I’ve already written about the celebrity cull which happened this year, but that 1-2 punch of Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds just after Christmas seemed like the Grim Reaper’s parting flourish – something he’d been planning all along to show just what he could do if he put his mind to it.
Let’s hope that 2017 brings us all some peace and a return to kindness after a year of division and polarisation. Those of you with a faith of some kind will no doubt be calling on that for support while the rest of us, perhaps, ‘open our hearts to the whole universe and find it is loving’. Let’s hope so.
The above drawing owes something to the great Austrian artist, Paul Flora. To open 2017 on a note of wistful beauty, here is a piece of music written specially for this occasion.
Nearly half a century ago, musical satirist Peter Schickele created the figure of P.D.Q. Bach and thereby launched a career performing the works of this ‘lost’ member of the Bach family.
I wouldn’t describe W.T.F. Bach as ‘lost’ – he never left Leipzig so he could hardly be lost – so much as ignored. His early form of 12-bar Delta blues simply wasn’t welcome in Prince Leopold’s eighteenth century court. It wasn’t really until the 1960s that his music began to be played, often falsely attributed to figures such as Mississippi Fred Macdowell or Elmore James or arranged by young rock bands without any attribution at all.
That, I’m afraid, is the downside of being ahead of your time.
This post demonstrates how much I miss Richard Thompson, cartoonist and illustrator, who died earlier this year. I never knew him, but the world was a better place for his presence.
‘Take a look back over the past 12 months,’ WordPress recommends for an end-of-year post. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather close the door on 2016 and leave it to gather dust in that room where nobody goes.
According to some rough and ready BBC research we lost twice as many ‘celebrities’ in the first three months of 2016 as during the same period in 2015 and five times as many as in 2012. The world is certainly less colourful for the loss of Prince, David Bowie, Alan Rickman, Leonard Cohen, Victoria Wood and many others; my own little world of enthusiasms was rocked by the deaths of Jefferson Airplane’s Paul Kantner, Billy Paul, Dutch cartoonist and illustrator Peter van Straaten, Gilbert Kaplan (who taught himself to conduct Mahler’s 2nd Symphony) and comedian Garry Shandling.
Then there was Brexit and Trump, the inability of the West to prevent the slaughter in Syria, the rise of intolerance and anger in so many European countries, a darkness of spirit that seems to have spread into so many corners of our lives in 2016. On a personal level too, 2016 for me was a year of endings and unforeseen change, of bittersweet moments, of realities that needed to be faced.
Where there are endings there are also beginnings. I’ve been blessed by the support of friends this year, surprised by the kindness of strangers and buoyed up by an excellent meditation course. Nothing can bring back Leonard Cohen, but his life remains an inspiration for second chances in later years and his music is there for everyone who wants to hear it.
So I wish you a happy Christmas, Hanukkah, Pancha Ganapati, Chahrshanbeh Soori, winter solstice or whatever you celebrate to bring light to these dark days. Thank you to those whose support and help has meant so much during the year, to all of you following this blog and especially those who take the time to comment. Thanks to all the artists who have provided such inspiration and helped me find my way forward.
To all of you, I dedicate these jolly, naked Santas. You know it’s what you were waiting for.
Friday was a busy and somewhat challenging day, so when I found myself at an airport with four hours to kill before my flight home to London I decided to enjoy a salad and a glass of wine in one of the bars.
Sitting at the counter of an airport bar can be fascinating, listening to the conversations between the other customers and trying to determine their relationships. Are they colleagues, friends or strangers? Has it been a successful business trip or a Christmas present-buying binge? Do they interact with the bar staff to a greater or lesser extent?
It soon became clear that there was a drama going on to my right. A woman was trying to discover if the man seated next to her – who clearly wasn’t on his first cocktail – knew when his flight was boarding. He, on the other hand, was doing that thing that inebriated people on high bar stools often do – trying not to fall off. The bartender – let’s call her Janila – discretely replaced his cocktail glass with one filled with water and pushed a basket of bread rolls in his direction.
Eventually he stood and weaved unsteadily towards the door. Janila told me that one of her colleagues would be happy to serve me with anything else but she had to see the customer to his gate. They disappeared into the airport crowds.
Ten minutes passed, then ten more, and Janila hadn’t returned. When she finally did, she sighed, “His flight was at the furthest gate…” “You didn’t have to do that,” I said as she brought my check, “It was so kind of you.” “No,” she said, “I had to – I couldn’t just leave him to find his own way – his flight was already boarding.”
This random act of kindness was inspiring. My own frustrations fell away witnessing her going the extra mile to help the man. After all, who knows why he was drinking alone in an airport bar? Perhaps he’d failed to close the sale that would save his job two weeks before Christmas; maybe his wife had left him for someone he once trusted.
Had this been a movie, the shadowy figure at the far end of the bar would have left her a $1,000 tip and slipped away quietly. But this was real life: the man made his flight thanks to the kindness of a stranger and Janila finished her shift and went home tired but, I hope, knowing that she was an angel of sorts.
When London’s Foundling Hospital opened its doors in 1741, mothers leaving their babies in its care were asked to ‘affix on each child some particular writing, or other distinguishing mark or token, so that the children may be known thereafter if necessary’. Some of the mothers were so poor that the tokens consisted of simple buttons with an unusual coloured thread or pennies engraved or defaced in some way to make them distinguishable from others.
The Foundling Hospital continued its work until 1954 and is now a children’s charity and museum. Last summer, the artist Cornelia Parker curated an exhibition called Found, which invited sixty artists to contribute tokens of their own responding to both the word itself and the spirit of the museum.
Ms Parker is a remarkable woman – and artist – in her own right. Her best-known piece is probably Cold Dark Matter, a wooden garden shed that has been reconstructed at the moment when it explodes, but she rarely does the same thing twice. So she has produced drawings using her own blood, others using ink made from destroyed pornographic films confiscated by HM Customs, and a gold tooth filling melted and stretched through the eye of a needle. She took a macrophotograph of the seat of Sigmund Freud’s leather chair and called it Marks made by Freud, Subconsciously. She has also photographed an Arab man who makes crowns of thorns for Christian tourists in Bethlehem and exhibited the words crossed out of manuscripts by Charlotte Bronte as rather beautiful semi-abstracts.
I’m travelling this week and have nothing finished to share with you so instead I’ll show you three ‘found’ objects of my own. The first is a pencil I discovered in my Mother’s house, one of the ones I would have been given half a century ago by my aunt who owned a petrol station. With one of these and an order pad I would draw quietly in a corner while the grown-ups talked. There’s also a photograph from around the same time – possibly taken at my grandfather’s wedding to his second wife – where we all look like characters from some historical drama. It’s sobering to discover that photographs from my childhood look as if they’re from another era. And finally an odd, poignant note that I found in my Mother’s bedside table. With her dementia there’s now little point in asking her to elaborate on the sad story that lies behind these few scribbled words.
I’m sure many of you have objects like this that have returned to you in some way. On their own they may have little resonance, but put them together and they start to build up a fragmented picture of a forgotten time. Be careful, though, there are shadows in the corner of the room, ghosts in the recesses of your memory…