For some time now Jim Grogan had been worried about his field which was increasingly edged by houses. He did not own the land at the top of the slope and had to put up with all the diggers and contraptions that mulched up the soil as the housing estate grew day after day. New house-owners rapidly moved in and from then on he felt as though every window, curtained, or with French blinds, Austrian drapes or whatever, held someone watching him as he walked across his land with his dog.
For several years now he had rented it out to Eamon Keogh, who grew onions for a food factory in Sligo, manufacturing chutneys and crisps. By the time of the autumn harvest the entire district smelled like a large bag of crisps.
“Who’s eating crisps on this bus/” a pernickety pensioner would ask as the four-a-day local bus sailed past the field. “Why don’t they take the empty packets home with them! Litter louts!” And so it would go on, year after year. And then old man Keogh died and it turned out that his son was not interested in farming any more.
“Yes, I know it’s a surprise. Sorry, won’t be renewing the contract on the field, I’m going in for tropical fish, that’s always been my hobby. Just tagged along with dad, had to. Sad he’s gone and all, but there’s Mum to think of as well, she’s in a bit of a state too, you see.” Jim Grogan had not made any specific leasing arrangement and so it looked as though he would have to find a new tenant for next year in a hurry. No one was interested in renting a single field surrounded by new houses. Even the advantage of having Cleary’s pub right at the corner of the lane made no difference .
Cleary said he did not mind if the field was used for keeping horses, they were more picturesque to look at than any onion sets. But the weeks flew past and no one appeared. While quite abstemious, Jim still needed some income and was getting desperate. The first snows arrived and the field was wiped clean with just the rim of houses breaking the skyline. So when the phone call came one evening he was only too eager to agree to a new tenant moving in.
“It’s the field at the edge of the main road, isn’t it? Just interested to see I’ve got the right place after all.”
“Yes, just past the bus stop and Cleary’s pub is on the corner, you can’t miss it.”
The new tenant, Basil, had no quibbles about the rent and paid three months’ worth in cash as deposit right away. He arrived with his wife, a black-haired beauty dressed in a flowing multi-coloured dress. In fact Basil and Rhona were both hippyish, but all the better, Jim thought, as people like them were always interested in anything to do with land and agriculture.
“Not sure yet which crop to set, lots to think over before spring, you know what it’s like,” Basil said breezily, “Sugar beet’s been rather overdone round here and I noticed that there’s not as much rapeseed as there was a couple of years ago, fashion or trade, you never really know. We keep a few horses over Fortfield way too, and Rhona’s family have small market garden, they supply a few of the farm shops in the county. This is amazing, we’re lucky it’s such a convenient situation, couldn’t have asked for anything better.” And so it was settled and Jim ambled into Cleary’s and had a lone celebratory drink, not telling the few locals there that evening anything about the new arrangement.
Nothing happened until summer approached, when a faint red bloom spread across the field. But soon one further red bloom showed up after another and it was obvious the field was becoming covered with poppies. Its shocking bright scarlet splash of colour stood out from the plain humble green of other surrounding crops in the district and the houses sited on the skyline were like toys left out after a child’s bedtime. People started to talk about it. The bus driver was surprised at first, then he noticed more passengers and more hikers appearing. News spread about the scarlet field and photographers and then artists flocked to the scene. They stayed for drinks in the pub and swapped tips about paint techniques. Various artists’ groups arrived from nearby counties by the coachload.
Local publicity magazine journalists turned up too. One of them contacted the local radio station, who had to admit it was wasted on mere radio and it was definitely a made-for-TV spectacle. Prizewinning photographers took photos for future calendars and birthday cards. Soon the poppy field was on Facebook and established internationally. Local artists had a new impetus and many previously bored painters came out and started to paint enthusiastically again. Exhibitions showed walls full of brightly-hued poppies in close-up or as a wide sweep of red. Only Jim Grogan was angry. He knew the field was ruined, not just by this invasion of tourists to Chapel Lane, but because the poppy seeds would be in the ground forever and could turn up again in the midst of another crop.
The art supplies shop in the nearest town had soon run out of vermilion, cadmium red and had even managed to shift tubes of the less safe carmine, scarlet lake, crimson lake, geranium lake and even rose madder and magenta.
“And you know,” the shopkeeper said, “Red is a fugitive colour, it can change dramatically and it’s not always stable. It can fade, the hue will completely disappear and ruin a painting if you’re not careful. It’s almost the same cycle, really, you could say it’s like a poppy field in a tube.”
Even the marble was warm to the touch. As I struggled up two long flights of pure marble, white steps without blemish, I thought of poor Cardinal O’Fiaich, come to plead for the hunger strikers, struggling up a similar flight of stairs, as Margaret Thatcher stood at the top, looking down, waiting, watching him struggle but never forfeiting her prestige to come down to the landing and meet him halfway. Marble stairs have that effect on some people.
The Kunsthistoriches Museum, Vienna ? What was I doing there in this heat?
Looking for Jan Vermeer’s The Studio, after years of reproductions.
But there were obstacles, other paintings hung on the way there. Primarily Wolf Huber (1485 -1553) Erlosungsallegorie, (after 1543,) or The Allegory of Salvation.
It was everything at once. Right there was the same grey snake that swished past the window here last month (a hot day in Suffolk) at the left, hung over its own wooden cross. No trace of the Good or Bad thieves; not essential for this story. The donor of the painting, a Prince Bishop no less, Wolfgang Graf von Salm, was ‘depicted kneeling in the foreground as patron.’ He took up nearly a quarter of the painting and anyone from De Valera’s Ireland would have felt the psychological truth here; priests were more important than the religion they were supposed to be about, or propping up.
However, the really shocking thing, once you had got over that, was the loin-cloth wound round Christ’s nether regions. Usually just a bind of white cloth, this one furled across the painting like sheets hung in a gale. It fluttered and spun, there was almost an entire white cherub flying away from him, like sperm taking shape, a white baby without any need of a female.
The baby’s head, foremost, and its hands, hovered over a castle, where, at the entrance, St Peter was busy healing a lame man. Moses was somewhere, apostles were somewhere. No Mother Mary or Magdalene girlfriend; no puzzled young St John. Only the Prince Bishop and an almost dancing Christ, his ballooning banner, and the gigantic priest, kneeling, looking right at you, dressed in virgin white. God the Father, already an old man in 1543, sat in the sky on a glass world globe, a film director absolute, a TV symbol , a logo so far unused.
The religious rooms filled with writhing bodies, fig leaves falling diplomatically on men and sudden chiffon wisps around the women’s groins. Only cherubs were allowed to have real penises and even they were rationed out, with most of the babes left in strange contortions to solve the modesty problem.
A wonderful sado-masochistic portrait, by Peter Paul Rubens, The Lamentation of Christ, of Mary and St John mourning the dead Christ showed a delectably-torsoed Christ, bruised face, eyes akimbo, lusciously lying in their arms. The young John, loyal as ever, looked embarrassed, a puzzled and sad teenager. Mary, however hard she tried to be like a distraught mother looked, instead, that she could have been John’s girlfriend, as she was apparently younger than her own son.
I had forgotten that special tint of green that is used wherever any part of skin needs moulding towards the shadows. It was everywhere; it was the only proper way out of hot flesh tints; it was Terre Verte.
It was a relief to enter a room of landscapes for a rest, with skies, sailing-boats and trees. Nearby, the still lifes were still eatable after several centuries, the zing of lemon-peel still gave out its acid spurt. the silver also had not tarnished nor the blue and white china or the glass been cracked or broken. Here was Abraham van Beyeren 1620-1696 inviting you to lunch. The raised-crust pie (blackberry? surely not?) had a good slice cut, making your mouth water. Accompanied by white wine or cider; a good midday break for any painter or patron. As these was food not flowers, the usual Dutch ladybird was not present.
And there was Vermeer, as always. And, like INXS, you were there.
After all the centuries, the studio was still quiet, he was still painting, the girl was still not quite sure if she had the right pose. Other things showed up better here – the sharp line of the curtain at the left, its cascade of dark colours. Most of all what came through was the painter’s intent, his concentration. He is just at the beginning of the portrait, the euphoric part, where nothing has gone wrong yet. His dynamic black outfit, black velvet beret and the straggling spaghetti blacks streaming down his back were like sharp stabs of music, breaking (or expressing?) that tension. Filling in all his back with black would have deadened it all into one gigantic silhouette, plonk, black.
People drifted, strode up to it and took photos. If, as native Indians and other sensible tribes believed, in taking someone’s photograph you stole part of their soul, then somehow Jan Vermeer’s soul kept giving and giving and giving. I had come here especially to see him. Love would not be the right word ; it was more specific than that. His black and white floor-tiles zoomed out at us, saying ‘ binnenkomen’ and though even a friend had the same black and white lino tiles in her kitchen, it was not the same. This perspective was perfect, magical.
We could never get in. He would never turn round and the girl would never shift from one foot to the other. The prancing gold chandelier would never be lit. But I was here, eyes filled with tears.
After that the walls of worthy burghers and their apple-cheeked wives, the writhing fleshy allegories, obsessive compulsive disorder flower-paintings and the straitened religious tracts said very little. For all their stated energy, they were more concerned with the onlooker, the patron. There was only Rembrandt to counterbalance him, with his strange mixture of arrogance and humility. Siennas and umbers, the low warmths.
But the space Vermeer gave us stretched further, even as far as into these words written with a Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien pencil, Sunday 21st July 2014.
Utrillo and the Riots
(Maurice Utrillo, 1883 –1955)
Rich ghettoes are patrolled or gated, with electric coded pads, ironwork that can be seen through but not entered. Poor areas cannot afford gates; their barriers are invisible psychological ones. Keep out or we will stare at you, follow and probably mug you. Don’t pretend to be walking down these streets on the way to do anything. These streets belong to us.
The paintings of Maurice Utrillo are, for the most part, of empty Paris streets. There are few passers-by. No churchgoers for the Petite Communiante ( also known as Église de Torcy-en-Valois 1912), the Église des Blancs-Manteaux 1911, the Église de Clichy 1911, the Ėglise de Châtillon-sur-Seine and even the towering Église Saint Pierre et le Sacré-Coeur de Montmartre 1918 – these are all set in deserted streets, without parishoners.
The snow-bound Notre Dame de Clignancourt has one solitary wanderer outside the railings; the other few people are all going off into the distance. This is another constant in his paintings – the few people who do feature are usually going away from the spectator. This leaves the picture free to be entered by any viewer. I have read analyses of this aspect which thought that this symbolised his mother walking away from him; hardly likely, as he and his mother were still sharing a studio with André Utter in Rue Cortot until Utrillo’s marriage to Lucie Pauwels in 1935.
Maurice Utrillo was encouraged to paint by his artist-mother, Suzanne Valadon. He was a drunkard at the age of thirteen and was admitted to the Asylum of St Anne for alcoholism when he was under twenty years old. By his first year on Montmartre, in 1901, he did about 150 canvases. There are over two thousand paintings by him, almost all of Paris streets.
So there we have it- the artist sitting, painting in the city streets, annoyed by youngsters but otherwise left to his day’s painting.
These days the equivalent would be a photographer, snatching records of the protesters in a crowded city centre. The ghost of Utrillo lingers over any Parisian demonstration or riot; as the mayhem and destruction and casualties mount up, the walls and streets can still remind us of his paintings. But now they can be full of burning tyres and thrown fireworks, with crowds of disaffected youngsters facing off an increasingly militarised police.
The white-plastered walls, churches and deserted streets are from another era, like a dream.
A Poet in Love by Peter Davey, Arthur Stockwell Ltd, ISBN 978-0-7223-3957-2 £9.99
Books written by enthusiasts can bring fresh ides to a hackneyed subject. So, next after Jane Austen in that hierarchy, comes John Keats. They are both examples of fractured love and its influence on their writings.
For years Peter Davey has mined the details of Keats’ life, going over the physical terrain as well as the paper archives. The book is illustrated by paintings by Mari Davey of Hampstead and Piazza di Spagna and other places that feature in the life-story.
Detail after detail is hunted down – there is a list of events from 1795 (John Keats’ birth) to 1822 and the drowning of Percy Bysshe Shelley in Italy. The information is so complete that it would be useful for anyone wanting to have some research already neatly packaged and transformed into an entertaining read. The information is presented in a different way from an academic paper, which often has a particular agenda to follow, including rivalry with other academics and institutions.
In “A Poet in Love” the story is presented clearly and with telling focus. There are always unexpected gems in the work of enthusiasts like this..
While most people know the trajectory of John Keats’ destiny, this book takes us deeper into the personal life with the correspondence between John and Fanny Brawne. It also manages to re-establish the good name of Fanny Brawne – too often easily depicted as a fickle hussy who let him down, leading to his quick downfall and that fateful trip to Italy.
An early photograph (ambrotype) from Keats House Museum shows a dark, Spanish-looking young woman, with a strong frame, totally unlike the usual delicate nineteenth century maiden. The letters between John and Fanny show that she had a gifted turn of phrase and her writing complements his own. It is a compliment to the educational standards at the time that her letters sow a precise and fluent use of words.
Given future years together, the combination of Fanny and John would have been an enrichment of John Keats’ poetry output.
As well as Fanny Brawne, other people are brought out of the shadows and given a definite shape. This, too, is the result of careful research.
The poems (27 are mentioned here) remain as the structure of that relationship too. Other poems depict the natural setting of Hampstead at the time as they wove their daily life around the lane that now bears his name.
This is a book that both academics and the general reader will find valuable, as it approaches the life of John Keats in a fresh manner with a carefully selected range of illustrations.
1 What am I working on?
Well, apart from painting for the next exhibition, there is an accumulation (it can’t be called anything else) of a memoirish-novel which is at present a pile of papers that keeps slithering to the floor. All extremely valuable stuff, you realise; straw that is waiting to be spun into gold, or at least fed through the computer.
2 How does my work differ from others of its genre?
Because I come at things from a painter’s stance, although that is enlivened by my mother’s lively Liverpool-Irish voice, her humour and love of talking in its own right. I also like breaking rules, like the current embargo on adverbs, (sadly, annoyingly.) I also can’t stand The Hero’s Quest format and would like him to stay at home instead.
3 Why do I write what I do?
Because no one else will do it like this and it will lay neglected otherwise. Plus, it begins like an itch and I have to attend to it now and again. Ignoring the impulse is no use -it does not go away. Paper and biro is the only cure.
4 How does your writing process work?
There is no ‘process.’ It goes by the phases of the moon , or some other unknown timetable. Weeks without and then all day and biro under the pillow – and then an exhausted stop. I am not one for the formal 1,000 words a day grind. You can feel those parts of a novel where the writer has just gritted their teeth and soldiered on, to fulfil their allotted daily stint. They reach 300 + pages of unneeded words. It shows in poems where the lines are slack, just to fill the page, but have no oomph.
The process mimics pregnancy, the itch, the nausea, the quickening, the ballooning, the removal of interest in everything else, the strain, the release and then the surprised looking at the ‘how did I do that?’ result. And then, showing it, book or baby, to the world!
Love & Loyalty by Jay Margrave,
Goldenford Publishers, ISBN 978-0-9559415-4-2
Jane Austen is the patron saint of unrequited love. In the new book ‘Love and Loyalty’, Jay Margrave assembles a believable account, piecing together a possible love-affair which was used as the well-spring of the six completed novels.
In 1799 in the midst of England’s war with Napoleonic France, a young Jane Austen becomes involved with an injured French sea-captain, Tomas Priedeux. Her sea-going brother Frank has smuggled the injured man back to the house at Steventon. The story picks up energy as we are flung into the crisis of the war at sea and on land.
Taken behind the scenes at Steventon (“She was never sure how much the servants knew”) and privy to Jane’s thoughts -for once- this is history livened up with impeccable research. Snippets from the era are dropped in niftily. ‘A family tradition was recorded…. that on one of the summer holidays a mutual attraction had arisen between Jane and some unnamed gentleman who was visiting the sea coast, but that he had died suddenly before
he could return to become an accepted suitor.’ ( Jane Austen,The World of Her Novels, Deirdre Le Faye p29.)
Observing the complex minuet of early nineteenth century relations between middle-class men and women, Tomas manages to deliver a proposal by page 61. Jane, on the other hand is already weighing up marriage and the problem of moving to live in France by page 47.
But from there on, Tomas and Jane are star-crossed lovers. However, this is not another claustrophobic drawing room-enclosed novel; there are vivid filmic scenes of shipwrecks and the tragic results of warfare. This is the men’s world that Jane knew from letters and newspaper accounts, as well as her own family’s involvement. Her favourite brother,Frank, also a captain, had left home to join the navy at the age of 12. Other men, however, were press-ganged into going to sea.
Sometimes a character has a great load of exposition to do as Mrs Austen, for instance, in: ‘Nor did I, descended from aristocracy as I am, expect to be assisting the housemaids.’ The romantic figure of Eliza de Feuillide, Jane’s cousin, swirls into the drama and threatens to run away with the entire plot, but her background intrigue smooths over some of the social difficulties.
Of course, this being the ‘life’ of Jane Austen and not the novel, Tomas dies at sea as the English raid his ship. Her mourning becomes the foundation of the written heroes she constructed – ‘they would propose and the couple would live happily ever after.’ This is the inner world that Jane Austen distilled in her works – ‘I believe she sits in the folly at the bottom of the garden, secretly writing. Although of course we all know she does it, but we pretend we don’t,’p57
‘Love and Loyalty’ gives anyone hungering for more the excuse to enter that world again and wander round, opening doors and watching people arrive, adding more complications.
(Taken from an October review in Link, the National Association of Writing Groups’ magazine)