On arting in the face of mediocrity


On a list of things which are my forte, making art ties with my ability to leave the bleach cream on for the exact length of time it takes my moustache not to turn Julian Assange blonde, i.e., hit and miss. My Year 9 art teacher took one look at my lifesize portrait of a young Tina Turner rendered painstakingly in red and yellow poster paint* and forbade me from taking GCSE. And yet, I persist!

All evidence points to the fact that I have yet to evolve beyond the toddler stage. I love wax crayons, colour pencils, and cut up bits of magazine. My masterpieces are assembled sitting on a cushion on my bedroom floor listening to playlists I created circa 2010 and see no need to update.

The results I use as illustrations for blog posts and sometimes to give as presents to lucky friends. Now, I am under no illusion that what I create is by any objective measure good. I’d like my writing to be good, because it’s the Thing I Want To Do. I write every day. Art is not like that. I certainly don’t do it daily, or even weekly. What, then, is art? I have reached the conclusion that art is therapy.

*To this day, I have no idea what moved me to create this.


Lady (after Dora Holzhandler)

I learned to walk in a village, not far from Zurich, which has a river running through it and whose name means smooth fields. I was nineteen months, a late developer. Gripping the bars of my grandfather’s crib, I hauled myself upright and took my first steps. Great Aunt Lotte clapped. Grandfather’s crib stood in the smallest bedroom of a big pink house with a redcurrant orchard,
the first on its street. Before the house: just fields. Smooth ones.

A maple staircase led to the attic, where bygone playthings lurked in corners. One summer, I tugged out a china doll by her leg. She had no arms, so Lotte sewed a special dress to mask the deficiency. For three weeks I carried her everywhere, like a talisman, and when it was time to leave, I tucked her into a bed I’d fashioned from a shoe box. Some years later, a new family moved into the pink house. They tarmakced over the orchard and installed a carport.



Behind me in the members’ room at the British Museum, two women speak in low voices of a bequest from a man with a 95-year-old widow whom they are being careful not to pressurise. I remember being dropped off at my grandfather’s office around the corner when I was eight. He worked for a shipping company in a building that has since been demolished, and the enormous turquoise galleon that is University College Hospital built on top. Together we walked up Gower Street and spent an hour or so peering silently into cases of medieval Hebrew bibles. I came too on several school trips: mostly, as is the law, to visit the Ancient Egyptian galleries. At one time, I owned several sarcophagus pencil cases from the gift shop and a handful of tiny scarab beetles, lapis blue.


Rocket Potato

One time I held hands with Amy Winehouse. I never knew her but I felt like I did. She was everybody’s cousin’s cousin, old family friend. At a gig in the back room of the Dublin Castle, Claudia and I elbowed our way to the front. She (Amy, not Claudia) was engaged and shouting about her ring, already kind of shambolic.

Amy held out her hand and I held out mine. I like your bag, she said. It was orange and plastic, like a 1970s aviation carry-on, so probably she didn’t mean it. When she died, I was babysitting two sad little girls down the road from where she’d lived. The girls kept asking to see the house and the flowers. I didn’t take them.


Blobby Trees (after Fahrelnissa Zeid)

Last time I got my head cut open, about the only thing I noticed was the pair of dumpy wooden swing doors to the operating theatre. They seemed to me splintery, unsanded, and onto each was stencilled a quartet of inscrutable, rune-like figures. Set against the mint and stainless steel of the rest of the place the doors were incongruous, a hangover from a previous age, when surgery was performed with rusty fire hooks and zero anaesthetic. I shuffled past in my disposable slippers.