Saturday, 13 January 2018

Cézanne's questioning gaze is the challenge

Self-Portrait with Bowler Hat (1885-86)
How do we view Cézanne? In a review of the National Portrait Gallery’s exhibition of his portraiture, the Evening Standard declared that he had no relevance to art today. This is, of course, arrant nonsense – if we were only to take the example of his influence on Matisse and then consider Matisse’s continuing influence on art, then we can see it as a piece of empty provocation.

Yet however indignantly one might reject such an assertion, there is something oddly flat about this exhibition.

That could be because it opened last year to almost universally hysterical praise and simply cannot live up to the hype.

A number of the works appear unfinished – perhaps even careless. Cézanne’s sense of proportion is, on occasion, absurd. Though I must confess that, just as with the Picasso portraits in the same rooms early last year, it is a marvellous thing for any art practitioner to see that famous artists didn’t always find it easy to paint hands!

Madame Cézanne in a Red Armchair
It’s possible that, thinking of the Provencal sun, I had expected a riot of colour and the sharp contrasts between light and shade that one finds in southern Europe.

But Cézanne’s palette is incredibly restrained. Ironically, given such an expectation, this limited palette was actually one of the most fascinating things about the show.

Blue and blue-greens dominate. And the tones of green that the artist used on faces – Madame Cézanne in a Red Armchair (1877) is a perfect example – instantly brings to mind The Green Line (or Portrait of Madame Matisse) that Matisse painted in 1905 to huge consternation.

It’s worth remembering that Matisse was ahead of his time in recognising Cézanne – he bought Three Bathers (1879-82) at great personal cost in 1899 and carried it with him as a talisman for years, before donating it to the Museum of the City of Paris in 1936.

Three almost identical portraits of Madame Cézanne wife hang here – reunited for the first time in a century, but only serving to give a sense of at least one not really being finished.

The Artist’s Father, Reading L’Evénement
The show opens with The Artist’s Father, Reading L’Evénement from 1866, which is wonderful – not least because of the less obvious things involved.

The newspaper had originally been Le Siècle (a republican but not revolutionary paper), but Cézanne changed that to L’Evénement – a more radical publication that had a particularly caustic art critic, who turned out to be Cézanne’s old friend and sparring partner, Zola.

Alex Danchev, in his Cézanne: A life (2013), points out that it was part of a lifetime conversation between the two.

And the artist son also makes a little point about his relationship with his father by including a painting of his own behind the chair. 

Of interest is Portrait of Paul Cézanne (1862-64), painted from a photograph of the artist himself at the age of 22, which has a fierce quality that contrasts hugely with the questioning expression that is a regular feature in so many later self portraits, including a pair from 1875, Self-Portrait with a Landscape Background and Self-Portrait with Rose Background (the latter of which looks like Clement Freud).

Old Woman with a Rosary 
In another room, we have two more self-portraits – this time, both show the artist wearing a bowler hat. Again, the look is quizzical and seems to challenge the impertinence of the viewer in a way the portraits of other people never seem to do.

Woman With a Coffee Pot (1895) is striking, but more striking yet is Old Woman with a Rosary (1895-96), with light that nods to Rembrandt and a treatment of his subject that conveys real emotion.

My most substantial previous exposure to Cézanne had been at the Courtauld, which has lent this exhibition Man With a Pipe (c1896). Yet for all that it is largely executed in a palette of browns, Cézanne here gives his subject light – dappled light on the hat and coat.

And in The Gardener Vallier (1905-06), one of his last works, there are finally the brights and the light and shade one might have expected.

Much to consider and take away for further mulling, even if nothing quite leaves you with a sense of awe.

Not that anything is ever helped by curator’s notes that seem aimed directly at winning a place in Private Eye’s Pseuds Corner – the explanation for Old Woman with a Rosary waffled on about the artist using colour to show volume, with “lozonge-shaped” slabs of colour being like “a map”. No. Just no.

But perhaps what most feels disjointed here is the contrast – or even the conflict – between the more naturalistic portraits and mask-like ones; we flit between the two through Cézanne’s career.

The self-portraits are, as a group, among the strongest works on display – precisely because they veer to the more naturalistic and because of that gaze.

Never mind how we view Cézanne – this exhibition seems to be more about how the artist makes us think about ourselves when we train our own gaze on another person and, in this age of the selfie, maybe even ourselves, just as he was gazing at himself.

Until 11 February at www.npg.org.uk.

Tuesday, 9 January 2018

The NHS needs a whole team – and that has to include administrators

On an afternoon last spring, in the chaos of trying to clear hospital beds for new patients, a frail, elderly man was rushed back to his house the moment that a care package was in place. Behind him, at the opposite end of the hospital, his wife of almost 57 years lay dying. The hospital staff didn’t have the time to be able to let him see her before ferrying him away.

That was my father and that was my mother. She passed away just five days later. I shall never forget the kindness of Winson, a young male nurse who, as I sat beside her bed watching over her breathless body, gently wiped a single tear from my cheek and who, equally gently, encouraged me to remove her earrings – something that I quickly understood was close to the services for our dead that have, so much, been sanitised from the UK’s mainstream culture.

It was the beginning of May. The blossom was falling in the garden that had been her domain. Whatever the reality said, the chaotic state of the National Health Service was not the headline news that it is right now, when even the prime minister has felt the need to apologise as countless non-urgent operations are cancelled, accident and emergency department waiting times rise and people lie on hospital beds in corridors.

Good sources tell me that St Helier, which lies in Carshalton, at London’s southern reaches, closed a ward recently in an attempt to save money – only to have to reopen it a short while later.

Indeed, my father had been one of the patients transferred into another ward in order to enable that closure, though I didn’t realise it at the time.

At the beginning of November, suffering serious abdominal pain in the night, he used his safety watch to summon help. A scan revealed gallstones and elective surgery was proposed, with the aim of building him up beforehand.

Then his major organs got stroppy. Early on a Monday morning, I was summoned to the hospital as a matter of urgency.

It’s approximately a two-hour trip. Scrambling out of the most convenient railway station and into a minicab, the phone rang again. They were prepping him for emergency surgery. I got there in time to sign the consent form and be told he would die without the operation – and probably with it. The anaesthetist then assured me that, since he would “be asleep,” there would be no trauma. She later told me that she had not expected him to survive the introduction of the anaesthesia.

His Methodist minister, the seriously wonderful Rosemary, was there too and we joked away with him until he was wheeled away. I was grateful that I had, for some reason, I had thought to put sunglasses in my bag.

Rosemary took me to the coffee shop and stayed with me. She didn’t try to be ‘religious’ to me’ but bought me sweet tea and let me burble away.

Ninety minutes later, the surgeon rang to say that Dad was back in the high dependency unit.

He’s a stubborn old sod.

The surgery had discovered nothing. They had expected to find that part of his bowel had died, but instead, realised that he had sepsis. Once stitched up, they started nuking him with antibiotics and, after hours of stabilising has blood pressure, the improvement increased. Within a day or so, he was off dialysis. After a week, he was fully conscious and able to start eating and drinking properly. It is possible that nobody has relished a Fortisip more – he asked for seconds and the look on the face of the nurse was priceless. She was as delighted as she was stunned.

Then Andrew, an Antipodean physiotherapist who walks around the place in shorts, noticed that his right arm wasn’t working. Lots of scans revealed he’d had a minor stroke – and also that he has a touch of vascular dementia. The stroke had only seriously affected his right shoulder and elbow – he can still grip and he still has feeling in his arm. His ability speak and swallow was unaffected.

Because of what the year had already been like, The Other Half and I had planned a short break in Vienna for a combination of culture vulturey and Christmas markets, and a raft of people (including medical staff) insisted I go. Out of medical danger, he asked me to bring him back a CD of Strauss. Johan II, that is. Richard might be more to my liking, but The Waltz King is Dad’s favourite.

While I was away, a team rallied around to make sure he had regular visits and I returned with a six-CD set of Strauss by the incomparable Vienna Philharmonic, conducted by Willi Boskovsky, plus a personal CD player and soft over-ear headphones so that he didn’t have to wait to go home to listen.

He lay in bed, air conducting.

The day I gave him these presents, I waited for over three hours to see a doctor. In the event, it was a physiotherapist who sat down with me to discuss the situation. Sure enough, Dad was going to need to have a bed downstairs at home, with a commode and other aids to help him. He would have lots of physio in the hospital before he went home, including being taught how to use some of these new aids, and then an intensive period of physio at home to help him adjust.

When occupational therapists visited his house to see the situation, they even told me that he would be taken into a kitchen before coming home to see how he could cope with, for instance, a toaster – would it be safe for him, given the dementia diagnosis? He was “top of the waiting list” to be transferred to the stroke ward and he would be home for Christmas.

They’d already told him all this too.

That was the last week of November. He never made it to the stroke ward. As far as I am aware, he made it to any kitchen either – and I have heard nothing to say whether or not he and a toaster are safe together.

He was discharged on 28 December. The 10 days beforehand had enjoyed all the tone of a Kafkaesque nightmare.

Having been told that he would ‘be home for Christmas’ he had focused so totally on that he was distraught.

He talked of throwing his Christmas dinner on the floor in protest at “The Bureaucrats” and how they were keeping him “In Prison”.

He has dementia, remember, and this just bolsters the conspiracy paranoia he’s enjoyed developing in recent years. Thanks, Daily Mail.

As quickly as possible, I had done a part-clearance on the house so that a bed could be brought downstairs – and here’s a chance to publicly thank Jacky from Carshalton Methodist Church for getting people around to do that shifting. I could not have done it on my own.

The process had revealed that my mother had been incapable of throwing anything away or of letting anyone help or move anything. There were empty biscuit tins under a dresser; a carrier bag of empty tablet bottles dating back to at least 2002 were stacked in a corner that was full of other carrier bags that were also stacked full of stuff. If any more floor space had been filled with bags, nobody would have been able to walk around the house at all. I spent my birthday up to my ankles in the mouse poop that was hiding beneath the endless, slowly-decaying bags, but it was done as quickly as I could get people to take away the furniture we needed to shift.

Then, just over a week before Christmas itself, a social worker rang me to see how things were going on. In conversation, it emerged that nobody from the hospital had bothered to contact social services about a care package and that she had simply rung up to get an update on the general situation.

Later that day, at the hospital, the occupational and physiotherapy teams panicked.

They told me that they couldn’t contact social services until all the new aids for him had been delivered to the house. But I had facilitated that at the earliest possible opportunity – and it still wouldn’t have been enough time.

They panicked.

They told me that care packages can be set up and put in place with 72 hours notice.

In an ideal world, perhaps – but not in the one that currently exists. As our own experience in April 2017 had shown and, indeed, as several people who work in the care industry have told me, this is not something that anyone would sensibly assume.

Two social workers have told me since that the 72 hours claim is nonsense and that even if a particular form can only be triggered by devices being delivered to a property, you talk to social services before that so that they can start the assessment process.

The occupational and physiotherapy teams continued to panic.

I’m afraid I got particularly ratty – I have been rather stressed of late, oddly enough – when a physio tried to blame nurses for not having sent a form to social services that they had (it was claimed) been told to send. A doctor told me that this was bollocks – that the form in question is sent by occupational therapy. A professional carer told me the same.

I managed a (surprisingly polite) sotto voce rant.

In the preceding weeks, Dad had been on wards where there was just a single nurse on duty at some points. He did not, from what I have been able to ascertain, receive therapy on a daily basis. He was shuffled between five different wards during his stay, including a final move on Christmas Day itself, when he was weeping and calling out to his dead wife that she should have taken him with her.

All those wards – yet not the stroke one we’d been told he was top of the waiting list for.

As I mentioned eaerlier, he got home just after Christmas. My niece had been down for the week to give me some respite, but she went home on New Year’s Eve.

In the early hours of New Year’s Day, trying to get from his bed to the commode, he fell and lay in his own shit for hours before a carer arrived. Fine whatever reason, his personal alarm didn’t trigger. He spent most of New Year’s Day in A&E before being sent home again.

The following day, he had home visits from two physios, plus a podiatrist. Everyone needed to go through chunks of his medical history each time for their own records. Thankfully, I was there, because he cannot remember everything or simply isn’t always aware of what would be relevant.

Today, he spent the day once more in A&E after a carer realised he was feeling rather poorly. He was dehydrated and probably has a viral infection.

Once again, the staff were fabulous.

Yet so stretched is the system that meals on wheels were not contacted, as they expect to be in such circumstances. They rang me direct concerned that he must have been taken to a different hospital.

There are recurring problems here.

One can ask why so much information has to be gathered so many different times. Is there really no central, complete record that can be accessed by any professional dealing with a patient?

Vast amounts of time are being wasted this way – and there is also the issue of someone such as my father not actually remembering all the correct answers, as happened the other day. If there was time, why not contact family – possibly by email – rather than ringing in the middle of a working day and expecting them to stop everything there and then?

It’s so chaotic that we have had one situation where the new ward he’d been moved to didn’t have any mention on his notes of the dementia diagnosis.

This, of course, requires administration – and we all know, because we have been repeatedly told, that there are too many ‘pen pushers’ in the health service and that they can easily be scrapped.

But that doesn’t make the paperwork go away. This is the paperwork – and if there’s no one to dedicatedly handle it, then it will either eat into the work time of medical staff … or get forgotten.

Communication falls into the same category. For instance, who contacts families to tell them a patient has been moved? In my experience over the past year – nobody.

Last April, when my father was in hospital following his heart attack, he was taken to another hospital for “a procedure”. Nobody told the family. We found out because my niece had come down from the north to visit him – and discovered that he wasn’t where he was supposed to be. I rang the hospital he’d been taken to, but every day for almost a week, I was told he was going to have the procedure that day and then be returned to the first hospital, only to later discover it had been put off until the following day. We could not organise visiting, because we had no idea where he was going to be at any given time.

This time around, Dad’s local pharmacy left a note at the house in November asking someone to contact them, since they hadn’t been able to deliver his medication.

I rang and, having explained the situation, was told that, when he was discharged, the hospital would let the pharmacy know about his medication so that they could organise and then deliver it. This was something else that slipped through the hospital’s net – and I was called by a physiotherapist and told that it was up to me to sort it out. The pharmacy were able to get the new prescription filled and then deliver it to the house – but they had not been notified as they should have been and had had to chase down his GP.

When Dad was admitted to hospital in November, I took a wallet in for him, with a little cash, a note of telephone numbers for close family, a few family snaps and a small prayer on a laminated card that had a tiny cross on it.

On his move to the high dependency unit, it got mislaid. I have asked about it several times – and been back to the original ward too, where details were noted down. I’ve heard nothing. But when staff hardly have the time to do their basic work – I have witnessed nurses almost running around to get key tasks done – how are they supposed to find the time to deal with things like this?

For the avoidance of any doubt: the staff I have dealt with and seen in action have been incredible – patient, caring and utterly committed to the task in front of them.

And my thanks not just to them, but also to the support team – so often forgotten. During his stay, it really helped my father when, for instance, whoever was on the tea trolley remembered him and how he liked his tea, and tried to make sure he got biscuits instead of cake.

Everyone knows the NHS is woefully understaffed and that it’s getting worse. But what I’ve attempted to do here is list here is a series of issues that relate not only to staffing levels – but also to administration.

Too many administrators in the NHS?

No. Not nearly enough.

And the idea that administration is somehow just meaningless ‘stuff’ that will disappear if there is nobody to do it is nothing other than a fantasy that is totally removed from reality.

I very much doubt that this is a unique set of circumstances that add to the difficulties currently facing the NHS. I do not, for one moment, think that what I’ve touched on here is unique to St Helier – and nor do I blame the hospital for what has happened, though it has been incredibly frustrating and has added to stress levels.

But that is why, rather than making a complaint to the hospital in question, I have decided that it is more important to put this in the public domain, where it can add to the swell of evidence on the current state of our health service and to the public debate about what sort of a health service we want and how we get that.

Please feel free to add any experiences of your own below and to pass this post on.




Monday, 8 January 2018

Paddington makes life feel a bit more bearable

It is just possible that Paul King’s Paddington 2 is actually a ruse – a scheme to find the most miserable cinemagoer around, because it’s hard to imagine a film more unrelentingly charming.

Presumably it is possible to  take a dislike to it – but it would require a curmudgeon of truly epic proportions.

Picking up easily where the first film left off, we find Paddington and the Browns continuing their lives in West London, with the former continuing to bring sunshine into the lives of all his neighbours – well, with the exception of the unpleasant Mr Curry.

The only fly in the marmalade is that our ursine hero wants to find an appropriate 100th birthday present to send to Aunt Lucy in Peru.

Having seen a unique pop-up book of London, he imagines how that would allow his aged aunt to experience the city – a gorgeous sequence that pays homage to the BBC Ivor Wood shorts from the 1970s.

But the book is not cheap and so Paddington sets out to get himself a job and earn the money to buy it.

The results are as chaotic as you would imagine, but on the cusp of raising the cash, all his plans go awry when the book is stolen and he is framed for the theft. Sent down for 10 years, the Browns – and Mrs Bird – set out to clear his name.

Yes, yes – I know it opened two months ago, but there will still be no spoilers here.

The pace is excellent with not a single wasted moment. It pays to be attentive from the start, as what may appear to be brief, throwaway scene-setting moments come into their own later.

The cast is absolutely spot on – including all the cameo appearances from actors who presumably are now as desperate to appear in a Paddington film as they are to be in Star Wars.

Hugh Bonneville and Sally Hawkins as Henry and Mary Brown have the opportunity to further flesh out their characters, while Madeline Harris and Samuel Joslin as Judy and Jonathon ensure that their children are never annoying.

Julie Walters has some lovely moments as Mrs Bird, their housekeeper, while Peter Capaldi makes the most of the spiteful and xenophobic Mr Curry (standing in for Brexit?).

Brendan Gleeson is a delight as grumpy giant of a prison chef, Nuckles McGinty, and Tom Conti is a vindictive judge who it doesn’t pay to get on the wrong side of.

And of course, there is Ben Wishaw, giving voice to Paddington himself – a stunning CGI creation that remains utterly believable – the innocent abroad who persists in believing in tolerance and good manners and being nice to everyone.

But in a glittering cast, the stand out is Hugh Grant’s turn as arch villain Phoenix Buchanan – an egotistical stage actor whose career has plunged him to the depths of dressing as a dog to advertise “doggy din dins” – which sees him out-camp an entire field of tents with relish.

And on this note – do not leave before the end titles, with its delicious version of Rain on the Roof from Sondheim’s Follies.

In a world that currently seems hellbent on being as thoroughly shitty as possible, Paddington 2 is 103 minutes of unalloyed joy.

Sunday, 31 December 2017

Star Wars sees Leia remind us to keep on fighting

Star Wars is Star Wars is Star Wars. Some may deride such a suggestion, but while it’s an oversimplification, it also contains more than a grain of truth. After all, the second trilogy pushed many of the original fans away from the initial trio of movies precisely because, however much George Lucas wanted to explore trade wars in those outings, that was not what fans felt was ‘real’ Star Wars. Jar Jar Binks was simply the sickly icing on an unappetising cake.

Two years ago, I came out of a cinema and said – after I’d stopped shaking – that JJ Abrams had ‘given us back Star Wars’.

However much The Force Awakens was effectively a remake of 1977’s A New Hope, the utterly vital thing was that it contained the spirit of Star Wars that fans recognised from the first movies, wanted again and instantly warmed to, as opposed to soul-sapping tedium of the second trilogy. It really was a ‘new hope’.

Last year’s Rogue One was still recognisably Star Wars, but with added grittiness.

And so we arrive at at the tail end of 2017 and The Last Jedi – the sequel to The Force Awakens.

If I don’t feel as overtly euphoric as I did when exiting the Waterloo IMAX two years ago, it’s because my expectations have already moved way beyond fearing the worst.

As Rey seeks the help of Luke Skywalker, the Resistance is close to being wiped out by the First Order.

But Luke, who has been in self-imposed exile on the craggy island of Ahch-To, has no intention of returning or of helping Rey learn how to use the Force that has stirred in her.

Writer and director Rian Johnson has done a top job here, creating a tense roller-coaster of a cinematic ride that allows for many things.

It all has an added gravity – and poignancy – with every sight of the late Carrie Fisher, to whom the film is dedicated.

But while it absolutely has the ‘feel’ of true Star Wars, there are also differences.

There is a darker mood and even a (slightly) more philosophical one, with many of the actors having the opportunity to explore more nuanced aspects of their characters.

Of course, while the Empire has always been fascistic, current events give this aspect of the films a certain increased power. 

But have no fear, there are lighter moments.

These include Chewbacca and the porgs – small birds on Ahch-To. If they remind you a tad of puffins, that’s because they are. Filming on Skellig Michael, the crew was faced with a plethora of the birds and, since it’s a World Heritage Site and they’re protected, it was decided that the best way to deal with this was to use CGI to turn them into part of the film.

I really do want a vulptex – a crystal snow fox (Swarovski could make billions) and the space horses (fathiers) manage to be cute without that being a distraction.

It hit me, while watching, that I cannot recall an action film with so many female characters. But what’s important here is that, in general, these are not specifically male or female roles, so it really makes no difference.

Points are suggested about gender – the macho approach of Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) versus Leia and Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo’s more considered one – but this is just divas on the right side of being overplayed.

And besides, it has triggered further fits in those whose very sense of masculinity is so fragile that it shatters at the mere sight of a few more women in a few more roles in a few more films.

Of the cast, Daisy Ridley as Rey and John Boyega as Finn grow further into their roles, while Mark Hamill’s acting range seems to have broadened. 

Supreme Leader Snoke gives Andy Serkis, Hollywood’s go-to performance capture expert, another chance to strut his stuff.

Adam Driver is definitely making Kylo Ren more interesting and slightly less than a spoilt brat, while Kelly Marie Tran as Rose Tico, a Resistance maintenance worker, and Laura Dern as Holdo give solid supporting performances.

Make no mistake – this is Star Wars. And this is Leia’s film. It was a shock last year when she died and it was a surprise to realise how much it upset me personally. Seeing her on screen here is particularly moving.

This is not the greatest film ever made. But in this final performance, Fisher reminds us to leave the sentiment until after the enemy is defeated.

How very apt that feels. And it packs a powerful punch too.