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/