Monday 26 January 2009

Misrule, Mockery & Monstrosity

THIS RATHER RUDE FELLOW was painted in Belgium around 1520 as part of an even ruder diptych, and he is pulling a face at you here to invite those of you who have an interest in the margins of things and the monstrosities found there over to read a thing I wrote...
It's not the story! It is my final year dissertation from 2003 entitled Misrule, Mockery & Monstrosity in Marginal Medieval Art, which has been languishing on a shelf for yonks and I decided that some of you folks might be interested to read it. Also all 14000 words of it are confined to the one print copy that I have left, so I thought it might be an idea to scan and store it online so that it can be read and seen. It's not exactly light reading and my layout skills have improved somewhat since those days, but it is overflowing with interesting ruminations on the peripheral art of the Middle Ages, grotesque hybrid creatures, outcasts, bums, tongue poking and ruder things, wild men, topsy turvies, proverbs and fools ...

It struck me as strange that in a highly religious age, the margins of the religious texts and buildings were peopled with the most un-religious of creatures and scenes. All manner of grotesque and otherworldly, bizarre and profane imagery can be glimpsed in the carvings under choir stalls, in the corners of church ceilings, or around the margins of bibles. Why was this? I wondered ... and so I wrote this thesis. Anyway, I'll leave you to it ... if you bravely wander over there I suggest you take a cup of tea and a handful of hours. I'll be back here again soon hopefully with tales of our latest doings ...

Monday 19 January 2009

A new story

THERE HAS BEEN A STORY in my head for a long long time ... it has changed and grown and found new paths down which to wander, and sometimes bits of it have escaped onto the first few pages of a notebook or sketchbook where they hide for a long time until they lose their oomph. But always it has been there. I see life through the window of a storybook. When something troubles me I think to myself.. How might the people in stories resolve this? Would this thing that seems horrendous to me not add wonderful colour to the journey of a tale-character? Whether or not this is a practical way of viewing things, I am not sure, but it seems to be the escape route my mind chooses for itself.

As a child I would create worlds in my head under beds and behind doors. A mat on the floorboards would become a raft on the high seas of an almost-ending apocalyptic world, and all my belongings had to fit on the mat with me in order to survive the unknowns ahead. These make-believe adventures are a normal and delightful part of childhood, and I remember the feelings that certain book illustrations would evoke in me when I looked at them. The feelings were quite unlike those I get now on looking at the same pictures. Then they nibbled right into me, they changed the way I experienced life, they wrenched emotions from me strong enough to bring a sharpness akin to tears. Now I look at the illustrations and remember these feelings, and simultaneously I view the images through my adult eyes and admire the cleverness of line or the exquisite execution of watercolour backgrounds...

I wonder what it is that changes when we lose our childhoods? There is a sadness in me that I can never go back there, and I enjoy so very much to listen to the thoughts of children.
Lost youth or no, the stories have never left me. Indeed they have grown. I have always been fascinated with languages and the interesting intertwining links between the words from different countries. And recently I have decided to remove the stubborn cork from my bottle of stories. I am a world class procrastinator and a perfectionist too.. and this is a disasterous combination, because I put it off and put it off until such time as I might be able to achieve the best creation that I can.. which of course is always tomorrow.

Blogging has been a great encouragement.. for which I have all you lovely people to thank. My mouse's voice has felt a little more hearty since it has received so many kind words about my writing. I think the deciciveness necessary in capturing a moment or a small collection of thoughts in a blog post makes me write what comes into my head and publish it before I can agonise ad infinitum over the arrangement of the words. And this has softened that fear that always stopped me writing a diary when I was younger. I have to accept what I wrote and not cringe embarrassedly at a small outpouring of myself.
It seems that this coupled with our new life on wheels has kickstarted something in me and I am beginning my book!

I have been sitting at my newly marvellously windowed desk with Thesauruses and candles all about me, and I have put pen to notebook and made the first few tentative pages of my book (which have been sitting for yonks twiddling their thumbs in my head already written almost word for word), with sketches of ideas for the illustrations too. We also have a nice new sound system in our truck with speakers expertly wooded by Tui that can play us songs to inspire while the high winds of these last nights buffet us from side to side. I have begun to think lately that perhaps the reason for my never having had a proper illustration job for a publisher is that my visual world has quite a strong flavour that perhaps can only be matched with words of that same flavour.

It is a tendency of mine to gather all the things I love under one little roof of ideas, and so creating a book filled with my words and paintings and thoughts is a thrilling plan for me. It is what I have always wanted to do. This may take me years, but I want to keep it going, and not leave this notebook empty but for the first few pages. I have been spending the evenings buried in Anglo Saxon dictionaries and books illustrated by other artists I greatly admire, and writing and drawing in little frenzied spurts as ideas and images burst inside my head like smoke bubbles, and that nameless organ between my heart and my belly has felt itself settle into the thing that I love to do most of all and it has thrilled.

Wednesday 14 January 2009

Fogs and Fish Eggs

A FOG sneaked up on us this morning and sneaked away again just as quickly. It filtered the frosty sunlight through its damp doubtful fingers and made everything nearby look far off. We did our morning chores of sweeping and mat shaking and washing breakfast dishes to radio 4 with the door open and the fire crackling, and the fog tried to sneak in over our door sill, but we wouldn't let it.
Then I walked through the fog over the fields with a loo roll under one arm and a bag of fire ash and a bucket of veg scraps under the other and stitched my gumbooted steps between the apple trees to the place where we have dug holes for .. um .. such things.

I finished my first truck painting today whilst Tui fitted glass to a new window he is making for my desk area. It's a strange thing this painting ... a boy fishing through an ice hole for a hinged fish with an embryonic old man inside its belly ... made with rusty watercolours. I am today opening my shop again and I bring The Fish Egg as an offering for the new year. It'll be an interesting thing running a shop from here. I have stacks of lovely prints and sturdy envelopes ready to send off, so do wander over for a browse ... and if you make an order, apologies if your package arrives a little muddy around the gills :)
We have enjoyed tramping about the local lanes and hedgerows and orchards here. Kent it seems is full of apple trees. In fact just yards from our door stands a four year old Iranian Quince Tree. There's a busy mole who tunnels under our wheels at night too.. we wonder if we might wake one morning to find the whole truck submerged in a new earthy appletree-rooty mole world.

Friday 9 January 2009

The Orchard Tales and the Orchard Toils of the First Few Days of Two Thousand and Nine ...

AS THE OWL in the barn hoots and stirs himself for a night of hunting I sit here in the Bedford a few yards from him, warm and dry with nostrilsfull of harissa-spiced chickpeas almost ready to eat and connected via a little plastic thingamyjig to the whole world outside this orchard. The people in that whole world are amid such different experiences and live in an alphabet'sworth of different dwellings, and yet they all share the same need and yearning for warmth and home.

In these last few weeks I have learnt to think quite differently about those warm home comforts which we never really give a second thought. Living in a wooden vehicle parked in a field means that nothing comes in or out of our home unless we physically bring it about. Water must be collected from somewhere (at present a tap for watering flowers by gravestones in the churchyard down the lane), and waste water emptied. And warmth too must be collected ... we have spent much of our time since being here walking with rucksack and saw to nearby forests to find fallen branches and bring them home in great quantities so as to keep ourselves warm. This, I know, sounds romantic and perhaps a little obvious... but actually finding enough dry, uninhabited wood and carrying it back again is a constant occupation of ours in this cold weather. We have been lucky down here in this southern foot of England to escape rainclouds, but instead the sky has brought us thin blankets of snow and frosts that freeze last night's bathwater to crackling.

So we bought some bags of coal to augment the logs and it burned hot and fierce for two days. Then the stove began to smoke.. and not just out of the chimney. It smoked from the door, from the all the seals and bolt holes and from the collars at each flue joint. We coughed and coughed and opened windows. Freezing cold with streaming eyes we realised the stove couldn't be used any more. So for the next two days we had a fire outdoors, where the smoke could escape. We watched the stars and made hot water bottles to warm the twoquilted bed which we ran to as the embers died. The next evening the gas ran out! So that night we cooked dinner and boiled hotwaterbottle water on the outdoor fire and in the morning (after heating a precarious cupful of water for tea on an upturned camping-gas heater) I trekked out to find a new calor gas bottle while Tui stayed at home and dismantled the fire and re-fire-cemented all the joints before putting it back together again. I won't go into long boring detail about my day of gas hunting except to say that it wasn't unlike Frodo's journey to Mount Doom, but with more disappointments and train cancellations and refusals of busdrivers to take me due to "hazardous chemicals". A final arm-achingly arduous trek brought me back to a delightfully warm and smokefree Bedford! Our home is wonderful, but with no fire it is very much less so.. and in these modern days of central heating, it is no longer appreciated how very important warmth in the winter is. The next day we cleaned the chimney and found that the coal had left such a thick black sooty residue that there had been only a couple of centimetres of air left for the smoke to escape. Now we burn just wood and little nuggets of smokeless fuel.

In all these days of tending to our daily basic needs, neither of us has had time to create anything. I have begun but not finished a drawing by daylight, which begins to fade around half past three. We have bought a little generator to power laptops, a phone charger and a desk lamp, and now at long last have the internet too. Soon we'll be more established and I'll be able to reopen my shop and begin making clocks again. Town is not far away and my family is much nearer by than before, so we have had lovely days walking between the sunlit appletree stakes, and drinking cups of tea.

We have felt very much more outdoors than you do inside the walls of a house. Nature is right there. You don't have to go out into it, you are already there. It affects you more directly for good or ill. I have weathered cheeks, twig-scratched arms and dirt beneath my fingernails. The skies are beautiful and the blackbirds tiptoe their little threetoed birdfeet across our roof in the mornings. It is freezing in the night when we climb down from the luton bed and run outside to wee; and the low sun and the cracking of forest underfoot and the smell of woodsmoke from the chimney make our hearts soar.