Uncertainties of Love and Hope Chapter 1.

London February 1904 Henry Scott Tuke.

 

Was he beginning, at long last, to recover?

Perhaps it was the daffodils, those clumps of bold yellow trumpets below the trees of Green Park, their perfume, as he bent to breathe it in, almost as powerful as those growing wild in the Cornish fields. Or perhaps it was the thought of the trip he was about to make – two months or more on the Mediterranean coast, escaping the British winter – by no means over, despite the daffodils – to paint in the sun.

He lost, as he strode out into Piccadilly, the scent of the flowers, overwhelmed by the stench of horse and human waste. The overhanging pall of coal dust caught at his nostrils, his throat tingled and memories of the clear Cornish air vanished from his mind. Working his way between the hansoms, broughams, motor buses, tramcars and the crested carriage of at least one aristocratic family, all brought to a standstill by congestion in Piccadilly Circus, he sauntered in the direction of Burlington Gardens and the Ladies’ Naval and Military Club where he was due to lunch with a Lieutenant Colonel and Mrs Grundy, to discuss the portrait they had commissioned him to paint. He was much in demand these days as a portraitist, which left him less reliant on sales of his other works.

Those ‘other works’ – his studies of ships and seascapes and the other, more controversial, paintings of boys, mostly naked, generally in or around boats or sitting or lying on one of the beaches near the little house in Falmouth where he spent many months of the year – would always be his favourites but it was undeniably pleasant to have a secure income.

Perhaps this thought also contributed to his improved mood.  

 

Redruth, Cornwall. Faith Vigo.

She wrapped her shawl around her mouth and nostrils on account, not of the cold but the dust clogging the air this early spring morning. Air which, had the wind been blowing from the north, would have been clear and salt-scented from the Atlantic ocean four miles distant but, since it was blowing from the south, was filled with mineral dust from the great, multi-headed steam stamp at Carnkye, which was a great deal closer.

It was nothing, Papa was always telling her, to the conditions men suffered working underground in the mines, sometimes in up to a hundred degrees of heat, in air thick with powder from the rock blasting and the fumes from the  tallow candles on their hats. Or the bal maidens, who worked on the surface, crushing the ore with their hammers, their hands and faces scarred and pitted from the flying shards of stone – not to mention stained red from the iron oxide in the ore.

Here, high up in Clinton Road, where the air was relatively fresh, if still tainted by the sulfurous smoke from several dozen mines all burning the cheapest coal, they had, he would tell her, nothing to complain about. She should think more about her fellow men and women and less about herself.

Papa was right, of course, but when her eyes stung and the bitter-tasting dust filled her throat and set her coughing it was hard to feel as grateful as he expected. And yet how often had she seen men who, however old they might look, might be less than forty years old – miners not living to any great age – collapsed against a wall or clinging to a lamp standard in order to keep upright as they struggled to breathe? Or their pale skin disfigured with great, scarlet blotches from one of the dreadful diseases contracted from the human dirt left below ground? Or missing limbs from one of the frequent blasting accidents or from getting them caught in machinery?

She was indeed fortunate and she should give thanks for this, not complain about a small inconvenience like dust. Had not George Fox, the founder of the Society of Friends, to which her family belonged, told them they should walk cheerfully over the world – and he had written this from prison in Launceston, which was notorious for its terrible conditions?

What right had she, Faith Vigo, to complain?

Except that she was still coughing half an hour later when she returned from changing her mother’s library books. And Mama, downstairs for the first time in days to rest on her couch in the drawing room, was not pleased with her selection.

“I’m certain I’ve read this one before.” She flicked a languid finger across the first book in the little pile. “And it wasn’t at all to my taste.”

Sighing, she lay back and closed her eyes. The books remained, unopened, on the table.

And would need, Faith thought, to be removed before her father came home.

For her mother was not, like the rest of the family, a member of the Society of Friends. Father had, in Quaker terminology, ‘married out’ and, although pretty Maud Vigo had been pleased enough to be married to such a good-looking, hard-working and relatively successful man and had attended Meetings for Worship with him in the early years of their marriage, she had bored of the sobriety and disciplined nature of the life she was expected to lead and it was many years since she had involved herself in the life of the Society.

Perhaps William Vigo had become stricter in his observances as he became older but there was certainly a disparity between his wife’s tastes, in clothing, in furnishings and in recreational activities and his own. Where William valued simplicity in all things – including their food – and spent what leisure time he had on Quaker work, Maud would have preferred a more frivolous style of living.

Perhaps, Faith often thought, this was why her mother spent so much of her time in her prettily furnished, bedroom. Frivolity was not a commodity in great supply in their house in Clinton Road.

But at least tomorrow – she took up the knitting she had discarded earlier – she would be returning to school after the half term break, which, although other girls might complain that the holiday had been too brief, she would have been happy to do without. Anything would be better than sitting here, struggling to knit a woolen baby vest for the New Mothers’ Comfort Box, while her mother complained about her library books and where the windows, tight-closed as always, did not keep out the constant thudding of the tin and copper stamps or the clatter from further up the hill behind the house of the mineral tramway, which ran between the ports of Portreath on the North Coast and Devoran in the South, carrying either tin or copper ore to be shipped to Wales for smelting or the imported coal which supplied the mines.

“My poor head. It could be bursting!” Her mother, her thoughts echoing Faith’s own, gave a little shudder and pulled her shawl closer about her shoulders. “I shall go to my room.”

“Oh please don’t.” It was not good for her, Doctor Henderson had said, to spend so much time in bed. “Would you like me to read to you?”

“And worsen my headache still more?” Her mother closed her eyes in irritation. “Please allow me to know what is best for myself.”

Pulling open the door as if it had caused her some injury – although perhaps it was Faith who had done this – Maud Vigo gathered her skirts around her and swept through it. Faith remained helplessly in her chair, the half-knitted woolen item in a sad heap in her lap.

 

Henry. London.

“How’s your young protege, Harry? That good-lookin’ Cornish lad you were teaching to draw. Farmer’s boy or somethin’?”

“He’s very well. At least he was last time I saw him. And he was a market gardener…”

Rufus Bonham was not a friend, although they belonged to some of the same clubs and, unfortunately in Henry’s view, the same circle of acquaintance. And it was obvious that no-one had thought to warn him to keep off the subject of Henry’s ‘young protege’ – although it was equally possible that they had done so and that Bonham, who had little discretion or concern for other people’s feelings, had chosen to ignore them.

“Market gardener… farmer… All the same, surely?”

Bonham reached for the decanter and helped himself to more of his host’s claret.

“I doubt either would agree. However, the boy is settled with his own small plot but continues to draw and paint. I am hoping to arrange an exhibition of his work when I am back in Falmouth in the summer.”

His anxiety to prove imperturbable misfired, merely arousing Bonham’s interest still further.

“Are you indeed?” The salacious grin that spread across the man’s slightly too-red lips – was it possible, Henry wondered, he was using some sort of cosmetic preparation? – was at odds with the jealous glint in his eyes. (And the man was jealous, he reminded himself, of his success as an artist and at the loyalty he inspired in the young men who were willing to pose naked for him.) “Are you then settin’ yourself up as his protector?” He smiled again. More suggestively, if possible, than before.

Henry, who rarely if ever lost his temper, felt the anger rise up inside him now as if it were a living creature that might take hold and overwhelm him. That might drag him from his seat to lean across the dinner table, reaching his hand for his almost-full glass to fling it with the force of the handy bowler he was into the grinning face of the man opposite…

“I certainly…”

“Ladies and Gentlemen!”  His host’s interruption could not have been better timed. “I would like to propose a toast,” Hugh went on, “to our friend Harry Tuke, who has been elected a member of the Royal Society of Painters in Watercolour,” and the whole table rose, turning towards Henry, raising their glasses and calling out their congratulations. After which it was easy to turn away from Bonham to the neighbour on his left – Lizzie Carnoustie, a lovely, somewhat unconventional, woman married, in Henry’s view, to one of the dullest men in London, but one who had at least the virtue of allowing her the freedom to enjoy a social life of her own.

“You look rather upset.” She spoke in the lowest register of her naturally husky voice, “for a man who’s just been elected to the Royal Society of Something or Other. Is something wrong?”

“Nothing that ten minutes of your undivided attention will not put right.” Henry could not resist swivelling his eyes, very slightly, in the direction of Bonham.

“Ah.” Lizzie was quick on the uptake. “Our resentful friend. Who is wearing, if I’m not mistaken, a cochineal salve on his lips.”

“Really?” Henry’s anger dissipated as quickly as it had been aroused.

“Oh yes, It’s the same as I wear myself.”

She had an almost boyish face, Lizzie, in spite of her tawny mass of piled-up hair and the attractively – in her case – reddened lips to which she had referred. A healthy, open-air complexion that matched her energetic stride and her enthusiasm for games of tennis and cricket.

“In which case, I have to say it becomes you far more.”

Henry leaned over to whisper into her ear, moving smartly back as she let out a shout of unladylike laughter.  

“Dear Harry!” She put down her fork to lay her hand against his wrist. “What a shame…”

What a shame what? He might have wondered. What a shame that Lizzie was married to one of the dullest men in London? Or what a shame that Henry was, as she might have expressed it, ‘just not interested.’

He liked women – of course he did. He was a sociable man who liked most people – and could generally find something of interest even in those he did not like – and he enjoyed especially the company of women like Lizzie, cheerful, lively women with a love of sports and other activities. (And one particular activity in which Henry, had he been a different sort of man and in spite of the dull husband, might have been happy to join her.) But he was not, it seemed, that sort of man and now, approaching the age of forty six, was unlikely to change.

“Hugh has promised bridge after dinner,” he said now, as she removed the hand and turned her attention to her fricase’ed sweetbreads. “I hope you will partner me.”

“I hope so too. I have already spent this month’s allowance and need some winnings.”

Henry was, Lizzie knew, an excellent player of cards.

Change of Tack.

People keep asking when the sequel to The Improbable Story of Orion Goss will be ‘coming out’. Not in their thousands, hundreds or even dozens but at the rate of about one a week, which isn’t bad, I guess, for an unknown author and certainly gives my confidence a boost.

On the other hand, I have no answer to give them. The sequel is finished – at least it’s gone through at least half a dozen drafts and, although I keep thinking of possible improvements, I’m pretty pleased with the way it is. All I have to do is find a publisher. Or an agent who will find a publisher for me.

Simple!

Unfortunately not. The publishers of the first novel have decided they want to restrict themselves to poetry in future, which is fair enough, so I have to start from scratch and, as a friendly agent told me, no publisher is likely to want to publish Part Two, when they didn’t do Part One. Also fair enough.

Also I realise, late in the day, that I do need an agent. As it happens I did quite well out of Orion One but almost all my earnings came from copies I sold myself and via galleries and bookshops that I approached. I think the only royalty cheque I received was for around £42 and that was over three years ago – in spite of the fact that a number of people have told me they’ve bought the book on Amazon and a couple of Waterstones’ stores are still stocking it, so it is presumably still selling. Obviously I need an agent who knows what they’re doing to represent me.

But agents don’t need me! I’ve done all the things we’re told to do. I’ve sent off my carefully crafted letters – carefully crafted according to the experts at Guardian workshops! – to a number of selected agents whose interest is in the kind of books I write and I have to say the answers have been fairly flattering. Most of them say they like my writing and give the impression of having read the extracts I’ve sent but the ending is always the same. “I’m sorry, it’s not for us.”

And it’s such a bore! I love writing. I even enjoy the dull, proof-reading part. When I was asked to talk about my book I loved doing that as well. But sending off attachment after attachment to agents and publishers is just the end. So much of the business of attracting a publisher is, we are told, a matter of luck. Or who you know? Or already having a name in some other area of achievement. If I was a top model or a sports personality or a celebrity gardener or even, heaven help the world, an MP I’d stand a much better chance of publication.

It’s too late for that, however, and I’ve reached a decision! No more sending off to agents or publishers and no, I’m not going down the self-publishing route. I already have a busy enough life and I’m not getting into that. Instead I’m taking the far easier route of putting Orion Two online – a couple of chapters at a time. Then my tiny band of readers can satisfy their curiosity and I can stop beating myself up.

Good idea? Let me know what you think.

Water Music?

I seem to have been able to swim for ever, although I can dimly remember having two little air bags called water wings attached somewhere under my arms and catching in the elasticated bobbles of my…

Source: Water Music?

Talking to Snowdrops

I’d been worrying about them for days. Surely snowdrops are meant to come out before daffodils and there were the daffs in my neighbours’ garden flowering away in the mistaken belief that spring was on the way whilst my snowdrops were nowhere to be seen. Normally I have a relatively spectacular display but this year… nothing. Had I somehow managed to dig them up without noticing? All of them? In different parts of the garden? Did they not like rain? (It has been raining more or less non stop since September) Or is there some sort of Galanthus blight and my garden has contracted it?

Then, last Saturday, in a gap between showers, I went out to clear the leaves from the happily flowering hellebores and comb the moss with which the rain has carpeted our beds and there they were. Dozens of slender white spears thrusting their way bravely upwards.   ‘There you are my loves!’ I exclaimed. (Sorry, that’s the only word for it.) ‘How very clever of you. Now just wait there and I’ll cover you with some nice, fresh compost.’

Yes, Prince Charles isn’t the only one who talks to his plants – it’s probably the only thing we have in common – but I can’t help it. If these lovely things have made the effort to grow in my garden it seems only polite to thank them – or, in the case of unwanted interlopers, to tell them what I intend to do to them.

My neighbour, on the other hand, quietly troweling away on the far side of the intervening hedge, may well have imagined I’d lured a couple of our infant grandchildren into the cold in order to play a bizarre form of hide and seek on a theme of Babes in the Wood.

And I’m doing far too much of this talking to inanimate objects I realise – with apologies to the snowdrops, who were doing their best to be animated.

For years I’ve done it in supermarkets. I’ve only recently stopped berating oranges for coming from South Africa and I still mutter angrily at peppers and avocados as I search out their provenance or complain at the innocent bunch of asparagus that’s made the effort to fly all the way from Peru. But I have, I noticed, got worse…

‘Five doughnuts!’ I heard myself snarl at Sainsbury’s bakery shelves the other day. ‘I want one doughnut; not five. No wonder there’s so much obesity about.’ And, three aisles further on, ‘I want pistachios. Plain pistachios. Not salted. Not sweet-chili flavoured,  for heavens sake! Is it too much to ask?’ Before going on to complain at the decaff coffee for hiding on the bottom shelf.

All this in addition to the normal, ‘Onions, onions; don’t forget the onions,’ and ‘Was it plain or self-raising we needed?’

Quite soon I expect a young man in a suit, with an identity tag around his neck, to take me gently by the elbow and suggest I might like to just come with him. Before asking if there’s anyone at home who might be worried about me…

So, if I was going to make a new year’s resolution it would be this – to talk only to people or at least, if I must swear at a pear, to hold my phone to my face and pretend that’s what I’m talking to. It’s what everyone else does after all.

 

 

Speaking into the Silence.

I’ve loved the paintings of Eric Ravilious since I first saw one in the little Fry Gallery in Saffron Walden, near where he lived for a while in the 1930s with his artist friend Edward Bawden.

I love his  landscapes – cross-hatched hillsides, elegantly bare-branched trees, geometric lines of ploughed fields, rutted roads or telegraph wires, often with detailed depictions of old vehicles or weird bits of agricultural machinery or blank, unprepossessing barns or farmhouses half-hidden behind a spiky hedge.

I love his strangely beautiful interiors – symmetrical rows of potted cyclamen in a greenhouse where the bricks of the lower walls and the drainage holes in the floor draw your eye into the distance; or narrow, iron-framed bedsteads in bedrooms that would be utterly bleak except for the wild, brightly-coloured, geometrically patterned rugs and wall papers.

I love, perhaps more than anything, his views from windows – especially his beautifully detailed Third Class railway carriage with its leather window strap, the vicious, heavy door lock capable of crushing fingers to a pulp (and I’ve seen that happen) and, beyond, the thrilling view of west country hills and a glorious white horse cut into the chalk.

The pictures suggest a world under control. Organised, silent, calm and cared for. If there is mystery or danger in them, they are kept safely at a distance and there are rarely any figures to disturb the silence.

But the 1930s came crashing to an end with the Second World War, Ravilious was taken on as a war artist and on September 2nd 1942 died in an aircraft that was lost on an air-sea rescue mission off the Icelandic coast.

The current exhibition of his work, at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, begins with his calm and cared-for landscapes but ends, inevitably, with war. The old caravans and bits of agricultural machinery are replaced by aircraft swooping about runways, barrage balloons, battleships and gunnery emplacements. The quiet farmhouse interiors change to operation rooms and map corridors, where a shadowy figure or an empty chair stand in for human beings. The scenery changes to seascapes where convoys of small ships slip through the darkness or wait at anchor in a dark Norwegian fjord.

There are more figures here than in the earlier pictures, where there were more horses than humans, but they are mostly in uniform – or disguised in sea-caps and oilskins – and the quietness remains. Even the gunfire consists of light rather than sound.

They are pictures to be contemplated in silence.

Except, apparently, not.

A large young woman, with a voice to match, was just ahead of us in the queue for the gallery. Talking. And continued to talk her way through the first room – those quiet farmhouses and peaceful ploughed fields. Not about the pictures, which would have been bad enough but understandable, but about friends, work-colleagues, what she did last night… Not loudly but in a carrying accent.

What is the etiquette here, I wonder? Art galleries are not churches or theatres or libraries. Silence is not enforced. And it was actually the accent which caused me the problem but I could hardly say ‘excuse me but could you stop talking with an American accent?’ And yet she was spoiling my pleasure. And, I noticed, that of her companion who was doing her best to concentrate on the pictures and moved, to my relief, faster and faster until she had almost managed to escape into the next room. She exited, however, ‘pursued by a bear’ as her large friend followed, still eager to let her into the secrets of her life but leaving the rest of us in relative peace.

She reminded me of my room-mate in my first year at university – a perfectly nice girl but with a loud, English public school accent which I found embarrassing and never more so than at the theatre. I can’t even remember what play it was now but I loved it, in the way only an impressionable eighteen-year-old can. The first interval found me huddled in my seat, wallowing in the words and sights I’d seen and just longing for it all to start again.

My room-mate stood up and loomed over me. “Wasn’t that simply spine-tingling?!” she bellowed in a voice bred to carry across three hunting fields. “Don’t you just feel completely wiped out?!”

And yes, actually, I did. My spine was tingling and I was wiped out with emotion – but I had no desire to tell the entire Aldwych Theatre. I like to enjoy my art, of whatever kind, in silence. Which at least harms no-one else.

Glorious Day.

If you’re a Facebook person you’ll be expecting one of those ‘went for a wonderful walk with the sun in our faces and the wind in our ears’ entries. Accompanied by pictures of the amazing scenery we’ve been so privileged to see. Lucky us!

Well don’t worry. This is one long moan, beginning to end; you can safely read on.

It has been, outdoors, a spectacular day. Warm, for the time of year, blue skies, sunshine, birds singing, crocuses blooming and so on and on.

‘It’s a lovely day. We must go for a walk in the woods,’ I told G as we lounged about, breakfast eaten, today’s ration of the Saturday Guardian read and nothing in particular to do before this evening. At which point he decided it was actually a really good day for unblocking the plug hole in the bath.

Now we have a special device for this. Bought from one of those lads with hopeful smiles on their faces, identity cards in their hands and vast sports bags on their backs, who arrive on our doorstep at least once a month to tell us they’ve been naughty boys but are back on the straight and narrow and only want a chance to prove themselves. (And yes, we smile and listen and root through the bag, hoping to find some item of kitchenware we haven’t already got three of, to show how nice we are and how much we care. Every time. Almost.)

So we have this device. A sort of arrangement of bristles on the end of a twisted shape of wiring, which did actually unblock the kitchen sink about a week after I bought it. After which I put it carefully away.

Somewhere.

The obvious place was the cupboard under the sink. Which I duly emptied to discover several dozen damp tea towels and J cloths, too grubby to use but somehow not bad enough to throw away (in case there might one day be a world shortage of cleaning cloths?), nine of those nasty green sponges with one hard side for difficult-to-get-rid-of marks on pans, ditto, several unraveling wire scourers and about twenty almost-empty containers of household cleaners, left from the days when we had a particularly enthusiastic Kleeneze rep in our area.

I used some of these to give the shelves a good clean and opened one of those ‘Please Use This Bag To Donate Unwanted Clothes and Bric-a-brac’ bags that come through our letter box on a twice-weekly basis to act as an overflow rubbish bin.

No sink-unblocker though, which G decided must be in the bathroom and opened the cupboard under the bathroom sink.

Which contained a further supply of those grubby tea towels and J cloths, seven dank and decaying sponge bags (and two acceptable ones), at least two dozen packets of shampoo from foreign hotels, most of which we have no memory of staying in, shower caps ditto, six containers of sun spray, cream or shield, all well out of date, several types of insect repellent ditto, twenty nine used toothbrushes and a half-packet of tampons.

‘Why?’ G asked, waving them at me, knowing I am, mercifully, well past that stage.

‘Well, we might have a visitor…’

‘Surely they didn’t always look like this? Surely no-one would…?’

Well, no. Unless they were really desperate. Who knew tampons could deteriorate quite like that?

And still no un-blocking device, although G had by this time unblocked the plughole, as it were, manually.

I cleaned the shelves and put the rubbish into my plastic bag, except for the twenty nine toothbrushes, which seemed to deserve better so I arranged them, colour-co-ordinated, in a circle, took their photo and sent it to our children, asking what I should do with them.

‘It’s Art. Sell it to the Tate,’ said my daughter. And perhaps if my name were Damien Hurst they might buy it but as it isn’t…

And yes, I know there are uses for old toothbrushes. They are brilliant for getting into those hard-to-reach places or cleaning the grouting between the tiles but twenty nine of them? And – because we have a terrifying dental hygienist at our surgery – rising monthly? In the end I chose two winners – one for upstairs, one for downstairs – and binned the rest. (You can’t recycle them, I checked – unless you use wooden brushes with boars’ bristles.)

So what are my achievements on this glorious day? A big bag of rubbish and two sparkling under-sink cupboards.

And I’m sorry, but to me that’s just a waste of time. I’m not running a restaurant or a hotel so no-one’s going to inspect me and no sane visitor to our house would dream of peering into a closed cupboard.

And I bet I find a need for several dozen dirty cloths as soon as the bin’s been emptied.

Death of a Penfriend.

I’ve been corresponding with King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia for some years, although I knew him by the far catchier title of King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud, Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques. And it was a one-sided sort of correspondence.
I would write urging him to release one of his subjects from prison since he was held solely for exercising his right to freedom of expression, association and assembly. Or to protect one of his subjects from torture or imprisonment. Or to stop them from being executed. Or to ensure that they were given a fair and open trial.
And he would… not write back.
And, mostly, the subject in question would not be released, would not be protected from torture etc etc.
His Majesty King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud was not, I concluded, a very nice man.
Most recently I petitioned him – along with millions of others – to stop the flogging of Raif Balawi, sentenced to fifty lashes every Friday – AFTER PRAYERS! – until he has received 1,000 lashes – ie until he is dead.
He didn’t answer me then either – but perhaps he wasn’t feeling well. (Poor Raif Balawi certainly wasn’t and his flogging was postponed for the second week running until his previous wounds have healed. How compassionate is that!)
I can’t mourn King Abdullah’s passing – although I do mourn the fact that this was marked by a lowering of flags in Central London. And I will continue my one-sided correspondence with a new monarch, as well as all the other Bin Whatsit Al Sauds who occupy every high office in that appalling country.
No oil, weapon or aerospace contracts can be worth standing side by side with such a regime.