I found a gargoyle at the door of the old school house in Pirton churchyard near Shillington. I suspect it’s not an original, more likely a reproduction set in concrete. Gargoyles put me in mind of the church building over the road from my school where the nuns held art classes. My older sister, artistically gifted, at least compared to me came home one day with a gargoyle she had drawn in charcoal. It filled an entire page of her sketchbook.
‘It’s so ugly,’ I said.
My sister held her head high. ‘So ugly as to be pleasing.’ This is not an attitude my sister typically adopted, an appreciation of beauty within the obscene. For to me the gargoyle was obscene, ugly enough to want to turn my eyes away.
I have since heard that gargoyles serve the purpose of protecting the inner sanctum of a church from attack. These hideous figures with big noses and warty chins, with bulbous lips and flapping ears, which stick out their tongues at passers by, do so to keep trespassers away, and to protect.
Beauty and the beast. I likened that story to my mother and my father, my mother the beauty, my father the beast. The story of the monstrous ugly beast who lived alone high in a castle and who despite his appalling visage managed in time to attract the love of a young girl, repelled me from my earliest days, repelled and enthralled me. Like the gargoyle at the door of the Pirton school house, like the business of travel itself.
When we drove our car through the Dingle Peninsula in the County of Kerry past the famine houses and stopped to explore the places where so many starving peasants once lived during the potato blight of the 1800s, I refused to let myself be swallowed up by the landscape. It is a forbidding landscape, bare green hills pockmarked with rocks, bashed by salty gusts from the sea. Everywhere I looked I saw only green, the white of the waves and the grey blue of the sea. I could not bear to live in such a place I thought to myself, for even at the height of summer it was cold, a cruel cold that ate through my clothes, thin as they were because I had dressed for summer, even though so many people had advised me, ‘when you go to Ireland, you need warm clothes’.
Inside the car the English voice on the GPS directed us through the winding narrow roads on the peninsula. We passed one parked tourist bus after another and were relieved to notice that we travelled in roughly the same direction. Imagine having to share the narrow roads with such bulky vehicles. Clearly people do so regularly. Such an unforgiving landscape and yet in terms of landscape it was the highlight of my trip, perhaps because I could attach it to a story with resonances of a cruel past.
We visited James Joyce’s Tower in a place called Sandy Cove and I tried to sense the ambiance of Ulysses. We ate a sandwich in a nearby cafe, and I could not feel the spirit of the author, too many layers of life have been superimposed onto his territory.
We cannot judge the past by present standards I keep telling myself and yet the impulse is there as ever.
I heard our new prime minister, Julia Gillard, announce on the radio yesterday the date for the next election and with it she offered a short speech that I felt went on too long promoting her party, the Labour part ahead of the rest, primarily the other major party in Australia the Liberal party.
I’ll keep this simple; suffice to say she emphasized the need to keep Australia moving, an expression that is fast becoming a joke. The image of an actual physical land mass move comes to mind. Push the country further towards Indonesia or towards the Antarctic, towards new Zealand perhaps, north south east or west. To make this move, which she clearly intends metaphorically we need determination, resolve, optimism, I cannot remember her exact words, but it struck me that she left out the word ‘doubt’. There is no room for doubt in a politician’s rhetoric.
I prefer a bit of doubt myself. In fact I prefer a fair whack of doubt in most things – doubt, uncertainty and yet we must speak with confidence and certainty. And even when we write our maybe, perhaps, our equivocations on the page, people still tend to read our statements as those of fact.
Forgive me. I’m off onto the track of abstractions and I hate this way of talking, of writing. Give me an image any day.