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Posts Tagged ‘L S Lowry’

At the end of the last post I asked whether there was no hope for improving our ability to manage our primitive reactions.

One thing that can begin to help is learning to understand how we fail to deal properly with such triggers as they occur. Some of these responses to a trigger are conscious: many are not, or we are at least not fully aware of them. Although our culture influences their exact shape, records suggest that these defective strategies for managing the crocodile inside have been with us from our earliest days.

Some of our responses to a trigger from the crocodile within are more obvious than others. We’ve all seen it or done it ourselves – the traveller who dashes onto the platform in time to see the train pulling out and completely loses their cool, launching into a high decibel rant, or you drop the Clarice Cliff vase your mother gave you onto the tiled kitchen floor and burst into tears as it breaks into pieces, swearing at yourself at the same time.

Others are more hidden. You break the vase but you pretend that you don’t care. You get a dustpan and brush and sweep up the mess, dumping it into the bin along with your feelings, with only a tightening of the lips to hint to an astute observer that you maybe a little bit miffed.

‘Sorry, mum,’ you might whisper to yourself, ‘but I never liked it much anyway.’

An even less obvious sign of crocodile fear and anger blended could be those times when we find ourselves asserting our side of an argument with an absolute sense of superior understanding and justification. It’s as if our grasp of the truth is incontestable. Nothing that anyone else can say will shake our belief in our own rectitude. This stems, I believe, from our sense that our world view is an extension of our self, and any attack on what we think is an attack on us, hence the element of fear, and it must be repelled at all costs, hence the presence of some anger.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy explains this clearly. We need a sceptical attitude towards descriptions especially in relation to descriptions of the self (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy The Guilford Press: 1999 – page 182):

. . . when a person identifies with a particular conceptualisation, alternatives to that conceptualisation can seem almost life-threatening. The . . . frame here seems to be “Me = conceptualisation” [i.e. I am exactly what I think I am] and its entailed derivative “Eliminate conceptualisation = eliminate me” [i.e. If you destroy my idea of myself you destroy me]. [Thus], we are drawn into protecting our conceptualized self as if it were our physical self.

To help people step back from such identifications they liken the mind to a chessboard. We mistakenly identify with the pieces, not realising we are also, perhaps more truly the board (ibid. – page 192):

The point is that thoughts, feelings, sensations, emotions, memories and so on are pieces: they are not you.

How do we fail to deal with the crocodile?

What are these 4Ds and how do they work?

The acting out of anger on the railway platform is the result of a level of disinhibition, an inability to contain or control the flood of feeling, so it spills out against the world around us, creating a drama that usually impacts unpleasantly on others. Or, perhaps more accurately we willingly throw it at people and things.

It is a close relative of the feeling of drowning in sadness and distress that can be quite overwhelming, such as after breaking a precious object or relationship. We tend to subside into a heap, and, although it is perfectly obvious to everyone around us that something is the matter, we are not deliberately trying to discharge the feeling by throwing over others. It is important to make a distinction here between drowning and emotional blackmail. The latter is a deliberate attempt to manipulate someone else into meeting your demands by showing them how ‘hurt’ you are. People fake illness for the same purpose. The portrait below was triggered after Lowry had looked in the mirror during an exhausting and stressful period of his life, when he was the sole carer of his demanding and by this time bed-bound mother, who had decades of experience in using her apparent illnesses to exact compliance to her every whim from those closest to her.

Head of Man with Red Eyes (Image scanned from L S Lowry: a life by Shelley Rohde)

When we pretend to ourselves we’re not feeling anything we’re in denial, to use the Freudian term: disowning is the existential word for it, and discounting is a variant Transactional Analysis uses quite frequently. They all amount to much the same thing. We try to convince ourselves it’s not there, and sometimes we succeed. Unfortunately attempting to bury it in this way does not prevent its leaking out in other ways to our own and others’ detriment.

Dogmatism concerns the doggedness with which we stick to our opinions and assert them no matter how obtuse or wrong-headed they might be.

In almost every case the cause of all this discontent, whether we act it out, bury it, turn it into an argument or are overwhelmed by it, lies in our inability to unhook ourselves from the brain noise generated by our crocodile inside. We think it’s all we are at that moment in time. In essence, we think it’s who are.

This means that if we have no doubt that our anger justifies any kind of action on our part we will attack without scruple, and may face severe consequences. What else could we do?

If we have doubts about the correctness of hitting someone in the face for stepping in front of us in the queue, we may swallow our anger and pretend that we don’t care, which may pre-empt the possibility of our making a legitimate protest. What other way do we have of resolving the clash between our feeling and our scruples?

If fear or sadness completely overwhelms us, we may convince ourselves we are weak and useless, and miss a whole host of opportunities to improve our lives. That’s inevitable, isn’t it?

What choice have we got?

Our culture makes us all too prone to repression (convincing ourselves we’re not experiencing something when we are), acting out (expressing whatever we are currently experiencing and ignoring the consequences until it is too late), or feeling overwhelmed (caving in under what feels like a tsunami of distress). Any of these can feed into a pattern of dogmatic assertion.

We don’t hear or see much about a more creative way of responding, which is a key to positive change. This other way I’ll call containment.

This means that we can hold an unpleasant feeling in mind without hitting someone, hurting ourselves, pretending it’s not there or arguing a point with undue stubbornness. What’s more we can do this long enough and often enough to think about, reflect on and inspect the feeling from various angles and work out the most constructive response to it. We can do this by realising the feeling is not all that we are, it is not who we really are, it is simply a transient state of mind or underlying influence generated by one archaic aspect of our brain, the inner crocodile, immensely useful to us in times of real danger when we lived in caves but only occasionally of real value now. Nowadays it causes more problems between us and is seldom needed to protect us from tigers, even in India – we’ve exterminated a lot of those dangerous animals outside but left the most dangerous one inside untouched.

So how do we learn to contain and ultimately correct our corrosive reactions? More of this next time.

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Nature in its essence is the embodiment of My Name, the Maker, the Creator. Its manifestations are diversified by varying causes, and in this diversity there are signs for men of discernment. Nature is God’s Will and is its expression in and through the contingent world.

Tablets of Bahá’u’lláhpage 142

Once on board, each night before I slept I read at least 50 pages of Bate’s biography of Clare. This was usually after spending an hour or two on one of the decks watching the sunset and looking out for dolphins. I hoped it would help me get a better grip on what Bate’s had meant by poetry being the song of the earth.

Eventually, I’d settle down with my book, faintly conscious of the slight swaying of the ship and the constant grumble of the engine.

Bate’s compassionate account of Clare’s troubled existence brings to life some of the more abstract aspects of man’s exploitation of nature. Clare was both deeply connected from childhood with the nature around him and forcibly cut off from it first by the Enclosure Movement, then by an enforced move from his birth home to one he experienced as every different and finally by his incarceration in an asylum. All these dislocations were further confounded by his success as a poet, where his experience of London changed him radically.

This time I picked up the book from where I had left off, already with a clear sense of how damaging the process of Enclosure had been for Clare, his family and his neighbours. As Bate’s explains (pages 49-50):

Enclosure was… symbolic of the destruction of an ancient birthright based on cooperation and common rights. The chance of Clare’s time and place of birth gave him an exceptional insight into this changed world.

This was because a high proportion of local villagers held common rights, an unusually large area of the parish was heathland, and the open fields survived until an unusually late date.

Bate continues:

For Clare himself, enclosure infringed the right to roam, which had been one of the joys of his youth… E.P. Thompson grasped the radical significance of this, discerning that ‘Clare maybe described, without hindsight, as a poet of ecological protest: he was not writing about man here and nature there, but lamenting a threatened equilibrium in which both were involved.’

In Clare’s own words:

Inclosure like a Bonaparte let nothing remain
It levelled every bush and tree and levelled every hill
and hung the moles as traitors –

Much later I came across this prose description in a similar spirit, which I’ll quote now to give another clear example of Clare’s unedited mode of writing (page 272): ‘what terryfying rascals these wood keepers and gamekeepers are – they make a prison of the forrests and are its joalers.’

His love of nature, I already knew, was quasi-religious (page 59):

. . . though he professed himself an Anglican, Clare’s attendance at church was mostly irregular. His deepest feelings of a religious kind were reserved for his experience of nature and his memories of childhood innocence and joy.

I was really looking forward to learning more, though I knew that Clare’s life had a tragic trajectory, ending as it did in an asylum over almost his last two decades.

Clare’s feeling for nature were not unique and he would have resonated to Wordsworth’s ‘sense sublime’ of ‘something far more deeply interfused’ within it (pages 100-101):

. . . if someone who had never read – perhaps never even heard of – such nature poets as Thomson, Cowper and Wordsworth nevertheless responded to nature in the same way as they, then there must be ‘universal feelings’ about nature which poetry was but an echo… Clare saw it as his task to write down the poetry that was already there in nature itself.

That his gift was recognized by a publisher was a blessing to his parents (page 120):

Drury’s faith in the potential of Clare’s poetry saved Parker and Ann from the poor-house.

But this came at a price (page 166):

[On his way to London in the wake of his success] full of anticipation at the prospect of seeing a place known only from fireside tales, he looked out from the coach at the labourers ploughing and ditching in the fields: ‘the novelty created such strange feelings that I could almost fancy that my identity as well as my occupations had changed – that I was not the same John Clare but that some stranger soul had jumped into my skin.’

He had become disconnected from his old sense of self (page 171):

After his exposure to fame and London, he could never fully return to his old life. In this sense, his consciousness of a new identity as he sat in the Stamford coach was prophetic.

I put the book down and switched off the light. My head hit the pillow to the continuing growl of the engine. As usual, my sleep was fitful. Just as I was falling asleep again for the umpteenth time, I heard the ship’s intercom through the cabin door: ‘For exercise only. For exercise only. For exercise only. All medical staff to the muster room on B deck. Repeat – all medical staff to the muster room on B deck.’

My wife and I were both awake. It was 7.30 am. We groaned and got up grumbling.

When we were dressed and had left the cabin to head for breakfast at the buffet on Deck 15, we bumped into our steward in the narrow corridor outside our room.

Standing by the trolley piled high with towels and bedding, he greeted us with his usual friendly smile.

‘How are you both?’

We asked him if he knew about the recent earthquake. He didn’t. We apologised for worrying him but explained that we were concerned to know whether his family were all OK.

He was clearly concerned. He explained that he would not be able to find out yet but hoped to get in touch with family later in the day.

We parted without our usual exchange of joking comments.

En route to the buffet we picked up our newsletter and puzzles. The puzzle sheet had a fairly demanding Sudoku on one side and ridiculously easy crossword on the other. The newssheet was based generally on yesterday’s news and was only worth picking up if we’d missed Sky news the night before.

Horizon was a more valuable read. It told us what would be happening the following day and was left in our cabin the evening before. On this occasion, over my usual breakfast of oats, raisins and milk plus a slice of toast and for once marmalade, we looked at the day’s events and spotted a talk on Lowry, a joint favourite, in the theatre. As we both knew a fair bit about the artist from reading his biography and going to see his paintings at Salford Quays, we decided to give the talk a miss but to go to the gallery where some prints were on show.

This was probably a wise decision given the delay caused by having to queue for clean teacups at the buffet. We would’ve missed the start of the talk anyway. As it was there was only one print that caught our attention: The Brothers. I don’t have a copy of that in my Shelley Rohde’s biography, nor have I ever seen the original anywhere.

Lowry’s ‘The Brothers’ (For source of image see link.)

Its impact was quite intense.

The way the brothers overlap in the print conveys the strong sense of a symbiotic relationship. Their merged black hats make them seem almost like twins joined at the head. The colour of the arch overhead matches their coats and, along with the narrowness of the picture, seems to imply that they are both in some way imprisoned or at least overshadowed by their relationship. The townscape behind them is unusually constricted for Lowry and the church and flats, if that’s what the red buildings were, would not look out of place in a doll’s house, hinting that, in spite of the greying hair of the background brother, we are not quite in a fully adult world here.

Most of Lowry’s work contrasts quite strongly with Clare’s rural home, in which I was so vicariously immersed at the time. His less well-known seascapes, which I first encountered on visiting the Lowry gallery at Salford Quays, added a new dimension to my understanding of his work, and would’ve blended in better with my cruise perhaps if I’d found one of those in the ship’s gallery.

I didn’t realise at this point that I would soon be encountering a third very different environment in paint. Blended with the artificial world of the cruise ship, nature, art and town alone began to weave a pattern of insights I haven’t quite digested yet.

‘Head of Man with Red Eyes’ painted after spending an exhausting night ministering to his hypochondriacal autocratic mother’s imaginary needs. (Image scanned from L S Lowry: a life by Shelley Rohde)

Part of the pattern is clear. Clare was uprooted from the earth of his childhood with devastating effects on his mental health and an inspiring impact on his poetry. Lowry’s roots were in the Northern townscape, which fed his art but may have starved his emotional life, though his voraciously demanding mother and a possible poorly understood autistic tendency didn’t help.

The third world I entered, through prints again, opened up another world altogether, but that will have to wait till next time. Together they illustrate just how complex is the relationship between art, personal life and nature. This idea, that poetry might, at some level, simply be the song of the earth, was seeming slightly fragile.

Even Bate, in his biography of Ted Hughes, is clearly aware that poetry comes in many forms. For example (page 93), he describes Yeats as ‘the poet of the land and the spirit of place’ in contrast to Eliot as ‘the poet of deracinated modernity.’ This of course still leaves begging the question of whether a poet who simply ‘gives voice to a new terror: the meaningless’, is a poet in the full sense of the word, no matter how powerful and honest that voice may be.

This relates to my struggle, explored in earlier posts, with much modern art, if it seems to capitulate to the dissonance and disbelief of the modern world with no counterbalancing sense of meaning and purpose. Can true poetry be simply nihilistic? Not that I’m saying, as should be clear by now, that poetry is only authentic if it sings about nature. Nature is not the only higher value poetry can draw upon to give it depth.

Clare though made a strong case for nature as a front runner in this race (page 480):

‘Birds bees trees flowers all talked to me incessantly louder than the busy hum of men and who so wise as nature out of doors on the green grass by woods and streams under the beautiful sunny sky – daily communings with God and not a word spoken.’

To complete the picture, it might help here to fast-forward to where my reading of Bate’s whole biography of Clare left me.

After his brief moment in the spotlight and two less successful collections of what Bate feels were superior poems, Clare’s world was turning significantly darker. Not only was the impact of Enclosure still tightening but his success had brought with it the opportunity to move three miles away to a more spacious home, something which proved a mixed blessing.

Even before the move things were not going well (page 276):

The changes in the land wrought by enclosure were by now symbolic of his own narrowing prospects and the loss of the familiar landmarks of his childhood.

There was no going back (page 317):

Save in memory and poetry, there was no road back to childhood, to the unenclosed commons, to Eden. As his depression closed in upon him, the only future was alienation.

Now there was the impending challenge of a serious mental health problem, brought on by a combination of factors, not least his increasing sense of alienation. His move to Northborough did not help (page 388):

The accommodation was much more spacious than at Helpston… But the village never became home. It felt like a closed community, hostile to newcomers.

Clare describes his feelings of loss and displacement in The Flitting (Page 389):

I’ve left my own old home of homes,
Green fields, and pleasant place:
The summer, like a stranger comes,
I pause – and hardly know her face.’

His poetry, which Bate sees as rooted in Clare’s ‘art of noticing’ and ‘intuitive responsiveness to minute particulars’ (pages 300-01) had so far lost nothing of its power though in this unhinging process (page 390):

His remembrance is not just of his old home, but specifically of the pre-enclosure landscape. It was also at this time that he wrote another of his great enclosure elegies, a vigourous poem of political complaint spoken in the very voice of a piece of land, ‘Swordy Well’. . . . With the enclosure, it was taken by the parish overseers as a source of stone for road mending. In the poem, the land speaks out against its own enclosure in the same terms as a labourer would have used to complain about his loss  of ancient rights. ‘I ha’n’t a friend in all the place,’ sings the desecrated earth, ‘Save one and he’s away.’ That one is Clare himself, both physically away from Helpston and mentally distant from his own unenclosed youth.

And again (page 405):

Clare’s sense of his own status as a perpetual outsider, a man who did not fully belong in either the world of London property or that of literary propriety, is nowhere better caught that in a sonnet on his fear of trespassing: ‘I dreaded walking where there was no path.’

I can resonate to this to some degree, as I was transplanted from lower middle class roots at the age of seventeen to the lofty heights of privilege at Cambridge in the early 60s. Since then I have always felt déclassé, belonging neither to my culture of origin nor to the rarified atmosphere of dinner suits and cocktail parties. This may partly account for why I found the cruise concept of ‘black-tie dining’, something that happened on four nights of our journey, a somewhat bizarre experience: I tried it once, in my green suit not a dinner suit, and stuck to the casual dress of the buffet after that.

Compared to Clare though my experience was relatively mild. The stresses of it did not strain me beyond endurance so that I would end my life staring from the window of an institution which felt like a prison, as Clare did in his asylum according to one of his visitors (page 475):

‘There was a birdcage, with a skylark in it, near the window; and pointing to the iron bars in his apartment, he smiled gloomily, and said, in a strong provincial accent, “We are both of us bound birds, you see.”’

I couldn’t help but remember Hopkins’s poem as I read those words[1]:

As a dare-gale skylark scanted in a dull cage,
Man’s mounting spirit in his bone-house, mean house, dwells –

In a sense that Clare does not express as far as I know, this would make him double-caged, as of course was Hopkins in the Jesuit order, though he never admitted that explicitly in any of his poems as far as I’m aware. Hopkins shared another passion with Clare (Robert Bernard Martin’s biography – page 212):

When an ash tree was felled in the garden, he ‘heard the sound and looking out and seeing it maimed there came at that moment a great pang and I wished to die and not see the inscapes of the world destroyed any more.’

Clare would certainly have been familiar though with the words of Blake that came tumbling into my head a this point:

A Robin Redbreast in a Cage
Puts all Heaven in a Rage.
A dove house fill’d with doves and pigeons
Shudders Hell thro’ all its regions.

I was beginning to feel that the motif of the prison was becoming an uncomfortably frequent theme.

In the end, divorced from nature by the Enclosure process, by his well-meant but unavoidable move to a different locality and by the social elevation his obsessive versifying earned him, he broke down and entered the final alienation of the asylum. He registers the ultimate consequence in his poem An Invite to Eternity (page 491):

Clare had coined the term self identity. Now he coins its opposite: sad non-identity. The absence of home and family has stripped Clare of his sense of self. At the same time, the very act of writing is a defiant assertion of the self. ‘At once to be and not to be’ is a breath-taking riposte to Hamlet’s question.

Even so, he is able to capture this in powerful poetry that does not completely capitulate to his sense of annihilation.

In the end there was no viable escape from his distress, except through poetry. Concerning his poem I am Bate writes (page 505):

In imagination, even in the asylum, he could complete the circle of vision, undoing his troubles by laying himself to rest between grass and ‘vaulted sky.’ He longs at once for both childhood and the grave.

He does not, if Bate’s sense of him is to be trusted, invest as much meaning in the horizon, or perhaps even in nature, as Emily Dickinson did, according to Judith Farr in her book, The Passion of Emily Dickinson. Nature was crucial to her, as it had been to the Brontës and to Elizabeth Barrett Browning, because for her (page 294) ‘nature offers clues about infinity,’ and she makes this explicit. This was even to the extent that (page 302):

The horizon was a point of order for landscape painters like Church. For poets like Dickinson, it was the point of fusion of this world and the next.

Maybe though for Clare, even though poetry began as a song of the earth, in the end it was more than that. I’m not sure I can quite find words right now for what that means. All I can say at the moment is that poetry itself can be a kind of transcendence, that brings meaning, perhaps even consolation, into the darkest moments of our lives.

When we spoke to our steward later that day to check how things were back home, he looked quite worried and told us that his cousin was missing, but the rest of his family were thankfully OK. We commiserated with him and assured him that we would remember his family in our prayers and hope that all would be well.

Footnote:

[1]. It would be fascinating to explore this further here but the post is long enough already. For now it is enough to indicate that R B Martin’s biography of Hopkin’s suggests (page 268) that an enforced move from St Beuno’s in rural Wales, where he had been studying for the priesthood, may have accounted in part for this sense of (page 264) ‘limitation, entrapment, a kind of stifling imprisonment of the spirit.’ The intensity of his connection with nature (page 203) would be more than enough to suggest a close affinity with Clare at least in this respect, and a comparable reaction to being torn away from nature by his move.

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Head of Man with Red Eyes (Image scanned from L S Lowry: a life by Shelley Rohde)

The nurse ushers us into a side room.

‘As soon as we know anything, we’ll come and tell you,’ she whispers. ‘Please make some coffee if you want.’

She closes the door quietly behind her. There is a kettle, two stainless steel containers, one with instant coffee and the other with tea bags by the looks. There are no cups in sight.

In the far corner a woman sits by her handbag, head bowed, looking at the screen of her phone. All the time she’s with us, she doesn’t scan it with her fingers.

Alan and I sit down opposite a painting of blue irises. He is too stunned to speak much. I sit quietly beside him. We wait for someone to come and tell us what is happening.

A woman with an apron comes in gently. She checks the cupboard.

‘You don’t have any cups. I’ll go and get some.’ She smiles at us and leaves.

Alan and I smile faintly at each other. His eyes are red with weeping.

The door opens again.

‘I’ve brought some cups for you. The milk’s in the fridge below,’ she explains, opening its door before she goes again.

We sit there and do nothing.

In the silence I become faintly aware of a movement at the back of my mind. I try not to take any notice. My job is to watch out for Alan, not disappear into my own inscape.

The movement becomes more insistent. It feels as though someone is standing right behind my eyes.

‘We have another self to exhume.’

I recognise the voice straightaway as Indie’s. This is a bit of a shock, to say the least. It’s a good 18 months since I heard anything from my parliament of selves.

‘What d’you mean, exhume?’ I telegraph silently.

‘We buried him in a chamber of your heart when we were all very small.’

The door opens. Indie vanishes from my mind. A doctor and two nurses come in. One of the nurses talks quietly to the woman with the phone and she leaves looking slightly upset.

The three of them sit down opposite us.

‘I’m Mr McGrave, Senior Cardiologist. There’s no easy way for us to tell you this, Mr White.’

Alan moves uneasily in his seat and makes a slight choking noise.

‘When she came in her heart had stopped,’ he goes on. ‘We used every means we could to start it beating again but we couldn’t get a pulse. She wasn’t breathing on her own either. We tried several times, but scans showed major damage to one ventricle of the heart indicating that it would no longer be able to work. There were significant toxins in the blood as well.’

‘We’re so sorry to have to tell you this,’ the blond nurse adds.

Alan can no longer hold back his sobs.

‘We’ll leave you now to process this’ the bearded nurse explained. ‘We’ll come back after a while and if you wish we can take you to the room where her body is so you can see her. Would you like that?’

Alan nods.

I put my arm on Alan’s shoulder as he tries to regain his composure. He begins to calm down.

‘Would a coffee help?’ I ask.

He nods.

As I wait for the kettle to boil, I can’t stop Indie insisting I listen to her.

‘We entombed a child self,’ she says. ‘He just wouldn’t stop moaning and crying. We couldn’t comfort him. He asked us to hide him away somewhere under the ground of your heart. We agreed. It seemed kinder to smother him out of sight, but we knew he wouldn’t die. You know that, don’t you?’

‘Please can we deal with this later,’ I plead in my mind, even though I am desperate to know more. ‘Alan is my priority right now.’

‘We have to do something. Soon. We can’t leave him there any longer. He’s the only one left out in the cold now. When can we talk?’

Before I can answer the kettle boils and she disappears again.

‘You don’t take sugar, do you?’ I ask simply to break the silence.

‘You know I don’t.’

‘Yes, of course. It’s amazing how these situations can get you muddled, though.’

I pause.

‘Jane didn’t drink coffee at all, did she?’

‘Not after the blood pressure problem, no.’

‘I can’t imagine how difficult it must be, to be married all those years to someone younger than you, and suddenly to find she’s gone.’

Alan doesn’t reply.

‘Losing my mother was different. She was in her seventies, and in those days, when she died, that was a good age. We were expecting it.’

I wasn’t sure any of this was helping but didn’t feel like lapsing back into silence.

He stares at the floor.

I carry the cups across, give him his and sit down next to him with mine.

‘What happened exactly – if you can bear to tell me that is?’

He pauses for a moment.

‘It was a complete shock. She was feeling sick overnight, but I didn’t think anything of it. I thought she’d just eaten too much the evening before. It was only when she got up and was violently sick that I began to worry.’

He stops again for a moment to regain his composure.

“Please don’t carry on if it’s too hard.’

‘No, no. It’s all right. I want to tell you. She was so sick she couldn’t stand. That was when I rang for the ambulance. She was still conscious when they took her away. I really figured she’d be OK. When I got to the hospital, I rang you when I realised it was a lot worse than I thought.’

‘I’m glad you did,’ I reply, putting my hand on his shoulder.

I can’t think of anything else to say.

Before Indie can return, as I fear she might, the door opens again and the blond nurse comes back in.

‘You can see your wife now, Mr White, if that’s still OK.’

He nods and stands. I stand with him and we follow the nurse out of the door, turn right and then into a set of double doors just down the corridor on the right. Someone holds the door for us as the nurse goes in ahead to pull back a blue screen to reveal the body. This is the second body I’ve seen in the last two years, but this one is not so carefully adorned and arranged as the one in the hospice had been. One sheet, and under that a surgical gown, her body, now deserted, and no flowers.

As Alan bends down to kiss his wife on the cheek he breaks into sobs again.

I put my hand on his back and rest my gaze on what I can see of her hair, just beginning to be flecked with grey. As he stands again, stifling his sobs and holding her hand, I see her mouth. It’s open as though she is gasping for air, but she is too still for that. With my hand on his back and my eyes on her face my awareness of the room fades.

There is a conversation going on in hushed tones in the back of my mind.

‘I think we’d better wait till he’s out of this situation before we try and talk to him again.’ I recognise the deep voice and clipped vowels. It’s Mires, saying what you’d expect of a sensitive psychologist.

‘I don’t agree. It’s not fair to leave it too long. You all rescued me when I thought I was alone forever. I know how it feels to be abandoned. I don’t want to do that to someone else.’ I don’t have to hear her voice to realise that only Indie would have known what it was like to be in that predicament.

A brittle woman’s voice breaks in. ‘I’ll just go along with whatever you all feel. I’m right out of my depth in this kind of stuff.’ This is a surprise. Emma Pancake, usually the one to rush into action, doesn’t know what to do.

‘That’s one for my diary,’ flashes through my brain. Fortunately, they’re too busy talking to hear my thoughts right now.

‘I agree we should wait. I need more time to think about this.’ No surprise there, then. Humfreeze, the master meditator, remains true to type.

‘I think we should go now,’ Alan cuts across.

I jerk out of my reverie.

‘Yes, of course.’

We head for the door. The nurse waiting outside steps in to close the screen again.

‘Please wait in the room again and someone will be with you shortly to explain what you need to do next,’ she explains gently.

It doesn’t take long for the tall male nurse to slide in with a small folder and hand over a booklet with all the information needed about the steps to take to prepare the funeral arrangements, get the body moved and close the dead wife’s bank account. I don’t even have to take notes for Alan who looks as though his mind is somewhere else.

When the man goes we wait a few seconds. Alan stands and puts on his coat. I walk him home mostly in silence – the hospital car park is far too expensive for us to use.

As we reach his gate, I ask ‘Will you be OK?’

‘I’ll be all right. I just need some time to myself.’

‘Ring me if you need me, otherwise we’ll meet on Wednesday to plan what you need to do next, yes?’

‘Not too early. Come round about 11.’

‘OK.’

He fumbles for his keys as he walks up the path to his door. I wait till he closes it behind him before walking slowly back to my place over the river.

As I walk along the quiet footpath towards the pedestrian bridge over the river, I hear them at it again.

‘Can you listen to us now,’ Humfreeze asks.

‘Yes, Chris, I can,’ I hear myself think.

Though we’re in for another Siberian-born Scorpion sting in the tail of winter, flecks of cherry blossom are just beginning to appear.

‘We want to set a time for another séance. That seems the best way to get the infant back. It worked well last time with Indie,’ ’ he explained, with just a faint trace of self-congratulation over his key role as medium in reconnecting with her.

‘I’m not sure about that,’ Mires interjected. ‘This situation seems slightly different. With Indie we didn’t know whether she existed or not, let alone where she was. She was like a possible ghost to us. In this case, three of us definitely remember deciding to put the baby out of its misery without actually killing it. Even Indie thinks she can remember being involved in that, which makes a kind of sense, in that it would have happened before her consciousness split off from the rest of us. I don’t think it’s a séance we need.’

As I cross the bridge and glance quickly down the river to my left, the sun comes out from behind a cloud, lighting up the surface of the water. I’m dazzled.

‘So what’s your suggestion, Fred?’ Humfreeze asks with the air of a man who knows there is no other way.

‘Breathing meditation.’

‘Are you joking or what, Fred?’ Pancake bursts in. ‘OK. I got the séance point in the end. It was a crazy long shot but it worked. What’s meditation got to do with this? Or are you just pandering to Chris’ ego and giving him a key role in a different shape?’

‘You don’t remember what Pete said about his work on his operation, do you?’

‘Yes, I do. But he did quite a bit of breathwork and the only concrete thing he ever found out was about the operation, and that’s how we ended up getting in touch with Indie. Surely, if there was anyone else accessible to heavy breathing he’d’ve found out by now.’ Pancake is clearly getting really fed up of all this flaky New Age stuff.

Mires presses the point. ‘But even if he did a lot of breathwork, did he really do enough?’

‘Why wouldn’t he have done?’ Pancake isn’t going to give in without a fight.

Mires pauses and takes a deep breath. ‘You’ll need to give me some space to explain.’ He was well aware of Pancake’s talent for interrupting.

She nods. He picks up his thread.

‘From what I’ve read the traumas we’ve experienced are stored in a kind of hierarchy in our heads – the more recent, the more accessible. As you access the ones nearer the surface, so the ones lower down become easier to reach. Often working on a difficult one exhausts us and we stop, sometimes for a while, sometimes indefinitely.’

‘Is there a shred of real evidence for that?’ Pancake’s reservoir of patience is shallow at the best of times.

‘It depends upon what you call real evidence.’ Mires is biting his tongue with difficulty. ‘There’s qualitative support for it.’

‘You mean anecdotal evidence, don’t you, Fred?’

‘Not exactly. Groups of individual cases stack up to more than an anecdote. Can I carry on now?’

She nods.

‘I think we can all agree that the hospital trauma came after whatever led to the infant howling all the time. And you all realise, from listening in to Pete’s thoughts as he writes his diary, that he knows that the well of tears he tapped into when he first did the continuous conscious breathing has never gone away. What does that suggest, d’you think?’

There is a long silence.

‘Unfinished business,’ Indie suggests.

‘Exactly, Indie. Unfinished business.’

‘But what kind of unfinished business, for heaven’s sake?’ Pancake can’t stay quiet for long.

‘Well, I’m really sticking my neck out here, but Jung gave a lecture at the Tavistock Clinic in 1935, and spoke about a young girl whose condition had baffled him[1] until, as he put it, “I realised afterwards, she had never been born entirely.” We know that Pete’s mum was pregnant in wartime and that her daughter had died just before the start of the war. This was a seriously traumatic time. One shock was not really processed before a series of other shocks followed. Bombing raids were probably just a part of it. She gave birth before the war was over. What sort of start in life was that? What sort of birth process was it, do we think? A calm and reassuring separation from the womb or an alarming ejection into a frightening world?’

‘And how is all this going to help me write poetry?’ Wordless finds his voice at last. ‘It’s all up your street, Fred. I can see that plainly enough. Polysyllabic psychobabble! But some of us have got better fish to fry.’

Humfreeze just glares at him a moment before picking up the thread again. The meditation angle is enough to keep him on board.

‘Bill’s off message as usual, but I can see where you are coming from, Fred,’ He says almost sympathetically. ‘How does that help, though, even if it’s true? And what’s it got to do with breathing? I can see how the breathing would work in recovering memories of chloroform in a five year old, but I’m not sure about that with a new born baby.’

I am getting close to the main road at this point.

‘Can I stick my oar in quickly here for a sec?’

‘Of course,’ Fred replies.

‘Do you remember what that system of continuous conscious breathing was called?’ I ask.

Another silence. I break it this time.

‘Rebirthing.’

‘But the baby’s been born already and is buried now.’

‘Yes, but in a chamber of my heart. How like a womb might that feel. Perhaps I can leave you to ponder on that just now. I’ve got to pick up some shopping on my way home. I can’t deal with that and focus on this as well.’

This is met with a chorus of agreement.

(More of this next time)

Footnote:

[1] This is mentioned among other places in Samuel Beckett: the last modernist by Anthony Cronin (page 221) and Samuel Beckett: crossroads and borderlines by ‪Marius Buning, Matthijs Engelberts and Sjef Houppermans (page 129).

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Ancoats Hospital Out Patient Hall

Ancoats Hospital Out Patient Hall

I had never seen the picture at the head of this post before. We stumbled across it in a corner of the Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester. I couldn’t track its background anywhere in the Lowry Gallery at Salford Quays the following day. Neither is it in the excellent book I bought there by Shelley Rohde.

Strange!

It is in the same tradition as his 1949 painting entitled The Cripples, for which he was much criticised by those who wrongly thought that he was mocking the people he depicted. What seems more likely to have been true is that he identified with them, feeling that, ‘but for the grace of God,’ as he put it, he could have been the same. He had been deeply scarred by his mother’s unrelenting denigration of him, hungry as he was for her appreciation more than for all else in the world it sometimes seemed. That he continued, against her scathing opposition, to pursue his vocation as an artist says much for the power of that calling and for his own steely determination, wounded though he was by her contempt.

The Cripples (For source of image see link)

The Cripples (For source of image see link)

Spotting the previously unknown Lowry painting where I had not expected to see any trace of him rather set the tone for my whole experience. The Lowry I found at the Quays was far more complex and wide ranging than the Lowry I thought I knew.

I knew he was not reducible to the stereotype of the clumsy painter of matchstick people, too popular to be any good really, as the art establishment tended to think for decades during his lifetime, driving him to hide his job as rent collector behind thick veils of misdirection. Heaven help him if the art pundits could justify their attitude by pointing out he was a mere amateur, and his painting was only hobby!

What I hadn’t ever seen were his haunting seascapes, capturing his apparent isolation for all time.

Seascape (for source of image see link)

Seascape (for source of image see link)

I have no recollection of being previously exposed to the gaunt portraits that held my attention for minutes on end in the gallery itself. The portrait below was triggered after he had looked in the mirror during an exhausting and stressful period of his life, when he was the sole carer of his demanding and by this time bed-bound mother, who had decades of experience in using her apparent illnesses to exact compliance to her every whim from those closest to her.

Head of Man with Red Eyes (Image scanned from L S Lowry: a life by Shelley Rohde)

I was also unaware of his teasingly repeated variations on Anna’s face, leading those seeking to understand him to wonder who she was and whether she existed outside his imagination at all.

I’d been confined to an awareness of his industrial cityscapes, peopled by lonely crowds, and of his empathic renderings of the disadvantaged and the handicapped.

An additional source of fascination is that my childhood was rooted in a similar townscape to the one he explored for three decades in his art. I was born and grew up in Stockport, where red brick factories and smoking chimneys abounded. I went by train to Manchester many times, mostly to buy books. I walked through Piccadilly Gardens on innumerable occasions. A print of his version of that scene hangs on my wall to this day.

My copy of 'Piccadilly Gardens'

My copy of ‘Piccadilly Gardens’

His painting is close to the literal truth of the scene, something that was not always the case as he often pulled in details from his walks in different places to create a composite effect.

Piccadilly Gardens old postcard

For source of image see link

Currently there are no traces of the fountains as my shot from a different angle indicates: they are hidden behind temporary fencing and placards while some kind of ongoing work blocks any sign of water. Road works are a recurrent feature of the Manchester townscape at present. Lots of intriguing figures still in interesting poses though.

Piccadilly Gardens Aug 2015

The title of this post is a bit of a boast. Even my relatively sketchy reading so far indicates pretty clearly that Lowry dedicated much energy to preserving his elusiveness.

Anna (for source of image see link)

Anna (for source of image see link)

Most now agree that Anna, as one specific person, did not really exist even though to one interviewer Lowry gave the impression she had died young and been the love of his life. Personally I like Rohde’s explanation of the Coppelia/Swanhilda theory, but if you want to know more I suggest you need to read her excellent book. To spell it out here would be a real plot-spoiler.

He may not have been as lonely as many people thought. Edith Brill, a very close writer friend and wife of Harold Timperley, was (Rohde – page 105):

. . . . . deeply hurt, even angered, when having believed Lowry to be friendless she arrived with [her husband] to spend an evening at the home of a certain professor at Manchester University, to find Lowry happily ensconced in the best armchair eating macaroni cheese. ‘We had assumed he had no friends at all, because that was what he had led us to believe; not in so many words, but by implication.’

What is certainly the case is that the best way to understand him at all is through his art.

He devoted his every available moment to using his art to search for the meaning of his life in his surroundings. That he told reporters he had found no meaning at all that he could understand is not a statement to be taken at face value, anymore than we should implicitly believe many other such statements that are clearly only half-truths at best. It was probably true, though, that any meaning he ever found could not be captured in words, only in paint.

We see in his art how deep the connection was between this apparently isolated and detached man and the places and people around him. The connection with people deepened over time and caused him to suggest that his later, more people-centred paintings were better than his townscape-focused earlier work. Many of those interviewed after his death spoke of his genuine compassion and humility. That he chose to present himself as lonely and friendless may have been his way of protecting the vulnerable self that had been scarred by the disparagement of his status-conscious hypochondriacal mother: he was far closer to people than he seemed, perhaps. He just preferred not to show it.

There are those who seek to apply the diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome as a way of explaining his idiosyncrasies. While I immediately felt comfortable with that label’s being applied to Lucien Freud, I am resisting its application to Lowry largely because of the empathy, humour and warmth those to whom he grew close strongly detected in his presence. The distance he felt compelled to keep seems to me to have been more strategic than inherent, and was almost certainly the result not of his genes but of the acquired scars he was protecting, which did not leave him with any other viable option in his view.

In the end, though, we should look to his work for any answers about what he really felt and believed – and by his work I don’t mean rent-collecting, though he used that job as an important window into the lives and environment of others.

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Lowry's 'The Fever Van.' For source of image see link.

Lowry’s ‘The Fever Van.’ For source of image see link.

Well, I know that Stockport is hardly next door to Liverpool, but I sensed the same warmth of familiarity as if I were in my home town. And much more than that as well.

As I stood in front of Lowry’s The Fever Van in the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool and allowed its evocative image to sink in, memories came flooding back. I have known of Lowry’s paintings all my life and the back streets of my home town were just like this. Fever reminds me of my sister’s death in 1939. This was before I was born but the grief my parents suffered over-shadowed my childhood. Our road may have been slightly wider with the factories down a nearby lane and out of sight, but the community was connected just as this one clearly was, our lives were tightly intertwined.

Jing'an highrise

Other more recent memories mingled with these.

In Shanghai last year we saw the same juxtaposition as we see in Lowry’s painting – shrines to the sacred and to the commercial rubbing shoulders. In Shanghai it was shopping malls lowering down on temples; in the North, churches were dwarfed by factories.

The pollution hung in the air in the same way too.

China was recently building a coal-fired power station every week and killing nearly a million people a year from pollution-related diseases as the price for industrial development. I don’t think it has improved that much recently.

Our numbers were smaller in my smog-shrouded childhood but the basic effect was the same and our industrial revolution, fuelled from the Nineteenth Century most extremely in the Midlands and the North of England, was bought at a similar price. I remember waiting for the bus to school unable to see even its headlights until it was only yards away. Not surprisingly bronchitis was rife.

The upside to the trip far outweighed all this.

For example, Liverpool has an area, St George’s Quarter, where three Georgian buildings hold many treasures of the Lowry kind. Whereas all too often pride and wealth combine to create ever shinier and taller shopping malls and commercial centres, Liverpool has chosen to celebrate books, paintings, sculptures and many other artefacts from diverse cultures rather than brand names and multinationals.

My peak experience came when we stepped into Liverpool Central Library.

Entrance to Library

Level upon breath-taking level spiraled upwards. We didn’t have a clue where to start. The uniform in the entrance hall explained with a smile  that it was best to start on the first floor and work up – at least, I think he said ‘work’ but it might have been ‘walk.’ His accent delighted me and defeated my wife, so I quietly translated as we stood on the escalator.

At first, the book stacks distracted us but I caught sight of the word ‘Hornby’ in big blue letters just down a corridor. I hesitated for a moment with the associations of toy railways distracting me, then I remembered that the uniform had mentioned it as a definite place to visit. I whispered to my wife I was off on a mission. I hadn’t realised I was heading for Aladdin’s cave.

medieval chained book

Medieval Chained Book in the Hornby Library

In addition to thousands upon thousands of books on two levels on the shelves, there were priceless items in cases all around.

King John's seal 1207Until I encountered the King’s Seal above along with its explanation, I’d never stopped to think how Liverpool started. Yes, I knew it had made its money out of slaves long before cotton made it even richer, but as to how it all began I hadn’t a clue. Apparently King John needed a northern port but Chester was not an option due to its powerful and uncooperative Earl. So, at no cost to Liverpool because it was in his interests, he transformed the small hamlet into an important port. And the rest is history.

At this point I went back to the book stacks to drag my wife into the early 13th Century. We marveled for ages over the delights of this room, at how Edward Lear took up seven volumes with the sketches of his tours – he could really have used an iPhone . . .

An Edward Lear Print

An Edward Lear Print

. . . and if only Charles Dickens could have used email he wouldn’t have needed to fire off irritated letters about misdirected correspondance. He’d never have received it in the first place.

CD letterI realise I am in danger of inducing terminal boredom so I’ll switch into whirlwind tour mode.

We moved down a short corridor into the Oak Room. From one treasure trove to another basically.

The Oak RoomThis was full of quirky delights among the books stacked on its shelves. I have never seen a book glaring at me before, for example.

Crocus eyeAnd it will probably never happen again.

Moving on we found the Picton Reading Room.

Picton Reading RoomIf it wasn’t for my wife, I’d be there still, no more moving on – ever.

On higher levels still we found areas set aside for those who wanted to research their family histories.

Family ResearchAnd higher still there were meeting rooms. The place was plainly being used and of priceless benefit to the local community. Liverpool deserves congratulations for spending precious time and money refurbishing the building to such a high and culturally enriching standard.

And then there was a real opportunity to get on top of all that reading.

Keeping on top of the reading!Naturally we made the most of it. Our ghosts still linger there as you can see.

On the roofAll good things must sadly come to an end. We had to descend, but not before capturing the entrance from a different angle.

Looking downOne day, hopefully, I will return to this book lover’s paradise. Till then a composite set of pictures of the Reading Room will have to suffice me. I put these together as none of them came out as I wished but I thought the impression they conveyed was still worth sharing.

Library

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