Thursday, February 19, 2015

A break from writing

Recently I got to the end of a big writing project, a rewrite. Because it was a rewrite, and therefore, I predicted, time-manageable, and because I have so many other projects pending, I had set myself a deadline to finish it by mid-February. It was nevertheless harder work than I'd anticipated - I seemed to be going at a snail's pace for the first part of it, and towards the end I was doing ten-hour days at my desk to catch up, and ended up suffering the most dreadful backache and getting badly unfit. I did finish in time, but felt so mentally exhausted and physically sluggish that there was no way I could turn immediately to the next project, and, since John and I had been invited to the party of an old friend in London and neither of us had any other commitments for the next few days, and since we had the chance to stay in someone's flat there while they were away, John persuaded me to take a few days' break with him. I was reluctant at first - I really felt I couldn't afford the time - but I'm glad I did.

My little holiday kicked off here in Manchester with a visit to the newly reopened Whitworth Gallery. I was at the Friends and Family preview (a week before the official opening) which was tremendously crowded, so it was quite hard to look at things, but the new building looks quite amazing, and I did take some photos of the major exhibition by Cornelia Parker with which the gallery reopens. Above is her War Room, made out of the fabric left behind after memorial poppies have been stamped from it, and here is the hanging in closeup:

here her famous exploded shed, Cold Dark Matter:

and here her flattened silver objects suspended from the ceiling:

In London I did some more gallery visiting. First, to the Photographer's Gallery and the exhibition Human Rights and Human Wrongs, which once again was extremely crowded, too crowded to see anything properly, but I have to say that in any case I simply couldn't take it: after one photo of black slaves chained together, another of a German child (presumably an officer's child) jauntily sauntering past dead bodies lined up at the side of the road in Belsen, another of a Japanese soldier standing grinning beside a Chinese prisoner in the process of being hanged, and another of a dead body lying outside a Jewish ghetto while unconcerned people pass by, I was having difficulty breathing from my attempt not to cry audibly, and I had to force my companions to leave with me. I feel it was a failure, and that I should have been stronger, though I also can't help feeling that I too would have had to become somehow inured to have been able to look at more all in one go. In view of this, I was interested in the attitudes of others in the gallery: although it was so very crowded the place was very, very silent; there was a sense that everyone was overwhelmed, and I did feel compelled to take a photo of this before I left:

It was strange, after this, to go down to the basement and 'We Could Be Heroes', an exhibition of photographs of teenagers and youth culture, including those by Picture Post photographers. You'd think this show would have seemed trivial and superficial by comparison - 'teenagehood' being after all a luxury of civilisation - but as always I found many of these photos moving portraits of humanity, and this picture by Bert Hardy of kids in a Gorbals cemetery - I once taught kids newly rehoused from the Gorbals - had me deeply moved.

This was a small exhibition and all the better for me: I find it impossible to do justice to any exhibition in one visit. The next day I spent the whole afternoon in the V&A regretfully ignoring all the other treasures while I looked at Leonardo da Vinci's notebooks, a beautiful medieval tapestry depicting the fall of Troy (it was really interesting to see where the moths or carpet beetles had got to it!) and an amazing Renaissance glass panel depicting Tobias and Sarah of the Apocrypha refraining from sex for the first three days of their marriage in order to drive out the demon of lust that had killed her several previous husbands! (And they have Grampa Simpson slippers under their bed!)

Next day the National Portrait Gallery, and I was driven from another overcrowded (and expensive) exhibition - John Singer Sergeant - by hardly being able to see a thing and, frankly, the overpowering stink of perfume and fart, and retreated to Who Are You?, the free Grayson Perry show scattered throughout the permanent exhibition and questioning the very concepts of portraiture and of captured identity. Fantastic! Here's his huge 'bank-note' tapestry depicting the multiplicity of so-called 'British identity':

Finally, on our last day, Samuel Johnson's late-seventeenth/early-eighteenth century townhouse off Fetter Lane.

I'd never been before and I loved it: the winding lanes leading up to it, the quiet square it looks onto (though I wonder how quiet it would have been in his day?), and the long attic for which he took the house specifically to accommodate the long table on which the dictionary was compiled and which seated his sixteen assistants, and where you can now read a facsimile of the original edition:

And then it was time to walk to Euston for our train - though we did break the walk with a stop-off at Ciao Bella - and for me to discover that in spite of all the walking we had done over the past five days, I was still not yet fully fit. Writers beware: too much time at the desk is Not a Good Thing.

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