2018 Grateful 1

2018 is drawing to a close. 2019 is almost upon us. Himself and the two headed over to the healing forest in Slovenia earlier this morning. I’ve stayed behind to catch up on work and meet some deadlines. Tonight we’ll sit around a table with friends and eat lamb, cooked Moroccan style. Fish and poultry will swim or fly away with our luck, so we’ll avoid those. We’ll have lentils just after midnight to make sure we’ll have luck and prosperity for the next 12 months. We might even bury a coin or two in the garden this evening and dig them up on the morrow. We already have a stalk of blessed straw from the village crib in our wallets. Superstition, I hear you say. And you’re right. But in these turbulent times, I’ll do what I can to mitigate the insanity. 2018 has shown me just how irrational the world has become, how self-centred its people are, how much we have lost sight of the bigger picture in an effort to preserve our own sliver of society. I’d like to think that 2019 will be a year of a collective awakening to what’s really important in life but I have my doubts. Something tells me that we haven’t seen the half of what’s to come.

2019 will be a tumultuous one for me. January and February are already as full as the myriad flights I’ll be on. It’s shaping up to be a year of reunions and farewells. With ageing parents and elderly friends, I’m even more conscious of the need to refocus on what’s important and not waste my time. It was a thing that age defined our departure from this world but it seems as if the resounding Irish funeral echo of ‘they were a good age’ is being replaced by ‘they were too young to go’. None of us can tell what’ll happen tomorrow. Today is all we have.

That said, I’m grateful to be in the village, my safe place where the world rights itself, surrounded by good friends. I’m grateful to have the wherewithal to dress the table and see 2018 out in style. And as we stand on the upstairs balcony at midnight, watching the fireworks go off in the villages around the Kis-Balaton, the words of John O’Donoghue’s blessing will  echo in my mind.

 

Beannacht (“Blessing”)

On the day when
the weight deadens
on your shoulders
and you stumble,
may the clay dance
to balance you.

And when your eyes
freeze behind
the grey window
and the ghost of loss
gets in to you,
may a flock of colours,
indigo, red, green,
and azure blue
come to awaken in you
a meadow of delight.

When the canvas frays
in the currach of thought
and a stain of ocean
blackens beneath you,
may there come across the waters
a path of yellow moonlight
to bring you safely home.

May the nourishment of the earth be yours,
may the clarity of light be yours,
may the fluency of the ocean be yours,
may the protection of the ancestors be yours.
And so may a slow
wind work these words
of love around you,
an invisible cloak
to mind your life.

Happy New Year. Athbhliain faoi mhaise daoibh. Boldog új évet.

 

Tom Thumb's Alphabet

2018 Grateful 2

I wasn’t a half hour in the door from the airport when my 92-year-old father turned to me and said :

Something came into my mind today and I wanted to ask you about it.

Oh oh. God only knew where this one was going. I had a quick think and couldn’t come up with anything I’d said or done recently that would give rise to boss questioning me.

And then he started:

A was an archer who shot at a frog
B was a butcher who killed a wild hog
C was a captain, all covered in lace
D was a drunkard who had a red face
E was an esquire with pride on his brow
F was a farmer who followed the plough
G was a gamester who had but ill luck
H was a hunter how followed a buck
I was a innkeeper who loved much the booze
J was a joiner who built up a house
K was King William who once governed this land
L was a lady who had a white hand
M was a miser who hoarded up gold
N was a nobleman gallant and bold
O was an oyster wench who went about town
P was a parson who wore a black gown
Q was a queen who was fond of good flip
R was a robber who wanted a whip
S was a sailor who spent all he got
T was a tinker who mended a pot
U was a userer, a miserable elf
V was  vitner who drank all himself
W was a watchman who guarded the door
X was expensive and so became poor
Y was a youth who didn’t like school
Z was a zany, a poor harmless fool

Did you know that? he asked.

I’d never heard it before. It was something he had learned more than 80 years ago as a child. And it had just popped into his head. I Googled it and found a few versions that vary in the telling. In one, I was an Italian, O an organboy, P a policeman, and Q a quaker.

It’s Tom Thumb’s Alphabet. The earliest printed record of it is 1712. As it grew in popularity, some lines were considered to have a harmful effect on children. Y was a youth, that did not love school was one example. So the alphabet was replaced by that by Benjamin Harris, published in the New England Primer.

It brought to mind the recent hoo-ha about Fairy Tale of New York and  It’s Cold Outside. Even in the 1700s words and phrases were outliving their usefulness. But that said, perhaps the idle fool being whipped at school would be lost in the telling today, too.

This week, as Christmas in Ireland is in full swing, I’m grateful for the flights of fancy on which my dad’s memories take me.

 

Bah, Kipling!

I had my day all planned out. Dentist 9 am. Physio 9.45. Coffee with B at 11.30. Lunch with C at 1 pm. Home to pick up ~40 kg of groceries to deliver to Zs for her charity drive at 3.30 pm. Back home by 4.30 to pack for a trip, picking up some brown paper to wrap the last of the presents on the way. Drinks with I at 7 pm and then bed by 10. Everything timed. Everything set.

I got to the dentist 20 minutes before my appointment. I had my book. It was warm. I was grand waiting. But then she ran over. At 9.35 she said she could see me but I had a physio appointment in ten minutes. She asked if I could come afterwards, at 11.30. B had cancelled the coffee so I was free. But I couldn’t eat for two hours after a cleaning, and lunch wasn’t cancellable. So no dentist.

After physio I went home, planning to pick up an Advent wreath for J and some brown paper. They were out of paper. I got the wreath. And I lost a glove. When I left for my lunch date, I retraced my steps, used my muddled Hungarian to mime the glove loss with a singularly unhelpful shop assistant and got lucky.

Back home to pick up the food, I double-checked that Zs was home. She wasn’t. She was in Ikea. The meet was postponed two hours but I couldn’t wrap as I had no paper, so I ironed. Then, at 5, I left with two loaded wheelie bags that refused to come to heel. Like incalcitrant puppies, they had a will of their own. I checked that I had everything. Keys, phone, wallet, metro pass. No metro pass. I’d lost it at some stage after taking the metro that morning. It had 10 days left and 8 loose tickets. I wasn’t happy. I walked in circles around my kitchen invoking all sorts of hell and damnation. Had anyone been looking in the window, they’d have thought me mad.

At the tram stop, the ticket machine kept asking for exact change. I fed in more coins than I needed as I didn’t have the exact change. I wasn’t winning the battle. Three trams came and went. And the fight went on. I asked a fellow traveller for a 10 ft coin. She gave it to me with a smile, the first of the day and it was after 5 pm. But the ticket machine wasn’t having any of it. I took a photo of the screen to show that I’d paid in my money and then the next one showing it out of order. I planned on showing this to the controller if questioned. I was spoiling for a fight with someone who could talk back.

Getting off the stop, one of my wheelie bags upended. The crowd boarding the tram was unforgiving. My inner fishwife came out. I was beside myself. I recognised the day for what it was: a hormonal mess. As each little piece fell apart, a little piece of me went with it. Menopause is a bitch.

I don’t want to take hormones. When it gets so bad that I lose my sense of reason, I buy a packet of cigarettes. Trying to get up the steps and through the narrow door of the Nemzeti Donhánybolt with my  40 kg of groceries wobbling on leashes behind me was a spectacle. I came crashing through the door to the soundtrack of muffled curses in two languages.

I delivered the food, boxed it, and left for home. I’d have 20 minutes before I had to leave for my 7 pm drinks date. Time for a cigarette and a coffee. Time to magic up some calm and reason to douse those hormones.

I thought of the opposition MPs fighting for the right to be broadcast on Hungarian national media, and the thousands of protestors on the streets objecting to the new labour law. I thought of the Muslims in China who are being force-fed pork and alcohol in an effort to reprogram them and the way this piece of news hasn’t yet received international traction. I thought of my friend G whose brand new product Dragekiss has been counterfeited by unscrupulous Asian outfits and the long road she has ahead of her in her fight for justice. I thought of friends and acquaintances battling with their particular ailments and illnesses, of varying severity and hope. I thought of Saturn losing its rings. Of José Mourinho losing his job. Of the world losing the great Laverne. And I told myself that my day wouldn’t even register on the national or international crap scale. I heard that line from Kipling repeat itself again and again.

If you can meet with triumph and disaster and treat those two impostors just the same…

And I thought f*&! it. My circus. My monkey. My hormones. I’d get over it. It’s days like these that wine is made for.

The gift of art

Nothing makes me feel more ‘of’ a place than running into someone I know on the street. That sense of knowing someone from somewhere else immediately robs the place of its foreign feel. I don’t have to know them well, or even to have known them for long, it’s the knowing that cinches it. I was nearly a year in Budapest before I first ran into someone I knew on the street, before that foreign feeling left me. And even today, chance meetings in the city are a rarity, a symptom perhaps of different lives being lived at different paces. But a few weeks back, while over in Buda, I ran into British artist David Stuart Sutherland. Unusually, both of us had time to spare, time for a quick coffee and a catch-up. It’d been years. Many years. Back when a mutual friend was living in Hungary, we’d socialised a bit.  I’d a faint notion that he painted and took photographs and was into some sort of whacky music, but I didn’t know the half of it.

In the years since we last met, Sutherland has come into his own. Focusing exclusively on his art, his interplay with mixed-media painting, analogue photography, and sound belies an innate curiosity about stuff. Yes, stuff. Plain, ordinary, everyday stuff. Standing one day with the guts of a Hoover bag in his hands, he upended the contents. There among the dust were pieces of his son’s Lego, splotches of colour that greyed out the already grey dust. Where I’d have seen a mess, he saw a pigment. The result was a 25 cm x 25 cm piece called Ash Vacuum: vacuum cleaner dust and paper on canvas, a piece I’m secretly coveting.  Sutherland doesn’t limit himself by paint when he makes paintings. His thing is to mix found materials. A 1966 ledger he found on the street in Budapest, the forerunner of the modern-day Excel spreadsheet, resulted in a series of three pieces entitled Harbor, and heralded his venture into ‘found’ art.

But his work is not just about physical media that can be fashioned into something for people to look at. Sutherland is also into sound as art. In 2014, he founded the audio-visual group m o n o f o g with  Tamás Ilauszky. The pair of them dug out some lo-fi, junk instruments and started playing. Their work looks at acoustic bodies as art objects as well as sound makers. And here, too, there’s the thread of found art and a homage to our disposable world. Imagine a fiddle bow tickling the spokes of a bicycle wheel and you’re one step closer to picturing what they do. If you need to hear it to believe it, have a listen to their track, Dodo do do, on Sutherland’s website https://www.davidstuartsutherland.com/sound-works. It’s heady stuff.

With photography part of everything we do these days, some say that that the art itself is dead. Mind you, didn’t they say that about painting, too? With the millions of photos posted hourly on social media (an average of 95 million photos were uploaded each day on Instagram alone in 2018), everyone with a smartphone fancies themselves a photographer. Digital has done wonders for the democratisation of photography but how much of the art itself has been diluted by editing tools and filters? I wonder. Sutherland is old school, though. He’s analogue all the way. His black-and-white photos of the city are shot on a MicroPress 5×4 Xenar 1:4 camera with a 7/134 Schneider Kreuznach lens. He develops the sheet prints in his home studio and then makes the contact prints. His series Budapest F32 is in Mai Manó House, the Hungarian House of Photography, over on Nagymező utca (signed, dated archival prints are available for sale: my picks are Vajda and Liszt). There’s an old-world feel to these contemporary images that grabs hold of you. It’s like being transported back to a place where people had both the time and the inclination to stop and look and listen. There’s something about Sutherland’s work that resonates; it’s almost as if he’s been around before.

The curator at Rugógyár Galéria thought so, too. Earlier this year, Sutherland was chosen as part of the gallery’s Innen és Túl az érzékelés határain (From here and beyond the limits of perception). He was in good company. Featuring abstract paintings from 1947 to 2018, the exhibition showcased the works of three artists: Tamás Lossonczy (1904–2009), Árpád Szabados (1944–2017), and David Stuart Sutherland (1966–) himself. It sought to find the parallels between the three artists, to find a share visual language, and in doing so to show how even though we come from different places and live in different times, our views of life can be similar. To share the same wall space with Lossonczy, who learned the tools of modern art from Picasso in Paris in the 1930s, had an almost poetic feel to it.  Back in 2005, Sutherland and his wife Judit took their infant daughter to Műcsarnok, a contemporary art museum in Budapest. There, they fell in love with one of Lossonczy’s paintings. They positioned her pram in front of the painting and snapped a surreptitious photo. Little did Sutherland know that some 13 years later, his own paintings would be hanging beside those of Lossonczy in a new gallery on Szarka u. 7.

Sutherland’s work is being exhibited as part of the December Group Show at Rugógyár Galéria, alongside paintings and sculptures by Daniel Horváth, Szilárd Cseke, Tamás Lossonczy, Árpád Szabados, Balázs Veres, Henrik Martin, and Ágnes Hardi. It runs from 11 December.

As Christmas approaches, shopping lists grow longer. Decisions on what to buy for those special people can wreck your head. Consider giving the gift of art this year. I’m making it easy for you; I’ve given you my three Sutherland picks ?

Nollaig shona daoibh go léir | Boldog karácsonyt mindenkinek | Happy Christmas to you all.

Published in the Budapest Times December 2018

Ether Tide (acrylic on canvas 50x50cm 2018)

 

The Fridge is Open ( acrylic on canvas 70x70cm 2018 )

 

Sputnik 1000 (acrylic on canvas 70x70cm 2018)

2018 Grateful 3

I got a right old slap in the face this week. Shocking really. I’ve been dwelling on it for days. A mate of mine rang me from Tanzania one evening and we had quite the chat. I asked what life was like over there as we plan on visiting him next year. On a personal note, I was particularly interested in how he was faring in the romance department. I wondered if there was a new man on the scene.  Being gay in a country where homosexuality carries a 30-year prison sentence is no joke. I wondered how he was doing and how much the draconian laws affected his life. [According to Amnesty International, four African countries still have the death penalty for homosexuals.]

He’s keeping a low profile, he said, but thankfully, he’s not living in the capital. Last month, according to a report in The Guardian, hundreds went into hiding to avoid the witch hunt currently underway in Dar es Salaam, where Paul Makonda, the city’s administrative head, has called for people to out their gay friends, neighbours, and relatives. The US embassy has advised US citizens in the country to review their social media posts for content…just in case. Mad, I thought. And very worrying. How could anyone live in those sorts of circumstances?

Anyway, I was recounting this story to another friend of mine, who said: ‘I assume you won’t be going there, then.’ And before my brain kicked in, I heard myself reply: ‘Of course I’m going. I’m not gay. I’ll be fine.’

I’m not gay. I’ll be fine.

Sweet mother of Divine Jesus, how did I get to this low point? When did I start thinking that as long as it wasn’t being done to me, I’d nothing to worry about?

To say I was disgusted with myself is an understatement.

Many years ago, I came across a quotation by Martin Niemöller:

First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out— because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

It affected me deeply. I have serious issues with Azerbaijan and doubt I’ll ever set foot in the country again after that Azeri murderer debacle.  I try my damnedest not to buy anything made in China because I’ve taken umbrage at its censorship laws. After some soul searching in October, given what’s going on with the Rohingya, we decided not to go to Myanmar, even though we could see it across the water.  Realistically, if I took stock of the human rights record of every country I visited and avoided those with a blemish, I’d find my map of travel opportunity much smaller. But that’s not what’s bothering me. It’s the quickness with which I came back with the answer that has me concerned.

I’m not gay. I’ll be fine.

A few weeks back, in a comment on something I’d posted on Facebook, a former colleague (and friend, or so I thought) called me a racist. No explanation was given. Just a statement: ‘You’re a racist.’ That same week, because I don’t happen to think George Soros is evil, another friend lumped me into what they call the Zombie Minions. Not usually one to give a rat’s ass about what people think of me, these two labels hurt me deeply.

Just about any policy or political post I read today on social media has a litany of comments following it that vary from the sublime to the ridiculous. Ad hominem attacks are rampant. People’s characters and/or personal attributes are being attacked to discredit their arguments. Criticisers are not engaging with the subject of the debate but the person debating it. It’s mean. It’s nasty. It’s debilitating. Unfortunately, it’s rapidly becoming the norm. There seems to be a prevailing sense that ‘I’m right and if you don’t believe as I do, then you’re wrong.’ In this black-and-white world, I’m finding it hard to find even two shades of grey, let alone fifty.

In one comment on an anti-Trump post recently, someone pointed to a page on the US State Department’s website which lists all that’s been achieved since getting into power. Arguably, Obama had set the groundwork, but still, these were accomplished with him in office. I read the list and spot-checked, looking for alternative sources to support the claims. And they’re there. So why then can’t those against the man and all he stands for admit the accomplishments but ask what they’ve been achieved at the expense of? And has it been worth the price?  Isn’t that a better basis for discussion?

I’m slowly losing the will to engage. I’m having visceral reactions to the strident posts I read on Twitter and Facebook. I’m sick to my stomach of the anger and the hate and the superiority of the arguments. I’ve blocked, muted, and unfollowed but then I wonder if I need to read/hear all sides to keep track of what’s going on and not get lured into that self-righteous box of moral certainty.

I’m not gay. I’ll be fine.

But is it too late? Am I already there? Have I tucked away my principles until a more convenient time dawns?

I still plan to go to Tanzania. I want to see my friend. It’s been too long. But now I’ll do so consciously.

This week, I’m grateful that we had the chance to talk and that I had this recalibratory moment. Now more than ever, I need to keep my wits about me, to keep thinking for myself, and not fall victim to the hype and hysteria I see and hear every day.

 

 

Swan in the road

Trash talk

We went looking for holly the other day, down by the lake. It was glorious – one of those magical brisk winter days when the sun plays hide-and-seek and the fields are half-planted, half-ploughed. The wind couldn’t make up its mind what it wanted to do and for a few seconds, we were caught in a leaf storm as it whipped through the trees trying to tear the last of their leaves from them. They fought a good fight.

leaf storm

The colours were of the stuff no artist could capture. In one spot – a narrow neck of water between the fields and the island – Kányavári sziget – the water was trying to freeze. It was humbling to see the broad rough water in the distance to the right, the little ripples by the shore and then in between, the still, glass-like effect of ice in the making. Such is the multifaceted power of nature.

Kis-Balaton icing over

Kis-Balaton icing over

It’s recycling week in the village. On Thursday, we can leave out our paper and plastic for pick-up along with the regular rubbish, so I grabbed a yellow bag (plastics) just in case we happened across any litter on our walk and we set off. We decided to drive to Hídveg and then walk the bike path back to the island. But I missed the turn. And I’m glad I did, because there, in the middle of the road on the bridge, as brazen as you like, was a massive swan. He was busy cleaning his feathers, standing on one leg, neck turned under, oblivious to us. I crawled closer waiting for him to look up. And he did. And then he went back to what he was doing. I beeped the horn. He looked at me again, this time in disdain as if to say, get real, I’m busy. I drove slowly around him to the right and he did move, ever so slightly to the other side of the road. I turned around to come back and faced him again. But this time, he wasn’t going anywhere. No way. Not moving. It was a first for me. I’ve seen elephants, cows, chickens, monkeys, dogs, horses, donkeys, pheasants, deer, moose, pigs – you name it – but this was my first road-hogging swan.

Swan in the road

Photo credit: Steve Jacobs

On our walk, we found the usual flurry of litter – plastic water bottles, beer cans, sandwich wrappers, and the remnants of black plastic bags. I had to concentrate on my breathing to avoid getting really pissed off at the people who’d so carelessly trashed the place. I’m really making an effort to reduce the stress in my life and to stay the anxiety, but it’s a struggle when inconsiderate, thoughtless people, make it so difficult. Seriously! I was blaming the cyclists who use this path until himself (a cyclist) reasoned that they’d be unlikely to carry 1.5L bottles. Okay, so not the MAMILs but the tourist pedallers then. But it doesn’t much matter who did it, it simply shouldn’t be done.

A new addition to the litany of litter is the wet wipe. Duh, people, these don’t disintegrate in the rain. They’re not biodegradable. You shouldn’t even flush the ones that say they’re flushable. Remember back when plastic bags were free and the world’s collective environmental consciousness was comatose? You’d see bags hanging on trees like ornaments. So plentiful were there that at times it looked as if they were a fruit. Well, now that we’re doing better with our bags, the latest foliage is the wet wipe. Don’t worry – I had my litter gloves on. We almost filled our large plastic bag – I stopped counting at 20 bottles and as many wet wipes and am still wondering where the second sandal is and why I found just one sleeve of a faux-leather jacket. At one stage I wondered what number I’d call if I found a body.

Photo credit: Steve Jacobs

As we walked towards the lake, I saw this big piece of pipe, just sitting there. That nearly set me off completely. Whatever about thoughtlessly casting aside a water bottle or answering nature’s call and leaving the wet wipe behind, carrying stuff into the woods to deliberately dispose of it – that’s a hanging offence in my world. But himself, ever rational, pointed to the end of the pipe that was buried underground and suggested it was part of some irrigation system using water from the lake. Alright, I suppose, but it looked ugly and out of place and upset my sense of being.

If you’re out and about walking round the Kis-Balaton, or anywhere really, think about taking a rubbish bag with you. Picking up after others isn’t anyone’s idea of fun, but don’t think of them, think the critters who could do without eating or getting ensnared in our waste.

Years ago, Mother Patrick, a nun who taught us in primary school, asked us how long it would take to sweep the streets of Paris. We guessed days, weeks, months even. She said 10 minutes – 10 minutes if everyone swept outside their own doorstep. The countryside doesn’t have doorsteps. It has visitors. Be a sweeper. Make a difference.

2018 Grateful 4

Sometimes I amaze myself.  I really and truly amaze myself with my ability to get things mixed up. I knew Francis Bacon was around in Elizabethan times. I had a vague memory of him being some sort of scientist-cum-philosopher. I had thought he was a lawyer, too. But I didn’t know that he apparently died from pneumonia contracted when he was researching the effects of freezing on the preservation of meat.  And I had never, ever, thought of him as a painter.

So when himself mentioned going to see the Francis Bacon and the School of London exhibition currently running at the National Gallery in Budapest, I was all on for seeing a side of the man I’d not encountered before. But the dates didn’t add up. I’d gotten my Bacons confused. This Francis Bacon was Irish, born in a nursing home in Dublin in 1909. He lived over the road from me at home, near the Curragh in Kildare. [How come I didn’t know this?] His website is a fascinating read. I was particularly taken with this description of his parents:

His father, while not unintelligent, was a belligerent and argumentative man; his mother, a gregarious hostess inclined to self-absorption.

And this belligerent man threw young Bacon out of the house at 16 when he caught him trying on his mother’s frillies. Bacon moved to London and when, in 1927, he saw some of Picasso’s drawings at the Galerie Paul Rosenberg, he thought art might be his thing. But first, he’d serve his time as an interior decorator and furniture designer. His bio really is quite enthralling. I was surprised to see that he only died in 1992. We walked this earth at the same time. His studio was donated to the Hugh Lane Municipal Gallery of Modern Art in Dublin where it was reconstructed and opened to the public in 2001. The Irish boy had come home.

I won’t pretend to understand his art or how he was influenced and in turn influenced so many. That’s beyond me. I found some of his paintings disturbing and there wasn’t one I’d want to hang in my hallway. But his life – his life was quite something.

I really should have done my homework, though.

Amidst the dominance of the late 1970’s abstract, conceptual, and minimalist art, a number of artists focused their creative energies into the examination of the painting of the post war period. The term School of London was coined by R.B. Kitaj in order to refer to the group of artists and their preoccupation with figurative painting whom he gathered for the 1976 exhibition The Human Clay at the Hayward gallery. The chief artists associated with the idea of School of London, in addition to Kitaj himself, were Michael Andrews, Frank Auerbach, Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, David Hockney, Howard Hodgkin, and Leon Kossoff. In the face of the avant-garde approaches, these painters pursued both drawing and painting focused on the examination of the form of the people and the world around them.

A little embarrassed that I’d gotten my Bacons confused, I kept my next addlement to myself until I could test it. You see, another of the painters in this exhibition was Freud. And yes, I’ll fess up. I did wonder how come I’d never known that man was a painter either. I’d gotten my Freuds confused, too. That said, Lucien’s work was more to my liking than Francis’s. I’d happily hang his painting Two Plants on my wall and stare at it for hours. It took him three years to finish this amazing piece of work.

I’d never really appreciated how much work goes into one painting. Seated Nude by another artist in the show, Sir William Coldstream, took sixty 90-minute sittings. He only painted in the presence of the model. Modelling has to be hard work. Sitting still for 90 minutes sixty times?  Juliet Yardley Mills  (JYM) modelled for another featured artist, Frank Auerbach, each Monday and Wednesday for 40 years. Such dedication. Incidentally, his Head of E.O.W. I was my second pick of the exhibition – the picture I’ve linked to doesn’t do it justice. The colours are quite something. It’s a painting of his long-time model, Stella West.  Freud painted a series of 18 portraits of his mother that took 1000 sittings, each lasting anywhere from 4 to 8 hours. I’m telling you – these models are unsung heroes. I can’t help but wonder how artists today fare out. Can anyone sit still, sans phone, for 90 minutes, let alone 8 hours?

I love my art but I’m not an art lover per se. I’ve never studied art history. What I know about style and schools and techniques could be written on a banana skin. But I am a fan of learning, of exploring, of trying something different. For my birthday earlier this year, I received a Friends Membership for the MNG which gets me into these gigs for free. And as I loathe waste of any kind, I intend getting full value out of the investment.

Half-way through, though, I was conscious that I was racing ahead.  If I didn’t watch myself, I’d be waiting outside for himself to catch up. So I slowed down a little and instead of reading the captions first, I looked at each of the abstracts to see if I could guess what it might be. Leon Kossoff stumped me. I spent an age with his Building Site, Victoria Street, 1961 and came up with everything but. I finally fixed on cliffs and mudflats. But I was wrong again. That said, his Christ Church, Spitalfields was my third pick for the day. Given my angst at the institutionalisation of religion and what it can lead to, this held me up for a while.

The exhibition runs in Budapest till13 January. Tim Adams reviewed it for The Guardian when it opened in London earlier this year and gave it 5*s, calling it a ‘thrilling and thoughtful exhibition’. I’m sure he knows what he’s talking about [2015 One World award for newspaper journalist of the year, and the Foreign Press award for arts and culture writing]. My lack of ‘fine’ education causes me no end of insecurity. That I had never heard of the School of London and had confused my Freuds and my Bacons is mortifying. I know I should know more than I do, but I’m grateful that I’m getting to remedy the situation, art-wise, one exhibition at a time. And I’m grateful, too, for my new-found appreciation for the unsung heroes of portraiture – the sitters.

 

2018 Grateful 5

The massive earthquake in Alaska last week prompted me to email a mate of mine living in Anchorage. Everyone is fine. And apart from some bits of broken glass, the damage is minimal. For them. Others were not so lucky. They updated me on what’s been happening, most notably the death of an old friend I’d lost touch with. With the news came a link to Eileen’s obituary.

Quite a number of lifetimes ago, I worked with Eileen on the first Irish Music Festival in Alaska – it was in Anchorage in the late mid-90s.  I can’t remember if it was called the Anchorage Irish  Music Festival or the Alaskan Irish Music Festival but I can still see the posters she laboured over and I’m sure I have my signed copy tucked away somewhere. I have vague memories of chatting to potential donors trying to persuade them to sponsor this fledgling venture. One particular night that comes to mind involved a prominent Anchorage lawyer who had worked his way through university giving dance classes. He made me look like I knew what I was doing on the dance floor of a basement city jazz club. My date, Tom Kruse, sat and watched, wondering how I kept this particular talent such a secret. I even impressed myself! Eileen’s knowledge of traditional Irish music and musicians put mine to shame. I remember her getting really excited when Martin Hayes and Denis Cahill said they’d come and play. Seán Keane’s confirmation also set her heart racing. [Interestingly, I see that he has an album out titled Gratitude.] I wasn’t into the music at all, but have distinct memories of being blown away by some of the fiddle playing.

Eileen didn’t drink but she wasn’t fussed at being around people who did. She’d prop herself up at the bar, fan awaving, and hold court. At the heart of everything, she seemed to know everyone in town and everyone knew her. With her bottomless pit of energy, she would regularly leave me lagging, and this was when I was in my heyday. She could talk anyone into just about anything. I once ended up cooking Irish stew for a visiting accordian player and his entourage at very short notice. I have distinct memories of practising saying no to her 🙂 A consummate conversationalist, Eileen was always talking, which is why it was so heart-breaking to read that she hadn’t said a word for the last five years of her life.

Diagnosed with both Frontotemporal Degeneration (FTD) and Primary Progressive Aphasia (PPA), Eileen’s wit was a victim of this dual pairing of very nasty afflictions. She couldn’t communicate, or show emotion. And for someone who was once a master in communication at all levels – emotionally, verbally, and musically – this had to have been beyond bad. I’ve thought of her often over the years. I’ve mentioned her, too, in various anecdotes I’ve told from my time in Alaska. I was sad to hear of her passing but know that heaven has itself a new MC and that the party has only started.

To read the obituary her kids put together says so much about her as a person, a friend, a mother. What great tribute could they pay.

She was a connector of people, a serial partier, and hosted some of the most memorable proms in Anchorage history. Eileen was known for loving a good céilí and if there wasn’t one happening, she would host one. If you were her friend, she was the best kind of friend. When she heard of a need, she helped fulfill it. When she loved, it was unconditional. She was the best kind of mother, friend, and human. The light she brought to the world can never be replaced and will never be extinguished. She illuminated us all and we are grateful for the time we had with her.

I am grateful, too, for the time I had with her. That couple of years I spent in Anchorage have stayed with me. Eileen and her indomitable spirit are very much part of those memories.

Ar dheis Dé go raibh a h’anam.

Eileen Monaghan

Sunset at Balatonmáriafürdő

Bracing the cold in Balatonmáriafürdő

We had it all planned. We left in plenty of time to get to the garden centre in Balatonkeresztúr before it shut at 5 pm. Time enough to pick out some fruit trees (quince for me, plum and peach for himself), have a quick look at the Christmas offer, if it had been tabled, and then drop me at the station in Zalakomár to catch the train to Budapest. The timing was planned with a precision peculiar to anal Irish women and the military.  We departed on schedule. We arrived on schedule. But winter hours kicked in last month and the place now closes at 4 pm. We arrived at 4.01.

With the guts of an hour and a half before I had to catch my train, we had time on our hands and nothing to do with it. We decided to check out the lake at Balatonmáriafürdő. Bracing ourselves for the biting cold, we walked the pier at the ferry port and watched the remains of the sunset leak out over the water. Named after Bernáth Aurél, the Hungarian painter born in nearby Marcali, the promenade juts out into the Balaton, no doubt lined with fishermen in the summer. At 4.30 pm on a Tuesday evening in late November, with temperatures hovering around zero, there was no one but us and the ducks. Bernáth seems to have been quite the ticket. He maintained that there are five reasons people are generally interested in paintings (translation by Google):

1. ha szabadban készül, 2. ha öröklik, 3. ha egy kiállításon felháborodásból beszakítják, 4. ha ellopják, 5. ha pornografikus

1. if they are outdoors, 2. if they inherit, 3. if they are being outraged at an exhibition, 4. if they are stolen, 5. if they are pornographic.

He took a six-month honeymoon around Europe in the 1920s and after it painted the piece Riveria – my art covet for this week.

Balatonmáriafürdő: Bernáth Aurél Promenade

 

Boats at Balatonmáriafürdő

Boats at Balatonmáriafürdő

There’s something magical about the Balaton in winter. when the only colours breaking the grey-blue palate are the gold of the rushes and the reds and oranges of the setting sun. Judging by the number of restaurants, cafés, pensions, and hotels, the town must heave in the summer. And given that most signs we saw on the jetty were in both Hungarian and German, a large portion of visitors must be from Németország. With one government-run beach and seven free ones, the town seems to have plenty to offer. As it turns out, the one we stopped at was a free one, at the boat harbour, Hajóállomási strand, where the ferry runs across the lake to Szigliget. But from a little research, the one I’d like to revisit in late spring/early summer is Őrház utcai strand – I need to see if the town’s publicity photo does it justice.

I’d also like to catch the Balaton Old Boys in action. Playing locally since 2010, these old boys are hell-bent on reviving 1960s guitar sounds. What began as a three-man band has grown into a cultural association. From the smallest acorn comes a big Oak tree. There’s also a small museum chronicling the journey the town made from a vineyard to a bathing centre. It’s open from May to September, so plenty to come back for in early May before the hordes descend.

Sunset at Balatonberény

Sunset at Balatonberény

Back in the car, we thawed out just enough to make the thoughts of another walk appealing. And again, in Balatonberény, we had the place to ourselves. Across the lake, we could see the lights of Keszthely flickering in the distance. Still blustery and bitingly cold, it was magical. This Balaton town is probably most famous for its naturist camping site. On the go since the late 1980s, it’s Hungary’s oldest naturist site and in addition to pitches, it has a motel, mobile homes, and holiday cottages. If I’m reading the website right, it seems to be pretty much self-contained with everything from coffee shops to bars and buffets restaurants, a grocery store, and a laundry facility, You can play volleyball or table tennis or even chess down on the beach. And all in the nip, but from the photos, clothes appear to be optional…mmmm.

We took the Old Route 7 back to Zalakomár with talk of travelling on that road the whole way to Budapest next year, just to see what gems the motorway has us missing. What started out as muttered curses for getting the opening times wrong turned out to be a lovely couple of healthy hours discovering something new. Village life, I tell you. It just keeps on giving.