At The Authors Club Online LitFest 2020
First, the Louvre in Paris closed. Then the galleries in London started to shut their doors, one by one, like the “lamps going out all over Europe” as the British Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey remarked on the eve of the First World War, adding “We shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.” Maybe this is too pessimistic an analogy for the London art world. Or maybe not.
Illness is the night-side of life, a more onerous citizenship – Susan Sontag
The art market is dependent on personal interaction: artists’ relationships with their galleries, galleries relationships with curators, staff and collectors. There is no milieu where personal networking is so intrinsic to its function as the art world. It is all about trends and confidence. Chat and charm. So will it ever be the same again after Covid19? There are some who talk of a world Before C19 and After C19 as one might refer to BC and AD.
So, with galleries and auction houses shutting and the stock markets crashing, trade in Art is likely to come to a sudden standstill. Looking at maps of China before the virus and during the virus, the CO2 emissions are drastically down, giving us cleaner air and less pollution. There is, it seems, a silver lining to even the blackest clouds. Might this, therefore, be a metaphor for what, in recent years, has become an over-inflated art market, dependent on money rather than on talent?
What is certain is that artists will retreat to their studios. Studios are safe and artists are used to being alone. Creativity not only helps mental health and anxiety but is a barometer of the social trends and events we live through. As the philosopher, Pascal once, famously, remarked: ‘the sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he cannot stay quietly in his room’. But isolation is essential if we are going to create a painting, a novel, a poem or an installation worth its salts. To turn inward is to find the nub of creativity. Art that is made with one eye on the market is barely Art at all. Before the virus, the world had become used to being frenetically connected 24/7. Art fairs, auctions, exhibitions, private views, gallery dinners, biennales. The credo of postmodernism has been Surface over Depth. Maybe this is the end of an era. As M. Scott Peck wrote: It is not impractical to consider seriously changing the rules of the game when the game is clearly killing you.”
Modernism and postmodernism exalted the complete autonomy of Art, severing its bonds with society. With the collapse of religion and Art as a form of storytelling, it became increasingly about rebellion and the apparent existential absurdity, alienation and futility of contemporary life. But exalted individualism has proved to be neither a creative nor insightful response to the state of the planet. Nor will it be to this current pandemic.
As Susan Sontag wrote: ‘Illness is the night-side of life, a more onerous citizenship’. Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick.’ We have become used to a world where everything can be fixed. TB, cancer, infertility. For the first time in living memory, we are being confronted with a situation we can’t ‘fix’. As with any traumatic event, it will be the artists and poets who make sense of it. Who will provide us with the necessary emotional and psychological maps? This moment may, yet, become a tremendous artistic renaissance that will become known to future generations as Art in the Time of Covid19.
And the commercial art world? Well, there will be a lot of weeding out and slimming down. The overblow and hyperbolic are likely to disappear. And what will we be left with? No one can be sure. But with luck, Art that re-engages us with the personal as well as the aesthetic, the ethical and the emotional, Art that respects the planet as well as what is fresh, new and innovative. It’s a challenge to all who are creative. I hope we are up to it.
(My apologies to Gabriel Garcia Márquez for the headline title)
Published in Artlyst
Because it has not turned out how I dreamt,
to lie against another’s backbone in the dark
listening to the suck and blow of their dolphin breath,
I return to the edge of sea, sky and land,
where dawn is washed by rain-soaked night,
to reveal a tattered wedding veil of mist
covering the morning’s face.Far from the city’s buzz and blur,
the constant ticker-tape of news,I am postulant to the weather-god,
genuflect to the pull of tides,whisper rosaries to a glassy moon,
and great Atlantic storms.At break of day I light a beeswax candle
so, solitude becomes a formof holy erudition,
the I an eye, before I mergewith the savage silence.
A response to the BBC’s Panorama programme and the Labour party crisis
I am Jew –ish. The ish is important. For although I had four Jewish grandparents and Hitler would certainly have turned me into toast if I’d been born a few years earlier over the wrong side of the Channel, my upbringing was more Thelwell Pony Club and Surrey Young Conservative tennis parties (apologies I was only 13!) than north London Bar Mitzvahs. I even went to a private Christian Science girls’ school, where the only other Jewish girl refused to say the Lord’s Prayer in assembly and I wondered if I should too. Our days were spent riding our bikes in the Surrey lanes and listening to the Beatles and Rolling Stones. And my mother – a bit of a snob – was more interested in gardening and horses than Golders Green glitz. My Jewishness then – such as it was – amounted to having a grandmother who’d arrive on the Greenline bus from London for Sunday lunch with a bag of gefilte fish. As a child I never attended a synagogue or a Friday night Shabbat. Didn’t even know what they were and felt very alien the first time I did.
So most of my life I’ve not thought about being Jewish. As a teenager in the 1960s I did rather fancy going to pick grapes on a kibbutz (it was a fashionable thing to do in those days when Israel was seen as a beacon of social democracy in a sea of despotism) because you were likely to meet arty boys. But that’s about it. Since then I’ve gone on marches protesting about the current Israeli government’s appalling alt-right behaviour towards the Palestinians. Injustice is, after all, injustice.
But suddenly I’m afraid. Aware of my Jewishness in a way I’ve never been before.
The Panorama programme on antisemitism brought it home. But what’s even more disconcerting is the number of people, good people, intelligent people, who are dissing the programme, claiming poor research, a Corbyn smear tactic, BBC bias etc, rather than looking at the unpalatable truths that were exposed. These are the same people, I can’t help feeling who, if the programme had been about institutional racism against black police officers, would (rightly) be applauding it. Most shocking was the revelation of the belittling abuse that many Jewish MPs put up with for so long because they loved the Labour party and hoped it would change.
In these febrile political times Jews are like canaries down a coal mine. The first to smell the whiff of something nasty in the woodshed as our society, daily, becomes ever more polarised and half-truths and fake new abound. We have self-serving liars at the top of both the British and American governments and everyone is looking for someone else to blame. But what seems to have changed is there seems, increasingly, to be a generalised indifference to antisemitism among those who’d claim to have been anti-racist all their lives. The old tropes are back about cabals, power and money, world domination – Soros and the Rothchild’s etc. But put up a post on Facebook and the only people to respond are those with Jewish connections. To most this is a none issue. Made up, a smear, over-played by those pesky Jews. After all most Jews are white, middle class –ish. What have they got to bleat about when any card carrying metropolitan lefty should be worrying about the Gaza strip?
But it is not either or. Most educated Jews I know abhor the behaviour of the Israeli government, just as my American friends abhor the behaviour of Trump. But tolerating antisemitism seems to have become acceptable. The desire in the Labour party – the natural home of British Jews – to reinstate the likes of Chris Williamson is deeply distressing. And yes, Jews can be antisemitic, just as gay men can be homophobic or women can refer to each other as bitches. These are the Jews supported by Corbyn’s cadre. The rest are the wrong sort of Jews. Untruthful, slippery, neurotic, making a fuss. Such phrases have echoes of those bandied around in 1930s Germany. And you’ll remember that didn’t turn out well.
Okay. I’m done. I’m through. I’m hanging up my ruby red slippers, my fuck-me shoes. I’m not going down that yellow brick road no more, no more. I’m giving up internet dating. I may have run a successful antique business in Portobello Road for many years which kept my three children in fish fingers, the three little children I was left with in the middle of Somerset – where I kept chickens, made bread and grew my own veg – when I was 31 and they were all under 6. I may have dragged myself off as a mature student up to the University of East Anglia, after I’d moved us like Ms Whittington to London, to do an MA in Creative Writing with the crème de la crème, whilst juggling child care as the other students hung out talking postmodernism in the bar. I may have written for Time Out, The Independent and The New Statesman as an art critic, published three collections of poetry, one of short stories and three novels but none of this is as anything compared to my failure with internet dating.
I have been at it since before they even had internet dating. When my ex left me for an older women while I was in my early 30s I was desperate to find someone new. To rekindle love and touch and remind myself I wasn’t the mad bad person he was trying to make me out to be. So I put a tiny ad in the personal column at the back of Time Out. It felt incredibly transgressive. The replies came in a big brown envelope at the end of the week. Some had photos of men in woolly jumpers. Some were 20 stone. Some looked nice. There were accountants and students, film buffs and some just in the buff. And I began dating. How naive and serious I was then, wearing my heart on my sleeve, hoping to find an attractive, kind man who’d share my interests and wanted to fall in love.
Over the years I’ve had relationships. Often with men I met in real life and not through the personal ads. Too many were artists. Fun and feckless, for whom I was ok girlfriend material. But heaven forfend that they should get seriously involved with a single mother of three young children. And I did fall in love and thought I’d found my forever relationship. He was an academic. Fun, gregarious, generous. But it took about two and a half years before I registered the narcissism, the binge drinking and then he dumped me, presumably because I’d noticed these things and it wasn’t quite so fun anymore. Still, I was broken hearted.
I haven’t lived like a nun since then. But I’ve been much more wary. It’s not thrills and spills I’m after, a bit of slap and tickle, but a real organic relationship. Someone to share the other half of a bottle of red on a Saturday night as we watch a foreign movie on Netflix. Someone to read with in bed, as well as make tender love. Someone to travel and walk with, to share wit and humour, to mooch round markets and go to art galleries. To visit foreign cities. A companion, a mate. I’m not looking for perfect. Just warm, smart and attractive to me. Someone with a bit of empathy, someone who wants to share. And there’s the rub. Commitment is a dirty word and I’m no longer interested in one night stands. Recently someone got in touch asking me if I was up for a threesome – and he wasn’t talking card games. And here’s the thing. I think he thought I would be grateful.
Recently I’ve met some quite pleasant men. But I’m tired of them turning round after an enjoyable evening and telling me that I’m a fascinating women and that they’d really love to stay in touch as friends but that they ‘can’t see it going any further’. Which, I’ve come to realise, is code for: ‘you’re too old’. But I am not there to entertain. To talk about the Man Booker shortlist or the Turner Prize and be ever-so-interesting, while they go off to find their bit of nookie elsewhere.
So okay – deep breath – it will now be on public record – I turned 70 last birthday. And for most men on the dating scene it’s as if I should just pull up the draw bridge or crawl under a stone and die. It’s as though my age is a personal insult. It brings to mind the writer Anthony Powell’s observation on ageing that “I feel increasingly punished for a crime I didn’t commit.” My last and most recent date was with a highly self-obsessed lawyer, who was the one to contact me and insisted that I meet him immediately in a place of his choosing. Then who, despite us coincidentally knowing a number of people in common, told me I should ‘apologise’ for my age because I’d fudged the issue.
Why are these men so hooked on age? I may not be Angelina Jolie but neither am I the back end of a bus. I do Pilates and yoga three times a week with a group of wonderful, super fit people, many who are older than I am. I recently did a 15 mile country walk with my son. I travel. I write. I do voluntary work. I have interesting friends. I have five grandchildren. I am loyal to those I love who love me. I wear nice clothes and know how to eat without dribbling. I’m not ready to be put out to grass. And yet? And yet?
I don’t think I’m alone. I know so many sharp-witted, fit, clever, attractive single women in their 60s, 70s and even 80s. But the men? They’re not so hot and the ones that are see themselves as being at a premium and are of the opinion that they’re only as old as the young flesh they feel. This is a new phenomenon, this problem of vital baby boomer women who won’t lie down quietly, who are stylish and fit and not ready for elasticated-waist trousers and Zimmer frames. Men of our age, it seems, want a quiet life. Someone to flatter or mummy them. Someone to boost their egos or pick up their socks. What they don’t want is opinions, or women of their own age who remind them of their mortality. And before you ask, yes, I have dated younger men. And yes, it was very nice in its way. But I’m looking for the forever relationship now, and someone 10 or 15 years younger is not going to stay the course.
So bye bye fuck-me shoes. I’m going to get out my walking boots and take to the hills. There are grandchildren to hug and that fourth novel demanding to be finished. So watch this space.
A problem on our doorstep
Four a.m. on an October Sunday morning. It’s dark and there’s a chill in the air as we head towards Dover. I am joining an artist friend to visit refugees in the Calais Jungle. She is a Catholic, so we are going with a west London Catholic mission. In the back of the car is a tiny Portuguese nun, Sister Natalia, who has many years of experience working in Africa and speaks Arabic, also a young missionary nun and a Somalian school-dinner lady, who is now a British citizen. As we drive along the empty, early-morning roads Sister Natalia prays and sings.
As the sun rises I stand on the deck and watch the White Cliffs of Dover disappear and think how easy it is for me to cross this narrow strip of water and how hard it is for so many others in the world.
We arrive in Calais as the church bells are ringing and go straight to Mass. This is not what I’d expected. I am neither a Catholic nor a Christian. But this is not my trip. I’ve just tagged along in order to give out the goods – toothpaste, toothbrushes, soap, socks, woolly hats and gloves and a few tarpaulin – brought in Poundland with the meagre donations I managed to gather over the course of a few days. Someone explains that attending Mass is not simply a religious gesture but a means of ensuring good relations with the town. The local church was the first to respond to the refugees washed up in their midst.
Since the group was last here the ‘Jungle’ has moved. There are rumours that this new land is toxic. We want to give the goods I’ve brought directly to people who need them but find all the roads to the camp are blocked by the police. But our small friendly nun is an advantage. We pull onto the verge and Sister Natalia, all four foot something of her, marches up to the police and works her magic. The barriers open and we drive in.
Other groups are already dispensing goods from the back of vans when we arrive. The queues appear orderly. Young men come up and peer into our car and ask for shoes. Some wear flip flops, some slippers, others have shoes that have seen better days on their hikes from who knows where. We tell them that we are going to the Eritrean ‘church’ to deliver our goods and negotiate the car through the encampment of makeshift dwellings. It’s a sunny morning, but even so the track is muddy and littered with rubbish and debris, though there have been attempts to collect some of the garbage into bags and piles.
The Eritrean ‘church’ is built from salvaged wood and sheets of plastic. Inside there’s carpet on the floor and walls, candles flicker. There’s a large wooden cross in the centre and an ‘icon’ has been painted on the outside. We’re asked to take off our shoes before going in. Then a short service is held outside. A young man bows and kisses the plastic church walls in prayer. Most of those attending are young men. When Isaias Afewerki, Eritrea’s president, introduced compulsory military service in 1995 he insisted it was for the good of the country. But each year many thousands of Eritreans flee in order to avoid the draft that they liken to a form of slavery. Conditions are terrible. Those under the age of 50 are enlisted indefinitely. One in 20 Eritreans lives in vast barracks in the desert and is forced to work on reconstruction projects such as road building, earning no more than $30 a month. They can’t go to university or get a job unless they’ve been officially released from military service. Since conscription became open-ended in 1998, this can depend on the whim of a commander and take many years.
Outside the church volunteers have cooked a meal and the young men line up with good humour. We go down the queue and ask if they want socks, soap or toothbrushes Oral hygiene is not a priority among these youngsters, who look to be mostly between the ages of 18-30. But woolly hats and socks are popular and we don’t have nearly enough gloves. I also have hats and gloves for children but we can’t find any. Those that are here are in the women’s camp further along, run by the French government, and they won’t allow us ‘non-French nationals’ in for ‘security’ reasons. So we give them to someone who says he can dispose of them and hope they find their way to the children.
As we go round the camp dispensing the delicatessen bread we persuaded an upmarket London deli to donate at the end of the previous day, the young men are mostly friendly and interested to talk. Apart from Eretria they come from Somalia and Afghanistan and who knows where. I meet the ‘only Kosovan’ in the camp. His English is perfect but he is walking on crutches. What happened, I ask. He broke his leg falling off a train trying to get into the UK, he says. He’s already lived and worked there for a number of years but was deported. Now he’s desperate to get back to his friends.
For many the UK is their dream and their goal. But some have grown pragmatic and realise that’ll probably never be let in and are considering seeking asylum in France. Despite terrible living conditions – a couple of stove pipes providing water for thousands, mud, dust and dwellings made of flapping plastic with nowhere to wash or cook – on the day we come, at least, there’s a sense of calm over the encampment. Those who’ve been here longest have cobbled together shelters from next to nothing and proudly invite us into their ‘homes’. Others have started small shops selling fizzy drinks and phone cards. There’s even a ‘restaurant’ and a ‘hotal’. And, as young men will, the world over, they play football. Others have erected basketball hoops. A group of Afghanis is playing cricket. Elsewhere music blares from a ghetto blaster keeping those who are reconstituting bicycles from spare parts in a makeshift ‘workshop’ entertained.
Some have been living in the Jungle for years. Yet still they seem to have a sense of optimism and purpose. They’ve started a school where they can study English, French and mechanics. Some keep a few chickens. They know that they’re not likely to be leaving anytime soon.
With the emphasis having shifted in recent weeks to the appalling conditions in Syria, focus has slipped from the situation in Calais. And it’s is all too easy for those of us living comfortably in the rest of Europe to dismiss these faceless young men as ‘economic’ migrants; as though the desire to have a better life was a crime. For many there’s no doubt that even living rough in Calais is better than what they’ve left behind: the Taliban or the Eritrean military. Some will get asylum and come to Britain or remain legally in France. We met a number of young volunteer human rights lawyers who’d set up impromptu clinics to offer advice. But most of those in the Jungle will remain in limbo. They’ve risked everything to get here, walking, travelling by lorry. It’s really only the young who can make the strenuous journey. Most want to work. They are car mechanics and barbers – ‘the number one barber in Calais’. Their desires are no different to those of any other youngsters. A job, a home, a family, somewhere safe to live – a pair of smart trainers. But France doesn’t want them and neither do we. So they remain in limbo as the weather begins to turn cold. It’s not surprising they’re asking for gloves. And they are not going to go away. For where can they go? Not back to their war torn impoverished countries.
I’m not a politician and don’t pretend to have the answers. But they are here in Calais, a rather grey run-down depressing sort of town. It’s a fait accompli.Surely if Europe funded a project rather than left it to France to sort out, built homes and schools, factories and workshops, these people could revitalise the region with their skills and youthful energy. But France will never agree and Europe rather sweep these young men under the metaphorical carpet. But the carpet is not big enough and there are many more, even now, en route to join them. Whether we like it or not the distribution of the world population is changing. It’s only an accident of geography and birth that it’s them and not us.
Sue Hubbard finds magic in the ruins of an Irish village abandoned during the potato famine.
I’ve lost my heart to Cill Rialaig. It’s about as far west as you can go in Europe without falling off. It is a magical place set in a wild landscape full of ghosts and memories, a pre-famine village that clings to a steep slope 300 feet above the sea on the old road that leads to Bolus Head in Kerry, on the west coast of Ireland.
In winter the sea boils and rages against the cliffs as storms sweep in from the Atlantic. Hugging the hillside, it looks south-west towards the Béara Peninsula and the tiny uninhabited islands of Scariff and Deenish, and eastward beyond Waterville to MacGillycuddy’s Reeks. At the right time of year you might see seals or, if you are very lucky, a leatherback turtle. Abandoned by the inhabitants, who were driven out by near starvation, the collapsed cottages stare out to sea like a collection of grieving widows. The one-time fields and tillage-plots that lie on either side of the road are half hidden by rocks and boulders. Criss-crossed now by drystone walls, they are full of spongy tussocks of boggy grass, gorse and bracken. Grazing sheep, marked with the Day-Glo blue and pink dyes of their owners, shimmy up the hill, wiggling their backsides like muddy go-go dancers.
As the mist comes in, settling over the headland like a white duvet, and the rain beats against the windows on this, the last day of the old year, it is not difficult to imagine how hard life must have been up here. Unlike in other parts of Europe the plough was unknown, and cultivation of the staple, potatoes, was dependent on the spade. There was a little fishing and cattle breeding, and rye and oats were grown, the rye primarily for thatch. Houses consisted of one room, with a large fireplace fitted with a croch (hanger) and a drol (hook) for supporting pots. Animals lived under the same roof. Two doors facing each other allowed the cows to be driven in, milked, and then ushered out through the opposite door. Those living here must have been permanently damp, their skin kippered from turf smoke, their lungs full of bronchitis. Young women became prematurely old, worn down by incessant childbirth and hard work.
It is here that, ringed by sacred sites and standing stones, the pre-Augustinian monks built their beehive huts on the cliffs and prepared spiritually for the more demanding retreat on Skellig Michael. Some eight miles from the mainland, it can only be reached for a few months in the summer, even today, by a lenient sea. No boatman worth his salt, however beautiful the day may seem, will waste time making the crossing when he knows landing is impossible in the heaving Atlantic swell. Both Skellig Michael and its jagged companion Small Skellig, a gannet sanctuary stained white with guano that can be smelled on the wind as you approach, and which rises from the sea like something out of a Wagnerian opera, can be seen on a clear day from the mainland. Nothing prepares for the mystical atmosphere of Skellig Michael, home to monks for hundreds of years, with its 670 hand-hewn steps leading up above the sea to the clutch of monastic domes that, even now, seems only a hair’s breadth away from heaven. It was here that members of the Celtic church retreated to the edge of the known world to seek the face of God.
And what of Cill Rialaig now? Well, it’s risen like a phoenix from the ashes of its past. Through the tireless efforts of Noelle Campbell Sharpe, who raised the money to buy the village in the Nineties, the place has been turned into an artists’ and writers’ retreat. Peat smoke rises from the chimneys as photographers, printers, painters and the occasional writer engage in a flurry of creative activity. More than 1,500 painters and sculptors have taken up residencies in the seven rebuilt cottages that have been converted into simple live/work studios. Cash cannot buy a place, only talent can. The remains of the four other cottages stand in ruins, monuments to the inhabitants of the old village. Most recently restored as a meeting house is the home of Séan Ó Conaill, the farmer-fisherman and storyteller who lived here between 1923 and 1931.
Cill Rialaig is a model of restoration, not only of old buildings, but of a community. When each resident artist leaves, he or she donates a work that is then sold in Siopa Cill Rialaig, a purpose-built arts centre in nearby Dungeagan, to help fund the project. But the place is more than simply an artists’ retreat; there is also a scheme whereby one-off craft pieces are produced by young apprentices, local youngsters given a taste of training by professional artists.
It is the untamed authenticity of this place, however, that Campbell Sharpe has helped preserve from developers. If ever you should come this way, walk from the village out along the empty headland to the end of the lonely track until you reach a low, whitewashed cottage with a corrugated roof, which sits in isolation on the edge of the cliff with an uninterrupted view of the whole bay. The path of its immaculate, windblown garden is lined with pebbles from the beach, and the peat stack has been built with the precision of a Zen sculpture.
The cottage belongs to one of Kerry’s farming bachelors. They are a dying breed, but if you should be lucky enough to meet him, you will know him by his shock of white hair and twinkling blue eyes. When once I stopped and said he must live in the most beautiful spot in the whole world, he simply nodded, smiled and carried on working, as though such a statement about this inspiring place was obvious.
He’s a writer, a director and an artist – and his intellect is formidable. Yet Sue Hubbard finds Jonathan Miller charmingly unassuming. Just don’t call him a Renaissance man.
When Jonathan Miller’s tall figure looms into view he begins talking straight away, as though resuming a previous conversation. His wife has been bagging leaves in the garden when I arrive. Go in, she says – he’s expecting you. He has, after all, phoned several times to check that I am coming. I was expecting to be bulldozered by his formidable intellect, but this is obviously not going to be a formal interview: we simply wander, chatting, into the garden to take a look at the metal constructions that will form part of his show at the Boundary Gallery. He was taught to weld in Santa Fe, he says, where he was directing opera. He toured the local junkyards in a pick-up truck, then stripped to the waist and got down to work: a touch of Chillida here, a smidgen of David Smith there. “Of course, as you can see,” he insists, “I’m a formalist, an old-fashioned modernist. I don’t have much sympathy with postmodernism. Some people would probably say that what I make is derivative but all great artists – not that I would call myself an artist, more a putter-together of this and that – are influenced by others.”
Miller, despite his ageless appearance, is now pushing 70 and much less manic and more modest than I had expected. Yet his enthusiasm for all things philosophical, aesthetic and scientific is as intense as ever. “Please don’t call me a Renaissance man,” he says. It’s such a contemporary view to think it odd if one is passionate about a wide range of subjects. Yet his conversation is littered with verbal “footnotes” as his mind races tirelessly from topic to topic; from Shakespeare to opera, from the unconscious and psychiatry to anthropology and his dislike of contemporary French philosophy (he is an admirer of the Anglo-American school), stringing them all together as an accomplished composer might handle a complex melody or a conductor the different instruments in an orchestra. He still has the same intellectual curiosity that led him, as a young boy, to discover the delights of biological symmetry, which set him on the course to study medicine.
It was Beyond the Fringe, of course – that glittering revue of irreverent satire in the early Sixties – that brought him to public notice. Since then he has directed theatre, TV and opera from New York to Florence, written and presented a series on the history of medicine and was the executive producer of 12 of the BBC Shakespeare series. There was also his delightful film of Alice in Wonderland. Wasn’t all that more than enough for one man? Why the art? Well, he has always made art. His father, a psychiatrist, was also a sculptor, his mother a writer. He was brought up surrounded by books and paintings, many of which still fill, to bulging point, the Camden house that he has lived in for years. The walls of the narrow staircase are crammed with prints and etchings: Piranesi, Greco-Roman columns and pediments, Muybridge’s photographs on the analysis of movement. “You see, I just like form,” he says, as we climb another flight to look at paintings in the bedroom, photographs in the loo.
He also makes collages from bits of detritus. Mostly shreds of advertising posters scraped off walls in New York or Italy. When rehearsing, say, Tosca, he might be found during the siesta hour peeling choice samples from local hoardings. What he is interested in is the incidental, what is passed by. His art, if it is about anything, is about making the negligible visible. What Constable confessed to as a love of “old rotten banks, slimy posts and brickwork”. He talks of the pleasures of fiddling with bits and pieces, though his is a highly informed aesthetic. While at Cambridge, amid the Footlights reviews and the medical exams, he found time to take in a good deal of art history. He draws on Kurt Schwitters, on Joseph Cornell and Braque. But the results are very much Jonathan Miller; eclectic, idiosyncratic, like those of a highly visual and literate magpie.
He is in the middle of filming a programme for television on atheism. Did he, then, consider art to be the thing that filled the God-shaped hole in contemporary society? Did it perhaps provide the only possible route by which, in a post-Nietzschean world, we might momentarily encounter the metaphysical or the sublime? And then he was off again like a foxhound that had sniffed its quarry. It was all to do with the expression of human co-operation rather than anything mystical. Co-operation leads us to have empathy with one another. Or to use the word he prefers, the word used by the philosopher Adam Smith, sympathy. But wasn’t that just too mechanistic a view to explain how we feel when we hear Beethoven’s “Eroica” or Bach’s St Matthew Passion or a speech by Shakespeare? And he starts to talk of his love of King Lear, which he has directed many times, and as we sit in his homely kitchen drinking coffee at his long kitchen table, next to the wall covered with children’s drawings, photographs of him with the young Alan Bennett et al, his children and grandchildren, he quotes Lear, who, when half out of his mind, turns to his daughter and says, “I think this lady to be my child Cordelia,” and breaks down in tears. It is a moving moment. He is genuinely affected and takes time to compose himself. This is a man with an enormous mind. Yet at this minute, I can’t help feeling that he is wrong – that what he had just experienced is more than a highly sophisticated evolutionary response.
So we have another go at a definition, after he asks, with great courtesy, if I mind if he smokes. Is what he has just felt equivalent to what the poet Wilfred Owen called “pity”? Yes, that’s something like it. But it is a human pity. I ask if he accepts Melanie Klein’s notion of art as a form of “reparation”. This is a theory he rather likes, and later, as I am leaving, he tells me a funny story about an interview he did with Hanna Segal, the Kleinian psychoanalyst, on TV – it is easy to forget in all this cultural chat that he has a great sense of humour – though he doesn’t think much of Freud. Freud just got the unconscious wrong, he says. He prefers the views of the cognitive behaviourists; the unconscious not as a dark vault full of secrets, but as an “enabling unconscious”, like a computer, where the desktop is too small to keep everything needed on it, so thoughts and information are stored in files and folders that can be accessed when necessary.
I try to bring him back again to art. Really it is shape and form that please him. He pops upstairs to bring down an antique cobbler’s last and an antique wooden beret stretcher and takes great pleasure in showing me how form has followed function. He talks of the delight of making, how we deeply underestimate the pleasure of doodling, and play. That’s what artists are good at, and through play they are able to take time to notice what is incidental and place it for a moment in the centre of the frame. Think of Auden’s great poem “Musée des Beaux Arts”. How Brueghel places Icarus, falling from the sky, at the edge of his picture when the main thrust of life, the ploughman ploughing, the ship sailing, seems to be going on elsewhere. Breughel makes us aware of the previously overlooked. Art can do something like that.
Published in The Independent