Thursday, 30 July 2015

Scouting for Dolphins

A heron beak-feeds its paltry catch of fish to a dolphin stranded in shallow waters.
I know what you will think; you will think that sentence must be wrong. I've got my wires crossed or that I suffer from some form of dyslexic size-ism, for surely everyone knows a dolphin's mass is considerably larger than that of a heron, and that a heron would never consent to such a belittling task. It's unimaginable! Unthinkable! Well, apparently not for I conceived of it and I've seen evidence of it too with my very own bespectacled eyes!
It came to me first in a dream – the idea and the image - whereby I paid it no heed other than thinking I had a most unusual imagination of Lewis Carroll proportions. In other planes of existence, I often dream the impossible, the improbable, the unlikely: English-speaking British Blue cats whom I hold regular conversations with on London buses; boarding pirate ships that traverse the night sky like rockets; and finding washed-up chests of bottled imps, all of whom stubbornly refuse to grant either good or evil. So you see, it wasn't extraordinary for me to dream of such a thing as recurring reveries of this nature are quite common.
Except this time the picture stuck in my inner mind as it reeked of deja vu, stank to high heaven of repeated familiarity, which oddly made me feel like the white stick that candy floss is wrapped around: numb to all sensations, dead to irrelevant sensory information. The outer world muffled, and my head, apart from that probed spot, packed with cotton wool; the one functioning blob switched on like a Christmas tree light or as if it had been struck with a lit match, the sugar its soaked in set aflame. Neutrality is never an option at this combustible point.
My attempts to remain impartial were in vain, and believe me, I tried to forget, but the huge heron of my dream was haunting...I even tried to dream of it again, but could not, and yet its image loomed large in my wakeful mind, hovered over everything like how a Phoenix might rise from ashes. I could not grasp from whence it had come from as I did not believe my mind could own such a vision – it must have been planted- and therefore I must discover the reason it had chosen me.
But where to start?
The heron was not like any I had ever seen. No natural history book contained the likes of its image nor did the museum. Its feathers were a dazzling multitude of ocean blues and seaweed greens and its scale was in-between an emu and a pterodactyl; appearing peacock-like, but with extra height and far less plumage. Yet none of my research quite matched what I'd beheld and I found no archived reports of any herons – average-sized or super-sized - feeding dolphins, in fact quite the reverse, but then dolphins are known to have a generous spirit, whereas it's rare for birds to feel duty-bound to a water-based mammal.
Having made little progress in the ordinary book-learning, fact-finding way, I decided that my next course of action would be to head to the coast, and as luck would have it I had already planned a trip to Bournemouth some months ago which seemed as good a starting place as any, especially as any decision on my part would have only resulted in further delay.
So off I set like a modern day Dick Whittington only travelling in the opposite direction and not on foot, but by train with more luggage than was necessary: an overfilled beige handbag and a half-empty, yet surprisingly heavy dark grey holdall.
On arrival, my first port of call was the Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum who I'd heard were exhibiting a William de Morgan collection; this chap I was very much interested in and it was there among his artefacts housed on the lower ground that I found exactly what I'd seen: a tile design that precisely captured my dream and which I took as further proof of the heron's existence for how could two unrelated persons with many years in-between share the same vision? Held before my eyes I comprehended its symbolism as an enlightened Freud might have done: the dolphin is I and the towering heron is a guide.

Picture Credit: Heron and Dolphin, William de Morgan, 19th-20th Century

Thursday, 23 July 2015

Funnel of Cohesion

A man and woman were walking ahead of me along the autumn leaf-strewn path, not hand-in-hand - the woman was a step behind the man - but I presumed they were a couple. They matched like two figurines on a mantelpiece; their coated backs giving them the appearance of having weathered many storms. Together.
They were linked somehow, by blood ties, vows or reciprocal liking, which their amble seemed to me to confirm all the more for its pace and deferential air said they were used to one another, in fact leant on each other. Even in heated disagreements or misunderstandings, and I imagined their silences were companionable. Comfortable pauses without the usual awkwardness strangers might feel. No urge to ramble words to fill the empty spaces, but each completely at ease until one had something to say: a said out loud observation, a thoughtful question, a clever remark to a previous comment, a firm opinion or to moot an idea.
Yet, despite this naturalness there was a hint of reservation; a self-preservation in their turned backs. A stiffness, an oppression, as if certain subjects were not to be broached, to be verbally expressed. Feelings may have been one of them for I judged them to be of that class where emotions are constantly and purposely skirted. It wouldn't have been proper under a roof or out in the open. The past shouldn't be raked up no matter what impact it has on the present; the future would take care of itself if stones were left unturned. What's done is done; the consequences must be lived with. There's no turning back, no reversing the hands of the clock or the years torn off the calendar.
How could I possibly discern all this from two such faceless characters? Because this is what practised observers do. We notice the smallest disturbances in communication, the tiniest gesture; we interpret the language of the body and conjecture. We store an encyclopedia of unspeakable knowledge. The non-verbal clues in the study of animals and people, of which animals are the easier of the two.
Up ahead, a narrow gap had formed between this middle-aged couple, one which seemed to widen half an inch to every ten of my measured strides and which emphasised their incommunicable divide: adrift yet choosing to remain by each other's side. The woman in her fur-trimmed collared coat who had for all this time kept herself a pace behind appeared to be intent on meandering until she was out of arm's reach of the man, yet with her head still slightly turned in his direction. He would have to look round if he wanted to assure himself that she followed, but never once did he attempt it. He continued to tap along the path with his walking stick. He was the parent in this relationship: her childishness was grudgingly tolerated.
It's possible he may have voiced some urge to hurry her up, to harness her again to his side, and I did not overhear it as the distance was too great, but I think not. I got the distinct impression that this was a game frequently played: a natural tailing-off in their conversation, then a hesitation to commence a new sentence. The man impatient and the woman buying time to find the right word to begin. Both sought attention and reaction from the other, and both were reluctant to give it for an inner part of them shunned this dependency. The fact that it was mutual was neither here or there, but perhaps they could not see it? Or perhaps after so many years it was ingrained?
As the trees pressed closer, the woman answered the man's signal: reduced the gap to less than it had originally been; her eyes searching his I'm quite sure for some recognition of her docility, though of course that could merely be my own fancy, for to me it implied they had assumed and could resume their faithful roles. Drifting apart, yet bound together by some ungovernable secrecy.

Picture Credit: Couple Walking in the Woods, Leo Lesser Ury

Thursday, 16 July 2015


The sunlight was dazzlingly bright; the land across the sea mirage-like. It shimmered in the heat haze as somewhere a bell tolled faint, but clear. Its knell wasn't the sound of a celebration or a summons, it was languid-like: an invite to contemplation.
My imagination had taken flight to a time when I had stood before that view; to a time when the 'marbellous painter', Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, had secured me an introduction to that model: his muse for that particular scene.
Kitty Hawkins, who had been a tease was now married to a disagreeable fellow and had, so I'd been informed, much changed from the days when I would hear talk of her in London. Still a beauty, but a shade paler; her skin seeming to be made of non-porous material that the sun's rays touched but failed to warm. Her outward demeanour was said to be cool, yet beneath this people of her acquaintance had begun to notice a nervous tremor. A certain agitation that made her eyes dart and glisten, her speech rapid, and her hand gestures appear uncontrolled. Yet Sir Lawrence said he discerned none of this when she sat for him. Then she was perfectly calm; perfectly resigned to her being. She might sigh from time to time, but she stay contained. Beautifully posed as directed with none of that female hysteria so recently attributed to her. The reports he said were idle chatter designed to undermine her new-found status for hadn't she landed one of the noble gentry: Lord Charles Marlowe. Her rash act had brought her jealously from both men and women as both thought it calculating. Ironic, said Sir Lawrence, when everybody in those circles knew that marriages were built on blood and money. The law of possession. One prides itself on its beauty, the other on its wealth, and they both admire and wish to obtain those properties in another.
And of course I deferred to his candid judgement, he having far more knowledge than I of such matters and more experience in the presence of women. I know little compared to a painter who in the course of his life and pursuit of art moves with that set and spends countless hours with models. Nor am I a physician who would perhaps recognise disharmony within the matrimonial state or those nervous consumptive conditions. But still I was puzzled; curious to see with my own eyes this lady who was said to have lately changed.
On the elected day at the appointed hour I arrived with Sir Lawrence at the rented abode overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. Lady Marlowe was on the terrace we were told; Lord Marlowe was not in attendance with her.
It was a most extraordinary villa, one that Sir Lawrence principally used as his studio finding its inner and outer architecture so inspiring: its columns, its archways, its lavish marble surfaces and adornments.
Lady Marlowe when we approached was resting; in a position of abandoned repose on the curved bench: lying full length with an arm flung over her eyes, its bare underside an inadequate shield from the blazing sun, and with a faint trace of content on her lips. She made no definable stir, although I felt sure she was aware of our measured footfalls, which to my mind was slightly shocking as she had already donned the Romanesque white dress Sir Lawrence required which emphasised her slender figure, and because she had known there would be a companion in tow as Sir Lawrence's guest.
When a few steps was all that stood between us, she acted startled and abruptly rose upright, yet no becoming blush bloomed on her pallid cheek. Her faun-like face scrutinised me as she graciously greeted Sir Lawrence, then as quickly dismissed me by turning her bored gaze to the glittering blue waters of the Mediterranean Sea and the wave-like settlement set ashore. Her composed stature was unaffected and yet enthralling for it was a pose that very deliberately said: I know what's expected of me.

Picture Credit: Expectations, 1885, Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema