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.