I can’t find my notes. I’ve moved my office space around twice since the time I had them. I flick through dozens of aborted moleskin journals, the first half a dozen pages of each filled with urgent, unravelling scrawl, and … Continue reading
One of the reasons why I haven’t written much over the past few months is this little thing. ‘Permanence’ was a work commissioned by the Borlase Smart John Wells Trust to celebrate the legacy of Porthmeor Studios.
The Studios sit on Porthmeor beach in St Ives, facing the Atlantic. In the late nineteenth century, fishermen worked in the building to press pilchards and mend nets. As the fishing industry began its decline, artists started to arrive in the town, lured by the extraordinary light. Porthmeor’s net lofts became studios, and over the course of the twentieth century artists such as Ben Nicholson, Terry Frost, Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, Patrick Heron, Tony O’Malley, Francis Bacon and Sandra Blow worked there alongside the fishermen who continued their trade. Lack of maintenance and a century of formidable coastal weather took its toll upon a building barely more than a shed built up from an old sea wall. The Studios were close to collapse before funding was secured two years ago to renovate and rescue it.
What struck me about Porthmeor Studios, even more than its history, was its vitality. It’s still a working space for artists and fishermen, and art classes take place regularly in its upper studios where the St Ives School of Painting is based. My fellow editor Paul Tucker and I researched Porthmeor’s history and wanted to contribute to its phenomenal output. We commissioned local poets to write original work, interviewed key people involved in the renovation, and even did a little bit of writing ourselves. Finally, we teamed up with the talented and dedicated illustrator Rebecca Jones and super-designer Dan Bloomfield to create 400 copies, each with a special die-cut cover. The Trust will soon put these on sale.
More information about the renovation can be found here.
The painting in front of me hangs proudly on its wall, rich in its age, an age that I cannot begin to comprehend. It began life as a white canvas. An Irishman, slender, red-bearded, set it on a stand in his Newlyn studio in 1889 and made it into a work of art. It was one of the largest canvas boards he’d ever worked upon; it was to be his masterpiece.
He needed it to be. He was not long married. He had a young child and a second on the way, and he was struggling to make a living from his work. Years of hesitancy over careers must have weighed heavily on Norman Garstin as he painted: he’d attempted engineering, architecture, diamond mining and journalism, all without success. An accident whilst hunting had blinded his right eye; it was while he was adjusting to partial sight that he decided to become an artist. He had trained for years in Europe and then settled in remote Newlyn, having heard of its promising art colony. He was now 42 years old. He had to make this work.
The Rain It Raineth Every Day hangs in Penzance’s Penlee Gallery, and is a work of realism that captures an unmistakable English scene: a wide promenade on a rainy day, across which stride dark, coated figures with sturdy umbrellas, indifferent to the spent wave breaking across the walkway in the background.
As I stare at it now, I try to suppress a feeling of disappointment. It’s just that it’s different from what I remembered. My parents had hung a print of it on the wall of their old living room, directly over the TV. It would gaze austerely out at the room, whilst technicolour sparked and fizzed underneath. I remember it as gloomy and grey. I would stare up at it sometimes when I was trying to do my Maths homework, or whilst eating my tea. It sobered me.
The original is not so gloomy, not so grey. It carries hints of pinks and blues that provide it with a luminescence, another layer of meaning, that the print couldn’t carry forward. ‘Time and again, when looking at a Garstin picture, one’s initial reaction is of slight disappointment,’ writes Richard Pryke, the artist’s main biographer. My disappointment differs from the sort towards which he gestures, but I take the reassurance all the same.
Pryke says: ‘If one concentrates on the picture, its true composition becomes evident and its different parts fall into place’, and it is true that I have walked around this gallery, looked at the other works, and returned to this one alone for another look. I stand at different distances and angles, trying to catch the light off its surface; I puzzle over the unfinished quality to the main figure’s face. I work hard to make my disappointment disappear.
I guess I feel guilty for preferring the print. The Rain It Raineth is Penlee Gallery’s jewel, and the fact that it is here at all carries sadness. Garstin never managed to sell his masterpiece, and left it to the gallery as a gift. Not being able to sell it changed the course of his life, reducing the number and quality of works that he produced, uprooting him from Newlyn, triggering mental illness and marital strain.
The original now hangs with pride and does not disclose its creator’s misfortunes. As for the print – The Rain It Raineth that I know was taken down when my parents moved. It lies in their new living room, torn and unframed in the dark behind the sofa, while brighter, more disposable prints take its place above the flickering screen.
I was in one of the most westerly places on the mainland. That made me one of the last people in Britain – one of the last who were watching, waiting for it, that is – to see the sun rise on Saturday.
Before it rose, it made the hills glow. Two hills, that folded over each other the way that picturesque hills do. The sun, if it had been equally acquiescent to the picturesque ideal, would have risen between them, straight up out of the hillside’s crease. One hill, however, was glowing a little brighter than the other.
It was quiet as I peered out of the front door of Johny’s caravan. A flock of seagulls took off towards the sea as I did so, startled, soundless. Their silent kinesis, conducted at roof height, seemed eerily out of character as if Something had Happened. The air had been left cold by the night, and its chill made its way down my neck. I tucked my chin into my anorak. It felt like I’d opened the door onto a vacuum that the sunrise was shortly about to burst.
The birds’ bellies and under-wings were half-lit by a sunrise that hadn’t yet reached me. From the birds I traced my gaze to the top of the nearest house. Then to its satellite dish. Then to the parked van, and to the odd rugby goalpost on a nearby patch of land that was presumably someone’s garden. I leant against the doorframe and willed myself to fall into a wonder about how it was that I was there. How incredible, barely believable it was that I had indeed been brave and left the South East. Here I was, in one of the wildest parts of Cornwall, leaning against a door frame, staring up at birds. Twenty seven years old, hundreds of miles away from everything that formed me, hundreds of miles away from old friends, old familiar places, and being able to see the sun rise on an ordinary Saturday October morning in Sennen.
It didn’t work.
I tried again. I was after the dizziness you get after being hit by the momentum of the present. I think that some people call it ‘experiencing the Sublime’. I wanted to feel it. But it didn’t come.
This time, surely.
Come on now, look at this stuff. Marvel.
I wanted to feel something right here, here at the base of my throat.
Then the sun rose, heaving itself up over the right hill like I thought it would.
I went to work.
After Saturday, I thought about London, where I worked between 2006 and 2011. I thought about it more than I usually do. I usually think about the city in terms of its roads – its ‘outsides’, rather than thinking about the city as a collection of insides, rooms upon rooms upon rooms. I’ve never been good with road names, and I’ve certainly forgotten most of the names of the roads that haunt my daydreams and sometimes penetrate my sleep. But back in 2010, when I lived in Dalston, N1, I used to know them. I took up running as a serious pastime and ran around Islington, Highbury, Newington Green, up towards Finsbury Park. I would look at the road signs, note the postcode in the bottom right hand corner. Sometimes, I would run to Finsbury Park, run around it, then stop and look out at the city. The straight roads, the small family-owned shops and family-owned restaurants, the flats above them, housing Londoners like me. I imagined the insides to mirror the outsides: dirty and almost certainly decrepit. I wanted to see these insides. I believed they would be beautiful.
I had taken to running as a means of escaping how the city made me feel. Caged. Separated from nature. Lonely. Mis-fitting. I used to race through those streets to try and feel alive. Today, I keep catching myself accessing that memory, of me running and stopping in Finsbury Park. There were raggedy billboard posters, neon pink and orange-yellow, advertising a circus. A group of men played football in the encroaching darkness, for it was winter, and the sun set by half four. The path was hard, small sandy pieces of grit under my trainers. The street – Finsbury Park Road, it might have been – was glazed in soot and grime. The land rose up on its hind legs and I felt the weight of North London bear down upon that place. The city’s hard upper crust of boroughs and sub boroughs. The choke of Holloway, Archway, Enfield. The layers and layers of urban-suburban-sub suburban space, stuffed with life, the release road of the M1 a gullet down which cars crammed and were squeezed along on their journeys by the muscles of the city. There, deep in the urban underlayer, the traffic was relentless. The buses went past, and past, and past. I remembered my sex; I felt unsafe. I looked at the flats above the family-owned shops and restaurants and I longed to be somewhere else.
But where, I no longer know. All that remains of that day is simply the memory of being where I didn’t want to be.
I think of Finsbury Park now and I let nostalgia make the base of my throat tickle with ache.
“When you give yourself to places, they give you yourself back,” writes Solnit in Wanderlust. Perhaps it was the distance travelled or the time elapsed, but once I left Brighton three things happened within the space of a few hours that made me reflect upon that sentence.
The first was brief: a sudden fear of disconnection with the coast. I boarded a busy morning bus from Brighton to Peacehaven, and within minutes felt anxious that I did not have my feet on the ground. I couldn’t tear my eyes off the coastline from which my feet had been severed; when the bus ducked inland briefly at Rottingdean, I felt a wave of irrational panic because I could no longer sense the sea.
The second was more substantial: a shaky reunion with the coast as I walked over the chalk cliffs of the Seven Sisters. Land that was smooth, grassy and fairly level formed folds that were accentuated the closer they came to the edge, then were sliced short, like a block of Viennetta. The cliff’s verticality was picturesque from a safe vantage point, but unsettling to walk on. There was nothing in its face that would break an accidental fall. As at Brighton beach, I had an odd sense of the land being active; I dismissed it because the chalk underfoot was new and strange to me; I was used to granite. I began to climb up and into the folds, noticing that there were no signs warning people of the sheer drop. People sat close to their edge, chatting and eating, possibly dangling their legs.
Then the land stopped correlating with cartography. I came across concrete pillboxes that perched quietly on the land, collecting litter from previous visitations, waiting, perhaps, to be used again. They were not on the map, and the implication of this hit me as I recalled that I was coming closer and closer to France. Then, the reverse: on map paper heavy with orange contour lines, I walked over ancient settlements and tumuli, their age indicated by the use of calligraphy script. On the ground itself, I saw no trace of these features, nor felt their imprint under my feet. Recalling my anxiety on the bus, I stopped looking at my map. From now on, I would follow my instinct and trust my feet. This was when things began to go wrong.
The cliffs were tough. They tugged at my calves as I scaled one fold after another. I was sure I had counted more than seven. And I was tired; really tired. I noticed that each fold had paths made from ruts in the chalk, little white nicks in the thin, grassy scalp that would make the climbs more manageable. Perhaps they had existed for centuries, for millennia. My eyes dropped to focus on my feet. Then followed the head. Left foot, right foot. The rhythm helped my mind wander, it returned to Brighton beach and lingered there. Then a wick of wind brought me back to the present; still walking, I lifted my head.
The land had vanished. Only dark sea and light sky, two separate halves of blue.
My back foot on the edge transferring weight – the lifting of the front leg
Reaching for land that wasn’t there –
The backward stumble of the body, as it screamed at the mind
To step away from the ed
A feeling of calm would eventually replace the convulsive waves of adrenaline and the deep breaths, the shake in the hands and legs. I should have seen how the path I had chosen streaked, from twenty metres inland, diagonally towards and over the edge, a route that had once continued upon land long since lost, eaten away by the sea. My mind returned, its shock fading while it threw forward disjointed memories of Alton Towers, a page of a book I was reading, the sea kelp near Bognor Regis, and my parent’s bathroom.
I started to walk again, checking each step until there were other things to worry about. Light was beginning to fail. Bracken was thickening and replacing the grass. Mist curled over the cliff. I hadn’t yet reached Beachy Head, the famous suicide hotspot. I returned to the map, worked out where I was, and saw that I was near a road that would take me there in safety. I moved inland.
The road was deserted, sweeping through the down-land. I dragged my feet on the asphalt, my shoulders rolling forwards. Once more, my head slipped down. Then the sound of a car, and a flash of approaching headlights. I moved onto the verge. As the car passed, I read ‘Beachy Head Chaplaincy Team’ on its side. Its engine note dropped as it slowed, and I turned to see it pull up at a lay-by, where it could see for miles around.
I’d heard of a suicide patrol team that watched over Beachy Head, approaching jumpers and offering help. This had to be them. The car’s engine was still running; I decided to watch. Perhaps they had been alerted to a potential suicide victim; perhaps they were looking to see whether cars had been abandoned further up the road.
The car continued to idle. I continued to watch.
Something had to happen.
Then a window was wound down. Despite the mist, I could see the driver, a woman with her blonde hair tied back.
“Are you looking for me?”
Each word clear, enunciated. A gentle, imploring emphasis on the ‘me’.
“Me?” I placed my palm onto my chest, mirroring her clarity. I didn’t know what else to do.
“You were looking in my direction. I wondered if you were looking for me.”
She too had been waiting for something to happen.
The hand on my chest formed a dismissive wave, an act of bravado, almost, to make it appear that I was fine. “No no, I’m not.” I turned and started to walk, realising how I must have appeared: alone, lost, depressed.
I never did make it to Beachy Head. By chance, a bus soon came along the road, ‘Eastbourne’ on its front. I boarded it before I could change my mind. This time I did not look out of the window, out at the mist. I stared at the face of my mobile phone, waiting for it to show bars of signal, feeling a flush of relief when they appeared.
“When you give yourself to places, they give you yourself back”: Solnit surely didn’t mean for her sentence to be experienced in quite this way, for her verb to darken and sharpen. Lying in a cheap hostel bed at Eastbourne that night, I listened to traffic outside the window. I stroked my thumb over the screen of my phone, held under the covers. I thought of the patrol car, possibly still out there, rescuing souls from themselves or from the land. I thought of Brighton beach, and I tried to sleep.
The following is an extract from my final Masters dissertation, written about my 80 mile walk along the Sussex coast in July. (The rest is, er, still being written…)
Brighton claimed me the moment I tilted back my head onto its shingle and heard the suck-hiss of the Channel working on the layers underneath. That shingle, pushed by the sea, piles up in a couple of increments like a set of stairs leading down to the shoreline: the further you walk down towards the sea, the greater the privacy from the city offered by the shingle’s layers. We were only halfway in, twenty metres away from the shoreline, our curiosity levels lowered by hangovers, yet as I lay there it was as if I were hearing the sea directly underneath my body as it roamed an underground cavern. No calm lapping, no sense of regular exhalation that I’ve come to associate with the shore. This was the sound of the sea feasting on the land.
Three of us had come to Brighton in order not to think. We’d been seeking pleasure in its more superficial and transient state as we sauntered through arcades and absent-mindedly browsed the emporiums. We’d drunk too much the night before, eaten junk food, bought tat from souvenir shops, and simply didn’t care that it was a Wednesday afternoon and that we weren’t at work. Why had we done this?
While my two companions threw pebbles into an empty disposable coffee cup with increasing competitiveness, I stared vacantly at the overcast sky and then realised that I had asked myself a question. I sat up, leaning on my forearms to look at the sea, properly, for the first time since I’d arrived. What I felt was a flutter of disappointment similar to what I’d felt that morning when I had poured a cup of tea in the room of our decadent, unhealthy hotel (with its licensed early morning bar, curly wurlys to accompany the sachets of tea and instant coffee, rock and roll posters on the walls). The tea had turned out the colour of dilute mud; barely a colour at all. A cup of tea in Cornwall was bright and golden, and as I stared at the Channel, I tried to find the right word for the similar sort of half-colour it was displaying.
I settled on ‘sunken green brown’. Hardly the sharp aquamarine of Kynance cove, or the teal-milk-blue of Falmouth’s bays when the weather was right. Yet thousands of people flocked to Brighton’s seafront each day. The city was grimy yet elegant, boisterously oblivious to the aggression of the sea, run down by the arcades (‘that’s what I imagine hell to be like – but with a carpet’, my friend had said earlier as we walked along the pier) yet hoisted up by the trendiness of the Laines. The fish and chips were a disappointment, people littered, the blare of music and the traffic along the city’s seafront road never let off – yet I didn’t want to leave. Ever. I couldn’t work Brighton out, its character of paradox and multi-layeredness elusively shifting identity with each attempt to understand it. It frustrated me, and it was then that I realised that it had seduced me.
I pulled up Google Maps when I arrived back in Cornwall and typed in Brighton’s name. It was the jewel in the crown of Sussex’s coastline, smack bang in its centre, with Bognor Regis to its far left, Eastbourne and Hastings to its right. Each seaside resort was a cast-on stitch threading a seafront road named the A259 between them. In some areas the knitting of these road-threads was neat and full: at Worthing, Hove and Peacehaven, barely a stitch was dropped along the grid-like patterning of streets. I couldn’t see the railway termini on the map but I knew that they were there, lines that sloped away from Southampton and London and ended at the Channel. I pulled up another map, one of the county borders of England, and raised my eyebrows to how much of the South-East coast Sussex claimed. It lay luxuriously underneath the affluent and London-tied Surrey, sharing its first two letters before breaking free with its double-s into that glorious suffix, -sex, heavily charged with the promise of excitement, energy, taboo and freedom.
It’s so easy to look at maps and spin hypotheses. To have the hunch I had formed in Brighton confirmed by Sussex’s geographical location: that it was close enough to London to pull in crowds and city culture, but not so close as to be eclipsed by it. To zoom out of the map and allow the North-Western tip of mainland Europe to creep in with each mouse click, offering another ingredient to the Sussex identity. To learn with excitement how the South-Eastern coast is continually blighted by long-shore drift: to read a sentence such as this – “South-Westerly storms and currents have carried debris from the West to build shingle bars and sand banks across the river estuaries to the east, blocking harbours and accelerating the setting up of river valleys” – and imagine a shifting coastal line that challenged a long-term rooting of identity as the Sussex people fought a losing battle with the sea. To suspect that this battle lies behind the Sussex motto, ‘we wunt be druv’, translatable from the now obsolete Sussex dialect as ‘we won’t be driven away’.
I decided that I would walk Sussex’s coast, casting my own line along the shore to stitch together resorts that the day-tripper often sees in isolation when making their ephemeral visits. I hoped to work out a sense of Sussex identity that would help me understand Brighton’s own; I wanted to sense what it was to live on a shifting coast. As I stepped off the bus that first day, I was carrying a mind full of preconceived ideas as well as a rucksack. Some of these ideas and theories would expire as I walked; some of them would hold to be true. And along the 82 mile journey I spent many hours wrestling with an elusive, shifting regional identity. I worried over the limitation of my perceptions, and felt a faint despondency that for everything I noticed and for every conversation that I fell into along the way, there would be countless things unseen and unsaid that would spin their own narrative of life along this strange and shifting coast.
It’s Monday afternoon, and the world feels a slightly different place.
I’ve just returned from a week long silent retreat at Gaia House, where the focus was on mindfulness, and how it can lead to equanimity in life.
I’d never gone on a silent retreat before; never even considered that this might be something for me. I’d recently been introduced to meditation by a friend of mine, but the enquiry ended there. The week was tough, with a few home truths to swallow, but I can honestly say that, yes, my world has now changed a little.
Don’t worry, I’m not going to go into the details. In fact, mindfulness and meditation made me think quite hard about how best to write about the experience of retreating from the world for a week – no verbal communication, no reading, no mobile phones, no email.
In the end, I felt that the only way to best sum it all up was through poetry. I wrote this whilst out walking in the stillness of the Devonshire countryside; whilst sitting on the cushion instead of focusing on my breath (I couldn’t help it), and whilst sitting on a bench, with a cup of tea, looking at the huge trees in the grounds. One of them, a great sycamore that had felt more time pass than I could ever dream of, had a trunk shaped like a twisting torso, arms held out to its sides supporting the weight of its own life.
The poem began from this tree.
Deep in the limbs of vast trees
That the eye has to roll in its socket to see
Began the wind; from the brush
Of countless leaf with countless leaf
Drew up an endless breath.
The sun left the hills again.
Lawn lights pricked awake at the edges
Of grass, grass that human shuffles had swept
Not so long before. The two rabbits,
That bared without fear their flanks to the house,
Saw what the rabbits saw.
Did the Meditation Hall hear the wind?
Fifty souls, fifty shifting selves,
Lids shut tight on their infinities,
All felt different things.
Silence had sealed them in deep.
And when one mind strayed to the
Scent of handsoap when another
Shifted his seat and made to twist,
She curled her thought, again, to the refrain:
‘How is this breath? And this one? And this?’
Wheal Coates is a tin mine that stands on a North Cornish cliff bound by heather and gorse. Its mineshaft reaches down through the rock to Towanroath Yugga, a cave off Chapel Porth beach that can be entered into when the tide is out. Today, however, the tide is in, and the weather is foul. The heather lies low on the ground, as if trying to shelter from the wind and the rain. It’s a wonder that Wheal Coates still stands and hasn’t been blown into the sea, I think, holding onto my hat as I walk towards the tin mine’s silhouette, through weather that batters me, as if trying to force me back.
Wheal Coates dates from the 1870s, and was finally abandoned in 1913. Nearly a hundred years on, the site looks fragmented, as if the cliff had been bombed. Three engine houses still stand, their roofs lost long ago, their tips tinged back into life with the green of moss. All have cavities where windows should be: the tallest engine house has an uppermost window-hole that frames for me a patch of heavy sky. Elsewhere are low strips of wall, which, to my ignorant eyes, seem randomly built and abandoned half way through. The National Trust information board gives these fragments sinister sounding names: Calciner, Boiler Pond, Dressing Floor. Still, hundreds of people understood this land and used to come to this very spot to work in a world far beneath my feet. Men died down there, dying of injuries and landslides; many drowned in the dark.
It is the wailing of the drowning miners that you are meant to hear at Wheal Coates, coming up the mineshaft. I don’t see the shaft at first: I am too easily distracted by the colour of the stone that has been used to build the various walls. Blood red, with the occasional streak of white. It’s not noticeable at a distance, but up close, parts of Wheal Coates look as if they were built from slabs of red meat; gristly steak. More of the same stone covers the ground and paths: scattered off cuts. I slide a couple in my pocket, wiping the wet from my fingers onto my sleeves.
The mineshaft is covered with a metal grid, splitting its disturbing darkness into small, manageable oblongs. In one corner, part of the grid has been stretched and widened, creating a hole large enough for a dead miner’s forearm to reach out and grab a foot. Not really knowing what I am doing, I pick a stone out of my pocket and toss it into the shaft to gauge its depth. Poorly thrown, or swept off course by the wind, it clatters on the shaft’s sides as it falls, creating echoes and thus revealing nothing. I reach for my other stone but as I do, the wind mimics my actions, tossing rain into my face and whipping my hair. For the rest of my time on the cliff, it seems to pursue me, howling within the engine houses when I step into them. It knows the stones better than I do, and uses them to create unusual sounds. On one occasion, it creates a sound close to my feet that makes me stop still. Like it knows of an underground cavity, and is sweeping through it.
It doesn’t spook me at the time, because I assume there is a rational explanation for what I hear. But replaying it in my mind after I have come away makes my spine grow cold. So, too, does the stone that I find in my pocket, days later, whilst searching for something else. Now dry, its colour has paled to an anaemic pink. It is almost as if it has been drained of something, and I wonder whether the colour slowly changed, unseen in my pocket, the further I took it away from its cliff.