Wednesday 25 February 2009

View through the portholes

LOOK! Can you see through these porthole-goggles? It's the sea!

Outside our round windows there are seagulls and seamist and seasongs and sea!
Yes indeed we have made it to the coast! Here we are parked at the end of a little lane on the top of a cliff where we can see miles of greyblue water, gently approaching and withdrawing from the stony edge of this land where we are. The sounds are different and there is salt and seasleepiness in the air. We hear the sqa sqa of gulls swooping and the bluck-clucking of a yardful of chickens kept in the grounds of an interesting eggshell blue house with a round tower just over there. We hear from time to time a deep low boom from out at sea which for a while in our imaginations was pirate-cannons or whale-thunder or ...
well apparently it's the exploding of bombs that have gone past their sell by date would you believe it!

This little spot is where people come to walk their dogs, car after car pulls up by us all through the daylight hours and we are beginning to recognise people by Whippet or Wolfhound, Setter or Husky... We were apprehensive. How long would it take for someone to ring the council? There is after all a No Overnight Parking, Campers or Caravans sign just there, and houses not far away either. So we put a temporary sign in the windscreen, propped against the steering wheel, saying this is our house... and watched as folks stopped and read. What a delight people are here! Not one hostile word yet, nor any sign of a council man. In the mornings while still beneath the duvet we overhear the early dog walkers saying "oo look" and "what a nice idea" and "where are the horses?" to one another, while their snuffling bounding companions snuffle and bound about the wheels.

We have walked and walked by the cliff edges and have found such things along the coast as forests and Roman Forts, gorse bushes and cooing doves. And we have crunched along the stones at the water's edge where strings of seaweed drape themselves over the tide breakers, and collected driftwood in abundance for our fire. Tui took me for breakfast the other day in a tiny cafe down the road a bit. He has been crouching by the breaking waves and catching sea sounds in his electronic sound net, and we have enjoyed spending our days by the sea.

I have had time to begin two new paintings (one of which will be a clock) and to work on a lovely map commission for someone who is to be married in the summer. She wanted her overseas guests to be able to find the wedding with a hand drawn medievalish sort of map that could direct them from the main airports and show the important old towns nearby. I am delighted to say that she is skipping with excitement about it, and I am rather pleased with it too.

Best of all we have been touched by the kindness of a visitor.. A dear lady called Maria who cares for rescued dogs read our sign and was the first person bold enough to knock on our door!
She offered a possible place to park in the hills of Wales where her sister lives... and was kind. And today she returned not only with her sister's address but a delicious bagfull of cheeses and walnut bread and olives and sundried tomatoes and biscuits and oaty chocs and yellow tulips! We sat and had tea in the sea air and were glad indeed for kind hearted people as we pass by.

As I write, the sun is setting and Tui is gathering sticks on the beach for a fire-by-the-water. In a while we will stumble down the steep and eat our food gifts with some wine by the burning driftwood, knowing that just out there in the blackness is the Edge of England. If I am feeling exceedingly brave, I might jump in the waves and out again ... and then scuttle back to the firelight to dry.

We have been noticing the importance of moving on in this itinerant life. It is of course a rather obvious thing to say... but you get a little bit settled where you are if things are ok, even in a carpark. You start to know the little walks and develop a routine quite quickly. A sort of lazy familiarity lurks there too.. and this can only be swept away by driving off.
It is so nice to meet new people in their place, and to see something different out of the window. It is a privilege to be able to experience the land like this I think. When your house is stuck to the earth you develop a different sort of relationship with it. Equally beautiful, but it feels like ownership. And when passing through you can see the bits of earth that others call their own, and enjoy them for a while. Perhaps one day we will want to stop and put down roots somewhere and grow vegetables, but for now, we are loving the wandering, and the turning up in new places, and the making it home for a spell.

Sunday 22 February 2009

Burnt orange evenings

HEN THE SUN goes down, our evenings are orange. Lit by oil lamps and candles and smoking logs, lugged far and sawn to keep us warm. We squint at our meals cooking and peer into the shadowy sink to find spoons, read books by little circles of orange where the furthest away words on the page fall off the edge into the darkness.

The other day we took our home to the garage to be mended.. we hope the six expensive new diesel injectors will make the engine breathe more easily. While we waited for the work to be done, we drank pots of tea and ate scones too early in the morning. We wandered into interesting old bookshops and I bought a chamberpot in a brickabrack place. I found a delightfully dog-eared story called Tale of Sister Vixen and the Wolf with turn of the century Russian illustrations, a beginner's guide to Anglo Saxon Literature and Ted Hughes' collected poems which I find just beautiful. We sat by the wharf in Faversham, ate monkey nuts, and read the books until the engine was better...

And we have spent days hunting for lovely spots to put our house with not much luck, though there is a perhaps place by the sea where we might sneak for a few days. Life in the carpark is not so bad ... I have been drawing and painting and the days have been mild like the beginning of spring, and I sold the original painting of The Visitors too!
I leave you with some words made beautiful by Ted Hughes about an evening.

Full Moon and Little Frieda

A cool small evening shrunk to a dog bark and the clank of a bucket -
And you listening.
A spider's web, tense for the dew's touch.
A pail lifted, still and brimming - mirror
To tempt a first star to a tremor.

Cows are going home in the lane there, looping the hedges with their warm
wreaths of breath -
A dark river of blood, many boulders,
Balancing unspilled milk.
'Moon!' you cry suddenly, 'Moon! Moon!'

The moon has stepped back like an artist gazing amazed at a work
That points at him amazed.

Ted Hughes

Friday 13 February 2009

Gnarls in the Branches

LAST NIGHT brought a sprinkling of snows that seemed to fall underneath the streetlamps only, but this morning the snow is gone. This corner of the country is the bare toe poking out from under the snow blanket that covers the rest of England. The skies have a leaden lowness to them here and the winds are chilly. We have discovered a little track that winds behind the carpark fence and takes you into muddy fields and eventually forests, where we've seen treeroots knotted like old ladies' contemplative fingers, abandonded trailers and puddles which turn the trees upsidedown. And we've eaten peanutbutter sandwiches and talked to horses with coats on, and worn our legs out walking for miles.

Back in the truck I have been hunkering down at my desk with an oil lamp and headphones and painted fervently, trying to pretend that the view out of the window is not tarmac.
Melanie has commissioned me to paint four seasons of crows, the winter aspect of which I made last October. She has been waiting patiently for the next one and I have finally completed it.
This painting has been through a gnarled struggle of sorts.. mainly because I drew it out onto the watercolour paper way back before we left Scotland and it has sat tucked inside the sketchpad ready to paint since then. Somehow the momentum of a work gets lost for me if I leave a gap that long within the process of working on it. So I tried to paint it and there were moments when I thought it might be getting somewhere but by the end I despised it. Really it was so dreadful I had to start again. And of course when this happens my confidence plummets to a place where I am convinced I can no longer do it.

I needed to replensish my reserves of inspiration and so buried myself in various Arthur Rackham books... A master and a half he was, and also an accomplished drawer of crows and gnarly branches. I looked in close detail at his lines and tones and marvelled. I think to try to emulate the old masters is a good way to learn, but it raises an interesting dilemma for me: because imitating a contemporary feels very wrong, epecially the copying of ideas ... so why is it alright if the artist is dead? Artists in days gone by would have always learned by copying their predecessors and I think this is an extremely valuable learning method, for somehow the knowledge enters you through the pen and bypasses your rational brain, eventually becoming lodged inside your subconscious fingertips.. so that you are just better at it than before!
It seems to me similar to the oral tradition of passing down stories from generation to generation, but instead of tales, design ideas and specific ways of making image are passed down, and over time this knowledge is naturally subtly altered with each person it passes through.

Ever since my schooldays, I have had an aversion to someone looking over my shoulder and copying.. it makes me cross, it is as if I am being stolen from. I remember an occasion when I was about 9 and we were asked at school to draw our initial made from all the things that represented the thing we loved to do best. I painstakingly drew a letter R with the straights made from pencils and paintbrushes and the semicircle was a protractor. (not that I was keen on maths, it just belonged to the contents of my pencil case which meant drawing to me) But being a slow dreamer-Rima, another boy whose name also began with R had taken my idea and got to the teacher to show his drawing first. I was very annoyed, but this beady-eyed teacher knew what had gone on, and told him off for copying. I was inwardly relieved. And to this day, the idea of someone taking something that represents me and passing it off as their own somehow panics me. It's as if on some inner level I am being erased I suppose. I think this is more relevant when it comes to ideas... it's ok to learn by copying another's technique, beneficial in fact. But it must be filtered through your own eyes and ideas before becoming an artwork I think.

So, I have studied Rackam's works at close proximity these last few days and been inspired. I have made a work not nearly as wonderful as his, it is different... it's my own ... but I was helped by a skilled teacher long dead.

Sunday 8 February 2009

The neighbours beyond the curtains

COR BLIMEY It's been ages since I wrote here! These last two weeks have taken us from countryside to townside and through a fair few despairs. Here follows a tale of moving on, the sour particulars of which will be familiar to travelling folk across the centuries.

We were quite happily enjoying our as-long-as-we-like stay in the orchard and pottering away at work, barn clearing for the owner, trying to keep out of the rain and even meeting some kind locals with whom we shared soup, when we came across a nasty little knot of hostility which has forced us to leave. However romantically one thinks of this life it never pays to forget that the hostility is always bubbling there under the neatly trimmed hedges and behind the carefully arranged net curtains everywhere we go.

On a sunny January morning on heading out for a walk down the lane, we were rushed at by a snarling neighbour who greeted us with not a hello but "how long are you going to be living there?" .. "it's not very nice for us to have to look at you milling about!" (with extra spit on the italicized words and a dismissive wave of the hand)
Well! Said we.. that isn't a very friendly hello! Who are you? I don't think we have met before. And sorry that you have obviously been harbouring such anger, ("I'm NOT angry" said she)
Could you not have come over and had a chat with us, and talked about your concerns?
"No" said she, "you might have come out raging at me... I mean you just don't know do you... I mean, you might have had DOGS!" But said we, have you seen any dogs? We have been here for a month! We have not made any noise and we take all our rubbish away, we are quiet people, and don't want to bother anyone. It seems that our very presence bothers you very much. "Oh NO" said she "I mean don't get me wrong, I haven't got anything against you personally, I mean I have friends who are gypsies! And I like vintage vehicles" ...
But have we disturbed you in anyway? said we ...
"No" said she ... "But this is the winter.. who knows what you might get up to in the summer!"

And on the discussion went.. she gradually softened as her fear subsided, realising we weren't all she and her fellow gossipers might have imagined, and perhaps feeling bad for her initial attack.. I gave her this blog address and we jokingly told her to watch out because she she might well find herself there!

And so we walked on down the lane with knots in our bellies, feeling very much affected by this blatant dislike.
We had offered to move down to the other end of the field where we could not be seen "milling about" and were hidden by trees, but had to wait until the muddy ground hardened a bit before we could attempt it.

Then next morning we sat with our coffee and the back door open in the cold low morning sun watching the friendly blackbirds hop about our wheels. And we noticed a man, suited and bald, with a notebook, standing perhaps 200 yards from us, staring, staring right in our open door. And talking on his phone. And writing notes. And then he got back into his car and drove away.

Later that day we heard that there had been a phonecall to the kind orchard owner from the council. It was a second complaint which they had had to follow up. (The first had been on the day of our arrival).. Now the orchard owner could have said: they are my friends and this is my land, I gave them permission to stay there for a while. But he is in the early stages of applying for that strange thing that is planning permission. He plans to do up the tumbledown barn that stands in the orchard, and because of this he has to keep his neighbours sweet.

So we had to go.

But we were stuck in the mud.
And we had to wait for a frost.
And all the while we waited, we imagined nasty words, fears and shakings of heads behind all the curtains that twitched towards the orchard. And we felt unwanted. The kindness of our one soup-sharing friend meant all the more to us and by that we were warmed. (Thank you Kate!)

When we eventually did get all our bits and pieces packed up and any toppling items stowed carefully on the floor, the engine started with a worrying judder and billows of black exhaust smoke.
We manoeuvred our house gently between the apple trees and juddered to the church car park just down the road to assess our situation. The juddering was worrying and of course the hole in the radiator is still corked with a bolt. There followed a hearts-in-mouths journey avoiding the motorway to a garage who told us when we arrived that they wouldn't and couldn't work on this size of vehicle. So we limped on to the good old park and ride. And there we remain.

For £2.50 for 24 hours we can be here and bus in and out of town whenever we like... From here we can hunt for garages who will work on our juddering engine and we can sell pictures when we run out of money. I have even jumped on a train to visit my family and left Tui beneath the snowdrifts. It's not as picturesque a spot as we like best, but there is beauty here nevertheless, hidden between the railings and ticket barriers, and nature gloriously singing and unaware of its island-like existence in the middle of a ringroad.

When we were last here we heard from the friendly carpark attendant that there had once been a woman who had lived here for a year. And what to our interested eyes should be parked here on our return but an anonymous looking mercedes camper with a sock stuffed in for a fuel cap. Perhaps this lady might be a different sort of neighbour? Perhaps she has a story to tell? She is a mystery to us... she spends her days and nights in there with the curtains drawn, only emerging to rev her engine at all hours, for some unknown purpose. We have glimpsed her outdoors now and then staring at the sky, or visiting the dustbins, but a hello from us results only in a wordless grimace and a turning away of the head. I wonder about her living in that van alone and in her 70s. What is her tale?

It is easy when you are sensitive like we are for scowls and disapproval to affect you negatively, and make you feel that the world is a dreadful place full of people who should largely be avoided. We have taken great strength from those folks who come and chat and are kind. A lovely blog reader who I did not know presented me with a book on Somerset Folklore the other day whilst out selling! (Thank you Alice!) Such kindesses as well as the cheering ons left by all of you in the comments section here really make a difference. And we also happened upon a spirit-lifting book about off-grid living that is full of interesting tales of folk living gently and cheaply and lightly and invariably getting up noses of neighbours. How To Live Off-Grid by Nick Rosen is an interesting and informative exploration of all manner of ways to escape the rat-race. (It sports the most dreadful jacket cover I have ever seen, but don't let that put you off!) The experiences detailed in this book show that many of the Neighbours Who Complain are in fact moneyed second home buyers from cities who believe that they have bought the view along with their house and anyone altering it by stepping across it is not to be tolerated.

So we are here. Trying to get on with work and other essentials. Tui has been up on the roof today painting sort of rubbery tar stuff over the sneaky leaks and I have been sewing curtains (rather late in the day but there we go) out of old patched trousers and decorators' floorcloth. Whether or not these curtains will be twitched remains to be seen!

We are planning our next trajectory too. I think to combat the inevitable hostility which we will find in every corner, we must be quite forward, which is not in our hermit-like natures at all. We must knock at potential complainants' doors to give them an opportunity to meet us and to allay seeds of fears. We have spotted a secret little leafy lane somewhere which would be a delightful spot to stay awhile, but we feel sure that a dogwalker would report us to the council within a day.. so I plan to make a big sign to hang outside the truck saying THIS IS WHO WE ARE, we are travelling artists, here for a short spell, you can see what we do here at this website, and please feel free to knock with any concerns for a cup of tea and a chat. Perhaps this might weed out the wondering waiverers .. no doubt there'll still be the odd sour-faced narrow-minded person who will not be moved, and sooner or later the council will come. But I have read up on the council's policy for gypsy and traveller encampments and hope to be able to talk openly and sensibly with the council too about our way of life. And maybe, just maybe, they'll leave us for 28 days. And then we'll move on.