An Old Naked Guy in a Curtain

Haven’t forgotten about cat/Halloween posts. Naked Guy just – appeared to me in a vision – or something.

saint jerome

Well, my sister, the one who was recently widowed, rang me from Canada. As part of her recovery she has signed on for an art degree course made up of a series of modules. Currently she is engaged upon a compulsory ‘painting’ module; something she had been dreading all summer.

Apparently, when the weekly project was announced – to copy an old master entitled Saint Jerome and the Angel by someone called Remi, there were grimaces all round. I’d have grimaced too. However, she completed it and, apart from getting his right leg a trifle too short in my opinion (I didn’t tell her) she made a really good job of it. I was going to try to insert her painting in here, but then I thought it wouldn’t be fair as I hadn’t asked her, and it might accidentally ‘identify’ her. Her angel a wee bit more spikey and etherial. We agreed the Remi angel was a bit of a porker. Maybe it’s just the draperies.

Anyway, we spent an hour or so on the phone discussing the Remi painting. I found it on my Fire after several false starts. No, not that one… it’s an old naked guy in a red curtain! But they were all old naked guys in red curtains. Everybody in the world seemed to have done their version of him. He’s got a leg, that pokes out… The same leg that’s a bit too short in her version.

I’m not sure what I’m going to do about the other leg. He doesn’t seem to have another leg…

We perused the painting together, and located it. It’s just a heel and part of a foot, really, and it looks for all the world like part of that improbable red drapery, but it is where a foot would be, given a knee where it is, beneath the book.

Sister and I tend to look at things differently. She looks at pictures like blocks of colour, and shade, and artistic stuff. I, not being gifted in that direction, look at them like stories. I want to know why stuff is there at all.

What’s that little pot? I asked. Next to the skull (why the skull?) there is a little black pot. Thinking about it, we decided it was an ink pot, which would go with the scrawny little feather in his right hand, which must be a quill.

Why is he reading?

We realised he was not reading. He was writing stuff down. In those days, presumably, paper or parchment would be bound into ‘books’ or ledgers.

What is he writing down?

Whatever the angel is telling him. Look – their eyes are locked, they are in rapt concentration on one another. She is teaching him something – look at her hands, she is making a series of points, enumerating them.

I don’t particularly like the painting. Why is her hair swept back by some invisible wind, whilst his beard isn’t being swept forward? Why does that left foot look so much like a piece of red curtain? He’s got the ‘flabby’ aspect of the ancient St Jerome right, but then why are his ancient arms and shoulders so magnificently muscled? Why is he naked in any case? Who sits about in a curtain? Why are her wings that dingy grey? What’s the point of having an angel if she’s – depressing?

This morning, out of curiosity, I decided to find out a bit more about Saint Jerome. He seems to have led a rather muddled real life but has a correspondingly vivid legendary life. He was the one who translated the Bible from Greek into Latin, producing what is now known as the Vulgate Bible. He also wrote a string of Commentaries on books of the Bible, and it is these that the angel is helping him with.

(He’s also the saint who, legendarily, removed the thorn from that poor lion’s paw. I love him for that, even though he only did it legendarily. Being a cat-person, if I came across a lion with a thorn in its poor old paw I would feel irresistibly drawn to try to help it. And no doubt the lion would eat me. )

st jerome lion

I like enjoy this painting much more than Old Naked Guy. Look at that lion! Oh, my poor paw! its face is saying. I love it. I suspect a real lion would be bigger than that in relation to a human being, but maybe not.

Further research. Like many saints, Jerome tends to be depicted with  a number of iconic objects, among them red garments (explains the curtain), a book and writing implements. Later – not in this painting – there were also eyeglasses. This is because in his Commentary to Ezechiel he complains that:

I am quite unable to go through the Hebrew books with such light as I have at night, for even in the full light of day they are hidden from my eyes owing to the smallness of the letters.

This made me smile. Suddenly I liked Old Naked Guy a lot better. Whilst researching for my previous post (the one about Cat’s Cradle) I had to get out the dreaded magnifying glass to read the tiny index. An admission of defeat. I am catching up with Old Guy. Short sighted, I was always comforted that I could read even tiny stuff if I took off my ‘eyeglasses’. Those days are definitely gone.

Addendum: Many, many decades ago I bought a postcard in the souvenir shop a posh London art gallery. I couldn’t afford to buy anything else. It was lurking around for ages, but then, like most of my possessions, it got lost. I loved Dürer – still do – and liked the look of the quiet old gentleman, with his casually sleeping lion and sleeping dog. How quiet it all looked. I so wanted to be in that sunlit room, sitting on one of those wooden benches. And it’s just dawned on me – that was St Jerome too.

durer 4.jpg


Made the same as the sand

You are on a mission to Mars. Because of the length of the journey, you will never be able to return to Earth. What about our blue planet will you miss the most?

What would I miss the most? Everything:

Water. Fountains; waterfalls, the little fountain in the courtyard at Leeds Castle; the sea, with ships balanced on the horizon like tiny plastic toys; hot showers; rain showers; puddles; floods; ponds; even swimming-pools with their weird chlorine stink…

Sitting about in parks; sun on my ankles and burnishing the top of my head; wind in my hair…

Dry leaves in autumn, crocuses in spring…

Butterflies, mice, baby sparrows, hedgehogs, seagulls, worms, snails.. When you’ve got the Garden of Eden, when you live in a green life-soup, why would you ever exchange it for red aridity and the First Circle of Hell?

satan eve

I’m with Milton’s Satan on this one. Here are the words Milton gives him in Paradise Lost Book 9 (the drawing is by English poet/artist/printer/visionary Willliam Blake)

With what delight could I have walkt thee round, If I could joy in aught, sweet interchange of Hill and Vallie, Rivers, Woods and Plaines, Now land, now Sea, and Shores with Forrest crownd, Rocks, Dens, and Caves; but I in none of these Find place of refuge And the more I see Pleasures about me, so much more I feel Torment within me, as from the hateful siege Of contraries; all good becomes Bane…

This is Satan being almost human as he contemplates the Earth and realises, with sudden anguish, how much he has thrown away for the sake of power.

If the day comes, as presumably it will, when men (and women?) set forth on some sort of Mission to Mars, I hope they can find pressing reasons for leaving Earth. Maybe they owe money to some machete-wielding gangster; maybe they are hankering for a long, slow suicide, because that’s what it would be.

In researching around this post I came across some information on the Bushmen of Botswana, who have been in dispute with the government of Botswana.


This tribe is the most similar to the ancestors common to all of us, but they were denied access to their drinking holes and (unofficially) forcibly evicted from their ancestral homeland by the government of Botswana. They had to fight through the Courts for their continued existence.

They should be elevated from the status where they find themselves. We would all be concerned that any tribe should remain in the bush communing with flora and fauna. (Foreign Minister of Botswana)

How can you have a stone-age creature continue to exist in the age of computers? (Botswana’s former president, Festus Mogae)

Most of the Bushmen have now been moved out to the Reserve – often forcibly, though the government denies this. They were transported to camps outside the game reserve: places like New Xade, awash with disease, prostitution and the cheapest and deadliest booze. Their character as a people is being relentlessly destroyed there. Those who are left are threatened, abused, and forced to get their drinking water from plants and trees. (John Simpson, writing in The Independent)

And here are some of the things the Bushmen say. This is what it feels like to be sent to Mars, without even leaving the planet:

The lion and I are brothers, and I am confused that I should have to leave this place and that the lion can stay.

I was born in this place and I have been here for a very long time. This is my birthright: here, where my father’s body lies in the sand.

We were made the same as the sand.

Like Adam, we are formed from the small dust of the ground. We are made from this Earth and joined with it; and maybe we will only feel the full strength of those ties when they are about to be severed. It will be like cutting the cord – the one that we do not, as yet, even know we possess.






The Perfect Roar: a love story

IT ISN’T easy in the Jungle. Things get eaten, things get hurt. Rain falls, dislodging the tiny beetles from their homes in the river bank and washes them away. Sun shines and the drinking pools dry out. Nothing is safe from Time, that creeping predator. All the same, sometimes there is kindness. Sometimes even love.

At the centre of the Jungle was a great yellow mountain, rearing up out of the glossy green trees. The forest creatures were afraid of the mountain. They didn’t know why, exactly, except that the mountain always seemed to have been there, whilst their own lives were fleeting. And the mountain made a continuous, ominous creaking and groaning. ‘I may decide to fall down on top of you,’ it seemed to be saying. ‘Just because I haven’t, doesn’t mean I won’t.

Only one creature was not afraid of the mountain, and that was the lion. Maybe this was because he lived half way up the great yellow mountain, in a cave, and kind of felt he owned it. Or maybe it was because he roared so loud and so long that he scarcely heard the groaning.

The mouth of the lion’s cave was littered with bleached bones, also chewed skulls of various shapes and sizes. The lion never needed to go out hunting; indeed, he liked the cave so well he never left it at all. The forest creatures brought his food to him, live and sometimes kicking. They accomplished this by drawing lots amongst themselves as to who should be sacrificed each day. Mothers fed their offspring heartily, and hastened to beget more, knowing how many of their plump, furry darlings were likely to end up inside the lion.

For they reasoned that it was better to keep the lion in his cave by this means, for if he ever did take it into his head to come out he would surely start slaughtering at random, and with great enthusiasm, reaching up his long golden arms to tip the monkeys out of the trees; reaching down his long golden arms to pull the harmless rabbits from their burrows. He would delve into the river with his scimitar claws to disturb the goggle-eyed fish in their dreaming. He would snatch the many-coloured birds from the air to serve as mid-morning snacks.

All this time the lion had believed himself to be alone. Occasionally, drowsing in the midday heat, he reviewed such memories as he had, hoping to find one that contained a mother, a sister or a father. But supposing such kin had ever existed, why had they gone away and left him in the cave?

Occasionally he paused in his roaring and listened, imagining for a second that he heard an answering roar from some distant cave or forest, but it was only ever an echo. The lion, of course, was lonely, but he didn’t know it. It didn’t do to know that kind of thing.

In amongst the thick brown fur of the lion’s mane, all this time had lived a mouse. The lion, as we have seen, did not possess a good memory. If he had ever known the mouse was there he had forgotten, and the mouse took great pains to keep it that way. Safe and still she lay in his tangled coat, only climbing down in the hottest part of the day when he was sleeping. Then she would skip into the forest to look for berries and seeds.

She enjoyed these little excursions into the real world. Occasionally she even allowed herself to admit how stuffy and confining it could be to live in a lion, one’s eyes seeing nothing but coarse lion hair, one’s nostrils filled with the rank smell of lion. Over the years she had learned her Beloved’s roars by heart; she knew their complex patterns and their various meanings. She knew the angry roar, the threatening roar, the hungry roar. She even knew the sad roar he sometimes made at the end of his day, very quietly, to himself, believing that no one could hear. For yes, she had grown to love the lion and she knew it, though it doesn’t do to know that kind of thing.

And so the years passed by. The lion grew a little louder and a little lonelier; the mouse remained content to hide in Beloved’s fur and only occasionally to indulge in wistful daydreams of the big wide world and what her life might have been like had she chosen to live on the forest floor amongst the other creatures. Mostly, though, she was grateful to be a Lion’s Mouse, for she was a timid and reclusive creature, ill-suited to the seething life below.

But then the lion grew sick, which changed everything. First he lost his appetite. The Sacrifices that appeared at the mouth of the cave remained there for a while, trembling but uneaten, and eventually crept away. Then, apart from the occasional whimper, the lion fell silent, his vast golden head lolling on the dusty floor, his great golden paws limp and useless. For the first time he heard the sound of blood roaring in his ears and throbbing in his veins; heard too the terrible groaning of the mountain and began to be afraid, for he sensed he was going to die.

After a while the creatures on the forest floor began to remark amongst themselves upon the unfamiliar silence, and upon the Sacrifices that had begun to return, not even chewed or licked. They confirmed that the lion was no longer so fearsome, but rather a moth-eaten old thing really. For several days the creatures waited in case the roaring should start up again. When it didn’t, they called a council meeting around the water hole. The fishes awoke reluctantly and, between deep breaths of water, lifted their spiny heads out of the water. Foxes slunk in through the undergrowth and sat yellow-eyed, their terracotta tails disposed around their paws, contemplating rabbits. The rabbits endeavoured to become invisible. Elephants pushed a path through the trees disturbing, briefly, the birds that had come down in great rainbow-coloured clouds to perch amongst the branches. Monkeys pirouetted in from the canopy on ropes of liana, looping up again at intervals to report to others what they had heard.

The meeting took a very long time, for the languages of the animals, like the languages of men, are many and various, but unlike men the animals have never acquired the skill of taking turns to speak. Nevertheless, by the end of their long and loud conferrings they had formed a plan of action. Together, they would creep up the mountain, to the very mouth of the lion’s cave, and peer inside. If the lion merely slept they could creep away. Should he be dead, on the other hand, they could leave rejoicing, for they would no longer have the inconvenience of sacrificing themselves and their children to assuage his hunger. And should they discover him alive, but sick, they would fall upon him, with the courage of the multitude, and rid themselves of the old tyrant while they had the chance.

The mouse heard them approaching. Scattered amongst the mountain’s creakings and groanings she heard their miscellaneous chatterings and twitterings, she discerned the snapping of twigs underpaw. She heard the sly slithering of the snake and the crouched creeping of the fox, and the sideways shuffle of the monkeys, who were furtive and ill at ease when down from the canopy. She knew, too, what was in their heart, for such a knowing is the particular talent of mice.

Now the mouse had long ago understood that the lion’s roar was not so very loud. The cave magnified the roar, rolling it around from wall to wall, bouncing it off the roof until it emerged as a great wave of sound. If he had ever left his cave and tried roaring in the open the lion would have realised this for himself. Or perhaps he did realise it, a little. Now the mouse understood that she would have to save her beloved.

As the creatures approached she clambered out of the lion’s brown and tangled mane, hid herself behind one of his great golden ears and began to breathe deeply. She thought of Beloved’s most splendid and terrifying roar as she breathed in the searing air of a jungle noon. She breathed in and breathed in and breathed in until one by one her tiny ribs began to crack beneath her thin, grey fur.

And then she began to roar. She roared Beloved’s angriest, most terrifying roar, the one that contained ‘GET AWAY FROM ME!’ and ‘HOW DARE YOU APPROACH!’ and the sound came rolling and swelling and echoing out of that mountain cave, louder, more fearsome and more perfect than anything the lion himself had ever produced.

And the mouse breathed in again, and roared again, though now the blood ran from her mouth and burst from her ears and the roar-cracked ribs began to burst through her sides one by broken one and the roar became, although by then she didn’t know it, a scream of agony.

Upon hearing this, the creatures of the forest beat a hasty retreat to their homes in tree and in sky and in burrow, and it was many, many months before the boldest of them ventured up the mountain again. This was, of course, the fox, who discovered what was left of the lion stretched out inside the mouth of the cave, dead of old age, sickness and loneliness, although he had never known it. And concealed in the lion’s mane, although the fox was never to know it, was a long-dead mouse, whose tiny broken body concealed a large, and broken, heart.

Felix brought me a mouse

Sadly, Felix is not one of my cats but he seems to spend the greater part of his day in my back garden watching the birds. I feed the birds obsessively. I am so afraid the birds will go hungry that I keep checking the bird-feeder in case it’s about to run out. Bird food costs me almost as much as cat food, but Felix appreciates my efforts on his behalf.

This evening there was a badly dying mouse on my doorstep. I suspected the poor little thing might be a gift to me from Felix, since I had seen him watching the mouse nest next to the garage for some weeks. It was tiny, bloody and writhing and at least one of its legs was broken. I knew perfectly well that I ought to kill it. A man could have killed it. Why hadn’t I got a man to kill things for me?

Felix, I thought, full-strength, from behind my glass door. Felix! Felix duly materialised at the bottom of the garden and we intertwined our gazes.

Help. I closed my eyes and pictured what I would see for real if I opened them – the bloodied fur, the contortions, the broken limbs.

Felix Mouse Help Please Help Mouse Help.

Felix does nothing quickly unless it involves birds, but after a minute or two he started up the garden towards me. He’s a magnificent moggie – black and white of course, like the one on the box – a long-limbed killer with a Roman nose and a streamlined wedge of a face. A cat like a cobra. And now he’s located his long-forgotten gift. He looks at me, then at it. He bends and arranges his white teeth delicately around it, hoists it high and walks off. Head up, tail up, proud.

I was not proud. I had got a cat to do my dirty work.

To take my mind off things I turned on the TV News channel. Mistake. Somewhere in Africa a dentist from Bloomington, Minnesota was being prosecuted for poaching, having killed the most beautiful lion, at night, with a crossbow. It seems wealthy trophy-hunters and their African accomplices actually bait lions out of the National Park. This they do by tying a freshly-slaughtered animal to a truck to lure or bait the lion outside the protected zone and then – whoopee! – they kill it.

The Minnesota dentist says he now regrets shooting the lion. How much more than regretful does he need to be? And do we all need to be, for being even distantly related to him?

Do you ever wonder whether Hell might be Here and Now rather than There and Then, and we just haven’t woken up to the fact? Instead of red devils with pointy tails and pitchforks, maybe the real Enfer is staffed by dentists from Bloomington, Minnesota, armed with crossbows.

 L’enfer, c’est les autres

Hell is other people

Jean-Paul Sartre