There are a number of places which, when you’re there, you never want to leave. The cool marble and tinkling fountains of the Alhambra; Rome, where Henry James’ greatest heroine ‘dropped her secret sadness into the silence of lonely places where its very modern quality detached itself and grew objective’; New York City in winter, looking out at the snow-filled garden of the Frick mansion from a room hung with Rembrandts.
On a different scale, I’d now add Great Blasket Island off the western coast of Eire. Uninhabited since the early 1950s and dotted with tiny stone cottages in various states of disrepair, the island is a place of enormous beauty and a gentle melancholy. Surrounded by the Atlantic with its ever-changing blues and greens, Great Blasket is virtually cut off from the Dingle peninsula during the winter months when the ocean becomes a fierce adversary. It was the winter isolation with a tragic consequence that finally drove its tiny population from this unlikely paradise.
Some descendents of the Blasket Islanders are renovating and restoring the houses now. Walls are being rebuilt and roofs replaced and a hilltop cafe serves possibly the worst tea you’ll drink in Ireland. In the early years of the last century a number of inhabitants wrote books about their experiences living here which I’m sure are well worth reading, but you don’t really need to.
Just walk down to the beach with its pungent, lolling seals and look out across the ocean which, even on a peaceful summer’s day, peaks and troughs around the coastline. Between you and America there’s nothing but these temperamental waters, stretching away for over 6,000 kilometers. Put yourself in the shoes of those Islanders living on lobster and rabbit and burning peat for warmth; imagine writing your stories or tuning your fiddle by candlelight, a winter storm thrashing at your windows and around your thatched roof. Consider all of that and tell me this isn’t a paradise of sorts where things detach themselves and grow objective.
I’ve been involved in making collages lately, using cut-up pieces of unwanted paintings, as a sort of palate cleanser (apologies, there was no way to avoid the pun) before beginning the task of rethinking the way I paint. There’s something satisfying about finding those corners where a brush stroke takes on true character or a line of charcoal intersects a block of pigment in an exciting way. Building those pieces up into something new is such a thrill. This particular one tries to evoke that feeling of walking to the sea along a lonely cliff path.
Every year in October I travel to Frankfurt for the book fair. It’s an inspiring time to be in Germany. The days are often warm, as if the summer can’t bear to let go, but the trees are already starting to turn red, gold and brown.
How often have I picked up a particularly beautiful leaf and put it somewhere – intending to draw or paint it later – then forgetten about it, finding a brown and shrivelled thing weeks later. This time of year is transience made visible, when everything changes from day to day, nature drawing down the shutters for winter.
The book fair is an international expression of creativity. The world’s publishers set out their stalls in five or six halls, some with three floors per hall. Those of us who are mainly English-speaking can only feel humbled walking through, say, the Norwegian or Dutch sections, seeing books by writers largely unknown outside of their own languages. There is so much that we can never know.
On the theme of creativity, this morning I read an interview with the conductor, Simon Rattle, in the SueddeutscherZeitung magazine. He described how, when conducting, the music is felt in every part of the body. He mentioned a conversation between Leonard Bernstein and Andre Previn. “How are you, Andre?” asked Bernstein. “OK,” Previn replied, “But I have terrible backache.” “Really?” Bernstein gasped, “I had no idea you were so successful!”
Although the above isn’t a self-portrait – it was drawn from a photograph I took secretly of a man on a local train – on Thursday I will be a man on a train. Having flown over to Rochester NY yesterday, I’ll be travelling down by Amtrak to meet a client in Hudson in the morning, and then on to New York City for more meetings.
The themes of change and endings have been on my mind a great deal lately. I’ve always embraced change with enthusiasm: moving from country to country and job to job with a sense of adventure. There have been some profound sadnesses along the way, but I always believed that we are generally a creative and resourceful species and that in the end things work out. Lately the changes have been somewhat out of my control and, as I heard last week during a course on Well-being in the Workplace, control over one’s situation is essential to peace of mind.
My stay in Rochester has been somewhat piognant, as it’ll probably be my last in the bed and breakfast inn at 428 Mount Vernon. The elegant, quiet Mount Vernon has been my home from home in Rochester for most of my visits there over the past 15 years, but the owners, Phil and Claire, have decided to retire.
It has always felt like far more than a hotel: I usually stay in the same peaceful room with a view out over the garden, watching the northern cardinals on the bird feeders and the chipmunks scurrying through the undergrowth; the breakfasts are, as I’ve described before, the perfect start to the day; and a visit in election year always includes a robust political discussion with Phil even though “Claire told me not to talk politics with the guests but you asked, right?”
Change happens and we are well-equipped to deal with most of it. Sometimes though, change takes with it a little piece of your heart and casts a shadow over one small part of your life.
This weekend I’ll fly to Rochester NY with a brief stopover in New York City to visit a colleague there.
A favourite stop in the city is the Pearl Oyster Bar. After a seven hour flight and another hour or so negotiating the Saturday night subway system with my suitcase, I’ll make my way over to Cornelia Street for a lobster roll.
After a while, seated at the bar with a glass of something white and crisp, surrounded by New Yorkers sharing plates of oysters or scallops, the tensions of intercontinental travel start to fall away. Slowly you begin to feel part of it all – the hot metallic smell of the subway, the sounds of the streets, the unique quality of the city night – rather than just another traveler superimposed on the landscape. You’re no longer a seat number or someone waiting in line at immigration or hurtling under the city in a subway train. You melt into the city and it gently enfolds you. You are there.
This ink and watercolour painting of an oyster should be seen as semi-abstract. Rebecca Charles would never serve something coloured like this at Pearl’s – it’s an excuse to use pigment and ink and masking fluid to create an oyster-like shape rather than a realistic depiction. The three little capers look rather Japanese, don’t you think? I was rather proud of those!