Friday, 29 April 2011

Something blue

Something old ...  Ancient woodland in the Forest of Dean


Something new ...   Ted, two years three months old




















Something borrowed ...   Companionship - me old mucker, Jill, with the commemorative plate she kindly made me to mark the day 


   























Some dead shrew ... 




























OK, OK - 

Something blue ...


 





   





Monday, 25 April 2011

Tipping the balance

It’s been an eventful few days.  On Thursday night I had a phone call from Daughter No 2 to say that she was stuck on a bus in the middle of Stokes Croft while a pitched battle raged on all sides.  The road was closed, there were police with riot shields everywhere, and it was getting hairy.  Luckily, I hadn’t had much to drink so was able to drive down and extricate her. 


Apparently, 160 police, some of them drafted in from South Wales, were needed to help arrest four squatters whom security guards working at the brand new branch of Tescos (which most locals oppose) claimed were making petrol bombs.  The result was a pitched battle involving an estimated 300 protesters which lasted most of Thursday night.   

It's all starting to feel very much like the 80s.  


In contrast, the next day was lit up by the humanity of the Robert Lenkiewicz exhibition at the RWEA, followed by another jaunt on Saturday, chauffeuring my elder son to the O2 to see three Robot Wars shows.  (Being his Personal Assistant means that I get to drive all over the country in pursuit of his obsession, and whilst finding things to do in Barnsley on a freezing, wet Sunday afternoon in February can be a challenge, there’s no such problem with London.)  I had company too, in the shape of my younger son who had come along for the ride.  Unlike me, he’d already been to the Imperial War Museum but was keen to revisit, so that’s where we went.  


There was a lot to see that was disturbing, but the most horrifying part of our visit was the Holocaust exhibition.  Going round, I remembered the first time I ever heard that word and learnt what it meant.  I must have been in my very early teens, and was sat at our utility dining table doing my homework when Panorama came on.  It was such a shock. My brain couldn’t take in what it was seeing, and my assignment went undone.  Since then I’ve been to Dachau and Yad Vashem, but am still no closer to comprehending any of it.



Every day atrocity. You have to wonder what it will ever take for us to value our differences and live in peace.


Saturday, 23 April 2011

Death and the Painter: Robert Lenkiewicz Still Lives

On the way into the Royal Academy of the West of England’s latest exhibition, I misread the banner over the door.  ‘Robert Lenkiewicz Still Lives’, it declared.  I started.  But he died a few years back, at the horribly early age of 60 or so – didn’t he?

My momentary confusion is understandable given that Lenkiewicz did once fake his own death in order to publicise a forthcoming exhibition on that very topic.  I know this because every summer throughout the 70s and 80s when I was down in Devon and local newscasters were pleading nightly for somebody to contact them with news, Lenkiewicz’s eccentricities were constantly on screen.  Another of his more notorious acts that caused a huge stir was the post-mortem embalming of his friend and model, Edwin Mackenzie aka ‘Diogenes’, ‘for use as a human paperweight’. 


Add to this the scandal of many wives, lovers and children; a propensity to surround himself with vagrants and addicts; his apparent penury (although he ended up leaving over £6,000,000); such challenging subject-matter as mental disability, suicide, old age, and sexual behaviour; and, worst of all, the fact that his art is (whisper it) figurative, and it maybe isn’t surprising that it sometimes slips under the radar. 

But what a shame that this is the case.  I know little about art, so approach it with the most basic of requirements: what determines whether I find a work engaging or not is whether it excites an emotional response.  So whilst Damien Hirst’s Pharmacy leaves me cold and the Chapman Brothers soon pall, Lenkiewicz can exalt and humble me, charm and repel, arouse curiosity, concern and a determination to make the most of the time left to me. 



Death plays a major role in the work of all the above artists, but it is Lenkiewicz’s tenderness, the humanity with which he depicts our mortality, his refusal to avert his gaze, that is so affecting.  We too are made to look upon Death, not just in the form of ubiquitous memento mori (skulls and hovering intimations of figures on the edges of his canvases), but also literally in the case of Diogenes, naked but for his dignity, and as distant in time as Lindow Man or an Egyptian Mummy.  I was reminded of Yossarian’s assertion in Catch-22 (the film, I think, rather than the book): ‘Well, he died. You don't get any older than that.’ 


Good, then, to see the old man alive and sparkling elsewhere in the exhibition, gazing out of this and that work, alone or with his fellow vagrants or the artist himself.  There is a joyous defiance in so many of Lenkiewicz’s sitters – the self-possessed young Muses, lovers and offspring; the elderly who return your gaze with equanimity; the terminally sick and the disabled who dare you to glance away.  It is when his subjects look askance that I feel alarm and discomfiture – the parents of disabled children, whose plight I can identify with so well; those close to death who don’t look back, who seem already to have slipped behind an invisible glass screen.    


And Lenkiewicz’s own gaze fixed unwaveringly on things we might prefer not to examine closely, such as the subject matter of the diptych Still-Born Child in Kitchen.  In one panel there is an almost burly-looking, purplish newborn lying in a bowl, still attached to its placenta, against a sterile and mechanical backdrop of white kitchen appliances; in the other, members of the artist’s family, including very young children, standing and sitting around while the artist avidly stuffs raw umbilical cord into his mouth, the remainder of the placenta flopping on his lap like a grotesquely swollen scrotum.  I struggled to make sense of what I was seeing, when I would have preferred to turn away.  Is the father celebrating the birth of his dead baby? Is he celebrating its death? Given that it is part of a project, does the diptych have a wider symbolic significance, or is it just a fellatory joke?

A revelation to me was Lenkiewicz’s mastery of light.  The highlights in a young woman’s hair, the fringes of another’s shawl, the satiny sheen of a coat lining all sensuously, deliciously depicted.  Also, the extent to which he was in thrall to the Great Masters: work after work described as being influenced by this or that painting in the National Gallery, which Robert had haunted as a young man.  I plan to go on a bit of an odyssey with him over the next few months, and also to return to the exhibition at least once more before it closes at the end of May.  For all that it is about death, this is the stuff of life and living.  



Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Making the Earth Move

After Friday’s trip to the southernmost peak on Dartmoor, I felt inclined to visit the northernmost, Cosdon Hill, for a long time believed to be the highest point on Dartmoor until accurate methods of measuring revealed Yes Tor and High Willhayes to be higher.  I had a second reason also: the feasting accompanying Son the Younger’s 17th birthday the previous day meant that I had some atonement to do.  A serious climb would make me feel less gluttonous.

Ted and I started out at South Zeal, right on the edge of the moor.  After passing the brick chimney and spoil heaps of the disused copper mine on Ramsley Hill, we climbed steeply onto open ground and began to make our way around the side of Cosdon.   


This is a walk characterised by Bronze Age remains and the first set we encountered was The Graveyard – not my usual sort, attached to a church, but three parallel rows of stones processing up to three larger ones at the head, beyond which lies the tumbled slabs of a double kist or ancient burial chamber. 


It was such a beautiful day, and we were so gloriously alone, that Ted and I sat quietly for a time and listened, first to trickling larksong and then, when it stopped, the breeze and the mewing of a pair of buzzards rafting the up-draught.  For any Plathians who stumble across this account, the views we were enthralled by are almost certainly those described by Sylvia in ‘Ariel’ and ‘Sheep in Fog’. And who knows, maybe this is one of Ariel's descendants, having a good scratch.


The next stage of our walk involved the skirting of Raybarrow Pool, one of the largest and most treacherous mires on the moor, via the deep-cut mediaeval peat path. 


After a while it tends to ‘peater’ out into bog, although the recent spell of dry weather meant that the going was nowhere near as wet as usual.  That said, at one point Ted and I still had to divert some way up onto the saddle of land between Cosdon and Little Hound Tor, before regaining our original route lower down.   

Then another ancient site – the White Moor stone circle – came into view ahead of us.  As this was Ted’s first visit, I was interested to see what he would make of it.  Some people claim to feel a tingling like an electric shock when they touch any part of a stone circle, and folk tales persist of horses jibbing when asked to cross them.  No such problems for my irreverent dog, although surprisingly he did fail to mark his territory. 


According to my book of walks, this was the furthest point of our foray, but no way were Ted and I going to stop there, as a little further on stands White Moor stone, an ancient menhir which has also served as a boundstone for many centuries.  We reached it in a few moments.  Again, no cocking from Ted.  Curious. 


I still didn’t feel ready to head for home, away from the hypnotic heart of the moor, and neither did Ted, so we continued for an extra mile and a half, first to Hound Tor (that is, another Hound Tor, not the more impressive one to the south and east) and then Wild Tor, which we passed last summer when we walked out to Ted Hughes’ memorial stone. 

  
I climbed up onto one of the granite stacks to get a good shot of Taw Head and Hangingstone Hill, and only discovered it was a logan stone or nutcracker when it started rocking under my feet.  Figuring that the moment the earth moves was probably as good as it was going to get, I persuaded Ted that it was finally time to turn back.


So we retraced our steps to the stone circle and then continued on over Little Hound Tor and Cosdon to the beacon and trig point at its summit. 


I know I always claim this, but on a clear day there is a fabled view from here which encompasses both the English Channel and the distant Severn Sea.  Today it was far too hazy to see anything much  - even Wild Tor, less than three miles away, was barely discernible.   I didn’t mind, though; if anything, horizons disappearing into mist only enhance Dartmoor’s isolate, otherworldly atmosphere.  I was reminded of Ted Hughes’ memorable description of Dartmoor and Exmoor in ‘Rain-Charm for the Duchy’ as ‘two stone-age hands/cupped and brimming, lifted, an offering’, and I felt lifted up with them. 

As we headed back down the northern side of Cosdon, South Zeal with its distinctive mediaeval burgage plots came back into view.  




A short detour from our route took Ted and I down through the village, with time for a brief stop in St Mary’s, the tiny Chapel of Ease in the middle of the high street.


On the way back to the coast I ignored the sat nav’s advice to take the A30 and A380 and returned via the lovely Wrey valley.  After 10 miles across challenging terrain I felt lulled rather than exhausted. Now to find a way of feeling as free and alive in my daily routine as I do on Dartmoor.  

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Beating the Bounds

Despite my best intentions, I never manage to get down to Devon in January or February.  Part of the problem is post-Christmas lethargy, coupled with a hard-to-resist desire to hibernate the winter away; another reason is that our caravan in the village of Holcombe is shut from late October to late March (as in no electricity or water) and the days are so brief, it’s difficult to justify 200-miles’ worth of petrol for a few short hours of sea or moor.  So Easter is my New Year, and the first visit to my patch a taking stock of the months that have passed since the previous one, and of those to come. 

The biscuit tin by the sea is only five minutes from the beach, but being contrary, my first footing has to be on Dartmoor.  To that purpose, Ted and I were up and out early(ish) last Friday despite the grey and misty weather.  At Harford Gate, we rendez-voused with my co-worker Ellie, Vicky and their two Lab-Collie crosses, Teddy and Dougal, who were camping close by.


Our walk took us up onto the dismantled tramway that runs from the former Red Lake China Clay pits, high on the moor, to Ivybridge. This offered easy walking below Hangershell Rock and Weatherdon Hill, with the added advantage of avoiding cattle which both Ellie and Ted (my Ted) dislike. 

This is a dead thing I saw – an (extraordinarily well-endowed) water shrew, perhaps? (Or maybe they are all that well hung?)


We then climbed to the cairns south of Butterdon Hill and strolled along the ridge to Western Beacon, the southernmost peak on Dartmoor.  


From here there’s often a spectacular view of the coast, but this day it was pretty murky.  Not that the weather bothered any of us – we agreed that Dartmoor was best viewed in a mantle of cloud, and as it was Ellie and Vicky’s first walk there, it was as well they saw it in all its brooding magnificence.        


We then wandered back to the car, stopping off on the way at Butter Brook, where the dogs had a good splash and a play, and the humans teetered over the stepping stones. 


Having said goodbye to our companions, who were headed for Totnes, Ted and I popped into Harford’s plain but very beautiful Church of St Petroc.  Best feature was the ancient rugged cross in the churchyard, a former wayside cross ‘rediscovered’ in 1909 being used as a gatepost and moved to the churchyard where it now stands.


Later, back at Holcombe, Sam, Ted and I went for our traditional evening walk a short way along the coast path and back via footpaths and fields – a sort of literal and spiritual beating of the bounds.


We were too early for the bats which throng the lane from dusk, but Ted alerted me to our first swallow of the year as it fluttered seductively past. Another first was this whitethorn in one of the more sheltered spots on the coast path, its gorgeous, sexy perfume so much more alluring than the pong of alexanders, lamentably ubiquitous this time of year. 


The fields were sprouting with some cereal crop – which sort will doubtless be apparent next time we're down, hopefully at the end of May.  The wood – my own personal bluebell wood – was still relentlessly green.  It will look spectacular when the bluebells are in full bloom in a couple of weeks’ time, but alas, I shall be in Bristol and shan't see it. 

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Hunting Hares in Selby

Two days after Branscombe, I was in Selby, Yorkshire.  Not directly en route from Leeds to Bristol, but close enough for a detour.



Having left Daughter Number 1 to the tender mercies of Son Number 1 as she recovered from a hypo in the car, I slipped into the lovely Abbey.  I couldn't, in all conscience, linger to explore properly, but as it happens, I was on a mission anyhow, to bag their example of the three hares, a symbol I’ve long pursued around the south-western peninsula, but never encountered outside of Devon or Cornwall.  It didn’t appear to feature in the guide book or on any of the souvenirs on sale, but I soon spotted it high up in the rafters in the form of a roof boss. 

Getting a decent photo was a challenge too far for my camera, so I’m posting one of Chris Chapman's, taken for the Three Hares Project.


I really like this carving. What distinguishes it from the West Country examples is the addition of a fourth, smaller hare to one side.  Maybe it’s an apprentice, studying how they do that thing with their ears.

I fell into casual conversation with the volunteer manning the trestle table of merchandise.  The profile of the hares is obviously much lower than in the south-west, as he’d never heard of them, so I gave him a potted history and pointed out the boss.  He liked Dru’s and my cards very much but the person responsible for deciding what was selected for sale had just gone on holiday for three weeks (this is starting to sound familiar!) so I left one of each with him. 


Just time for a quick maraud and then back to the car park and the long drive south and west.  Soon, Three Hares country for real.  Can hardly wait. 






A Grand Day Out, Morris Traveller-Style

I submitted a photo of the fifteenth century mural warning against lust in Branscombe Church for the cover of my poetry collection some months ago, but making the acquaintance of my artist friend Dru offered the opportunity of securing a much better quality picture, along with the perfect excuse for an early spring jaunt down to Devon, so the Thursday before last we piled into Dru's Morris Traveller – with Ted in tow – for a grand day out early Seventies style. 

It was a blustery morning but the Traveller forayed gallantly down the M5, the only hitch occuring after we’d branched off into East Devon, when a passing lorry sucked the back door open.  After hastily securing it, Dru admitted that the same thing had happened once before, in an earlier car. ‘Did you lose anything?’ I asked, concerned.  ‘In a manner of speaking, yes,’ she replied. 'The lurcher.’  (Apparently, said dog had sat in the middle of the road, uninjured but somewhat puzzled.  I was glad Ted was curled up at my feet, even though he kept fussing and fidgeting, clearly miffed at the indignity of sharing the passenger footwell with my boots.)

Having arrived in Branscombe, we headed straight for the St Winifred’s.  To our phew it was open and the mural in question was unobscured by scaffolding or damp or anything else unsightly.  While Dru and her unfeasibly large telephoto lens did the business, I prowled around the church rediscovering old delights, like the 1608 tomb of Anne Bartlett with its dentally enhanced skull and accompanying male heads, two bizarrely leonine, two more with decidedly flouncy hair-dos.  



After exploring the churchyard, we progressed to Branscombe Mouth, where it was sheltered enough to picnic on the beach.  I’d brought homemade almond and chocolate chip biscuits and oranges, but Dru trumped that easily with lashings of salad drizzled with homemade pomegranate and caraway seed dressing, cheese, salami and tea freshly brewed on her small stove.  Such a lovely change to be mothered instead of doing it myself; I can’t remember the last time that happened.

We then wandered up over the cliff and onto the coast path which passes below the line of the cliffs but some way above the sea, through an old landslip dating from 1790, alternatively called the Undercliff or Under Hooken.  It's one of my favourite stretches, being the most extraordinary terrain, wooded and full of jungly humps and hollows, with predominantly chalk rocks towering overhead and the grey and brown sea prowling below.  The last time I was here it was August and it had felt very sultry and exotic and un-English.  That effect was muted this time as the trees were only just beginning to leaf on this last day of March, but their comparative bareness afforded better views of the cliffs, which have a hint of Arizona about them (or so I like to think). 



We walked as far as the point where the path rises to the top of the cliff, with Dru identifying the call of the chiff-chaff (‘chiff-chaff’) and spotting a peregrine falcon on top of one of the very distinctive butte-style outcrops of rock.  All stuff I would have missed in my customary walking daydream.  We then retraced our steps to the car park.  Having decided to take the scenic route home – far more suitable route in a Traveller – we headed north through Axminster, Chard, Crewkerne and Martock before stopping off in Long Sutton to visit the extremely gaudy Church of the Holy Trinity.  The pulpit dates from 1455-58 and has been embellished with 20th century statues of the apostles, presumably because the originals were removed during one of our earlier Cultural Revolutions.  As is customary, each poor soul – or glorious martyr – is bearing the instruments of his execution.



There was also a wonderful roof of carved angels. 




On then to Huish Episcopi, which I know for its Church of St Mary with its beautiful Burne-Jones window.  Dru, however, had a different destination in mind, and we stopped at the Rose and Crown (known locally as Eli’s) for a swift half pint, served from the flagstoned cellar in the absence of a bar (even though it was closed).  I had cider from nearby Burrow Hill and hell’s teeth, it was good; Dru had a beer from Teignworthy brewery, which is just down the road and across the river from my caravan in Devon. I think I must sample some of their Harvey’s Special Brew when I’m next down there as it has my name written all over it.

Our next stop was Glastonbury to see if we could persuade one or two of the shops to take our range of Three Hares cards.  Unfortunately the buyer in the most promising emporium was away on holiday, but we left a sample of all three with the very enthusiastic shop assistant. 

On then through Shepton Mallet, reminiscing about the days of the Babycham factory with its giant fawn atop – still there apparently, but down at ground level rather than on the roof.  Then back through Bristol to home, slightly cidrous and in a sublimely good mood, thanks to  the possession of a far more professional cover photograph than I would have had otherwise. Thanks, Dru! 




Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Graffiti with Serifs

Graffiti with serifs being one of my longer-standing obsessions, I'm so pleased that my poem of the same name has made a small niche for itself in the world, as one of six prize-winning entries in the Staffordshire International Poetry Competition.  



Graffiti with Serifs

Take a breath and try the handle. 
At first it might stick as if locked,
but more often than not
the door will open. Step inside.
You will undoubtedly need more light.
The switches are by the door on the right,
next to the safe. 

What you see depends on the season:
at Harvest, wilting displays of leaves, teasels,
a wrinkling apple,
hydrangeas arranged on each ledge;
in the curtained-off vestry, after Epiphany,
a forsaken infant Jesus, six tinsel haloes
and a gold star on a stick.

And at all times battalions of jars and spare vases,
a Hoover hidden behind a pew,
a mildewed hymnal, several pipistrelle umbrellas.
The font in the corner early Norman:
generations of babies baptised
to die in contagions, battles and matters
of no importance.

Sometimes a detail hints at a fate:
you’ll read the names of three priests ordained
in the Year of our Lord,
Thirteen Hundred and Forty-Eight.
But best is the esoteric: initials
and backward-facing dates, graffiti with serifs
scratched during a boring Puritan sermon;

the stone underfoot the grave of three children,
carved at each corner with uncouth angels,
sticking out tongues;
the lilies stitched on Italian damask
seven centuries gone by,
as faded and fragile
as the weft and warp of time.

Deborah Harvey © 2010 , 2011