Monthly Archives: June 2016

Seeing Better

‘See better, Lear!’ is the admonition Kent gives his King after he has petulantly banished his youngest daughter, Cordelia, because she ‘lacks that glib and oily art’ to flatter him as her false sisters have done. Sight and blindness is a central theme in King Lear, as is its corollary, deception, both of others and oneself.

Kent’s words came to me when I was ruminating on my latest occupation, drawing shiny things

One of the things that drawing teaches is seeing better, and that indeed is a large part of my reason for pursuing it recently, as a kind of philosophical experiment (since February I have been drawing a monkey a day, in response to a challenge by a friend)Muriquin

The status of colour crops up in philosophical discussions at various periods – it is Locke, I think, who argues that colours are not ‘primary qualities’ (such as shape, extension and solidity) but only ‘secondary’ in that they involve an interaction between eye and object and cannot be said to inhere in the object itself as the primary qualities are supposed to do – but it is really a subset of a larger argument that takes us back (as always) to Plato.

Plato, it will be recalled, dismisses the world brought to us via the senses as deceptive Appearance, maintaining that the true nature of the world – Reality – can only be apprehended by the intellect: it is the world of Forms or Ideas. As I have argued elsewhere (‘In the beginning was the Word’) what Plato has really discovered is the power of general terms – the Platonic Idea or Form ‘table’ is not something that lies beyond the word ‘table’, to which it points, it is in fact the word ‘table’ itself – which can be used in thought to stand for any table, because – unlike a picture – it does not resemble any particular table.

This introduces a whole new way of thinking about the world, where it is no longer seen directly, through the despised senses, but apprehended by the intellect through the medium of language. And there is no better way of appreciating this than to try and draw something shiny.

Daimlerdrawn

What colour is the car? Why, black, of course – with some shiny bits. That is how it was described on the official documentation – Daimler DR450, Black. But what about all those other colours, then? Ah, now, that’s just reflections of one thing and another – you can ignore them; the car’s real colour is black (and its radiator grille etc aren’t coloured at all, they’re shiny chrome plate).

What trying to draw it teaches you is not only that you can’t ignore the many other colours that are there (if you want your picture to be any good at all) but it also brings home to you that your regular habit (or at least mine) is to dismiss a great deal of what your eyes tell you and pretend it isn’t there, that it doesn’t count: ‘that is just light reflected off a polished surface; that is just a reflection; that’s just a shadow.’

And that is Platonism in action: the intellect overrides the senses, reserves judgement to itself – and it does it through words: ‘light’ conveniently labels – and so keeps you from looking at – something that is very difficult to render faithfully in a drawing. You find that reflective surfaces, far from being bright, are often dark and dull; a tiny patch left uncoloured on a white page becomes a gleam of light when surrounded by greys and blues, even black. And your mind, on seeing the drawing, converts it back to an image of a plated surface – perhaps the most interesting part of the process.

It is as if we erect a glass screen between ourselves and the world, and on the screen we write the words that correspond to the things beyond – ‘mountains, trees, clouds, house, road, cars, people’ – and most of the time what we see is not what is in front of us, but only the words on the screen that give us the simplified general picture, at once a tool of immense power (enabling rapid thought unencumbered by distracting detail) and a great impoverishment of our experience – it inserts a carapace between us and the world.

See better. Draw. Then go out and look.

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10 (on the Beaufort Scale)/The Storm

I was reminded of this story by a conversation with Cecilia Hewett (of Cecilia’s Hand-spun Yarn) and Matthew Abercrombie in which the Beaufort Scale came up. I originally wrote it for a man who was compiling an anthology of 1000 word tales, but he seemed to think the honour of being published by him was sufficient recompense for giving him exclusive rights in perpetuity; so now, like the man Belloc encountered who gave his wine away for nothing because he could not get the price he wanted at the market, I offer it to any who want to read. The first version is an expanded one written for a BBC competition; the second is the original, which I think I prefer for its spareness, though I also like the chance to quote each point of the Beaufort Scale that the longer version offers.

[here is a link to a spoken version of this story]

10 (on the Beaufort Scale)

The Beaufort Scale: it’s like poetry.

People talk about the Shipping Forecast, but give me the Beaufort Scale any day – the regular stepping-up of tension, the gradual ascent from calm to storm.

zero – calm. Smoke rises vertically.

I sit at my desk, waiting. Pretending, as always, that I’m not. That I’m just about to start work. That I’m not waiting for him to call.

one – light air – Smoke drift indicates wind direction. Leaves and wind vanes are stationary.

We met at a party last night; exchanged telephone numbers – but don’t misunderstand me. I pitched him my big idea. He’s a publisher. I’m a biographer. Or at least I mean to be. I have done since I was eight years old.

two – light breeze – Wind felt on exposed skin. Leaves rustle. Wind vanes begin to move.

The phone rings.

False alarm! It’s Great Uncle Peter. He has a proposition that he knows will interest me, but there are conditions attached.

– What do you mean, provided I don’t ask any questions? What would be the point of that? I ask.
– What cannot be said can be shown, he says. Wittgenstein, he adds, in case I didn’t know.

I did know – in fact, I’m nearly sure it’s a misquotation – but I say nothing. Great Uncle Peter probably met Wittgenstein. It’s the sort of thing he’d do. A quick mental calculation tells me it’s possible – he must be over eighty now, though my mother (whose uncle he is) likes to say he’s younger than most men half his age – and completely crazy.

Still, I wouldn’t mind turning up with him at some of the publishers’ dos I have to attend, to show the young bucks that come sniffing round what a proper man looks like: tall, spare, elegant – always beautifully dressed, and with the most astonishingly blue eyes. One glance from him would put them all at bay.

three – gentle breeze – Leaves and small twigs constantly moving, light flags extended.

– Come on, Cordelia, I know you’re dying to – besides, I need someone to drive the car. You can drive, can’t you?

Cordelia. Only he calls me that. Because, as a child, my voice was far from sweet, gentle and low. ‘You’ll never be a lady if you bawl like that,’ he would chide. ‘Don’t want to be a lady!’ I would bawl, though secretly I did – but not just any lady.

And here we come to the thing that has obsessed me since I was eight years old, and has me sitting here, waiting for a publisher to call: my big idea. Sherlock Holmes had ‘The Woman’; for Allan Quatermain, it was ‘She’; but in our family, for as long as I can remember, it was always just ‘Her’.

‘Who are we talking about?’ some late-comer to the conversation might ask. ‘Her’ was all the answer that was needed.

So of course I agree to come and promise not to ask any questions.

– Good. One more thing – bring some wet-weather gear. Don’t forget!

And with that, he hangs up.

four – moderate breeze – Dust and loose paper raised. Small branches begin to move.

Great Uncle Peter had been Her lover and Her husband, though when he was Her husband, someone else was Her lover – which made up for the fact that when he was Her lover, someone else was Her husband. Great Uncle Peter was neither the first nor the last, but does have the distinction of being the third and the fifth, having been married to her twice.

She, of course, was always and invariably the first, in any company.

five – fresh breeze – Branches of a moderate size move. Small trees in leaf begin to sway.

Or would, if it wasn’t December. The trees are bare. I meet Great Uncle Peter outside his mews flat, draped in a stylish trench coat, waiting by his car.

Great Uncle Peter’s car is so beautiful I’m astonished he’ll let anyone drive it, least of all me. It’s an R-type Bentley Continental – a proper one, a slipper-back supercar from the nineteen-fifties. It’s a delicate and unexpected shade of blue, like his eyes, which makes me wonder if it was a present from Her – but I’m not allowed to ask.

– Since you’re coming, you might as well be useful. I’m getting too old to drive long distances, especially in weather like this.

six – strong breeze – Large branches in motion. Whistling heard in overhead wires. Umbrella use becomes difficult. Empty plastic bins tip over.

The weather is bad and set to worsen: out in the Atlantic two areas of low pressure have merged and are tracking towards us, bringing the threat of storm-force winds. We are headed right to where they ought to make landfall, on the Welsh coast.

Which is odd, because as far as I can ascertain (and my research has been assiduous) Her foot never so much as touched Welsh soil, let alone the particular place we’re headed for, which as far as I can see, is some way to the back of beyond – so that can’t be the connection.

I can only suppose the date is significant: why otherwise would Great Uncle Peter insist that I drive him (in half-a-million pounds’ worth of motor car) into the teeth of the worst storm forecast in years? Yet it is neither Her birthday nor the anniversary of Her death.

Nor is it either of their wedding anniversaries. In any case, the others are coming too, all seven of her surviving husbands (six, really, as Great Uncle Peter counts as two) plus two or three long-term lovers, so it must be something significant to all of them. Apparently, they’ve been having these reunions since Her death, but the dates vary.

Great Uncle Peter tells me we have to pick up a passenger at an obscure railway station on the Welsh marches. Fortunately his directions are very precise. He belongs to the age before satellite navigation.

– It’s Victor, he tells me. My oldest friend. He tried to kill me once.

I can see he is enjoying my not being allowed to ask questions. I do manage to ask why his friend has chosen such an out-of-the way spot to be picked up from.

– It was the nearest he could get at short notice.

At short notice? Just when did they arrange this thing? I am increasingly convinced that my mother’s estimate of her uncle’s sanity is accurate.

On the narrow road to the station, the swing of the headlights shows trees threshing wildly in the driving rain. I begin to wonder if we’ll make it. Great Uncle Peter seems to relish it.

seven – high wind, near-gale – Whole trees in motion. Effort needed to walk against the wind.

Victor is a small wiry man with a shock of silver hair. He was Her no.4, between Peter and – well, Peter (again). He cannot be a day under seventy-five (though he looks much younger) but like Peter he has that certain something – it’s his eyes, mainly, which are dark and ardent – I know that if he asked me, I wouldn’t say no.

– Your niece, Peter? A very beautiful young woman!
Great-niece, Victor – we are neither of us as young as we used to be!
– Speak for yourself, Peter! It’s kind of you to drive your aging relative on this madcap adventure, my dear!
– I told her she could come as long as she didn’t ask questions.
– O, this is the one you told me about? The one who wants to write the book?

Great Uncle Peter nods, and tells me curtly to watch the road. I don’t need reminding: broken twigs whirl past and the whole car is buffeted by the wind. He has a map out. After a few moments’ study he announces that we should take the next left. It’s a single-track road across bleak moorland.

– It’ll be quieter that way – don’t want any busy-body policeman turning us back: no trees to come down, either.

I nose the Bentley cautiously ahead. Its curvaceous wings fill the narrow way ahead. I add the spotlights to the glare of the main beam.

eight – fresh gale – Some twigs broken from trees. Cars veer on road. Progress on foot is seriously impeded.

Our destination looks well-used to storms, a snug squat stone-built inn on a cliff top. Despite the weather and the time of year, the car park shelters an array of expensive motor cars that would be more at home outside the Ritz or at a Bonham’s auction.

It takes all my strength to open the door on my side; when I fight my way round to the other to let my passengers out, I have to stand behind the wide door with my feet braced to stop it blowing back on its hinges. In the short walk to the inn, we are staggered by the blast. The rain is horizontal.

nine – strong gale – Some branches break off trees, and some small trees blow over. Construction/temporary signs and barricades blow over.

When we are inside, I close the door against the roar with a sigh of relief. I start to take off my jacket and pause in astonishment. In the dim light of the lobby, the two old men have their travelling bags open and – far from divesting themselves of any outer garment – are in the process of donning substantial wet-weather gear. Great Uncle Peter looks at me reprovingly as I stand gaping.

– You did remember to bring your stuff? I told you not forget!

I nod, unable to speak.

– Well what are you waiting for, then? Put it on!

I fumble my way into my weatherproof jacket. Peter and Victor, well wrapped up, disappear through a swing door. I follow them into an obscure lounge to be confronted by a scene of surreal absurdity. Amid the dark oak panelling with gleaming horsebrasses and the green leather settles, eight or nine old men are grouped like some bizarre octogenarian Everest expedition: all of them are swathed in high-class foul-weather gear. One of them is in a wheelchair.

Even in the dim light and their outlandish garb, the faces are familiar: fifty years ago, this would have been the party to be at. I try to calculate what this small assembly equates to, in terms of champagne drunk, column-miles of gossip written, quantities of hell raised.

– You picked a good night for it, Peter! says one.

I think he is being ironic, but the others smile and nod in agreement.

– Your timing was always impeccable, says another.
– Well, says Peter, if we’re all ready, shall we go?

Turning to me, he says,

– You can make yourself useful – push Nikolai’s chair.

I do as I am told and follow the party of old men down the hallway and out into the raging night.

ten – storm, whole gale -Trees are broken off or uprooted, structural damage likely.
(Very high waves with overhanging crests. Large patches of foam from wave crests give the sea a white appearance. Considerable tumbling of waves with heavy impact. Large amounts of airborne spray reduce visibility.)

We bend against the wind, taking a cliff-top path that is lashed with spray from crashing waves. At any minute we might be swept away. It is utter madness. I have never felt so terrified nor so exhilarated. Great Uncle Peter puts his lips to my ear and I catch his words between the howl of the gale and the crashing of the waves.

– You wanted to know… what it was like… living with Her?

He sweeps an arm, taking in the tumbling waves, the sea with its white appearance, the large amounts of airborne spray that reduce visibility, the raging storm. Ten on the Beaufort scale.

– This, he says. This is how it was.

 

****

The Storm

– What do you mean, provided I don’t ask any questions? What would be the point of that?
– What cannot be said can be shown, as a wise man once said.

So now he’s (mis)quoting Wittgenstein at me, confirming that he is as crazy as my mother says. So of course I agree to go.

Peter – my Great Uncle – is still a striking figure, though he must be near eighty now. I wouldn’t mind turning up with him at some of the parties I have to go to, just to show the young bucks that come sniffing round what a real man looks like. One glance from him would put them all at bay.

His car is so beautiful I’m astonished he’ll let me drive it: a sea-blue R-type Bentley Continental – a proper one, from the fifties. I guess it was a present from Her but I’m not allowed to ask.

– If you’re coming, you might as well be useful. I’m getting too old to drive long distances, especially in weather like this.

The weather is bad and set to worsen: out in the Atlantic two areas of low pressure have merged and are tracking towards us, bringing the threat of hurricane force winds. We are headed right to where they ought to strike, on the Welsh coast.

Which is odd, because as far as I can ascertain (and my research has been assiduous) She never so much as set foot in Wales, let alone the particular place we’re headed for – so that can’t be the connection.

I suppose the date must be significant, otherwise Peter would not be so insistent that I drive him (in half-a-million pounds’ worth of motor car) into the teeth of the worst storm forecast in years – yet it is neither Her birthday nor the anniversary of Her death.

Nor is it either of their wedding anniversaries. In any case, the others are coming too, so it must be something significant to all of them. Apparently, they’ve been having these reunions since She died, but the dates vary.

Peter tells me we have to pick up a passenger at an obscure station on the Welsh marches. Fortunately his directions are very precise. He belongs to the age before satellite navigation.

– It’s Victor, he tells me. My oldest friend. He tried to kill me once.

I can see Great Uncle Peter is enjoying my not being allowed to ask questions. I do ask why his friend chose such an out-of-the way spot to be picked up.

– It was the nearest he could get at short notice.

At short notice? Just when did they arrange this thing? I am increasingly convinced of the accuracy of my mother’s estimate of her uncle’s sanity.

On the narrow road to the station, the swing of the headlights shows trees threshing wildly in the driving rain. Whole trees in motion – point 7 on the Beaufort scale: high wind, near gale. I begin to wonder if we’ll make it.

Victor is a small wiry man with a shock of silver hair. He was Her no.4, between Peter and – well, Peter (again). He cannot be a day under seventy-five (though he looks much younger) but if he asked me I think I probably would – it’s something in his eyes, which are an astonishing blue.

– Your niece, Peter? A very beautiful young woman!
Great-niece, Victor – we are neither of us as young as we used to be!
– Speak for yourself, Peter! It’s kind of you to drive your aging relative on this madcap adventure, my dear!
– I told her she could come as long as she didn’t ask questions.
– O, this is the one you told me about? The one who wants to write the book?

Great Uncle Peter nods, and tells me curtly to watch the road. Outside, I am aware of broken twigs whirling past: fresh gale, according to Beaufort.

Our destination looks well-used to storms, a snug squat stone-built inn on a cliff top. Despite the weather and the time of year, the car park shelters a number of expensive cars. The rain is horizontal. Even in the short distance to the door, progress on foot is seriously impeded.

In the lobby, they open their bags and begin to don their wet-weather gear. Peter sees me gaping.

– You did remember to bring your stuff?

I nod, unable to speak.

– Put it on, then!

I fumble my way into my weatherproof jacket and follow the two old men into the lounge where a number of others are waiting, already dressed for the weather. One of them is in a wheelchair. I recognise some of the faces: forty years ago, this would have been a pretty exclusive party. The volume of vintage champagne they must have consumed in their life times would float a battleship.

– You picked a good night for it, Peter! says one.

I think he is being ironic, but the others smile and nod in agreement.

– Well, says Peter, if we’re all ready, shall we go? You can make yourself useful – push Nikolai’s chair.

I do as I am told and follow the party of old men down the hallway and out into the raging night. If there were any trees, I am sure they would be broken off or uprooted; likewise, if the inn were not so solidly built, there would be structural damage likely.

We bend against the wind, taking a cliff-top path that is lashed with spray from crashing waves. At any minute we might be swept away. It is utter madness. Uncle Peter puts his lips to my ear and I catch his words between the howl of the gale and the crashing of the waves.

– You wanted to know… what it was like… with Her?

He sweeps an arm, taking in the tumbling waves, the sea with its white appearance, the large amounts of airborne spray that reduce visibility.

– This, he says.

(If you are familiar with a fine short story by Octavio Paz, My Life with the Wave, you will see where the idea came from. His tale is very much better, though)

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