London, 18th August 2014
‘I became a story sailors tell, the one about the old captain who travels the earth looking for the comfort the ocean used to give him, reading the shape of clouds as he once read the swell of waves.’
I’ve not long finished taking photos of the sky every day for a year.
I introduced the idea here; and here’s where the story ends. Inevitably, given the subject, no matter how hard I tried to vary what I captured against or underneath the sky, there was an ever-increasing sense of repetition. But that was an accepted part of it for me, to record the points at the ends of my regular itineraries and the skies above them. Of course, there was seasonal repetition too. Overcast skies seemed to dominate for long stretches of the year, but if you look hard at those skies, there are a thousand shades of grey, while blue is merely a continuous spectrum depending upon where you are looking.
It’s not the first time I’ve undertaken to do something of the sort. In 1998, I attempted to record everything I ate and drank in the course of a year, following Georges Perec’s lead, though his Attempt at an inventory of the liquid and solid foodstuffs ingurgitated by me in the course of the year nineteen hundred and seventy-four was cumulative (‘One Belon oysters, three coquilles St-Jacques, one shrimps, one shrimp croustade…’ etc) rather than a day by day affair, as mine was. For example, I can tell you that on February 16th 1998, I ate and drank the following: ‘Porridge, toast with hummus and celery, lentil shepherd’s pie and broccoli, one can Castlemaine XXXX lager, malt loaf, white grapes.’ Perec’s drinking (largely wine, rarely beer) was somewhat more refined than mine seems to be, to judge from this one entry. And while his list is a journey through classic French cuisine, my entries have the matter of fact flavour of historical record buried in a time capsule, rather like ledgers detailing the outgoings of the great houses of the nobility in previous centuries. They summon up the time and the young man I was, the man I am still – but also the man I am not, the man I am no longer.
This too will stand as a record of a year. I’ll see the framing of certain skies and know exactly where I was on that day; or there won’t be quite enough to tell and I will have to scratch my head to remember, if I can. I’m sure I learnt things about myself as in early 1999 I looked back across what I had eaten during the previous year (not always as wholesome as was the case on February 16th), though I confess I no longer remember what it is I learnt. I’m not sure I was any more certain about the worth of this latest year-long project – sometimes it seemed an exercise in futility, although for the most part it felt like a valiant undertaking pursued for all the right reasons – but I’m prepared to have a stab at what I think I may have learnt from looking at the sky so much for a year.
I learnt to turn around and look behind me.
I learnt the limitations of the frame and to avoid the brightest part of the day.
I learnt how to be patient, to wait for the right sky. I learnt that the sky doesn’t care for your troubles, though it may sometimes seem to mirror your joy.
I learnt that in a coastal town or city, seagulls will always photobomb your pictures – often to good effect, it has to be said.
I learnt that the most beautiful skies would always elude me. Even now, a couple of weeks after the end, I see them from the car, and I cannot always be stopping to capture them, or I’d never make it to my destination. Coastal skies, and skies from on high looking down over the plain beneath a line of hills. Porchester Castle at sunset or sunrise. Dawn, with the skeletal big wheel by the travellers’ camp site before it, strands of cloud like combed candy floss detaching from a cumulus mass in the wind. A mackerel sky over the common. Clouds like distant mountains. Endlessly spreading cumulonimbus above the Isle of Wight, their splendour undimmed for being seen through the institutional grubbiness of my window at work. Clouds like those depicted in Old Master paintings. God skies, you might call them, without necessarily believing in God.
I learnt that you can never stop looking at clouds and seeing shapes in them. Horses and dragons, VW Beatles and ships of the line. There goes Italy, hotly pursued by a somewhat misshapen Australia, and coming after the countries, a sparrowhawk followed by a peacock. I often thought of Peter Benson’s novel, The shape of clouds, the clouds being those which chase a retired sea captain to an abandoned, remote Cornish village, the clouds which witness his late-flowering love with the film star of both his early years and his dreams.
As I drive with my daughter, we play the shape of clouds game. One evening recently, we saw a cloud resembling nothing so much as a giant heron gliding, migratory and magnificent in its thermal determination to get where it was going.
The skies that I captured are unrepeatable. They were mine, but I had the urge to share them, and I managed to sustain that across a whole year, save the single day that I missed, when a few words had to stand in for a thousand possible pictures. So, though I more or less succeeded, I also failed, judged against the standard I set myself.
But at least I managed to end on the high note of a rainbow, to make up for the one I missed in the Highlands of Scotland, stopping the car in a lay-by on the way home in the fading light on the very last day of the sky-snapping year. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a rainbow that late in a day before. And so it became both my final sky and my covenant with you, the viewer.
See you on the other side of the rainbow.
That’s a butterfly at breakfast time rather than one for breakfast, you understand. A peacock (Inachis io, and not the first to have featured in these pages) lighted on my arm and seemed happy with where it had landed, staying long enough for my daughter to grab my camera and shoot these pictures. Settled magically in the crook of my arm for those minutes, the butterfly seemed a blessing, or perhaps a reminder or gift from a muse.
And then as I tried ever so slowly to sit down at the table so that my daughter might better capture it from above with the camera, it took fright and flight and was gone.
Imagine that I’m a recovering alcoholic. Imagine that I have issues and torments, the kind that need a troubled cure for a troubled mind. Imagine that I’ve gathered with seven other self-flagellating substance misusers to try and effect some small changes in my life which may just set me on the road to recovery. This is not so much therapy as self-help, with serious doses of woe and misfortune from all corners and sides. It’s about stepping out of the mindset which allows us down and outs to proceed on autopilot, so that we can repurpose our rote behaviours away from what we don’t want, and towards what we do. To press pause, before we press play again.
At least, that’s the theory.
Having relaxed in our seats and closed our eyes, we are asked by a gentle guiding soul to imagine a lemon on a pure white plate. As we are mentally picking up the lemon and putting it to our respective noses, the silence – which we have been made aware is not in fact silence simply by having it drawn to our attention (the whirr of fans, talking from the next meeting room along, the cries of seagulls) – is broken by the entry of a grey-haired man with a similarly-coloured moustache and tattoos on his muscular forearms; an apparently random entity. We open our eyes, surprised, but our guiding soul decides to ignore him and proceed with the visualisation, trying to maintain the spell, to keep us in the palm of her hand, and the lemon on the plate from vanishing. So, in the stranger’s presence, we are asked to take a knife and cut our lemons in half, observing how the fruit feels, its colour, the smell as the serrated edge bites through its skin. ‘Cut a slice from the lemon, and eat it.’ I eat mine with the rind on, pips’n’all, wincing at the sourness in front of Miles Davis, to see if the sight of lemon being eaten renders him incapable of playing, as the urban myth suggests is true of trumpeters, and so that a lemon tree begins to grow inside of me, the fruits emerging in a matter of minutes in place of fingers and toes and ears and nose and – no, I’ll stop my imagination and yours short of there. The guiding soul has said that all this might seem surreal or weird to us, but to me, it’s what I do, imagining lemons, or rather, what is not, what is elsewhere, what might be, to the extent that sometimes I find it hard to be present in the actual moment, which this visualisation of the non-actual is confusingly proceeding from.
Having eaten some lemon, we come back into the room and open our eyes again. The interloper is still there and I ask him which meeting he’s expecting this to be. ‘School governors?’ he says, and we tell him, no, and he leaves, having witnessed something which must have seemed infinitely more surreal and weird out of context than in.
We are asked to volunteer an aspect of our behaviour that we would like to change. When it comes to my turn, I look around the room, as if to make doubly sure that none of the people with whom I work directly are there to hear what I’m about to say, and then talk about burning the candle at both ends, and how my – ahem – ‘creative pursuits’ (a phrase which occasions some fnarr fnarring, so that I’m obliged to say ‘oi, stop it!’) keep me up till all hours and minimise the amount of time I have in which to sleep, until inevitably I end up feeling exhausted, falling into a daily afternoon slump that inevitably affects my work. The guiding soul teases out how I feel about this. I am conflicted. I wish there were twice as many hours in a day, but there aren’t, and if I want to keep imagining lemons while also attending a place of gainful employment at which I am on occasion invited to imagine a lemon, then my behaviour has to change.
To finish, and without sharing, we commit to a task; mine has to be to go to bed earlier. I already know this – had in fact resolved upon that course of action the previous day – but sharing something of myself with people to whom I rarely if ever open up gives my commitment an edge. And last night, I did indeed go to bed early, or at least, earlier. One harvested lemon doesn’t make a summer, and I can’t say that I feel entirely refreshed on the back of it, but I believe that will come, in time.
For five or six days now, he’s been tapping. Ever since Carolyn put the tulips in a vase on the sill of the kitchen window. Mistaking the purplish-red of the petals for berries, perhaps. Or – but no. It couldn’t be.
When she hears him tapping she rises from her desk in the study down the hallway and ventures to look at him, inching across the kitchen tiles so that she can better see the glint in his sideways-on eye, the space-hopper orange of his beak, the sootiness of his feathering. He looks wise. Masterful, even. They stare at each other, the double panes of glass between them until a sudden gust of wind spooks the bird into taking cover within the laurel hedge which encloses the view from the window. She leaves the kitchen with the vase of tulips and sets them on her desk. But still the blackbird comes and taps, two or three times a day.
By the sixth morning, she has quietened and slowed her movements so much that the bird does not flinch even when she puts her fingertip to the glass. She waits for him to tap his beak against it, but it’s still a shock when he does. As she feels the glass vibrate against her finger, a feeling of exultation passes through her being.
Each night when Carolyn gets home from work, she steps out of the car and pauses there in the garage, poised between three worlds; the world in her head, and the worlds outside of it, the exterior of work and the interior of home. The twilit sky is the void between the worlds. She sees the lights of aircraft pass high across it, and follows the path of one for a while, before looking instead for the emerging patterns of the familiar constellations. She wishes there was a moon she could wish upon, to transform the blackbird back into the man who is gone, for by now she is quite sure that it is his reincarnation. Genie or none, tomorrow morning she will open the window, and let the blackbird back into her world.
She dreamt of chocolate; she dreamt she was chocolate, wrapped in alternating layers of silver and gold foil till she could no longer move a muscle. The man wrapping her pierced each successive layer at her mouth with his finger so that she could breathe, but otherwise she was entirely contained. All she felt was a twitching inside of herself. But that was a physical tic; her mind was at peace, wrapped tight as she was – she had been absolved of all responsibility. The only thing to do was to wait, drifting on currents of aimless thought and a growing ache. She was waiting for the man to break her, to snap the brittle parts of her body with the foil still on; slowly to unwrap the pieces of her, putting each in his mouth, feeling her dissolve upon his tongue. From being tightly wrapped, rigid, she would be made molten, and hers would be a liquidity that he might mould in any way he chose. She wanted only to be the shape he desired her to be. While wrapped in silver and gold, while melting about him, she gave up her right to self-determination. And yet in those endless moments, he was the more subservient – not so much to the greediness of his own desire, but to the fulfilment over and over again of this urgent need of hers, which could only be sated by the cyclical sequence of stilling, breaking, eating, and remoulding. She was couverture, she was Callebaut. She was ganache, she was fondant. She was salted caramel.
Lucky then that the man of her dreams was a chocoholic.
The afternoon was wan. The day had gradually lost its colour, as if all the light was being sucked out of the sky. Hitherto, there had been the definite suggestion of spring, a mildness in the air which allowed long-hunched shoulders to release all their tension at last after a long, cold winter. But now that daubing warmth from the paintbrush of the sun was as good as a distant memory, and once again he suspected he would remain forever trapped in a one hundred year-winter.
When he hears the call of the tawny owls loud and unmistakeable in the otherwise silent night, he thinks of how if they were Strix aluco, they might spend the nights hunting together, flying silently – ecstatically – on the wing to drop extended talons down on dormouse or vole or beetle, or even the plump succulence of a frog. Across the woods they would call to each other, first the long note of his drawn out hoooouh, and then the tu-whit tu-whoo of her response. Once each had its catch, they would return to the Scots pine roost to feast together. Later there would be the press of feathers in an ivy-curtained hole in the pine’s trunk, and just enough room to preen each other until morning came.
Past midnight, as incapable of switching off his awareness of the night as any nocturnal animal, his thoughts reverberate like the owls’ duet.
Inside, we are all ribbed and veined, but thin as he was and livid as he had been, you could see bones and wires on the outside of his frame. There was barely an ounce of fat on him; fury had burned it all away, until, if you took up a pair of mallets, you might play him like a xylophone. The superficial temporal vein stood out on his forehead. Once he had been both of the words tattooed on the knuckles of either hand: HATE and LOVE. Had you seen him at the height of his fury, you would have thought that he couldn’t possibly have become the lover that he was – soft fingers applied with both a gentle intensity and an attentiveness to the needs of the body and mind he was touching. Instinctively he understood that the greatest pleasures lay in furnishing his lover’s erotic imagination while never forgetting to feed the emotional furnace of her heart. Of course, his head and body were not the only parts of him which were ribbed and veined, thought it was not so much this soft cylinder rendered hard which brought his lover to her knees as the gifts he had already given her, the scene he had already set. He was all ribs and veins, while she was all ribbed and vaulted tunnels in which a lover could secretly hide, and arterial warmth, in which he could bask.