Sunday, 4 July 2010

Excursions in the sun.

My neighbour, a refugee from Liberia, put her large round head over the fence yesterday. She is very handsome with a skin so black it sometimes has tinges of Prussian blue, but this time she looked oddly sallow and pasty. She said she’d recently had an operation and stayed in the Victor Bonney ward, in Queen Charlotte’s Hospital, where I was exactly two months ago.
She has seen many terrible things in her life, including the murder of her parents and grandparents, but the rough treatment she got on old Victor shocked her.
“The nurses were terrible to me,” she said. “So rude, and when I called for them no one came and if they came they were angry.”
I haven’t done much for her either. We live next to each other but I didn’t know she was in hospital and she didn’t know that I had been in there. An acute failure of neighbourliness – typical of London life I’m afraid.
My only constant companion at home is British Gas. For some reason they love me so steadfastly that they must call me almost every day. The last time they rang they said it was, “just a courtesy call,” admitting that they had no reason to contact me except for their fervent desire to be polite to me.
I also get lots of calls from BT asking why I am no longer with them. I can’t answer them honestly as I just don’t remember why I left them, and I have no idea who I employed to replace them. When I tell them this they sound as if they just don’t believe me.
They are more angry with me than British Gas, more hurt and upset, like a rejected lover. I usually feel so bad for them that I ask them to put things in the post for me so I can consider returning to them, but of course they never send anything and I never think about it once the phone is put down.
I normally avoid the heat in London by hiding in doors, but this summer I really have to get out there. I know that I need to see old friends and start going back to all my old places of interest. The only alternative is to stay here indoors talking to Scotsmen on the phone who want to sell me things I don’t need, getting bored, lonely and fat.
The heat in central London, particularly on the tube is not a bad as I remember, as long as you go armed with water, wet wipes, fruit, a book or paper which you can use as a fan if you have to stand, and a lot of patience. I never had that before, perhaps I am cultivating it now.
I am so thrilled to get out that I feel as if I am on holiday in London, something I haven’t experienced since I arrived in 1983.
On Thursday 1st July, met my friend June at Richoux in Piccadilly, where we tucked into Eggs Benedict with bacon, then set off for the Royal Academy Summer Show.
As usual it was a mixture of boring sameness from the established RA’s who take up acres of space, and terrible rubbish from the “contemporary artists” particularly Tracey Emin, who is now being used as a milch cow for the gallery.
Not all of it is dross of course, there are a few gems nestling in there, mainly from the public, particularly in the print room, but I felt disgusted, and doubly so as I didn’t get my paintings in!
I saw a group of teenage boys sitting on the floor staring into space. One of them, aged about fourteen was bald as an egg. I went over and spoke to him, asking if he had been ill, perhaps having chemo? I realised as soon as I spoke hat it was a mistake. He was reluctant to answer me. “Alopecia,” he said quietly. Instead of having a useful conversation I had just embarrassed him in front of his friends. Make mental note not to speak on impulse to any school-child again.
Not as bad as the time in Tate Modern where I offered an unwanted bag of crisps to some teenagers and they looked scared to death. Obviously fear of strangers bearing gifts is as dinned into them as anti-racism and health and safety.

June loved the exhibition and we sat in the Friend’s Room drinking over-priced tea feeling that all was right with the world, apart from the Tracey Emin scribbles all round the walls. It was impossible to get away from her in there.
We intended to go on to the BP Portrait Award but I felt surprisingly tired after just walking round one exhibition.
The following day I braved the heat again to see a film. On the tube to Leicester Square a man shaped like Wibbly Pig sat opposite wearing a base-ball cap and red vest bearing the slogan: “Some people are fat. Get over it.”
That’s honest I thought. “Fattist rights,” another useful instruction from America. As I stood up to get off, I saw that the words said, “Some people are gay. Get over it.”
What a disappointment, and I would never have known if he hadn’t mentioned it.
Arrived at the cinema feeling as if I was going to burst with heat. In the cafe the sofas were all occupied but one very round elderly lady beckoned me over to sit next to her. I sat with a cup of tea wondering if she wanted to talk. She was eating a very large raspberry meringue, two in fact, stuck together with thick cream.
“I am on Weight-Watchers,” she told me getting out a note-book and carefully writing down her calories.
“Not too bad as meringues are very light,” she said. “But I have put on some weight lately as my partner and I have been to Eastbourne, and you know what that’s like.”
My friend Maggie, my oldest friend in London, whom I met in the Morley College canteen in 1983, arrived and we saw a new American film called, Please Give, starring Rebecca Hall, the daughter of old Peter.
It was an excellent film about the problem of charity. The story centres around a middle class couple in NY who buy up the apartments from people who are dead and dying. They sell these off at a higher price. The wife gets worried about the ethics of what she is doing, but not enough to stop. To salvage her conscience she constantly gives to people on the street. She is frustrated that her giving can’t change anything and increasingly at odds with her fifteen year old daughter who wants more giving from her, and her bored husband who strays into a massage parlour.
This film would have been proud to carry the slogan, “some people are fat, get over it.” The daughter is fat, miserable and spotty faced. Not something you often see in American films. Everyone in this one, apart from the mother and one other girl are very odd or ordinary looking. Even Rebecca Hall looks toothy rather than toothsome. It also features people with Downs Syndrome and an extraordinary array of very old actors, not normally seen on screen. One is a vicious old granny who should play the part of Woody Allen’s mother if he ever makes a autobio-pic.
What do these ugly actors normally do for work one wonders? There can’t be much of it about in these glamour obsessed times. But this is the antidote to Hollywood. The modern emphasis on samey good looks is viewed with terrible pessimism. It is also a film about mutability, human frailty and death.
I wouldn’t have gone to see it if I had realised that one of it’s themes is the shortness of life and it touches on the subject of cancer. In fact it begins with some startling photography in a clinic testing women for breast cancer. We see a wide range of banal looking breasts getting the dreaded test.
Horrid granny dies peacefully in her chair, but a very nice grandmother with a devoted grandson gets breast cancer, and we are made to look at the terrible unfairness of fate, which not even Americans with all their hubris can stop.
I saw it as a Christian, but non Puritan film, about battling to be charitable in the midst of advanced capitalism and taking a risk about being exploited. It is about the need to give and the impossibility for most of us of really doing so. It is also about family relationships, people finding each other through patience and holding on to small amounts of faith in each other. As Auden put it, we must love one another or die, we must love one another and die.
The ending was a bit sentimental, when the mother finally understands her daughter and buys her a pair of jeans, costing over $200. But US films always have to have a cop out ending. Perhaps this was an ironic reference to that tradition.
Rushed from the cinema to Earl’s Court to meet my Iranian friend. She took me to a new Japanese restaurant in Kensington. The last time I was there it was Italian.
We talked about world politics and religion, discussed the apparently insoluble problem of Israel. She thinks that the image of The Holocaust protects the Israelis from taking responsibility for their terrible actions. Interesting to think how Hitler is still managing to wreak havoc in the world.
I mentioned to her that at least ten percent of Muslim parents in east London are withdrawing their children from music lessons even though it is on the National Curriculum. The white liberal headmistress interviewed about it on TV said that she didn’t argue with the parents because of “goodwill.” She was only worried because she doesn’t have anywhere to put the children when they are withdrawn from the class.
My friend was annoyed. “So many Muslims are fighting against that sort of thing,” she said, “but we are constantly let down by English people like that head teacher.”
Another friend who teaches Muslim girls in east London says that the parents he knows are not like that at all. I wonder who those ten percent are? Perhaps one small cultural group. We will never know as for the sake of “goodwill” such things are not looked at too closely.

On Saturday morning , 3rd of July, set off again for central London, to see the BP Portrait Award, meeting my friend Melissa who is a sculptor and Ella, a leading Stuckist painter who had been cycling round Germany, with her young daughter on the back of the bike. She had been to Berchtesgaden, built for Hitler’s 50th birthday, which was apparently full of American tourists and brought me back a silk headscarf decorated with Edelweisse.

I put it on for awhile, but it quickly got too hot. As we left Melissa said, “What are you going to do about your hair?” I still have no idea.

At 2pm met my second oldest London friend, the actor Brian Eastty at the Donmar Warehouse, to see The Late Middle Classes, by the late Simon Gray.
Excellent acting particularly by Helen McCrory and Robert Glenister. He is the perhaps more talented brother of the more sexy Philip (DCI Gene Hunt).
“The two of them have decided to divide all the best acting parts between them,” said Brian bitterly.
This wasn’t one of them, a rather dull play. It had its moments, amusing dialogue but didn’t amount to much more than a few clich├ęs about moving from youth to middle age, the loss of talent against the exigencies of life. Heard all that before, nothing new in this.
It was cramped in the circle. I could only see by screwing my head around some pieces of metal but it felt great to be there, living a normal life again, using critical faculties and battling with the remaining white haired middle classes for tickets, ice-cream and a cubicle in the meagre ladies loos.
Visited the food stalls in Covent Garden piazza afterwards. They weren’t there the last time I was up there, a new development. In Boswell’s tea house Brian said what was the difference between cancer returning after five years and someone being newly diagnosed with the condition, was one worse than the other? He didn’t think so. I agreed at the time and felt very up beat.
Got home tired but managed to make myself a fish curry using a packet of spices and ingredients I’d ordered on line. Some of it ended up on the floor and in the bin as I got exasperated with all the chopping, grating and scraping.
Only three days to go until my next chemo - no idea how that will be. If it stays like this it will be fine, so far so good, but it might accumulate and make life different. From now on I will have two sessions a month until the end of September.


  1. I thought the first three paras of this one were hilarious ... my mental image of the confused sales people added to the piece ..genius!!

  2. I should probably add that; Jane, you amended it after I had commented - the bit I found so funny was the para starting "My only constant companion is British Gas .."