Philosophers in the bedroom




Unusual reading matter in my new lodgings in Mexico City…

Philosophy books were almost spilling out of the bookshelves.  The relevant sections of Foyles and other well-appointed stores in far-off London hold more titles: but not a vast amount more than here, in this back bedroom tucked away a small street hard by the multi-laned arterial road called Insurgentes Sur.

Putting down my bags, I looked at the spines of the books: Nietzche, Hegel, Kiergekaard.  I was momentarily rather excited by the idea that I was surrounded exclusively by existentialists.  How unforgettably weird!  But disappointingly, I spotted Descartes.

Even so, sharing a room with so many existentialists matched my overriding feeling at that early point in my Mexico stay: unease.  The sense that something could easily go wrong, or was soon to go wrong.  Out of place in a strange land, and strange not only in the sense of foreign or unfamiliar.

The world felt disorientating for me, abroad and with Spanish language skills too underdeveloped to grasp what was routinely being said around me.


World Trade Center, not far from my home in Mexico City

Six weeks in, I felt ‘thrown into’ (to use an existentialist concept) this world of job seeking in a foreign city.  Somehow, I had no say in the matter.

Naturally, I had chosen to book my flight and pack my things.  But was I really in control of my decision making?  I suspected that fate was at least as responsible as my free will, but pondering it all only confused me more.  I needed some help from those philosophers.


Tragic pictures at an exhibition


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The most memorable photographic exhibition I visited during my eight-month Mexico sojourn – and I went to quite a few – was much more than just a Sunday afternoon diversion.  It was a lesson in cultural difference, and in a Mexican way of looking at death and disaster.

Road accidents

I’d already seen too many images of dead humans in the spacious gallery space by the time I examined a black-and-white photo of a boy lying dead on a road, blood streaming onto the concrete.  He’d been knocked off his bicycle by a car in Colonia Roma Norte.  Next to this image, another shot, taken the previous decade (the 1950s) and another child, sprawling lifelessly on the same street; in this one, children and adults have gathered around to stare.

A colour photo from the late 1970s showed a female journalist who had been hit by a car in the city centre one sunny afternoon.  According to those in the know, she had visited a beauty parlour just that morning.  She appears to be straddled over a diagonal metal pole – eyes to the sky, and nails shining.


Cruz Roja ambulance

Foto Museo Cuatro Caminos

I saw these at the Foto Museo Cuatro Caminos, a sleek modern gallery in a scrappy, flyblown part of Mexico City, while walking round an exhibition of work by Enrique Metinides, a photographer employed by La Prensa who is still alive in his 80s.

The walls were arrayed with images of murder victims, suicides and still more grisly accidents.  Nowhere in the exhibition notes, nor in the quotes by the photographer, was there any recognition that close-ups of car smashes and pylon electrocutions are at all macabre.

A taste for the macabre?

Dead bodies are still a source of intrigue in this part of the world.  While having my shoes polished on a street corner one day I looked at the front page of my polisher’s tabloid.  A roadside sweet seller had been mown down by a wayward car.  Here he was, prostrate and surrounded by packets of mints, under a headline which translates something like ‘Not So Sweet’.

A few days after the Metinides exhibition I was walking to a Spanish class in Avenida Baja California, Roma Sur, when I saw a police motorcycle blocking a road at the big intersection.  A guy had come off his own motorcycle and was lying flat out on the road.   A few policemen stood around him, and on the pavements at all four corners passersby had stopped to lookI only looked for as long as it took me to cross the road and go about my business.  (And I say this merely to describe my reaction for you, and not to pass judgement on the starers).

But was it, in fact, alright to look?  If it was alright to look around that exhibition, then the answer is probably yes.

Meanwhile, the victim wasn’t receiving the slightest bit of medical attention or comfort.  A sign that he was not badly hurt; or, conversely, a very bad sign.


Casa Lamm in Roma Norte, Mexico City

Which Spanish language to learn?



My chats over coffee in Mexico City taught me so much about the country.  They also raised a question which had been well off my radar before I started learning Spanish and speaking it with real Mexicans in Mexico:  which kind of Spanish – Castilian or Latin American – is the ‘proper’ one?

A Spanish woman with a job in Mexico was keen to stress that Spanish from Spain not only was the real deal, but was more sophisticated to boot, in effect implying that it is the unsullied original language, spoken long before the Americas were conquered by Spanish adventurers.

Meanwhile, ‘phsst’ and a dismissive hand motion was a Mexican’s reaction when I mentioned the accent of my Valencia-born companion.

The supposedly harsh sound of European Spanish causes Latin American ears no little pain, I gather.

Of course, Latin American Spanish is far from uniform: Argentinian speech in particular is very different to Mexican.  And every region has its unique vocabulary, alongside words which signify something completely different in some other part of the Spanish-speaking world.  ‘Car park’ can be ‘estacionamiento’ in Mexico but ‘parqueo’ in Guatemala, while a visitor to Spain might see a sign pointing to ‘aparcamiento’.

The crucial difference that divides Castilian from the other Spanish tongues is the pronunciation of ‘c’ and ‘z’ which, depending on the vowel which follows them, will typically have a ‘th’ sound in Spain that is absent over on the other side of the Atlantic.

In thinking about which Spanish language is the authentic one, or the better starting point for a learner with no bias towards travel in either region, it is useful to consider English.  Which kind should the non-aligned learner learn?  British or US English?  Or, for that matter, Australian?

Although British born and bred, I don’t view the American use of the language as any way inferior.  They may have borrowed our mother tongue from us, but they have enriched it in their own manner (helped in no small way by Yiddish, Italian and other immigrants).   I’ll happily admit that a word such as ‘apartment’ is actually preferable to our term, ‘flat’.

Meanwhile, people in non-native English speaking countries who use English amongst themselves have developed their own variety.  It works for them, and that’s what counts.

All this supports the argument that we should be teaching and learning a kind of neutral ‘Global English’, which does not presume that the learner is going to be using it in a particular English-speaking country.


Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Mexico City (left of picture, alongside the older structure)

A very public photographic exhibition



A walk between teaching sessions in Mexico City…

Some class rescheduling one Tuesday gave me plenty of time to get from a mining company’s HQ to a construction firm, the two offices separated by a sweeping stretch of the Paseo de la Reforma, Mexico City’s best known thoroughfare.

After a cloudy start to the day (this was June, in the midst of the rainy season), the sun was glinting off the glass-fronted skyscrapers and pristine pink-and-white taxis.  I was on foot, heading for my second class.  I felt quite jaunty, soul-cleansed by the exercise and breeze.

Halfway along I spotted the enormous photos attached to the railings outside Bosque de Chapultepec, the city’s popular and expansive park.  My mood turned a little more thoughtful, but nothing wrong with that.  I was now in art gallery mode.  It’s a welcome initiative, this programme of photographic displays for pavement passersby.  And this particular outdoor exhibition merits some close attention.  Just because it’s free, and scarcely avoidable (unless you are in a real hurry), it is still an informative cultural experience.

I gazed up at Mexico City scenes, some captured on camera recently, others already looking like history book illustrations.  The great Colombian writer Gabriel García Márquez, after lunching with his wife; a 1990s protest at the El Ángel monument, that focal point for marches and expressions of discontent (coincidentally, I had a great view of it from an office in my construction company); a disconcerting image of a young boy in rural Guerrero, pointing the barrel of his black handgun at the photographer.

I cannot imagine authorities in a British town allowing portrayals of our society’s darkest corners to be put on show in a sunny, very public place.  But they really should consider it: no one would then write off all public art as bland.


El Ángel de la Independencia, Mexico City (credit: virtual raider)






Field notes: Pallant House Gallery, Chichester


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My recent outing to Pallant House Gallery in West Sussex to see an exhibition of works by Walter Sickert (1860-1942)

‘Sickert in Dieppe’ exhibition

After looking around Sickert in Dieppe – of which more below – I turned my attention to a small room showcasing works by artists influenced by him (1860-1942). I wasn’t surprised to find Frank Auerbach represented. The main exhibition, which charts Sickert’s relationship with Dieppe, the French seaside town popular with fin de siècle bohemian types such as Oscar Wilde, had made me think of the Auerbach works I’ve seen in London galleries, in particular his engagement with a specific corner of the capital and his depiction of the same scene many times over, from different vantage points.

Sickert’s restricted tonal schemes were in no way inimical to variety throughout his Dieppe stints. Inspiration came from Whistler (for whom he became assistant) and Degas, who encouraged him to heighten architectural detail in his paintings through use of preparatory drawings. While an early Dieppe work, Dieppe Harbour (1885) would have been painted out in the open, in the Impressionist manner, The Laundry Shop from the same year marks a transition to a new way of working, with the windows and door frame displaying a clear pattern of lines. We can see from his preparatory sketch (handily hung beside the finished version) how he had begun to ‘square up’ his compositions through the use of a numbered grid in red pencil.

Among his most affecting works, available as a postcard in Pallant House’s appealing book and gift shop, is The Façade of St Jacques Dieppe (1899). A patch of sunlight lingers on the rose window of the mighty church as dusk approaches.

In his later Dieppe years he returned to his interest in figure painting, which included scenes from the casino (with figures generally painted from behind, to preserve the gamblers’ anonymity). From this period comes The Trapeze (1920), a circus scene that owes an obvious debt to Degas.

gallery interior

Pallant House Gallery (photo by Claire Sambrook)

The Garden Gallery

In the Garden Gallery and out in the courtyard, where gallery-goers were eating lunch in the warm September afternoon, were some sculpted figures, many overlaid with small mosaic tiles. These were created by the untrained artist Indian artist Nek Chand, who died aged 90 in June, just after this exhibition of 50 of his sculptures from his Rock Garden in Chandigarh opened at Pallant House. He worked with found objects such as cooking pots and spare bits of iron, like many exponents of ‘outsider art’ (not the most useful of terms, when you consider how many big name artists lived their lives some way ‘outside’ mainstream society, but there we go),

The Sickert exhibition, which was well worth seeing, ends on 4th October. After that you’ll still be able to find some of the artist’s works in the gallery’s permanent collection of modern British art. But I don’t recommend gazing at the exterior of Pallant House – a Queen Anne house unhappily married to a formulaic square block modern extension.

A reminder that live music can be quite exciting, even when it’s not really my music


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I obviously haven’t been to nearly enough rock gigs in my life. Watching Later Live: with Jools Holland on BBC2 last week I was quite fascinated with the mechanics of the musicianship. First, the roistering fervour of The Maccabees’ drummer bashing out a dramatic change of tempo: he must experience all the fun of a boisterous toddler (usually, like drummers, male) who smashes his own or his sibling’s toys in an intense release of pent-up energy. Later, on the other side of the studio (and the generational divide), the grey-bearded, beret-wearing, guitar-wielding Richard Thompson entertained with a number called ‘Beatnik Walk’: the longer the camera lingered on his plucking and strumming, the more I wished someone would put a mini microphone next to his strings and a super high-definition audio system in my living room. The vibrations would send me straight to sonic heaven.

Richard Thompson

Richard Thompson (photo by Anthony Pepitone)

I’m more of a Schubert and Radio 3 person these days. Even so, by the time I switched off my light on Tuesday night I had a fresh respect for old-school guitar- and drum-based popular music. The next time I hear a track on the radio that seems only so-so, I’ll remember that behind the noise lies much drumming, finger-picking and exciting physical exertion. If only I could experience the song in a live performance, perhaps at a venue of chamber music intimacy, I might really groove to it.

There’s more Later Live tonight – 10pm on BBC2.

A plug for my other blog – Bookpaths

“Many a book is like a key to unknown chambers within the castle of one’s own self.”

So said Franz Kafka.  It may have sounded better in German.  I’m trying to explore a few unknown chambers myself in my other blog, Bookpaths.  It’s not quite a book review site.  Rather, it’s a space for saying something about some books I’ve read and, hopefully, capture a bit of the magic of literary discovery.  Perhaps, like me, you find that by the time you have finished one book you have opened up pathways to so many more adventures in reading.

You can find my blog here.

Path along South Downs

Joseph Cornell exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts


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A stay-at-home artist whose collages and cabinets attest to a mind that wandered far and wide…

Not being much of a photographer, I’m drawn to the idea of collecting so-called ‘found photographs’. I’m similarly curious about – well, Cabinets of Curiosities.

Two good reasons, then, to visit ‘Wanderlust’, the exhibition of Joseph Cornell’s diverse work at the Royal Academy of Arts in London last weekend.

Cornell (1903-72) wasn’t a trained artist, and his ‘art’ is not easy to summarise.   Let’s start by positing that his acute eye for other people’s creativity led him to scoop up photos and objects and then slowly, methodically rework or rearrange them.

He hardly left New York State, and resisted all invitations to visit the Europe of poets and ballets that loomed large in his imagination. It’s tempting to connect Cornell’s fascination for winged creatures with his own flights of fancy and self-denied yearning for foreign lands, or simply to say he displayed magpie instincts in the way he collected trinkets.

a cabinet

A typical Cornell arrangement sits inside a glass-fronted box. In Untitled (aviary with parrot and drawers), from 1949, a swirling wire tape like a two-dimensional drawing of a snail’s shell hangs above a flat model of a green parrot, possibly imitating a bird’s crest. I spotted this same metallic motif reoccurring in his Medici series. Here, cut out reproductions of Renaissance portraits are worked to look like photos and placed in boxes reminiscent of the slot machines Cornell knew so well from his childhood. The spherical object sitting in the corner represents, I guess, a kind of pinball.

Cornell was a reserved character, but it seems he wasn’t short of acquaintances. A little model swan sitting on a mirror was a homage to a ballerina, Tamara Toumanova, who owned it for a time.

Like his friend Marcel Duchamp he had a clear affinity with strange juxtapositions, though he shied away from the often dark world-view of the Surrealists. I like to imagine him as an eccentric, excited scientist-artist – discovering and describing the world, revealing the extraordinary inner workings of the commonplace. I learned that he kept folders labelled ‘Natural Philosophy’, which harks back to an era – a happier one in some respects, if we’re honest – before the two disciplines went their separate ways and science was left isolated and boringly specialised.

Cornell was an experimental filmmaker too. The flickering captions he added to a grainy six-minute collage from the 1930s make the film seem cruder still.

I hadn’t heard of the man before the exhibition previews started appearing in the media. He has inspired creativity in others, across a number of art forms.  I would have liked to see gallery space dedicated to telling us who they are and how his strange career left its mark on them.

Shirley Baker exhibition at the Photographers’ Gallery


An exhibition of photos by ‘social documentary’ photographer Shirley Baker, showing at the Photographers’ Gallery in London until 12 September, depicts Manchester and Salford during the housing clearances of the 1960s and 70s.

After the first few black and white shots of scruffy children playing on derelict streets, I was thinking I’d seen plenty enough. But a series of photos taken in Hulme, a suburb of Manchester, provided some lighter fare, perhaps simply because they are in colour and a touch more varied but more likely because her subjects seem more cheerful, as if the photographer has brought some spring sunshine into their grimy lives.

My indifference melted, I was ready for the remaining ranks of black and white images. Children fill up most of the frames, though some feature women, often large and pinafored like Les Dawson in his northern battleaxe drag outfit. Fewer men appear. They are frequently solitary, seated for a portrait. We sense they have the leisure of the unemployed.

A photo meriting more than a few moments’ contemplation shows a boy in Salford, 1964. Broken glasses are slipping down his face. An especially tiny boy stands on steps behind him, facing sideways and staring intently at something. He is quite cute in a first-day-at-school way. I can’t be the only person who liked this shot: I later discovered it was chosen for a record sleeve by a band called The Jazz Devils.

The perspective is not always wide enough to add deep context. Yes, we can see these people are poor, but we ought to know that anyway. More revealing are the photos in which we can see tower blocks rising behind terraced housing. We’re forced to consider the demolition of these humble but still cherished terraces and their replacement by soulless blocks which will bring their own sets of social problems in the years to come.

The question of photography as an art form continues to nag me. At what point does a photo graduate from illustrating a journalist’s words to earning its keep on a gallery wall? So I was interested to read Shirley Baker quoted in a newspaper article on display:

“If there is any art in photography, it surely lies in the ‘candid’ snapshot… opportunities for this kind of photography are unlimited”

It seems spending time with people in their environments, time that you would need if you want take a large number of photos and gain the trust of the subject, yields the possibility of a compelling and timeless image. Note in her modesty (“If there is any art in photography…”) the hint of doubt about photography’s status. Photography’s power lies in getting as close as you can to the heart of the subject, and that way too lies its art.

Photographers' Gallery

The travel bug



Being a touch unwell reawakens happy memories…

Three weeks ago, on the first night of my short stay in Weybourne, on the Norfolk coast, I woke up in the early hours feeling a little sick – a curious, special kind of nausea which I’d only experienced during my travels in India and Mexico. More a taste than a feeling: sour, pungent, redolent of solo breakfasts far from home when the sight and smell of spicy food both attracted and repelled my post-sickness, fragile self.

My Norfolk nausea never really developed, thank goodness. Yet those subtle traces of my Indian and Mexican sicknesses, or maybe memories – they are not the same thing – lingered on throughout my day’s cycling.

The sun that glared down on East Anglia undoubtedly helped to scramble my past and present senses. Far from numbing my perception of the world, the torpid heat intensified it.

This sensibility lasted. Two days later, back in Sussex, I was walking in the woods after rainfall on a humid afternoon when I was struck, not by a taste-feeling, but by a scent, a sort of eau de wet undergrowth. It reminded me of wanders near the village in the Himalayan foothills where I lived for a time in late 2010. I looked up at the leaden English sky: no mountain mist, but enough greyness to take me right back to that all-pervasive dank murkiness that had enveloped my village for so many hours every day.

pink temple

Temple in Kalimpong, India