Our garden is increasingly full of skeletons, but not the spooky kind. One of the pleasures of Autumn is the way in which some plants continue to impress with their form and colour; never showy exactly, but comprising subtle effects inviting closer inspection and reappraisal. Taken at the end of Summer 2013, these fennel heads are a case-in-point.
As the sun slinks lower and the evenings start earlier, I’m contemplating the prospect of winter with a touch of melancholy. Back in the high Summer of 2013, my friends and family paid Whitstable a visit, and it was all fish and chips, wind-burn, and the flying of kites. I look at these photographs today, and even though they are black and white and somewhat dramatised, I remember the heat, the way the noise carried across the shingle, and what a bloody nice day it was.
Another song, written years ago, the tune for which I’ve long since lost, likewise the chords, though when I read these words, the ghost of a melody is playing in some other small room of my inadequate memory palace. This ditty is upbeat and defiant. I was obviously feeling less heart-broken when I wrote this, and imagining for myself some kind of more dynamic trajectory. Looking back on these songs is like looking at a photograph of myself and not really remembering where I was at the time, or what I was doing, or who I was with; a snapshot, yes, but poorly archived. One day perhaps, I’ll return to some of these phantom songs and drag them back into their corporeal form.
i’m like a clock – tick tock – i’m like a clock that got stopped
like a pocket watch, like a pocket watch dropped
and my face got knocked and my hands, my hands kept still
I think it’s killing me, this time to kill
like a rocket-ship – dan dare – i’m a rocket-ship docked
got fins, big fins, but my rocket-ship’s locked
I can’t pull free, my countdown freezed, by gravity
I can see the stars but they can’t see me
but something in me is coming to be
like the crest of a wave on a listless sea
i’m spreading my wings, i’m leaving this nest
don’t look for me here, I won’t be with the rest
i’m that glint in the sky, hey, you keep the pie
the waiting is done, it’s my turn to fly
like a summer storm – flash bang – like a summer storm soon
got fire, enough fire, I could light up this room
but the horizon’s dark, though the air is charged and my heart’s in sparks
but let the lightening strike, let me make my mark
like tnt – stand clear – like tnt sticks
got a fuse, a short fuse, got a switch I can flick
my dial’s in the red, I’ve been juiced, I’ve been fed
now it’s my turn to lead ‘cause I won’t be led
Something from the not-so distant past this week: a moody-looking scrap from the work I produced in response to one of our earliest Kick-Abouts, taking Fritz Lang’s Metropolis as its muse. These images resulted from first producing a series of architectural pencil drawings, then photographing those drawings as curved or folded surfaces, before finally collaging the resulting photographs digitally in Photoshop.
Another spooky little something from my one long night in the Summer of 2016, spent within the palatial environs of No. 351. I enjoy the cinema of this particular image; you can almost imagine the team of set-dressers coming in to ensure the peeling wallpaper is peeling ‘just right’. This is the stuff of movie posters, and the covers of those Fontana books of ghost stories from back-in-the-day. This is that big book of Unexplained Phenomena we had on our bookshelves when I was a kid, still playing out in my imagination.
In the old house, No. 351, there is, remarkably, and old internal chapel, with blue walls and stained glass. The whole set-up is filmic and theatrical, like something from a children’s book, in which amazing spaces reside behind rather ordinary doors. For this week’s retrospective offering, a few more images from my residency at 351, not seen or shared before.
Back in early December 2015, I travelled out to Hirson, France, to oversee the screening of this animation in concert with the Orchestre de Picardie. It was coming up to the end of the autumn term and I was knackered, but not especially. On the trip out to France, I had the makings of a stye in my right eye. My eyelid was red and a bit swollen, but again, this was hardly remarkable after the long first term of the academic year, after all the screen work, late-nights and usual running around after undergraduates.
But as my trip continued, it soon became clear something more serious was going wrong with my face. The swelling of my eyelid increased, then the first of the blisters appeared, and the top right quarter of my face began to puff-up in different places. I was stuck in France without the ability to come home early, and anyway, the show had to go on, so I skulked in the shadows like the guy from Phantom of The Opera. The orchestra’s stage-manager began calling me ‘monster face’ and insisted I go to A&E, whisking me away in his car to a filmically deserted French hospital, where I was looked at with naked curiosity by the doctors on duty – who, it seemed, had never seen anything quite like it before. They (mis)diagnosed me with a bacterial infection and gave me antibiotics. Then, with one more day to go before the long road trip home and back through the tunnel under the channel, I began to feel very unwell indeed. My colleagues, who’d accompanied me on the trip and were due to sit in the same car with me for the journey back to the UK, were compassionate, but wary. My face, it seemed, was beginning to slide from my skull and no one was talking about just how unpleasant I was starting to look.
Home finally, my husband putting me to bed and hiding his distress at my sudden and unexpected transformation, I slept. Never have I been more grateful to be in my own bed and safe. The following morning, I shambled to the doctors; by now, something odd was happening to my nervous system, in that I was struggling with noise, and with light, hanging on my husband’s arm like an elderly person, flinching at every passing car. I was diagnosed with shingles immediately – chicken pox essentially – a virus more usually suppressed very effectively by our immune systems, but which had now attacked my trigeminal nerve on the right side of my face. Soon afterwards, I was on powerful anti-viral drugs and my situation improving. The portrait above was taken a few days after that treatment had started. I actually look much better in this photograph, which isn’t saying much, but should give you some idea as to just how gruesome I was looking when my shingles was at its worst.
I share all this for this week’s Friday retrospective, not to simply put you off your food, but rather to reflect wryly on the irony of this particular illness, or rather on how apposite a malady it was. Even as I suffered with it, too weak to eat more than a teacup’s portion of mashed potato, the fried nerve-endings of my face misfiring with a sensation like the crawling of ants, a part of me was amused at the specific aesthetic of my predicament. After all, the best Christmas present I ever had was Dekker’s Movie Horror Make-Up – a Do-It-Yourself self-disfigurement kit of highly questionable taste, its popularity with a particular sort of child riding high on the horror-boom of the late 1970’s and early 80’s, so ignited by the box-office and critical success of The Exorcist and parallel publishing phenomena of Stephen King. When I was given the horror make-up kit, I certainly hadn’t watched The Exorcist or read any Stephen King, for I was much too young, but my creative imagination had already been fired by the idea of spectacular transformations and rubbery technologies designed to corrupt human flesh or monsterise it.
The kit itself was straightforward enough: you mixed up your ‘Flex Flesh’, a sticky goop deriving from powder and water, which you then poured into ‘wound moulds’, which, once set, produced Haribo-like exit wounds, gashes and lesions ready for sticking to your own face with spirit gum. Happy as a pig in mud, I enacted terrible simulations against my own face, my mum soon tiring of finding me ‘dead in the broom cupboard’, or lurching from behind my bedroom door, fake blood oozing from the bullet holes in my forehead.
Years later, my Horror Make-Up Kit long since consigned to the wheelie bin of history, I still found excuses to disfigure myself in the service of special occasions, like Halloween parties requiring zombification. With no handy sachet of Flex Flesh at my disposal, I turned to the famously fishy, eye-watering stink of latex adhesive, applying the stuff directly to my face from the glue bottle. Once touch-dry, it then becomes possible to fold your skin together, nipping and tucking to produce scarring, blisters and dreadful-looking delaminations.
As recently as last week, I was at it again for The Kick-About, splashing the Copydex about my much older, much saggier person to produce a series of canonical mutilations in the pursuit of some postmodern tomfoolery. This time, I was applying layers of latex to parts of my face damaged and discoloured permanently by the Human alphaherpesvirus 3. Even as I did so, I couldn’t decide if this was funny, or just deeply insensitive to my own self, or, more worryingly, if I was once again inviting the cosmic joker to play at ‘life imitating art’. I’ll tell you this for nothing though; one of the big differences between me as a child gluing rubbery things to my body, and me at forty-six doing the same, is the no small issue of then extricating said same rubber things from your own excess body hair… And I thought shingles was painful.
Another glimpse into the other-worldly realm of house number 351, where I spent one long sleepless summer night in the gameful pursuit of spectral anomalies, finding this one poised perfectly in the old dark stairwell…
Two ‘selfies’ taken at a particular time in a particular place. The attic in question is the attic of my grandmother’s house and I lived up there for a few months while I redecorated her house. My grandmother had died fifteen or so months earlier, and I had the bitter-sweet job of making-over her various rooms and ringing in the changes. I was twenty-eight in the Summer of 2003 and very much in-between things, living through a period of disruption and change. Melancholy though it was, being back in the attic of my late grandmother’s home promised a certain peacefulness and simplicity. I had a novel I was writing, an acoustic guitar, and I was living without the internet or other trappings. Indeed, even the computer I was writing on was an ancient beige thing with a black screen and white text – that’s how long ago this all feels to me now!
Today, it is completely normal for people to take self-portraits and share them unselfconsciously; I guess these two photographs were taken by me to wittingly romance my situation a bit; the attic, the lostness, the changing of the guard, the nostalgia of that very particular place. Obviously I thought it important to keep the moment – important enough to go through the motions of setting up the portraits in the first place.
I was doing so much sanding at that time, I got dust inside my camera, a whole roll of film ‘spoiled’ by gauze and light-bleeds – which you can see in the top image. I quite liked all the damage in the end; another way in which this house-in-transition was captured on film.
For the bottom image, I rested the camera on the windowsill of the attic window that looks out over the town. You can’t know this from the photo of my face, but I’m looking out on rustling copper beech trees, and listening to the calling of wood pigeons, a sound I will forever associate with this space, this time, this view.
Twenty years-or-so ago, one of my oldest friends and I went on a couple of road-trips, stopping-off both times at Sidmouth in Devon. Sidmouth is a very genteel seaside town distinguished by its red sandstone cliffs – which you can’t appreciate in any of these black and white photographs! Our first visit was in the first month of 2000. I was packing some lovely 1600 black and white film, always good for cranking up the drama. In the topmost image, my friend, Jules, is wearing my blue and white striped jumper, a wonderfully heavy thing I was rarely seen out of in those days, a comfort blanket with sleeves. I think Jules must have been feeling the cold that day, and I was feeling chivalrous – which is why she’s wearing it, and not me, as she stares moodily out to sea. Our second visit to Sidmouth was more seasonal, Summer 2001. The day we arrived at the beach, the air was soft and luminously bright with sea mist. I happened to have some black and white infra-red film in my camera, which produced some richly atmospheric pictures with a sense of silence and timelessness.