July 27th to August 3rd
Letter from Glasgow: On The Other Side
A week in now, to twelve days of elected solitude. I have got used to the returning calibrations of my days — the sounds of front doors and delivery vans in the street, the noise of the cat pacing, loud as another human, on the creaking boards at the threshold of each room.
In spite of the deferred anxiety of a large family gathering, the wider family creep into my dreams — my father and brother, my mother, my sister, all visit me in my room and present their needs in turn. I don’t dream of my own children. I fold and put away their clothes. I miss their voices, the breezy humming and whistling, but they do not haunt me.
The heat is so thick you can almost lean on it.
I go back to the mirror city in search of its cool sea fret but even here the heat is watery hot. From the top of Leith Walk the blurry blue outlines of land on the other side of the Firth are like Greek islands. Half way down the street is a Greek café and I step down into a sunken dark space smelling of burnt sugar and ask for an espresso and a papery pastry full of warm custard. Mid afternoon and I feel anywhere but Edinburgh. The young man and woman who work here talk to me about how long they haven’t seen their siblings for, about the difficulty of travel, to home in Thessaloniki, to a brother working in Germany. We compare our lengths of absence, although my journey to my siblings is more assured than theirs, only one border away. I step back up into the street into a blast of heat.
At the bottom of the hill, approaching the sea, I find myself at the edge of a large open park that I never knew was there. I see it suddenly as one of the commons of South London, familiar from my Putney childhood. It is huge, with a row of old houses on two edges, and the carved articulations of a municipal façade on another. It is criss-crossed by thin diagonals of chalky paths. The unexpected expanse of space makes me catch my breath.
I walk into it, through the trees at the borders, and along the paths. There are Holm oaks, sycamore, chestnut — sweet and horse, hornbeam, high poplars, not pollarded thin and straight but allowed to spread thickly — and a huge silvery willow that holds its own space, not planted in a line with other trees but standing solid in the middle of the grass.
People are sitting about across the grass, alone and in groups, talking. There are children on scooters and on bicycles, and smaller children running after the bicycles. In the play park the roundabout turns and the children are swinging and sliding and climbing ropes. A man is skipping quietly in a steady counter beat to the whirl of the swings and roundabout. He lets the rope fall right to the ground and then scoops it up and over. There are voices: Urdu, Polish, Scots. Sometimes I mistake one for another.
There is something secret and almost celebratory in this space at the edge of the sea. The houses are kept at bay and the people are playing or sitting in the holding sun, without fret or urgency, out of the space and time of the city. I walk quietly through — a woman on a bicycle and another walking towards me smile at me, almost a welcome, as if recognising a stranger in their hidden land.
I walk across the grass to the one empty bench left. It is set back from the path, in the middle of the grass, facing into the sun and the resplendent flickering willow. I think it is the best bench in the space, and feel surprised and grateful that it has been left waiting for me. I sit and watch a family flying kites. There is a large kite with tassels and a small girl running with a much smaller kite that rises up after her as she runs with its string. The sun shines through the square of her yellow sun hat and makes it liquid, a translucent golden blur. The parents are preoccupied with their larger kite but the girl goes back and forth running out and walking back again towards the tree. The willow tree stirs and enfolds itself, riding the same breeze, out and back.
I sit and follow the stirring of the tree, the kite, the hat of the girl — going up and back, and repeating again like a swing. I check the time. I set myself a time to move or I might stay here indefinitely. Ten past four. I get up and walk back to the path. I follow a child cycling straight ahead of me down its narrow white diagonal, back out to the world left behind on the other side.
July 20th to July 27th
Letter from Glasgow: Staying Put
Almost August, and so the to and fro of holiday planning — fielding the variables of Covid testing and potential quarantine — the ever changing regulations. In spite of the obstacles we submit to the tests, to the exigencies of borders. In as much as it seems reasonable or possible, we try to move, knowing how swiftly even these constrained escapes might be curtailed.
A large family holiday in Normandy is deferred for the second summer running. “It’s a first world problem,” a friend writes. She too has had a reunion of long parted family members from different countries in a rented French house cancelled. She is looking for places to go away to, but there is nowhere to stay in the UK, everything is booked or exorbitant.
Like me she feels a mix of regret and relief at the cancelling of the wider family gathering. Most of us are anxious about the sudden exposure of being part of a large group after so long lying low. Not worried about the physical danger so much as the danger of being exposed to other people’s feelings and demands in close proximity, the fear of what they might uncover in you.
My children did PCR tests and took the night boat to Ireland with their father, to see their cousins and grandparents. I have stayed behind to try and work, but also to be alone for longer than a night for the first time in almost two years. Its a heatwave on the streets but I stay indoors, too familiar with the imaginary landscapes outside to be drawn out. The silence of the empty rooms in my flat makes a novel, larger landscape. I pull down the blinds to mute the bleaching harshness of light beyond the windows and make a glowing secret space. I can believe myself in Rome, Madrid or Budapest, in the enclosing solitude of another time and another country. It is enough for now.
July 6th to July 13th
Letter from Glasgow: Other People’s Rooms (Midsummer)
At the bottom of the mountain, as our path descended, the road began to flatten out in a straight line towards home. It was getting dark, this was the start of spring, about the time of the vernal equinox, and we were still in full lockdown. This summit of hills was just within the radius beyond the city permitted for exercise, yet it was at enough of a distance to feel remote. There were lochs at the top, slushy with thick shards of half-melted ice, and some corrugated iron fishing huts. As you got half way down you could look out on the city spread across the low plain, that had held us for so many months, suddenly in miniature.
As we walked back down we felt that we had been quite far away. There was a pine forest thickening black on one side of the path and the long dark façade of a building like a large industrial barn on the other, a little below us, set into the side of the mountain. Wide, evenly spaced windows shone squares of light into the dusk. The wall was too smooth and municipal to be a barn but rather resembled a large motel, utterly without inflection or quirk.
I looked down into the lit squares where you could discern the edges of furniture, and of certain handrails, walking sticks and municipal chairs that signalled some sort of medical establishment — a sanatorium, I thought, thinking of ones I had come across in the countryside of Eastern Europe or Russia. Looking in more closely, I could see separate bodies, brightly lit — very old bodies, sitting, almost motionless, in chairs, and realised that this must be an old people’s home, a Care Home. I noticed a dark wood chest of drawers and a 1930s wardrobe holding their own amongst the pine and vinyl, it was a place where you can be accompanied by your furniture. The rooms did not look unpleasant, their lit spaces were almost appealing, for it was getting cold and there was still a long stretch of road before us. The televisions flickered silver blue against the walls.
In the last corner room I watched the profile of a woman, she was sitting in a chair looking across at the screen. Her face was very thin, with deep sunken cheeks and elegant bony forearms. There was a tray of food before her, on a moveable arched table brought in close to her chair. Very slowly she brought the fork to her mouth as she followed the screen, she stared ahead and slowly cut and ate her food, with this stillness and self-possession. She looked extremely old, but somehow the extremity of her age and her thinness added to her grace. Her age did not frighten me. I allowed myself to imagine her, picturing myself as this person, soon enough, in fewer years than I have already lived. I hoped that I might also have that calm, the self-possession I sensed from watching the way she sat and ate, that defied her surroundings, solitude and circumstance. Although I was sorry that these rooms were rammed so close to the mountain, set in a sunken trough that had been excavated beneath the path, in the shadow of the lowering pine forest. The compound itself was magnificently situated, like a castle, its grounds commanding a broad view across the valley. East to the ancient settlement of the city, now spread and spiked with steeples and high-rise buildings that glitter pink gold as the sun sets, and west, where the river widens and goes to meet the sea. Yet the windows of the rooms all faced inwards, turned to the blank face of the mountain like a child made to stand in the corner, or looking onto an internal courtyard. I reproached the architects for their carelessness, their failure to imagine that they were building for people whose window view would be their last variety.
I remembered this image in these recent days of endless light, the bottoming out of the year just after the solstice. The light is relentless. I wake at half past four as the sun rises and am wide awake in my lit up room. There is no reason not to begin the day, except that I only went to bed four hours earlier and I hanker after my dreams. Usually I fall back to sleep and wake again when the sun is already high and blazing on my face, and there is light in the sky until nearly midnight. At midsummer in Glasgow there is no actual darkness, only a few hours of seeming dark known as “nautical twilight”. It is no longer a season for walking the evening streets, looking in at lit windows, pausing to sneak photographs of other people’s rooms, fishing the watery half-obscured, the tantalising edges of things. At times it can feel as if there is almost too much light, a solidity that makes it harder to see.
Under conditions of low illumination we see things more distinctly if we don’t look directly at them. I found this copied down in an old notebook. It was from a catalogue essay on Bonnard. The writer had been trying to convey the ways that waning light can provoke us to open up our field of vision, allowing things to emerge more slowly but maybe more vividly, as we scan sideways in the half-dark.
Does this mean that brightness can actually be an obfuscation? Too much sun in the eyes can blind us temporarily. The brightness that freezes my dreams or stops me from remembering them. Maybe we can decipher things better, make more sense of them by not looking directly at them. The glimpse of a painting when the light has been turned off and you are heading out the studio door. The things that manifest through suggestion, or looking slantwise, rather than being confronted face on, in the spotlight’s glare. We allow them to reveal themselves by pretending to look away. A way of paying attention, a way of taking care.
June 29th to July 6th
Letter from Glasgow: In the Garden
Gartnavel Royal Hospital, or Gartnavel Royal Asylum for Lunatics as it was once known, stands at the top of a hill on the western edge of Glasgow. There are many of these grand half-derelict buildings in Scotland, built in the nineteenth century, in fashionable Tudor Gothic, to house those deemed mad by society. The building at Gartnavel replaced the original panopticon style asylum in the city centre. Its foundation stone, laid in 1842, boasts that the new buildings will be “divested of all gloom or appearance of confinement”. The two large houses had views to the Clyde and the Campsie fells, and were surrounded by extensive gardens and a lake. Gartnavel derives from the Gaelic for garden of apples: a sort of Eden, almost.
By the end of the twentieth century these castle like buildings were being steadily emptied. The Community Care Act of 1990 meant that residential treatment was increasingly reserved for more acute patients, who were housed in smaller, plasticised, purpose-built wards in the same grounds. The abandoned asylums stand like ghosts looking down on them, often still holding their beds, chairs, screens, while forests of buddleia sprout through the slate rooftops and pigeons fly in and out through the broken panes.
I became familiar with these territories when I worked as an interpreter for refugees and asylum seekers in this city a decade later. Births and mental distress were the most recurrent reasons to be called out. Soon I was familiar with the different levels of psychiatric care and procedures of admission: from resource centres and counsellors to the wards, open and locked. Pregnancy and Madness were the only events considered serious enough to warrant a continuity of interpreter and so my role became more than just a mouthpiece for the transfer of information. Inevitably I became a part of the narrative, at times more than I anticipated.
I progressed through each level of institutional care, side by side and back again, with a distressed man from Lithuania. I sat next to him as his section order was signed. The nurses used to put him on the phone to me from his locked ward because nobody else could speak to him and he would ask when I was coming back. When I was away, he said that he heard me broadcasting to him from a radio in his stomach. I sat with him at the fortnightly meetings with the psychiatrist who he told that the only thing he wanted was for me to collect him from the hospital and take him home. The doctor discouraged him from talking too much. He sought just enough answers to sign off or renew drug prescriptions. I was the only person who could listen to his strange inventive speeches, who heard him out.
Birth and mental distress coincided when I was called out to a new mother suffering from post puerperal psychosis. We found her in a tiny flat on the ground floor of an immense high rise on the famous Red Road estate. The bed took up almost the whole room, but she was running around it, trying to escape the doctors, to hide in the narrow space between bed and window. They brought her out, and we left her very young husband, who looked a child himself, holding the baby, sitting disconsolate among the few congratulatory cards.
At the time, a friend of mine was studying the history of Victorian asylums. He took me to the abandoned grounds of one on the outskirts of Belfast and described the ideal that was hoped for — a calm and enclosed routine of gardening, or woodwork and other manual crafts. I pictured the people at work in the light and spacious rooms behind the high glass windows, or digging and planting within the red brick walls of the derelict kitchen garden where we stood. I thought of a sort of monastic repetition of tasks, a safe passing of the hours that gives a rhythm to the days and harms no-one. I know that, as with monasteries, the ideal could fall well short, but still the fall of afternoon light and leaf shadows against the garden wall drew me in to picture a life of clear air and safe purpose, remote from the blue smoke fogged television rooms crowded with vinyl armchairs where I had spent so many hours, ingesting weak lukewarm tea and the smell of cheap tobacco, keeping my patients company, waiting to see the doctors, surrounded by so many others who were simply smoking and waiting.
This Saturday a group of us played music in the walled gardens of the old Gartnavel Asylum. We had been invited as part of a Covid commissioned theatre project. A few people were allowed into the garden to hear us and we played old Klezmer tunes, Breton and Scottish folk tunes under an ancient pear tree. The garden before us was full of flowers and herbs, abundant and well tended, behind us loomed the West House of the Asylum, with glass doors opening on to a terrace. Some rooms are still used for offices but most are empty. I looked down into the basement, where faded 1970s flowered print curtains hung from half-smashed windows. The walls of the basement well were thick with deep green moss and sprouting trees. The West House was built to house the richer patients and the Superintendent’s rooms, which overlooked the terrace. The East House, now completely derelict, originally held the paupers dormitories. It was evacuated by the 1990s. Through a broken window a strip light is hanging, blowing gently on the breeze.
I found some old photographs of the buildings’ interiors from over a hundred years ago. There were long carpeted corridors with parlour palms and elegant side tables. There are pictures of Open Air or “Tent Therapy”: patients lying out on beds under luxurious looking white tents, attended by nurses with trays of refreshments. The therapy — lots of sleep and bed rest in the fresh air, and plentiful vegetarian food, was deemed effective and made available to residents of both Houses up until the First World War. Occupational Therapy gained ground from the 1920s and R.D Laing’s “rumpus room” experiments took place here in the 1950s. Although dramatically named, the room would not have looked much different to an Occupational Therapy room. Cooking, knitting, sewing, drawing and housework even were encouraged and tools were provided. Laing and his colleagues were opening an existing format up to more isolated and “extreme” patients, diagnosed schizophrenics for whom such treatment might have been thought hopeless. Free conversation, real talk with the nurses was also encouraged. Laing’s scepticism of medicated isolation was not quite as unique as he later implied. Henderson and MacNiven, successive Superintendents of Gartnavel between 1921 and 1965, had both studied in New York with Adolf Meyer, a pioneer of Occupational Therapy and Psychobiology who was open to the insights of Freudian Psychoanalysis. Both men were cautious of over reliance on the popular methods of insulin induced comas, Lobotomy or Electro-convulsive therapy. Angus MacNiven, Superintendent when Laing was there, had a signed photograph of Sigmund Freud on his wall, something that seems quite unlikely in a Psychiatric hospital office today.
The music in the garden was an odd echo or enactment of a dream I had had last November, as we locked down again for winter — of warm summer light through cloistered gardens, with musicians playing in them, leaning in, listening and responding. I thought about the way that music can comfort when words trip us up or fail us, and of the ghosts in the garden, working the plots, weaving or woodworking, or lying out, resting in their magnificent tents. I wished them well as we played to each other, the ghosts of the asylum and those of the future that we were playing towards.
June 22nd to June 29th
Letter from Glasgow: Salvaging
Coming back from walking my daughter to school I cut into Oakfield Avenue, the street that runs parallel to my own. There are no longer any oaks here but tourists come to photograph the three large cherry trees at the junction with Glasgow street when they blossom. At the end of the street I see a van with large white letters on the side: Joe’s Junk, waiting at the entrance to one of the buildings. I pause for a moment in case something interesting might be coming out of the door. It turns out it is a piano, an old upright made of golden polished wood. The men are barely carrying it, they are wobbling back and forward and the front panel smashes off. They do not look as though they are used to managing pianos, and they still have the front steps to go. I know that the piano is not being simply removed, but will be broken up. The van’s logo and the movements of the delivery men make this clear.
I want to go up to the piano, to try its keys. I worry that this is a good piano, about to be destroyed needlessly. I stand in the middle of the road, knowing that there is nothing I can do. It is not a table that I can drag back up the lane and four flights of stairs to my flat. I am good at rescuing furniture, I have stubbornly salvaged entire plan chests my own size, single handedly, drawer by enormous drawer. No amount of resolve would allow me to shift a piano though, and we already have our own musty upright, rescued from an east end church. I think of running to ring the piano tuner’s doorbell. He lives on this street. His work is salvaging and repairing pianos, he has a warehouse full. He told me that Glasgow used to be full of piano makers, and that many good quality pianos are still at large in the city, for a piano in the home was an essential luxury before radio, before television. He loves pianos and all of their component parts. If only he would come out of his door, he might reassure me that it is alright to let this one go, or he might intervene and save its life.
If I had turned the corner a few minutes later I would never have known about the fate of the piano, like all the other furniture that must have been removed, demolished, discarded, from so many houses over so many years, without my knowing about it. But if I happen to coincide with a throwing out I feel it is my duty to take care of what is left behind. The objects don’t have to be rare or antique. A plain table or chest left in the back lane will catch my attention and I feel I must take care of it, I must take it in. I guess this is how some people feel about abandoned animals. I feel responsible for these objects. But I can’t feel responsible for all this furniture, there is no room in my house for even one more chair.
As I live in a student neighbourhood, this weakness of mine meant that my life would become very busy around June, when the leases were up and flats were changing hands. There used to be endless leavings of old furniture in the back lanes and courts. I am almost relieved now that the flats are furnished with cheap IKEA items, which are always thrown out broken, and are no temptation. It was the resolute solidity of the old brown furniture that made it hard to ignore.
A few months ago I took in a new foundling in the form of a wooden box, the size of a small crate, inlaid with gold crested lettering saying “CABINETTO”. It had a handle at the side like a hurdy gurdy and a glass slot at the top that opened onto a scroll with punched rectangles, the score, that would delivered the notes. I suppose this invention must have come about between pianos and record players, a sort of small mechanical organ. The scroll inside had lyrics down the side — half words printed in blue inked sans serif capitals in a staggered narrow vertical:
Like a long concrete poem. Until I realised that you had to read it from the bottom up. The song was Scottish but the roll is stamped Brooklyn, N.Y. Although large, it was by no means a piano and I could carry it all the way up the hill to my house. It was not working and would certainly need delicate repair but I could not leave it lying on the pavement.
The Cabinetto was resting in a line on the kerb between boxes of books, speakers and music amps. A house clearance was going on at the mysterious house at the foot of Glasgow Street, an old lone building with a high gate and walled garden on the edge of the river. The men were putting everything out on the street and encouraging people to help themselves. A few students were looking through the books. The boxes were going to be loaded into a van and taken to the dump. It was a time of full lockdown and despite there being two secondhand bookshops on the same street everything was closed, and the books would be pulped. I piled two boxes of Penguin paperbacks, dark orange and very dirty cream, on top of the Cabinetto. I have no room for books either, but it was starting to rain and I could not watch them get soaked.
In another box there were copies of the Evergreen Review, an American literary magazine from the 50s and 60s, with new extracts from Beckett and Genet and elegant black and white listings for New York painting shows, names of writers, poets and painters, familiar and forgotten. There was even an advert for a blended whisky from Glasgow, “a jug of Johnny Begg”, listed as one of the essential “Things you need when Beatniking”. The men encouraged me to get into the van and see if there were any more copies to be found in the boxes already stacked there. They told me furtively that they had been directed to clear the house because the man who lived there could not throw anything away, he had become walled in by his things. It seems he may have been removed to a hospital and they were directed to come and clear the moveable items while he was away. I might have heard this as a cautionary tale, but instead I was compelled to go through all the books, making sure that nothing important was sacrificed to the shredder. I encouraged the passing students to help share my load, I recommended books to them. Eventually, as the rain fell more heavily, I made my slow progress back up Glasgow Street, balancing boxes of books and the Cabinetto.
I have not tried to make the Cabinetto work yet, but I do not regret the salvage operation. At night, when I’m too tired to read, I survey the elegant monochrome ads in the Evergreen Review for art exhibitions of 1961, on East 57th or West 56th, N. Y. C., as if I am planning to set out there. I check the forthcoming publications from Grove Press and New Directions, and note the addresses of the bookshops, and the Cabinetto has found its place on my floor, between an armchair and a cupboard, after all it is a good bit smaller than a piano.
June 15th to June 22nd
Letter from Glasgow: Glasgow Street
On Glasgow Street there is a house with a cement front garden full of flowers. I love this spot, set almost at the top of the hill, at the place where we cross the road from the broader pavement by the school to the narrower one by the houses, that marks the fact that we are about to reach home. The sight of it was especially welcome in the days when I was pushing a double pushchair full of shopping, my hefty three year old son and one year old daughter slung low, arms outstretched to maximise my force up the long steep gradient of the street. The garden has not changed since and even then seemed as if it had been there always. The house was lived in by an old woman, a botanist some said, who had taught at the university. She walked on two sticks hunched right over, making her extremely slow progress around the block. But she would stop and beam when the children passed, and watch them go. Sometimes I would find her on the main road, resting in the evening sun at rush hour, perched on the low ledge of the pub wall, sticks at her side, watching.
She would walk alone, stick by stick, or accompanied by her son or daughter who must be in their sixties or seventies now. Eventually the old woman stopped her evening perambulations, and then died a few years ago. Her son wears a tweed hat, belted raincoat and carries a worn leather briefcase in gloved hands on his walks. We would often see him at the start of the pandemic, striding energetically across the park or straight down the middle of the road on his way to his office at the university. He would greet us with a wave and a grin without breaking stride. He works for the Anatomy Department, some people call him the body parts librarian. We haven’t questioned him closely on his job but it seems that he is responsible for signing the body parts in and out to the students.
The brother and sister live in the house now, with several cats, who keep guard at the doorstep. There is a glass door that gives a teasing view of a front hallway with a large tree in a pot and a Corinthian pillar in the middle, painted red, there is a kitchen room beyond the pillar, but it is hard to make anything out too clearly and so it remains a glimpse to be completed, expanded in the imagination. At the back of their house, which my garden-side windows look onto, there are gangplanks running from the low window sills, for the cats to escape into the shared mossy garden. At the front is the more ornamental cement garden. Now, in midsummer, it is filled with flowers — red hot pokers, ragged magnolia and azalea, drowsy half-blown roses with enormous petals of deep crimson, and London pride. But the best thing about it is the marbles, a great spread of them, set in concrete on a raised stone protrusion, like a sort of permanent game of solitaire. On hot days their spiralled glint beneath the azalea draws you in, you want to touch them, to feel the contrast of the cool rounded glass and the heat from the rough stone in which they are so solidly set. The cat prowls about behind the dark green rail that seems to be made of metal scaffolding tubes. The children always liked to pause here, on the way home, to climb up on the railing and look in, they call it the marble garden.
For fifteen months I have been circling this small perimeter of the neighbourhood, finding spaces from which to take off into other imagined worlds. Overgrown gardens, back lanes, rooftops and windows become wide open fields, strange lands, remote castles and inviting interiors — my day dreams and diversions.. Never quite in step with the present, in spite of this long staying put, never quite catching up with the turns of the year — the blossom blown the day after you notice it properly, the leaves in autumn also. Staying put, for longer than you ever thought possible does not deliver the solidity or permanence that you long for.
Or think you long. As my friend wrote to me this week: I don’t trust mindfulness. We have to be able to gaze into the past and future in any given moment — what other freedom have we got? And I welcome her words, and realise that she is right, and give up my dream of suspension inside a safe and permanent present for the fleeting distractions of the restless mind, trusting in the daily improvisations by which we might surprise ourselves.
June 8th to June 15th
Letter from Glasgow: Inside/Out
Today, Saturday June 5th 2021, the restrictions are being eased in this city. I can no longer date the various stages of our confinement but the BBC website reports that Glasgow has suffered one of the longest, most stringent lockdowns in the UK. I check back and realise that it is true — for over nine months no-one has been allowed in anyone else’s home, apart from on Christmas day, and for most of that time we have not been allowed to travel beyond the city boundary. We have become used to this, and today find ourselves as before, staying inside, looking out.
Last week, on the evening that this announcement was made, I was walking home and turned into West Prince’s Street. The start of the street to my right had been sealed off with police tape, there was a helicopter above and several police vans on the ground. I took in the scene and then turned to the left, walking west. In the mid-distance I saw a man I knew standing on a corner, covered in blood, like a tall bloody pillar. As I drew closer I saw that it was superficial grazing, though very raw, the whole side of his face peeled of skin, and wounds on his arms and legs. He had just been knocked from his bike by a car. Another man was dialling an ambulance. There was a woman there who I also knew, a mother from my children’s school. We discussed the dramas of the evening street and the news of the impending freedom.
She said she that she would “kiss the ground” of the pub that she used to hate working in when she returned there this weekend. She said that a drunk or ten were infinitely preferable to the addicts “off their head on methadone” who she has had to reason with for the past months, having been forced to take a job at a local chemist because the pubs were shut. But apart from the dramas on this street the mood feels quiet, even slightly subdued. It doesn’t seem as though the city is breaking out in revelry.
The woman went into her house and I continued home. I cut across the empty car park and over the bridge by the river path, where a man was sitting on a low wall. I watched a rat scamper along the wall just near him and make for the undergrowth behind. The man was eating a bar of chocolate and he broke off some pieces of the chocolate and placed them carefully at intervals along the wall at his side. I realised that he was offering them to the rat, trying to coax him back out, to share his meal. We keep the company that we can.
Tonight we are going to meet the students from across the road who hung the sign out of their window asking us to dinner. Although we are allowed to meet indoors today for the first time since last summer we will eat outside, at picnic tables on the patch of community land at the end of our street, because everyone is tired of being inside, and perhaps because I want to sustain the mystery of those magic lanterns opposite. When the dinner is over I will be able to return safely to my room, and resume my watch over their imagined rooms on the other side, the half-lit glimpses that I have become used to.
June 1st to June 8th
Letter from Glasgow: Un-forgetting
People are coming out of their houses. My neighbours are emerging from their bay windowed observation boxes. This week I watched the musician couple on the corner, drinking wine on their front steps in the long May twilight, their baby with them, now wide-eyed and alert. I saw the painter and the student from India from the rooms opposite out on the street for the first time, walking back to their flat together, and was struck by how different they appeared on the other side of their windows, in motion, not held at their desks, half-concealed.
On the main streets the pavements are full of people drinking outside as they are now allowed to do, you can hear them long before you see them.. But drinking is all there is to do. The orchestra is back in the City Halls, but there are no audiences. I chance on my friend the violinist playing a solo live on the radio. I turn her up loud and listen in, but I haven’t watched her play since the winter before last.
It is completely light now before five each morning, and sometimes I get up and go and drink tea in my chair at the window to enjoy the emptiness and watch the squirrels who have the run of the streets at this time. I can pause here. I take in the silence and the soft light that makes the space around feel enormous. It is very still, almost no wind.
It feels as though there should be something momentous to mark this emergence, not just this casual resumption of bars and social life and holiday planning, as if nothing has changed. Although I know it is hard to do any differently. I feel restless and exhausted at the same time. I try to hold the past year in my hand, to get the measure of it, but it overflows me, perhaps I’m not yet ready to re-inhabit it, to grapple with its intensities and propositions.
Last week I travelled as far as Edinburgh, the mirror city. I walked for miles along the Water of Leith. It is hard to miss the obvious evocations in this name of the mythical river, Lethe, that ran through the underworld. I look up the Greek word: it means Oblivion, Concealment or Forgetting. The word for Truth is A-lethe-ia; literally it means an un-concealment or un-forgetting. These last two translations move in different directions. Forgetting suggests a limbo state, something that might sometime be remembered, and provokes a counter impulse, to seek that which has been forgotten — the wish to reclaim, or rescue from Oblivion. Forgetting, and the recovery of that which has been forgotten — the un-forgetting — is most often involuntary, at least against our conscious will. But concealment and un-concealing is active, it can be willed, and alerts us to the fact that the hiding of the thing was probably a deliberate act. Un-concealment is closer to the conjuror’s trick — ta da! The big reveal, the curtain drawn back. I walk back upstream, against the brown bubbling current where willow leaves trail on the surface, and wonder about things that have been hidden on purpose and things that are forgotten against our will.
May 25th to June 1st
Letter from Glasgow: THROUGH THE WINDOW
For a year we have kept watch over the students whose rooms we look into opposite. I have photographed their windows for the Crown Letter, and written about them. First, the painter who I see from my study, and then the woman in the room on the other side of the main door, who often sat in her bed all day working, and kept rearranging the furniture. She always waved to us if she saw us in the window, and soon this was part of our daily routine — my daughter and I waving and smiling down to the woman in her room, at desk, bed or sofa below. This Easter we met her for the first time as she was coming out of the flat. We were heading out to visit friends in their garden and she accompanied us a way along the street. We learned that she had come to Glasgow from India last summer for a year’s MA, but has been confined to her room.
We walk along the street together talking. She says how should I address you, should I call you Aunty? Which is how a woman of her age might address an older woman with children in her country, but I say just my name is fine. The next day we look out and see a huge cardboard banner that she and the painter in the room next to her have made and suspended from her window — with large painted letters inviting me and my daughter to come to dinner, for all the street to see.
Soon after this, things started to get much worse in India… When I see her again she tells me that her family have moved out of the city in Jaipur to a village in the countryside, for safety. Her mother, grandmother and aunt all have Covid. The men of the family are now doing the shopping and the domestic duties. Her best friend’s mother, who she had grown up with, died from the virus. She stayed up all night crying and talking to her friend online. She worries continually, but she can’t be there. She says that sometimes when she sees me in the window with my daughter, brushing her hair, it reminds her of herself and her mother. Indeed I am the same age as her mother, although my daughter is so much younger.
At night I see her light on late and the curtains closed and I worry about the possibility of bad news from home. Sometimes the curtains stay shut all the next day and I worry more. But so far, when I pass her open window on the street and check in, her family have survived intact. Soon, once the restrictions here are eased, my daughter and I will cross the road for dinner.
May 18th to May 25th
POSTCARDS TO GLASGOW (IV): THROUGH THE WINDOW
This week’s postcards come from a housing estate in the Orkney islands, an Italian hill town, a street in East Oxford, a Paris balcony, and from a friend who lives just a mile away, although that also felt like a remote land in the months of strict lockdown.
I’ve started a drawing of my window. The thing with my window is it faces straight on to the neighbour’s garden. All through lockdown his friend was in the garden catching my eye. I put up a small silk tablecloth because it’s a sunny south facing window and it’s warm to have a sunny room. I felt terrible guilt at blocking them out but relief as well. In the winter the willow is bare and the fennel and oxeye daisies are all died back but they will grow back. It’s tricky to draw. I’ll get back to you.
I took this photo to the left of where I write — it is a view towards the east, across the rooftops of the stone houses, beyond the ancient church bell tower, and past what was an old hospital, but is now apartments. Mostly I see the rooftops and above, like a hawk sees anomalies and slight, unusual shifts. And I can see and feel, if I sit in its path, the sun as it passes from this window to the west. Many times, I came up here to sit, even in the thinnest winter sun. One evening, I saw an enormous black cloud passing overhead; it circulated above, and went on its way, leaving us untouched. Many a night, the kids and I did our daily walk in the darkness, around the village walls, amidst the stars and sometimes the shapes of the moon; we rarely met, or saw, another soul (apart from the two men who, because of heart problems, circle the village daily, day and night, walking kilometres at a time).
It’s an old village, medieval and earlier, and what is now the church is built on what was a Roman temple, qualities and columns of which remain in its crypt. Features of prior pandemics remain too: the Porta Romana that would have been shut to anyone infected; chutes built into ancient walls where foodstuffs would have been pushed through; and tens of terracotta urns unearthed over the years, each with the tiny skeleton of a baby or a small child inside, encased in dried mud, who died in a malaria pandemic in the 1200s.
In autumn and winter we had a few clusters of Covid, mostly families infected together; one evening, in the days before Christmas, I took a hot roasted chicken to a friend and her family, housebound for a month with Covid in their tiny stone house; and cheese and crackers, and a box of ceramic Christmas decorations from Tiger (a cupcake, a Matrioshka doll and an old-fashioned toy train), bought in haste at Termini, all covered in glitter and neatly packed in a box with candles and a strand of coloured lights, into which we sprinkled small chocolates. I left the hot chicken and other gifts on the top step and rang the doorbell. The lady from the shop in the old part of the village also left a bag of food on their doorstep each day that month.
Other forces and frenzies have circulated these months too: stories of people who had seen, or had been told by others who had seen, wolves come down from the hills surrounding the village; one seen eating a sheep (shearing the sheep’s skin with its teeth before killing it). You can see in the photo the priest’s roof being re-tiled by builders, they’ve been at it for months. He too is part of village mythology, or is it hysteria, for these things may or may not have happened; perhaps they are hearsay or imagined, for such imaginings have intensified during the months of lockdown. The priest, originally from Poland, was brought back from a neighbouring village, even though it is said that he had slept with tens of women in the village (mothers and daughters from the same family, queuing up at his door). I’ve seen him once or twice, out in the piazza in his leather jacket, but keep well away!
I saw too, in Rome, a magnificent graffiti painting in grey and white, on the side of a portacabin: a ‘pandemic-faced’, half-transparent devil was ferrying away one of the large river gods (Ganges I think it was, holding a long oar), from the fountain of the Quatro Fiumi (the Four Rivers) in Piazza Navona.
It’s been hard months for people – there have been so few children about, although as spring has arrived, a few teenagers now venture out, and the bar is open for table service. I had stopped asking people how they were, because for some it was terrible; Terribile, was the reply.
I remember how cold it has been too: only in bed or sitting in our black car in the sun do I remember feeling really warm. And despite endless months of lockdown at home, my time up here was always curtailed: up would come my kids, often in pyjamas, to tell me they’d finished their online classes or homework, and that they were now going to be on their phones and I wasn’t to disturb them; they were done.
The reclining nude in the photo (dated 1894) was, by the way, a birthday card you sent me on my 30th birthday, when we lived in London. I stumbled across it recently, and put it out, as a wonderful find from the phases of time in our lives.
The view through my window these days is rather obliterated by the seedlings which are jostling for sun, patiently waiting for the right moment to be carried carefully to the allotment and bedded in for the summer: courgettes, sweetcorn, broccoli, cauliflower, runner beans. Not all will make it through my delicate balancing of sun, light and watering. I neglect them, and then make up for it with a dousing, only for some to drown… But they offer a good distraction from work.
And beyond the seedlings, I see my neighbours opposite – people I didn’t know the names of before the pandemic. The weekly clap for carers brought us all out onto the street, and for the first time, we all acknowledged each other, and little by little, began to share stories, swap books, recipes and then phone numbers for the new street Whatsapp group. Such valuable connections, for those shielding, those living alone, a single mum locked down with 2 kids under 4 and nowhere to go… And the weekly meet-up continues even now, organised on Whatsapp, with people coming and going, in order to more or less adhere to the rule of 6 – a connectedness in this little corner of East Oxford, prompted by the pandemic.
At the end of May last year I rearranged the furniture in the front room so that we could sit in the bay window, as near to outside as possible. It made the space feel new. I would open a window wide each morning and lean out to drink the air. Over time I began to notice subtle scents on the breeze. This photo was taken lying on the sofa from where I watched seagulls gather on the chimney pots. ‘Partick Bay’ (as we named it) closed for the winter season and returned, along with the gulls, in spring. It may well be an annual destination…
Le 15 mai 2021, Paris. Ma chambre-bureau avec vue sur notre parc. Au printemps cette verdure resplendissante nous fait presque oublier les voitures qui passent en bas… On ne voit pas mais on n’a plus le droit d’aller sur le petit balcon – une famille de pigeons y a installé un nid. Un petit pigeonneau est né il y a pile une semaine. Si j’ouvre la porte du balcon les parents s’enfuient en panique. On a donc condamné cette porte pour le moment, en attendant que le petit s’envole. A quel âge les pigeons prennent leur envol ?
My bedroom-study with a view of our park. In the spring this resplendent greenery almost makes us forget the cars passing below … You can’t see, but we are no longer allowed out on the small balcony — a family of pigeons has made a nest there. A baby pigeon was born exactly a week ago. If I open the balcony door the parents fly off in panic. So we have condemned this door for the moment, while waiting for the little one to fly away. At what age do pigeons take flight?
May 11th to May 18th
POSTCARDS TO GLASGOW (III): HOPING
This week’s postcards come from Oxford, London, Berlin and Moscow. I’ve allowed myself two postcards from the top floor flat on Malaya Bronnaya street in Moscow, where my friend Masha has lived for nearly forty years. One was an Easter card showing the kitchen table and the other is the view from her balcony. I have described both places repeatedly for the Crown Letter over the past year: this February, last September, and for the first time exactly a year ago, in my second letter from Glasgow, May 12-19th 2020. So it feels right to have them revealed in pictures here this week. Lines about laughter, prayer and remembering the dead.
This is a view from my balcony, where I tend to spend most evenings.
Germany is still in lockdown with a 10 pm curfew. The streets are filled with people until 9.55 and then at 10 they all disappear. The week before last a group of 50 high profile actors released a series of short satirical clips criticising the governments recent lockdown measures. Many of the clips were offensive to hospital workers and the families of corona victims. They did this because they were angry at the low prioritisation of the arts in the governments corona plans.
When these clips were released online, many people got angry. Care workers and hospital workers got angry. Other actors got angry. The media got angry. The only people who didn’t get angry were the AFD, the German far right party and the self-named “lateral thinkers” otherwise known as corona deniers.
In the past weeks there has been a lot of this type of anger.
So I have been trying this week to not get angry. Instead, I’ve been reading Mikhail Bakhtin on the role of laughter in society. Bakhtin writes that in the Middle Ages, a public event, such as a speech by the king, would be accompanied by an intervention in which a fool or clown mocked that speech. Fools performed a key role at funerals as well, where the deceased would be lovingly mocked as much as mourned. Not the type of laughter which mocks lesser mortals from on high. But the type of laughter in which we laugh with each other and at ourselves, the laughter which can be a way of staying human in the face of impossible odds.
Maybe if we had a greater collective sense of humour, we’d concern ourselves more with what binds us together, rather than what divides us
Seeing all the views from workrooms makes me want to send you some photos of the beautiful window boxes Dan made me for my study.
The picture on the wall, depicting a church on the Greek island of Spetses, was painted on a fragment of a brown paper cement sack by Kirill Sokolov in 1989. He was the husband of my university tutor Avril Pyman, who has just turned 91.
I’m still on the same relentless regime, but finally (after more than 6 months!) I have finished what I hope may be Part 3 of my crazy book. Nearly 60,000 words, and a lot of it is just about 1898. A temporary end to tunnel vision these last months at least. Some Chekhov things to catch up on.
Лайза, милая, могу ответить кусочком нашей кухни. Куличи и яица мои, а пасху каждый год делает давняя подруга ещё родителей, теперь она делится с нами. Христос воскресе!
Dear Liza, I’m replying with a slice of our kitchen. The kuliches and eggs are mine, the paskha is made each year by an old friend, a friend of my parents as well in their day, now she shares it with us. Christ is risen!
Вот ещё фото, с любимого балкона – все деревья зеленеют, кроме дуба, он самый поздний (как у Толстова), жду его листьев и надеюсь.
Here’s another photo from your favourite balcony — the trees are all turning green, apart from the oak, which is always the last (as in Tolstoy), I wait for its leaves and hope.
This photo was taken on the 15th April 2020. It’s the view from my study. The candle is made in a Steiner community in Scotland, a present to me from my friend Frank. Even though I’m no longer a believer, I prayed to this candle throughout lockdown: I prayed to Nana, Granny, Gags (x 2), Aunt Mary and Tante Pat. It was a new thing for me to do. Somehow I felt the need to conjure my ancestors and ask for their help.
May 4th to May 11th
My friends situate me in space. I like to know where they are and what they are doing — what preoccupies them. I like to have at least one ongoing email conversation with a friend each day as I work, preferably three. I picture my friends as I describe to them what is in me and around me, and they help me to complete the picture.
This week the postcards arrived as drawings, and a painting, views from a specific space and time.
POSTCARDS TO GLASGOW (II) : LOOKING OUT
the world slowed to the pin needle drop I wanted. 5am wake up call from the baby rose the dawn, the birds and nothing more but a view out the window of bodies turning in the beds, breathing, not rising. the air over the city oxygenised, greened. everyone claimed new found time and freedom, mine dwindled in contrast.
something inside opened – love.
I was drawing the pots on my balcony first, over and over, then the flats opposite, then I came to a stop and couldn’t draw from my window any more, until the scaffolding and blue coverings went up on the church, and I started again. I draw what feel like literal, exact representations, looking closely at each part in turn, but missing links in between, and surprised by the marks the pastels make. I’m surprised how they’re blurry and dreamlike. Sometimes I try to correct details and over-work them and lose something, and feel sad. I don’t know how this fits into my week, and sometimes doesn’t, and I can’t draw until the weekend, or for a few weeks, busy sitting at my job, at my desk or on the sofa, or in bed, or circling — sofa, desk, bed etc… Often worrying about a mistake. Sometimes enjoying not having to go out. Very tired. 29th April 2021
My window here is a door and my door is a window because I’m writing from the sill that you know well that gives on to the lavender bushes and into the garden. Everything is shimmering in yellow and green gauze in the late afternoon sun and a shower of fine yellow pollen is speckling my screen with graphic precision. I’m watching a huge black bee come and go from a hole in the wall and just next to it a blue tit is also making its nest deep amongst the warm stones. And out beyond that the frogs are holding a long and amorous conference that comes and goes too in extraordinary bursts of excitement and intensity, more compelling and purposeful than a lot of the conversations I’ve heard over the past few months, mysterious and rich, then letting up for moments of reflection and perhaps a dip under the surface, a cooling away from one another, before bursting out again.
Earlier today, across the road and staying well within our currently prescribed conversational limits, my neighbour and I shouted a few friendly greetings that quickly became a bleating of distress mixing anger and sorrow. Perhaps because he was speaking to me whom he identifies as belonging to the remoter reaches of the world that is failing us so badly, his most grievous words were aimed at the research community — grassement payé, as he reminded me: richly paid… — and yet still failing to understand anything much about this ‘thing’ that has happened to us. I protested of course, but it quickly became apparent that his sentiment was really inspired by the deep-felt conviction that there had to be more to this than scientific or managerial solutions could explain and assuage: how could this ‘thing’ overwhelm us so quickly, how did it spread so fast, how could it possibly have come from a pangolin meeting a bat, so who released it into the world…? My protestations made no headway, and as I sit here looking out in the mystery of my cohabitations from my own perch in this ancient wall, I feel an unfathomable mixture of anguish and peace, of strange and beautiful proximities and infinite distances. 25th April 2021
This view of the sky seen from our living room was the one of the first paintings I did at home during the first lockdown. I didn’t realise it would be a year until I’d see my studio again. In a way, it was just an exercise to keep myself making something. From then I found that two hours on a Saturday at the kitchen table was the best/only time to make work so that’s what I did. Finally it’s opened up enough here for me to get to my studio, the sea, to a loch for a swim. Like many people, I’m starting to feel a bit free again.
April 27th to May 4th
POSTCARDS TO GLASGOW (I): WORK ROOMS
A year of lockdowns and separation. The second year of the Crown Letter. Instead of a letter from Glasgow I wrote to friends whom I have not seen for months or a year or longer. I asked them to send me an image, a postcard of the view that they looked at most over this past year, and to put a few words, on the back of a postcard so to speak, about the view or about what they were doing or thinking as they looked, day after day. This week I received the first four postcards to Glasgow. All are views from work spaces, from friends of over thirty years: a lawyer in Wales, a mental health worker in Oxford and a writer in France and one from my sister in Bristol. We have been corresponding throughout the pandemic, but for the first time I can sit, in my mind’s eye, at the place where they work, and look out, for a moment, with their eyes.
This photo was taken Sunday evening, April 25 2021, just before curfew. It’s the view from my workroom window in France, the room where I spend 12 hours a day and which I love best in the world. You see my dog Luna (with the hi-vis orange collar) looking down at the neighbours’ Siamese cat whom she’s longing to chase. The room is east-facing, you’re looking out at old farm buildings—a silk-worm hatchery, a barn, a pheasant-run, the old baths. And beyond the feathery line of trees, the hulk of a giant multinational soft-drink factory.
Place : my new woodshed looking back at the house with fire pit, magnolia tree, kitten and swing-seat. Taken : 27th April 2021
In December mid-second lockdown, I bit the bullet and decided to get a shed in my garden. I had been dreaming of it for years. I spent hours researching the best shed for me. It seemed impossible to make the decision: practical issues always got in the way as well as a feeling of indulgence. Could I really get a shed just for me? Did we need planning permission? What about the neighbours? What about the budget? These questions thwarted me and stopped me acting. Until — locked in and working from home with my partner and children, I realised it was time. It happened in a phone call. I already knew which shed I wanted, how much it would cost and who would build it (in half a day!). Then I would paint it. And paint, and paint. I put the headphones on, listened to Taylor Swift’s lockdown albums and dreamed of life in the shed in the spring.
In February, my mother-in-law died. It was she who had inspired the idea of a shed of my own. She had been a hairdresser, a therapist, a healer and finally a writer. And apart from the first, she had sheds for all of these activities in the different houses she lived in — all proudly painted and decorated by her. When her husband died, she ran writing groups from her shed which were a lifeline for her and the women who took part. The poems written there were read at her funeral.
Now it is here — it is no longer just my shed of course. The kids use it to entertain their friends outdoors after school, my husband and I use it to drink whisky in and occasionally, on days like today, I head here with no plan. Except to write and dream and catch up with my life.
This picture manages to capture and remind me of some of the best parts of lockdown. Fires in the garden, chatting to the kids away from screens, our lockdown kitten Minky who has become a joyous part of the family, the swing seat and our Magnolia tree – who announced the “opening” up of this dark and intense period with an incredible spring bloom.
This is the view from my kitchen table. In the tree outside the door are two bird feeders. Everyday I watch blue tits, great tits, robins, chaffinches and goldfinches gathering on the pear tree branches and feeding on the sunflower hearts. There are often six or seven goldfinches feeding, and some were born in my garden; last summer I watched the little brown fledgling finches gain their crimson and gold colours as they grew. I have worked at my kitchen table for the whole of the past year — I should have found myself a desk, a quiet place in the house that could be my study — given that all day long I am in meetings on Zoom. But I don’t want to leave the kitchen. I like having the radio and the kettle close by, and children passing through to get biscuits, and I love this view. This view is the view closest to my heart, the view that’s most “mine”; it makes me feel secure, makes me feel at home. This view gives me a sense of hope — whatever happens, the pear tree still bursts into blossom and then into leaf and then into fruit and the finches still flutter in its branches.
Morning Lize, this is the view from my window this morning although I’m not actually working today, which makes the view even more lovely I think because I can just sit and watch it. I’m going to the sea next week to near Penzance to walk and swim and have a change of scene. I’ll write from there XxxX
April 20th to April 27th
Letter from Glasgow: PAUSE
I have barely entered the city centre for a year, since I shut up my studio last March. This city exaggerates a separation between the centre and the outlying areas at the best of times, ruptured at the north and west by a large motorway, an abandoned ring road that never achieved full circle. Entire neighbourhoods were excavated and now caverns of underpasses and motorway bridges must be broached to cross from the land of leafy parks and University where I live to the downtown city proper. The city centre is laid out on a grid, with high tenements that block the light, empty lots and sudden mirrored high rises like parts of New York, or Chicago. This year I have worked at home. I have avoided the studio and have not been taking trains, the concert halls are shut, so I have no reason to go into the centre, and I fear it. I picture deserted buildings, silent streets where only the junkies remain, scavenging emptiness.
Then a friend emails, she says she left a cake on a train from London, a Colomba, an Italian Easter cake, and it has ended up in the Lost Property at Glasgow Central. It is mine, she says, for payment of the holding fee. This is the most practical purpose I have been assigned in weeks, the cake promises elegance, images of Easter parades through Italian hill towns, of London Italian delicatessens hung with pretty boxed cakes, chocolate eggs in extravagant foil wrappings, smoked hams, to decorate our pared down Easter. Of course I accept.
On Good Friday I set out from my house to walk to the station. My children refuse to join me on this adventure so I leave them in the darkened house on their screens. Outside it is the brightest sun, a stark and over-exposed landscape where the trees are still bare. The light makes everything feel thin-skinned. I cut across the park that has become a huge holding pen: families, groups of students with nowhere to go, wandering restlessly with plastic bags of provisions, looking for spaces to sit. I head south, trying to find a different way to the motorway. I follow the curve of an old crescent, where people are sitting out on their doorsteps in the sun, and cut to a path which runs right next to the motorway. The sun is quite hot now, the cars speed alongside me. Then I am under a flyover, walking on grass, reading graffitied slogans of the latest SNP infighting that unfold like chapters on the elegant diamond-shaped concrete piles. The flyover snakes down on its piles to the pedestrian bridge that will take me over the widest part of the motorway and land me in the city centre. From the top of the bridge I see a man sitting face into the sun, enclosed by the empty Modernist complex on the other side. He is in a sort of courtyard, a concrete garden randomly walled with metal partitions and railings. He sits still, in only his trousers, taking in the sudden sun. I take a photograph of him, at a distance, then zoomed up close.
I see no-one else on my way to the station, where I hand over the number, show ID, pay the fee and extract the cake. I’ve nowhere else to go so I loop back, north up Hope Street, past familiar derelict and newly boarded up buildings to the Opera House, with its posters five starring shows that were only seen online. At the summit of the street, the Piping Centre, and the sound of the bagpipes’ drone. It’s three o’ clock, Good Friday afternoon. The culmination of the Passion, end of the three dark hours. I decide to call my father.
My father is unpredictable on the phone, often distracted or doesn’t answer, so I’m always putting off calling him. If he doesn’t pick up it is better to be on the move, like this, walking with purpose. But he does answer, quite promptly, though it is my stepmother’s voice I hear, talking to him loudly and seriously. It is only when she has finished that he says my name. He starts to speak but immediately his speech becomes garbled, distorted like someone underwater. This often happens with his phone but he has never tried to fix it, sometimes I wonder if it is an intended evasion, this muddling of the waters. The underwater burbling goes on and on so I interrupt and say I will call him back on a landline. I cross to a patch of grass beneath some high flats, to a waiting bench that faces the sun. The bench is half scorched where it has been set alight, and sits between the motorway, the high rise flats and an underpass. People go between the underpass and the high flats; they give me a second glance, notice me more than they would normally. I suppose that the pandemic has kept us to our respective neighbourhoods, so we are not used to seeing new people on our territory. I stand out here in my wrong clothes, with my posh cake in its pink, ribbon handled box, on the burnt bench, and they look at me askance.
My father is talking clearly now, he says he has been gardening, and I picture his large walled garden, the rampant beds of richly coloured rare and wild flowers set between decorative paths laid out years ago in flint and brick on the edge of the Sussex Downs. The soft light, the large yew tree, the ancient quince, enormous mulberry, orchards of apple and plum set in long bleached grass and the lichened bench under the fig tree that gets the last of the evening sun. I think of this light reaching all the way from South East England to the West of Scotland, and as always on these beautiful warm days wonder at the perversity that keeps me here, squandering the sunniest days amid flyovers, finding my adventures through the dereliction of a city I have no claim on, this motorway-ravaged, difficult city where I so often find myself, trudging the tarmac or patches of burnt wasteland, swathes of rusted metal, remembering other places.
I look around me, and listen to my father’s voice, to the talk of an idyllic English country life, of leisurely meals and gardens as of another world. I wonder if I could live in it, but I remember that even without the enforced separation of lockdown, visits here were never simple. This idyll was never quite inhabitable. I watched it, noted its extreme and relentless beauty, but I could not sink into it as my own, and its beauty could not comfort me. I listen to my father’s voice and look up from this sunken patch of grass at the windows of the flats, the motorway and the burnished golden panels of the Opera House extension that houses its extravagant spiral staircase. He says it is three thirty. It is time to play tennis. We say goodbye. Suddenly I am tired. I am not used to these journeys. One more flyover to cross under, one more wasteland, and then the straight road home. I set off down an avenue of tall flowers, carved from garish painted steel. The Council put these up with a sign explaining that they are in memory of the small pleasure garden that used to be here, long sacrificed to the motorway. They double as street lamps, an attempt to civilise or distract from this darkest crossing. I resume my stride. I have been walking these motorway landscapes, drawing an unlikely resilience from their strange desolation, for twenty years now, in bad weather and in sudden sun. I do not belong to this city, but I stay here.
April 13th to April 20th
Christina Stead, Lorna Robertson, Lorna Sage
These days it is my books who keep me company, whose conversation diverts and absorbs me in the place of my friends. Not allowed to sit in a room with a friend, I sit with a book. I take up old familiars — pages that I enter like warmly remembered rooms. I choose the company I keep, these intimates, women who I have never met. Their voices are warm, sharp and witty, wry or sad, their intonations and rhythms of speech are precise — more distinctive and recognisable than the hazy idea I might or might not have of their appearance. I enjoy hearing them tell their stories, and tell them again.
I used to like giving parties, bringing together people that I knew who hadn’t met. It is a long time now since that has been possible, but I imagine doing it with the companions I keep now. I think of putting together painters and writers that I love, dead or alive, it doesn’t matter so much. I was thinking about Christina Stead, of her distinctive, overgrown, verbal landscapes. Her attention to colour and detail, the textures of clothings, the look and taste of food, plants, a heady world of plenty, a sort of cornucopia, but cut with loss and longing. I thought of my friend Lorna Robertson’s paintings, and how I should like to offer a painting of Lorna’s to Christina Stead. I would like to put them together.
I sent Lorna lines from her novel, For Love Alone, an inventorising chapter titled ‘She had —’ :
…six voile nightgowns for summer, … half a dozen handmade panties, three crêpe de Chine and three lawn with Madeira work and hem-stitched borders… six dozen handkerchiefs … in choice arty combinations, so to speak, of navy and leaf, lilac and rust, eau-de-Nile and salmon, chaminade and ibex, Mediterranean and coral, black and chromium….
I knew that she could mix those colours and place them side by side, just right.
And this passage on food from I’m Dying Laughing:
I started eating too much the week before, on the theory that I work better .. So I ate butter, sweet corn, potatoes, mashed with cream-butter-onions, cheese, baked like a cake, delicious, yum-yum, brie creamed with butter and spread on porterhouse. I read about it and that’s what started me off, then a glad, glorious, grand week with whipped cream on strawberry shortcake, cheese with pie and cream; Viennese coffee, flaky pastry with a secret wrinkle of drugstore downdown, nutbread, sherry flip — I thought, all right, this is my week.
Lorna can make paint fat and tactile, as close to a cream cake as you’d like, whipped cream on strawberry shortcake. She can make food or clothing compelling on the canvas as Stead does on the page, summoning the invisible plenty. You can enter in and let yourself be surrounded by this brightness of presences, objects whose colours and textures you might have forgotten about. There is something innocent about this provoking of pleasure, but not naive. The looking, as the reading, is strangely and insistently comforting. I think that they would appreciate each other.
I came across Stead in an essay by another Lorna, the writer Lorna Sage. She was astute to the radical nature of Stead’s vision; her refusal to see the artist as someone rarified or special. She wrote, “she doesn’t subscribe to the notion that art is something separate from living wants”, quoting Stead:
beyond was the real world…it was from the womb of time she was fighting her way and the first day lay before her….there was something on the citied plain for all of them, the thousands like thin famished fire….
The variety and plenty of the world, and the drive to share that overflow, to put it all in, not pare it down. Stead’s credo, as articulated by Sage, is “a vision of a new world where creative fulfilment belongs to the thousands”, to the many and not to the few. A world that teems with potential, inside and out. “When you come down to it, what she’s implying is that there’s plenty for everyone, a most subversive suggestion, then as now”.
April 6th to April 13th
March 30th to April 6th
Earlier I never paid attention to dreams, nor did they amount to much, usually hazy and full of wandering and sometimes colourful, but now (…) it’s part of me and I have come to inhabit my own dreams. The puzzle of my days is more important than the puzzle of my dreams, for you should understand that there’s no dream puzzle, but rather the puzzle itself, the puzzle of days, the undetectable chaos of reality that tries to articulate itself in a dream, which sometimes in a composition brilliantly reveals to you who you are.
Ingeborg Bachmann, The Book of Franza
Pandemic Dreams, Sixth Box: Shapeshifting
I’m in a building that looks like a stately home that’s been made into a hotel or hostel. It reminds me of a place I went on a school trip. I felt as if I was suddenly lying on the ground at the bottom of some steps and my spirit was astrally projecting over me. I’m aware of a dark, dense forest behind the hotel.
It’s dusk, warm out, and I am with three companions in a car parked at the entrance to a busy London restaurant. Outside there is constant noise and movement with people coming and going, disco lights, music and conversation, smoke. I am aware of being a man, or appearing to be male. I am not comfortable in my skin. A woman walks past dressed all in black. I want her attention. I follow her into the building but she is lost among the people.
I meet her again as she leaves and my companion persuades her to join us in his car. When she does, he starts the engine. I’d rather we were alone, me and this woman. She is sat in the seat directly behind me, so I’d have to crane my neck around if I wanted to talk to her. The one driving the car speeds up. He is driving dangerously, the car is out of control. I’m frightened, embarrassed, panicking. The car screeches to a halt at midday in a beautiful landscaped park looking out over a Mediterranean city. The woman gets out of the car, slams the door and leaves.
I was at my aunt’s horse riding school. My aunt and my uncle run this horse riding school on top of a windy Portuguese hill. I usually watch New Year’s fireworks from the top of that hill. I was leaving, walking on the chalky white bricks, passing through the iron gate. A class was happening, there were people riding horses inside the main rectangular arena, and my cousin was leading the class. He was shouting directions. Inside the arena the colours were brown, dark, in the shadows. Outside there was a grey light. I was walking through the grey light, but there were greens, from the bushes and the trees. I saw people passing by. Then down the hill an old car drives past me. I look at the driver’s seat through the car’s window, which is rolled down. Cristiano Ronaldo looks at me from the car, with a smile. I’m not that keen on football, so the appearance surprises me, now, but in my dream it was very natural to see him there. I don’t know if I waved. He passed by. Maybe we shared some words, I don’t remember. Then I saw haystacks in a big warehouse, and my scenario changed.
I was in a brownish mansion, old. The walls were brown, the floor was brown, there was a yellow light. Things looked mustardy. I took a shower and looked up. Above me there were dry towels hanging. I started worrying about getting them wet. One of them caught my attention. It had a fur lining. A bath towel with a black fur lining, and then on the right side it had a bit of human hair, like a wig. I thought I knew who that belonged to. A woman I had seen in my dream with beautiful black hair. I thought the towel had that hair prop to make her hair look even longer. Remembering this I feel that my dream was very silly. I have no explanation for it, especially for Cristiano Ronaldo.
My dreams have been very brown lately.
I dreamed that all things were made up of 317 parts and that that was the nature of matter.
The Professor tipped the creature on to the table. It was oval and soft, a consistency somewhere between a jellyfish and a loaf of unbaked but proofed bread. It was about the size of my palm and yellowish, custardy. The Professor poked his finger into it and it opened suddenly, gently, responding to his touch, the inside changing colours like a kaleidoscope, as it skittered across the table. The insides were viny, with tiny tendrils or tentacles shimmering translucent reds and yellows, a little like a sea anemone. It was silent but pulsing. When I tried to touch it the thing seemed irritated like a cat that doesn’t want to be stroked by a stranger. It slid back to the old man and he swung it up in front of his face where it stretched to the size of small baby or a kitten. They seemed almost to touch noses. Then he put it down gently again and it slid away. The next time I glanced the creature looked like a freshly baked loaf with deep cuts patterning the surface. He quickly gathered it up and we hurried off to the Opera House where he was going to sing and he had got seats for us in the stalls.
I am outside on the hill. I walk over the mud, through the gap in the hedge and into the broad open field, sloping down and away. I understand that I am a fox, and I completely belong here. I will be able to run all across the grass fast and light footed. Thrilled by this awareness I prepare to lunge forwards.
I dreamed that I was a squirrel, I was one of those rodent ones that I see daily flittering and bounding frivolously throughout Deptford Churchyard. They are the same ones that come to my windowsill each morning and night looking for me, for company or for food. I am their food source, I know really deep down that it can’t be true love.
The squirrels in this hazy dream squeezed through the small gap in the window, their muddy paws and claws staining the white paint like a winters bruise. A Hawthorn bush colour; a Hawthorn’s winter, that’s what folklore calls it when we experience a dangerously frosty and icy March. Outside it’s snowing fragile delicate flakes that make your skin prickle with the sensation of swollen goose bumps; chicken skin.
The squirrels are now inside toppling and turning, falling through the basement flat in a frenzy; a small whirlwind of matted colour. They stopped and calmed when they found the bed, my nest, and that is I guess when I felt myself changing.
Whirlwinds or gusts of wind have been spoken by the ancestors to be the fae disguised by a flurry of motion so that they can travel through the depths of night undisturbed hidden from human sight but for me this tornado was a bundle of grey tree squirrels, their coats and noses wet and muddy from the earths damp mud and rich soils. I smelt moss and rotten tree bark, it overwhelmed me but made me feel rooted to the earth and gave a sense of the familiar and of ancient histories gone by.
My arms and legs began transforming, metamorphosing with each pulse of painful growing pains beating the chords of my new tiny skeleton. The pain seared right through me making me cry. My skin ripped too then making way for new hair which sprouted like the bulbs of spring. Before long I was covered with dewy baby hairs and a moist dull grey coat of silver fur.
The fur itched and I prayed silently to myself that that wouldn’t be the fleas but the itch crawled inward, burying deep into me. The fleas traced the outlines of my new skin as if they were navigating themselves around an old map. Finally they rested into the white patch of fur on my stomach, where one of the squirrels pressed her nose into the crevasses of my armpits licking the imaginary lice from me, like a mother. She says in a small delicate voice that her name is Kate. Her whiskers tickle mine and it feels if I have had an electric shock. An undeniable connection.
They stayed, the four of them with me until their tails became still and less animated which means that they were now relaxed. I too was as we lay inside the folds and layers of clean sheets, bedding down as if to hibernate, our tails overlapping, touching tentatively. “We fight in the day” Kate spoke again in a fast whisper so not to disturb the others “we fight over food but at night we stay close, and keep each other safe, it’s handy when we smell the stench of cats prowling.”
Warm imprints of fur pressed against mine sending me into a deeper sleep — one where I dreamed of peanut butter and acorns. When I awoke I stretched out my fingers and I noticed now that they weren’t long talons just my usual small fingers, blue from the leftover residue of an oil bar.
I walked to the window sill and looked out. The birds played their hypnotic pipes like Pan and I noticed a delicate white feather, an angel’s feather stuck to my window sill lying in a pool of icy snow flakes. Somehow my dreams of the squirrels had left me feeling touched, thanked and held — maybe it was a message from him. The Deptford man we used to see feeding the squirrels, he’s gone now, decided it was his time, but a memory or an angel of him still walks outside, lingering like a shadow in those streets.
With thanks to Joana Galego, Melissa Kime, Ruth Maclennan, Rosie Wellesley, Becky Brewis, Zoe Savory and Emma Duggan for their dreams, and to Eleanor Bedlow, Tess Glen, Emma Duggan, Joana Galego, Rosie Wellesley and Melissa Kime for their dream images
March 23rd to March 30th
Dreams tantalise not only with half-recognised rooms, or the train that we never quite manage to catch, but with the promise that they might disclose something — an insight or an answer even, that has been withheld by the dispersal of the everyday. We pursue our dreams in the hope that they might lead somewhere — or that we might put together the torn pieces salvaged from sleep and achieve a composition — a patterning of the puzzle which satisfies and makes sense. We speculate over clues but a conclusion eludes us, sending us back to sleep, to hope and dream again —teasing out these sleeping provocations that are a continual deferral and a persistent promise.
Pandemic Dreams, Fifth Box: Journeys
I’m on a train travelling north. We stop at a tiny station and I’m trying to collect my things, so many bags, and before I can the train is moving again. From the window I can see a small dot of red in the hills, the hostel at Loch Ossian, visible even though it’s not. The train carries on and then we stop again, and again I can’t find what I need in time to get off.
I had to find a code to leave the place I was in. I had a journey to make — a train that I needed to catch as soon as possible. I had been handed a note saying I needed to meet at a certain time. There were people in this building giving tutorials to help with time management. The place was being held by nuns, and there was this complex interior. A woman who was helping me found the letter with the code that would help us get out of this place, but she trod in paint and left this trail behind her. The ground behind her was laden with her trail and she didn’t know. The nuns were starting to follow the trail, they were going to find us. Then I woke up.
A recurring dream of a train that I must catch. I know exactly when it leaves and I arrive at the station with plenty of time to spare — yet always at the last moment something slows me right down, my body itself slows down so that I cannot hurry it, or I am obstructed as I approach the platform and always, having had so much time in hand, the doors are suddenly shut, the minute on the clock turns over, the whistle is blown, and the train is slowly pulling out of the platform. The train is travelling south west to the place where we spent our childhood holidays, I can picture the long wooded tunnels that it will pass through along the coastline, but I am never inside the train. I want to catch this train but I never can, and I can’t seem to get around the thing that interrupts me.
I keep having dreams about being on trains, with disruption of lines. I am always caught between two places and I end up staying in some uncertain place between them where kind people usually put me up and allow me to stay. Someone often comes to help me, either a ticket person or some sort of lodger. It is a recurrent dream I have and often in them I do not have the right money or ticket to get to my destination. I am sitting in the carriage riddled with anxiety.. Often I am on my way to a place but have to turn back because I have gone wrong. I often have not remembered the root (sic) correctly and someone is telling me I have gone wrong.
A repetitive dream I have: train stations. This one seems to be a hybrid of Clapham Junction and Brighton, not a real one I have been to. There are lots of long flights of cement stairs, criss crossing each other, tunnels and the tracks cut through some of the land surrounding it. There’s a sense of a land with steep gradients surrounding it like Brighton (though I can’t see) but with all the stairs and escalators, platforms of Clapham. The scale feels totally overwhelming, and the design impossible; the grey summer air stifling and I am rushing, dropping things as I run up the huge staircases. I have my faux fur coat with bell sleeves which is far too hot for this time of year.
I’m on a coach, hurtling south from Scotland. There is a sense of urgency, some sort of emergency and we are on the last coach out of the country, it is piled full with people. I am with the father of my children, but our children are not with us. Suddenly the coach has stopped and everyone has got off it. We are the last ones left and I realise that in our rush to leave we have taken no bags, we have no clothes or money or tickets, even though we know that everyone was rushing to make an onward connection, before it is too late. We are completely unprepared. We put on some clothes that have been left behind on the bus. Some I recognise as my own and some are small and belonged to my children. They are all grey and rough from years of washing, like worn out charity shop clothes, but we take them as we have nothing else. The coach driver has come to the back of the bus and is helping the father of my children dress, he gives him a raincoat. I wonder how everyone got off the bus so fast. We haven’t agreed on a plan but somehow we will contrive to get across the water before the European borders close. We know that we must keep going at any cost.
We are crossing the East German border. There is a great expanse of sky. A concrete intersection rises up and bends around reservoirs of industry where giant inflatable fish placidly float. These pink and orange forms hum against the surrounding grey. As we dive our bodies feel every bump in the uneven road surface – the rhythmic thud of a well-travelled road. I look to you but it is now Marta who is driving, her breasts pressed up against the steering wheel of an old bus – she is driving so closely to the back of a truck that it has become all we can see.
We are now in a tunnel and you are driving again, but the road has become impossible – large portions of pavement rise at uneven angles out of the ground as though there has been an earth quake. We are together as a family now. Lining the tunnel, identical men in long robes work at lifting up giant slabs of the road in uniformed timing. We get out and follow one down through a dimly lit doorway.
My family — me my parents and my sister are in a truck driving into some streets, nice streets, somewhere like Brighton. We dropped my dad off first, to check a house, and my sister parks and we get out to join my dad. My sister piles some stuff, like recycling, next to the truck. As we are walking off uphill I realise that although it seems sensible to leave the stuff on the street, some people may not understand and may steal it, and it’s not all rubbish. I run back to try and put some of the stuff back in the car. I can already see a few people looking interested in the stuff. I get there and there are two old stuffed bears. There are also boxes and a couple of things I want to put back. By now I’m rushing because they don’t know where I am. I leave to catch them up in the house or hotel. I see them coming towards me as I am coming through the doors. My mother looks angry but I can see that she is also crying. There are tears in her eyes. She understandably thought I was dead.
I have my suitcase packed in the back of my car, a red one. I hear a baby tiger crying out from the suitcase, I open it up to find him, he is surrounded by packets of biscuits, I have no idea how he got there.
Thanks to Claudia Lapping, Izzy Morris, Jasmine Pajdak, Emma Duggan and Iona Roberts for their dreams and to Iona Roberts, Emma Duggan and Jasmine Pajdak for their dream drawings
March 16th to March 23rd
Entering a dream is rather like slipping through a window. (..) Occasionally I may capture a passing image, hoping to transform it into a dream event and thereby steal a glance into the order of that intriguing world, but such images and hypnagogic phenomena only herald the darkness essential to sleep and the dream.
We dream ourself into being (… )We do not think about it while doing it. We are just inside something— our dream work— that is itself a pleasure (…) there is true joy in finding an object that bears its experience which we find transformational, as it metamorphoses a latent deep structure into a surface expression.
Christopher Bollas, Being a Character, 1992
Pandemic Dreams, Fourth Box: Water
I’m on an assault course and I feel out of place and wonder what I am doing there. We run through rain and mud then dive into a pool that runs into a river. There is a wave carrying children and ducks who also become daffodils. Then I find myself in a huge high ceilinged room, with about fifty or so other women. This room feels like a film set with matt painted blackout walls; in the middle is a large glass tank with ladders all round its faceted sides and myself and the others all climb these ladders. There is a red haired woman who does a perfect swan dive into the tank and swims deep down to the bottom of the tank. The rest of us get in slowly, shivering and shaking as the water is icy. We swim to the bottom without needing air somehow, although I can’t believe it. At the end we are given ginger to drink. I ask for mine with soda and the woman giving out drinks says: “They all come with soda dear!” like I should’ve known.
I was with a friend of a friend, L, who I met for the first time recently. We were house sitting together in someone’s family home and we were in their living room. There was a tap in the corner of the living room, the kind you find outside connected to a hose. My friend turned the tap on and water was running out onto the carpet. She said: let’s turn the living room into a swimming pool and go for a swim! She pointed out water marks about waist high on the walls as evidence that the family probably did this all the time.
It was evening and there was a girl’s body floating in a pond, on her front but with her head on one side like she was sleeping. There was a boy in the pond too, swimming around and chattering away to her. My mum and I were hidden behind a curtain and she told me to keep watch and see if the girl remained once the boy had tired himself out and gone to sleep. It was my mum’s hunch that the girl had in fact died some time ago and only existed in the boy’s mind. It was alarming that we could see her too, and it probably meant the boy was mad.
A slightly older woman and I were walking on snow and ice, like in the Arctic, when we saw below us a figure frozen in the solid sea, a few feet below the surface. The sea ice was perfectly clear and you could see that the girl, who looked like me as a little girl, was frozen mid breaststroke, like she had been paused. I hesitated but the other woman ran onto the ice to dig her out quickly with a metal spade, which I was worried would damage the girl. In fact, the ice turned to water after a bit of digging and we pulled the body out. Astonishingly, the girl spluttered and came back to life.
I dreamed that my father and my brother were asleep inside a boat; the boat was filling up with water, it had almost submerged them… At a certain fullness I knew that the boat would break its moorings and burst off, downstream at high speed, like a cork loosed from a bottle. And so I woke them up, just as the shelf of water was about to close over them.
There is an ice sea that I come back to repeatedly in my dreams. An archipelago of islands in a sea of ice shards. In this dream my family have all gone ashore and I am alone, rowing a boat back to the island in the evening sun. I am confident, having set them ashore. I pull and dip the oars with precision, easing myself fluently over the surface; looking out to the mountains rising up at the sea’s edge, covered in thick snow and lit orange by the setting sun. Except that the boat I am pulling proves not to be a boat at all, but a flimsy strip of plywood, a veneer flake that is now buckling and sinking beneath the surface. The rowing I am doing serves merely to keep me treading water, to keep me from going under. I am suspended, half sunk and rowing under the water. I am up to my neck.
I was standing on a platform in a London station. Floodwater was rising around me — not yet as high as the platform, but London was in danger and devastating floods were predicted. I was scared of becoming trapped and I was scared of dying. There weren’t many other people around on the platform, but there was someone standing quite close to me, wearing a raincoat. This person approached me and said to me, kindly but authoritatively, “You do know you can fly, don’t you?”. I was scared and remonstrated “No, no, no I can’t fly, I really can’t”. “Just try it”, said the person in the raincoat, calmly, “Just jump off the platform and you’ll find you can fly. Look — watch!” The person in the raincoat jumped into the air and suddenly there they were, flying above me. The water was rising, my panic was rising, and I was now alone. So I tried it — I jumped into the air, and suddenly I was flying too. It became clear to me that the person in the raincoat was an angel, and now I had become an angel too. I understood that I had just died — but the angel in the raincoat had saved me from the pain and panic and horror of death — by taking a leap of faith I had crossed easily and painlessly to the other idea. I had had no need to be frightened. Pain was over and everything was OK.
With thanks to Zoe Savory, Emma Duggan, Becky Brewis and Stephanie Byrne for their dreams and to Emma Duggan, Tess Glen and Rachel Mercer for their dream drawings.
March 9th to March 16th
Letter from Glasgow: Birthing Room
In the early 2000s I spent many nights here. I sat on hard plastic chairs inside a chamber of thin drawn curtains, keeping watch over women I had never met before as they laboured long hours alone. Often I would arrive when they were already advanced in labour, so we would barely speak — but I knew that I must speak for them.
I was working as an interpreter, Russian and French, for asylum seekers who were being sent each week in coach loads to be settled in this city under the new Government dispersal scheme, pending the processing of their claims. The women were from Congo, Rwanda, from Ivory Coast and Algeria, from Chechnya and from Georgia. Almost always they were giving birth alone.
The vocabulary I needed was less complicated than for my day time assignments with immigration lawyers, or at the GP. Never much more than push!.., or breathe…, or epidural. But I prepared all the same. In my notebook I drew an elegant womb shape, a long necked balloon, and I annotated it with arrows indicating more complex anatomy and names in three languages: the col de utérus, or sheika matki, the endometrium, perineum, vaginal canal. I researched possible complications of labour and wrote down more words, for ovarian cyst, uterine adhesions, dystocia, perineal rupture, haemorrhage, just in case.
I was usually summoned by a telephone call from Social Work Standby, once labour was established, often in the middle of the night. I would jump up, immediately awake, get dressed, unlock my bicycle and cycle down the hill. The nurses at this hospital were keen on sedation, it made life more simple, particularly with the language difference, and as you can imagine there was not much scope for birth plans in these cases. I sat and watched as sudden swathes of electronic contractions surged on the monitor, barely stirring the woman by my side from her profound unconsciousness. The nurses gossiped in the corridor and played the radio loud. No chance of the women I was here for having any say in the music that they laboured to.
The first birth I witnessed I was standing at the foot of the bed, looking up between the woman’s legs. I watched in dread as the head emerged, a grey violet blue and frozen ball, rammed between the woman’s legs like a strange gargoyle — the midwife wrenched it free and it un-puckered into rubbery violent life. But in those few seconds I was aware how intently the woman, a young woman from Algeria, had been watching my face, which must have betrayed my fear, for I was convinced that the baby was being born dead.
I soon became used to the rhythms of birth, and watched, ever amazed at the moment when one body discharged another. I remembered old texts about people being born, “leaping” from the womb, and it did feel like a leap, a somersault, turning everything upside down. The waiting though was long. I kept up a breezy front with the midwifes who always wanted to know if I had my own children. I learnt how to deflect their questions. I resisted the invasive sentiment of the love ballads they played on their radios at four am. I kept my feelings down. Some of the birthing rooms had windows facing West on to the Clyde — a grand view of this wide river, stretching out to the sea. Waiting, I would look out at the “Tall Ship”, an old Clyde built cargo ship, its three masts emerging pale and distinct in the distance at dawn, framed by the bluish window edge of the darkened room.
After, I would have my time sheet signed, leave and push my bicycle up the hill home in a daze — sit out on the steps behind the building where I lived, turning the moments over, coming back to the day time and my lone life after the nocturnal dramas and wondering if I would ever give birth myself. When I did, about seven years later, it was not at this Hospital but the one the other side of the Clyde. I crossed the river by the underground tunnel in a taxi, trying to hold my breath against the contractions.
The first birth took place at the Queen Mother’s Maternity Hospital on January 12th 1964, a day after it opened. It closed its doors on January 12th 2010, on its forty sixth birthday. Forty six, the age that most women are done with child bearing, imagined, feared or desired. I am four years and nine months younger than the hospital, and I gave birth to my last child the year before it was closed. I noticed that we were almost contemporaries, and that like a woman, the hospital was retired from birthing duty in her mid forties. The room where I gave birth on the other side of the river was closed down around the same time, demolished and replaced by a vast edifice in a citywide amalgamation of Maternity provision.
This January, looking for a new place to walk inside the city boundaries, I headed towards the river, and found a path leading around the old hospital. The tall building with the birthing rooms stands, still empty, on the hill, catching the light. There is a thumbnail of a moon, almost full in the sky and I remembered that on a full moon there was usually a rush of births. I could be called out several times, back and forth to the hospital for one labour after another. I think of those nights, the corridors and continual doors behind which women were labouring, birthing, night after night. I look up and picture those familiar rooms inside, now empty, unpeopled, but filled with light.
March 2nd to March 9th
Letter from Glasgow: Exercised
It is almost spring, and nearly a year’s full circle from our first confinement. Each morning I pull up the blinds and check the windows across the street: three bay windows in the ground floor rooms of the flats opposite. This morning they were all inhabited by their familiars and the sight of each in their place reassured me: the couple in the corner flat — new baby under arm, born just before Christmas — are settling on to the sofa. Next to them the student painter, resuming her place at the desk in the window, her paintings on easels at each side and against the wall behind her. She pulls back her curtain and sits down at the desk just before eight each morning, signalling the start of the day for us all. She sets the pace. In the third window, another student sits framed in profile, her desk set against the wall. She is more distractible than her neighbour and often looks up to our window and waves, although I have never seen her on the street. Sometimes she works all day from her bed, knees up, hat on, covers heaped up around her, like Spitzweg’s Poor Poet.
The last bay window keeps the curtains closed until later in the day. Later, a woman in her dressing gown stands looking out from the corner of the window into the street, just as her mother used to stand, looking from the same place, when I first moved to this flat nineteen years ago. I never saw her mother in any place other than at this window. I would be looking out from my own window, two floors up on the other side, watching over her, but she never seemed to see me. I wondered if she was waiting for someone. She was very pale, almost like a ghost. After a few years she disappeared from the window and her daughter moved in and took her place. During lockdown the daughter stopped dying her hair and now it is as white as her mother’s was. And she stands where her mother stood, in her dressing gown, looking down the street into the afternoon sun.
Twice a day, the parents of the baby slowly lower their pram down the outside steps of their corner flat and take a turn about the block. They are musicians. It used to be the father’s double bass that we watched being lowered with care down the front steps, before they set off for a concert or rehearsal. They were due to tour Scotland last May. Instead I watched them sitting out on their steps all those sunny mornings. I watched their room with the ever present double bass leaning in profile against the bay window, watched as the woman, a singer, grew more pregnant and we tried to guess when the baby would come. Then the double bass no longer stood in the window and soon after there was a baby and a bouncing chair.
I check in on these windows several times a day, from the first morning light, as the sun shifts across the street to enter our own rooms in the afternoon, until the lights come on at dusk, the spaces becoming warmly lit, showing off new detail, gentle and inviting. I have become attached to these familiars, to keeping silent company. I open the blinds each morning and know that everything is in its place. We resume our rituals, the small marks and measures that are the rhythm of days, the clock of the street. We keep discreet watch over each other from our windows. I have become used to this still world, to its slow shifts, the minimal variations of light or movement. I am used to the silent evenings patterned by glowing window spaces, when nobody goes anywhere.
I try to leave the house every three days, to see if things feel different outside. It is still cold enough in the house to catch my breath, and the work at my desk makes my heart beat faster, so I don’t feel under-exercised. Besides, I am resistant to what is “permitted”. I can’t help an aversion to the sight of the family jogging units, prominent last spring but thankfully becoming more rare in recent months, passing down the middle of the road with bright zeal on their daily exercise — father, mother and little ones trotting behind. Or the bicycle brigades: each member on their own size and sex-appropriate bicycle, sporting garish colours and shiny helmets that jar the muted mood of our downbeat street. They irk me with their self-conscious parade of familial virtue, uncalled for, like silver framed photographs. I look down on them from my window and retreat inside to ignore my own children. We go out separately, when we go out at all. I don’t mind the solitary walkers, I even tolerate the lonely runners, as long as they are lonely. And older couples I indulge, the “over 65s”, I suppose, now that our most salient social distinction has become the tier of years lived: over 50, 75 or 80 plus.
I suppose I am resistant to routines, although I acknowledge their efficacy and often wish I could improve. Yet even the meals I prepare seem like a random impulse, an afterthought. In spite of having had two children to feed for thirteen years. You would have thought I might have learned the habit by now. I know that it is reassuring to be able to stop work, go to the kitchen and start to cut onions, and once I remember to do it I find relief in the familiar actions: board, onion, knife, turn on the radio, perhaps an old broadcast, live from the Met. Pour myself a tonic water, pretend there is gin in it. I prefer my gin neat, but if I drink gin I will fall asleep. So I swig tonic with lemon rind and sing alongside the soaring sopranos. Tonight it’s Il Trovatore, it is New York, February 4th 1961. The noise of sixty year old clapping cheers me on as I fry courgettes.
February 23rd to March 2nd
Pandemic Dreams, Third Box:
Take pleasure in your dreams.. Giotto
I dreamed you had a big, big house, a stately dark house with the windows half boarded up and shining polished floors. The house was so big. You had a student living in one room and you were a bit put out to find she had her lover living in there too. It was such a grand house.
I’m wandering around a huge, empty house, turning the door knobs on each door and entering, trying to understand where I am, which room I am in and which rooms leads to which. There was something about a loose handle — round, wooden, old fashioned (lovely), worn and a bit rattly, and a sense that I thought going into that room that I would be in the room that I was looking for and would recognise where I was, but then it was a completely different room that I didn’t recognise, and I didn’t know what it connected to and where it would lead. There was a simple bed at one side, and the whole room had muted colours, spare, high ceilings, a wide empty floor, no objects, and the door that I entered from and at least one other door that led to god knows where….
A narrow house of low ceilings and unfurnished rooms. I don’t recognise it. Two women are living here and it seems they take me for their landlady. The rooms are barren, the walls a muddle of half torn off paper, wood chip and a dug back layer below dado rail height. There are bits of old maps and inscriptions in pencil on the wall. They have been living here for some time. Should I be living here with them? The bay window is thickly frosted so you can’t see out. They say they prefer it this way. I must at least paint the walls I think and wonder how I will ever manage to make a smooth surface from all these excavated layers. What colour should I paint them? Something warming but light, yellow maybe?
I parked the car under a flyover and boarded a train with my daughter. It was a high speed train, flying through the countryside, we were exhilarated to be going so fast, when suddenly we were underwater. The water rose up beyond the windows. I had to decide quickly whether to slide out of the windows into the water or shut them and stay in the train.
For some reason, I decide to shut the windows and stay warm and dry in the train as we carried on at speed through the ocean. I felt sure that we would not sink or be flooded but that it was possible to travel at high speed through the water. Strange this confidence I had against better judgement that might say “get out get out!”
Then I woke up suddenly.
In the dream Ian and I were walking and chatting in a sunny green hilly meadow. It was familiar but much bigger than one that we had visited when he was alive. While walking I looked at him and he looked so well so I thought I would ask him if he wanted to go back on the THC oils, just for maintenance. I realised while I was talking to him that the cancer was long behind us and life was normal. He replied, and it was so casual, he just said “sure, why not, that would be good”. It was a lovely feeling of knowing that he didn’t have to take them as he was fine, but he might as well for prevention. I’d just found a new source, so it seemed hopeful.
Walking up a hill in an unknown city, finding curved red grilles on metallic balconies on a giant Art Deco meets Soviet edifice, a cinema — called Busby’s. From here there are winding streets, people cycling in pairs, small clutches of friends in outdoor cafes, drinking up the unmistakable southern balm. A view down back into the city, the gentle light of evening and a recognition — a determination almost — that this is a place not to lose. I woke up thinking of Europe.
A. said he wanted to go to Calabria So we went, just like that and joined an archeological dig. What a sweet dream that was. Of course I’ve never been there in daylight so to speak.
Last night I tunnelled into a church which became a theatre – nothing on ‘stage’, so to speak, just steep raked seating full of people, one of whom made me laugh so much I thought I would tumble out of the rake.
The dreams come back to me during my everyday routines — putting on wellies for yet another walk, I am careful of my blistered toe, and remember that in my dream last night the blister became a deep hole. In the dream I had not sought any medical attention and every day the hole grew a little bigger; it wasn’t painful or bloody, just a growing concern — what should I do about a hollowed out cavern in my little toe? Looking in my garden every day for bulbs coming up, I remember that last night in my dream there were many more daffodils than I have really planted —in my dream there were clumps of daffodils all across the lawn in places where there are really none. Oddly the dream daffodils were bedraggled, struggling a little, imperfect — not a grand vision, just a gentle envisaging of something that nearly is, but not quite.
This is a dream that came out of recent events, and was experienced partly as a hallucination. My nephew S. arrives back from three months in Spain. It’s the middle of the night and he’s just managed to evade quarantine, which will come into force next day. He falls asleep in an armchair next to my bed, joining the community of wispy, floating figures that emerge from my clothes at night and lurk in the shadows of my room.
In the morning S. goes off very early to see his parents. Thrilled to have him back, they greet him with hugs and kisses, which turn to lamentation when he announces he’s leaving for Bangkok that evening. I hover in the background, not taking part, though I’m moved to write S. a letter beginning: ‘Dear S. Please don’t go to Thailand. You won’t like it there.’
It strikes me that people who spend a lot of their time writing dream with a pen in the hand and use it to write the story that’s the dream.
With thanks to Jessica Wolfson, Judith Ravenscroft, Stephanie Byrne, Kate Dimbleby, Maud Hewlings, Nikki Tomlinson and Sinéad Rushe for this week’s dreams, and to Claudia Lapping, Perienne Christian, Jessica Wolfson and Ruby Gaskell for their dream drawings.
February 16th to February 23rd
Pandemic Dreams, Second Box:
I’m looking for my son. I open the door of this large shed, he’s sitting under an old fashioned hairdryer with his hair soapy and wet. An old woman is there, she’s a hairdresser. I get so angry and shout — Hairdressers are illegal !
We climbed through this small square hole into some stranger’s living room. They were as surprised as we were but friendly and we stayed a while. The woman said she never liked the carpet going all the way to the wall anyway. It was a dark red Persian style. She gave my son scissors, and he was cutting a curved line into the carpet.
I had two spare children, who had been left at my house after a lesson and then been absorbed into the family by accident, for months or years. Suddenly I realised how much their parents must have been missing them, and rushed out, trying frantically to find them. On a train I met one of their grandmothers, and confessed my crimes, and she said, but kindly — Yes, it is time you returned them…
I’m in some kind of waiting room with a few other people. One is a girl, maybe 8 or 9. I know she’s adopted or something like that. We’re all trying to help or organise or something. I overhear her explain that her mother is 90 and hasn’t had her vaccination yet. I realise that she is still in touch with her birth mother and must be worried about her, even though she doesn’t live with her.
As she goes past me I pull her onto my knee. I’m not completely sure how she will respond but she stays. I’m holding her like a very small child. and I have a sense that I will adopt her or that she wants to be adopted and that the other people are okay with that and it will be a good thing. I’m almost surprised in the dream that although I didn’t have children and didn’t manage to adopt before, this is going to work out.
In my dream you were drawing yourself as a small figure in the distance and commenting that it is very difficult to get yourself right when your hair is swathed in some sort of scarf or mask. There was a crazy dance scene with Luke and the brilliant woman whom I dance with at the Petits Déjs Solidaires — Laëtitia, and various lithe and large black bodies, men and women, people from the Déj, and also security guards, cleaners, because the scene was set in the marble floored entrance of the Institute and I was concerned about how fabulously we were leaping – to We Got The Funk, no less, still ringing in my ears… on the very hard floor, on and on, like a huge jam with each of us picking up the energy in turn…
I had some work in an underground show in Dublin which most of my family had a piece in too. I went over for the opening which being now, was completely against all regulations. All my family and many friends were there. It wasn’t in any gallery I know but I remember you could see out to the street at knee level. It was a wild party, a long night filled with laughter and caper. I woke up happy, feeling I’d had the most amazing and carefree night out with many loved ones.
I was planning supper for tonight. It was to be for our friends; lean beef meatballs with lots of coarse black pepper and baby capers friend over a high heat so they remained pink and juicy inside. I thought of my friends saying how delicious they were. I saw our laughter, our eager chat, the enjoyment of a special bottle of wine. I felt our closeness. Then I woke up and remembered that nobody is allowed in my house.
I was sleeping rough in a simple black sleeping bag, in Hoxton Church, at the back of a raised platform. Down on the ground was some sort of gathering of tourists, people of all nationalities. The dream had a strange and apocalyptic feel to it.
I saw a big thrashing thing moving above me, but I was crouched down and my neck was too tight and sore to see it. It fell like a bird that had been bitten by the ceiling onto the floor. It was huge and without a shape all around me. I could see my face howling against the light lines of the floorboards and the dark shape of it still in the top corner of my eye. Even though it had fallen it was also still above me. My body was full of the feeling of something about to land. My sister was there and I knew I couldn’t explain it to her but really wanted to.
I dreamed last night about you and you were telling me how you had so many dream stories from people and how amazing they were, and I was thinking about how I couldn’t remember mine at the moment and how thin they were. I wasn’t unhappy in the dream. You were looking out the window in your kitchen and smiling calmly.
Thanks to Anna-Louise Milne, Claudia Lapping, Cybele Hay, Josceline Dimbleby, Daisy Richardson, Laura Murray, Perienne Christian, Aisha Farr and Sinéad Rushe for this week’s dreams. Drawings are from the series Phantasmagoria: Dream Drawings by Perienne Christian, 2013
February 9th to February 16th
Letter from Glasgow: Pandemic Dreams
At the start of this year, as we locked down once more for days of predictable confinement, I began to wonder about people’s dreams — about what people were doing and where they were travelling now, in the wider spaces of sleep.
I sent an email to thirty or so women friends, mostly artists and writers, asking them to share their dream journeys and encounters. At the time, many people reported that they were having difficulty sleeping, were dreaming thinly or fitfully, or that anxiety was affecting their ability to recall and recount their dreams. I remembered the intriguing dreams that friends had described spontaneously, in our email exchanges last spring, and regretted that I had not made the request earlier. But as we emerge from hibernation it seems that dreams are starting to leave their trace again. Some friends sent their dreams as drawings. Here is the first compilation, a sequence of our shared pandemic dreaming:
Pandemic Dreams (First Box)
It’s sunny. I’m in a river with my friend. There are five rivers all joining together in a star shape, the current is pulling us round to the river on the right. It’s fun and we are going fast though I’m thinking we are going to have to swim against this current to get back.
Villages and cities by water are recurrent. I often feel I am trying to get somewhere in them and I am not sure where. Mum and I were climbing some structure that was a bit too high and I said Mum we have to climb down now which is harder! Then I woke.
Cycling through my childhood town, I turned swiftly onto a footbridge. The shabby chipboard panels that usually lined the bridge had disappeared revealing a beautiful curved old iron structure that I had never known was there. My surprise became shock as I realised the open spaces in the design were easily large enough to fall through. I had to warn others of the danger. I slowed and shuffled aside my bike tentatively, the unfamiliar view far below inducing a growing vertigo. As I approached the opposite bank the bridge began to move sideways. I was adrift at height, balanced precariously, knowing that there was nothing I could do but stay still and wait.
I dreamed I visited friends who had moved house to live under the great steel roofs of railway stations. Pandemic thinking was afoot: “where is the best place to be?” The answer had come, “as close as possible to a railway station, preferably inside it”. Over the walled garden of my friends’ house was a great arch of glass, pinned between the steel spans of the station, this was an inside space that had once been outside. Their faces were happy, beaming, but you could tell a compromise had been made. They were, after all, travel writers used to living in remotest Cornwall. “You get used to the sound of trains.” they said, “Come and have lunch!” With a bird’s eye view I could see the trains on the tracks beyond them and suddenly understood their beams. It was excitement, it was the sense of possibility that the trains represented. The trains were toing and froing full of people from familiar and unfamiliar places. And, well, anytime you could go and get in one yourself. The deep comfort of a moving train — there it was, behind them, in the background. They had given up the open sky to be close to it.
I was looking for a place that I might be able to rent for the coming Spring. The first room I saw was a disappointment, everything was covered with chintzy ruched material, the chairs and lamps and even the toilet. I hurried out as fast as I could into open country. On the road I saw a group of men approaching, a band or a hunting party, they were singing out in German, but I could tell that they were Austrian from their feathered caps and Loden jackets.The hunters passed by and I followed them up a path through a wooded hillside. On the left was a viaduct with golden pastoral views through each arch. Yes! That’s more like it, I thought. But on the other side of the path I saw large wooden beds, covered in moss, set out on the side of the hill as though for a small giant. I thought how nice it would be to sleep there, warm under moss with my face in the open air. Then I noticed a figure, a man lying like a felled tree trunk on the ground, covered in bark and moss, and from his head tangled roots were coming out, curved and entwined. Not from his feet, where the roots should be, but from his head, a twined crown, writhing, looking for water.
Dreaming of the sea every night — Cornish. The first, I was in a sailing boat made of white muslins, ludicrous but quite beautiful. The next night on board a container ship. A shift in materials but both times looking down into the sea ware. Last night swimming with a five year old friend, Robin, with lots of whitebait flicking around us. We were waiting for the dolphins to arrive but soon we started to be immersed in litter and plastic detritus.
In the top floor of a shopping centre in Glasgow, trying to find the way out, not panicking but slightly concerned I can’t see the exit. I know it’s there somewhere. My friends are in the basement in a shop looking at embroidered badges. Over the tannoy I hear “Happy Birthday Michael Stumpf. Zum Geburtstag Michael Stumpf!
I had a dream and you were in it. You were showing me a magazine, maybe the Crown Letter, but a physical one. You were getting it out from under the back of a sofa. You lifted up the loose fabric cover to reveal it. It started morphing into a different scene but I didn’t let it as I liked the painting on the front of the magazine and wanted another look. The dream kept morphing and made no sense. J. was there with a ten year old son. We kept sinking into holes in the mud. That’s all.
With thanks to Iona Roberts, Liz Dew, Laura Murray, Clem Cecil, Maud Hewlings and Annabel Wright for this week’s dreams and drawings. Part II next week.
February 2nd to February 9th
Letter from Glasgow: Ten Rooms
Malaia Bronnaia Ulitsa
Rue des Mariniers
Tired of waiting, I go back to each street in turn. I sit down at the table, I look out of the window. In each room I can remember the exact arrangement of the furniture, the direction of the window in relation to the sun, and the view from it.
I look out of the window.
On Lychener Strasse the leaves are always yellow, flickering in bright autumn sunlight, for somehow I’ve only visited Berlin in November. I look out from my friend’s window at the people on the pavement, the tall trees and the park stretching east behind them. The light feels different here, it is exciting. The windows are tall, they go right down to the floor, for I am back in the flat in the early days before the renovations were imposed, ceilings lowered, the old door and window frames smashed and replaced by smaller plastic ones. Pictured spaces assert their own time.
In North London it is Saturday morning, about ten or eleven, early Spring. The sun is on the other side of the street but we sit at the table in the bay window and look out at it, shining on the house opposite, as we butter toast. The morning feels full of promise: the light, the streets, the bricks of this city more solid and inhabitable than any of my cities, and yet I choose not to live here. I watch my aunt’s face, her shoulders in her patterned dressing gown, as she pours coffee and talks of family and the unconscious.
Moscow, the long street between the Boulevard Ring and Patriarch’s Ponds: now a sought after address, but my friends managed to stay put through the years of evictions and renovations. I am in the kitchen of their top floor flat, in my usual seat, sitting with my back up against the almost too hot cast iron radiator. The late afternoon sun comes in strong and red, and if you look out the window you will see the tall row of poplars, rustling, that have grown so much higher since I first arrived in this kitchen in February 1987. They are now almost taller than the buildings, as Masha always tells me, although everything else in the room is the same: the table, the wood parquet floor showing through torn lino, the broken tiles along the wall, the orange scarf hanging over the pendant lamp. I sit looking back into the room, where I have sat at so many conversations, political, literary, philosophical — the anxiety over the great gaps in my knowledge balanced by the thrill of the new landscape being mapped out before me, and the prospect of entering it, of walking through it, just by reading. This pressing sense of the amount yet to be read, that has only slightly lessened over the thirty four years of my visits. On the corner of the wall, always the yellowed piece of paper with a quote written out in felt tipped Cyrillic. Кто думает, что постиг всё, тот ничего не знает. Whoever thinks they have understood everything, knows nothing at all, sounding out in my head each time I walk past it to the corridor, a parting shot.
West London, an afternoon in early May, or September, when the season is distinctly yet always surprisingly more summery than in Scotland, so that I relax a little, as though abroad. My friend and I are talking on and on, drinking pots of tea, Assam or Iranian cardamom, as the sun comes through the low bay window of this dead end street. A cat claws at the seat of the narrow sofa on which I sit and sleep when I come to stay. I think of it as my sleeper berth, on a safe continuous train, moving through the piles of laundry and books and my old paintings that fill the room, keeping company with my friend.
In Paris, it is night. If I go over to the window there is a view straight up the street opposite and in the distance the lit profile of Sacré Coeur. But I am lying flat on my back watching the car lights transporting the curlicued balcony shadows across the ceiling in their nightly carousel. They slide and circle in lazy succession, and I slide with them, back and forth. I am listening to my friend talking, enjoying the cadence and energy of her speech, the rise and fall of the balcony, the continuous rhythm of the train from which I have just arrived.
A few long streets and an underpass west from Masha’s flat in Moscow is another room. It looks out onto a wide open courtyard. We sit in the space that was once a tiny kitchen, but was knocked through to join the main room in the nineties, in order to rent the flat to Americans. Still we huddle in the corner of the kitchen end, at the same small table that has always been here. A breeze stirs the bottom of the gauze curtain on the door to the balcony that is just ajar and hot May sun comes in. We are listening to Yuri as he talks of the space of Japanese painting and of the uninflected vastness of Russian country — the curtain stirring at the corner of my eye as I watch the images his words make on the far wall. Then it is night and winter and snow outside. The old kitchen wall closes us in again, there are jars of pickling cabbage on the balcony and the talk is of the unforeseen pleasures of Saltykov-Schedrin. Yuri always the provocateur, his daughter Ira and I listening as we have listened since we were twenty, hanging on his words, even if now as much for the rhythm and comfort of his voice as for any promise of revelation. We have listened together at this table that I have left and come back to for over thirty years, through late winter breakfasts that run into dusk, or short summer nights, or the slushy hiatus of Mezh-sezon, the thawing time. I hear the pitch and cadence of his voice but I cannot improvise the words.
These are the rooms that I return to readily, where I sink in to the conversations, the to and fro keeping us warm. I take my place at the table or on the lit-couchette. The other rooms that inhabit me are ones where there were no conversations. I do not want to go back to these streets but they are lodged just as stubbornly inside me: Copenhagen Place, Kaloshin Pereulok, rue des Mariniers, rue Cardinet. Lonely places, but I cannot remove them from my inventory. The endurance demanded by these rooms is borne out in the tenacity of their hold. They are rooms where there was no opening out, into the words of another or even through looking. I look out of their windows at the blank back walls of high rise flats, columns of identical plastic shutter blinds at the edge of the périphérique, or a dark internal courtyard, or the passing legs along the pavement from a low basement. Days and nights of silence in these rooms, sounding out Russian vocabulary in long columns, trying to work, to paint. There was no-one to talk to and the views were enclosed, resistant, but perhaps for that reason marked me insistently.
I wonder if, when the borders are open again, I might take a train and travel through these rooms, from London to Paris, to Berlin and on to Moscow. To join up the streets, even the ones I don’t want to go back to, without getting diverted, by train and on foot, back to the places inside.
January 26th to February 2nd
Letter from Glasgow: WAITING
The rooms of the houses opposite have become so familiar they are like rooms of my own house. I have begun to take them for granted. I no longer resist the pulling down of blinds. It is almost a relief when the cold nights compel this closing in and I take part in it, each of us shuffling the chains of cheap made-to-measure roller blinds you can buy online, in various shades of white, creamy yellow or beige. The light from inside transforms the flimsily dressed bay windows into large paper lanterns, taut and glowing. It is peaceful after the glitter and jangle of Christmas decoration. I roll down the blinds as the people opposite do, without regret, we shut ourselves in. Perhaps we have run out of things to offer each other.
The cough of the man in the flat below is the only signal of life in this building. At night it rises up through the floorboards, through my bed frame and mattress and lodges inside my head, as though he has also been enclosed, become something interior.
The streets are quiet, a prolonged hibernation, even as the light returns. When I walk out, I notice that I have stopped looking forward and move almost blindly. My feet and the ground below are more engaged than my eyes with the buildings before them. I set forth on the shut streets as though through fields, navigating the slope and contour of terrain underfoot, relearning the familiar paths as if walking with my eyes shut, through new and open country — no longer paying attention to the names of roads or to the map I am making, no longer reading the streets. I walk through books and streets: the ones before me, and the ones inside me.
January 19th to January 26th
This painting of mine is just another little altarpiece among those many journeyman shrines which mark the graveyards of fascism. I’ve kept this painting many years. It swings in my attic, creaking nostalgia, and reminds me that fascism is not dead after all (as if one needs reminding). The picture recalls a lost period in my life, a loss I regret.
R. B. Kitaj interviewed by Richard Morphet, in R.B. Kitaj: A Retrospective, Tate Gallery 1994
Letter from Glasgow: Sehnsucht
17th January 2018 11.14 (London)
It’s very bright and freezing here today. I woke up to the news that the motorway between Scotland and England has been closed off by snow, which felt somehow allegorical even though they said it was open again now.
17th January 2018 11.40 (Glasgow)
The blizzards were amazing last night — and snow on a scale you only see in Russia— all brownish haze and making the sky seem immense with all of it hurtling towards you. Even as it began — real feather pillows being shaken stuff.. Now giving way to slush.
I walked to and from the Conservatoire last night as had been given a free ticket to a recital of Lieder. Settings of Goethe by Schubert, Mahler, Wagner and Wolf. I sat reading the translations on a sheet. I never realised the resonance of German names: Stephen Twig(g) becomes Stefan Zweig and Freud(e) is joy.. I love the strangeness of German and all its sehnsucht longing and nature rapture!
19th January 2018 at 10.02 (London)
Love the thought of you walking through the snow to the Conservatoire, it feels very like Moscow. G. has been in Hamburg since September and is so besotted with the sense and coherence of the public spaces. I think, worn down by the senselessness of the Uxbridge Road and the looming loss of Europe, she sees Germany as a promised land now. I’ve been carless for over a week from a puncture and at last walking around again and going on the bus, which has been bliss. Uxbridge Road for me every time…
I had to look up Sehnsucht — at last, a word for it!
19th January 2018 at 10.32 (Glasgow)
I’m trudging through the snow of Moscow in the winter of 1994-5 when I was staying with you. Last night was the City Halls and two blonde Dutch brothers playing Mozart concerto for two pianos, they wore matching high waisted jackets like eighteenth century boys. Afterwards we came out and the pavements were iced over and everyone went sliding.
I think I’m only just realising the prejudice we grew up with in England against the German language as somehow military and hard hatted. Listening to another Schubert/Goethe song: Kennst du das Land, wo die Zitronen blühn/Im dunklen laub die Gold-Orangen glühn? The “kenn” of German echoes the Scots “ken”. And the oranges gold against dark leaves are round and glowing like in medieval (Sienese) paintings. But Kitaj painted lemons in a snow blotted landscape, with machine guns. Icy and wet here now, with lumps of half-melted snow.
January 12th to January 19th
January 5th to January 12th
Letter from Glasgow: CLOSE UP
We are emerging from the darkest days of the year. On the latitude where I live this is significant. For almost a month the sun doesn’t rise high enough to surmount the adjoining wall of flats and enter my rooms, although my flat is high up. I am reliant on the bounce and reflection from the windows of the building across the road for what semblance of sun I receive.
I am used to charting my days by the movement of light through these rooms, from the east side of the flat where I wake, wash and breakfast, to the west where, when the days grow longer, the sun remains until evening. Room by room, I follow the sun. Now, reduced to waiting for chance deflections of borrowed sun, I must leave the house in search of it. I walk about the block and look into rooms along the wall that cuts off my light. They face south and are filling up, swelling full with light. Many of these rooms are rented to students and so are empty just now. I watch how the light makes the bare walls gentle with its glow. I imagine myself sitting at the window, leaning against the wall, feeling the warmth on my face through the glass.
I have become preoccupied with these empty rooms. Some of the ones whose windows I look up at belong to the student flat that lies empty across the stairwell opposite mine. I imagine that I can move through our shared wall into it, taking possession of this next door space and its light. I think of how I would use each of the rooms, this one for reading, this one for working at a desk, set just where the shadow of the window frame falls, the big corner one to play music in with friends, and perhaps a room to sleep in. I can picture the way that the light falls and moves through each of the rooms over the day. Their empty spaces seem to lie in wait for me and I feel sure that if I were to push the door it might yield and I would be there, and could walk freely through these empty sunlit rooms, that have become mine.
Back in my own crowded rooms, the light is just beginning to return, a short flicker of reddish shapes along the living room wall around half past two is all that it offers. A sliver of promise for the long days of spring. These small off-cuts of light quiver, marking the short afternoon in thinly calibrated moments. Their light and shadow dance is swiftly over but I make sure not to miss it. I note the time of their appearance so that that I can be ready and waiting tomorrow, to scoop up my own small share of sun.
From the window of this room where the light first returns at the turn of the year I can just see the rim of hills in the distance that marks the boundary of the city. The hills are swathed in snow that glows pink in the last of the sun. It glitters back from the windows of the houses that are set before them, laid out in a line like toy houses. I would like to be up there, feeling the snow underfoot, walking in the late sun, but we are confined to the city. More bounded even, since our legal limits are those of our local council, and these intersect the shape of our city like pieces of a puzzle. Maps are provided online for us to check the scope of our movement, to learn these new invisible frontiers that we had not been aware of. The line is drawn well before you reach the hills. We must remain in these neighbourhood circuits and in our own flats, taking imaginary walks through other people’s rooms.
I lean my camera up against the window to see if I can get a picture of this strip of hills, in the light that will last just an instant. I zoom the lens in as far as I can. I draw the hills up close to me. The walls of snow are now like private ramparts, holding us in. When it is dark I picture them, enclosing and immediate, as the photograph made them seem. A rearrangement of space, a reassurance.
December 15 to December 22
Letter from Glasgow: TUNNEL
At the beginning of May, in the middle of the first lockdown, the broad road that runs through the park was closed to traffic, to allow more space for socially distanced exercise. The familiar thoroughfare relaxed and spread into a scene of people walking, moving softly through the space under the generous arc of plane trees, just coming into leaf.
I had always thought of this passage of planes, strung through with bell shaped lamps on wires, as a nineteenth century scene, particularly in winter, after the trees are pollarded — they articulate their pencilled lines and knobbled branches like a stubborn Van Gogh drawing. But this spring, as the translucent leaves emerged and speckled the endless sun, the people walking through the light were a picture worthy of Seurat or Signac, of their Golden Age re-envisaging of the contemporary scene. The reclaiming of the road as a part of council organised Covid management is not exactly the anarchist transformation these painters had hoped for, and yet it felt different, exciting and strange — the diffused late spring light haloing the figures as you fell into silent step with the people around you, keeping your distance.
In the autumn the plane leaves fell in thick swathes and were left to pile up across the road. The shuffled bed of yellow, orange and ochres echoed the leaves that remained on the branches, and the sun still shone through, making a golden tunnel of leaf light. It was startling and unexpected, the abundance of leaves being left like that in the middle of the road to join the ones above, it felt reckless and celebratory, as though order had been ignored for the sake of beauty. This encircling tunnel of leaves lasted only a week, before the branches above became bare, and rain pulped the glowing bed below to a dark papery sludge.
Last Sunday afternoon, after days of darkness the sun was suddenly bright, so I set out for the park. I walked down through the University to meet the opening of the tunnel. The light was shining from the south through a dense frosty mist. Seurat’s Grand Jatte re-articulated in monochrome, a quiet silvery stillness. I was stopped short by this shock of light and air, this softly encompassing mist, and the figures suspended within it, moving silently through it. In the distance a trumpet was playing, warmly spiralling jazz.
Sometimes the focus shifts just slightly, and the world feels completely different. Suddenly you are at ease inside the space around you rather than looking into it, or remembering somewhere else, or hurrying away. As though you are welcomed back in, after an inexplicable estrangement, and you cannot work out how you returned, only feel the relief of being back — no longer held at a distance, reckoning, regretting — but simply here. The warm sun fills up my eyes and stops me from seeing. I walk into the light.
December 8 to December 15
Letter from Glasgow: THE ROOM INSIDE
The globe of the Chinese paper lampshade in my bedroom makes a shadow sun against the pale red light that spreads across my wall. Shadows of the tree’s last leaves flicker and inflect the watery light that seems to be surfacing from inside the wall. A grace of morning sun at the approach of winter in this dark country. We live in a dark country and we take it seriously. The long tunnels of darkness, and the sudden sun.
This morning the branches of the tree outside the window are bare, with a few last leaves hanging like paper fishes. There is a full rainbow arc across the street where we live. We would not have seen it had we not been struggling, late and in the rain. My daughter lingered in bed opening the doors of old Advent calendars, from the collection that I keep. She had been opening the windows for each day, holding them up against the light.
I write to friends in London, in Moscow, trying to describe the light here in winter, the comfort of this burnished sunlight, like the deeper yellow of leaves when the sugar has been concentrated inside them by the cold. I sift the light through the rooms of my house. I store it along shelves or in corners like a precious liquid. Beyond the window, the yellow tree.
Last night I walked out, down to the end of the streets that lead to the river. I stood at the top of the high bank, looking across the water to the lit up rooms on the other side, through the windows of the high houses. The windows were like paintings set in a wall, or the openings of an enormous Advent calendar, lit from behind. They had small figures in, and for once I was looking at these imaginary paintings as a depiction, as stories that draw you in, rather than unpicking juxtapositions of colour, surfaces and viscosities. From this far distance I could see heads, small animals, the edges of bits of furniture. I was thinking of the pleasure that could be had by giving yourself up to these imagined scenes and not just following or analysing the language of paint. I made a leap across the river and into the window world that had become a painting.
I wonder about these window worlds that we complete with a sort of inner seeing as though we know already what they contain. Looking in, we expand the scene. We articulate things that are only suggested in the shadows and shapes we are shown. This envisaged whole, this completing “illusion” is as specific as the measurable material that it haunts. How do we so readily elaborate what we can only half see? It is as though something already mapped out inside responds to the visual hints before us and evokes an entire picture in precise detail, it knows more than we can think through.
You walk on, and then find yourself stopped short, drawn back to a window that still nags at you, to wait a little longer before a half-obscured room for the familiar to show its face. You are compelled by these almost recognisable spaces, that seem as though they might answer a restlessness, allow you to pause.
In Margaret Oliphant’s The Library Window a young woman looks out through a window and sees a figure in an opposite room that only she can see, that only sometimes appears. It is a sort of midsummer ghost story, set in Scotland, at the opposite pole of the year to now, yet a season that is also ripe for haunting, when the light seems to be almost endless. The woman describes the way that the room unfolds itself to her in the evenings and how she begins to see papers, and books, and eventually, a flicker of animal movement. Her vision of the room fluctuates between a deep seeing into the room in its detail and intimacy and a sudden shutting down of that seeing, when the depth of the space vanishes and there is once more just mute surface, an impenetrable “false” window. One night the flicker of life becomes a man writing, she is the only person to see him and like the room itself he emerges slowly, like a grace. She is held by this elusive vision, a far more intense reality than the life around her, but she is unable to prove what she sees, even to herself. There is a sense that this looking out and longing is a sort of life sentence.
Sometimes a thing is half told and we have to fill in the gaps from our own obscurity, sometimes we happen on images that disrupt the telling. I think of the man seen in the room through the window, writing on and on. I look back out of my own window at the shadow of the tree, the sudden electric brightness of light in the garden. I must not leave it stored up — unrecognised, unspoken.
December 1 to December 8
Letter from Glasgow: MUSICA ADVENTUS
The tree outside my back window holds its leaves when all others about have blown. The trees on our street are stripped bare in a night when a strong wind blows, an abrupt ending. But the tree at the back is protected from the wind on three sides by the enclosing back walls of tenements. Now it is the last space of yellow in a landscape of wet stone, slate and thin black branches.
Two autumns ago I set myself a work routine. I stopped going to the studio and set up a small card table in the window of my bedroom, looking on to the tree. I wrote at the window each day. I would usually begin with the tree, the spacing of the leaves and the light on it. The leaves held the space and made it open up, they seemed to expand the air around it, to articulate it, every day with slight variation. I returned in the morning to the window, the table and the yellow foolscap notepad, and wrote looking into the tree. It is strange how closely this self-imposed solitude and repetition, this narrowing of my circles, anticipated the days of the year now coming to a close. That autumn of my willed confinement I learnt how to make small circuits enormous and how to see the coast in the flecks of sandstone walls. I kept watch, inside and out. It was a lesson that eased my transition when restrictions on activity were no longer voluntary.
The following autumn I waited eagerly for the yellowing of my tree’s leaves but they never turned. They went from green to a deflated brown, smeared with black, there was no golden holding of the space. I worried that the tree had contracted some sort of virus. I even feared that I was somehow implicated, might have poisoned the tree by putting it into words. It is not as fanciful as it sounds. It has often happened when I draw a building that the next time I pass the site it has been demolished — as though we have a sense that attracts us to try to hold, in drawn or written lines, what is about to vanish. But I had been counting on the tree and its golden leaves.
This autumn though it revived. The ellipses deepen to a more orange yellow as they speckle the space more sparsely. The fallen leaves remain upside down on mossy ground, a pale pinkish scattering, accumulating slowly like coins of softest new leather. The rows of yellow windows are folded about the tree like an Advent calendar, they watch over and echo the yellows of the tree’s leaves. Each time I enter the room I check up on the tree, on the leaves that remain and inflect the space about it, keeping it open and resonant. I am reassured by its stillness, by its very gradual deciduation, which lends me endurance.
When I wake in the night I try to grasp at days past, to go back inside them and remember how it was there. It is a bid at finding my bearings in the night space of the house, and in the obscurity of my lived days. I calculate years and try to re-inhabit them so that they are not just gaps. It never makes for the settled reckoning that I am after. The very recent years of my children’s growing up are impenetrable dark pockets. I want to comfort myself by summoning their remembered presence in the night but they remain stubbornly in hiding, as though the children are keeping themselves hidden from me, playing a game where I am the ever more anxious seeker. I lie there reckoning distances. I add up the numbers between dates but these bare markings get me no further in my hope of being gently held within a pattern of years. I get up and cross the room to the window. Even in the dark, the leaves of tree are discernible. The branches dissolve into darkness and more than ever the leaves seem suspended in the space, holding their own, an elegant articulation, a promise. The leaves of the tree mark time in a way that seems liveable, they reassure me with a constancy when everything seems to be eddying away at ever gathering speed. I will stay vigilant until the last leaf has left.
November 24 to December 1
Letter from Glasgow: PROMISED LAND
I’m heading into town. It is the day before Glasgow locks down again, and everyone is out shopping. Early afternoon light through the last yellow leaves, a warm copper glow from the walls of buildings and a hubbub on the streets. The cafés are full and the pavements thronged. A Christmassy tinselled bustle compressed into a few days. It is a long time since I have been out with purpose and it feels strangely exciting. It’s only when I’m down on the Underground platform waiting for the train to the city centre, staring at posters for plays and concerts that never took place in April while a voice instructs us to wear a mask at all times, to not go near people, that I remember the pandemic that we are in.
I have become accustomed to the rhythm of my everyday circuit, crossing the park to school and back to the flat, crossing the flat to the kitchen window and back to my desk, day after day. In my small and mostly solitary circling there has been no dramatic change from the time before the lockdowns. I am just less interrupted in my work. It is different when you go into the city. I get on the train and sit down opposite a line of students, all talking through their masks, and I realise, actually take in that this scene is the present time, not the daydream time of work. That it is both banal and extraordinary, an image from dystopian fiction but also a fairly liveable everyday.
I said that my life had not changed much since the time before. Yet it must have, I have just become used to not going out, used to my subdued days. My unconscious is not so easily tricked. When I go to sleep I have vivid dreams of huge auditoriums, laid out for a performance. The empty seats are about to fill up with my friends. I dream a succession of courtyards or even cloisters, where groups of musicians are playing instruments, some of which I have never seen before. In the afternoon light they are playing a sort of experimental chamber music. These half open rooms are set in gardens and I move from one to the other through the gardens, each one is filled with people in a celebratory mood, standing, listening to the music, drinking, greeting each other. It is warm, and the golden sunlight fills the space. I wonder why I hadn’t noticed these gatherings before, as they seem to be well underway, in full swing. In another place, an open hilltop looking down on the city, people are standing and crouching in a circle, they are drawing and dancing. Everything is suffused with the rich yellow light of endless afternoon. It is tremendously reassuring and exciting, this Golden Age that suddenly surfaces over the ghosts of dark and empty city auditoriums that I try not to imagine, and it is so convivial. The musicians are there with us in the room, sitting up on the walls of the cloisters, leaning against the pillars and playing these extraordinary tunes! Leaning in, listening and responding to each other.
On the Dumbarton Road a man in Emmaus, the charity shop, interrupts my remembering of the dream. He tells me that the binoculars I am holding have been there for six weeks and no-one has bought them, he warns me not to, they are too expensive and too heavy. He doesn’t work in the shop, he is just one of the regular locals who hang about from curiosity, talking to the staff, nosing out new acquisitions and of course helping to advise the customers. I haven’t been here for a year, since last November, and I wonder why not, and only slowly remember. But I am grateful for the man, and for the other encounters in this tail end of town where people break into conversation in shops or at shop windows. I am cheered by the repartee from that other world, almost gone even before the prospect of a pandemic, of junk shop finds and pavement wit. Not a Golden Age, but something vital to this city, unexpected exchanges that leaven the heaviness. I put the binoculars up again and point them towards the rooftops beyond the shop window. I can’t get a focus.
November 17 to November 24
Letter from Glasgow: LYING LOW
I use the phrase repeatedly in emails to friends, to deflect too much expectation about how or what we are doing these days. What does it mean, to lie low? It is mid November, almost the ninth month of the pandemic, of all times it must be permissible now to lie low.
My mother writes, “I feel tearful for the first time in years — I think of myself as a specially cheerful person”. I can tell from the typed words that this new lability is difficult for her. She is of a generation for whom resolute cheerfulness is a badge of valour, the way to face down adversity.
I write back that sadness is not necessarily a bad thing, and venture that crying as much as laughter can be a way of showing or at least acknowledging love for the world.
She does not reply to this.
There is a gale outside, blowing the last birch leaves down the street. From the window I see myself below, in the middle of the road — which has become a flat winter field with yellow leaves flying. I take refuge in a ditch, hunkered down, out of the wind. The ditch runs straight across the field. I dug this ditch to keep me warm and hidden. I’ll pause here. I am sad but I am calm and that’s the main thing. And out of the wind. I watch the leaves fly past, chased by the wind. I may stay here for some time.
November 10 to November 17
Letter from Glasgow: ELECTION SPECIAL
I used to get up early, a long time ago now. In my younger years I was incapable of lying in. I would wake in a state of quietly suppressed panic, a sense that time was running out on me, each morning. Once I had children I uncovered an adolescent capacity for sleep. For the first time in my life I could sleep until mid morning, if left. I can sleep ten, eleven hours now without stirring, I sleep with a new hunger.
Each year at this turn of the season I resolve to ignore the clock change and to keep getting up at the old time, which is now in the dark. It never works. My former urgency about the day has been outpaced by the claims of my dreams. I try to wake slowly, to stay inside the spaces I have been moving through in sleep, which I am sure hold clues to a parallel story as important as that of my days. The night narrative blurs and disperses too quickly, repeatedly jarred and interrupted by daily life. I keep missing vital parts of the sentence: waking distractions blow in like a wind and scatter the tentative suggestions that the dream puts to me. If I could only listen in long enough, quiet and attentive, this hesitant creature would say something to make sense of the pieces that surface and float about as I wake up.
I am especially aware of these separate lives at the moment. Turning on the news in the kitchen each morning is a conscious relinquishing of night time preoccupations. I turn on the radio and I give myself up to the confident commentators as fully as I gave ear to my dreams. I can’t claim that this switch of medium is too jarring, for I grew up in it. Political commentary is the family business. Like doctoring or music in other families, elections seem to be in the blood, the uncertain legacy of my paternal heritage. My father, his brother and their father before them were the inevitable election night TV “anchormen” from the nineteen fifties until three years ago, their forbears were print journalists. It is hard to avoid election night adrenaline.
What I wonder about is how the language of political discussion became so dominant — not only at our table, but at the childhood tables of many of my generation — as if it were the only possible way of speaking to one another, or at least the most important way. At years of family mealtimes it has been the voices of my brothers: the step, the half, and the one I grew up with, that sound most loudly at the table, seizing on the issue of the moment in a game of to and fro carried on with established proportions of fact, rhetoric and speculation. I have long tired of its assertive dynamic and I follow its rhythm but relinquish the logic to look about the room or to remember something utterly unrelated. Lately I have been thinking about this table talk and about who gets a word in. I wonder about the sort of conversations that were felt to be important at the table, in the world we grew up in, and ones that were not encouraged. How did it come about that these unyielding walls of language seems to be the only ones we have to speak to each other with? Why is it that we might want to say one quiet thing and end up led astray repeatedly by the rules of the game? I think about all the words, the conversations even, kept inside.
I imagine other tables, other families and conversations. My friend tells me of the hurly burly of talk and noisy intimacy that was part of her early childhood in Teheran. She sees the English reticence, the preference for political discussion as a sort of politeness. A formal distancing. Certainly in our English culture there is no threat of over intimacy — the “crawling into the soul” of your interlocutor — that the Russian conversational culture we both sought refuge in can be prone to. We spent many hours at kitchen tables in Russia, listening in. I idealised Mandelstam’s written accounts of the continuous improvisation of domestic table talk, with its sing song repetition and variations, half-phrases, half-words even, intonations, echoes and choruses that everyone is familiar with, a communication that is rhythmic and musical as much as conceptual — for diversion and reassurance as well as for argument. I found something similar in Natalia Ginzburg’s account of family talk (Lessico Famigliare, 1963) but I am wary that other people’s chaos is liable to look more inviting than the one we are born into.
I had been concerned that my current obsession with dream life was an evasion of the politics of the day. On the first night of the US election count I went to bed early. The next evening, as things became a little more hopeful, I gave in and channel hopped, from BBC to Sky, to Russia Today and Al Jazeera. The reassuring bath of commentary, of political babble, rocks me in its familiarity and yields a vivid dream: I was about to give a talk to students. I hadn’t written any notes but no matter, I would improvise. Then I realised I hadn’t prepared any images either. I regretted this. When I arrived for the talk there were a few students but the space was crowded with other familiars — there were my mother and father, separated for twenty eight years, standing at the far end of the room. I watch them, face to face, about to speak to each other directly. Someone hands me a muddied score, a sheet of music — entitled, what I first read as Fratres, as in Arvo Pärt’s composition, until I look more closely and the letters of the title rearrange themselves as Fathers. Is it for me to play, to sing? The song of the Fathers? Fathers and Brothers and the noise of political argument. The slenderest optimism about the renewal of debate in the US has become — with typical over egging of the dream pudding — an image of unresolved conversations in my life. I am subject to the political discourse on TV as to all the other unwitting inheritances I carry and it is futile to try and draw boundaries between the two.
The public discourse seeps in. It is there in the house you grew up in and in the table talk — the conversations that were and were not had. The domestic is the start of it all, as Mandelstam and Ginzburg showed so well — both kernel and scope of our speech — determining, by its attention and its prohibitions, that which remains unvoiced, the things we become preoccupied with.
November 3 to November 10
Letter from Glasgow: AFTER NATURE (28/10/20)
The natural world is getting louder again. Lately it seems to be demanding attention, insisting on our focus in the way that it did in the spring of early lockdown. It is noisier, more noticeable as we walk through subdued streets. This must be a sign that our ordinary distractions are in retreat and that soon, by choice or by curfew, we must go inward, to the measure of our ability, circumscribe our movements, make no plans, keep watch and listen, in and out. I enjoyed it last spring— that sudden vivid detail in the overgrowth — I enjoyed paying attention to it but I wonder what such attention will yield this time. Already the cushioning abundance of leaf yellows is being swept away in wind and rain. Then comes winter and its attenuations. I crave yellows. I sink in to Vuillard interiors of the 1890s, the glowing wallpaper worlds magnified on my laptop screen like a forest enclosure, a hushed space full of falling leaves, lit from within.
On the train last week I read an article about Pissarro and Cézanne.* I looked at the reproduction of Pissarro’s cabbage field, Le Champ de choux, Pontoise; purple, green and silver light, printed in the paper. I read the words describing the painting and I looked from the train window to fields of purple and green, fenland furrows and brassicas, picked out in silvery light. No person in the fields that fill the space of the window. No person in the carriage to distract me from looking. The world is sharp with detail now for the many months of not looking from train windows, not journeying through fields. Pissarro’s field is here where we are, says the writer. “Now as we live it, a unique kind of permanence” and he lets slip that it is also the “bleakest sea”, for it is hard to reconcile oneself to being alongside, even surplus to, a world that does not shape itself to our need or our seeing. Hard to keep putting the world into paint without being its hero, without narrating it or sensationalising it, without making a composition of it. These field paintings present a sort of self subduing, a short lived and tentative truce between painter and world. And then it was gone. Cézanne’s paintings, placed here alongside those of his elder friend and fellow painter, are reinforced in their effects of slightly dizzying displacement, estrangement even.
Modernity is Loss Of World. The writer himself disclaims this as a cliché, but one that “draws blood” with Cézanne. Such sentences read differently at the moment. The thought of loss of world has a new twist and is no longer just about painting, or picturing even, though it is also all the more about that. We are trying to feel a way back to the world, a way of being alongside the world, of being ourselves, without insisting always on our share or on more than our share. Take a deep breath, take in the leaves and the wet shadow prints on tarmac of the leaves that have been swept away.
* Strange Apprentice T.J. Clark on Pissarro and Cézanne, London Review of Books, 8 October 2020
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.