Wednesday, 21 December 2011

School Run - A view I love and see every single day of term

This is the view of the school run, a view that looks out from the old airfield at Tarrant Rawston across to Ashley Heath, a golf course. It was this view that convinced me to stay here in the UK and not leave again to be an expat. I enjoy watching the colours and tones change with each season. It is painted in oils and has taken me weeks to paint, adding layer upon layer in order to achieve the effect I wanted.

Sunday, 31 July 2011

Pastel Still Life - Lemons

I have struggled with these lemons for weeks. The 'working sketch' was executed in an art class, it focuses on tone, light and shape in order to excite and amuse the eyes. I then moved to an acrylic, using the cketch as the base. The lemons rotted and were thrown away.

Perhaps this was the problem. My uncle, an artist, tells me I should not paint from photos. I should paint from real life. Photos deaden the subject, he tells me. It is painting for the sake of it, lacking in meaning, dull. He was disappointed by the 

No allowances for medium then... no oils with their interminable drying time. I struggled and struggled with the painting, with the result that my lemons look more like bombs. They lack the life and light of the original version.

Saturday, 30 July 2011

Elite Art Clubs: What is the point?

Disappointed today by the cool reception of Wimborne Art Club when I asked how I might beome a member. Two male members seated at their exhibition hall table looked me up and down doubtfully. One states, "been painting for just a short while have you?" Granted they were both at least 75 years of age but I couldn't help being a little taken aback by that. Was it the baby I was holding?  Was it my slightly sexy clothing? My comparative youth? My gender? What put them off? I wondered.

Then I was rudely kicked back. "We are a very elite club, with millions of people waiting to join."

What is the point of such a club? Their exhibiton reeked of mediocrity, their reception was worse than cold. It was patronising. Surely they are crying out for new blood, new life and new challenges to their comfort zones... or perhaps not.

A first attempt at watercolour painting

So, after years of fear, I decided to try out watercolour...

Thursday, 28 July 2011

The New Colonials - Time for a Revolution?

The revolution in Egypt has resulted in increased difficulties for foreigners to obtain visas. Whereas before, foreigners could renew 6 month tourist visas for years, if not decades, the times are a changin' for the epxat community now. Oil companies are under increased pressure to hire Egyptians with stricter ratio quotas. Foreigners widely percieved as taking the jobs from locals are being kicked out. I wonder if the behaviour of some of the expats in Egypt has not contributed to this nationalistic fervour...

Neo-Colonials: Skeletons in the School Cupboard 

It started one winter’s day when we were all sent an email from school. 

“To All Parents,” it read.

“Please tell your drivers to go round the one way system, drop you and your children and then wait at a prearranged spot to be called back for pick up.”

The safety of our children was at stake, it seemed and not only that! Traffic chaos, a fact of life in Cairo, had finally extended its sly, sticky tentacles to the British school. The missive read like a takeover warning, a call to arms against cultural invasion. I laughed, then, and took it in good humour, promising inwardly to change my sloppy ways. It was, I admit, also my fault. Disorganised and often late, we sped round the short dusty route to the school forcing our car against the tide of school traffic, parking after a nifty, prohibited, U-Turn at the gate so that Mohammed, our young, savvy driver could go and chat with his mates while I ran with my son to class.

The school, a sandy coloured building with tinted green windows on the outskirts of building desert, borders a new sports club for disaffected Middle Class Christian Copts escaping the ‘effendi’ Muslim takeover of the ex-colonial Maadi Yacht and Sporting Club and football/ tennis academy enthusiasts. It is at the edge of a new construction development of high rise apartments, one of many in burgeoning Cairo suburbia. As the upper-middle classes of Egypt move to escape the fumes, chaos and riff-raff of downtown Cairo, so the developments follow. Or perhaps it is the other way round. It is not clear.
The school presently faces a large trench where a crane is slowly laying enormous sewage and water pipes for future high rise dwellings.  In the distance, across the rocky, sandy hills of Wadi Degla, cement factories spew out rubble and dig for limestone. Occasionally trucks come to deposit large boulders into the gorge below, sending plumes of grimy dust into the air. Piles of building sand interspersed with domestic refuse dumped by country maids from the high rises lie along the road, creating a single lane of sand covered tarmac. Therein lies the crux of the problem, a narrow road made narrower by construction debris where harassed, rushing parents race in their four by four desert vehicles to the school gates. Invariably late for the school bell, anxious motorists jostle for position, double parking and arguing with taxi drivers and sports club traffic while groups of Egyptian drivers stand guard by their vehicles smoking and smirking at the ensuing chaos. It is no different to anywhere else in the city.

A clash of cultures is almost inevitable. On one side, the Egyptians: relaxed, carefree drivers who do not follow prescribed rules but have developed their own methods of motoring:  Intermittent use of the horn, parking willy-nilly and the general rule that the bigger the vehicle is the more right of way it deserves. Time, what time? Egypt doesn’t wake up or engage in commercial activity until 10am, so what’s the rush? Where is everyone going in such a hurry? By nature easy going and friendly, they gaze in wonderment together at the stressed frowns of European school parents desperately trying to drop off children before work. Even more bemusement is reserved for stressed housewives togged out in tracksuits and riding gear – for whom and for what are they rushing, and what ARE they wearing?
Open aggression loses the aggressor face in Egypt. Even in the most trying of circumstances, a well brought up Egyptian does not lose his temper. Road rage is an anomaly unless there is an actual accident. Foreigners do not use the horn in the same way as locals. It takes time to understand that one beep is “hello”. Two is “I am passing”, and three is “Look out!” All are friendly and well received with a wave and a smile. Only the foreign pedestrian will turn and shout angrily in response, eliciting bewilderment by locals. ‘Hey, I was only trying to warn you of my presence,’ they shrug sadly. On the relatively rare occasion of an accident, after much macho posturing and argument, drivers are friendly, shaking hands, exchanging cash if requested, bidding farewell and never, ever, calling the hated traffic police to the scene if they can help it. There is an unspoken driver’s code, a code that is not cross-cultural and does not easily translate. Clash and contrast this with the vain efforts of the school to enforce a more British, ‘civilised’ modus operandi on the road: All cars to follow a one-way system, filing slowly and carefully through from left to right, without double parking, without stopping for a chat, a smoke or a laugh. No time, no time, be on your way!
The emails filter through to our inboxes, becoming increasingly aggressive, desperate in their pleas.

First they are polite;
“Can we please remind all parents...,”
“To those who continue to flout the rules”,

And finally, the ultimatum;
 “This week the Headmaster will be standing outside to name and shame offenders... “.

Suddenly the stand-off goes too far, child safety notwithstanding. I stare at the final email in astonishment, embarrassed for the school in its ivory tower. I pause with wonder, where do they think they are, Hemel Hempstead?  In that moment, we are transformed from fee-paying parents into rebellious, naughty children to be disciplined in the name of divide and rule and conquer. Shame them into shape! Catch the bad apples, throw them into detention! Make them conform. Rules, rules, rule! Of course one fact is never mentioned, the white elephant in the room. The school seems to have conveniently forgotten that the road is a public byway, not owned by the British, not any longer at least, not for these past 60 odd years. How can one ‘name and shame’ drivers for driving on a public road? It is no less futile than the efforts of the American Embassy to close roads in London that border ‘their’ land, and no less arrogant.

I am surely not alone in this thought and yet the school buzzes with self-righteous indignation for weeks. At pick up time I overhear disaffected Mothers from the PTA in loud discussion. The surrounding rocky outcrop appears to reverberate with their angry clamour. Standing huddled together in Nazi riding boots with manicured hands on jodpured hips, flicking stray hair and adjusting Alice bands, they screech and shriek like seagulls fighting over a bloody fish carcass.

“These Egyptian drivers are so arrogant!” one squawks superciliously, red faced with heat and the efforts of the morning dressage session.
“Why can’t Egyptians follow simple rules?” screeches another. They all nod.
“Well, clearly it is beyond them, but parents should force them to go round,” clucks another, a Russian this time, fluffing her feathers importantly.
“And they stand there smoking and chatting every day, Ugh! It really annoys me to have to look at them,” whines the first again. The tone of this comment veers them firmly to the right, somewhere just left field of racist. Clearly the parking problem has opened a can of worms despite all school attempts to clamp it shut with charity work and community spirit. All this good work undone because of a little traffic jam in Cairo, king city of tailbacks. The ivory tower is exposed as made of sand, fragile enough to be blown away on the wind of neo-colonial discontent.

Pecking and preening, these rich, white women are haughtily oblivious to the quiet, dignified frowns on the faces of parents from India, Morocco and other Imperial ex-colonies standing excluded nearby. Luckily, most are too young to remember the ugly side of Colonialism, yet they have all experienced 21st Century racism borne of ignorance, insecurity and fear of the unknown other, especially those married to the English.

 It’s time travel expat style. Close your eyes, listen and see Cairo circa 1952.

Cairo - A Domestic Revolution

Until the revolution broke out in Cairo I lived there with my family, three kids and a husband. Life was routine, we had settled into a sort of daily monotony made worse by the dullness of the desert weather, the dust, heat and the early sunsets. The revolution spearheaded change, not only for the Egyptian population but also within our own household. One by one, foreign families were evacuated. I left too, and have not returned, refusing to submit my children to more upheaval... I have chosen a calm country life.

The following is a story I wrote to describe the immediate aftermath os the revolution as it unfolded in our suburb, Maadi. We had it worse than in Tahrir Square, or so I was told at the time... the uncertainty of what could happen made us both anxious and yet hopeful for the future.

Egyptian Day of Wrath – An Expat Experience from the Sidelines

Frustrated. Angry. Shocked. Fearful. These are the four emotions I have felt over the last 3 days when I see the footage of my fellow men and women, the people I live alongside nowadays, in their struggle for control of Egypt. I work and live in Cairo, with my husband and three children. I work in an office that fights the human rights abuses that this regime has become infamous for and strives to assist vulnerable asylum seekers and refugees. They may still bear the brunt of the unrest as only yesterday we had to advise that all clients stay away from the office after a young minor, an asylum seeker from Sudan, was followed and verbally abused by policemen. He arrived shaken and pale. We cancelled all our appointments for the next week and changed our working hours to finish by 4pm.  

As is usual in Cairo, the city that sleeps to 10am, people do not really wake up until the late afternoon and they have a night owl culture, habitually keeping the whole family up to 2am, especially in summertime. Everyone knows that even the protests will be mainly held at night, starting at 5pm. Our office is a stone’s throw from Tahrir (Liberation) Square, the site of the first day of protests on Police Day, the 25th January. The night of the 26th culminated in more chants of “Illegitimate,” and “Down with Mubarak,” by thousands, yet on the morning of the 27th,  the atmosphere on the streets is as normal as I go to work. My taxi follows the long line of traffic up the Kasr El Nile, the road that leads to Tahrir, just as on any other day. Doormen call to each other, Ali the parking dude is busily moving cars in and out of spaces. The falafel shop is busy, people calling out their orders to men deep frying the chickpea patties in huge cast iron skillets. People come and go as normal.  At work we talk about the revolution. My boss is stuck like glue to his laptop, monitoring Twitter, Facebook and taking calls from Human Rights Watch who are sending staff to Suez, site of the most violence against the so-far peaceful protestors. Even the Office Manager, a grey haired, sweet man who prays five times a day with the callus on his forehead to prove it, vows he will go to protest after Friday prayers. In the evening, ElBaradai arrives at the airport. He gives a brief statement. Most Egyptians I speak to see him as no more than a temporary diversion, an aged Nobel Peace Laureate with little influence. Others see him as an opportunist, flying in to join on the third day. He seems to see himself as a latter day Gandhi.

Today though, Friday, the first day of the weekend and the day of Muslim prayer, there is a certain undefined tension in the air. Even in the sleepy, green, upper class suburb of Maadi where I live, there are suddenly more police on the streets, carrying live ammunition and standing on every roundabout, at every corner in their black uniforms, automatic rifles on their shoulders. They stare at me and note my diplomatic number plate as I drive by with Amelia chatting baby talk in the back seat. I send my friends text messages and warn one who has no idea of the situation not to go to a neighbouring suburb for a Birthday party. The hostess, an oblivious oil wife, is angry when she cancels. There are hardly any cars on the streets, though this is usual for a Friday morning when habitually people lie in. The doormen sit at their posts looking rueful and anxious. Our suburb is the location of many Embassies and ambassadorial residences, including the Israeli Ambassador’s residence, the American Club. It is always heavily guarded but today there are even more police about. A certain notorious police station where people are routinely pulled in for questioning and tortured lies at the very northern end of the street I live on, near the fortified synagogue. My boss was injured on the 25thJanuary but remained defiant. I know he will go today. He has been a human rights activist in Egypt his whole life and has a baby son and a gorgeous architect wife. He has a tear gas canister as a souvenir. He dismisses our fears in the office. “If you choose to demonstrate you face the same danger as anyone else,” he says. I worry for our foreign interns, young idealists from the USA, Australia and the UK in their twenties, only one month in Cairo, who live with their roommates downtown. I leave my address and tell the Office Manager they can stay with me in an emergency, though of course I have no landline and no way of knowing if they will need me now. My boss is scornful. “You are too U.N,” he says. I know what he means. I suppose for him, I am a development mercenary, a cynical reminder, in my worrying for the foreign interns, of the way that foreign rulers have propped up a filthy dictator for the last 30 years with 3 billion a year in military aid while half the of the people live on 2 dollars a day and 40% have no access to clean water in their homes. I am probably, in his eyes, just another Maadi Mom with my shopping delivered from expensive supermarkets that no ordinary Egyptian can afford, a silver duty-free SUV and an African nanny. What do I know of their struggle? He is thinking. I leave, telling him to be careful. I see him smirk with disdain.

I go to the supermarket to stock up for the nest three days with milk and bread. My credit card does not work, the telephones have gone down. I drive past my friend who is here alone, an older woman, a writer, she is understandably nervous and looks drawn. I give her my satellite phone number forgetting that she will need an international landline number to call it. Later that goes down too. "Have you registered with your Embassy?" I ask? She is American. "No", she says.

My neighbour, a British woman married to an Anglo-Egyptian NGO worker sits anxiously at home clutching a now-useless i-phone with her young baby and in-laws. Her husband has gone to protest and she wishes she could join him and feel that special sense of solidarity only found with facing a dirty regime from within the confines of a crowd of happy, defiant protest. Her husband left at 10am and it is now 5am and there has been no let up. The TV shows images of people collapsing in a tear gas fug, washing their eyes with coca cola, blood dripping on to the pavements and tear gas clouds rising above the city. We watch as secret police thugs isolate men in the crowd and beat them senseless before hurling them into white minivans to be taken away and tortured. She comes close to the TV screen and scans the crowds for her husband in vain. She is on the edge of her nerves and she is finding her hectoring Mother-in-law highly annoying, probably because of it, though I don’t point that out. Instead I hand her a Gin and Tonic with extra Gin. He left in a hurry, packing his little knapsack with vinegar and rags to counter act tear gas, wearing a plain, untucked tea coloured shirt and brown nylon trousers. He looked like any other Egyptian, perhaps a little more green-eyed than most. I worry for him and for her. Where are my goggles? he asks frantically, rummaging in a cupboard. It was almost funny. “How will you get there?” I ask, knowing that the police have probably closed most of the metro stations downtown, and may be closing the Corniche highway that runs North to South our side of the Nile. “I will drive down the Giza side of the river and park in Zamalek if I can,” he says. “Then I will cross the Nile on foot.” He takes two phones but there is no mobile phone network. She asks him anxiously, “When should I come with a search party for you?” He looks blank. “You won’t”. She flutters about the living room in her nightgown. “What if you get detained? Do you have the number of a lawyer?” His reaction is the same as that of my boss. Fatalistic, typically Egyptian. Inshallah, all will be well. If it is not, it is out of his hands. “Then I get detained like everyone else,” he answers bluntly. “I must go, I am late!” he says. He looked completely unkempt and disorganised, his grey curls unbrushed, his handsome, ruddy face damp from a split second shower. Kissing his daughter as he leaves, his wife runs to the door. “I love you” she says. “Stay safe please”. He just laughs. “I will” he says. A broken promise, for sure. How can she let him go? I think. On the other hand, how can she not? He is Egyptian, born and bred here albeit with an English mother and he feels that he must go or hide his face in shame.

 I sit at home with my children. I watch impotent, the images of fire, teargas, bloodshed and protest on the television and stare at my computer, useless since the internet has been blocked since 3am. It is Saturday. The tanks are out in the city, the gunfire can be heard already, the tear gas has reached our neighbourhood and reports are now reaching me that the police stations here in my supposedly safe suburb were, in fact, burned last night. I see the Big Man as they call him, making a televised address. I know it will not be enough for my boss and all the others risking everything with their flags and their knapsacks and their open defiance. The city is burning and Egyptians are already crying for their dead. The hospitals are already full of injured. I am now going to pack a bag with my important papers and nappies. Enough toys for the plane. Just in case. Then I am going to go to my neighbour and see if her husband came home yet. Perhaps he is also sleeping rough like so many others refusing to relinquish their spaces in the protest downtown, snatching a few hours of sleep on a grassy park side before re-entering the throng.

 My five-year old son asks me absently, what I am watching all day. The Egyptians want to get rid of their king, I say. “Then they will die,” he says.

Routine and all that

Routine and all that

Two babies are born that summer. Both are emergency caesarean and both babies give their mothers difficult, dream-shattering births but make themselves into beautiful rewards. The scars will heal and the pain is forgotten in the joy of new life. Both have a due date of 14th June. But that is where the similarities end.

Eve’s little flat in Putney is a happy, warm sanctuary with a contented baby boy propped against tit all day long, eating when he feels like it, happy to spend hours nestled against his mother in the long sunlight from the back window. Her kitchen is willy-nilly, the detritus of breakfast still on the counter, lunch cooked by a relative and cups of tea boiling in the kettle all day long. This new Mamma sits on the sofa in her bra, eating, chatting and feeding the blooming baby, full of joy in her new son, full of love and acceptance of her new role. He sleeps next to her on the sofa and she strokes his head. She does not put him upstairs in his cot. She cannot bear to be apart from him.

Not far away, another new Mother sits in her living room, waiting for the Set Time. Not a cushion is out of place, nor a dirty cup in the sink, God Forbid! in this house. She is content but bored and the housework is done. Her house smells of Pledge and bleach. She misses the gossip and speed of the day of the office, twenty miles away. Maybe she will go back to work early after all, she thinks, yawning. It has been a month and her maternity leave stretches before her, a stark, boring prospect. The house is quiet, dead. She could always do with the money for all the little extras, the weekends away at nice spas. She has already booked one for when the baby will be three months. The bathroom toilets sparkle, the kitchen is black formica, empty and cold. She has ordered a new radio because the silence of the house is killing her. She has washed and blow dried her hair straight and wears a full face of make-up. Soon a friend will come for a late lunch with her toddler and she opens the white wine for a small, pre-lunch refreshment.

Suddenly her baby girl cries on the monitor, a plaintive, tinny cry. Barb looks at her watch. It is only 1pm. She is steadfast though her T-shirt becomes wet with baby milk and makes a circle of wet stickiness on her nipple. She frowns. How irritating, it is not yet time, she thinks. Baby is sleeping on a set routine and has already started sleeping 7 hours a night at three weeks of age. Baby is on a schedule. Let her weep, let her cry. No one will come until half past six! No feeding outside the schedule, no sleeping outside it. Keep to the timetable tacked to the fridge, hour by hour, the interminable days ticked off with tasks with military precision. The only thing allowed outside schedule is to piss and shit and even this is highly inconvenient and would be, ideally, remedied. Hopefully there will be a new book out soon on the subject. She will be first in the queue.

This Mummy will take her baby in her arms to feed at exactly 2pm and will feed her for a half an hour on each breast. No longer than that. Not allowed. She often forgets to burp her because that is not on the timetable. Oops! Baby sometimes makes a posset of yellow sour milk, puking whatever she eats, but that’s tough! No top ups here. Mother will stick to the schedule no matter what. Maternity nurse Mary, hired for two weeks like an efficient, organised whirlwind of advice and brisk orderliness, had left strict instructions as she left. ‘Keep to the Routine,’ she said. ‘If you don’t you will Pay!’

The baby is small and scrawny for her age and looks like a newborn, red faced and thin. She has barely put on weight in this first month and her skin hangs loosely from her legs like chicken wings, folded up to her like a fledgling chick in a small cross. She looks as though she is literally starving, and gazes about her with unseeing eyes, a little apathetic, finding comfort in her hunger in sleep and a newly acquired dummy. Her mother gave her the dummy to stop her sucking on her hands in quiet desperation in the night, a sucking sound so loud it woke her parents and worried them. There is nothing about that in The Reference Book with its timetables and lists. Surely she is getting enough milk, after all she is feeding properly at the allotted times as decided by the Duchess Maternity Nurse and her Childless Virgin Queen of Scots, Miss Gina Ford, The High Priestess Of Routine?

Her friend, arrived for lunch, gasps when she sees the baby. An old school friend, they have nothing in common except the trials of a shared boarding school past. They are like distant cousins and accordingly, they have overlooked the fact they have nothing whatsoever in common. They used to love each other as sisters but as time passes they grow further and further apart. The friend is a professional writer, an aspiring artist and earns pennies. Barb makes a small fortune as a number cruncher. She has come mainly out of guilt. My babies were all at least 8 and half pounds when they were a month old, she thinks to herself, shocked. She looks around her at the immaculate house but does not say anything. She looks at her friend’s make up, sees the cracks in the mask. Senses her quiet desperation but says nothing. What can she say? She does not want to argue. She knows all too well that Barb will only deny it. She pretends to admire the modern furniture and fittings. Where are all the baby things? She thinks, perplexed. The only sign that there is a baby living there is the baby chair set up on the decking outside. Of course! Baby’s things are neat in the nursery. Barb looks at her friend’s ethnic jewellery and the grubby toddler’s ripped jeans with wry amusement. At 2pm precisely, she feeds the baby, holding her with a smug smirk. ‘Your babies would have slept properly if you had instilled a firm Routine,’ she says, an expert of three weeks. Friend, mother of three, snaps inwardly and regrets the decision to come. She tries to practice tolerance though, restrains herself from ripping the hated timetable from the fridge and tearing it into tiny pieces. She resists the urge to scream ‘Feed Your Baby, Bitch!’ She clings to the mantra: ‘Mothers know Best’, even when clearly, they don’t. This woman has intimidated her since they were small with her obsessive compulsive disorders and her violent temper. Go Home and Brood, Coward!

In Putney the baby steadily puts on weight, increasing by a nearly half a pound a week in his first month. He becomes plump and bonny with multiple chins and chubby, cuddly arms. In the other Surrey village, the baby does not fare so well. She is loved and showered with kisses when she is held according to the proper times on the schedule, but routine is more important than human desire in this sparkling, immaculate household. ‘You have to show the baby what is what,’ says her Grandmother. This, coming from a woman who lodged her sensitive, frightened, bespectacled daughter at boarding school at the tender age of six, to see her once every two weeks when her social life dictated it was convenient.

‘Routine is everything.’

Chettle Village, Dorset - An Artists Retreat

Last week an eclectic group of artists of different ages and backgrounds came together in Chettle Village for a week of painting and sketching organised by local artist Clare Shepherd. Undeterred by the rain, we filled the village hall with the smell of turps, the wash of watercolour and hairdryers and the scraping sounds of the palate knife. I did a few sketches using pastel such as the one of a tree above. I also struggled to do an oil of a field of daisies.

Finally, after a week spent inside, I managed to get out and sketch on the final day when the rain eased. A soft pastel sketch of the church archway entrance led to two further paintings. Comments welcome - how these could be made better... always grateful for any input.

A New Start

Recently I realised the only way to post up my work was to create a blog. Boring people, bombarding them with my outpourings simply was not going to work anymore. The criticism was non-existent, the flattery sweet but on the wane. This space is a place where I post my stories, stories of my life. My paintings and sketches. Call it therapeutic if you want.

I start with a painting. A landscape from Dorset, the Purbeck hills viewed from the Wareham river. It is not yet finished... any comments on how it can be improved would be welcome.