Tuesday, April 03, 2018

On Grief, As It Waxes & Wanes

When I was very small, I remember playing inside a pink duvet cover with my three siblings once. It was a single duvet cover. I know this because it endured for decades afterwards, only retiring a few years into the brutal laundry routine that accompanied Mum’s home-coming after the stroke. “You could spit through that now,” Mum observed as we consigned it to the wheelie bin.
Zipped inside, we each took our position at the helm of our individual spaceship, cross-legged and facing outwards, one to a corner. We planned our four-pronged attack on the enemy fleet we would encounter ahead. My oldest brother Mark issued commands, and we each lurched from side to side as he warned us of gigantic meteors ahead. The sunlight streamed through the thin fabric and dazzled me onwards into a limitless cerise tinged horizon. The mission lasted for eons. 
At teatime, Mum shouted across the hallway to us and suddenly the world deflated and became small. I felt the seams and zipper tape, and we climbed on top of each other, yelping, to get to the kitchen table in time.
Occasionally, grief begins to feel measurable. Like the woman on the spinning wheel of that knife-throwing trick, I lie on my back, my toes and fingertips stretched to their farthest reach. I can just about feel its edges. 
If I was unstrapped, and I could turn over, I would begin to clamp myself round them and with all my might and squeeze and squeeze until they yielded and began to shrink.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

The Smell of Dreams

This morning I awoke from a distinctive dream, one of a series that have lifted me towards waking over the last week or so: Unlike the others – which have been labyrinthine, full of gothic imagery such as coffin-like objects lowering into the ground – this one was so simple that when I opened my eyes to the new day, my heart was aching, hollow as a bell.
In this dream, I had turned to my mother for her comfort, to tell her how much I was missing my dad, knowing that she could console me, only to realise that she  - like him - was now dead. I don’t remember clearly if I was seeking her in some house or other – though perhaps it was in our old family home, handsome red sandstone aglow in the late summer sun, she always in the kitchen, smoking pensively.  Certainly I felt a vivid sense of familiar doors and empty hallways, magnolia paint and the cry of gulls.

On the bedside table is my stack of half-read books, many drawn from the standard reading list of the recently bereaved: I spot them in many homes now, and am reminded of the ubiquity of this death thing, how ill-prepared my generation seem to have been for it. Why? Can we blame those very parents we grieve for now, for losing their own parents backstage, so tidily that their lives barely missed a beat? Tea was still on the table on time, school uniforms were washed as usual, and children didn’t attend funerals back then.

This black-bound library contains ‘H is For Hawk’, by Helen MacDonald, ‘Levels of Life’ by Julian Barnes, and Joan Didion’s ‘The Year of Magical Thinking’. From this last book I drew the title for a current exhibition, the culmination of an artist’s residency at Acorn Bank, a historic house and garden run by the National Trust.

I was given the use of a dovecot in their garden as a summertime studio, a peaceful place where visitors appeared from time to time as I worked. I had decided to make a quasi ‘portrait’ of the garden by distilling as many of its plant species as possible, using a technique I had used briefly before on another residency, where I learnt it from Hauser & Wirth’s then-gardener, the fabulously named Saskia Marjoram.

Over the months my shelves filled up with sealed jars of colourless liquid, ‘hydrosols’ as they are known, and on the table in front of my beautiful copper still I kept a row of open jars for the visitors to enjoy. Their tabletop nose-level appealed at first more to children than adults, but I soon grew tired of their pantomime horror as they rushed along the row, wrinkling their noses and shrieking at every new whiff. I probably looked like a witch to them, with my heaps of leaves, my steam, my messy hair. Yet Acorn Bank is the kind of property that attracts many more of the baby boomer and beyond generations than it does young families: Well-preserved, well-travelled couples in expensive outdoor clothing, on their way north to hike the Hebridean islands; retirees overseeing their indulged grandchildren, lamenting the overwork and mortgages borne by their children. These older people would open my studio door tentatively, the men stepping in first with a joke about whether I was making whiskey in here, or that “This is what you call ‘art’ these days is it?”.

But soon we’d be chatting easily and they’d bend down to the jars, inhaling deeply, often returning to one in particular, then standing upright again, their eyes skywards as they tried to ‘place’ the aroma.
Ooooh. Mother would rub something on my chest that smelled like that, when I had a cold.
I’ve not smelled a rose like that in decades. They all used to smell like that once.

But back to Joan, and to the dead.
In the time that I stood alone by the still, monitoring its temperature gauge, awaiting its slow trickle, I had much time to think, and the smells I was creating contributed to my reveries too. Heady, medicinal, herbal, and above all green.
Acorn Bank had spent decades as a nursing home – what we would now term a hospice – set within the lovingly tended National Trust garden. Chris – still the Head Gardener – had been here back then. In those days, NT visitors did not get to see the house, and it was probably not a huge loss given its wartime requisitioning and its quiet neglect since the owner – the mildly eccentric Dorothy Una Ratcliffe – had passed it on to the Trust and gone to live by the sea in Scotland.

Now, visitors walk freely around inside, but the rooms are devoid of original furnishings and seem to me to be somehow more expansive in their meaning, as a result. Without ancestral portraits, fine Chipperfield or copper pots on a well-polished range, I was easily able to imagine the nurses and carers that bustled about the place, the cooks ladling out soup, and of course, the countless visitors who must have stalled in the garden en route to see a loved one, inhaling its many scents before opening to door to the overheated fug of the home. I thought of all the residents, in the most part cooped up 24/7 with their windows tightly shut, the garden a two dimensional panorama wrapped around the ground floor rooms where they sat if they were well enough to be up. If they weren’t, from their beds upstairs a view of swallows belting about, black flecks against the sky.

I called the Sue Ryder Foundation for any information they might have from their tenancy. No paper records remained, I was told. The only evidence in the house was an old chest upstairs with a drawer labelled ‘Bodices’, and the odd institutional swing door where a fine, panelled one should have been.

Harvey, a curator at the Trust, had suggested Dorothy’s Drawing Room as a site for my exhibition, instead of the more rudimentary, bare rooms upstairs, or even an outbuilding. We agreed that its eau de nil walls – painted original Elizabethan panels – and its views onto the sunken garden were a potent backdrop to work against, although I had no idea what I would put in there. My distillations were colourless after all, their scent invisible and often fleeting, as -  unlike essential oils -  they are water-based, volatile, not meant to endure beyond a few months. In the past these hydrosols were folk medicines and cosmetics, occasionally flavourings (as orange flower and rose water are still in certain cuisines) but now the practice is largely industrialized, with a few artisanal producers still praising the hand-crafted approach and selling to niche markets.

As my distillations grew in number and range – from the tiniest herb to the beautiful if funereal purple beech that cast deep shadow outside the dovecot – I somehow knew that they needed to be present in the exhibition, but quietly so. The interactivity of the dovecot was well and good there, with me to talk to and the alluring still, the jugs and the jars to interpret the craft when I was absent. But the inclination of most visitors to guess what smell belonged to which plant was irrelevant to my growing sense that the exhibition was to be about those nursing home residents. It should be a memorial to their time here which could also capture the fleeting beauty and power of the garden then and now, the inexorable tension between mortality and nature’s renewal.

In the background, I continued to lightly research the life and concerns of the house’s former owner Dorothy, for her much revolved around a preoccupation with a supposed Romany bloodline in her ancestry. She collected Romany crafts and folklore, sometimes writing stories, plays and poems in dialect, and dallying with the equally Romany-obsessed painter Augustus John, one of whose ‘gypsy-ified’ portraits was in Dorothy’s collection. With Harvey I drove over to Leeds – past lay-bys of present day travellers and their ponies and carts, on their way home from Appleby Horse Fair – and we visited a patchy collection of her art and papers in storage. Dorothy came across as a watered down Bohemian a la Bloomsbury set, but with less talent, it has to be – regrettably - said. The survival of the original house, and the extensions of the gardens and orchard at Acorn Bank are rightly celebrated as her most significant achievements.

When Acorn Bank closed to the public in the evening, as artist-in-residence I was able to have free run of it. I’d an apartment at the top of the house, with creaky, squint panelled walls and a pastoral view across fields dotted with veteran trees. Downstairs, a pre-War atmosphere pervaded Dorothy’s Drawing Room, despite the Tudor authenticity of the panelling and the Georgian windows. The wall colour reminded me of vintage silk gowns and I easily imagined Dorothy’s drinks parties in here, cut glass sparkling, silver trays, a roaring fire with a few damp dogs flat out in front of it whilst she tipsily read aloud one her sentimental verses. I began experimenting with glasses – just charity shop stuff at first – in the empty Drawing Room, working on the floor under its one light bulb, the shutters closed to the night. I would balance them on top of each other, making a tower, or perhaps a fountain, thinking about Dorothy, about time and about the dead, before retiring upstairs, and beginning the distillations again the next morning.
At a National Trust meeting to plan my exhibition, all I said was that I’d be trying to make a fountain, that the hydrosols would be in it. Everyone smiled and nodded, eyebrows perhaps a little raised.

That odd green colour of the room’s walls also reminded me of something else that it took some time to discern: the ubiquitous institutional crockery service of that period, Woods Ware’s ‘Beryl’ range. Overnight - and in that frustratingly unmappable way certainties emerge in the creative brain at work behind the scenes -  I realised that to make the exhibition from glassware was wrong, it was too much about Dorothy’s life and habits and not about the time I cared about, after her. I should used something commonplace, utilitarian, un-precious – Beryl.

A month later, and I have asked a talented friend to be my technical assistant for the install. We are in the empty Drawing Room, removing the carefully wrapped newspaper from the last box of Beryl crockery, placing the pieces in a grid on the bare floorboards, each reunited with others of its kind, sourced via eBay from all corners of the UK and labelled so we can count our sum total before we begin : “Tureens”, “Big Cups”, “Salad Plates” (who would guess a wartime range would need so many different sizes of plate to eat from, despite rationing?) and the very rare – we have only 7 in over 700 pieces – “Wee Saucers”.  Ordinary tea cups and saucers form the bulk of our collection, naturally enough as I often still see them in use in out of the way church halls in Cumbria. When Harvey sees the stuff, we talk about how dainty in scale so much of it is, the dessert bowls no bigger than a single scoop of ice cream or a spoonful of trifle.
No wonder people were slimmer in those days. We laugh.
Strangely, I’m very moved to see this array of modest, everyday domestic ware – with no named designer to celebrate -  in such quantity and range. Beryl – the most ordinary of names, the name of a cleaner or a school dinner lady -  in this most common green hue was – incidentally – collected and prized by Andy Warhol,  a true connoisseur of the ordinary. Even now eBay in the US commands high prices for it. Our 787 pieces are all washed and carefully wrapped by hand from their 14 sources, despite costing on  average less than £2 a piece, pulled from garages in Cheshire, cupboards in Glasgow, lock-ups outside Nottingham, as well as a few pieces from my own collection, probably bought in Edinburgh in the early 1990’s. We wonder what other element of material culture we could have found so readily in such huge numbers in only 3 weeks  - it’s as if we have masterminded a clan gathering of the Beryl diaspora.

Fortunately I’ve devised a way of building with the crockery that isn’t sacrificial, though I haven’t planned what I’ll do with it after the exhibition. But it’s unthinkable to destroy it, however humble and replaceable it is. There’s to be a simple metal tray base into which a tower of Beryl will be constructed, using museum wax and builder’s foam. Concealed in its central spine a simple pump will circulate 100 litres of mixed hydrosols around the tower, trickling it into saucers and cups and bowls. and releasing a gentle, green aroma into the room. The room will be shuttered throughout the exhibition, lit by a single bulb. The images in my mind are of piles of awaiting washing up, the end of a party,  house clearances, the Mad Hatters Tea Party, and in the distant corners of my memory are some of the rooms I recall from a visit to the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, where piles of the most banal of everyday belongings were rendered horrific by their mass.

We have just two days and one evening to build our fountain, using an approach based on the maquette I’d made at home, in a paddling pool in a shed. It had collapsed eventually, because I’d been reluctant to use the foam – a rather nasty stuff which requires a lot of careful cleaning up after each squirt. I’d tested the pump, but had no way to test its effect on what would be a 1.5metre high tower of  casually-stacked crockery. I also had no way to know if our 700+ pieces were enough – I had some bad nights sleep worrying about what we’d do if we got half way up the build and realised we’d run out, let alone what we’d do if it all crashed to the ground on those hard wooden floorboards. I got some rubber mats to place around our site, just in case.

Before we started – the evening ahead of the official install so keen were we to get going – I stared hard at our mute ranks of crockery and  then back at the space where the tower was to be, trying to map the two volumes onto each other. I usually had a good sense of volume – maybe because I’m a keen cook and gardener – but this was a new horizon and I could only be optimistic (in the end, we had only 48 ‘spare’ pieces).

The two days building go quickly, there are various National Trust procedures to be gone through, including a last-minute load bearing panic that ends up with the fountain base  - already with 30cm or so of crockery inside it - being manhandled on a protective plywood ‘plinth’. Luckily this happens when we are away eating lunch and not standing there fretting. When alone, we slowly circle the base, adding height and working inwards in a spiral, slowly diminishing the diameter of the pile, forming a roughly cone-like mass.  It is restful to work with my hands after so much time in front of screens. I’m pleased I can still do it.
It’s like dry stone walling with crockery, I say.
They never touch a stone without then placing it, the best wallers.
We laugh whenever one of use uses an especially distinctive piece such as a tureen or a coffee pot. Often we are silent, rolling the museum wax between our fingers to soften it, stepping back to look at the work before squatting down again and lightly checking our last decision with our fingertips. The radio plays out white noise and we don’t even notice it.

My assistant has lost her own mother very recently, nursed her throughout a savage illness. Perhaps we are both thinking of our dead mothers now as we work, those women who would have doled out countless cups of tea in these Beryl cups, women of coffee mornings and jumble sales and knowing when and how to be quiet, and when and how to ease pain with small talk.

This is a very feminine piece, I think to myself, and this is a Good Thing. My mum would have ‘got’ it. In the last few years I’m at last making things that I know would have touched her, connected with her, she who always laughed and reassured me that though all my work ‘went right over her head’, she was nevertheless so proud of me. When I remember periodically that she won’t be coming to see it, it is still a sad surprise, as I’ve talked to her so much about it in my head that it seems only natural that she will appear and we’ll have a coffee and a scone in the tea room later.

One of my nieces has come to work on the hydrosols while we build the fountain, and this helps me more than just practically. We stay in the top-floor apartment together, eat peculiar, thrown-together meals and laugh a lot at the DVDs I have brought. The invisible threads that bind a family’s women hold firm.

On the final day of the installation, I am only alone briefly when I pour the hundred hydrosols into the fountain base. A heady, thick scent fills the room. In moments, it is again full of people readying it for the exhibition preview that evening. Some are rushing about filling bin bags with debris, a trolley of glasses rattles past. Some are staring closely at the crockery fountain as it fills up and begins to glisten, the hydrosols trickling down and finding nooks and crannies to fill. It is mesmerising. Slowly we all exhale, reassured that it won’t collapse, crash onto the floor and return to just being old crockery. I’ve probably done a good job of appearing more confident on that front than I actually was.
I am euphoric. Quietly euphoric.

The exhibition, The Years of Magical Thinking, runs until Oct 29 2017 at Acorn Bank, Temple Sowerby, Nr Penrith, Cumbria.
With special thanks to Hannah Pierce & Harvey Wilkinson & the staff and volunteers of Acorn Bank. 

Photographs by Tom Lloyd

Sunday, June 18, 2017

For Dad on his first Father's Day away

Here is an extract from a longer memoir I've been working on, remembering my late Dad Ian.

Dad trained hard most evenings, changing into shorts and removing his dental plate before ploughing up and down the Largs seafront promenade that connected our house to the town.  After an hour or so of grimacing with effort against the onshore wind, his return home would be announced by the front door swinging open heavily. This was one of the few occasions he used the front door, in fact. A gust of wind from the seashore seemed to accompany him, and  - as ever with Dad – it was never a quiet entrance. He’d drop down onto to the hall carpet and summon one of us kids out from our homework to sit on his feet as he finished with a few dozen sit-ups. He would tease us, leering over us sweatily, and we laughed hysterically at his toothless grin, feigning to wince at his smell but secretly entranced by his energy, his magnetism, his selfish determination.

He’d then wash for dinner in the downstairs bathroom, using the landing in front of it to dry himself off – he claimed the bathroom was too small for a man used to rugby changing rooms.  As this landing was directly opposite the front door, it was all too easy to return home and chance upon him ‘in the skuds’ as nakedness was known in our family – but he was never embarrassed, he just larked about making the towel into a bullfighting cape or a sheik’s headdress until we laughed along with him too.
Dad’s primary parenting tool was humour, in fact, with Mum covering everything else. Unlike most of Mum’s skills, laughter could be hastily deployed – and anywhere. It didn’t need forward-planning, in fact it hated routine. It could not happen without an adoring audience, and Dad’s scarcity at home certainly guaranteed one in his four kids.  
I had a prodigious talent for sulking, it was my go-to response to most circumstances that didn’t go my way. And being a third child of four, most things didn’t go my way. When the family had to spend a wet day hiking, I would sulk. When it was banana bread for tea, I would sulk. When Mum bought me a cheapo anorak without asking my opninion first, I would sulk. I orchestrated these sulks with increasing strategy as I got older. It was dangerously easy for nobody to notice you were sulking in our big house, and that was obviously a total waste of time and effort. So I soon learnt it was important to choose the location of the sulk well – clearly it couldn’t take place in the upstairs rooms – such as our bedrooms – as no one went up there unless it was to sleep, and besides, there was no central heating and there was a limit to how much I really wanted to endure for my art.  The kitchen rarely worked either, as it was Mum who usually caused the sulk and she was invariably in there – the flouncing out of the room that was the prelude to the sulk was a vital dramatic effect, and you could hardly follow it by returning unannounced just to sit and scowl in the corner.  The playroom was an enjoyable place to carry out a sulk, as there were limitless, fun things to do in there meaning I only had to put the sulk back ‘on’ briefly when someone came through the door. The downside of that room was that in fact my parents didn’t often come in there – it was largely and gloriously out of bounds for them – and as it was Mum (and only occasionally Dad) that I wanted to punish with the sulk, there was a real risk that they might never ever find out about the brilliant sulk I had conducted in there all afternoon.
If Dad was around, he made it his personal mission to rid me of my precious sulk, however it had arisen. If Mum mentioned my condition to him privately, he would search the house high and low until I was found, perhaps pretending to read a book in the lounge, or if the weather was good, mooching around in the garden, picking up ladybirds or confiding all to the rabbit in her hutch. Dad wouldn’t call out to me, he’d sneak up and then would get down onto his haunches right in front of me. He’d bob his head back and forth but I would not look up, of course. Then came an onslaught of interpretations of the chain of events that – as far as he knew – had caused the telling off from Mum that had spawned the sulk. 
“A little bird tells me that a certain person fed her teatime sausage to the dog, and thought she’d get away with this heinous crime....”
 “Soooo - you and both of your brothers were in the garden playing football, and somehow your sister Alison pushed herself down the stairs – have I got that right? Well, I guess there’s no need to check the CCTV footage in that case, as you’re so clearly telling the truth”
“What will Mrs Dorman think when she finds out that her star pupil has been sent away to her Auntie Judith’s in Taynuilt, for being such a naughty girl? Well, I expect you might get a Christmas card if you’re lucky enough to be remembered by her and the rest of the class, but Judith only has room for you in the garden shed, you know.”
Each sentence was delivered with a painstakingly dry comic inflection. It was very hard indeed to hold my ground and soon I was unable to resist glancing up at Dad in front of me - fatal. Within a few seconds I was giggling along with him despite my strenuous efforts to remain po-faced. 

Triumph would sweep across his face, and standing upright again, he’d say, gently,
C’mon bumblebot” taking my hand and leading me back indoors.

Monday, January 16, 2017

To China, and don't spare the warriors

A post written in November 2016, during my first trip to China, with my film The Closer We Get:

Beijing to Xi’an
I travel to China the day after Trump’s victory in the US election, and the social media control combined with the fact that it’s Just Not That Big A Deal Here has it feeling like a bad dream pretty soon. Until an American-Chinese woman working on the event I’m at tells me how the trauma made her forget to take her passport to the airport in LA, I’d all but forgotten about crying in front of the BBC news at 6am that morning.

If I was going to do a Tripadvisor review for our Beijing hotel (The Traveler (sic) Inn) – and who knows, I just might – I could complain about the tepid bath water, the flea I found biting my shin, and that the sound on my TV didn’t work, but I would praise its globetrotting breakfast (steamed buns, waffles, tofu, conflakes), its atmospheric little garden and chiefly its location, on a central but quiet ‘hutong’ fascinating enough to spend your entire Beijing break in. These higgledy piggledy, low rise areas which mix houses old and new with shops, restaurants and bars of every variety, are being fast cleared away by the city authorities, so I feel lucky to be staying in one and not one of the shiny highrises by the motorway, even if they do offer power showers. Every eating place I tried locally was fantastic, and my picture-pointing was usually augmented by the ubiquitous smart phone and its translation apps. 
Invariably, after much typing, the phone was turned towards me, and on it were the words ‘It’s a bit spicy’. I always communicated that this was fine by me.

The iDocs documentary film forum kicked off with a speech-based ceremony at Beijing Film Academy, that I expected to go on for much longer than it did. Beforehand, a trailer filled with extracts from the selected films was looped on the enormous screen. Some of the crowd were asleep, some on their smart phones and some were paying attention. Dignitaries from various countries whose filmmakers were present, took the stage. A young Polish woman spoke impressively fluent Cantonese, whereas the avuncular Israeli Ambassador spoke in English, telling us that ‘his’ and the culture of China were the oldest in the world. With my father’s voice in the back of my head, I couldn’t help thinking that a tie wouldn’t have gone amiss.

All the film-makers lined up on stage and the mic was passed along the row to each of us. My ‘Ni hao’ elicited a little wave of applause with the huge audience and caught on with the other filmmakers who followed suit. My previous travels in Japan made me prone to bowing unneccessarily though and I made a mental note to try and rein it in. I was certainly far too smartly attired in my green silk dress, but I could at least hope it stuck in the audience’s mind and that they’d return when my film was on.

We film makers realised that our international array of films were not going to be screened with English and Mandarin subtitles (as is common in other international festivals) so, a little frustratingly, we wouldn't be able to easily watch each others films. Most of us agreed to exchange screener links later. So the enticing opening film, Twilight of a Life (which had been in several other festivals with mine, but which I hadn’t managed to see yet) was not one I could stay and watch as it was mainly in Hebrew. So most of the film makers got back into our minibus and were back at the hotel within an hour.

The fantastic Cherelle Zheng, film-maker and founder of iDOCS, had assembled a team of (almost all female) festival helpers who kept everything running smoothly, that is as long as we all had downloaded WhatsApp onto our phones and looked at it very regularly. Cherelle had curated and subtitled the impressive selection of global docs presented herself, an epic work. Most shared the theme of an exploration of love, and I would liked to have spoken to her more about her selection and its resonances with the Chinese audience, but as with all film festivals, it’s a bit of a whiteout for the organisers who have so much to do they often don’t even get to watch the films or the audience Q & A’s.

The screening of The Closer We Get drew an almost full auditorium of circa 300, and I sat in for the screening, which I rarely do these days. It was incredibly special to hear the audience’s ebb and flow of laughter and tears, a testament to Cherelle’s skillful translation. The Chinese reactions and questions afterwards (simultaeneously translated) were broadly similar to those in every one of the now over a dozen countries I have screened in, and it’s hard to describe how good this makes me feel. In a world of conflict, it’s beyond heartening to realise that we are the same at heart, everywhere. After the screening a small crowd asks for autographs, photographs with me etc. and I am introduced to a smiling woman who is in charge of marriage guidance in Beijing. She pops a pink scarf on and we have our photograph taken together. She is full of excited praise for the film, and I promise to her that I will get a copy to her for her organisation to use.

My ‘Masterclass’ was intended to be a delivered from my pre-prepared and pre-translated script, but instead it’s decided it should be in a ‘chat show’ format, opening out to questions informally. I’m okay with this, as I am now so used to talking about the film that I actually enjoy being put on the spot a bit unexpectedly. Some of the audience are clearly film-makers and field some technical questions about solo shooting and which parts of the film were ‘re-enacted’ for camera. But in general, questions are philosophical, and it seems that there is a hunger amongst the film-makers here to embark on personal stories but much inhibition and fear of offence. I try and talk about the ‘personal development’ aspects of my film, the terror I felt at its inception and how I overcame this, and I try and reassure them that whilst such films change a family dynamic forever, it can be the most positive transformation they will ever experience.

What Walrus Museum?

Xi’an is the nearest city to the Terracotta Warriors, so this is my first stop when I take the train out of Beijing. It’s a 5 hour high-speed journey, and my first class carriage has no laptop-entranced businessmen, as it would in the UK, just snoozing Chinese. It’s a marked contrast to the nonstop activity of almost every Chinese person you meet elsewhere. The ‘first class’ of the service is marked with luxurious recliners, a gift box of snacks and a woman who cleans the toilet after each visit. When I can’t find the flush and leave the cubicle, she takes my arm and returns me to the site of my shame, demonstrating the flush button in use.

Xi’an train station is beautiful, more like an airport than anything else, and I am the only Western face amidst the thousands of travellers. If there are 8 million inhabitants in Xi’an, there must be a restaurant provided for every single one. Eating places of all sorts outnumber very other shop at least five to one, and they range from ad hoc woks-on-the-back-of-bikes, to Korean barbecues to vast and eerily empty ‘banquet’ retaurants filled with circular tables each with a Lazy Susan at its centre. I choose what looks like a bog-standard one that is full of locals. As in every place I have eaten in China, I am the only lone diner - for the Chinese eating is an intensely social activity, and portion sizes make no concession to the smaller appetite. I eat an excellent ‘salad’ of beansprouts, cooked spinach, peanuts and strips of spongy wheat gluten, spiced with dried chilli and aromatic Szechuan pepper, with a room-temperature beer (the norm here) and chrysanthemum tea. Outside, charcoal braziers with lamb kebabs and vast arrays of condiments (seaweeds, mushrooms, Chinese cabbage, coriander leaves, sesame seeds, peanuts) are everywhere from dawn to late, and there are also pyramids of local pomegranates split to reveal their rich ruby interiors, candy-making stalls, spice-crusted tofu, and deep-fried-whole-anything stalls. They could teach the rest of the world a thing or two here, and not just about cooking. I awake in the morning to the unexpected sound of a Mosque’s call to prayer: Xi’an has lived peacefully with its large Muslim population for over 1300 years.
My brilliant guide Eric tells me about our forthcoming visit en route, to the Walrus Museum. I don’t remember this from my itinerary, and he’s talking as if it’s an important one, but I feel too awkward to ask for clarity. After a while of zigzagging through the city walls and out onto the freeway, hazy with smog, I realise his excitement is about the Warriors Museum. That is, the 8000 Terracotta Warriors Museum that will be today’s focus.

On the way in, as in every transport hub and visitor attraction in China, bags are security scanned. Eric tells me this is a quiet day, but nontheless vast crowds of Chinese people surrounded by tangles of selfie sticks are everywhere, screeching and laughing. It’s actually a delight to witness their joy here, and the lack of Western faces. How often we turn up at an attraction in the UK to find that there’s not a single other Brit in evidence, finding their own heritage worth a look. In fact, a Western face is so rare here that I am invited to join in a number of schoolchildren’s selfies, presumably for my sheer ginger-novelty value.

Despite the competition for a front row view of Pit 1 - which offers the ‘money shot’ of the ranks of warriors that I recall from the National Geographic magazines we devoured in the 1980’s - my first sight of this silent army brings tears to my eyes. Their number, artistry and preservation defies belief. Their sheer miraculousness is intensely moving. It has you thinking what else lies beneath our planet's mud, awaiting our future wonder.

As we move around the vast sunken area, individual warriors in various states of preservation are visible closer to the visitor boundary. Their individuality and benign smiles belie their identities as warriors – as if they knew the afterlife would not present any real conflict to concern themselves with. Eric tells me contemporaneous written accounts exist that show that the Emperor’s top general in fact came up with the idea for the facsimilie army, to prevent his boss from slaying the 8000 best-trained soldiers in the land, and presumbly soldiers who would protect his son, the next Emperor. Like the sculptures of European antiquity, the warriors would have been gaudily painted originally (this is approximated in a rather shonky film projection that concludes the visit). What a fantastical, Disney-esque sight this would have been.

The steep, earthen walls around each pit strongly convey death, and they serve as raised walkways for the odd archaeologist with a wheel barrow, dwarfed by the arched roof and the crowds. The scale is akin to that of a football pitch. Eric tells me that excavation and conservation work here will have no end, and that China accepts this onerous responsibility. I am drawn to a large flat area near the exit with rows of regimented desks, spaced far apart as in an exam hall. Each has an overhead lamp, and behind them there is a hospital-style bed.
At one desk a single archaeologist bends over something far from our view, his lamp glowing orange in the cool, bluish haze of the enormous hangar. He has a lifetime of work ahead.

Thursday, September 01, 2016

Lightning Sometimes Does

I recently had the incredible experience of having my first ever film screened on television. As a child of the 1970's, actual terrestrial broadcasting somehow retains its excitement for me, despite the fact that I now consider most of too lousy to actually watch. Despite all the catch-up online possibilities, there is something almost magical about the idea that the BBC has your film and has pressed play out NOW. For everyone to watch.
I was one of those kids that hankered after a personal connection to TV to an almost psychotic degree - I think it's the same for lots of people who grew up in provincial towns that felt as far from 'Broadcasting House' as Mars did. I tried to get my drawings onto Take Hart almost weekly, I was continuously writing into Jim'll Fix It, Swap Shop and the like. The zenith of this phase of my life was when I was runner-up in a Blue Peter competition to design a theme park, meaning I received the much coveted Blue Peter badge. A close second was having Noel Edmunds read out my letter live on air, suggesting improvements for litter bin design. (Well, I did grow up in a seaside town where beachside bins were big news).

So it was a huge delight to sit on a sofa in Paisley month ago with my siblings, nieces and nephew to watch 'The Closer We Get' go out to the nation on BBC2 Scotland. We were in high spirits, my sister had even baked the same cake that appears in the film, and though mass viewings of the film have happened often, we were still excited to be together on and off film. This was in many ways the culmination of over a year touring this 'family project', in cinemas, church halls and film festivals all over the world - talking to each new audience and sharing our story for so long has become second nature to me, so the surrealism of watching myself on TV felt only fleetingly like a weird dream. I think I did squeal when the serious - sounding BBC announcer read out my name though, and even the youngest in the room joined in the collective delight at each new on-screen appearance, whether it was a dog, a family member or a cake.

But someone important wasn't in that living room: my dad, Ian - arguably the star of the film, and a man who against all expectations has become as proud of the film as we all are, turning up at screenings and taking film critics' sterner judgements on his character squarely on the chin.

Dad was nearby though, in the big new hospital, having suffered what we now know to have been a stroke.
Like my mum Ann, he managed to walk into the hospital, and like her, it seems unlikely he will walk out. Also like her, a cascade of 'minor' NHS oversights came to tragic fruition in the stroke, perhaps this time round we will chase answers more vigorously,  but it's too raw to think of all that yet.
Although a very different stroke from Mum's (affecting the opposite side of his body, and also his cognitive capacity) I find myself wishing I could un-know her five last years, return to the state of blind optimism I felt once, to encounter this vicious foe as if for the first time.

I attend a session of physiotherapy with Dad, a dogged and determined patient. I sit in front of him, bowed towards him at an encouraging distance - like a parent watching a toddler making its first staggering steps. His expression reminds me vividly of Mum's immediately after her stroke - they seemed to both age and become childlike at once. There is an open-ness in the face, a stare so penetrating you would feel it through walls. Two therapists support his lower body, a bench allows his one good side to balance. Instead of the stooped old man he was a few months ago (dreadful knees, despite the replacements) he is taller than he has been in years, his chin up, reminding me of his proud, knowing handsomeness in those black and white rugby team photographs from the '50s. But there is nothing of him in this stance, the women bear all his weight, and they shunt each foot in front of the other with a great effort, interspersing each 'step' with encouraging words.
The trio debrief, and when Dad's asked how much of the walking was 'down to him', he says 'Oh, probably most of it'. The therapists look down and say nothing.

In the 'team meeting' we are invited to later, various nurses join the physios, perched on desks in a tiny office, to summarise what is called, with a little embarrassment, 'progress'. There are no surprises. I look across at my sister and notice how young and old her fearful face looks.
There are no surprises.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

There Was A Boy...

....who - on a busy morning, at a busy station, at the busiest time, just before Christmas - walks purposefully into the shadows beyond the platform. He calmly removes his top and shoes, and throws himself under the oncoming train. Over their morning tea, his family hear news reports of a fatality causing commuter chaos. No-one thinks it's him.

In fact, X was roughly my age. But I knew him best some years ago, when we shared a flat, and even then he seemed so young, so - well - boyish. Thankfully, he never lost this quality. It was embodied in a kind of innocence, an inquisitiveness, and a wayward sense of mischief. Despite a fascination with deeply unfunny spiritual people such as Gurdjieff  - and an occasional devotee of their practices - he was never remotely dour about his quest for enlightenment. He was - literally - a clown, a performer by trade, and my memories of life in that flat are of him struggling to meditate crosslegged in our chaotic lounge, his white face panstick-ed and giggling hysterically, very loud Jungle on the sound system. We'd Hoover round him, trying to distract him even more.

I plan for his funeral, and I look out a suitably neat and ladylike handbag. It won't do to lug my usual gargantuan bag, in its jolly orange hue. I check through the temporary bag and find a few things in its depths - a reel of black thread, a tape measure and a Post-It note, which I turn over and read:
"Funeral List: Black dress, tights (2 prs), nude shoes, cardigan, speech"
I realise the last outing for this bag was a funeral, my mother's. I'm a bit startled by the list - it's spare, uncharacteristically neat and orderly. "Wasn't I distraught, bereft?" I think "How come I managed to - for once - make a list??"

When I get to the crematorium for X's funeral, and squeeze in behind the rows of his family. Though it's been years, I recognise each one of them by the shape of their shoulders, now hunched and stiff with suppressed emotion and purpose. X's mother gets through her eulogy somehow, returns to her seat clasping her notes. She's holding it together better than anyone else in the room. Then it's X's brother's turn, he reads from his iPhone, voice faltering and yet he raises much laughter in the crowd, reminiscing about much boyhood bad behaviour. Then a close friend delivers a brilliant and brave speech, explicitly acknowledging that X's death had been a brutal suicide, and eloquently describing this act's emotional ambivalence for all those who thought they knew him best. People are beginning to cry a lot now, and still X's family hold their nerve. I remember this well from Mum's funeral - you're so glad to have something to do, a role, that it's a relief to have a schedule, a list, a speech in your hand. After a death, however it came about, the haunting of those of us left behind, starts in earnest. Could I have done more, stopped this? Will I feel any different, better, tomorrow? So the distracting work of the funeral is welcome. Even a secular service, like this, has much to busy yourself with.

The final music of the service, 'Nature Boy' is devastatingly evocative of the 'very strange, enchanted boy' present in all our memories. I can't bear to think of how it ended -  the violence, the pain that must have engulfed him.

After the service, the dazed crowd mingles outside in the wintery afternoon sun, browsing the floral tributes and organising taxis and lifts to the pub where the wake is to be. I'm struck - not for the first time - by the warmth of strangers at times like these, as we realise and are glad that we were all parts of X's world, and that we aren't strangers anymore.  It feels odd but welcome to be recognising old friends here, catching up, raising a smile through our puffy and teary faces.

When I eventually reach X's father to offer my condolences, he recognises me instantly. He smiles and hugs me, then suddenly crumples against me, weeping. We stay like that for what feels like a long time, and I realise that I have unwittingly taken him back in time, to when his youngest son was that boy, that strange, enchanted boy with his uncharted life stretching limitlessly ahead of him.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

It's About Time

Two years exactly since Mum's death, and I spend a solitary weekend on the kind of pursuits that filled most of her life - Gardening, baking, sewing, cleaning cupboards, fruit-picking and making jam. She wraps herself around my every task, especially in the kitchen - her natural domain. I hear her chide my disorganised worktop, she slurps the foam from the jam-spoon with relish, checks my jars are clean, worries about the set.

I haven't written down much lately, apart from lists and administrative emails. Lots of them.
But the writing-in-my-head hasn't stopped, though 'The Closer We Get' - where it all went for 4 years - is done and dusted and out in the world now.

And that feels very strange, and rather sad. Where should all those thoughts on grief and bereavement, joy and wonder, go now? In Julian Barnes' fine book, 'Levels of Life'  - written in the aftermath of his wife's death - he divides the world absolutely, thus - when we are young, by those who have had sex and those who haven't. And then - usually, though not always, later - into those who have grieved the death of a loved one. And those who haven't. Yet, that is.
Perhaps I am now in Barnes' own farther-flung category - those who have shown the world that grief, for a while.

Both the significant and insignificant things I inherited from Mum are now embedded in my domestic and working landscapes, like a matrix of archaeological finds suspended in insignificant mud. But only I would know them as special - I dry my hands on an old striped towel I rescued from her house as we emptied it, I cook with a packet of cornflour from her cupboard, I swallow a vitamin pill from a bottle she began, use her German stapler on my desk.

Mum shared my passion for plants and gardens. In fact it was our strongest bond in my wayward teenage years when we could barely speak to each other civilly, and yet could happily visit the local garden centre for hours together, a boot-full of plants and a treacle scone in the tearoom to recover from the array of choice. She insisted she lacked expertise as a gardener, and yet she effortlessly grew enormous, slug-free clumps of some of the choicest plants we found together.  She always deferred to my tastes when it came to her garden, perhaps regretting it at times. I remember a year or so before she died, she told me, from her wheelchair parked up at the window, 'I really miss that wee patch of lawn we dug up, you know".
For over a year after Mum's death, gardening - which I'd done so habitually since childhood that I wouldn't even call it a 'hobby', to me it was just something I always did a great deal of -  meant suddenly very, very little to me. The ebullience of nature felt like an affront, how dare it return? Gradually though, we have found each other again, and I take pleasure in the imaginary chats I have now with Mum as I garden - she'd 'shoot the boots off that cat' who's done its business in the border, and she'd certainly have those goosegogs in the freezer by now.

I find this plant label (pictured above) at regular intervals during my sessions in the garden now, and it always stops me in my tracks. Somehow I don't want to 'save' it indoors, I want it to live the ad-hoc life it should have had, a life of insignificance, not the life of a memorial. In Mum's neat hand-writing - note the 'dashed' number seven, another thing I inherited from her -  a sowing of hardy annuals is recorded. I hope they came up, and I hope they were beautiful. Because 2007 would be the last summer before her stroke changed everything. Summer 2008 was spent in hospital, windows jammed shut, garage flowers at the end of the bed. The later ones were spent wheeled out onto the specially-modified deck at home, watching me fight back the ever-increasing wildness of the garden and murmuring appreciatively when I brought tiny cut flowers to her table for her close inspection.

Last summer, we planted a young tree in the churchyard garden in Mum's memory - a spot overlooked by the handsome big house that was our family home for over thirty years. It's not doing well, apparently, so out it must come. Mum would be unsentimental about such a thing. I think we should replace it with one from the garden centre up the road, the place that kept us together all those years ago. "Well, what on earth are you waiting for?!" I can hear Mum say impatiently.

Mum in her garden in 2009, with the trowel I made her at school !