Thursday, 30 July 2015

Scouting for Dolphins

A heron beak-feeds its paltry catch of fish to a dolphin stranded in shallow waters.
I know what you will think; you will think that sentence must be wrong. I've got my wires crossed or that I suffer from some form of dyslexic size-ism, for surely everyone knows a dolphin's mass is considerably larger than that of a heron, and that a heron would never consent to such a belittling task. It's unimaginable! Unthinkable! Well, apparently not for I conceived of it and I've seen evidence of it too with my very own bespectacled eyes!
It came to me first in a dream – the idea and the image - whereby I paid it no heed other than thinking I had a most unusual imagination of Lewis Carroll proportions. In other planes of existence, I often dream the impossible, the improbable, the unlikely: English-speaking British Blue cats whom I hold regular conversations with on London buses; boarding pirate ships that traverse the night sky like rockets; and finding washed-up chests of bottled imps, all of whom stubbornly refuse to grant either good or evil. So you see, it wasn't extraordinary for me to dream of such a thing as recurring reveries of this nature are quite common.
Except this time the picture stuck in my inner mind as it reeked of deja vu, stank to high heaven of repeated familiarity, which oddly made me feel like the white stick that candy floss is wrapped around: numb to all sensations, dead to irrelevant sensory information. The outer world muffled, and my head, apart from that probed spot, packed with cotton wool; the one functioning blob switched on like a Christmas tree light or as if it had been struck with a lit match, the sugar its soaked in set aflame. Neutrality is never an option at this combustible point.
My attempts to remain impartial were in vain, and believe me, I tried to forget, but the huge heron of my dream was haunting...I even tried to dream of it again, but could not, and yet its image loomed large in my wakeful mind, hovered over everything like how a Phoenix might rise from ashes. I could not grasp from whence it had come from as I did not believe my mind could own such a vision – it must have been planted- and therefore I must discover the reason it had chosen me.
But where to start?
The heron was not like any I had ever seen. No natural history book contained the likes of its image nor did the museum. Its feathers were a dazzling multitude of ocean blues and seaweed greens and its scale was in-between an emu and a pterodactyl; appearing peacock-like, but with extra height and far less plumage. Yet none of my research quite matched what I'd beheld and I found no archived reports of any herons – average-sized or super-sized - feeding dolphins, in fact quite the reverse, but then dolphins are known to have a generous spirit, whereas it's rare for birds to feel duty-bound to a water-based mammal.
Having made little progress in the ordinary book-learning, fact-finding way, I decided that my next course of action would be to head to the coast, and as luck would have it I had already planned a trip to Bournemouth some months ago which seemed as good a starting place as any, especially as any decision on my part would have only resulted in further delay.
So off I set like a modern day Dick Whittington only travelling in the opposite direction and not on foot, but by train with more luggage than was necessary: an overfilled beige handbag and a half-empty, yet surprisingly heavy dark grey holdall.
On arrival, my first port of call was the Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum who I'd heard were exhibiting a William de Morgan collection; this chap I was very much interested in and it was there among his artefacts housed on the lower ground that I found exactly what I'd seen: a tile design that precisely captured my dream and which I took as further proof of the heron's existence for how could two unrelated persons with many years in-between share the same vision? Held before my eyes I comprehended its symbolism as an enlightened Freud might have done: the dolphin is I and the towering heron is a guide.

Picture Credit: Heron and Dolphin, William de Morgan, 19th-20th Century

Thursday, 23 July 2015

Funnel of Cohesion

A man and woman were walking ahead of me along the autumn leaf-strewn path, not hand-in-hand - the woman was a step behind the man - but I presumed they were a couple. They matched like two figurines on a mantelpiece; their coated backs giving them the appearance of having weathered many storms. Together.
They were linked somehow, by blood ties, vows or reciprocal liking, which their amble seemed to me to confirm all the more for its pace and deferential air said they were used to one another, in fact leant on each other. Even in heated disagreements or misunderstandings, and I imagined their silences were companionable. Comfortable pauses without the usual awkwardness strangers might feel. No urge to ramble words to fill the empty spaces, but each completely at ease until one had something to say: a said out loud observation, a thoughtful question, a clever remark to a previous comment, a firm opinion or to moot an idea.
Yet, despite this naturalness there was a hint of reservation; a self-preservation in their turned backs. A stiffness, an oppression, as if certain subjects were not to be broached, to be verbally expressed. Feelings may have been one of them for I judged them to be of that class where emotions are constantly and purposely skirted. It wouldn't have been proper under a roof or out in the open. The past shouldn't be raked up no matter what impact it has on the present; the future would take care of itself if stones were left unturned. What's done is done; the consequences must be lived with. There's no turning back, no reversing the hands of the clock or the years torn off the calendar.
How could I possibly discern all this from two such faceless characters? Because this is what practised observers do. We notice the smallest disturbances in communication, the tiniest gesture; we interpret the language of the body and conjecture. We store an encyclopedia of unspeakable knowledge. The non-verbal clues in the study of animals and people, of which animals are the easier of the two.
Up ahead, a narrow gap had formed between this middle-aged couple, one which seemed to widen half an inch to every ten of my measured strides and which emphasised their incommunicable divide: adrift yet choosing to remain by each other's side. The woman in her fur-trimmed collared coat who had for all this time kept herself a pace behind appeared to be intent on meandering until she was out of arm's reach of the man, yet with her head still slightly turned in his direction. He would have to look round if he wanted to assure himself that she followed, but never once did he attempt it. He continued to tap along the path with his walking stick. He was the parent in this relationship: her childishness was grudgingly tolerated.
It's possible he may have voiced some urge to hurry her up, to harness her again to his side, and I did not overhear it as the distance was too great, but I think not. I got the distinct impression that this was a game frequently played: a natural tailing-off in their conversation, then a hesitation to commence a new sentence. The man impatient and the woman buying time to find the right word to begin. Both sought attention and reaction from the other, and both were reluctant to give it for an inner part of them shunned this dependency. The fact that it was mutual was neither here or there, but perhaps they could not see it? Or perhaps after so many years it was ingrained?
As the trees pressed closer, the woman answered the man's signal: reduced the gap to less than it had originally been; her eyes searching his I'm quite sure for some recognition of her docility, though of course that could merely be my own fancy, for to me it implied they had assumed and could resume their faithful roles. Drifting apart, yet bound together by some ungovernable secrecy.

Picture Credit: Couple Walking in the Woods, Leo Lesser Ury

Thursday, 16 July 2015


The sunlight was dazzlingly bright; the land across the sea mirage-like. It shimmered in the heat haze as somewhere a bell tolled faint, but clear. Its knell wasn't the sound of a celebration or a summons, it was languid-like: an invite to contemplation.
My imagination had taken flight to a time when I had stood before that view; to a time when the 'marbellous painter', Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, had secured me an introduction to that model: his muse for that particular scene.
Kitty Hawkins, who had been a tease was now married to a disagreeable fellow and had, so I'd been informed, much changed from the days when I would hear talk of her in London. Still a beauty, but a shade paler; her skin seeming to be made of non-porous material that the sun's rays touched but failed to warm. Her outward demeanour was said to be cool, yet beneath this people of her acquaintance had begun to notice a nervous tremor. A certain agitation that made her eyes dart and glisten, her speech rapid, and her hand gestures appear uncontrolled. Yet Sir Lawrence said he discerned none of this when she sat for him. Then she was perfectly calm; perfectly resigned to her being. She might sigh from time to time, but she stay contained. Beautifully posed as directed with none of that female hysteria so recently attributed to her. The reports he said were idle chatter designed to undermine her new-found status for hadn't she landed one of the noble gentry: Lord Charles Marlowe. Her rash act had brought her jealously from both men and women as both thought it calculating. Ironic, said Sir Lawrence, when everybody in those circles knew that marriages were built on blood and money. The law of possession. One prides itself on its beauty, the other on its wealth, and they both admire and wish to obtain those properties in another.
And of course I deferred to his candid judgement, he having far more knowledge than I of such matters and more experience in the presence of women. I know little compared to a painter who in the course of his life and pursuit of art moves with that set and spends countless hours with models. Nor am I a physician who would perhaps recognise disharmony within the matrimonial state or those nervous consumptive conditions. But still I was puzzled; curious to see with my own eyes this lady who was said to have lately changed.
On the elected day at the appointed hour I arrived with Sir Lawrence at the rented abode overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. Lady Marlowe was on the terrace we were told; Lord Marlowe was not in attendance with her.
It was a most extraordinary villa, one that Sir Lawrence principally used as his studio finding its inner and outer architecture so inspiring: its columns, its archways, its lavish marble surfaces and adornments.
Lady Marlowe when we approached was resting; in a position of abandoned repose on the curved bench: lying full length with an arm flung over her eyes, its bare underside an inadequate shield from the blazing sun, and with a faint trace of content on her lips. She made no definable stir, although I felt sure she was aware of our measured footfalls, which to my mind was slightly shocking as she had already donned the Romanesque white dress Sir Lawrence required which emphasised her slender figure, and because she had known there would be a companion in tow as Sir Lawrence's guest.
When a few steps was all that stood between us, she acted startled and abruptly rose upright, yet no becoming blush bloomed on her pallid cheek. Her faun-like face scrutinised me as she graciously greeted Sir Lawrence, then as quickly dismissed me by turning her bored gaze to the glittering blue waters of the Mediterranean Sea and the wave-like settlement set ashore. Her composed stature was unaffected and yet enthralling for it was a pose that very deliberately said: I know what's expected of me.

Picture Credit: Expectations, 1885, Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema

Thursday, 9 July 2015

Desire for Liquids

Did you know a specific area of your brain determines your desire for liquids? Regulates your thirst? I did, but didn't if you know what I mean. To be more accurate I assumed that it was controlled by some mechanism, some innate bodily function that couldn't be seen unless the coverings of a live human brain were peeled back or a human body given to science was dissected.
Until one day I stopped and gave it some serious thought.
It was a phrenology head that did it: a porcelain bust with bold words printed on it, whose appearance seemed both solid and delusory so that I instantly reached out to cup its smooth temples with my warmer palms and traced the slight rise of each localised function with my investigative fingers. In doing so my fingertips tripped across those three bumpy words just in front of the left ear: Desire for Liquids.
Desire. What did I desire? Not liquids. At times I feel I've negated it; become unable to feel normal thirst, switched off that programmed response: the one that keeps you alive. Other times, my throat feels so dry nothing will quench it, not even if I swallow the equivalent of a small stream or river. I could drink a substantial portion of the Thames and report no difference; my throat would still be a funnel of sand-paper. But should water, a natural source be sipped or gulped? Savoured like a fine wine or rapidly quaffed as if you were putting out a fierce fire? With me, it always seem to slosh around. Makes my insides loudly gurgle and visibly move like a human lying on a water bed. I am that bed – I wobble jelly-like. Wibble-wobble.
My tummy talks as if a plug's been pulled and the water's disappearing down a drain. Where it goes I know not for I don't seem to pee an awful lot. Where does it go to? I wonder. What kind of fire is it putting out? The liquid inside squelches and squishes, belches and bubbles like an internal tide or roiling water in a cooking pot. I sometimes wonder if there's a lifeboat surveying this tempestuous tide to aid any skiffs should trouble arise, or if there's a guide as to when to add solids to the frothy mix. Nourishment plunges down the narrow canal like rocks crumbling off a cliff and adheres to my stomach lining, eddying the current, but if lighter they float like an iceberg, their true size and shape concealed beneath the tumbling surface.
Sated, a churning might commence as if a storm's whipping up and or as if a cradle's being pushed to and fro. A seasick lullaby. One belligerent, the other with a more placid rage. The wash of this internal sea shifting debris and killing desire.
And yet the cavern of my mouth remains inflamed, the moisture sucked out as if it has been dried under a hot baking sun. My tongue, a shrivelled island, curiously prods this sore, rippled roof and in the surrounds tries to find a tooth-pool. Tightly compact, there are no fissures; no undiscovered place to dip my tongue. The sides of my jaw contract in a desperate attempt to reason with my shrunken gums: Secrete saliva! There is none.
Have I caused this outcome? Confused the trigger that tells me when to drink and when to abstain? Somehow suppressed the natural urge, concerned that it would lead to sugary pop and hard liquor; only allowed its voice to be heard if it cries for herbal tea for that shows no sign of abating. Rehydration lower in my estimation than the soothing pleasure of tea.
And yet in hot weather I guzzle lime and soda being quite unable to police the sudden craving; finding the syrupy lime as intoxicating as nectar but the refreshment fleeting. Still, it's a steep ascent to a place where I'm ruled by effervescent sweetness, and the come-down can be hallucinating.
But why should my liquid state concern me or you for that matter? Because if you think long and hard enough, it opens up a whole other debate about desire: how to gage when it's safe to give in and when to avert.

Picture Credit: Breakfast at Malibu, Wednesday 1989 by David Hockney

Thursday, 2 July 2015

Disobedient Eves

There was once a disobedient woman, who in the words of Thomas Hardy was 'neither a maid, wife or widow', but unlike Hardy's heroine this was because she was no longer a maid and had never wanted to be wifely. There was no husband who could elope to warmer climes, although I dare say if she'd had one she would have preferred it. Enforced time apart from each other, a six-month separation. I'll see you in the summer. Ah, Summer! When we won't be cooped up with one another, is what she would have thought and not said. She would have engineered it; encouraged her live-in partner to leave with that fateful line: Absence makes the heart grow fonder, which was much kinder than saying I need space!
She imagined that as a wife or a cohabiting partner this was how she would act: disobey any vows undertaken, even if the other party believed these were still being held. Regularly say farewell to her spouse with the slight bending of the truth, “Of course I love you, but you're wanted elsewhere.” Omitting the fact that she loved him more when they weren't sharing the same house, the same bed, the same long winter nights together, or that she'd feel relieved when he'd gone. That she'd hug the empty days to herself and feel a warm glow like that of the rising sun. A glow that spread from within and lit her without. Her eyes would sparkle, her face would take on a dewy complexion, and her lips would appear redden like that of a tempting ripe apple.
Assume the appearance of an Eve, and yet not give herself completely: wholly over to the ties of partnership or matrimony. Still very much thinking and feeling as an individual. Mate absenteeism would be a blessing, not a curse, and she'd break social convention to attain it. Define her terms.
An absentee mate an necessity not a bonus for she prefers to create womanly mystique. An air of mystery, which she considers the saviour of relationships; the chief law being that each retains their own privacy and interests, and spends as little domestic time together as possible. Having too much intimate knowledge of another kills passion; smaller doses accentuates it, and more so if you were born with a restless spirit. You're not less committed, but distance keeps feelings alive. In some cases strengthening them so they don't become commonplace like a native flower that you walk passed every day and don't look at.
Some people would judge, cast doubt on this form of love and genial companionship, but why is it wrong, seen as odd or frowned upon? It may not be everyone's idea of the 'perfect' relationship, but for others that's exactly what it is. Some women prefer not to be permanently joined at the hip to an Adam as they value their need to live independently more. Failure to honour this need, for it is a essential need and not a selfish luxury, would only lead to bust-ups, divorce courts and estrangements. Rebelling against their true nature: the trait that compels them to fly and to resent captivity generates self-inflicted complications. Some it drives to madness, but these ones are either caught or convinced they must try. Try, try, try to conform. To that external picture of wife and mother. Pretend they feel maternal instincts when in truth they have none, or at least not in the way it's decreed they should by the majority.
But there are some rare Adams who confess to taking the same line – to disobey what society says we most desire: a conventional union, ideally with children, and well before you're fifty years of age.
Ah, those poor souls!” the married ones say, “He has no wife/She has no husband. What a dismal, tiny life they must lead!”
Yet disobedient Eves still bare the brunt of this scorn - it's unnatural, it's unwomanly - while Adams can fraternise all they want. Who cares as long as they're sowing seeds with different tempting willing Eves and not just one?

Quote Credit: Two on a Tower, Thomas Hardy
Picture Credit: Circe Offering the Cup to Odysseus, 1891,  John William Waterhouse