the door, jaunty as a pirate captain at sea. In the days between our assignations I think of him often; not in a dehabilitating way, for I jealously guard my freedom and sincerely enjoy the time spent apart, but certainly with much affection as well as pleasure in the anticipation of our next meeting.

But the white soldier that is his toothbrush catches me off guard at strange moments. For obvious reasons, these disconcerting moments usually occur in the morning and in the evening. Though peculiar, I suppose it has become my own effigy of him and apart from its practical uses, I do occasionally speculate that he left the toothbrush on purpose, knowing that it would remind me of him at least twice a day. For all the good there is between us, it may seem odd that a small, defenceless toothbrush could provoke such conflicting emotion. The arrival of a toothbrush is an event significant and trivial, symbolic yet meaningless, simultaneously representative of the present and perhaps indicative of the future. Conceivably the dichotomy lies in a conflict between the toothbrush as a symbol for what I sometimes hope the future might hold, but also as a cautious reminder of what it might not: once upon a time it was someone else's toothbrush sitting in my cup and, in the future, it may be a different someone else's toothbrush too.

This would have been much less of an issue had he merely left dental floss...

Tuesday, 8 April 2008

Home is not where you live, but where they understand you...

In my drug induced (migraines people), hazy, mostly-asleep state last night, I started writing this post in my head. Times like these, I wish I had some kind of dictaphone imbedded into the walls of my bedroom, which I could activate simply by saying “dictaphone on,” or perhaps something slightly more clever. Though wasn’t Worsdworth’s definition of poetry something along the lines of a spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings recollected in tranquillity? I must transgress and disagree with Wordsworth on this matter as I certainly wish I would have gotten up last night to write down the jumbled (but I suspect altogether far more interesting) thoughts on my topic yesterday evening, rather than try to rationalise them at my computer this morning. Though, having said that – this difference is perhaps why I am not a household name and Wordsworth is.

No matter. On to the subject of my drugged-up musings. Something I’ve been spending rather a lot of time thinking about recently is the idea of “Home”, or what it means to be from somewhere and to belong to one place. These scintillatingly introspective thoughts have been triggered primarily by my looming application for permanent residency in the UK, but also by a recent trip to the North of England to trace the ghostly footsteps of The Boy's adolescence. Then there’s also the excellent book I finished reading yesterday, Kevin Myers’ “Watching the Door: Cheating Death in 1970s Belfast,” as well as Arthur Miller’s “Man Who Had All the Luck,” which I saw at the Donmar on Friday night.

Now you might be wondering how the unlikely combination of the UK Home Office, a trip to Lancashire, a book about 1970s Belfast, and a play about small-town America in the 1940s might conspire to inspire a blog post, but it will all make sense in time.

This August I will have lived in the UK for five years, which doesn’t seem that long in relative terms, having lived the twenty one years prior in various US states, but consider that this has been between the ages of 22 to 26, in other words, some petty important years. Two and a half of these five years were spent in Edinburgh, nearly two years in London, and the rest of time in Belfast (ah ha! A picture emerges). Edinburgh feels like home in one way, London in another, Belfast in yet another, but none of these places is actually home for me. I’ve come to think of them, each in their own way, as my home, but it’s simply not the same thing. I don’t think I really realised how true this was until my recent visit to The Boy’s family home. His grandparents and parents were both married in the small church adjacent to the house where his parents now live and generations of his family are buried in the same church’s cemetery. Seeing all this, the legacy and proximity of the history of a single family, affected me in a strange way. Sure, back home there’s still the first school I went to, the park where I kissed my first love, the canal across from my grandmother’s house where we spent endless hours playing in the summer, the desert fields we used to drive to, lie in the back of my truck, and stare up at the sky for hours, talking teenage nonsense. But none of these things, none of the places, people, or events that built the foundations of who I am today are here in this country; they’re all back home in Phoenix.

In some ways all my moving around has made me feel a bit like I’ve sectioned myself into smaller pieces and left the clichéd “piece of me” in the places I’ve lived. The biggest piece of me is rooted in Arizona, with smaller pieces left to seed in Edinburgh, Belfast, and London. Friends left behind, family, memories, boyfriends, animals, cars, books – all left behind.

So what does this make of me? I know better than to assume that knowing exactly where you come from, or exactly where your family has come from, is no help in trying to figure out where you’re going or even where you belong. After coming back from Lancashire, I found myself strangely envious of the subterranean roots of The Boy and his family; generations of a single family, born, living, and dying in the same 30 miles radius. There is something about this that part of me longs for, connection to a single place, “home” as an absolute certainty. But then remembering an earlier conversation The Boy and I had about belonging, he told me that, growing up especially, he wasn’t always sure where he belonged. Sometimes when the sense of being from somewhere is so strong, it overpowers other facets of personal identity. If you leave your home community (not a very original term, I know, but hey) for work, travel, or education, you might be seen as something of an outsider, both in your new community, as well as back home. This is something that makes complete sense to me, and it is part of why I left Phoenix to begin with. Arizona may be the only place I can truthfully call home, as well as being perhaps the only place that I will always feel rooted to, but it is also one of the few places where I feel like a misfit, where I don’t understand the tribal code and don’t always speak the same language.

As for the UK, I still can’t say for certain how I feel about calling this country home. To be sure, it is easier on a day-in-day-out level for me to live here, but this is tinged with a certain hypocrisy. I would be lying if I said I didn’t sometimes like being a bit of an outsider. At home, I’m one of millions of other American girls, living in an American city. Here, I’m a definite (read unique) member of an expat minority. Not that I don’t aim to distinguish myself in other, more respectable arenas, but being an American girl named Crystal still marks me out as unique, even in a multicultural megalopolis like London. Even more so in a smaller city like Edinburgh and in Belfast it bordered on the celebrity with my “say-it-again” accent.

People always ask me what brought me to the UK, or if I miss my family, or if I plan on staying here forever. Most of the time my answer to these and other similar questions is that I don’t really know. Not a very exciting reply, but true nevertheless. I can’t really say if I’ll always want to live in the UK. I like it for now; some cities, Belfast, London, and Edinburgh; I love, and look on as sort of surrogate mothers to my birth-mother Phoenix. I’m starting to think that home is where your friends are, your 21st century family (or is this something made up by transient people who are more inclined to leave their families behind?), but then what happens when you move around too much and leave friends behind as well? What happens when you fall in love with a city itself, like I have with Belfast or with Edinburgh or London? Is this all it takes to have a home – to feel as if it is your home in some way? Walking through Soho some time ago with The Boy, I asked him how long he thought he might stay in London. I nearly fell over when he said he planned to stay here forever; that this was it, he’d moved to his final destination and he wasn’t leaving. I don’t know if London feels like home to him yet, but I suppose he’s got the rest of his life to make it feel like home. While I do love living in London and occasionally entertain thoughts of setting up shop here, I still feel like most days I don’t even know where I’ll be next month, let alone five years from now.

But I’m really wishing I wrote all this down in my dreamy, drugged-up state last night. It sounded a lot more meaningful in my head than it does on paper today. I suppose the root of all this is that I’ve been feeling really homesick lately, but then when I think about it, I’m not really sure where I’m feeling homesick for – if it’s Edinburgh, Phoenix, or Belfast. And then the more I think about it, the more I realise that there really isn’t anywhere I can properly call home, and how can I be homesick for a place that doesn’t even exist? Maybe what I’m really missing is old me: me at 20 as a University student in Tempe; me at 22, alone and on my adventures in a strange new country; me at 24, in love with a crazy Irishman, living in his hometown and loving it; or me now, at 26, in London, living out a lot of dreams, but still feeling like life could change direction in an instant. I suppose I don’t really know what I’m missing. I just know that it’s missing…