Monthly Archives: June 2015

The Artist

It was no more than a garret. Pitched windows cast mute sunlight. Seasons of grime danced with dust. Marooned by forsaken canvases the artist posed at his easel, far too engrossed to acknowledge visitors. Ardent fingers stroked muddy gouache into a sullen landscape. It was his agent’s suggestion they should throw open the studio so patently the little man should take full responsibility for clients.

Pierre, clad in simpering Sunday best, was steering an elegant woman through the shambles, taking particular care her generous skirts didn’t engage with discarded canvases. The silly man never did recognise when a painting was finished and dry.

‘My mother thought herself something of an artist.’ The client had an elegant voice, symptomatic of her class. ‘An unfortunate obsession.’

Pierre was nodding respectfully. ‘Artists! Such passion?’ And keen to illustrate the virtues of his young protégée poised in front of a glowering masterpiece.

The woman’s flamboyant millinery concealed the look on her face but studying the picture closely she enquired. ‘What is the subject?’

‘Notre Dame. It is early morning; mist is rising from the river.’ Pierre had become well-versed in avant-garde techniques.

‘I see nothing but fog.’ Grey dust swirled as their client marched towards the next canvas.

The artist didn’t stir from his easel, being posed in the far corner. Closing his empty eyes he tossed fronds of tousled dark hair from his fore-head, and brooded. Discarded underfoot, like flotsam on a beach, were the charcoal sketches of blurred memories never destined to become art.

‘And what is the theme of this study?’ The relentless woman had manoeuvred behind the artist in progress.

‘The church of Sacre Coeur at dawn…’ Pierre began confidently.

But the lady interrupted. ‘And has the artist ever availed himself of taking the air at dawn?’

‘The artist prides himself on beginning every study en plein air.’ Vigilant in his praise.

‘Yet another study of Paris in fog?’ She waved a gloved hand dismissively.

The artist applied paint with such passion his easel screamed across the floor. He wouldn’t look up, wouldn’t give the client that pleasure.

After an agonizing pause she continued. ‘I find Paris too indulgent of artists with a fascination for fog.’ The pitch of her voice rose to an unremitting crescendo. ‘They must persist in starving until they comprehend how these bland creations fail to inspire.’

Pierre looked forlornly towards his artist. Spine rigid, head otherwise engaged, he laid down his brush and took up a knife.

Derwentwater winter

Good manners being integral to business Pierre remained impeccably polite. He escorted their client downstairs and out into the street. Only then, concerned for his artist, did he run briskly back up to the garret, more than slightly out of breath.

‘Madam was over-critical, please don’t be dispirited.’

Laying down his knife the young man stepped back from the easel, wiping his paint-swabbed hands on a rag while considering his latest creation.

Pierre shook his head sympathetically. ‘Of course we are bound to attract the curious, those whose interest is not entirely aesthetic.’

‘Oh she never intended making a purchase.’ The artist’s attention remained set on peeling paint from each awkward finger.

A sudden perception engrossed the agent. ‘You’ve met the lady before?’

And turning from his ruined masterpiece the artist brandished a smile. ‘That lady was my mother.’

February 2012

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Filed under art, aspirations, courage, endurance, Family, fiction, fulfilment

Convalescing

It’s been a long time coming this year, our summer. We had the heating on last night and there was ground frost carpeting the lawn at dawn on Monday. I know, because I was up.

Three weeks today I got a new right hip. Three weeks of staggered recovery. In fact the days roll along pretty well – busy with writing and reading and projects. But the nights are proving a trial. Until the new joint is settled and strong I must sleep flat on my back, except I never sleep in that position and it takes an age to settle. I toss, I plump the pile of pillows one-by-one, have a sip of water, try sliding my legs gently to the left and then the right – ouch – bad move. Another sip of water, review my medications (what’s left in the arsenal?) take a spoonful of morphine (well it was prescribed for emergencies), try and relax again. Wriggle, slide, wriggle, twist, slide…

I wake before dawn with a full and pounding headache which nothing seems to quell (even morphine). Best get up, have a walk round, but I’m too wobbly to attempt the stairs. Then comes a craving for a cup of tea but I slide back under the covers. Wriggle, slide, twist…

I dream. My husband and I and his brother and his wife are driving a huge silver camper van touring the Australian outback. But we’ve crossed a toll bridge and none of us has the correct currency to pay the attendant. Shoes, bags, clothes are tossed down onto brick-red sand – we’re turfing out all the contents of the van looking for money, any money, and then a policeman comes and says we needn’t worry…it’s a wonderful dream. And then I wake. And reality hits me. My brother-in-law is dead and I’ll never see him again in this world. How can a dream make him so alive, so real?

Queensland travels

Queensland travels

I’ve learned a lot about myself these last few weeks. I’ve learned to suppress every impulse to tidy the house (I’m not permitted to bend or lift anything for 12 weeks minimum) – and so far the place hasn’t disintegrated into chaos. I’ve learned to be more patient with myself, especially when I dropped both walking sticks out of reach and couldn’t move from my chair until my husband came home. Most importantly I’ve learned to say ‘I can’t’ without feeling I’ve failed.

It’s so easy to repeat the same daily patterns of life, to slip into other people’s expectations of who and what I am. But this period of convalescence has given me space to remember what it is to be me.

Queensland after the floods

Queensland after the floods

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Filed under Changes, courage, Family, fulfilment

Maps and Mary, Queen of Scots

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Whether looking for the best means to travel from A to B or going in search of treasure you can’t do without a map. And I don’t mean some GPS enabled app, that just doesn’t have the same scope. I mean a large paper sheet that refuses to close down even when you want it to and has a satisfying radius that sets your position on the planet better than glaring at Google Earth. Maps are the key to an ‘otherworld’, they lead to somewhere else, facilitate journeying beyond familiar places to places where one may be inspired and astounded. Maps are really quite remarkable.

Over the last few months I’ve been trying to determine the most likely route Mary Queen of Scots followed after landing from a fishing boat on a beach near Workington during the evening of 16th May 1568. But the truth is proving elusive, not least because after her death she became something more than human, she became a figure of romance, a legend. Every Tom, Dick or Harry with an eye to a profit has claimed she came to call.

Mary-Queen-of-Scots

There is no question where she slept that very first night because the evidence is indisputable. Imagine the furore when the Queen of the neighbouring country unexpectedly comes a-calling? Unfortunately the Curwens who resided at Workington Hall were taking the waters in Bath but a servant recognised Mary because he was French and ‘knew her in better times’.  That evening letters were being dispatched to the four corners of the land (and beyond, Mary wrote a letter to France begging assistance). Just before dawn next day Richard Lowther, deputy keeper of Carlisle Castle, arrived with a company of men (between 200 to 800 depending on who composed the letter) to escort the unexpected visitor back to Carlisle Castle. The argument being this was for her own safety.

Lowther was right to worry about Mary’s situation. The Earl of Northumberland wanted Mary under his control, and with Lord Wharton, military governor of the region out of reach in London poor Richard had to make all the decisions. He obviously knew who he could trust and called on a wealthy merchant called Henry Fletcher. Now while most records agree that Fletcher was Mary’s host during her second night in England he owned several large houses in the region. The earliest written record I can find claims Mary stayed at Clea Hall but that didn’t seem to make sense because it’s so far off the beaten track…at least nowadays. Perhaps that’s why most modern tomes agree Mary stayed that critical night at Cockermouth Hall, another of Henry’s homes.

Then, while debating my next step, I happened to bump into John Higham, a retired history teacher who’s written several books on local history. When I told him of my dilemma he pointed me towards the Saxon map of Cumberland which was published in 1579. It came as a surprise to discover that the main road to Carlisle, in fact the only road which would accommodate a large party of men and women on horseback, skirted the hills and passed through the villages of Ireby and Dalston, a very different route from today. And this made it apparent that Clea Hall is in a much better position, especially if you want to ride in ceremonial triumph into Carlisle next day and not look too frazzled. The grounds of Clea Hall also offered space for the few hundred soldiers who needed a place to lay their heads, something far less feasible in Cockermouth town centre, especially with the Earl of Northumberland’s men breathing down your back (but that’s another story).

So my journey hasn’t ended. I have an inkling the records are wrong, but I do know for certain that Mary made the wrong choice in coming to England. But then, had she remained, as was most likely, under house arrest in Scotland, she would have faded into history rather than blazed.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Looking NW from a farm lane near Crosscanonby across farmland and the Solway Firth to the Galloway Hills.

  © Copyright ally McGurk and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

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Filed under Cumberland, History, Research, Scotland, Sources, Writing

Pain

Pain dissembles every aspect of life, of living.
It eats away at who you are, devours independence yet leaves you isolated, despite every firm resolve not to let it.
Pain is the four letter word I hate most. A source of rage, of indiscriminate actions.
Pain negates life. It culls the heart, smears the spirit, wounds resolve.
Life is lived differently when you endure constant pain. Pain drains hope, it makes you feel hollow, unworthy.
It is ten years since an injury caused my right hip to seize-up. Gradually inflexibility became disability.
But on 29th May I had a new ‘bionic’ hip installed. Today I can stand tall again.
This is the beginning of a new chapter of my life. The act of being ME changes.

Meeting friends I never knew I had.

Meeting friends I never knew I had.

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Filed under Changes, courage, endurance, fulfilment, hope