Tuesday, June 11, 2019

THE RECYCLED BLUE BIRD.


My aunt Flo central, promenading in Brighton with my mother and grandmother 1935 

I recently discovered amongst an assortment of old sowing things of my aunt Flo’s a rolled up bundle of cloth which turned out to be an unfinished needlework of mallard ducks along with some of the embroidery cotton thread. They bore the familiar trademarks of Anchor and J Harris & Son, proudly proclaiming to be made in Britain. Probably dating from around the Second World War when great was still an acceptable adjective that helped to demonstrate that Britain although small was not insignificant. While I had no desire to complete the mallards I liked the idea of using the thread, so when I found a photograph of a pair of na├»ve antique needlework pictures that I had sold a few years back the idea of stitching something similar looked likely. Finding a suitable background cloth was not a problem as I remembered the old red velvet curtains from my childhood that now hang on my half tester bed and the fabric that I had saved when relining them. It took a little longer to discover just where I’d put that lining fabric, but my little exercise would be a process of total recycling as I remembered a small rather over the top gilt frame that would complete the blue bird picture. 
As I cut the glass my eye was drawn to the label on the back indicating that this was a frame with history “Gaston de Foix, the original by Giorgione in Lord Carlisle’s collection”. It is strange how the mind works but as I sat stitching those cottons I could feel the presence of Flo standing behind me her broad smile and sparkling eyes as clear today as they were sixty years ago.    

Saturday, May 25, 2019

FIRST WEAVING.


When I look at my first attempt at weaving on the little Harris table loom I am reminded of the piano playing of Lez Dawson; full of faults but still somehow fascinating. While Lez’s piano playing had genuine skill, able to hold one in gleeful suspense of the next wrong note, my weaving is simply full of errors and due to the repetitive nature of weaving these faults persist on a regular basis. The interest comes in the way these faults register within the various combinations of yarn colours. 
My next project will be to produce these errors in as random a fashion as possible. As I progressed in weaving this length of tweed wool cloth I wondered what it might eventually be used for and a scarf seemed the only logical conclusion. So at what I thought might turn out to be the halfway point I treated the warp as two independent weavings effectively splitting the warp in two so as to produce within the scarf a head hole that would prevent it being blown away in the blustery Hebridean winds. The choice of warp colours was to a greater extent made by way of the colours that I had the most of and the choice of simple basket weave meant that with the changes in weft colours a tartan effect would result. Far from the dark neutral colours of the Black Watch mine is more a colourful tartan travesty and at times more reminiscent of the old caorig wool blankets than any form of tartan. In the 19th century Queen Victoria’s admiration set Braemar reblooming in a veritable rainbow of colours. However during the first quarter of the 20th century there was possibly more philabegs worn in London than in Glasgow but out on the islands it was really only the older women who still wore a tartan shawl or headscarf, while today the new light weight colourful tweed has become the height of fashion.        

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

PEAT CUTTING SOLO IN 2019.



              On the Islands May is considered the month for peat cutting. Although it is often possible to cut earlier if those peats cut in April do not dry enough to be set vertical and instead receive a lot of rain while lying flat then they will be the poorer for it. So when fine weather arrived in mid-April I put the tarasgeir to soak and head out to my banks above Traigh Ghearadha.
              The east facing cut already looked dry and as I started the de-turfing I could feel the spade slice into a sod far less saturated than normal. This is the worst and heaviest part of cutting ask any local, and although it reveals the fresh peat beneath it adds nothing to the actual peat stack for burning. I have made many mistakes over a dozen years of cutting and number one is not to have attempted a too wider strip only to discover that space to throw the cut peat onto becomes a real problem. I usually stick to between six or seven wide as most of the bank is three cuts deep with a short forth level section. Traditionally the harvest of peat is a collective activity; family, neighbours, children young and old alike would lend a hand to the work that would provide fuel for the hearth about which their lives revolved. Only one during my years of cutting was that team work there although often there have been friends visiting who are more than happy to help out or simply sample the experience. It is in any event a two person job with one cutting while the other throws. This usually meant that the men cut while the women did the more strenuous job of throwing. You may say typical for the men to get the easy part but in my experience women are simple better at this job having a lower centre of gravity. An Amazonian of a woman was much admired in times past but today the lack of physical exercise does little for the figure of men or women.
              Having removed a section of sod that is placed down in the gap left by the previous year I set myself a maximum limit of cutting no more than 300 peats at any one time which in turn meant counting as I cut and also keep a running total. From previous years this should run out at around 2000 peats to complete the cut. Within the first week I was a good third of the way down and with a strong drying easterly was able to set up the first batch, which in turn created more throwing space. By the end of the second week I was on the homeward stretch. I normally get visitors in May and June and can count on their help but this year it looked like I would achieve a solo cut and be done and dusted well before their arrival.
              Last year I was the only one cutting from New Tolsta and it looks like being the same this year. From the track beyond “The Bridge to Nowhere” people walk their dogs and occasionally they will look seaward to see me labouring 100 yards below, but never do they venture closer. On occasions I have heard it said “Oh that must be wonderful to get free fuel. There is nothing free about it simply a back breaking slog that only old fools like me still persist in doing. I have often thought that a notice up in the Stornoway hostel promoting a peat cutting experience in exchange for board and lodging might be interesting but I fear there would be very few if any takers.
             
Tuesday 7th of May and the cutting is complete apart from some tidying up with the spade. My body aches, left hip twinging and right wrist very painful but at least I know the reason why. There is no question that when younger this would have seemed a lot easier but now having reached retirement age there is a stubborn power of persistence in me to see it through. This work is not for the impatient young or faint hearted, and while millions are happy to watch a ball being repeatedly kicked into a net I prefer to slice away with the peat iron knowing at the end I will have something to show for it. The saying, “he who chops the wood gets warm twice” works equally well for peat cutting but today most are content to stay at home and switch on the heating of whatever form with the flick of a switch. The electric home is with us and for many that may well be a clean source of energy but few would think to reduce that consumption. I pay £11 per month. I can see in years to come that burning any form of fuel within the home will be outlawed. The traditional cutting of peat will end and the smell of peat fires remain a distant childhood memory while the peat banks degrade into the lazy-beds of tomorrow; more strange ruled lines crumbling beneath heather, proof of man’s existence and the passing of times.      

Thursday, May 2, 2019

Looking from a safe distance.


Such is the clarity of a beautiful sun filled day out on the Hebrides that I feel the veiled cataracts of any normal day have been lifted to reveal a sharper in focus world. Today with the arrival and constant calling of the cuckoo since dawn a walk and the peace of the moor seemed in order. I threw fruit and a cheese sandwich in the back pack along with binoculars, camera and sketch pad. There is so much choice in walking that I try not to give too much thought as to what direction I will take. Today I wanted both moor and beach so I turned right at the gate setting off past the quarry and up the track. Taking what was an old peat exploitation path I gained the high ground able to look north across the vast expanse of moor still clothed in the dead bleached grass of winter. 
To the east the mainland was shrouded in hazy cloud while to the west the familiar mound of Muirneag seemed deceptively close to the human eye but not the camera. The trudge north gave a good indication of just how dry the moor was, unusually so for this time of year. Lichen white and moss black with the only sign of fresh growth the flash of King cup yellow in the trickling burn. The pessimists amongst us now worrying that this might be it for our summer and that bad weather will surely follow.
From high up above Traigh Ghearadha beach I stopped to eat and watch the comings and goings of the tiny people below. It feels so easy to cut yourself off form humanity and observe as if an alien. Homo sapiens appear to be a decidedly odd species with little or no rational reasoning to their behaviour. The extra ordinary reliance on the four wheel vehicles is remarkable and while some use this as a convenient means of transport others never actually leave the vehicle, driving until the road runs out beyond the “Bridge to nowhere” at which point they do a three point turn and head back the way they came. Some will stand several meter apart on the sand and repeatedly throw a ball to each other, which they apparently find enjoyable, while others will throw a blanket on the ground and lie out flat as if pretending to be dead. Many are accompanied by a dog and when this animal defecates the human picks it up in a small plastic bag. One might be forgiven for thinking that the human thinks this dog excrement has some intrinsic value perhaps for drying as with peat for fuel but no, the bag is either removed to a larger plastic container or simply abandoned in its wrapped and preserved state. The dogs themselves seem to take no interest in this strange human ritual of pooh preservation.
I descend down past my peat bank where things are crisping up at a record rate and then on down across the beach to the loch where for a second year a single Bewick Swan has decided to stay awhile. Mating for life it seems likely that this sad sole has lost its partner. On the machair there is no subtlety of natural colour in the family who have chosen to spread themselves out for a Sunday afternoon snooze. 
I wonder if they know or even care that the mound behind which they shelter was once an Iron Age habitation and what would those distant ancestors think of these strange aliens. Why do people drive all the way to the end of the road and finding themselves in such beautiful surroundings simply choose to close their eyes? It is a depressing walk back along the road as I pick up litter and note that out of the ten cars that pass three managed their visit in under five minutes. I imagine in the future legs will become little more than another shriveled vestige of an unused appendage along with the human brain.            

Sunday, April 21, 2019

To print or not to print?


To print or not to print, that is a question.


20 years ago I made the mistake of allowing my art to be used on a calendar to raise money for a millennium project in Central Finistere. The project was a great success but while the calendars sold well and I became a well-known name locally I discovered that many potential customers had cut the images out and framed them. In this way they believed they were supporting me as an artist perhaps falsely assuming that I had already been paid for the use of those images. It took me fifteen years to sell nine of the originals and I still have the remaining three, but since that time my sales fell dramatically and for several years I held no exhibitions and sold nothing. Far from doing nothing I continued to paint through a period that I like to call my stock piling years. After 30 years of painting I know of no other professional artist who is selling his work for the same price and often for no more than a ghastly mass produced photo on canvas. Maybe it is time for me to add some initials of royalty to my signature and add another zero to my prices. Or should I start producing more calendars, prints, key rings, jigsaw puzzles, fridge magnets, cards, book markers and place mats to be considered a success? No. Consumers the world over have enough rubbish to choose from without me adding to it. The millennium project was a success in my eyes even if there was no official word of thanks from the local community. The statues can are displayed permanently in the Chapel of St Salomon in the commune of Plouye in Central Finistere. 
 
      

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Back on the Isle of Lewis.

Passengers raised their mobile phones to record our arrival and who could blame them for wanting to capture an apparently perfect summer sunset as the evening ferry from Ullapool sailed into Stornoway harbour. An oversized orange orb seen through the sullen heat haze of spring or was it something else smokier, more sinister.
Driving through the town I caught site of a familiar face and waved but Michael in a daze standing at the kerbside outside the supermarket showed no sign of recognition. It was only then that it dawned on me that there were no street lights at dusk and that no sign of life emanated from any home. That could only mean one thing, a power cut. As I drove north through the villages to Tolsta I was surprised to see people still outside, the old walking dogs while the youngsters just hung out driven outside by lack of power to capture what remained of the evening light. I was glad to have candles readily available on my arrival but hadn’t counted on the matches being damp. The following day I learnt that there had been a serious heath fire down on Harris close to the power lines and so the entire island had been shut down. That morning I had questioned why the power cut remained until it dawned on me that the electric in the house was still turned off. Time to trip the switches, light the fires and air the place through. The swollen back doors of both house and barn would remain jammed shut for a while yet.
I return to an island dominated by the Vandyke brown and Burnt Umbers of winter’s heath. The dead wind-blown ochre grasses hug the landscape, sponge soft mounds of bleached moss interlace with pale green lichen and although the fresh growth of grass is showing on the crofts the lush greens of spring are yet to surface. Even within the relative shelter of Stornoway those tree buds although swollen with potential remain firmly enclosed. April will however bring with it miraculous changes as the earth seems to slow to allow the sun to linger longer and higher on its daily arch. Hibernation is well and truly over and lambing is in full swing. There is soil to turn, seed potatoes to plant, and while a bitter east winds bring a dry spell there is a spades depth of turf to remove before the peat cutting can start.

Sunday, March 31, 2019

Apt to be deemed asocial.



In an age when regimentation seems increasingly necessary in order to make life possible in those large conurbations seething with people I revel in my simple solitude. During my ramblings in the valley of the Ellez, Central Finistere can at times feels like a landlocked island where complexities of the city or urban existence have little relevance. A heady scent of primroses hangs in the lane while the glossy yellow carpet of celandines at my feet, before returning I will gather fresh sheep’s sorrel for salad. Such ethereal ramblings may sound idyllic but while the wren busies itself around root stump and leaf litter all is not well on the other side of the hedge. Out of the valleys the easily cultivatable land has for decades now been transformed by monstrous machines into a production area that specialises in monoculture. The early spring stubble growth that would once have been grazed by sheep before cultivation commenced is now turned orange with Round Up ahead of the plough. Maize, cereal and oil seed rape are the favoured rotation and at times living in the countryside can become dangerous with the amount of chemical treatment being sprayed. Bacon said that man conquers Nature only by obeying her, and to that end our arrogance is leading in a merry dance of disaster.
While some find truth within the embracing hug of humanity I find it in wilderness. A solitary existence is not for everyone and I feel humanity spoils when in compression and it is then that I find myself moving to the fringes searching a simplicity that brings me freedom. Today that very freedom seems to be playing a losing battle and one must be vigilant on all fronts for there is much that would seduce us to sign up to an alternative virtual world.
Once again I pack the van tightly with my winter’s artwork, starting the long journey northward to the Isle of Lewis ahead of the swallows and a second chance at spring. You may be forgiven for thinking it is frustration with the noise of modern existence that makes me seek the silence of an island life but I see it as a refusal to be frustrated. Where I am heading there is seldom silence but at least it can be said to be natural with the rhythmic crashing of waves down on Traigh Mhor beach accompanied by the constant island breeze, mewing of buzzards and the melody of bird’s song. 
You’ve been lucky I hear it said, I should like to live on an island free from all care as you seem to be. It is possible that I didn’t arrived at this point simply by saying I would like to. As F. Fraser Darling says in his Island Years, “minds that neither seeks nor finds solitude soon becomes afraid of it”.