Whenever I travel I leave my flat in what Aunty Mu calls a ‘death state’. This means that everything must be tidy and wills etc easily found. I always leave a letter to my girls ending with Wittgenstein’s words, “Tell them that I had a wonderful life.” It’s true. I wouldn’t like anyone to think that I’ve wasted my time on this planet.
So here I am, like the metaphorical dervish, sewing and cleaning and to-ing and fro-ing. I even managed to fit in a meeting last night to attempt to halt the inexorable tide of supermarkets in our High Street. There was an annoying photographer there from the local rag, flashing every five seconds and out of the zillions of photos he could have chosen, there in tonight’s edition is one of me with three chins writing intensely in my notebook. Life is very humbling isn’t it? No chance of hubris building up in me as I am reminded of my less attractive qualities, just as I am in the act of creating a wardrobe intended to get me noticed in Fes at a time when it will be choc ful of the world’s most colourful musicians.Hey ho. At least I have been given a reminder to keep my chin up at all times. Never a bad thing when one is facing up to solitary travel.
Just back from a flying visit to Scotland. Yesterday I stood outside the Scottish National Gallery, where the clock said 6.00pm and I thought about the fact that I was meeting a friend for supper and still I would be in my bed at home by midnight. It gave me a funny feeling about the way that the world is shrinking.
This was not half such a funny feeling as the one I got when first seeing the above picture on the wall of the National Gallery earlier in the day. It hung there amongst the oils of glens, deer , still lives and aristocratic portraits, like a punk on Oscar night. I was mesmerised from the moment I saw it and puzzled to say the least.
I asked a man in Black Watch trews what the painting was all about and he directed me to a video of the artist, Ken Currie talking about his work. It is called The Three Oncologists. I listened carefully to him explaining that he had been commissioned to celebrate three men of science but that he didn’t want to just paint portraits; he wanted somehow to incorporate the feeling of anxiety and horror linked to the disease these men work so hard to overcome.
I found the painting haunting. I remember reading that film is a tricky medium, because sometimes it captures something that the director didn’t know was there. I guess the same thing could be said for this painting. The artist has caught three eminent scientists in his penetrative gaze like rabbits in a headlight. They are also caught in luminous paint like ghosts. There they are, pioneers of the ephemeral, bent- shouldered, remote; always grasping at a point that is at that moment vanishing. Surely there is irony there? Something is leeching through the brushstrokes that Ken Currie didn’t know was there perhaps? Something to do with the creepy nature of oncology, where men battle to put right something that is for ever going to be wrong on some level, until we realise that the body is a lot cleverer than our ability to manipulate it and that scientists, however gifted they are, are struggling to hold together a wealth of variables they cannot get a grip on, ignoring the fact that death itself is no big deal and often a lot easier than the desperate treatments applied to keep people alive at all costs.
The haunting quality for me comes from the hidden quality within the paint. The truth will out. Still reflecting on the impact the painting had had on me while in the air over Birmingham, I realised the answer, as it so often does in our post -industrial world, lies in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. It is not the monster that is the problem but Frankenstein himself, for he knew not what he was unleashing on the world. Hubris is a characteristic implicit in modern science but who would have thought that it could be captured so eloquently in paint?
I can scarcely keep up with my life any more. Opportunities abound and time is short. What a time to be alive. My grandmother, bless her sweet soul, was rocking by the fireside between bouts of chutney making and faggot grinding, when she was my age. My mother was chasing her blood pressure all over the place, with never a moment for pleasure. I ,on the other hand, find that the flow takes me to wonderful and unexpected places. This weekend it took me out to sea.
I last stepped on a yacht when I was fifteen but only a month ago I wrote a poem called Sailing. It must have jolted the Universal memory bank because suddenly out of the blue, so to speak, I get an invitation to weekend off the coast of Cornwall. Ignoring the forecasts that predicted an end to our weeks of stunning weather, I said yes and off I went with ominous clouds gathering off the Atlantic and the gods getting ready to rumble across the heavens. It climaxed on Saturday night, by which time we had managed a lumpy ride out into the shipping lanes and copped a look at The Superyachts moored in the shipyard. There might be a recession going on but it would appear to be hitting only the bottom end of the scale.
Much of the weekend I was stuck in harbour thankfully, counting the raindrops hitting the portholes and trying to avoid The Predator on the TV. The company was congenial and there was lots of experience passing between us as we waited out a break in the weather. There were several men on board; real men who watch films like The Predator and treat women as if they are too delicate to crank a sail. I’ve reached the age when this is a great relief. I know when I get to Morocco I will be treated in that special way reserved for a mother and an older woman in a society where men rule. When I was young I minded. Now respect for the female has become a matter of note. So all I have to do now is learn to dance backwards. Is it too late? I’m learning to fill up my shuffle from I Tunes, surely I can learn to be led around the dance floor?
The past is a construct that changes with each moment. My youth was a long time ago. I will remember this and do not expect too much from the opposite sex. Be kind to men is my motto and let them dream of young girls and virile limbs. All I ask as an ageing woman is to be indulged every so often with some attention, some respect and a safe place on the back of a yacht from where to watch the physicality of the masculine and remember that I have been well loved. After all, if I could create an amalgam of the men I’ve loved and subtract the bits that didn’t work, I would have the perfect man. For in that amalgam I include Elvis in his leather suit and Daniel fully clothed in the shower licking the drops off each of my fingers in turn. A woman needs to carry on dreaming , even to the end. Even if she’s all at sea.
If I ever get around to getting myself tattooed, the image I will choose will be of an ouroboros and it will be on my left ankle, just above the bone. I choose this symbol because it represents the astonishing links between the microworld and the cosmos. Pursuing these links give my life excitement and meaning, so wearing this symbol seems somehow apt. What’s that? people will ask and I will say,’It’s an ouroboros. Interconnectedness rocks in my world’. And they will quickly move away, muttering something along the lines of ‘Allie bores us.’
Their loss I say. In the model above see how humans stand at the very middle of the snake’s body, representing the role of consciousness in that interconnectedness. It is through the human being that the whole thing finds completion, not in a point but rather in a process. The inner reaches of outer space are all contained in one circle of being, within which growth and destruction have their crucible; which brings me neatly to the subject of death.
We all have to live and grow to understand the power of loss. It is, after all, with us every passing minute. But how many people do you know face up to the reality of their own death? Most people spend their lives looking the other way, avoiding at all costs what they believe to be a cataclysmic end. Not me. I believe that death is in fact our most practised activity. It is essentially a movement between planes of consciousness. I practise this every night when I leave my physical body and go, through sleep, into another realm of consciousness. Death is only a longer departure from the physical plane and a breaking of the thread of current that maps a return to the body. When this happens my body, lacking the principle of coherence, will then disintegrate. I will be conscious but on another plane, without form for a while, but still part of the spiritual whole; the metaphorical serpent eating its own tail. So that’s why, when I get around to having a tattoo, it will be of an ouroboros.