The sun has got his hat on

Friday 30th September   

I told you, back in early September, the sixth actually, though that seems so long ago now, that we might still get some sort of a summer at last, a final flaunting of sunshine, and here it is, a real late bloomer.  And London has never looked better; I am sitting in a Starbucks, medium latte (as I ordered, thank you very much) by my hand and the sun is shining.  The great thing is that the grass is so green, that late rich green of early Autumn, not the fresh almost too green of spring, or that dried out, yellowing sun-parched colour of mid-summer, but a deep soft lush green.  And it just has to make you happy, everyone has a smile on their faces, and people are automatically crossing the street, just to feel a little touch of the sun on their pallid city faces.

And what with all these financial worries, the euro-zone, and the world apparently sliding inexorably into yet another depression, actually of course the same one we slipped into in 2008 when the banking system went bonkers, don’t we just need a bit of sunshine.  The trouble is that humans generally do not learn from their errors; they mistake a degree of experience in how to deal with things as wisdom, when sometimes a completely new way of thinking is required.  So, all the remedies that have been applied to the financial crisis are the tried and tested tinkering with and fine tuning of the machine, when the real problem is that the whole thing has toppled over under its’ own weight, and like Humpty Dumpty cannot be put back together again.  Well, not in the same way; the driving force of the world, definitely since the end of the Second World War has been one of continuous and ever increasing growth, built on the twin pillars of cheap raw materials and labour (mostly stolen from the third world) and more and more paper money and credit.  Well the merry-go-round has stopped, the machinery has juddered to a halt, and all the little city-boys have been thrown to the ground.

We have to come up with a new and sustainable way of living together that doesn’t simply result in the same people getting richer and richer each year; while at the same time allowing everyone to have a decent life.  And just in case you think I have swallowed a book by Keynes or that I am at last a convert to Communism, no, the truth is somewhere in between raw capitalism and some socialist nirvana.  Don’t ask me for the details; that is for the politicians to work out, I am simply saying what they all know deep down.

But let us for a moment forget all of this serious stuff, and even if it is a result of global warming, possibly created in part by the stupid activities of mankind in the last century, let us bask in this rare moment of sunshine a day longer, please.

The sun has got his hat on, Hip-Hip-Hooray.

My very favourite painting

Thursday 29th September   

Do you know what my favourite painting is?   I first saw it when I was seventeen, and was overawed both by its’ beauty and by its’ sheer size; there is just something about huge paintings, the very scale being an important element, reducing the viewer in importance, you can almost wander around in the painting.  It is in the National Gallery, have you guessed what it is yet?  Well, you probably know that I have always loved the French Impressionists, and have written of my love for Manet’s ‘Les Nympheas’ in L’Orangerie, but that is in Paris.  No, my very favourite painting is Georges Seurat’s ‘Bathers at Asnieres.’

The calm I always feel standing in front of it is quite amazing, time seems to stand still, and I can easily lose a half-hour of my day completely, just looking at the painting.  It seems to have almost a magnetic pull to it, and familiar as I am with it; I must have viewed this particular painting hundreds of times, I always manage to see something new in it.  Sometimes it is the little factories and chimneys in the distance, or the people on that small boat.  But mostly I am drawn to the characters in the foreground; the bathers themselves; the one sitting peacefully on the edge with his feet over the bank (are they actually in the river) and the boy in the water, shivering with the cold.  Or the two onlookers on the bank itself, who studiously ignore us, or the dog – and have you ever noticed – everyone in the painting is looking directly away to the right hand side of the picture, except for one boy in the water who  has his back turned to us.  I think that it is this feeling that the painting is a moment in time and we have almost crept up on the bathers that makes it so real, I feel as though I too have just sat down on the river bank and am quietly taking in the scene.  And yet there is so much that is wrong with the painting, it really shouldn’t work; the colours are all so subdued and the green of the grass is just not a natural shade at all, the figures are awkward  and in some cases the perspective is all wrong.  Apparently Seurat painted each of the figures from various separate studies and put the whole picture together in his studio later.

The secret to the beauty of the painting though is in the subtle pointillism, those little dots and dashes of colour, giving that hazy but almost luminous feel to the work, apparently much of this was added later, after the painting had been completed, and I think that it works far better than his later pure pointillist style, where some of the pictures almost blur into obscurity.

So, whether you have never seen it before, or are a fan like me, go and see it again.  You can’t miss it, just turn right in the National and through a couple of rooms, and there it is.  It takes up a whole wall, and is easily my favourite painting.

Just learn the language

Wednesday 28th September   

Re-reading my blog of yesterday, I really don’t want anyone to think I am racist, or in any way biased towards people who weren’t born here.  Quite the contrary, I really quite like the fact that London is so cosmopolitan, and as you know, I have always loved travelling in Europe, where the openness of most Europeans is in stark contrast to the “Little Englanders” you so often find back home, who seem to hanker for some imagined time past when the “foreigners” hadn’t invaded.  The reality of course, is that, especially in Britain, we have been invaded by “foreigners” for millennia; that’s one of the things that makes us British, our inclusiveness.  I must admit that I had led a pretty sheltered life, and had never met a black person until I started working, but especially in Hotels there are so many people from so many countries that you just get used to it.  By and large I take people as I find them, and try to disregard the colour of the skin, and I have realised that it is accent far more than skin colour that excites prejudice.  Who could be more British than Lenny Henry for example, but when you are in a shop or speaking to someone on a helpdesk it is more than frustrating when one encounters an impenetrable accent, whether it be from Bangor or Bangladesh I might add. And in restaurants when the waitress can neither explain the dishes, nor even understand what you are ordering then we have reached a sorry pass.

There was a time when we nearly decided to live in Tuscany, we looked at house prices, and were weighing up the pros and cons, but decided not to in the end.  It would have been quite easy for me, as I was becoming quite proficient in Italian, enough to shop anyway, and I had already decided that were we to move, I would start Italian classes and learn the language properly.  You cannot expect people to accept you if you cannot even be bothered to speak their language, which makes it all the more annoying when people either cannot or will not learn to speak English.  I understand that councils spend a fortune in translating everything they send to people into several languages, which just perpetuates the problem if you ask me.

I am perfectly happy for anyone to come and live and work here; after all if they are working they are paying taxes, and spending money in the shops, so helping to employ more people.  What I cannot understand is why anyone would go to a different country to work and think it was okay not be able to make themselves understood.  So, come all you Poles, Ukranians, Chinese, Indians and Africans, you are most welcome as long as you can find yourself a job.  But for goodness sake just learn the language.

The thing about accents

Tuesday 27th September   

The thing about accents is that besides being an instant identifier of your origin, they can also be an albatross around your neck.  When I was growing up I was totally unaware of accents, either regional or national.  All the girls at my school spoke with the same slightly stilted upper middle class accent that was heard on the radio.  It was totally unconscious; we all spoke like that because that was how our parents spoke.  It was only with the advent of television that I even realised that in England, let alone Britain, there was a wide variety of accents; although precious few were acceptable on the BBC of the time.  It was on Coronation Street, which Grandma simply loved, with its’ racy story lines and distinctive characters like Elsie Tanner and Ena Sharples, that I first really woke up to the fact that the way people spoke reflected the part of the country they came from.  And on the news they would sometimes interview people from Liverpool or Norwich, and they sounded distinctly different.  By inference, did that mean that my accent must mark me down as a Londoner.  Well, no, because I actually spoke a sort of standard English that reflected a class rather than a distinct area; I later discovered that Londoners spoke ‘cockney’.

When I left the safety of school, where we all talked more or less the same, and started working I became aware of my own accent straightaway, and almost unconsciously started to soften it, to speak with a little less plum in my voice, less high pitched, softer, and more like the other women there.  I say that this was unconscious, because I think that it was almost a natural thing to do; when you are in a certain group of people, you want to be a part of them, to be accepted, and so almost automatically you start to speak a bit more like them, or at least I always have.  I don’t change my accent completely but I do modify it a bit, which makes it all the more surprising when one comes across people who are living and working in London, and yet have never even begun to lose their accents.  Surely they must encounter difficulties in being understood all over the place, especially the heavy Glasgwegian, or the almost sarky-sounding Brummie ones.

I was in my bank a few years back, before the introduction of cash points, queuing up to cash a cheque, which was the only way you could get money in those days (heaven knows how we all coped, but somehow the system worked).  There was a young woman in her early twenties behind the counter who, from her accent was from New Zealand, definitely Antipodean at any rate.  I passed my cheque through the slot in the glass, “How’d yer like yer kish, Mrs Litamah?” she asked.  I was miles away, not really concentrating, and not understanding her at all said “Pardon?”  “I said ‘How’d yer like yer kish, Mrs Litamah?”  “Actually the word is cash, and my name is Mrs Latimer.”  I attempted to correct her. “That’s what I said ‘How’d yer like yer kish, Mrs Litamah.”  This was the third time and I was getting peeved by now. “Look, if I can say cash and kish, and Latimer as well as Litamah, then surely you can pronounce them correctly too.” “I cant hilp my accint, can I?” she half pleaded. “Oh, I’m sure you could, if you really tried.”  I replied.

Nasty?  Probably, but how else was the poor girl going to learn to make herself understood.

What is facebook all about

Monday 26th September   

I have been persuaded to, well, asked, but insistently so, to open a facebook account in order to further promote the book.  At first I wasn’t sure, I didn’t see the point; all my friends know about the book, and they have either decided to buy it or not – I haven’t asked.  I mean, it is up to them, so why should I continue to pester them, via facebook, or in any other way, and probably alienate the few remaining friends I actually do have completely.

It has however been explained to me that ‘friends’ on facebook are not real friends; you know the people  you can really rely on in an emergency, those who will stand by you whatever.  No, facebook ‘friends’ are more likely to be acquaintances, or in the increasingly trivial world we live in, acquaintances of acquaintances, or people one has never actually met or even heard of.  In this bizarre way, everyone will be ‘interconnected’.  How ghastly, you might as well just link into the phone book, if such things are even used by anyone anymore.

Somehow, again by internet magic, or some sort of osmosis, my ‘friends’ will share my messages with their ‘friends’ and then these total strangers will hear about and buy the book. If only it were that simple.  Oh well, I suppose I will give it a go, but I can assure you I will not actually involve as a ‘friend’ anyone I would actually consider as one.  How is that for convoluted logic.

So, I have, for the first time in my life, been on a social networking site, and thank goodness I was warned by a friend to restrict the information I divulge, so you will find out precious little about me. Apparently the creators of facebook would like us to share everything with everybody; photos, videos, what music we are listening to, what we are watching on television; (what knickers we are wearing) as a sort of running commentary on our lives.  For what purpose, do they really think that anyone is interested, and besides if I really wanted to tell anyone there is always the telephone, or why not write a book, as I did.  I am sure that my account, with it’s evasions and half-truths will be a far better guide to who I am, than anything you will find on facebook.

If anyone feels inclined to be my friend on facebook, I will happily accept you, even though I undoubtedly do not know you. I am known as Catherine Sstory.  So go ahead, be my friend, and we will see what all the fuss about facebook is all about.

Solar by Ian McEwan

Sunday 25th September   

Brilliant, hilarious and heart-warming – a tour de force.  How does he do it?  How does he pull together his story from such disparate ideas; a dead-beat but brilliant physicist whose personal life is a mess, a murder that never was, global warming, and the world of business and science intertwined?  The man is a genius; unfortunately the genius is also a man.  I just cannot believe the women in this book, they are ridiculous.  And yet I seem to recall he understood women so well in his earlier books, I haven’t read them all but in ‘The innocent’ and ‘Atonement’ his women are all too real.

Believe me, I am no feminist, although you may be thinking I am becoming one after yesterday’s and today’s blogs, but no, I leave all of that to my mother. Women are absolutely the equal to men, especially in the realms of stupidity, and, by and large, have an easy time of it, except maybe for childbirth, something incidentally that most men are secretly jealous of.  Well, look at my family, for example – we have all existed on the largesse of men’s labours and not our own; I did work for several years but I never had to support a wife (husband) and children, my money was my own to spend, not to support others.

Anyway, the point I was making was that the women in McEwan’s book are just so compliant, so willing to have sex at every opportunity with, and I know it is meant to be funny, an increasingly fat and balding short man with bad personal habits.  Unrealistic, no, unbelievable I would say.  And they are all so happy for him to have other lovers, and he acquires women who are just as complacent all over the place.  Does it really happen like this, out there in the real world, the one I have never seemed to be able to break into?  I think not, not really.  This is, at bottom, a middle-aged male erotic fantasy I am afraid.

But I loved so much else about the book.  I always watch Horizon, so I am already a physics junkie, and just love all the stuff about photons and electrons and photovoltaics.  I don’t pretend to understand anything more than a vague idea of it all, but McEwan writes with such confidence that whether his science is real and works or is just made up matters not a whit.

So overall a success, provided you suspend common-sense long enough, which actually may well be the formula for writing a best-seller anyway.

Ways of Seeing

Saturday 24th September   

Memory plays funny tricks, doesn’t it?  I had wanted to write my daily blog about an old series of programmes on BBC2, way back in the early seventies, and I couldn’t for the life of me remember what it might have been called.  I racked my brains for days, I couldn’t even remember the presenter’s name, and he was more than a presenter, he was an iconic art critic.  Then when I was waiting for a coffee in Raouls, Maida Vale, it suddenly came to me.  Of course, it was Ways of Seeing by John Berger, and I had watched it with Adrian in that wretched flat in Hackney, how could I have forgotten the name.  I scrabbled in my bag for my notebook, but I didn’t have a pen with me, a rare omission.  Then later on the very same day, I couldn’t remember it again, so I resorted to the internet and found it.

The point of the programmes was to make you see Art in a totally different way.  At the time I remember Adrian was more enthusiastic about it than I, he even bought the book, but a couple of years later some of Berger’s comments kept coming to the surface of my mind, especially when I was looking at paintings, so I then bought the book too.  Each programme had a different focus, but it was mostly about understanding the context in which the paintings had originally been painted; and now, as they are viewed in a different time, and mostly in Galleries or in reproduction, we see them totally differently from the way they were intended.  One in particular made me almost jump with realisation.  It was about the female nude; I had obviously seen paintings of nudes on many occasions, and not really thought much about them, except that historically it would seem, plumpness was far more desirable than it is today.  The revelation to me was that the men who had painted these women so many years ago had done so from the male point of view, reflecting male desires and ideas of perfection, hence the abundance of flesh, the obvious lack of bodily hair, and the easy availability of nudity itself, as if the woman was naked for his gratification, for the approval almost of the male viewer.  Women were not, or were very rarely painted for their own sake, or just as being themselves.

This had never struck me before, this idea of ownership, and it still goes on in ‘girlie magazines’ and of course the ubiquitous page three of the tabloids, where girls, almost always in their late teens, are displayed in various stages of undress with ridiculous smiles on their faces, as if their only reason for existing was to titillate men.  Maybe it is; they are well paid for their efforts apparently.

Learning to drive

Friday 23rd September   

I grew up, as you know, with Grandma and my mother, and no car. I later learnt that my father, who was completely absent as I grew up, was a bit of a motoring enthusiast; but his name was hardly mentioned at home, or even that he had liked driving.  I never really considered learning to drive, we lived in London, and had no family, none at least that we wanted to visit, living anywhere that would have encouraged us to buy a car, let alone learn to drive the thing.  Besides it all seemed so expensive, the cost of the lessons, and my mother and I never seemed to have enough money to spend on basic upkeep of the house, so a car was just never considered.

Edward, of course, drove, and would often hire a car for a weekend, or when we visited Italy.  The biggest shock of my life however was my fortieth birthday; we had a little party with about twenty friends invited.  The usual nice presents, a first edition Fay Wheldon, a couple of CDs, and some gloves; I knew that Edward would leave his till last, and I was anticipating some jewellery.  Imagine my surprise when he handed me a small package, and opening it, expecting earrings or maybe a watch, there nestled in a white leather box was a car key.  He led me to the window, and there parked in the street was my very own brand new Fiat Uno.

Well, after much hard work and God knows how many lessons I did pass my test, on the third attempt I might add.  But I had never really wanted a car; I was much too polite to refuse it, and inevitably Edward started borrowing it, and then it just seemed natural that although I had learned to drive, whenever we went anywhere, he would drive.  I did occasionally use it myself, to pick someone up, or for a short trip out of town.  It came in for most use when Edward was poorly and we had to see various specialists, some outside of London.  I sold the car a year ago, I had only used it a few times on my own and there seemed no point in continuing to tax and insure it.

So, I have returned to being a non-driver, though you never know when I might need to become one again, so I am really glad that, despite never intending to, I did learn to drive.

The changing of the guard

Thursday 22nd September   

We are living through a period of history that will be adjudged as of the greatest importance.  For over two thousand years Europe was of pre-eminent importance. Oh, I know that other civilisations were doing things too, but almost all progress was happening here in Europe, and ever since Capitalism really got going it was Europe that led the way, until probably the end of the First World War, when America overtook Britain and became the most powerful country in the world.  And so it seemed it would always be; for most of my life, I, like almost everyone else, couldn’t imagine a world where America wasn’t and never would be again, number one.

But I do believe that that is what is happening.  The world we all grew up in, that safe secure place where what-ever happened, what-ever scrapes and wars we got into, there was always that rock called America, despised as much as admired, to rescue us.  But I fear it is rapidly fading, and we will shortly be entering a new phase of heartless capitalism that will make even the slave traders of two hundred years ago seem like benevolent philanthropists.  Well, maybe not as bad as that, but there is certainly a cruelty in the Chinese psychology, and a love of money that appears to transcend all other concerns.  I don’t mean to be in any way racist, but what people forget is that we, in Europe have this much longer history of slowly growing wealth and a general consensus that poverty is an evil in itself, and I can see that their rise to global dominance and wealth has happened just a tad too quickly for them to have assimilated all our values.

Well, maybe I am wrong, and I genuinely hope that I am, but I somehow feel that I am right.  There was a rather foolish and famous (Japanese I think) historian who said, after the Berlin Wall came down, that we were witnessing the end of History.  You only have to look back to 1911 to see how much has happened, why on earth should not the next hundred years be just as momentous, do you really think human beings have learnt that much wisdom in a century.  And just as Spain had to hand over to France, who in turn lost out to Britain, who were then overtaken by our American friends, the Chinese will rule for a few years before they in their turn are also eclipsed.  It is just the natural order of things; we are simply watching the slow-motion changing of the guards.

London is never finished

Wednesday 21st September   

As I get older I notice more and more that London is never finished, it has actually become one giant building site; what with the Olympics (Westfield and all) and now Crossrail adding to the rapidly frustrating feeling of living in a never-ending treadmill as we continually find new (old actually) sites just ripe for re-development.  One wonders why they (the mysterious planners behind everything) do not simply stop and pause, and ask themselves what they want it to actually look like when it is done; I suspect that even they do not know, they just know they have to constantly keep knocking things down and rebuilding.  And even Oxford Street, the street I used to know so well, feels a stranger to me.  It is being transformed (ripped apart I almost feel) before my very eyes; there is a vast block rising from behind blue hoardings between Bond Street and Marble Arch – the actual site was boarded up so long ago I cannot even remember what used to be there.  This leaves Selfridges, standing opposite, now more than ever resembling a relic from the past, with its’ ornate canopy and gilded clock waving to us from a far more splendid past, as it desperately tries to dream up new schemes to modernise itself, such as all the in-store concessions,(horrid!) and the ploy of having the entire row of front windows identically displaying a single designer perfume, that in all probability will smell just like all the rest, overblown, sickly and instantly forgettable, a bit like Selfridges itself is becoming. It is simply no use trying to get up Oxford Street by bus now, as the behemoth that is Crossrail Bond Street has swallowed up almost all of the road; one wonders if the combination of the internet, the Westfields and the shocking traffic congestion will finally be the death-knell for this beloved shopper’s paradise – or will they simply knock it all down and start again.

I have recently visited an old friend who has bought a flat in dockland, just down by the river on the Isle of Dogs.  She is just opposite Greenwich, where as you know I visited with Adrian and his son Justin on that fateful Saturday afternoon – oh, so many years ago now. I decided to go by tube to Bank, and then the DLR down to Island Gardens.  Although I have been a regular user of the tube and buses I had never before been on the Docklands Light Railway.  It was quite amazing, more like a gentle rollercoaster ride than a railway, and what an innovation – no driver.  We wound our way along the raised track winding between huge blocks of glass curtain walling and over acres of water and I marvelled at the quite incredible architecture.  I felt like Noddy in his little yellow car visiting Toytown; all the steel and glass buildings with funny little triangles and sharp angles or impossible curves, and bright blues and whites and yellows.  But even here, amidst all this modernity, almost a new city in it-self, there were still boarded up sites of grassy wasteland just waiting for the bulldozers and the cranes.

It just amazes me that this project, this city, this town I call my home, this London, is never finished, and never will be.