At last. Dismissing all fiction, I come clean. The figure coming into focus, in that smart black and grey coat, unbuttoned, collar up, is me, the actual me; bearing my name, in my 501 jeans, unruly hair getting wilder, walking at speed along Piccadilly, the street gleaming in the wrong kind of way, a reminder there are no trees, it is a street slabbed up, Piccadilly; but in all clarity, cleanliness of intention, this is me, the one steady point in the great wash of thought I feel coming on, on Piccadilly, a word I can finally spell without checking, it took years to learn. As I pass the Wolseley, a restaurant sharing a level of smartness with my coat, I have a far greater question in mind—what extraordinary contribution did another figure, an artist from the past, James McNeill Whistler, make in coming to this earth, that today is the question—dominating everything, from breakfast west of here, on the E3 bus and on the District line, the change at Hammersmith, all the way to this corner now with Fortnum and Mason; the doorway besieged by tourists taking selfies, I have to make an arc around them, slow up, watch my step, and before they waste my time entirely I can pass on the odd detail, my interpretations: the dark clothes, dark everything, my guess is they’ve come from the former Yugoslav republics, imagining picnic hampers, imagining the scent from the company’s select teas lingering on them forever, but most likely imagining nothing at all, as long as they get the words above their grinning faces, not the easiest of selfies as the phone has to be down low; me however not to be so diverted, I’m in something of a hurry, pressed onwards by the question of the day, to the art books shop down a sidestreet, Duke Street St. James. This is no tall tale, no tale at all: like it or not, this is the real me, pursuing interests of my own, their obscurity proof they’re mine, and hey, I’m turning south now, behind lies Piccadilly, a word I now set down with confidence, almost without thought, it’s back there on higher ground, already I’m about to cross the front of The Cavendish London, where I wish a glamorous woman would rush out, grab me, set me down to lunch opposite, the idea came to me the moment I saw the capitals, Cavendish, it’s the sort of place she’d rush out of, the ideal partner I’ve suddenly conjured up, perfect partner, it’s that pacey conversation of hers, the wicked humour, that lightning grasp of economics that never fails to please me, and I do like her attitude to the monarchy, something of a surprise I must say, but already I’m abreast of the main doorway, the doorman sensibly standing to one side, wait for it, here she comes, crazy windmill of energy, rushing out under some pretext, do I care what, I do not, she has me dragged past the knowing doorman, impassive when he could have winked, has me lunching, slowly, through the aperitifs to the coffee and the peppermints, before it becomes a case of me thinking I am seducing her, she thinking she is seducing me, all it needs are the conducive circumstances, for, let me add, it not only takes two to tango it takes some darn good music as well, everything has to be just right, in concordance I might say, until there comes precisely the right remark in the midst of our discussion on the Bank of England, or the startling sight of an unfamiliar ear, a wondrous hand, a shared enthralment in the direction of James McNeill Whistler, then the whispery suggestion of going somewhere else, to do something else, before the approach, the dawning, the sudden glorious inevitability of bliss on the second floor at the back, lovely suite, mirrors, perfume, oh what a lunchtime. Something like that. If only. What a distraction that would have been, a digression and a half, but relax, she isn’t ever coming out, I can see for myself she isn’t, no, at the Cavendish she stays in, reading Dostoevsky, back to the window; with not a thought of me or anyone like me, if there is anyone like me, well, up to a point there may be, there are plenty of people in smart coats for a start, even wearing 501s, a style for me so predictable it could be trapped in amber, the box of photos I have at home will show the same look through the ages, though the combination only works if the coat is open, but have trust, it is me, solid as anything, even if she, entranced by a Karenin, Anton, Krupskaya, was never there, never coming out, moreover deep down I knew it — my collar, hiding all but the fleetest expression knew it, the nearby birds knew it, the bees knew it, and if the old Cole Porter song knew it then certainly my stride knew it, because not breaking my stride I’m still walking on, trying to dislodge the Cole Porter tune from my head by homing in on my goal, that question on my mind for days—what contribution did JM Whistler make in coming to this earth? — so onwards to this goal, be determined, resolute, even stubborn, it’s a family trait after all, determination, we’ve been this way for ever, from the hard farmland earth of Cumbria to the demanding tennis courts at Hurlingham, a determination when faced by difficulties, what sort of difficulties, well, if I can be allowed one brief example of this resoluteness, some say contrariness, taken from the perfidious field of fiction-writing, an area I know a little about, I think, after I’ve cleared my throat, grm, here goes, now: now I’ve been instructed, subtly, indirectly, by reviewers and critics, their remarks seeping through to me in the newspapers, magazines, websites and blogs, instructed, I don’t know how many times: there are certain things that fiction cannot do: one such Verbot is against a short story having a lot of people in it, advice which I know is up the spout, because I’ve done it: I had a whole troupe of people walk up a hill, including a dog, and they all got to the top. So there, I did it
and in that spirit here I go footsteps slow on to the real James McNeill
Whistler James Abbott McNeill Whistler
born Massachusetts artist involved in Aestheticism and Japonism author of The
Gentle Art of Making Enemies dates on Wikipedia
liked the Thames
at the same time, wanted to paint in a particular way
so wanted to paint it — the Thames, his mother, a piano, any subject he fancied — in a particular way
in other words, and that’s what hard to grasp:
he didn’t simply paint a picture of the Thames.
Now hey. Whistler was a serious artist. Not for nothing did he research at dusk, and dawn, often braving the strong currents in a little boat — just down the way from here, as it happens, either Wapping to the left or to Battersea upstream. Those pictures of the Thames, which are not pictures of the Thames, might at a pinch be described as distillations, views of the river pared to their essentials; the fact is, though, the pictures of the Thames which are not pictures of the Thames present sights not in the everyday, visible world, but beyond it, apart, extra; sights to delight those of a certain bent, thrilled at what the human imagination can add to the obvious; in yet other words, even as he leaned on a gunwale to poke the odd dead gull with a length of driftwood, they are the result of an intense concern for form and line and composition; ultimately, the abstract. So I say again, hey. Deep down Duke Street St James I go. Down Duke Street St James, where the art books shop rests on a slope, its windows looming in a row of stuccoed arches, where there may be more on Whistler, anything from this move towards abstraction to the chalk and brown paper he used for sketching. If art can be seen as I see it, as a great lumbering movement, an entire racecourse with thoroughbreds and darting dogs all barking, snorting and thundering on, birds wheeling about the sky, then by now others should have moved further still, beyond the abstract, to commenting on the abstract, turning in their art to the meta-abstract, going for glory, a glory of meta abstractionism, just the thing for the new Tate spaces, but the artists couldn’t, could they, they couldn’t get it out, down; they too, like the woman in the Cavendish, may have been shackled in their rooms to Russian novels, while the production line of meta abstractionism never got going, moved not one inch. So to the shop: no more looming up, this is it, the window displays behind the curving glass, the space full of the records of this great steeplechase, down the far end of Duke Street St James. The door has a buzzer, ready for out-of-hours visits by appointment, though that isn’t me, and in I go. Inside is quiet. I’m received by Saoirse. I know her name because she was called to by a colleague. At this moment I know I am not only unable to spell Saoirse, I fear pronouncing it too. So first thing tomorrow I will be at work on Irish names, those so pretty names like Saoirse and Eilidh, Siobhan; if I’d known a Saoirse was just minutes away, as I was surging down Piccadilly, I might have taken a stab at spelling one or two already, Ó CeallaiGH for instance; all this is in my head as I look at her and she at me. She has a serious look. Putting another family trait to some use, that sixth sense my father and father before him claimed, I would put her as a mid to late 22-year-old. Within the serious look, a smile flickers, at something not of this moment, something secret. Soon I will ask her about the catalogue I see on the shelves — distractions being everywhere, in life as in fiction — a huge book in a box arrangement: Vlaminck. She asks her colleague the price, intoning his name tenderly, something is up between them, Peter, darling, sweetheart, Peter. Without appearing or looking at the catalogue, Peter has his disembodied voice declare: £360 (this in 2018). But heavens above, I didn’t wait all that time for the E3 just to come here to study romance; I swivel the laser beam of my interest back up the shelves to Whistler. Thanks to artists like James McNeill Whistler, art moved on at a rate; the thoroughbreds thundered, the whole racecourse crashed on, a juggernaut; then abstract art got stuck, later, when it couldn’t reflect on itself, reinvent itself is the common term. Again, something like that. It’s no good coming over all adamant; it’s just speculation. As in: maybe those tourists would go on to call their children Fortnum, and Mason (some decision: some planning); and maybe she’d been at the Ritz, even staying down the road in Fulham. But speculations can stretch on and on, to infinity. Back I turn to the shelves, so relieved they’re alphabetical, I can’t say how relieved. I reflect: the theory that Eric Blair changed his name to Orwell so that he wouldn’t be tucked away on the top shelf in bookshops and libraries but would have a better chance of being shelved at a more comfortable mid-height, and thus seen, and sold, might also be thought to be applicable to James McNeill Whistler. However, hear this if nothing else, the end of the alphabet is more troublesome than the beginning (I know, to my cost). If like here, down Duke Street St James, there are several horizontal partitions, while Blair will still tend to be up high on the left it becomes more unpredictable where the last letters of the alphabet will fall. Even Z can have problems. That is, if your name is Eric Zlair there is little point altering it to a surname beginning with O as — while O is usually better than B — an O has only a marginally better chance than a Z of ending up around eye level. As with so many matters, given thought this is obvious; without thought, confusing. As it happened — and it could have happened otherwise, if there was a run on, say, the Peter Doig books, or the Hockneys, even Rembrandt, rucking everything backwards towards the beginning of the shelving, and hoiking up the Whistlers—the books on Whistler were fated to be high on the shelves, necessitating one of those wobbly stools with the rubber ribbing which wobble when you step on them and only stop wobbling once you stand on them firmly; that is, trust them. Saoirse, involved religiously by her computer screen, plainly had no intention of getting the Whistler books down herself. However she did move from her desk, her eyes still on the screen, eyes leaving last of all, begrudgingly, to take out in person the £360 Vlaminck catalogue, which despite the alphabetically late V was at a perfect height to be removed with two hands and no need of the I-dare-you stool, which, I might mention, she knocked aside with a sharp, no-nonsense, clip of her flat-heeled shoe. Perhaps she saw £360 as a fair rate for her work in taking out the catalogue and displaying it on the slab of slate this venerable shop uses for a surface, a slab of a book on a slab of stone. By now, however, the slab was occupied by Whistler. Saoirse retreated to her desk, shoes visible from the side and back, more loafers than ballerinas. What is there to learn from J.M.W.? Pluck, of course; and wearing decent clothes, not walking down Piccadilly looking crap. As for the paintings, the portraits and the docks, they’re hard to get a handle on. Oh dear, I’m thinking, glancing at Saoirse: this is going nowhere, it may be a fruitless, failed venture; perhaps the best course is to cast an eye over a few more reproductions and go home. Perhaps it’s best to proceed without a question, to take the advice of Whistler’s comrade in the cultural struggle, old Baudelaire: We have no right to discuss the magician’s formulae. But no, ploughs may break from stones but we’ll get another plough, the family lore did say: a mission is a mission. Before me on the slab I have one of the famous nocturnes. This clever defensive title for a painting, itself a smudging, confirms the expanses of blues now resting on the slab may appear to be pictures of the Thames but are essentially not pictures of the Thames. In the fading light of dusk, the details of the river become hazy, lost, smudges — but the smudges of an expert, who knows how to smudge, the how and why of smudging — the houses on the far shore, for instance, not only have their horizontals effaced in their reflections, the buildings themselves are dim; all is a panorama of atmosphere and light. In the foreground, however, he puts a careful detail, a bit sketchy, but recognisably someone out fishing. Everywhere I turn these shiny pages — I reiterate this is me, only me, as I am, a stone’s throw from the Ritz, authentic and in the moment, collar down for now — at every page there are abstractions, with details. The abstract, the artist was recorded as saying late in life, needs leavening with a little something concrete, such as a boat, a light, a tree. Thus, in the 1861 picture I see before me on the slab, his Coast of Brittany: Alone with the Tide, a great scattering of precisely painted rocks is strewn about the shore. The legs, feet and shoes of the woman resting there are also wondrously lifelike. (He was very good at legs and shoes.) I like detail too. I can even guess at it sometimes, as when the woman at the Cavendish, though it may have been the Ritz, finally lay down her book and got on the phone to Moscow; to say nothing of Saoirse’s feelings towards Peter in the ancient and classical department. Whistler has his fishing person, his rocks, his fireworks, his pianos and his shoes; my details are Saoirse and myself, as in those details about speeding along Piccadilly, staying resolute in the midst of all distractions, I have presented a moving kind of selfie, details of my outside and within, revealing everything but a photograph itself. But I shall go further; there is more. What the heck was James McNeill Whistler doing, seeing a figure on the shore, appropriating this unwitting presence, taking it back to the studio and placing it on a painting which thousands are to see? And what the heck was I up to, in the art shop? In go I, looking for an intelligent book while at the same time aware of another quest, that permanent quest, for material for some fiction, who knows what beforehand? Seen, particularly, from the point of view of the shop assistant, which I will now adopt, the preposterous takes place: preposterously, a man enters, murmurs hello to Peter at the door, Peter, with whom she had been to the pub a few times and last night started an affair. She notices the dishevelled and smart mottled coat; the customer carries a bag which could just take a stolen book, if not too large, but he wouldn’t get away with it except in some freak circumstance, there’s staff in every room. He says he is looking for books about James McNeill Whistler. They’re on the top shelf, four of them, so if he’s at all serious about buying he will get them down himself. Here comes the preposterous part — preposterously, as this will not once cross her mind: he will note her name, go away, write it down, enter it into a passage about abstraction and art, an account that begins not at all fictional but fiction seeps in just the same, alongside her name, which may reappear in print together with her look, her shoes, her words: with parts, traces, of what may recognisably be her. As Saoirse looks up it never occurs to her this is what he is doing. He stands at the slate, opening a book; she has no idea he is thinking about checking how to spell her name. The Vlaminck costs £360, she says. That doesn’t surprise me, he says in a complete lie. A rare artist, Vlaminck, he adds, even the name seems to say it, Vlaminck. Well, says Saoirse, there’s always Whistler. There are plenty of Whistlers. It was Whistler you were after?
— Yes. Plenty, like you say, the man says. But they’re all mysterious.
— Whistler, out in a boat at five in the morning. Enjoying making enemies.
— I hadn’t thought of that. He whistles, yes. He must do.
— Doesn’t have to.
— Like Constable, policing his local area. And Vlaminck?
— I think it doesn’t work with foreign names.
— You’re Irish, says the man presenting her with one of the books.
— It’s true I have the accent. Fourteen pounds. Is there anything else I can help you with?
— That’s all, thanks.
All? Away he goes with her name, tucked away inside his head. Within an hour he will write it down, doubtful of its spelling. Once that is corrected he will feel confident: before long she and something of himself, authentic self, coat hanging still in the hall, will be read about by total strangers, in places he can do no more than imagine.
By John Saul