Fit Men and Dürer Paintings: Polly Devlin Shares Her Highlight Reel - The Gloss Magazine

Fit Men and Dürer Paintings: Polly Devlin Shares Her Highlight Reel

For Polly Devlin, a year of working, travelling and family time brought both joy and anxiety, culminating in a very special trip to Vienna, to see the Dürer collection …

This article first appeared in The Gloss Magazine in January 2013. We’re opening the archive so you can read a Polly column every week …

In January of last year I made a resolution not to lose my temper so quickly. I’ve lost it every day since. That will teach me to break my resolution never to make a resolution. I read a sentence in Flaubert that makes me laugh, so well does it describe my current state. “I go from exasperation to a state of collapse then I recover and go from prostration to fury so that my average state is being annoyed.” Resolve to do better. I also make a resolution not to get any more dogs and my addiction is soothed by my daughter Rose getting a white miniature bull terrier called Aggie. Not the brightest spark in the fire but so delighted with life that she doesn’t notice when she hits her head against a wall and just bounces away like Gatsby’s gold-hatted lover. Then my life suddenly changes – my husband gets a chest infection leading to pneumonia, and the threat of kidney failure. When the doctors say he won’t last the night the pain for all of us is cellular. A week later, when he is sitting up drinking coffee and eating biscuits, I realise he is from Planet Krypton. Then my happiness is tempered by hearing about the death of the wonderful Caroline Walsh. I loved her dearly and she was the best literary editor I ever knew. I deal with it by not believing it. I find incredulity to be my best weapon now against the ravages of time.

In February, I go to New York for a day. This is one of the most glamorous things I’ve ever done. An amazing suede-lined jet takes me to a small airport in Upper New York State and from there I whizz in a helicopter along the Hudson Valley, low enough to be able to see all the great mansions above the bluffs – the houses that Edith Wharton and her ilk lived in and wrote about it. I have lunch with friends who commit to loving me as they know I am leaving again the next morning. Afterwards I go up to Columbia University and dig out all the stuff I’ve left behind after my last teaching term. As regular fans of this column (hello sister Claire, send money) will know, I am an inveterate, pathological collector. Last year I arrived in New York for three months, at the beginning of the semester, with two suitcases and some papers and when I left I had accumulated six suitcases and 17 boxes. Don’t ask me. I have no idea how it happened. I’m like an old ship steaming through water with endless barnacles attaching to her hull all unbeknownst to the upper decks. And since I couldn’t afford to take the junk home on a commercial flight I stored it in a tolerant friend’s basement.

The owner of the jet is an old friend who spent 20 years of his life struggling to perfect a product, risking all, mortgaging his house, with banks refusing him credit and people stealing his ideas, but perfect it he did, so that it now it is the leading product of its kind all over the world. He loves his success and shares it. He not only knows about my guilty secret cache but that I will be shipping it back in his hold. When he sees the actual amount I have collected being piled out on the tarmac he says, with a fairly sardonic gleam in his eye, “So I’m just your private DHL?”

In March, I travel on the Eurostar to Paris with my husband. I am wearing a beret to humour him as he still somehow sees me as the young person he first met who was wearing a beret and very short kilt with that big pin in it. It hardly bears thinking about. Anyway two goons come along the carriages to look at our passports – and they stare long and hard at mine. Well, I can’t blame them – I look as though I’ve recently escaped from the specimen room of the Natural History Museum in the photograph. They give it back to me, really quite reluctantly, go along the carriage for a few yards, stop, confer, come back and ask for my passport again. One asks, “Madame, how old are you?” I simper, as any girl in a beret should, and my husband rises to his feet, metaphorically speaking, as he can’t do such a thing any more. “Well!” he says. “I can hardly believe my ears. That any man, and especially a Frenchman, should ask a woman such a very ungallant question.” The Frenchman has the grace to blush. “Monsieur,” he says, “before you judge, please have a look at your wife’s passport.” He looks. I had taken my youngest daughter’s passport.

She looks at me as though I am mad and says, astonished, “Because I’m a performer. I just do the performance.”

In April, I fly from Stansted to Cork with Ryanair. Everyone is always grumbling and complaining about Ryanair. Why? It does what it says it will do. It’s always on time, the staff are pleasant, the planes are clean, the fares are cheap. What else do the complainers want? If they want more, they should pay more and fly first class with someone else. (Not that there is first class on short-haul flights any more.) Anyway on the plane the young attendant, very fit (I’ll come back to that phrase later on), is intoning the usual safety mantra about the brace position and oxygen mask – which I can repeat word for word now like the Hail Mary I’ve listened to it so often – when I hear him say, “This is a non-smoking flight and anyone caught smoking will be asked to leave the plane immediately and I will help push him or her out the door. It’s only an 18,000-foot drop at this point.” I look around to see what effect this interesting extempore take was having on my fellow passengers. Not a thing. No one has heard it because no one is listening. On the way back my cosmetics are in that small stupid statutory plastic bag. The girl at security won’t let me through because, she says, the bag is two millimetres too big. To think that could happen in Cork! I remember my New Year resolution about temper-losing and bite my lip.

Back in London, I interview Yoko Ono who is having a big retrospective exhibition. I first met her 40 years ago and one of my treasured possessions is a Box of Smile made by her and given to me by John Lennon. I’d forgotten how tiny she is and I am amazed that someone who is nearly 80 hasn’t a trace of cellulite anywhere on her body – and there is a lot of the same body showing as she is being photographed in hot boy shorts. Not a moment’s inhibition. “How do you do it?” I ask, amazed and put out by her flamboyant and seductive response to the camera, her radioactive self assurance. How to reconcile the rather shy person I know her to be with this feminine ferocity? She looks at me as though I am mad and says, astonished, “Because I’m a performer. I just do the performance.”

Paris on a May morning. I am leaning out of the windows with the net curtains slightly billowing in the mild wind watching Paris awaken. The cliché is alive and well. Behind me a Beethoven quartet is on the radio, full of pain and sweetness. The sky is celestially blue, Monsieur Kieken is opening his shutters and an old man is carrying a half-wrapped baguette home for breakfast. Somewhere I can hear the rhythmic creaking of a bed – a couple making love. Ah, Paris! Ah, romance! There is a smell of contentment in the very air. After half an hour, I begin to be amazed by the stamina of the couple who are still at it. Then I realise the rhythmic sounds are coming from the radiator cranking along in my bedroom. Tiens! Sad disillusionment.

In June, I’m walking with my dog through a London park and see a young bearded man doing push-ups on a park bench. Many many push-ups. I start to count as I drew nearer … 40, 41 … and as I look back, see him still at it as I round the corner. His energy makes me feel like a long-tailed sloth. After a while the dog and I turn back home and, lumme, there he is still, pushing and humping and just as I pass him, he stops and sits panting, on the bench. “You’re very fit,” I say to him. Well, you’ve never seen a man skedaddle faster in your life. When I get home a daughter tells me gently what the words “being fit” mean now. I go into a darkened room, put a wet dog on my forehead. I dread meeting him again and resolve to buy a balaclava.

In July, I rent a house by the seaside so I can have all the family around me boating and shrimping, bathing and surfing. Actually I hate renting. I like having my own things around me and am so territorial, it hurts. How can I be this age and be so immature that I have to be on my own turf to be happy? In theory the place is wonderful: three miles of crescent-shaped long golden sands, men in deckchairs, with rolled-up trousers and spotted handkerchiefs tied in knots on their heads, and kiss-me-quick cards and shouts of I’ve Lost My Little Willie. But this year the weather is disastrous. I get a free exfoliation treatment every time I go out the door and the wind and rain are so constant that they whip the sea to a raging froth. There’s nothing to do but read. In The New Yorker I read a solution to the problem that as we age, our faces lose volume and fullness. “This deficit can be corrected by draping a naked newborn baby over your head and using a Sharpie to draw eyes and nose on the baby’s bottom.” The writer also suggests that the most flattering outfit one can wear is a smile and a gun and the question, “Now do you think I’m pretty?” (Thinking of baby botties I remember reading in Brendan Behan of how as he was walking through the Dandelion market in Dublin he heard a stall keeper say to his wife “Keep the baby’s bottom off the butter.”) Then for two glorious days the sun appears and I have the holiday I dream of, though I work harder than I have ever worked in my life, keeping the whole lot fed.

In August, I visit my friend Suzanne in France and go for a long walk up small hills where I am surrounded by an amazing profusion of wild flowers. Very hot, dazzling blue sky, green vines and this exquisite conglomeration of flowers everywhere. There are no people but many fascinating old buildings and the remains of what looks like an ancient village with crumbling limestone foundations and a beautiful stone igloo. I call in for lunch at a café near the Canal du Midi and the woman who runs it tells me her extraordinary story. She and her husband used to run a bigger restaurant nearby and very well they did it too. Then one day when he was in McDonald’s in Narbonne a madman came in and buried an axe in her husband’s head. I didn’t like to ask what a French chef was doing in McDonald’s.

But have you noticed how time is snapping back like taut elastic whereas it used to stretch?

When I come back to England to my sorrow I realise summer is over before it has begun. The best thing I’ve ever read that captures that heart-piercing feeling of nostalgia and sadness of this time, the gloaming of summer is in Elizabeth’s Bishop’s poem “Song”, which begins: Summer is over upon the sea. The pleasure yacht, the social being, that danced on the endless polished floor, stepped and side-stepped like Fred Astaire, is gone, is gone, docked somewhere ashore.

I put away all the swimsuits and sarongs and beach balls. Next thing I know I will be hauling out the drifts of spangles for Christmas.

In September, a friend from Northern Ireland invites me to dinner in the House of Lords. One of the other guests is a bishop, a pompous didactic man who lives in a bubble of self-esteem. As we walk down a long corridor in this useless, expensive, self-serving elitist institution, we glimpse an old man in a large chair at the end. A woman comes out of a nearby room, crosses over to the cove on the chair and kisses him. The bishop gives a sentimental sigh and says words to the effect of how sweet to see a married couple behave like that. I snap to attention as I realise that the sweet couple is Ian and Eileen Paisley. I look at them with rage and disdain. These two people, who I think did so much harm to my kind, who helped fan the flame of prejudice and hatred in Ulster, who should be ashamed and ostracised, are lolling about in the Upper House, honoured with peerages, flown back and forth from London to Belfast, put up in style and paid a huge amount of expenses (£300 a sitting). I look at them, in their horrible complacency, and wonder if they have any idea or realisation of how much harm they have done to our society and how much they are hated. As I pass the philistine pair, I realise that nothing will ever penetrate their heads other than their own base opinions and beliefs.

In October, the best thing happens. I have been a state of tension for months because Daisy, my beloved daughter, who has not had a good history of pregnancy, is expecting again. It soon becomes apparent the new baby is also at risk. It used to be that when that happened the mother-to-be was sent to bed for six months. Now the opposite happens and she is made to keep going as busily as possible. Since Daisy moves at the speed of light at the best of times this means that all I see of her is a blur. Then in late October Charlie Ray comes barrelling out – he takes only an hour to be born and a whole new life begins and already he is the light of my life. A week later I go to Belfast to give a talk under the aegis of Queen’s University. The audience is great and seem to enjoy it well enough – afterwards people come up and talk and are generally appreciative. As I start off for lunch with my friend Tess, who had organised it all, a small ferrety man I had seen hovering rather ominously corners me. “Can I be frank with you?” he says. My heart sinks. Everyone knows that these words herald rudeness. “I’d rather you didn’t,” I say. He takes no notice. “I have to tell you I think you’re a bad lecturer,” he says in that particular righteous Ulster accent I find so intolerable. I am somewhat startled but also amused though I don’t dare show it. “Don’t take umbrage,” he says. “I’m a vicar, in the Church of Ireland.” “That wouldn’t stop me taking umbrage,” I say, “but I’m not taking umbrage, I’m taking my leave. I want to go to lunch.” “You might have given a good lecture,” he continues, quite cross by now. “People seemed to be liking it well enough but not me, for I couldn’t hear hardly a word you said. I’m deaf.”

In November, it’s my birthday – a significant one – and at the party my husband gives for me, my grandson George says to me somewhat wistfully, “I wish I had known you when you were new.” As a birthday treat I go to Vienna and am given the chance of a lifetime, being allowed to look closely at the Dürer drawings and watercolours in the Albertina Museum. It is hard to fathom how he, the greatest artist of the Northern Renaissance, did these drawings. Apparently he did not use a magnifying glass but you need one to tease out the details in these exquisite, epic drawings. Their visionary intensity leaves one breathless. The image of the bird – Dead Blue Roller – is inexpressibly sad and expressively beautiful. Actually touching the original drawing of A Young Hare, one of his most famous, knowing that he had drawn these lines was a highlight not just of the month, or the year, but of my life.

December is almost my favourite month – but then every month is, more or less, for Pollyanna here. January resolution gone to dust, I adopt a new dog – an old one actually who has been a stud, has sired about 1,000 puppies and is now on the junk heap. I am frightened that it may terrorise my dear little cat and so far am keeping them apart. I adore Christmas and always have and it is a big decorating deal – every year I add more to the silver and glass baubles, fragility and glamour, and spend a long time making the tree perfect. I feel it’s a bit Beckettian – all that trouble for such short glory but it’s worth it. But have you noticed how time is snapping back like taut elastic whereas it used to stretch? Not much point to putting the tree away. Before we know it, it will be December again in a minute. But January with all its wonderful promise is here and we must celebrate that we are all still here too. So Happy New Year and may each month bring fresh joy and interest.

Writing Home, a selection of writing by Polly Devlin, published by Pimpernel Press, is out now. 


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