Aug 042016
 



ALT TEXT

Aussie Cyril

This started as Aussie Cyril’s; now it’s mine. I worked on the colour and cropped off my head, but the thing that ‘makes’ it is that I rotated it until I got the sense of suspension. I am very pleased with it.

It’s been a weird week. We’re both being weird. Carrying on as though this is an ordinary, normal, uneventful life with no pain.
    I might as well be in a remote lighthouse as here. I feel like all my bonds are cut with my past. Where are all the people I had in my life up until last year? Well – call it nine months ago, when I left England.
    What’s my old neighbour Tiffany up to?
    What about Ilka in Berlin?
    I even wonder occasionally, too, about ruthlessly ambitious Conservative Bastard Jeremy (…he who didn’t want our child). But only in abstract terms. Because he is a man of physical beauty. He’s probably painting the queen by now.
    What induced me to leave it all behind?
    Why suddenly up and leave a life?
    Only Tamara has kept in regular touch. What does that say?

When I walk in after the Delightful Peony, Bel thrusts her iPad at me. ‘Read this. Warped.’
    It’s an email alert from the Shanghai ‘Meet-Up’ website, giving details of a newly-founded group.

Elite Social’ new exclusive Meet-up Group for informal networking at cocktail parties and fine dining events in Shanghai! Guests will make valuable contacts while socialising and networking with many quality professionals at prestige venues. Membership not open like other Meet-up Groups, ‘Elite Social’ is private club, monitors all applications and approve only people are stylish, successful, like-minded professionals, appreciate finer thing in life. Average age mid 20’s – mid 30’s, various nationalities. All member need have photo. No fake profile. Welcome to contact organiser directly re sponsorship, collaboration, business promotion, corporate/personal event inquiry.

    ‘Yeuch. Imagine the combination of Western jerks and oriental princesses.’
    ‘Totally,’Bel growls, returning to her desk. ‘This epitomises the Shanghai we get pulled into as westerners. It’s why I’ve never socialised with the international community. When you’re working in Afghanistan, the Balkans, Africa, it’s totally different. I hate how people relate here. Especially the encounter between foreigners and this privileged social stratum of Chinese.’
    I consider my almost total lack of relations with the Chinese population amidst which I’ve lived for a half-year. Fei Mo Di – but he’s an old Etonian. Hong Kong Ron – but he’s Hong Kong-ese. Lily Hong.
    ‘When is a favour not a favour?’ Bel rants on, grimly wiping today’s layer of smut from her monitor. ‘When is a genuine compliment a fake compliment? When is an act of kindness not an act of kindness? When is a friendship not a friendship? When is a smile fake? Who can be trusted – if anyone?’
    ‘Um. Well, Lily Hong, obviously. Aren’t you being a bit extreme?’
    ‘Tuh.’
    ‘What?’
    ‘Lily just wants a passport.’
    ‘Not fair. She’s your good friend, Bel.’
    Silence.
    I reach, touch Bel’s cheek, but this unnervingly transforms her scowl into a desperate, questioning look. I just blunder on – ‘You do need to leave Shanghai. Not just for two weeks – for good. You’re being poisoned.’

Midnight.
    Bel comes to bed at last. ‘Done it.’
    ‘Hey – fantastic!’ I sit up. ‘That’s fantastic.’
    ‘It’s not that good. ‘ She starts to undress. ‘Just alright.’
    ‘Rubbish. I know it’s brilliant. Look – let’s have a launch party before you fly off on Friday! I can put out word on the WeChat group; Mike Little will rally folk.’
    ‘No!’
    ‘Why not?’
    ‘I absolutely don’t want a party. I don’t want to meet people. I hate people. Everyone out to get something from each other. Nobody being straightforward. Nobody being genuine. Only being nice coz they want connections, favours, advantages.’
    ‘But… why put all this work into this wonderful movie if you don’t want to show it to people?’
    ‘I needed to kill the time. You know; get completely absorbed in a task. Before the funeral.’
    ‘Funeral? I thought you’d intentionally missed the funeral…?’
    Sigh. ‘That was my hope.’
    ‘…thought that’s why you decided not to fly straight there when you first got the news…’
    ‘It was. But there was a delay for the post mortem, then another stupid wait for a cremation date. Bloody bureaucracy,’ she stares out of the window. ‘Funeral’s the day after I arrive.’


 

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Jul 212016
 



ALT TEXT

Aussie Cyril

Aussie Cyril’s shot. My crop.

    ‘My German boyfriend has just walked out on me after seven years.’
    Seems Fei Mo Di has other motives for our ‘skills exchange’ arrangement. He’s needed a shoulder to cry on.
    ‘Seven years! I split with my German girlfriend after seventeen years.’
    Being the self-obsessed type he doesn’t pick up on this. ‘He said I was too British. Emotionally stilted.’
    ‘That’s rich, coming from a German.’
    ‘At Eton I was too Chinese.’
    ‘Is there a place to live on this planet where you don’t get stereotyped?’
    We both have a think. I come up with – ‘Alone in a lighthouse on a rock off the coast of Scotland.’
    Fei Mo Di looks morose. ‘I wouldn’t get a visa.’
    We are drinking pastis in the after-lunch peacefulness of the Café des Stagieres on Yong Kang Lu. Our conversation meanders while we slave over the subtitles for Bel’s movie.
    An afternoon of happiness.

And then I am back in the flat. Bel working on the movie; me staring at my emails. At some point I make Bel a mug of tea, place it by her elbow, squeeze her shoulder. Wish you could be happy.
    It’s as though she hears that thought. ‘I just don’t think I could settle back in the UK, Suki.’
    I sit down beside her. ‘Why not?’
    ‘I feel alien there. Did I ever show you what J.G. Ballard wrote about the English when he first arrived in England after the war? After he’d grown up in Shanghai?’
    ‘No. But I guess it’s not an uplifting read.’
    ‘He influenced me to come here. In fact I’ve just blogged about it’ – she quickly taps on her iPad. ‘I’m sending you the link to a bit that I copied out. Although his descriptions date from 1946, so much of what he wrote is still true.’
    ‘Like what?’
    ‘Oh… narrow English attitudes; English greyness; English misery. Since all my international travelling – my photo-journalism work – I’ve felt utterly alienated from England. The culture, the politics…’
    ‘It wasn’t only to escape from your daughter then. Coming here.’
    ‘Not really. It was mainly coz I got this job offer and thought – why not? Good as anywhere. And J.G. Ballard had made me curious.’
    ‘But we’re alien here, too.’
    Bel turns even more glum. ‘True. When all’s said and done, J.G. Ballard lived in a privileged and comfortable ex-pat bubble. Today’s equivalent of that here in Shanghai is repulsive and I avoid it.’
    I push Bel’s shoulder gently. ‘Tell you what. Let’s go live in a lighthouse on a rock off the coast of Scotland.’
    ‘What?’
    ‘Drink your tea.’

And since then until now, late in the night, we’ve been immersed in our respective silences, our separate virtual worlds.

Cyril – your original version of the attached portrait embarrassed me: I had an expression like a parrot. I wish you’d acknowledge that apart from when I do a big smile, I am not photogenic. Don’t patronise me with the pretence that I am anything other than interestingly ugly. A “straight” portrait photo of me is a non-starter. There are millions of photos of amazingly gorgeous women’s faces out there in the world. I refuse to be entered into that competition as the booby prize candidate. Anyway – the way I’ve now cropped it, it’s primarily about the hand, though the face is still discernible even though I’ve cut off half of it.
    I do sometimes wonder whether my extensive adulteration – “ abuse” – of your
oeuvre is eating at you and will, eventually, suddenly come out of you in a big rage… S

But Cyril’s response is, as ever, dotingly acquiescent. Tsk.


 

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Feb 042016
 

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ALT TEXT

Fei Mo Di

At the Shanghai Art Nude Photographers group session, this guy Fei Mo Di spun off from the Uglow, Schiele and Freud poses I was doing, and did his own thing.

Two weeks in.
    It is still (by British standards) hot – even in mid-October.
    When will I start to write? Will I start to write?
    Each day, while Bel goes teaching, I wander about – “acclimatising”. Staring. Being stared at. The street market was traumatic the first time I went alone. Now I stare through the cat-calls, grin back at the smiles. Great writing-fodder. It’s just… all still too new.

Bel is as bad. When will she start this Art Nude project with me? Will she start it?
    Her morning coughing fits have become my alarm clock. Today the Air Quality Index reports only moderate pollution: Unhealthy for people with special sensitivities. Asthmatics and the elderly may have difficulties. But she coughs whatever the level, on her narrow bed next to mine, scowling at the news pages on her iPad.

Anyway. Got my first one-to-one booking for a photo-shoot! Fei Mo Di (he with the improbably posh English accent, crisply-ironed shirt, designer jeans) is the second Shanghainese person I’ll meet really properly, after Bel’s little assistant Lily Hong.
    So here I am in his bright white 24th floor penthouse. We begin with sparse, polite conversation. The cityscape beyond the glass walls is a sci-fi movie-set. Vertiginous. Construction sites in all directions; cranes everywhere you look.
    Turns out Fei Mo Di is not what he seems. He went to Eton, then the Central College of Fine Arts in Beijing, topped off with a Masters in New York. His mother is vice-chair of a metropolitan committee for culture or something, on the Communist Party’s Consultative Council. She owns real estate in Kensington.
    I’m sipping from a tiny translucent cup. Just beyond the floor-to-ceiling plate glass, the neck of a crane is slowly approaching… What if it doesn’t stop? The elegant tea-set is beside an Apple computer on a huge perspex desk. Fei Mo Di points at his photos from the group session on the monitor. ‘I haven’t sent you these yet. See – I was moving around you a lot, focusing in. So I want to do that again now. I’d like you quite simply, first of all, to stand absolutely still, statuesque.’ He gets up, goes over to where lights are rigged up. ‘Right here.’

I get into position. Silently he begins. What’s the etiquette when one-to-one? Should I chat?
    ‘Ahem. I’m really interested to find out if art-photographers relate to their models differently from artists,’ I begin.
    No immediate reaction. Click, click.
    ‘Like, whether there’s a more natural, human relationship with a photographer? I mean, doesn’t a photographer want somebody alive?’
    Click. ‘Yes.’ Click. Click.
    Was that curt? Should I say more? ‘Whereas artists… I mean, Uglow, for example; he objectified his models to the extreme. He was so fanatical about the precise reproduction of what he was looking at that he’d actually measure out graph-lines on his studio wall and number them to mark exactly where the model was positioned. Flipping autistic!’
    The tele-photo lens stares coldly. ‘Autism has been known to equate with artistic genius.’ The lens roams to my belly, comes in close to my left breast, shoulder…
    ‘Well, but the crap way Uglow related to the model…’
    Fei Mo Di cuts in. ‘Are you familiar with the work of Chuck Close? He’s an autistic man whose excruciatingly meticulous process creates astonishing paintings that happen to start from a photograph.’
    ‘But if it’s from a photograph it’s not really Art’. Okay, I argued the opposite point with Ilka, but this guy’s Etonian accent is aggravating. I hammer on: ‘A photo is conventionally believed to show “the real thing” whereas a painting holds greater interest and value because it’s a unique and expressive interpretation through the artist’s eye, because everyone knows – and as Anais Nin said – “We do not see things as they are, we see things as we are”.’
    ‘Tuh. Glurge.’ Snap, shift, snap.
    ‘Pardon?’
    ‘Your Anaïs Nin quote. Asinine.’
    ‘That is not fair. People are always sticking the knife into Anaïs Nin. It’s because she was a writer. Words on the page are explicit in a way that visual imagery isn’t, so we’re easier to criticize.’
    Fei Mo Di looks round his camera at me, clearly annoyed.
    ‘Yes – I’m a writer myself.’ Standing there naked, I know I am ridiculous.


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