Holding Hands with Michelangelo

I’ve always wished I could draw. As a kid I’d watch my Dad’s girlfriend sitting at her big slanted artist’s table, drawing grids and sketching out her work. I loved her hands. I loved how she sharpened her thick pencils with knives, the sweet-smelling curls of the coloured wood, the bruised white of the giant pebble erasers. It was like a sorcerer’s magic kit. But instead of the instant alakazam of magic, her art was slow. It built up in lines and layers, you could see the subject appearing gradually, and my excitement would grow as I began to see the picture coming to life. Art has to be waited for. You have to be patient for it. I like that. 

An artist friend of mine asked to draw me recently. I thought he was mental, but said yes. I felt strange knowing he was picking a picture of me to work from, though I would have felt stranger being in the same room as he did it, and I felt even stranger when I learned the picture would be hanging at an exhibition in New York. I felt naked. An uninteresting subject, undeserving of such attention. He is a wonderful artist, can somehow capture a more condensed essence of someone’s spirit in his graphite lines than a photo would, but once done I couldn’t quite let myself look at the portrait he did of me for more than a few moments at a time. I felt shy that I had been drawn, and I felt shy that he had spent time capturing my face. Perhaps I was shy that the hours he had spent on it were hours spent looking into my soul without my being there. Like I’d left him in my bedroom rooting around while I went out.

That’s what art does I suppose. Communicates something of the soul that we can’t express in other ways. 

I met up with my friend for a drink this weekend and we talked a bit of art. I wanted to know how long the pictures took, if he felt differently when he drew people he knew and loved rather than strangers. We talked about art that moved us. I told him that when I had seen Michelangelo’s Pieta in Florence a few years ago, the Deposition, I had been so overwhelmed by being able to get so close to it that I was overcome by gallery mischief. It was a small dark room. The newly dead Jesus was being held by Nicodemus and the two Marys, mother and friend. Entombed in marble shaped by fingers and tools hundreds of years ago, and still here, still being seen, still moving us. One man’s endeavours with earthly materials to create art. There’s something about Jesus that will always strike us. He embodies a part of all of us, lying there. Our wretchedness in life. The child sacrificed to the nature of Man; innocence eaten by a hard cruel world. We see a part of ourselves in him. Perhaps that’s what art is. Making a singular spotlit beauty, a tangible truth of the things that make us all the same.

The mischief rose up. I needed to touch what Michelangelo had touched. I had to. It was too close to me not to. I waited until the security guard was looking the other way and then I lay my palm on Jesus’s shoulder, let my fingers fall gently down his sinewy arm. Felt pity and stillness and the weight of channelled time. When the security guard twitched his head towards me I let my hand drop and left. Once outside my hand felt warm. Glowing. I licked my palm because I didn’t want to lose the traces of it. I wanted to ingest it. I didn’t want it to be lost when I washed my hands. Me and Michelangelo, holding hands across the years.

There is something sanctified about art, about its placing in reverential light-controlled quiet. It can make a ponderer of the most irreligious. And though I have no particular love for religious art due to my non belief, there is something about the doomed man, the peaceful messiah, that you can’t help but find beautiful. I think you can still love Jesus even if you don’t believe in him. Just like you can love Atticus Finch or Albus Dumbledore even though they never existed as real men. And you can love the artists too for bringing them to life. For stilling you long enough to stand and stare, to think and to feel. 

Art makes us feel. It stands before us, quietly commanding our hearts to work.

My friend told me that the portrait he’d done of me had been sold in New York. That a stranger now owned it. Whatever part of me he caught is now theirs. I’m out there somewhere, no more or less worthy a subject that anyone else who has cells or breathes. I have no control over what that stranger might see, and no way of knowing how long I will hang there, which hands I will be passed to, or when that portrait might stop existing. It’s scary, but sort of freeing.

  

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Kissing Jesus

I’ve always sort of fancied Jesus. I don’t think it’s so much the fact he could probably get his Dad to pull some strings for you and get that fine waived for picking flowers from the roundabout shrubbery, or even the water to wine trick, but the fact he’s just a bit…elusive. Like Doctor Who, or Patrick Swayze in Ghost. He’s not really there, mainly coz he’s dead. That’s fit. I don’t think he’d be offended by that.

Jesus started flirting with me when I was about 13, I guess. I went to an American-style Christian jamboree in the park with some friends, lured mainly by the size of the big top style tent. I thought there might be lions and clowns and acrobats, but it was actually Kriss Akabusi bouncing around with a microphone. Despite this, I had fun. I heard a lot about Jesus. It was pretty Jesus-themed on the whole. Christians dig him.

When I got home I hid in the potting shed for a bit because I hadn’t told my mum I was going to an evangelical circus and I thought it might be safer if she thought I’d run away or been abducted or murdered. When I finally ventured in, she was more unsettled by the truth: I had been singing along to Christian soft-rock. I think she thought Kriss Akabusi had spiked my lemonade and done a Lycra voodoo conversion dance in my face. I fell in line and scoffed at religion to reassure her, but inside something had shifted. It was the first time I had been moved to tears by the story of Jesus. I had felt the emotion of a tent of hundreds of people who believed he was the son of the dude who made bird’s wings and bee’s knees, and rather than laughing I was moved. It doesn’t matter that I hadn’t believed the core tenets, merely that I had listened, contemplated, and felt something, for and with people.

I felt closer to Jesus after that. I noticed him around more. Churchyards, postcards given out by precociously polite young men in suits on my doorstep, framed iridescent pictures of him doing a two-fingered healing salute to some lambs in Oxfam. He was sort of everywhere, and I liked him.

Around the same sort of age as the brief introduction to happy-clapping, I read To Kill A Mockingbird and thought Atticus Finch was the best man ever created in the whole of literature. It didn’t matter that he was a character of fiction, it mattered that the story struck important notes deep within me, notes of love, tolerance, kindness, justice, and morality. I cried for Jesus, I cried for Atticus. I have cried for lots of men, real and unreal. Woody from Toy Story probably wins the award for Most Mascara Sadie Has Wasted Over An Imaginary Being. I’ve sploshed my eyeball essence around quite liberally if I’m honest. But if crying over stories about made-up men was a foolish thing to do, if emotional reactions to them weren’t good for humans somehow, fiction would have ceased to exist a long time ago. We have enough true stories to keep us moved, inspired and entertained. But we choose to invest ourselves just as devotedly in fiction as we do in truth. We need it. We wouldn’t know what to do without it. And the blurred lines between the two is enough to keep us fired up for millennia, in all sorts of ways.

I fell out of the thrall of Christmas for about a decade. In my disenchantment with it I even wondered if it was a more honest state for an atheist: borderline Scroogedom; the grumpiness of non-belief. It was dull. Not believing anything can be quite dull. But now I’m back, and ready to get back on the happy wagon.

I realise now, in coming back to Christmas after a few years of just going through the motions of it, that I am also returning to something else. In my not feeling festive, I was shutting out things, and thus wallowing in myself with my own concerns, which is essentially selfish. Coming back to Christmas means coming back to people, and that’s always a good thing.

Jesus looks pretty hot for 2013 years old. I will think of him tomorrow on his birthday in between mince pies, I will hum my favourite carol Oh Holy Night, and I will think of what he means to others, before I eat another mince pie. It doesn’t matter if I don’t believe, it doesn’t matter if it’s just a story – if a story makes you feel things, it’s a pretty good story, right?

No matter how much I don’t believe in him, I’ll always sort of want him to drop by one day, give me a wink and confound my dull science. Plus, I bet he’s a really good kisser.

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Love & Christmas: The Cath Kidston Trap

I’ve spent weeks laughing at people churning themselves into a frenzy over Christmas shopping. “Calm down dears, it’s only November”, I scoffed internally at the harried mums jabbing me in the bum with rolls of wrapping paper that have been cynically bolstering the tills like coiled harbingers of January’s pennilessness. There I’ve been – smugly tutting for weeks like I’d somehow escaped The System – until I realised with a gulp that it’s now…actually…well, pretty close. Like, a week away. And I’ve done next to nothing.

I should have learned by now to plan ahead and do it in manageable chunks, but to be honest this last minute panic is as much a Christmas tradition for me as doubling my podge and weeping in the street at the Salvation Army band. “You’re old and wearing a really big coat and playing the tuba – HAVE SOME SNOT!”

It’s an amazing pressure that swirls around us as this time of enforced happiness. Aside from the emotional obligation you feel to the nostalgia of Christmasses past, to being the same festive person you’ve always been when actually you’re mostly stressed and distracted, you also have to think about other people; family, humanity, maybe even – dare I venture – Jesus. Christmas is demanding – you have to buy stuff, wrap stuff, plan stuff, eat stuff, juggle stuff, do stuff, eat stuff, think of stuff, be stuff, eat stuff, sing stuff, wear stuff, stuff stuff, eat more stuff, and stuff. It’s like work, (if work encouraged you to always have a fortifying mulled wine in hand).

One of the hardest bits is buying stuff for people that doesn’t leave their faces looking like you just handed them a kipper on a frisbee. No one wants to see that face. You want to see the face like you just gave them a winning lottery ticket wrapped in Michael Buble’s best pants. You want the good face. You want to make those tinkers feel loved. (And, secretly, a silly little part of you wants to make them love you the most.)

But the pressure’s on, and you’re squeezing through a throng of people who are seemingly buying the best presents ever, and they’re smiling smugly at you as you dither with a battery-operated meerkat, and your brain, panicking, turns to anything else but the logic that tells you: “Your family love you, they want you to save your money so you can fix your car and not be stressing in the new year – they want to just spend time with you.”
No. The spending of Time isn’t pretty enough. You can’t put Time in a box and make people cry with it.

So naturally, I fell into the Cath Kidston trap. I wanted to spoil my sister rotten and so I found myself in a squished boutique, stylish women cooing in my ear that Cath Kidston is the best thing to happen to Britain since Hitler killed himself, and frantically thrusting my debit card into a cashier’s hand because…I want my sister to know I love her. I want her to know I am always here, that my heart is still charged by all the power in my blood which rushed me like a pre-pubescent warrior towards her doomed bullies in the playground, that I think she has the prettiest face I have ever seen on a real live woman, that I think her vegetable lasagne is the best.

So I bought her a floral bag.

And even though I know she will love it because it’s bloody gorgeous (she’d better not fucking read this or the surprise is ruined), a small part of me was disappointed in myself. Because Cath Kidston bothers me a bit. Not because she’s now astoundingly rich or is turning pretty designs and nice craft ideas into generic badges of proscribed femininity, not because she’s cynically seized upon that quiet, comfy, increasingly shameful part of most women that wants to be baking and feathering and making everything ‘nice’, not because she would probably not be seen dead out in something as common as her own designs (the ones that make it into the shops anyway), but because she is going against the whole ethos behind her floral/birdy/polka-dotty loveliness. She’s the queen of twee; the figurehead for the renaissance of vintage thrift, and the Cath Kidston empire which lures us with its shabby-chic ‘I’ve just macraméd the hair I pulled out of the plughole into a charming brooch’ is a facade. It’s not hand-woven in an English country cottage by Cath herself – no, it’s made in China. It’s about as English as Chairman Mao slurping noodles with a panda. It’s made in massive quantities to be shipped out to shops which make people feel like they’re buying into an authentic experience, or expressing some aspirational or creative part of themselves not being otherwise satisfied. Cath Kidston, and all her pricey ilk, is the opposite of tepid tea and stale jam tarts at jumble sales in honour of post-war ‘make do and mend’. Cath Kidston is sort of the new Burberry; ethos turncoat and brand flake. The symbols of qualities we admire and covet – domestic contentedness, resourceful canniness, attractive living – are made available to everyone not out of good spirit, but out of the voracity of business. Cath Kidston is not likely (nor would ever have been advised by anyone with a brain) to have limited her wares to the country stores of farmers’ wives in moneyed rural England because they were more honest showrooms for her designs. You’d have to be a fool to wilfully limit your own success.

There is a certain democratisation, I suppose, present in the dispersal of such products in the way a brand can go from exclusive to inclusive, elitist to commonplace (like when the poor could suddenly get their hands on bottom-rung qualities of coffee, spices, chocolate, and the BMW after the rich had grown ambivalent about it all) – but democratisation and class unification is not the mission nor the driving force; boundless cold hard cash is.

Perhaps Cath doesn’t like what it’s become. Perhaps Cath herself is sick of the whole look and is reclining in a minimalist Bauhaus pad somewhere sickeningly urban. Maybe she doesn’t poo in pastel colours after all. Maybe she’d surprise us all by being a messy eater and saying ‘cunt’ a lot. But her ego must be somewhat sated by the knowledge she is an image-maker of her generation, as were Coco Chanel, Mary Quant, and the dude who painted that black woman a bit greeny-blue in the 70s. Cath Kidston’s designs will one day evoke a whole era. Perhaps it will have earned it, perhaps the history of a brand is the history of a people, perhaps what is coursing through its lines and colours is the disparateness of Britain – the haves, the have-nots, the spirit, the laziness, the pride, the nonchalance, the reserve, the gaucheness, the snobbish aspiration, the humble salt of the earth; Britain in all its chequered (gingham) past.

A part of our culture all woven up in a bag for Christmas.

But.

When we were little, and one of us was sick, my sister and I used to take a plate of malt biscuits and a glass of milk to whoever was languishing in bed. I could have reminded her of the infinitesimally huge things I felt for her by spending 59p on a packet of biscuits and arranging them in a heart shape; I could have given her a bit of our time in a box – a tiny malt cow grazing on a golden brown biscuit – and she would have loved it. But I fell into the Christmas buying trap of needing to somehow quantify the immeasurable, and I bought something pretty that I know would make her walk down the street all jaunty. And that jaunt will have a lifetime of my love trailing clumsily behind it. My love is in her fibres.

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