Picasso and the Art of Genius

The following short essay was my entry to the Frieze Magazine 2012 essay competition. It didn’t win but I rather like it (prejudiced as I am) so here it is.


Picasso – Encounters with Genius
(Picasso & Modern British Art, Tate Britain 2012)

I used to be anxious in museums, dogged by a guilty suspicion that my failure to find joy there was due to some congenital internal defect. Vapours of self-doubt clouded my vision. If I read more about art, purchased the audio guide or better-suppressed my impatience with shuffling tourists and hyperactive schoolchildren would I feel something? Once, I stopped and said hello to a little girl sitting on the floor of the Tate Modern, engrossed in Enid Blyton. “I like stories better than pictures,” she said.

As a rule, I do too – with exceptions for genius. “I may say that only three times in my life have I met a genius and each time a bell within me rang and I was not mistaken.”* The first time that bell chimed in me was on the dim-lit first floor of a municipal building in Mérida, Mexico. Sixty-seven of Picasso’s drawings were arrayed across two rooms, the pencil-lines of the sketches beckoning like fingers. Forgetting art exhibition etiquette, and my date, I stood nose to glass, trying to memorise the invisible something captured there. I went back three times in as many weeks.

The next chime sounded in Mallorca. After a late-night ferry crossing my friend and I stumbled into the train station, mute with exhaustion and simmering irritation. There was something insistently familiar about the ceramics exhibited in the main hall. Finally it clicked: “I didn’t know Picasso made plates.” We clutched each other’s arms, giggling like teenyboppers at masks with poked-out tongues and playful pitchers in the shape of fish with painted smiles and – I swear – a twinkle in their exaggerated eyes.

Picasso & Modern British Art
arrived at the Tate Britain. I went warily, half expecting Picasso to sag beneath the weight of expectations. Sure enough, some of the paintings were heavy, clumsy, jaded. The bell was silent. Then my eyes shifted and my ears rang. Picasso’s work clamoured its existence, a barbaric yawp that drowned out the adjoining British artists. I don’t go into a museum expecting to feel sorry for artists, but seeing the canvases of Duncan Grant, Wyndham Lewis, Ben Nicholson, Graham Sutherland and Francis Bacon hanging all limp and seasick I thought: oh, you poor things. Nobody who isn’t a genius should have to share wall-space with Picasso. “I have met many important people, I have met several great people but I have only known three first class geniuses.”*

Each piece pulled me closer. Once or twice, I laughed aloud. The twined black and white fingers in The Three Dancers; the playful, tender sexual energy of his nudes; the puckishness of a domestic collage; beneath the surface of each an unmistakeable, ineluctable energy. What is it? Technique, innovation, and colour; yes. Audacity, humour, sensuality, also. Love, death, politics, and beauty, too. But not one of these things alone, nor any combination, was satisfactory explanation for my smiles or the swift prickle of tears. Enriched and refreshed, but none the wiser, I left and went for a long walk, listening to the bells.

When I described the exhibition to a friend he picked up on a word I kept repeating and asked: “What defines a genius?”

This was an unexpected challenge. The only answer I could think of was: “I don’t know, you just know.” We sipped beer and talked about something else. Then I realised there is a common bond of genius – all genius, whether in music, art, literature, or life. To be a genius is to have a unique perspective on the world and the ability to create something which transmits that vision. Picasso rings true because when you look at his work you see what he was seeing. You are looking through his eyes.

Now, I feel more comfortable in museums. A gifted artist can create something to please the eye but if there is no gong-strike in my soul I don’t worry. “In each case on sight within me something rang. In no one of the three cases have I been mistaken.”*

*Gertrude Stein from The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas

Free Money Day 2012

Wednesday, 12 Sept, I had the privilege of seeing Patti Smith and her band blow out the lights at the Brighton Dome with their performance of Free Money.
Thursday, 13 Sept, I sat through a marketing conference where men talked excitedly about “cashless payments” – the technologically-enabled manifestation of the truth that money is nothing but a figment of our imagination.
Friday, 14 Sept, I found out about Free Money Day “a global invitation for people to explore, in a liberating and fun way, what it might be like if our relationship to money was a little different”.
Saturday, 15 Sept, I will join people from all over the world in giving a little of “my” money to a stranger, two bits at a time, and asking that the recipient to pass one note or coin on to someone else.

Free Money Day
bills the event as “An opportunity to start fresh conversations about money [and] sharing.”
I say it’s a gesture of liberation. Money is a construct, a spook that haunts our collective consciousness. As long as we prioritise money above health, happiness, relationships, or creativity it owns us. Give money away and it loses its power, but gains in worth.


Participate in Free Money Day

Bikram Yoga – Learning to Bend


Everyone who gets into Bikram yoga eventually takes up the 30-day challenge: 2,700 mind- and body-twisting minutes. My Day 28 is off to an inauspicious start. The yoga studio is locked, the instructor outside on the pavement with us. We fidget and pull up collars, rubbing our hands against the chill. “I got up at 4.30 to get here,” one woman grumbles. I check my watch. If I miss this class it will mean rescheduling an interview so I can come after work. The mere thought makes me tired. I can just about manage morning yoga but post-work is a different, more brutal ballgame. Thankfully someone arrives with keys and we scuttle inside, shedding shoes and coats as we fast-forward through our usual pre-practice routine. Then we are in the sauna-like studio, breathing, bending, flexing, balancing, and stretching.

I understand why people look askance when I enthuse about Bikram yoga. Superficially, it is more pain than pleasure. I often lie on my mat before class, eyes closed, enjoying the 110-degree heat, hoping the teacher won’t come in, won’t turn the lights up, won’t cajole us to our feet. But he or she always does. Then I hoist myself up, gaze into my sleepy eyes in the mirror and think: There is no way I can do this. It isn’t possible. Practice builds confidence, but most days Bikram yoga remains a contemplation I neither desire nor understand. Yet it’s as addictive as chocolate brownies and Fraser box sets. At least in part because it poses problems I can solve. For 90 minutes the hardest decision I have to make is: “Am I going to stand on one leg now?”

These little disciplines have larger echoes. From bad weather and bureaucracy to late-running trains, most things are out of my control, much to the despair of my inner control freak. When the universe refuses to cooperate I want to demand better; or use irritation as an excuse for bad behaviour. For example, I love to travel, but I hate airport security. Just thinking about it makes my neck tingle. On a recent trip the security attendant pulled me aside. My liquids were in the wrong sized plastic bag. My jaw clenched. I fished in my mind for a sarcastic remark but then the discipline of the yoga studio came to mind, those hours of minute-by-minute decision-making. Maybe I was entitled to be angry, but I could also just stand there for thirty seconds and wait for the wave of pique to pass. Inhale. Exhale. Repeat. The woman transferred my shampoo, conditioner, and toothpaste to a fresh Ziploc bag and handed it over. I took another breath. That was it? She smiled, told me to have a nice flight and, instead of sulking off ashamed of my petulance, I could look her in the eye and smile back. My god, I thought, I don’t have to be a bitch anymore.

It was a minor moment of clarity. My choices don’t change the world but they change my experience of it. Bikram devotees do 30 day challenges, 45 day challenges, or 100 day challenges because regular practice rehearses a truth: Life is a challenge and we have no idea how many days we’ll be required show up for. The best we can do is try to pick right, moment by moment. Every time we choose between anger or patience, kindness or judgement, bitterness or forgiveness we create new possibilities and alternative relationships.

You Are What You Read

After finishing university with its routine of “required” reading I moved to London to work at a music magazine. To my sheer delight I was surrounded by, inundated with, magazines. All the monthlies I couldn’t afford arrived on subscription: Vanity Fair, Esquire, GQ, Vogue, Details, plus Rolling Stone and a weekly dose of high-gloss, low-IQ celebrity fare from OK! and Hello. Plus unlimited access to Q, Mojo, Mixmag, and Arena which were produced in the offices around me.

With that journalistic goldmine to hand, I got out of the habit of reading actual books. The only two that made the trip from Philly to London were my dog-eared Franny & Zooey and a signed copy of Trainspotting, sentimental relics of my teenage years. Occasionally I borrowed a beach-read from my flatmate, but for the most part I read in 50 to 1500 word chunks of magazine-speak. A couple years later my company launched the future publishing phenomena that was Closer and Grazia, to join Heat in the ranks of the half-million-plus selling women’s weeklies. They were as were as brightly-wrapped as the contents of the office Cadbury Roses tin, and twice as addictive.

Books were passé. They were demanding and required concentration. Why bother when I could get instant fix on every page of Closer? At some point I said, half-joking, that I’d forgotten how to read: “Gossip magazines are turning me illiterate.” It wasn’t far off the truth. My attention span and love of words – honed over 17 years of serious reading – had fallen apart. My exposure to new ideas and information, and my ability to absorb and analyse, was being chipped away by a diet of mental junk food that bloated my mind with vapid nonsense. Realising that I had fallen into the mental equivalent of Supersize Me, I made a conscious decision to read more books.

It was like swapping chips for carrot sticks. Sure, it was good for me, but I had to work at reading books. There was a rhythm and a discipline to engaging with a long piece of text that I had lost. The shiny weeklies winked and pleaded: read me instead. I started rationing: Vanity Fair and Vogue once a month; Grazia or Closer as a Friday treat. Gradually, the diet of full paragraphs and polysyllabic words got easier to digest.

My main excuse for junk reading was the plea of many fast-food fiends: “I don’t have the time/money/energy to get something nutritious.” Turns out that, as with food, cheap and good-for-you is easy to come by if you know what you want and plan ahead. Thanks to Kindle, I have an accessible, wide-ranging selection of books perpetually to hand. But an e-reader is no more necessary to good literary fare than one of those prepared-meals delivery services is to a good diet. The best and most intriguing source of books is charity or second-hand shops. Unlike Amazon, which overwhelms with options and makes you wait for delivery, they offer an instant fix. Browsing the shelves you can snap up everything from the latest best-sellers to arcane anthropological tomes. Second-hand shops gifted me Willa Cather’s The Professor’s House, Henry James’s The Aspern Papers and Muriel Spark’s A Far Cry from Kensington. They’ve introduced me to Henry David Thoreau, Margaret Mead, Anton Chekhov, Alice Walker, and Kurt Vonnegut. My handbag currently contains Hard Travelin’, Kenneth Allsop’s brilliant history of the migrant American workforce, purchased for £1.40 in a Marie Curie shop.

Accustomed, once again, to a feast of words and ideas, I happily turn my nose up at Metro and the gimcrack lure of Closer and its cousins. I still subscribe to Vogue, and occasionally spend an hour perusing magazines at Waterstone’s, but my compulsion to keep up with the Brangelina marriage saga, or to find out who has cellulite/forgot her mascara/fired her nanny is gone. Quitting junk food does a body good – and the same is doubly true of the mind.

Charity Shop Finder (UK)
London Book Swap
Oxfam Bookshop Finder (UK)

Best Vegan Food – InSpiral Review

Brown paper packages are exciting and a little mysterious, redolent of old-fashioned gifts shipped by post. The neat, brown bags lining the shelves of InSpiral Café in Camden, with their tantalising labels and peek-a-boo windows, are especially reminiscent of presents because you can’t tell by looking quite what to expect of the contents. What on earth are “Reishi Crackits”? How do I approach “Raw Superfood Granola”? And isn’t “baobab” as in “Baobab and Onion raw dehydrated kale chips” a bulbous-looking tree?

Fortunately the best way to tackle these questions is to yield to my childlike urge to rip into the (biodegradable, sustainably produced) brown wrapping and devour the contents. Reishi is a mushroom, by the way, and such a potent immune-booster that hospitals give it to HIV and cancer patients. Crackits are InSpiral’s wholefood alternative to grain-based crackers. Made with almonds, a blend of seeds including sunflower, flax and chia, vegetables (carrot, courgette, onion) and seasonings they are dehydrated into satisfyingly nutty, crunchy sheets that are compulsively munchable. I crumble some over salad to add texture; they are equally delicious as the base for an open-faced Crackit sandwich of avocado and tomato slathered with tahini and a sprinkling of chilli flakes.

The kale chips are even more addictive. Neither baked nor fried, these dehydrated crisps are manna for anyone with a savoury tooth – and yummy enough to make me consider buying a food dehydrator and attempting a DIY version. They come in four flavours, each with a distinctive superfood twist. I try “Baobab and Onion” which is satisfyingly onion-y and provides a hit of calcium, iron and antioxidants; “Cheesie Purple Corn” offers all the umami deliciousness of cheese without having ever been near a cow.

Raw Superfood Granola is also a better-than-the-real-thing experience. I scoffed a bag of the “Chocolatey” flavour (there is also “Loveberry”, featuring raspberries, strawberries and gojiberries; and “Banana Greeny” which combines bananas with spirulina and wheatgrass) almost without pause. It is tasty with (non-dairy) milk but really, too delicious to be a mere cereal. I like it crumbled it over frozen smoothies or sprinkled on fruit salad. Straight out of the bag, it is a satisfying alternative to an afternoon dip in the biscuit tin.

One thing I note is the absence of “nutrition information” on the bags. With their abundance of seeds, nuts and protein-rich grains the granola and Crackits are not “low calorie”. But they remind me that calorie counting was invented after we started eating processed rubbish. When people ate simply and out of necessity, food was appreciated as a source of energy and vitality, not viewed as an enemy. The real gift in the brown paper wrappers is that InSpiral goodies make it easy and pleasurable to think of food in a more natural, wholesome way.

Browse and purchase a full range of InSpiral products – including superfoods, raw chocolate truffles and herbal elixirs – at their website.

InSpiral Café review