Life On The Edge

High Summer, Early Autumn 2015

Autumn FlotsamOur weather is changeable, our climate comfortable. In the toe-numbing Russian and Canadian snows, and even more while sweating under the Equator’s plunging sunsets I learned to yearn for the sort of mild damp Cornish Summer’s Day that we’re all so sniffy about. Yes recently I’ve had my fill of damp, although there is beauty to be beheld even as the rain drips from one’s eyebrows onto one’s sandwich in liquid moonstones against a sky of slate. Indeed, the sky is the secondary – sometimes primary – subject of many of my paintings, for on The Lizard’s high plateau it surrounds us like a marquee. Often, as at the time of writing, it is blameless blue. Equally often, clouds of heavenly clotted cream chased by an ominous liquorice sorbet scroll from the headlands over a seething ocean, and there is: precipitation. After each Deluge, the sodden, empty beaches reflect skies of that intense and luminous neutrality otherwise encountered inside an oyster-shell. Then do the hotel monopoly boards get sticky and dog-eared and the slot-machines grow fat; it’s good for the Attractions and it’s truly rotten for the poor souls who have elected to holiday under canvas, for not all are skilled or imperturbable as my late father who could smilingly conjure a driftwood fire to grill bacon and, boil the billycan in a downpour. Wet grass was ever the least lovely of bedding, the paths turn to slides and shoes grow mildew hanging from the tent-frames. Unbelievably, perhaps due to a dry winter, the soil beneath the muddy layer of misery is as the dust in a Pharaoh’s tomb, and the plants are protesting. I came late to gardening, not wishing to put down roots of my own while the bejewelled finger of experience beckoned. But one’s point of view changes with growing up, and during my years of exile I spent more and more time in parks and gardens soaking up the artificial landscape and, the Horticulture. I returned to Cornwall in 1989 when my dear father died; I stayed, not least so that my daughter should be born here and have in her blood and bones what I have in mine. In the quarter-century I had been away, there had been a transformation. The croft around the quarry was now fenced off, and on our side of the fence a tangle of blackthorn had employed the time entombing the chamomile lawns; impenetrable blackthorn lagged around with honeysuckle and brambles had made a Sleeping Beauty forest of what had been my childhood playground. My mother had once cultivated vegetables with success, and for pleasure stuck various perennials – the more exotic the better – into the little pockets of earth among the general bedrock of our land, so Hebes and Buddleias and giant Agaves rioted, but she was no longer young and her asparagus beds and artichoke enclaves had gone the way of the chamomile and were inaccessible even to the booted and gaitered Bold. I disliked digging, but when Xenia was born I celebrated by planting trees in the few spots I could reach. When she was two I thought she should have a bluebell wood to play in. Power tools are powerless against ankle-thick blackthorn, dragons’ teeth brambles and vines like a hangman’s rope, so to tackle the Maquis, I sought a Macheté. There was a garage that sold tools for a pound. The Store-Piskie did not have any Machetés, she said. Save for This one, she said. She hauled it from under the counter with both skinny wrists. It crackled like a thunder-sheet. It was – is – three feet long, and looks like something Goliath might have hoped to use for bisecting David. Do you not have something smaller? I asked. No, she said. Just this. Oh, I said. How much is it? It’s a pound, she said. Everything’s a pound. There was at the time a gangsta-busting police initiative: they were arresting anyone found carrying even a small penknife, especially innocent librarians, and the jail terms seemed to run at six months an inch. I looked at the oily glint of the wicked length along the counter. Slowly I handed over my pound. I put Excalibur into the car with apprehension and drove, very inconspicuously, home. Twenty years on, the implement gleams less but slashes and smashes as well as ever. It is the reason I still have muscular arms, scarred toecaps and, a Labyrinth. The idea of the Labyrinth is as ancient as architecture, as mysterious as fog. There’s something about being lost and finding your way that is deeply printed on the human spirit; after all, those who have found their way have contributed more to the gene pool than those that have not. I found my way home, and went on to find amazement. I made a start with the idea only of navigating to the vague middle of the wood. What resulted may be the subject of my next article…