Wednesday, January 19, 2011

London 28.12.2010: Pharaoh's Daughters and Refulgent Light

At the Tate Britain: the omnipresence, even refulgence, of light in J.M.W. Turner’s late paintings, and yet its obliquity.  Why both, simultaneously?  Light becomes more noticeable—more a fact of what we see and observe, and not just the precondition of seeing and observing—when its source is masked?

What his critics saw as paintings of nothing were depictions of light itself, attempts to depict its play across impossibly epic screens; light itself is the subject, and not merely what it illuminates.


At Pâtisserie Valerie in Piccadilly Street yesterday, a curious fandango with a woman seated at the table next to us—initially.  I’ve developed a horrible cough, and it seems to worsen as I go inside or out.  That is, sudden temperature shifts seem to provoke it.

The café was full of Boxing Day shoppers, and we located what seemed to be the only available table in the place.  As with almost every table, it was cheek by jowl with the table beside it.

When we sat down, I commenced the cough, turning my head away in the direction of the empty aisle on the other side of me, and needless to say, covering my mouth.

Even so, the woman at the table beside us on the other side of us reacted with mortal dread, circling her bowl of soup with her hand to protect it, clutching her shawl around herself.  And then she and her husband got up and moved to a table that had just opened, on the other side of them.

But, very politely, she explained that she’s uncontrollably fearful of catching a cold and had hoped not to offend me.  Which was decent of her.

And I can understand, a bit, the germ phobia, though in her case, it seemed uncontrollable and neurotic.  I find myself shrinking from the many people coughing on the tube, at plays, in churches—and at the same time realizing that one can’t be in a large city in close proximity to millions of others in damp, cold December, and be magically sealed away from contagion.

A waitress must have seen the lady’s consternation, since she came up and asked if we’d move to another table, because she needed to put ours and the one vacated by the couple together for a party of four.  And that was fine.  The other table was isolated, against a wall and in a corner, and I’d have chosen it out of consideration for other customers, had I seen it.  A constant hacking cough is unpleasant to hear, particularly as one eats.

I suspect I contracted this cold on the airplane as we flew across the Atlantic.  Ahead of me was a young woman who coughed non-stop during the entire flight, never covering her mouth.

She was quite an oddity, a young Englishwoman living in Arizona, whose accent I couldn’t place regionally, though I could detect readily that it was working-class.  She spoke (and loudly) of a party she’d attended the night before, stressing both syllables in the word “party” equally and hitting the t with ear-splitting emphasis.

And what an odd get-up on her head: a crocheted black rose askew over her forehead on a broad black net band.  Nothing says Christmas quite like a droopy black rose.

And enough eye make-up to tar a good-sized country road, drawn in big black lines around her eyes, like kohl on a Pharaoh’s daughter.

Well, it at least matched the odd black rose nodding down over one heavily outlined eye.

Writing this in a pub on Vauxhall Bridge Road near the Tate—the White Swan—cozy and neat and welcoming with Christmas lights, on a drizzly December day.  We’ve ordered fish and chips and are waiting for them to arrive.  Steve drinking a glass of ale and I a cup of tea.

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