Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The fish abroad, part three: Winchester, England

 Wonderful things, English Gothic cathedrals. Way-stations to heaven. 
The columns soar straight up to the beyond, until you can barely see them. The stone is pale, beautiful and lunimous, forests which reach up towards the distant starry rosettes on the canopy above.

They crouch in the landscape, enormous creatures visible from afar, the bulk of their forms bolstered by an exoskeleton of buttressing. 
I enter the stillness of Winchester Cathedral, and wait to feel whatever presence it chooses to reveal to me.  
Today I sense the presence of absent choirboys, the images of whom are variously walking or wickedly running along, small legs poking from beneath volumes of white starched cloth and regal purple. Their voices hover in the air, heard only by those who imagine or remember, because it is summer and the choir is away in Salisbury, singing there. So many little choirboys, singing like angels and then let loose into a much harder world when they are grown.

But who is this coming into the cathedral?
 Buzzing and bumbling along the nave like small bees: schoolchildren visiting. 
All the usual characters from a school group, the girl with the heels clacking on the old stone floor, the fair-haired boy standing a  little apart and running his finger along the edge of the carved wood. The rose cheeked girl, staying close to the teacher, the earnest and pale boy, listening with intent.

The lady endlessly polishing the wood of the carved choir seats looks up at their clamour, momentarily, her progess is astonishingly slow, like penitence. Luckily for her the choir is absent, as she takes so long to finish even one seat, and here she is pausing to look at the children. The children gather and flow, forming small dark noisy bunches, gathering and looking together, then breaking up and flowing on.

Peering closer,  I'm amused to read that these children are from The Stonehenge School.  Their little blazers and sweaters have an emblem of Stonehenge , with the name of the school in a cirle around it.  Wonderful!  The Winchester choristers have been exchanged for a flock of small druids.  I wish badly to photograph them, but remembering my days as the chaperone of small madelines in two straight lines,  know the teacher will rush forth at me hissing like an angry goose and chase me away if I point a camera at any of them.

The little druids chatter and look, tilting their heads to look at the roof.

Among the many skills that I have known and forgotten is the knowing of every architectural feature of a Gothic church.  This particular skill dwells in a dusty basket somewhere in a cupboard in my head, along with the speaking of French, the playing of piano and the words to Jabberwocky, and I haven't located it or years.  The tumble of words, carefully learned and applied: lancet arch, flying buttress, nave, transept, ambulatory, cinquefoil. So hard to learn at school if you have never stepped into such a cathedral, and there was only St Mary's in the city, which was only Gothic revival anyway, and I never went there. I eventually went to Stonhenge and Salisbury Cathedral both,  and cried at the sight of each, because they were so wonderful, and around both lay snow which glowed a pale untraviolet light. Different of course if being inside one of these churches was a matter of course, and part of your life. It would be impossible not to sense the presence of the divine, or transcend beyond the day to day, connected as you are by that lux aeterna beaming trought the windows, or by the power of collective voices surging through you like a palpable force.

There was no snow outside Winchester cathedral, only impossibly green grass scattered with tiny and beautiful white flowers, like the ones you see in paintings, that Gothic carpet of tiny flowers, such as you might see in a Fra Angelico Annunciation. I had never seen such pretty grass.  I had not ever seen this flowery carpet come to life. 
I was surprised to learn that the tiny little flowers were daisies. So small! Like little stars.

Winchester is a pretty place, where nothing seems to be too big or too small or too ugly. The light is even, the trees seem old and wise, boughing their heads gently. I wander past gates, fields of impossible green velvet. Children playing games on the grass, a sports track empty and quiet, no doubt remembering the runners flying around between the lines. That very fast little boy who flew the fastest. The ground remembers this, sitting silently, resting.

Later I walk back along cobbly streets. I imagine Jane Austen hurrying along ahead. It's not too hard to imagine, her image floats along somewhere,just out of sight as she heads off home.


 They were sitting in the corner table, the last table to be filled. He took the chair against the wall, which was covered in framed pictures and objects and other little pieces of paraphernalia relating to every aspect of Winchester. The shiny surfaces of these picked up the candlelight.
She faced him. They had champagne waiting for them in an icebucket by the table. Gazing at each other.  They look completely happy.

The waiter smiled at them. Clearly, he had been instructed to engage in some kind of friendly conversation with the guests. He was young and eager, and stood by their table, beaming down at them, like a trainee on a sitcom.

So, he beamed.
What room are you staying in? he asked.

Um, Nelson, they answered. 

Ah! Lovely room! Four poster bed! 
His cheery voice filled the small restaurant. Around me I could sense that at least half the other diners were listening, but in their polite British way were hiding it quite well.

Yes, they said cautiously. Lovely. It's very nice.

 He continued cheerily.
What have you been doing this afternoon?

By the expresssions on their faces and their silence it was immediately evident to all but the waiter what they had been doing that afternoon. Perfectly obvious.
They looked at each other and back at him in horror, unable to reply.
 He continued cheerily to chat about the food, and poured them some champagne. As he left them, they almost imploded with laughter and wonder. 

She leaned forward, 
Should we have told him? I was tempted.
The two of them disappeared into each others eyes. Each one of them lit up the other. 

They were there next day, those two, walking by the watermeadow, down the track. He was showing her things, they were drifting along like nothing mattered in the whole wide world. The world around them was green and quiet, and clear waters converged.  I saw them standing on a wooden bridge looking dreamily into the water, holding hands, seeing noone, standing in each other's light.

As I watched, something moved aross the path. It could have been a weasel, but was probably a dog. 
Waving at me along the banks were big fat un-englishly prickly flower heads , which could have been thistles, but were actualy teasels. It was like falling into a chapter of Wind in the Willows, or Beatrix Potter.
In the stream below, darting from shadow to shadow among the long gently waving ribbons of green weed, were fish. 

Hello fish, I said.
Hello fish, said they in voices only I could hear.

How do you like living in Winchester, fish? I asked them.

Winchester? they answered in puzzled riverish voices. 
We live here. in the stream beneath the bridge where sometimes we hear angels singing. What water do you live in?

Big water, I told them. Big water far far away. 

I left then,  back along the stream and into the town.
 Far behind me two lovers crossed a bridge beneath which swam fish, quiet riverish fish who heard the angels singing, deep in their shadows, among the green weeds. I think of the sense of awe and majesty of the cathedral, and in the way of australians, find myself thinking, oh, we have nothing so ancient and magnificent. But then I correct myself, because there are places ancient and marvellous where one can sense the presence of otherness. 

Sometimes you forget, momentarily. 

Friday, August 14, 2009

the fish abroad, part two: London

There are quite a lot of people in London. 
There are more people in London that there are in my entire continent.

They funnel themselves from one place to another via the London Underground. I sometimes ask directions to places. I say, is that a blue station, or a red one, and people look at me funny. 
For example, Victoria is blue. Central is red. There are lots of colours, pink, green yellow, and more, all laid out in a handy abstract diagram, so you dont really have any clue where you are going or actually how FAR.

The notion of how far one has to go when one climbs out of a tube station, and in what direction, is a persistent mystery to me. this is of great importance when ones feet have swollen to the size of airships. (Due to spending two days flying right after a week's skiing. Not ideal)

Everyone on the Underground reads these free newspapers that people give out at the entrances. I never take them, because I usually have my hands full and I hate the idea of throwing the paper away when I get off. But that doesnt stop me reading them, over peoples shoulders. Thats how I found out about The Magic Underpants.

The headlines screamed "Emergency supplies of Fat-Busting Knickers Rushed to John Lewis from Brazil"
How could I not read on?I leaned closer to the man holding the paper.
It seemed that there was such a demand for a kind of miracle underwear that actually burned the fat right off your big fat arse as you just WORE them and nothing else, that John Lewis had sold out, and had a new shipment flown in. I leaned even closer...the date was today!

The man shook his paper closed, and without quite looking at me, managed to convey that i had committed some form of social gaffe by leaning on him with my mouth open and reading his paper.   Some people!

Naturally, I had to have some of these magic knickers. Bugger going to the National Gallery, I wanted pants!
 Closing my eyes I concentrated: John Lewis=Oxford Street=YELLOW! 
I found my way to yellow, and emerged into a swollen river of people on Oxford Street. In the distance I saw the John Lewis sign, calling me, over the tide of heads.

You know how those Canadian Salmon have to jump upstream?
They have an easy task compared to walking along Oxford Street. I put my head down and ingored the howling of my feet as I forged a path through the tide. It rained on me suddenly. I bought an umbrella from Boots and felt very English.

It was a wonderful moment to arrive in John Lewis. I promptly made friends with two chaps in the mens hat department, who directed me to the magic pants section. I was worried I might miss out, so they walked me over and pointed. Such good service!

The shipment had arrived from Brazil, and the John Lewis staff had adopted a military style procedure to cope with the traffic. Two marvellous women were on hand to assess you for size and hand you a sample pair, which you then took to another woman waiting further down the human chain to whisk you into a specially set up area for trying. As I stood, finger to chin, pondering which size and colour, a Sloany woman rushed out of the dressing room in regal panic, demanding some other kinds to try. The saleswomen pacified her, and gave her what she wanted. I decided I didnt like the idea of struggling to squeeze myself into magic knickers on front of scary women, and besides, I had a plane to catch. To Italy. We made an educated guess, and I seized my prize, making my way to the sales counter.

Do you think they really work? I asked the lady behind the counter.
Oh yes, she said, it says so on the label!
Back on the tube, making my way to the airport, I read te packet. Apparently they operate by heating up your bottom with chrystals, after which the fat molecules are carried to the surface of your skin and whizzed away. Fabulous! A hot bottom, skinnier by the minute!

It was 32 degree Celsius in Venice when I arrived, and the wearing of my hot underpants almost made me pass out. I checked the mirror that night to see any difference...then read the label.
"Must be worn every day for 30 days."
 I decided I could not cope with a roasted bottom in that type of heat. I decided I would defer the wearing of my marvellous underpants until it was cooler.

The London Underground can be such a useful place, can it not?

Tottenham Court Mosaics by Edouardo Paolozzi, 1980's

Sunday, August 9, 2009

In which the fish is abroad, part one: Tintoretto

I first slid up against Mannerist painting not long after art school.

 It was my almost-first job: two weeks at a Parochial Girls Convent school, teaching Art.  My first significant encounter with Catholicism, really, unless you count that mild schism between us white-sock wearing Girl Guides and that lot with the gross brown socks who had to go to mass  and never went to the beach. Not that this bothered me, my best buddy at guides was always banging off to mass: I just felt sorry for her. 

Mass sounded so much worse than white-sockedy-Sunday-school. During a peculiarly pious phase aged about 11, I became completely obsessed with anything biblical, even though my inner feminist seemed to identify a problem with the virgin/whore polarity which seemed so evident. I also disliked being lectured to by earnest men, on things which I instinctively railed against. 

At home, in a silent and deserted house with the late sun in stripes on my bedcovers, I excused myself for hiccupping., “ Excuse me Jesus,” I would say out loud, knowing full well there were better things to be getting on with in Heaven than listening to my hiccups, yet eminently sure that Jesus would have had time to excuse me. 

I treasured my Bible Storybook, won for First in Religious Studies, and assumed that the illustrations in it were the equivalent of photographic evidence: every second page was a glossy colour illustration: Botticelli, Raphael, Fillippo Lippi, Fra Angelico. Georges de La Tour, Caravaggio. Massaccio. I didn’t know at the time these images would remain in my brain for evermore, but some of them seemed to leave darker traces. Whereas some were full of hope and light, others had a disturbing energy, a tenebristic darkness that seemed to chafe against my skin. Learning about Renaissance art at school almost led me to revisit them, but we stopped short at Michelangelo, and it wasn’t until my brief spell at the convent of the Good Samaritans that I came across them again.

Tintoretto Crucifixion, Scuola di San Rocco, Venice

Mannerism. In the manner of, a maniera. Tintoretto and Veronese, Pontormo and Bronzino, my very favourites, beloved now, but at that time, only known from my bible book.  A tipping point into emotion over reason, the balance and logic of the Renaissance slides into drama. I stayed up all night, reading, looking, writing. I made illustrated notes for the girls. I memorised names, paintings, dates.

The convent had that conventy smell, and the entire year ten sat there in rows, in green uniforms and brown socks. Not a word. Lessons were an hour long, and they had a double : they were silent, watching me, and I stood on the lectern at the front, thinking, Holy Shit, two hours on Mannerism and before last night I hadn’t known a thing about it. Three hours sleep and no breakfast. I handed out their sheets, which they looked at intently: they were artworks in themselves, and covered in detailed drawings and notes, quite beautiful. Then they all looked up at me, and I began. Tintoretto appeared on the screen behind me.

I barely remember what I said, but I do remember thinking how similar was the zeitgeist around me to the time in which these artists worked, the sense of an ending, of excess, of imbalance. Nights at strange underground haunts on Oxford Street, days which seemed strangely unnavigable, non negotiable, the sense of  impending storms, time hissing and crackling with the same electric spit as a Tintoretto painting. This strange atmosphere surfaces at odd times: winter evenings, quiet afternoons at university. The half hour before the southerly wind arrives, all mannerist moments.


I had almost forgotten about all this until I found myself standing inside the Scuola Di san Rocco in Venice, beneath a heaven-borne flood of Tintorettos. The whole soundtrack of it all seemed to return: the strange weird lighting, the noise of distant voices, the strange unbalanced running figures: Jacopo painting his way to forgiveness, to reconciliation, with the flicker of lightning in his ears. It was as if the entire sky contained images of darkness and flickering light. Overwhelming, the paintings seemed to possess scorchmarks as their shadows, so dark the tones, so sharp the white light. Sweat ran down my spine, in the unexpected Venetian heat. It was as if I was suddenly in some bruised and darkened Sistine Chapel.

Among all this, I found something, almost impossible in its corporeal loveliness, a girl flying through the sky. I marvel at her: the lovingly traced arms, the profile just hidden, the white clouds beneath her. Her red robes flying, the small white bow at her shoulder. When Tintoretto wasn't painting his soul into heaven, he found time for her. He lovingly outlined her strong shoulders, plaited her long hair and piled it on her head, made billowy her scarlet dress.

I love her. I think of her as I fly through clouds of sea foam.

Santa Maria del Glorioso del Frari, Venice

 Later in the Church of the Frari, I become suspended in a space between the clear and soaring light of an English cathedral, and holding still my hand when it starts to make the sign of the cross in front of the alter.  Such is my life: later I found myself in another convent, one which sought me out, and I stayed with them a very very long time, amongst wonderful and spiritual women.  So long that my hand will still fly to my chest in certain places, will trace the sign of the cross, without me even knowing it, just from sheer habit, even though I have been gone from there for years now. It comes to me in this church, the way things do when one is far from home and open to such things. How strange, after all of this life I have had, to wonder in what kind of church I feel as if I actually belong? I think I belong wherever I wish to.

 I am still thinking of Tintoretto in Venice back home now, on a warm winter day in Sydney. Outside, the waves come and go, and trails of light are left behind. I have to hug myself to conjure up the radiant warmth and light of Venice, close my eyes to reclaim the feeling of being enveloped in the atmosphere, held aloft, immersed. Of being entirely, completely, rapturously happy. If I close my eyes against the light, and stand just so, palm held up to the sun, I can feel it.  I can smell the briny whiff of it, the endless mumble of Italian words, the ceaseless motion of waves even on dry land.  Of the sun on red ochred palazzos, the gradual stilling of the water under the bridge as the night grew older, of throwing back my head. Happy and warm in body mind and soul. Of finding heaven, of a kind, with no entry requirements. Of being.


If I put my hands together quietly, the feeling might never go away. I will be Tntoretto’s flying girl, as long as I dream,

As long as I can.












Wednesday, August 5, 2009

the streets are made of water here

the rivers here are grand and small,
unbound my hair
 I crossed them all,
 moon at my feet
a swaying tide

made wide my steps I crossed them all,

all the rivers,

grand and small.