Tuesday, 29 December 2009

By the time I became fully conscious of my aunt Sophia's presence she was already in her late forties, a spinster and a gymn teacher. My mother maintained that no man would court her, but that was cruel and didn't take into account the carnage of the First World War which almost wiped out a generation of eligible men. My aunt was not alone in this because many of my mother's friends were single women or else had sought refuge in men so much older who had quickly died. Nowadays she would have been snapped up by a fellow sportsman or a dedicated trekker. It didn't happen then and she made the best of it, dedicating herself to other people's children including myself. Besides, in those days there were two principal vocations open to women; teaching and nursing. Vocation, what an unfamiliar word and what does it mean now that everything has been reduced to the measure of the market? For my aunt, her fulfillment lay precisely in the conscientious discharge of a duty - that was her particular joy.
Since I've started to write about her I've begun to remember her more vividly. She was large, and if she appeared overweight there was also a mass of underlying muscle. I knew her body well enough from our visits to various swimming pools and I was astonished by the thickness of her arms which outshone my thighs in size. Once in the water she carved a swift path. As a young woman she must have been attractive - quite 'bonnie' as they say in Scotland. Not seductive in an obvious way but who knows what happened earlier on in her life. Her complexion, which had never been scarred by cosmetics, was clear and bright; her round face open to the world and devoid of any hint of existential doubt; a straight face that told you everything and nothing. The portraits of Raeburn exactly capture her patriotic complexion. A healthy mind in a healthy body was her eternal dictum and it worked wonderfully but at the expense of her mind which was firmly closed and hidebound by a mix of moral and nationalist sentiments.
The first thing I did, when I realised she was dead, was to telephone her spiritual guide, the Reverend Pierce. I'd already met this man when hed been the master of ceremonies at my brother's funeral. We had sat together in the black car that followed the hearse to the crematorium and he'd been horribly unctuous, talking all the time about the state of the financial markets as if this might stem my aunt's very real grief over the death of her favourite nephew. I hardly cared to notice how he conducted the service and discounted him completely; but now that my aunt was dead I decided to show him no mercy. Why, I asked him, had he not contacted me, was not that his duty as a priest? I deliberately used the word 'priest' to insult him. He was defensive. My aunt had died peacefully from a cancer and as far as he knew I had not been in contact with her for some time. His voice was so laden with self righteous reproach and presbyterian sanctimony that I almost vomited. I quickly put the phone down on him, my anger and my aunt.

Saturday, 26 December 2009




This is an attempt to breathe life into someone long dead - an act of reconciliation and maybe an impossible venture. My memories of her are a loose jumble of events yet there's a static point about which they revolve where I can simply say - this was my aunt. It's no accident that I learnt of her death by chance; we never saw eye to eye and had long since given up on one another. I was a dissapointment ; she wished that I was other than I was and I in turn, hoped for an approval she simply could not give. I courted her to no avail; she was a strong character that hadn't any use for those that she considered simpletons.
My aunt Sophia was muscular and tender; physically strong but rigid in her Calvanist beliefs and therefore deeply bourgeois. Born at the beginning of the 20th century into middle class Edinburgh society this was hardly surprising, yet she had a democratic streak, refusing to teach in any of the city's elite academies and choosing instead a school in one of the poorer districts. She organised the city's Girl Guides, played hockey for Scotland and the piano in retreats for he elderly. You can see now why we didn't exactly hit it off. Yet I loved her.
A small boy needed an aunt like her. She was a sports mistress and therefore rooted in the body and quick to criticise any lapse in posture; she was also tough on observation so that to be with her was to be constantly alert. Little did she know that her lessons would lead to what she considered anathema; Art, in her immovable opinion, was a useless and unmanly indulgance.
She was my father's sister. They were the sole survivors of thirteen children; diptheria and the First World War had wiped out the rest. Their lawyer father had died of a heart attack in middle age and their mother, born in 1859, held on till 1953. My mother was critical of my aunt and laughed at her behind her back while my aunt considered my mother frivolous and vain, yet there must have beeen some warmth on both sides because every year she would come down to London to stay and every August we would lodge in her respectable but gloomy Edinburgh tenement.
I am amazed at how little I got to know about her life; she never talked about my father or their childhood or the two wars; and I never asked because in those days that sort of questioning simply wasn't possible. Even later, after my brother died, we never lapsed into a deeper confidence. She was always the adult and I was always the nephew; an unbridgeable gap, so when I paused to gaze into the window of the antique shop on West Causeway Side and saw the watercolours that I had given her over the years stacked in an untidy heap I felt a frisson of fear as if.......... but it was she who had passed away.


Monday, 14 December 2009

The song of the Maelstrom - Work on Paper - 75/50 cms

Maelstrom 2/10 - Work on Paper - 75/50cms

The Maelstrom 8/10 - Work on Paper 75/50cms

Every one for himself - Work on Paper 75/50cms

The Maelstrom - works on paper

The maelstrom is a whirlpool set in motion by conflicting tides; it is the theme of one of Edgar Alan Poe's best short stories and to which I am indebted for my inspiration. This is not the first time that I have tackled this subject; in 1989 I produced a series of six drypoint etchings in the form of an artist's book which was purchased by the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. I have forgotten my original motive for that series, but now, given the present situation of the world, Poe's narrative seems an apt paradigm of our political and social situation. We are in the grip of a maelstrom and our only salvation, as it was for the hero of the story, is to abandon everything that carries us down to its destructive centre. Although inspired by Poe these drawings are not illustrations but rather meditations on our situation. I hope they may communicate hope rather than fear because Poe's protagonist finally escapes through the use of reason and observation.

Other drawings and a series of my artist's books can be seen at http://www.sinclairspress.com/

Thursday, 12 March 2009

The Kiss

Entering the Tunnel

The Flying Scotsman that carried my mother and me southwards to England was one of the fastest steam engines of its generation and therefore an adequate symbol of our escape. I sat gazing out of the window while my mother, always talkative, conversed with the other passengers. The rackety rack of the carriage wheels as they sped over the unwelded rails entranced me; this was excitement, this was adventure. Past Berwick-upon-Tweed my mother unloaded our carefully packed sandwiches as if to celebrate her return to England; because although she had been born in Scotland she never hesitated to point out that her family's roots were English and furthermore, as if to add ammunition to her claim, she had been born a Hogarth and was therefore distantly related to Charles Dickens. Whether or not this was true or merely an unfounded boast, hardly matters; it was her belief that counted. We took a taxi from Kings Cross to the Ivanhoe Hotel , close to Russell Square, where I spent a couple of sleepless and fretful nights because of the noise of the traffic. Two days later we found ourselves in a dismal boarding house in one of the burgeoning suburbs of London.

Tuesday, 10 March 2009

The Tunnel - An Introduction

We exist in a state of paradox; on the one hand we are told by science that matter consists of a considerable emptiness and that what we judge to be solid to our touch consists of atoms separated by space and held together by unseen but detectable forces and that solidity in the everyday and practical sense of the word is an illusion. The discoveries of the 20th century with their accompanying concepts created an existential unease since we are part of this objectified world and bound by laws which we barely comprehend. We were forced therefore to confront the immateriality of our own substance and the realisation that the old separation between Man and the material world was an outmoded conceit.
We are increasingly reminded of the interrelatedness of everything; that our presence in the world affects its reality so that even our most innocuous actions are part and parcel of its continuous flux. This expansion of consciousness which should be a cause for celebration is more often than not turned into a source of fear. Where previously we felt secure, we are now shown the incalculable effects of our actions and our appetites - from the polluted environment to the present collapse of the global economy. The existential anxiety which manifests itself in myriad form is the result of living within an unresolved contradiction - between the alienation created by a capitalist society which has thrived on fragmentation and a mixture of threats and promises and an underlying urge towards a cooperative Humanism in which the individual is valued for himself within a collective and not merely as an expendable peon

Thursday, 26 February 2009

My New Shoes

Don't worry, I haven't thrown the old ones away and maybe I never will. I have placed them carefully under my bed alongside the small oil paintings that I dust down from time to time and the secondhand suitcase that I use when I visit the mainland. I decided that I needed a new pair of shoes and an unexpected windfall provided the oppertunity. There are three shoe shops in this small town but I'd already made up my mind and decided be dynastic and buy a pair as close as possible in style to the old ones - eccentric as they are. Not wanting to have the trouble of struggling with the complicated laces of my mountain boots I decided to wear my felt slippers, buy the shoes and then transfer the slippers to a paper bag. I wasn't the least embarrassed by this procedure because many men past retirement age go around in slippers all the time. When I got to Ben Calçat the shop was closed and in a state of irritation and dissappointmant I stepped off the pavement into a deep sludge of wet concrete. My slippers and my dignity were instantly ruined and I was forced to limp towards the next shop where I had previously noticed a pair of town shoes and, desperate to conceal my concrete encrusted slippers, I bought them without trying them on. Size 46, but a bargain at thirty euros and in exactly the style of which my aunt would have approved.
I need new shoes for the next part of the journey; the tunnel is not only dark, it's also slippery and there are shallow pools of stagnant water. It's not a nice place, fetid as it is with the excrement of broken souls.

New Shoes

Wednesday, 25 February 2009

Walking down Memory Lane

Naturally I've beeen selective in what I've written so far, but it is as close to the truth as is possible, given a gap of sixty years. There were many other moments that I could have chosen but they were either too indetirminate or else too much like something invented after the fact and a justification of later feelings. Once I had dipped my foot in this pond I pretty soon saw how I'd distorted and used many of these events as a well of disappointment. What had previously been loaded with rancor was suddenly bled dry of negative emotion and I began to see how those that had had such an early influence on me had acted within the framework of their own beliefs and not out of malice. It was unfortunate that my mother, who was still relatively young - forty-nine when my father died - had been saddled with a child that barred her from a more liberated widowhood. That I was not her son must have made her abandonment all the more disastrous. My aunt who, as a schoolmistress, worked with children seemed to understand exactly what I needed; if later on she was critical of my lifestyle and appearance, it was because she had the prejudices and expectations of her proffession. In other words, whatever events I recall involving these people and others who will be introduced later on, I must always bear in mind where they were coming from, even if their actions were often absurd and even cruel.
I am indebted to three women for my upbringing. My mother, my aunt and my mother's best friend, Morag Park. My aunt brought stability and an uncompromising sense of the world as it is; my mother, for better or for worse, introduced me to the whole spectrum of emotions and Morag Park encouraged me to paint. Male role-models of any substance or virtue were completely absent: My brother by adoption and seventeen years my elder, was a childhood hero but an inconsistant presence and he himself was damaged in ways that I could not have understood then. Nevertheless my love for him persisted and his sudden death marked a turning point in my life.
With my father's demise I entered a dark tunnel; that much is clear from what I've already written but I am equipped for such a journey. I'm already a person, albeit dependant as every small child is, but nevertheless anarchic, self aware and imaginative. It is exactly the latter quality which will save me in the end, but I still have a long way to travel.
But what about the shoes; don't they have something to say in this matter? Are they the worn out but dignified emblems of a long voyage or just a pair of dirty old clogs that should have thrown in the dustbin long ago?

Tuesday, 24 February 2009

Monday, 23 February 2009

The Accident

Several months after my father died I was knocked down by a motor car and almost killed; even now I am particularly careful when crossing a road and in my bleaker moments tell myself that this is the way I must eventually go, purely in the service of symmetry. One afternoon my mother sent me to play at a friend's house; there were no dangerous crossings to negotiate because I could walk there and back without having to leave the pavement; however, on my way home I was ambushed by a gang of small boys with bows and arrows and in my frantic attempt to avoid their onslaught I fled off the pavement into the path of a passing car. I regained consciousness while being wheeled into the operating theatre of the Sick Children's Hospital. Dr MacIntyre, our family doctor, was trying to comfort me when suddenly there was the nauseous smell of anaesthetic and then oblivion.
The Sick Children's was, and still is, a gaunt redstone building overlooking the Meadows on Edinburgh's south side. When I finally woke after the operation I found myself in an huge ward filled with whimpering and crying children. The blankets were bright red and the beds so pushed together that you could almost reach out and touch your neighbour. The nurses hurried this way and that, carrying bedpans and thermometers under the iron supervision of a ward sister. I don't think I exaggerate when I say that there must have been at least sixty children in that room whose ceiling was so high as to be almost out of sight.
The boy in the bed next to mine was obviously seriously ill because his face looked very blue. The nurses gathered round his cot and listened to solemn deliberations spoken by a large bearded man dressed in a tweed suit. I was, despite a deep cut running from my left eye up over my forehead, a concussion case and therefore was expected to live. No consolation was wasted on me when I wet my bed, the nurses were too busy to be sympathetic and so made do with impatience. The next day I was released and found myself back home in my own bed being fed all sorts of delicacies by my aunt and my mother - but it was a false dawn.
What goes on inside a child's mind? We cope well enough with their happiness; adding to it with our own pleasure and relief, but when the tears flow, through pain, frustration or fear then it's a different matter. We console, attempt to divert the stream of suffering but all along there's a certain helplessness and a grim knowledge that this is only the beginning. I watch Siena load tiny fragments of clay onto a growing mound of wet mud; she's so earnest and delicate in her attempts and I marvel at her concentration, her sense of purpose, her eager rising to meet the world. She's happy now but maybe later in the day she'll suffer a sudden frustration, a thwarted expectation; then she will cry out against the unfairness of the universe and so it will be in different measure throughout her life.
The hospital phones; they've made a mistake, I've been released too early and must return immediately. A taxi is called and I am carried screaming to the hospital. What a fuss I make and my aunt is the only person who can calm me down. She will bring my crayons and lots of paper the very next day. Childless, she knows exactly how to calm a child.


All the significant memories of my early childhood revolve around my father; as if I had only related to my mother through him. I am now certain that they loved one another and this is confirmed by a particular memory. The summer before he died, we holidayed in England and stayed in a house on the outskirts of London; it had a large garden with plum trees, a hen house, several cats and a tricycle. The weather was hot and the air alive with wasps which my father attempted to kill by hanging jam traps from the trees. While my mother busied herself in the garden my father took me for walks in the surrounding countryside. We searched the local ponds for frogs; he showed me how to make a bow and taught me the rudiments of boxing. It was obvious that my parents were very happy together that summer, perhaps because my father had decided to leave Scotland and apply for a job in London. Whatever the reason, their happiness spilled over onto me giving me a feeling of deep contentment. When night came, no sooner had my head touched the pillow than it was already morning with all the bright adventures of a new day ahead.


Thursday, 19 February 2009

The Round Earth's Imagined Corners - 2

My mother didn't go to my brother's funeral, but nor had she gone to my father's. Nowadays we would say that she was in denial, and that may well have been the case but I prefer to see her absences as an expression of anger. There were no pictures of my father or later on of my brother about the house. Once dead, they might never have existed and only on very rare occasions did my mother refer to my father and then in a manner that was hardly tender. Firstly, she could have had anyone she wanted but had finally relented and married him; and secondly, he had left her with only just enough to live on - this was her bitterest complaint. What she never said - and this was very much to her credit -was that he had left her with me. Even so, my childhood was haunted by the shadowy presence of what my mother called ' the trustees' and she used them as a veiled threat. Sometimes when we clashed she would say that she was going to tell the trustees and maybe they would send me away to a borstal. I imagined a roomful of stern men dressed in black issuing a unanimous condemnation of my behaviour. While I was frightened by her threat I was also excited by the prospect and so when finally I was sent away to board at a small private school I was the only child to arrive there dry eyed.
Now I bear witness to all this in a more detached way and I feel a certain compassion for my mother and her generation. She was born in 1900 and so must have been deeply affected by the First World War, yet she never spoke about it, never referred to it. Then came the Second War and she never spoke about that either. Yet I have a vivid memory of a particular Sundy morning. Sunlight fills our living room and there's a bright coal fire in the grate - offstage, a smell of roasted meat and cabbage. The radio is switched on and I am playing with my soldiers behind the sofa. A commentator is talking in a hushed whisper and then, quite suddenly, a gun begins to fire. Boom - Boom - Boom and then my parents slowly enter the room and take up their places by the mantlepiece. They don't see me - they're so wrapped up in each other. They look very very sad. Then the bugle starts to intone its serpentine melody of grief. What they hide every day now lies open for me to see and I feel afraid.

footprints in the sand

The Round Earth's Imagined Corners

You can probably see already why I came to tolerate the condition of these shoes and my reluctance to discard them. I even contemplated repairing them; gluing a strip of canvas inside the outer side of the right foot where the seam had burst; after all, the soles were intact and if I'd gone a stage further, bleaching the canvas and polishing up the leather, they might have lasted another year. But I didn't, because for some reason I refused to interfere with their decay.
When I lived in Edinburgh I used to cycle to the studio and my route passed through a portion of the old town where there were hostels for vagrants, people who fallen through the fine mesh of a complex hierarchy. If it was a sunny day they would be sitting on the steps of the refuge with their cans of powerful lager, laughing, talking and even quarrelling; women and men, hard bitten, with faces corroded by the rigorous climate. Was my envy of their situation, one in which they had given up trying, any different from what I felt when, from the bay window of my aunt's living room, I had watched the orphans at play in their park? I did not want to be like them, don't get me wrong; I knew perfectly well that these were people making the best of some personal tragedy and that they were dying slowly but dying nevertheless. Sometimes, if I was on foot, one of their number would approach me to beg the price of a drink and even if they were abusive I would still give them what they wanted because there was in me both a fear and a desire, an identification with their condition. Their shoes, like mine were in a dreadful state and all that separated us was my love of art.
Sometimes, on our way home from my aunt's flat, I would persuade my father to lift me up so that I could look over the wall into the grounds of the orphanage. I needed to see the building itself and imagine its rooms filled with children. He never realised what was going through my mind and perhaps would have been as surprised as he had been that time that I ran away. It happened like this; a steam roller had come to level the road outside our house and lay fresh tar.
I went out to watch because the machine itself was enormous and dramatic. Then I started to walk up the hill at end of our street and kept on walking; several hours must have passed because it was a long way to the golf course - two miles maybe. The police were called and I was recaptured. My father never scolded me; he just looked puzzled and sad.
My aunt settled herself into her chair as if this was just a normal breakfast. She was obviously upset as she was bound to be and especially so since my brother had bought a flat round the corner and he'd never told her. Why had he done this, and to her who was his champion in everything? I helped myself to a roll, relishing its floury surface and soft interior, spread with butter and marmalade. I wasn't looking forward to the funeral. My aunt didn't talk about him and I wished she would but she belonged to that generation that kept its own counsel. My life at the time was so chaotic that I could afford her no relief. I ate and prayed for silence.
The Reverend Morton arrived punctually on the stroke of ten and we expected the hearse on the half hour. Everything that I despised was epitomised by that man. His studied sympathy and his bluff work a day attitude. In the chauffered limousine that followed the hearse he broached the subject of my aunt's investments giving his ample thighs a vigorous slap in the process. I lost sight of him at the crematorium and fortunately never saw him again. The chapel was packed with my brother's friends and I felt the contradiction of his solitary death and this multitude. I knew no one - it was his life we were celebrating. The Lord is my shepherd I shall not want.

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

Old Shoes

Not Coming Back

We were walking slowly up from Princes Street towards Queen Street when my mother suddenly announced that my father wasn't coming back. I remember accepting this announcement in a bleak sort of way but it wasn't until later that I gave it my own very personal interpretation. After his death we moved several times; firstly we stayed with my father's closest friend, David Black and his family. Since I was in love with his daughter Christine this was a happy time but afterwards we changed places so often that I lost count; in the end my mother bought a small terrace house overlooking a sports ground. It was there that I came to terms with my father's disappearance and in the strangest possible way. It was a cold winter and snow lay thick on the pavement outside the house.
If you stood facing the playing field there was to the right of you a sudden rise of forested land and glimpsed amongst the bare trees a building that had all the makings of a castle - crenellated battlements and pepper pot towers. I had gone out to play in the thick snow and already the sun was beginning to set. The ragged clouds were tinged with red and the building on the hill, silhouetted against the sky in the deepening gloom, had for me a sudden and unexpected meaning. That was where my father had gone and I was so convinced of this that my childish mind was set to rest. I ran into the house and relished that painful restoration of warmth to frozen fingers.
Both my mother and my aunt were at a loss as to how to break the news of his death to me and maybe, given that there had been a recent war where many had not come back, it seemed an appropriate formula. Many years later when I had, through the curious circumstances of my life, returned to live in Edinburgh and not so far from where this early epiphany had occurred, I revisited the street at exactly the same season and time of day. I wanted to confirm that moment. It was late afternoon and the terrace quite deserted but the condition of the sky was broadly similar. There were the trees and the castle just as I remembered them; I knelt down on the pavement in order to recapture that childhood sensation of scale. In the end I was satisfied, even though that scene was altogether drained of that earlier emotion.
A year later I applied for a residency in connection with the city's geriatric community; it was an imaginative attempt to give expression to those who were otherwise inarticulate. It was then that I found myself in the castle on the hill, wandering the narrow passages between the wards and speaking to men whose minds had been corroded by suffering and disease and whose clothes gave off the odor of incontinence. So this was the heaven to which I had unwittingly consigned my father.

Old shoes

Gloves - Part two

Did this old crone, who would have felt quite at home in Calvin's Geneva, guess that I nurtured rebellious instincts? I must have seemed so diaphanous to her who had suffered the death of three children from diptheria and two more through war, who had celebrated the Relief of Mafeking in 1899 and had travelled all over Canada before the First War in search of relatives exiled by the Highland Clearances. I'm certain now that she knew I'd thrown away the gloves and maybe if she had had the strength she'd have taken me into the bedroom and whipped me there and then. But it might have been merely a warning and maybe, if that was the case, I should have heeded it because I've been careless all my life, losing things, people and oppertunities either through laziness and inattention or else through subtler forms of deprecation.
There are certain matters in my description of my aunt's living room which I underplayed and some which I left out. For example, I minimized the matter of the orphans, whereas in fact they were to play a large part in my childhood fantasies later on, and I didn't mention the piano or the painting that hung above the side board or, when it comes to it, the ceiling painted dark blue and studded with silver stars.
Let's start with the painting; it thoroughly matched the context in which it found itself - it was dark and gloomy. The only thing bright about it was the heavy gilt frame in which it found itself. Maybe it had been hung there to act as a reminder of my grandmother's roots because in the foreground there were sheep standing by a loch and beyond this a chain of dark mountains ominously outlined against a a morbid sky. Perhaps I loved this heavily varnished painting just because it reflected a grief that I had to keep hidden even from myself. As for the piano, it stood by the window and its casing of cherry wood was always highly polished. Once, only once, did I dare to open the lid and with innocent fingers bang out a chord so dissonant that my aunt and mother shrieked their disapproval. Never ever - they said - do that again; and I didn't.
The orphanage was a different matter entirely; but how can I explain this fascination except by saying that my aunt's response had excited me with notions of freedom. Even though I loved my father I knew I would have been just as happy if I had had the company of other children and the adults had been mere salaried caretakers. This may seem strange but not so odd when you consider that all the people I have mentioned so far, and who are now long dead, were only my relatives through adoption. I was being inexorably remoulded and the deepest part of me was instinctively repelled by their efforts.
These old shoes are therefore a faint echo of that earlier rebellion.

Saturday, 14 February 2009


I wish I hadn't, in a fit of irritation, thrown away the few photographs that were the only record of my earliest existance - there was my brother standing firm and severe in his military uniform, my father in a loose raincoat smoking a pipe, my mother as a young woman wearing a cloche hat and a flapper's dress and finally a photo of me standing in front of a gate wearing a wan and insipid smile. I trashed them all; I wanted to erase that identity and start afresh. Yet there is one image that I particularly regret losing; a studio photograph of me aged four years old wearing a Fair Isle sweater and hugging a teddy bear. This image transmits an atmosphere of such joyful contentment that I can almost scent the freshness of my emergence; between that moment and these old shoes stands the space of sixty two years.
A year after that photograph was taken I committed my first crime; and because it was the first it is perhaps the most significant. I didn't just lose the gloves, I abandoned them. It was like this; my mother took me to Forsyths in Princes Street and bought me a pair of Fair Isle gloves to match my sweater. The patterned wool fitted snugly enough but I felt they were silly and not like the military gauntlets that my brother wore and which I so much admired. We boarded the tram and went upstairs to sit in one of the front seats. The more I looked at the gloves the more I hated them and when we reached our destination I slipped them off and threw them under the seat. By the time my mother realised the loss the tram had dissapeared in the direction of the zoo. Mission accomplished.
That was not the end of the matter; but in order to continue I must describe my aunt's livingroom and the ambience of a particular Sunday afternoon which had all the subdued menace of a courtroom. My father's mother had been born in 1867 on a farm somewhere west of Glasgow; a MacGregor by birth and widowed through a hunting accident, she was eighty one when I first met her.To my childish eye she was more like a piece of gnarled wood than a human being; the old woman seldom spoke and when she did it was either to complain or give an order. The wick of human kindness now produced a guttering flame. She was dressed completely in black and her high collar and intricate cuffs were of starched lace; her only ornament was a brooch that pinned her shawl at her throat. The furniture in the room had aged with her. A red mahogany table, six high backed chairs and a sideboard were the trappings of Victorian respectability. A glass fronted bookcase was filled with the works of Scott and worthy memorials of an Empire on the verge of collapse. I sensed that we were all there against our will.
Every Sunday was the same. I would stand by the window looking out onto the street while the adults talked. Quite close by there was what appeared to be a park filled with children; girls and boys playing tag or football. When I asked my aunt if I could join them she said that they were orphans, children that did not have mothers and fathers to look after them. That was that. Eventually tea was served; slices of bread and butter, scones and homemade jam and a slice of fruitcake. The climax of this weekly ritual turned on me and my behaviour during the previous week, normally I was declared innocent and allowed to take an apple from the sideboard but on this occasion it was different because my mother stupidly mentioned the gloves and that was when my grandmother, who had not shown the slightest interest in me up until that point, suddenly perked up - like a hooded crow which senses carrion and flaps its wings. My aunt looked severe while my mother and father tried to laugh the matter off, but my grandmother would have none of it; trapping me in her cold remorseless stare, she said in a tone that brooked no contradiction -'Little boys who lose their gloves should be whipped.'

Friday, 6 February 2009

My old shoes - outside the norm

From very early on I seemed to have mistrusted the normal and inclined towards its opposite; an unconscious refusal, perhaps brought about by my father's death. Not long after his disappearance and while snow still lay on the ground, the trumpeter arrived. It was late afternoon and a bright fire was burning in the grate. The tunes he played were slow and mournful. They had a cracked and funereal quality to them. I went to the window and looked down on a ragged man in a heavy greatcoat and an army cap. He noticed my appearance and so played on and on as if willing me to join him and I felt a dark helplessness that I was too young to understand.
Two years later, but this time in a semi-detached house on the outskirts of London, I was once more on my own. The door bell rang and I answered it. He was also ragged and wearing a heavy coat, even though it was midsummer. and his face was almost completely hidden by a thick black beard. I invited him in, offered him tea and added with a certain amount of pride and enthusiasm several slices of bread and margerine. I remember nothing of what he said but it was as if we instinctively understood one another. What impressed me most was was the way he folded the bread and dipped it in his tea and I watched with fascination as the sodden morsel vanished into that dark hole that was his mouth. Of course, when my mother returned he was immediately but tactfully ejected and I was sent to my bedroom in disgrace.
Did either of these men have footwear that matched my aunt's expectations?

My old shoes - first principle

It was early in the morning when I arrived at the Edinburgh tenement and faced the familiar array of brass faced bells. Doig, Campbell, MacEwan, McKintyre and Fraser; all worthy Scottish names. I pulled on MacEwan and waited for the heavy iron latch to lift. The stair was exactly as I remembered it from childhood - the severe black marble steps flecked with quartz and the walls of the stairwell glossed over with hideous institutional green and cream. My aunt was standing on her landing and leaning out over the banister to watch my gradual ascent. Her nephew and my brother had just died but we would never understand one another's grief. I was the black sheep, he the white and the bearer of the blood; a soldier and a man of substance, something she understood and out of long tradition , respected. After all, the sword that her great grandfather used so forcefully at Waterloo still had pride of place in her bedroom. We kissed and I followed her into the kitchen whose windows overlooked the Pentland Hills; the table was set for breakfast and the smell of the hot rolls was so comforting that I forgot for a moment my grief that had exploded on the north bound train. She looked me up and down with a stare that gave no quarter.
' Your shoes, they're a disgrace.'
At the time I hardly registered her disgust; he had died and the state of my shoes hardly seemed to matter. My aunt turned away with a gesture of contempt that overturned my upbringing by a woman she covertly despised. The mark of a gentleman was measured by the state of his shoes. That was what she believed and she held onto this principle right up to the very end.

My old shoes

My old shoes - an introduction

They've had their day; I should have discarded them long ago; placed them carefully on the pavement alongside my local street bin like the other people round here do. But I couldn't; I was still too attached to them. If anyone was to tell me that they'd given their shoes a decent burial I'd believe them; that exactly how I feel about these shoes - my old shoes.

They look old but in fact I only bought them six months ago in Ben Calçat for thirty five euros; a price I could afford even though I knew they wouldn't last, because they're made for a leisurely stroll and not for climbing over rocks or trekking. I particularly like the mixture of canvas and leather that hints at the sophistication of an earlier age, the soles that are recycled car tyres and the medley of styles. The leather is so soft that it immediately takes on the shape of your foot; there's no chaffing of the heel, no painful blisters, no suffering.

More than any other item, a pair of shoes comes to reflect the distinctive personality of its owner. The creases in the leather and the lateral distensions caused by a biased step or the inevitable differences between right and left foot; and then, more revealing still, there's the condition of the leather itself which is a measure of their owner's self respect. A cobbler might guess with confidence the character of any wearer.

So now that I can no longer use them, why do I hesitate to throw them away? It is because in these worn out shoes, splintered and corroded, I see an isssue that I must resolve and which these husks have suddenly brought to light. First I had to document them; so I simply placed them on the floor and photographed them without any elaborate ceremonies. But when I got the prints back from the local photo shop I saw that I'd unintentionally created a fiction - a potential misunderstanding. Because of the vaguely Moorish design of my floor tiles it might be thought that these shoes had been respectfully set aside while thier owner went to pray and like many a tourist I had taken advantage of his absence to record an item of ethnic colour. Obviously this is not the case and in what follows such an innocent interpretation is quite out of place.