A letter from the Land of Cockaigne

Not that I have ever been in the Chill Out Room of some Rave, but this carries the same atmosphere with it, all the way from 1567. It I called The Land of Cockaigne and was painted by Pieter Breugel the Elder. Cockaigne was a mythical land of plenty much written about by poets, and was a reaction to the harshness of peasant life. It is a kind of heaven on earth, a place where nobody has to work, where abbots are beaten by monks, and nun show you their bottoms. It is a place where the sky rains cheeses and where grilled geese fly directly to one’s mouth. The weather is always mild and the wine flows freely; sex is always available and nobody grows old.

However, Breugel has turned the original concept on it head, and shows the end product of gluttony and excess. It seems to be affecting all classes – the man at the front is a labourer, sleeping on what could be a scythe. The man at back has discarded an armoured glove, as if he were a knight. The one on the right, sleeping on some kind of fur cloak, has a book next to him, and papers beneath his head. Maybe he is a lawyer, or a merchant. In these old paintings every object symbolises something; if you had been viewing The Land of Cockaigne as at the time you could easily have read the subtext of these apparently random, scattered objects.

Nothing is as it should be. Everything is at odd angles, and disorderly, from the loosened codpiece of the guy on the right to what appear to be rows of tarts about to slide off a roof. An egg has sprouted little legs and seem to have a knife or spoon poking out of it; a pig wanders around cheerily with slices already cut from his side. It looks like the afternoon after a particularly sumptuous Christmas Dinner. You are fascinated, you are drawn in. You so want to be there too, or to have been there, and yet you don’t. It’s uncomfortable, it’s queasy. It’s – worrying.

It just reminds me of something my sister said when we were having our awkward chat about Brexit. I knew, but until that day in the café she did not, that we had voted on opposite sides in the Referendum. It had reached the stage where I had to tell her. The thing I remember most from our conversation was her reaction to a comment I made. She is seven years younger than me, and I started to say that I actually remembered what it was like before we joined the European Union, and everything seemed to be OK, no one was starving or…

But that’s nostalgia! she gasped, as if it was the dirtiest of dirty words. This bewildered me, and still does. I hadn’t been about to launch into a dreamy chat about the wonder of little steam trains chugging through the green English countryside, or eulogise about a time when wondrous wizards inhabited every cave and gauzy-winged fairies lurked by every burbling stream. I wasn’t even going to say that I was particularly happy in those days, because I wasn’t.

I was just trying to explain that life seemed normal then. Usual. Everyday. We didn’t feel deprived. People didn’t feel that their children and grandchildren’s futures were blighted by our not being in one trade agreement or another. Things seemed to be more or less Under Control. Under Control – isn’t that all any of us long for, now?

I am a sad old person with only her radios and her many cats for company, and so I spent more or less the whole day yesterday, dribbling cats on lap, knitting in hand, listening to politicians tearing themselves and – though they don’t seem to be aware of it – every one of us to bits over this blessed Brexit. Last night I couldn’t sleep, at least not for a while. It was all going round in my head. In the end I got up and wrote pages and pages of notes. Most of them have not found their way into this particular post. Might use them later.

One thing that struck me was my sister and I. For years we have hardly spoken. We belong to different generations and don’t have a lot in common, apart from half our genetic material. And of course a mother with dementia, to whom we are both still tied, emotionally, and for whom we are jointly, legally responsible. In a way it was Mum who tore us apart, unwittingly, after years of – also unwittingly – holding us together.

And after years of this we finally managed to resume negotiations, at least to the extent of meeting for joint visits to the Home, for coffee afterwards, chats, and texts. This Brexit thing probably hasn’t reversed that small amount of  progress but it might have. And for what? In the event our two votes meant nothing since hers cancelled out mine, and vice versa; but even if we had both voted one way, both voted the other or neither had voted at all, the result of the 2016 referendum would have been exactly the same.

The Chain Gang

I remember reading at some point in my “Buddhist” phase that before he became The Buddha, Buddha was married and had a son, and he named that son Rahula, which means a Shackle, or Impediment. What he actually said was A rahu is born, a fetter has arisen, and what he meant was that this child could tie him to his wife, thus impeding his quest for enlightenment. At the time I remember thinking Gosh, that’s very… honest. Brutal, in fact.

Because of course we are nearly all well-and-truly shackled to/impeded by a whole host of other living beings, whether or not we admit as much to ourselves, or verbalise it. I had no children, but no doubt would have felt as shackled to them as the Buddha was to his Rahula. And now I am shackled to my poor elderly mother, who scarcely recognises me, and to nineteen cats, most of which are ungrateful and one of which bit me and ruined my Christmas.

I was thinking just now, what would I actually like to do with the rest of my life, were I to be given a choice. I found it quite difficult even to imagine what I would like to do, given that I have never had much of a choice up to now.

I closed my eyes. I could sort of imagine myself travelling. Maybe buy a camper van and go all over Britain, like a (comfortable) lady tramp or gypsy. And I could imagine myself being able to draw – how, I’m not sure, but this is fantasy, right? – and setting off on my travels equipped with sketchbook and drawing pencils. Oh, lots of pencils, beautifully sharpened, of all different grades… And maybe a tin of watercolours…

I could imagine writing a bit of a book about my travels – all the odd people I encountered and maybe discussed the Meaning of Life with along the way. I am some sort of honeypot to oddbods, so that would be no problem!

I wishfully imagined never having to see the inside of this house again – the thin, inherited carpet – ancient when I arrived – the ruined, cat-ripped furniture; the chipped plates, the unwashed windows; the damp forming morning pools on the window-sills in winter; the impossibility of ever keeping anything really clean; looking out at gone-to-seed garden; those thorny rose-stalks towering high as trees above the garage. And I think what a relief it would be to leave it all behind. To just abandon it all.

For I am a person who was meant to change, and change, and change. I am one of those skin-shedders, those metamorphosers, those shape-shifters. But now I am fixed, absolutely fixed, in this dull place, inside this dull, imperfect body and in these dire circumstances.

And now – last straw, really – I seem to be feeding a dog. As if nineteen cats was not enough, now my garden is being haunted by some large, brown creature who turns up, usually in the rain – as just now – soaking wet and ravenous. Luckily I had some dog food. He ate whole a tin of that plus six sachets of Felix, and continued to lurk around the back door for some time with an air of vague disappointment and underfedness about him. He leaps back if I get anywhere near him, so must be as frightened of me as I am of him. I don’t think I will try patting him on the head. One septic hand is quite enough.

I have no idea what sort of dog he might be. He is about as high as a supermarket trolley, and a sort of brindled brown. He is vaguely greyhound shaped but much bigger and shaggier. Narrow… He has ears like a spaniel, but smaller, and instead of drooping down they stick out kind of sideway, in tufts. I wonder if I can find a picture…


Yeah, he looks a bit like a very large, quite a bit darker and very wet version of this, which according to the internet is a lurcher. So perhaps a gypsies’ dog. It seems almost as if this dog is living out my fantasy existence on my behalf, except he’s not having much fun doing it because he’s hungry and wet and it’s February, which is the darkest, dampest, chilliest, most horrible month of the year.

But what am I to do? I mean, about any of the above? I can’t see any possible scenario – apart from a heap of gold coins and priceless diamond descending upon me from the sky – where I could buy that camper van, abandon the grim and peeling décor of the inside of my house and abandon nineteen beloved cats to the whims of fate. Frankly, even if I had the money to buy the camper van I’d probably not have the courage to drive it, or to set off in it, on my own.

I suppose I could take arts and crafts classes. I did have a bit of a scroll down Adult Education. Can’t say I’m inspired by flower arranging or clay medallion making, and all the art classes seem to be a long way away, And full. There are waiting lists.

And the dog. If I report him to the RSPCA, what will they do with him? I don’t want to be responsible for him being carted off, shut in a concrete-floored cage for months, then unsentimentally euthanased because nobody wants him. Anyway, he eats, he vanishes. Unlike cats he keeps to no predictable routine. Am I to have an RSPCA man lurking in my garden, day in, day out, just in case?

So I expect for the time being I will just do nothing. Have dog food ready. Not take art lessons, not buy a camper van. Generally, go on exactly as before.

Magpie Mind

I’ve always liked magpies – you know how you sometimes feel a particular colour is your colour; a particular object is your lucky object, a particular animal may be your totem? I’ve always felt magpies were my bird. I don’t mind them in ones, twos or threes, even though the sight of one is supposed to presage Sorrow, two Joy etc. I even named a house Magpie Corner once, because the garden and the trees around it always seemed be full of black and white birds.

However, let’s start off with butterflies and get back to the magpies.

My father was always telling my mother she had a butterfly mind. This was the sort of thing men said to women back in the fifties and sixties, when women were assumed to have butterfly minds – it was more or less a compliment. In those days it was also all right to refer to one’s wife as The Little Woman, and make amused comments about women drivers and the obvious dangers their clumsy handling of any machine bigger than a blender must pose to rightful, masculine, users of the road. Heaven forefend that you should be or even look clever, or be able to concentrate on anything for more than a few seconds. I remember being told, repeatedly, that men don’t make passes at girls who wear glasses.

Fortunately the need for glasses did not arise until – more by accident than design, on his part or mine – I had bagged myself a husband, although I doubt if this particular husband would have noticed whether I was wearing glasses or not. He didn’t look at people – could paint in oils the perfect steam engine, traction-engine or Spitfire; the perfect landscape of stark winter trees, silent lakes, lowering storm-clouds – and yet could not draw a recognisable charcoal sketch of me or produce anything more than a blurred and distant human figure.

But I digress. In fact I digress (butterflies) then I digress again (sixties sexism) then again (spectacles) then again (ex-husbands). I’m always doing that. My father would say, of course, that I have a butterfly mind, inherited from my mother.

My father did have a point, though he might have resisted making it so frequently. My mother did flit from one ‘hobby’ to the next, from jigsaw puzzles to painting cherries on jam-jars, to weaving wicker baskets to mowing careful patterns in the lawn, to machine-knitting (hell on earth, that was, for all of us) to reading the whole of Dickens. And she didn’t listen much.

In latter years we used to meet in garden centres for lunch. I never managed to get more than half a sentence out without her eyes drifting away and focussing on something just over my shoulder – some cyclists passing by in the road, maybe – or wondering aloud why the service was so slow, or whether the man behind the counter was married to the lady behind the counter or just a distant cousin. In my own conversations I feel compelled to repeat everything, sometimes two or three times over. I can’t believe the other person will have been paying attention beyond the first few words. I can hear myself doing it, I wish I didn’t do it but I can’t seem to stop. It’s engrained.

I can’t really criticise, of course. Even a childhood blighted by a butterfly mind does not prevent you from having to make do with the exact same mind yourself. Nowadays I understand it a little more. I see what she, and I, and Ex all had in common. None of us can be blamed, although we were blamed, not to mention ridiculed. Other people blamed us, we blamed ourselves and we blamed each other.

Nowadays I tend to put a more positive spin on it. I call it Magpie Mind. All three of us were creative. Like magpies we collected bright, shiny impressions, odd bits of information other people missed. I collected words, the assonances and dissonances of words, the vapour trail left by words, their echoes. I collected sudden washes of sadness, subtle changes in the light, the patterns made by everything, the poetry that’s in the pity. What you get is a mind that makes odd connections between things, a mind that can spark at random and in any direction, bringing disparate ideas and pieces of information together and making something unexpected out of them.

Ex took it for granted that everyone ‘saw’ the world as he saw it. He once told me that anyone was capable of painting like he did – they just needed to be taught. He could remember the colour of a piece of fabric throughout a lengthy shopping expedition and then select an exactly matching reel of cotton in the sewing shop. He wasn’t even trying to remember.

He told me once that when I looked in a puddle I should analyse the colours that were actually there, the blues and the greens, the pinks and purples, even. He said people assumed puddles were grey because that was the colour they thought of them as. Most people didn’t bother to look properly. After that I tried to look properly but it didn’t help. Puddles still appeared mostly grey.

Mum collected crafts, and colours, and fleeting, subconscious impressions. She put all her creativity and long days of work into her garden. She told me once not to worry about plants in a border ‘clashing’ because in nature everything was designed to go with everything else. And sometimes, even though she has not been listening to a word I say, she seems to know what I’m feeling. Visiting her at the Home on Sunday, she spoke in gibberish for half an hour or so, fighting with no-words and wrong-words before sinking back and closing her eyes, exhausted. I was realising that we would never, now, have that long-awaited ‘proper conversation’.

And just as I was realising it she reached up and touched my cheek. You girls, she said. You girls.

The Sea of Hull

Yay! La Leadsom est suddenly disparu in a puff of green smoke!

Sorry about the Franglais but I just had to on this occasion. I was driving when news of her withdrawal from the Prime Ministerial contest came over the radio. If it had been possible to do a wheelie in a Skoda Fabia half way up the A2, I do believe I would have.

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To continue the blue-green theme: Three thousand two hundred blue-green, naked people in Hull.


(Hull: part of Oop North.)

The blue-green people came together to make yet another art installation, this time choreographed by American photographer Spencer Tunick. Nerve-wracking as it is to be British at the moment, it’s getting to be almost fun. I can’t remember …well, any time I could have said that.blue 5.jpg


I gather it wasn’t a very warm day but then we Brits are used to stoical huddling behind wind-breaks on the beach in March and being drenched at bus-stops all year round. Stretching out in the middle of the road must have been uncomfortable, though. The oldest participant was eighty.

The actual title of the installation is Sea of Hull. Hull is a port so it symbolises the city’s maritime connections. The Sea will be returning to Hull in 2017 as part of its City of Culture celebrations.

Do you think they felt any less bare because they were blue?

A Poem Can Bloom In The Middle Of The Road

A poem can change the colour of her hair

And dress up kinda tarty;

A poem can wear an unfashionable hat

And push a bomb in a basket.

 A poem can make you believe she’s a song

Crooned by some pretty kid;

A poem can paint himself on a wall

And be worth four million quid.

A poem can spill out her heart on the news –

Doesn’t have no help, no food;

A poem can wade to you from a boat

With all his children drowned.

 A poem can bloom in the middle of the road

Or climb up your garden wall;

She can build a nest in your guttering

Or be anything at all.


That’s how the light gets in

Mirrors – I always think of one particular mirror which used to hang on the wall above the fireplace in my parents’ house. Long gone now. I suppose it may still exist, in a junk shop somewhere, or maybe it has been repurposed to suit some chic 1950s retro apartment. It was a lovely thing, the corners cut in a fluty, art-deco style; the pattern repeated in cream around the edges of the glass. Suspended by a chain from a hook on the wall, it made everyone who looked in it beautiful. That was the glass. It was tinted a delicate pinkish-gold. It was not a very good mirror, by modern standards. One’s reflection was spotted and broken where the silvering on the back had worn away. Mum used to turn it round for me sometimes, to show me. And what do I see reflected in that mirror, apart from my mother and myself? I see cushion-covers and antimacassars embroidered with crinoline ladies. Bonnets and lazy-daisies.

40 mirror

One much quoted verse from the Bible has always stuck in my mind:

For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. And now stays faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.

(1 Corinthians 13: 12-13)

When I hear this, I always think of my mother’s mirror over the fireplace. But why ‘darkly’? Surely when we look in a mirror we see ourselves with perfect clarity, if magically reversed? The reason is, that when those Bible verses were being written, mirrors were dim. The concept of mirror is translated ‘glass’, presumably because in the early 17th Century when the Authorised Version was in preparation, a mirror would have been made of glass. But in Biblical times mirrors were made of polished copper or brass. These would have been ‘dimmer’ than glass, and would have become dimmer still, over time, as the metal tarnished, and then they would need to be polished up again.

bronze mirrors

At the start of James Joyce’s Ulysses (and who among us has got beyond the start?) Stephen points to Buck’s mirror and says, “It is a symbol of Irish art. The cracked looking-glass of the servant.” There is always argument as to what exactly he meant by that. I just see a servant alone in some attic room with cheap, shoddy furniture. Quite likely that the servant would be assigned the dressing-table with the cracked mirror. In the early morning he peers at his fractured reflection and sees, not so much a distorted version of himself as a mysterious vision – something prophetic, shadowy, fluid and still-in-the-process: something that could become almost anything, in time; like the downtrodden Irish people.

It is said that a Japanese Emperor sent away a favourite pot to be mended. It came back stapled – the standard method in those days – but he thought it was ugly so he sent it to another craftsman, who transformed it into something new by piecing it together with gold, and it was so much more beautiful than it had ever been. This is how the art of kintsugi was born. Originally, repairs would have been in gold, silver or pewter; but nowadays a lacquer is made out of powdered gold, silver, platinum, copper or bronze. Damage is not disguised but celebrated.

The philosophy behind kintsugi – golden joinery, beautiful mend – has gone on to influence many other forms of art:

kintsugi man

My Canadian sister used to tell me that it was ‘zen’ to include at least one mistake in any piece of knitting. I think the idea is that you can’t appreciate perfection except in contrast to some tiny imperfection – and also that perfection means cessation of movement, an end to flow. (I don’t need to introduce mistakes into my knitting; by the time I have finished there are always several to choose from.)

The same principle applies to the idea of the crack, that is in everything. Leonard Cohen immortalised it in Anthem:

Ring the bells that still can ring / Forget your perfect offering / There is a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in.

So next time you’re looking in a mirror and find yourself agonising over imperfections, either the mirror’s or your own, remember about the light that wants to come in. Remember that once something is perfect it can make no further progress. The cracks are to let the daylight in: they mean you’re still growing. In the end, you may be broken and worn  but you will have gone past the dead end of the beautiful; you will have arrived somewhere unimaginably different from the place where you began.

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Fugitive Red

I used to be married to an artist – and a reasonably successful one, in his day, i.e. he made enough money from it to support us. This may be why I was attracted to this particular prompt – although I think not. I certainly admired him, greatly. I admired his gift, which he himself failed to appreciate. He had wanted to go into the Royal Air Force and always claimed his mother forced him to go to art school – a striking reversal of the usual parental pattern! Whether she knew it or not (suspect not – she wasn’t all that bright) she was saving him from himself. He would not have survived the Air Force. “Differently wired”, we were two of a kind in our need to create, but also in our social vulnerabilities. Both of us had managed to touch down on the wrong planet. I knew it the minute my spaceship sank into the soft dust of post-War suburban England – he didn’t. He maybe does, now. Time teaches us all.

I got used to living in a fug of turpentine and white spirit; thought nothing of stepping over a giant frame, corner-cramped while the adhesive was setting. I expected the spare room to be full of paintbrushes in watery jam-jars. He wore out an entire set of brushes for each painting, and a painting could take six weeks to complete. I went with him to the ship’s chandler’s to buy canvas. I absorbed stuff. Like fugitive red. Did you know that red is usually the first colour to fade? It goes to brown, and then yellow. It fugits, or flees, as in tempus fugit.

I learned about his subjects, too, which tended to be mechanical – steam engines, aeroplanes, ploughing engines. He had a genius for machinery – capturing the spirit of it. And winter landscapes, I remember – black, skeleton trees and snow-filled skies. Not so good at human beings, but then human beings weren’t interesting. He liked the way things worked, the way they fitted together. He once designed a mould for the tyre of a model traction engine he was making in his spare time. Mould-designing, as far as I can tell, involves visualising a complex something, in reverse, in your head. And keeping it there while you commit it to paper. The firm who were going to cast the tyres offered him a job. He was an engineer, basically, and a musician. Art was the profitable sideline! I came home from work in my lunch-break one day and he used up the whole hour explaining to me how torque applied to helicopter rotor blades. I can’t say I understood, but at least I acquired a new word, and how to spell it.

But, as usual, I digress. Being around him for all those years taught me quite a lot about painting as a process, about genius and obsession, but I didn’t learn a lot about art. He wasn’t at all interested in Art-with-a-capital-A as he called it. If anyone asked his opinion of one of their paintings he had an all-purpose, meaningless response – Interesting. He believe that painting was a craft – something anyone could learn how to do – and that if a painting required any kind of explanation, it was because the artist had failed to communicate. I tend to apply this to writing, too. Writing is a process of catching the elusive and the ephemeral and making it visceral.

And it’s that word – visceral – that seems to apply to Office in a Small City (1953) by the American artist Edward Hopper. I’m not a great one for staring at paintings in galleries. I’ve tried it a few times, with more cultured friends but I tend to get backache, and bored. But Edward Hopper’s paintings – all of them – just grab me by the throat and shake me. They creep me out, they frighten me, they make me want to cry. I often discover I cannot look away from an Edward Hopper painting – particularly this one. I am fascinated by it, drawn into it. I want to weep for those people, in their aloneness, and yet breathe with them that cold, empty air they are breathing, gaze down those long, strangely-lit perspectives and know what they are knowing. But hey, it’s impossible to convey one art-form via another. As easy to describe The Lark Ascending in words. Nothing describes it. It is itself.

I can only say, it’s the way this room is so high, and windowless, apparently. It’s as if any minute he will launch himself into the air and swoop down across the city, this gazing man. It’s as if he longs for what he sees, as he stares straight ahead. I can’t see it, but I can imagine it. Why is he alone in the office? Why is everything so massive, and he so small? What time of day is it? Why does the way the light falls on those slab-like walls make me think of the end of the world? Some kind of Last Man on Earth or Last Day Ever. And yet it’s peaceful.

Looking at that painting I become that man, in his rolled-up shirtsleeves in 1950-something, pinned behind that vast desk, present in body but not in mind, focussed on that cloud-free, ultramarine sky. Being in the painting is unbearably painful, so lonely, and yet exhilarating. It’s a kind of waiting for flight.