We mark our own roads

I revisited an old place last night, a thought and a memory from long ago, when I was a person… on the ebb-tide of Europe. Five years old, and recently returned to the UK to start again. I already missed the crisp mountain air and the silence around snow; the lean-dark nights and echoing silence beneath the pines.

Austria. Germany. Norway (sleeping with the blinds drawn against the pale light, with eye masks soft over our noses.)

When Dad left the RAF, we had settled in a small English town at the end of a railway line, an hour or so from the capital, a mile and many from the places I had once known as Home. I took to wandering off down the twisting paths, with their sun-cracked tarmac and aching sepia shadows.

I already missed that wider world.

It revisits me in dreams, which were once memories. They bleed into one another until I can’t tell what is false and what is real, as with everyday life. Some things I know for sure, with photographs in faded albums to back up their facts in a glossy sheen of my father’s deft camerawork. He carried that heavy thing slung about his neck on a strap, took it wherever we went on our holiday-travels in the car, which was all we could afford. I still, to this day, don’t know how much of those travels were to do with his work.

But we were a family of four. Climbing hills and camping beneath mountains made of dark glass and rock, under skies you could shatter with a pinprick. My mother wore her champagne hair in long curls, and carried me on her back. My sister’s hair was attempting to grow out from the rugged crop she’d got around age three; those straight pale locks were never the same again. We trudged up and down the white Austrian slopes with our steel-shod wooden sledges, which would never get past Health and Safety tests now; I wore a Michelin-Man suit of red and blue, with pink mittens and snow boots with white kid lining. I was so proud of these – they had been my sister’s, until she outgrew them. I got most of her hand-me-downs, unless we were “gifted” with identikit outfits by our grandparents. They loved to see little girls dressed in gingham and plaid.

I beg to differ.
But those dresses did stop me being mistaken for a boy all the time, with my short-cropped hair and skinny frame.

We’d race each other through plumes of silver breath, rolling and skidding, while our parents slid gracefully past on their skis. It was another world, another time, full of very straight roads with sharp right-angle corners, elegant steel ‘n stone infrastructure, mixed up with beloved architecture that told their own quiet tales of tradition. Soft gingerbread rooftops and quaint gables, gothic spikes and dark-eye windows. A world of Germanic and Slavic fairytales, forests and fate (lots of death) and magic.

Last night, I watched an old favourite film, firmly bound up in childhood but vague in terms of my full appreciation of it. I hadn’t seen An American Tail since I was eight, though it was often played at my Nanna’s house when we went to visit. The historical and political themes had gone quite over my head (as I’m fairly sure they would for most kids.) I had to blink and look again when it came to the stinging truth of the dangers and difficulties facing Jewish immigrants from central and eastern Europe, bound for America. Stuck among the singing and dancing, it all seemed a bit …
Well, you can fill in with your own words. I did laugh to recognize where “The Giant Mouse of Minsk” had got its name. But my skin riddled up to finally understand the opening scenes of violence that drove the Mousekewitzes and their human counterparts from Shoskta, as part of the anti-Jewish pogroms. I hadn’t known because no one had told me, no one in my family thought to mention it, though they couldn’t possibly have failed to notice the connections. Likewise, on the one occasion the film was shown in my old primary school, there was no mention of the protagonists being Jewish, or of the persecution they had faced.
It would have made a difference to know.

The film aside, this appears to be a recurring theme in adulthood. So much is missing in mind and memory – whether through daydreaming in class (likely) or the subjects being entirely omitted from each year’s history curriculum. Important dates have come up, I’ve been well enough to acknowledge them, but have found myself with empty holes where details should have been.

It’s true, we never stop learning. It’s only in recent years that I’ve managed to piece together more complete and complex pictures and timelines: of the First and Second World Wars, the Ottoman Empire and the Russian Empire, the Cold War and the Soviet Union … among many other things, across the world.
I could have told you about spits and spots: about Egyptian hieroglyphics and Stone Henge, about the Victorians, how to use old teabags to brown-up paper to make “papyrus scrolls.” I could have told you about the war poets.
But I didn’t know about the significance of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, or Yalta, or the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. I learned about the Holocaust mostly through my own research (with a lot of help from Art Spiegelman’s Maus) and about Weimar Germany and hyperinflation from A Level Film Studies – where it was necessary to have a grounding in the historical context of the Expressionist films we were studying.

But is it possible that I fucked around so much in classes that I missed some rather crucial points in human history? Were they even taught then – should they have been? Are these subjects the preserve of further and higher education? (I lasted nine weeks in University before dropping out. Health reasons, as ever.) I wonder, because they seem to be more relevant than ever. And, I’m getting well enough to look backwards as well as around, and forwards; at other people’s lives, rather than my own.

I study, taking time away from faces and noise, to read; to absorb what I can, to make more sense of Today. It’s also possible that whatever I might have learned in school has been burnt out of my brain by years of anorexia and malnutrition. I still find it difficult to retain key facts above the constant white noise, though there’s been a definite improvement in the past couple of years. Never underestimate the links between physical and mental health.

The past few weeks have shown as much. I’ve lost about a kilo, despite a serious increase in food and fluids (it only came home to me how much when I saw a friend’s tweet about his calorie intake for a marathon – it near enough matched my own. But I’m not training for a marathon. I just work, and work out.) I’m reduced to an insomniac with a constant low-grade burning appetite, a short fuse, lowered mental cognition and weaker muscles. My emotional state is a trip-hazard. This is another reason I’ve taken time away, so I don’t inadvertently start WWIII.

I’m going for blood tests next week, to rule out anything other than a long-running aversion to change (we’re slowly starting to pack up at the Nick, with some departments closing to move on), and stress.

The haunting strains of the violin call to a past that leaves an ache at the back of my throat. I once walked barefoot in snow without pain. Even then, there was the tingle of Bigger Things in my spine, and they came most often in dreams.

Once, I climbed hand-over-foot on hot stones the colour of sand, under a blazing blue sky; though I never reached the top, there was sight and sound, the burring whine of many insects, the pulsing heat from the overhead sun. Across the years, that element of wandering-away from familiar places to unexpectedly stumble upon a great looming presence – a monument, a temple, a building – has never died. But I didn’t link them all together until last week, when the latest rendition of the dream came with a lowering night sky, pale smudges at its horizon, as of storm clouds obscuring the dusky rose. The monolith rose up in glittering darkness like a fallen spaceship, with panels and a size to silence anyone. Silence all around, and no way in. I wandered about its hulk, feeling the ping from its cooling metal, seeing the faint swirl of beetle-back colours; that toxic beauty.

It was the jungle temple, all right. The same location, accidentally found, as ever, but changed. No way inside to find the cool darkness and the echoes – now, they lie without.
I am always leaving home. I always return, empty-handed, with bare feet and an aching heart.

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When the end came

My friend Dom asked a short while ago, why I don’t publish any fiction or poetry on my blog. I guess I’ve fallen out of the habit, or the world seems too much of a story all its own at the moment – but still, I’ve lost my voice (or way) somewhat, when it comes to putting down words. This, and a case of the blues, and boring domestic things, have caused some recent radio silence.

I’m heading back towards fiction. It’ll mean longer silences, but we all need a forest glade, here and there. I’ve missed the imagery, the play of shadows and light, and lives in my hands.

For now: an older short story, written around February last year. If it needs any more editing, drop me a line on the comments. I’m still not sure what to do with it.

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The mist came from a platinum sky, one fine spring day like no other. Those lunching in parks watched with loose interest, as the first silvery skeins drifted down to drape themselves about the fresh-budding trees. The crisp little leaves twitched among their branches until, soaked and dark, they fell in drifting droves, too early for the newness of the year.

The mist sank lower, seemingly driven by a keen whistle-wind that scoured the cracking ground. It would settle in thick folds about cities and plains, over forests that twisted to still silence. There were some who would swear the haunted trees cried out in agony, as their blackened bark froze and split; a prelude of what was to come.

It travelled across the oceans, dragging tongues of damp in its wake. The sun hung as a tattered white thing – it flared briefly, fighting that which choked its warmth and broke its light.
The world rolled on. It had seen this killing-cold before, millennia gone, more Fable than Past in recent years of abundance. They could outlast this. Such was the belief of innocents, and those with too much to lose by paying heed to old fears.

But the sun didn’t return.

All commerce was restricted to local regions, and people were discouraged from straying too far from home. No explanations came, while the light shifted and the walls of buildings started to creak and to fold. Rioters met with police on streets that glistened, snapping with fire-teeth. The chill explored the bones, working slivers of pain through the blood, to the heart.

They put down their weapons to warm their hands.

Fallen leaves, falling prices. Markets crashing beyond numbers, tearing apart the will of those who might still care. The creeping lethargy that had afflicted the trees would seep into human pores. Looting became a thing of the past, a worthless expenditure of energy. While the lilac sky drifted ever closer to the dying ground, full of ice crystals, governments collapsed under the strain of staying alive.

People no longer watched the news for a daily intake of war and famine in parts of the world they would never visit; they watched, with tired, itchy eyes, to see which local reservoir had become encased in the thick black ice that eventually snared all possible supplies. The time came when the power was shut off, for their own good (it was said) since the sliding chill had made its way into power plants, burrowing ice to their chugging hearts, flooding the underside of cities, locking up sewer systems. Blackouts were no longer a wartime memory; they were a reality of shuddering darkness, heaped blankets and smoky breath.

Children died beside their parents, hands lost in the grip that couldn’t save them. Lovers died in copulation, desperately trying to keep warm with the only heat left in their bodies, sometimes cutting open their flesh to allow sluggish blood to flow – a last desperate act. Older men froze in place standing up before the john, while their wives broke the ice on the old backyard well a thousand times over, crumbling brick in hand, weary thrusts between aching shoulders. Pets were thrown out, or eaten alive, or slaughtered for their voluptuous fur. Many now cursed Darwin and his ridiculous theories, for what strength was born of a larger brain when it couldn’t conjure the meaning of survival in an ice-locked world, with only bare skin and bone for company?

In the end, the world retreated to itself. Screams died to sighs, to silence, which crept out of those haunted trees, threading through the mist that grew and expanded like a living thing no one could catalogue or name. The higher powers died with the rest; perhaps their last words were only whispered prayers, to a God of mercy or money. It didn’t matter any more.

*

His footsteps crackled, black on silver, through the grass.

Locked in frozen damp, the chime of each falling blade was a bitter echo of birdsong. The birds were long gone. The gulls went back to sea, as though it could save them. He knew the water had frozen in its dance, along with all its dwindling tributaries – that continuous movement, snared at last. The moon was an absent-minded memory, called into place whenever night fell.

The only way to tell the difference was in the shifting of the light – from gunmetal to ebony, locked beneath a deeper darkness, like a winter pond. No stars to pinch the sky. No silver candle to light the way. Only a cold none could bear, and a quiet made louder by its absence of chirrups and rustles, the bark of a fox, long dead beneath the iron earth.

Roman moved slowly, placing each foot like a thought. His arms crisscrossed his chest, tight as the belt beneath them, which lassoed the bag in place. It had frozen to his back long ago; he dared not remove it. Only last week, skin had peeled away when he took off a glove to dip a hand in a pool of water – miraculously untouched by ice, though steaming with a thunderous smell that reminded him of volcanic rock. He’d once worked in a science department; he’d tried to recall the name of that ominous smell, brought from the beginning of Time, the planet’s birth. Now here, somehow, shrivelling the rotten grass around it, at the end.

It hurt too much to think on it long. The past was a dead weight to his brain.

Oh, he’d heard the whimpers and cries; his face had steered towards them with that human gratification of company, of other survivors like him. He’d even half-stepped, turning from his path to theirs, to offer what help he could. But the tug in his chest led him on, always. The compass that couldn’t be reset. He knew, because he’d set it himself, after logging off the computer that last time.

She’d finished her final message with seven kisses – For Luck, she’d said, a brave smile in her words. The power had cut out before he could reply. At least he’d managed a print-off; her loving face, caught forever in a small square of paper. All shining sunlight hair, with eyes that were the memory of an older sky. Her lips were the redness of his blood, as it once had flowed from a split thumb. Now, when he bled, sometimes from the corners of his eyes, it crawled out like a purple tongue.

We’ll find each other, he’d told her. His hand had clutched the mouse, willing it to live just long enough to Send. On that beach we talked about. Remember? It’s not so far away. I’ll make it there in a few weeks. You can make it too, if you leave now. Like we always talked about. Those long hours in the night.

Her laugh was a sad spontaneous thing; she rarely laughed, had had little to laugh for in life, with a husband running out and children grown to forgetfulness of their mother. I’ll do my best, love, and she’d self-consciously stroked back the golden hair, thinning to shiny baldness in places on her beautiful scalp. One eyelid buckled as she looked straight at him, through the SpeakEasy camera. I’m afraid I’ll look a little different from that silly old photo I sent you.

And he’d laughed in turn. God, it’d throbbed in his chest, but made his throat warm all the same. I doubt I’ll mistake you for anyone else. And I’m no bundle of roses now, either. He’d run a hand through his own hair, the thatched grey coming out in bundles, where sleek black waves once lived. How he’d waxed and preened it, in the office days! How detergent his smile had been, with his white lab coat! He’d tried to remember if he’d let all the animals out, but the concentration made his eyes water, freezing up at the ducts.

I’ll pack a bag now. We’ll set off at the same time. It’ll be an adventure. No mention, of course, that this had been for the past eight years of SpeakEasy online chat. No reference to the insidious mist, which had come from nowhere and devastated everything.

I can’t wait. Xxxxxxx (For Luck)
And that had been that. The blank screen was a silent laugh in his face. Taking off his glasses – long ago cracked with the pressure of staying intact – he’d fumbled about his apartment for what might be
needed, in a dying world.

*

Forests and low hills. Sad little bonfires, unlit and staggered with miles of travel, between people too cold to stay still. Like frantic animals they’d scurried between each city and town, until the energy required was too high a price to pay. Then they stayed where they were, raw-eyed and wild, chewing their own fingers for comfort and food.

Little sandy shores, lakes encasing their fish and frog victims in ice of many colours – midnight blue and emerald green, the dusky purple of a winter sunset. He once encountered a pool crusted over with thick yellow, a noxious carpet; it gave off a horrific stench, and he’d stump-stumbled away with his heart clattering in his ears. Caught in the middle was a horse, scrawny legs locked in mid-canter. Those rolling white eyes haunted his nights.

How he continued – how he was permitted to continue, despite the mist that travelled with him, a companion that offered no comfort yet hid him from dangers other than its own – he didn’t dare ask. The mission was simple. As a man whose career had been born of laboratory work, he was used to dialling down all concentration to single-slide notes, to the tiniest lens. He knew that, under extreme pressure of concentration beneath that fierce little bulb, a slide might crack. He couldn’t afford to crack. He had made a promise. And when each sandy little beach encrusted with ice wasn’t his, wasn’t the one he’d promised her, with her faded shadow waiting – he moved on.

Never mind the rattle-throb of dying generators. No heed to the whisper of hair, swishing to and fro in a wind that some days tried to carve off his ears. The fact the hair could perhaps belong to a young woman or child caught out alone beneath their last tree, didn’t deter him. He wouldn’t investigate. He had no time. Time was a reckless beast, run away to where the sun still lived. It didn’t shine here, and nothing moved, except him, and the occasional splintering of ice.

He even spoke to the mist some days, fancied it was a lost and lonely friend, adrift in this death-silence world as he was. It only told him lies in return though, guiding him the wrong way, until he lost patience and grew weary enough of its company to sit; until his clothes, bulky as they were, cemented themselves to the ground, and he was forced to drag half of it along with him in ringing snaps.

The fear that she might not make it to the beach, never left him.

*

Roman blinked slowly, letting the rime sift off his heavy lids. Moving his lips beneath their cowl, now stiff as wood, he felt something new. Taste had recently begun to fray, along with smell and sight. He was shutting down. But he’d know this place anywhere, had spent too many sun-lazy holidays on that stretch of sand to forget. There was the raw tang of salt, as always, forming a new crust on his skin. The grains went flying into the wind, freezing in mid-air to sheets of nubbled black, before breaking their bonds and collapsing in whipped sighs, to the lilac-ice shore.

And there she was, of course. Her black form packaged on the beach in a stillness of thought, as though this were any old day, beneath a summer sun and a sky of hard blue. She stared out to those waves, locked forever in place like ancient curtains. As he stumped towards her, each step dragging more than the last, he felt a pain in his chest to rival the burn-black of his fingers, before they’d dropped off. His wheezing breath snared the air. She heard him, long before she turned to watch his approach. Her smile, behind the ice-riddled veil, was a single bird-note in spring air.

Lara.
Standing before her at last, as he’d meant to for eight years while lab timetables and office dinners spooled out to fill his life. Hard rain fell down his cheeks.

“Tears, now?” Her black teeth gleamed with the hoar-frost under their feet. Raising one hand stiffly, she stroked his cheek. “We’ve far more to say to each other than that, surely.”

Wrapping both arms about him: “We beat the oceans. We beat the sky, the sun. When all are gone, we made it here still.” A wheezing cackle. “I told you I’d see you in frozen hell before we met face to face. You know I can’t stand these awkward first dates.”

Raising her mittened hand in his lace-fingers, Roman kissed it, shaking as the ice scarred his lips and took off flesh. Still, he knew his manners. “I can’t believe it took me this long to know the feel of your skin.”

“Hardly that,” she told him with a laugh. Such a laugh! He saw planes of dust and volcanic ash, the sun a golden ribbon over the streaming sky; all days flew to this one, to heat that still lived, somewhere inside. How had he ever doubted she would make it?

With one hand, she peeled off the protective mitt from her other, laying bare the skin below. He’d never seen such mottled beauty. Such fragile lines. The raw blue of her eyes made him brave, and he felt the shredding of his own skin only as a series of tugging jolts, as he removed his own glove.

“Hands only meet with purpose,” Lara told him. Angling herself around his withered body, she’d led them both down to the black sand. The fact they would never rise again, seemed as absent a thing as the once-was sun.

The mist whispered its song for them, as the sky broke.

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….It all just falls apart

But when I look into your eyes, it pieces up my heart.

My answers are almost lost in the haze of the rain, of what this year has said and spent. It’s been –
“Learning curve” doesn’t quite cover it.

We only learn enough from the light, to know ourselves blind. Stand in the darkness, liebe, and cry, and feel it all as a bullet hole in the chest. Memories fill it up again, and we walk on.

Time doesn’t so much heal, as stitch the pieces back together, or fill in the gaps and the splits with seams of gold. But you’re never quite the same, again.

I took a blind man by the hand, and led him away from the sunken well, where he’d been trying to draw water from a dry and empty laugh. The thick smell of damp and lichen made us cough, and we staggered a-ways, with his gnarled hand on my shoulder. I let him loop it about, because I was no longer afraid of the Touch of others.

He became my eyes, in the dark. My senses were blunted from years, decades, millennia, of wandering with my mind fixed on the ground.

I thought we’d leave this for ourselves a hundred times before
But I guess we’re always leaving, even when we look the same
And it eases me somehow to know that even this will change.

Here we are, in our Now, with the pain of what came before and the wary knowledge of what is to come. Hit the ground, and run.

Except I won’t. Not this time. I’ve spent too long running, without stopping to wait for others; for feelings, for thoughts that might anchor me or hold me down … or hold me still, long enough to hear the whispered words on silvered breath.

Fierce and light, and young.

So we kicked up the yellow leaves and the dulled moss, the forlorn stones and the wires of flowers long-dead. The sky was a stretched skein of grey, a heavy head; the sun, a lowered eye. His shoulders slumped with the weight of it all, and I urged him to lean a little more.

I laughed so hard inside myself, it all began to hurt.

No one sees the salt that slides between the cracks on the clown-dolls’ face. That smile is a painted bridge between what is, and what must be. A coda of pain and hope. A web wavering in the winds that bring storms and rain.
A well uncared for, runs dry.

Have a care, world. We’re not all hungover. We’re not all lost, those who wander. But we are all here, and awake, and aware, and laughing with barbed wire.
Nothing worth knowing, is ever what it seems.

If you’ve still got some light in you, then go before it’s gone
Burn your fire for no witness,
It’s the only way it’s done.

When the light changed and the world moved on, we looked back. I showed him the path we’d made through the leaves, with my hand, brushing the silt and the sky from his forehead. One pass should do it; he won’t see, I’m not a miracle-worker. But he’ll feel it.
He’ll feel it.

Woven strands: Artistic Influence

“I put in painters, or started to, because I learn as much from painters about how to write as from writers. You ask how this is done? It would take another day of explaining. I should think what one learns from composers and from the study of harmony and counterpoint would be obvious.”

When interviewing Ernest Hemingway for The Paris Review, George Plimpton acknowledged the “occasional waspish tone of the answers”, born of the author’s belief that writing “is a private, lonely occupation with no need for witnesses until the final work is done.” This sounds all too familiar. I’ve overdone my own exposure, in essays that – while useful at the time of writing my first novel, for relearning techniques – have left me somewhat strung out when it comes to starting anything new. I’m perhaps too self-aware now for a clear sense of originality. When Hemingway stated that “such ideas should remain unexpressed”, with probing questions leaving him “almost inarticulate”, I know what he means, with the usefulness of hindsight. That being said, the essays were good to write, in the way taking a clock apart allows you to know its mechanism for when something goes wrong.

But on one subject, Hemingway was willing to show his hand: those artistic influences found in the deftness of a painter with tubes and brushes, the composer his sheet music. Donne to Cezanne, “the good Kipling” to Van Gogh, Bach to Mozart – all creators that touched his life and his mind, to be called upon when he would “stand in absolute concentration” for writing. Nowadays, with the help of mobile technology, we can as easily wander through the minds of favourite artists via apps and websites like Pinterest, as we can take the conventional route of walking the echo-halls of an art gallery. Playlists can be tailored to a written draft. Dance and drama can evoke the method approach, for getting into the mind and moods of a character.

“Harmony” in music, is defined as “the simultaneous combination of tones, especially when blended into chords pleasing to the ear”, while counterpoint is “the art of combining melodies / the texture resulting from the combining of individual melodic lines.” Generally speaking, harmony and counterpoint are the agreement of elements distinct from one another, and “any element that is juxtaposed and contrasted with another”. Those moments are wonderful – aren’t they? – when you touch upon a particular paragraph that fits the background music of a bar or pub, at a time of day when you’re drinking something with the taste to somehow mirror the mood. When it feels as though everything has been geared towards inspiring an image or mood. As a method-writer, I work towards achieving this kind of interdependency of art to form a “backdrop” – something sustainable for the duration of a scene, perhaps. Watching Weimar cinema to add disquiet (in filters of blue, with nuances of light and shadow) or wandering into a particular gallery room to find the narrative of a display. When a piece of instrumental music seems to have been written for a character or scene, adding textures previously unthought of, there’s the chance to review your writing from a different angle, one governed more by instinct and mood than lyrical content.

Any piece of art can at once stand alone, and be linked to another in a different format/medium. There might be no apparent crossover, except in subjective terms. Time changes perspective too, with personal experiences adding emotional layers almost indefinable, except for the way they get under your skin and stay there. Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s Dead Flag Blues once belonged to a winter’s morning slog uphill, until I read the opening chapter of Stephen King’s The Gunslinger for the first time. Now the heavy-tread rhythm and bronze guitar twangs belong to Roland’s feet through the desert, on the trail of the man in black.)

When choosing décor, we look for the blends of tone and texture that will make a house feel like a home; furnishing the lines of a living space to present an image of ourselves. Even the sparsity of an office can be made to feel like an extension of “home”, with those framed works and prints by a favourite artist, drawings made by the kids, holiday souvenirs, newspaper cuttings, empty whisky miniatures lined up in a row. Each facet reflective of individuality, while shining together to create the image as a whole. It’s amazing what you can learn about a person, based on what they choose to surround themselves with – or allow others to surround them with.

Remembering and learning about WWI, we can read the words of Sassoon, Rosenberg and Owen to live in the immediacy of those desperate moments. They connect with the likes of Paul Nash and Richard Jack, whose work asserts direct historical links as well as the more subconscious achievements of art to carry emotional resonance forward in time.

ypres salient
Paul Nash, “The Ypres Salient at Night”

return to the front
Richard Jack, “The Return to the Front: Victoria Railway station”

As much to make sense of what they were experiencing, as to capture the rawness of conflict for the ones who would rebuild peace, the artists imposed control – a strange sense of beauty – upon the ugly chaos around them. Time has no way of diminishing their effect. Standing in front of Jack’s Return to the Front: Victoria Railway station in York art gallery, I couldn’t move for about twenty minutes, absorbing each detail. The scene is absorbing in its raw portrayal of human emotions, played out in the set of a jaw, the resigned curve of shoulders, downcast eyes, pity around the girl’s mouth, the looming presence of the waiting train. It was a world away from my own liberal time… and still, almost one hundred years ago. Art crosses the borders of time and geography, carrying emotional salience forward to our own time and circumstances. Somehow, the unimaginable becomes all too real.

And it’s still going on.

“On a trip like this it is best to do rapid fire sketches, with movement. I used my drawing book like a camera. I rely very much on the power and energy of the initial drawing.”

But why is art necessary in a war?

Graeme Lothian, who was sent on the same trip as Jules George, has a unique perspective. Decades ago he was a commando before breaking his back. He sees the artists’ purpose as complementary to the journalists and historians who will also chronicle the war.

“It’s good to stand there and take a step back and just look at the Army from a distance. This will be history one day, Camp Bastion will be dust. We are painting history.”

And he believes the very act of deploying artists to Afghanistan shows progressive thinking on the part of the MoD.

“The Army have always said no to artists, now they are changing their mind. There is a sea change that artists are important.” –
Why do we need oil painters in a war zone?

There are some works of art which must be experienced in their original state for the message to come across. A postcard rendition of a Mark Rothko piece has no chance of capturing the awesome (I mean this in the strongest senses), silent sentience, hung on a wall in the Tate gallery. When surrounded by them in the Rothko room, you are compelled to fall silent yourself; to stand still, and watch them breathe. Pulse with life. They draw you in, as though towards an answer for every posed question, or perhaps the end of time itself.

I can’t bring myself to look at some of them full-on, only with the sideways glance of a reluctant admirer, with defiance and submission both. The damn things speak for themselves. They make you listen.

Art allows us to learn as much about ourselves as each other. While inadvertent plagiarism (cryptomnesia) is an undeniable part of creativity, there’s no sense in shutting down a project for the tension between goodwill and guilt, and certainly no shame in reworking ideas as an homage to another. As Pete Seeger put it, “You hear an old song you like but you’d like to change a little, there’s no crime in changing a little… It’s a process. It’s not any particular song, it’s not any particular singer. It’s a process by which ordinary people take over old songs and make them their own.”
(I wish I’d known about this as a teenager, when I gave up on writing out of fear I was just borrowing from all the inspirational childhood literature. Personal perceptions are what make us unique. Everyone has their own story to tell.)

I feel most at home among the Tonalist painters, who in the late 19th to early 20th centuries, established an American art movement based on “an abiding spiritual feeling for the intimacies of the human landscape.” The name itself alludes to “the use of muted natural tones… portraying the symbolic and abstract character of landscape forms.” James Abbott McNeill Whistler, a key founder, sought to bring harmony to the wilderness of nature with the essence of humanity. Like Hemingway, Whistler valued the idea of artistic crossovers.

“Nature contains the elements, in colour and form, of all pictures, as the keyboard contains the notes of all music. But the artist is born to pick, and choose, and group with science, these elements, that the result may be beautiful — as the musician gathers his notes, and forms his chords, until he bring forth from chaos glorious harmony.” – “Mr Whistler’s Ten O’Clock”, Public lecture, Prince’s Hall, Piccadilly, 20 February 1885.

The founder of abstract art, Wassily Kandinsky, “wanted to evoke sound through sight and create the painterly equivalent of a symphony that would stimulate not just the eyes but the ears”; he spoke of art in the synaesthetic language that is a characteristic blending of the senses. “Colour is the keyboard. The eye is the hammer. The soul is the piano with its many strings.” In the same way as Whistler, who believed that “art should not serve narrative, but rather project the artist’s subjective feelings through the handling of the medium,” and who drew upon the philosophy of “art for art’s sake,” Kandinsky wanted to further the internal appreciation of music through the colours he experienced; giving non-synaesthetes the chance to experience a sensory crossover too. But anything more would be a distraction from the audience’s emotional connection. A simple gratification was to be found in viewing art, without looking for any more meaning than what was before them.

As a chromesthete, I see colours and patterns in sound – predominantly music – and moods. Though abstract and impressionist art lend themselves towards some kind of external view of what goes on in my head, nothing comes quite so close as Whistler’s “Nocturne” set. The play between light and shadow, abstract over concrete, with things appearing not quite as they should seem. The once-firm lines of steel and stone are now seemingly spun from cobweb, and likely to be blown away in a wandering night breeze. Time is dialled down to sequential movements; less a narrative, than a handful of slow-shutter shots. The gluey state of dreams and drowsiness and half-light.

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Nocturne, Blue and Silver – Battersea Reach

A construct undone, and somehow more accessible for it.

“Taking a cue from a critic who had referred to his early portrait of his mistress… as a ‘symphony in white,’ Whistler began to envision and entitle his works with the abstract language of music, calling them symphonies, compositions, harmonies, nocturnes, arrangements, and so forth.” It’s not difficult to see how the French critic would have drawn comparisons; just as snow is never only one colour, “The White Girl” (or “Symphony in White No.1”) is composed of as many shades in a pale palette as you would find instruments in an orchestral piece. In Whistler’s tonalist work, the visual theme weaves itself into the very semantics of music: “Nocturne” is defined as “a composition inspired by, or evocative of, the night” – that resonance found in the twilight hues of a trickling character piece for the piano, played to a blue-and-silver garden or lowlit bar. Disbelief is more easily suspended when written between the lines. Whenever I’m feeling not quite myself – stuck with my head on the writer’s block, greyed-out by the Everyday – I go flicking through the works of Whistler and his contemporaries, to find the same fluid surreality of a moonlight sonata. It’s a bit of immersion, prior to writing.

As individuals bring their experiences to art for subjective interpretation, so the arts in turn allow creators to reflect upon and complement each other’s work. What is the first draft of writing, but a slew of words spilt with inspiration? We then edit to needs, as a gardener prunes a rose to allow it to flourish. The painter somehow knows when the next dab of colour will be as a jarring note in a composition. It’s not so much the willpower to begin, as the control to Stop – to insist and argue with the inner critic, that a piece is complete.

October

There’s something about the changing light in this month – the pale mornings, the brassy texture of the sun as it eases into age – that fills me with a nostalgia born of melancholy, thoughts on a year’s weariness. All those goodly things thrown into the mix; stirred up in the creaking branches of a storm, the white splinters over a midnight sky; the bone-rattle-hiss of burnt out grass, and the croaking of ravens wheeling over a pastel twilight, wings blotting out the threadbare sun.

We’re not quite at the end, but it already seems this way. My thoughts turn to the new year, and in this case, it really can’t come soon enough. 2013 was difficult on personal terms; 2014 has shown me the multifaceted pain of a world I hadn’t recognized, known about to explore.

I’ll remember it for the words, twisting back on themselves; for the riddlespeak that was mine and not mine (such an early arrogance, to think I alone knew it), pain of the point pushed further and further in, until I wondered if my mind or spirit would break first. The ocean seemed deathless and without end, until I hit the bottom and waited to see what would happen next.

As it is, I found out in a packet of pills. Prescribed, at least.

I’ll remember it for the way I thought I would never let go, until the thorns shredded my skin, my ego, the pages I wrote upon. The voice in my mind found a soul mate.

I’ll remember it for the way a blue petal fell, turning black on its descent, to land at my feet in the toxic rainbow that sifts gently down to the drain.

I’ll remember it for the way I woke one morning without burning eyes. For the way I could breathe again, no knot in the chest at the thought of Alone.

I’ll remember it for the ocean eyes, for the wanting and the need and the knowing that when worlds collide, the fallout is a child’s dream of home.

Most of all, I’ll remember it for the way Responsibility became not only my friend, but my standard, after years of fleeing this mind-numbing foe.

I have been many things – names, people, animals, swear words, poison; I’ve been heartless and so full of Lionheart, I wanted to die rather than acknowledge the fact that what I clung to, would keep me down on my knees (clinging to that standard still), head lowered. Depression is knowing that what you hold dear, will make you come undone; it’s disregarding other’s fears and cares and words, until only your own voice is the piping in a blue wind.

It’s finding the grace to let go, without a name given, without a name taken. I was nameless, and not blameless.
I was myself, until even that wasn’t good enough. Maybe it never was.

You were the King of Swords, upright and inverted both. I was a dreamer – and we know what happens to those.
They see things in the stars.

One year on from a message sent in friendship, sympathy – empathy? – perhaps more; it was a difficult time, and I didn’t know myself. Didn’t really know you, either. That was the point.
Should I have just walked on by?
There’s a question only the October song knows.

And still, one petal blue. Because there are no happy endings, as nothing ever really ends.

Reflections

The sky holds that curiously warm depth of blue that is undeniably autumnal; full of the dense sprays of brass sunlight, it seems to reflect the age of the year, its lines and wrinkles, its jaded eyes. For all that, it’s still a russet-apple smile.

The park is filled with wandering families again… haven’t we been here before? Wasn’t I only musing on such municipal things a breath-space ago, when the horizon had suddenly expanded like a cat’s eye, and I had watched the hawk become a dot upon it?

Standing on the top floor of the Nick the other day, I remembered how it felt when this phase of my life began. How much the world has changed since then; that place has changed me, in turn, and kept me going. Seeing friends dwindle along with the budget, I think – as I thought in that breath-space ago – that this will be our last year in the teetering tower of bricks and glass. I heard the wind sing through the trees, and watched the pigeons leave their shadows in pebble-patterns over the cars and vans in the yard. The sky was that same vivid autumnal blue, the sun brassy on leaves that danced in the freshening winds. Listening to Perfect Day (you’re going to reap just what you sew”) I wanted to remember it all. How it feels to belong somewhere; how it felt four years ago; how it will feel when it’s all gone.

What more to say that has not come before? I smile at my own doom-laden words these days. It was comforting – sort of – to read of that other lady who had the same tendency to think that time was always running out (if only to prove that we all get it wrong, and frequently, due to inhibitions rather than external factors.)

Still. That was then; this is now. Another Now. How many moments to make up a year, which seems like a replay of the last? If 2013 was the catalyst for the personal / domestic overhaul, surely 2014 has been the overture. Perhaps next year, I’ll find something approximating security and peace of mind. Going through a mousey-stage at the moment, I’m afraid to open my mouth in case of fucking up before an increasingly aware audience.
You know my flaws. My aspirations. I know them well, and more self-conscious than ever before, and the only comparison to make is that threadbare time just before the fall in the Fall; September-October 2001, starting at a new college among larger groups of more self-determined and talented peers. The duality of achievement in middle school was an awareness of burgeoning ambitions, where language and literature are concerned, and a very real fear of losing ground to others – of failure, of being left behind. While I thrive on competition, I loathe it in equal measure, because – when the countdown begins – I lose my nerve. The white noise intrudes, you count for shit, and before you know I’ve lost the thread of what I meant to say, to write, to opine, to declare as my truth.

The downward spiral is tedious, and excruciating. Self-contempt for falling into such pettiness as resentment of people who might be dear to me, and more accomplished. I grow afraid of losing them; too weak a person to sustain a relationship, while beating myself down, because – other than anorexia and compulsive exercising, degrading my body and mind over a progressive state of non-living – I don’t really have other talents. Back in A Levels, when it felt as though I was losing ground and with no hope of clawing back up, I cut my nose off to spite my face. I chose an eating disorder, walking away from all contact and relationships while numbing out the scream inside – the one that is ongoing today, that I am quite simply useless.

This isn’t an easy thing to confess to. I would like to say that I’m stronger, more dignified than all of this immature crap. But I’m not. So if and when I’m standoffish, flighty, don’t-give-a-shit, it’s because I’m afraid, and would rather walk with my own shadow than lean on someone else’s.

This is why, with the conveyor-belt of vague non-answers and let-downs received in the past 18 months – home, employment, personal relationships – I am reluctant and ducking away from anything that appears to tread the same faded lines. For all my irresponsibility and whimsy, I know – roughly – what it is I would like to see happen, for the next year at least. And I do emphasize this limited time frame, out of the (yawn) fear of commitment, and also, in practical terms, because I honestly don’t know where I will be in terms of mindset. I didn’t predict a relapse into depression this year. It took reading a blog entry posted on Twitter by a friend for me to even contemplate accepting the word as part of my current disposition. When the therapist had offered it up a few weeks beforehand, I’d batted away. Denial is a safe haven for people like me, the passive-aggressives of the world (unite and mutter darkly.)

So to plant any of this on somebody else, regardless of their intentions, seems too cruel and presumptive. A wound-up ball of cotton unravels eventually.

In all, I’m not really sure what I expect from the end of this year, and the beginning of the next – except perhaps, a little breath of security, and a static place to be, at least for another collective of seasons. That’s one thing I can say of this year – I’ve known peace, at least on a domestic level. Less fretting over bills and such, in comparison to 2013. But the absence of any genuine answers from the people who count, the ones who have the power to make a difference in my life, means I can’t actually trust them to hold to their word. Which is a sad place to be, but I can’t dwell on it long. Since childhood, I’ve been dependant on other people’s views, their opinions mattering far more than mine – whether they were aware of it or not. If I let this continue, I stand to lose all over again.

Or is it simply burning down the house with one match after another?

Maybe this is adult life. Constantly afraid, wondering if this month, this year will be the last with this person, in this place, in this time. Maybe we all just bob from one dream and hope and fuck and fear and worry and bill and whatever, to the next.

In which case, I guess I’m in good company.

Old leaves and papyrus light: The bookshop

Arriving home this evening, I was greeted by a smell vividly nostalgic as autumn bonfires; a wreath of leather and old leaves, skirling about the house, together with that curious dampness reminiscent of loam. It was in fact the subdued pages of my landlady’s book collection, compiled by her grandfather, an author and journalist; she had drawn out the large box, and was sorting through it in the conservatory, to the delight of the twins. While certainly not TV-culture kids, they are small enough to find excitement in anything truly old. Curious little souls, and never more so than when poring over the grandly bound and textured volumes, stiff as the fingers that would once have creaked over the turning of worlds and lives. In their place, willow-withe fingers went skimming from one crackling page to another, finding the cobweb drawings I too once knew and loved, in my mother’s old Bible. Such a delicate wash of watercolours and fine-line graphite, in a collection wonderfully diverse, spanning Greek philosophy and classic fairytales, Tolstoy and Austen. And, perhaps most importantly, the sensory details to draw one text to another, like stars in a constellation: pages the colour of faded newspaper and bone; black print so carefully aligned and bold with the presence of something done well, which will last through generations. And my favourite – the handwritten scrawls on marbled facing pages, full of love and character. There’s nothing quite like finding a personalized message in a second-hand book (“Merry Christmas / Wishing you well / You were always a dedicated reader of so-and-so / We were once as young as they are”), or a fan of pressed leaves used for an afternoon’s bookmark.

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As a child, weekends often came with a trip to stay at my grandparent’s house; a sprawling white-brick bungalow of lean, lowlight corridors and rooms filled with miscellaneous items to enchant any age, let alone the inquisitive child I had become. Golf clubs, dust-rimed hardbacks aligned on shelves of dark wood; jars filled with dog biscuits that smelled of old crackers, and timepieces of every shape, size and design, from Granddad’s former employment in a jewellers and as a member of staff at Herstmonceux observatory. His outdoor workshop was a masterpiece of musk, wax and leather, cluttered with trays on the high bench and tools swung from beams; cobwebs swayed in the whisky-hue shadows, and mousetraps lay silent and gleaming in corners like a lick of moonlight from a beady eye. I would stand by the door, hands at my sides and watching his back curled like a comma over whatever clock or watch he happened to be working on. it never fails to amaze me how hands that can restrain a large dog on a leash, are also capable of unpinning time in its tiny clasps, gears and cogs, weaving a dexterous dance to put right whatever went wrong inside, before fitting the pieces back together again.

The heady anticipation of those Saturday mornings – waking up in a room not my own, but prepared to feel as such, in that blissful-holiday way grandparents have the knack for arranging. Books that my Nanna knew I would like, were placed at strategic points around the room – on the windowsill, at the foot of the bed, for she knew I preferred curling up cross-legged over perching on a chair. What Katy Did, The Magic Roundabout (Dougal’s musings had me in hiccuping giggles, even as the sly rivulets of humour ran clear over my head), The Animals of Farthing Wood. Sunlight limned the walls with gold, freckling the pleasant internal colours. It was like something from a Joni Mitchell song – Chelsea Morning, perhaps. But no traffic beneath this window, or at least none formed of vehicles – only the military columns of ants scurrying to and fro, marking their drills with hewn leaves and fragments of cat food. The shelters themselves were but a few feet away, and I’d wake to the sounds of discordant mewling as the kennel maids went about their business with trays, brushes and armfuls of hugs. Those boarders were spoilt, really, and rightly so – away from home, immersed in a complex saturation of strange smells, who wouldn’t freak out?

I made time to visit each cat – and some of the smaller dogs, with an adult present – on barefoot wanderings of the estate. The beaten track down to the larger kennels was stubbled over with gravel, which made little impact on my small blackened soles. Climbing the green-black trees of the surrounding woodland, book in tow, I’d find a morning could wax into afternoon through the pages. Bark dust laced my hair and hands. Though my parents despaired of ever having shoes on my feet, some sense of public decorum, Nanna was a pro. Taking me by the hand (with that wonderful grin, which could win bites of breakfast out of me even when I’d declared myself not hungry) she’d lead me around town like a Duchess presenting her rarest jewel. Her friends stopped to say Hello – she is well known about town, having worked with the council to rehome stray dogs and cats for years – and I learned to put out my hand and give a firm shake.

It always makes me smile when this takes people – particularly men – by surprise.

Our steps inevitably took us in the direction of the local police station, for updates and/or any potential pick-ups, if the dog warden had phoned in first. While this environment would form a large part of my future, I had little interest then in the squeaky lino floors and folding shadows of the waiting room, the chatter of radios. There was a far more enticing promise just a block down, which Nanna had discreetly introduced me to as a means of diversion while she handled the sometimes-grim business of abandoned animals.

On autumn days, the bookshop on the corner seemed full of bees wax-sunlight, falling in slanting bars over the texts that made up the contours of the main room. Winter, pale light lay in pockets of drifting mist between the eyes and mouths of customers. Every conceivable binder and jacket, glossy and matte and cracked, stood in domino-splendour, or stacked up to the ceiling in jagged columns. All had been printed by the fingers of previous owners, with personal scribbles, dates and names, perhaps a mislaid marker made from a shopping list or forgotten photograph.

Maps of the world, lines redrawn and whole countries no longer in existence; these papered the seamed walls, peeking out between scarred shelves and teetering book-towers. Headlines screamed in broad black ink from aged broadsheets, pinned up with the same travel-ease as the maps: the moon landing, the outbreak of the wars, Kennedy’s shooting, the Queen’s coronation. Any spare inch of floor still visible was silvered with dust.

No history lesson in school seemed so vital to the senses, or as memorable.

Those pages spoke their own language of antiquity, caught between marbled paper; they crackled and hissed, whispered and chattered and chimed, in the way of books that have known many owners and a great deal of usage, with ink blurred beneath passing thumbs and certain corners folded down on thoughtful points. Some were the colour of snow under blueish shadows; others were thick and tough as papyrus, while still others had the distinctly smoked appearance and smell of bacon that you’d more likely find inside an old brass trumpet. The shop as a whole smelled of dens dug into the roots of a gnarled woodland oak. There were no revolving racks, muffins or coffee – except the one mug set down carefully on a ubiquitous pile of books by the shopkeeper’s elbow, twining steam into the thickly piled air.

His eyes were the brightest things in the room, darting around to watch each member of the public who entered through the silver-chime door; alive to the faded sound of each page-turn, the low murmurs. Nobody came in as a group, it was too small and cluttered an establishment for that; and though each voice was muted to library tones, perhaps by the weight of knowledge and drifting dust, sound carried through the book columns. The shop owner could pinpoint any conversation by its genre, each of which had been carefully arranged by title and author in latticed grids and sloping bars, an organized chaos of colours and words.

There was something otherworldly about the way he carried himself, on slippered feet, up and down the stairs with chin tilted to the ceiling, and fingers buttoned before him. Even as a child, I couldn’t imagine such a man simply reading in the way of other people. There had to be some form of digestion about it, as though he chewed on each text between thoughtful bites of a digestive biscuit, and sips of coffee. I’d won him over on my first visit by pointedly ignoring the modern children’s books – brightly-clothed and scattered towards the rear of the shop – heading instead for the dust-hued titles of my parents’ childhood, and the generations before them. Swallows and Amazons, as Nanna pointed out, had been a favourite of my father’s when he was a boy. Given that I rarely saw him reading, due to long working hours, this came as a pleasant and surprising link between our childhoods.

I bought the book, wrapped in its classic binding, and would add to it over the years with titles that trace a pattern between the small person I was and the woman I am today: The Snow Spider trilogy, A Little Princess, Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, The Secret Garden. These were to stay at Nanna’s house, as another fixture of our weekends spent together. To come away from the store with a brown paper bag clutched in both hands, crackling under the weight of its precious cargo (and perhaps, later, a smaller bag stuffed with sweets from the indoor shopping centre, weighed out on proper scales) was to know bright-light happiness… The kind to make you climb the tallest tree to waver on the last firm branches, setting the words of each page to the warm evening winds and peach-juice sky.

As I grew older, the titles changed with my moods. Pre-adolescent puberty had hit hard; I didn’t dare talk to anyone about it, to show how naive and scared I was beneath the bored sneer that had fish-hooked my mouth. Peers were by turns shocked and amused by each other’s behaviour, and while I longed to emulate them, I seemed to spend most of middle school simultaneously creeping around and backing off; hovering on the fringes of every social cluster, unable (unwilling) to commit and join in.

Books were the trusted retreat, as I’m sure will resonate with others. They didn’t answer back with catty remarks, or leave paper-trail rumours. They also didn’t expect anything of my company, and were indifferent as to whether I turned their well-worn pages or not. I went backwards, in an attempt to move forwards: The Great Gatsy, Pride and Prejudice, Animal Farm, Lord of the Rings, Frankenstein. All held issues deeply rooted in social etiquette, gender bias v.s. equality, religion, sexuality and politics; across time-zones and eras, I could pick apart the weave of humanity, while finding my own place in its loose-end threads. Elizabeth Bennett still feels as modern and real as any of my peers, though perhaps better defined in terms of her independence, given the sociocultural aspects of the novel.

James Herriot taught me to laugh at my faults, Larkin to find the coil of humour in anything mawkish. Anne Mccaffrey showed me the subtleties of gender equality in her overlap between the fantasy and science fiction genres (never an easy dance). She would prove to be one of the artful authors who know the simple power behind placing human pathos before genre archetypes and settings. While the world of Pern erupted in dragonfire and Threads, and time-travel stitched itself in telekinesis across the stars in the Tower and Hive series, it was the collective thoughts and emotions of the characters that remained very much in the foreground, as something tangible to cling onto.

While I wholly endorse e-books, Kindles and similar readers for their “waste-not” convenience – in terms of preserving our planet that little bit longer, providing a welcome market for indie authors/publishers, and the simple pleasure of hauling hundreds of titles around in a compact case – it would be a sad loss for those shops to melt away into the shadows. They are the conduit between one life and another. I’m trying to imagine a childhood without those sensory elements, anchoring me to memories, all caught up in an Eastbourne bookshop (and countless others wandered into over the years.) So many surprises nestled on long-ago shelves, with certain titles eclipsed by the weight of their own historical context. And as with love, it’s the ones you were not looking for that tend to be the keepers.

Looking at some of the books in my landlady’s collection, I can only begin to imagine how long it would take to put such a compilation together. Yet they are no more important than the well-thumbed and scrappy paperbacks I have stashed in my walk-in wardrobe – it is ultimately the text caught within that will make a book timeless. But these are the tangible links, to those owners who bothered to stop and pick up a copy and left little imprints on the binders and pages, as a form of communication; to our pasts and our futures, with connections to authors as people with real thoughts, memories of a world like ours, all set down in elegant print defining humanity’s dedication to the written word – often against great odds.
The old leaves, musk and marbling, the presentation and fine weave of images, all wait for us to come home, seeking something that belongs here and then.

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