I woke up cold and wet after a sleepless night spent contemplating the various circumstances and decisions that had brought me to that little patch of grass between two lanes of a motorway. The headlamp beams of passing juggernaughts caught inside raindrops clanged along the top of the steel rail that separated me from the road I wriggled down inside the huge orange garbage bag I was using as a shelter. It had the words “survival” written across it in big black letters. I mused on this life I had chosen that seemed close to vagrancy.
I hadn’t known what to expect of an artist’s life. I was not even sure I could call myself an artist. I would eventually learn that for anyone choosing this less trodden path, the indignities are endless. Back then however they appeared as necessary challenges, as reasonable as trench warfare when the first shovel goes into the ground and all usual behaviour and standards are suspended for the belief in a better tomorrow. Cezanne’s family owned a bank and his greatest fear was destitution, I kept coming back to this in my mind as I lay there waiting for the dawn. I had no personal fortune and had been living on welfare till a cheque arrived in the post. It was from a foundation in Quebec that supported figurative painting. I was doing portraits back then, I think they were neither good nor bad, in any case they all ended up in garbage bags. I spent years in the company of the French camouflaging my precarity with a different language. I remembered the mother of a French girl, an exchange student I met at art school asking me how I managed to live and so I told her about this grant. She got me just as I held out my plate for some of her very rare roast beef and laughed at the idea that people should be rewarded for figurative painting regardless of how good or bad it might be. She drove every syllable into me, stubbing me out like a cigarette whilst I sat there caught in the headlamps of her swaying meat fork. I eventually learned to appreciate this French practice of ridicule and see it for the sport that it was, and in time developped the speed of my own reflexes and capacity for verbal cruelty. For this too hard currency. St Augustine referred to his teacher St Ambrose of Milan as “honey mouth” due to the irresistible sweetness of his words, “bees would swarmed around his mouth in his cradle”. It seemed to me no coincidence that honey should rhyme with money, the money of the tongue. That honey should drip just like gold.
“What do you have to offer a woman other than sex?” I was asked another time by a different woman somewhere else. “J’ai ma culture” was my meek reply. But what was this culture I was offering and who did it provide for? Society still had/has expectations of men to provide but there were plenty of men in my background, broken dreamers between the wars, who had provided very little, so maybe this was the example I followed. I knew there was nothing to lose in trying, and free of the bourgeois expectations of garden parties and tennis clubs, I was also free to fail without the trauma of social slippage, although I had no intention of failing. My culture was music, prayer and a kind of awkward transition from manual labour and soldiering into office work and the educated professions. All this passed through my mind as either side freight lorries sped about their night time business.
The previous day had been a good one. The market stall holders had asked me to sing for them, sing those French songs. “Beautiful…yeah!” they would say in a mellow, turning out kitsch on their potter’s wheels, selling craft objects brought over from Brazil, juggling coloured balls and wearing circus clothes. The potter with his curly grey hair and generous disposition always gave me something; a coin, food or drink. That day it had been a juicy peach, he handed it to me just when I arrived. He had no place for the distance growing between people as they were officially encouraged to experiment with their own greed. I saw it in my own generation, people observing each other, watching their neighbours sink or swim as they hit that fork in the road of Mrs Thatcher’s Britain. I remember an old friend saying, “I’d hate to see you caught in the poverty trap” as if my life was a show he was watching on T.V. whilst drinking a late night glass of wine. “I’d hate that too” I answered with an irony that went unnoticed. Two worlds were establishing themselves within what had been a working class and I sensed I belonged to neither. The Potter and his confraternity of hippies believed they were rejecting a situation of advanced Capitalism but it had already caught up with them, transforming them into entrepreneurs at gunpoint. I liked them, and appreciated their kindness but I was engaged in a chain of contempt, where painters sneered at potters and conceptual artists sniggered at painters. I might have been singing French songs, perpetuating a caricature of my very own, in the middle of a craft fair collecting coins on the ground, but I moving towards some kind of bigger thing, “Yeah man, beautiful!” The handmade object was anathema, materiality was too susceptible to market forces to be reliable. This anachronistic attachment to craft was a pathology of the deluded who took consolation from these activities because they had not understood the power of words, the primacy of language, the need to describe a situation. Somehow, ideas were cleaning me out, sticking my pictures in garbage bags a second time round. Maybe I wouldn’t paint another picture, I’d keep my hands clean, and deal in references.
I sat up and watched the parallel, steel lines of the barricade speed out towards a possible next destination. Chance would decide everything.
For the sleepless, the first signs of daybreak are joyous, and as the darkness faded, I checked that my notebooks and guitar were intact. All seemed well and I would have taken up position again on the side of the highway if hunger hadn’t protested. I hitched a lift with an early morning delivery man to the nearest small town, and as I advanced through its empty streets the human silence was perfect. It felt acceptable, more than acceptable – recommendable even – to arrive penniless with the dawn: a solitary wanderer passing in silence outside cosy walls with their blinds down and curtains closed. The fear of appearing to the world as a vagrant gave way to a few brief glorious moments of pure calm. I had no notion of career, I only wished to live freely. I walked a little out of town, found a bench and waited. The sun was rising at the end of the path that formed one side of a broad public meadow. I cradled my head in my hands trying to rub out the sleepiness invading my face and lost myself in the sounds of singing birds whose overabundance of happiness in being pushed me over the edge into a melancholic reflection that with the arrival of the first days of summer, one already senses and dreads its passing.
Turning to one side I observed a silhouette approaching from the very centre of the spreading dawn. I blocked out the shape with my hand but as it approached it grew, gathering contour and volume till it flowed over the edge of my fingers. Finally arrived at the bench, I made out the features of a man of about seventy, apparently a tramp with long beard and wild hair. He gestured with outstretched palm and after establishing that I was in no situation to help him, sat down and offered me a coin. I refused it, since accepting might have sealed the fate of my own destitution. He introduced himself as the Count Holešovice, presenting a mangy business card from inside his breast pocket. He picked up a stick and began poking in the dirt in front of us. He sketched out some forms, then spoke.
“Look! Here is desire – a strange and writhing snake of changing colours!”
I was amused by these spontaneous articultae outpourings from one so bedraggled, he went on,
“This burning red coal is passion often tainted with much anger.”
Things were taking a shamanistic turn and,
“Here is a bowl overflowing in fear, perhaps this is your favourite? Do you like yellow? Are you a coward?” I jumped to my feet and started cursing him employing the coarsest language available to me. I revealed the worst aspects of my character … but he was not listening, just drawing. I felt suddenly ashamed and sat down again.
At that moment I knew why I had tried to block out his silhouette. It had brought back to me, in a jolt, the memory of a family grave where an inch or so below the surface of the dirt both past and future were equally present.
Without looking round he spoke again, “Observe this deep green cistern containing all longing. Blue is the spectral dreaming night and black death. Begin painting in Autumn when the light is gentler and the colours deeper. Draw the lines first and add colour after … first lines, then colour.”
As he got up to leave, he forced the coin into my hand. The disk was dark and broad like an old penny. On the one side was the image of a goddess with many arms and a crown of snakes on her head. On the other, ran the inscription in Latin “Hot and sexual Cold and Dead”. I contemplated the image and considered what colour my shame had. I needed some words of hope. I called out to him “Count! Why have you made no mention of my love nor love in general?” He turned and repeated my question back to me in a mocking tone, “My love or love in general?” There is no mentioning of love, nor my love, nor love in general.
What colour does it have?
Does what have?
Ahh! You have roughly fifty years to find that out.
Feather Head, 2013 (© Marc Sadler)
Dancer, 2013 (© Marc Sadler)