HEAVEN ON EARTH

When the Eagles wrote Hotel California I think they had Barbados firmly in mind. You know the bit where the night man explains that,
You can check out any time you like,
But you can never leave
.
Well, that is Bim.

Never assume that traveling a few thousand miles to a hamlet comprising three toothless hags and five straggly sheep, on a lake in northern Cumbria, means you have checked out of island life. On day three of our stay the owner of our delightful, small hotel asked if we lived in Barbados and was The Husband in finance.
‘Why are you asking me this?’ I demanded with more than a little suspicion.
‘Well it’s just that I overheard your boys talking about Barbados. I have a friend from Barbados and I think you know each other.’
Of course it turns out that a Bajan acquaintance comes to the very hamlet every summer to get away from it all.

We managed to respect each others privacy but only just because whenever the rain ceased we were out walking. Our most memorable walk was to the summit of Cat Bells, on the western shore of Derwentwater Lake. It is described in the definitive Wainright’s guide as a walk for ‘grannies and toddlers’. What he must have meant was that granny and toddler mountain goats would find it a stroll. Those of the ‘two legs good’ species had to use both hands and feet to negotiate the craggy outcrops and muddy paths.

But making it to the summit was worth the ache I felt in both knees that night. Cat Bells is only 1479 feet high but yields panoramic views across the lake. There is also this wonderful camaraderie at the top. A couple gave the twins orange squash and tips for an easier descent. Complete strangers, bonded by the shared experience of conquering this little peak, chatted like old friends and wondered aloud about walks they might attempt another day when the sky was as blue and cloudless. Others sat eating their sandwiches staring out at the overwhelming perfection of nature. I lay on the grass high on pure mountain air.

Walking is a way of being still. It is the control of movement at your own pace on your own strength. Indeed, the most centred person I know, a man who exudes calm confidence, lives by turns in the Swiss or French Alps so that walking and climbing can be a routine part of his life. He is up a mountain at every opportunity and in every kind of weather. The attraction he says, apart from the beauty, is the peace that comes from a completely focused mind. And then there is the eerie quiet of being in these vast, empty spaces. Pushing his body to new heights of endurance is also part of the fascination. Since he is the humanist equivalent of a ‘godfather’ to our boys I am hoping some of his character and love of nature rubs off on them.

And on the theme of walking the artist Richard Long has a retrospective on at Tate Britain which you still have time to see if you are on this small rock. Long’s art is based entirely on walks he has made everywhere - from his home in Bristol to places like Mongolia, Peru, the Canadian prairies and Australia. In the gallery space we see formal sculptures of rocks collected, photos taken of small interventions (or even no interventions) into the landscapes of his walks all accompanied by explanatory text. For example there is a picture of rocks barely visible through thick fog and across the bottom of the photo are the words,

BETWEEN A ROCK AND A HARD PLACE
FOUR DAY WALK ON DARTMOOR 2009

In another work we have a photo of a white line of rocks made in a valley between snowcaped mountains with text that reads,

A LINE IN THE HIMALAYAS
1975

Sometimes the only ‘evidence’ of the walk is text like the piece that states,

WALKING TO A LUNAR ECLIPSE
FROM MIDDAY HIGH TIDE AT AVONMOUTH
A WALK OF 366 MILES IN 8 DAYS
ENDING AT A MIDNIGHT TOTAL ECLIPSE OF THE FULL MOON
A LEAP YEAR WALK IN ENGLAND 1996


Walking as sculpture and poetry in motion. If this exhibition does not make you get off your sorry arse and go for a walk nothing ever will.

CHILLIN’ ON (ANOTHER) SMALL ROCK

It is August and on my usual small rock it is raining hard and stiflingly humid. Time to escape to another rock. For once the coolness of London’s lack of summer is refreshing and we have been chilling out doing nothing in particular. But The Husband has other plans. Trips have been booked. There are hills to climb and culture to be absorbed. First stop is Venice. And it is also the first time in all our decades together that he has organized the holidays. I bet First Born a euro we would not make it past Gatwick. And I have had to pay up. The first trip went like clockwork.

So off we hopped to the sinking island of gondolas, Vivaldi and the Bridge of Sighs. But we were not the only Bim posse indulging in Venice’s cultural extravaganva. Parked right up in front de people main square, San Marco, if yuh please, was de biggest, fanciest yacht and pon de back was the Barbados flag ripping through the wind (photographic evidence enclosed). The ultramarine and gold cloth, with broken trident, is not a flag of convenience so is ah real body, most likely living pon de west coast, who own de ting. Forget Trinis anxious to use the death penalty again and cricket in limbo while players and managers cuss and carry on. The pressing issue of the day is this: would the owner of the big ride parked for everybody to see please make themselves known to the nearest West Indian. Just tell one of us and we will ensure quick and efficient circulation of the news. Inquiring minds need to know.



Big ups aside, we were joined in Venice by thousands of jostling, fellow travelers. It still managed to be beautiful. The city forces you to surrender to its maze of tiny corridors and crooked bridges. In return it yields one perfect, peeling, pink villa or exquisite church after another. The children were less impressed. A full day spent walking around the Arsenale looking at some of the curated exhibitions of the Venice Biennale was punctuated by,
'Excuse me please mum. I never want to see any art, EVER again.'
'I'm thirsty. Can I have another fizzy drink, pleeease. My last one, I promise'
'It's hot. Can we see the art in an air conditioned building?'
After the Arsenale they pleaded to be left at the hotel Kids Club to play hide and seek with new found best friends. I could only persuade them to leave the confines of the hotel if it involved an exciting Vaparetto or water bus journey or perhaps a scoop of gelato. But I found that the pain of dealing with these whining, whinging, uncultured, almost-nine-year-olds was significantly diminished after a Bellini or three (drink not painting). Nothing like a drop of peach nectar to keep a mother’s sanity.

But even the peach juice could not raise the quality of the art at this Biennale. It was mainly underwhelming – except for the odd miracle of water into wine. Peter Greenaway, the filmmaker, has undertaken a project of revisiting nine classical paintings, and, with the aid of technology, re-imagining the scenes. I have already missed Rembrandt’s Night Watch at the Rijksmuseum, and Da Vinci’s Last Supper in Milan, being brought to life through Greenaway’s eyes. But I was lucky enough to arrive in time for the last summer showing of his treatment of Paolo Veronese’s The Wedding at Cana, at the Palladian Refectory on San Giorgio Maggiore, the site where the painting was originally hung. Napoleon had the original cut up and taken as booty to France where it was reassembled. You will find it today at the Louvre. But in 2007 a very, very good, full sized, digital facsimile was created and hung on the wall the original once graced.

Greenaway uses music, text and a filmmaker’s wizardry to dissect and animate this huge twenty four by thirty three foot painting. The drama of Jesus’ first miracle is imagined within the political, social and economic context of its day through snippets of overheard conversation and enormous projected close-ups of some of the one hundred and twenty six characters Veronese included. Swirling lines on the painting highlight the speakers. It feels like the painting is in constant motion although it never actually moves off the wall. We hear and see the servants worrying about the gatecrashers who have forced them to stretch a feast meant for 500 to feed 800. Guests catch up on local gossip while some worry about real estate. Others make snide remarks about the dowry, the foreign bride, the commissioned painter and this Jesus chap who not only brought his mommy and a group of fishermen to the wedding, but seated himself in the centre of the feast thereby upstaging the bride and groom. When the water is turned into wine there is skepticism. But even the wine snobs have to admit it’s acceptable stuff and “(t)astes like a south-facing mountain grape”. It is art and history touched by magic and made accessible to a contemporary audience.

I know deep down in my heart that one day First and Second Born will thank me for force-feeding them these cultural offerings. I can wait. That day is only a couple of light years away.

WALKING ON BROKEN TILES



I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love,
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith

But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.


T.S. Eliot - Four Quartets, East Coker, iii



Well it’s all over and a good cry is in order. But I have no tears. Strange that. I mean, I cry over the slightest hurt or loss. I bawled when Mr. Hooper from Sesame Street died (now that dates me). I had to be practically sedated when ET looked up at the sky and pleaded to go home. And I cannot turn a page of The Confessions of Nat Turner without having to restrain myself from jumping off the nearest cliff. But in this instance my tear ducts are dry.

Of course at some level I always knew it would never last. That does not stop my mind swirling around with regrets and wondering what I could or should have done to keep it together. But then in a world where the only certainty is uncertainty, the very idea of keeping something so fragile and beautiful intact must itself be irrational. I still want to cry. I still have no tears.

And with every loss there is also anger – or so goes the K├╝bler-Ross model. Why did it have to happen to me? Did I not give enough of myself? Life is so unfair. And the way it happened too. You see the large groups of summer camp kids who visited the Barbados Museum last week played Hop Scotch on the tiles whenever the security guard was on his tea break, lunch break, newspaper break, water break or pay-your-bills break. He said by the time he saw them it was too late. And then there was the kid who pushed his baby sister’s pram over every single one of the 110 tiles. And we must not forget the men who set up the sound system for the opening night reception. I think they started the ball rolling by breaking the first two tiles of the installation. As the old Bard put it, ‘A plague a' both your houses!’

For the installation, Stroll Down Memory Lane, I had put down 110 tiles in a meandering path through the grounds of the museum. Each tile showed a photograph with added text of a dwelling that I had encountered on a walk through Bank Hall, around the Empire cricket ground, and then up through the avenues of neighbouring Strathclyde. There used to be a wall, in living memory, down the middle of Strathclyde Road dividing Bank Hall and Strathclyde. Some say the wall was made of sand blocks and had iron rods poking out at the top and bottom. Others say it was made of bricks and chains. That wall no longer exists.

I can’t lie. The installation was a bitch to make. But it was up and intact on Tuesday evening when I showed the Minister of Culture round the whole exhibition. It was pure relief that lulled me to sleep that night. By Friday morning that relief was shattered by the news it had to be removed on health and safety grounds because the broken bits of tiles were an accident waiting to happen. I was due to leave Bim on Sunday for one month. There was nothing else to do but make each of the f*^@king tiles all over again. I did not cry. I just set to work and literally did not stop until four hours before BA 2155 was due to take off.

This time I took the precaution of mounting the images on thick, marine-grade ply. It is not as beautiful as the silky, white tiles but it is fairly indestructible. This time, even if they jump up and down they cannot break my tiles. Or my heart.