Pot bellied stoves, eyebright and portraits

MVIMG_20191107_115056There’s a shed with a chimney down on the allotments next to Bath Deep Lock on the Kennet and Avon Canal, and on cold days like this an inviting whisp of smoke goes up, suggesting a pot bellied stove and a comfortable carver chair. This, in my view, ought to be a part of every allotment so that on days unsuitable for gardening, some contemplative tea drinking could take place.  However, the rules are strict and this is not permitted on our site.  Our community hut is well on the way to collapsing and so we can’t have those days of idle chatter and shared plans – which is a shame, because from October until March we pretty much retreat from being a community and become singleton allotmenteers, wrapped in double layers of outer clothes and scarves and sharing nodding acknowledgements across the open spaces.

Which said, the winter opens up a number of other ways of idling a cold day away, aside from turning bue in a fierce north easterly. Shopping is one of the less favoured distractions but on our way through town yesterday we caught sight of an apothacary shop selling all sorts of herbal remedies. Buying some kind of eyebright preparation has been on my to-do list for ages.  I’ve had streaming eyes for as long as I can remember, I’m sure people passing me in the street think I’ve just had some terrible news – and I’ve had my eyes examined, put all manner of drops in and taken antihistamine tablets to the point where I was seriously bothered about the effect they might be having on me.  Nothing works.

I’m quite a shy person (don’t laugh) and so shops can be a bit of a challenge, but I went in and was skewered by an assistant with piercing blue eyes and an evagelical faith in the products.  “Got anything with eyebright in it?” I asked. A tiny and hideously expensive phial was produced and as she slipped into her sales pitch I knew I wasn’t going to get away without a whole new theology. “It’s got eyebright and hyaluronic acid in it”,  she said, – “I wear contact lenses and it’s brilliant”. I tried not to look alarmed at the prospect of dropping any kind of acid into my eyes and recalled the name being mentioned alongside a number of trending facial care products, so I acquieced and handed over the loot. I’ve been using them for 24 hours and they certainly ease the redness and irritation so it’s either another example of the placebo effect or they really work.  Either way round I’m happy – but the piercing eyes, oh my, I felt wholly unworthy!  Give me the earthy philoshophy of the tudor herbalists any day.

Then, later to a book signing at Toppings where we heard Celia Paul talking about, and reading from her new book “Self Portrait”. Another set of memorable blue eyes to cope with I’m afraid, but hers were altogether mistier and greyer. I’m hardly breaking any confidences to say that she had a ten year affair with Lucian Freud which began when she was an eighteen year old student at the Slade, and he was a visiting lecturer in his fifties. All this happened many years ago and she is now recognised as a painter in her own right.  The book is, I think, her way of putting her side of a complex story which has recently been told in another biography of Freud where what must have been quite a profound relationship is kind-of airbrushed away.

It was’t a huge crowd, and she was both present and not present in the room as a kind of wraith; her sentences tailed off, she spoke very quietly responding to questions without once looking at the audience.  By the end I was almost sure she’d finish the talk with a “but”.  Actually she writes very well and read her work beautifully but it was painfully obvious that she’s a solitary, a contemplative anchoress in her upper storey studio overlooking the British Museum.

This morning I woke very early with my mind full of her ghostly presence. Back in the 70’s, relationships between older lecturers and young female art students were almost two a penny, but now they’re be properly regarded as completely no-go. The ‘me too’ movement has swept through the acting and modelling sectors, but not – so far – the art schools.  If the lid ever comes off that one there will be some truly shocking abuses of power brought to light.

Enough of these gloomy thoughts. Celia, herself, most certainly doesn’t regard herself as any kind of victim, but her life, and the difficult choices she’s made in order to continue her painting are hard to ignore. We were glad to escape into the cold night.

This year we’ve given up the idea of a Christmas tree and spent the money on a set of LED’s outside the windows that we can share with all our neighbours, and as we walked back we could spot them from 100 yards away, rather blowsy and definitely lowering the tone of the green.  We await a visit from the planners.

 

Like Jacob, wresting a blessing from the moment

 


The two pictures don’t belong together geographically. The eyebright – Euphrasia officinalis agg was photographed in St Davids and the sea-wall was in Mousehole, Cornwall. Linked together (just about) by the Atlantic ocean which they shared, but opposites in almost every other respect; the one transitory and vulnerable and the other adamantine and massive. There’s one other thing that they share: they both made me stop and pay rapt attention to them.

Identifying flowers can be quite challenging when they’re very variable. The little “agg” after the Latin name means that there are in this case something like 30 recognised variants and/or 71 wild hybrids – they all look a bit like this apparently but how would I know? Even the magisterial Clive Stace makes it sound hard – it’s an eyebright and it’s very small and very beautiful and I’m resisting any temptation to enlarge on its healing properties except to say it seems that it’s still in use for its medicinal properties.

The harbour wall, equally could have been built in an almost infinite variety of configurations from the stone at hand.  That monster five-sided stone must have taken the combined strength of three, maybe four masons to lift into place, and it could have been laid with any of its sides at the base. Was it a collective decision?  Did the foreman say “it goes like this”, or was the culture of building so strong that they all just knew where it should go? The form, the pattern of both flower and wall are characteristic of a basic structure but capable of many variations, any of which seem, as I discover them, to be absolutely perfect. To use an analogy from jazz, there’s a pulse, a starting key, a sequence, an idea, and thereafter an emerging and embodied performance.

I’ve never thought of a plant or a wall as a performance before, but it’s an exciting and provocative thought.  And what about a moth or a cat or a daffodil?  Or to use a much simpler (because speeded up) example – what about a sudden parting of the clouds over the horizon as the sun sets?  Why is it that my response, so often, to the unexpected discovery of something lovely – is to cry out, to clap my hands as if I’d just heard the most brilliant improvisation.

That’s exactly the underlying idea from the title of John Parkinson’s 1640 book “Theatrum Botanicum – The Theatre of Plants”, reworked again by Richard Mabey’s 2015 book “Cabaret of Plants”. Plants, flowers and all of nature wrest from us an emotional response that goes way beyond our recognition of their usefulness. We give them names and use their names because in their performance they force us to go beyond any instrumental, reductive thoughts and into relationship with them. And the idea of treating our relationship with plants (or sea walls) as a kind of performance reminds us that performances are not complete without readers, listeners or viewers – and the better we are at those tasks, the greater, the more illuminating and powerful the performance can be.  I owe to A F Woodman, my much loved music teacher at secondary school, this phrase – “I know you can hear it Pole – but are you listening?!”

On a plain, grey day in November with nothing much going on, I’m flicking through my photos looking for inspiration. Nine times out of ten, my postings are initiated by a photograph – something that caught my eye, made me stop what I what I was doing at some point during the day.  But some days are unrelieved by those moments of illumination. Some days when everything seems flat and spare I have to wrest a blessing from the moment, hang in there. And today my consolation is in the eyebright I found at St Davids in the summer, and in contemplating that great granite sea-wall, shouldering off the waves tide after tide, storm after storm and still there as the first celandines peep through the snow – upcountry.