I awoke late today, I couldn't even remember what day it was. In the morning I find it a supreme effort rising from my warm, safe bed. And, so often like today, some time was spent thinking about getting to my feet. I also thought about the things that I must do. They were many, but most important was to remember. For it would seem, and it does feel, like nothing has touched me for some time. How and why that is I don't know. All I do understand tells me that maybe if I write it will come back to me. If I could only remember the past, I could understand why things are as they are now, and perhaps shed some light on the path before me.
The act of remembering is not as easy as they say. To retrace one's steps along a path accurately so that one follows the true course must be difficult for anyone. To recall an incident of the past as it was rather than as you would have liked it to have been is all I want. Anything else would be a lie to me. It did exist. It did all happen. It's just that I can not prove anything. It seems strange that I should be so driven by the notions of my mind. How important the mind is in determining the material world. It's bizarre that the most vivid symbols of existence are memories and thoughts. All information is understood and reassembled in the head and nothing else exists outside.
I sat and looked out of the window, but my mind was elsewhere, somewhere, everywhere, nowhere. The morning sunlight optimistically sparkled into the whitewashed walls and across dew drenched rugby fields, But everything passed before me, like the pink puffs of cloud in the cerulean sky. Below the sound of a car on a gravel road, I snapped out of it and saw what I had been looking at.
I had been watching my cornflakes turn soggy and my coffee get cold. Beside the cup was a small red notebook; I had found it earlier in a drawer full of unpaid bills. When I caught sight of it, it was like meeting an old friend you hadn't seen for a long time. A sense of realisation of just how much you had missed them. I had carried this dog-eared notebook around for a year, jotting down numerous ideas for painting, drawings in ball pen and short passages of writing. Some were no more than drafts for letters or possible titles for paintings. One passage, however, interested me more than any other. Given its context, it was the last time I had used the book.
I am back in London, feeling sad and lost. I can hear the loud voices of the people downstairs screaming and shouting at each other in some foreign tongue.
This place makes me feel sad. I find myself feeling alien to the place that I have been brought into. This feeling emptiness in all that I feel, see and do. I work in a branch of Next selling clothes. I feel my life ticking away, yet when I'm there that's all I long for it to do.
London is so empty, so unwanted; yet everywhere is so expensive, even a modest home would make a poor man hungry. And for what? So, you may sit and listen to your neighbours scream and shout, but what would you do in a "home" that offers little more space than that of a cardboard box.
I haven't slept well since I arrived. Each morning I awake as though I had just been prodded with a sharp stick. At times in the morning I would rather not see. I get ready for work; I iron my shirt, take the bus to Liverpool Street and blend into all the other grey and white tasteless ties. Work begins the minute I open the door. Fake smiles and casualness hide screams and shouts to the mute dictator with the casual glance and welcoming smile. I open my mouth a say not what I think. Time should not be wasted. When painting a picture time goes so fast, morning turns to afternoon and then to evening in quick succession. Why then, in this absurd shop, do the hands of my watch crawl around so slowly.
There should be a monument to the insignificant. In it we should all see ourselves, yet something tells me that we would probably see everyone else.
How they have worked there for so very long I will never know. Today a man well above me in rank explained with pride that he had three A-levels, but had refused a chance to study in New York to work for Next. Four years later he can tell the tale and say to me "But, look at me now".
"Arsehole", I smiled.
The few clothes are rearranged time and time again. A customer enters and disturbs a carefully arranged display. A trouser line out of place, a shirt with a crumple. You can be sure that, like a shadow, behind him will be a man in a Next suit to straighten the edges and flatten the curves. A little to the left, a bit to the right. Mindless alterations. Insignificance itself. Who's going to notice and, more to the point, who's going to care. Yet my manager tells me that Kunlee's the best at trousers, Niki's a good folder; he's good at straightening and she's good at standing; he can Hoover and she's good with a duster; he may be good with labels, but I've got my ticket and am making tracks.
Fifteen minutes by the church. At the back of the shop there's a place between the buildings that I go to be alone. At about three in the afternoon the sun peaks out from behind the NatWest Tower and falls onto the ground. My tension relieves when sitting there for those few minutes. I love and value each minute that passes more than any other during the working day.
I finished reading my notebook and left for the underground.
I walked into the carriage and sat down. Opposite me sat a guy, who looked like he had just got up after having spent a night sleeping on his best mate's floor wearing scruffy clothes and a slightly glazed expression. As I looked at him, he seemed somehow familiar - he obviously thought the same, as he stared back at me with the same puzzled expression which said"I can't think where from, but I know you." . Usually when this happens you pass by in a street or cross each other on a road, without the time to question. By the time you remember, they are already out of sight. Here, face-to-face conversation was unavoidable. "Didn't you go to Teddington," I began. Suddenly his face became animated, his eyes focused, he smiled and replied "Yes, that's right, I knew I knew you from somewhere." "So what are you doing these days?" I inquired.
"Oh, I'm a painter."
"Really, what sort?" . He made a flapping gesture with his hand, which looked to me more like a dying fish than the painting action it was meant to mimic. "A painter painter," he said realising I didn't understand.
"What, you mean a fine artist?"
"Yes, that's right."
"Are you at college or out on your own?"
"I was at college, I went to Richmond after Teddington to domy B-Tec and did a City & Guilds after that, which finished last year." "Ah ha - so what sort of work do you do?"
"How do you mean?"
"Figurative or abstract?"
"Figurative, I guess."
"What do you paint, landscapes, figures, still lives?"
"It's difficult to say, they contain all those things."
"How do you mean?.''
"They're quite surreal and each painting has many different parts."
"Surreal - like Dali?"
"No, more like Chirico."
"That sounds interesting, how did you arrive at that?"
"I don't know, I can't remember, it just happened."
"It's funny, I can't imagine a surrealist coming from Teddington. Do you know what I mean. It's just that that place would have destroyed most people's imagination."
"I know what you mean, what they taught us there was useless, it wasn't until I left that I knew what I wanted to do."
The doors slammed shut. I suddenly became aware of the silence. The carriage was full of faceless people wearing pinstripes and high heels, all reading variations of the same news from behind a wall of newsprint. The train jerked into life and pulled out of the station. "So what do you do yourself?" It was his turn to be inquisitor.
"The same thing, actually."
"Yes, paint paint," I replied and began to paint the air with an invisible brush, as he had done.
"It's amazing that two escaped!"
On saying this, I could see him making the connection in his head. The pink paint on my DMs, the black rim of paint underneath my finger nails and my general unkempt appearance. All sure signs of a painter.
He continued his line of questioning, "I know you were good at school, so what sort of things do you do now?"
"Yes, sometimes. But mostly large figure compositions."
"Do you work with a narrative or do you make it up on the canvas?"
"I do use a narrative, but nothing direct. I don't take a story and paint X, Y and Z wearing blue shoes and stripy socks just because they may have some bearing on the story. Instead, I work with a theme or an issue which I try to express."
"Judgment interests me. The way people judge themselves ( or don't) and how they believe they are qualified to judge others without sufficient knowledge to do so fairly. It's something I feel strongly about. I feel people's sense of morality is often questionable. What is socially acceptable and what is right and wrong are often not the same thing. I try to make the individual aware of themselves; maybe they would then be less inclined to play God." "Do you think people can read this in your work?"
As the train pulled into a station he moved towards the door.
"I have to get off here."
"A friend of mine is finishing at the Slade and I'm going to the private view. Do you want to come?'' He asked.
"The old Courtauld galleries at six o' clock."
''I'll be there," the train slowed to a halt, "see you later," he said as the doors slid open. He stepped out and was soon out of sight.
Underground people sit in rows opposite each other hardly daring to breath out of time. Sometimes there is a row of men only, others only women; all white or all black; or a mixture of Japanese, Indian, Nigerian and Jamaican. It all depends on the time of day and the line. It's a bit like walking into a giant fruit machine, but there are infinite unique combinations and no prize. On the district line at this time the train is full of the middle classes with a true blue political streak travelling from suburbia to the City. Most hide behind paper masks and are turned out like soldiers on parade.
Next to me a very neat looking woman in red is reading a paperback novel. It's called "The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness". Heavy stuff! I start to read: "I wish only for one thing, to be severely ill and not to know anything about him for at least a week. Why does nothing happen to me? Why must I go through all this? If I had only never met him. I am desperate. Now I am again buying sleeping powder, then I go into a dreamlike state and do not think about it so much. Why doesn't the devil get me? I'm sure it would be more pleasant with him than being here."
This was an extract from Eva Braun's diary written on March 11th 1935. It obviously refers to Adolf Hitler with whom she is clearly unhappily involved. Can you imagine it, falling in love with Hitler? It would have been difficult enough giving birth to him, let alone sleeping with him.
A man got on the tube carrying some bags. His face was scarred by burns. Red raw skin stretched like freshly cut dough across his face and neck. His left ear was barely more than a hole surrounded by a few ridges of skin. He was travelling with a friend and they were discussing the mundanities of their shopping. The disfigured man spoke in a strange-sounding voice. It was the pitch, something about it made me wonder if he was, mentally, slightly unbalanced. Maybe the impact of his deformity had upset his grasp of "reality". So what if it had! Imagine waking up in the middle of the night after a dream had triggered a forgotten thought, a lost feeling, memories of burning flesh - your own flesh. The smell. How could you ever forget the smell? To have your ear melt off the side of your face like butter off a hot knife. To look in the mirror in the middle of the night and not recognise yourself. If he is unbalanced, he has every right to be, because men have killed themselves for less.
After I had worked at Next I got a job working in The Gap every Saturday and two evenings a week. I did this for ten months. The company sold imported American made clothes. The clothes were not the only thing direct from the USA. Their method of management was also brought over. Whether in Chicago, New York or London any cultural or social differences were ignored. To them, the English public were as American as the Americans were English. The shops were identical; even the prices on the labels were the same, so British customers pay the same amount of pounds as their American counterparts pay in dollars. For reasons of uniformity, the staff were told to greet all the customers at the door; which was about as natural as asking for a hamburger in a health food store! It was always necessary to look busy. If you failed an eager trainee manager would give you something to do. For this reason, each time a customer stopped for a moment to look at an item of clothing, a member of staff could be relied upon to be standing right behind them in order to ask, in the best fake familiar way, if the customer had found the size they wanted. Staff were instructed to ask the most absurd questions. Nothing was too ridiculous in the pursuit of a sale.
The staff were constantly being warned by the managers. There were two reasons for this, the first was to see that they were busy; the second because they trusted you just as much as they trusted the customers. To their way of thinking you could be working with an outside team of shoplifters, so they felt justified in checking your bag each time you left the building. Working in such conditions of mistrust while being expected to put yourself at risk by approaching shoplifters was not easy.
The company also had a habit of deliberately employing too many part-time staff for the hours available to them. Most companies stick to a regular rota, so staff work the same hours each week. At The Gap the rota was changed from week to week. This weakened staff ties, which meant they were less likely to talk on the shop floor and unlikely to challenge unreasonable demands. Thus, by deliberately creating a state of flux the staff were made to feel grateful for the opportunity of being able to work at all.
There was a fast turnover of trainee managers. They would start as full-time staff, but once promoted they would start to change. After a while they would trot out they company lines and expect you to take them as their own. Once I found a management psychological control over them clearly brings into question the moral responsibilities of those that run such companies.
I pushed open the door and walked into the cafe and glanced at the faces for my friend, but she hadn't arrived. It was a long cafe, with green and blue embossed ceramic tiles which divided the cream coloured walls into two. On one side were the sandwich makers, encased in a glass and chrome food counter. Around them, fixed to the floor, were the tables and benches where the customers sat. Each table had its own still life perched on a shelf above the table. The shelves also housed the condiments and napkins, folded like fans. I took a seat next to a young couple. I felt uncomfortable listening to their conversation without having anything tangible to do. I took the menu, even though I knew what I wanted, and read it earnestly; later I noticed a copy of The Times become available. "CBI declares Britain in deep recession." ran the main headline. This certainly wasn't news to me, nor, would I imagine, to anyone else. I felt I was filling myself with fragments of needless information. What was the point of trying to keep up with world events. I couldn't give a damn about the Prime Minister's speech last night, what has it got to do with me? Am I any better off knowing about this abstraction. I'll read it all only to forget most of it within half-an-hour.
Escapism; but who is escaping? The man recognises his own life or those who are far away, lost in the contrivance of another's thinking. This morning at breakfast. What did you say to your wife? On the tube today, why were you delayed?
I once walked through Ravenscourt Park; I had just reached the end of an avenue of trees, when an underground train appeared on the viaduct in front of me. Unfortunately, I was neither far enough away to feel it was impossible to catch or close enough to run for it. The fact that l had not missed it comfortably aggravated me. By the time I reached the station I knew the train must have gone. Halfway up the steps I caught sight of a stationary train above. I rushed up the remainder of the stairs and turned to enter the carriage. I froze, at my feet, facing me were two men trying to resuscitate a man who was lying face up in the aisle. In the carriage, I couldn't believe what I saw: people had become agitated, shuffling in their seats, looking at the time. Some were reading their papers.
As this commotion was unfolding in front of me I couldn't help wondering if this person was married or had any children; and whether he had properly said good-bye to them that morning.When a train pulled in on the opposite platform, all the passengers crossed over to the other train and continued reading their papers as if nothing had happened.
So why were you delayed this morning? Maybe it was because while you were reading your paper a man in the same carriage had a heart attack and died. But, you didn't notice, you were in the same carriage and did not care. ''Can I help you?" A sharp featured Italian lady stared down at me, with a little notepad in one hand and a pen in the other.
"Cappuccino, please," I replied.
The hands of the clock on the cream wall opposite edged past one. I looked up, the cafe was full, full of office workers in smart suits and gallery girls with their Chanel bags and Italian shoes. Outside a business man laughed loudly into a portable phone.
"Hi, how are you?" A tall thin girl, with long black hair and almond eyes looking like a Siamese cat sat down opposite me.
"Great. Have you ordered yet?"
"No. What have you been up to today?"
"Oh, nothing much, I did some shopping this morning, tidied up. That's all. How about you?"
"Painting as usual."
The cat produced a packet of cigarettes from a pocket, lit up and took a drag. "I went to the Munch exhibition the other day," she began, exhaling blue smoke into the space between us.
"I've been meaning to go myself. What did you think?"
"I was a bit disappointed, actually."
"The paintings didn't look finished, they looked rough and I didn't like the colours. In reproduction they are bluer, but in life there are more reds and oranges."
"I haven't seen many in life, so I can't really say. I must go and see for myself."
"I did go and see something good the other day: a French film called "Le Belle Noiseuse". Have you seen it?
"I thought of you. It's about a painter who had painter's block for about ten years."
"A long time, I suppose. He was introduced to a young girl who's the girlfriend of a young painter. He asked her to model for him and he started working again."
"It sounds a bit cliched."
"It wasn't, anyway the film was about their relationship and how it affected the painter's wife and the girl's boyfriend."
"Was their relationship sexual?"
"No but it was intimate."
"Anything else?" Came a voice from above. The Italian waitress had returned and dropped a frothy cappuccino onto the table in front of me.
"Can I have a tea, please."
"And could I have a bacon bap with salad and mayonnaise, please" I had been here many times and had ordered this on numerous occasions so I hardly needed to ask.
"Can I have a cheese and salad sandwich, please."
"Brown or white?"
"Anything else?" She smiled sweetly, finished writing the order and darted off to another table.
"It showed him working with the model, setting the poses and working on large charcoal drawings."
"Were they any good?" I asked, thinking they were probably crap.
"Which, the drawings or the pose?"
"I think the director was trying to say that the model was better at finding the poses, than those set up by the painter."
"It's often the way - you can miss the element of chance. In the minute you achieve something and find an answer of sorts, it must be forgotten about. Otherwise it seems staged. Yet, without knowledge and skill, you are unable to search for the thing and are unaware of something when you find it. It seems you must have an idea, which drives you onto something specific, but be prepared to sacrifice it at a moment's notice."
"Cheese and salad. Bacon and mayonnaise." The waitress placed the two plates on the table-between us. The Cat drew her last drag, stubbed the cigarette into the ash-tray.
I finished the last dregs of my cappuccino, then sat back and stared at the remains of the sandwich on the empty green plate.
"It must be nice watching a French film and not having to read the subtitles. I always find it difficult doing both."
"There wasn't much dialogue, will you go and see it? I think you'd like it."
"Maybe, though I have a problem with the way painters are portrayed in films. It is usually very romantic and idealised which I find rather tedious. When Kirk Douglas played Van Gogh striding through the cornfields like some visionary, the film-makers conveniently forgot that he had mud on his boots, was covered in paint, had teeth missing and was isolated, dejected and alone."
"That's not completely true, though, is it? Many thought he was a madman."
"Yes, but they did romanticise him. Few people even liked his work then, not even his own brother. Yet today you need a good £30 million to buy his paintings. Now you tell me what's mad? I bet if a collector unknowingly met Van Gogh today, he wouldn't give him the time of day. Give him a painting, that's different. It's refined and is art at its highest level and it doesn't shit. People think they're so clever, but they can't see the present and can only be wise after the event."
"Maybe, but it's not as simple as that."
"I know, but in principle it's true."
"So how long are you in London for this time?"
"I don't know, it depends, I have to go back to France to do my studies."
"Have you been modelling this time?"
"Yes. A bit, but I'm waiting to hear from a casting director. She says I can work with her, but she hasn't got the contract yet."
"Is this in England or France?"
"Paris, I think."
"But, how would you be able to continue your studies and do this?"
"They wouldn't need me all the time."
"You mention something else, being an extra?"
"Yes. I sent some photos to an agent, but I'm still waiting for a reply."
"Films are a difficult thing to get into."
"I might be lucky."
The door slammed shut. A couple of well dressed people stood in the doorway looking like they had just stepped out of a gallery and into the pages of a fashion magazine. I looked at my hands and took a napkin to scrape the paint from under my nails.
"I've been reading a very good book recently, called Heart of Darkness. Have you read it?"
"I read it some time ago now. Conrad is a wonderful writer, so very unusual."
"Yes. I agree. His description of the Thames at dusk is quite magical. There is a passage you must read. It really hits the nail on the head." I handed her the open book.
You know I hate, detest and can't bear lies. Not because I am straighter than the rest of us, simply because it appalls me. There is a taint of death, a flavour of mortality in lies - which is exactly what I hate and detest in the world, what I want to forget. It makes me miserable and sick, like biting into something rotten would do.
The French girl looked up at the waitress as she handed us the bill. "That's two seventy for you and two thirty for you. Are you paying separately or together?"
"Separately," I replied.
"No. It's OK. I was late, I'll pay," and she duly handed over the five pound note.
I looked up at the time. It was ten past two. We left the cafe and walked to the end of the street. "Where are you off to now," I asked.
"I want to go to Covent Garden to pick up something for my sister. Later I'm going to Soho to meet a friend in Cafe Boheme. Do you want to come?"
"Thanks, but I've been invited to a private view this evening."
I didn't like the cafe anyway, it was pseudo-bohemian. Full of designer bohemians getting pissed on shandy and lemonade. "See you later and good luck with the films."
A woman with long brown hair and wearing a blue dress, stared at me from a crowd of people on the station platform. Above her, in large white letters was written Munch Frieze of Life.
At the entrance of the show, a large doorway framed a painting of Adam and Eve, and at their feet, a sea of people looked up. The audience was mostly young, in their twenties and thirties, and looked much like a typical group you would find browsing around Camden Market on a Sunday afternoon. Their to be seen to be looking, self consciously alternating from one pose to another as they slowly gravitated around room one entitled Love.
I had walked half way around the room myself when I came to a painting called the Dance of Life. Obviously when looking at a Munch it's not wise to judge the painting in an academic way. But no matter what angle I took, the painting was plain bad.
Formally the canvas was divided into three horizontal segments. The foreground was a solid green, above this was a thin orange band of beach with blue sea and sky above. The canvas was also divided into three vertically, a woman in white on the left, two figures in the centre dancing and another woman in black on the right. Between this a manic looking dancer in black and a woman in white were repeated , in the distance on the left and closer to the viewer on the right. Unfortunately, there wasn't any variation of colour, the whites were all warm and sat on the surface, while the blacks were scrubbed into the canvas, so sank into deep space. The red was not emphatic and the green was so flat that it never receded from the surface. The reflection of the sun on the sea, was painted so flatly that it looked like an ornamental pillar. Both woman on each side awkwardly broke the horizon line with their heads, neither high enough or low enough below it to look comfortable. Obviously he wasn't interested in creating form, but not even the outlines were considered. Consequently, the figures resembled rag dolls with disjointed hands and arms that don't connect to the torso. But then none of them stood on the floor, preferring instead to gravitate six inches above it. According to the caption and quote from the artist, he was in the centre with one lover while another watched from the wings. This agitated me, as why should I be interested in a narrative, when the painter didn't spend enough time on the painting for me to believe in it.
When faced with a painting like this, I ask myself a simple question, if I was walking along some back street and saw this on a skip, could I be bothered to climb into it to retrieve it. If it was worth saving, it would probably be with some difficulty and in the knowledge that someone somewhere considered it worthless. Therefore, by transposing the object from a reverent environment to an irreverent one you can gage whether aesthetically or emotionally the artwork means anything to you and is half as important as it's surroundings purport it to be. On this occasion I would have left it in the skip.
On a piece of old cardboard, in thin paint and pastel was the image of the scream. Here everything was in flux, all things were fluid and insecure. It looked as though Munch painted the image quickly, capturing it before it took flight and was lost forever. The anxiety of finding that momentary expression, the single note from silence, so short and faint as to be hardly audible at all, makes this image so powerful.
In silence, a young girl awkwardly sits on the edge of a bed, staring intensely out at the viewer. The painting Puberty, in contrast with the Dance of Life captures the essence of existence, without the need for narrative. The drawing sharply described the girls features with subtlety and accuracy. There is something substantial and real about this painting, something you- can believe in.
According to the handout, there wasn't much about death that Munch through experience didn't know. His mother died when he was five, his sister Sophie when he was thirteen. Laura, his other sister was institutionalised suffering from schizophrenia and by 1889, both his mother and father were dead.
"Room five death" was written ominously at the far end of the room, below this were two versions of the painting the Sick Child.
The painting depicts Munch's mother sitting beside his sister Sophie who is ill in bed. The original was painted in 1885, with the help of a series of lithographs which he used to construct the compositional relationship between them. However, it wasn't until 1926 after having come through Fauvism, Cubism and German Expressionism that he made the copy. Yet little separates them.