I went to London recently. It had been a while since I’d visited the city – perhaps 18 months or more. Having spent a good 2/3rds of my life living no more than half an hour’s train ride away, it’s been difficult sometimes living where I do now – perched up in the North East, half a day’s train or coach ride away, and at much greater expense. No more the spontaneous trips into the city or the nights out dancing under the lights of Shepherd’s Bush. Now, having had it on my doorstep for so many years, London has become An Event.
I miss it terribly.
There were a few reasons for my trip. Firstly, I was beginning to suffer from cabin fever being in such a sleepy, quiet village. I am grateful every day to be living in a small, pretty little seaside town where the ocean is on my doorstep and the crime rate is roughly one burglary a year and maybe a couple of fistfights in the summer from drunk tourists. Secondly, I wanted to go to a couple of art galleries – Tate’s Britain and Modern. Britain to finally see JMW Turner in the oils, and Modern to revisit one of my utter heroes, Mark Rothko.
I cannot emphasis enough my love for Rothko and in particular his Seagram paintings. The first time I saw them, the room was packed with fellow patrons all chattering and listening to their audio devices and yet I still felt their power and their majesty. This time around, I got into the gallery early. I made my way straight to The Rothko Room. The lights were dimmed. The paintings were waiting for me, almost buzzing the floorboards. I had the room and the floor entirely to myself. And…. fucking hell. Fucking. Hell.
Standing under Rothko’s Seagrams in his dimmed room. I’m all alone, no background noise. I can feel the paintings sucking and pulsing and moving. I can feel Rothko standing behind me putting a hand on my shoulder, cigarette smoke billowing around me.
His paintings feel more alive than any other artist I’ve seen.
I sit here in my chapel, my place of worship, and my skin is prickled. I have a lump in my throat. I am here to pay my respects, and to allow these pulsing organisms to bleed into me. As they pulse and beat, I feel myself reviving.
I scribbled this furiously into my notebook as I sat on the backless benches in the middle of the room, and I’ve copied it without editing it into eloquence. Half an hour I spent in that room. My handwriting is frenzied. The paper is stained with emotion. Standing under his pictures, I go places. I am transported to higher states of being. I may be an atheist, but I still have a malleable soul. I can still be taken away.
My notebook is full of pages; pages of a confused boy. I search always for meaning but sometimes I think I’m asking the wrong questions, and so I’m guaranteed to not get answers. I know for sure though – where I live is a place where people live. London is one of those places where things happen, where history takes shape. Unlike York, I don’t walk in my own footsteps in London. I don’t hear the echoes. Every visit is a clean slate. I have so many happy memories, and yet the cache seems limitless. Talking about the wonder of the city with a young woman called Bethany, en route to a dinner date with her partner, we could only be verbose in our glittering endorsements. It’s not perfect by any stretch. But it breathes and lives.
When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life – Samuel Johnson
I tried to explain a moment I had to a friend of mine, but I’m not sure she understood – she viewed me with quizzical tolerance, but then that is natural amongst my inner circle so perhaps I’m reading too much into it. When I stepped off the coach, I walked through the large forecourt of Victoria station, in rush hour. I’d spent the summer shuffling behind cadavers as they dragged themselves through Whitby’s narrow streets, endlessly caught behind people who walked as though they had feet of whales. That frustration when you just want to be somewhere and people in front of you are blocking your path.
When I emerged onto the forecourt, it was like being in the Star Wars Death Star trench. I walked briskly across it towards the Underground station as people streamed around me. I ducked, dodged and weaved my way around hundreds of anonymous faces all focused on where they had to be. I felt a part of some wider organism, some vast beast. We were so many disturbed ants, rushing to Do Something. I felt the shot of adrenaline. Charging into the torrent of humanity like a speedboat on a millpond, I felt so alive. When I made it to the other side, I had to stop and take a breath. Humanity swarmed before me. I could’ve punched the thick air.
I stumbled through the vacuum of time and space. No one gives you a second glance. You can be totally anonymous. No questions. No point. Or perhaps I was too ragged, just a displaced Northern Scarecrow. One day I spent six hours in one gallery or another until I was exhausted by images. I didn’t actually take that many photos. When you’re caught up in the city, it’s difficult to tear yourself away. Why view life through the viewfinder when you can find the views yourself?
I’ve been back for about a week now. I walked around Whitby today, smelling the crisp sea air and I missed the greasy scum of the Underground that leaves your palms blackened and your hair lank. The warm rush of air as the train approaches. The masses of eyes and brains packed into cigar tubes and shot underneath rivers and skyscrapers.
For the first time that I can remember, I felt a little fear in London. I’m not talking about fear of terrorism or being mugged or any of that shit. It was more atavistic. That thrill when you don’t know who you are going to see next on a street corner or deserted Tube station. That thrill of anticipating the unknown. Living somewhere so safe, I feel I’m going soft. The senses are dulling. I’ll always take the spermatic Van Gogh and the apocalyptic Turner over sweet Monet and hazy Constable.
I’m sure I’ll get over it. But having been reminded, I’m not sure I want to.
Let’s finish on a portrait. Your humble narrator, much MUCH maligned, admiring his decorating.
Give him a squeeze if you see him.
He would appreciate it.