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 282016
 



ALT TEXT

Aussie Cyril

Aussie Cyril says the work of Ruth Bernhard inspired this photo. He pointed me to Bernhard’s ‘mission statement’, as summarised in the Peter Lacey book:
    ‘Every artist is a missionary trying to convey a message of truth and beauty; further, the immortalization of the human body’s beauty – both male and female – has always been an obsession for poets, sculptors, painters and now photographers. However, in her twentieth century context, the image of woman is being cheapened and exploited – especially by photography. Thus Bernhard saw it as her life’s task “to raise, to elevate, to endorse with timeless reverence the image of woman”’.
    Aussie Cyril seems entirely at ease with Bernhard’s quasi-religious attitudes. Cyril, too, has a similar reverence for women. Tuh. His photos from the latest shoot still aim to beautify me.

The BBC is blocked today. They must have done something to wazz off the Chinese government. My VPN isn’t working either. Routed out and blocked.
    I hate it. I hate not having free internet access. I hate living in a totalitarian state.
    So when am I going to leave?
    What if – terrifying thought – Bel didn’t come back from Antwerp?
    She’s spent the whole weekend til now beavering on the ‘Qi Qi’s life-room’ movie. Silent. Shutting me out. But it’s better than obsessing over the world’s bad news, I suppose. She’s still got to put the subtitles on, but I’m sure she’ll get it done. There’s another weekend before she flies.
    ‘Just off to my shoot with Cyril!’ I want as many fistfuls of yuan as I can get out of Cyril. I’m jittery about my cash-flow during the time Bel will be away.

    ‘Good morning, darling Suki-muse.’ Cyril hands me my usual ginger latte from the downstairs wannabe-Starbucks.
    But I am cross. ‘Don’t, Cyril. Muse is not the word. It’s as bad as saying Lee Miller was Man Ray’s “muse”: it positions her behind him, like, in a purely supportive role, when actually it was Lee who invented that famous ‘solarisation’ technique.’
    ‘Alright. I’ll call you my darling directrice.’
    ‘Tsk. Stop it. Look, the facts are, (a) Lee spent at the very most three years with Man Ray, and (b) she used that relatively brief relationship as an apprenticeship to further her own, not his, photographic career.’
    ‘All I mean is, you inspire me. Give me something to do. Without you, I don’t really have… here in Shanghai…’
    God I don’t want to hear this – ‘Cyril! Listen – a proper muse is someone like Charis Wilson; it was her raison d’etre to further the work of her photographer husband. Like, it was her sacred obligation. Whereas I do not further your work, Cyril. I chop it up and make it mine. Muse is not the word for me. It’s your silly fantasy.’
    He pats my bottom. ‘Deary me – which side of the bed did you get out of this morning?’
    Why am I risking upsetting him with honesty? He’s paying me more than the going rate. Pretence works for both of us.
    ‘Cyril. Sorry. Let’s just get on with the shoot.’
    Allowing the bottom-pat is just necessity. But I decline his lunch invitation.

So I‘m back in the flat in time to have lunch with Bel, which for once I myself cook. Maybe we’ll talk! Though I’ve given up prompting her on the subjects of her daughter, her past, herself…
    I prepare instant noodles with flair, serve Bel at the table with a flourish, and embark on an interesting topic.
    ‘Bel. I have a question. Art Nude photographers, even female photographers, mainly photograph women. Whether exploitatively or reverentially, it’s always women. Why?’
    Carefully, as though teaching a little child: ‘Because women are more beautiful.’ Then, with chopsticks halfway to her mouth – ‘Well, except for Mapplethorpe and his gay stuff, obviously.’
    ‘Okay, so I have another question: why don’t men – straight men – make themselves beautiful? It’s not as though they don’t get looked at, in this day and age. Why don’t they feel themselves being looked at, and get self-conscious and worried like we do? I mean – Aussie Cyril’s obese. Mike Little wears a zip-up fleece and socks and sandals, need I say more. Jacques-from-Brussels clearly never bathes. Hong Kong Ron, that friend of my friend Tamara, is a buttockless little shrimp in unflattering spectacles.’ I scoop at the noodles’ grey soup. ‘There’s only Fei Mo Di who looks good.’
    ‘Obviously. He’s a French horn.’
    ‘But the rest of them – they make me want to holler Hey – you men – it’s the 21st century and people are looking at you…!’
    ‘I’m not.’
    ‘…They should get their peacock tails out! They should make themselves more attractive! Just make a bloody effort, guys.’


 

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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 182016
 



ALT TEXT

Aussie Cyril

My photoshopped version of one of Aussie Cyril’s photos from the first group session (pose taken from a Lucian Freud painting). I rotated the image to makethe curtain’s edge a true vertical, removed the fabric’s creases, cropped right to the edges of my body, and bleached out colour until I am sculpted marble – a bloodless creature into which rigor mortis has set. Good, or what?

Dear Cyril, before our first 1:1 session tomorrow, a confession. See attached. Is the model allowed to change a photographer’s image of her? I did not ask your permission to change this and – sorry – others, too, of the ones you emailed me. I’m so sorry if I have broken the law. Most artists would cry ‘sacrilege !’ if someone altered their painting. Hope this doesn’t make you call off the booking. Kind rgds Suki

Week five of my Shanghai odyssey. A bright, warm mid-November afternoon.
    Not long after leaving for the teaching block, Bel is back at the flat again.
    ‘Thought you’d got photography undergrads this p.m.?’
    She drops onto her bed. ‘They’ve been sent out to sweep up the campus. Visit of dignitaries tomorrow.’
    ‘God. So chaotic. The way things shift and change without notice.’
    Bel already has her iPad in her hand.
    ‘Okay, look, I’m sticking to my writing routine.’ Pause. ‘Do you want to come with?’
    ‘It’s alright. I’d like to just sit and read the news.’
    ‘Well… I’ll see you later.’ She’s obviously going to spend another afternoon silently, depressively internet-surfing. I head for the door with my bag, and look back from the threshold. ‘You’re addicted to those news sites,’ I joke. ‘All the world’s bad news.’

I set out, like every afternoon, for the recently-opened Delightful Peony Coffee Home – the only cafe round here with a shop-sign and menu in English. The employees are migrants from the countryside with no English. The so-called lattes are made of condensed milk, served sweetened with syrup. Never mind. It’s quicker and cheaper than trekking to a Starbucks in the city. And there is wifi.
    I pick my way across the campus through gaggles of flirting students trailing the brooms with which they’ve been issued. The gymnasium, not five years old, is already tatty, its pretend-redbrick tiles coming unglued from the exterior and dropping off in patches due to the damp creeping up its cement structure. Pudong’s water table is barely subterranean. Dig six inches down and you’re in a pool.
    At the Delightful Peony I hook up to the WiFi. Damn. Today both the BBC and The Guardian newspaper are blocked. Techie Bel has yet to set me up with the illegal software everyone uses to get onto the web – a ‘VPN’. But my Chinese ‘qq’ email account opens without a hitch. God – an answer from Aussie Cyril already. Is he pissed off? Pride made me want to show him my massively improved version of his photo – but not in person, in case of wrath.

Regarding the attached photo – I do not have a problem whatsoever with your changes, except that I am more than a little uncomfortable that the image now makes you look like the victim of the portrayer – a bit too ‘apres Freud’! Discuss further tomorrow, still greatly looking forward. Very best wishes, Cyril Sent from my iPhone

When I get back to the flat Lily Hong is coincidentally, as on previous occasions, just leaving.
    ‘This is always happening – it’s uncanny!’ I grin.
    Bel calls out – ‘English practice!’ She comes over to the doorway. ‘I’ve given Lily Hong your website address and told her about the language notes you’ve put on A Small Life and Two Small Lives.’
    ‘I will read your story Miss Suki – thank you!’ Lily Hong flutters out, dimple-cheeked – ‘Have a nice day! Don’t worry be happy!’
    I close the door behind her. ‘Don’t you find her a bit much? So frilly and effusive.’
    ‘I’m grateful. She looks after me.’
    Am I being criticised? ‘Sorry – I’m crap at that. I’m deeply aware my only cooking contribution to this household is instant noodles. Bit of a liability, really. Bet you’re sorry I came.’
    ‘No.’ Bel takes my hand.
    Shock!
    ‘It’s so great you’re here,’ she says, not looking at me. ‘All those months when I was by myself… I was so lonely.’
    Is she being romantic? Oh my god; I don’t… She’s so…
    ‘Uff.’ I know I’m going pink. I slip my hand from hers. ‘Cuppa tea?’


 

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