Dirt, meat and death: a city childhood.


I am what one historian calls post-domestic.  Unless you are a hill farmer, or a herder (in which case you are an anachronism, which won’t come as a surprise since making a living in either of those ways is very difficult) so are you.  It isn’t just that I was born in the mid-twentieth century in the dead centre of a great city.  It isn’t just that I’m Jewish and almost by definition urban. My grandparents came from the shtetl: they were traders, furriers, tailors, but at some point they must have ridden horses, or used them to pull carts.  They would have kept chickens and killed them under the watchful eye of the rabbi.  My mother, although born in London in 1912, knew how to singe and dress chickens that came, head and feet on, insides inside, from the kosher butcher.  Even so, the children of immigrants like my parents put the shtetls behind them as much as possible.  Their old people were old world embarrassments, for all that they had made the bold journey from a hostile middle Europe to unknown and far-away city centres.

Neat, clean clothes confirmed how far we had come from the old country.  My mother was adept at defining a lady.  A lady always wears pale gloves, carries a clean handkerchief.  A lady does not mess with dirtying nature, except in the kitchen to prepare it to look other than what it was by chopping and cooking, and, I would like to suppose, sometimes at least, in bed.  My mother and father both fled into the urbane.  When I was young we lived in a centrally-heated block of flats, a man way down in the basement stoked the boiler, another man came every week and took the dirty sheets and brought them back washed and ironed.  My ladylike gloves were white.  We had a little more to prove, but I don’t think we were exceptional among the many families of the Fifties: the goal was to achieve and hang on to respectability.  Falling over was frowned on, not just because you hurt yourself, but because it dirtied you up: stuff from the pavement on your clothes, blood, no longer contained, staining those nice neat socks and handkerchiefs. We walked or went on buses or taxis to shops or to the park, where children have to be taken.  Russell Square, a small patch of green in central London, or the larger patch of Regent’s Park in the other direction.  When I was old enough – seven or eight I went alone or with friends.  But be careful not to sit on the grass without putting something down first.  Those patches of unpaved earth were what Americans call it: dirt.  Near enough to nature to be reminiscent of  countryside.

My mother spent her days dusting and polishing and cleaning, but our flat was so small, I can’t imagine how it occupied her for more than half an hour a day.  She washed herself and me as if we spent our lives in dark and dusty tunnels.  Especially down there, in the animal – the natural – the private – parts.  Not that they had much opportunity to get dirty – clean knickers every morning and careful lessons in how to wipe yourself after urinating or defecating.  My mother was prepared to confront the dirty animal but only to ensure that it never, never got a hold on our existence.  My father shaved with a strap-sharpened razor, left a manicured garden of moustache on his upper lip, forced his wavy hair flat on his head with a hair cream and splashed more scented stuff on him to keep the smell of body at bay.  But according to my mother, he was not as fastidious as she was in matter of washing or in matters of other people’s natural parts.  My mother abhorred his washing and sexual behaviours as ‘filthy’.  Good things were ‘nice’, bad things were ‘not nice’.  Clean was ‘nice and clean’.  Good was not making a mess of the clothes that were specifically chosen to show how much we were not people of the countryside.  My woollen vests, in the days when we could still afford them, came from shops in ‘Brussels’ not from Belgium where they kept the sheep.  Clean knickers and a clean private part were, as mothers everywhere explained, in case of an accident on the street, not impossible in an urban environment and public, in order to show those who assisted us or pronounced us dead how far we were from country dirtiness.  Post-domestic.

Dogs, cats and birds encountered on the streets were always to be ignored and avoided. But there were exceptions. The great masses of starlings in central London at that time were a sight to see, worth stopping and looking up at, swarming in their thousands on the roof of the National Gallery in the late afternoons and taking off simultaneously in a fluttering, shrieking cloud that swooped all of a piece across the London sky.  And I regularly fed the pigeons in Trafalgar Square which stood ravenously on my hands, shoulders and head to get at the corn on my open palm.  A strange anomaly of urban animal-loving.  Now they are flying rats, filthy, disease-ridden.  They have been hounded out of Trafalgar Square and are shot in the dead of night to discourage their presence on public buildings and under bridges.  But I have a photograph of my mother and me with pigeons perched on our heads and shoulders, and my mother smiling quite benignly.

I went with her to the butcher and sat in my pushchair, close to the pale sawdust, looking at dead chickens hanging by the neck from hooks, and slabs of meat being tidied with string into unfleshy shapes that bore no relation to anything that had ever lived.  It was a shop where they neatened death into food.  And it was a kosher butcher, which meant that the meat had been drained of its life blood and prayed over.  Processed away from living creatures as far as it was possible and the processing continued back home in the kitchen.  Salt beef was an oval cylinder tied up with string, fish was filleted and covered in matzo meal batter, liver was chopped into a patė.  Only chickens remained somewhat lifelike, though dead and featherless.  A little bit of bucolic reality.  They even retained their shape and features in the cooking.  Chicken soup, essential Jewish food, was made with the whole chicken, minus the head, including the giblets (gizzard, liver, heart, neck) any unlaid eggs (a special treat, little hard-boiled yolklets), and the feet.  Actually as Chinese as Jewish, but gnawing on a chicken’s claw, all gristle and bone, and being presented with the chewy gizzard, was a weekly childhood happiness.   So my experience of the non-human animal was the smell in the butchers, various unmediated parts of a cooked chicken, close encounters with disease-ridden pests and an appreciation of starlings.


There was, of course, Georgie, the budgie, who had every week to have his cage ritually cleaned, which indicates that my parents were not as harshly averse to animals as I suggest. And once I found a baby bird fallen from a nest in Regent’s Park.  I brought it home to the flat.  My mother, confronted with the poor, helpless, squealing thing, got a saucer of bread soaked in milk and we tried to feed it with tweezers, but it wouldn’t or couldn’t eat, and writhing in our nervous, urban hands, wriggled away and fled at its first opportunity to the darkness and warmth behind the radiator, where it got stuck.  It was a grim nature lesson.  My mother, panicking, as I would now in the same circumstances, tried to tease it and then poke it out with a stick of some kind – a wooden spoon, a fish slice?  The wretched little creature screamed for its own kind, and shrank from the probe, and we wailed and flailed around trying to get at the trapped bird, making it retreat even further into stuckness, and us all the more appalled.  It was doubly in the wrong place.  Not at the foot of a tree under its nest.  Wedged in the space between a far-too-hot metal radiator and the living-room wall.  Eventually, the cheeping stopped.  My mother flapped on the phone to the porters in the entrance hall and one of them arrived to dig out and dispose of the corpse.

It was an experience that was much worse than watching my mother prepare a dead chicken for the pot.  Baby birds, like baby anything else, are fearsomely attractive, with those same big eyes and rounded head that evolution happened upon to make hearts melt.  It was helpless and I rescued it, as I thought, and then it all went terribly wrong.  This was the danger, and always has been with befriended animals, even the ones we call pets. It would not behave as a rescued creature was supposed to behave.  It didn’t understand enough.  It wouldn’t eat, it didn’t love us or trust us, it tried to get away from us, and turned itself from a sweet baby creature into a trapped and dying animal.  A disappointment.  A let-down.  A regret.  Unlike my three stuffed bears who were completely reliable.  Once the baby bird was behind the radiator, I didn’t want it any more.  I only wanted it not to be there, never to have seen it, not to have picked it up.  I knew it wouldn’t survive, and that I hadn’t saved it.  It was a baby thing that I had brought home to die a much worse death than if I had left it alone.  At any rate a death in my presence.  My fault, but its fault, too, for not behaving properly.  For not complying with the rules about humans saving animals; but having a life – a nature – of its own.  I was disgusted by its horrible end in my flat.  As soon as it was stuck behind the radiator, actually, as soon as it refused to eat, I wished it would shut up and die immediately.


This is a version of the beginning of my book What I Don’t Know About Animals. The excerpt was published originally by Drawbridge magazine.


Nothing Is Hidden

This is the Introduction to Nothing Is Hidden, a collection of photographs by Lynne Cohen, published by Steidl in May 2012.


There was a game we used to play at gatherings in the mid-Sixties in the arty middle-class world I found myself in during my teens. After supper and smoking a little pot (garden grown, cured in the airing cupboard), sitting on the floor in a circle, we’d begin turn by turn. You are walking along a path…describe it. You get to a house…describe it. A room…A table…A cup on the table…What are they like? Do you drink from it…what is it, how does it taste…you meet someone…who are they? And so on. It was a psychological inner truth game, played by people who prided themselves on their sensitivity and insight. Everyone made their path, house, table, cup, person as ornate and mythic as they could manage. The house a traditional timber or ginger bread cottage deep in the woods, or a multi-crenellated castle, the cup a bejewelled goblet, each gem sparkling a meaning, the meeting peopled with a figure of powerful Jungian significance. Imagination was at a premium. One evening we were playing it with a stranger in out midst (you see how this kind of role-playing gets into your head and prose?). He was a young German guy I’d met somewhere that day and brought back to the house (things were very liberal as well as psychological). He was travelling Europe, a little older than I was, and brought up in post-war Berlin, with all that meant. While the rest of us strove for intricacy and psychological depth, my new friend answered immediately and with a note of contempt in his voice. Path? A three-lane motorway. House? A post-war pre-fabricated concrete high rise. The room? Empty, damp, paper hanging from the walls. The cup? A tin mug. ‘Oh, come on,’ someone said. ‘Use your imagination. Make it special.’ ‘OK,’ he shrugged. ‘It’s chipped.’ Person? An American soldier.

Everyone disapproved of my sour young man’s lack of a vivid imagination and complex psyche. Evidently shallow. A disaffected youth. Disaffected of the wrong sort, since they were all in favour of complicated young people working through their difficulties (which was why I was there). But interestingly, if you don’t mind. This young man did mind. I was impressed. He wasn’t playing anyone’s game. He really knew how to be angry, and it struck me that his objects were as vivid, and perhaps more truthful than the older people who thought they knew so much and had such special inner lives. He wasn’t a very nice person – finally he disappeared with my beloved typewriter – but why should he be? It was a memorable lesson in dissent and a certain kind of clarity, that made better sense to me than the fol-de-rols of a supposedly fascinating psyche. Both approaches were knowing, but his, I thought, actually more knowing than the others And, too, essentially comic in the face of our sententiously elaborating elders. His inner landscape has stayed with me, call it his vision, but a vision that insisted on looking at the minimal, and at what he really knew, in its examination of what kind of creatures might create and inhabit such a landscape. It may be chilling, sometimes quite alarming, nevertheless the stern gaze can conceal a wry humour that speaks of something more substantial than style alone. 


I think my heart beat faster when I had finished leafing through Lynne Cohen’s photographs for the first time. My young German friend came back to me, along with a degree of panic which I needed to suppress, along with bursts of laughter which I didn’t hold back. So many rooms that I didn’t want to be in. Places in which, if I were placed in them, my spirit would sink to a grim low. No surprise that they are empty. Who wouldn’t flee from them? But perhaps my spirit sinks low too easily. Put me in an anonymous prefabricated hotel room, or a practical waiting room, and I have to gasp for breath I become so dismayed. I made an effort to look again.

There are many rooms and most have furniture or fittings of some sort in them, both of which must indicate human beings. What else on the  planet needs walls with ninety-degree angles and specially designed machines such as chairs, desks and shelves to oppose the gravity that would otherwise have us and everything at the lowest possible level? They are formal, practical rooms, mostly it would seem designed without much concern for the spirit of those who might be in them, working at the desk, lying on the bed, or sitting in the armchair. They all have some human purpose. All human rooms (and there are no others, I suppose) have a purpose. There’s a reason to be in them, desk work, improvement of the body, developing and practising skills of hand-eye coordination, or simply waiting – that essential human activity. However no one is in these rooms. They are purposeful rooms, but without anyone making use of them as they were designed to be used, they defeat their purpose. All done up and ready to go, they look not just empty but also ridiculous, comical, absurd, sinister, often quite frightening. They are rooms at a loss. Excessive in their muteness.

I find myself thinking about all the rooms on the planet that are empty. It worries me, and again gives me that vertiginous feeling of the mind spinning out of control I used to get as a child when I lay in bed and tried very hard to imagine infinity. The brain is not designed to take in the concept of all the empty rooms in the world. But now I’ve thought about it, I have to wonder if there are any empty rooms in the world. What about that tree standing in the park, the one Bishop George Berkeley wrote about in A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge in 1710?

It is indeed an opinion strangely prevailing amongst men, that houses, mountains, rivers, and in a word all sensible objects, have an existence, natural or real, distinct from their being perceived by the understanding… But, say you, surely there is nothing easier than for me to imagine trees, for instance, in a park, or books existing in a closet, and nobody by to perceive them. I answer, you may so, there is no difficulty in it; but what is all this, I beseech you, more than raming in your mind certain ideas which you call books and trees, and the same time omitting to frame the idea of any one that may perceive them?…The objects of sense exist only when they are perceived; the trees therefore are in the garden, or the chairs in the parlour, no longer than while there is somebody by to perceive them.


 Later the question was put a little differently: if no one is there to hear a tree in the forest crash to the ground, does it make a sound? Common sense says  it does, George Berkeley is adamant that it doesn’t. Of course, if it’s not there, it can’t crash to the ground; but let’s give a little leeway to more recent thinkers who insist there will certainly be a sound wave. Even so, if ears don’t perceive it, there can be no sound. Sound requires the translation of the sound wave. It isn’t a sound until it is ‘heard’ by ears or machines that emulate ears (and even then, what if the machine doesn’t play the sound back to human ears to hear?). I’m not sure if rooms, just being there, doing nothing, with no one in them, make a sound. Certainly they would ‘sound’ different to a person who has just come in from outdoors or from another room where a CD of Tom Waits was playing. Lynne Cohen’s rooms are present in the book, in an exhibition, but silent. For your eyes only. 

Unless the book or the exhibition space is closed. And then?

So another question emerges. Do empty room exists when not only are they not seen, but they are not even being thought about? The book is closed, put back on the shelf, and it’s time for you to meet up with some friends for a drink. Those pictures you were just looking at are there somewhere in a coded form in your hippocampus – later to be transferred to the frontal lobes for long term storage. If something should spark their recall, or for no obvious reason, they will suddenly come to you while you are listening to your friends discussing the merits of Tom Waits. Once you have seen, you can’t unsee. You can only archive or repress. 

But what if you haven’t looked at them yet? For some reason, you’re reading this before you look at the photographs. Still, someone has seen them. The editor, printer, others who have been to previous exhibitions by Lynne Cohen. The photographs or their content exist in other brains. And even if they didn’t exist in others’ frontal lobes, if she had chosen not to exhibit them, they exist, because Lynne Cohen has not only seen the photographs – they are in her head as original concepts. She took the pictures; she made them, chose and arranged them in the first place (though the actual first place is the creation of the room and its own history). The photographs have Cohen’s consciousness as a basic insurance of their existence.  Just as Cohen’s existence is assured by the material-world fact of her photographs. 

Once they have been captured on film, the rooms in that form remain undisturbed. This is true of all photographs. But we are more used to people frozen in time. We have a ready-made set of responses. There is a sadness about old photographs of people. Old photographs of old people, old photographs of young people. And new photographs of the old and the young, which will become old photographs. Every portrait is a memento mori, its model, even if an infant, ageing or already dead. Photographs of people point to a direction and to a terminus. They freeze a moment and in doing so remind us painfully that we can’t restrain time. What of a photo of an empty room? Perhaps it’s not so very different, apart from our ability to project on to peopled photographs. Rooms and everything in them decay. Even without people, entropy hovers over a held moment. Objects don’t die, though they outlive their usefulness and deteriorate for lack of (human) attention. When rooms run out of people to inhabit them, they become potential ruins. And ruins, once again, tell us stories of how time and things and we ourselves pass. You can be one of the tourists clambering around the Acropolis marvelling at history, or you can stand back and watch the tourists and the Acropolis together and then imagine all those people gone, and the ruins ruined with every passing generation. Many people who take pictures on holiday say they want to show that they’ve been there, prove they’ve had the experience. It must be so, because the beautiful or stark places they go to in order to bring photos home, have excellent images available on postcards, in books and on the Internet, without the need to make the effort of going yourself to take the picture which assures you that you were there. What sort of experience does Lynne Cohen retain? Those tourist shots, like old photos and portraits, aren’t narrative as such. They are mute until a human mind turns them into stories. And for the most part human minds can’t help but make up stories, even where stillness and silence offers them a way out of narrative. Does Lynne Cohen take her photographs to prove that she has been there, or to prove that photographs exist, to document a fact that will alter, to suggest a story? Does she care what happens when others see her photographs? I suppose she must, or why else would she show them.? But does it concern her what we do with them, how we understand them, feel them, turn them into narration, interpret her intentions or even deny them? Sometimes I’m at a loss faced with art. I can see why it is made, why someone would want to make it, but I don’t understand why it is exhibited. Or at least why anyone who makes art wants to know the response from others. Empty rooms don’t care, but people taking their photo offer them up to their fellow humans. To share, as they currently say in such a way that makes the notion of sharing sickly? To task others to look as well or to give the stuff inside your head material reality by putting it in front of others’ eyes?

But to return to those rooms, waiting silently for attention.

In fact, the rooms in this collection are certainly not empty. It only seems that way. All of them invisibly but necessarily contain Lynne Cohen and her quite cumbersome camera, her lights, and they have been seen, picked out, and managed. They are far from empty, actually. Moreover, most of them have their own lights on. To elaborate on the popular description of an vacant person: the lights are on, so somebody must have been there. Did they leave and forget to turn the light off? Even so the expectation is that someone will come and turn them off. And if they don’t, the trace of someone who has acted on the room is there in the bright bulbs. These lighted rooms conjure up people in every way. How could we see a bed or a gurney in a room without imagining a body? A tank filled with uncannily untroubled water is patiently waiting for the disturbance of a person diving into it, or making some vibration that will cause the surface to ripple. Machines wait for flesh to be shut inside them and sweated by creating steam. They have no other purpose. Reception halls cause anxiety without a receptionist at the desk. You may not be there now, but you need to know you will be received. The rooms in the photographs all, however vacant they appear, evoke people, and are at the very least always and already peopled by the unobserved but ubiquitous photographer, and then by the implications she imposes on the static scene. 

The rooms do not even all lack human figures. It’s true that there’s nothing of flesh and blood here, just as there’s no ‘outside’. There is an inside-out room carpeted in a grass substitute and painted green, a forlorn undersized Christmas tree in a corner, two blinded windows facing each other. A chilling marble hallway is wall-papered with a forest, or hideously painted with a waterfall. Humans getting their own back on Nature. An hilarious arrangement of tall branches hung with a variety of decidedly desirable hats rests in a corner. It’s a relief, actually, to get back to the unambiguous interiors. As with outside, so there are flesh and blood substitutes dotted around. Sometimes they are flat, two dimensional images, of soldiers or passers-by in what we recognise as military shooting galleries. Some are to be killed, pointing their guns at you, some to be avoided, harmless old ladies (a sad assumption) with their shopping bags, but all of them are stand-ins, a practice for the real thing. There are images of people on walls, or hanging silhouettes, that seem to be little more than wisps or decoration – though decoration requires someone more sensate than these mere slivers to appreciate it.

Sometimes there are more substantial figures. In one room a drama seems to be playing out, albeit statically, but surprising nonetheless in these generally unpeopled roomscapes. It’s as if you’ve turned a quiet corner and found yourself walking the mean streets. Three life-size characters in a barely completed makeshift room look anxiously towards another window, curtained, so again that there is nothing to see. (Though now I think, why life-size, why shouldn’t they be tiny in a miniature room?) They seem alarmed, waiting. But all figures seem to be waiting if they are immobile and made of plastic or fibreglass. Think of those brides, party girls and lolling sportsmen waiting expectantly in shop windows for life to happen to them. A man and a woman in this ceilingless room are complete although strangely disjointed. They barely hold together. Another women is only a torso on a cupboard with a balloon attached to her dress, pregnant or armed with an exploding device. All of them are spattered. Naturally, we think of blood. A large whitepad on an easel waits in the corner for someone to write on it. There’s a story here somewhere. In another picture four female torsos lie in open suitcases. Inconsequential and definitely not human, but if they were they would tell of unspeakableness and tragedy.

And here I am persistently making meaning. A writer’s curse, I think. Most writer’s envy visual artists. What can you do with words when confronted with a picture or the world but assign it a story? The only alternative is to anatomise it structurally. I would prefer to let them be, Lynne Cohen’s photographs, also the world, but it’s impossible for me to let things be. I notice when on a sea voyage a constant attempt to describe the sea I gaze at day after day: it’s like this, then that. The similes queue up to get their turn in the spotlight. One day I thought: the sea is like the sea. It doesn’t leave me with much to write about. I think I might have preferred this essay to have been 11 rather than 3000 words long. 

Lynne Cohen’s photographs are like Lynne Cohen’s photographs. Look at them.