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I’m reading Rebecca Solnit’s Infinity City: A San Francisco Atlas at the moment. She is a writer and environmental activist there and someone I’ve spoken of and quoted from before. And below is a very beautiful and thought provoking passage from her introduction to this atlas, which is many atlases, 22 in all. From, The Names before the Names: The Indigenous Bay Area, 1769… to…Right Wing of the Dove: The Bay Area as Conservative Military Brain Trust… to…Monarchs and Queens: Habitats and Queer Public Spaces…to…Shipyards and Sounds: The Black Bay Area since World War II, as examples. Yet it is not San Francisco that I want to write about, but me being here, and how and why, in a small village in Italy, trying to perform, on certain days, an ancient craft that dates back to about 800BC. The paintings above and below I did last year, or perhaps even early in 2017, soon after we learned that the forge was being sold along with the lands and other buildings surrounding it, and the two small sculptures are among many I did years before that, soon after I arrived here. The forge, or Mauro’s forge as I will always call it, was where his father and grandfather once worked and god knows how many blacksmiths before that. It is ancient, blackened; purpose built? That I’m not sure of as there are signs of other doors and windows now closed up with stone and rubble, and the window high up in the one painting acted as a chimney, there not being any signs of having been a purpose built one in earlier times. It is also small, cramped and dark with the awkward narrow stairs leading to a space above, which has an earth floor and was where I assembled the pieces I’d shaped on the forge. It was also a place of dreams, recalling of old memories and friends, of thoughts on beauty and practicality and what constitutes a good design. It was a place of thinking on your feet, the most exciting way to design and build anything, and of watching the colour of the coals and the steel change, listening to the whir of the fan blowing air into the fire, my hammer on the anvil, the thump/thump, or gentler tap/tap of the power hammer and the scrape of the leather brake when I stepped off the pedal.

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As a place it was marvellous for someone like me, but who the hell am I and why and how did I get here…what is the atlas, the shape, the mental rivers and high peaks that chart the influences on my physical and mental self? I was finding it difficult to write about Mauro’s forge until I started reading Solnit’s Infinity City, especially this from her introduction…
“San Francisco has eight hundred thousand inhabitants, more or less, and each one of them possesses his or her own map of the place, a world of amities, armours, transit routes, resources, and perils…but even to say this is to vastly underestimate…because each of these citizens [read, all of us] contains multiple maps: areas of knowledge, rumours, fears, friendships, remembered histories and facts, alternate versions, desires, the map of everyday activity versus the map of occasional discovery, the past versus the present, the map of this place in relation to others that could be confined to a few neighbourhoods or include multiple continents of ancestral origin, immigration routes and lost homelands, social ties, or cultural work.”
I like drawing maps, quick scribbles for lost tourists or ones staying at the villa next door in the summer. I like map books, the A-Z of London and road atlases, rather than Google Maps. They are more personal, from handmade ones originally and still, like abstract drawings or paintings. And so here is one made from words, with the odd photograph of paintings and sculptures, and the most personal I’ve ever attempted to make. Rebecca Solnit also says the following, “A map is a ticket to actual territory, while a novel is only a ticket to emotion and imagination.” Certainly, trying to write one’s own map from memory is inviting fiction [emotion and imagination] to become part of it. So here is my map, a two or three page story of memories.

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It begins in a working class suburb of Port Elizabeth, high above the sea, above the steep roads that climb from sea level; the streets flat there, salt bleached and strangely wide, the houses dating from Victorian times and with occasional places of work punctuating these facades—a bakery or grocery store on a corner, a mechanics workshop, dark inside and with its own smells. I loved accompanying my father there, our car limping or misfiring all the way from the outlying suburb where we lived, after his failed attempts to correct the fault with a couple of spanners and a single screw driver. I loved the sound of the tyres turning slowly over the smooth cement floor of the workshop as we entered it, after the noisy roughness of the tar roads—the array of tools, jacks and lifts, drums and hoses, discarded tyres—the smiling, friendly mechanic raising his head from under the bonnet of a car, wiping his hands on a ball of waste and coming over to greet us. What a wonderful life he must lead I thought, one unfettered by a need for superficial cleanliness, wearing the stains on his worn overalls with pride. And what arcane knowledge he possessed to transform our car in minutes or a day or two into a purring lounge suite on wheels that we drove out into the sun, my father and I beaming from ear to ear.
Doctors, where my mother always took me, did not fill me with the same confidence—their tapping and listening to my chest and back totally unconvincing—how could they presume to know what was going on inside me? Hell, I didn’t even know what was going on inside me—swirling lusts and shame, fears and pretence. Their hands and white coats were always too clean, their bedside manner too gentlemanly, their voices calm, without music, without passion. They were too much like I was at that young age, too buttoned up to be trusted, to be emulated.
There are two other things from my boyhood that I think set me on my road to Mauro’s forge. Firstly the trees in our garden, all planted by my father, tall and very climbable and that set me above [in both senses] our neighbours, who either went for boring, neat and over tended flowerbeds or unkempt and unwatered wastelands…and the wonder of the slender horizontal branches that I could walk on, almost to their tips, and the chaos of the lines of the thinner branches above and below me, their shape and reason as unfathomable as an internal combustion engine—something you simply loved without knowing why, [love, by the way, for me will always trump reason, it’s not even a contest]. And then there were the birds, more than in any other garden I’ve known that my mother and I loved to watch. Secondly it was the landscape paintings and drawings that hung in every room of our small house, created by my grandfather with whom I share a first and last name. And it is this carrying of a name of a man I did not know, who died years before I was born that carried a responsibility, a pleasant but challenging one; not to follow in his footsteps, but to keep him walking.
A steel structure, be it the Golden Gate Bridge or a simple chair, define space with lines. So do trees. So do paintings and drawings; especially landscape paintings and drawings that hold the most space. And it is space that one needs to become creative, a private space to dream and imagine in, to expand oneself so that one inhabits the vast unknown, as vast as that within oneself, within all of us…
And so I’m fifteen or sixteen years old, alone or with a friend, having travelled by train through the dark and occasional light punctured night from Port Elizabeth, to a dawn breaking over the vast majesty of the early morning Karoo. This place, a semi desert of sheep ranches, was my second, occasional home and garden; one so enormous and free of constraints that it made me who I am, more than any place I’ve known. I was forged there, in the heat, stone and sand, in the sharpness of long and tapered, Karoo Acacia thorns, the drama of high sand cliffs, cut by rare flash flooding of the mostly dry rivers, in which bee-eaters nested. I was forged by the call of jackal, the bark of baboon, the snake in the garden, the smell of an orchard dripping with fruit under the sound of the bees and starlings competing for their share…by the touch of gates and their latches, their rust burnished to the colour of polished leather by countless openings and closings…by wire fences that one could slip through at ease then bang on to send a sound, a message down the wire, on and on. And roads, just veld scraped clean in as straight a line as needed, down which I would walk, or ride a reluctant horse to its end [if there was one], returning much later, my or our shadow changed, bigger, taller, seemingly not only because of the sun’s position but because of where we’d been and returned from. I don’t remember doing a single drawing or painting on that farm, perhaps remember once finding a piece of wire in the veld and twisting it into the shape of an animal or bird: perhaps.

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But I was finding out what thrilled me, hunting down deeper and wilder experiences than those afforded by classrooms and cricket fields, routines so boring and prescribed yet to my shame ones that I did not rebel against. And it was only later, at art school, in a small town somewhere roughly between Port Elizabeth and the Karoo that I was taught, for the first time, something profound. Previously, at school, the techniques and rules of sports games, the rules of maths and science, grammar or colonial history where found in prescribed books and recited like passages from the bible, totally foreign to my private experiences that followed only the rule of desire, of a searching for freedom. And this profundity that I was taught, was drawing: the searching, with the simplest materials, into the world around me…lassoing it in, poking at it, stroking it, building it into as three dimensional a work as possible, so that I could live in it, could remember it, could become it, could know it.
The first European country I wanted to visit was Italy. Yes, because of Michelangelo and Donatello, but perhaps even more so because of two Americans who’d lived there; one for many years, the other for only one month. Ezra Pound was one of the names you could pluck out of the air in the art school, along with other poets, writers, jazz musicians, even anthropologists, and of course painters, sculptors and architects. And I can still picture the first time I saw a slide of an abstract steel sculpture by David Smith, in a history of art lecture, and how it thrilled me, held meaning for me in a new and exciting way.
I now question my love of Ezra Pound, not the infallible depth of his poetry and his colloquial lines that hit the spot like an arrow, but of course for his temporary and crazy belief in Mussolini and Fascism. But when you are young and read a poem/translation, as sensual as the one below, as rich with adventures even further away than Italy, and so perfectly drawn, you can forgive the poet anything.
A River Merchant’s Wife: A Letter.
While my hair was still cut straight across my forehead
I played about the front gate, pulling flowers.
You came by on bamboo stilts, playing horse,
You walked about my seat, playing with blue plums.
And we went on living in the village of Chōkan:
Two small people, without dislike or suspicion.
At fourteen I married My Lord you.
I never laughed, being bashful.
Lowering my head, I looked at the wall.
Called to, a thousand times, I never looked back.

At fifteen I stopped scowling,
I desired my dust to be mingled with yours
Forever and forever, and forever.
Why should I climb the look out?

At sixteen you departed
You went into far Ku-tō-en, by the river of swirling eddies,
And you have been gone five months.
The monkeys make sorrowful noise overhead.

You dragged your feet when you went out.
By the gate now, the moss is grown, the different mosses,
Too deep to clear them away!
The leaves fall early this autumn, in wind.
The paired butterflies are already yellow with August
Over the grass in the West garden;
They hurt me.
I grow older.
If you are coming down through the narrows of the river Kiang,
Please let me know beforehand,
And I will come out to meet you
As far as Chō-fū-Sa.

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David Smith was something else: a man who had worked on the Studebaker production lines in his home state of Indiana, had welded up locomotives and tanks during the war, but who also read and loved James Joyce [who Pound had championed and helped get published]. Smith was influenced by the blacksmiths who Picasso had befriended, Gargallo and Gonzales, and the work they helped him make and Smith took blacksmithing and welded steel sculpture to a new level and size.
In 1962 he was invited to work in Voltri in Italy for one month and there produced twenty six sculptures with the help of a few very willing local workers and an interpreter, mostly from fascinating offcuts and left over pieces from a steel mill and factory. This is how he describes his temporary workshop… “Ilva, In Voltri, where the wild strawberries grow, was a complex of some five factories set in a narrow valley, based by a small stream, once making springs, trucks, parts for flat cars, bolts, spikes, balls, many things by forging. It had been consumed by the automation of Italsider at Cornegliano hallway in toward Genoa eight kilometres distant.”
David Smith wrote a lot, gave lectures and was very articulate about making art in the modern world. I love his percussive way of writing, without airs and graces, yet beautiful and elegant like his sculptures because of its directness. Here are a couple of other things he wrote… “Art is born of freedom and liberty, and dies of constraint. Fascism contributes race ignominies, suppresses, erects monuments to destruction; gives laurels to force.” And this, which I’ve never heard any other artist speak about… “Does the onlooker realize the amount of affection which goes into a work of art—the intense affection—belligerent vitality—and total conviction.” Below is my favourite photograph of David Smith, sitting among some of his sculptures in the Voltri factory. God, he looks happy. Art can be of any material, size or shape, but without affection, love, call it what you will, it is not art.

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I could go on and on, but will start to wind down with a three line story that Smith tells about an important incident in his life, one that I’ve always loved. Then, to my amazement the same thing happened to me, here… almost exactly the same just with different names and setting.
“Once in a lifetime you meet an iron works…once in a lifetime you meet two Irishmen named Blackburn and Buckthorn to whom you present yourself with one set of equipment and practically no money…and they say OK move in and it runs—and you are in—not only there but on the whole waterfront.”
And so I’ve been welcomed in, in this small village, in this forge that is no more but that Mauro and I will build again, simpler, under a simple roof in the corner of his garden close to olive trees, fig and cherry trees and where he grows vegetables every summer.
I’ve never worked with a nicer man, one more committed to his community and family, one as hard working yet so easy going. We pool our technical knowledge, our ideas on how to create ‘un lavoro bello’. We give each other space, yet watch each other’s backs when the work gets hard and dangerous…have worked together on tottering scaffolding and ladders, lifted things that seemed too heavy to lift. And even though we most often do not create what you would call works of art, we certainly work with Smith’s conviction and affection.
Finally, finally, finally…three blows of the hammer, before the iron gets too cold…who do I think of most often when I’m working in Mauro’s forge? David Smith, Picasso, Leger, Richard Deacon…a thousand other artists. No, more often about my mother, or old friends, or that farm in the Karoo and our friends who farmed it, or teachers from art school, writers, poets, musicians. I think also about the nightmare of the rise of fascism across the world and the good people who give us hope at overcoming that? I think even more often about our daughters and about Gwynie, Sue my sister, other members of our family… but perhaps most often about my father.
I wish he’d kept a diary of those years in the war, the adventure of driving in convoy up the length of Africa, his time in Egypt, arriving in Italy [in Brindisi if I remember correctly] and ending up near Pisa before being demobbed. He told me these stories often, but when I was very young, and I’ve forgotten almost everything, except that he liked the Chianti, loved the wine that was a rough peasant wine then, in flagons sheathed in straw; purely functional to protect the bottles when being transported close up against each other but that became iconic of the Italian way of life. I remember an Italian Restaurant that he discovered in Port Elizabeth, up a flight of steep steps in a house hanging over cliffs above Russell Road, just below the flat area, Central, where the motor mechanic had been. And the checked table cloths and straw covered flagons that held wine or candles [there seemed to be very little other light in the room] and the old man moving from table to table, playing the violin and singing. I remember my father being very happy there.
I know he was very happy in Italy too, know that on a farm fairly close to Mauro’s forge, but on another road heading north, South African troops were welcomed and a dance was held for them as they moved up behind the retreating Nazis. Was he at that dance, did he perhaps also drive up the road from Ponte a Bozzone, through Geggiano and Catignano, to pass the forge in Pievasciata? Did he stop and peer through the door at the fire, marvel at an activity, so old yet still being practiced? I very often think that he did…so often in fact and with such affection that I believe it to be true.
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(c) Leon Kossoff; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Leon Kossoff…London painter, friend of Frank Auerbach, once a pupil of David Bomberg, father, grandfather and great grandfather, shy man and believer in beauty and in the great European masters of the art of painting and drawing, has died age 92. He was the epitome of a good person and a true artist…modest, hardworking, always striving to be better… a man who felt privileged to be able to pursue his art by walking and drawing the streets of Willesden, Spitalfields or Kings Cross, or painting his friends, family or models in his anything but ‘state of the contemporary artist’s studio’, and to visit, again and again the National Gallery to draw his beloved Rembrandts and Poussins. I have no doubt that he was also courteous about artists whose work he did not identify with.
Leon Kossoff; (c) Leon Kossoff; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

He died on the 4th July this year, the day that a person, barely human, certainly not good and certainly incapable of courtesy, made yet another insane and ignorant speech to elicit support from the blind of America…those who believe that there is nothing deeper than the selfie, more real than the tits and bums of pornography, or more important than being a reality TV star, a celebrity, or stinking rich… i.e. those who are enthralled by the thinness of photography and money, their easy comprehension.
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Yet, the best article I’ve read about Kossoff since his death was written by a photographer, Toby Glanville, who took the picture above of the artist in his studio [just a room in his house in Willesden] in 1998. He writes simply and directly and therefore very beautifully about the times, over many years, when he photographed the painter…
“I first met Leon Kossoff at Willesden Junction, down by the railway tracks, in 1995… I photographed him for the last time in 2013…The idea was to meet at Arnold Circus, where Leon had grown up, and take pictures there. Afterwards we had coffee in a café on Calvert Avenue, the street where Leon’s father had run his bakery… He asked me to go to his house in Willesden and photograph him in his garden, down by the railway tracks—we had come full circle.”

 


Glanville tells us that Kossoff gave him a gift of an etching he’d done of Constable’s ‘Salisbury Cathedral from the Water Meadows’; that he showed him, with great excitement, a stone a friend had recently brought him from Mont Saint-Victoire [Cezanne’s beloved mountain]…and that watching the artists wife walking down the stairs of the house was, “an extraordinary moment, I felt that I was witnessing one of Leon’s portraits of her walking towards us. Peggy in the flesh, and Leon’s image of her in paint, were all but the same.”

 


He also makes the following astute observations about Kossoff…
“Leon had something of a child’s awe and excitement at the sheer wonder of being alive, of looking at the depth of beauty in the world. ‘It’s what turns me on!’ he exclaimed that day at Arnold Circus.

 

“That morning at Arnold Circus, as I approached him with my camera, he exhorted me to ‘Take a risk! Take a risk! He wasn’t referring to the photograph I was about to take so much as offering me a lesson in life. He took risks every day in the work he made. Every drawing, every painting was a venture into the unexplored.

 

“At another time, at his studio, he opened a door to a room leading off the hallway. It was more or less completely occupied by a green table tennis table. ‘There, what do you think?’ he said, pointing towards a very large painting leaning against the wall behind the door, its base resting on the table. It was one of those glorious depictions of Christ Church, Spitalfields, soaring into the London sky. The juxtaposition with the ping-pong table seemed to speak to the nature of Leon’s playful and serious genius.”

 


So a lovely man has died, leaving behind a life’s work in oil paint, charcoal etc. that, for those of us who take the trouble, will invigorate and challenge our way of seeing—make us take more time to look at the world, the people, and great art around us and so enrich our lives. He was a London painter, specifically a painter of and from NW London, yet very appreciated by certain galleries and buyers in New York, in particular. And so I thought of using the Billy Strayhorn’s composition, ‘Take the A Train’, to end this blog…but it just didn’t work…so I chose the below, an interview with the wonderful writer Zadie Smith who, like Kossoff, is of Willesden. I can’t think of a better way of putting it…of…not only from, not only born in, not only a diarist of that place, but made from it. From its bricks and mortar, trains and buses, sounds, slopes, people and their peregrinations. She too is hugely admired in the States, taught or still teaches there, and what she says about writing comes from the same approach Kossoff has about painting i.e. that it’s what you do, hopefully as often as you can, and is not only a need but a joy.
Finally and very briefly, there is a series of letters between Leon Kossoff and John Berger published in, among other places, Berger’s book ‘Portraits’. It is a book on 75 of his favourite artists from 3,000BC to someone born in 1983. I’d encourage you to find a copy and read it and the letters between these two, and will finish with one line from Berger to Kossoff. “ [Leon]You have saved much of what you love.” Certainly the greatest praise one can give an artist, but also anyone who believes in what they do, be it a teacher, gardener, motor mechanic, CEO of a large corporation, policeman etc…but never to that rabid and purposefully ignorant fascist in the White House who presided over an insane military parade on 4thJuly, the day Leon Kossoff died.

https://binged.it/2LxmuZj

 

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I first read Louis Aragon’s Paris Peasant at the age of nineteen, when a first year art student, and I loved it. Loved the dream that I would one day roam the streets of Paris like he’d done: the romance of the place, its sensuality and creative energy. For a young man, still a boy really, the Paris of the paintings and photographs I’d pored over since about the age of fifteen held all the above and more [dreamed of debauchery a good choice for the more]. Then into my life, possibly fortuitously in a second hand bookshop, [I’ve mentioned these wonderful surprise gifts before] came a Parisian writer who I immediately regarded as an intimate. For I’d grown up in a house in Aragon Road in a suburb of Port Elizabeth, about as far away from Paris as you can get.
“Absurd”, you might say. “What possible connection is there between an arbitrary road in a post war suburb of a once British colony in Africa and a great French writer and co-founder of Surrealism?”
“Poetry”, I would reply and quote Aragon… “Everything is cognate of imagination, and imagination is innate in everything.” Or, to put it differently, we live by our imagination or die without it. He quotes from only one writer in Paris Peasant, but what a quote it is, from G K Chesterton...”A madman is not a man who has lost his reason: he is a man who has lost everything except his reason.” God, I love that!
I must admit that having just read Paris Peasant again, forty six years later, there is nothing that I remember from my first reading except the poetic spirit of it and the youthful sensuality that comes through in its best moments. Take this for an example, a reverie on blondeness that goes on for almost two pages but that I will cut for expediency… “And suddenly, for the first time in my life, the idea struck me that men have discovered only one term of comparison for what is blond; flaxen, and have left it at that…My palette of blondness would include the elegance of motorcars, the odour of saffron, the silence of mornings, the perplexities of waiting, the ravages of glancing touches. How blond is the sound of rain, how blonde the song of mirrors! From the perfume of gloves to the cry of the owl, from the beating of the murderer’s heart to the flower flames of the laburnum…blond resembles the stammerings of ecstasy, the piracy of lips…a breath of dishevelment of reason.”
This book is above all a dishevelment, a knocking off its pedestal, of reason. It was published in 1926, two years after Andre Breton’s Surrealist Manifesto, when Aragon was twenty nine years old. He said he wanted to write a new type of novel that broke the rules of fiction; neither a narrative nor a portrait of a character and one that “critics would be obliged to approach empty-handed.”
Paris Peasant is made up of four sections…Preface to a modern mythology…The Passage de L’Opera…A feeling for nature at the Buttes-Chaumont, and The peasant’s dream.
In the first section he debunks rationalism and expands the doctrine of the certainty of truth by proposing that its opposite, error, must always also be there like its dark shadow, for… “Surely it must be realized that the face of error and the face of truth cannot fail to have identical features? Error is certainty’s constant companion…anything said about truth may equally well be said about error: the delusion will be no greater. Without this idea of evidence, error would not exist. Without evidence no one would even pause to think about error… I no longer wish to refrain from the errors of my fingers, the errors of my eyes. I know now that these errors are…curious paths leading towards a destination that they alone can reveal to me.”
And so he takes us into and leads us, for one hundred pages, through the Passage de L’Opera… two covered and lamp lit arcades, the Galerie du Barometre and the Gallerie du Thermometre, with their hotels and cafes, hairdressers for men and others for women, their shoe blacks and public baths, a shop of walking sticks, a tailor and a tacky theatre. There is so much described here, in such marvellous writing, that you almost want to never leave these passages of wonder that he has turned into a place as powerful as a myth. There are shop signs, menus and lists of the prices of all sorts of things, including drinks [see below.] And here are three brief examples of his writing on these places.
“A strong bond exists in men’s minds between Baths and sensual pleasure…Thus the atmosphere of these temples devoted to a dubious cult is partly that of a brothel, partly that of a place where magic rites are performed…in all love there resides an outlaw principle, an irrepressible sense of delinquency, contempt for prohibitions and a taste for havoc.”
“Just beyond the lodge with its charming crochet-work curtains stands a shoeshine parlour; let us make a brief halt here, it will cost us a mere sixty centimes, and we shall leave wearing suns on our feet.”
“I long to know what nostalgias, what poetic crystallizations, what castles in Spain, what constructions of languishment and hope raise their scaffolding inside the head of the apprentice at that moment, right at the beginning of his career, when he decides irrevocably to devote his hairdressing skills to ladies, and so begins to look after his hands. How enviable his allotted routine will be: from now on he will spend every moment of his day uncoiling the rainbow of women’s modesty, light floating heads of hair…His life will pass in a thick haze of love…There must surely be hairdressers who, like miners down a pit, have dreamed of serving only brunettes, or of launching out into blondes.”

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Eventually, and regretfully we emerge from these passages and enter a garden, but slowly and at night…the garden of the Buttes-Chaumont. I will be here forever if I continue to quote from Aragon, but cannot resist this last one, his meditation on gardens…
“Everything that is most eccentric in man, the gypsy in him, can surely be summed up in these two syllables: garden. Not even when he started adorning himself with diamonds or blowing into brass instruments did any stranger or more baffling idea occur to him than when he invented gardens. An image of leisure stretches out on lawns, sits at the foot of trees. It is almost as though man has discovered, through the mirage of his fountains and little gravel paths, the legendary paradise he has never wholly forgotten…Among your flower beads and box-tree alcoves, man strips off old habits and returns to a language of caresses, to a childishness of water sprinkling. He himself, as he whirls around with wet hair, is the sprinkler in the sun. He is the rake and the spade…I have played on your lawns…my foot has kicked my heart between the posts of heaven and hell. On the edge of your borders I have waved my handkerchief like an emigrant about to set sail. And already the ship is fading into the distance. Among the garden’s tackle and rigging the simplest desires, the sweetness and calm of the evening dry together with my shirt. The sun has left us a pot of geraniums in its will.”
And from the final section, peasant dreaming—a sort of meditation and expansion on what he’s been thinking and writing about—is this Surrealist truth… “The marvellous is the eruption of contradictions within the real.”
And here is a question that he asks himself but that we should be asking ourselves constantly. “How long shall I retain this sense of the marvellous suffusing everyday existence? I see it fading away in everyman who advances into his own life as though along an always smooth road…
Paris Peasant should be read when you are young, when it hits you as if it is your own soul speaking, and be reached for again when you are old; something to hold on to when doubts come in and dry up the senses.
Finally, I did get to wander Paris for the first time when aged twenty five and wrote a short poem on the Paris-Brussels express after that magical weekend. The second poem below is set in a street in Brussels, where I was working for three months, and is about a view of a billboard through the windows of a café and about the owner’s dog. And the third is from yet another magical time, I think a week before my trip to Paris; my first trip to London. Was Louis Aragon in the back of my mind then? I don’t know but I was certainly seeing the marvellous in everyday existence and trying to write about it. And I’m glad I wrote these, glad I kept them, and others; very glad that I’ve now re-read Paris Peasant.

On the Paris-Brussels express.

In empty beer glasses
and the wrapping paper of sugar cubes
I have left small slivers of myself in Paris.
At least for a day or two, until the cafes
have been properly swept and the glasses
thoroughly washed.
Even then I occupy stools and chairs:
–the old woman with swollen ankles
is unaware that she’s sitting on my lap.

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Ch de Vleurgat.

Trees and lime coloured hills
lit by the all-pervading lemon ooze
of an enormous plastic bottle.

It hangs on blackened brickwork, a dream
now kaleidoscoped by the windows of a passing bus,
clicks back together, hangs shimmering in the slipstream
before fixing itself again.
–a Nikon reality, a view through the bricks,
something to bust your head on when you realize
it has been placed too high anyway, above
the roof of the Peugeot sports parked that bit
too far away to be used as a ladder.

Eventually, belaying, you make it to the hills
and enter a Lichtenstein world of smooth dots
that afford no grip as you slip further away and in,
yet turning, never any further from the parked
cars and large window of Alex’s café,
where inside the terrier up on the
glass of the pinball machine
scratches after the shooting ball
trying to bury it once and for all

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Snowing in the channel.

As if far off and out of earshot, yet all about,
thousands upon thousands of tiny gulls fly
down and across the ferry windows
to a silent grey sea.

And on deck the excited gathering is spattered
white.
“I use Revlon cosmetics you know, I was so
surprised to find them in Cambridge.”
Christ!
I must have looked at her with such astonishment
that she turned on her heels and left.
–The sun had come out.

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Generations ago, boys and men in particular, but also women of course, fell in love with horses. Great big work horses that made farming possible and profitable, or fast and sleek ones that  transported you, at speeds impossible for the human body to achieve, into villages or over hills to court pretty girls or stout young men. To be transported, changed, to find one’s self still one’s self though magically in another place and so an expanded self, confronting the new, is perhaps at the heart of our yearnings in life. Magic carpets, drugs, drink, winged horses, angels or witches can all do the trick, to a certain extent. Even the once, but now not so lowly bicycle offered adventures and escapes unimaginable on foot. And in that time of horses, in deserts it was the camel that carried the dreams of its rider, and in Arctic white outs or endless days of a low sun, dogs leashed to sleds did the same. But nothing has transported us and our dreams quite like the motor car; the faster ones being the better at it.

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I’m trying to remember the sound of a sled racing over ice and the sound of the dogs, or the gurgling and gargling of camels. But what I really mean is, what is it that I remember from the movies that I’ve seen where these are present. Where does reality lie for us today? In walking down a street or in what we experience on our computer, TV or phone screens? I’ve been wondering about this since photographing the cars on Friday, racing past on the Via Cassia [the old Roman road] into Siena and later in its narrow streets and beautiful square, Il Campo. For, swapping my eyes for a camera was a strangely blinding experience at the time—only the loud, throaty sounds of the engines approaching being what I carry within in me from the direct experience—the cars much more real in the images that I’ve now cropped and homed in on, removing peripheral detail that is always there in reality. And so, because of the extraordinary clarity the camera is capable reproducing, these photographs are now my reality of those couple of hours.

 

Friday’s route took the cars on to and through Poggibonsi, a town almost completely destroyed during WW2, now a hive of industry and apartment blocks. To Vinci, the birth place of Leonardo who died five hundred years ago his month, through Florence and then up hill to Bologna, home to the oldest university in Europe: history travelling through history.

 

 

The final photograph, below, I feel captures the spirit and experience of the race better than the others. And even though I cut out the crowd through which the car is pushing, on its way to one of the gates of Siena and so onwards, I can remember the high pitched exclamations of a group of young Asian tourists, their phones held high and away from their faces, and the sight of small, elderly Italian women stepping back into shop doorways, fearful of the noise and the threat of the vehicle, as if the German army was again rumbling past. Or others standing and staring or waving frantically: and a young black man, walking purposefully past me, an amused look on his face, as if thinking. Hey, these white guys, how do they manage to have so much time for playing?              

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I chose the small rogues’ gallery above quickly, a hundred other faces could have been easily added, and if I’d broadened the search to any narcissist in any walk of life I would have blown the hell out of my computer and my own mind.

The inspiration for this attempt to make sense out of contemporary chaos is not anger at the world as it is today, though it could have been, but my disappointment with a journalist who I admire very much.  Gary Younge, who writes for the London Guardian is one of the best writers/commentators I’ve come across, and perhaps I got a recent piece by him wrong, but this is how I read it, admittedly only once.

He says that those in Britain who will back Farage’s new, dyed in the racist wool, Brexit Party in the upcoming EU elections, and those who joined the Extinction Rebellion in London are the same in that they are railing against the same lack of political leadership. He does continue to say, quite rightly I believe, that the Brexit Party will go the way of all flesh and that the Extinction Rebellion will prevail and join us in a common purpose and so hopefully save our hides…but I still don’t agree with him. You cannot compare the two, should not see them as having common beginnings. Climate change protesting is about inclusivity and is selfless, even among the very young who stand to lose most from the degradation of nature and all its consequences, but nationalists, xenophobes and separatists are narcissists who aspire to complete control and personal gain above all else and who’s followers have similar aspirations.

Get back British sovereignty, make America great again, scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours, cross me and you’ll pay the consequences. Putting up boundaries and walls, sowing fear of what is on the other side of these, demanding loyalty at the point of a gun…that’s how much of the world works today. But is the way to change it, bashing these aberrations of humanity whose greed and anger blind them to beauty and complexity? World-wide and mass peaceful protesting, as well as getting the scientific analysis of global degradation to as many of us as possible, is hugely important to bring sanity to the world, but we also have to get back our sense of wonder.

…So that is as far as I got a week ago, bored after reading what I’d written. The same old leftie moans and groans that are falling on an ever increasing number of deaf ears, and then my only song, my limited four cords and the truth number—the call to a return to looking, paying close attention, drawing, painting and writing about the world. And so I went back to reading the book I was busy with, Zadie Smith’s On Beauty. And as sometimes happens with books—either finding one that changes your life, half hidden in a second hand book shop you’ve never been into before and so as if waiting for you, or hearing about one at just the right time, the timing in picking up On Beauty again was perfect.

I’ve now finished Smith’s book, a wonderfully written, funny but passionate exploration of the rigors, jealousies and messy betrayals in the life of two families, both with academic fathers/husbands in hateful opposition to each other over their political beliefs and opposing views in their shared specialist subject, the paintings of Rembrandt. Boring you might say, not a sentence of it; taking you into the language of hip hop, post-modernist/Freudian analytical bullshit, on to working class London slang and Ivy League east coast American manners. It is wonderful, rich and it finds beauty in strange and wonderful places and situations, and physical beauty in every shape, colour and age. So this is why it was so serendipitous for me to pick it up again after writing above… we also have to get back our sense of wonder.

Below are three beautiful extracts from this book which describe three very different types of beauty… or are they that different?     

“People talk of the happy quiet that can exist between lovers, but this too was great; sitting between his sister and his brother, saying nothing, eating. Before the world existed, before it was populated, and before there were wars and jobs and colleges and movies and clothes and opinions and foreign travel—before all of these things there had been only one person, Zora, and only one place: a tent in the living room made from chairs and bed-sheets. After a few years, Levi arrived; space was made for him; it was as if he had always been. Looking at them both now, Jerome found himself in their finger joints and neat conch ears, in their long legs and wild curls. He heard himself in their partial lisps caused by puffy tongues vibrating against slightly noticeable buckteeth. He did not consider if or how or why he loved them. They were just love: they were the first evidence he ever had of love, and they would be the last confirmation of love when everything else fell away.”    

“A sprawling North London parkland, composed of oaks, willows and chestnuts, yews and sycamores, the beech and the birch; that encompasses the cities highest point and spreads far beyond it; that is so well planted it feels unplanned; that is not the country but is no more a garden than Yellowstone; that has a shade of green for every possible felicitation of light; that paints itself in russets and ambers in autumn, canary yellow in the splashy spring; with tickling bush grass to hide teenage lovers and joint smokers, broad oaks for brave men to kiss against, mown meadows for summer ball games, hills for kites, ponds for hippies, an icy lido for old men with strong constitutions, mean llamas for mean children and, for the tourists, a country house, its façade painted white enough for any Hollywood close-up, complete with tea room, though everything you buy from there should be eaten outside with the grass beneath your toes, sitting under a magnolia tree, letting the white upturned bells of blossoms, blush pink at their tips, fall around you. Hampstead Heath! Glory of London! Where Keats walked and Jarman fucked, where Orwell exercised his weakened lungs and Constable never failed to find something holy.”

Cricklewood is beyond salvation: so say the estate agents who drive by the derelict bingo halls and the trading estates in their decorated Mini Coopers. They are mistaken. To appreciate Cricklewood you have to walk its streets, as Howard did that afternoon. Then you find out that there is more charm in a half-mile of Cricklewood’s passing faces than in all the double-fronted Georgian houses in Primrose Hill. The African women in their colourful kenti cloths, the whippet blonde with three phones tucked into the waistband of her tracksuit, the unmistakable Poles and Russians introducing the bone structure of Soviet Realism to an island of chinless, browless potato-faces, the Irish men resting on the gates of housing estates like farmers at a pig fair in Kerry…”

How extraordinary it is to be able to write something so personal and deeply felt yet in such a way that allows us all to enter these places and experiences immediately and as deeply. How seldom we come across writing like this in the daily polemic in the papers or on our phones …and where is this verbal warfare leading us? It is certainly not solving a thing but making it harder to form a unified front against further destruction of our and every other species’ habitat. The ancient Greeks believed that the human soul is comprised of three things, memory, imagination, and volition [which can be both will-power and choice/discretion] and I believe that the writing of Zadie Smith is soul writing, writing that is imaginative sharing.  We need to read her and other writers like her. We need to take heed of beauty in all its forms. It would be naïve to think that we can return the world to a state of earthly paradise, but we can allow nature to breathe again, allow it to follow its course while we becoming co-travellers with it.

And so, finally back to the rogues’ gallery, above. Below is a song by Richard Thompson who turned seventy last month and who has been, for the last fifty years, one of the best singer song writers and guitarists working anywhere in the world. It is a song about an angry teenager, just released from jail and hell bent on revenge—something that he feels is his due. And in this egocentric, single minded, sexually charged boy there is something of us all, once…certainly there is of me. But we learn over time to recognise ourselves in others, other species, other places, and so redeem ourselves. This is of course love.  But those above, the small sample of the hateful and greedy, are still that angry insecure boy wanting only to subjugate others, even those who believe in them and want the same.

    

 

 

 

 

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For most of us i.e. people who are not from or now living in New Zealand, this country of islands is a near mystical place, as far away as you can get, a beautiful land of every conceivable terrain on the edge of the world, peopled by giant, tattooed men. My ignorance of and about New Zealand is almost total: the few things that surfaced in my mind when thinking about it were some of the great movies made there, the singular short stories of Frank Sargeson,  and watching the All Black wing Brian Williams, when I was still a school boy, run down the touch-line at the Boet Erasmus Stadium in Port Elizabeth, his black boots inches from the white line, Springbok players bouncing off him as they tried to tackle him, his legs pumping so hard that his knees seemed to come up to the height of his chest; then him diving over for a try. I felt then that there was justice in that try, justice for a man who had almost been banned from playing in racist South Africa because his skin was a shade darker than his fellow All Blacks and Springbok players, all of pale Dutch or French, British or Irish ancestry.

I wonder who first thought of the military technique divide and conquer [or rule]. For it certainly is a military strategy, even when used for social engineering purposes as in Apartheid SA, or in the context of a single family or village. And it was certainly a European, perhaps a Roman General or one from the time of more modern Empires. Could it come from the British subjugation of India? I don’t know, but it’s been going on for far too long and is still ubiquitous in the minds of extremists, separatists, and other simple straight up lunatics. And it has taken a young and sensitive woman, yet as tough as nails, to show us how to cope with the abhorrent obsession with group identity. You do it with compassion to those singled out and killed or harmed for their otherness by insisting, repeating that they are not separate but us, and with courtesy and recognition of their culture and with controlled anger and quick action towards the killer and those who wish to profit from his act, be they Australian Islamophobes or the Turkish prime minister.  With these actions, Jacinda Ardern has brought New Zealand in from the periphery of world affairs by showing the so called leaders of the so called more important nations what it is to have both sense and sensibilities, and how important, how absolutely central these are to our continued existence.

I think this is a good time to tell you something about the painting above and the two below, all done by the New Zealand painter John Badcock [b 1952].  I hadn’t heard about him until yesterday when I thought of trying to rectify, to a small extent, my ignorance of New Zealand painting. They look excellent works, even in reproduction, and fit with what the writer Rebecca Solnit talks about in an article I want to discuss briefly below, about why white supremacists with their ideology of separation will always be climate change denialists. Badcock’s paintings, with their sensual link of eye and hand and rock and light, space, flesh and grass give the lie to this and are beautiful to look at: the one above is called Figure in a Landscape, the first below is Afternoon Upper Rangitikei, and the second, Touch of Northwester, Ferry Road.

Rebecca Solnit is a San Francisco based writer and climate activist and her latest piece is the best, most clearly stated and angry that I’ve read of hers. A while ago I read that for exercise she likes kayaking in the waters of the Bay, and I can’t think of anything more wonderful to do on a daily basis to clear the mind, get the heart pumping and feel amazed at being alive, with the unsurpassable Golden Gate Bridge the colour of red oxide rising over the water and riding on it the green of Angel Island with its naughty ,thieving raccoons, deer, and turkey buzzards rocking like small witches in the wind torn trees or riding the wind above them and the island’s decaying military buildings and gun emplacements.

Here is some of her excellent writing to leave you with.

“As the news of the Christchurch mosque massacre broke and I scoured the news, I came across a map showing that the Friday morning climate change strike in Christchurch was close to the bloodbath. I felt terrible for the young people who showed up with hope and idealism, wondered whether the killer or killers chose this particular day to undermine the impact of this global climate action. It was a shocking pairing and also a perfectly coherent one, a clash of opposite ideologies. Behind the urgency of climate action is the understanding that everything is connected; behind white supremacy is an ideology of separation.

Of separation as the idea that human beings are divided into races… Of a lot of ideas and ideals of masculinity taken to a monstrous extreme…of asserting yourself as having the right to dominate others even unto death. And of course, of guns as the symbols and instruments of this self-definition.

Climate change is based on science. But as you delve into it deeply enough it is a kind of mysticism without mystification, a recognition of the beautiful interconnection of all life and the systems-weather, water, soil, seasons, ocean pH- on which that life depends…Which is why climate action has been and must be nonviolent. It is a movement to protect life.”  

Women, children, marchers against the death of democracy and the planet, New Zealanders [ha ha, just a joke] gay and trans people, the working class, refugees and migrants and dare I say landscape painters,  are all people on the edge in some way, not thought of as essential to the way the world works. Well that has changed, they are moving inwards and the healing will start.

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Touch of Northwester, Ferry road.

 

 

 

 

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The characters in this extraordinary Booker Prize winning novel do not have names but labels, and are because of that more real, closer, and so most often more threatening.  There are any numbers of Bobs or Marys in the world, but in the context of a single person [in this case the narrator, the 18 year old middle- sister] there can be only one maybe-boyfriend, one longest friend, one third brother- in-law who is obviously married to third sister, one French teacher, one Milkman and one real milkman and so on and so on.  Then, as in every neighbourhood anyone was ever grown up in, there are those who she describes as being beyond the pale, those laws unto themselves  who in her neighbourhood are pill girl, nuclear boy, the pious ladies, the issues ladies and, as she realises, herself, whose crime, whose strangeness, whose beyond the paleness is that she reads while walking.

I hope I’ve sparked your interest, got you confused, for there’s more to come. Although the story is set in Northern Ireland, most probably in Belfast during the troubles in the 1970’s, the words Ireland, Northern Ireland, Catholic, Protestant, Britain and England do not appear in the novel.  The only brief references to ‘that country across the water’ are Oliver Cromwell, Elizabeth the First, Henry the Eighth, Enid Blyton and James Bond. Oh yes and there’s Jane Eyre, Ivanhoe and, obliquely, Alfred Hitchcock. She does mention America and Russia though, but only to illustrate the mental anguish suffered by nuclear boy who wanders their neighbourhood preaching about the coming war between these two countries that will be the end of everything. And then there are the shiny people who I’ll get back to later.

One of the many wonderful things about this book is that the world around middle-sister is not viewed from above with any historical overview of that place and time but only as it is lived and felt at street level, at the back of the knees level, at gut level. And her antennae, her receivers of information are the hairs on the back of her neck.  She is our guide through the darkness of a place unnamed but for areas such as the parks & reservoirs—an area she goes running in and where the sound of cameras clicking come from behind bushes— or the ten-minute area, so called because it is a near wasteland and needs to be hurried through, or the usual place which is the name for the cemetery. Then there’s her district and the district of those across the road and the interface road that divides the two. There’s also downtown, where she goes for French lessons, and that’s about it.

In her district there are the renouncers of the state who are supposed to defend people there from the defenders of the state who are either the soldiers from across the water or local allies from the district across the road. Yet, like the terrifying Milkman and the young and rather pathetic Somebody McSomebody, they stalk girls like middle-sister who they are supposed to protect, search out informers, real or imaginary, hold kangaroo courts and severely discipline or even kill someone who tries to take the girl they have chosen as their own or who maybe is suspected of perhaps having an object in their possession that could have the flag of the country across the water painted or printed on it. No side has the moral high- ground, both are run by fearful, cowardly, misogynistic and cruel men. This place could be Ancient Greece or Persia or anywhere in the world today where these sort of men hold sway.

This is how she describes the dogs of her district and their slaughter by the soldiers from across the water.

“And that was why the dogs were necessary. They were important, a balancing act, an interface, a safety buffer against instant, face-to-face, mortal clashes of loathsome and self-loathsome emotions, the very type that erupts in seconds between individuals, between clans, between nations, between sexes, doing irreversible damage all round. To stay it, to evade it, to push away those bad memories, all that pain and history and deterioration of character, you hear the barking, the onset of that savage, tribal barking, and you know to wait indoors—a quarter of an hour thereabouts—to let the soldiery go its way. In that manner you don’t come into contact, you don’t have to feel the powerless, the injustice, or worst of all, how you—a normal, ordinary, very nice human being—could want to kill or take relief at a killing…

Mostly there was silence…Then the last surviving dog began to howl…They disentangled the heavy sogginess and the swampiness to differentiate one body from another body, passing each through a long chain to whoever had come to claim it, was waiting for it, to bring it home on go-carts, in prams, in wheelbarrows, in supermarket trolleys or, more often, bundled up as something that used to be alive in their arms.”

The deaths of people are dealt with more matter-of-factly though with writing as gripping.  The dogs had been a slaughter of extreme numbers and experienced when middle-sister was a child, but  deaths occur in every family on an almost regular basis—death by shooting, bombing, poisoning [by pills girl] suicide, or a knife. Here is one scene that illustrates this… “After this our meeting in the lounge ended, and after that I had three more encounters with longest friend from primary school. One was at her wedding in the countryside four months on where I was the only one—bar the holy man officiating—not wearing dark glasses. Even the groom, and the longest friend in her simple white gown, each had a pair on. Then I met her a year after the wedding, this time at the funeral of her husband. Three months on from that I went to her own funeral when they buried her with her husband. This was in the renouncer’s plot of the graveyard just up from the ten-minute area, also known as ‘the no-town cemetery, ‘the no-time cemetery, ‘the busy cemetery’ or simply the usual place.”

Anna Burns is not only a marvellous writer of apprehensions and tensions but of humour, and there is lots of it, sometimes surreal, very often joyous, and there are the shiny people and the colours of a sunset too.

A few men make it into the list of shiny or shining people who, because of their positive and intelligent personalities are seen as a threat by those who can only see, because of their violent heritage, darkness.

Some-times, or at other times, maybe-boyfriend is certainly one of them, this young man who is as passionate about old car parts that clutter his house as she is about reading… “And now he was doting on it, on the bit that was currently on the living-room carpet. He stood beside it, gazing down, a big smile on his face, beaming away. And that was what he did—the way I’d get turned on, when he was engrossed, unstudied, unselfconscious, working on the old heaps, his face full of love and concentration, telling himself these were serious dilemmas from which the poor auld car mightn’t recover if he didn’t tinker conscientiously…and even if it didn’t work at least he didn’t downgrade himself to misery before having a go…he’d be straight on to the next thing. Curious and engaged and eager—because of passion, because of plans, because of hope, because of me. And that was it. With me too, he was uncalculated, transparent, free from deception, always was what he was, with none of that coolness, that withholding, that design, those hurtful, sometimes clever, always mean, manipulations. No conniving. No games playing. He didn’t do it, didn’t care for it, had no interest in it.”

Third brother-in-law, her running partner, also makes the grade…“someone I’d known since childhood: a mad exerciser, a mad street fighter, a basic all-round mad person. I liked him. Other people liked him…he never gossiped, never came out with lewd remarks or sexual sneers or sneers about anything. Nor did he ask manipulative, nosey questions…As for fighting he fought men. Never did he fight women…So with his atypical high regard for all things female, he proved himself popular with the females without any awareness he was popular with them—which made him more popular.”

Then there’s the sweet and much loved [by the middle aged women of the district] real milkman, as well as pill girl’s younger sister and French teacher who, while the class are determined to learn French by wrote and not waste their time on anything else… ‘le ciel est bleu:le ciel est bleu ’… takes them to the window… “Come,” she persisted. “Why have you turning your backs?” For we had turned our backs; it had been instinctive and protective. But she made us turn round to face the sky once more. This time she proceeded to point through various panes at sections of sky that were not blue but instead lilac, purple, patches of pink—differing pinks—with one patch green that had a yellow gold extending along it…Then as the sunset was not most visible from this window, she marched us out of our classroom and along the corridor…Here teacher bade us look at the sky from this brand new perspective, where the sun—enormous and of the most gigantic orange-red colour—in a sky too, with no blue in it—was going down behind buildings in a section of windowpane.”

And finally there are the wee sisters, three precociously intelligent, curious and outrageously well-read under eights who grow throughout the story, not in age but in splendour. And we see them for the last time, dressed in middle-sister’s clothes, high heels and more, dancing in the streets with other wee girls, pretending and relishing in the pretence of being the famous ‘international couple’ ball room champion dancers, aka maybe-boyfriend’s parents who’d abandoned him and his siblings when babes, on a couch sprinkled with rusks so they would survive till the neighbours came to investigate, and gone on to eventual fame and fortune.

Milkman is nothing if not a dance, sometimes as if by Bruegel, sometimes as if by Matisse; but it is always her dance and is a masterpiece.