I wouldn’t have thought my resistance to having children was so obviously predicated on the absence of wealth, but that seemed to be so when at the age of forty I became surprisingly successful. I had been painting since I was sixteen, went to art college at twenty one out of obligation rather than with enthusiasm, and never quite felt that the teachers there wanted to find in me what I wanted to find in myself. I think they thought my work was dated; that I was a talented craftsman but without any conceptual ingenuity. They could see nothing that would allow me to make my way in a crowded market where art was not based on its craft but on its concept, not on putting paint on a canvas, but selectively utilising objects in a gallery space. I think they wanted to help me to make a living as an artist, but all I sensed was a subtle restricting of the creative windpipe, and I left before graduating, feeling asphyxiated in a manner I am not sure I can explain even now, twenty five years later.
The work I did then, and would continue to do, was realistic, and maybe my success about eight years ago was because critics saw in it an advancement of super or hyper-realism. I am not against such terms, and hardly against critics, but often feel unhappy with such conceptual language, even if I happen to have benefited from its application towards me. What I think I have always been trying to do is be a realist from a place that is musing over where our sense of the real comes from. As a child I often used a word and wondered what it meant. I could look it up in a dictionary and find its meaning there, but then the words that it was synonymous with sounded equally strange, and there were some days where I didn’t want to speak at all because I believed all language was so arbitrary, a kind of emotional guessing game, no matter the apparent concreteness. I think what I’ve always wanted to do was have that strange relationship with language but apply it to the visual. In this sense the images I create are as ‘solid’ as the words would be in dictionaries, but still behind these images, just as behind these words, there seems to be a strangeness no amount of representational fidelity can possibly capture.
But at forty, and with the success of several exhibitions, and a part-time post offered to me by the very art college that I happened to drop out of, I wondered whether if I couldn’t change my relationship with images then I could at least try and accept some conventions in my life.
A couple of years earlier I had met Karina. We met at a gallery opening of an acquaintance’s work, and she was the gallery’s curator. As I said to someone that I thought it was great a curator had the foresight to show this person’s work in a commercially successful gallery, so they said I should say so to the very person curating the exhibition. She called Karina over, who at that moment was not talking to anyone but looking, with her head leaning to one side, at one of the paintings. She heard her name called and said that she would be just a moment, kept looking at the painting, and then after a minute came over. As she did so the person to whom I’d made the comment went over to speak to somebody else. Karina apologized for what might have seemed her rudeness, but said that sometimes she would be looking for just the right amount of time for a painting to yield to her its secret. She said that paintings, like films, had their own temporal dimension, but, because painting wasn’t seen as a narrative medium, people often thought you could be interrupted in the middle of the allotted time you had given the work. They would never do that with a film. I suggested that was because everybody had the same temporal relationship with film due to the nature of its narrative, but with painting how could another person know how long the person needed to look? Are there not all sorts of things that we know instinctively, she said, without categorically knowing?
I offer the above exchange to make clear that meeting Karina was partly a meeting of minds, even if we often disagreed, and I often thought that Karina offered provocative comments without working through the argument that she was putting forward. But I should add also that if I didn’t quickly appraise Karina’s appearance as she came over to talk to me, it was because I had already done so earlier, when I walked into the gallery. Perhaps the only quality that did not make her striking was her lack of height. She was not small, but height would have given her the unequivocal authority her beauty determined but didn’t quite announce. Yet I suspected I wouldn’t have found her so appealing if she had been tall, partly because I was only of average height myself, and I had never been drawn to largeness in any manifestation. Most of the paintings I would do were the size of a tea towel, and maybe I always thought that the work should be suitable to put on the wall of anybody’s home, rather than in galleries and large houses.
Anyway, as Karina and I arranged to meet up a couple of days after the opening, so I knew not only that I was attracted to her but that for the first time she was someone I could imagine having children with. I am not sure how attraction works for others, but usually I needed to imagine the person beside me, in my personal life, in my personal space and in my bed. Yet the latter was the least significant it would seem, since sometimes I would be suddenly and sexually attracted to a woman I think it would seem very odd to go out with more generally, and even on the two or three occasions where I have slept with someone my height or taller, my weight or heavier, I have felt as if I wasn’t so much making love with her, as wrestling with a body mass that I couldn’t quite overcome. I wondered whether having sex with a person larger than oneself was a bit like making a large-scale sculpture, working with material that competes with one’s own mass.
Karina and I started going out together within a week of that meeting in the gallery, and within six months I had moved into her flat on the other side of Glasgow from where I had been living. Hers was on the South Side, and with some of the money we were saving, and the success I was now having, I took a studio space not far from the old flat. Karina was in her early thirties when we met, and after a year of living together we talked about having children. Karina’s coil was in need of replacement, and she said if she were to get another one fitted it would be years before she could have children: the last had been in for almost five years. I proposed that when it was removed we could stop using any form of contraception and see what would happen.
I was almost surprised with myself when I said it, but over the following months, as the coil was removed, I saw the decision as a gamble on my part no matter if it happened to be a wish on Karina’s. I was not at all hoping that she wouldn’t become pregnant; but unlike Karina I was not hoping that she would become so either. It was as though my increasingly established status as an artist, my ability to sell more than enough paintings a year to support a family, and perhaps also Karina’s keenness to continue working as a curator, left me for the first time relaxed about the possibility of having a child. Perhaps before I would have been wary of this enemy of promise, as one writer regarded the pram in the hallway, but it is as though that promise had been fulfilled, and the living I made enough to justify my existence beyond the art I was creating.
When Stephen was born I enjoyed moments with him, but often yearned to be elsewhere, in my studio, in front of the students talking about Cezanne’s wrestle with the Mont St Victoire, or talking about a passage from Van Gogh’s letters where he admits that he hadn’t taken tonal colours into account enough. I wanted to escape especially the domesticity that I thought was not conducive to creation, as if Stephen’s existence as a baby had countered my own as an artist. “The love of art is the undoing of true love” Van Gogh quotes in one of the letters, and there was another passage where he mentions Zola saying that what he looked for in the art work is to find the man behind it. Who was the man behind the work I happened to be doing at that time? Someone who changed nappies, bought baby food and pushed a pram around. I don’t doubt these are important and meaningful things in a person’s life, and I don’t offer the comments as if from a perspective proposing this is woman’s work. It is the work of anybody who believes in it, and somehow I couldn’t quite believe in it. I was caught between what the art wanted to express and what my life was demanding from me. When I would go in front of a canvas, I didn’t see anything in my daily life that was consistent with what I wanted to paint. I felt as if the man I was at home and the man I was who painted were no longer one, and as I was overcome by what I can only call painter’s block, so I wondered whether I should give up painting, take a full-time post at the college and become the family man to which I had biologically committed.
These were thoughts and feelings I expressed to no one, and least of all to Karina, who should have been the natural recipient for such thinking, but for whom such thoughts and feelings could hardly be received casually. For three years I took a full-time job at the college and Karina worked part-time in the gallery. During this period I would sometimes do preliminary sketches but painted nothing at all. I gave up the studio not long after Stephen was born, and concentrated I suppose on my nurturing role in relation both to my own son and my students. I was not unhappy in these roles, and I would go directly from helping the students get a problem right, to getting home and taking over from Karina in looking after Stephen, but whenever I was alone I felt perhaps a little like an actor coming off the stage after a marvellous performance but not being quite sure who he happened to be when alone without the audience and the applause. I had for the first time in my life felt lonely in myself instead of feeling lonely with others: my solitude had strangely been shattered.
I thought I could have rescued it through the sketches I would do, as I thought of someone with whom I had been friends in my twenties. He was around forty five when I met him, and he had written a couple of novels when he was younger, but they weren’t very successful and the few reviews he received incensed him so greatly that he decided he wouldn’t write another. The reviews told him what he should have been doing as if he wasn’t up to the techniques demanded of him and that he had in fact deliberately refused to utilise. His publisher, who knew that he knew what he was doing and thought him bloody-minded, dropped him, and the friend made no effort to find another publisher and no effort to write another book. Instead he had kept a notebook for years, writing in it observations, thoughts, feelings and refusing, he insisted, form – be it conventional or experimental. He was looking for the most direct route to his solitude he would say, feeling that publishing sullied him. Martin couldn’t pretend his high-mindedness sounded ridiculous, but the alternative seemed frightening.
I lost contact with him when he moved to South America. He said he wanted to make a living teaching English tuition one on one, and worked out that with only a few hours a week from comfortably off Argentineans he could live well enough and continue writing his notebooks. Maybe that is what I hoped to do by keeping a sketch pad without painting, but where Martin had protected his solitude (perhaps to the point of madness), I believed that I had not.
Over the following twelve months, the job and the domestic duties were far from intolerable, but I increasingly felt that I was not responsible for them, that I was easily replaceable and the one area where I was not replaceable (whatever the quality of the work) was in the painting, and I had not painted a canvas in several years. Occasionally my agent would ask when I would start painting again, and Karina expressed concern sometimes at my productivity, but she seemed to assume that I was taking an extended hiatus, concentrating on Stephen and the students. I couldn’t explain to her the reason why I wasn’t painting was because the ‘I’ that painted was disappearing. The ‘I’ that for many years had given me the one centre I thought I possessed made me feel ever further away from her as I failed to explain my dilemma.
And so it was that one day I handed in my notice at the art college, worked my notice without telling Karina that I had resigned, and then after finishing my notice, sat in the kitchen and wrote a note saying to Karina that I was leaving, that I couldn’t continue living a life that I wouldn’t claim was a lie but that appeared to be making it impossible for me to access my own truth, the truths I had found for many years in the art work I had made. I explained that, as she knew, there was around a hundred thousand pounds in the account, and that this money was hers, that she could pay off the mortgage and could still work part-time now that Stephen was at nursery age. I sent emails to my mother and my father (who had left her many years earlier, while I was in my early teens), my brother, my sister, and a few friends.
How to justify this brutal act? I could say that the sex life between Karina and I was no longer very passionate, and that maybe she had embarked on an affair with a fellow artist, an artist much more productive than I happened to be. But the former wouldn’t have been true (since we had even made love the very night before I left), and the latter while possible would have been much more an attempt to assuage my own guilt than a likely reality. I left because I wanted to find my own meaning again, feeling that the life I had been living for the last several years had somehow contributed to Karina’s meaningful existence but had diluted my own. It was not that I didn’t love Stephen, and it was not at all that I regretted almost four years nurturing him and hoping to make his world feel safe, but I also wondered whether often parents are so concerned to make their children’s life secure that many a parent atrophies their own. Sometimes when we would lie in bed together Karina would say that for her Stephen completed her life, made her feel whole. Before she had yearned for what she thought was metaphysical, but it turned out to be very physical indeed. As I would lie there next to her I knew I could not say the same, believing Stephen made me ever more aware of my need for a dimension to experience that was not actual, and that by no longer creating art I was impoverishing a world that was as equally real to me as the one I was living in with Karina and our child – and one that of course became so important that I sacrificed that real life to it.
Where did I go, and how did I survive? I had forty thousand pounds in another account, money that I had saved in the last couple of years from paintings sold, and I went first to Spain, and then got a flight from Madrid to Mexico City, and from there a bus to Oaxaca. I stayed in Oaxaca for six months, renting a room that had no heating, as if the warmth of the days had to compensate for the coldness of the evenings. During those days I would sit in the town’s Zocalo, and for small sums of money sketch or paint tourists. Some were disappointed with the results, since the work I did neither passed for the conventionally realistic nor the caricatural, and they could not know that this was work quite similar to the paintings I would do in Britain and that I would sell for sometimes several thousand pounds. On a few occasions someone reluctantly handed over their ten dollars, and then I would see them later that day, or the next, getting their portrait painted again by one of the artists in the square. Presumably mine was left in the hotel room, or perhaps offered by way of a tip, and I was amused and not at all disenchanted by the thought there were staff in the hotels of Oaxaca putting my paintings and sketches up on their walls at home.
Painting in the square reminded me a little of college, yet with an inverse pressure. If there the teachers wanted to me become more abstract to compete in the aesthetic market place, here I was in the literal market place of a Mexican town refusing to conform to the dictates of this artistic commodification. It felt like a subtle act of resistance, but one that I accepted with greater equanimity than I had at college. There I had been fighting against an assumption that I saw as institutional; in Oaxaca I accepted the questioning of the art as no more than an issue of personal choice: people had expectations and I didn’t meet them, and I made far less money than some of the other artists in the square. I suppose the sample copies of the work that I would put up on a couple of easels and that lined the pavement warned people off in advance, and consequently most of those who did ask to be painted or sketched were contented with the result.
On several occasions I would talk with some of the others artists, a couple of whom were Mexican, the rest from the US, Canada, Spain and other places. One of the Mexicans, whose name was Carlos, said that he arrived in Oaxaca a couple of years before not to sketch the tourists, but to paint and draw the people of the town during protests that had disrupted Oaxaca for seven months. He was still under thirty, had no emotional commitments, knew he could live frugally, and consequently felt he could live anywhere. He said his father had once said to him freedom was the capacity to live spiritually with very little food in your stomach, and not to be too choosy about, or become too attached to, those you can persuade to share your bed. As he explained how the strike started by teachers looking for better pay and conditions, so I replied that I remembered seeing footage on the news, even would read various articles to try and get a balanced picture of the events. I couldn’t pretend I came to Oaxaca to try and understand something of that political conflict, but neither was I oblivious to it. As Carlos said that the square had been taken over by protestors, I felt the casual futility of the work I happened to doing, and thought of the great political art of Rivera, Orozco, Siqueiros, and Bustos, great muralists willing to paint the social and political history of their country in large, dramatic works. I might have protected myself from the demands of the capitalist market, but had I ever moved towards creating a work that tried to reflect the political possibilities in my own country?
As guilty thoughts go, maybe it would seem irrelevant next to the decision I’d made to walk out on Karina and Stephen, and generally that was so. The room might have been cold at night but I would still frequently wake up in a sweat feeling that I hadn’t created for myself a new life, but simply exited the previous one. While during the day I could consciously justify why I left, sub-consciously I was still struggling to do so, and it was during my time in Oaxaca that I wondered whether I had always lacked a political commitment that meant I could offer resistance without much being gained in the process for anyone beyond myself.
It was with these thoughts in mind that I was especially intrigued to meet a friend of Carlos’s, someone who was still living in Oaxaca after doing exactly what I had done, but several years earlier. Gael was a teacher working in Mexico City, who when hearing of the strike decided to leave the capital in solidarity with the teachers who were part of the initial protests in Oaxaca. His wife insisted the protests were not his problem; the action being taken in Oaxaca was specific to the region, an attempt to oust a corrupt governor. Gael came to Oaxaca after the police started attacking the protestors during the non-violent protests and when an organization formed calling themselves by the acronym Appo (Asamblea Popular de los Pueblos de Oaxaca). He was still in Oaxaca, still hadn’t returned to his wife and his two teenage children. Whenever Carlos or anyone asked him how they were, he said he was sure they were fine: her parents had more than enough money; if he was more important than his father-in-law’s wealth they would have all joined him Oaxaca.
While I was interested to meet Gael I also suspected he was a man with whom I had nothing in common except that we had both left our partners and children. Where he seemed to have done so with the pride of a man for whom the political should contain the familial, I couldn’t at all convince myself that the familial could be contained by the aesthetic. I didn’t feel I could go back, but neither was I moving forward with any of the authority he seemed to possess in the way in which Carlos described him.
Yet when I met him I was mildly surprised. On that first occasion we did not talk at all about our respective disappearing acts, but I could see in his slumped back and folded features that he had probably always been a man in conflict. Perhaps earlier, I mused, by the compromises he had made in his marital life; in the last few years in devoting himself to the political and leaving that family. He would have been about ten years older than me, going by Carlos’s details. After we had talked that day, for an hour or two with Carlos in a cafe in the square where I painted, I wondered how soon it would take for me to show signs of fretful aging. I had lost a little sleep in those years bringing up Stephen, lost those uninterrupted nocturnal slumbers that the childless can obliviously under-appreciate, but Gael looked like a man who had for many years woken up in the middle of the night without prompts from the conscious world. It was this I would have liked to have talked to him about during that first meeting, but of course how can you ask a stranger questions that may be readily apparent on their visage, but are the property of a person’s inner despair? After all, he would have been unlikely to have seen the same on my face, though I was beginning to feel that a night’s sleep was the luxury of the emotionally at peace.
Gael had taken a job teaching in the town of Oaxaca, intent on staying there until the party that had ruled for eighty years in the state had been removed, a party that had been responsible he said for some seventy deaths and five hundred arrests of various social activists. He told me this on that first occasion we talked, and I wondered then how often he had been compromised by what Carlos had told me were his father-in-law’s family links with a number of people involved in Mexican politics. Had he lost far more sleep over staying with his family and refusing political action than he happened to be losing now that he had left his family and was so actively involved?
The second time I met Gael was again with Carlos, in the same cafe, a place where, sitting outside, we could see that no one was stealing our work and also notice if any passerby might be showing an interest in it. After talking for a few minutes, Carlos saw that a couple of tourists were more than glancing at his paintings, and went over to attend to them. Instead of asking Gael about his own past, I started to say a little about mine, not with the intention especially of getting him to talk about his life, more to understand what he thought he would have done in circumstances, my circumstances, similar but not identical with his. As I said that I walked out on my wife and child, deciding I didn’t feel the artist behind the work could be found in the art if I continued living with them, he said that for most people bringing up children was the most important thing they would ever do, but occasionally there are people for whom it is only the second most important. He continued speaking, as if he had thought about these things many times before but talked about them rarely. He said that of course there were plenty of people who subordinated their family to some feckless fascination for other women, for gambling, for any number of things, but these were no more than ethically weak irrelevancies next to the moral strength of the family. But are there not sometimes in our lives forces that are not morally weaker than family but much stronger?
Gael had married his wife when he was twenty seven, and when she was twenty three. Now he was fifty five. For ten years he insisted he would not have children, believing that his work as a teacher and school union representative would be difficult to do with time constraints, and harder still if he felt he would have to compromise his position knowing that he had children who needed to be fed and clothed. But there was one afternoon when he was coming back from school and he saw a business colleague of his father-in-law leave their house in the district of Coyoacan. This was a salubrious part of the city he could only afford with the help of his wife’s father, a man who was involved in the same political party that he was now determined to oust here in Oaxaca. His wife had been, and still was that day when he saw the man leaving the house, a beautiful woman, and he knew that while he was lucky to have married her, he was testing his luck still further by refusing to have children. For how much longer would she stay with him? He didn’t think she was having an affair, but he did believe that her increasing resentment towards him and the presence of other men who would be willing to give her children led him to say to her that evening they should try and have kids.
He looked at me then as if he were surprised at himself, surprised that he had told this story to a man whom he had met only once before; a story I suspected he had told to very few people. At one moment as Gael was talking I noticed Carlos looking across, and though he had finished dealing with the clients, he decided not to return to our table. Had Gael ever talked to Carlos about his moment of jealous anxiety that led to him becoming the father of two children? Yet when I thought about it later I reckoned that couching it in such terms was being unfair, unfair to how he offered it: he presented it not as the problem of jealousy (as I had no feeling that he had been jealous of this other man), more as a problem of choice. He knew that if he didn’t have children with his wife, it would be understandable if she would have children with another. He loved his wife, but also loved his work. On that night, he chose his wife; fifteen year later he chose the work, and here he was talking to me, just as I had also chosen the work over my partner, and was now on the other side of the world talking to him.
We talked for a further half hour, and I proposed that where his decision had come from moral strength augmented by the many people he was helping, and the social changes he wanted to bring about, mine seemed too fragile, poised between a possibly solipsistic feeling and little more than a quote in Van Gogh’s letters. He smiled and wondered whether the artist’s choice is always lonelier than that of the politically motivated. He looked into the cafe and at the clock, saying he needed to go. There was a political meeting early that evening; I looked at my easels, realizing I had no potential customers at all that afternoon.
Around a month after this conversation with Gael, and after some very enjoyable evenings with both Gael and Carlos, I left Oaxaca and moved to the coastal village of Mazunte. With booming waves and sun sets that seemed to evoke simultaneously the edge of the world and the melancholy of time passing, I would go to the beach each evening, or up on a cliff, and feel nostalgia for times I had never lived, and for feelings I couldn’t claim as my own. If my sleep would still sometimes restlessly demand I question the decision I’d made to leave Glasgow, these crepuscular moments would do the opposite: they would force upon me the feelings of lives I had not yet, would perhaps never, lead.
Maybe this is partly what we mean when we call a place spiritual; that it possesses within it a dimension that we cannot readily attach to the actual, to the practical reasons for its existence and our existence when we are there. Many people had told me Scotland was a spiritual place, but because it was the country in which I had been born it offered the spiritual without the contingent. It was a country capable of invoking the spirit, but my own practical purpose there meant I took this dimension for granted. I might have felt it, but I couldn’t feel its presence working upon me. Equally it seemed there were countries that lacked this element at all, I had always thought, and of countries that I’d been to I would have included Germany, France, England, even Argentina and Turkey. Possibly there were parts of the country that created this feeling of otherworldliness, just as Mazunte contained it far more than Oaxaca, but I had never visited them. When I was in Buenos Aires people would say I must go to Patagonia, but I never did, feeling only the burgeoning of an inclination.
What was this inclination exactly, I wondered, this inclination to search out the spiritual within the real, and I thought back to all those years ago at art school, where I was deemed a realist more than a conceptualist. I accepted the terms because I was little interested in the conceptual in art, but I knew that realism seemed too narrow, and knew several years ago when people were accepting the work because it was seen as super-realist that this wasn’t satisfactory either. If the conversations I happened to have with Gael helped me to understand that while our situations were similar in leaving our wives, but that out predicaments were quite different, it was perhaps going to Mazunte and encountering these sunsets that crystallised this difference.
But if I would watch the sunsets alone, sometimes, in the late afternoon, I would get into conversations with a fisherman in the area, who would fish early in the morning, sell it in the early afternoon in Puerto Escondido where he kept his boat, and return to Mazunte, at around three. What was unusual perhaps about Alphonse was that he was as much a hippie as a fisherman, and he joked when we talked that maybe this is what Jesus happened to be to: it might have seemed anomalous but it wasn’t without precedent. He may have said this jokingly, but he was probably the most spiritual person I had ever met, spiritual in the sense that there seemed almost no gap between what he wanted from life and what it gave him.
Over the weeks I was in Mazunte we must have met at least six times, and each of these afternoons I would meet him at a cafe by the beach that we both seemed to like frequenting, and it was there we talked. As the waves boomed and broke against the shore, so he would talk as if assuaged by their noisy restlessness, and by the end of our conversations the waves were but a murmur. He would tell me that he was born and brought up in Barcelona, where his father worked in construction and where his mother worked as a cleaner. He was an only child that arrived late for the time (his mother was thirty three), and they wanted him to have a better life than theirs, but never quite knew how to explain what this better life was, and Alphonse wanted to honour his parents’ feelings, without accepting the assumptions behind their hopes for him. Their life was hard he reckoned not because they had difficult jobs (though they were not easy), but because they did not feel at all in control of their lives. Once his mother was sacked after the apartment owner accused her of stealing, several times his father was made unemployed because a job had finished, and, belonging to no union, he had no one to defend his workers’ rights.
Though I had learnt a few words of Spanish on my trip, I couldn’t have had the conversations I would have with Alphonse had he not been fluent in English. It was one of the languages he had learnt in his twenties, along with Italian and French, working in all three countries, usually working, like his father had before him, in construction. Sometimes he too would be left without employment, but he would either fight the layoffs along with others through a union, or sometimes accept the situation and use it as an opportunity to go somewhere else. What he was determined not to do was believe that he had no choices available to him; he did not want to feel that, like his father and mother, the best they could hope for was to have a child in which to create opportunities that they themselves would have to forgo.
He told me that he had come to Mazunte fifteen years earlier, back to where his mother had been born, though he had never previously been to the village himself, and knew when he arrived that this was home. He had returned with his father to spread his mother’s ashes from the cliff where I would usually see the sun set, and his father decided he couldn’t or wouldn’t stay, and worked in Mexico City until his death a couple of years before. When Alphonse said this, during the second time we talked, I felt in his presence a feeling of loneliness I couldn’t have described, and didn’t know whether it was my own I was feeling or his I was noticing, or perhaps a loneliness that travels through people, settling where it must.
Alphonse worked four days a week on the boats, and the rest of the time would read, he said, or talk to people like me. He added (maybe wary that he might have caused offence, or determined to be more precise) people like himself as well, of course, which equally could have been taken as one of his moments of self-aggrandizement. I asked him once, on one of the last occasions that I spoke to him, whether he did feel alone. I had told him of leaving Karina and our child, and he had said that he was never made for, never wanted children. He never wanted to feel responsible for anything or anybody that he couldn’t walk out on. He insisted that since we didn’t choose to enter the world, the least we could do is choose when we wanted to leave it, and he sometimes would wonder whether his father during those difficult times in Barcelona stayed alive because he had a partner and child. Again it might have looked like he had caused me offence, but equally it sounded as though he was vindicating my decision, and perhaps alluding to the notion that he might have been more given to committing himself to something or somebody if he knew he could leave behind the life he had constructed with others.
It was on this occasion, and surprisingly not earlier, that he told me he read an interview several years before about the events in Oaxaca. There was a general article concerning the protests, and a specific interview with a man who had left Mexico City to take part in them. The interview was a mixture of the personal and the political, as the interviewee explained why he had chosen to come to Oaxaca, and why he had left his family behind. Alphonse was clearly talking about Gael, and though I had mentioned before of course that I had been in Oaxaca for several months making and selling paintings and sketches in the Zocalo, I didn’t say anything about meeting him. Maybe I should have, as Alphonse said that a couple of years earlier he had gone to Oaxaca, after reading the interview, and functioned as a translator whenever people from the international press came to the town to interview people who couldn’t speak English that were involved in the protests. He admitted he went initially more because of the interview he had read than the article. There was in the person’s willingness to combine political commitment with personal revelation something that he admired. I asked what sort of revelations, and Alphonse told me about the man’s wife, how beautiful she had been, how compromised he had begun to feel: saying in the interview the very things that Gael had told me.
Alphonse stayed in Oaxaca for three months, saying he left because he felt useful but not purposeful, knew that what he was doing was of some importance to the people there, but not quite making his life singular enough. He admitted it could be seen as odd: that his life seemed much more singular catching fish and reading in beach cafes but that was how it was. He wondered whether for most people their purpose was to expand, to have children, possess influence, to make something of their lives through their interaction with the lives of others. Sure, he said knowingly, no man is an island, but are some not closer to islands than they are to cities, closer to solitude than sociability? Maybe he believed himself to be a peninsular, otherwise why would he be talking like this with me? I asked him if he met the person in the interview, and he said on a few occasions but only once did he have what he thought was a personal conversation with him, a conversation that in fact resembled the very interview Alphonse had read in the paper.
I said that I had also met the man he was talking about, that he might remember that his name was Gael, and that I had the feeling after talking personally with him that the conversation was curiously not personal at all. It contained personal details, but possessed nothing confessional in the tone. He asked me why I hadn’t mentioned this earlier, and I said I had no call to do so; if anybody should have said that he had met Gael surely it was Alphonse: he knew I had been in Oaxaca; how could I have guessed that he had been also? He admitted my point was fair, but insisted that our conversations had not been biographical but personal, a paradox he swiftly explained, and not without humour, as the difference between telling your life story and exploring your thoughts. Gael, he said, now recalling the name after my prompt, was biographical rather than personal. He seemed to use his biography as part of his political position as much as an explanation of his personal one.
During the time I was in Mazunte I had mused over the differences between these two men, between Gael and Alphonse, and saw in them the vacillating possibilities in my own life – even physically. Gael was a man who looked like he had started putting on weight in his twenties and that ever since he fought the flab in a contest that the flab wouldn’t quite win but that he never quite defeated either. He would talk about cutting down on alcohol, eating less meat, and saying that the ice cream he was eating would be his last. He appeared like a man caught always between two states – putting on weight and losing it; being a devoted husband and dedicated to politics, wanting to talk and needing to do something more important. With Alphonse it seemed the opposite. I imagine that he was always as lean as he happened to be when I met him, always someone for whom what he ate and what he drank (I never saw him drink alcohol, only water or tea) was a decision he made like breathing, and even wondered whether it was so natural for him to eat so simply and without indecision because he might earlier have even questioned the idea of whether he wanted to keep on living at all. It was if he wanted to live based on the rhythm of the waves, of night and day, of hunger and thirst, rather than the social rhythms most people live by, and I would sometimes think there must have been other reasons for his abstinent existence than his parents’ being so caught in social roles.
The last couple of times I saw Alphonse he knew I had decided to travel down to Argentina, knew that I wanted to know more about his life than he was willing to divulge, and on the last occasion I asked him why he had been so secretive concerning his existence. He replied that he hadn’t been secretive at all. It was more that he did not talk about things that seemed arbitrary rather than essential. In other words there were many things that were important to him, maybe even important to the person he was talking to, but they were not essential to the conversation itself. He said he believed we had some wonderful conversations, and talked about many things, some of them personal, some of them philosophical, others still spiritual and so on. But if on the basis of some random questions he had started talking about his past to me, started to talk about his loves, losses and crises, he would betray something far more essential than that. What type of thing I asked. The rhythm of things he replied, looking at the waves and smiling.
Before returning to Scotland I stayed for three months in Buenos Aires, but it was a city in which I couldn’t at all find my rhythm. I hastily arranged a flat through an agency after staying a night in a hotel, and only realised once I had moved in that I was very nearly in the city centre, and quite close to the motorway that Argentines would fondly call the widest boulevard in the world. It was not a lie, but felt like a half-truth, even a deliberate piece of obfuscation so as to glamourize a street that only the most reckless would cross in one attempt. The world’s widest avenue it announced itself as, but for me it was more like an autobahn as cars whizzed by and gave the centre of the city the feeling of haste rather than bustle. Sometimes I would walk up along Paraguy towards Palermo, or across Parana in the direction of Recoleta cemetery, but I found no peace either in my mind or in the city. Yet having signed a lease for three months I was determined to stay there.
It was during the end of my first week in the city that I checked for the first time my emails since leaving Scotland. I was hoping as I tentatively typed in my email address and password that my account had lapsed, but as it opened I saw email after email from all the people whom I had written to shortly before leaving Scotland, all except Karina.
Sitting in the internet cafe reading through them all, and then coming out into the sunshine I felt that I had never left Glasgow; or felt rather that each of us has a life of the soul and a life that is inexorably social. One might often hear that the soul leaves the body after one dies, but I’m more inclined to think of it as the part of ourselves that doesn’t belong to the society which shapes and forms us: the very place I suspect where great art comes from, and the part of the self that Van Gogh was talking about when mentioning the idea of the person behind the work.
But what did people say in the emails? My father said he could understand that sometimes pressures become so great that we need to free ourselves from the burden. But he added that often the burden we place upon ourselves through guilt outweighs that initial feeling of freedom. My mother angrily wondered if I had learnt nothing from my own difficult upbringing, while my sister and brother said they always suspected I would do this, that my long term reluctance to have children had now manifested itself not in childlessness but irresponsibility. Or that was how my sister phrased it, having two children of her own. My brother said simply that he hoped I could live with my decision, as though he had talked with our father about the difficulties he had after leaving us years before. Various friends wondered whether I was right to leave Karina and Stephen, others said maybe I needed a break. Over time, the emails I had received were less and less accusatory and more and more concerned.
I didn’t answer any of the emails during my time in Buenos Aires, and I can’t say how much my accessing them made my stay so difficult. If in Oaxaca my sleep was restless and my days relaxed, and in Mazunte both my sleep and waking life content and aligned, in Buenos Aires I was neither relaxed asleep or awake. As traffic would trundle past at night, lorries destined for specific locations no doubt, but feeling as though they were paid for by my mind’s torturer, I slept intermittently, and dreamt vividly. In one of these dreams I imagined the person who may have proposed the idea initially, the idea behind the life that I had chosen to lead. In it, Martin was living in Buenos Aires but not in an apartment; instead on the street. The dream I supposed was based on an incident I had witnessed a couple of weeks earlier. I was sitting outside at a cafe in a district next to Palermo and I saw an Englishman sitting on a bench reading Dickens. He was reading it aloud, or rather was muttering to himself the words that he was reading. After about ten minutes he got up and walked away, taking with him what I presumed was all he owned – a rucksack, with a sleeping bag, a small tent and a pair of trainers attached. As he was walking off the waitress arrived with my toastie and I asked in my now just comprehensible Spanish if she knew the man who was crossing the road. She replied in Spanish, but slipped into English when she could see on my face that I couldn’t quite follow her.
It was quiet in the cafe, around three thirty in the afternoon, and the rush had passed. She asked if she could sit down, I said of course, and she quickly made herself a coffee and joined me. Occasionally people ask about him, she said, but not many. Much of what she had heard could have been true but might not have been. The man supposedly lived on the street, and mainly in this district of Buenos Aires, and had been doing so for some years. When she started working in the cafe around a year ago, she asked the owner about him, but they had bought the cafe only the year before, and said that she would be better asking some of the customers. What she told me was based on their not always mutually compatible stories. He supposedly came to the city around a decade earlier, following an Argentinean woman with whom he had a daughter. She was from a wealthy family living in Valeria del Mar, who owned some hotels along the coast at Mar del Plata, and eventually lost faith in the man’s attempts to become the great novelist he assumed he would soon become. When they had a daughter she reckoned that he would give up on his hopes and finally use his engineering degree, but he resisted, and she returned home. Initially he accepted the decision, but after some months he missed both his partner and child, and got a flight to Buenos Aires, with the very rucksack he still used.
I asked the waitress what happened when he arrived; did she know? She said that when his partner got back to Argentina, it was said her family insisted that they would look after her, but that she must have nothing more to do with this Englishman who could have ruined her life. Rumour is that she did meet up with him after he had been in Buenos Aires for a year. She wasn’t living in the city (possibly down in Valeria del Mar), and she met him in this cafe, talked with him for a couple of hours, but said that she had met someone else. Her child now had a responsible father, and she did not want to see him again. Now some said that he had no rights over the child, that when he was born the Englishman insisted that he wanted no responsibilities, and the birth certificate said: father unknown. She shrugged her shoulders at this point, insisting that what she was telling me was no more than hearsay, but she believed that much that she said originally came from the Englishman himself. For a couple of years afterwards he came regularly to the cafe and would talk with the customers about his life, until what he offered came out less as conversation than as mumblings and mutterings.
I asked the waitress why she seemed so fascinated by the man, and she said maybe because she had lived in England for a couple of years, and as a waitress now into her thirties, and a creative talent nobody had ever thrown any money at (she played the violin) except whilst busking, she perhaps saw the man as a forewarning concerning her own choices. I did not explain to the waitress that this man’s life was like an inversion of mine, did not say that money was the one thing I did manage to provide for my partner and child. I instead allowed it to occupy my subconscious, and dreamt about the man as Martin a couple of weeks later.
It wasn’t long after this dream that I decided to return not initially to Scotland but at least to Europe, and as this was now almost August, and a friend of mine from Paris would be away for the month, I emailed him to ask if he would rent me his flat at a reasonable price. He wrote back saying he wouldn’t charge me anything at all. I could pay him in watered plants. During this month staying in his flat in La Batignolle, not far from Clichy, I didn’t talk to a single person, except to order basic groceries or to ask for directions. I seemed to be storing up words and turning them into images, as that month I started doing numerous preliminary sketches for paintings that I would do whenever I had a space in which I could work again. The friend’s place was a writer’s flat not a painter’s: it was one modestly sized room with a kitchen and a bathroom off it, with the main room walled with books, and a small desk with an Underwood typewriter placed upon it. On the first day in the apartment I placed it carefully on a shelf I was confident could support its weight, and used the desk for my own sketching.
Gilles was someone I met at art college, someone who by the end of the degree knew he would make a much more interesting art critic than artist, and indeed was one of the only people at the college who seemed to have an instinct for the sort of work I was doing. He could locate its genealogy much better than I could, and in Paris he was a relatively impoverished but well-respected art critic possessed of curious partis pris. One was that all his work was done on the typewriter, and at the magazines and journals someone would scan the articles in and then correct the numerous errors that would show up through the scanning. He had never sent an article as an attachment because he owned no computer. At gallery openings he never touched the canapés or drank the wine, insisting only on bottled water, even though in other circumstances he would always partake of a decent vin rouge, just never professionally. He had lived in the flat since he returned to Paris after college, and I remember him saying to me when I first visited him there a year or two after he had left Scotland, that he believed he would live there for the rest of his life if he could. What about a wife, or children, or the landlord wanting to sell the property, what about any number of contingencies life might offer that would throw him off course? He said I was describing his life as if it were an ocean; he wanted it to be more like a stream. Even streams dry up, I said, and he proposed that was maybe the one fear he did possess: the idea that he would not have enough money to pay what he admitted was a very modest rent.
As it was he made a small living, chiefly through a weekly column for a well-known newspaper, and this had allowed him to give up his part-time night-portering job. He wasn’t the paper’s art critic, but had a thousand words each week in the supplement at the weekend to comment on the nature of the visual. The other magazines he wrote for paid, but very small sums indeed. He knew he would have to go back to night portering if he lost this weekly slot, and knew also that it was employment that might lack the status of his job at the paper, but would at least allow him to continue his life as a stream.
I knew he had written about me in one of the smaller journals a few years earlier, and, since I couldn’t read French without the aid of a dictionary, I never read it; merely asked him what it was about. He said it was closely linked to things we had talked about during our time at college, some of my reservations concerning conceptual art, and why he thought I needed to be a ‘realist’. I looked through his magazine collection and after some searching found the article and with a French/English dictionary read over it in what took a few hours. It was not at an adulatory piece, but then Gilles’s articles rarely were. He wrote not to praise but to comprehend, believing that was more than flattery enough, and indeed as I read the piece comments he had made many years earlier came back to me. Where many a compliment on my craft skills meant little to me while I was at college, Gilles’ claims had seemed to enter into my sub-conscious and gave me not so much the confidence but the inner assertiveness to keep working, to keep digging away. What he said in the article was that I trusted realism but didn’t trust reality. Subsequently the work wasn’t a superficial attack on or critique of realism, as much art seemed to be, and that seemed to leave reality itself untouched, but an enquiry into what we take reality to be, and that requires modes of realism to search out this question.
What was maybe most fascinating, and disquieting, was that at one moment he quoted from Van Gogh’s diaries, and the phrase the love of art is the undoing of true love. He also wondered whether the realist needed to live in the world differently from a conceptualist or a formalist, to feel that if his work was grounded in notions of the real, didn’t some aspects of his own life need to reflect this also? I wondered if this was Gilles’ way of talking about the art I was making coming out of perceptual scepticism, of not quite believing in the world as we usually perceive it. How could I have made surreal, abstract or conceptual art when the real world for me was always threatening to break down? My purpose had always been to hold on to as much reality as I could. And was that not what drew me to Gael, to Alphonse, and now to Gilles, in his absence? To men who seemed to be finding ways of constructing their reality, with each brushstroke not an easily blurred dash of colour, but an ethical choice in the world.
It would have been a couple of days later that I received an email from Carlos, only the third time I had checked my emails since leaving Glasgow. He said that I might have noticed in the press that the party which had ruled Oaxaca for eighty one years had finally been defeated. He said it was an emotional day, not least because Gael’s partner and younger daughter came down the day after the elections, and it looked like he was going to return to Mexico City with them. Carlos added that now he was going to leave Oaxaca, too, to travel to South America and maybe elsewhere – perhaps, he added ambiguously, to find out whether he wanted his life to resemble Gael’s or mine. What was clear is that though both Gael and I had left our partners, we had done so for what Carlos must have seen as very different reasons. And was he not right? Gael seemed to believe in a real world of political progress, where I couldn’t even use the word belief to explain how I wanted the world to be. Unlike the Mexican muralists I could make no claim for the political world in which I wanted to live, and could hardly expect Karina and Stephen to turn up at Gilles’ flat in Paris to take me home.
That night I dreamt of them both, but unlike the dreams in Mexico and Argentina, I did not wake in a sweat during the night, but in the morning with a feeling that from a perspective I couldn’t possibly have articulated they were safe and my decision had been the correct one. I did not know whether my sub-conscious would claim a place of culpability once again, couldn’t say whether if I visited certain cities that even my conscious mind wouldn’t be in a state of unease. Where I would go next I didn’t know, though I had the notion that I might try and live in this city where my mind both by day and by night was at peace, and wondered, if I did, whether Stephen would ever seek me out, and how he would treat me if he ever chose to do so. It would be his fourth birthday in a few days’ time, and I knew I would buy a card, get him a gift and post it to him, and perhaps do the same every year until he was eighteen. I seemed to believe that he should always know where I was but that I had forfeited any right to see him unless he actively wished to see me. I am not sure if I could have explained this feeling that was caught between irrevocable yearning and necessary action – between accepting what one is losing whilst also registering what has been gained by that loss. It was paradoxical emotion, but one contained by the idea that was for the moment a paradox too. The one person who could judge me, was not yet of an age where such judgement could be made. At the moment it would be in his body, not in his mind, a sense of quiet terror perhaps that a man who for three years had held him, fed him, raised his legs and bottom and placed a nappy around his mid-riff, had disappeared. I could not claim to know why when I was a child the world in word and image lost its meaning (our father had left when I was a teenager), but I of course knew that I would think many times in the future of whether the same would happen to Stephen. I wondered if he would give this absence a name: the name on an envelope or a parcel that would fall through the letterbox once or twice a year.