With three days almost completely taken up with the exhibition in Bristol, we came down to earth yesterday – quite literally – with less of a bump than a sigh of relief. We had the greatest of times, met so many people, and it was fun but I went into extreme extrovert mode which, I’ve discovered is a kind of protective device. I’m much shyer than I appear to be – especially in big crowds of strangers. The benefits of sailing through the occasion and having a wonderful time are always offset by the payback. I was greatly assisted by the little pendant I was given that said I was an artist. Although I had a painting in the show I’ve never felt able to describe myself as an artist so the badge helped save me from trying to explain.
Luckily an early bus gave us a chance to wander around Bristol Docks on Sunday morning. Sadly St Nicholas Market (above) was closed but quite apart from team loyalties – we were both born and brought up in Bristol – any comparison between the dockside development in Bristol and Cardiff, which I wrote about last week, would come down in favour of Bristol just for the sheer diversity on offer. It’s more than 30 years since we lived on the docks, but we were there for 20 years in a succession of different flats and I have to pay tribute to Peter Ware, the architect, who almost single handedly started the fight to preserve the Georgian buildings in Hotwells and the character of the whole area. Consequently Bristol has retained and repurposed hundreds of old buildings that set the context for the new ones.
But time and seasons wait for no-one and so we went up to the allotment at the crack of lunchtime to see what needed attention. Our first job was to remove the protective netting on the garlic and shallots which seemed to give a sigh of relief and stretch towards the sky. I swear they were six inches taller after a feed with liquid seaweed which also gave them a good watering.
The fleece also came off the peas, and we put a net over the whole bed to protect it from the birds. Birds, especially pigeons, are a particular menace on the allotments and without wishing them any ill will, we do everything we can to persuade them to go elsewhere. The other most frequent visitors are jackdaws which are great eaters of grubs. Some people shoo them off, but I think they’re irresistable in their glossy black coats and grey capes. Robins, come too when we’re digging and we even once spotted tiny goldcrest which came and then went, never to be seen again.
Gradually we’re taking the propagated plants up to the allotment and we’ve regained one of the windows. The chillies are all doing very well and I’ve been snacking on the Hungarian Hot Wax as they slowly turn yellow. The tomatoes are due their last re-pot before going out and the greenhouse aubergines are flowering.
Down on the coldest patch, the potatoes have shrugged off any frost under their fleece which is being lifted upwards on the shoulders of their haulms. Suddenly the allotment is taking on its summer form once more. We spend a lot of time weeding and watering which are both jobs I really enjoy – unlike many people, I know. But allotments, while they can be sometimes very domineering and far from the cliché of outdoor therapy, have many sides to them. They aren’t just about the satisfaction of growing food. They certainly feed the spirit, but there’s also a strongly aesthetic feel about them as well. Like works of art in themselves, they are expressive of their gardener’s personality. So maybe I really do deserve the little pendant with an A on it?
It was always going to be a bit of an odd day divided into several parts, and things turned out pretty much as expected. The grandchildren came over for the morning and while I was up at the allotment strimming, Madame went with the Brigade of Mischief for a trip around Prior Park (a National Trust property) after which we all met up at Uncle Jo’s pizza place for lunch, where they lined up to watch him turning their foraged ramsons into a garlic flavoured pizza. There, in a single photo, is the reason why we’re so driven to secure a future for them. How could we hope to be remembered with any affection if we hand them the rags of a devastated environment?
So after lunch and some writing for me, we caught the bus to Bristol for the opening night of the exhibition. A couple of old friends from art school days celebrated their annversary by renting the Centre Space Gallery and inviting thirty of their artist friends to submit some work. It was a brilliant evening and the gallery was packed with people we either knew or wanted to get to know. Names and faces were put together after decades of never getting around to meeting. I guess if we’d met fifty years ago, someone would have got drunk, someone would have started a fight and someone would have rushed out in tears – (actually I could have done any, or all of the three) – but now in our mature(ish) years there were fewer sharp edges and less easily bruised egos.
I continue to be obsessed with the way that age alters our faces but leaves us somehow the same, and so I have to be careful not to stare (almost forensically) at people who find it disturbing. It was hardly surprising, then, that my painting was a watercolour illustration of a purple sprouting broccoli leaf rescued from the compost heap and absolutely stunning in its decomposing colours of green, yellow and brown. Generally leaves don’t get offended by staring, but I’d love to find a model prepared to put up with it. One of the guests told me a story about failing to recognise one of his old models because he’d never seen her with clothes on.
We caught a late bus back – an extraordinary experience because we almost never stay out late, especially in Bristol. And so the bus was absolutely rammed with as big a cross section of life as you could imagine. There were chancers and inebriates of every age, edgy looking teenagers trying to look cool and one club bouncer who pulled his hi-viz jacket over his head and tried to sleep. There was a dog that barked randomly at those who failed an unspoken test, a freemason in pinstripes with his regalia in a leather case, and a couple of young women conducting a mobile phone feud with an unknown recipient. Someone smelt pretty bad and so the windows were opened to let cold air in, and someone with nowhere to go was going nowhere in particular, eating his supper out of a rucksack. We spend so much time in our own isolated lives it’s a proper shock to be nose to nose with complete strangers in a noisy bus – we should do it more often.
Anyway, part two of the party today with a meal together in Bristol and then tomorrow hand-to-hand combat with a BT engineer, and then bliss. A couple of weeks with no commitments except the allotment and possibly a short trip to Wales.
Even managing to get this photo on to the laptop seems like a major triumph of hope over BT, who, for approaching 2 weeks, have not only failed to provide any broadband service but have convinced themselves that they’ve actually done something. They’ve already sent out three engineers on two separate occasions who have all eventually confessed to not being sufficently trained or equipped to do the job. They sent the first mini hub to the wrong address and the second never appeared at all and so I’ve been completely dependent on my phone connection and a big overspend on extra data. The sales people claimed that we had fibre to the building when it fact it’s finished at the green box up the road and is dependent on copper wire for the crucial final 250m. The company was split up into three to encourage competition, but although they work with identical customer bases the IT systems don’t talk to each other which leads to the sort of tooth gnashing conversations that make it clear that no-one has the faintest idea what’s going on.
Enough already – get on with it! – I hear you cry – so I shall. On Monday morning I am promised positively smoking digital speeds. We’ll see, I’m already eyeing up the contract to see if they’ve broken their part.
So yesterday we had to take some of our artworks by bus to an exhibition in Bristol, which is an infrequent pleasure. Later we went up to the allotment and I set up the wigwam supports for the runner beans. I hesitate to get all philosophical about it, but it does seem that the simplest gardening jobs can attract a good deal of unconscious baggage, and none much more powerfully than hazel bean sticks. We cut and gathered these at our friends’ smallholding in the Brecon Beacons last year which makes then both free of cost and simultaneously greater in value. Now that hazel is hardly ever coppiced, the sticks have become a bit of an expensive rarity, having been replaced by imported bamboo, or worse still plastic. But in a more environmentally conscious world they could provide a subsidiary source of income on a mixed farm with a bit of woodland. But honestly that’s not the thing that shouts at you, it’s the sense of tradition that comes with them.
So today has been a mixed bag with grandchildren visiting. The oldest picked wild garlic in the woods and we took it to Uncle Jo who runs a pizza hut, and he made a special pizza using the harvested ramsons – how’s that for a life lesson in foraging? I managed to get a couple of hours parole on the allotment and I finally got the strimmer out to cut all the paths. I once worked for several years as a school groundman, and I picked up some terrible habits like wanting to eliminate every weed in sight. With a powerful tool like a strimmer I have to order myself to leave clumps of weeds – especially nettles – around the plot for the butterflies. I also leave the long cut grass lying because it’s full of seed for the birds. Slowly I’m conquering the demon of excessive tidiness! Doesn’t the herb garden look splendid, with the asparagus behind? The big umbellifer is angelica which is stunningly sculptural, and contrasts with the darker greens of lovage and dill. I guess that among all the plant families the Apiaceae, the carrot family have most to offer a gardener and cook. Underneath you can see our 1000L of stored rainwater which I hope to at least double during the year. I can only see a future full of water shortages if we don’t do something to curb our excesses soon and so, although I’m no survivalist, a couple of tonnes of water in store is likely to be useful. To that end I’m going to put a roof over the compost heaps to capture water from 60 extra square feet, and I’ve half a mind to build a solar heater from an old radiator to provide underground heat for the coldframes or even the greenhouse. I saw it demonstrated at the Alternative Technology Centre in Machynlleth, and it worked impressively well considering it was entirely constructed from waste materials. What I don’t know is whether the winter sun would be hot enough to provide any heat benefit. But even a marginal gain might protect from a cold snap, and maybe it could be constructed around some thermal ballast for storage, after all the cold frame alone offers some protection from all but prolongued cold spells.
When you cross over the Brecon Beacons via the Beaufort road you suddenly cross a line between the open moorland and the post-industrial landscape, marked by a line of electricity pylons. I’m not sure which side of the line I prefer. Surprisingly, perhaps, I admire and even like the post industrial landscape inhabited by the ghosts of miners, steelworkers and the lost fortunes of entrepreneurs and the dreamers who made porcelain in works like Nantgarw where beauty and purity emerged from the smoke and filth of the potbanks. I like it and yet I loathe what’s become of it in the industrial estates and business parks that replaced it.
Today we drove to Cardiff to see the David Nash exhibition in the National Gallery of Wales. While we were there I tried to search out the old Welsh Academy building in Bute Street where I did a bit of work in the 1970’s, and the terrifying Dowlais Arms pub where we would take our lives in our hands to book a taxi by CB radio to take us back to the Railway station for the last train back to Bristol on a Friday night. But it’s all been demolished and redeveloped. The only bit I recognised was the long stone wall where I swear I remember the words “Tubal Cain” painted in huge letters – presumably long since painted out by someone who failed to understand the Old Testament history of the name. The fading neo classical building in which the Academy was once housed seems to have been demolished along with everything else. If I can be a bit contrarian for a moment we found very little to commend what’s replaced the derelict docklands. There were endless coffee bars and restaurants of exactly the same provenance you would find in the centre of almost any large city. We could have been in Birmingham or Bristol or the London docklands – it really didn’t seem to matter. Any sense of place, of history had been erased by the uniformity of 21st century life. Everywhere and nowhere in the span of a short walk, history is contained and defeated by streetside captions, theme pubs and signposts. In fact the very word ‘heritage’ has become yet another resource to be strip-mined and sold off by the new ‘creative’ entrepreneurs and their theme parks – just at the time we most need to reflect on the industrial revolution, what it gave and what it took away from us, and where the degradation first gripped us, as it will grip the nations where it is beginning today. This aetiolated version of the past is fed to us like pre-digested pap and serves an ideological purpose. There’s something very perverse about the fact that the Assembly building is so hemmed in by building developments and chain restaurants. Instead of leaving the building in isolation within the context of the ruined industrial landscape that might suggest “this is what we’re here to redress”, the new buildings press against the assembly building like silent lobbyists saying – “remember who you’re here to serve”. The steel magnates and mine owners have gone, to be replaced by an equally rapacious economics that, having taken the coal, has returned to frack the last drops of value out of the nation.
I once (supervising on a school trip) said to a retired mine engineer at Big Pit in Blaenavon – “You must miss the camaraderie of the job. He replied “No I hated every bloody minute of it!”. The camaraderie, the courage and resilience of the communities are not things to be celebrated as much as admired. Yes we can appreciate the resilience of the communities but this was essentially a survival mechanism against the terrible behaviour of a class of human beings who belived that it was perfectly alright to sweat a natural resource like coal or steel through the exploitation of less powerful human beings.
There was a small craft market going on and Nick went to buy some Welsh cakes. He asked the woman in charge (he’s a fine chef) “do you make these with all butter or a mixture of butter and lard (the traditional way)? ” “Stork (margarine)” she replied. We tried them but they stuck to the roof our mouths like stale puff pastry.
The David Nash exhibition was something else. It was everything that the city has turned its back on. Here is an artist who has made it his business to look at the natural world not as a resource to be extracted and sold off, but as the object of a prolongued meditation. They’re almost religious in their intensity. It’s an exhibition of fifty years of work since he bought an old chapel in Blaenau Festiniog for £200 in which to work and presumably do a lot of thinking. What did I admire most? – well he can draw, I mean he can really draw. There’s a playful element (in the very best sense of the word), that reminds me of the intensity of children’s play. There’s a sense of the re-enchantment of the world through a profound attentiveness. It smells good when you walk into the gallery – is this a normal term of art criticism? It was just so good! We’d seen another film about the large lump of carved tree trunk that was cast into a stream and followed in its passage to the sea at Barmouth some years later, but watching a slightly fuller version on a large screen encouraged us to sit down and watch it right through. It sounds a little like conceptual art but it was much fuller, richer, and much more meditative than most work in that mode. There’s a lot of work in the exhibition and I came away thinking that there’s a very close kinship between the kind of attentiveness that artists like David Nash exhibit, and the attentiveness of the scientist. All that nonsense put about by CP Snow about two quite different forms of consciousness has entered into the bloodstream and it was wrong. My old music teacher, AF Woodman, used to shout at us – “I know you can hear it but have you been listening?” Call it close attention, call it meditation or mindfulness – it really doesn’t matter much, but we’ve spent so much time quantifying, describing and judging the output of artists so we can make lists in order of importance, that we’ve missed the really important bit. Once again I’ll apply my entirely subjective way of judging an exhibition – does it make me want to work? – yes. Does it change the way I look at things? – yes.
Finally, and on an entirely different subject, how do you make a perfect poached egg? Here’s the answer – no stirring, no vinegar, no little plastic doofers. Crack some eggs – they need to be so newly laid they’re almost warm – and put them carefully into a bowl. Bring the poaching water to the boil and then slide the eggs in. Ta da! perfect poached eggs.
I don’t care for ‘Misery Lit’ or – (sorry) – blogs that describe ‘battles against’ this or that horrible disease. I’m absolutely not prepared for going down that route anytime soon, and that’s that. However – and imagine me saying that ‘however’ slowly, stressing all three syllables and ending in an upspeak question mark …. Having had a bit of hand-to-hand combat wth the idea of mortality these last couple of months, I thought that getting all positive test results would pick me up and set me down exactly where I started. It didn’t!
You don’t, it seems, *wrestle with the anonymous angel during a sleepless night or twenty and get away with it altogether. Jacob didn’t, and I’m no Jacob, so after a couple of days of sheer relief I got completely fired up at the thought of what kind of world we’re leaving our children and grandchildren – which was the prompting for yesterday’s rather anguished posting. The Potwell Inn, since it’s imaginary, has no cash-in value and we’re perpetually hard-up so there’s no stately home, not even the flat we live in, or anything much else to leave our descendants except an earth capable of sustaining them.
So we need to get on with it because we’re not going to last forever
Look at that angelica at the top of the page. Like all its cousins in the genus Apiaceae from alexanders to hogweed it is staggeringly beautiful in the early spring as it emerges from its winter sleep. Same too for the crozier like leaf forms of emerging bracken and ferns – they make you stop and fill you with wonder and they can, if you let them, suggest that the natural condition of the earth is beautiful. You might say that hemlock water dropwort isn’t beautiful because it’s deadly poisonous, and so is every part of the yew tree except the red fruit surrounding the seed, so too the foxglove. But of course none of them are in the least dangerous so long as you recognise them and treat them with respect. The problem is that the vast majority of us don’t recognise them and respect for the wild increases the more we understand about it; and that’s a shame because the very things we need most, may be quietly hiding there in the immensity of the natural world.
I write about the allotment because it brings me face to face with the food we eat. Often on my knees, I weed quietly between the rows and I try to know the name of every wild plant I’m discarding in favour of our preferred crops. In fact I absolutely love spending a contemplative hour hand weeding, almost lying at ground level pinching them out between thumb and finger. Lovely, but also a great teacher of the basic ethic of proper gardening which is that we only possess the capacity to dispose, never to compel. But agribusiness has no time for disposing. Money in a hurry needs results, predictability and certainty. Humility in the face of nature is a sign of weakness and weeds are considered as ‘overheads’ – even people, the ones who work in the fields, are regarded as ‘overheads’ – no more than cells on a spreadsheet. We see the results in the earth. After decades of intensive cultivation, the stones stick out through the earth like the bones of a starving human being. Hedges are torn up and so the birds no longer sing, and gigantic tractors stride across the fields microdosing chemical insecticides and fertilizers under the instruction of their satnavs.
I write about food because at the Potwell Inn we regard the growing, the preparation of food and eating it together around a table as a sacramental activity. I write about art because – to pinch a line from Peter Shaffer’s play Equus – “without worship you shrink”.
I’m struggling to find words for this new mood. but there is a connection. Maybe an unwelcome reminder of my own mortality has brought the vulnerability of the earth into much sharper focus. In the same way we take our own existence for granted until some accident or illness reminds us otherwise, so we comfortably assume that the earth on which – from which – we derive our existence, is always there. It’s one of those givens like gravity and tides. But it’s not and if we really think about it we know that’s the case.
But how do we change anything? The starting point, I’m sure, is to ease back on the nagging and move forwards on wonder. Maybe what we need is not to spread the understanding of the present linked crises of climate change and environmental degradation but to re-enchant the natural world – because what we revere and love, we protect. Which brings me back to the allotment.
What’s the point of herbs? Look – mint, chives and rosemary. Elsewhere on the allotment in various beds and corners there are angelica, lovage, dill and fennel; several thymes, sage, coriander, tarragon, other flavours of mint and parsley. They’re amongst the most resilient plants in the garden, getting on without any great attention while we fuss over keeping the chillies and aubergines warm. They enliven our food and provide inumerable oils and essences whose healing properties have been studied and used for millennia. Scientists come and go, along with their theories, but in the background and within the immense diversity of the plant world, trillions of rather beautiful and tiny leafy-laboratories have been syththesising substances beyond our dreams since the beginnings of life on earth. They have no marketing departments, no PR budgets, patents or guardians except us.
Being old often means being invisible. You get used to being walked off the pavement by much younger people so absorbed in their mobile phones and their busy lives that you feel you’re an obstacle. And yet yesterday I went into a local bookshop and was struck forcibly by the fact that Isabella Tree’s book “Wilding” was selling by the dozen to those selfsame people. ‘Wonderful’, I thought, ‘more allies’, and yet you couldn’t blame them for thinking that we baby boomers are at least a part of the problem, because it happened during our years of vitality. There was a vegan food fair at Green Park station yesterday and although I was a bit puzzled by ‘vegan fish and chips’ and vegan hot dogs’, I refuse to be scornful and dismissive because long after we’ve left the scene, these beautiful, idealistic young people will have their chance to roll back the damage of industrial food production. Meanwhile the best thing we can do is to supplement the TV natural history documentaries with real hands-on experience of the wild. Nature’s not a safari park, and we learn more about nature by squeezing a mint leaf from a plant we’ve grown on the windowsill than watching any number of films – and that mention of mint leads me to think about peas. The douce Provence peas we sowed in the autumn are coming into flower even though they’re barely six inches tall.
and the story about Jacob wrestling with an angel at the edge of the river he’d just crossed, leaving behind everything he’d known and striking out into the future is one of my absolute favourite Old Testament stories. You don’t have to be remotely religious to be inspired by it.
Yesterday, before the news of the Christchurch killings came in, I was hunting for something in my room and I found a watercolour brush that had fallen on the floor. I don’t know, because I’ve never painted in oils or acrylic, whether painters in those media treasure particular brushes, but I know watercolourists do. Brushes for particular purposes, there’s one brush I only use for correcting and removing paint, it’s a cheap as chips student range brush but it’s perfect for the job. The brush on the floor was a top of the range sable brush. When I picked it up it seemed to speak to me – use me. I put it back in its tube and thought no more of it until this morning. Then the hate words started spilling into the room through the internet and I felt suddenly that words – the medium I’ve lived and worked with all my life – had become tainted by association. There’s no more devilish weapon than the tongue, and its works. Words have consequences, but drawing and painting are silent, contemplative and so much more eloquent about the experiences that lie beyond language.
So, with due consideration for the weather forecast, we took the bus into Bristol today to see a couple of exhibitions. On the bus stop there was a person dressed in fatigues, with a bedouin style scarf completely covering their head and the whole assemblage topped by a pair of blue-tinted motorcycle googles. There was not a square centimeter of human being exposed anywhere. They were genderless and without any clue as to who they were. They got on to the bus carrying a snooker cue and got off the bus at Temple Meads. Puzzling.
We went to see an exhibition of new sculpture and one of Henri Gaudier Brzeska’s drawings and sculpture at the RWA. Sculpture, after years of playing second fiddle to almost any other visual art form seems to be in rude health at the moment, and Gaudier Brzeska’s drawings have not dated in the same way as his sculptures. Does that sound like faint praise? It’s not meant to. We agreed that his drawings are really wonderful. One of the faintly condescending comments on the wall suggested that he was “self taught” – as if that accounted for some deficiency in his work. Come on – all great artists are self-taught, only the mediocre ones rely on tricks they learned at art schools.
The Leonardo drawings at the City Museum were so small, and the gallery so crowded that you’d have done better with a decent book. As we left we were directed into the inevitable ‘experience room’ where there were drawing materials and books available for anyone to have a go. I was absolutely ready to dismiss this as yet another attempt to make art relevant and educational at the same time until I spotted a man who didn’t fit at all into the usual suspects category (like us) who was copying a drawing with rapt attention. If I eat my hat can I spit the label out? I should have remembered the extraordinary gifts of some of the men I taught in prison. As I write this I can see him, completely unselfconscious and absorbed in his task, putting me and my selfconciousness to shame.
Back down then to the bus station via Christmas Steps where we stopped for me to photograph a building that my grandfather came out of retirement to work on when he was 72. He was what’s known as a ‘generic builder’ – a carpenter by trade, for whom timber framed buildings were familiar from decades of experience. At the base there used to be a very good chippie but it’s gone now. Bristol was our ‘home city’ for many decades but now it’s easier to catch a bus than to negotiate its ever more sclerotic traffic system. When we got home I found a box of Jiffy 7 modules on top of the piano so while I cooked, Madame sowed seeds. Tomorrow we’ll be marooned in the flat for most of the day by the Bath Half Marathon, but if we defy the stewards and run across the road we might be able to get to the allotment for a few hours.
Bearing in mind everything I said about words and drawings yesterday, today we visited the Porth y Swnt exhibition in the National Trust building in Aberdaron and for the umpteenth time in a week we were blown away by the vigour of artists in Wales. Yesterday it was Jonah Jones, today Pandora Vaughan and all the other artists who contributed to the installation who managed to remind me that even Tracey Emin managed to combine words and images with great power. In fact she may be one of the exceptions to my criticisms of the rather bloodless artworks that have stolen the foreground in the UK over the past decades. Consider my hand slapped. In the light of our total cultural immersion this week I’m coming to the reluctant conclusion that there is no more English poet than RS Thomas and, if I’m pressed I’ll explain why I’m coming to think it.
But I wanted really to lament the fact that yesterday when I went to get some propane gas I didn’t take a photograph. Like most real places, Lleyn has it’s share of breeze block and corrugated asbestos buildings, and any such building used as a garage is pretty much bound to be surrounded by more or less rusty cars and caravans turned green with mould; abandoned to perpetual storage by the almost dead on their last ever holiday. I say this with no malice, how could I? – I’m shuffling to the front of the queue myself. (Thanks, Rose for that most evocative phrase). In high season the aspiring saints only have a couple of miles to drive to the point of departure for the Bardsey ferry, but on a point of information, the churchyard is almost certainly closed.
The key thing about isolated rural places is that everyone knows you’re there whether you know them or not. We once caught a bus from Cork to Clonakilty and by the time we arrived we were greeted by someone on the bus stop as ‘the English people from the ferry’. The second of those words was the most worrying, given that the Troubles were raging at the time. So today when we turned up at the local garage to buy a bottle of gas for the cottage – we were expected. Having rehearsed the pronounciation of the address which – being extremely remote – needs triangulating from three nearby places – my linguistic efforts turned out to be completely unnecessary from the moment the owner said “Frank said you’d be coming”.
He was wearing the usual dark blue boiler suit and holding a broken numberplate as a palette on which a pile of freshly mixed filler paste was resting. The aromatic perfume of fibreglass filled the garage as he prowled the perimeter of a very old pickup truck, applying large quantities with a flexible palette knife. “I’ll just finish this mix” he said, and I was only too pleased to watch him working. All the lights had been taken off along with a busted wing panel, and the grey filler occupied more than a third of the remaining panels. “Seen a bit of life then?” I asked. No reply invited or received. The pickup was a kind of motoring palimpsest, with the earliest trace of its original owner, the word cenedlaethol, barely visible under layers of more recent paint. That was the moment at which I should have taken the photo – it would have made a wonderful, almost abstract drawing. Long pause……. “Selling it on?” I added…… “Yes”. He was no great conversationalist, but sensing the remote possibility of a sale he said “How do you like it here?” . “Oh I love it but I couldn’t live here.”
And then he said it – “There we are”.
I fell into a pool of delight. That, I thought, must be one of the most beautiful phrases in the English language. ‘There we are’. uttered by a Welshman for whom English is almost certainly a second language and meaning ” I really can’t understand why anyone would not want to live here but he’s making an effort to be honest, bless him, and so I’ll sell him some gas and make him feel welcome, before he drives back to that dreadful place beyond the rivers of Babylon, the place without song……. “There we are”. “There’s nothing else I can say.”
It’s impossible to be insulted or annoyed by there we are . It’s a phrase so pregant with patoral care that it can turn a canoe around at the top of the Niagara Falls and send it safely back to dry land. As he said it, inflected by his local accent, I felt myself being cared for, and when the gas arrived just now he tapped on the window and gave me a thumbs up with not least least clue I was writing about him as I waved back.
Last night I used the phrase myself. I had to explain to an old friend how, inexplicably, I had believed her to be dead for forty years because of a mistaken message, and having attempted to write the unwriteable I ended my message “There we are – I’ve said it”.
The best exhibitions are the ones that make you want to work, send you out into the daylight filled with determination and – so the gallery hopes – with a new sketchbook and some rather expensive pencils, bought at the shop through which you are always obliged to pass on the way out. That’s one of my two measures of the success of a show – how much does it make me want to work? The second measure is more larcenous than aesthetic – is there anything here I’d like to take down and walk out with under my coat. In my defence I’m bound to say I do not have a collection of very small paintings filched from the walls of galleries, because if if I was willing to deprive artists of their proper income I’d be an art dealer.
On the same day we visited the nature reserve at Newborough (blogged on Tuesday 5th March) we kicked off in the morning by visiting Oriel Môn which translates – minus any resonance – to “Anglesey Gallery”, and which doesn’t sound half so much fun nor a fraction as erudite. I’ve used a lot of Welsh this week because we’re in one of the remaining strongholds of the Welsh language and I applaud every effort to keep it alive and kicking. In a very small way I understand how the deprivation of a language can drain a culture of meaning. It sounds ridiculous, I know, but I was brought up in an area with a strong local – really local – dialect. Away from home and school, where they were punished, we still used ‘thee, thou, and you’ in the distinct subtle meanings you can find in Shakespeare. When I went to work as a (very bad) welder at Jordan Engineering when I was seventeen I knew that when Brian – who was a brilliant welder – addressed me as ‘you’ – he was putting a distance as wide as the Bristol Channel between us. There was no other way of expressing that subtly insulting tone. The nuances of local dialects and languages are irreplaceable. A language helps you to think differently and so I find the only way of even beginning to understand what’s going on here is to engage with the Welsh language in my own embarrassed and fumbling way. Don’t get me wrong, I’m too shy even to say ‘diolch’ when I leave the local shop.
Anyway, like my good friend Samuel Beckett (OK I made that bit up) I sometimes wonder whether the ease with which I can write is as much a curse as a blessing. Familiarity with the language comes with a big price. I have absorbed the clichés, the lazy habits and the spent and lifeless rhythms so well that they can slip past me on to the page. And after an hour with Kyffin Williams’ drawings, prints and paintings I was wondering whether it would be possible to give up writing for a month or so and just draw. There was a large drawing of a garden by another artist at the end of the gallery and it seemed possible that instead of writing about the allotment I could draw it for a while. A daunting prospect for me, but the very condensed capacity of a drawing to express far more than hundreds of words is appealing. It’s as if wordiness can be boiled down in some kind of alchemical experiment resulting in a lyric poem and, returned again to the fire, can become a sonnet, then a haiku and finally a drawing. The very writing of which sentence makes a kind of argument aganst conceptual artists who – peering up their own arses – can see nothing and then write a long essay about it. The essential beauty of the drawing over the word is that it eschews the concept. Anyway, enough of that.
So filled with transcendental artistic desires we went off to the nature reserve and I was transported into a different frame, pushing disruptive thoughts to the back of my mind while we hunted for plants. Until Wednesday, that is, when we drove over to Plas Glyn-w-Weddw at Llanbedrog mainly to get out of the ceaseless wind and rain and stumbled on the centenary exhibition of work by Jonah Jones, an artist neither of us had ever heard of. There’s probably a reason and a couple of PhD’s in that fact. Welsh art hasn’t, in large measure, managed to fight its way past Shrewsbury or cross the Bristol Channel. You might cite different networks and funding bodies as reasons, but speaking from the English side of the channel I sense that there’s a bit of a dismissive attitude there. We watched a documentary about Kyffin Williams recently, and one of his faux friends implied that he sold too easily and produced too much uneven work. I’d answer that with two words – “Damien Hirst” and rest my case. Yes, Welsh Art does seem to have been remote from some of the nonsense of the past decades and that may turn out to be its saving grace, but much of the best of Welsh painting and drawing has been bought because people love it and want to live with it, not as an inflation busting investment kept in the bank. Yesterday I asked my question of one of the attendants at the MAC in Macynlleth. She said that it was true that Welsh art hasn’t crossed the border much but she went on to say that every time she drives back into Wales she sense a different atmosphere, a different ambience. She seemed to think that Welsh artists had something very special going for them and it emerged from the culture, the language, the landscape even. I think it’s the lyricism that’s all but disappeared from mainstream British art. Somebody pass me the stepladder and I’ll get down off this high horse!
But Jonah Jones was a revelation. His illustrated and hand lettered poems seemed to be answering my Tuesday question about words and drawing. I thought they were beautiful in a very Blakean way, and the slowness of his technique of hand lettering seemed to be a homage to the poems themselves. Jones was taught letter cutting in Eric Gill’s workshop. The hand lettering almost adds to the meaning of the words in a symbiotic relationship that does justice to both, suggesting that the answer to my question should be “not one or another but both” I should mention that when I was twelve or thirteen I found a copy of Edward Johnston’s “Writing Illuminating and Lettering” in the library and was so captivated by it I taught myself to write in italics and uncials from it.
Two days. two artists, and less than £1500 would have bought three limited edition prints that would give us endless inspiration and pleasure. If you’re anywhere near you really must see this exhibition. But then, at that price could they possibly be any good? – the British critics ask. Aaargh. We’re too skint to find out!
But Hazlitt was right, and I’m missing the allotment too. The photos both come from the catalogue to the exhibition.
The sharp eyed will notice that at this point in the journey we were the only passengers on the train apart from two conductors, the driver and someone who seemed to be a peripatetic cleaner.
We had slept badly – sharing a three quarter bed requires some organisational ability – and with the threat of an early start hanging over us, the known unknowns and the unknown unknowns crowded for attention. How long would it take to drive to Pwllheli? (27 mins). Would we find a parking space? (Yes) where was the railway station? ( 2 mins away at the end of the street). And so the allowances of extra time soon aggregated and we arrived at he station with just over half a hour to spare.
There must be circumstances when a half-hour wait for a train might involve lolling in the sunshine on a seat commemorating the deceased owner of a local clothes peg factory. Not so for us. We were in the midst of a storm of the type that blows so hard and so wet that your expensive mountain raincoat pockets fill with freezing water via the gaps in the zips. Opposite the station was a Costa with a couple of people who looked as if their wives had kicked them out and were trying to book a hotel on their laptops. We opted for the station cafe which had a more cheerful look about it – Christmas lights pressed into service for the first day of Lent and a huge range of all-day breakfasts with amusing names served up by a girl who looked as if she actually enjoyed being there. Our train pulled in and the driver rushed in, ordered and ate a prodigious breakfast in a couple of minutes and we followed him, his ulcer and his dicky heart back on to the empty train.
The fare was billed as £18 each for an ‘anytime return’ – I think there must be some passengers who arrive at Machynlleth and don’t feel the need to explore beyond the car park and the industrial estate, and get straight back on the next train home. Anyway, the conductor consulted her nifty handheld replacement for the entire booking office and said she could “do it for £13” – which was a bit of a first – possibly a dreadful weather discount?
The tourist guide, however, is entirely accurate. It really must be “one of the most scenic railway lines in the whole of Britain”. Sensibly, in a mountainous region, the line doesn’t just hug the coast, there were times when it was the coast. The seas, big and grey, were being whipped up by wind gusts of up to 65mph and breaking over the great boulders that protected the coastline. Waves ten feet high and more, were capped with white foam. Wherever we moved away from the coast the intervening land was sodden, often flooded and populated by miserable looking sheep huddled against any windbreaks they could find – and, my goodness, some of the stone walls were approaching five feet thick, possibly they doubled as footpaths during spring tides and floods.
Two and a half hours is a long time for a journey that would take about an hour by road, but I was fully occupied with the scenery, and the prounciation of the tiny station names as we stopped at a series of halts, clumps of grass and an abandoned MOD site. It was as if we’d got into a groundhog day somewhere near Adlestrop. How can a place name have so many letters but lack a single vowel? I know the answer to that because I once ran some writers workshops for the Welsh Academy in the Welsh Valleys, and I had to learn how to pronounce place names so I could get about on the local buses. But although Welsh is a phonetic language, the diphtongs are incredibly tricky and the stress on the last but one syllable often catches me out. Nonetheless it is the ‘queen of languages’ as my Greek tutor (a Welshman) used to say.
If there’s a downside to the coastline it’s the proliferation of caravan sites at the edge of the sea – probably empty for nine months of the year, they look like abandoned intensive farms: hafodydd (summer dwellings) for thousands of people escaping their unique versions of ‘everyday life’. As we crossed the long viaduct at Barmouth the train felt as if it was flying slowly and noisily over the water. I’ve looked at photographs of that structure so many times, and it was an ambition fulfilled actually to cross it – so, soon enough, having taken a detour up a long valley, the train pulled into Machynlleth station where it would become part of another train to Birmingham.
I had carefully planned the afternoon and I knew that the restaurant I’d booked, and the gallery (MOMA) we wanted to see were both within easy walking distance. But you will know that when you plan days out, you don’t normally factor-in storm force winds and 18mm of rain. This turned an easy walk, punctuated by pauses to look at artisanal shoemakers and interesting bookshops to something akin to wading up the Amazon. Cars detoured into deep puddles in order to give us a proper soaking and my right arm had to be extended several times in a single finger greeting accompanied by obscene curses heard by no-one at all.
Did I just write ‘restaurant’? From 25 yards I read the word ‘bistro’ and as we burst through the door propelled by the storm, the word became café. Good luck to them: we were the only customers and they served us decent reviving food and a couple of glasses of wine as we watched hapless townspeople being washed down the street crying for help . The hairdresser in the shop opposite was equally under-employed and soon abandoned his attempt to smoke a cigarette outside as water flooded in torrents down from the blocked gutters. The whole world was a monochrome of grey slate and reflected white, like the parody of a Kyffin Williams painting. My new Tilley hat, the “Outback” model in waxed cotton had performed admirably with strong pegs driven into my ears but its broad brim had collected about half a pint of rainwater that ran down the waiter’s hands and on to her trainers as she took it from me. However she was kind enough to say that since we’d arrived she’d turn on the heating.
An hour later we struggled around to MOMA – the gallery of modern Welsh art – in search of anything by John Dickson Innes and found the door locked against the wind. This led to a very friendly personal greeting as we were admitted by the (volunteer?) receptionist who confessed that she’d never heard of JD Innes and didn’t know whether they’d got any. After a phone call she admitted that they did have a couple of his paintings but they were in storage which could mean any one of a number of facilities across the town while they wait for a purpose-built store to be constructed. Innes was a terrific and underrated painter whose death – aged only 27 – ended a career that would surely have eclipsed his friend Augustus John.
So back to the train for the return journey, but this time it became the ‘school bus’ for several dozen young people. As per Adlestrop, people came and went in the rain but this time the pre-recorded station announcements somehow got out of synch and each station was hailed exactly one stop early. No-one seemed to be fooled by this, and eventually the conductor turned the machine off and did the announcements himself – which gave me the chance to compare his pronunciation of the place names with the satnav versions in the morning. ‘Little things please little minds’ – as the teenage girls on the train might well have said when they were rehearsing a put-down for use in later life. A small drama unfolded as various girls attended to one of their number who had locked herself in the toilet in tears. A drunk man got properly told off by someone for attempting to take photographs of the children on his phone. Madame fell asleep holding my hand under the table out of deference to the schoolchildren who can’t cope with displays of affection by old people.
Then, as we passed the old Butlins site, we spotted the sun shining weakly in the sky, like a torch reflected in a steel bowl, and as we pulled into the station it stopped raining at last. I do love the Welsh and their country – not so keen on the weather, though.