Winter on the Edge…

It's been a very busy year, and I intend to update 'High Summer' before the sea freezes over. Meanwhile please excuse disorder in the galleries; this too WILL be rectified, Best and Kindest, JXC

High Summer on the Edge 2017

Not a breath of air.

Of course, that isn’t true, every living thing breathes the whole time that it lives; that’s more or less the point. But, as a metaphor for stillness it does the job. Without any further description, you can see leaves that usually dance with the lightest of zephyrs hanging from the birches as though frozen by a camera, the honeysuckle casting its fragrance in a  knot with nothing to waft it afield. The palms stand with their last blossoms Umber against a sky drained by the heat of everything but brightness, for it certainly is hot here above the sea. The sea.  The cool sea… even in Summer it approaches tepid only in the pools left by an exceptionally low tide. It calls in whispers from below the Tamarisks that bloom pink gossamer on the edge of the precipice, the idle waters glittering through the twigs to beckon with depths of jade beneath the hypnotic dazzle. Oh, to be again in that water where I spent my last pre-amorous innocence immersed hour after hour until my skin wrinkled to mimic the seaweed and my hair turned to hemp over shoulders of mahogany. As, dripping salt, I clambered up the cliff I could smell the butter crisping things in the frying-pan over our Primus stove, a patented pump-up bomb of a cooker that added a redolence of kerosene to the dinner hour.  My own children are amused when I say I dressed then for dinner.  There was something delicious about the sundown tingle of clothes when one had worn none all day, a tingle that turned the twilight doubly cosy before the brief pre-sleep contact with the bedsheets. Seemingly moments later, the song of the crickets in the wild grass outside had faded and, it was tomorrow.  I would kick off my covers, slide my feet into my sandals, tiptoe out to the pump and drink -how few children today know the taste of such water - and tiptoe again to take carrots and apples and cheese from the cupboard behind the house where the sun never reached - the cupboard with perforated panels that let in the air and, kept things cool before electricity brought refrigeration in its wake.  Stuffing my breakfast and luncheon into the bag with my goggles, my swim fins and my bone-handled knife, I ate on the climb, and was sliding down the barnacles  and into the kelped wetness while the house still slept. My Nudist parents liked to swim in the afternoon.  My father was good, could dive well and with style and, would barge his burly form through the waves in a frothy crawl; my mother, ever careful of her glamour, performed with her head held high so that the raven hair piled on top should remain salt-free and lustrous, a languorous breast-stroke that would take her at leisure right across the bay.  I had no such skills; I simply kicked my rubber frog-feet and gurgled along, either on my back watching the birds, or under the water, weighed down by the biggest boulders I could hold; these would take me to the bottom where I would sit on the sand and smack them together, scaring the little fish and marvelling that I could strike sparks from the quartzite without air. Without air! I’d have to remember to drop the rocks and sprint for the surface, gasping and spluttering in the sunlight only to plunge again for another minute of silent blue. Today, the paths have grown over with bramble and thorn at the cliff-edge and crumbled away  below. Tools, gauntlets and trousers would be needed on the slope.  On the drop, add ropes and, for safety a climbing companion which would destroy the magic of solitude. I could of course climb instead, up the cliff, get into a car and, drive to one of our beautiful and rightly popular public beaches… Ah, but I would have to wear drawers and, dodge the Surfing Young atop their fabulous boards, their hands and faces Teak from the sun over cola-fed bodies milk-white under their glistening wet-suits, bodies that will never know the sundown tingle anymore than will the suited divers cumbered with tanks of air that transform the depths into just another (albeit wondrous) location rather than, between one breath of air and the next, a portal on the miraculous. As I write, the trees are beginning to move, the birds to agitate. I too must move, for unlike those idle summers long ago, there is work to be done. JXC Cadgwith

Life on the Edge, Spring and Summer 2017

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Journalism is fast forsaking paper,

a pity for so many reasons, though not if you’re a tree.

I bought my first newspaper from a vendor on the street near my school, so I’d have been about twelve years old. It became a habit, informing me on the wider world and, acting as a barrier against my immediate world when I wished to exclude it. My father was in his brief parabola as a Television Personality (these days they’re called Celebrities, a curious term as it implies that something is worthy of celebration) and had bought, near the film studios so very far from beloved Cornwall, a rambling house that started out all low megalithic walls and ships timbers in the Domesday Book and expanded through the centuries into a Regency Pretension with French Windows and walls so slight that an iron brace had been put through the wing with a cross on one end and a letter ‘S’ on the other to stop the stuccoed brickwork bulging under the weight of the roof. I was allocated a bedroom somewhere in the late Seventeenth Century with elm floorboards that would today each cost the price of a dinner at the Ritz. A window with wobbly glass gave on the house where lived Jill and Gerry with their daughters Linda, Stella and Wendy who during my limited leisure leavened the monastic chill of my daily sorrows. Their house had been built as private library to J. L. Garvin, the Editor of 'The Observer', whose bronze head by the American sculptor Jo Davidson dominated our grandest chamber.

That icy morning, the bronze eyes watched me from their gothic alcove as, dashing in my socks towards hot porridge I slipped on the stairs and, tobogganed all four flights on my back to land shocked and winded on the cold tiles in the hall.

I was chided, inspected and, fed the porridge. My bones too sore for dressing myself, I was manipulated into the hated school uniform. The reading from a previous Morning Assembly came to mind:

"I tell you the truth, when you were young, you were able to do as you liked; you dressed yourself and went wherever you wanted to go. But when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and others will dress you and take you where you don't want to go."

For the first time I felt sympathy for Saint Peter. I stepped out into the sleet.

My heart sank, as it did daily while I waited for the slim green coach that glided past the house of the children’s author Enid Blyton and the mysterious residence of the considerable movie star Dirk Bogarde before winding out through the beech woods into the dazzle of the frosted fields.

We slid on Saucy Corner. We slid again when we stopped at Penn Pond where the Gypsies were breaking the ice to water their horses. We missed the connection into town.

I blew glumly on my hands until the next bus came. It had more wheels and slid less, though with its two stories it rolled more, straining my bruised ribs. I arrived late at my classroom and was scolded and quizzed. Trying to gloss an awkward moment, I assumed a pleasant social manner and said,

“Well, it’s really rather complicated, but if you have the time, would you like to hear the whole story?”

The master’s normally florid face went livid above the muffler he wore to augment his gown against the chill. The purple capillaries in his nose stood out. I had not before fully registered through my liberal infancy the extent to which grovelling was expected of schoolboys, nor had I grasped that it was acceptable in that time and place to hit us quite so much or so hard. I now learned.

The time I spent standing in the corridor was not all bad; there was a radiator out there, and I sagged my bruises against it gratefully while French verbs were parsed on the other side of the wall. At length the day ended in an early twilight. I was told that, while my appalling insolence merited Detention and Worse, I would be released because of the extreme weather. My duffel coat had been confiscated because duffel coats were banned; viewed as somehow subversive.  I’d also been caught and punished by my housemaster for wearing a cricket sweater under my shirt. I was cold.

I bought my newspaper and ran for the tall, bright bus and swayed along within the frost flowers on its windows behind my paper, glad of the minimal heat.

Many corners later I was decanted alone at Penn Pond bus stop. I shivered. A muffled voice hurrying past told me that the slim green coach home had been cancelled because of the snow.

It is difficult to believe: in those days we did not have phones in our pockets.  But, there were plentiful public ones. They were housed in tall red boxes, boxes furnished with an unbelievable seventy-two little windows in three sides, from the pissy concrete floor to the ceiling where lurked a dim electric light.  A heavy sprung door with a leather restraining strap opened on a cigarette-smelling chamber with just enough room for one adult to stand upright facing a black-painted presence with a rotary dial, a banana-shaped receiver on a stout flex, a slot for your coins and, buttons 'A' to connect you and, and 'B' to get your money back should it fail. I felt in my pocket. My coins were in the satchel of the newspaper vendor. I set out on foot.

I had a wristwatch, a gift from my grandparents. At the end of the hour by its luminous dial I had perhaps gone one mile and was now pushing my way through chest-high snow drifts, kept warm – if you could call it that – by only my exertions, woollen gloves and socks, regulation school mac and cap and, my newspaper tucked inside my blazer and spread across my chest.

It ends happily. My father had finally looked at the clock, wondered where I’d got to, put down his pencils and set out in his indestructible Ford V8 to look for me. I heard the familiar rumble of its engine just as I was thinking I’d like to lie down in the snow and go to sleep. He assuredly saved my life, perhaps with a little help from my newspaper.

When, having survived childhood and my training as an Artist, I started my first serious earner on Jack de Manio’s ‘Today’ programme – now a harsher, bigger beast under the agile whip of John Humphries - I had to digest seven newspapers a day before breakfast in the small hours. I met them again, cold news wrapped around the evening fish and chips to keep them hot.

Today in Cornwall it is cold. But ah, not REAL cold.

                                                     JXC Spring, Summer… 2017

Life on the Edge; Autumn 2016

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“We are surrounded by goodness, kindness, wonder and beauty. But, it’s human nature to take for granted the billions of beneficial bacteria, curse the bug that gives us influenza; gloss over the myriad songbirds, remember and, damn the seagull that snatches our chips...” The Damnathon ©Coudrille 2016

I was intrigued to see that the new hand-wash in the kitchen is called: Organic Surge.

Heard out loud it sounds as though pampered sheep have given their wool for a Jaeger trench-coat. But printed and read, the legend is unsettling. The suggestion of something both healthy and, unstoppable makes me think of the way I felt about girls when I was sixteen: if I once risk scrubbing my nails with the stuff, will it be content to loiter by the sink in case I pass by and fancy another wash? No. It will whistle and, if I ignore it, throw gravel at my window at two o’clock in the morning.

Splatter the label how you may with tiny print saying how delicate the fragrance, how mild the action, the damage is done. (It’s not mild anyway; ten minutes afterwards it feels though the skin has been tightened by an algorithm for faces in wedding photographs.)

I think then that I’ll avoid Antimicrobial Alkalis, and stick with good old-fashioned Soap. You know where you are with Sunlight and Pears.*

But Organic Surge could well describe the Summer of 2016 here on the Edge of Southernmost Cornwall, which culminated in a hyper-abundance of Sunlight and Apples.

Back in the Spring, the Tabloid Newspapers had shouted:

“BRITAIN is on a 10-day countdown to the start of what is shaping up to be the hottest summer in more than A CENTURY.”

This would have brought small comfort to the people staring from their bacon-smelling boarding-houses (or worse, tents) at rain like scaffold poles during a June that was, quote: the “WETTEST on RECORD.”

But, the unusual sequence of soak and scorch was amazing for the plants. Some that usually only flower in Autumn sprang to vivid extravagance in May and now, the Buddleias that startle us early with their brief bobbles are still thrusting out honey-scented lumps of colour to the delight of the butterflies and, the stragglers remaining from the thousands of bees that flocked in while pundits were saying there were no bees.

The Echiums, sucked dry, rattle their skeletons in the stiffening wind while droves of their grandchildren are already in infant leaf menacing the lawn.  Animate life has burgeoned too. Foxes have begat with success; the cubs are now gawky teenagers, glimmering through the bracken like orange ghosts.

Two yards from my feet a weary Blue-Tit is feeding a petulant babe; this has to be a second or even, a third brood. Jackdaws and, Jackdaw babes that look like small Rooks save for their startling blue eyes, are super-abundant. As are the Magpies.

The Sparrow Hawk thunders through like an express-train snatching mail-bags, yet the small songbirds remain more numerous than I can remember. I cannot tell one from another but I have noticed a finch that gains advantage by hovering, unlike the other finches, which do not.

There are but two carrion crows. One is content to fly, to give of its raucous song and to roost peaceably; and the other (and, try as I might to distinguish it, to me it looks just like the well-behaved one) cartwheels through the sky cackling in an eldritch falsetto like a Disney witch. It divebombs the seagulls, terrorises the Dunnocks and even feints at the mighty Ravens. It raps on the French windows at dawn like a Woodpecker on amphetamine. It mutters at its reflection in what sounds like abusive terms. Worse, it has plucked, eye-like, the sparkling badge from the venerable nose of my car and, put mushrooms on the roof. It has perched on the wing-mirrors and pecked dog’s tooth dags in the rubber seals around the windows. It has made free with the windscreen wipers. It has covered the glass in spit and the doors in shit. Does this Crow in its own world have a name? I wonder.  If so, I don’t know it. We have failed to bond. I have cawed back. I have offered it biscuits. It ignores me. If it continues in its misdemeanours, I may have to Take Steps.

From a cosmic perspective, we human beings are as numerous as the birds and it must be tough for even an Omniscient God to identify us all, to tell one from another. By our names? Having reached the age where names are elusive in a mere seven decades, I doubt if the Ancient of Days pays much attention to names. From our looks? We change our clothes, our spectacles, our expressions, as often as a classical composer changes key. We may however be recognised by our daily wave and smile, if in gratitude for our blessings we take the trouble to say hullo. Otherwise I suspect that it is by our bad behaviour that we are remembered.                                   JXC Cadgwith

*Sunlight and Pears are British brands of soap hallowed by time and famed for their unscented purity. 

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…