Tag Archives


“What sort of sculpture do you like?”

Family of Man, Barbara Hepworth, YSP

On the way to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park for the champagne opening of Tony Cragg’s exhibition, A Rare Category of Objects, which has taken over the underground gallery and formal gardens, the Grandfather asked me what sort of sculpture I liked.

What I don’t like

Occasionally, I find piece of art which I particularly dislike. One of my diaries is filled with half a dozen or so pages complaining about a few select pieces of art from the Barcelona Museum of Contemporary Art (MACBA). The one that stands out in my memory is a pile of Egyptian newspapers neatly stacked and weighted down with rocks in a white room. The idea of capturing something of Cairo’s street life, showing what media distribution looks like to the typical Cairo citizen and making a political statement about the freedom of the press, seemed reasonable enough to me. But I’d only a few months previously I’d been in Cairo. Egypt’s capital is not neat. It has an abundance of atmosphere. Comparatively, the well-meaning stacks of newspapers on the gallery floor looked clinical.

The only feeling I had, was of how disjointed art can be from reality.

Sculpture that feels like home

I’m a Yorkshire lass, and I’m lucky that my grandparents have always been happy to take me to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park.

On the hill, rolling down from the formal gardens, is Barbara Hepworth’s Family of Man. These shapes, did not look anything like a family, or human beings. They have some familiarities, as if joined on one level, but they’re shaped differently, and stand apart, as if lost in their own thoughts. They became familiar friends to me, I saw them year on year.

Now my grandparents refer to a sculpture (one of many) by Henry Moore called Mother and Child, which as a very small child I was apparently fascinated by. In fact, so fascinated that I insisted on bringing the Father to see it. By which time it was gone.

But it’s Hepworth’s Family of Man that called to me at a slightly older age and was some of the first art that struck me on an intellectual level. It was called a family, but it wasn’t anything like my family. Who was the father? Who was the mother? I wanted to know, definitively, how the pieces related, where they can from. Whether they liked one another. If they were a family, which one was most like me?

If I like it, I don’t know why I like it. All I know is that Hepworth’s family sucks in my attention.

Maybe it’s in my blood, but the appreciation of Moore and Hepworth feels ingrained. Their work, that feels so familiar, even pieces which I’ve never seen in my life, talks to me like a familiar song might soothe you.

Sculpture as touch from a distance

When I was in Pompei in the autumn, I was met by a calm face, which stared past me, in a serene peace, like an Ancient Greek sculpture, but it wasn’t carved from marble, its face was blue, not white, and some liberties had been taken with its positioning in the Roman forum.

Sculpture Igor Mitoraj
A fallen Icarus in the forum of Pomepi – sculpture by Igor Mitoraj.

Igor Mitoraj’s sculptures, huge, light, elegant, struck me with mythical enchantment that still returns when I cast my mind back.

Our social structures, deeply ingrained sense of ‘personal space’ and what is inappropriate, keeps us at a safe distance from each other most of the time. Whilst small children cling, touch and cuddle, if you’re like me, you’ll not relax to most people’s touch but tense slightly. There are very few people whom I’d be comfortable leaning up close against whilst watching a film say.

Sculpture Tony Cragg
Tony Cragg, Points of View, 2013

And yet, it’s this sense of touch I feel when I see such a sculpture as Igor Mitoraj’s colossal characters of mythology. Tony Cragg’s wooden sculptures are similar. They invite you to touch and explore their shapes, but you’re forced to do it from a distance, in your head. They create a sense of longing, an echo of loneliness.

What sort of sculpture do I like?

Sculpture that, whether in a conscious or subconscious way, makes some sort of connection with me. It can be completely abstract, or it can be representative of something or someone specific. I can’t say this sort of sculpture or that sort of sculpture. There’s no definitive answer.

All I can say is that now, in this moment, that sculpture in front of me connects, or doesn’t connect.

And even then, even when I feel a connection with a piece of work, I might not know if I like it.

Take, not sculpture, but the well-known ‘Weeping Woman’ painting by Picasso. It makes a deep connection with me, but it reminds me of feelings which although not pleasant or comfortable, are significant and meaningful to me. I like that it talks to me, but it doesn’t mean I like how it makes me feel.

Art is complex, it has to be, because the messages it tries to show are complex.

What sculpture do you like?

The books I read in 2016 to restore sanity and try and help me be nice

Part One Non-Fiction

1.      Utopian Dreams by Tobias Jones

There doesn’t seem to be an awareness that choice, like freedom, is only a means to an end, not the end itself.

This book was highly recommended to me by my atheist, mindfulness loving host in Sicily. It’s a book about communes in Italy and England. Since when I started travelling the Mother told me she feared that I’d shave my head and join a commune, I had to read the book.

The book challenges several notions about the importance of individuality that interest me. Whilst the idea of individuality is prized in modern society, I started to wonder how important it was relative to the comfort of being the same and belonging to something communal.

I’ve come to conclude an odd observation: when I’m surrounded by people who I expect to be very different to me, I’m more attuned to ways I’m the same. Oddly, this means, away from my familiar surroundings, I’m more aware of feelings of belonging. When I’m travelling, the people I’m staying with work hard to demonstrate that for this temporary moment, their home is my home. Whereas, at home, or with close friends where belonging is taken for granted, I’m acutely aware of the things that make me feel like I don’t belong.

2.      Saxons, Vikings, and Celts: The Genetic Roots of Britain and Ireland by Bryan Sykes

Grand-meré, who has Scottish roots, was reading this book whilst I was staying at the farm in France. Every now and again she’d delight me with another fact about my ancestry, so when she finished the book, I pounced on the opportunity to discover more.

3.      Quelques Philosophes by Jean-Jacques Sempé

Some very clever cartoons, in French.

4.      Ernest Hemingway on Writing by Ernest Hemingway


5.      A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway

The first book is a collection of excerpts from novels, memoirs and letters written by Hemingway about writing. The second is an account of his early years living in Paris, meeting Gertrude Stein and F. Scott Fitzgerald, and developing a discipline around writing. I read A Moveable Feast because I enjoyed the extracts from it in Ernest Hemingway on Writing.

Discipline is what I took away from the book. Not just about the practice of writing, but across life. If you want to achieve anything creative you must get on and do it. I’ve never read a Hemingway novel, but I imagine I will soon.

It was necessary to get exercise, to be tired in the body, and it was very good to make love to whom you loved. That was better than anything. But afterwards, when you were empty, it was necessary to read in order not to think or worry about your work until you could do it again.

6.      Fluent in 3 Months: How Anyone at Any Age Can Learn to Speak Any Language from Anywhere in the World by Benny Lewis

Read it. Mostly agreed with it. Ignored it.

7.      Meditations by Marcus Aurelius

I started reading an older translation with rather archaic language, and then I switched to the Gregory Hays translation which is the one I would recommend. The book reminds me of a book of poetry my sister owns. It’s composed of lots of profound ideas that come illustrated with metaphors. Gregory Hays does a great job of making the language feel a little poetic.

To shrug it all off and wipe it clean – every annoyance and distraction – and reach utter stillness.

Child’s play.

I had one of those embarrassing moments reading this book. I was sitting out reading in the French sunshine. Grand-peré came over and asked what I was reading. It’s a bit awkward telling someone you’re reading Roman philosophy. They immediately want to know if it’s for your studies, and when I explain that I’m reading this serious toned ancient stuff for fun I’m embarrassed. Whilst Grand-peré knew the book, he knew the French version of the author’s name, so we had an extensive conversation where I was trying to be totally modest about reading and Grand-peré was trying to work out what it was I was reading. Then he made the connection and laughed at me.

8.      The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference by Malcolm Gladwell


9.      Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking by Malcolm Gladwell

These books are super easy to read. Some of the stories stick in my mind, many don’t. They’re what I would call the perfect book for an aeroplane or train journey. They need just enough thought to keep you engrained, but not so much that changing trains is an inconvenience.

10.  Eat, Drink, and Be Healthy: The Harvard Medical School Guide to Healthy Eating by Walter C. Willett

This book made me sceptical of everything I’ve ever read or ever been told about diet. It’s to blame for my insistence on whole-wheat pasta.

11.  How We Learn: Throw out the rule book and unlock your brain’s potential by Benedict Carey

Wrote a blog post thinking about this one. I often read the book on the train between my Catalonian village and Barcelona.

12.  Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us by Seth Godin

This is a manifesto. It’s a plea for a sort of marketing that’s more inclusive and driven by the consumer. Short and aggravating rather than strategic.

13.  The Art of Loving by Erich Fromm

I first thought that what I was learning was what love was – care, respect, responsibility and knowledge. But what I really gained was a different way of looking at the importance of having faith in those people you love.

To have faith requires courage, the ability to take a risk, the readiness even to accept pain and disappointment.

14.  Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Todd Gilbert

I learnt that, disappointingly, you can’t plan happiness. We’ve not evolved that skill yet. We’re all rubbish at predicting what will make us happy. Our memory doesn’t include emotions like feeling of happiness – which is why for me keeping a diary is so important. When we remember something, or read a story, we recreate the emotions entirely from scratch.

Couples whose relationships have gone sour remember that they were never really happy in the first place.


We are more likely to generate a positive and credible view of an action than an inaction, of a painful experience than of an annoying experience, of an unpleasant experience, of an unpleasant situation that we can’t escape than one we can. And yet, we rarely choose action over inaction, pain over annoyance and commitment over freedom.

15.  The Book of Forgiving: The Fourfold Path for Healing Ourselves and Our World by Desmond Tutu

We live surrounded by so much love, kindness, and trust that we forget it is remarkable.

I also wrote a blog post about this one.

16.  Rising Strong by Brené Brown

Embracing the vulnerability it takes to rise up from a fall and grow a little stronger makes us a little dangerous.

If you haven’t watched Brene Brown’s TED Talk, then do. I don’t care if you’re too ‘hard’, don’t have emotions or think it’s silly. Drown your ego and watch it. And then watch it again and then keep watching it until you can recite it to your heart.

I own, and have read, both The Gifts of Imperfection and Daring Greatly. This book, Rising Strong is a continuation on a theme, but it felt like a slightly different way of writing. It was nice, easy to read and the content useful, but I occasionally felt myself craving the more direct approach of Daring Greatly.

I regularly refer back to the bit that is on ‘the story I’m telling myself’.

17.  Fidelity: How to Create a Loving Relationship That Lasts by Thích Nhat Hanh


18.  The Art of Communicating by Thích Nhat Hanh

We think that because we find someone attractive, they have some kind of purity that is meaningful to us. But every person is made up of the pure and the impure, garbage as well as flowers.

It’s not often, but sometimes I start unhealthy thinking habits. Rather than laugh at my humanity, I feed the habit. It starts a spiral of negativity that I know if I keep feeding will only lead to one place: place of nothingness in which I am nothing.

Thích Nhất Hạnh writes short books. Beautiful, elegant, positive books which repeat again and again the thoughts I’m supposed to have engrained in my heart. They are forgiving books. Books which encourage space. And when I start biting at my own self-worth, they provide an anchor back to a gentle place.

19.  Me, Myself, and Us: The Science of Personality and the Art of Well-Being by Brian R. Little

Creative lives can be chaotic.

I find myself difficult company. My standards can be impossibly high, both of myself and others. I’m intensely introspective. In fact, I’m intense. I’m not your typical ‘fun’ person to hang around with. I’m hard work and exhausting. Stay in my company for too long and you’ll probably end up crying. If an experience has failed to make a significant mark on me, I deem it as a failure. I’m useless company on the sofa watching TV and I struggle to have the patience to finish a jigsaw puzzle. My sense of humour is described as ‘different’ and when I’m travelling my hosts regularly tell me to ease up on the studying.

In contrast, at other times I’m eccentrically playful. I’ll make decisions that feel crazy. I’ll skip down moors and tease silly American young men about being to coward to clamber down mountainsides. If necessary, I can do a great impression of a dying dragon.

I probably have what the psychologists call low latent inhibition. My filters of what is important and what isn’t important are a bit skewed. Perhaps it’s why I have a box of pretty pictures cut out of magazines which I cherish dearly, but a distinct lack of steady income, plan of where to live next month and shoes.

There is an upside to having low latent inhibition, however: it opens the individual to a rich array of remotely connected thoughts and images that those with more effective filters would have screened out. This can be a fertile ground for creative insights, heightened sensitivity, and novel ways of seeing the world. On the downside the unfiltered mind risks becoming overwhelmed and the ability to cope compromised.

But back to the cheerful subject of vulnerability and expressing your grief, shame and ugliness:

They [Jamie Pennebaker and his colleagues] have also shown that if you open up about the suppressed aspects of your life by writing or talking about them, something interesting happens to autonomic arousal. First, when opening up, the arousal level briefly increases – it isn’t easy to talk about that which you have been suppressing. But after opening up, arousal diminishes and not only goes back to the prior level of arousal but is actually lower than it was before the opening up. Those who open up are healthier, and this is in part due to enhanced immune system functioning.

20.  Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration by Ed Catmull

This is the book that unmasks the magic of Pixar. It’s a book about mistakes and failures, repairing broken trust, being candid, vulnerable about emotions and letting go of the ego.

Which is, amusingly, what I was trying to avoid reading about. I told myself that I’d had enough wallowing in the re-education of my emotional mind and I needed to do something creative instead.

Mistakes aren’t a necessary evil. They aren’t evil at all. They are an inevitable consequence of doing something new (and, as such, should be seen as valuable; without them, we’d have no originality). And yet, even as I say that embracing failure is an important part of learning, I also acknowledge this truth is not enough. That’s because failure is painful, and our feelings about this pain tend to screw up our understanding of its worth.

It’s an excellent book, with some excellent stories.

21.  The Dance of Connection: How to Talk to Someone When You’re Mad, Hurt, Scared, Frustrated, Insulted, Betrayed, or Desperate by Harriet Lerner

This was my first book into psychoanalysis. I’d read several self-help books with the wild aim of working out why I so often get lost in not-quite-belonging, not-quite-honest relationships and a not-quite-sure identity. I’d read some nice idealistic promises from a mindfulness perspective. I’d read Erich Fromm telling us to tough it up and love. And I wanted more.

Honestly, I was hugely sceptical. But I was desperate to read something where someone would give me enough of an idea that I could design a strategy for getting on with my life and putting quality into my relationships.

This book has ended up on my reread list. If you’ve read Brené Brown and are wanting more concrete examples of people screwing up being vulnerable, this is the book to remove the sweetness of Brené Brown’s work and add a bit of salt.

Speaking out and being ‘real’ are not necessarily virtues. Sometimes voicing our thoughts and feelings shuts down the lines of communication, diminishes or shames another person, or makes it less likely that two people can hear each other or even stay in the same room. Nor is talking always a solution. We know from personal experience that our best intentions to process a difficult issue can move a situation from bad to worse. We can also talk a particular subject to death, or focus on the negative in a way that draws us deeper into it, when we’d be better off distracting ourselves and going bowling.

22.  The Examined Life: How We Lose and Find Ourselves by Stephen Grosz

Like in The Dance of Connection, this book is composed of encounters with clients that the psychotherapist Stephen Grosz has had over his career. The encounters are frustrating, because in the clients you see yourself and the people you care about. You see that we are like we are for reasons more complicated than we might imagine, and that change doesn’t happen overnight, if at all.

I found the use of dreams interesting. Particularly how Grosz used the clients’ interpretations of their own dreams – not his own interpretations – as an external arena where ideas could be placed and tackled.

I was touched by the following passage:

My experience is that closure is an extraordinarily compelling fantasy of mourning. It is the fiction that we can love, lose, suffer and then do something to permanently end our sorrow. We want to believe we can reach closure because grief can surprise and disorder us – even years after our loss.

23.  Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage by Elizabeth Gilbert


24.  Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert

I like Elizabeth Gilbert because she is slightly screwed up, and people who are slightly screwed up aren’t so threatening as those with scary pretend smiles like waxworks. Committed was written before Eat, Pray, Love went crazy and it feels like her audience is simply herself. She’s trying to convince herself that her necessary marriage is a good idea for reasons other than a visa. It’s an interesting read, and discusses the history and cultural position of marriage in good detail. But the standout factor for me, in relation to couples making success of marriage was the need for humility.

Her book on creativity was in some spots too ‘spiritual’ for my tastes, but I enjoyed it all the same.

25.  The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work by Alain de Botton


26.  How to Think More About Sex by Alain de Botton

Although this point is not typically dwelt on in art-historical discussions or museum catalogues, the Mother of Christ can often be an unambiguous turn-on.

                I don’t want to fish tuna or label biscuits. This probably doesn’t surprise you. Almost a year on, I remember many sorrows of work, but I’m struggling to remember what pleasures Alain de Botton eluded to. His books are gentle reads that involve art, history, travel and, for me at least, some occasional spontaneous snorting. His books throw out ideas that challenge and entertain. But they do it in such a way that you imagine he irons his shirts with true dedication.

27.  The Wonderbox: Curious histories of how to live by Roman Krznaric

Roman Krznaric and Alain de Botton work together. This is obvious as soon as you start reading The Wonderbox. However, The Wonderbox does manage to get to many points quickly, and cover a range of topics including love, family, money and death. I was most fascinated by the chapter on death which pointed out the huge distance at which we keep death.

However, the quite that I scribbled down in my diary was from the section on creativity.

‘To blossom forth,’ said Picasso, ‘a work of art must ignore or rather forget all the rules.’ If we wish our lives to blossom, we should do the same, and transform creativity into a philosophy of personal independence, which shapes how we approach our work, our relationships, our beliefs and our ambitions

28.  The Life and Works of Picasso by Nathaniel Harris

During this year, I treated myself to visits to the Picasso museum in Malaga and the Picasso museum in Barcelona. I really like Picasso’s work. I can’t quite articulate why. Others with their audio guides wander past me while I remain lost in feelings conveyed to me by eyes that are simple, blunt, brush strokes. I don’t know why I have the reaction I do. I’m a visual person and put excessive importance on my emotions, so I’m definitely more susceptible than many others. But still I can’t explain.

The book was a way of constructing a timeline around Picasso’s different periods of art. I found it useful.

29.  Get Some Headspace: Ten Minutes to Calm Through Meditation by Andy Puddicombe

I endorse the Headspace app, and if you haven’t tried meditation, or want a way into meditation then the Take Ten (ten ten-minute meditations) series is worth trying. This book is much of the same content as the app but in a different format and with some added autobiographical stories which are entertaining.

30.  Sane New World: Taming The Mind by Ruby Wax

Whilst mindfulness is of course great – if you’re a monk/nun, practice regularly and have great disciple to not be swayed by small or large emotions – but it’s also highly frustrating. The thoughts that I’m best letting float by, as if on a gentle breeze, are those of ‘I should sit and meditate now’.

It can be frustrating reading books by people like Andy Puddlecombe and watching TED Talks by monks, because, whilst modelling success, they do give you a feeling of it being a really long journey.

Ruby Wax is great, because her mind seems completely wacky, her emotions or depressions seem incredibly bold, and she gives you a sense of journeying without shoes but making progress regardless.

31.  The Little Book of Clarity: A Quick Guide to Focus and Declutter Your Mind by Jamie Smart

There are some good ideas hidden behind this book, but it’s wordy, repetitive, uses too many vague metaphors and lacks any story. Strict Vipassana meditation temporarily declutters your mind. This book does not.

32.  The Ragged Edge of Silence: Finding Peace in a Noisy World by John Francis

I used to look at houses as little boxes that we lived in waiting to die.

I learnt that my concept of silence is different to most. My silence isn’t an absence of noise, but what might be called noble silence, the silence of voice, body and mind. It’s a silence that prohibits reading and study. There is no writing. It’s the silence of deep meditation.

But there’s a silence that’s somewhere in between. A silence that is used as a tool to become a better listener and to avoid meaningless arguments, bickering and unkind words.

John Francis is a weird guy. An extreme person. Someone who isn’t ruled by the same incredible desire for validation and social acceptance as me. His perspective and thoughts make an interesting read.

He chose not to speak for 17 years, and he chose not to ride in a motorised vehicle. And he chose to make the world a better place.

33.  A Book of Silence by Sara Maitland

The book was lovely, although it did have a sedating effect on me. Being in the moment is great, but sometimes it’s useful to think about where the moment’s going to get you.

Anyway, Sara Maitland, who writes elegantly, concludes that there are really three types of silence. That dangerous silence which is forced upon you: school playground silent treatment, prisoners held in isolation and people with secrets that can’t be said through fear of shame.  Then there’s meditation and the quiet finding of space within one’s mind to reduce the ego. This is what most religious silences tend to be. And then there’s the necessary solitude and silence often required by an artist to create, which utilises the ego as a tool.

Silence shapes the silent. Which leads me to a question, what silence do I want in my life, and how do I hope for it to shape me?

34.  The Art of the Siesta by Thierry Paquot

The originality of the work that each of us hope to achieve depends largely upon our retaining control of our own time.

I wanted this book to provide evidence that me taking an afternoon nap is a perfectly valid choice. However, this book wasn’t about sleeping. It was about time management, but it approached it’s subject from a variety of unusual perspectives, like descriptions of great paintings that depict a post lunch humanity: a lull in efforts, an increase in sexual arousal, and an appreciation for the moment.

35.  The Battersea Park Road to Enlightenment by Isabel Losada

I like Isabel Losada. I’d genuinely like to have coffee with this woman. If anyone wants to get me another of her books they’re more than welcome.

She’s a scientist, although I don’t think she’d really go for that label. She takes things that may or may not help her deal better with her life, and where many of us would chicken out, she sacrifices her ego and goes for it.

Her experiments include staying in a convent, weekends away to find your inner goddess or some angels, tai chi, numerous massage therapies, and sessions to express your anger.

She’s also done a Vipassana meditation course – which I am of course impressed by because I know how hard that it.

36.  Walden & Civil Disobedience by Henry David Thoreau

You start reading, and a few pages in, you wonder if you’re ever going to see the end of this book. I read it, because it’s one of those books that are regularly referenced. It offered some interesting opinions on what factors you might want to consider when trying to identify how to live your life. It also went on a lot about things like how ants fight. Pages and pages on three ants fighting to the death. Thinking about the dying ants makes me feel quite uneasy.

37.  Shaking hands with death by Terry Pratchett

This tiny book is a speech that Terry Pratchett gave about his opinions on death and the right to die. It’s a good read, and thought provoking.

38.  Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela

The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.

Long but worth it. I also wrote a blog post about this one.

School trips and not staring at the Sagrada Familia for long enough

Landscape view of Sagrada Familia Navitity Scene

On Tuesday afternoon, after catching the train in from the mountain village where I live, I found myself staring up at the Sagrada Familia. Back when I was seventeen I came to Barcelona on a school trip. At that time I know my impression was that after the beauty of Parc Guell, the supposedly impressive church was ugly.

I was there with some of the other art students in school  and two teachers, one of whom I swiftly concluded was a liability. I can’t remember who the other teacher was, but I remember her being very nice and wheeling me though Barcelona airport in a wheelchair when my leg made an objection to holding me upright. I remember liking her because she was calm and stayed still long enough without talking that you could ask questions. The other teacher I thought I liked, she was energetic and unlike many of the other worn down teachers at the school she talked about doing things.

Passion facade Sagrada Familia Jesus on the CrossBut we took on Barcelona like each of us had eaten a packet of Jelly Babies. We saw museums and galleries that I only remember standing outside waiting for. It felt like as soon as I’d settled in a place we were being dragged out. Go, make sketches, but do them so fast that you don’t have time to look at anything. We passed by the Olympic stadium and I wondered what the point was as we loitered around waiting for instruction. I managed to lose the teacher for long enough in the Picasso museum to actually appreciate the art, but at the Sagrada Familia all I remember was a lot of arm waving and frustrated voices.

Since 2008, the builders have been busy at work. The basilica has been enclosed, an organ installed, a pope consecrated the church (whatever that means) and they’ve begun having services there. From my memory, I figured I’d only seen it from the outside as we’d walked past and paused for photos. Yet, I recognised the museum part of the building beneath the main hall (I’m sure there’s a more precise name), where there are maquettes, architectural drawings and super clever inverted models made of string and small weights which map the tension distribution so the architects could get the forces on the building right before computers.

This time I made sure not to rush. Someone kindly began playing the organ as I meditated in one of the ‘chapel’ areas, and when we finally ventured down into the crypt, a woman was giving some sort of service.

Virgin Mary in Crypt at Sagrada Familia

Part of the difficulty I have with warming to God’s houses, is my huge religious blind spot. I struggled when I was eight years old with the idea that for the cub scout promise you had to believe in something (… to do my duty to God and the Queen). Having never had a god, I struggle with the concept. Plus, the religious ideas and practices of big organisations aren’t explained easily with logic that’s accessible for a non-believer with a scientific education. They come with a huge number of fancy words and hidden meanings that I’ll never understand because I can’t see the point.

This led to a minor amount of amusement with my Catholic German friend when she asked me to explain some of the English words on the plaques and labels.

“I’ve got no idea,” I said after staring at the word ‘liturgy’ for a few moments, knowing I’d come across the word before. I looked behind me at the wardrobes behind the glass wall and then back at the description.  “I think it’s trying to say this is the wardrobe they keep the clothes for special occasions.”

There are rituals and traditions and rights and wrongs and angels and saints and many other things that I can’t differentiate from the general guidance to ‘be kind; play nice’. I’ve got no idea if Catholics believe in dragons or not, because if they don’t what’s Sant Jordi (Saint George) really done? If we don’t believe in dragons then how can we believe in a dragon slayer?

Religion gives you a way to answer the question ‘How does Sally know she’s dead?’ without dealing with the more horrific truth that Sally no longer is. She probably didn’t know she was alive either.

Sally was a hamster.

As a motivator for work God just doesn’t click with me, but the Sagrada Familia is also the realisation of a great ambition and to me it’s a reminder that we need to have great ambitions. I might not be able to relate to God, but I do like that it’s different. Really different. I also like that the Sagrada Familia is paid for by the people who visit it and use it rather than by the richness of the Vatican or some other great wealthy donor and, for the artistic value of the building, I’m happy to have contributed my 15 euros.

It’s an impressive piece of art, and art I can relate to.

Sagrada FamiliaI decided I like Gaudi’s little saying that, “my client is not in a hurry.” I like the idea of doing a thorough job. I like the details in the doors. I love the colour and the contrasts. I like the shapes, the fact that it’s a merging of geometry and art with its hyperboloid structures, twisting curves and the way the columns change as they go upwards.

There’s a chameleon hiding by a door.

When I came to Barcelona the first time, on that crazy school trip, I was in a different state of mind. I was being told where to look and what to do. At the Sagrada Familia I recall being agitated by my lack of control of the situation. We moved so fast, covered so many things that we missed out on actually really looking at anything. Nowadays, I follow my own curiosity. I went to Barcelona for the sole purpose of visiting the Sagrada Familia and looking at it. I’d booked the tickets, knew what time we needed to be there. I knew what bus I needed to get, and which stop to hop off the train at. I wasn’t rushed or exhausted.

Art takes time to understand and the Sagrada Familia to me is some highly splendid art.

Picasso and I

I paid a visit to the Picasso museum in Malaga

He’s not everyone’s favourite artist, but he’s cast a spell upon me. He doesn’t tell you what exactly is going on in his paintings, he makes you work. You can’t just look at a Picasso and think, what is this? A man’s face? He’s got a weird nose and what’s up with his deformed eyes? Next painting.

It’s easy to quickly make many assumptions about what it is we’re looking at, first impressions are given excessive weight because they’re all we have. At least in the beginning. We draw conclusions without knowing we’re doing it, every day, all the time.

I watch them. The people listening to their audio-guide about one painting, whilst walking the length of the gallery staring at the other paintings as they go. I’m sorry, but this isn’t how to get your money’s worth from an art gallery, especially one with paintings as potentially powerful as Picasso’s are. You have to put the work in.

It’s like going to the opera wearing earplugs

There’s one particular picture that resonates with me, but I’m not sure why. I stare at is so long my audio-guide gives up. It resets back to start and asks me to select a language. Some paintings are too painful to look at for too long, others I stare at wide-eyed, grinning like a small child given a chocolate ice-cream with sprinkles and a flake. I already have the feelings. The paintings just act as a map showing me how to feel. All I have to do is be there, with my mind in the present and without too much prior judgement.

I need that map. Sometimes I keep everything I feel so carefully walled in I get stuck trying to decipher how I actually feel.

Picasso’s paintings take you stage through stage of different aspects of emotion

Each one shows you something different about yourself.

How did I learn to stop and look like this? I know that my parents and grandparents taking me to galleries when I was small certainly helped. A little part is schooling, a practical understanding that there are different artists communicating the same messages of love and hurt but through different mediums, different techniques and different perspectives. Life drawing teaches you to focus on what it is that you really see, not just what you believe you see. I know that if I spend two hours staring at the same scene, I’ll see it differently to if you just take a quick glance.

And then there’s my paintings. When I’m just creating with no purpose other than the compulsion to do so, I find myself creating something that tells me more about how I feel that I had been willing to admit.

Other people use music or stories

Yet despite taking the time to wait for a picture to talk to me, when the face is animate, when it’s a real person I’m looking at, my immediate assumptions dictate everything. I leap to conclusions and pretend to myself that I understand, which might well be a useful survival instinct, but when you’ve passed the ‘is this person intending to do me harm’ stage of analysis, these quick conclusions begin doing more harm than good.

Left long enough they begone ingrained as beliefs

It’s impossible to understand all that a person’s face is fighting to tell and hide. You can live with them for many years, and still be stunned by how they behave. The Mother, for example, left my car radio on loud when I collected her from the station one afternoon recently. I would have bet a whole week of washing up on her turning it down. I was wrong.

Picasso can make the simplest construct of a few lines and some bright colours appear to have depth. It isn’t a false depth. It isn’t an illusion. People really aren’t all they appear at first sight. If you want to see depth, you have to be patient, even if it means eventually having to ask for help because your audio guide got bored.

Sketching at the Teatro Romano Malaga

Teatro Romano Malaga
Teatro Romano, Malaga 2016.

There’s a spot  where you can sit on a wall at the edge of a vibrant plaza, overlooking the remains of the Teatro Romano Malaga. The towers of Alcazaba look down at the commotion on the ground. Small children run giddy as their parents natter unconcerned. Quite often from the far side of the plaza you can hear the street sellers laugh. They’re working with their hands, making jewellery or bending and snapping wire into the shapes of trees and small animals.

Teatro Romano Malaga
Sketchbook. Malaga 2016.

Sometimes there’s a man whose Michael Jackson puppet dances to Billy Jean, amusing the people pouring out of the narrow alley that leads away from the Picasso museum. Or other times a group of musicians playing, including a rich saxophone which makes me smile every time I hear it. They laugh at each other, not worrying when one stops playing to talk to a passer-by. The music flows.

I sketch. The sun is warm. I have strawberries (which I share with a passing homeless chap), a carton of orange juice and just perhaps a handful of chocolate digestive biscuits.

In the evening, slightly further down the street another man plays the saxophone alone. When I’m walking (or running) home from the port or the beach, he’s always there, always playing the Pink Panther as I pass.

The restaurants overflow. It’s February, but people huddle together outside, comfortable in the glow of the electric heaters. Large, round wine glasses kiss with a chime. Hours slip by unnoticed.

It’s the sort of place where it’s easy to practice living in the moment.

‘Just arrived’ travel anxieties…

…and an irrational battle with the contents of the suitcase, in which there was no clear champion

Street art, Malaga, Spain
Street art. Malaga 2016.

Time to take a deep breath.

I’m many miles from where I woke up this morning. After a bout of being home in England, and feeling comfortable in my surroundings, I find myself face to face with a large mirror I’ve never seen before reflecting back a room which until a couple of hours ago, I’d never entered.

The clothes are the same. They’re flung haphazardly across an unfamiliar bed as if war broke out of the suitcase. It’s the electric plug converter’s fault. It was hiding. Then it took me so long to find the light switch I started to worry I was going mad.

What sort of room has its only light switch nowhere near the door?

Part of my grouchiness is a lack of sleep. It’s very rare I cannot sleep, but the night before I fly it’s guaranteed. I keep on waking and prodding my phone to see the clock, paranoid that I’m going to miss my flight. You would have thought with the amount of flying I’ve done recently I’d get over this.

It’s ironic that the time I came closest to missing the flight I actually arrived at the airport with plenty of time to spare. So much time that I treated my sister to a proper breakfast. We relaxed, started chatting about our plans and lo and behold when we finally thought to look at the screen our flight to Vienna was being boarded.

None of my many alarms failed me this morning, but it was still dark and cold outside all the same and I still awoke, worrying, many times throughout the night.

It’s hard to remember that worry is entirely internally generated and unnecessary once when there’s a multitude of different alarms on different devices all set.

Arriving in Malaga, making sure the Internet works on my phone, finding an ATM and cursing as it’s stingy about the ratio of paper to Euros was all fine.

As a side note, I listened to a podcast the other day that pointed out that just because you arrive at an airport you don’t have to rush through it, you can sit down and catch your breath for a while. You don’t have to leap right into the stream of people amassed outside the arrival hall. I consider this wise advice.

I was also fine getting the bus and even in hopping off at the right stop. A version of ‘fine’ from the newer version of the Italian Job.

John Bridger: Fine? You know what “fine” stands for, don’t you?

Charlie Croker:  Yeah, unfortunately.

JB: Freaked out…

CC: Insecure…

JB: Neurotic…

CC: And Emotional.

JB: You see those columns behind you?

CC: What about them?

JB: That’s where they used to string up thieves who felt fine.

CC: After you.

The Italian Job

A few hours later I’m in a different state of mind

The most important stuff has been extracted from the suitcase. I’ve had a cup of tea (there’s a packet of PG Tips here?) wandered outside – without following the commands of an electronic map around each corner or dragging my suitcase behind me.  I find a statue of a friendly chap playing what looks to me like a tambourine. He seems ever so jolly.

chap playing tamborine, Malaga
Tambourine man. Malaga 2016

It feels like someone caring put together this place. Someone with an eye for detail. There are random bits of coloured tiles mashed together. It is beautiful. Floral decorations accentuate balconies and I can’t help but think that Cairo could learn a lot from the brightly coloured shutters.

I like shutters. Places with sunshine have shutters. It’s a promising sign.

Big paintings on public walls draw your eye. But so do the small flourishes on signs and doorways. Minor amusements, like the clinic for bicycles amuse me. Cambridge has one of these and both the one here and the one there have half a bicycle stuck up on the wall. Spain isn’t that far away really.

Picasso was born here

I’m excited to step outside with my sketchbook and grateful for my paints. But not tonight.

I’m feeling happier by the time I’ve bought pasta. I shocked myself by understanding that the woman at the till was asking if I wanted a carrier bag ‘bolsa’, because it’s so similar to the Italian ‘borsa’, even without her pointing or holding out a bag (yes I know it’s a guessable question at the check-out, but still, you’ve got to appreciate the little achievements).

My spoken Spanish is non-existent, but how much I can read is a pleasant surprise. Context of course is everything.

I buy vegetables in the greengrocers

I stare at the courgette and the cucumber wondering which is which before making a random choice. I get back to the apartment in time to Skype my sister and tell her I’m well. I discover it is indeed a courgette as I hoped.

This span of travelling comes with a purpose. I’m in the city centre. My room is spacious, indeed is contains a substantive desk at which I now sit and a double bed where I shall sleep. I have books, my notebooks and a clear plan for writing. To find restaurants and bars, or a plaza with sculptures, benches and coffee shops takes no more than a minute or two, it’s all just outside my front door.

Malaga is a different colour to England

More tints than tones. Travel pours images and characters into my imagination, without which there would be no stories begging to be written. A woman harvesting herbs from her balcony. A child with his whole body pressed up against a glass pyramid twice his height, staring down through it into the Roman remains below the street.

What’s more, I’m not rushed. I’ve got plenty of time to explore my surroundings, and plenty of time to sit still.

Sitting still is important too

It’s easy to talk about writing without actually putting a pen to paper, or to put a pen to paper and be prolific with the word count but stingy with the produce or quality. Well-meaning isn’t enough in practice. You can be well-meaning and still wreak havoc.

If you can’t read what I write, it doesn’t count

My routine is broken. I’m here, free, and that means there can be no excuses and no complaints. I’ve got pages and pages of draft material that deserves a second look. My job here is to refine it and learn something from it. There’s space in my mind. Everything slows down to accommodate this shift of pace and I stare around me with wonder.

The slower pace suits my writing.

The to-do list doesn’t matter.