French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson at the Arles Photography Festival in 1994. Photo: Getty
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The Essay: Finish the Bottle on Radio 3

In week of short monologues about being up close with well-known artists, Martin Gayford recalls a stressful ecounter with Henri Cartier-Bresson.

The Essay: Finish the Bottle
BBC Radio 3

During a week of short monologues about being up close with well-known artists (24-28 March, 10.45pm), the critic Martin Gayford amusingly described a stressful encounter with the then 93-year-old Henri Cartier-Bresson. Taking out a tape recorder, Gayford was poised to press record when HCB boomed that he did not approve of having his words captured by a mechanical device (“To the best questions there is no answer!”). Since Gayford had been charged to conduct a major interview for a national newspaper, this development was a disaster. But he fished out a pen and notebook and managed, with his “scrawls”, to quote the photographer on exotic irrationalism, his nanny from Wolverhampton and the Russian Revolution.

“There is only one thing,” HCB told him. “The glance. It’s a joy. It’s an orgasm. You can teach everything except sensitivity and sensuality. Can you imagine a professor of sensitivity at the Sorbonne?” Your reviewer was impressed. Gayford’s note-taking skills must have been exemplary. I once conducted an interview with Oliver Stone, which – let’s put it down to nerves – I convinced myself that I could do in shorthand. As the director spoke in a low, meandering voice, I filled the pages of my notebook with enormous swirls, as though these were an obscure but ingenious form of notation. At the time, the loops made sense – but when I came to write it all up, it was like trying to decipher cave markings.

Martin Gayford is possibly the one person on earth who would have been able to make something of them. His skill with reconstructed speech is deeply mysterious. In his memoir about sitting for Lucian Freud, Man with a Blue Scarf, Gayford quotes the painter chapter and verse and yet couldn’t possibly have been sitting there for seven months with a pen and paper (Freud objected to a mere move of the leg), or surreptitiously changing batteries on a hidden tape recorder. Yet Freud’s easel-talk in that book reads just right, never more so than when he slams Rossetti as “the nearest painting gets to bad breath”. How does Gayford do it? Is he the ultimate mimic? Does he have a kind of photographic memory? Either way, it’s a skill as unique as most things his subjects have to say.

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 03 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, NEW COLD WAR

JESSICA NELSON/MOMENT OPEN
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The fisher bird that unites levity with strength

We think the planet's fish are rightfully ours. But the brown pelican is known to snatch fish from other birds in mid-air.

If ever there was a time when I was unaccountably happy, it was the day I first saw the Pacific. I had just started working at an office near San Jose and, three days in to my first week, a colleague drove me south and west on a back road that seemed to run for hours through dense stands of Douglas fir and redwood, not stopping till we were just shy of the coast, the firs giving way to wind-sculpted specimens of California cypress and Monterey pine.

Here we parked and walked the rest of the way, coming over a rise and finally gazing out over the water. The Pacific. The idea of it had been part of my mental furniture since childhood, though I didn’t really know why, and what I saw both confirmed and confounded the image I had of that great ocean. But the thing that struck me most, the true source of my unaccountable happiness, was a long flight of brown pelicans drifting along the waterline, just ten yards from the shore, more elegant than I could have imagined from having seen pictures and captive specimens in zoos. This is not surprising, as what makes the brown pelican so elegant is how it moves, whether diving from astonishing heights in pursuit of fish or, as on this first encounter, hastening slowly along a beach in groups of thirty or forty, head back, wings tipped up slightly, with an air of ease that would give the term “laid back” a whole new definition.

The brown pelican: it’s a slightly misleading name, as the predominant colour varies from cocoa-brown to near-grey, while the breast is white and the head is brushed with a pale citrus tone, rather like the gannet, to which it is related. The birds breed on rocky islands off the Central American coast and travel north to hunt. In recent years, concern has been voiced for the species’ long-term safety: first, because of an observable thinning of the eggs, probably caused by pesticides, and second because, as recently as 2014, there was an alarming and inexplicable drop in the birthrate, which some observers attributed to huge fish-kills caused by Fukushima.

On an everyday level, though, pelicans, like cormorants and other coastal dwellers, have to be protected from those among the human population who think that all the fish in the ocean are, by some God-given right, unaccountably ours.

But none of this was in my mind that day, as I stood on that white beach and watched as flight after flight of pelicans sailed by. Out over the water, the sun sparkled yet the sea was almost still, in some places, so the bodies of the passing birds reflected in the water whenever they dipped low in their flight. What did come to mind was a phrase from Marianne Moore’s poem about another member of the Pelecaniformes family – the “frigate pelican”, or frigate bird, which she describes as “uniting levity with strength”. It’s as good a description of grace as I know.

Yet grace takes many forms, from the absolute economy with which an old tango dancer clothes her unquenched passion at a Buenos Aires milonga to Jürgen Schult’s world-record discus throw at Neubrandenburg in 1986, and we have to learn from birds such
as the pelican what we mean by “levity”, and “strength”.

How else to do that, other than by closely observing how the natural world really operates, rather than how we think it does? Later, in her poem about the frigate bird (an accomplished flier and an even more accomplished thief, known to pluck fish from another bird’s grasp in mid-air), Moore extends that notion of levity: “Festina lente. Be gay/civilly? How so?” and adds a quote from the Bhagavadgita that, to my mind, gets to the heart of the matter: “If I do well I am blessed/whether any bless me or not . . .” The lesson we learn from the noble order of Pelecaniformes is exactly this: of the many prizes we may try for, grace transcends all.

Next week: Nina Caplan on drink

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times