Memento mori and hot cider
Prolific writer and commentator John Walsh contributes columns to the paper as well as writing features, interviews and restaurant reviews. He has been editor of The Independent Magazine, literary editor of the Sunday Times and features editor of the London Evening Standard.
Monday 09 November 1998
Some exhibits speed you up, some slow you right down. Faced with Sam Taylor-Wood's famous Atlantic, in which three large projector screens show the weeping face of a woman and the agitated hands of a man having a row m a restaurant, you find yourself tiptoeing away, making sotto voce excuses ("Got to fly. Sorry. Lovely seeing you both. Ring you on Tuesday...") to the lachrymose pair.
In Tacita Dean's The Roaring Forties: Seven Boards in Seven Days, you get seven school blackboards on which are inscribed, in chalk, the rudimentary sketches and scribbled instructions of an about-to-be-made film.
It's almost insultingly perfunctory, but you stay with it, noting in passing that Ms Dean is terrific at drawing hands and sails. By the end, you feel you've watched a whole movie. A real film by Ms Dean, in which a procession of steatopygous Hungarian matrons take the waters of a Budapest thermal bath, lasts only five minutes but makes you feel you've been there a year.
Entering Chris Ofili's room, you're advised by a notice: "These paintings are very vulnerable. Please be careful when looking at them"; but, of course, you pay no attention and inspect their mysterious, densely collaged and mosaiced surfaces with demented attentiveness, like a Cairo tomb-raider.
You may identify the pins, the beads, the tiny photographs and the balls of elephant's dung (they're rather hard to miss), but you still can't work out the nature of the flat, oval coins, like sauteed potato slices, that give Ofili's work its glamorous, funky shimmer.
But most of the time is spent staring entranced at Cathy de Monchaux's amazing sculptures. Ms De Monchaux is a 38-year-old Londoner with a Gothic imagination, and her stuff is closer to genius than any art works I've seen in ages.
They're weird, spiky, unsettling and nasty-looking things which conceal a world of secrets. They combine wounded, grey-pink flesh and metallic constraints in sadistic embrace, like genitalia tied up with chicken wire, but never stop at such simple oppositions.
They offer harmonious arrangements of spikes and blades, flowery outbursts of ruptured organs like tulips, tender organs impaled, spatchcocked and twisted into gorgeous, brutal new shapes. Ms de Monchaux was clearly frightened by the film Alien when young, and reproduces its intestinal production design, but with more finesse.
Go to the Tate and look at her major exhibit, Never forget the power of tears, in which 12 lead gravestones are bisected by a procession of purple organs, sliced in half and pulled apart by metal clasps in the shape of monkeys.
It's the parting of the Red Sea, you think; no it's not, it's a ploughed field; no, it's a hundred vaginas; no, it's a butcher's shop. Even the gravestones stop being gravestones as you look, and become an aerial view of two armies arrayed in platoons and divisions at the start of a battle, with this great, pink, flayed and spectacular memento mori lying between them. It was a tremendously apt image to recall on Remembrance Sunday.
IT WAS in the queue for the Hot Spicy Cider at four o'clock on a Saturday afternoon that I realised there could be such a thing as organically grown hedonism. The carrier bag on my arm was groaning with the weight of impulse-bought duck sausages, wild mushrooms, damson gin and plum cake.
The three-year-old child on my other arm was also groaning, from her promiscuous tastings of smoked eel, cappuccino ice-cream and Norfolk figgy pudding. We were both a little bewildered by the flavours we'd encountered in the past hour, but we weren't going to give up yet; not while a degustation of spicy cider steamed before me, or while a morsel of peppercorn chocolate remained for her to try.
It was our first experience of a "farmer's market" in London, a recent phenomenon about which my colleague Chris Hirst can be found writing at length in the Review section. Me, I've been a dedicated Sainsbury's and Waitrose shopper for years, with occasional guilty nods to the organic and the free range (encountering the sight and smell of a Hampshire broiler house is the best way to put you off production-line eggs) and I went along to the first London farmers' market with suspicion: it was, I just knew, going to be a crush of opportunistic hayseeds flogging soapy local cheeses and overpriced, hairy gammon from pigs that had spent their lives in riotous, muddy, but not especially flavoursome abandon.
But it wasn't. There was a buzz like the first day at the Harrods sale. The queue at some of the stalls (Loch Fyne oysters, Neal's Yard Stilton) was five rows thick. The wild beef stall, selling the marbled flesh of South Devon and Welsh Black cattle, sold out, called in fresh supplies and sold out again.
The leavens and sourdoughs at the Village Bakery, Malmerby, disappeared without trace. Punters arriving too late to buy the Seldom Seen Farm's spectacular pounds 50 "three bird roast" (goose stuffed with chicken stuffed with pheasant and layered with spiced pork and orange) cursed their tardiness.
At Mrs Tee's wild mushrooms from Lymington, a chap in a black hat argued passionately with the proprietor about Tesco's cynical pricing of ceps and morels.
At the Sillfield Farm's elaborate stall, the only thing left was a Henry VIII-style roasting-joint of wild boar, which cost pounds 73.92 - one hell of a Sunday lunch.
You could ask the lady from Church Farmhouse what goes into her pounds 26 Christmas cake, and argue about the merits of lacing it with brandy or rum.
You could discuss the concept of the "fruit cheese" (like lemon curd, only thicker) with Louisa Maskell, who makes it regularly in her Marlborough kitchen. These homely colloquies are a far cry from prowling the aisles of your local Savacentre and wondering whether this or that jar of jam or mustard contains the taste you were hoping for.
The price of local "produce" can be stratospheric, of course. You cannot envisage a lifetime of paying pounds 3.50 for green tomato chutney. And the farmers are a sophisticated bunch, who know about design and packaging and display and mark-ups.
And farmers' markets are a sturdily upper-middle-class entertainment, a place of waxed Barbours and chortling connoisseurs of confit-and-caper cornucopia. They won't pose much threat to Sainsbury's, until they start dealing in cheap fruit 'n' veg. But what a delight the experience was.
How heartening to see the sign on a bread stall at 3.15 pm:
"Sorry - sold out," it read. "Back tomorrow. Gone bakin'..."
It was the voice of happy, local-farmer triumph.
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