January 2007 Archives

becoming a tree

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On tour: A tour of turquoise lung shaped tables, the bulges of which are just fat enough for a laptop; a tour of snow and ice and wood effect bathroom flooring underfoot; of Chilean and Swiss wine in out of town hotel bars; of ‘lunar’ and ‘techno’ parks; of a half bottle of Bordeaux in a bumper coca cola cup; of six Haydn symphonies.

The problem of performance, especially the first, is that we feel we have to show our interpretation, rather than let the music be. The challenge of doing this, of becoming the music in public, reminds me of those drama exercises as a kid where, next to the spotty boy you fancy, wearing embarrassing knickers, desperate to be accepted by the gaggle of girls to which you do not belong and blushing with your crush on the teacher who, you have just noticed, does not shave under her arms, you are told ‘Become a Tree’. Becoming a Tree is a tall order unless you are alone in the forest, and Becoming Haydn on stage in front of a thousand people who have paid money to watch you do it is even harder.

Last night was the first performance and the chef walked on stage with his ego by his side like a bodyguard. Probably we all did to a certain extent but he and his bodyguard were more visible than me and mine. We got out our toolboxes, we did lots of things to Haydn’s music, but we didn’t become it.


sitter 2



I was practicing the cello when I got the call. My sound was thin after a month off, until Oscar –used to me sitting at the computer - jumped up for his afternoon cuddle. Banned from my lap, he had found a place on the chair behind me just in the small of my back, and I was softening, breathing into the fur behind me and my sound was becoming fat.

“Would you sit? I can’t think of what to paint.”

Julian was standing in the doorway. He had climbed the ladder to the studio late in the day after his usual procrastination dabbling on the computer. (There was a printer he wanted to buy and it seemed imperative that he look into it nowbabynow, even though I would be filing for divorce if he bought it before we tiled the goddam kitchen floor.) He had torn himself away from his mac at two, with his new copper pan in one hand and a big bulb of garlic in the other. He had seen a beautiful pink reflection and had seemed inspired. An hour later he was s in my practice room.

I managed to make a trail through the rotting quinces, screwed up kitchen paper, shrivelled clementines and precariously perched pottery towards the sitter’s chair by the big window now stained with dried raindrops. Julian and his easel inhabited the only other available space in front of me. He scraped an area of his palette clear of paint with the blade of a stanley knife, and we were off.

Unlike the last time I sat when I was reading, this time I was looking directly at Julian, or at his right eye to be precise. I listened to the brushed morse code of his strokes, and I looked. As I did so, I saw his eye become a fish darting across the bowl of his glasses. The creases on his skin became the tail and fins, and the line from his jaw all the way up to his eye, the fish’s trail. Above, his hair became curls of seaweed whilst below, the shipwreck of his nose collapsed onto his cheek-bone. I wondered if I would dare look at anyone else this frankly.

“People think it’s all about colour, but actually the colour doesn’t matter at all. I’m just using any old colour” said Julian, moving a bit of blue across to the red, adding some white and scooping it up on the brush.

About an hour in to the sitting our cat Manon ventured up the ladder in her stilettos and jumped on to my lap where she wriggled. I was terrified she would jump on to the palette. Julian was measuring with his paintbrush, and placing the cube of his forefinger and thumb across the fishbowl of his glasses. Behind all the activity, the fish was finally still.

“You’re a good sitter” Julian pulled a brush from the collection of six in his left hand like an arrow from its quiver. “It’s not just that I know you, but that I do not have to do the small talk. We are comfortable being silent together.”

“That’s nice.” I replied, doing my ventriloquist’s best not to disturb his subject. “Of course with you I’m not embarrassed, as maybe some might be, to look you in the eye for two hours.”

The brush strokes had become silent now.

“Well, the nice thing is you’re not vain. I mean, you’re vain in that you like being painted, but I know you don’t need me to make you look pretty. I can paint what I want. Mmm that’s a lovely bit of orange just there on your chin. Yes, that’s it.”

It was getting very cold. We were in seventy five square feet of unheated barn and I, unlike, the artist, did not have Damart special undergarments. I tucked my fingers under Manon’s belly. She made a good muffler.

“There’s a lovely triangle just there. This bit and the shadow make a wonderful pattern….the way the shadow of your hair draws your cheekbone” said Julian “Lucien Freud, you see, painted really crooked faces, but he followed the patterns and they make sense.”

Here I was, looking at my husband’s right eye and thinking it was a Saint Peter fish, while he checked out the orange on my chin. Our cat was on my lap and the Provençal light was fading in our very unfinished farmhouse. Between the artist and his subject, between my husband and myself, was this open channel: Observing, looking, seeing. Trusting.

Julian’s brushes clacked for the last time. It was almost dark. He unclipped the painting to show me.

“My eyes are too small.” I said.
“I take it back. You’re not a good sitter at all. You’re the same as the rest of them!”


'terroir' versus 'signature'



The days are still short, the tooth situation is still grim and we are sitting by the fire, evening after evening, watching the full ten hour version of Mondovino. At all times, naturally, we have a glass in our hand with red stuff in it. We start with a treat for poor Julian who has just had a traumatic visit to the dentist (apparently certain delicacies caught in his cavity have caused a new infection to flare). The wine is a Macchiole we picked up in Tuscany. We compliment our drink with a diet portion of slippery pasta with a dot of truffle oil on it and turn on the screen.

The debate we enjoy the most in this superb documentary concerns the question of ‘signature’ versus ‘terroir’.

The Oxford English dictionary defines the word ‘terroir’ thus:

‘The complete natural environment in which a particular wine is produced, including factors such as the soil, topography and climate; the characteristic taste and flavour imparted to a wine by this environment.’

Even in the OAD the word gives off waves of sun-baked family bliss to be had living a life in tune with nature (and possibly in a chateau). Only in the small print scored in the wine growers faces do we find anything about drought, heat-waves or early frost and how they might affect the crop. Once mentioned now, ‘terroir’ will bring in the bucks just as the word ‘home’ in ‘Martha’s Home Baked Cookie Company’ will until we get wind of it being a global chain. You can now find Terroir Coffee. (Why not?)

The ‘signature’ is, of course, what man does with his ‘natural environment’, and above all with his grapes. It is science, technique. It is also ego. It is often brilliant and it can produce high quality and supermarket-worthy reliability.

I guess it’s always the same question: Are we – painters, musicians, writers, wine and coffee makers - at any given moment, authors or narrators?

Our Macchiole is very fine. We follow it with a Cairanne (Domaine de Rabasse Charavin) which the Tuscan wine seller would have poo-pooed, it being a mere Côtes du Rhone. Perhaps it is not as good, but it tastes, I think, of home, and that – just like the ad men know - is excellent.





check Julian out on LA TV and, if that inspires you to paint, or you just want to have fun on a sunday morning, you can start out here here.




When I was little I had a Swedish dentist in Highgate, North London. We lived in South London but my mother seemed to think it worth the trip accross the Thames and up the Archway road to see Mr Bay. He was blonde and beautiful. He smelt of nothing. He wore latex gloves as he slid his fingers and tools around inside my mouth. His wife, also blonde and beautiful and smelling of nothing, hoovered my tongue with pink liquid, as if she were a housewife on a fifties postcard. When the Bays finished and I was gleaming as new like a polished stone, he smiled a perfect smile and said “You have wonderful teeth.” That was what a Swedish dental experience was, until yesterday.

Julian, unfortunately, has not been so lucky with his teeth, and twinges that have been bothering him for several years turned out to be a nasty infection dangerously near his sinus.

“There’s a new Swedish dentist in town” said a friend. My heart leapt with suppressed childhood fantasies, and perhaps even those of my mother, which may have entered me by a process of osmosis. “He seems to have all the modern equipment.”

My check up took three seconds. No polishing, no gloves. I noticed he was a smoker. “ You have wonderful teeth.” he said, wiping his hands clean of me.

Mr Erktan, though clearly married to the Mrs Danvers look-alike at the desk, flirted with Julian; tousled his hair with his nicotine stained fingers and pinched his cheek. “We’ll have to have it out or otherwise, if the sinuses get involved, they might have to go in through the top of your head”. He was dark and sallow, and his voice had a very strong Provençal flavour. ‘Dent’ became ‘Ding’, and I’m sure that is not Swedish for tooth. When he jerked Julian’s head back and forth Julian thought he could, behind the dentyne gum, smell whisky on his breath. (It was almost the aperitif hour and we had been late. Time for a quickie, perhaps?)I had to leave the room. When I returned I saw the blue paper bib scattered with bits of abscess, infected bone and blood spots. I saw the pink bulb wobbling on the end of his root. It looked like the selected remains of mice Manon brings in to decorate our sofa at night.

Julian drove home with a renewed sense of smell, insisting the car smelled of fish. When his mouth woke up, he had some pasta with olive oil and a half a bottle of Tuscan wine, posted his painting and slept. Today, though there is a big hole where he used to have a tooth, he feels fine. I am still praying Swedish dentists are good in whatever shape or form they come. So far so good.



You may have already gathered that I am using my blog a bit to practice dialogue and develop character, so don't believe all you read! Here is a FICTIONALISED version of a discussion Julian and I had last night. I should have explained this when I first put it up as, within seconds, my beloved husband has been called a ‘dunderhead’ on a comment. Good news for the character as at least someone felt strongly about him! Actually I think the character has a pretty good point! (So, of course, does the other one, and you know who she is based upon.) Maybe the truth lies somewhere in the middle of the two points of view? (What do YOU think?)


“You know, sometimes I miss you when I walk off stage and you are not there. It can be a pretty vulnerable moment you know. “

“Don’t be silly. It’s just a thing, like fixing a pipe. It’s not real you know. Would you miss me if you were a plumber and you’d just finished fixing a pipe? It might feel real but it’s a drug. It’s no more real than the smoking a joint.”

“No! I don’t think it is an illusion. It feels to me like it is the best of me, and it’s a part of me you never see.”

“But I’ve got the best of you here in front of me.”

“No you don’t. You have the woman with the huge arse who’s just joined weight watchers, who nags you about money and work, who trips every five steps, who forgets to turn the lights off and who can’t give you a child.”

“Well, that’s human, isn’t it? That’s you.”

“But because of a skill I have developed over forty years – and I’ve only got one of them – sometimes, very rarely, I can express my higher self, something which is beyond my personality, and I consider that to be the best of me.”

“Well, if it’s beyond yourself, surely it is not you?”

“Look, how do you think you would feel if no-one you cared about ever saw your paintings? Surely you would feel that they are missing a part of you?”

“Not at all. My paintings are not me. They are what I do. Anyway, if it’s about the music, then surely I would be just as well staying at home listening to Bach on my ipod? Your point is that it IS about you. You think it isn’t, but it is.”

“But that’s not true, it’s about meeting in the middle and sharing something. When you finish a painting you are pleased with, you rush down the ladder squealing ‘I’ve done a cracker!’ and I, because I know that it is that moment, not later, that is important, drop whatever I am doing, even if I’m in the middle of a crap (so to speak) and rush down to meet you and share in your moment, not because I can’t wait to see the painting but because I know you want to share it NOWBABYNOW. If that moment of joy and of wanting to share isn’t a part of you, what is?”

“Well mostly you are on tour and I manage that moment pretty well alone.”

“Well, all I’m saying is that it’s better when that moment is shared.”

“But what you do is completely different. You are performing.”

“Yes, exactly. That’s why, because it is not something I can hold in my hand later and show you or email you the next day, the moment just afterwards is so important, because the thing no longer exists, like the sand mandala blown away.”

“Yeah and part of your job is to learn to get off that place in which you are the powerful bountiful goddess of music and climb back into the real world.”

“No, it’s not about me being a Goddess. It’s about them. It’s about the audience. And it’s about the music.”

“Bollocks. When I paint it is about how I see an object and transfer it onto canvas. When you play it is about how you interpret the music; how you craft a phrase and if your G sharp is in tune.”

“It used to be, but isn’t any longer. Well, of course it is most of the time, but I’m talking about two or three times a year here, not every bleeding concert. When it is flowing I become the music, and the audience. Don’t you ever become the object? It all becomes one and that is a spiritual experience because it is beyond the ego.”

“Well you must be bloody Mother Theresa then.”



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Monsieur Trazic arrives suddenly on the morning of the third of January, a hunk of blue-grey metal and anti fraction double glazed glass perched on the back of his obligatory white van. Julian and I are in darkness, facing thunderous amounts of unfinished web designing, packing and accounts in a week that was supposed to be dedicated to finishing the kitchen and walking in the mountain.

I watch Monsieur T as he works, a few dozen kilos of joy bundled up into a checked cotton shirt, and a long bottom sagging slightly in unlabelled jeans. As he chips and hammers he sings his door into being just like the Aboriginals sung their land:

‘A vice there. Hold it..….Ah oui. C’est ça!’ He reaches a top B flat, I am sure, on the word ‘ça’, and ‘oui’ has a rather sexy wobble to it which could be called vibrato.

When he gathers up his tools and jollies himself out, Julian and I lay a terra cotta tile at the base of the new glass door, watch the light splash across it and imagine it multiplying, all the way to the back of the kitchen, spilling into the living room and the gallery. Looking through the door, we imagine flowerbeds and a terrace replacing the cakes of lime plaster as high as bar stools, the spade, wok, pipes and plastic buckets and bins cluttering the apron of land in front of the house. Then Julian makes a start in the form of a beautiful shiny step out of lime plaster and red sand.

The next morning we get up and breakfast in the sunlight. We make plans for staircases that wind and hidden double drawers, and we agree that to start the day, and indeed the year, if a bit late, in the light is good for the spirits.


Ps Though I am biased because my very own Father Christmas sent me an original autumn leaf soduko puzzle from Princeton, check out my favourite New Year blog message .