Megilp is not the hero of a western, but one of those words that get lodged in your mind and can’t be shifted. It first entered my head from the pages of a Windsor and Newton catalogue C1964 and it’s lived a kind of shadowy existence there ever since, emerging from time to time especially in art galleries. It sometimes comes in its original and incorrect form ‘meglip’ which was how I misread and remembered it first; so now when it emerges I have to go through this routine of remembering and then correcting the misremembered word. It is megilp and it is a painting medium, and I have just asked this computer to remember it too.
Megilp. If you Google it you’ll discover that it is a mixture of some kind of mastic, a natural resin, and linseed oil – more usually I think boiled linseed oil. Boiling the oil makes it set, or dry quicker and the added mastic gives the medium an unctuous and shiny quality which was much admired by painters notwithstanding its dodgy reputation for turning yellow and aging badly.
You see, I can talk about it now and in a school for artistic bluffers I’d be the Principal but then, in the pages of a very small (the size of a mobile phone) catalogue, it was suffused with a kind of mystery. What was megilp? What indeed were many other things in the catalogue. I dreamed of burnt sienna – I could almost feel the heat of an imagined Italian sun. The names of the colours alone were the passport into an imaginary world of incredible richness. The oils and pigments were for me a pharmacopeia of forbidden and illicit sensations. In my imagination I would load one of the hideously expensive boxes with even more hideously expensive colours and set out with my carefully chosen palette and my easel and I would ……Here the fantasy ran into the sand because I had never learned the skills to make a painting. Colour charts, though, were like maps to me. Each colour was the trigger to a sensation, a flavour if you like that unlocked feelings through its power of association. Cerulean blue held the power of the summer sky, while the ochres were landscapes reduced to simples. Their proper names became metaphors for the feelings they evoked.
And the words would pop out from my jackdaw memory whenever I smelt linseed or turpentine. If I saw a painting, particularly, let’s say something from the Newlyn School, a Stanhope Forbes for instance, a Matthew Smith or a Sargeant I would look at the sumptuous fat colour and the word megilp would insinuate itself into my mind. It wouldn’t be a French painting of course – I don’t know why, but megilp seems such an English word. It belongs with cowslip and cats ear.
Lists, classifications and categories become a kind of obsession. I could write my personal history by listing catalogues I’ve fallen in love with. Actually the series would have to begin with my own children’s’ encyclopaedia which was my first gateway into the seductive joys of words, it it was – in its way – a catalogue because each word had its own illustration and so from the earliest age I learned to associate words with pictures. The original ‘house’ was a lovely brick building in some leafy part of, let’s imagine, Surrey. Necessarily it became an iconographic building against which all other houses would need to be judged.
After that it was an Ellison’s catalogue and I lusted after itching powder and a Seebackroscope. I could furnish the complete works of Jung with dreams based on that catalogue. Secret powers, magic tricks and disappearing ink were all available and (because I never bought any of them), they never ever let me down. It was sufficient to know that such things existed.
Then there was the John Hall tool catalogue where I first encountered the bolster and the slater’s ripper. I adored and even bought a couple of box handled chisels which I still treasure fifty years later. They were naturally ‘firmer’ chisels and ‘though I had no idea quite what distinguished them from any other type, it please me to know that there was such a difference. Other tools were beyond avarice. A series of illustrated cabinet maker’s planes of such beauty I could fall asleep while fondling them in my imagination.
Then came Winsor and Newton and later, when I was in my twenties, The Whole Earth Catalogue which was the granddaddy of them all, and the loss of my copy grieves me still. Could you imagine what it would be like to own a knife forged from old Chevrolet springs?
Later again it was cookery books. Who could resist the thought of a cardamom or lardon? What of a mandoline that silently took the ends off your fingers. And pottery too. I fell in love with Bernard Leach’s “A Potter’s Book” because I was overwhelmed by the thought of Varcoe’s Ball Clay. Was there a Mister Varcoe ? and did he operate a small claypit surrounded by harts tongue fern and tussocky grass? Then came plants because words like toothwort and purging buckthorn were more beautiful to me than spring days because I could evoke them at will. I dragged these catalogues around with me like a comfort blanket and they stocked my vocabulary with all those delightful words each of which conjures up a picture.
There used to be a wonderful firm of ironmongers in Bath called Hine and Collinson. They were like the typesetters to my imagination. They could reliably furnish the most obscure object you’d ever found a word for. A man in a brown coat would go off in search of a ‘double duplex lamp glass’ and lo he would reappear from the dusty warehouse some time later with the very word objectified in a brown paper parcel. It was there I saw my first Tilley Lamp, an event which was for me like meeting Helen of Troy (which reminds me of a joke told to me by Mike Harris: Question …‘what is a millihelen?’ Answer …. ‘the amount of beauty required to launch one ship.’)
When at school we learned the poem ‘The naming of parts’ the irony escaped me completely and I was transported by the names of the parts of a gun. Words do that to me. Each one is like a precious stone with its own picture and its own special feeling which can be threaded one after another like stones in a necklace.
“Naming of Parts” by Henry Reed
Today we have naming of parts. Yesterday,
We had daily cleaning. And tomorrow morning,
We shall have what to do after firing. But to-day,
Today we have naming of parts. Japonica.
Glistens like coral in all of the neighbouring gardens,
And today we have naming of parts.
This is the lower sling swivel. And this
Is the upper sling swivel, whose use you will see,
When you are given your slings. And this is the piling swivel,
Which in your case you have not got. The branches
Hold in the gardens their silent, eloquent gestures,
Which in our case we have not got.
This is the safety-catch, which is always released
With an easy flick of the thumb. And please do not let me
See anyone using his finger. You can do it quite easy
If you have any strength in your thumb. The blossoms
Are fragile and motionless, never letting anyone see
Any of them using their finger.
And this you can see is the bolt. The purpose of this
Is to open the breech, as you see. We can slide it
Rapidly backwards and forwards: we call this
Easing the spring. And rapidly backwards and forwards
The early bees are assaulting and fumbling the flowers:
They call it easing the Spring.
They call it easing the Spring: it is perfectly easy
If you have any strength in your thumb: like the bolt,
And the breech, and the cocking-piece, and the point of balance,
Which in our case we have not got; and the almond-blossom
Silent in all of the gardens and the bees going backwards and forwards,
For today we have naming of parts.