The sea splits open.
A shout of breaking beauty
hangs in the cool air.
The Girl With the Pearl Earring by Johannes Vermeer is one of the world’s most famous paintings. It is so famous that you can probably picture it in your mind as you read this but if you would like a reminder of just how lovely it is click here. It was painted in 1665, three hundred and fifty years ago, and it captures a moment in a young woman’s life as she glances sideways towards the observer. She seems to be caught unawares, about to speak, unsure and vulnerable. Everything about her will be lost, even her name. Only this image remains. Time has turned it into more than a portrait. It is also a memento mori, a lament for a young woman’s fleeting beauty and the brevity of all human life. As always with Vermeer’s work there is a story there behind the still calm beauty of the image- it is a moment of captured drama. We want to know who she is and where she is going. No wonder someone wrote a novel based around this image. It has become an icon of feminine grace and beauty.
The artist Anne-Marie Kolthammer has used Vermeer’s painting as a starting point for an intense and arresting self portrait, painted in 2012, which I saw in Huddersfield art gallery. It is small and unassuming but her fierce gaze demands that you stop and look. It says I am here. This is me, my physicality, my reality. It is not an image celebrating feminine beauty, rather it celebrates strength and tenacity. She has been looking in a small hand held mirror and now, like the girl in the Vermeer portrait, she glances towards us, asking a question of anyone standing in front of the image. The bloom of her early youth is past, is this all that mattered? What is left? Where does she go from here? Unlike Vermeer’s young girl the woman in the self portrait is in control- she knows exactly what she is doing. She is not agonising over lost youth- not wondering if she needs plastic surgery or looking back with regret- she is simply asking, bravely, almost defiantly, what a persons looks are worth. Who am I now? These questions are ones which many women have to face as they age, particularly if they have been beautiful in their youth. Something else must take the place of their first flush of physical charm, however good they may still look. To survive middle age all of us need to find a sense of dignity, wisdom and strength of character- what the French call being happy in your own skin. It is that quality which the portrait asks us to think about. The beauty of the young girl is that which she was born with, and it soon fades into the distance. Vermeer celebrates that moment. Beauty in later life is harder won and runs much deeper. As the saying goes, when we are young we have the face that we are born with but later in life we have the face that we deserve. That is what I think Anne-Marie Kolthammer has been exploring.
“I’m a warrior, not some variety of flower!”
Arthur likes trains. He is nearly eight now and he has been on a train plenty of times. He rams his scooter in underneath the table, keeping it close, without looking back at his mother to see if the seat he has chosen is all right and gets his tablet computer out of his back pack. His special back pack. The one with the anime figure on it who looks just like a fierce version of himself. The same watchful brown eyes and guarded expression. The same attitude. He keeps his hood up and glares at the screen, his face lit by a pale blue light as he swipes and destroys.
Lara has been helping her mum. She scrambles into the seat next to her big brother after making sure that her scooter has been put in the right place, in the luggage rack. There is always a right way to do things and usually she knows what it is. If she doesn’t she asks her mum or her teacher. Sometimes if they don’t know she even tells them what the right way to do something is. They are the judges at the final court of appeal. If her mum or her teacher says something is true it then it must be true. She has Hello Kittty ear muffs and pink spectacles. One of her eyes is covered over to correct a squint. This is OK. The doctor explained it all. She clutches her lip salve anxiously in case she needs it. Her three blue, heart shaped bows are safe in her hair and her three butterfly rings are lined up on her fingers. She is fine. She has no wifi on her tablet and Arthur won’t let her use his because he is busy destroying important things but she is fine.
Mother has finished organising the luggage and put the big pink bag with the things that they might need on the journey on the seat next to her. She will be glad when this is all over. She has long, straight brown hair and she is wearing an expensive camel coat and a headband with a flower in it. She flops down into the seat opposite her children and dabs anxiously at her iphone. She really needs to sort something out. At least the children are being good. Sometimes Arthur can be difficult and that isn’t good in front of other people.
Arthur’s legs are kicking out automatically as he plays. His mother leans over and puts her face next to his.
“Be careful. You kicked that lady.”
“Mummy! You made me lose one of my people!”
Arthur flashes a glance at the lady. She doesn’t look worried about it.
The two of them raise their eyebrows at each other. It is a conspiracy. They both know what mothers can be like.
“Mummy- I’m hungry!”
He doesn’t look up to see whether he has been heard. He doesn’t need to. His support system swings into action. A small packet of home made sandwiches, ham and cheese in brown bread, crusts on, cut into quarters, appears on the table in front of his sister.
Mother gets back to her phone. They will be leaving the train at the next stop and she needs to sort this out first.
Lara unwraps the sandwiches carefully. Arthur glances sideways and takes one for himself too quickly. This is rude. She is outraged. Quietly.
He stares her out. Lara pouts.
“Put it here!”
He makes big eyes at her and takes another sandwich. Very slowly he takes a tiny bite out of each of his sandwiches while looking straight at her. Lara glances at her mum and frowns, wondering if this is fair or not. She still has her share in front of her so it probably is, but it is still annoying and she moves her half of the sandwich away from him to make sure. Her mother passes two small apples across and she gives one to Arthur pointedly. Look. I am being fair.
Arthur shuts down his tablet and announces his next move.
“I’m going to make something.”
Nobody asks what and he isn’t bothered. He makes his own choices and he makes them for himself. He gets out a coin bag full of tiny pieces of bright green Lego and tips them out next to the sandwich crusts which are lined up in front of him. Steadily he builds and bites until the crusts are gone and the Lego is starting to form a rickety tower. His apple sits alongside it with just one tiny piece of peel grazed off. This can be used as evidence if Lara accuses him of not eating his fruit.
Mother glances up. They are almost at their stop- already! She gives a small sigh to brace herself.
“Nearly time to get off.”
She gathers her wits and heads towards the luggage rack followed by Lara who picks up the big bag and heaves it along the corridor.
Arthur shows no sign that he has heard but he puts his Lego back into his backpack and shrugs it over his shoulders. He pulls his scooter out and waits in the aisle, several people behind his mother and sister.
“Arthur! Are you there?”.
There is nothing he needs to say to that. Of course he is there. The anime figure glares out behind him from his pack, brandishing a sword, watching his back.
Twenty three years ago I saw the original production of The Absence of War as part of David Hare’s trilogy about the three great offices of state at the National Theatre. That trilogy was a major event- a bravura attempt to say something about the state of the nation on a grand scale, something that theatre rarely attempts. It is a play based on Neil Kinnock’s final election campaign- carefully researched by David Hare in great detail and then developed into a play which looks beyond that specific setting to find some home truths about politics in general. The chance to look back at it so long afterwards, with a general election campaign just underway is fascinating. It begs two questions; now that we have the benefit of hindsight did David Hare get it right and twenty three years later, have things changed?
The revival at Sheffield Crucible certainly gives the play the best chance it could possibly hope for. The space fits it better than the Olivier ever did. It is big enough to remind us that we are watching national events and intimate enough to draw us in and allow us to see the personal struggles involved. Some good decisions have been made, not least the decision to make George Jones the northerner I think he should always have been, and there are some fine touches in the staging. This play really needs a good director as personal events are taking place within a public setting which needs to be laid out for us and the action needs to move fast so that we feel the urgency of an election campaign. Jeremy Herrin has done an excellent job. I particularly loved the conference climax at the end of the first half and the clever use of live video.
Reece Dinsdale is really impressive as George. The crucial moment where he tries to articulate his socialist principles in front of an audience and falters- in spite of the fact that his beliefs are sincere and strongly held- was beautifully played and I enjoyed the scene where he is hijacked by a hostile interviewer and loses his temper. I like nothing better than seeing a small part played in a way that allows you to understand a character, even when given very little in the script to go on, and Helen Ryan did that in spades playing an elderly hard line socialist who is still very much in the game and ready to make waves if she is allowed to. Gyuri Sarossy was great as the shadow chancellor Malcolm. He is both loathsome and also completely understandable. He just wants to win and he knows that this will not happen with George as party leader. The confrontation in the aircraft factory where he and George finally have it out and covert hostility is allowed out into the open was perfectly done and drew a well deserved round of applause.
So did David Hare get it right and have things changed? In an age of political cynicism when the instant reaction to George’s final declaration is perhaps one of wry laughter rather than weary despair the play has certainly become a period piece. It says something about it’s own time which will always remain relevant and perceptive, but what really makes it stand the test of time is the way that it resonates with what we see in our political system today. When George talks about money being a simple master to serve, as everybody knows what it is and it is easy to evaluate, but that justice is far harder as nobody really agrees exactly what that is this says something universal. It was true then, it is true now and it probably always will be. That is fine writing. Telling the truth about society will always hit a nerve as people don’t change.
They are young,
astonishingly, delightfully young,
but they have no idea of it.
Children whose bodies
have outgrown them.
Knowing so much
they think that they know everything.
Perhaps they do.
They wander the beach slowly,
a small tight knot of chaos,
not trouble, just chaos.
A scattering of energy,
bringing a sharp blast of joy
to the dull, grey haze
of a damp February day.
They graze on experience,
moving steadily as a pack,
mocking, watching, testing,
nudging each other forward,
pushing at invisible doors
to see what happens,
They climb, push, stumble, lift,
shrieking at cold water on bare skin.
They have only the glow of youth
warming them, keeping them alight,
a tentative defiance,
as they try on their life to see if it fits
and prepare to take over the world.
The ladies of leisure
came looking for care
alongside the sweep of a bay.
With bathing and showering,
vapour and rubs
they stretched out the length
of each day.
In elegant gowns they reclined at their ease
in a reading room furnished with books,
then progressed to the saloon to take tea.
Sipping from saucers
they politely conversed
while glancing out towards the sea.
Such comfort, such privilege
was theirs to indulge,
their bodies a temple of grace.
No tiredness, no hunger,
no want or disease
could disturb the calm
of this place.
Times have changed now,
and only the building is left
to glare its displeasure at the waves,
Its dignity wounded,
all glamour cast away,
left without the attention it craves.
The stylish have gone on their way
with the languid impatience of geese.
In their place are the elderly,
still seeking their own kind of peace.
Silent and watchful
in the depths of each chair,
the remains of a life sits in state.
Their needs are watched over,
with kindness and care,
there is nothing to do but wait.