October 2009

florence breathe

Having travelled back through Pisa I wonder whether my strange mood was more to do with Florence than a imbalance of deities.

Back in autumnal England I feel happy and rooted. Italy felt alien – not alien, but not home. I am suspicious (hermeneutic) about Italian mythemes.

Florence’s beautiful architecture, for example. I though the Duomo was rather hideous – like a marble Battenberg cake and the Palazzo Pitti is positively ugly.

Italians dress well. Most of the Florentines were dressed in drab greys and cheap jeans and those silly little trainers. Most looked very dreary.

Italian food is the greatest. It is delicious. But that’s the only thing you can get. Only Italian, no other flavour, no alternatives.

Greatest of all is the myth of Florence’s creativity. Five hundred years ago there was a clot of brilliance around Medici money – but when that ran out all the great Tuscan names went to Rome, to Milan, to France.

Five hundred years ago – a miracle. And then nothing more, nothing at all. Not one artist of note for five hundred years.

There is something stifling about the notion of Florence. This intense conservation – like living in jam, in a jar, pickled in sugar – but in this case pickled in the warm sunny dust of the Uffizi.

It’s no coincidence that the city is full of tortoises. (Supporting obelisks, under Apollo’s feet, bearing a Medici dwarf.) Tortoises: long-lived, hard-shelled, withdrawing into a carapace, moving very slowly.

Where are the bees? Where is the honey?

How much more bearable, Pisa. Free from that choking museum-atmosphere. Lots of lovely 1920-1930s architecture, Italians at the counters (instead of tourists), a breathable urbanity. A living grace not a antiquated grimace.


Florence… and there’s a mosquito bite on my neck, where I sat in the darkest corner of San Miniato on top of the hill overlooking the city this afternoon. I thought it was a pimple from too much red wine but I am comforted to know that it is an animal reaction. Mosquitoes still in Florence in October. Right at the end of October too.

And in the darkness of San M. I also felt dreadful. The whole facade of travelling alone, sight-seeing alone tumbled down and I felt profoundly homesick. Awfully homesick – like I couldn’t bear the huge distances between me and the hotel – let alone the distance between Florence and London.

I try and avoid travelling on my own these days. If I’m honest I generally avoid travelling. The huge journies I undertook in my 20s are long gone. I can’t bear jet-lag. Even the three hours difference in Brazil makes me edgy. But I had a week off and no one free to go with me. And besides, I thought it would be charming. To feed my brain with images. To spend days in the Uffizi. To wander the streets and eat delicious Italian food and drink fine wine.

Which I have done. And as my friend Simon said, from the outside it probably looked fantastic.

I strolled around the galleries with my notebook, sketching. I sat in the Autumn sunshine drinking latte. I ate fegatini di pollo and risotto. I drank montepulciano di nobile.

But I felt pretty dusty.

Eating on my own in restaurants brings up horrible ghosts of painful teenage self-consciousness. Not knowing where to eat makes me prone to blood-sugar collapse which adds an extra black edge to my homesickness. Too many museums make me feel old.

It’s taken until today – the last day – to really sink into the space.

After my black moment in the church – I made a switcheroo. I realised that homesickness is not a sickness. It is confirming the thing that i want. Home, a house, a herth, a familias, a dog.

HIllman talks about the crazy hypertrophy of Hermes in the modern world: the Web, instant messaging, global markets, 24-7 news. All information, no meaning. And the antidote to that is Hestia – the goddess of the hearth. Invisible, not personified, but present in two people eating, the space, the place, the shape of home. Hestia is all circular. Hermes is all winged and double-helixed.

So I came home to my hotel room and I had a long bath (something I never do) and soaked and soaked. I went out and had a lovely meal in a lovely trattoria a friend recommmended and I made some plans for the coming week. I was alone but by the magic of Hermes (an iPhone) I managed to be Vestal and organise three dinners for next week.


I went to see Amma last night.

After a relentless few weeks of filming, teaching, studenting, I really wanted to curl up under the duvet and watch the Inbetweeners but I have heard so many people mention this woman – and especially so this year – I went anyway.

Gary and I arrived in Alexandra Palace which is a venue I’ve only ever been to for rock concerts. It was odd to see it so bright and light and orderly.

We queued up to get our darshan token which entitled us to a hug and even in queuing up I was impressed by the human kindness. There were probably 20 thousand of us – and we all had to be seated and watered and fed – and I never once felt that we were being herded or ignored. Friendly white-clad volunteers were constantly popping over to tell us what was going on and how long we’d have to wait.

Once inside the massive hall it felt as over-lit and chattery as a trade fair, except that everyone was here to meditate and concentrate on the little round Indian woman on the stage.

It struck me in week where the news (Nick Griffin on QT) has been rather depressing that news like this never gets reported. A woman who helps millions of people, thousands of people volunteering their time, positive energy everywhere. That never makes the headlines.

When the teaching and the puja was over, Amma set to work. Hugging.

She has been touring Europe and has been in London for three days – hugging. She hugs everyone who comes. All twenty thousand. She has hugged 28 million people in her lifetime. She sat down at 9pm and when I left at seven am the following morning she was still hugging the ceaseless stream of people. No pee break. Not once does she leave her seat.

As always at these religious/spiritual gatherings, I went through the whole range of emotions: admiration, irritation, contempt, kindness, blankness, joy. It’s like all your crud comes to the surface until, at 6.15am, I found myself in the last place before my hug.

There is a herd of white-robed helpers shuffling you along and then manhandling you into position infront of her and then – boof – you’re wrapped in her arms.

It felt totally wonderful because despite having hugged 19 thousand people like me, when I knelt down in her lap, it felt like I was the only person in the room and she hugged and hugged. It felt like a wonderfully long time and when I thought perhaps I should get up, she pulled me towards her and hugged some more.

She smiled at me, a big broad smile and then I was being pulled up and guided away.

Why does she do it? Such a labour-intensive, one-on-one, physical teaching? She says that is her being. It’s like asking why a river flows. And talking to Gary about it, I realised that she is showing that you don’t need anything fancy. Her teaching is incredibly straightforward and earthy – she was born into a poor fishing family in Kerala – and the essence of it is: a hug is enough.

At the bottom line all these fancy concepts and philosophies and techniques obscure the fact of human contact. The hug.

All the research I’ve been reading for my course points to this. Human contact, skin-on-skin, is what builds the brain, builds all emotive connection, builds meaningful human life. If we can’t connect to real people in front of us – all the rest of our words are meaningless.

I don’t really understand what happened in those 10 seconds when I was hugged but I feel happy that it happened.

I have a billion things to do – not least get up at 5am tomorrow morning but I cannot sleep until I’ve vented a little of my rage at the woman who has caused such hurt and offence to the family of Stephen Gately.

I loathe the Daily Mail and I’m regularly appalled that my parents continue to read it but it’s a free country and people should be allowed to do what they want. However, when a ‘journalist’ (and I deliberately bracket that word) writes an ‘article’ only a few days after the death of a charming young man who tragically died of a heart failure aged 33 – in which she insults his grieving mother, smears the circumstances of his untimely death and makes a ludicrous but nonetheless disgusting link between his death and his marriage – then voices (and my voice especially) should be raised.

The fact is that Jan Moir is a nasty homophobe. She believes that gay people’s lifestyles explain tragic deaths like Gately’s. She makes the vile assumption that his marriage to another man somehow led to his death – and what’s worse that all civil partnerships cause similar tragic ends.

I urge you to read the copy of the article (please do not give the Mail any more hits on their site) and then consider making a complaint to the Press Complaints Commission on the basis that she breaches clause 1,5 and 12 of its code of practice.

Charlie Brooker writes a fine piece on it in the Guardian and this is a spirited dissection of the work.

One of the things that most annoys me in the commentaries around this affair is the tacit criticism of Gately and his husband possibily having sex with another man. It continually endorses the idea that men going on holiday and having sex is somehow ‘suspicious’ or ‘not so innocent’. Since when did human beings drinking and having sex on holiday become so unnatural? There is nothing unnatural about sex. Period. And people who don’t grasp that fundamental point are missing the whole point.

Went with Rachel to the Anish Kapoor show at the Royal Academy.

Anish Kapoor1

It’s worth a pilgrimage and I use this word advisedly because there is definitely something spiritual in Kapoor’s work. There’s also a lot of red wax in Kapoor’s work. Between the pneumatic canon that fires 25 kilo wads of wax across two galleries into a white wall and the 10 ton juggernaut of crimson wax that slowly makes its way along rails through four galleries, squeezing through their doors – red is the dominant tone.

It was amazing standing in the expectant crowd by Shooting into the Corner looking at the massive pile of splattered carnage across the hall. The wax looked nothing other than horse meat. Acres of smashed and shattered flesh in the immaculate surrounds of the Royal Academy galleries. And yet people were excited. Tittering even (myself included). And it struck us that this is what public executions must have been like. A stern, mirthless man in a boiler suit comes out, packs the wax cylinder into the canon and we stand waiting, expectant, breathless even before a massive explosion and a splatter of blood-red gore.

This is the striking thing about Kapoor’s shows. They are beautiful and sublime but also quite visceral and real.

The wonderful mirror art – perfectly concave circular mirrors which swallow you up as you approach them – take you into a weird ‘other’ world. The reality disappears and something unearthly happens. The same effects come with the piece I am Pregnant which is is almost imperceptibly raised bump in the wall which has the disrupts your visual field so utterly that it feels like that wall has some time-portal or worm-hole in it.

And trans-worldly as these experiences are – you have to be there, physically in the room with other people milling around to experience them. They simultaneously make you very present in your body and elsewhere. It’s wonderfully disconcerting.

That physicality is also in the massive redwax piece Svayambh which is unavoidably bodily – as it pushes through the gallery doors, the squeezings are smeared all over the frames, unavoidably like human feces – but also redolent of other meanings, images. The redness and inevitability of it reminded me of childbirth, pushing its way out into the world but also the unstoppable grinding forward of life and inescapably, of death.

There is a whole room of concrete sculpture, made according to computerized patterns but looking like great piles of elaborately arranged turds. Grey, neutral-toned – but none the less excrement. Those shapes are so familiar, so human and yet unsettling. Bodily but also something else.

It made me think about James Hillman (my favorite writer/thinker at the moment). He talks about psyche and eros, about the horizontal and the vertical, the soul and the spirit. Spirit is all about leaps into the vertical, transcendence, timelessness, spontaneity. Soul is about circularity, earthiness, the flesh, desire and history. We live in a culture that totally priviledges the the one (verticality) over the other (horizontally). Even the most secular context is all about instant, better, other, ideal. The flawed, messy, earthy, turdy quality of existence is almost always tidied up. Hillman suggests this leads to illness.

And Kapoor’s elegant but potent events seem to unite these two axes beautifully. Beauty being the operative word.

Anish Kapoor2

[picture source]

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