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Arts Weeks: Writings

A week in the life of

Week 5 - Scott Rodgers

Rules 
This week was to include my first visit to policy institute Chatham House. My imagined scenario: a perfectly sunny day; Victoria Line to Green Park, arriving early and perambulating through the actual Green Park; then ambling towards St James Square, envisioning myself to be a seasoned specialist of international affairs. But you know where this is going: the visit was cancelled. And you know how it was replaced: inadequately by a Zoom call. Online, the Chatham House Rule still applied. Though this doesn’t prevent me from detailing the reason for ‘visiting’, reaching 100 words for this diary entry does. 

Newsround  
Watching CBBC’s Newsround has become a daily ritual. I’ve been struck by how, through such (digital) television programmes, younger people connect fleetingly with a public world. Roger Silverstone once observed that televisual public connection creates ambiguous relationships between awareness and responsibility. This week Newsround reports about the murder of George Floyd, and the protests in the US and elsewhere. My older son has more questions than I can answer. For him it’s a largely-unknown world of systemic racism and unequal treatment by police of which – I try to explain – some of his teachers and classmates will have first-hand experience.  

Newts 
I’m learning lots about newts, at least the plenitude thriving in one marshy pond near my home in Walthamstow, East London. Crested and smooth, with and without frill, male and female, large and small, spots and orange bellies. This learning isn’t particularly hands-on. I’m reclined barefoot on the grass, watching two children, my children, on the newt hunt. They draw much attention from passersby. Not just in producing abundant specimens for their publics - it’s also that their whole getup is pleasantly absurd. Both in child-sized waders (yes, these are available), nets aloft, one inexplicably wearing his cycling helmet. 

Plots 
A book chapter I’m writing on social media images and the city is egregiously late. It comes out of a mixed-method, collaborative project on how such platforms help mediate experiences of urban change. I’m not late just because of the lockdown, but also because of my slowness in learning ImagePlot, an open-access ImageJ-based tool through which one can create large-scale image visualizations. Learning this has definitely been helpful analytically, but I’m also just struck by aesthetic beauty of these visualisations, plotted onto an X-Y axis, along cartesian or polar coordinates. Akin to waterfallscrystalline formations or impact debris fields 

Loops 
I’ve long dabbled in sample-based music production. It’s not something I talk much about around College. And somehow, someway, I’ve squeezed in just a little more time for this during lockdown. For years, I’ve been mildly obsessed with chopping and playing samples using newly-low-cost tools modelled on the classic Akai MPC, famously ‘humanised’ by J Dilla and others. But in recent weeks, I’ve settled in rather comfortably with the vitality of the simple loop. As Joseph Schloss observed in his ethnography Making Beats, looped samples recast music anew, establishing repeated juxtapositions of beginning and end. Wonderfully hypnotic, inexorable compositions. 


Week 4 - Akane Kawakami

 

Sunday.  
Today’s lesson: never use canned chickpeas to make falafels. 

Despite following Yotam Ottolenghi’s recipe religiously – except for the canned chickpeas – our efforts came to nothing: literally, as we watched our little falafel patties dissolve into a small, foamy mess in the hot oil. Cooked chickpeas clearly lack resilience. We grilled the remaining ones, which were nice enough but tasted too healthy… oh for ‘Falafel Feast’ down the road!  

Monday. 
Back to work for all of us: online learning for my son, online lecturing and admin for my husband, and for me, endless emailing and admin, crisis management, attempting to maintain a semblance of normality… it’s a challenging time to be head of a department! 

Tuesday. 
Cooking provides an essential respite from the screen time that is now so all-encompassing. Rachel Roddy’s Roman recipes remind me of the city where I spent my teens, learned to make real tiramisù (it does not involve cream), dress with style and swear in Roman dialect. (I’ve given all that up now, except for the tiramisù.) Her ‘exploding tomatoes’ pasta sauce induces both nostalgia and heartburn. 

Wednesday.  
Worked on my article about French writer and photographer Hervé Guibert, alas now hopelessly overdue. Guibert’s photographic self-portraits are often ‘indirect’ representations, showing him veiled in shadow or reflected in mirrors and windows. Images of a man who knew he was dying (of AIDS; he died in 1991). But they’re always elegant, with a wink for his audience; autofictional, exactly like his writing. 

Thursday.  
Today, a PhD chapter on depictions of South Asia in Japanese anime. A footnote to Endo Shusaku’s Deep River (1993) gives me the slimmest of excuses to turn to the novel. It’s a late work from this Japanese Catholic novelist, which ends abruptly yet nonchalantly, abandoning its protagonists in their hotel in Varanasi. The novel’s Japanese stereotypes of India are fascinating, and some are uncomfortably familiar. Will I ever visit India, now? 

Friday.  
We will put up the ping pong table today. It arrived about a week ago in a completely un-constructed state; as my son says, the instructions start, more or less, by telling you which forest to go to for the wood. I am sure it didn’t say ‘self-assembly’ on the website. 

We start after the working day: three hours later, we have only got to page three, we are cold, we need a spanner of a size we don’t have, and I never want to see a screwdriver again.  

Saturday. 
Another four hours of high-octane DIY, and the table is ready! It’s a glorious day: gentle sunshine, no wind, perfect ping pong weather. I call my mother in Tokyo. The death rate in Japan is ridiculously low compared to ours here. Or perhaps ours is ridiculously high? She cannot believe the news I give her about Johnson’s government, and I annoy her by saying the Japanese PM is much to be preferred. Sounds of ping pong waft in from the garden.  


Week 3 - Keith Jarrett

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For the purposes of this narrative, ‘week’ signifies an arbitrary construct, divisible into seven-ish distinct time units, with increasing elasticity (distinguishing between days as an academic and freelancer with an unpredictable routine was tricky enough pre-pandemic!) This particular ‘week’ has been punctuated by redundant calendar notifications – see Caribbean trip below – and a couple of arrivals, reorienting me somewhat. 

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In her latest travel podcast series, Colombian historian Diana Uribe states (loosely translated): ‘While movement may be physically restricted, we still have our imaginations to explore the world.’ This sentiment is comforting, even though I was supposed to have left for Jamaica this week, then Cuba, for a writing research project. I’ve explored Mali, Ireland and Japan through the ears, enjoying Uribe’s international perspective. I’ve also redeemed my Imagination Airways ticket via Google Maps, traversing random avenues in cities I may or may not visit someday.

Writing prompt using Street View as stimulus: Drop the little yellow man onto the grid and watch the neighbourhood come into focus. All the poorly-pixelated people crossing roads. The couple holding hands – are they still together? Who lives behind that door? It’s great to revel in these open possibilities. To walk a mile.

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When wishing to get inside the buildings, virtual museum tours are plentiful. I’ve enjoyed revisiting Barcelona’s Casa Battló – and its impressive 360˚ experience – this time without having to navigate other tourists taking pictures on their phone. Museum Bums is another lighter-hearted way to interrogate sculpture and paintings.

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The final Polari First Book Prize entries thudded onto my doorstep last weekend – I’m one of this year’s judges – and I’ve relished the prospect of escapism, plus I’d already read / hoped to read many of the forty submissions. Now the deadline looms, simultaneously shifting from poetry to fiction via graphic memoir has proved intense, so I’ve emptied my calendar to make room. I’m particularly mindful of how these first-time authors are facing an increasingly-uncertain climate, and so I’ve read each sentence with their hopes in mind, taking copious notes. I think of my own debut novel, and how I must also cast it out into a future beyond my control – if it ever sees the light of day. My feelings are not one of despair but of determination.

Despite feeling I’ve missed out on so much, I’ve caught the aftermath of some cultural moments: live DJ battles; film screenings; Zoom poetry festivals; but most has been lost to the world of social media ephemera. Art abounds and we cannot contain it.  

This week’s other arrival was The Book of Queer Prophets, twenty-four new essays on sexuality and religion (I’m one of the essayists, as is Phyll Opoku-Gyimah, Jeanette Winterson and more…) I’ve just seen a moving live online chat with Ruth Hunt and Dustin Lance Black, also a contributor. 

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Other social media conversation highlights include Raymond Antrobus and Malika Booker discussing poems last night on Instagram Live. I also, finally, caught up on the Erykah Badu vs. Jill Scott back catalogue battle, now up on YouTube (even Michelle Obama was watching it at the time!) It’s a Neo-soul nostalgia fest.

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On to film, and it’s difficult to explain the experimental Chilean Ema. It’s infuriating in some places, boundary-pushing in others, but the payoff is worth it.

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Tying some of these threads (music, virtual travel, Colombia, Spanish-language content…), Lido Pimienta soundtracked my morning. Palenques and maroon towns are another topic for another day, warranting much more detail than I can afford here.   

Finally, I’ve made good on my Jamaican trip by following Rebel Women Lit, a Caribbean feminist book club. To feel part of a community across time zones feels precious, urgent right now. Though my movements are necessarily restricted, I have an unlimited worldscape. 


Week 2 - Marina Warner  

Sei Shonagon was a Japanese writer in the tenth to eleventh centuries who served in the entourage of the empress in Kyoto. Her Pillow Book is a diary, a commonplace book – a blog if you like - filled with her likes and dislikes, gossip, pleasures (her favourite outfits, quips, meals) - and her disappointments. She was encouraged to write after she was given a sheaf of very precious paper to use – the aesthetic faculty was extraordinarily prized in Heian Japan. She may have kept it by her bed to jot down her thoughts before she went to sleep or when she woke during the night. Hence the name, Pillow Book. She liked making lists – some of them very sharp and worldly. Life at court was luxurious but circumscribed and regulated, like a large household in quarantine, and they amused themselves with anecdotes and exchanges of knowledge. Here, in a salute to Sei Shonagon, is a list of things that came to mind this week. 

A family pet  
I am talking more to friends and they’re telling me things I never heard before: during a Zoom coffee morning one Sunday, a neighbour reveals that he keeps a pet python in his basement. It was acquired as a pet and called Monty because the family thought it was male. It’s now known as Montikins. She spends the day sleeping but wakes at night and sometimes eats a rat, which my friend provides from his freezer. Montikins is two metres long and has been living there over thirty years, has a ‘very pretty face’, my neighbour says, adding he is very fond of her. 

Dreams of escape  
Dreams have become much more colourful, say several friends. It’s true in my case too. I am keeping much more regular hours, though I have bouts of insomnia. Maybe isolation helps incubate dreams. Though in my conscious day-to-day life I don’t think about travelling again, at night I roam the world, sometimes piloting my own plane, which is made of matchboxes and very small but as difficult to manoeuvre as if it were a Boeing 747. Another night I took a taxi to the Heathrow Express but the driver refused to put my suitcase in the boot and insisted it follow us on a Deliveroo moped. At a traffic light, I rebelled and opened his boot myself, and found a corpse in it with signs of plague from the olden times.  

What do you miss most? asks another friend. I didn’t answer her and realised that I have shut my mind to thinking about life before lockdown so as not to become desperate. Now and then the pain cuts into me, of not seeing my family for such a long time. 

Historical precursors #1: Joseph down the well et al. 
Isolation is a terrible punishment, we all know. Circumstances when people have been hidden away include, at the extreme end, the horror of being dropped down a well, like Joseph by his brothers, and left to die. In The Arabian Nights, the wicked wizard, Aladdin’s uncle, lowers the boy into a deep cave to fetch the magic lamp and, then abandons him – but Aladdin manages to free himself, and freeing yourself by ingenuity and patience is a heroic possibility in such stories. But not in real life. Isolation is enclosure and enclosure often implies darkness. The tales of the Nights are tunnelled with underground passages and chambers, and at the end of them, someone has been holed up: the incestuous brother and sister, or the prince of the black islands, who has been turned half to stone by the enchantress he married. In lockdown, I watched the National Theatre’s daring Twelfth Night, the production by Simon Godwin in which Tamsin Grieg played Malvolio as Malvolia - with deadpan severity. The comedy was wicked and light-footed until the scene when Sir Toby et al trick Malvolia and she’s thrown into prison for being mad and her piteous cries from inside this dark hole rise up from under the stage. So many isolated care home patients, now, as well as prisoners of all ages, are kept in all day because of staff shortages and the dangers of contagion, and have no such hopes or chances of escape.  

Historical Precursors #2: Hermits & anchorites 
At the other extreme, holy hermits choose to self-isolate: in Syria in the 5th century, Simeon Stylites climbed to the top of a pillar, with no room to lie down, and stayed there for 37 years. He set a new craze in enforcing social distance, and cutting all ties to beds or baths, but he couldn’t get away from people who flocked to consult him. At one time, there were several more hermits standing on pillars in the surrounding area. 

Some centuries later, medieval anchorites – mostly women – would wall themselves up near a church, in a cell so narrow they too could not lie down to sleep and depended on the charity of others for survival. Like the stylites or column-dwellers, these self-isolators also attracted crowds. Some visitors began by scoffing and taunting but were miraculously persuaded and converted to repentance. Julian of Norwich is the most celebrated anchorite, partly because T. S. Eliot in his Four Quartets was inspired by her Revelations of Divine Love and quoted her lines, ‘all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well’. She isn’t a fully recognised – canonised – saint, but her expression of steadfast hope and consolation under duress characterises one role for saints across time, to show defiance and hold out promise. 

Saviours  
Several other saints are directly linked to plagues, because praying to them delivered a city, a country, a people from the ravages of an epidemic. At the time of my writing this text, there is some debate concerning the re-opening of churches. Pastors put the emphasis on the need for quiet prayer, not the efficacy of divine beings to end the horrors. But in Palermo, another hermit, Santa Rosalia – who is the palladium of the city and a symbol for the citizens as well as the Catholic faithful – was processed through the streets earlier this year, because her intercession brought an end to the plague of 1624-5Anthony van Dyck was there when that struck, and in lockdown painted glorious images of Rosalia at her healing work. It made me smile when I heard the Palermitani are still putting such faith in their patron saint. But the way belief works for believers shouldn’t be just smiled at or condescended to. 

There are scores, no perhaps hundreds, of local Madonnas all over Europe and the Americas who are tied to the memory of a particular scourge, as healers and saviours. The shrines and statues set up in cathedrals, churches and street tabernacles keep the record of what happened though the memories fade with the bunches of flowers, the burned down candles and the photographs of the ones who survived - or the ones who didn’t. At the same time, psychologically, these cults are expressions of belief that the powers above are kind but need to be told what’s needed. They’re not Greek gods sending arrows of pestilence in retaliation for crimes against themselves - usually for not showing them proper respect. When Oedipus arrives in Thebes and the city’s stricken with the plague, it’s assumed by everyone that this is a divine punishment,  and the cause – the carrier of the pollution – must be found. I’m not saying, God forbid, we should revive mythological terror of divine fury, but that saints’ stories often provide grounds for hope. The question now is who or what can offer this in our present, intractable predicament. 

The patron saint of plague victims is St Roch, or Roc or Rocco – he’s always identifiable because he lifts his tunic to show the suppurating sore on his thigh and he has a dog with him. Legends differ, but it seems he was born in Montpellier in the 14th century, with a birthmark on his chest in the shape of a cross. Travelling to Italy and finding the plague raging, he nursed the sick and cured many sufferers. When he caught it himself, he hid himself away in the woods. There the dog found him and licked his buboes and alerted his owner to Roch’s hiding place. 

His devotees multiplied ever since his reputed life span and grew even in the 19th century. Many churches all over the world are specially dedicated to him – in Glasgow he turns into St Rollox (I am tempted to cry, Rolloxs to Covid). In Venice, a city stricken again and again by plagues, the paintings Tintoretto created for the Scuola di San Rocco are some of the most magnificent of the Italian high baroque. Probably the most glorious monument ever built to give thanks for the end of a plague is the church of S. Maria della Salute in Venice – which dominates the vista across the Grand Canal from San Marco and is also filled with sumptuous works by Titian and Tintoretto. When the composer Gustav von Aschenbach wanders semi-crazed through the pestilential alleys of the city in Visconti’s film, Death in Venice, his path takes him past these memorials raised to heavenly powers to stop such horrors returning. All these expressions of faith were, at one time, new contemporary works of art, fearlessly ambitious for beauty as a weapon against loss, despair and emptiness after plague.  

Experts 
The Fourteen Holy Helpers were like medics today – they each had their special expertise. Sore throats, eyes, epilepsy, diseases of the tongue, family discord. They were scrapped in the Reformation and the Catholic church rather sheepishly followed suit. But my favourite healing saint of all is Guinefort, who wasn’t a hermit or even a person, but a greyhound who was wrongly killed by his master after he’d left him to babysit and come back to find the dog with bloody jaws. Too late, he discovered the baby safe and sound and a dead viper by the cot, bitten in two by the brave hound. Thereafter, parents brought sick babies to Guinefort’s grave and there were centuries of miracles. 

But who or what can we turn to now and escape? 
In The Plague Albert Camus asked a good question: how to be a saint in a world without God? I hear on the news that sniffer dogs are being trained to detect Covid19 – from a trace that’s the equivalent of a spoonful of sugar in an Olympic swimming pool. They should have a shrine, like Guinefort. But whose story would work now to stave off despair during this prolonged seclusion? Anne Frank didn’t survive, but she is still an inspiration. My proposal would be Emily Dickinson. She secluded herself and wrote, lines such as ‘I dwell in Possibility...’  

A friend – Sophie Herxheimer, who is an artist and a poet currently locked down on a residency in in Berkeley California – sent me the activity-cum-recipe book: 60 Lovers to Make & Do (Henningham Family Press, London), which she published last year. It’s a prophetic book about filling solitude, and her inventiveness and high spirits made me laugh and the air around grew less stifling. Escapism is a strong remedy and writers and artists open up escape routes. That doesn’t mean being cosy and heart-warming and consolatory. I’ve been plunged in watching the truly astonishing sequence of films Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger managed to create during and immediately after World War II – in spite of shortages of all kinds. These works are filled with wild, bizarre imagination, but they also make you think, hard and critically, about many things that still apply all too vividly to our Brexit-embroiled, virus-crushed country. They show us how daring imagination leads us somewhere else – at least mentally. If here and now we could now make works that invent and reflect with the same breadth of feeling, that would be something to face down anxiety and defy the future gloom. The wartime creations of artist-storymakers like Powell and Pressburger present such overwhelming evidence of the role of culture in survival, it’s infuriating that literature and the other arts are being laid waste. As I am writing this text, the government has at last taken a step towards their recovery. Ideas needed – keep them flowing.  


Week 1: Joanne Leal

My week has had something of a focus on the German Democratic Republic. This is largely because I’ve been preparing and recording a lecture on Gerhard Klein’s 1957 film Berlin, Schönhauser Corner. Perhaps it’s inevitable in these strange times that we look in unlikely places for ways to understand our current experiences and I was tempted to reflect on our own lockdown in the light of the film’s depiction of a locked-down state, however different these may be. The GDR’s lockdown was in fact only partial in the mid-50s, as the border in Berlin was still open. This anomaly is harnessed in the film to make the case that the state must foster a commitment to itself that is elective, rather than coerced, and that this can be achieved only by creating communities of belonging that serve the needs of the many and not the few. While in the final instance this idea is reduced to a surprisingly conservative revitalization of the nuclear family and traditional gender roles, the film fascinates still, not least for its images of movement back and forth the across the East/West border on the part of young protagonists lured by the West’s consumer culture.

East Berlin also features as a setting in my latest reading, Deborah Levy’s The Man who Saw Everything. Her protagonist visits the depressing end-state of the 1980s which has more in common with the repressive, hyper-surveilled GDR of Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s The Lives of Others (2006) than with the still hopeful 1950s take on the socialist state. Here too I found an odd (and somewhat trivial!) link to my contemporary lockdown experience in the form of missing baking ingredients. After five weeks without, I finally managed to source some flour and have celebrated by baking quiches, pies, cakes and biscuits. Baking, along with sewing and knitting have been my go-to activities for rest and relaxation for years – my mum, a Home Economics teacher passed on all her skills – but the sometimes slower pace of my lockdown life (no commuting!) means I have a bit more time for them. It’s easy to be inspired at the moment too by The Great British Sewing Bee, of course, but I’ve also been catching up (on my mum’s recommendation) with Secrets of the Museum, a behind-the-scenes look at the Victoria and Albert Museum that affords an intimate glimpse of its incredible costume collection. Also recommended to me this week was A Gripping Yarn, a podcast on the history, the pathologies and the politics of knitting which you can listen to while stitching (here’s what’s currently on my needles).

A different, more meditative reflection on the meanings of the objects we craft also formed part of my latest audiobook listening, Kit de Waal’s The Trick to Time (beautifully read by Fiona Shaw) whose central character dresses dolls as a response to trauma and loss. Although very differently realized, both this novel and The Man who Saw Everything share a focus on the losses we experience and the lives we can or can’t live in the shadows they cast. Their characters move in sometimes disorienting ways across time and space and they are in this sense anything but lockdown novels. Nevertheless, both ask us to reflect on what we do to make meaningful the time we have available to us and both have inspired me to do so at what sometimes seems like an out-of-time moment in my life.