The beauty of young people

As I grow older, I delight more in the beauty of young men. I am sensitive, and this is a gift for me; I would so love that it was a gift for others as well.

The British Museum has a grand plaza in front of its grand colonnade. Walking through it should be a delight and preparation, anticipating the wonders within. It is mine, a place of beauty and learning, of all the cultures of the Earth over five thousand years, to expand the mind, developing empathy as well as understanding. Even though much of it is plunder, and much of it is Orientalist, and that grandeur is a bit Imperial for me, it is still mine, for the liberals and not for the Authoritarians.

Unfortunately there is a suppurating sore at the south west corner of that plaza, the tent where we have our bags searched. The Tates make do with a desk inside the doorways, where two guards wave their useless wands over the bags, but the BM has a marquee, too permanent-looking for my taste, and we are made to walk down a path between moveable barriers. Other barriers are placed across this path so that we slalom gently as we walk there. It is ridiculous as well as humiliating, everything undignified is. I hated the searches at first, but now thought I was reconciled to it. Yesterday in the Tate I said good morning to the hapless searcher, and my bag was unzipped ready.

Outside the tent hieroglyphs instruct no photography or recording, and inside there is another zig-zag where we shuffle towards the two searchers. It is dim and unpleasant, but I would be glad of it were it raining. There are spaces for more behind a long bench, but only two searchers are on duty this morning. “Next Please!” they shout, commandingly, as soon as their last fellow-victim steps away. Behind me, as I approach them, is a young man whose short hair might be aiming for the Army lieutenant look, though he is a security guard. “Be ready for the bag check! Have your bags open!” he shouts, for all the world as if none of us were tourists.

Is there anything sharp in here? “No,” I lie, and they do not spot my Swiss army knife. No handbag should be without a Swiss army knife. I think I am done, but a woman directs me to the second of four booths at the north end of the tent. In it, a young woman behind a pane of glass or plastic recites a script about how the British Museum depends on donations from the public. She has a slight foreign accent. She could be pretty but instead looks worn down. “No,” I say, shortly, and exit.

That young man was beautiful.

Outside in the plaza I have to take a moment to collect myself. I am ashamed of being rude to the young woman, and ashamed of letting it get to me. I think of Etty Hillesum, feeling compassion for the Nazi behind a desk shouting at her, and wish I had her- control, actually, rather than compassion, I do not like letting it get to me. The authoritarians, having won Brexit, are trampling so much, tearing up our social fabric, but I have been living with this for a year. And they still surprised me, and they still got to me.

We won’t let the terrorists change our way of life, intone the authoritarians, solemnly. Ha.

Inside, I visit the Rodin exhibition. A friendly security guard goes and gets me a stool when I ask him, and I sit in various vantage-points around The Burghers of Calais, which has Rilke quotes about each one displayed on the platform. It is a Mahler symphony of an art work, worth twenty Henry Moores, and with it I forget the security. That man clutching his head- I think he is beside himself, Rilke sees him as taking a moment with his thoughts and feelings away from the surroundings. Rilke affords him dignity. I like that.

Heaven in London

Trans women don’t like each other very much, certainly not in real life. If there was a group of us we would all be staring at our shoes periodically hissing “Stop it, you’re embarrassing us”. In the tube the day before there had been a poster advertising “Photography on the Edge” with a picture of a trans woman or drag queen, looking not very happy. Then there was one on the Underground platform, at least 6’6″ tall, in a light summer dress, with a manly tattoo on her arm- rather gorgeous, actually, that unapologetic “I am here,” with a slight hardness, I thought, as sometimes people would notice her. I scuttled away, frightened that they would read her then notice me.

I turned the corner by the east end of St Paul’s, and the scent of the blossom hit me with insistent beauty. I paused to enjoy it, but even though I stood still in the place where I had first smelled it, the smell was still lessened. It had overpowered me for a moment, and then the sensation was gone though I tried to make it last. Just the way the air currents were, or the blossom, or even my own nerve cells.

It was a beautiful sunny day and I sat in the dappled half-shade of a tree in front of Tate Modern, listening to the saxophonist in a wheelchair. He’s good. The tide was out and I could go down on a sandy beach. Then I saw you and stood for a long close hug. I took in your style- necklace and two pendants on separate chains, flowers embroidered on net over skirt over sloppy jeans and trainers. Unique. We went to the abstract art and photography exhibition, and admired a Kandinsky, excitedly. We stimulated each other, seeing each part of it together, how it was made and how it showed movement and stillness in balance. The alarm sounded, insistent, and people wandered, compliant but unconcerned, to the exits. Outside, the man in the wheelchair had a harmonica and was joined by another saxophonist in a tight twelve-bar blues, improvising in dialogue within the structure of the form. We waited until the crowd had dissipated, then walked back in.

In The Last Battle, Jill Pole and the dwarves all go into the stable, which Jill finds is the gate of Heaven. She sees it, beautiful countryside, the foot-hills of something more wonderful, but the dwarves think they are in a smelly old stable. So she picks flowers for them to smell, and they say, Why are you pushing mouldy old straw in our faces?

We sat in the shade, in the warm air on the fifth floor balcony, looking over Thames to the cathedral. These shapes, the bridge, the river, could be a Kandinsky: looking at art and making it has taught you to see. I told you my poem, you said I should be remembered for it, and I was abashed, saying there is such an abundance of talent about.

I am starving. I need this friendship. This- this process, this creature, is Beautiful. I affirm that. I know it and I can say it, because it is true, yet I cannot say “I am beautiful”- though I can say “I am trussed up”. I am trussed by my fears and illusions. I need this friendship, not to be a momentary scent of blossom but growing the flowers, the work to know and be known, talking of the weather and politics as well as of such high-flown, real things.

We agree we are in Heaven. Seeing that trans woman, unapologetic, unashamed, is heavenly. How strong she is! Yet it could also be mouldy straw, the fear I felt of discovery. And the scent of the flowers, a moment of delight comes and goes and my efforts at rediscovery cannot lure it back. If I know this is a world of abundance, and such delights are quotidian, never the same and endless in succession, I am happy enough to move from one to the other; and if I feel tantalised by the aroma, teased and not satiated, it is hell. Even in this lovely day of the best of company in the beautiful places I am tantalised, and the next day, freakishly colder as I cycle, cold, in strong wind to see Richard the contrast depresses me.

The knack, or trick, might be Fear and Love. If I love the Earth it becomes Heaven, if I fear it it is Hell, but that cycle ride was difficult in the wind. I starve for beauty and connection.

I walked to the centre of Swanston from the Station, and Umar came up beside me and started talking. His job is making model aeroplanes, then putting them in wind tunnels to test their aerodynamics. Wind tunnels and computer models complement each other. I was happy enough to talk. I said I was going to the supermarket, he to the bank, and as he got there he asked if we could meet again- “Just as friends,” he said, plaintively. I thought about it. I decided against, in fear and mistrust, and am not sure I decided correctly.

Year of Wonders

\|/

What could that possibly mean? Or,

Ψ

It would be easier in a painting. Or, I held up three fingers, spread, and R immediately guessed what I meant. In the painting, three lines which could conceivably be church windows- long arches, three in a row- clearly were not.

“He was 51, and his girlfriend was in her twenties,” said a man excitedly to his son, who was either too young to really be interested in girls, or embarrassed. “Think of that!” So Picasso painted her, over and over again, in the same colours and much the same lines. Her head is back, her profile showing. Her forehead and nose form a straight line, a profile I find attractive, but he sometimes exaggerates as a lump.

The head back, in Guernica, is the abandonment of grief, but here can only be orgasm. Painting after painting, about three feet by four, all with that \|/ symbol, many with disembodied penises, each done in a day or so, an exuberant show of delight and exploitation of the punters who would buy anything.

I got to Tate Modern at 8am for the members’ hours, and so had two hours with Modigliani fairly quiet. H did not like all the female flesh, the caption noted that the pictures were sold to men, and that they were seen as obscene because of the pubic hair. Real Art had none. Any excuse, eh. I found myself looking at the faces. That woman pictured has agency. Sometimes the eyes were hypnotic.

One of The Tanks is empty but open. I walked across it, loving how the acoustic made my hand-claps pistol shots, loving the space, then went to ask a man with a camera, with a foot-long lens, how to convey the grandeur of the space in a photograph, and how much was found object, a fuel tank, and how much artifice. Those oblique pillars are new. He had a picture of me, clapping, in light from above, and promised to email it but hasn’t. Perhaps it was too blurred. I touched a rough patch in the wall, and a bit broke off.

In the Members’ room, queuing for a cup of tea I asked a man what he had seen. Once you know they’re penises you see them everywhere, he said, then speculated on whether the Nuisance action will stop people on the viewing platform from looking into those luxury flats. We have little sympathy for owners or residents.

Fear and dependence

To the jobcentre.

-How are you?
-Sort of alright, more or less, I say. This is not good enough. Sally is so clucking motherly.
-Better than last time?
Well. I can’t pay my gas bill, I have this that and the other problem, so I say no. Though all must be on an improving trajectory, I shall be fit and well and working soon, and so she cannot really accept that answer, I am not budging from it.

-Do you know why you’re here today?
Because I am to be referred to a welfare-to-work programme. I say I am in the Work Related Activity Group and the person I saw last time referred me to another scheme for more intensive help to get work. So I am here for that.

“I referred you-”

I hated being there anyway. I had no pleasant anticipation of the “help” I might receive: unpaid work experience in a supermarket, perhaps, with sanctions if I refused. And I thought this interview was the start of it, so much so that I did not recognise Sally when I saw her. I was mortified. Not because she reacts badly, but because I am kicking myself. Not because I want to be polite to this person but because I fear not to. My inner policeman is out, cudgelling me for making such a mistake which could hurt me so badly even if Sally does not show that.

It is an imbalance of power between us; yet it is all in me, my worry, fear, embarrassment, judgment of self that is cudgelling me. Could I just not care? My own reaction is the only thing I might control, but having made the mistake I make myself less able to respond to what comes next, because I am dwelling on it.

I thought this was the start of the HELP programme, but it is not. Actually, I have to turn up for the referral to be completed, Sally does not know why. I suggest it is to avoid people being referred and not turning up after being on the programme, after their appointments being paid for, because this is contracted out. Had I not attended today, I would have been sanctioned. If I do not attend when summoned again, I will be sanctioned. That is a cut in benefit, perhaps 40%. She phones up the service provider, because she likes to speak to someone, but they tell her just to complete the referral screen on her computer, so she does that.

At the supermarket, a woman commiserates with me, having to cycle home four miles. It’s not that far, I say- “But so much time when you have so much to do!” she says. Well, it is a way of getting slightly breathless. Better to cycle home than to have to drive to a gym later.

Pictures from Pisa

I love this; but not all shots along the river from the bridge are the same. I love the balance of light and shade, and the reflections in the water, but a boat or a bird would improve it; and not all my shots from the bridge were as good.

How do you show the angle of the tower? It is so familiar, and so deeply weird:

I loved the fallen angel, a recent sculpture, with its broken head and arm, which I took from up the tower:

I did not at first notice the screaming face in its wing:

Pigeons feasted on a display of bread at a street cafe. The man who chased them off was peeved.

A flower, from the tropical hothouse:

Pisa pictures

Men with sub-machineguns prowled around the cathedral and tower, and ordinary city police had holstered pistols. I am perturbed, but the other tourists do not seem bothered. How to photograph them? I took these from behind, as when Philip pictured them he got into a contretemps. Then, emerging from the tower, I thought to take that carabinieri from a distance:

but did not think it through, just snapped and walked on, so did not even notice that my lens was at too wide an angle or that a man had just walked in front of him anyway. Police here do not like being photographed, though they are happy to intimidate ordinary people demonstrating, by taking detailed video. The policeman on the left was paying attention, and thereby showed his face for the picture beautifully, so my terrorist cell- if I had one- could identify him.

On the West of the South transept I spent some time admiring the door. Such craftsmanship:

It’s yet another Annunciation. It looks childlike, compared to the West door, where some people just dashed by, instead of admiring:

That chap has no wings. Is it Christ, giving Lucifer a push? Some of the figures on the door stood out from it, away from the plane. Wonderful technique.

The fresco of the last judgment in the walled burial ground was cruel. Half was Hell; but Christ is a quarter of the way along the picture, and there are people in the half I first thought was Heaven who are on his Left. That is not a good place to be.

Note that he is looking to his left. At the moment captured, he is not greeting the Blessed, but condemning the Damned, who are being repelled by sword-wielding angels. I am not familiar enough with Italian Judgment scenes to be sure, but it seems unusual to me to have the Queen of Heaven seated in apparent equality.

I am also unused to sights like the chap among the blessed, who should not be there, being hauled off by an angel. There is arguable Biblical authority for that, but the picture is designed to inspire fear rather than Love. Even the Blessed look pretty scared.

A thin layer of plaster containing the pigment was taken away, preserved, and brought back to be hung on metal supports, away from the brick wall.

Looking at paintings

In my friend’s secondary modern school, in the corridor by the head teacher’s office, there was a small reproduction of Botticelli’s Birth of Venus. At a dark time in his life, with little aesthetic pleasure, it was a vision of beauty, and he decided he must see the original. Nearly half a century later, he did last week, and I went with him.

I was unenthusiastic. It is a famous painting, and will be surrounded by crowds, with little chance to appreciate it. Familiarity with the image made me uninterested. I have seen it so many times already, or so I thought. Of course I have not.

There were people having their picture taken with it, and I did so too:

I now see that with your head in front of the shell, at her feet, is a better picture.

I loved it. The real thing is so much more than the arrangement of characters. I was even more enchanted with Primavera, in the next gallery.

This gave me moments of bliss, considering details like the flowers of the forest floor:

or this pattern on the lady’s dress:

Of course I know her face, it is a common selected detail, but I am less familiar with her floral ruff; and was enchanted by the beauty of the creation of her foot, the subtle movements of colour and line showing it on a flat plane without brush strokes I could differentiate.

The moral is that however delightful images on a computer are, they have little of the impact of the work itself. Fortunately you do not have to go to the Uffizi to get a similar experience. It is available in any city art gallery, and possibly the galleries of large towns.

Blessings at Christmas

A woman artist gives a different perspective on the Annunciation. Gabriel kneels to Mary as the Holy Spirit descends, as she bows to him in assent- ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’

Against the spiritual or even sentimental view of the Holy Family, here is a physical act with the human mother and child. Often in painting, the child turns towards the viewer with hand raised in blessing. Here he is a baby, with a baby’s wants and actions.

Biblical paintings were a mix of authenticity, contemporary references, and symbolism like the flower in Jesus’ right hand. The roses may symbolise Mary’s life, controlled by the imperative of the Saviour’s life journey. Or Love; or her role as the Bride of Christ. Your knowledge and tastes affect your response to the paintings.

Coming Out

We went to the “Coming Out” exhibition at the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. Here we find a picture book about a child called “Tiny”, whose name and clothes do not indicate what sex they are. A boy thinks that silly and wrong, but the teacher stands up for them. I think, how wonderful not to have your gender expression policed based on your sex, but that would not prevent bullying and hostility. All children should be treated that way, and very young children know women should not wear ties: we would observe adults even if we did not know gender.

There are two Hockney paintings, “We two boys together,” from before 1967, and one of a man getting out of a Californian pool. There are six photographs by a lesbian of herself in mannish poses which I find beautiful. I love her strong face, her level gaze, the naturalness of her spread legs and arms, making herself bigger, the way the camera looks up at her. I notice the background has been cut away from one, and a clear blue sky replaces it, with a hand-drawn line between. L would not have noticed. So, spending time with art works increases my appreciation. I saw the butterfly in my first time considering Uli’s painting; she noticed it after owning the thing for months.

Why is it in an art gallery? Excellent question. A curator paid to judge such things considers that it says something worthwhile, or is beautiful or striking. Why am I drawn to it is more difficult. I find the woman beautiful, and love her challenge to femininity- or, perhaps, her otherness from femininity, inhabiting her self as if “femininity” did not exist. I can’t imagine wearing Grayson Perry’s cream coming out dress, with flat chest and sash like a little girl’s party frock, with colourful motifs which are disembodied cock-and-balls, arranged in circles like flowers or tied with a bow like a flying creature. It’s not normal, and I find that empowering, because neither am I.

Some paintings here are by gay artists, and not on diversity of gender or sexuality at all. Does the artist’s sexuality imbue any painting? This minimalist landscape, with a green background. The green is slightly mottled by the moments of application. I notice that, when I study it. That tiny pool grabs my attention. The lines which could be the edge of sky, and the straight line grid with only one line diagonal, as if creating a third dimension.

We went off round the German Christmas market, where people drink warmed wine as the snow falls. It’s a party atmosphere before the city hall. The tat is overpriced. I like the dragon which breathes out smoke from a joss stick, but only as an idea. I would not want it in my house. There’s a huge plastic Santa on a roof, cheeks blotchy red from cold or from drink. Recorded music blasts out and drunken men sing along. We talk of our conflicts. L’s are principled. How do we oppose oppression? Is “Fit at any size” better than an attempt to get to a “healthy” BMI ignoring all other factors in a person’s life, or is it just another thing which misses the point? A PhD lets her be heard, but is the kind of way of evaluating who and what is worth hearing that she opposes. I find a principled struggle for freedom for all.

The Edwardian Teashop in the museum. I would not mind using these people as an audience. “Ladies and Gentlemen”
-Would you stop there?
-Ladies, Gentlemen and others?
She gives a long list which I will not approximate: I found it. Butches, Radfems and Kingsters, Nancyboys, Nellies, Dandies and Drakes, Bears, soft butches, chubsters, chicks with dicks, ponces and goddesses, two-spirited folk, pansexuals, asexuals, lesbians gay men and bisexuals…

On the train the woman talked enthusiastically of working for Network Rail, and the ideas of the engineers. She does not follow all of it, but notices a smoother or rockier ride. That group of young posh people mentioned a man so keen on appearing hipster that he wore glasses he did not need.