Yo often feel other human beings are essentially unknowable; don’t even those closest to us do such strange and unwarranted things? But the sensation has surely never been more powerful than when, earlier this month, I went on the location of The Criticsa film based on my husband’s novel, Curtain Call. Taking it all in – the cinders on the road, the vintage cars, the extras in their furs and brogues – intense pride mingled with something less easy to identify. One day, several years ago, the man I live with was sitting in his office, staring into space, and now… all this?
The year is 1934. Ian McKellen plays Jimmy Erskine, veteran theater critic and sacred monster of Fleet Street. Gemma Arterton is Nina Land, an actress who longs for his approval of her. Watching them together was wonderful, and oddly intimate; after a while, they completely dislodged from my mind the figures I’ve pictured for almost a decade. But what did T think? On the train home, I tried – and failed – to interrogate him. Just as once, he couldn’t possibly tell me where these characters had sprung from, so he could not now articulate precisely what it felt like to see them brought to life. As we pulled into Finsbury Park station (it’s not all glamour), I thought yet again that I’ll never know quite what goes on in his mind about him. All I can do is be patient, encouraging and, in this particular case, cling very tightly to his coattails.
At the Freud Museum in deepest Hampstead, a stout red-brick villa where the great psychoanalyst lived for the last year of his life, I stand for a few bemused moments in front of his famous couch. Until January, the museum is showing a small exhibition of work by his grandson, Lucian Freud, and thanks to this, a portrait of the artist’s mother, seemingly sound asleep, currently hangs above it.
Like any self-respecting feminist, I have my doubts about both these men, and this depiction of Lucie Freud looking so utterly at peace, her eyes closed, her hands small and fluttering, seems to me to be something of a copout on the part of the curator. A better, more honest, juxtaposition would have been a nastier, earthier piece than this. But never mind. Elsewhere, it’s amusing to see some of Lucian’s childhood drawings of her. At eight, his eye, later so exactly brutal, was just like yours or mine at the same age. In one, a red horse and a purple billy goat wander a field of luxuriously green tulips. Even the goat looks sweetly benign, and we all know what they symbolize.
A woman until the end
Activists in archaeology, I read, are campaigning for scientists to “rethink” the assignment of gender to human remains, a process involving close observation of their bones. Henceforth, they must accept that they do not know how an individual identified themselves, and thus that if they plump for one sex or another, they may end up misgendering the ancient body that lies before them.
Such thinking is completely mad, of course, and has its basis only in ideology. Leaving aside the fact that sexing skeletal remains is a vital skill in forensic pathology – you’ve seen Silent WitnessHaven’t you? – transgender-based analyzes are, for obvious reasons, often ahistorical. Either way, I’m amending my will. Bury me in a frilly shroud (the gender police have firm, not to say old-fashioned, ideas about how women are supposed to dress) with a (non-biodegradable) label that reads “female” tied to my toe.
Rachel Cooke is an Observer journalist
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