Real and imagined lives…

As a writer, and reader, my life is populated pretty equally by real and imagined people, which may be why this exhibition at M-Shed drew me in… 

Stephen Merchant by Spencer Murphy, 2010 © Spencer Murphy

Stephen Merchant by Spencer Murphy, 2010 © Spencer Murphy

This dual show presents a National Portrait Gallery exhibition of 16th and century paintings of unknown people, with lives imagined by writers such as Terry Pratchett, Sarah Singleton, Julian Fellowes, Joanna Trollope and Minette Walters.

Surrounding this, 25 portraits of folks linked with Bristol in one way or another are displayed along with hinged wooden tablets, with a true biography on one side imagined ones dreamt up by local writers on the other.

Some certainly worked better than others, by which I think I mean that in some authors allowed their imaginations free reign more than others. I adored the one by Helia Phoenix about Banksy, and the comically jealous missive written by Rosemary Dun on behalf of Stephen Merchant.

My favourite of all, however, was the beautifully written piece by Sarah Hilary in the voice of planetary scientist Colin Pillinger’s eight year old self, explaining why he wanted to be a farmer, “either that, or a spaceman.”

Iris Murdoch by Ida Kar, 1957 ©  National Portrait Gallery, London

Iris Murdoch by Ida Kar, 1957 © National Portrait Gallery, London

Of all the portraits shown, I think I would most have liked to write a piece in response to this image of Iris Murdoch. She has such a fierce, but possibly faintly confused, gaze in it. I think I would have liked to forget everything I know about her and just write in the moment, something along the lines of:

“I think, I’m almost sure, that I once knew something vast. Something one might describe as an ocean of words, shifting with the pull of the moon and carrying with it all the sounds of its movements; its relentless dogged dynamism, very loud inside my skull. And now, now all is silent. As though that tumult, that noisy inner industriousness, has seeped out of one’s ear, leaving one cold and salt-stained. Bereft.

“So that one is left with only a residual puddle of thoughts to kneel in. And it’s not enough. It never will be.”

Real & Imagined Lives is on at M-Shed until 06 January 2013.