A Winter view from the Edge 2012
Today, well past the Equinox, the sky is the cloudless placid blue of childhood summers, tinged with pale duck-egg to the roaring horizon, deepest Wedgewood cobalt at the zenith. It is notable for its rarity. This year has brought – consensus - The Very Worst summer in quite a while. For the young, the Worst Summer Ever. If the Mayan Calendar is to be credited, it may also be the Last Summer Ever… but this will have brought small comfort to those that were caught in it. Poor tots in soggy trainers and miserably permeable anoraks clinging to gruesome tee-shirts squelched along the Coastal Path pants-deep in mire yearning miserably for their computer games, and while the spectacular beaches dreamed emptily in the gale-driven rain, grim-faced parents watched the anxiously-saved holiday money swill away on the few and crowded indoor attractions our rural environs have to offer. Campers whose tents had blown apart creaked home early on greasily rusting bicycles to dry their entire collection of socks. Sellers of beach gear will not be holidaying long - if at all - in the foreign sun this winter.
However, for the frogs and bugs and clegs and slugs romping in the rotting collapse of a glut of Mulleins and Foxgloves it’s been Heaven. Gardens that usually wrestle with salt and drouth now swank with precocious maturity, for the downpour has summoned the trees aloft in rocket spurts. Swags of foliage in rococo excess obscure the view and cruel brambles jag across the paths in the Labyrinth at clockable speed, the more so since the wretched strimmer is again lurking in its natural habitat, the repair shop.
My machete arm is nearly back to its youthful definition, swelled further where the horseflies and the mosquitoes have gorged on my blood, for aloft the few wet-summer swallows dwindled, gave up and headed early for their winter quarters far, far to the south; there will be fewer still after crossing the perilous ocean and the damnable guns of those that think splitting with lead such pretty little miracles of flight to be sport. Thus the Culicomorpha still buzz unchecked, and on the rare occasions when the rain stops, the outside evening air is a speckled, biting soup, while the inside walls and ceilings vibrate with tiny dots of malign consciousness. Nasty possibilities lurk in lawns of decomposing hay. It never used to be like this.
Or did it? I think I remember the endless sunshine… but I also recollect kissing lips drenched with rain and the adolescent frustrations of trying to romance girls smeared with calamine lotion standing up in the useless shelter of a thorn-bush, the sodden ground – and the lashing oilskins – proving uncooperative. The newspaper cartoonist Giles drew families sat flat under umbrellas on the roofs of their houses while the flood peeped in at the bedroom windows, when I was still too young to read the caption underneath. Keith Richards (no, not that one) the Helston Barber told me between clatterings of the clippers about the sea whumping up the wall and crashing down his Saint Ives childhood chimney to splatter the fire all over the floor, and I know I used to dry spark plugs with a blow torch to get my old Rolls to start in the pre-electronic foggy dew.
There’s always wistful talk and, regretful reflection about the past, and, much dread or even occasionally glad expectation about the future. And most of us are so fixated on the one or the other - “Once I built a Railroad…” or “Will you still love me tomorrow” (and, to be fair, “Daddy’s gonna buy me a Bow-Wow”) - that we’re in danger of missing the point at which the past and the future touch. And yet the Now is the only place at which we can accurately source our experience of material reality. This is the key to actually living one’s life, for if one is lost in the past or apprehensive of the future one misses the golden treasure of the Instant.
I can go back and read this from the top of the page whenever I wish, but the moment at which I started typing “Today, well past the Equinox…” was gone in irretrievable slices with each letter, for Time, likened in the old hymn to an Ever-Rolling Stream that bears all its sons away is more like a permanently spinning wheel that touches the road of our lives with an area the size of a thumbprint every millisecond, never to return. Only by being closely aware of that touch can we hope thoroughly to experience or, fully enjoy our lives in this glorious universe. We do not, you know, forget where we left our keys, spectacles, gloves, umbrellas or children. We fail to find them because we paid no attention to where we were putting them, being focused upon what we had already done or, were expecting to do next. You cannot hope to remember a movie that you do not watch, a book you do not read; and yet you expect to recall actions through which you sleepwalked. It’s curious how very different one individual’s recollections are from those of another even concerning the same incident - I was robbed in the Seventies, and my perception of the larcenous opportunist and the descriptions of him given to the police by neighbours were unlike in every detail – and yet understandable if each of us had our minds elsewhere when the miscreant appeared at the door; most likely we were listening to one of the commentaries that run constantly in the background of our minds; Before you say ‘Voices in the head? Crazy mate!’ pause and, listen. Can you not hear the commentary? I assure you that there is one. It may indeed be the filing mechanism that our brain uses to make sense of the day, for the voices seem each to indulge in spin, one negative, one positive, and depending on which is louder, one feels good or bad. Test yourself. Do you daydream? If yes, how much attention do you give to your surroundings, your work, your driving?
If you think the answer is no, was there never some incident in which you came off badly, that was perhaps particularly humiliating? Didn’t you afterwards run over and over it, putting your defence forward to your Self, while some aspect of that Self lambasted you for the fool you were?
And while you were doing this, did you much notice where you were walking, what you were doing? Or were you running on auto-pilot? Accident statistics suggest that the people most likely to have an accident are those who have just had one, and unless one cares to believe in some Evil Fairy who precipitates disaster, it must be accepted that you are prone to mishap while your concentration is off the hook of the Now and, in the shock of the immediate past or on its future consequences.
No wonder that meditation practice concentrates on Concentration; sidestepping or stilling the constant commentary either by elimination or overload; and it also explains the attraction of extreme sports; when you deliberately risk your life you HAVE to put your focus on your actions, as you do in the Arts where you merely risk your reputation. The actor, comedian or singer on stage cannot let the mind wander; the musician in the orchestra, far less the soloist or, the conductor, cannot allow a moment’s distraction. The composer, the writer and the poet must focus their attention minutely on the task or produce rubbish; even the figurative painter must make a myriad decisions every second or be unable accurately to represent ideas on canvas. Tight focus is intrinsic to excellence, and while this tight focus is in place, thoughts of unpaid bills, regretted faux pas, even broken hearts, will, must, be silenced.
It may surprise you that you can focus as exclusively on making a hot drink as you can on high-speed driving or playing a concerto, but you can. Feel the miraculous coordination of your musculature and your nervous system as you reach for the cupboard door, accurately select the cup, the saucer, the tea-caddy and the tea pot. Feel the surface and weight of the ceramic in your hand; listen to the water coming to the boil; enjoy the fragrance of the tea, the every subtlety of the warming of the pot with the hot water; the capturing of the exact moment of pre-boil that will scald the leaves to perfection; the delicate balance of the spoon as you stir the brew, the joy of pouring the hot drink into the cup…
So often we miss all of this because we are mentally up to our ears in rubbish, and usually rubbish that makes us less than glad. If we cultivate the business of living in the moment, we will be able to function without accident; we will not lose our car keys because we will have consciously put them somewhere instead of just: down, and, in extreme circumstances we will be able to extract positive experience from the most negative of circumstance.
My favourite Zen parable – although it also says more - epitomises this.
Picture: You are chased by Tigers; outrunning them, you come to a precipice and your momentum carries you over the edge. You manage to catch hold of a sapling, but your weight is pulling it out of the cliff, root and branch. 200 feet below are jagged rocks, crocodiles, more tigers... you know that death, probably painful, awaits in moments. What do you do? Well, you focus on the moment. Enjoy the view and, espying some wild strawberries just within reach, you pluck and eat them. How incredibly sweet they are… … and if indeed the world will cease to be at the end of 2012, what better counsel than to enjoy what time remains also for its sweetness: for its beauty, wonder and, love… JXC Cornwall 2012
LIFE ON THE EDGE - An Awful Waist
One of the advantages of keeping a journal is that it gives you the opportunity to compare how things are now with how they were on the same day last year, or any number of years earlier and, thus monitor the wonderful richness and variety of life. It’s more than merely interesting to see what has – and hasn’t – changed. A bonus on the diary habit is that it helps us conceal the woeful blancmange that the passing years make of our little grey memory cells, for the written word gives us an effective – in fact unique – handle on the priceless gift of time.
There are, disadvantages. Number One is: having to use some of that priceless time to actually write the wretched thing up - a serious bind for the Busy, for by definition it should be done daily, and such a regime makes small allowance for human nature. When you’re sitting Writing, you ain’t out a-Doin’.
In consequence it tends to be the less exciting stuff that gets recorded in depth. My years on tour in North America, Southern Africa, Russia and Europe and, my sojourn in the Far East had Far Too Many beguiling distractions to allow for the bother of putting pencil to notepad, and I’m left with only a vague out of focus but warmly spiced and highly coloured memory, like something with foggy flutes and horns by Debussy. My time back here on the cliff-edge, however, is documented at dark and Wagnerian length, which brings me to disadvantage number two: the swelling pile of mouldering paper that has to be housed somewhere. My first wife had a lovely friend who spared herself the journal-keeping and simply, saved all her newspapers. By the mid seventies she’d had to move out of her dining room. By the time I returned to Cornwall at the end of the eighties, she’d abandoned her impenetrable apartment and gone to live in Puerto Rico.
Disadvantage number three is the embarrassment, after an interval, of trying to decipher one’s own handwriting. Mine, already a hurried and degenerate scrawl by the time of my parting of the ways with my schooling, now resembles the markings left by the growth of Dry Rot, a form of fungus - hang on, that IS fungus…
But the worst hazard is that, fearful that the truth may get out when one has become Dust, or far far worse, while one is still alive, one may be made a liar; may hold back on one’s true opinions and put spin and gloss and inject convenient Omission on and into the reportage of one’s actions. This is disastrous to proper diarist conduct. Samuel Pepys is rightly famous for the broad window on his world that his journal has passed down to us, but it is his total honesty that makes him laudably Human. Every flaw is laid bare, not least his own weaknesses, which were many and, rendered in disarming relief.
I give frequent thanks for the wonderful Word Processor that can present the most self-indulgent and re-worked of narratives in crisp twelve-point type, and can file decades of entries on a little silver disc, lightweight and mushroom-proof, ready for instant retrieval if and only if, one can remember the password; provided the electricity doesn’t run out.
Despite our laudable wisdom in having sold that electricity along with the nation’s God-given water, to a nation that may very well remember Agincourt without the need to consult its journals, and certainly holds only too well in its little grey cells the concept of le Barbaric Rosbif and, that of having le Client over une barillet, today all is functioning, so I’m able to plug in, switch on, boot up and, tell you with absolute confidence that, this time four years ago, wait for it! Things were: Very much the same. The barometer had fallen right off the wall, the wind was blowing, the rain was not so much pattering on the roof as hammering on the wall to get in, something not to be defeated in this location by anything short of a solid rubber house.
Rats and mice were then, as they are now, dragging furniture about in the roof, immune to the expensive bleepers that have been bought and plugged in to repel them. But this year I hear they’ve also grown resistant to the Final horrible Option, Rat Poison; not just in Cornwall, but nationwide. Apparently, much animal feed is now reinforced with Vitamin K, as it was formerly with the ground-up little grey cells and spinal cords of sick sheep, remember the man-made catastrophe of BSE? Well, unlike that triumph of economics, this dietary additive has been entirely beneficial to the farm animals – huge sigh of relief – and, has made the rats, who have partaken of the spillage, so fit and strong that they now regard our most lethal toxins as a tasty snack. If I heard the radio aright, Oxfordshire and Hampshire are now home to more rats than people, (bit like Westminster, then) and none of us anywhere is ever more than ten feet from one of the little darlings. I have dear friends that keep pet rats; they’re highly intelligent and affectionate, and the rats are quite bright too; they can smell a chucked punnet of KFC at 300 yards, and know that they can raise large families on our reliable largesse; I’m told that many households, addicted to the supermarket Buy-One-Get-One-Free culture, gaily load their trolleys to the rim and, back home, purge the fridge of all the uneaten – sometimes unopened – nosh and restock the shelves, binning much of the last week’s purchases. Are we really so catastrophically irresponsible? Our problems aren’t our own fault, surely?
But, while elsewhere the hungry remain un-fed, clothing the naked has never been more of a doddle. All those unsold and so rapidly unfashionable crop-tops and unsaleable reprised flared pants will continue to flap around the ribs and shanks of the Third World for decades; however, back here in the First, the thrift shops are grown picky, glutted with the worn-once or not at all, while thanks to regulations (regulations, I’m moved to say, that any other population would laugh to scorn,) we must still tip the wasted food - that would make ecologically sound and gourmet grade pig-swill - along with our twice-worn unfashionable clothes into polluting land-fill, and must feed our porkers and chickens on imported wheat, priced at a premium because somebody discovered that the conversion of food-crops into petrol is such a wonderful earner. But then, WE (or still, most of us in 2012) in the wasteful, waistless West, are not (yet) hungry.
Little Miss Muffet said, ‘Bub, you can stuff it! I won’t eat it. Take it away!!’ Distressing the waiter presenting the plate of the Chef’s Special Curds of the Day.Persisting with calm to conceal his alarm, he protested the charm of the sweet. She straightened her arm, obtruded her palm and spilled it all over his feet. ‘Let me make myself plain,’ said this Gluteal Pain,‘If you wish to remain in your niche, you’ll fulfil my design, or your job’s on the line.Now get me a burger! Capiche?’The waiter - whose pride was displayed in his stride - Squelched away in a murderous mood.Determined, let’s say, to gain face for his tray, sent away in a cab for such food. Now between you and me, the man had a degree, and was nicely informed on nutrition.He waited, you see, as a struck off MD, - some complaint of coercive coition.The burger was brought – of a popular sort, It reposed in its polythene box, Where steroids compete with debatable meat to repeat the physique of the ox.Miss Muffet fell to with a gusto quite gruesome,A twosome could not have dined faster;It’s bad for the soul to swallow things whole. For the body it’s total disaster.Deprived of relief, the hormonal beef Sent a chemical jolt through the nerve-vine;‘Build muscle!’ It said. ‘On her hips! On her head!And don’t rest till she’s perfectly bovine!’Mama simply swooned as the moppet ballooned A-wobble with blubbery shudders;It wasn’t her size that was such a surprise: it was rather the horns and the udders.
But what of the staff? Well, they just had to laugh;
As Miss Muffet made helpless cow eyes,
She had quite overlooked the spider, half cooked
My Child, be polite. You know it’s not right to be overbearing and rude.
And if there’s there a moral…
It's best NOT to quarrel with people that handle your food.
LIFE ON THE EDGE - Eke-ology
In these times of new austerity, one ekes out the last smear of the jam in the jar, the last wafer of cheese from the rind before eating the rind itself, and views with contempt the Reckless that abandon still-edible stuffs to the garbage and thus to stinking landfill as if there were no poor, no needy. At last our view of the giant supermarkets is less besotted. Not the cornucopiae of a benevolent Mammon but the cynical machines for garnering to themselves our money that they obviously were all along.
People whose clothes have not been dry-cleaned jostle for remaindered stock while prime products languish on the shelves until they too display the dayglo stickers that mean that they can, if consumed soon, provide an affordable meal. Inside my studio I put my empty oil-paint tubes in my bench vice to squeeze out the last daubs of colour.
Outside, we eke out the little daylight left for the tasks that burgeon like brambles. Ungratefully hacking those brambles while enjoying the wonderful crop of fruit they’ve given us is top of the list as the moist afternoons morph into rustling evenings and the last garnet light sneaks through branches that are coyly stripping in the wind to reveal the beauty of their winter nakedness. Some of us experiment very carefully with foraged samphire and wild fungus, finding them good. As a Nation, we have bumbled on in thoughtless boughten glut with Nature’s bounty derided, and because of that derision have little clue as to the edibility of our wild plants. Unfortunately we live with a handful that are truly poisonous. We also live, as do some burlesque dancers and the natives of everywhere except Ireland, with Snakes. I am glad when I stumble upon one still sunning itself as the days shorten, for all of them are beautiful and some, the silver vipers with the indigo italic calligraphy of their spinal stripe miming the shadows of fallen bracken fronds, are stunning. They are indeed poisonous, but I was told as a child that their bite is of no more consequence than the sting of a wasp and that anyway, they never bite unless you deliberately attack them.
I come from a line of nudists, or Naturists as this endangered species sometimes prefer to be called, and was topping up my vitamin D levels in the sunshine generously splashed through the Olearias onto the grass outside my studio when I felt something start to creep over my foot. I was virtually asleep and, wishing to stay that way, slid deeper into my doze. I was disturbed, again minimally, by the creeping thing – Snail? Big bug? – making its way past my knee.
No matter. The snooze was delicious and I resumed it. Only when I felt the intruder nuzzling my groin did I act, and lazily brushed my hand downwards and outwards to dislodge the cheeky blighter. I felt a weighty whip around my forearm and a burning in my hand. Instantly I was awake and, eye-poppingly aware of a tight silver bracelet with its fangs embedded in the base of my thumb. Faster than thought I sprung my arm into a centrifugal parabola that flung the creature from me. My hand looked like a red rubber glove, and the big vein in my arm was pumping like a bicycle inner-tube without its tyre. Twin punctures and a gushing scratch marked the base of my thumb. Instinct cut in; I sucked, and blood tasting of bitter rust flooded my mouth. I spat and sucked, and sucked and spat, and the vein began to subside. I stumbled into my studio, grabbed a steel scribe, widened the holes and went on sucking like a child with a sherbet until I had no more suction left. I thought it might be a good idea to photograph my hand and e-messaged my daughter with the image. She texted back:
‘Congratulations, Father! You are a true member of the internet generation, posting pictures of your wound instead of seeking MEDICAL ATTENTION!!!XXX’
It was a Sunday; the austere eking had already reduced us to one motorcar, and that was employed elsewhere. Public transport? Two miles to a skeleton service from the nearest bus stop. The prospect of hitch-hiking 40 miles to A&E under a merciless sun was not attractive.
I did get to see a doctor two days later, and he said it was a ‘text-book’ case, and that some people had lost limbs from such bites. So much for ‘no worse than a wasp-sting’. I had about ten days of rather more than under-the-weather and a powerful need to stay within a few yards of what in the USA is called the Bathroom for rather longer. Even now, anything vaguely reptilian makes me jump horribly.
Walking in the debris left by the first Equinoctial storm I detected a faint movement in the shadows of the bracken cast by the pale sunlight. My scalp contracted. The tail of a bronze snake was sticking, not without comedy, out of a hole in the ground in a way that was surely unwise in a wilderness where quite large predators – inquisitive foxes, juggernaut badgers and various lighting-bolt hawks with rat-trap beaks, perfect eyesight and the claws of the devil may not care that the other end of this muscular delicacy, albeit some two feet away is furnished with fangs. I later found this adder – smaller than the one that bit me, but still pretty chunky – lying incapacitated by an enormous rodent clamped in its jaws, but for now I plucked a soft withy from the elder tree to my left and gently prodded the protruding tail. With the infinite weariness of a cold-blooded creature that feels the chill, the tail withdrew into the earth.
There was something about the almost patient fatigue of that withdrawal that took me back to the early1960s. I was a student, failing to fit in at an art school that is now a Meadery – do people still go to meaderies? The school was itself failing, a Flying Dutchman of a place running tattered with a handful of doomed students and a skeleton crew, very far from the tight ship of Dr. Turk who had taught that least comfortable and most romantic of the Saint Ives artists, the brawling sculptor, painter and (wonderful) writer Sven Berlin who was possibly the least felicitous of my choices of role model.
Redruth is a secret and surprising town that clings to the steep land as if to life and walking the angled streets in my lunch-hour I found it uncomfortably easy to visualise the buckling of the Earth that squeezed the molten tin into the heavy veins below. There was still some active mining around it and some industry in it and the tang of its brewery hung like a soporific fog that embraced the chaste, grimy brick of the workers cottages and the elaborate granite quoins of the big Gothic villas with an egalitarian affection. The art school combated this miasma with a stink of its own, for in the basement lurked mildewed clay for sculpture, acids for etching and the original lavatories; the odour as of rotten eggs competed for one’s attention with the sweet scent of death from two calves heads, innocent eyes a liquid reproach, that had been brought from the slaughterhouse for the stillest of still-lives.
A girlfriend had come of motoring age and her family had bought her a car; a Singer Nine if I remember correctly; not sure whether it was the same company that built the famous sewing machines, but the tappety motor within its snubby snout certainly sounded that way. It had poddy little headlamps atop pontoon fenders as did most cars of the period and its worn leather innards protestingly included us all on its first voyage into town. This cargo plus Redruth’s two geographical directions, up and, down, sweated the little engine and showed up deficiencies in the brakes. Something got collided with. There was no blood but much yelling and floods of tears. The police were called, and the poor girl at the wheel and all her compressed passengers were taken to the police station which we nearly overflowed. I was a mouthy kid and appointed myself spokesman, hero and twerp. A kindly old sergeant with his tunic unbuttoned to reveal the paunch between his braces listened politely to my stream-of-consciousness rant on the British Police State for a couple of seconds, decided correctly that I was an unreliable witness, and said to the constables that had brought us in ‘Split them up…’ I interrupted again,
‘Don’t you try your Gestapo techniques on me!’
The old sergeant looked at me sadly and mildly wagged a finger.
‘Don’t provoke, Laddie,’ he said, and taking me very gently but firmly by the shoulder led me to a bench in an adjacent hallway and sat me down.
With patient disillusionment he withdrew down the corridor to interview the driver and her less political passengers. The girl’s parents screeched up anxious-eyed in their Jowett Javelin and hurried past without a glance. A bleak sense of redundancy flooded over me, and I have no memory of what happened subsequently save that the girl and I did not remain an item overlong. I do recall that she modelled for my father who was, as I am, both painter and photographer, and that shortly afterwards my mother burned my corduroy waistcoat. I don’t mean accidentally, with the iron. I mean deliberately, in the stove.
Many years after my father’s death I found the photographs he had taken of the girl. She was holding my banjo and posing with surprising expertise in a bowler hat, her socks and sneakers and, my waistcoat. All became instantly clear. I am glad (although I have to say not everybody is) that my mother had not burned the banjo.
LIFE ON THE EDGE - and that's all for now.
Mindful of the acceleration of time’s passing I’m reviewing old issues of Life on the Edge to see what was going on in months gone by. Was the world a better place when I started this journal a decade or two back or, was it not? The search is easy, as I have had the old laptop ’Mac upon which I write juiced up with extra Random Access Memory and a fatter Hard Drive. The screen is now brighter, and will display millions of colours! The nearest analogy I have for the juicing was the milling of the head, the porting and polishing of the manifolding and the re-profiling to half-race of the camshaft in the thunderous engine of my old 3-litre MGC. She was rapid before the modifications, but afterwards she fairly flew. As with that much-missed motor, so with this computer. No sooner the question than Zot! The answer or, millions of answers…
I zap the Cursor over and click on the ikon. Instantly I can confirm that earlier Months of May have been pretty merry or, less so; other conflicts as vile as our current involvements or, more so. But I already know this. Iraq smoulders on; as does the hatred we so successfully inflamed with our interference. Before that there was the latest in a bleeding history of Balkan conflicts, and the grisly things that were done then, extra to the simple slaughter of soldiers, were much like the atrocities of Vietnam, Korea, two World wars, the Boer and Crimean and the Franco-Prussian encounter and all the other wastes of men and materials right back to the Roman sack of Jerusalem, the smashing of Carthage and the siege of Troy.
Mankind does Agriculture and Architecture solidly and rather well, Self Adornment with brio; Art, Music and Dance better than any other species, although this is given the lie by the Turner Prize, certain recent ‘compositions’ and, Synchronised Swimming.
However, conquest, rapine and ruin are Man’s true passion and only Mother Earth herself can compete with him in acts of devastation and far surpass him in acts of peace.
Lulled by lapping of tiny waves under a sun smiling from a bird-rich sky through air honeyed with the nectar of cascading sloe-flowers and the coconut-butter fragrance of the bursting gorse onto the unprecedented swags of apple blossom bending the bough outside the window, it’s hard to believe that elsewhere on the beautiful globe there can be so much turmoil but, if I flip from word processor to internet, the evidence of man’s wickedness is splashed across the screen in an infinity of images both static and moving.
And some are horribly moving. The grief of the survivors of natural disasters is poignant enough, but that the innocent should be dispossessed, raped, tortured, mutilated and slaughtered for the vainglory of men to whom power has become god, men who would rather bring death to whole nations, their own nations, than leave office is beyond understanding to anyone who has grown up in these democratically governed islands, or who has, actually, simply grown up.
We should not be surprised that the palatial compounds of dictators are furnished with extreme security and last-ditch safe-rooms. It’s both a truism and an irony that so many of those that would live in palaces end up dying in bunkers. It is also a commonplace that a moderate dose of power is never enough. The few great leaders who recognise that they have had their hour and that the time has come to welcome new hands on the tiller of the Ship of State continue loved and respected in and, beyond retirement. But then, they are Great Leaders, not bullies who see in that toothless tiger Democracy an easy chance to underscore and ratify their despotism. Humanity is however in step, for all creation is a bully. Big weeds smother small weeds, big fish eat little fish.
Two blackbirds here, where there’s room for ten pairs, squabble to the point of injury over who gets which bush. The trees I planted when Xenia was born now provide habitat for doves that - in defiance of their role as totems - squabble as fiercely and, with six times the noise, as do squabble the blackbirds.
The rabbits, of which there are again far, far too many also indulge a great rambunctious physicality but whether this contention is territorial or merely sexual is not entirely clear. Whatever the excitable action, it is over in seconds; even so you wouldn’t think they had energy over for the excavations they perform; happy healthy shrubs suddenly wilt. Honey fungus? No, Bunny scoops that make a dry basketwork of the roots. However, my sparing strimmer policy has made us a haven for snakes. Beautiful adders of a size and sparkle I don’t recall seeing before are enjoying the warmth among the wildflowers and the twisting path of the Snake garden has come into its own. They take the occasional foolhardy toad, and I shall try to wean them on to young rabbits. Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail and Dinner.
You may have noticed that this article has a rather rag-bag continuity. Perhaps I should explain.
On Saturday at teatime here on the Edge we play a little game.
The Elf comes in with a tabloid colour supplement and says brightly ‘I shall read you your stars!’ I growl that she needn’t bother, as I don’t subscribe to the brand of astrology that would have everyone born on the same day experience the same life path. Were all the poor souls swept out to sea off the coast of Japan born under Gemini, and those left to mourn them all Scorpio??
She starts to read anyway, and her clear voice says that Mercury is going Retrograde. There’s a short pause and I draw reflectively at the fragrant brew in my teacup while she clambers about in the garden, jumping fetchingly in the air in order to retrieve the paper from the boughs of the tree into which I have thrown it. She returns; sits and spreads the paper again. ‘I’ll continue…’ she says, her intent depressingly intact. She is, after all, an Aries.
And, she does continue. When I lunge for a second time to remove the paper from her, this time with intent of my own, that of consigning the wretched rag to the roaring jaws of the stove, she dodges nimbly.
I create a distraction. ‘Look!’ I cry, ‘There’s a squirrel on the Bird-Feeder!’ Or, ‘The chimney’s on fire’, but it’s no good. She is relentless. I am forced to learn that the retreat of the Planet of Communication is Bad News. I must expect Broken Communications, Delays and, Cancelled Business Deals.
Total Tosh! I say, snatching once more at the paper. I overbalance, and the little power feed unplugs with a plop from the computer on my lap. I grab at it and miss, flipping it into the air like an incompetent angler with a trout fly. The laptop, silver as an eel, slips sideways. Forgetful of the plug, I make a dive to save my Window on the World and, I catch it! Gee, I’m on form today. It slams shut in my hands and Everything, including me, ends up on the floor. To her credit, the good Elf, computer-loathing Luddite that she is, does not laugh. She’s elsewhere attending to the chimney fire.
I clamber upright and inspect the computer. A narrow escape; they are tough, but serious damage could have resulted. I set it on the table murmuring soothing words, and open the top. The little plug has been caught like a beetle in a Bible, and the screen displays a starburst in millions of colours. It is smashed utterly.
The world falls instantly apart.
I remember losing my Filofax in the 1980s, and that was bad enough. The Black Dog grows huge and menacing and drools on my shoulder until I remember that, disregarded in a dusty draw lies a Compaq Armada, an early laptop featuring a gloriously random Joy-Stick in lieu of a mouse and looking as though you need to put water and two-stroke mixture in to make it go. Amazingly, after a decade in deep, deep sleep, it wakes and functions as well as ever – which is to say not brilliantly, as compared to even the digital timer on the microwave it has the memory capacity of a goldfish. It is distinctly pre-internet. My communications are broken, my work delayed; I will later learn that the venue where my band has played these few years past has new management that want to try something different. My business there is cancelled. Retrograde Mercury? Total tosh? Hmmmn. I step out into the dew under a fresh-risen moon of deep orange mystery…
LIFE ON THE EDGE
I say, Did you really mean that?
By and large, do we mean what we say, or, more correctly, do we say what we mean? I would, I confess, like to be listening to the Wireless Radio right now, specifically to Verdi’s terrifying Requiem, brought to us in between advertisements for windscreen chip repair and the inane solecisms of Celebrity Presenters culled from more populist networks where they do not have to know anything about music, only about celebrity, but I have promised to complete this diary page before I sleep tonight and the doings of the day and, the preceding week have concertinaed my time and I must, to quote Belloc, Write or Bust.
We live in a world that most other animals are spared, a world of words, millions and millions of words. Indeed, it’s hard to be sure where language ends and the Mind starts, for we are so conditioned to think in words that it’s inconceivable to most of us that non-verbal thought could even take place. Between becoming aware of language as babbling babies and ceasing to care about it as our bodily needs take over in our doddering dotage, we will have heard, read and spoken more words than there are digits in all our combined utility bill Customer Identity Numbers put together plus the Bankers’ Bonuses AND the National Debt. Cleverer minds than mine have posited that reality is actually not just defined but created by language, and it’s possible to see why.
On those very rare occasions when we encounter a deep profound silence, such as used to be found in libraries – remember them? - and are now reserved for the innermost recesses of sea-caves and perhaps padded cells, we fill that silence up by muttering to ourselves under our breath – Oh, really don’t you? - or chattering inside our heads with running comments on what we are looking at, or if we are not looking at anything, with assessments of our successes, hopes, plans and failures – more often the failures – of our role in our day to day living. And tangled in among this helpful babble that is made up of words compartmented into phrases, sentences and paragraphs, just as is our speech when we talk out loud to someone in normal conversation, there are clichés, figures of speech, catch phrases and homilies, used with the same partial understanding that we have in our dreams.
If this Inner Monologue were broadcast, people might think we’d lost our marbles. Indeed, our thought process is a shambles, isn’t it?
Well, no. A shambles is a butcher’s bench, a place of dismemberment and gore. Perhaps because the Shambles in York is a delightful jumble of higgledy-piggeldy old buildings that used to house the meat quarter, shambles has become in our minds a rather quaint scene of disarray, like an Old Curiosity Shop, a family picnic with children and dogs, or, to stretch a point, a teenager’s room, divorced from its bloodstained origins. There are even one or two quaint cottages in the land called ‘The Shambles’, not because they were ever scenes of carnage but because of that quaintness. I met a ceramicist long ago who had called her Business the “Delightful Shambles”, and I was young enough to point out her error. I cannot, I confess, now believe that this was the right thing to have done, nor pretend that she was overmuch pleased with my little correction. Although I helpfully continued that, few would choose to call their atelier Slaughterhouse Studio, she wasn’t a bit grateful.
Verdi’s chilling Dies Irae, is seeping under the door from the little radio in the kitchen and I long to hear it on the big stereo speakers in here, to feel the chills run up my spine and make what’s left of my hair stand on end, but I mentioned Losing one’s Marbles, didn’t I? I hear this on the radio chat often enough in the mouths of the Famous to know that it too has been transmogrified. It now means to have one’s mental acuity deteriorate sharply, but it originally meant, with picturesque wit, to have a tantrum. Like a child who has: Lost his Marbles. Does anyone young know about marbles? A profit and loss activity from the playgrounds of a more innocent age, the winners of the various games played with these sparkling little spheres of glass or ceramic – and presumably originally Marble – were entitled to keep the marbles they won, and I remember the devastation I felt when, a poor player myself, some skilful child won all of, and I LOST my marbles. I like to think I manfully bit my lip, but I sure saw some memorable tantrums from less uptight infants.
By the bye, marbles were also known as alleys, and depending on size, boulders, mashers, poppers, shooters, taws, bumbos, crocks, bumboozers, (whence came THAT appellation?) bowlers, tonks, tronks, godfathers… all the way down to Peewees. We mostly only had the standard half inch sort, unless we’d inherited one of the large clear glass ones used to retain the gas and liquid in the necks of the Lemonade bottles in use in our grandparents’ childhood. I remember finding and, keeping, two fine green glass marbles the size of golfballs from a patent holder for toilet rolls, but I never took them to school. Marbles they were that I just couldn’t bear to lose, though I think I’ve lost them now in the jumble of my unsorted life’s debris. The game of Marbles was traditionally played from Ash Wednesday until Good Friday, after which it was considered unlucky…
Verdi in the background is a powerful distraction. We’d best get down to the to the Nitty Gritty. This, meaning “something you really prefer not to deal with but must”, has not much changed its meaning, but its origin is shameful and horrible. It refers to the days, not so very long ago in World History terms, when innocent kidnapped people were transported to the Colonies in Slavers, fast sailing ships that could make the crossing in reasonable time for most of the cargo to stay alive and well enough to be sold to work on the plantations. Sailors were not saints, and many of them availed themselves - that is, used – the female slaves. The younger and more attractive women were kept between decks, but the less fortunate were sat naked in the hold on the ballast, where they became infested with lice – Nitty – and, impregnated with gravel – Gritty. Therefore, Sailor Jack, you wouldn’t want to get right down to that, would you? But oh, you did. Driven by your lusts, you had to. Even if, as did most Westerners of that time, you believed, by and large, in a Day of Judgement.
By and Large now means Largely, Generally, Loosely, but it once meant the opposite. When a ship was small and in the distance, it was hard to make out what flag she flew, how many guns she packed, what cargo she may be carrying; but when she was near By, and, therefore Large, there could be no mistake.
Dies Irae is Latin for the Wrath of God.
By, and, Large, The music of Verdi’s chilling Mass says it more clearly than all the words in the world.
LIFE ON THE EDGE
Should a Cornish Pasty be crimped along the top or, around the side?
Consider carefully before you answer. You may think this is a trivial matter, but I can assure you that by comparison the Big Society pales into a sepia Daguerreotype, along with the revolution in Egypt that is spreading like a bushfire across the Middle East. And, as China’s Gross Product overtakes that of the United States with the real possibility that we may end up making the world’s cheap tee shirts at tenpence an hour per capita, with Pot Noodles, Pop Tarts and tattooed bottoms our only enduring contribution to World Culture, we may be glad to focus closer to home.
That fount of all Online Accuracy, Wikipedia, has – properly - given more pages to the Pasty than to the entire works of Jonathan Swift. Gulliver’s Travels, if you recall, involved the eponymous protagonist with a nation of very small people, a land of very VERY BIG people, a race of strange savants who lived on a flying island, and finally with a tribe of talking horses that caused him to applaud all things equine and deplore all things Human. While living with the tiny Lilliputians, he was caught up in a naval battle between the Big Endians and the Little Endians, a fight to the death over eggs; over which Ovoid Polarity should be opened at breakfast. It was, of course, Swift’s way of poking fun at the readiness of people to go to war over their system of belief, especially when the beliefs are variants on something fundamentally the same. The Elf tells me that there are practical reasons for which way up the domestic egg must sit, that eggs have a little membrane and cushion of air at the narrow end and that they keep longer if stored fatbottom up.
But this is irrelevant once the thing is boiled and served. In our household the correctitude was all about whether you favoured my mother’s technique and swung the spoon horizontally to take the whole top off, leaving the egg open for the Dippers, fingers of toast cut to be poked into the exposed yolk before being sucked and swallowed, thus leaving a small but appreciable percentage of the egg to go cold in the severed ‘hat’, and some of the white clinging unreached inside the shell. My father felt that this was childish and worse, unaesthetic and, unfunctional. The Dipper, he reasoned, was an imperfect tool. He championed delicately shattering the wide end of the shell with the convex bowl of the spoon and the peeling off of the shards. He did this unhurriedly with his blunt but surprisingly accurate fingers, leaving the albumen and the yolk intact, hot and ready for the rupturing assault of the tip of the spoon and the rapturous though methodical shovelling of the entire contents into the mouth, the toast to be popped in as torn-off morsels in between measured spoonfuls. You could say that both systems are wasteful; one wastes a little egg, the other, a little time. It is so plainly a matter of preference and no more. No blood – save in Dean Swift’s Polemic – has been shed over the issue, though I learnt fast to prefer my eggs scrambled. When the preference is not about eggs but about which team you support, blood runs hotter, and occasionally heads are broken, but it’s still only a game.
When, as is currently the case, nations are polarised not over a sporting event but over which Team shall run the country, matters can become serious.
Only purblind chauvinists could believe – and they do – that the last British administration was without flaw and that the driving of the ship of state onto the rocks was just fine so long as the captain was - nominally - of the left. Those who grew to hate that administration for its dishonesty and spin voted it out with broken hearts, for their Team had let them down. The Captain did, (after, it must be admitted, a little bit of stalling) bow out very graciously, without the People having to camp out in Parliament Square and face down the Army.
The New Boys, despite being Hatefully Posh (I can say this, because, to those that do not know me, and some that do, I too am hatefully posh) are actually picking up an appalling barrow of excrement and attempting to run with it, and are demonstrating that, described as U-turns though their policy revisions may be, they do listen to the People that elected them (and, those that didn’t.) The energy invested in the outcry over the selling off of the forests and the scrapping of the disability living allowance has led to these initiatives being binned, proving that that impotent old ass Democracy, though hijacked internationally countless times and abused for Gain, still totters along, and we totter along with it. May our Western Policies manage, please, without yielding to the temptations of self-interest, to allow it to take its course in the East, where the future of much, possibly for us all, will depend on which team wins, but where we will only damage ourselves if we are seen in this unforgiving Internet Age to have interfered.
Meanwhile, East and West may well find themselves united by the Cornish Pasty.
In my quarter of a century away from The Lizard, long before airfreight and supermarkets made international cuisine mundane in Britain, I was fortunate to experience the wonders of Foreign Food, fear of which had kept my parents’ nervous generation safely munching on this side of the Channel.
We all know now that the Chinese have a delicious lunchtime tradition; that of sitting nibbling for three hours or so on the little savoury or sweet delicacies known as Dim Sum, fragrant filled pastries and rice-papers fried in smoked lard and sesame oil or steamed in stacks of bamboo baskets to the Nth degree of succulence. Among these delights and known - inaccurately to an English ear - as dumplings, are cockle-sized envelopes full of meat, onion and root vegetable crimped along the top and served sizzling hot with chilli vinegar. A few thousand leagues to the west and thus closer to us, the inhabitants of Siberia create during their brief ominous Autumn great heaps of frog-sized crimped envelopes of dough or pastry filled with what vegetables and meat they can scavenge which are then frozen on the window-ledges in the snow to be chipped loose and boiled or baked for sustenance in the dread dead of winter. They are called Pelmeni. Another half a continent closer and still growing they are the size of a pigeon squab and are known in Moscow as Pirozhki, in Kiev as Vereniki. The fillings include the meat – again anything they can get, if you’re lucky, rabbit, beef or chicken - and onions and root vegetables; there are also cheese and jam varieties, some haggis-tasting ones of cabbage and offal, (don’t ask… where food is less lavish than in these pampered islands, cooks cannot be doctrinaire;) nevertheless, to look at they are small Cornish Pasties.
The Celts, the warrior people who took these islands so long ago and were subsequently themselves pushed into the western fastnesses, came we are told from the Danube Basin. Before the invention of the Polystyrene Burgerbox, before the plastic bag, before even the paper bag, The Pasty was – and still is – the best of travellers’ fare, able to arrive edibly, nay, deliciously, at your bivouac after much hard journeying. Assuredly the Celts used their mighty river as the motorway of its time, and the little pastry parcels of meat and onions and roots went in packs and pockets from the Black Sea ever westward until, in our Blessed Islands with their fabulous soil and climate for abundance, the pasty could grow to its present richness and size, ready to voyage to the Ultimate West with our miners for the copper and gold of the new world. The pasty is very, very alive and well in the United States of America where, quite naturally, it is bigger and richer still. It remains to be seen whether China will embrace the hugely magnified pasty when it absorbs the USA and perhaps start the process all over; in a few more millennia pasties would be ten feet across. Silly? Ok, let’s get serious: Now- to crimp on the top or around the side? Well, despite Wikipedia averring that the Cornish Pasty is side-crimped and the Devon variety (heresy!!) across the top, I do reckon (I would) that the best I ever had were made on The Lizard, and that the home-style top-crimp do keep the juices from runnin’ up yr. sleeve.
Whatever programme it is that snoops on the contents of my e-mails has promoted from this article an advertisement with the tagline ‘We can make bankruptcy simple for you.’No thank you, my friends, I want to meet the company that will make it impossible.
January & February 2011
Strive against our natures though we might we are but human animals, doomed to favour the selfish clamour of our bodies over the high intent of our minds, and the litany of lapsed New Year’s Resolutions makes a handy column for diarists everywhere while we try to dodge coming to terms with larger and more unsettling issues.
Self-deprecating and cosy in flavour, discourses on these desired improvements have traditionally focussed on losing the weight gained by tucking in to the Christmas fare, lamenting jokily the total failure to quit gorging like Strasbourg Geese. Here on the Edge self indulgence has not been avoided, and I’ve observed that while it takes six weeks of starvation and exercise, what my parent’s generation referred to as physical jerks (yeah, yeah, we’ve all met one or two of those…) to lose two pounds off one’s belly fat, half a teaspoon of clotted cream will immediately slap them back on with compound interest, and I could fill up a page with merry ‘Dearie-me’s, and ‘Oh My!!’s about trying to find a tool with which to make more holes in my belt. I would, however, be out of step.
It’s become horribly fashionable to deprecate not only one’s own flawed resolve, but to blame that and a whole host of other flaws on external circumstances, especially to slag off the deficiencies of one’s family and friends. Is it a branch of neo-feminism or simple misanthropy that leads some columnists to depict their menfolk as moronic sofa-puddings capable of only the simplest multi-tasking needed to raise a lager-can with one hand while flipping the remote control with the other to change the colours of the shirts worn by other men, those little ones being paid like Bankers to kick a ball around on the over-green screen.
Are all men really like this? Allow your lady-friends to read to you from their Colour Supplements or listen to the slot I dare not name on Radio Four after the morning ten o’ clock news, and you’d be pardoned for thinking so. And, do all teenagers lie abed all day and party all night, returning home from their gap year or dossing practice only to get their clothes washed and cadge money? Very amusing to think so, and I’ve laughed with the rest at dramas supporting this view, but is it true, or a dragging into the home of the xenophobia that used to be directed against the Overseas Other before political correctness made miserable multi-culturalists of us all? We seemingly have a need - as the flip-side of our need to belong - the need to exclude strangers from our tribe, and if it’s not socially acceptable to do so, are we turning this need to exclude something, somebody, against our own flesh? It does nothing to heal the many rifts that could best be applauded as wholesome and valued gender and generation differences, and bearing in mind the vulnerability of the human ego, it might be good to resolve to simply be kinder to each other.
If a club or a spa or a line of handbags wants to pose, it will describe its wares as ‘Exclusive’ (despite wishing to sell itself to as many customers as possible) and, such is the power of the idea of exclusivity that people will clamour to belong to anything which apparently doesn’t want them. I could see the humour in this, but actually I don’t feel particularly jokey. It’s five o’clock in the morning and I can’t sleep. The upside of dwelling in the Ancestral Pile is well known; views that less fortunate folks travel for many hours to enjoy – and that’s just from Church Cove on a muddy day. Wildlife that turns our humble vegetable plot into a seaside paradise for rabbits and badgers that landscape our lawns for us. The downside is of course exposure to the vagaries of the weather.
You would not believe that the wind could have so many teeth. I was deep in a dream of… actually, that’s my business… when I was hauled protesting back to consciousness by the thundercrack rattle of the tarpaulins that are lashed over what we like to think of as the roof of the west wing in the childlike hope of excluding all or Please? some of the rainwater from the holes pecked in the flashing by the gulls. It is indeed an amusing irony that the stuff is the colour of a juicy herring, and also a royal pain in the Attic. Were I to have gainfully employed the hours I’ve had to spend aloft here on maintenance bent - or in extreme emergency stretched out flat and clinging on so as not to blow away - my life might have carved a different course; but would I be happier?
It is entirely out of order to even consider the question. We are already so very blessed, we who are on and of this extraordinary spit of wave-girt land with its jaw-dropping beauty and generous and supportive community that a few little chilly excursions onto the Corrugated in one’s nightshirt are a fair tax on the bliss of living here. That and the need to explain to thirty or forty families a year who believe as a touching article of faith that you can, despite our protests, access the Coast Path through the garden, and when wearied by failure kindly leave us unilateral mementos of their visit in the lavatory… well, it’s churlish to complain, for as I write there are families clinging to roofs in on several continents while their homes are washed form under them by floods on a Biblical scale; families in refugee camps sharing three latrines between three thousand people with no clean water or comfort of any sort. And these are the lucky ones who were not mutilated or murdered or blown up or beheaded. If you consult, as I just have, the internet to get an understanding of current disasters in the world, you will see:
About 12,500,000 results in 0.24 seconds.
Of course, this includes minor stuff like plane and train crashes among the floods and earthquakes and bush fires, but every death means an empty place at somebody’s table, somebody who will never come home again. If there’s a home left to return to. My resolution for this year, for all the years left to me, is to value and love my fellow beings. Just that.
Happy 2011, JXC
WILL MARK THE START OF COUDRILLE’S 50TH YEAR AS A PROFESSIONAL PAINTER. …And January 2010 nearly marked the end of this career.
Having added his weight for a decade to the Stuckist international movement that argues that traditional painting has more to offer posterity than the excesses of conceptual art, however fashionable, however ‘cutting edge’, he was sent a video clip in which two high-profile conceptual artists make their statement. They are shown chaining a gallery curator to a pillar, pulling down his nether garments and licking his exposed posterior before hauling down their own nether garments and visibly voiding their bowels on the gallery floor. None of this is simulated.
While Coudrille appreciated the satirical point that was being made – that success for a contemporary artist means finding favour with an important curator or dealer, (much as the Masters of the Renaissance had to find a princely patron or starve) and, that many who have achieved prominence within the art Establishment then go on to defaecate - metaphorically at least - upon the aesthetic sensibilities of that establishment and, unforgivably, of the public whose purse funds these dire or worse, merely dull excesses. Coudrille felt that he had nothing to add and, no longer wished to be associated with the title of Artist. He commenced to dismantle his painting studio and concentrate upon the musical composition and performance that have been his sustenance for even longer than his half-century of painting, and to explore further the digital figure photography that he began in the Nineteen-Nineties.
A conversation with his friend and mentor Vidar L'Estrange, (Mathematician, musician, classical scholar and translator of Alexandra David-Neel’s ‘Tibetan Tale of Love and Magic’) led Coudrille to examine the setting of classical myths in the raw Cornish bronze age rather than among the sophisticated and, anachronistic columns and swags favoured by the Victorians. L’Estrange was angered that painting had been abandoned, and his death from a mountaineering accident prompted Coudrille to reconsider his decision, a lengthy process involving re-evaluating discarded skills. Working with model Amanda Hill among the megaliths of Penwith, Coudrille produced his first new painted work in the autumn of 2010.
‘Ritual’, a re-interpretation of the sacrifice of Iphigenia, will be exhibited from the Fourth of December at Penzance Arts Club along with key earlier paintings for purposes of comparison, and also the monochrome photographs from which will be drawn the illustrations for Daniel Nanavati’s Forthcoming book ‘To Woman’. The exhibition is entitled ‘SEEN AND UNSEEN’, a reference that can be read both literally and symbolically.
‘Ritual’ can bee seen under the Other Series in the gallery.
Please be aware that the Gallery contains artistic nudity.