So ugly as to be pleasing

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. 

I lost my watch in Brighton

I feel deskilled. My coffee tastes off, not simply because the milk is beyond its use by date – although it smells okay – but because I have not drunk such coffee for over fourteen days and I am not used to it. Nor am I used to sitting at the computer, or the wintry weather.

When we first arrived in England everything seemed so different. We stayed in hotels and bed-sits. We slept in strange beds on lumpy under filled pillows. We travelled in hire cars, on busses and trains, in planes and on foot. We did things we do not do normally here in Australia.

All those other things, the things I had feared, the stuff about getting there, the planes falling from the sky did not come to fruition. Needless to say. Here am I writing this now. In fact often as I sat on the plane listening to the roar of the engines, imagining the ‘footless halls of air’ below me, I surprised myself by my lack of anxiety. Both trips there and back, and the two in between from Heathrow to Shannon in Ireland, and from Dublin back to Heathrow were the best flights I have ever experienced.

This trip has broken the back of my fear. I thought often of what I had written in my blog before I left for England and realised that so much of what I had feared was the fear itself.

Our time away has flown as I expected it might. It rushed past me in a haze of memories. We went to Shillington, first to find my husband’s ancestor’s graves but many of them were no longer visible. The lettering in stone had been worn off by wind and erosion. The plaques in the church were more visible but one had been overlaid by a new altar. The vicar offered to help us in our search for graves but only briefly. The Sunday service was about to start at 9.30 am.
‘Stay for the service or come back later in the afternoon,’ he said. ‘We have afternoon tea.’

We did not stay nor get back. We had so little time. The conference at Sussex University began the next day. So we made our way to Brighton where we stayed at the Granville Hotel in the West Pier room. The hotel overlooked the gravel filled beach and stood next door to the Hilton Hotel Metropole, which in its turn stood next door the Grand Hotel where Margaret Thatcher had stayed several years ago in the early mid eighties. A bomb devastated the front of the hotel during her stay but Thatcher was unharmed. The security guards had put her in a room towards the back.

There was a sign on the door to our room in the Granville, ‘Children are not permitted in this room’. I imagined this was on account of the wall to floor windows that opened out two floors up and looked across the street below to the sea.
Not so strange then that on so many nights during our time in this hotel room I dreamed of babies. Many in danger.

Later that first day we walked along the Brighton pier among crowds of visitors. It was hot by English standards and the pier was shocking in its gaudiness, a dome in the middle housed multiple poker machines and gambling opportunities.

I lost my watch in Brighton, or so I thought until it showed up at the end of the day in the bottom of my backpack. I thought at first it was an omen. In the gambling hall on the pier, my husband held his camera low. ‘No photos allowed’, the sign said. He held his camera low and snapped it from time to time, his middle camera eye unseen directed towards the glaring lights of pinball machines, and half dressed women, sun worshipers of all nationalities, men in tattoos, mothers with prams.

He held his camera in line with one old woman at a poker machine, her back rigid, her eyes fixed at the line of fruit on the screen, seemingly entranced by the clatter and clang of the money as it dropped into her tray. Bright lights the occasional jackpot, and then she gave it all back again.

I thought of my children and for an instant I worried they might be dead. Time had slipped from my wrist. My children across the water, across the sea lost in time lost to me forever, I imagined. I feared I had been careless. I had not kept a close enough watch on time, on them. I had left them behind for the faded grandeur of Brighton and a thousand conference words that would never bring them back.

They were fine of course, except in my imagination for that brief moment, which blended in with the heat and stink of urine behind the Brighton kitchens where we walked after dinner that first night, and stared at the endless queues.

I came to think of England as the land of the queue. But there were compensations, especially in the green of the landscape. Everywhere throughout the countryside I noticed clusters of red poppies, sometimes in small bunches, elsewhere whole fields and every time I saw them I thought of the war poem, In Flanders Field.

‘In Flanders Field the poppies grow among the crosses row on row that mark our place. We are the dead…’

Flanders is in France but it could just as well be in England. Along the Sussex roads the traffic islands are filled with clusters of flowers, red, pink, white and purple. They shimmered on warm mornings as I took the bus to the conference, but the nights again were cold.

Now at last I know what people mean by hedgerows. Now I can use the word in my writing as I have done at times since I was a small child and now I can see a hedgerow in my mind’s eye. Until now the word bore no real meaning other than as a word I had read in poems as a child in British books, the first met in primary school. Now I also know about the green of England and the sight of those Irish cliffs I have seen so often in movies.

At the conference dinner my husband and I sat at a table with none other than Michael Holroyd who had been one of the keynote speakers. He came to the dinner with his young interviewee, Sarah O’Reilly. Together the two had presented a beautiful example of the work Sarah is undertaking for the British Dictionary of Biography, a chronicle of the lives of a number of significant British writers including Michael Holroyd. It was a delight to sit with the man and to chat over wine and food. And again that sense of the brittleness of relationships that spring up in conferences. We will never meet again ever.

The private intimate conversations in which you share so much only to close the door behind you forever. On the last day of the conference I felt the weight of a certain kind of sadness – all over so soon, sad and yet glad. There were too many people, too many events, too many words and my feelings rose up and down continuously like being on the end of a yoyo.

Gradually more memories will come back to me, but for now I must settle for the prosaic and obvious, the weather and the food. It’s good to be home.