October 27 to November 3
Letter from Glasgow: COMPANY (III)
Last week I went to London. I had been away from the city for almost nine months, the longest leave of absence in my life. I hardly believed I could get there again. I pictured it as an ominous tunnelling through darkness. I left in the dark, but after six hours on a train, silent and masked, there I was, in London at lunchtime, in the autumn sun. It was quiet, like Sundays or Bank Holidays used to be in this city many years ago. The pavements were bare enough of feet for their pale stone to echo the light of the high buildings on the streets and squares.
I worked for two days and on the third day I met my friend in a public garden in a square just south of Piccadilly. We are not allowed to meet in her home so we met there. We arrived almost at the same time and sat down on different benches on the same side of the garden, then I got up and saw her, sitting on a bench. We waved and stirred the air around us in enthusiastic gestures of embrace. Like this city, my friend and I have rarely been separated for so many months.
I sat down at the other side of her bench, which was set in and enclosed by a sturdy hedge of yew. We sat on the bench, looking forward, into the enormous plane trees and the yellow light, and we talked of our children, of books we had both read long ago, and the ones we were reading now. We let the pictures made by our words float across the yellow leaves that filled the square, across the strips of dusty sun and trunks of trees. The almost empty square was now full of pictures, from books and from our lives. We laughed the way you can only laugh when side by side.
For three hours we kept company. We got up once and made a circuit north to the vast Waterstones bookshop on Piccadilly. I stood in the stairwell and looked up the concentric silvered rectangles of the once department store. Each floor seemed immense. No-one was there and the bright coloured paperbacks set on tables in the empty space seemed flimsy and irrelevant. More than ever this Art Deco immensity felt like an ocean liner, where everyone had fled. Only one man sat waiting behind his perspex screen, to receive and calculate the cost of the three books that my friend chose.
The bookshop was oddly enervating. We left it and went back to the square, to resume the space that resists time — of friendship and talk, under those enormous autumn plane trees in the soft afternoon light, until it was time for me to go. Urgency reclaimed me and we said goodbye in a hurry as I ran off to make my train. I left London looking backwards. The slow and now silent train north through the fens. These days one must travel in silence. I look back as we leave London behind, and hold our conversation close.
October 20 to October 27
Conversation (…) is what explains us best. It supplies and shapes all our thoughts yet we think little of it because all vocal creatures use it.
Conversing with ourself is thinking when done consciously, dreaming when not. Conversing with others enlarges both faculties.
Alasdair Gray The Book of Prefaces, 2000
October 13 to October 20
Letter from Glasgow: COMPANY (II)
And in the morning the sun was shining and everyone was beginning their work.
My habits are the same as ever. I walk the children to school and then walk back towards my desk, turning over images I might work with when I get there. There should be more space for this now, now that I am not always about to be leaving, packing bags to travel for teaching, or to take the children to visit wider family. We are staying put. I stay put on my own in my room each day, as I always claimed I wanted. But most of my closest friends live in other countries and I have not even been to London, which is also another country, since February. This luxurious confinement is beginning to wear thin. I miss the company of friends, who put me at my ease, take me out of time for a moment and return me to my work with new air, light and purpose.
This morning I walked home as usual down the long wide road that runs east-west, from the motorway to the hill of the University. The street runs between the Art School and the University, but the motorway was rammed through this line in the sixties which meant that most of the large nineteenth century flats became cheap rents for students. The rounded end rooms of these sandstone tenements form turreted towers, four floors high. Each room has a curved window with five tall glass panes almost floor to ceiling, facing east, south and west. When the sun is shining it fills up the rooms. I love the look of these empty rooms, like watchtowers, full of light, and this morning, thinking about my missing friends, I put them here, each in a room of their own, filled with sun. The sun is coming in on them as they get down to their desk or easel and I am walking along the road, looking in. I wave up to them as I pass and they wave back. The morning is full of promise. We are waving, acknowledging each other at the start of our shared day’s work, and then I head home, the sun on my back, to resume my own, having drawn strength from their company.
Work as if you live in the earlier days of a better nation. In the late Alasdair Gray’s rewording of lines by a Canadian poet. There is something utopian in this picture that comes to me this morning of everyone, in sunlit rooms, waving and saluting each other’s solitary work. Alasdair Gray believed that we should work to realise utopias in our own cities, neighbourhoods and communities, in the measure of our means. In January 1987 he and a group of others responded to “the unease felt in the present state of society” and declared a Free University to be established from the living room of number 340 of this street, West Prince’s Street. It would be a place that anyone could come to, a space for sharing debate, knowledge and performance as well as books and cheap food. A common library and sitting room were important.
In 2010 a student at Glasgow University proposed their own room in a flat at 61, West Prince’s Street as a Room of Flexibility. It would be a part of Glasgow Open School, initiated the same year as a critical response to dominant modes of education, a sort of Free University of its own, with an emphasis on sharing and experimenting with ideas, knowledge and artistic practice. The proposal echoes much of the Free University’s declaration from the same street twenty three years earlier:
I’d like to propose space in my flat at 1/1 61 West Princes Street as space for flexible usage.
A bedroom with windows, floor space measuring 7 x 5m
A boiler cupboard that we could possibly use as a library
The space could be used as a place to find out information about the workings of the school, could be cleared for movement events, could be set up with tables and chairs, could be used for painting etc
The space is equipped with wireless internet access for all participants and visitors, it also has tea and coffee, and use of kitchen and bathroom
The space would incorporate a cupboard sized library of donated media which can be freely copied and used for study.
The idea might be seen as utopian. But it is also simple and now that the University and its libraries are closed, the tutors away and students left in their rooms, it may be what is needed.
West Prince’s Street is replete with topographic curiosities. A walking tour led by a well known crime writer last month took socially distanced participants to a famous Victorian murder site, to Glasgow’s first gay nightclub (opened before the law to decriminalise homosexuality came into effect in 1981), the flat where Postcard Records label began and to Glasgow’s Theosophical Society, but it does not mention numbers 340, or 61 (except as a notorious party flat along with the murder site at number 41). This seems a missed chance, especially as city walks were key to the philosophy of both the Free University and the Open School.
Work as if you live in the earlier days of a better nation. A message, and not just for Scotland. I am reading essays by the Chilean writer Alejandro Zambra. He speaks of the long hours spent talking to no-one that is part of a writer’s work: They say there are only three or four or five topics for literature, but maybe there’s only one: belonging. Perhaps all books can be read in function of the desire to belong, or the negation of that desire. To be or not to be part of a country, a community, a university, a family.
Belonging, which has longing in it.
October 6 to October 13
Letter from Glasgow: DISCARD
I photographed the firework postcard for my letter from Glasgow a fortnight ago and then lost it again. It was reclaimed by the sea of papers on tables, in boxes and across the floor of my room. I searched for it online, to remind myself of its existence, and found it on the site of the Russian secondhand trading site Meshok. A meshok is a bag, it could be a rucksack or a string shopping bag with holes in it, both imply expeditions, a bundle to carry essentials for a journey. You would carry one with you at all times in the days of shortages, in case you chanced on a sudden delivery: apples, bananas or even bottles of Kabernet red wine, being sold directly from the lorry. I found the missing postcard in Kazan, on sale for just ten roubles, about ten pence. I emailed a friend in Russia, and within half an hour she had replied, saying that she had bought the postcard, it would be sent to Moscow and she would bring it to London this autumn and post it to Glasgow. It arrived in Moscow this week and Polia sent me a photograph of the postcard emerging from its envelope, with a stamped form detailing its progress, through customs inspection at various airports, from Kazan.
I had lost the postcard, but I found the website, and was soon immersed in its pages. The array of disparate objects being sold here reminded me of the street sellers who used to stand on the Moscow pavements in the nineties, a small cloth laid before them, and on it their spaced out offerings. A spoon, some embroidery, a reproduction of a painting in a frame, a calendar, not necessarily that year’s, a half full packet of tea, a single egg, potato or a few carrots, strands of dill, even a portion of a loaf. It was as if people were offering their very last possessions, as though, like assiduous bailiffs, they had brought out from their houses anything that was not fixed down, everything but the kitchen table and the bed. The old women stood behind their squares of cloth waiting stubbornly in the sleet as passers by sized up what was on offer.
The online market does not quite have this pathos, but like the squares of cloth on the pavement it provides a frame for things that you might not otherwise notice. There is an entire section for lids, stoppers and bottle tops. Soviet-era jars and bottles, with or without their contents, empty biscuit boxes made of rough printed cardboard, yellowed receipts, train tickets, official forms and passes are going for high prices. The photographs though, are cheap. They are sorted by era: Pre-revolution. 1918-29, The Thirties, Second World War, then 1946 to 1989. Amateur photography became widespread in Russia after the Second World War, partly thanks to Russian acquisition of equipment and technology from Germany as “reparations”. It was encouraged by the state, but there were rules. The explosion of low cost mass photography was not quite the universal liberating medium that Rodchenko and other avant-gardistes had imagined. These unspoken constraints are evident as I trawl through the home photography on the website.
There are persistent themes: work outings, friends at the dacha or the beach, weddings and celebrations. The images are tagged simply: Youth, Happy Women, Swimming fashions. They make me think of the artist Boris Mikhailov. His photographic series, Beach at Berdiansk, Sots Art, and Luriki, made in the seventies and eighties, subvert the naivety and restraint of these domestic scenes. Mikhailov was an amateur, an engineer in a camera factory who took a series of nude photographs using a work camera and lost his job. Then he became a photographer and retouched old family photographs for a living. Although not taking pictures of naked people was one of the rules there are many examples of its infringement on the website, tagged Soviet Erotika. The photos are amateur, domestic, and usually no more disturbing than the back view of a woman, reassuringly solid of build, with strong thighs and idiosyncratic curves. This back to camera view, often with the woman kneeling on a homely blanket, seems to be a favourite, with a diaphanous swathe of nylon netting to one side. There are front views as well, but these are also demure, the woman usually hiding her face from the camera. One of the tags is Drunk People, although these appear to be just groups of smiling people. They are certainly not drunks in the sense of the homeless alcoholics, that Mikhailov photographed and made famous in his later work.
The unwritten rule of not taking pictures on the street, unless of a family member at a park or tourist landmark means that everyday street scenes are tantalisingly rare. I rummage through these photographs as I might through a box at a market stall, almost at random, but needing to glance at each one in case I might miss something. Now and then something draws me in, a strange glance, or something unusual in the framing. I pause at pictures where the aesthetic conventions have gone awry, a blurred face in the foreground, a camera getting too close, or at an angle, but these are the exception, and mostly the compositions are almost indistinguishable. There are many zastolye, gatherings around tables laid modestly, or piled up with food and bottles. I look into the faces, meeting the camera’s eye, sometimes sombre, and wonder who might be missing from the feast, through the ordinary depredations of war or the less ordinary means of state liquidation. The repetitive anonymity of the images is oddly compelling — the same scenes again and again of constrained permitted pleasures, in lives underscored by fear and prohibition.
One seller has laid out his slightly curled and blurry prints on a faded green baize card table for display. There are portraits, groups, and a series of tourist locations — unpeopled shots of municipal fountains, ornamental urns and classical arches in provincial cities that remind me of the photographs in Kabakov’s Labyrinth installation, which I last saw in Moscow four years ago. In this work a long dark corridor is lit by dim bare lightbulbs, and a series of photographs and typed texts laid on brown paper and old wallpaper are hung in unglazed frames along the wall. The photos were taken by Kabakov’s uncle and beneath them are the typescripts of his mother’s account of her desolate progress through a series of rooms and provincial cities. The narrative is devoid of wit or personal embellishment, like the repetitive and uninflected images above it, an almost impassive rendering of a life of barren poverty, insisted on relentlessly as you move along the corridor, frame after almost but not quite identical frame. The viewer or reader becomes mired in this seemingly endless journey — urgent to get to the end, but bound to read every word, to look at every monotonous image, the very emptiness itself making for an almost intolerable intensity.
I was thinking about my own boxes of photographs and cards, and the loss of the postcard still nagged at me. I have been wondering if I should file my images more rigorously, but I can never work out what system I should use. As soon as I think of one, I know that it might exclude another, perhaps more generative pattern, and sometimes I think it is better to just keep all the images in boxes, in no particular order, and hope that the ones I need will surface at the right time. Such deliberations remind me of another work by Kabakov: The Man Who Never Threw Anything Away, where the complexity of deciding what things should be saved and what should be put in the bin becomes so fraught with decisions about order and value that it is decided that everything must be kept. Kabakov’s tale ends with the evocation of a vast cosmic rubbish dump, containing everything that has ever been discarded, a submersion in and resurrection through rubbish… It’s hard to say what kind of image this is, he wrote in 1977, maybe it’s an image of a certain civilisation slowly sinking under the pressure of unknown cataclysms, but in which nevertheless some sort of events are taking place. The Meshok website is like one of Kabakov’s imagined rooms where every last bus ticket or piece of string has been kept and assigned value. I am glad that I can only see the objects on a screen, for if they were set before me in real life, I might feel a responsibility towards them, to keep them safe, and then I would have to decide how to file them.
Last night I dreamed of a journey I was making back to this city from the other side of Europe, from Russia, even, by train and by sea. I had a huge suitcase with me and into it I was tipping endless small things, a mountain of buttons, papers and packaging. I don’t know why I am hauling all this detritus with me but it seems that I have no choice. It is an uncertain journey and I don’t know if I will be able to take all of these things with me, still less whether I will have time to realise the work that might transform these random things into something more coherent. When I wake up I remember that the difficulties of making such a journey are not just part of the dream, they actually exist. There are so many travel restrictions to negotiate now that my path would be fraught with obstacles. I am used to the obscure impediments encountered in journeys that I make in my dreams, but to wake up and realise that a real life journey could be even harder to accomplish is new.
September 29 to October 6
Letter from Glasgow: VIRTUAL
Today’s Guardian shows a photograph of the University cloisters that I was walking through in last week’s Letter. Six hundred new students have been told to self-isolate in their halls of residence and more than a hundred have tested positive for the virus. The gentle revelry that went on in the night spaces of the building is over. The virus can of course spread fast in crowded halls of residence and multiple occupancy flats, yet the students were encouraged to come back, in spite of libraries remaining shut, and teaching being entirely online. A few days ago I bumped into a woman I know a bit, she lives in our neighbourhood, in a university flat. She is from Poland, finishing her PhD. She told me that the open air cloisters were going to be booked for teaching sessions, where just a few students could learn from a tutor, leaning against the pillars in these airy spaces. She was pleased at the thought that these imitation Medieval spaces might find part of their original purpose — a space for disputation, a forum for Socratic dialogue even.
It is unlikely to happen now. This locked down spring I used to wave from the kitchen window seat where I would sit in the mornings, to a theatre student, as he opened his curtains in the corner flat opposite. I knew he studied theatre as the window was near enough to be able to read the titles of the text books on his desk. I never saw him on the street, and now he is gone. At night, across the back courtyard, the windows of student flats on the other side make a lit pattern of orange and red, pale pink and bluish rectangles, seen through silhouettes of the branches between. The patterning of light and colours rearranges itself a little each year, and variously each evening. I keep company, as I prepare food in the dusk of autumn evenings, with the lights on in other kitchens, steaming up with cooking. I watch the students coming and going, although now there will be less going out, and the lights will go on longer in the evening, holding their pleasing pattern of oranges and pinks. It was always harder after the end of term, in winter, when they went home for the holidays. The darkest days, and a wall of solid black, unmitigated by any lit signs of life. So I am grateful for their presence now, at this turn of the year, as the inner light slowly gains hold over the outer, but I don’t envy them.
In the building where I live I pass groups of students each day on the stairs. They are the majority inhabitants here, living five to a flat, and their faces change each summer, just as we are beginning to learn their names. The permanent residents stay hidden behind their doors, either recluses or “sheltering”, or both. These turn of century “European” apartments, or tenements, with their shared stairwells and high front doors, remind people of Berlin, or of Russia. For me they are a compromise, allowing me to pretend that in some way I am still living in Moscow. The arsenic green walls in my kitchen, that I peeled through layers of paint and paper to uncover, sustain this illusion, and the way that the doors to rooms lead off from a central hallway. Old canvases stored two metres high up on makeshift shelves, next to outdoor shoes and a sledge in the low lit space between the outer and inner front door feel the most Moscow-like place of all. And then there are my bookshelves, storing my yellowed Soviet journals, postcards and editions of Russian collected works, Belinsky to Zoschenko.
I had been reading this week about Russian communal flats, early Soviet kommunalki, their ethos and evolution. I found a website dedicated to the kommunalka, where you could make virtual journeys from room to room, watch interviews with the inhabitants and read articles on daily life in these spaces divided up from large pre-revolutionary private apartments. I read about the ideals that championed bare lightbulbs and unveiled windows over bourgeois lampshades and curtains. I used to be a great fan of the bare bulb, and there is of course one coming out of the wall in the between door space, though I have sneaked in some highly bourgeois lampshades, half broken, hand-painted, with fringes even, salvaged from our studios. I keep my windows uncovered and approve the unofficial etiquette of not drawing blinds or curtains in this neighbourhood. I’m not sure if it is to do with a Socialist spirit but it feels important now, when almost no public or communal life is permitted, to see and be seen by the people who live across the road, or across the back gardens, to communicate quietly as we all go about our ordinary tasks.
I am pleased that the photographs I took of my stairwell — the light and peeling paint and tangle of unconcealed cables — are almost indistinguishable from the images of the chernyi khod or back (literally — black) entrance that leads to my friend’s father’s studio in Moscow. These stairs connected by a back door to the kitchens of larger flats and were used by servants and tradespeople before the revolution. This now blocked off stairwell space was a source of inspiration to Yuri. He spoke of its dereliction that enclosed him in a sort of parallel world, at times a more palpable reality. Thirty years ago we used to climb the stairs to his attic studio, to draw, drink tea or listen to Yuri talk. It is the staircase that he still climbs today, more slowly now, in spite of so many threatened reclamations by property developers in the lawless post perestroika years. I want to go back and sit there around the low table, I can feel the rough material of the unsprung sofa and hear my friends telling their stories of the different places they lived in, communal flats and other flats, in Moscow of the fifties and sixties. I want to sink deep inside my other language, as essential to me as iron in the blood.
I emailed an image from the communal flat website to my friend in London, who had lived in a kommunalka off Moscow’s Gorky Street in the early nineties. She told me vivid tales of shrieking reprimands endured whenever she infringed one of the many unwritten housekeeping obligations. The image I sent her was a broad corridor with shiny brown lino, a nineteenth century pillar half concealed by a rough partition, yellowed walls fissured with cracks and exposed wires, and a brown bakelite telephone in the corner. She wrote back straight away: It’s so odd the way that you can feel sights in your body and also smell things instantly just from pictures… That is what we must do for now, finding these imaginary places to walk around, tripping off our nostalgia. So I continue walking this halfway house, one foot in my flat, travelling off through windows, or my computer screen, and all my journeys are virtual, which means almost, but not quite.
September 22 to September 29
Letter from Glasgow: ASH
The yellow days edged with airy sharpness that used to signal September, and the return to school, are missing this year. Instead there are monsoon rains. It rains day and night and just when you thought it could rain no more it starts to rain again. In the large communal gardens by the park the mossy tree trunks, soft earth paths and blackened branches of rhododendron glow in a dank swelter. I look in through the railings and think of Victorian colonial city gardens in India, or Africa. Calcutta, not Glasgow.
I have lived here, in a rainy country, for twenty years, but it is the first time I have taken an umbrella out. We cross the park to school, trying to balance this flimsy umbrella to cover both me and my smaller daughter. I was given the umbrella by a friend, it is almost ornamental, swirled with a sludgy green painted pattern. As we walk into the park I notice other people under their umbrellas. They are, like me, relaxed and upright because although the downpour is enormous, the temperature is warm — sultry even. Steam is rising from the path making a smoky curtain, and the umbrella figures are silhouetted against the haze. I think how elegant they look and I remember a painting by Peter Doig of a man walking by a wall, in Trinidad, holding an umbrella, also with painted swirls, against the sun. With this thought of Trinidad, and the unseasonal steaminess, the park, and everyone in it, takes on a holiday mood, an unlikely elegance and exoticism.
I went home and forgot about the strange weather. But when it got dark I realised that I hadn’t left the house since morning. I walked out, down the street and into the University. The air was still properly warm, and smelt sweet, as though of tobacco plants. The gates of the University were wide open although it was past ten o’ clock. A student sped in ahead of me on a skateboard. Inside, groups of students were strolling about, skateboarding, wandering in the open grounds and through the courtyards of the building whose classrooms and lecture halls they are not allowed to enter. Here in the dark, in these night cloisters and quadrangles, they seemed to be improvising the student life denied them by day. There was a smell of dope and undergrowth. I walked out to the brow of the hill, where the pointed towers, windows and gatehouses are lit up orange-red along its length. This massive neo-Gothic façade takes up the whole of the hill, blocking out any sense of the city beyond it, like a boundary wall. The building faces south over trees, the rooftops and lights in the city below. A band of reddish haze was stretched the width of this southern horizon. The haze made the scene unfamiliar, almost foreign, and must be something to do with this unseasonable heat. From this summit stepped lawns slope down steeply. The students were sitting, alone and in groups, on the stone benches and on the grass at the brink of these sloped lawns, looking out into space of the night sky. They too were tinted by the reddish light. It looked as if they had just been watching a firework display.
These colours of warmish red, this dark warmth and nighttime holiday mood accentuated the sense of foreignness. But the scene reminded me also of a postcard that I had for many years kept stuck on my wall. It was a dark painting from a postcard set that I had bought in Moscow when I was a student there thirty years ago. It showed a firework display over the city. In Russia, a firework display is a “salute” . On official celebration days we used to see them from my friend Masha’s balcony, which looked south in the direction of the Kremlin.
Now you can no longer see the fireworks, as an oversized private apartment block has been built on the street where she lives, blocking out the view, hiding the dome of a church in the mid ground and the distant red Kremlin star. The new building, like most in Moscow, has dodged the planning regulations. Masha’s son made a solitary protest against it when it was being built, he got drunk one night and drove his car into the building site. He was charged, fined and deprived of his license, which was unlucky as he was earning a living as a taxi driver at the time.
I wanted to find the postcard, although I knew it had not been up on my wall for years. The next day was cool and there was no rain. I hunted for the postcard for most of the morning, through bookshelves, and inside books. I did not regret the time, for I also removed the dust that lay like a fine film of ash on my shelves, that I had not dusted for months, not wanting to disturb the postcards propped against the books. Eventually I dug it out, from a brown envelope in a box, under a shelf. The image was darker than I remembered and the reddish buildings lit up by the lone firework were not the Kremlin, as I had thought — the conventional backdrop to the painting genre of Soviet firework celebrations — but the construction site of a new housing estate on the outskirts of the city, with cranes high over the dim outline of some domed churches. At first I was disappointed that it was not the view we used to see from the balcony, but then I thought that it was good as it was, with the lit cranes and building site almost fading into dark.
Outside the sky was cold and colourless again, and I remembered that almost nothing was going to happen.
September 15 to September 22
Letter from Glasgow : AUTONOMY
The cornflowers from my birthday are losing their blue, they are leaching their deep blue daily, becoming papery grey. I don’t know where the blue goes to. The dark orange tissue that they are still wrapped in dissolves its colour into the pint glass where they stand, and the water becomes pale orange, like paint water.
Outside the colour is yellow, gaining each day as leaves fall and stick down on wet pavements. There is also a spotting of red, from the rose hips and rowan berries that are abundant this year. And there is the acid yellow smear of the high-vis vests of delivery men in the rain. Soon it will be autumn, the yellow season.
What if you were to inhabit space, and move through it, navigating only by colour? Marking your way by the movement from an orange to an orange, or a red to a red. Fixing yourself in space in relation to the disposition of colours. It would not be any more arbitrary than the attempt to make sense of space by the linear divisions of days, dates, and numbered years. In fact I suspect that trusting to colour to find your bearings might be more comfortable — gentler, less vertiginous. This density of colour here connects you to that blur over there, and so you would feel more held in space, or the space itself might seem more reliable.
I used to want to make paintings that I could inhabit, I imagined canvases that a person could enter into and move about inside. Perhaps this was the same instinct, to find colours that might open up the space around you and allow you to move through it. But my default is line, drawn or written lines, entangling or seeking infinite space. I am used to lines and perhaps they seem safer to me, I am habituated to them. They offer an illusion of precision. I hold out my pencil. I make a measurement from here to here. I experiment with various calibrations. I fill in the rectangles of the desk diary. I drew a diagram of past months and years, ruling twelve lines against a spiral of seven or nine concentric circles like a tree trunk, to catch and inscribe in its incremental segments the events and recurrences laid down in those dates. I keep notes. Sometimes I even dare to look back at notes from other months in other years, but not often. Today I am trying to forget these and letting myself follow light, and colour. I am testing the water, seeing if I can keep afloat that way.
My friend sent me a book for my birthday. I opened it that morning and sat down by my window and read the first chapter, which was the story of a woman, in mid life, on her birthday. It is the morning of her birthday and she is wearing a tobacco brown robe and tobacco brown slippers. She is writing a letter to her son. By the end of the chapter she has changed into her tobacco brown trousers and is rubbing her feet through tobacco brown socks.
I looked up cornflower blue to try and find out why the pigment leached so fast from the flowers. I found that the cornflower, and its rare pigment, has a long association with romantic longing: “This blue flower stands for desire, love, and the metaphysical striving for the infinite and unreachable.” So said the internet, or as the Norwegian scholar H.H. Boyesen put it, this simple blue field flower symbolises: “a trembling unrest, a vague sense of kinship with the infinite, and a consequent dissatisfaction with every form of happiness which the world has to offer.” There is not much information about the fading though.
It is the tobacco brown, rather, that gives me my bearings, a sense of kinship, at the turn of my year. Tobacco brown as pictured in a book, a woman writing a letter who dresses entirely in tobacco brown. Lines to escape by, colours to sink into. I am trying to learn how to inhabit the space I am in without having to picture it or write it down, without needing to be seen. To open it up, from inside out and make the room enormous, as I know it could be. Like beginning all over again, without fear.
September 8 to September 15
Letter from Glasgow: COMPANY
The students have been moving back in. They have come back to the city and have rented their rooms for the year but the university buildings on our street remain closed, so they stay in their rooms. From my desk I look down to a woman in her window, sitting at a similar desk to mine, at a similar laptop, glasses on. Behind her there is a wardrobe, a large bed, lamp and a low table. This is her room. She must be thirty years younger than me but I imagine that I know what it feels like to be her as we sit here opposite each other. I note the rhythm of her work and I approve it. She is consistent, concentrated, she begins early and after about two hours she gets up and leaves the room for twenty minutes or so, I presume to drink coffee, as I do. And then she resumes. She will do three or four hours of desk work at a time, including the break, as I do. I feel happy at our coincident rhythms, although I begin a little after her, since I start work later than I used to — in the time before I had children to get up, feed and deliver to school. So I don’t mind if she is there before me, and leaves the desk a little earlier than I do. I feel that we are still keeping pace, keeping company.
I am disconcerted, though, when she is away from the room for any length of time. Once she was away for a whole day, or even two. The lights in the room were off. I did not keep watch to see if she returned home to sleep that night in her room, but I wanted to. I worry that she has lost her momentum. I am also a bit concerned as she has started painting. When she moved in she set up a variety of canvases around the room, one on an easel and one on the floor, leaning against a table, and several propped against the bay window. There is also a huge painting against the wall next to her large bed, it is the only painting facing me, but it is hard to decipher. I had assumed that these were paintings she had made as a hobby, perhaps over the summer, and that she had decided to surround herself with them to decorate the bare high walls of the room that she is renting. But she has begun painting them again! Now she is no longer sitting at her desk, the two of us held in a silent complicity of reciprocal study. She is on the floor, and she is painting, dabbing relentlessly at her painting and I am at my desk, writing helplessly about rooms and rooms in paintings, and not being able to paint. A long time ago I would have been painting as if my life depended on it, but lately I have kept putting it off and I would rather write about what cannot be put in a painting. I am trying to find out the things that can or can’t be painted, can or can’t be disclosed, in paint language or in words. But the woman opposite, who I now see half-obscured, as a shoulder and an elbow, painting intensely, disturbs and distracts me and I find that I want her to stop. I feel that she was so much safer at the desk. I am worried for her, on the floor with her paints. I am worried about her and the strangely dressed men whom she invited round the other day to look at her paintings. She has been here less than a month and already I am feeling protective of her.
She used to be always alone, but now I count the cups left out on the low table in the centre of the room and often there are two, or three. Once she covered her windows with canvases so that she was walled in, and I could only see the crosses of stretcher bars and the backs of canvas. I could not see into the room at all for several days. I found this disconcerting and wondered if she had noticed me watching her. But I do not think that our eyes have ever met. In fact I am surprised that she has shown so little notice of my room, above her, when I am so endlessly vigilant of her space. She has never looked up, unless when I am not there. But when she put those canvases up like shutters across her window I felt bereft. I thought that it would be too punishing for me to have to keep on working in this way, shut out, while she painted or wrote or did who knows what, unseen by me, or I by her. I moved back to the other side of my room and worked with my face to the wall. However after a few days she relented and I could see back in to the space. I was surprised to notice how dependent I had become on her, and in such a short time. I do hope that she stops the painting soon, it is starting to disturb me, and anyway she looks so much more assured at her desk, deep in concentration, as I am. Soon it will be time for us to break for coffee.
September 1 to September 8
MAP 3: Sussex July 2020/London May 1982
I went to visit my father in England for the first time since the lockdown. I found him in his study reciting old diary entries into a tape recorder: “May 1982, The Pope..”. The small red leather appointment diaries, gold embossed with each year, are stacked before him on the desk, and there are more in piles at his feet. There were large desk diaries as well, that he began to use in the last twenty years, but the small appointment diaries are more familiar to me, with their pale blue air mail paper pages and perforated corners that I could not believe anyone ever took the trouble to tear off.
He said, it is strange, I never remember anything but now that I am going through these diaries things come back, from just a few words. He discovered that his sister in law used to come to our house in Putney once a week, to play her viola, and he would accompany her on the piano. I must ask her what we played, he said.
It is rare that he mentions Putney, where we grew up, the site of his first marriage, and I am touched by this life that suddenly swells vivid and detailed from such tiny scrawled entries.
Sometimes I wake up and I think of all the images that we each contain, so many scenes forgotten and remembered. I have photographs on the wall opposite my bed of some of these scenes from twenty, thirty years ago; there are more gaps than images now as the blu-tack slowly loses its stick and the photographs fall down one by one behind the radiator to gather dust. There are photographs, and photograph sized gaps, and I lie in bed and try to fill in the gaps. I often did not take photographs, having a superstition that picture taking could blur or even erase your perception of the thing itself, that it might turn out to be the opposite of possession. But I don’t know where these pictures in the head are kept, or how they are ordered. I know that they emerge suddenly, as if from nowhere and are summoned by unlikely prompts.
I lie in bed and watch the images on the wall and in my mind. I think of my friends; each of us a walking house of images that we recall perhaps daily or maybe just once. I think of all of the things seen, taken in and stored inside my different friends in the hundreds of years and places that we have lived between us. We are each of us living kaleidoscopes of pictures, in words and image, even as we stutter and jar our own movement, the inward sweep and scope of what might be seen, through our habits and our fear.
What happens to it, this endless variety? How can we even do justice to it, bring it forth to share it? On Prestwick beach my daughter and I stand in the shallows as the light fades, these long flat tides that run in like wide leaves or sheets, fanning out across each other, each sheet of water rilled by a shaft of interior light. My daughter is filming it all on a phone, the light moving in the water, the shadows and movement and the darkening silhouette of Arran opposite. She is excited by it and doesn’t have my inhibitions about photography. I watch her and realise that this is what we do each August just before the schools go back, jumping waves in the sea shallows at sunset and trying to make it last forever.
August 18 to August 31
MAP 2: Glasgow August 2020/Russia September 1997
Back in Glasgow, I resume my walks around the empty University. The other evening, on the path that leads to the Zoology building, I was stopped short by the sight of a ship seemingly lodged in the rooftops of a descending street. What looked like a white crown against the darkening sky was, I realised, the crested funnels of an immense cruise ship, one of three being harboured in the city until cruise tourism resumes, in some unknown future when it is deemed safe.
I was once on a cruise. It was over twenty years ago. I was asked by an elderly sculptor, a former boyfriend of my mother, to accompany him on a voyage along the Volga, Moscow to St Petersburg. He was over eighty and I was in my twenties but he used to take me to exhibition openings. We used to have tea and talk about drawing and as he knew that I spoke Russian he asked if I would come with him as his guest. He had always wanted to visit Russia and liked to play old records of Boris Godunov as he worked, the deep nasal voice of Chaliapin that so moved him.
Our ship was the Surkov, named after a celebrated Soviet World War II sniper. The war loomed large on our cruise. Most of the passengers had fought in it or if they had not actually fought they remembered it vividly, and so as we moved along the Moscow canal to join the open Volga, through the vast concrete locks built by gulag prisoners in the 1930s, the conversation would come back each evening to famous battles, to Stalingrad, the Blitz, and Berlin. We drank a sweet Georgian wine called Stalin, whom everyone at the table remembered as an actual man on newsreels and in the papers, the living face of Russia.
“The last time I was on Russian territory was in occupied Berlin”, said one of our fellow travellers, a Jewish man who had emigrated from Germany to America in 1938, and fought in the war in Europe soon after. It occurred to me that this was also a reason for the separate sittings for dinner. On the Swiss-owned cruise ship, the German tour groups ate early, at six, and the English speaking groups were seated two hours later. It may have only been a question of space, but it also avoided awkward conversation as it turned out that we couldn’t stop talking about the war.
I was almost the only person on board young enough not to have been alive in the war, but I listened avidly and wrote it all down. I had a lot of time for writing down as the Sculptor would retire early. I could not go to the ship’s bar as I had spent almost all my roubles on old books in Moscow, before we set sail, and anyway it might have been hazardous. It was hard enough avoiding the lascivious tweaks and squeezes of the old men on board by day.
At dinner, a woman psychiatrist from Oxford remembers lying on the beach looking up at the sky and identifying the aircraft shapes. The Sculptor had taught aircraft identification in the war, using models and silhouettes. He was in awe of the mighty Russian army and described the powerful construction of their T-35 tank: “Otherwise, you and I would be here, still speaking our own language, but under the power of Berlin!”. Someone else starts to talk about the Russian troops in Occupied Berlin. The American soldiers had been given lectures on “The Russian Character” to help them. “It was alright if you had an American uniform, but if not, if you were a woman…” said the Jewish, ex-German, American. He complained that there are no good maps on board our boat, and that predictably the good diagrams of lock construction are only in German.
There is a Scottish doctor, recently widowed, who tells us of how he watched Wittgenstein pushing trolleys as a porter, in the underground passageways of Guy’s Hospital during the Blitz. The doctor was a medical student then and at the time, he says, he was only interested in medicine but now: “Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus is my Bible, especially the start.” He and the Sculptor become good friends and retire frequently to the doctor’s cabin for long talks and single malt.
I am reading The Book of Lies by Agota Kristof, and Over The Frontier, by Stevie Smith, which is full of the tension and anticipation of this approaching war that everyone is remembering. It is about an imaginary journey, a military adventure, crossing frontiers from England to Germany in 1936. It was written at the same time that Stalin’s canal was being built and published the year that the American Jewish man left Germany for good. I am reading it again now, by chance, twenty three years after our Volga journey. I copied out a passage from it in my notebook then:
There can be no good art that is international. Art must be vigorous and gesund, must use the material at hand. Oh the folly and weakness of foreign travel in search of inspiration. We carry our own wilderness with us, our emptiness or our fullness, no matter.
It is the last cruise of the season, and stocks are running low. Soon there is no more Stalin wine nor even the Moldovan Kabernet and we are being encouraged to pay three times the price for French Bordeaux. The crew could easily obtain more local wine in St Petersburg, our final stop, but they are under pressure to use up the existing supplies. I organise a protest which my elders take to with surprising alacrity. There is a restlessness, the rebel spirit is alive and well.
At night, the now familiar rhythm of argument in Yorkshire voices through the wall from the couple in the cabin next to mine, as they write up their holiday diary each evening: “No, I told you, the day after that it was the Kremlin..”
On one of our stops, after processing between the wooden churches on the Volga banks, our imperious guide urging us all to walk faster, we paused. Our guide had to go off, and she instructed the Sculptor to hold up the Surkov flag for our group until she came back, which he did obediently, having been in trouble from the first day for repeatedly interrupting or looking too long, or wandering off. The rest of the group laughed to have this now familiar maverick in charge. I took a photograph of him as he stood there, it was one of very few I took on the journey and I can picture it precisely, although by this time I was in the habit of no longer developing any films. I slightly regret this, as the Sculptor died four years later, by which time I had moved to Glasgow. The undeveloped cartridge must still be about somewhere. I wonder how the captured image would compare with my remembered one. It is probably too late to tell.
August 4 to August 11
MAPS: a series
Map (OED): Something looked at intently from which you take your bearings.
MAP 1: Lancaster July 2020/Liverpool October 2013
October 2013. I took the train from Glasgow to Liverpool, changing at Wigan North Western to the train made from old bus carriages, that clatters slowly west to the coastal city. My journey is to see Chagall’s Murals for Jewish Theatre that have travelled to Liverpool from Moscow, on their last day of exhibition. They were painted in 1920, in the hunger and chaos of Russian civil war, preserved by luck through Soviet years. The theatre was known as “Chagall’s Box” and is temporarily Chagall’s Box on sea, on the Mersey, set adrift from 1920s Moscow and beached up in 2013 Liverpool.
The room is full of noisy, cheerful visitors, greeting each other in Yiddish and English, under paintings of the wedding feast. There is a party mood and they stride to and fro between friends and relations, three generations or more beneath the painted table high above, set with plates and trident forks, grooved glass soda siphons, tiny triangles of vodka glasses, soup spilling out letters and a man upside down wound into his chair, eating. There are dishes full of fruit — grapes and pears, fishes, unplucked hens on a plate, even a boy on a plate.
The painting opposite it fills the entire wall, twelve metres long, with its world — Chagall and palette, a monocled man in a suit clasping another by the legs, faces peering from behind planes and curves and lines. Flattened echoes of Constructivism, but gentler; red and black giving way to pastel paint and an absorbing sagey green. Here is El Lissitsky bearing a tray of bowls and bottles on his head at the top edge, Malevich peeing on a pig at the bottom. A knife that looks that it might be spearing a pregnant belly but is in fact a circumcision. And Chagall, Tom Thumb size, lecturing from the leaf of a beanstalk. Chagall, lately bruised from his rejection by the avant-garde of revolutionary painting: I told them a square on a canvas was an object neither more nor less than a chair or a cupboard.
Underneath, the party whirls, the excited buzz of North West England’s diaspora who continue these letters, these rituals, still distinct and mysterious to the outsider. At the corner of the next room is The Village Walking, familiar to me from books but never seen. I stop and look close then stand back and listen to the talk of those who pause here, for many do. An old man, humorous eyes, long beard and skull cap sounds out the letters of the hand inked Yiddish, an unfurling scroll of speech: What use to me, the lucidity, the clarity? to his wife who nods and smiles, at the black walking legs and downward pointing penis balanced beneath precarious rooftops. From the window of an ink drawn house a man leans out and ejects his Yiddish lament from Grief, the poem of Mourning.
Lucidity no longer makes sense. Clarity and Lucidity have been negated by events — fear and furies rule. I try to hold and fix it all in my mind, to take it home inside me, its clarity, its surprise.
Chagall’s Box. A man abseils into the world, or rides the circumference of a painted world, snug behind a stage set hill, umbrella in hand, laughing at his own ingenious device. Playful cosmologies, large breasted curves you could jump between; playing hide and seek between worlds as the Chagall self does, in leaps of scale. Hebrew letters swirling through the air like confetti; Chagall at play, discoursing, animating, setting friends, enemies and animals in motion to join the dance in the midst of civil war, embattled by visual and personal politics. Knives, pears, letters, soup plates and banners of words. A panorama peopled from a specific history that is still speaking, to the people looking, laughing, wondering, deciphering; and from the window the Mersey, late afternoon sun and the ferry coming back into harbour.
July 21 to July 28
July 14 to July 21
Letter from Glasgow: LOOP
Tomorrow we will drive out of the city, leave it behind and cross the border. We have been lent a small car by friends who have gone to live abroad. The car broke as soon as they handed it over and sat for several days in a garage. I had been hoping that somehow it might not get fixed. I fear cars, and I avoid them. But my stalling concerns the displacement itself more than its means.
Since we were told to stay put I have been circling spaces of the city on foot. Mostly it is just a loop of the streets where I live, three horizontals and two verticals on a hill, but it encompasses libraries, wildernesses and wildflowers. Some days the circle is even smaller: out of the back door, down the the sloped path to the bin sheds at the end of the garden, returning by the side lane and along the pavement to the front door of our shared close. The larger circle goes right to the end of my street, across the road, through the gates and out the other side of the long neo-Gothic University building that walls in my territory at one edge of the hill, down to the river and back through the park. The river runs low through the city, with steep banks becoming tall tenements on each side. When it rains it rises to an umber rush, swollen with sunlight, a warm milky brown, flecked with green willow leaves that it draws down into itself as it navigates the bends with thrilling speed.
I am not constrained by these concentric circles, because of the trick of changing scale. The gentle slopes of daisies and small patches of long grass growing above knee high walls in my neighbourhood can change themselves into enormous fields that stretch before me like an endless country. The sandstone walls become the mottled sand of a beach at the tideline, just by looking.
The canal marks the furthest circle of my lassoing walks. It is raised above the city like a rim. At this height I am exposed, no longer tracing the low paths of pavement or river and their hidden worlds. Here I am the one who has grown, and I look down like a sudden giant on the city laid out in miniature before me, almost in my lap. I stop and see the University and its traceried spire, smaller than the tip of my finger, that marks the end of my street; the library in whose meadows I go to read, whose straight tower and curved roof at this distance show a more convincing outline of the Sienese hill town that their 1960s architect modelled them on. The canal contains the city firmly like a rope. I count the rooftops and name the streets, following their patterns, walking with my eyes.
The canal path leads west to a field of concertina locks, where the roofs peter out with a view to the hills. A few last houses mark the edge of this city, where many more have been pulled down. A large black panther looms, staring back at the city from the blind wall of a tenement, painted freehand on the sandstone; behind it the hills, hovering. The hills are the dusty grey green shades of an Italian fresco, with the same sense of an almost painted-in distance, a scenery painting for the stage, that has been dropped down behind the outline of rooftops and corners of buildings that articulate the end of the urban.
This recent containment has never been a confinement, for all the underlay of anxiety. I have had no craving to get to the hills. I have walked them in my mind’s eye, and watched the light and striating shadows of the quick clouds on their slopes from the corner of my window. I have not felt the restlessness that I felt so often in ordinary times, that drives me to set out on journeys beyond my city. So it seems perverse to take to the road, especially when I cannot configure the space that lies before me, I cannot sense the pattern or the rhythm of it. I know how to inhabit the space of a page, of a room, a painting and the loops made by my walks. I have forgotten the rest and at times I even doubt the world beyond these city walls. Perhaps I will learn it again.
July 7 to July 14
Letter from Glasgow: THE UNIVERSITY IS CLOSED
It’s just after midsummer, the last hour of the day. I have not left the house since I got up so I decide to go out — a late turn around the block. I set off up Glasgow Street to the brow of the hill. The air is warm and completely still. A heap of honeysuckle is tumbled over the railings of a front garden and I plunge my face right inside to breathe the smell of it. As I pull my head out I notice a man outside the hostel the next door down, leaning against the railings, watching me. He keeps watch as I pass and then looks back to his phone. I walk on, stopping to look west through the gap in buildings where the sky is smeared a dirty yellow. It is twenty past eleven. These are the nights that we winter for.
The endless light of midsummer in this northern city makes for a sort of hyper-alertness, accentuated by the ongoing loss of timetables. On the left of the street many of the rooms are still lit up at nearly midnight, curtains open, embracing the imperceptible transition from day to night. On the right, the buildings are empty and dark. From the outside they look like the houses opposite, with bay windows, stained glass detail and turret roofs, with front gardens full of roses and peonies. They look like a neighbourhood. Only the darkness, the odd glint of reflected light from strips of glass in the false ceiling gives the game away. I live on the hill of the University. Most of the houses on these streets are actually University departments, and the University has been closed now for months.
The buildings are deserted and silent but their gardens keep on growing. I walk past rampant beds of roses, magnolia and poppies, they glow in the half dark, before the unlit windows. By the doorways, the signs: School of Humanities, Celtic and Gaelic, Scottish Literature, Centre for Robert Burns Studies and even Historical Thesaurus. I browse the streets like library shelves, noting the flowers in each front garden — their colour and variety. I inventorise the flowers, noting the blooms specific to the department indicated at the doorstep. Modern History: lily, vetch and red hot pokers. English Literature: montbretia, fuchsia and wild poppies. History of Art: fennel, campion and dandelion. Medieval History: foxglove, thistle and meadow sage. Music: peony, celandine and mallow. Classics — Clasaigeachd: striped roses, phlox and hydrangea. Philosophy — Feallsanachd: the shiny fans of Fatsia Japonica or Paperplant.
In a lane between the backs of the houses that hold Engineering on the lower side and Counselling one street up, I have found hidden walled gardens — a row of beehives under wild cherry branches, apple and pear trees, bushes of rosemary, gooseberry and redcurrants and a spreading fig, a secret abundant country. It is a dead end lane, but most days I steal up here, and back again, noting the the ripening fruits.
The grass is feathery and overgrown on the hill between the library and the round reading room, at the far end of my street. The slope is stepped with human length blocks of heavy wood with curved semi circles of white porcelain at one end, like Ancient Egyptian headrests that we drew in museums as schoolchildren. At the start of lockdown they looked so inviting, but I was wary of warnings against shiny surfaces, the prohibition on lying down. Recently though I have lain out on these coffin blocks in the afternoons, placed my neck into the porcelain hold, and looked up at my book, or at the oak and chestnut leaves above.
I like living in the University. I am reassured by the libraries, the students and the endless cycle of learning around me. I have lived here for eighteen years but still feel myself to be passing through. The neighbourhood is largely transient: students who change rooms each summer, carrying their bundles between stairwells and parents’ cars, and a few permanents — a mix of shabby bohemians, artists and musicians and some semi-retired academics with little inclination for home improvement. If the University was not here, the houses not concealing classrooms and offices, then the gardens of fruits and flowers and wild grass might have long given way to the chipped stone driveways of private houses further west. I must be grateful for learning, even if it seems terminally on hold.
It is almost completely dark. I walk past the poster advertising a lunchtime lecture that never took place at the end of March and come back towards my house through the back shared garden. I look up into the space around me, the walls set with orange red rectangles and spaced by black tree branches and think that I have known it better, loved it better and more precisely in the last three months than in all the eighteen years I have been here. I think about the University that has stopped, the grass growing over it, the dark library shelves and the books unread while the gardens glow, chaotic and abundant, and wonder when it will begin again.
June 30 to July 7
Letter from Glasgow: WITHOUT TIME
At first it seemed like a reprieve. The injunction to stay at home, to cancel onward life. It was something I had always imagined I wanted. Especially when leaving on a journey, looking back into my room, the waiting shelves of books, as I picked up my bag to leave it. Leaving behind a room full of promise, a great fat pocket of time, about to be trodden into streets.
Then I notice how hard it is to let time be, how much I need to mark it. I make timetables proposing a virtuous apportionment of hours, for myself and for my children. We do not keep to them. Instead I take cues from my surroundings; slowing to the rhythm of light, air and sound, trying to establish where I am in space through the echoes in the back court: the burr of wood pigeons and the soft melodic cough of the man in the flat below. These establish the rhythm of each day. The diary, its page of daily rectangles, is not enough.
I have to learn how to inhabit this given space. At the start, I keep falling asleep. The economy is described as “in hibernation”, a sort of deep freeze, from which it should emerge as fresh as peas. The image is meant to reassure but no-one really believes it to be so simple. There is a Russian word that surfaces when I am writing to a friend in Moscow: Безвременье, Bezvremenye. It means a sort of stopped time, a non time — out of time, even. It can also mean a heavy time, a dark time of stagnation or calamity. But I do not hear it so negatively.
Time out of time, without time. A time of suspension, a holding time. Except that this is not a time for holding anyone but the people inside your house. If you have people in your house.
I can spend a long time watching a net curtain blowing in and out of the sun from a shaded window in the wall I look onto from the back of my flat. I follow its rise and furl and feel the pulse of the slow breeze. It is a way of putting myself in place, of finding myself held.
Before digital photography I used to take a lot of photos but eventually I stopped developing the films. I liked the moment of capture, but I did not want to see what I had made. In fact I feared this with a stubborn fear. Perhaps the trapped images were too much proof of loss. I hold on to the films still though, degrading in their plastic capsules, steadily releasing the captured light to merge back into dark, a quiet coalescence. I cannot throw them out but I refuse to develop them and eventually the unseen images will return to darkness. It is a bit like the notebooks lined up in rows above my desk. I need each month of every year to be accounted for and placed in order, decades of words laid down. But I avoid taking them down to look inside.
We chart time backwards. At the start, friends with extra hours to hand sent photographs from twenty, thirty years ago, rooted out from shoeboxes where they might have remained unlooked at for as many years again. I glance at them and wonder if I felt older then, or now. On the radio they play “live” performances from years ago. What year is it tonight?
I find it hard to believe in onward time. I don’t believe that this can be a time of ageing or increment. It should be a time without anniversaries — a non quantifiable time marked only by light, the stir of wind and the quiet sounds echoed in the back courtyard.
My children prove otherwise. I had thought that if I stopped being so restless, always on the move, that my children would elude me less, might pause their fast morphing into young adulthood. But my constant attention seems only to accentuate the speed of change. They outstrip me more forcefully for being observed at close quarters. I can almost hear them growing. They emerge each morning a little longer, the down on my son’s top lip a little darker. It’s the same, I think, with this new noticing of changes in trees and flowers. I see them more sharply now, but they seem to leaf and spread, bloom and fade faster, more noisily for being watched.
Bezvremenye. Outside of time. This word for time without time should not invoke heaviness but light and air. A hiatus that does not have to be constantly marked or put into words. A space where you don’t need to take notes because you can inhabit it fully and to overflowing, without anxiety — without fear of loss or risk of oblivion. A space that holds everything, permanently vivid and immediate.
At quarter past four each afternoon two women come down Glasgow Street and turn into my road. They walk slowly, speaking Polish. I presume them to be mother and daughter but of course they may just be friends. From the lane on the other side of the building, at closer to five o’ clock a mother about my age, her daughter and her mother from the flats opposite take their turn around the block. They process past my window: the grandmother with a stick, her daughter keeping pace with her, the granddaughter running out ahead. This is the clock.
I keep an eye on my territory. I am faithful to it, vigilant. There is talk of easing but I am reluctant to move.
June 23 to June 30
June 16 to June 23
Letter from Glasgow: WITHELD
My daughter is reading a book about a woman who breaks into people’s houses because she thinks they hold a part of her. Something she needs to steal back.
At least that’s how she tells it. I think of this, when I am out walking, in the evenings especially. I look in to rooms that glow against the dusk, waiting for something that catches my eye. In this way you might notice something that feels more fully yours, more recognisable than any of the rooms that you have just shut the door on. It’s not exactly the shape of a room, nor any particular objects or furniture, or even the light that does this — but something that is the sum of these material conditions and yet escapes them. A precise, yet unnameable thing — a shape without mappable contour or definition but with colour perhaps: dark yellow or reddish orange or even deep green, blurred at the edges, and a weight that you sense within. It is not certain whether this weight is something that enters you from the seen space or is solicited from inside you, by looking. It is something that seems to have been always there — more intent, more intimate and close than the surroundings you have consciously made for yourself. Something that you have mislaid, or forgotten.
You are caught off guard. Stopped short by the sense of it, this sudden hold. Sometimes, you retreat, go back on your steps and pass by the window again, more slowly this time, to see if you can sustain the feeling for longer. You may linger, at an angle, behind the garden hedge; although these days when everyone is at home it does not do to linger at people’s windows too long. Better to pass and pass again, two or three times, affecting purpose, gathering flashes that imprint and layer themselves on your inner eye. The thought of breaking in is vivid — all the more tantalising now that any incursion, even unwitting, on another body is taboo. We cannot countenance just how much we are not allowed to touch, and the impossibility of actually grasping what we need makes for fantasies of a violent and spectacular shattering. To suddenly smash those front windows and enter the forbidden space. The image shocks and compels; a transgression that is defiant and exultant. A woman breaking in to claim something of her own — refusing the passivity of mere reverie —to rupture the dream space that is forever withheld.
But I keep walking. I think of the woman in my daughter’s book smashing glass. It merges in my mind with a video I saw long ago in Paris: Pipilotti Rist’s film of a woman walking down the street, in a slowed down bouncy way, bearing a long flower, a lupin, or is it a red hot poker? She is wearing a floaty dress, her hair is loosely tied, and she walks in step to the humming, trance like music, springing gently along the pavement. As she walks she smiles and swipes with this flower at the windows of the parked cars along the kerb. The glass smashes and clatters but the mood music hums gently on, holding her, holding us. A passing policewoman smiles and salutes her. The woman is radiant, exulting and self-sufficient as she buoys along, swinging the flower. There is something in this that connects to the woman in my mind breaking into houses, and to my belief in her, in her right to steal in, to shatter windows, to take back that which has been lost or denied her.
I keep on walking, quietly, in the shadows.
June 2 to June 9
Letter from Glasgow: BETWEEN THE CLOCK AND THE STREET
I watched the film Permanent Vacation again the other night. I didn’t pay too much attention to the words. It was this image I was after. A girl in a room, looking out. I found the shot, but it was the street scenes that held me — lower Manhattan, derelict at the end of the seventies — empty abandoned streets that are suddenly immediate, right up front and now. I want to follow these streets on and on. I imagine a film that splices together continual streets, one leading into another, from seventies New York to nineteen fifties Moscow, or Rome, or Prague and on through cities I have never walked. A continual street without end. It would be seamless, in the way that Christian Marclay so deftly spliced spiralling staircases, minute to minute, in his twenty four hour The Clock. As in that film you feel that you have to keep on walking, you can’t break off.
But I am compiling images of rooms, not streets. I am making a slide talk for the students whom I haven’t seen since February: Between the Clock and the Bed, Munch’s late painting where he stands like the grandfather clock at his side in a small room filled with his paintings, receding into the space behind him. There is a photograph of him in that same house, surrounded by the same paintings, more clearly defined by the camera. I put in a photograph of Chagall, newly arrived in Paris, sitting on the bed with his wife and daughter, and around them his landscapes of left behind Vitebsk set in the decorative curls and scrolls of drapes or carpet that have been hung on the walls of their new apartment, Russian style. They are tented in by the dark drapes, with windows only to the East.
Then there is a photograph of Bonnard, painting Marthe in the bath, canvas pinned up roughly to the wall, seemingly untroubled by the flamboyant overgrowth of the wallpaper all around it as he pursues his self-sufficient, almost immaterial world of purple, turquoise, gold within the canvas.
I sit in my room, the sheet covering the window, and I click through these images for the thirty boxes on the screen: the students, also in their rooms, these stamp sized squares, revealing slight blurs of colour or light, the indications of a surrounding in muted colours, withholding any sense of the space between us. It is the first time I have shown slides like this, to thirty separate rooms. Usually we are all in one room and every nuance, every slip or focus of attention from the viewers is palpable. But now I am not sure how to reach them, if I reach them. It is hard to judge distances.
I wanted to show images of rooms that were also about the possibility of flight from the room, of painting down the wall, opening up a new space and inhabiting it as you make it. A painting sized window out. But I wonder if this is what they want, or if the image of Bonnard pushing his brush right up against the wallpaper to make his bathroom world seems a world away. But February is a world away, and maybe Bonnard’s room is closer than ever?
It is hard to judge distances. One compensation of this hiatus we inhabit is the immediacy of reports from the past: in a film, a photograph, or in the streets that I walk through reading. The Bloomsbury squares and pavements full of incident in Virginia Woolf’s diary of 1915, or New York’s Riverside Drive in 1968 that itself gives way so suddenly to wartime Mecklenburg in Uwe Johnson’s Anniversaries. The density of sky over the Hudson summoning the banks of the left behind river close to the Baltic Sea. I read scattershot, but am able to inhabit these places more fully than ever. Time has stopped and I am less interested in a narrative arc, a drama or romance than these fixings of place; how it was, at a certain time, in a certain place; the word pictures that allow me to walk through these remote but immediate worlds.
After the talk, I leave the screen and go out for a walk, to rest my eyes. I walk up the hill on the opposite bank of the river, where the houses rise steeply. In a lane that runs between the backs of two rows of houses I am stopped by the sudden space of a high window, looking straight out through the window on the other side, as if the wall had given way into an infinite space of light and green. Is this the sort of opening I was trying to get across?
At the end of the film the hero leaves the city on a boat, and as the boat pulls out the jazz saxophone that has played throughout the film starts up again, a mordant improvisation through which emerges the drift of, yes, the familiar notes of Somewhere Over The Rainbow, stuttered and spiralling, in a minor key. I am tired of Rainbows, but this is pitch perfect. The camera hovers at the end, holding the whole of the city island in its hand. Is the boat still pulling out, or staying still?
It is hard to judge distances.
May 26 to June 2
Letter from Glasgow: STAYING APART
Friday night. The wind pushes the tree about outside my window. It stirs and turns it. I see it with my eyes shut — enormous, churning and stirring, moving me through the night. Then I let myself see a little further, picturing the empty theatres, concert halls, bars and night clubs dark and silent at the centre of the city. I do not normally allow this, it is too unnerving. I return to the rhythm of the tree.
Yesterday, after sixty days of keeping to the house, to the neighbourhood, I made a break for it. I agreed to pick up a parcel for someone from the ASDA on the outskirts of town. It would mean a walk of several hours, a journey. It was a warm afternoon and I set off at a brisk stride, excited by what I might see, at the chance, even, of the unpredictable. I chose the way through houses, rather than along the river. I wanted my journey peopled, if only by buildings.
At the point where the grander flats near the river give way to more run down streets, I cut through a low level estate, set in an old army barracks. It is quiet, a few people sit outside their doors. This is not my territory and I must observe discretely. I am looking for what is different since I was last here in the time “before”. Most of the shops were boarded up anyway so that is nothing new. I find a path through undergrowth that I guess leads to an abandoned modernist school I once came across this way. It is concealed in the overgrowth of trees and brambles. I am relieved to find that it is still here, the playground with its markings, moss and broken glass. I take in the light falling on yellow walls of empty classrooms through wide windows.
Across the playground a man stands waiting in a doorway. He is young and he watches me a bit edgily, as I do him. We assess each other for potential danger; a risk not of contagion but of interference. I take some photographs of the windows and he seems reassured. I leave the playground, find a gate out to an unfamiliar new estate. I walk through it, guessing my way. I haven’t got a smartphone or a map and I had forgotten you can’t approach people for directions any more.
In the tiny front garden of one of the houses a family are cutting grass. I try to work out what language they are speaking in, I think it might be Tamil; the man has an elegant tiger tattoo. He nods as I pass. I head up through the estate, back to the main road where a woman with shopping bags alerts me to the chance that this is my turning. When I have collected the parcel I don’t want to go straight back. I keep heading out, through uncharted estates, cul de sacs, navigating roughly with an eye on the hills.
I find a turning into a park. An old Victorian sort of park with a path through wide chestnut trees, in candled bloom, that remind me of the broad commons in the city I grew up in. There is a row of red sandstone mansions at the top looking out. One has a monkey puzzle tree outside. I walk up and find two overgrown bowling greens enclosed by tall hedges, and rusty tennis courts sprouting weeds. A world of leisured modest grandeur, long decayed and overgrown.
By the garden walls of the mansions a small community garden has been planted, in beds made from old wood planks. A shelter has been put up in the centre, from scaffolding poles, planks and corrugated iron. It reminds me of an image from a book of photographs of bus stops in remote outposts of the former Soviet Union. On the ground, yellow spray paint marks arrows and the injunction: Stay This Far Apart.
I sit up on some railings, looking at the shelter, the wall behind it and the rusty tennis courts. A couple are on a bench nearby, facing towards the hills. They are drinking Irn Bru. The late sun comes straight through the raised bottle, a distinctive amber.
I sit and wait. The light shifts slightly. The couple get up to go. A phone rings, “I’m in the queue at ASDA” says the woman. I follow them out of the park, keeping my distance. Stay this far apart.
May 19 to May 26
Look at what the light did
The light is so bright now. And too thin, as though it has lost a layer. It is so sharp it is unnerving, it might actually cut. A complete absence of diffusing haze from planes or cars or everyday pollution.
A change in the atmosphere.
This almost etiolated light seems to make the shadows flicker more quickly, nervously. Shadow darts of birds swoop silent but startling at the edge of your vision and then vanish.
In the evening the light comes in full blast to my work room. It hits the books on their birch ply shelves that I had made for them four years ago. Russian books sit on Russian birch. The light makes a square that effaces all detail, like the over exposed part of a photograph.
The other day I noticed how bleached the books are becoming. They are leaching pigment before my eyes. The strong covers of red or orange or yellow and even blues are fading and dissipating. Like plastic bottles or buoys that float in on the sea tide, picked clean and pale by the sea. The light erodes the spines and the titles also, words dissolving, almost indecipherable.
What if the words leaked away from the pages also, and there was nothing left? I imagine these books becoming entirely white, the letters and spines turned by the sea light, eroded, excoriated, worn away.
Small albino worms, blind in the dark earth.
I have never worried about this before. I used to enjoy the way the light fell in, early evenings on the golden shellac varnish. I used to come out from the shadows of the kitchen opposite, and lean in the doorway, indulging the glow along my shelves, following its fall, book by book.
Now I am anxious. Words are vanishing while I look at the light, while I look the other way. I must take immediate action. I go to the cupboard in the hallway and pull down a large thin sheet, it is too big for my bed. I fetch a ladder and I loop the corners of the sheet around the cup hooks that have always protruded from the top edges of the window recess, from when this flat was full of students I suppose. The sheet is too high up for me to adjust it in any way and so it must hang there day and night.
The room is shrouded now, like furniture in a shut up house.
A measure of protection.
May 12 to May 19
Letter from Glasgow: GHOSTS
What does the world do when it is no longer looked at?
Each morning I take up my watchpoint in the kitchen window seat, to be ready for the light when it first strikes through the tree.
The few cars on the road the other side of the rooftops roar past like the sea. Bachelard first helped me to notice this. The seagull cries confirm it. The noise strengthens each morning now.
This city is the closest to the sea of any that I have lived in. The weather is tidal. You can feel the fret in the air, sometimes almost smell the salt in it.
When I lived in Moscow I was far from the sea. I look out from my window and practice my favourite trick of changing place. Now I am here, now I am on Masha’s balcony. I am leaning out over her treetops on Malaia Bronnaia. I am slightly higher than the trees, looking down, not into, the branches, as her balcony is two floors higher than mine. I rise up easily. I am looking out, immersed in her tree branches like a sea at my feet, with the street beyond that leads in the direction of the Kremlin.
I am slightly nervous that the balcony might give way — the rusty metal struts are exposed in the concrete that is soft and dark grey, like the sunflower seed halva that we used to buy as a treat when I lived here, thirty years ago. I look down on the broken tiles and cigarette butts from all Masha’s cigarettes, smoked in secret pleasure, at night or in the early mornings, in hiding from her husband, in the company of her cat.
I step back into the flat, past the cat sat in a square of sun on the parquet, and follow the the wobbly wooden blocks, avoiding the gaps, back across the room, along the smooth dark lino corridor and open the thick padded door that gives way softly, to the kitchen.
I pour myself some zavarka, the cold stewed tea brew from the night before, and add some boiled water. I sit down at the table, reach for an issue of Iskusstvo Kino, the Soviet cinema journal, from the thirty or forty copies piled up on the sideboard. Something from the late eighties or early nineties. And I wait for Masha to emerge.
I write to my friends. I want to to tell them that I am still here. I am still at their table, moving through their rooms. I am on the balcony.
May 5 to May 12
Letter from Glasgow: TREE SHADOWS
I used to joke that the only residency I’d apply for would be one in my own home. Well, I have my wish. Only I didn’t imagine so much cooking.
I’m at home, two floors up, with my books, my drawings, my piled up drafts and files of writing, thirty three years of notebooks on the shelves, and also with my children, who must be fed and attended to at intervals.
It is not exactly how I imagined.
It was a relief at first to stay put. I have often longed to stay put, to stay in, hidden, while the world went on at full tilt, not noticing my absence. It is different when all the world is staying put as well.
I move through the rooms of my home, following the light faithfully, catching every last drop. I watch the way the light falls, bounced from the windows of the tenements opposite, making shafts that cross the hallway of the flat and meet the light coming in directly from the East facing windows opposite. I move through the rooms on the East side until midday and then wait until the sun has rounded the corner of the building and starts to come in from the West. I watch the way the light cuts shafts and angles through the trees, slicing the high branches, along the street and in the back garden, where the birds have taken over and flit freely, marking their territory. A bullfinch flies up into the last of the sun, a flash of perfect orange red, as a finger nail moon rises over the slate roofs to the East.
The streets are silent but it is an insistent sort of silence. A sort of humming, a nervous drone. It is disconcerting.
I don’t like it this quiet, says my daughter, on the first or second day of staying in.
My friend Sinéad sent an email, maybe a month in. “This is a time for non-productivity, if you can”, she writes. I am much cheered by her words, They answer my instinct which is to watch, to wait, to pay attention.
In the first month I drew each day, but less urgently now. I am reluctant to launch into new endeavours and this is not an ordinary deferral, a failure of will power. I think my friend is right about watchfulness.
She herself is not so free, having been engaged to direct a play: Antigone, in California this term, and unable to travel, is now directing it remotely by internet, following American hours. They will make the piece digitally, a leap of faith for someone whose work is so much about embodiment.
But I know that she is also watching, and waiting.
Another friend, a violinist, turns up one morning with a box of seedlings that she leaves on my doorstep. I wave down to her from my window. She lives alone. So far she is glad of the respite from a frenetic timetable of practice and performance. She is cooking, varnishing her floorboards, following the sun from room to room around her flat, like me. But for how long?
I am grateful for the light, every drop of it., through leaves, through blossom, on the sandstone walls of the tenement flats where I live. My flat is a ship moving imperceptibly slowly through trees. The leaves are the sea and the sandstone wall is my beach, especially at the back of the building where it loses its smooth facing and reveals the ripple and mottle of shell fossils, ruckled like sand, in pale blonde and golden and reddish bands, like the different densities of sand as the tide recedes. The surfaces pitted and scored, or suddenly flecked by rain.
Light and the shadows of things pattern my day. They offer a precision that you can attempt to be true to in words. The way that a tree makes shadows on a wall, blurred and watery or in sudden sharp edged focus, or both at once. But at night I wake and worry about how much of the world is not being looked at. I picture yellowed walls in the emptied corners of far off cities who remain neglected, unseen. They no longer have anyone to look at them, to keep watch as the shadows change in late afternoon; to be held by them, to maybe even put them into words.
Liza Dimbleby lives in Glasgow. She has also lived in London, Paris and Moscow. She has led drawing walks in all these cities and also in Orkney and Siberia.