Measuring out the year in Hockney’s

January 30, 2012 § 1 Comment

Let’s get the business out of the way first. For those of you still with this saga, my operation is on February 8th. Soon, I know. I’ll probably be in hospital for about a week. According to the nurse at my pre-op meeting, it’s pretty dependent on drains, something about needing to be draining at less than 30mm a day before they will let you out. And I’ll have four of them.

In the meantime, this morning I went to see the ‘David Hockney: A Bigger Picture,’ at the Royal Academy. I had planned to go with a friend of my mother’s who is a Friend of the RA. Unfortunately, her husband was unwell, so I went alone, but thanks to her for the ticket because the queue was huge.

Here, in the style to which you are now accustomed, are some unrelated thoughts.

1. The RA is not doing well in terms of attracting a culturally diverse group of visitors. The air was heavy with a sense of entitlement, people complaining because although they had arrived before the gallery actually opened, they had to wait. “But we have tickets.” On the other hand, it was completely packed out so I can only assume the RA knows exactly what it’s doing.

2. On the way to the RA, I walked passed the National Gallery, where the queue for the Leonardo da Vinci exhibition stretched the length of Trafalger Square. Word in the RA queue was that people are arriving at the National Gallery at 4am in order to get one of the few on the door tickets. The line at the Royal Academy was none to shabby either. I’m not sure what I make of all this. Art as the new stand up comedy as the new rock and roll. I suppose it’s good, except that the only people who have time and money to give to all this queuing and waiting are the relatively wealthy retired and the formally sick who are spinning it out.

3. As you probably know and in the words of the RA, “‘David Hockney: A Bigger Picture’ spans a 50 year period to demonstrate Hockney’s long exploration and fascination with the depiction of landscape.” There are loads of pictures; I mean really, a lot, and many of the same view but painted at different times of the year. The countryside of East Yorkshire and particularly, Woldgate Wood, feature heavily.

Woldgate Woods, 6 & 9 November, 2006

Woldgate Woods, 21, 23 & 29 November, 2006

Woldgate Woods, 4, 5 & 6 December, 2006


Woldgate Woods, May 16 & 17, 2006

This kind of thing. When you see this on a large scale, with many, many versions, it’s kind of impressive.

It’s also optimistic. Can paintings be optimistic? (The show includes paintings, but also film and prints from pictures made on an ipad.) Initially, the colours and size of the pictures are cheering. Then there is something about being the scale of the pictures that makes you feel like you want to get out and be in nature. I’m not a regular tramper through the fields but perhaps because, one way or another, I’ve been shut up for most of the winter, there was something very appealing about Hockey’s multicoloured woods and landscapes. Even I feel like a nice walk in the countryside wouldn’t go amiss. Maybe there is also a sense of health and vigor in these works, to do with the colours and their boldness that is appealing. I’ll take a bit of that please.

The Road across the Wolds, 1997

And then I find something hopeful in returning again and again to the same place, painting, drawing or filming it at all times of the year (the films are great, by the way). One of the things I’m finding challenging at the moment is having faith in the future. I know from speaking with other women who’ve been through this breast cancer malarky that this is pretty standard. Looking at Woldgate Woods or Three Trees near Thixendale through the seasons is encouraging. It’s nice to see the year chopped up like this. It reminded me to use the seasons to measure time and progress, that it’s ok to divide up the year like this and that a spring, a summer, an autumn and a winter will make up a whole year.


Decision Making

January 20, 2012 § 3 Comments

I’ve changed my mind. Those of you still keeping up with the saga that is the rebuilding of my breasts are probably rolling your eyes in weary desperation. I know. I’m sorry. I won’t go through the whys and wherefores behind this change of mind. Suffice to say, I was sent away to think again, talked to more people, including people who actually know something (i.e. surgeons, a clinical psychologist who works in the plastic surgery team, as well as more people who have had the operation). I even got to feel someone’s implant (thank you). Anyway, there we are. Some time towards the end of February, I’ll have new boobs made from, well, myself.

During a visit to Tate Modern this week, I came across this picture by the Russian painter and designer, Natalya Goncharova. It shows three young women. OK, so the “young” bit doesn’t really work, but I have felt a bit like this during the decision making process – I’m in the middle, looking first to one possible version of myself, then the other way, to another.

Natalya Goncharova 1881-1962 Three Young Women

The process of making this decision has seemed tortuous. In part, I think it’s because, given everything else that’s happened, it seems a bit trivial. Does it really matter how my new breasts are constructed so long as I can steer clear of any future cancer? Then there’s the whole problem of making decisions about things you can only know so much about. I can do all the research in the world but in the end, none of it really tells me how it will be for me.

It’s tempting to think this is a situation unique to me, that everyone else has confidence in the future and is not worrying day to day what will happen next. And, to some extent that is true. It’s a matter of survival. We can’t be getting up every morning, worrying about what will happen in the next few hours, days, weeks. If we think about it, we know horrible things are all around us, waiting to jump in and shake up our peace of mind. It’s just that mostly – and thank goodness – we don’t examine all those possibilities, all the time. In making a more long term decision regarding my reconstruction – the general feeling seems to be more pain now for more gain later – I am accepting that there may well be a future which may not involve worrying every day about, well, the future.

Also at Tate Modern, I looked at Bridget Riley’s work, under the heading, State of Flux, and, in my rather vague way, was reminded of some of this. The Tate says that, “her work focuses on the energetic encounter between stability and instability in pictorial forms. While her paintings are abstract, they are intimately concerned with how we look at the world.” Bridget Riley has described her use of colour as close “to our experience of the real world. Unstable and incalculable, it is also rich and comforting”. I suspect cancer, and probably other illnesses too, leave everyone affected forever a bit less stable. The hope has to be that the rich and comforting bits are still there somewhere – in the love of family, the support of friends, the care of amazing medical folk, the existence of socialised medicine, the possibility of using other bits of myself to rebuild me, the help of people I’ve never met before but who have been through this themselves and are prepared to share that experience with me. All that is pretty rich and comforting.

And here’s a Bridget Riley that illustrates all that. You should see it for yourself though.

To a Summer's Day, 1980

January 11, 2012 § 3 Comments

This week, I have been mostly thinking about a) Postmodernism, and b) how to rebuild my chest, and c) The Death of King Arthur. The following is about all three and concludes with a very poor and rather predictable attempt to link these things together. I will stop doing this soon as I know it’s getting dull. Not everything is linked and certainly not to stupid old breast cancer.

Actually, I haven’t been thinking about Postmodernism too much. I did go to the V&A’s exhibition, where I learned “postmodernism was an unstable mix of the theatrical and theoretical,” that the “postmodern object seemed to come from a dystopian and far-from-perfect future,” and that “we can learn a lot from postmodernism’s fatal encounter with money.” There were some nice chairs, a great explanation of that amazing photo of Grace Jones (which reveals her to be more like the rest of us than you might have imagined) and a whole bunch of “remember that” album covers. (If you’re interested, hurry along. It ends January 15th.)

Bel Air chair, Peter Shire

I’ll return to rebuilding my chest.

Simon Armitage has translated the anonymous medieval poem, The Alliterative Morte Arthur and this week he was at the British Library, reading from and talking about his work, The Death of King Arthur.

I like Mr Armitage. He seems serious but also like someone who would fetch the fish and chips.  I’m not a big fan of alliterative verse, but I enjoyed hearing him read and thinking about all that Arthur business again – battle, betrayal, friendship, ogres, the usual.

To be honest, though, it’s the rebuilding bit which has really been on my mind. In brief, because I have the inherited BRACA1 gene, I am having a preventative double mastectomy, together with reconstruction. If I haven’t polled you yet as to whether you’d have implants or an enormous tummy tissue transfer, you’re one of the lucky ones. I’ve been forcing people all over the show to have an opinion on this, whether they want to or not. Apologies for that. Probably some of you would rather not have discussed my future breasts over tea and scones at one of Britain’s top museums. However, after much to-ing and fro-ing, gathering of opinions, experiences, culminating in a long discussion with the very patient surgeon yesterday (“Ooh the blood vessels in the right side of your stomach are wonderful; the one on your left side – mmm, a bit ropey”), for those still with this saga (and I do appreciate that you all have lives and other things to think about than my chest), I’ve rejected the eleven hour surgery involving a whole other area of my body, together with the side benefit of a tummy tuck, in favour of implants, of the non-french, non-mattress-grade quality, I am assured.

And, for want of anything better to do, here are some ways of wrapping up these three things.

1. Breast cancer is very postmodern – “a dystopian and far-from-perfect future.” The double mastectomy feels more like it might provide a way to return to the order of modernism – opening “a window onto a new world,” as the V&A folk might say, something more progressive. At the very least, I’m hoping my surgeon will be fully modernist, demonstrating a “machine-like perfection.”

2.The Death of King Arthur starts with the Knights of the Round Table celebrating Christmas. Many of the legends, including that of Sir Gawain (also translated by Simon Armitage) which begins with a News Year’s Eve feast, open with a general scene of merriment and happiness. Things are good. There is order. The story only beings when something or someone comes to disrupt this order. In the case of Sir Gawain, it’s the Green Knight; in The Death of King Arthur, it’s an emissary from Rome. I’m thinking that breast cancer is a bit like that bloody emissary or the Green Knight. You’re just enjoying a quiet revel with your knightly chums, when wham, bam, there you are, all challenged and miserable. No one invited these guys in. They just turn up and expect a person to deal with them.

3. Simon Armitage talked about Lady Fortune and her wheel. King Arthur, with this military victories and his chivalric codes, his gang of knights and his fine round table, is a the top of that wheel. Of course, being at the top means there is really only one way to go – down. The Death of King Arthur is the story of that decline. I am very much hoping it works the other way too. If you’re at the bottom of Lady Fortune’s wheel, surely, in the words of Yazz the only way is up.


Seven on Austerity

January 5, 2012 § 5 Comments

This isn’t to do with how fed up I am, or about my breasts, or about the sensibilities of sick people. (Hurrah, I hear you shout. About bloody time.) Yes, well, all that will be back shortly, I have no doubt. In the meantime, my friend, Sandra Deeble, and I have produced a newspaper of short stories. Seven on Austerity came after a moaning session at a pub, with both of us complaining about how unlucky we were never to get anything published (not that we weren’t good enough, of course). Anyway, the result was to put out something ourselves. Seven on Austerity includes submissions not just from Sandra and I, but also from some of our writing friends. My lovely nephew, Mike Howard, did some great design for us and the good folk at Newspaper Club printed it.

Let me know if you would like a copy. It’s free, while stocks last. Just send me your address.

And here’s a picture. It’s not all about pigs, by the way.

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