To Ridley Road market in Dalston. The better half says that her and my eyebrows are out of control. There are several places in Ridley Road where they will thread your eyebrows for you. I am aware that there are those who would snort in derision at the idea of a grown man doing any such thing, but I like the look of respect that the girls who do the threading give me – a man being prepared to put up with a little pain – I like the attention, and I quite like having dreamboat eyebrows though I usually forget to check in the mirror; the top bit of the spectacles gets in the way, and taking them off specially does seem vain.
And I like to watch the passing scene in Dalston: the Rastas, the impossibly haughty women, the thought that we might buy a couple of catfish to have for our tea.
Once we went on a Sunday and in the only place open two young Pakistani girls were working under the eyes of an assortment of brothers, fathers and uncles, lounging on various sofas, who told me that there was no question of their girls working on the eyebrows of a man. The clear implication was that once she applied her thread, either she or I – in the worst case mutually – would be overcome by lust. I could have reassured them, had they listened. For all its benefits, having the hair pulled out of your face by the roots will be sexually arousing only for a minority.
Ten years ago, in New York, in a city recently ravaged by friends of Osama bin Laden, we had tattoos done. Tattoos hurt less than eyebrow threading. But the man in the tattoo parlour made a drama out of it. He said, “It’ll hurt so much the only reason you won’t pass out is you know I’d have your wallet.”
Next March is the tenth anniversary of our marriage and we have been thinking what to do to celebrate it, a party in Clerkenwell, renewing our vows knee-deep in the Ganges, that sort of thing. It occurs to me that the best thing would be a brace of new tattoos. I wonder if the Church has a position on the subject.
Some time ago I had lunch with my friend David L. I was attempting to convince him of the virtues of the Good Abbé, Franz Liszt, of which I had recently become convinced. ‘Bling, in my view,’ said David, ‘musical bling.’
He said that he preferred the music of Tomas Luis de Victoria, of whom I hadn’t heard. I assumed that he was merely showing off and paid no attention. Recently I repeated the story to my friend Nick. He agreed. Liszt, he said, was laughably bad and Victoria was really very good.
Both Liszt and Victoria were very junior functionaries in the Catholic Church. Victoria was so in the way of business. He earned his living as a choir-master in a Convent of the Barefoot Clares outside Madrid. Liszt became an abbé late in life. It was a position below the priesthood, not to be confused with that of ‘abbot’, that did not require anything from him in the way of sacerdotal duties but entitled him to swan around in black robes, an opportunity that he did not neglect. Apart from that they have little in common. Indeed they are separated by nearly four hundred years.
Madrid in Victoria’s day was an imperial capital. The Barefoot Clares in question were apparently ladies of the very best families, and the shoes that they went without those of the best designers of the day. Notwithstanding this metropolitan background, not, as it happens, unlike Liszt’s, Victoria wrote music that is piercingly lovely, intense and unworldly. It harks back to medieval plainsong and combines it with the sort of unaccompanied part-singing where absolutely anything might happen, and he puts it together with absolute sureness so that once heard it sounds inevitable.
So far I’ve listened to his Requiem Mass of 1605, as recommended by Nick. It’s going to be an adventure finding out more.
I still like Liszt too.
Taking the dog for a walk around the block. He has become self-conscious since I referred to his ironic semi-divinity. Explain irony to me again, he says. I tell him it’s not for dogs, and then feel guilty. Am I stereotyping again?
To change the subject I encourage him to play the game of looking in the windows and telling the real art on the walls from bad art. Having the dog in tow helps. As he busies himself at the lamp post I have to stop and I have an excuse to gaze, as if idly, in the windows. Bad art includes all sorts of things: Peter Jones art, repro art, art that ingratiates itself, harangues or shows off. Real art is simply what when you see it it goes ‘ping!’. The challenge is working out which is which through dirty windows and reflections and at a distance. Tentative decisions are changed, walk by walk; some provisional assessments remain provisional. Is that a Picasso lithograph or is it just a bull-fight lithograph? Is that painting of a cow amusing or just silly? And of course there is no likely opportunity to see the pictures close up and check.
The dog declines huffily to join in. Three reasons, he says.
You can’t see so well from pavement level.
Perspective became understood by human beings in the glorious first flowering of the Italian Renaissance. Dogs haven’t got here yet.
Dogs are colour blind.