art, cats, music, screen, words

The Cat and the Curiosity (Are You Completionists?)

We once had a cat and the cat ruled the home. A regal furball with blue eyes, Gutty (as he was sort of known) steadily over time marked out his favoured slumber stations in every room in the house. But this wasn’t enough: G also liked to flop on a whim, and during the early months of his incumbency he managed to catnap at temporary nod-spots in even the remotest corners, both upstairs and down. 

photo of Ragdoll cat with a crown on its head
king of the furballs

I asked Vela one morning in bed, several years ago, did she think G had slept on every square inch of the house? She said this was the kind of exasperating question her son asked on the way to school.*

Having my conversation compared to an exasperating nine-year-old felt like I’d fallen short in some way as an adult. The sense of personal failure resurfaced recently walking slowly through Hyde Park. 

I have always loved Hyde Park – the best of the city’s big parks by some distance. I first played here as a child and have returned so many times, through all the stages of my life: to walk, bike, run, boat, swim and to march in protest; to kick a ball and throw a frisbee; to kiss and so on; to sneak in at night in the rain; to sunbathe, eat, read, listen, talk, snooze; to see the art, smell the flowers, fly a kite and watch my son run full speed for the first time in his life, through the long grass north of the Serpentine; to have an ice cream and admire the view; to cover the multiple varied parts, looking each and every way at this subtle, perfectly landscaped pleasure gardens. But despite so much time spent, it struck me on my latest excursion that I’ll never be able to say I saw every last detail of the park, or that I crossed each blade of grass.**

Long Water in Hyde Park
Hyde Park

Now, if this is true of one large park in the middle of London, then what hope for the rest of everything else, what chance of being a completionist?***

Maybe crossing every blade of grass is aiming too high. There is something confoundingly ungraspable about London though. 

I wonder sometimes about the emotional wellbeing of the many Londonists out on the beat – starting from the top of the pile, with Iain Sinclair and Patrick Keiller, and their books and films, and cascading through the many amazing blogs and websites dedicated to the city. What if one of the London crew doesn’t realise that you can never get this vast space in its totality – be it diachronic or synchronic, broad or deep? Just like the critic Walter Benjamin didn’t fully capture Paris in his unfinished Arcades Project, London is too big and complicated to be pinned down – restless, insatiable and constitutionally geared for change. Those construction cranes nodding on the skyline are markers of the city’s DNA.

you dig

This problematic urge for encapsulation, or completion, has specially bothered painters. Over several years Paul Cézanne repeatedly committed the same rural scene to canvas. As he experimented with shape and line and colour – and especially during a crux period while he developed his worldview into a style that came to be known as Post-Impressionism – Cézanne revisited in paint a specific aspect of Mont Sainte-Victoire in Provence, France. 

works for me

Cèzanne believed that through painting he might capture a moment in time, that once passed, would never come back. And they don’t return, these moments in time, they’re really gone for good. I lived in Paris for a while in my 20s and some days I would come out of work at the end of the afternoon, or out from a restaurant at night, and step straight into another picture perfect post card view of the city, and become gripped by the moment, but also frustrated at the sense that it was already passing, and how impossible it was to properly store it away in the memory. At best, only slivers and fragments would cling on.

Close Up Still of artist marking a quince fruit on a tree branch
the artist marks a quince

The Quince Tree Sun, a film by Víctor Erice, records the Spanish artist Antonio López García painting a quince tree, in his yard – so, not your average Jason Bourne-type scenario. Garcia is super meticulous and his progress is slow and interrupted by conversations with visitors. Time starts to trickle away as the painter experiences problems both with the changing light – due to variations in the weather; and the inevitable progress of the fruit though ripeness to over-ripeness – with the increased weight bending the tree branches into new shapes. Garcia’s pace accelerates as he becomes caught in a conflict between pressures of time and staying true to his vision, in a film that if not quite gripping, is a lot less tedious than one might expect. 

Jacket Cover of American Ediiton
this could have been a picture of Emmanuelle Béart from the film adaptation La Belle Noiseuse

The passing of time, and the urge to grasp and hold onto things, are plainly connected anxieties. In Balzac’s short novel The Unknown Masterpiece, a celebrated painter called Frenhofer is battling to complete his portrait of a beautiful courtesan that will be his life work’s climax and culmination. He’s been toiling away with the brushes for a decade without satisfaction; until he employs a new model, whose beauty is so great that Frenhofer, feeling newly inspired, rushes towards completion. 

But something has gone badly wrong with the painter’s mind and how he perceives his own art. When close friends and confidants are invited to the unveiling of the master’s triumph, they are presented with the image of the model’s foot caught up in a largely spoiled canvas of frantic turbulent brushstrokes of colour; and that is all – nothing else to see. Observing his ‘masterpiece’ through the eyes of his friends, Frenhofer suddenly recognises his failure and destroys the painting and kills himself. All in the same night. 

Cézanne apparently once said ‘Frenhofer, c’est moi’. Picasso was also fascinated by Balzac’s parable of perfection and delusion, and actually moved to the street in Paris where the artist Frenhofer lives in the story. It was here that Picasso painted his own masterpiece of sorts, Guernica.**** 

Jacket Photo for U and I: A True Story, Nicholson Baker
52 pick-up

The thing is, we can all absorb the life lesson that you don’t ever get to gather everything in; or the one that says you can’t really get to the true bottom of stuff. But this knowledge feels abstract and of little consolation. It may well be better to focus on actual examples of completionists who gave up, or collections left not completed.

In U and I: A True Story (1991), his stalkerish love letter to John Updike, Nicholson Baker confesses that although he’s obsessed with Updike, he hasn’t actually read that many of his books, and that he won’t be reading any more of them either. Baker also makes clear as he begins his account of his strange literary fixation, that he will be quoting Updike from memory, and fully expects some of the quotes to be incomplete and inaccurate. 

LP Cover Photo for climate of hunter, Scott Walker
When my angelic work was through
The angels and the devil too
Would sing my childhood song to me
About the time they called me ‘Jacky’

Existentialist crooner Scott Walker has a gorgeous pop baritone – in fine fettle from Angels of Ashes to Jackie and Blanket Roll Blues. But I haven’t listened to all his records – a back catalogue reaching across half a century now. And in a belated tribute to Baker, I’ve finally decided that I never will. Walker’s more recent, notoriously demanding albums such as Drift and Tilt, hardly invite repeat plays – once a year maximum. But even the comparitively breezy Scott series from the 60s may remain unfinished as I’m choosing to stop worrying about completing the set.

Frank Sinatra on stage backed by showgirls

In a recent long read from the London Review of Books, the music writer Ian Penman collates the singing career of Frank Sinatra, covering the waterfront from the hits and highs to the flops and lows, with many obscure lost moments along the way. I’d always believed I was a fan of Sinatra, but I read Penman and realised I’m just a boy. 

The first impulse was to hurry over to Spotify with a list of songs to catch up on my ignorance. But I became distracted by some surpising news from the world of arthouse horror movies. 

It was an update from the archive, from the 1970s and Don’t Look Now – by far my favourite film about a murderous Redcoat. I first saw the film as a teenager and was understandably astonished. Nicholas Roeg’s adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s spooky, sad horror story, is scary, arty and intriguing. The film’s complex, non-linear time structure underscores the themes of precognition and unavoidable fate. The way the start of the film also contains key pieces of the story’s middle and end always suggested, to me at least, insights or glimpses through a tear in the fabric to larger truths concerning the nature of perception and reality. (It certainly did way back when I was an impressionable teen, and assumed all good art, with a bit of digging, contained big, revelatory truths I was still to figure out.)

One weekend, in the early stages of my time with Ex No2, a copy of Don’t Look Now arrived cover-mounted to our Saturday paper. Vela had never seen it and so that night we put it on to watch. Half an hour in, Vela said the acting was strange and fell asleep on the sofa – and missed the love scene. 

Love Scene from Don't Look Now - Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland naked and embracing
having tired of the Sunday papers, Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland try rolling up in a human sexball

The famous love scene, where Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland go hell for leather in a hotel room in out-of-season Venice. A new documentary on Nicholas Roeg suggests a possible alternative interpretation of their eager and explicit cavorting, about which there has always been much speculation: from were Christie and Sutherland actually screwing for real to what’s the scene doing there in the first place. Repeat viewings of the film had not revealed, until now, a pivotal narrative function to the couple’s love-making – that of showing Julie Christie’s character conceiving.

I always thought the sex was a beautiful exercise in style and technique. Or perhaps the scene served to re-affirm a continued romantic connection between the couple, just as their isolating grief is about to tear them apart, resulting in further tragedy. But a simple explanation could be that they have sex and Christie’s character gets pregnant; and that by the end of the film, as she mourns the death of her husband, she also carries new life inside her body. 

And I thought I’d viewed Don’t Look Now from all sides a long time ago. But a good piece of work should continue to reveal its possible meanings. It may also be argued that it’s better that the core texts from our youth remain unfinished, and that completing them could actually leave one feeling not full, but empty. 

Original LP cover for Play by Magazine
the original
CD cover for reissue of Play+ by Magazine
the upgrade – with added +

The grey areas of not fully knowing can be both intriguing and comical. I was 17 when I started listening to the band Magazine. Most of their LPs didn’t have lyric sheets on first release, and I couldn’t always decipher what Howard Devoto was saying. For years I’ve been singing along to Because You’re Frightened, knowing my stab at the lyrics simply had to be wrong in places; I mean, who writes ‘Lust a piece unto my bo-dee’? It’s nonsense. So, finally I checked the words online – ‘Look what fear’s done to my body.’ I could switch over now and use the correct lyric, but it doesn’t trip off the tongue so well; and somehow in this instance I find it easy to resist the call for perfection or completion. Likewise, when years ago I upgraded my CD version of the band’s live album Play, it arrived with all these additional tracks – B sides and out-takes and lost takes, so much extra stuff – some of it disrupting the original running order, that at first I wasn’t sure what to do with it all. The surplus spoiled the listening. So I ditched the bonus content.

There will be times when you get the essence of what you craved and needed from an artist in one book, their classic film, or a suite of ten songs, and to keep returning, and drilling deeper for lost B sides, or previously unpublished extracts, is its own kind of madness. Or even worse, it’s hobbyism, the sort of thing garden shed man does on a Sunday afternoon. I’m not the be-vested dad in Friday Night Dinner, incapable of binning his mouldy collection of old New Scientist magazines. And I don’t aspire to be that man – ever.

Paul Ritter, as Martin Goodman from Friday Night Dinner
lovely bit of squirrel

The reverse impulse to wishing for completion, is the desire to move forward. (A curiosity for new things threatens the completist agenda – as the deeper the completionist gets, the less he sees.) There are always new things to find out about. In This Is Modern Art, a TV documentary series from the 90s on the meaning of modern art, a Young British Artist recalls being asked by Damien Hirst what interested him about life. The guy reeled off the usual – art, sex, beer, travel, friends… And then he asked Hirst the same question, what interests you about being alive, and Hirst shouted, ‘EVERYTHING!’ 

Art Installation of Shark in a Tank, by Damien Hirst
I’m a pickled shark in a glass box. I’m a meditation on death. I’m high value modern art. I am whatever you say I am.

The acquisitive shark-pickler’s greedy plaint is reminiscent of the title character in Saul Bellow’s novel Henderson the Rain King. Henderson feeds off an inner voice possessed by an unsatisfiable craving for new things, prompting the insistent cry that wails through his tale of chaotic personal crisis: I want, I want, I want

But is it a hunger or is it an emptiness? And when, or how, or where, does stillness come?

I have a list of books to read, and while the list keeps on expanding, so does the urgent desire to read every last one of them. I also wish to see every great film I haven’t seen yet, and re-watch all those that I liked already. I just finished series five of Game of Thrones, so this would be a good time to catch up with True Detective, some early Renoir films perhaps, or those silent movies some say are the purest of cinema. 

True Detective promo poster for TV show
Once there was only dark

But what about the podcasts racking up on your phone? The count’s gone well over a hundred now and they won’t get listened to by themselves. But, if only they would listen to themselves, while I’m sleeping perhaps; and maybe in this way I’d come to accept that I’ll never understand science or really know Greek tragedy. But I still haven’t read Bleak House. What if I came off my bike tomorrow, rolled under the wheels of a HGV, and hadn’t read Bleak House? 

black and white photo of Vladimir Nabokov holding a butterfly net
Lo. Lee. Ta

So maybe I’ll read it. But then I’ll forget what happened and worry that one day I’ll need to start all over again. 

Curiosity is contagious, but exhausting, and often futile. I read a 500 page biography of Vladimir Nabokov once, and all I can remember are two things: the author of Lolita prided himself on his nappy-changing technique, using a tennis racket to flip the discards from table to pail; and that Modernism’s gentle giant loved to sit in the bath and squeeze the bath sponge over his head, basking in the sensation of the water trickling down his back. 

That’s a low yield for 500 pages. In this way perhaps curiosity is a lot like completionism: though cancelling of each other,  both can be similarly compelling and unsatisfiable. 

classic old school black and white cycling

The tensions within desire and acquisition, journey and arrival, may not be good for the soul, and certainly aren’t conducive to equilibrium. Completion can’t be gained, and curiosity won’t be quelled. Writing about the calmness in the films of Japanese film director Yasujiro Ozo, the critic David Thomson addresses the accusation that all of Ozo’s films are the same. He suggests that Ozo worked a lifetime to get to a certain tranquil space on screen so to master agitation: ‘a semireligious effort to observe the world in his style… [where] contemplation calms anxious activity.’

In the years of our fat cat, I often used to pass some minutes sitting and watching Gutty in action. I was curious about his habits and his actions – why he suddenly got up and stretched just now and not a bit earlier. What made him decide against leaving it for another minute or so – it’s not like he was ever in a hurry to be somewhere? I’d watch him rise from a resting spot, waddling off that way, rather than this way, and wondered what are you thinking, is there a plan or method as yet undetected? 

When he performed one of his dramatic big scratches, with a hind paw vigorously assaulting the back of the ear – so vigorous that sometimes he almost spun himself around – was he doing it to fix a real itch, or because it was fun scratching like that?

How does such a dopey cat reach the point of making a decision about anything; what level of intentionality can there be in the life of a ditz? (Not all cats are stupid – though none are as smart as dogs – but our cat could be jaw-droppingly dozy.)***** 

In this period I also meditated to help with stillness. But often meditation hurts the back, or sends you to sleep. I realise –  now that it’s much too late – that I should have stuck to observing Gutty – to be in the moment, just watching. 

We have slow food, slow cinema, why not slow cat-watching – a new mindfulness 
to help people throttle back on the thinking and ease their day.

Maybe my starting question, about Gutty covering every inch of the carpet, wasn’t so dumb after all.

colour photo of close up of blue-eyed Ragdoll Cat
oh, you certainly do got blue eyes

*The beloved, stupid cat died young – from a ruptured aorta after falling off the fence. Only an overbred idiot like G could fall off a fence and kill himself. The poor thing died at the same time as the relationship with Vela. And yes, this extra calamity and sorrow felt rather symbolic, as well as being very unwelcome.

** My family lived near to Hyde Park for three years during the communist years, crowded into in a small flat above the Communist Party travel agency. There’s a curious film on BBC iPlayer about a day in the life of Hyde Park from 1971. The opening shot features the Dell, Patrick Gwynne’s British modernist restaurant from 1964, that hovers over the east flank of the Serpentine lake. A man describes Hyde Park’s appeal to camera: ‘It is elemental… as God made it.’ I think in truth the park’s has been heavily landscaped since the 18th century, but as the man goes on the describe a visit to the park as like ‘getting into the heart of the country’ I find myself agreeing. You don’t really need trips to the country if you’ve got Hyde Park. Not me, anyway. Which makes Richmond or Hampstead Heath almost too rural.  
*** I realise there’s no such word as completionist. It’s properly completist. But I’ve been using my homespun version, made from ignorance, for so long that I’m sticking to it. And anyway, completion-ist sounds more like journey’s end; while completist is that there’s nothing left to add, which feels different to me.  **** I describe Guernica as a masterpiece of sorts, only because I’m not sure it’s a universally agreed upon as Picasso’s best work. I wouldn’t claim to know for sure either way.

***** Further examples of Gutty brainlessness. On rainy days he would stay indoors and chase raindrops down the window pane with his paw, unable to comprehend that the drops were on the other side of the glass. Sometimes he forgot how to work his own cat flap and we had to give him a push. I once saw him walk into a perspex coffee table and keel over. And then there were the many occasions he fell off the bed, chair or sofa, due to sleeping too close to the edge, and landed with a thud in a heap. Cats don’t always land on their feet. Well, not Gutty.