The Girl of Disquiet

Automat
Automat, Edward Hopper (1927)

Earlier this year, I moved to Lisbon for a spring sojourn because I’m no longer bound by geography to earn a living. From living in the Tuscan hills to the Atlantic Ocean, I romanticise and decay with indecision, but transport my mind and body to beautiful places.

It was sheer chance that led me to spend time with Gabriela. Like many associations in the modern era, I contacted her long before we first met. With life now reduced to a game of cards, I found myself chatting to an introverted soul; one who took esoteric selfies and expressed bizarre reactionary views.

We chatted intermittently in the weeks before I left London. I forget that at times – my early characterisation of a moody intellectual unable to fit in. Her grainy self-portraits complemented this narrative. From the comfort of my phone, I found myself forming judgements on the little messages hidden inside each picture.

For there were peculiarities with Gabriela long before I moved to Portugal. Such as why did a beautiful, well-educated Jewish-Brazilian girl have no friends in the city? It might be innately sexist of me, but I always assume that women have more friends than men.

“You don’t know me. I’m a horrible person,” she told me one evening long after we first met. I have always remembered the brutality of those words – the mean-spirited emptiness.

During that conversation, I encouraged her to download the Meetup’s app so she could meet like-minded people. From coding courses to gluten free spaghetti lessons – you can find a group for it.

“You need to go every day, every week for people to remember you…it’s easier to make friends that way”, I implored to her on What’s App.

It was an all too regular topic of conversation looking back. Gabriela eventually found one that she liked – an open mic night – and I hope she still goes.

*

After arriving in Lisbon and meeting her in a Restauradores coffee shop, I met a surprisingly upbeat girl (who could never get to the grips with my Scottish accent) who wanted to see music and lights.

With her Bambi chestnut eyes and effervescent glamour, Gabriela’s phone should have been singing with social invites. It made no sense to me why she spent most of her life on her own.

Only for reasons I could never fully understand, she had a childish hostility to Portuguese people, who didn’t like her because she was Brazilian, or they ‘were all stupid’. Then you had the simplistic admiration for Donald Trump and negative social attitudes that would inevitably upset a young urban crowd if she ever publicly expressed them.

I often wondered if her strange views proved to be a barrier to making new friends – it must be lonely and isolating if your outlook on life does not confer to a common consensus.

*

Gabriela’s Jewish faith was enormously important to her, and she regularly attended the city’s two synagogues until she unwisely got involved with two senior members, whom only had lust in their hearts.

She also used to talk about the SS commander Adolf Eichmann’s biography almost every time I saw her. It sounded like a depressing exercise to me, but as a secular Scottish man with no religious heritage, I could never emotionally gauge in her tribal sense of persecution.

If nothing else, Gabriela had the courage of her convictions and would openly criticise something she didn’t like without hesitation.

*

With insomnia causing her to stay awake until 4 am and her days regularly starting long after midday, Gabriela lived a mostly solitary life in libraries and restaurants. She had moved to Portugal to study Edward Hopper as part of an opaque PHD project and previously graduated as a psychologist in Brazil.

But I noticed she never expressed any love or admiration for the American painter, let alone any other artist or art form. That troubled me. I quickly developed an uneasy feeling there were other forces in play when it came to her studies.

*

As I shifted my belongings across the city from the Alfama district to the buzzy cobbled romance of Santa Catarina, I would randomly meet up with Gabriela about once a week. Like many people in Portugal going out for drinks was not part of her vocabulary – she abstained from alcohol most nights.

Over plates of steamed cod and grilled chicken, we regularly spoke about her desire for friends and the nocturnal sleepiness of Lisbon. She loved the city’s soul grooves but found it immensely boring. Surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean, there’s an isolationist romance about living in Portugal’s capital – it feels far removed from the rest of Europe.

Unable to leave the country unless she goes back to Brazil, her loneliness was further compounded by her academic isolation. Gabriela had no peers, colleagues or even classes to attend as part of her library-based studies.

She did have flatmates in her Graca-based apartment, but they provided no companionship at all. Identifying that everyone needs peers as friends, I once suggested that she got a bar job or something. “My father would be ashamed of me,” she stridently told me. “He’s not paying me to work in a restaurant, but to expand and explore my mind”.

I half-suspected her documentary filmmaker father, whom she loved deeply and cited frequently, may have been an overdue influence on her academic career. As I never once detected any ambition from her to teach or write about American realism after she graduated. It didn’t seem to matter, either way, to be honest.

She seemed trapped in her father’s image, a loving daughter exercising his benevolent wishes in a fairy tale land, forever dining alone like one of Hopper’s paintings.

*

I last saw Gabriela walking around the Pantheon complex in the Graca neighbourhood, which I belatedly moved too in April. She said she would miss me at the time but randomly unfollowed me on Instagram a month later.

It must be obvious by now that we had nothing in common. I’m not even sure if she liked me, but in the absence of like-minded friends, we filled the void together. Sitting amongst the city’s jacaranda trees and art nouveau kiosks, just waiting for something to happen.

Blink

Kindred spirits are often romanticised in modern culture, but Blink is a little more surrealist in tone. A character play set in a world just like our own, Jonah and Sophie talk about a voyeuristic love story and one fitting of a society obsessed with making connections.

Written by English playwright Phil Porter, Blink addresses how virtuality has become the next phase of evolution; a world in which you can fall madly in love with complete strangers before even making a call. An online commune of language, love and dreams created entirely with words and grainy pixels – a fantasy world where you write all the rules.

Running at the Ed Fringe throughout August, Blink relies on two protagonists – an impish northern nerd Jonah (Harry McEntire), who somewhat unconvincingly emerges from a Presbyterian boot camp with a flair for voyeurism. Meanwhile the wonderfully gifted Sophie (Rosie Wyatt) has been looking after her dying father and loses her job in a software company for a perceived ‘lack of visibility’.

It this lack of visibility that crystallises the essence of Phil Porter’s play, where Jonah follows Sophie (with her loving consent) on a webcam and they both take solace from their weird and childlike sense of isolation. It is something they cannot necessarily touch but can only feel. They inhabit a world in where virtual souls find love in the anonymity of strangers.

For you see loneliness doesn’t necessarily stem from being on your own. Solitude can or will inevitably contribute but even those with regular human company can feel lonely. It is the inability to share private thoughts, desires and acute observations with like minded souls that accentuates many people’s sense of isolation.

Like sitting on a bus two rows behind a stranger you’re to painfully shy too approach, the same aches and desires apply and in many ways it can be even more painful. Blink is a story about love. A story about how it’s easier to confess all to a bleeping box on Facebook than it is to call a childhood friend. To lapse into an inexplicable world where you believe the other to be perfect. When you haven’t even heard their voice and as quicksands of love shift, which they always do, you blink and the feeling has gone.

Blink runs at the Traverse Theatre until August 26th and the Soho Theatre from Wed 29 August – Sat 22 September. 

Quarter of a Century

Glasgow is a city with a brooding gothic soul. A city I once wrote about regularly, even if it was just the banality of routine. With its violence menace, religious iconography and twee bourgeois sensibility, Glasgow captured my imagination at a particular period in time. Back when I described the insignificant truth of this solitary journey to the cinema on a cold weekday evening. A melancholy love letter so to speak. I had just turned twenty-five. 

Tuesday, 10th January 2006

Moth to a Flame

I go the cinema when I’m bored and lonely. It all begins with an over familiar route through the West End and after several twists and turns I will magically stride through Garnethill down towards the largest cinema building on Planet Earth.

The beginning of the journey is arguably the most comfortable upon the eye, it is invariably dark and rectangle shades of affluent light can be seen frozen behind coloured glass. I walk across the Byres Road up towards Great Gibson Street, where mercenary cranes hang over an underdeveloped patch of soil; it is a docile but rapidly changing stretch of road.

The sharp gradient tightens the muscles on both of my legs and I have reached the peak of the road, where in sudden twist of fate I feel compelled to go down the hill towards Gibson Street. I used to live around here, the car park is still a muddy disgrace, littered with crass aluminium shells and alien sized craters. The park dominates the area, it is a spooky place and lit only by a curved silver moon; its iron gates lie open but I dare not enter.

I stride past fancy Lebanese and Scottish restaurants, it is an ordinary night but they both appear full of people. I cross over the gentle river, there are no grebes or mallards to be seen and only now do I start to accelerate towards my destination. I twist past two Protestant churches and a cold young fox lying dead in the leaves. The road ahead is empty and without a soul, it appears darker now, the motorway is within walking distance.

I head towards Charing Cross, it is very quiet and all the cars have gone. It is not the right time but I prefer to take to the skies than walk alongside them. I adjust my legs and walk over an arched granite causeway; it elevates me above the carnage of the roads and provides access to the mysterious ways of Garnethill.

I am in the city now, there something sinister about this place, something threatening, although my mind is playing tricks on me. It is dark right now and no one is here. The street is awash with neat green lawns and vacancy signs, there are places to stay on my left, while to my right there are scattered bins and graffiti strewn fire exits.

I walk ominously closer and there is a Catholic Church approaching, which is separated by yew, rowan and a piercing iron fence. This secretive place of worship performs mass in Latin and the priest is kept hidden behind a secret silver veil. The church is small but intimidating and I don’t think it likes me at all. I walk on alone and without a God, the winter air is biting my cheeks, my hands are beginning to get cold now.

I walk towards the famous art school and admire its subtle and decorative style, there are no students in the nearby eighties lounge. I am almost there now and feel like a distant stranger, people are on the move down below me, there is a collection of buckfast and vodka sitting alongside a corrugated steel gate. The streets are colliding into one, there are cars passing by me, it is now sparkling with light and the silence has gone.

Dreams of a Life

In 2003, the skeleton of 38-year-old Joyce Carol Vincent was discovered in a North London bedsit with the television still on. She had been dead for three years. Her remains were found alongside half-wrapped Christmas presents and the haunting flicker of BBC One. Joyce’s body was so badly decomposed she could only be identified by comparing dental records with an old holiday photograph of her smiling. How she died doesn’t actually matter.

What is truly shocking is how someone could remain dead for three years without anybody noticing. In a ghoulish tale of neglect and social dislocation, Dreams of a Life is a story about youth, friendship and missed opportunities. With no family and her four sisters refusing to take part, the docudrama pieces together Joyce Vincent’s anonymous life.

Directed by Carol Morley, the film interviews a handful of former-work colleagues, who reminisce about the water cooler moments and office parties they shared with Joyce in the 1980s. Now in their forties, there was unnerving sense of how our loves and opportunities narrow with each passing year. How meaningful their friendship with Joyce stretched beyond the superficialities of office small talk is questionable. Likewise her ex-flatmates appeared genuine but again unaware of her true character. Nobody it seemed knew Joyce Vincent.

A vivacious and charismatic girl in her prime, the former City girl had never been shy of male attention. However, like so many troubled women, men were a shady reference in her life. With her emotional rock coming in the shape of a bird-faced colleague, she drifted in and out of a series of broken relationships and spent her final years in a women’s refuge.

With the gaps in the narrative proving frustratingly esoteric towards the end, the story of Joyce Vincent’s life remains incomplete. Set in the early 2000s and in the absence of the social networking websites that dominate our lives today, Joyce left this world without even a missed call. It is bad enough turning forty let alone living on your own.

As the years slowly become decades, friends will inevitably come and go and a once beautiful, popular woman ended up spending her final moments utterly alone. Like a modern tale from Edgar Allen Poe the bank continued to pay her bills but nobody wrote or called. Invisible transactions kept on flowing all the while a scrambled television poured life into Joyce Vincent’s unvisited tomb.