Jean Meyer
paintings, drawings and words 

This Eye Saw (Portrait of the Artist as a Schoolgirl)

This eyesore.
“Oh, what an eyesore!” mother exclaimed, “I don’t look like that!”
“Yes, you do, when you’re asleep”.
“I don’t!”
“You don’t know what you look like when you’re asleep.”
Slumped in the armchair, arms folded across her breast, chin sunk into the rumpled cardigan. Of course, we none of us look like that; off guard, vulnerable, anyoldhow.
“You want to do a nice one of me when I’m awake and sitting up. A proper one.”
Combed and brushed and straightened out with the fixed smile, not the mouth lolling open and the spare tyre showing under the arm. That’s what people wanted, a Proper Picture. They were cross with me as if I was doing it on purpose, to humiliate and annoy them.
So I took my drawings to one who knew, who saw what was in me and watered it; gave me tedious, impossible tasks: drawing the stairwell from the top stair, drawing balls of screwed up paper on the table. I saw how colours were always subject to light and how the names we gave to them were only poor approximations, the best we could do. He set up a still-life in the middle of the classroom and I saw how the rim of the bowl began as purple and changed to lilac, not gradually but quite suddenly, where the sun fell on it, and my hand moving the brush received the news from my brain and strove to register the difference. My skill often reached its limits and the things would not live on the paper but disintegrated into mess or refused to appear at all and then I dropped my hand into my lap, onto the navy blue skirt, and sighed.
Passing by, he heard me and said,
“Don’t worry, it’ll come.”
And it did; perhaps because he took the trouble to say those vital words. Solutions were found, discoveries made: Giotto, Masaccio, Piero, Cézanne, Degas….
He gave me my first art book, I have it still: a small monograph of Cézanne, marked with my fervent underlinings and exclamation marks. I read it quickly because I thought I had to return it, but when I held it out and he said,
“You can keep it”,
I was so gratefully delighted he might have given me a magic lamp.
There are people who are milestones, or beacons, in our lives, their light never goes out for us.


Autumn in the Spring

I sit down opposite Gabriella in the cafè. It is 11 a.m., the time we have always chosen to meet for our coffee in the fifteen years I have known her. Today she had turned up at 9.30, despite the mail I sent her, despite the phone call to drive it home. “I came at 9.30 but there was nobody here so I went home again.” She smiles as she says it and when I remind her that we agreed on 11.00, she just smiles again. Gabri is older than me, she is 75 now and Alzheimer has taken her arm – just gently at first, two fingers on her sleeve – but never to leave her and eventually to hold her in a final, dreadful embrace. I know, I have seen it close up in my own family.

We sit and drink our coffee and she talks happily about when she was young and working. She had three children and for each one she continued to work until the final month and returned shortly after. Quite a feat for an Italian mother of those years. But Gabri is not a traditional Italian mother; she dresses, even now, in sporty clothes with running shoes (and sometimes she runs in them), she has short, unkempt hair and no problem about showing her multitude of wrinkles to the world. Until recently she went to the gym and the pool every week and she walks eveywhere now, having put away her bike for good. Exercise, good diet, no smoking and mentally alert; yet here he is anyway, uninvited, Alzheimer with one foot in the door.

Gabri talks to me about the far past, but I am reluctant to ask her about yesterday, I don’t want to see her at a loss for words. She looks out of the cafè window at the poplar trees that are just putting out their new leaves for yet another Spring, almost imperceptible like a green mist. She voices this thought as we gaze and says how lovely they are. I don’t think she has ever said anything like that, about natural phenomena, as long as I have known her. I am reminded of my own new, amazed recognition of the beauty in pieces of music that I know well but seem, now, to be hearing for the first time. So we are becoming old – and the world slowly reveals itself to us in all its splendour because soon we must leave it.

Dear Little England
(Yes, you, with your “Ooh, we don’t want that, it’s foreign”, and your uninformed nostalgia for Empire) I know you well, I grew up with you and you made me what I am, until Italy completed the parts that you could not reach. You are my mother(land), and like all children I’ve loved you but now I am ashamed of you. With your lack of vision beyond your own tidy little garden you have spoiled the future for your children and grandchildren, for the population of Great Britain and for millions of Europeans who have loved you too (in spite of yourself). 
In my twenties I voted into the EU, while in 2016 I was deprived of my right to vote because of the 15 years rule. Where did that arbitrary number come from? What other country denies voting rights to its citizens dispersed around the world? At this point I have no option, after 40 years of EU citizenship, but to request Italian citizenship, like thousands of other Brits in Italy. I’m sad and angry and deeply disappointed in you, Little England.
Victoria to Gatwick
We are all sitting quietly and comfortably, not too crowded, not too early in the day nor too late, just out of Victoria. Along the aisle comes a thin, clearly drunken man in a dark grey, very crumpled suit. He reels past me, his beery breath preceding him, and flops down into a seat nearby. Hard on his heels comes the ticket inspector, a little man with a mobile-featured face. It seems that the drunken man must leave the train, which will make an unscheduled stop at Clapham Junction for this purpose; he must leave the train because he has insulted the ticket inspector. The offended party had asked him – politely and correctly, yet firmly, as is his way – to leave the First Class seat he had been occupying unlawfully and the passenger had responded by intimating that if the ticket inspector did not leave him alone he would “knock him from one end of the train to the other”.
Faced with this dreadful squalid tale we, the hapless passengers, the captive audience, sit quietly and say nothing. Some of us hide behind books or newspapers but we are all listening intently, casting furtive glances now and then at the principal characters in
this melodrama that we are so fortunate not to be a part of.
The train makes its stop at Clapham and the drunken man refuses to move. A Higher Authority is summoned. In his neat suit the HA makes his speech – each word distinct and complete, no abbreviations and the stress on normally unstressed words, as is the Briton’s
way when he is standing on his dignity.
“I am afraid, sir, you will have to leave the train.”
The drunken man protests feebly that he has to catch a plane, like the rest of us, an idea with little credibility as his only piece of luggage appears to be a golf club. After ten minutes of stalemate posturing (some of us are now nervously consulting our
watches) he consents to leave the train, assuring us all that he will write to the EHA (Even Higher Authority) about the whole unjust affair. We leave him on the empty platform at Clapham, in bewildered, crumpled solitude. With a clearing of throats and a that’s-that shake-out of newspapers, the passengers settle down again and the train resumes its journey and even arrives on time.
Taranto to Torino

We arrive half an hour before the train is due to leave, to be sure of finding a seat – it is a public holiday. In fact, it is not so difficult, because the train starts from here, the edge of Italy, and it is empty and dark when it rolls in alongside the platform. However, most of the front carriages appear to be First Class or Sleepers, with the result that the handful of Second Class carriages are taken by storm, swamped by a pressing crowd of people and baggage. The noise is a few notes short of panic. Disbelieving in this nonsensical arrangement of carriages, we peer into a First Class compartment and oh! there is a little white sticker on the window proclaiming – or better to say whispering, it is so small and almost invisible in the dark – ‘2nd Class’. Still disbelieving, it is essential to check by asking at least two people to verify this change of class. Satisfied, we begin to fill the six-seater compartments, stowing away our cases and placing little bags of food handy for the long night ahead. About one hour later we roll into Bari station, the platform wet with rain that has been threatening all day. The train sits for quite a while, people come and go continually along the corridor, heaving luggage alongside them and gradually it becomes clear, from the increasing volume of noise coming from the next compartment, that some kind of argument is brewing. The voices continue for a while, getting faster and louder, and other passengers begin to emerge from their compartments into the corridor to see what is happening (if something interesting is going on it will help to pass the long boring night; one can talk about it for ages afterwards.) Something has happened: a confused situation involving the declassed carriages, a pregnant woman, seats booked and occupied by others, and now the station police are coming onto the platform in their navy-blue uniforms. 
By now, the corridor is crammed full of passengers who have left their seats to watch and listen; they are hanging out of the windows because some of the row is taking place on the platform and some of it on the train, and by now everyone has chosen which side they are on, the State Railways or the pirate passengers who are steadfastly refusing to budge from their seats. The whole situation is escalating, the spectators (ah, no! there are no spectators here, everyone is part of the drama) are now forming little groups to argue what has become ‘their’ case and to shout one another down with accounts of previous misdoings involving the State Railways.
The issue threatens to become political.
Something, at last, after almost an hour, is decided upon in such a way that everyone is partly satisfied. Somewhere in the dark station a whistle blows, long and loud, more so than usual as if to say ooooh, we’ve managed the impossible once agaaaain, and we start rolling northwards again. Gradually everybody filters back into their seats, the night settles in, food bags rustle: the curtain has come down.
Jean Meyer
The Artist appeals to that part of our being which is not dependent on wisdom; to that in us which is a gift and not an acquisition - and, therefore, more permanently enduring. (S)he speaks to our capacity for delight and wonder, to the sense of mystery surrounding our lives: to our sense of pity and beauty and pain.
Joseph Conrad (with a tiny addition from this artist)

Bringing Down the Sky

She is small and this is her world, a small world.

A house.

A tree.

Four flowers.

The sun.

And she.

The house is a brown rectangle with a brown triangle on the top. Two windows upstairs, two downstairs; each window is divided into four and has blue curtains looped up at the sides. A red door fits in the centre of the rectangle, with a number on it and a horizontal letter-box.

The tree is a tidy, solid tree that spreads its red-brown skirt slightly at the hem and holds its tightly-permed green head straight up on its neck. This tree would fear no wind.

The four flowers are huge uncompromising blooms; one of them would fill a room of the house. Blue, red, yellow and orange, they hold up their leaf arms in adoration.

The sun – the Sun, because it must have a  big S, this one, it is so bright and so very hot – is yellow. Like a god it reigns over the picture, all-seeing from its glorious corner, shooting out its rays to the rooftop, the treetop and the four yearning flowers.

She stands next to the house, in a stiff little red skirt, holding out both arms to something that she cannot name, cannot draw yet, smiling towards her desire.

This is her world, that she says onto her piece of rough paper with her bright crayons; that she sits back to see, coming out of it, going back into it, her head on one side, her tongue between her lips. Over her world she must place the sky. Bright blue it runs from left to right, the ribbon, sky-river, the half-inch that protects her from infinity. Small, we cannot bear infinity. Large, we cannot bear it either but by then we have devised enough ways of being too busy to contemplate it for long. Small, it threatens to destroy us so we carefully crayon in, from left to right, with patient even strokes, our strip of blue sky.

One day, we bring down the sky.

It is an act of daring, a feat of magic.

A child stands in the garden, arms stretched out, triangular skirt like the roof of the house, and slowly the sky is falling upon her. Little by little, in tenths of inches, the sky comes down.

What will happen when it touches her head?

Will she be crushed?

Will she be swallowed up and vanish completely as the blue wave sweeps down onto the grass?

Surely she will be suffocated, the sky filling her mouth, her eyes, her ears!

It goes on. Oh, the daring!

The stump of crayon gets shorter and the sky goes on falling.

She brings down the sky and as the last little corner of white paper disappears the truth leaps out suddenly like a great bird hidden in the grass, unfolds its splendid wings, startling her, then flies away. Astonished, she sees what she feared most to lose with her daring: the smiling child in the garden goes on stretching out her arms; the fierce flowers have grown even brighter; the great sun glares down tremendously from its corner. All around them, the blue wave becomes the wind, there is no suffocation but air, space, room to breathe, walk, fly.

She is small and this is her world, getting bigger. She takes a black crayon and carefully writes her name in the long green grass.

Jean Meyer

Ma lei accetta le rughe come si accettano le piogge ed il sole, l'inverno e l'estate, la vita e la morte: con la serenità di chi capisce che la stagione delle avventure è finita e bisogna pur prepararsi a vestirsi di grigio per tornare un giorno al villaggio.

But she accepts the wrinkles as one accepts the rain and the sun, winter and summer, life and death: with the calm of understanding that the season of adventures is over and one must surely get ready to dress in grey to return one day to the village.

Oriana Fallaci, interview with Ingrid Bergman, 1962

SNOWMAN SNOWMAN by Janet Frame is the loveliest short story I know and the first paragraph is pure poetry:

"People live on earth, and animals and birds; and fish live in the sea, but we do not defeat the sea, for we are driven back to the sky, or we stay, and become what we have tried to conquer, remembering mothing except our new flowing in and out, in and out, sighing for one place, drawn to another, wild with promises to white birds and bright red fish and beaches abandoned then longed for."
Later on, the Snowman of Janet Frame thinks that the trees are dying of some terrible disease when he notices the swellings on their limbs, mistaking the signs of life for the signs of death.

I don’t know how old Laura is. Her head and body are strangely at variance with
each other: she has a large head with greying (but not grey) straight hair
parted on one side, jaw length and done in the style of a little girl, held
with a clip above one temple. Her large eyes watch the world above a small bony
nose and a chin that could be held between thumb and forefinger.
Her body is the wreck of a physical life. Lying down, with her head almost at right
angles to her skinny chest, she barely raises the sheets with her torso, while
her bent knees hold up the fabric like tent poles. She has a pacemaker inside
her but you would wonder where they found enough flesh to hold it. When the
nurses come to wash her and pull back the sheet, she appears as a heap of bones
draped with yellow, spotted skin. Her left hand is completely deformed by
arthritis, as if a great weight has crushed and forced the fingers sideways.
She can do nothing with it.
The body betrays, it wears out, shrivels, fades, cracks, deforms. You would wonder
how we go on from there. Looking at a body like Laura’s, you would say – There
is nothing to hope for from this. It is all over here, in this heap of bones
and dry old skin.
Then the mouth, in all that ruin, opens and Laura speaks. 
She makes words work for her purposes; she observes, she questions, she comments,
she laughs – she laughs! – and Life itself says, loud and clear, Here I Am in
the midst of all that decay. To judge from her body, her words should be a
jumble of nonsense, unfinished, muddled, a pathetic whisper petering out
inconclusively. Instead, she is sharp as a needle, nothing escapes her, her
observations are acute and she makes others laugh.
Suddenly I understand. This understanding will fade, I will lose it in the days that
follow, it will slip from my grasp again, but now, now in this ward, it is
wonderfully clear to me. Life is what is left when the body finishes. The soul, the spirit, whatever you want to call it. The soul – Life - does not die.
The means of communication of the soul die, because words are formed by the
body and the body ends. The soul goes on and – I must suppose – finds another
form of expression.
For a moment I am sure of this. Looking and listening to Laura I am utterly
convinced of this. It seems the most obvious thing in the world, so much so
that, right now, ‘dying’ would not matter that much.
Hours later, days later, this glimpse has vanished and I am fiercely attached to my
bodily life again. But the memory remains.

The silence in the Cemetery is absolute. Even the birds don’t sing – just one or two pigeons fluster here and there among the leaves. My shoes disturb the gravel along the pathways – when I pause, the silence closes up, thick and forever.
When I was young, in Britain, sometimes I would wander alone around the local churchyard in my lunch break and sit among the gravestones. I did not know why, but it felt good. Not pessimistic or negative but just – good.
Here in Italy what strikes me most about the cemetery population is that they are all there one by one in photographs, gazing back at us in that silence that will never be broken. From the ancient fuzzy black and white ones with those clothes and that hairstyle, right up to the colourful snaps of yesterday – there they all are, thousands (millions?) of faces all giving the same message, the one that Masaccio put over the painting of the skeleton that lies below his Crucifixion : io fu già quel che voi siete e quel che io sono voi ancor sarete (I was once what you are and what I am you will be). The first time I read and understood that message, leaning close in to decipher it slowly in the shadowy church in Florence, I almost leapt backwards with the sudden understanding of the truth of it. The simple truth. And again, here in the Cemetery of the Certosa, all these faces are repeating it.
Everyone tries to look nice for a photograph. The oldest ones, taken in studios over a hundred years ago, show faces in three-quarter poses, head held high, kitted out in Sunday best suits. The men usually have thick moustaches, the women pieces of jewellery. They look as if they were all nice people. Not people who made others’ lives a misery, who were violent, selfish, dishonest. Words are incised around them – Loving father and husband…..Dearly missed……Generous and caring….. All the rest is forgiven.
Painters’ portraits had, traditionally, a similar function – to record for the future the face of this person who is to be admired and venerated, recognised as important. Royalty, nobility, rich merchants and church leaders – there they all are, looking out at us today from the window of their world that was so very different from ours. Pre-photographic records. Then, at some point after the XV century, portraits began to show states of mind, personality traits, the inner life as well as the exterior. Those eyes in which the soul cannot hide – some are soft, others are cruel, anxious, humorous, seductive. Some are seemingly empty. Every face speaks the truth.