Forgetting Jackson Pollock

Walking along the waterfront in Liverpool on a fine summer’s evening, I came to the Tate Gallery.

At half past seven on a Monday evening, it was closed, but sight of it recalled a previous visit.

Back in 2015, I had gone to see an exhibition of the work of the American artist Jackson Pollock. Being in Liverpool for the afternoon and it being a gloriously sunny day, I had walked down to the Albert Dock and had gone to the Tate Gallery.

Admission to the gallery was free, but it was £10 to see the exhibition, on the top floor of the very atmospheric building. Not having a vocabulary to express any understanding of any sort of art and not being conversant with the conventions of abstract art, it was impossible to say anything about the exhibition. It was thought-provoking, some of it was dream-like, but that doesn’t convey much to anyone.

No matter! The point was that I had gone to an exhibition on a Thursday and on the following Monday I had started to tell a friend that I had been.

‘I went to an exhibition at the Tate in Liverpool last week . . . there was an exhibition of work by an abstract artist . .. he was an American artist . . . he died in 1956. It was interesting stuff, provocative. Oh dear, I cannot remember his name’.

There had been a moment of deep frustration.

This continues to happen from time to time. Just with names.

Back in 2012, I went to the doctor and expressed fears about memory loss. He looked at my date of birth, 1960, and said, ‘This comes with age. While you are here let’s do some other tests’.

I left his surgery with high blood pressure and high cholesterol and no cure for the loss of names.

My greatest fear in life has always been dementia. Cancer, heart disease, even neurological disorders, seem preferable to that gradual retreat into a world of confusion and shadows.

I am told that the rest of my memory is functioning perfectly, that there is no cause for concern, but if the loss of names offers an insight into the dark world of progressive memory loss, then it is a frightening prospect.

Of course, the conversation was hardly over before the name ‘Jackson Pollock’ sprang to mind, just as the names of the people I meet, and cannot greet properly, spring to mind when I have gone further down the street.

Perhaps there is some psychological block, some part of the sub-conscious preventing names from coming to consciousness, perhaps the part of the brain where names are stored has become dusty or overloaded. Perhaps, one day, those experiments with mice will cure not only those trapped in the dark lands, but those embarrassed they cannot remember a name from four days previously.

Posted in Out and about | Leave a comment

Finding Excalibur

‘Go to Shapwick Nature Reserve. You can walk the bronze age track’.

The Reserve last month became only the second National Nature Reserve in the country, a place of tranquility away from traffic and development.

We easily found not only the reconstructed bronze age path through the marshland, but, unexpectedly, unanounced,  at a distance along the path, there was a monument to the sword Excalibur.

The inscription on the monument was drawn from Thomas Malory’s King Arthur and His Knights, ‘Whoso pulleth out this sword of this stone and anvil, is rightwise king born of all England’. The man to draw the sword from the stone would be the young Arthur.

No explanation for the presence of the sculpture was offered. No panels of interpretation told the story of the sword in the stone. There was nothing that would have made the monument meaningful to someone not familiar with Arthurian legend. Was this the place where, at the end of the days of Arthur, Excalibur was thrown into the waters of Avalon?

Malory’s Morte d’Arthur, tells of Sir Bedivere’s throwing Excalibur into the waters and of a boat coming for the dying king.

Then Sir Bedivere departed, and went to the sword, and lightly took it up, and went to the water side; and there he bound the girdle about the hilts, and then he threw the sword as far into the water as he might; and there came an arm and an hand above the water and met it, and caught it, and so shook it thrice and brandished, and then vanished away the hand with the sword in the water.

So Sir Bedivere came again to the king, and told him what he saw. Alas, said the king, help me hence, for I dread me I have tarried over long. Then Sir Bedivere took the king upon his back, and so went with him to that water side. And when they were at the water side, even fast by the bank hoved a little barge with many fair ladies in it, and among them all was a queen, and all they had black hoods, and all they wept and shrieked when they saw King Arthur. Now put me into the barge, said the king. And so he did softly; and there received him three queens with great mourning; and so they set them down, and in one of their laps King Arthur laid his head.

Perhaps beneath the soft marshy ground, Excalibur still lies somewhere waiting to be found.

Posted in Out and about | Leave a comment

Ghosts revived

The Point. In that privatisation of public space it was renamed the O2 and then when they withdrew from the market it became the 3 Arena. Presenters on one of the Dublin music stations call it the 2.3. The sign at the tram stop outside says, ‘The Point’, so The Point it will remain.

Before the development of huge outdoor venues, The Point was a place where major artists would play. I saw Bob Dylan and Fleetwood Mac play here (and Diana Ross, although I don’t tell people about that).

The Point became a place for laying a ghost. Fleetwood Mac’s Rhiannon had become the backing music to a time of isolation and loneliness when I was 20. Three decades later, I stood in The Point and listened to the tale of the Welsh witch with complete equanimity.

More than a dozen years after the velvet tones of Stevie Nicks filled the space of the old docks depot, it is time to spend an evening under its roof again.

The loneliness of those days in Surrey four decades ago is again pervasive – and there is no-one whom to blame except myself.

What was it that Springsteen sang in The River, “is a dream a lie if it don’t come true, or is it something worse?”

Dreams are dreams precisely because they do not belong to the realm of reality, they are foolish, fond imaginings. They are shreds of the fantastical and threads of the impossible.

Confrontation with the sense of having pushed a self-destruct button comes with standing among the crowds awaiting the concert by Elbow. The band’s Looking like a beautiful day provided a theme tune to the loss of everything there had been.

To be honest, I am not even sure now why I spent €55 on the ticket. Perhaps it seemed cheap when compared with other ticket prices in Dublin (tickets I saw on sale for The Eagles at Lansdowne Road were €200). Perhaps it seemed to offer a way of marking an end to the working year, the state exams coming to a conclusion.

Perhaps the mood is just post-viral fatigue, the shingles still require the consumption of a pack of Panadol every day. Perhaps it is the onset of some syndrome. Perhaps it is simply a confrontation with reality, a signal to look around and try to find a route out of the bind into which I have tied myself. Perhaps there will be a line in a song to lay a ghost.




Posted in The stuff of daily life | Leave a comment

A Bloomsday accidentally observed in Somerset

The A levels finished forty-three years ago yesteday, on Friday, 15th June 1979.

The passing of the days at Sixth Form College was marked by an evening playing skittles and drinking ale at a pub in the Somerset village of Catcott. The evening was rounded off with a supper of crusty bread, Stilton cheese and pickled onions.

The next day, Saturday, 16th June, entirely unaware of the existence of something called ‘Bloomsday,’ I went to the library in Street, with the intention of borrowing books that were considered to be ‘important’.

James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses were among the pile brought home.

A friend’s father thought it distinctly odd.  He thought it very strange that any red blooded male should be reading Joyce.  His logic still seems unfathomable.

A Portrait was read with great effort, partly because I had begun my summer job, labouring at Kelway’s Nursery, on Monday, 18th June, and was exhausted at the end of each day.  Ulysses was abandoned after forty pages and not picked up again until 2003.

What was it that forty years ago that prompted abandoning the book?  Having borrowed it, completely inadvertently, on the 75th anniversary of the first Bloomsday, why did I stop at page 40? It was years later that I discovered the probable reason.

I had taken Ulysses from the shelf, and had turned to Page 40.  On Page 41, there had been the likely answer to my question:

— Mark my words, Mr Dedalus, he said. England is in the hands of the jews. In all the highest places: her finance, her press. And they are the signs of a nation’s decay. Wherever they gather they eat up the nation’s vital strength. I have seen it Coming these years. As sure as we are standing here the jew merchants are already at their work of destruction. Old England is dying.

He stepped swiftly off, his eyes coming to blue life as they passed a broad sunbeam. He faced about and back again.

— Dying, he said, if not dead by now.

The harlot’s cry from street to street
Shall weave old England’s winding sheet.

His eyes open wide in vision stared sternly across the sunbeam in which he halted.

— A merchant, Stephen said, is one who buys cheap and sells dear, jew or gentile, is he not?

— They sinned against the light, Mr Deasy said gravely. And you can see the darkness in their eyes. And that is why they are wanderers on the earth to this day.

On the steps of the Paris Stock Exchange the goldskinned men quoting prices on their gemmed fingers. Gabbles of geese. They swarmed loud, uncouth about the temple, their heads thickplotting under maladroit silk hats. Not theirs: these clothes, this speech, these gestures. Their full slow eyes belied the words, the gestures eager and unoffending, but knew the rancours massed about them and knew their zeal was vain. Vain patience to heap and hoard. Time surely would scatter all. A hoard heaped by the roadside: plundered and passing on. Their eyes knew the years of wandering and, patient, knew the dishonours of their flesh.

— Who has not? Stephen said.

— What do you mean? Mr Deasy asked.

He came forward a pace and stood by the table. His underjaw fell sideways open uncertainly. Is this old wisdom? He waits to hear from me.

— History, Stephen said, is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.

Having completed, the previous week, an A level in history that covered the rise of Adolf Hitler and the hideous crimes of the Nazis, the casual anti-Semitism of Mr Deasy had probably been too much to take.


Posted in Unreliable memories | Leave a comment

Something beautiful makes a difference

Tracing the story of a Great War soldier from his birth in Ruthin in North Wales in 1895,  through the ugly hell of the Western Front, I came upon a moment of beauty,

In December 1918, he had been married at Blean in Kent. He had survived the conflict and one can only imagine his joy at being married a month later. He was to live another six decades, dying at a grand old age of eighty-six. How much difference to his life had that single moment after the war made to his view of life?

Beauty is a strange thing, it can allow a moment of escape from horror and ugliness.

In one of the most profound books I ever read, words in the space of a single page out of five hundred put the other four hundred and ninety-nine into a different context:

The hedgerows were deep and ragged where he walked, covered with the lace of cow parsley.  The air had a feeling of purity as though it had never been breathed; it was just starting to be cool with the first breeze of the evening.  From the tall elms he could see at the end of the field there was the sound of rooks, and a gentler calling of wood pigeons close at hand.  He stopped, and leaned against a gate.  The quietness of the world about him seemed to stand outside of time; there was no human voice to place it.

Above him he saw the white moon, early and low above the elms.  Over and behind it were long jagged wisps of cloud that ran in ribbed lies back into the pale blue of the sky, then trailed away in gestures of vapourous white.

Stephen felt himself overtaken by a climactic surge of feeling.  It frightened him because he thought it would have some physical issue in spasm or bleeding or death.  Then he saw that what he felt was not an assault but a passionate affinity.  It was for the rough field running down to the trees and for the pathgoing back into the village where he could see the tower of the church: these and the forgiving distance of the sky were not separate, but part of of creation, and he too, still by any sane judgement a young man, by the repeated tiny pulsing of his blood, was one with them.  He looked up and saw the sky as it would be trailed with stars under darkness, the crawling nebulae and smudged lights of infinite distance; these were not different worlds it now seemed clear to him, but bound through the mind of creation to the shredded white clouds, the unbreathed air of May, to the soil that lay beneath the damp grass at his feet.  He held tightly on to the gate and laid his head on his arms, in some residual fear that the force of binding love he felt would sweep him from the earth.  He wanted to stretch out his arms and enfold in them the fields, the sky, the elms with their sounding birds; he wanted to hold them with the unending forgiveness of a father to his prodigal errant but beloved son . . . nothing was immoral or beyond redemption, all could be brought together, understood in the long perspective of forgiveness.  As he clung to the wood, he wanted also to be forgiven for all that he had done; he longed for the unity of the world’s creation to melt his sin and anger, because his soul was joined to it.

The book is not a spiritual one, not even one by a religious author.

The words are from Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong.  In the hideous grimness of the bloody slaughter of the First World War, Faulks’ character Wraysford is allowed a few days leave and encounters a moment of sublime beauty. Time looks different because of a single moment.

Posted in Out and about | Leave a comment