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Sunday, 9 August 2009
Time will tell - and how!
This is probably not my usual style of post, so I trust that no one will think themselves to have been drawn in under false pretences. Either way, I have a confession to make: according to my schedule I should now be visiting your blogs, not tapping away at another post for mine. Ah well, I have become so accustomed to catching up that it's almost second nature to me now. I will do so again, I promise.
Last evening (Saturday) Doreen and I went to a Golden Wedding Anniversary celebration. A couple that we knew back when we first met. I went to the same school as Doug, though we were in different years. (Come to think of it, I went to school with most of the blokes that were there - only the blokes, it having been an all-boys school. I know, I know: that explains a lot...) Then, I was seduced by my brother into the local youth club where I again met most of the blokes at last night's celebration - and, more importantly, where I met Doreen. Oh, and where I met quite a few of the ladies from last evening's little get-together. All this was nearer to sixty years ago than fifty. Many of them I had not seen for more than forty years until last evening.
There were two with whom I had nursed fond hopes of enjoying a chat about old times: "I" and "J". "I" could not be there. He had entered the ministry way back in the days when I first knew him. Almost as soon as he was ordained he joined the navy as a padre. He was for a long time Padre on the aircraft-carrier, The Ark Royal. Later, after leaving the navy, he was for a year or so Chaplain to the Queen. Later still, he and his wife retired to the West Country. Not too long afterwards he fell ill. To begin with, he had problems using his legs, but very rapidly it became obvious that he was suffering some form of dementia. Within weeks it became impossible for his wife to care for him and he had to move out into a nursing home. By then he did not know his wife or his children. On their Golden Wedding Anniversary she took him out for an hour, after which friends from school and youth club days visited him with albums of photographs recalling old times. He went through them all, naming everyone and putting each photograph into its context. In his recollections he was streets ahead of the combined efforts of all his friends.
Then there was "J". "J" was at the party. He used to paint the most fabulous stage sets for the Youth Club Drama Group. They really were quite amazing. I admired them greatly. Was a little envious, too, if the truth be known, for I would have liked to try my hand at the stage sets, but knew there was no chance, and rightly so, whilst "J" was around. Reduced in size and sold as paintings, I am sure they would have done well at some West End galleries at that time. There was a genuine primitive quality to them. The moment I began to chat to "J", though, it became apparent that he was struggling. His wife had already told me that he becomes easily distressed, so I went gently. No, he didn't remember this one or that one - and who was that chap in the brown and white striped shirt over there? I'm not convinced he knew who I was, though he kept a straight bat and didn't make it obvious. I think I was something of a ghost from his past, but no more than that. But when I asked if he remembered painting the stage sets... ah, that was a different matter. Yes, he remembered that. His father and his uncle owned and ran a very large smallholding. (I always thought of it as a small largeholding!) He and his brother eventually took it over. He remembered it very well, but not really the people associated with it. Did he remember supplying all the flowers for us for our wedding reception. Nope. The opposite to "I", he seems to be living tolerably well (relatively speaking) in the present, but he has no past. Or rather, the past that he has is not peopled. No one inhabits it.
There was one other old friend, a lady this time. She talked well enough about what she talked well enough about. Until you hit a blank. Then she would simply move you on with a wave of the hand, saying, rather imperiously: No, that has completely gone. Nothing remains of that.
I know these stories are, as my mum would have said, A dime a dozen. We've heard them before, or ones like them, and that all too often. But somehow, in the context of the celebrations and the slight nostalgia that such occasions always engender, it was a bit like hearing them for the first time.
There is an epilogue.
Home again and with a fruit pie and a cup of tea inside me, I did what I am inclined to do after such a night out: relax over a short read with an even shorter single malt. Not a book, but a magazine took my fancy. A review, in fact. Of Per Kirkeby's exhibition at Tate Modern. Per Kirkeby knew from the first that he wanted to be an artist, but went from school to university to read natural history and geography. He then went to Greenland's high Arctic as part of a scientific expedition. When he began to produce his art work he was able to see it in geological terms. The review concluded with these words: Early on, Kirkeby saw that the hardness of the conditions of existence, seen most uncompromisingly in the Arctic terrain, must lead us to intensify rather than deny our capacity for happiness and exultation. At the age of seventy one, he continues to serve this insight. In its own small, strange way, the evening had left me with exactly that feeling. It was uncanny the way the reviewer echoed it.