Never Ignore a Chest Pain
As previously reported, Jon Cattapan had found accommodation for us in Venice at The Palazzo Contarini Della Porta Di Ferro. It’s in the Castello district, midway between San Marco and the Arsenale. Ideal for reaching all parts of the Biennale.
We spent about five days there, and of an evening would stroll down to the waterfront bars, ten minutes from our hotel, and discuss what we’d seen that day. Our favourite bar was right beside the Ospedale (Hospital) vaporetto stop, and the hospital itself. Water-ambulances zipped in and out, like strangely liveried insects, across the flat blue waters of the lagoon. Jon took some photographs of them for his son Luca. I wondered what it would be like in the hospital above us, little realising that in a few weeks time, back in Edinburgh, I would be rushed to hospital in an ambulance, lying backwards on a gurney with no windows, and a whole new adventure would begin.
Taking our wine to an outdoor table, we talked about how we’d enjoyed Xavier Veilhan, in the French pavilion. He’d turned the space into a kind of punk mash-up of a recording studio-cum-participatory sound installation, the walls a maze-like construction of untreated timber. Next door, Phyllida Barlow had an astonishing installation in the UK pavilion –vast sculptures that seemed to roam through the space like giants, and only weakened by the external works with which she’d framed the entrance to the building, looking more like a Foundation Course project, I thought. But inside – wonderful, breath-taking work, the sculptural equivalent of Magic Realism.
Completing the triumvirate at the top of the upward-sloping lawn was Germany (never uncontroversial) with Anne Imhof. Hundreds of people were queuing to get in. It was 37 degrees. Life was too short, and Venice too big; we settled for peering through a side window and seeing the artist, or rather one of her performers, crouched high in the top corner of the building on a specially built pelmet, looking like a demented mountaineer, or parcour enthusiast, in a crouching-tiger stance. I understood the complexity and detail of this work – Faust – better, when I viewed the many YouTube submissions that keep being added to the spider web, each showing different, nuanced, aspects of the whole. Consumed in fragments, it became a collage of acrobatics, opera, deconstructed sculptural props, and daring but intelligent changes to the fabric of the building. Where Hans Haacke, many biennales ago, had smashed the floor of the pavilion to rubble, Imhof built a fake glass or Perspex floor, opening up above-and-below possibilities for extending the work and encouraging chance reflections of the crowds passing through. Elsewhere, two Doberman pinchers prowled and threatened, like dark Giorgione storm clouds. This work won the Golden Lion for best pavilion, the jury declaring it, in bureaucratic art-speak, “a powerful and disturbing installation that poses urgent questions about our time.” Imhof also won the 2017 Absolut Art Award, which probably is more fun and doubtless involves jeroboams of vodka, and young waitpersons wearing leather uniforms and Venetian masks.
My own contenders for the Golden Lion included Mark Bradford’s expanded vision of painting, in the American Pavilion. Titled Tomorrow Is Another Day, it included abject detritus spread liberally, and deliberately, about the exterior of the building. Then there was Bosnia’s University of Disaster by Radenko Milak; Austria’s Erwin Wurm; and – if collateral events could be considered – two totally different, but equally mesmerising, video installations. Shirin Neshat’s The Home of My Eyes is filmed in the rich black and white to which we’ve become accustomed. Two women, one older, one younger, journey across what appears to be a desert, to confront each other in the centre. As often happens with video installations, I entered it (in the palatial setting of the Museo Correr, at the good- ice-cream-end of San Marco) in the middle of the piece, and was glad I stayed to the end, and then stayed yet longer for the beginning, and thus saw the emotive music hall act that is a precursor to the desert landscape. Equally astonishing was the work of Scottish artist Rachel Maclean, set within the Church of Santa Caterina. Spite Your Face is full of more gold and glitz than Trump Towers, and is a retelling of the Pinocchio story with Maclean (who trained as a painter at Edinburgh College of Art) acting in all the roles and referencing the madness of Trump and Brexit. Her/his nose grows bigger and bigger, as do the lies, until it reaches Xtra Large dildo-like proportions, and is massaged (in)appropriately. It is an exquisite meditation on what Maclean, in a recent interview, calls “the power of a narrative over a truth.” The production values, if we’re to get technical, were better than Hollywood on a fraction of the budget.
One evening, in our favourite bar, opposite Poveglia, The Island of the Dead, used variously as a quarantine station for plague ships, and later as an asylum, Jon and I discussed Tracey Moffat’s highly polished and ambitious work in the Australian Pavilion. I have often said I thought that the Australia Council sends absolutely the right artists to the Venice Biennale, but sends them five or even ten years too late. For the past decade, over four or five biennales, I have previewed the work all the Australians for Artpress magazine in Paris: Lyndal Jones, Hany Armanious, Simryn Gill, Fiona Hall, Tracey Moffatt, and others. It’s a difficult task, writing about work you haven’t seen, and in some cases work that hasn’t yet been made. So I attempt to put the artist’s previous work in context with new work they are planning for Venice.
But I’ve consistently felt each of those artists would have fitted the contemporary debate better, if exhibited sooner. For me, the most successful Australian artist to have made a project during the Venice Biennale was Laresa Kosloff in 2011, when she made a psychogeographic exploration of Venice, as my old friend - and founding member of the Situationist Internationale - Ralph Rumney did nearly sixty years ago. But in Laresa’s case she was on crutches, with her leg in a plaster (a Superfiction, of course), and had her cast (the work was called Cast) signed by artists she had chance meetings with, along the Grand Canal, or across the Giardini. A quick consultation with Dr Google shows me that those artists included: Jennifer Allora, Hany Armanious, Richard Bell, Karla Black, Christian Boltanski, Lyndell Brown and Charles Green, Mikala Dwyer, Dora Garcia, Thomas Hirschhorn, Anastasia Klose, David Noonan, Michael, Parekowhai, Grayson Perry, Stuart Ringholt, Renee So, Kathy Temin, Luc Tuymans, Angel Vergara, and Catherine de Zegher. But Laresa wasn’t in the Australian Pavilion. It was part of a much larger, pop-up project, organised by Juliana Engberg and ACCA.
Jon and I both thought Tracey should have been seen here at the time she made her great Laudanum series in 1998, with its references to Nosferatu, Pauline Réage’s The Story of O with its sadomasochistic master-servant relationship that, of course, also references the coloniser and the colonised. Or in 2001, when she made her brilliant work Fourth. I once interviewed her for The Sydney Morning Herald, in those great days when newspapers were newspapers, and large enough to block out the sun when held at arms’ length, sitting at the outdoor café of the MCA gazing across at the Opera House – she rummaging for her cigarettes, me slipping new batteries into my Sony cassette recorder. She tells the story of Fourth so well, in her own words, that it is worth quoting at length from her dealer Roslyn Oxley’s press release of August 2, 2001:
“The story behind my latest photo series Fourth begins in 1997. It was the year that I started to have a lot of international shows of my photography and films. I was told that someone from the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games Committee had telephoned and asked about the possibility of me being available as the ‘official photographer’ for the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games. I expressed interest, but after a while I didn’t hear back from them. This didn’t disappoint me; it only got my imagination going. I fantasised that if I really were to be the ‘official photographer’ for the Sydney 2000 Olympics I would photograph the sporting events with my own take on it all - I would photograph the losers.
I imagined myself walking into the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games committee offices, plonking a stack of photographs on their desk saying, “This is what I saw!” They would be looking at images of every athlete who came last. I figured that much of the press would be full of fabulous winners, splashed across the front pages of newspapers all around the world. Wouldn’t it be more wonderful instead to see images of the brilliant athletes who didn’t make it? Of course, none of this happened. To begin with I can barely use a camera with a telephoto lens, let alone push for a spot in the ‘press pit’ along with thousands of sports photographers from around the world, crowding together to photograph the drama of the Olympic Games.
“So, at home, alone, in September 2000, there was just me and the television coverage of the Games. It was then that I narrowed my interest down to the position of Fourth. What could be more tragic than coming Fourth in the final of an Olympic games race? It’s sadder than coming last because when you come Fourth you have just missed out on a medal. You almost made it, but you just missed out. Fourth means that you are almost good. Not the worst (which has its own perverted glamour) but almost. Almost a star!”
So yes, I would have preferred to see Tracey in the 2001 Venice Biennale, where she could have exhibited Fourth alongside Laudanum. And Laresa Kosloff, in the pavilion, in 2011. And who would I have chosen for 2017? Undoubtedly Michael Candy, with his Digital Empathy Device (2016). To see Pat Brassington, with her darkly surreal images, would make me happy in any year. Her work is timeless. The big problem, of course, is navigating the bureaucrats, the sponsors, the donors, and the risk-averse.
One of the great joys of travel, which I will write about in a later diary, is going to a city for one event – in this case the Venice Biennale – and discovering that there is something even more enticing happening that you hadn’t heard about. The sort of exhibition – it is usually painting that does it for me – that has me hopping about in excitement and making incomprehensible grunts of appreciation. An Ur-moment, free of language and knowledge, that can only be described as transcendent.
And so it was that Jon Cattapan told me, shortly after he met me off the vaporetto at Ospedale, blazing noon-day sun, and me with my over-heavy Samsonite suitcase, now nicknamed Delilah – Jon said the magic words, “There’s an exhibition of Phillip Guston’s late works on at the Gallerie dell Accademia. I saw it yesterday. It’s about the influence of poets on his life and work. A really fantastic show, my friend. Don’t miss it.”
I had to go. Three years ago I’d made a twelve-hour round trip by train from Paris to Frankfurt to see a totally different Guston show, and had two hours in the gallery between the long rail journey back to The City of Light, and our vast apartment in a graffiti-covered block near the National Library, rented from old friends Bill and Anne Gregory of Annandale Galleries in Sydney.
But it would be another three days before I got to Guston. There was so much else to see in the Biennale itself. And the next day, being a Monday, everything was closed.
On Tuesday, well fed, and rested from the previous night, we set off at a cracking pace. Most of the day was taken up at the Giardini and the above-mentioned National Pavilions, spread across the gardens alongside the vast exhibition space (that seemed sparsely populated with excitement-hopping art) in which the Biennale Director, Christine Macel, had curated her own exhibition, with less high points than were to be found in the nearby Arsenale.
The Venice Biennale is a mix of new ideas framed within old architecture and ancient narratives. A mix of what, in the early 1980s I rather grandly called Synthetic Modernism, bringing together the most tenable elements of Modernism with those of Postmodernsim. But few ideas are ever really new, as I found out when I finally made it to the Guston exhibition. “When you are there,” Jon called out to me as I was setting off, “have a look upstairs at the restored Hieronymus Bosch paintings. They’re amazing.” And the work I saw there would involuntarily flip my mind back to, of all things, the 2014 Eurovision Song Contest.
Gender has now become totally synthetic. Pronouns have an elasticity about them that can come back to whack you in the face if you get them wrong. When Austrian-born Thomas Neuwirth transitioned into Conchita Wurst, it was the first step towards winning that contest, with the song Rise Like A Phoenix, the chorus of which goes something like:
Rise like a phoenix
Out of the ashes seeking rather than vengeance
Retribution you were warned
Once I’m transformed
Once I’m reborn
She inhabits a body and fashion sense based on his teenage idol Victoria Beckham, and a Robin Hood beard he grows with pride, but not total originality, as The Cockettes in San Francisco, and the Bloolips in London were doing this back in the 1970s. Neuwirth has got the pronoun problem sussed - and I’m trying to stick to his rules - in a way that is both sensible and logical (and the two don’t always go together). He uses masculine pronouns when referring to Tom Neuwirth, and feminine pronouns to describe Conchita Wurst. Delving deeper online I discover that “The name ‘Conchita’ has been adopted from a Cuban friend of his,” and in an interview “he also explained that conchita is Spanish slang for vagina, and Wurst is German slang for penis.” After their Eurovision win, other huge gigs followed, at the European Parliament, the United Nations, and the Sydney Opera House. Graham Norton commented, “it seems like Eurovision has done something that matters just a little bit."
Neuwirth does not identify as a Trans woman, but as a gay man and drag queen. Dr Google takes us deeper into the realm of the superfiction when (God! is Google a he or a she?! I’m drowning in a sea of pronouns) s/he tells us, “Neuwirth created a fictional back story for the Wurst character, claiming that she was born in the mountains of Colombia and is married to the French burlesque dancer Jacques Patriaque, a real individual who is a friend of Neuwirth's. He compared the use of the character to American singer Beyonce’s adoption of the Sasha Fierce alter ego, or singer Lady Gaga’s use of various costumes, being a way to protect Neuwirth's own private life.”
But if you think, as I did, that human gender has only recently entered into the realm of beards and dresses, come with me on a dérive through the laneways and plazas of Venice, to the Gallerie Dell’Accademia Di Venezia where Philip Guston and the Poets was on show. I hadn’t a clue where I was going. This is because Jon had just given me a lesson in using the talking voice option on Google Maps, and I had added my own refinement with my one luxury on this planet, my can’t-afford-it-but-I’ll-buy-it-anyawy Bose noise-cancelling headphones (with Bluetooth). I must have looked odd to any second or third parties, a small elderly gent, lobster pink in the mid-summer sun, with a pair of grey cans clamped to his even greyer head. Suddenly a young woman, who I shall call Conchita for the sake of continuity, was inside that head, in stereo, giving me nuanced instructions in what I took to be a Brooklyn accent:
“Go straight to the end of Casa Leonardo, and veer slightly to the left once you enter San Marco. Keep walking until you come to the Museo Correr. Walk along the left-hand side of the museum. Now go across the bridge and continue for fifty metres along the canal to…” And so it went on. Conchita didn’t quite take me in through someone’s front door, past Nonna shelling peas at the sink, and out the back door. But she did take me down the narrowest and darkest of alleyways, then out into blazing sunshine …another curving bridge…another green canal with a happy accordionist floating by, day-dreaming about Saturday’s football. When she and I started out on the journey, I began by listening to her voice and, simultaneously, trying to watch the cursor on my iPhone veer like a compass needle, similar to the symbol of an Uber car when it has got your booking and has to make a U-turn to pick you up. With heatstroke only another sunny plaza away, I started free-associating and wondered if there were Uber-gondolas. I’d just seen a gondola hearse pass under yet another bridge, heading for a burial at sea…
Suddenly, just as I was feeling completely lost, Conchita whispered her magic inside my skull…”You have arrived”. I looked about me, and straight ahead was a large banner hanging from a museum building, inviting the strolling cultural tourists in to “Philip Guston and the Poets.”
Describing great artworks in words, compared to paying witness to the real thing, is a bit like reading cookery books about potentially wonderful meals, with no input from taste buds. So if you haven’t seen a Guston “in the flesh” or “on the canvas,” I can only urge you to do so. And one’s knowledge of a favourite artist grows over a lifetime. I was first attracted to this brilliant maverick when his nowhere-near “childlike” paintings, and not the least bit like “cartoons”, from the late sixties and seventies (he died in 1980) influenced a rising, global, generation of Neo-expressionists – known as “bad painters” in the United States, and the Transavantgardia in Italy (through the Pope-like dispensation of curator and theorist Achille Bonito Oliva). It was a global art movement, joined at the hip to Flash Art magazine in Milan. Julian Schnabel in New York, along with other North American painters (for it was mostly, but not exclusively, about painting), Eric Fischl, Susan Rothenberg, Jean- Michel Basquiat, Nancy Spero, Leon Golub, David Salle (yesterday in Tate Britain, after viewing the gargantuan Rachel Whiteread exhibition, I bought a book of Salle’s recent writings 2.1.3. to How See that I can’t wait to get in to – or should that be in to which I can’t wait to get? Does it matter? Language is a readymade), Steven Campbell and Adrian Wiszniewski in Scotland, with John Bellany continuing his own, deeply felt, form of Expressionism - closer to the original ethos of Max Beckman, George Grosz, James Ensor, and Edvard Munch - and Peter Booth, Linda Marrinon, and Peter Ellis in Australia, Christopher le Brun and Tony Bevan in England, the three Cs in Italy – Cuchi, Clemente and Chia, Marlene Dumas in Amsterdam, Robert Combas in France, and all the Germans – Kiefer, Baselitz, A.R. Penck, Jorg Immendorff, Markus Lupertz, Eugen Schonebeck, and Rainer Fetting. Some, but not enough, women amongst them – this soon to be spectacularly overturned by Rosmarie Trockel with her industrially knitted canvases – a fresh blast of appropriation - and her dealer, the brilliant Monika Spruth, who has just re-opened her Spruth Magers gallery, in London, just in time for next week’s Frieze art Fair and showing the work of Gary Hume.
So, gradually, I learned more about Guston, the genius who influenced all of the above artists. How his seeding of Neo-expressionism had been but the third act in a long presence on the world art stage. At one point he was a gifted Surrealist, then an Abstract Expressionist, and finally – bravely, for all his galleries dropped him, and museums removed his works from their walls (thought he was mad, bad, and dangerous to be associated with) – he became the first to open his imagination like a can of worms against an icing-pink sky and a baseball hat sun. For me, and I realise many others, his late great works are up there with Picasso’s – light years ahead of anyone else.
I thought he was American originally, then I dug deeper and learned he had been born Phillip Goldstein, in Montreal, Canada. He moved with his Jewish Ukranian family, originally from Odessa, to Los Angeles. And this is where, when you start to appreciate a painter and become curious about the imagery they choose – for it is seldom a random thing – you find answers to why his work was filled with Ku Klux Klan figures (the movement was on the rise in California), and nooses (his father, with an insecure income, hanged himself in the garden shed and the young Philip Goldstein found his body). Later, these little-known facts become myths, sitting uncomfortably on the dusty shelf of art history, alongside Van Gogh’s ear, Andy Warhol’s wig, and the Mona Lisa’s smile.
When I left the show – fifty major paintings and twenty-five drawings – I almost didn’t go upstairs, as Jon Cattapan had encouraged me to, to see the restored Hieronymus Bosch paintings. I was tired and hungry, and I felt too much on a high after seeing Guston’s work, introduced through the poetry that he’d loved. The poetry of D.H. Lawrence, W.B. Yeats, Wallace Stevens, Eugenio Montale, and T.S. Eliot. But I’d be meeting Jon for a drink, and more art talk, in a couple of hours, so decided I would tackle the rather daunting flight of steps to the upper floor of the Galleria dell Accademia di Venezia. I was so glad I did, because I saw the most amazing triptych, that links back to my ramblings above, about Conchita Wurst, and how so few ideas or imaginings are as new as we think.
Sidling past Giorgione’s La Tempesta, with hardly a glance at the storm-filled sky and suckling mother below (such are the glories of Venice that there is always another masterpiece around every corner, and you have to be discriminating or you die of exhaustion), I soon found what I was looking for. Known as “The Legend of Santa Liberta” (Trittico di Santa Liberata o Wilgerfortis (painted 1495 – 1504 circa) the Bosch displays celebrate the 600th anniversary of the artist’s birth.
I will let the excellent wall text summarise the story – and I’m sure one day we will be able to buy its Hollywoodisation on Netflix. Suffice to say, what I appeared to be looking at was the crucifixion of a young lady with a beard, wearing a long, colourful, dress.
“The young martyr, painted with the bearded face, the crown on her head, and with an elegant long dress, was identified as Santa Liberata (or Wilgefortis). One of the variants of the legend dating from the eighteenth century has it that one of the nine daughters of the pagan king of Lusitania (Portugal) had been promised in marriage to a Sicilian king (perhaps a black Saracen). The girl had converted to Christianity with a vow of chastity. Unable to persuade her father and her betrothed, she spent the eve of the wedding praying and imploring heaven to save her from a fate more terrible than death itself, and free her from marriage by depriving her of her beauty. The answer to her prayers was the growth of a beard that made her repugnant to the eyes of the bridegroom who, when he saw her, refused to marry her. The father asked for an explanation from his daughter, who revealed to him the divine intervention. Blinded by rage, the father had her crucified the same as the Christ who she worshipped. During the martyrdom, the princess on the cross prayed, and promised that those who would remember her passion would be granted release from their pain and problems. For here come the names of Wilgefortis (from the Latin ‘virgo fortis’), Uncumber, and Liberata, names that refer to the strength of freedom or escape from slavery, from captivity, or from the ‘suffering’ of an unhappy marital union.
With the latest restoration, despite the extensive abrasion of paint in the face area, signs of a beard around the chin which appear as a thin glaze, have been detected.”
Memories of Conchita Wurst return me to thoughts of Edinburgh, and recent events. When I arrived back, after an art-filled stay in Berlin with Jon and his daughter Pia, who joined us from London, the eleven different international festivals (jazz, television, books, visual arts, the list goes on…) that combine to form the Edinburgh Festival – in its full beauty or horror - were about to kick off. Jon and Pia, meanwhile, were heading off to documenta in Kassel, and the Munster Skulptur Projekte. “Don’t miss the Pierre Huyghe in the abandoned ice rink, or the Jeremy Deller allotment diaries in Munster,” were my final words of advice. “And if you see what looks like an abandoned shipping container outside the KulturBanhof in Kassel, make sure you go inside. Like Dr Who’s Tardis, it will take you into a much bigger universe.”
The much-heralded opening act at the 2017 Edinburgh Festival was to be Conchita Wurst, who the Edinburgh Evening News described as “the bearded drag artist”. But it was not to be. In this age of over-bureaucratic bureaucrats her entire Syrian backing band had been denied visas.
“Sources close to the artist,” journalistic ace Mike Wade wrote in The News, “confirmed that tonight’s concert – intended to highlight the importance of immigration in enriching European culture – had been abandoned because all three members of Basalt had been barred by UK immigration officials. Conchita, who is based in Vienna, refused to travel without Amjad Khaboura, Noor Eli Khoury and Almonther Alshoufi, all of whom have lived in Austria for at least two years. ‘This project is about co-operation, about people who start new lives in a new country,’ an Austrian source close to Conchita and the band said. ‘If Basalt cannot be there it would feel completely absurd for Conchita to fly without them.’”
But the Festival progressed, sadly without Conchita and Basalt. I think I will have to devote a whole Diary entry to the Book Festival alone, and the wonderful sights and sounds of Will Self vaping – in between arguing with audience members – to Siri Hustvedt’s reflections on the two cultures of art and science, Val McDermid’s obvious delight in writing crime novels, and the great Richard Ford’s reflections on his parents, and growing up an only child.
All too soon the marquees in Charlotte Square were coming down, and the green summer leaves were turning autumn gold. The hordes of tourists and culture vultures on Princes Street disappeared like a flashmob returning to base. When it was all over, I jumped on a train, three weeks ago, and headed up from my brother Robin’s in Longniddry to Edinburgh Waverley. I was heading to Edinburgh Filmhouse on Lothian Road to meet my old friends from ALBA days, Bill Hare and Andrew Patrizio. We hadn’t yet decided what film we were going to see - Geoffrey Rush as Giacometti having just closed – but would decide over a meal in the cinema’s café.
It was during the twenty-minute train journey that I started getting pains in my chest. Right in the centre of my chest. But no pains in my arms. I felt out of breath climbing the steep ramp out of Waverley. By the time I set foot on Princes Street the pain was intense. And by the time I reached the Scott Monument I was almost doubled over. Don’t make a fuss. We all think that. I held on to one of the black railings, and from a crouching position could see the expressionless face of Sir Walter Scott staring down at me. All I could think of was a heart attack. At these moments you are supposed to see your past life flash before you. It didn’t happen for me. All I could think of were the things I still wanted to do. Visit Iceland and South America. Build a new Website. Learn to dance the tango. Visit Mornington Crescent tube station. Finish that article on statues and slavery - glancing up again at Sir Walter - that was going to weave together my thoughts on Krzysztof Wodiczko’s light projections from the 1980s with the recent work of Michael Candy and Douglas Gordon. But I had to focus on what was happening now. What was I to do? I kept hobbling along towards Lothian Road. I made a probably irrational decision that if I came across a policeman, I would ask her or him for help. But if I didn’t, I would keep going with spavined gait, and hope that Bill or Andrew had arrived and would take over the decision-making process for me. There’s never a cop around when you need one. So fifteen minutes later I wobbled into the lobby of Filmhouse to the welcome sight of Bill looking at me somewhat quizzically.
“You alright?” he asked.
“Think I might be having a heart attack,” I said through gritted teeth, and lowered myself into a chair.
Things happened pretty quickly after that, not least because I’d just managed to send a WhatsApp on our family account and worry my dear relatives from South London to Buckie on the Moray Firth. Andrew arrived, quickly followed by Bill’s wife Margaret – who being an air hostess had dealt with troublemakers like me six miles up. And then the ambulance arrived, with two full-of-confidence paramedics – she driving, and he filling me with morphine, and reassuring me with his friendly banter.
“What film were you going to see?”
“I don’t know,” I said through gritted teeth. “We hadn’t decided yet.”
“Where you from? Can’t place your accent.”
“Been living in Australia…”
“Morphine might make you feel a bit sick,” as I threw up into a paper bowl – mostly dark red blood, almost black. Travelling backwards at speed, with no windows except for a very narrow strip along the top of one side of the ambulance that allowed me to glimpse the Usher Hall, didn’t particularly help.
“I’m moving there next month. To Australia. Got myself a job as a paramedic in Adelaide,” he enthused, with sunshine and seven mile beaches sparkling in his eyes. “My brother lives in Brisbane. Moved there a few years ago.”
“You’ll have to get into AFL,” I said. “I reckon the Cats will meet up with Richmond in the Grand Final this year.” Still finding it hard to speak, but the morphine helping. Musical flashbacks to Lou Reed singing I’m Waiting for the Man star-diving around my head.
“Haven’t figured out the rules yet. Nothing like Hearts and Hibs, is it?”
“They say it’s the game the play in Heaven, mate,” and I wondered if I’d be able to confirm this sooner rather than later, as I filled a second paper bowl with dark liquid.
“Some more morphine?”
“Don’t mind if I do…” And the next thing I knew I was in Accident and Emergency, with more police, and those in their care, visible than doctors – probably why I couldn’t find one on Princes Street. Edinburgh on a Saturday night. Bound to get worse as the minutes turned to darkening hours.
I was rushed in on a gurney at Formula One speed, and taking the first bend saw Andrew, Bill and Margaret patiently waiting in a distant corner. I waved like the Queen Mother was wont to, before surrendering to the constellation of lights and tubing that soon surrounded me. I felt like I was inside a John Bellany painting looking out. Out of curiosity, and back to good health three weeks later, I have just Googled Gurney to find out its origins, and see it is listed as “origins unknown.” But the example given by Dictionary.com reads, “He was trying to talk, ripping his head and shoulders off the gurney.”
Know how he felt, as the first of many kindly, concerned, and wonderful nurses who I would meet over the next five days asked me, “And what film were you going to see?”
“I don’t know…” I said in despair. “We hadn’t decided yet.”
Around this point my brother Robin and sister-in-law Ailsa arrived, from a wedding they had been attending in the West of Scotland. Later, my sister Ann would come up from Bramhall, and I’d gratefully experience the love and concern from a wonderful battalion of family and friends. If made Prime Minister for a day (trust me, you wouldn’t want me running the country for longer than that) I’d double the pay of all the foot soldiers in the NHS, pay for it by putting a huge tax on yachts and their owners, making global corporations pay their taxes, and diverting large amounts of money from the obscene arms trade.
And with that, I fell into a deep morphine-induced sleep.
I awoke to find there was nothing wrong with my heart at all. “It’s actually in pretty good shape,” the doctor-on-his- rounds said to me next morning, after saying “I haven’t been to Filmhouse for a long time. What movie were you going to see?” It felt like Groundhog Day. He went on to explain that there were two things wrong with me. One was a “cup and spill hernia” in my chest (he’d already lost me). And the other was probably an ulcer. They would have to do an endoscopy (which end does that go in, I wondered, with a mixture of fear and anticipation?). I vaguely remember him saying something about the hernia was pulling part of my stomach against my heart, thus causing the pain…but all medical information from me, in my still drugged state, should be double-checked by someone with the knowledge.
The next few days became a mostly cheerful mix of people coming and going – mostly medical staff, but also the three other men with whom I shared the cosy ward with its views to distant parklands and industrial estates. It was a bit like being back on the lighthouses, getting used to the company of three other strangers. In this case the talk was mostly of football – Hibs and Hearts. “My husband’s a Hibbie. Shocking! I still can’nae believe it,” one nurse confided to Dave in the bed opposite me.
“Ah hope he eats his Cabbage,” Dave replied dourly.
It was my first stay of any length in a hospital. I particularly enjoyed the apple pie and custard. It seemed to be the dessert of choice. But downstairs in the entry plaza, more like an airport than the hospitals of my imagination, there was a Marks and Spencer with a huge range of food, a WH Smiths where I’d buy my Guardian of a morning, and a commercial coffee outlet where doctors and patients supped together in conspiratorial huddles.
According to the posters in the ward, they didn’t like you lying around moping in bed these days, which suited me fine. One commanded, “Don’t lie around in your pyjamas. Get dressed and go for a walk.” Another, “Twenty days lying in a bed with no activity can shorten your life by ten years.” That seemed a bit extreme, but I got the message. I was soon roaming the corridors, listening to podcasts of Phillip Adams on my Bluetooth headphones, and examining the artworks on the walls with increasing excitement. Here was a John Bellany, Madonna of the Bass Rock. There was an Ian Hamilton Finlay. And close to the coffee shop, an exquisite suite of Claire Barclay silkscreens. My mind flashed back to Hobart and all the Scottish artists who’d visited Tasmania in the 1990s, as Claire had done.
The first time I walked along the ground floor for a fix of decaf (I’m now on a strict regime of no real coffee, no curries, and no alcohol. But that’s OK. Just glad to be alive), I thought the morphine was still affecting me, when I looked out of the wall-length window to an internal courtyard, and saw a giant panda coming at me from a field of bamboo. Closer inspection showed the panda to be a realistic, life-size, plaster model, but the bamboo was real, and growing in the shelter of the courtyard to feed the two real pandas in Edinburgh zoo.
You’ve probably heard the joke, but it’s worth repeating, about the SNP landslide a few years back, and how there were now more pandas in Scotland than Tory MPs. Two of the former, and one of the latter. Later, he – David Mundell – would have the company of one Labour MP, and one Liberal Democrat. And before I get on to the horrors of Brexit – mostly the horrors yet to come - I will wish all my good friends in Europe, and elsewhere, a very good night.
Dr Peter Hill is an artist, writer, and independent curator. He is Adjunct Professor of Fine Art at RMIT University, Melbourne
Next installment: November 1, 2017
 Robert Hughes’s apoplectic contribution to the debate was, “Julian Schnabel can’t draw, and David Salle can’t trace.”
 Taken from a book with the reassuring title, Knocking on Heaven’s Door. True Stories of Unexplained, Uncanny Experiences at the Hour of Death