Thursday, 29 August 2013

The Golden Stairs

As a young man, I intended to become a church minister, but instead I idled hours away reading the poetry of Tennyson and the writings of John Ruskin. I was a dreamer; dreaming of lands no one can define or remember, and it was this awake-sleeping state that later informed my art. In tempered tones, I captured romantic dreams of something that never was and never will be; that's what a real picture is to me. My visions enticed me to draw them, but some of these were not an illusion, they happened, if not to me, then to people who confided in me. Now reader, the time has come for me to divulge such a story.
During a long vacation, a good friend of mine was once invited to stay at a Baron's manor, (he and my confidant shall remain nameless for the latter was notorious and the former does not deserve to have his reputation muddied), and felt pressed upon to accept for this unexpected hand of cordiality was actually a summons.
In the county of this Baron's residence, there were reports of drunkenness and beastly behaviour, and the Baron was known for his stormy nature. He served as the Lord Lieutenant of __shire, a office he held until his death, which commanded respect, but everyone whispered behind his back that 'the Baron is peculiar'. At times he shunned public intrusion, preferring to roam his estate in isolation, but when the moon was up, he openly requested invasion. Messengers on horses were dispatched to present cards to Lords, Dukes, and Counts; politicians and men carving names in their chosen professions, and of course surrounding gentry, but never to Ladies, Baronesses or Duchesses, unless you were hand-picked as a serving wrench or to provide some frivolity. This Baron was not a man to be refused, so wives, mothers and daughters were left in their sitting rooms, and any engagements already made were broken. The invite my friend received was for one such an occasion.
The moon had risen as he travelled there for the first night of this three night affair. The guests having arrived were led into a breathtaking hall, its walls adorned with canvasses and candles flickering in candelabras, and at its centre stood the Baron. A pale, lean man in tailored cloth with piercing grey eyes who carried an air of aloofness. As his staccato voice addressed them, a chill ran through the male assembly, but everything the Baron said was most hospitable: entreating them to sup, hunt, fish, and admire his collected works at their leisure. His only stipulation was that no man should enter the West Wing as these quarters were under restoration. Speech over, the men relaxed, but my friend now intrigued, left the others to their drunken revelling and stole away to the West Wing.

Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones 1880
The roof was, in parts, open to the air so that warm moonlight fell through on a golden staircase. Hearing faint footsteps my friend, not wanting to be discovered, hid behind a pillar. To his astonishment, a group of maidens descended the spiral staircase; all barefoot, dressed in robes in tones of white and shades of gold and silver, and clutching wind and stringed instruments. They trooped past like spirits in an enchanted dream and vanished down a passage, and his attempt to follow was thwarted as the moon lost its light behind a cloud. The second night he determined he would do so, but the same occurred: he saw them tiptoe down the golden stairs and lost them in the passage. This time he resolved to wait, but fell asleep and did not witness their return. On the third night, the moon was bright, but still the maidens vanished when they entered the passage and did not reappear. My friend dismayed by this outcome said, “Wither they go, who they are, there is nothing to tell.” And this evoked the artist in me to capture the eighteen maidens for myself. 

Thursday, 22 August 2013

Mistress Muse

The Little White Girl, Whistler 1864
Every girl dreams of their wedding, their big day. Not I; I dreaded it. I never wanted to be that little white girl at the altar, and yet here I stand leaning against a mantelpiece in a pure white gown gazing at a ring on my left hand. Commissioned to pose by one lover, whilst dreaming of another: a new admirer, Gustave. He calls me 'La Belle Irlandaise', whereas to others I'm Jo, the artists' muse with a splendid coiffure of red hair. I'm Joanna Hiffernan, the mistress linked to Whistler.
In this house, I submit to Whistler's whims and model for him, posed and clothed as he wishes. I, who refused to contemplate marriage, portray innocence and virtue, but by choice became an unmarried, kept woman. I'm assured it's not that different; men still grow tired of you, but as mistress muse I can inspire other painters. As I confront my image in the mirror, I think of my developing friendship with Gustave Courbet. He views my Irish beauty with more richness, honesty and less dream-like qualities. If I ever modelled for him, I would be depicted as womanly, painted on canvas as a sensuous 'Eve'.
Whistler, I fear, is beginning to tire of me. Sometimes I hear him muttering as he washes his brushes, 'One more, one more... One more painting', followed by a disgruntled sigh as if my embodied perfection annoys him, but his compositions aren't always true to my features. Last time he ignored my sky-blue eyes and darkened them to complement my hair, so I know the image he captures now may not be the real me. The fiery red of my hair will be toned down and my skin will resemble porcelain. The finished figure will look delicate, almost translucent, and people will speculate: What is this angelic girl thinking? Some will see sadness and others a dreamy contentedness. The interpretation of the painting will change with each beholder. Whistler, in his more enthused moments, has explained, as before, all this to me. His perceptiveness of the human mind never ceases to amaze me.
In the still silence, I try to give her, this little white girl, a contemplative air as instructed. With Whistler deep in his work, my mind drifts easily and the vase dissolves into a white and blue blur of memories. I think of my dear mother, God rest her soul, and of my father and sister, and of how I met Whistler just over three years ago at a studio in Rathbone Place. Even now I'm not sure what drew me to him, perhaps it was his American accent, but he whisked me away to spend the summer in France, and come winter I sat for The White Girl No.1. It was while in Paris we befriended Gustave, who eulogised about my red hair and marvellous eyes. Now, we're here, in London, and Gustave is at his resort in Normandy. I inadvertently part my lips and get reprimanded for it, and then I'm told to straighten up as I'm wilting like a god damn flower! Whistler, the artist, is often harsh with me. I suffer for the sake of his art and so I can continue to provoke his family's and society's disapproval, although I resent having to find alternative accommodation when his mother visits!
What is this life I have chosen? A mistress muse whom artists arrange in languid or risqué poses, and then discard when inspiration no longer comes and the woman has faded.

Thursday, 15 August 2013

The King Of Leftovers

The King is coming... The King is coming home... Up and down the streets this news was passed along like Chinese Whispers, whispered from house to shop, and between lovers friends and neighbours, until it got tweeted and it became a lion's roar: THE KING OF LEFTOVERS IS COMING HOME! The local paper even printed an inside guide on how to prepare for his return. People planned their meals and only bought what they needed; they used up or froze anything edible or composted it; while others new to loving food and hating waste wrote questions down to ask him. Excitement soared as the big day drew nearer and the posters pasted everywhere declared his imminent arrival.
With one day to go, roads were closed, bunting was strung, and collapsible tables and chairs were unfolded. Shops donated their discarded food and volunteers set up their stretch-food-more stalls. Anticipation hung in the air like the delicious smell of baking bread. Appetites whetted, many people didn't want to go home and camped out that starry night. People gathered round blazing bins and sang, played instruments or told stories, only retiring to line the processional streets with their sleeping bags and woolly hats.
For these devotees, the big day began with the King's Golden Tip: leftover-made soup in a mug, and anyone that camped was not allowed to refuse, to choose to go hungry. Breakfast, as the King said, was not a meal to be skipped. By ten o'clock, the crowd had swelled and been whipped up to a feverish pitch. “We want the King!” “We want the King!” They chanted, but soon grew quiet at the sound of distant tom-toms. A fevered whisper of “He's coming!” rippled through the throng.
Two tom-tom beaters appeared at the top of the high street, with the King's tall, masculine figure dribbling a basketball behind them. He had dressed for his home crowd on this special occasion: his chef hat upright on his head and in a singlet with baggy shorts and trainers, and with both his biceps tied with a band of banana leaves. He confidently dribbled the ball and shot a few hoops at the baskets strategically placed en route. The crowd whooped as he scored and cheered even more when he gave his basketball away to a wide-eyed boy.
The King high-fived hands until he reached his outdoor cooking station, where he rattled his pots and pans like Ainsley Harriott as he made his signature dish: Banana Skin Curry. Volunteers dispersed tasters in tupperware with leaflets of the recipe, and as they supped the King talked. He began by thanking them for their support, and briefly touched on the success of his UK tour along with his appearances on TV. He said he was on the road to driving the message home: Love Food, Hate Waste, but he had a long way to go. As the crowd listened, rapt by his speech, they observed he had the passion of a Jamie Oliver or a James Martin, and that he too was a force to be reckoned with.
When the applause died, a orderly queue formed for people to meet the King and put to him their leftover questions directly. Some had even brought bags filled with stale bread and over-ripe fruits, and with each he patiently explained a nugget of his Food Waste Philosophy. He made children laugh, encouraging them to try new foods and let them help him in demonstrating another one of his recipes. He visited stalls and talked to shop-keepers, students, and parents; all those who believed in him and supported his campaign.
As the street party came to an end, he held up his hand with a firm “Hush” to the crowd, and imparted a last piece of his wisdom: Keep in mind that leftover food is like poetry. It feeds your mind, body and soul, you should not waste it.

Thursday, 8 August 2013


Once upon a time, a little girl played with her Gran's thimble collection. She'd sit on the floor and wear them like rings on the tips of her thumbs and fingers. The adults would laugh at her absorbed in the task of studying these ten more closely. Some were metal, some were wood, and some were china; some were commemorative, some were decorative, and some were plain, but none of them were the same as each other. When she wore them she knew her different-ness was somehow protected, and because of this habit she was called Thimbelina.
With a fairytale name, when she went to school she invented her own story. She said she had hatched from a Kinder Surprise, concealed as the toy inside, but a passing fairy had touched her with her ring three times and she had grown in size. Her complexion did indeed match the chocolate: white milky skin with brown hair and dark eyes. When she went to bed, she would only be read 'Thumbelina'; she wanted to be small like her and was obsessed with squeezing herself into tiny spaces.
As Thimbelina approached her teenage years, she told her peers her parents had been cursed by a witch and wearing thimbles stopped her fingers getting pricked. What would happen if they did? They asked, and she replied: I'd be no bigger than a woman's thumb. Many asked if the curse could be broken and she said yes, but she wasn't sure of the ending yet. She thought it had something to do with marrying a kingfisher because her Fairy Godmother said his feathers were as bright as her dreams.
In her adulthood, despite her average height, she still looked for that kingfisher. Someone to see the world with, because although her fingers hadn't got pricked, as a grown up she felt smaller. Now 5ft 6 and daintily boned, next to big people she felt petite, and next to people smaller than her she felt huge, but if she stood next to people of a similar height she felt under-protected. And it wasn't just that that pained her, when she tried to do good, her motives were misunderstood and her individuality was incompatible with ambition. The ways of the modern world made her feel tiny, but not like her childhood heroine Kylie. She wasn't a pretty little thing or elfin, she was a plain, scruffy intellect.
Although Thimbelina knew her myth was absurd, a part of her wanted it to come true. Afraid of doing difficult things in a real world, she wanted to be popped into a pocket or ride atop a giant's shoulders. Being genuinely nice, she had found, was too 'alternative'. If she owned her fictional persona, perhaps she too would have adventures with creatures: be carried off by a moth, captured by a spider, and given shelter by a squirrel, although she drew the line at marrying a prince just her size. If she'd been Thumbelina, she would have stuck with the swallow. Nestled by wings the big, wide world wouldn't seem so harsh and unfriendly.
Perhaps like her, her kingfisher was in disguise: attired in a sapphire blue suit with dyed orange hair, or had less obvious flare, but a vibrant personality. Although she inhabited this giant land, Thimbelina still believed in broken spells and fairy tale endings: only a kingfisher would add glorious colour to her dreams.

Thursday, 1 August 2013

The Farmer's Wife

Once upon a time, a farmer and his wife lived in a ramshackle farmhouse. The outside worn-down, but furnished inside with antique heirlooms. Ancient armchairs that coughed up dust, a mahogany dresser that displayed patterned china plates, and handwoven rugs that needed beating, along with jugs of wild flowers in every room and windows framed with red gingham curtains. The pantry had shelves of neatly labelled preserves and the cellar had hooks of hung meats and a supply of bottled whisky. In the kitchen, the Farmer's Wife's domain, the wood fired range had to be fed constantly.
The Farmer's Wife worked her carving knife expertly. Its sharp blade glinted mischievously, as she butchered fresh meat. Her cheeks flushed and her sleeves pushed up to reveal her plump arms; she sliced intently, but with dexterity. Some cuts were floured, some were minced, and some were jellied and canned. Villagers praised the quality of the meat and her corned beef hash. The creamy mash and the grainy meat when combined and fried had a delicious fatty texture. Everyone assumed the meat was from the farm, and the Farmer, if he was suspicious, dared not question her, for although his wife was known to be quiet, she had a quick tongue and an even fiercer temper. Displeased, the Farmer's Wife's employed her beloved carving knife as a scolding weapon: she shrilled as its tip plunged erratically.
The Farmer was hen-pecked and occasionally he did regret the day he married her, yet he knew he couldn't have found a better cook or a more moral woman. The Farmer's Wife saw her husband as a means to an end: a cover to punish ill-reputed men, but as her piety increased she grew reckless.
In the Summer when the corned beef hash had never tasted so good, three of his hired farmhands went missing. As foreigners to these parts, their sudden disappearance set tongues wagging, but the Farmer said they got up in the night and left, as they arrived, together. That would have been the end of it had not the Farmer's Wife boasted of her meat's Devonshire quality and some eye witnesses that said she had seen acting strangely: scrubbing her carving knife under the village pump religiously. At country fairs where she sold her wares, she had begun given rousing speeches on man's indecency. By Autumn, her carving knife stained and she still feverish, she served up her corned beef hash and said: “Get your gums round man-flesh!”
She then went on to brag how she delivered men from evil and brandished her bloodstained carving knife in their faces. The three farmhands, she said, were worst of the lot for their wantonness: a thief, a drunk, and a cheater. One she caught thieving food from the pantry, the other drunk far too much whisky, and the married one she repeatedly found in the barn with a milkmaid. Incensed by this behaviour, she coquettishly invited them to her chamber and to a game of Blind Man's Buff. The Farmer's Wife said she never saw such a sight in her life as these three, now blindfolded, nakedly followed her. Men were mice she said.
These murders confessed, she was put under house arrest and denied her right, as a Farmer's Wife, to ever cut meat with a carving knife.