25 March 2023

A brief trip to St Ives, Cornwall

 Art & Life

A feeling of being lost in pursuit of something

My room is low on the last building above the rocks, at Pedn Olva

I wanted (needed?) a break. Having had a chest infection on top of a relatively miserable winter, I just wanted a brief change of scene. Self-indulgent? Tick. Extravagant? Tick. Crazy? Tick.....

It is close to twelve hours by public transport (one bus, one tube and four trains) from my home to St Ives, Cornwall, and I was only going for two nights, so practically only had one whole day in St Ives.....  Why?

Well, this was one reason (which I'll come back to):

I had been to St Ives at least once before, though it was so long ago it looked a bit like this:

Has it changed? No, Not a lot:

St Ives has a population of about 11,000, not counting visitors, and had about the same number of inhabitants when Angela and Frank were born here:

Though over time there has been a considerable change in the make up of that population. Tourism occupies the majority of working people, though there is still a fishing fleet:

But there is hardly anywhere to park - the narrow twisted streets are quaint, but no good for the family car. You can rent a wind- and seaspray-swept parking space for about £1,000 a year, but you can't park outside your home:

And you can see the changes in local facilities, from traditional cinema:

To modern Art Gallery:

So, inevitably, young families have moved away, and older, richer, retired people have settled in, walking their dogs and enjoying the ultra-violet, then, possibly, letting their home for the summer while they go somewhere quieter.....

It's a charming, higgled-piggledy place, winding, almost coiling like ropes, up and over:

From the harbour to the beach - one sheltered from the elements:

The other wide open to the rolling surf:

And it was to this corner of paradise that Barbara Hepworth happened in 1939. And where she stayed until her death in 1975.

I have come to see Barbara Hepworth: Art & Life, an exhibition at the Tate St Ives, as well as to visit Trewyn Studio, now the Barbara Hepworth Museum and Sculpture Garden.

I am not alone.  Although it is term time and early Spring, the town is surprisingly busy, with young couples walking their dog:

And individuals (walking their dog):

But also with school parties, busily sketching and noting and giggling, exploring the intricacies of abstract sculpture:

What they see in it, I can't tell, as I am not sure what I am seeing either, but I think I may begin to understand something when I read about her:

Hepworth was one of few women artists to gain international recognition in an era when the practice of making sculpture was dominated by men. Her abstract works often explore ideas of a universal human experience, such as the figure in the landscape. 

Hepworth was profoundly influenced by the natural environment. 

The guide to the exhibition take us through the various stages of her creative life, but begins with a quotation from her from 1970:

The forms which have had special meaning for me since childhood have been the standing form (which is the translation of my feeling towards the human being standing in landscape); 

the two forms (which is the tender relationship of one living thing beside another); 

and the closed form, such as the oval, spherical or pierced form (sometimes incorporating colour) which translates for me the association of meaning of gesture in landscape; in the repose of say a mother & child, or the feeling of the embrace of living things, either in nature or in the human spirit.

In all this, both in the Tate and in her home, I am teased to wonder.  A thought occurs to me:  It is not possible to imagine a world without 'art,' for the very process of imagination is an artistic act.  From the time when someone depicted wild beasts in two dimensions on a cave wall, to the furthest future of mankind, we are doomed to imagine things that are not there or which are not what they seem to be.  And this is art.

Quite how you assess or justify such work is another matter. I think that many might say that a likeness of someone or something is preferable to an abstraction, and a good likeness (a recognisable likeness) is better than a crude similarity.  

But ultimately that doesn't matter. 

Here we see an image of Barbara Hepworth at the United Nations Plaza in New York:

She is formally addressing an audience at the unveiling ceremony of her 6.4 metre tall Single Form 1961-4, which she created as a memorial to her friend Dag Hammarskjöld, Secretary-General of the United Nations, following his death in a plane crash in 1961. In her address Hepworth said: I have tried to perfect a symbol that would reflect the nobility of [Dag Hammarskjöld's] life, and at the same time give us a motive and symbol of both continuity and solidarity for the future.

I can relate to that.....

Back in my hotel, I reflect on Life & Art, wondering which is which.

The sea ebbs and flows through the night and splashes against the rocks below my window.  In the morning I wake to that sound, and see the sun shining across the burnished sea.  

Art and Life become one, for a moment.  

I feel at peace.

Barbara Hepworth remains one of Britain's most celebrated modern sculptors. Her monumental works can be seen in prominent public spaces in St Ives, London and New York as well as in public and private collections around the world.

16 March 2023

Song Snatcher

 Love Minus Zero/No Limit

Performing for Amnesty International - Yes, that is Adrian Mitchell on the left.....

Last night I had a dream.  Somehow, I was to sing a song.  I think it was at an event at my wife, Amanda’s, Care Home, so there would be a small audience – maybe some twenty or thirty.  My son-in-law has recently loaned me his Martin acoustic guitar, though I have not practised for years.  

Thanks, Cam - I'll look after it


In the dream I had the guitar, and I had several books of words and chords.  These were the books that I had written out when a teenager (I had my first, cheap, guitar, when I was about twelve).  I can see them now, flimsy exercise books with my handwriting in royal blue ink underlined on the cover, then songs written out with the chords over the words in red biro.


Some of the first songs I learned were simple American songs, cowboy songs, copied from Alan Lomax’s American Songbook, and probably heard on Two-Way Family Favourites on the radio on Sundays.  


Then there was Peter, Paul and Mary and Joan Baez, and Bob Dylan with some more modern material – Blowin’ in the Wind, etc.  


My guitar playing was simplicity itself – three chords if I was lucky, and none of them with a barré (so B minor was a problem) and my sense of rhythm less than strict. I was no singer, either, though perhaps later on my voice pleased some.


Anyway, I was there with the guitar and my song books, but then, as I seemed to be on a stage now, with a gathering audience, I panicked a bit.  I couldn’t find the books, I had put them somewhere but I was now lost.  I was never good at remembering all the words, and, I had had a crib stuck on the shoulder of my guitar with the first words of lines or verses to help me.


But I get ahead of myself.


For many years I just played a bit with friends.  I was a very minor part of a group led by school mate ‘Niggles,’ with Nick on Bass, Ben as vocalist, and Roy Dodds (yes, THE Roy Dodds) on drums.  I remember we played at parties, but my contribution was minimal.  I don’t think anyone noticed.


Picture taken on Dunrobin Beach, Sutherland, for the local press

I made some progress however when another friend, Charlie Snoxall, gave me a better guitar, and it was with this that I went to Scotland before my eighteenth birthday.  There I met Paul and Derek and we formed The Dunrobiners (for more about this period you can see an earlier Blog, entitled “Highlands,” https://www.richardpgibbs.org/2014/06/highlands.html) quickly becoming sought after for Ceilidhs and pubs, and even making a record (long since disappeared, don’t even try to find it....)  I remember one evening when we drove up to Wick in Paul’s Rover 90 to perform at a folk club.  The headline act was Hamish Imlach (I think!) and we played with him – but that’s about all I recall..... 

Paul, Derek and me at The Stag's Head, Golspie in 1969
I loved that silk shirt (until I dropped hot cigarette ash on it!)


Later that summer we did a week in the front room of The Stag’s Head, Golspie, and I still smell the tables of Tennent’s Heavy that accumulated before us as we worked through our repertoire of traditional Scottish and Irish songs, including The Irish Rover (She had twenty-three masts and she stood several blasts....)Leaving of Liverpool (So fare thee well my own true love....), and my speciality, The Black Velvet Band (Her eyes they shone like diamonds/You’d think her the queen of the land/And her hair it hung over her shoulder/Tied up with a black velvet band), the whole room joining in for the chorus. Apart from that I spent time trying to impress the Assistant Matron (the gorgeous Marty Dearlove) by plucking my way through The Last Thing on my Mind, my eyes sticking to her like snails on a window pane, while she darned the boarders’ socks (Are you going away with no word of farewell/Will there be not a trace left behind?


Not a trace.....


Around the same time, I also spent holidays in Ireland and met Luke Kelly, in Dublin (for more on this see my Dublin 3 Blog https://www.richardpgibbs.org/2012/10/dublin-3_28.html).  I learned a little from singers and guitarists, but, to be honest, I wasn’t a very good musician.  I had a few party pieces – Season of the Witch (When I look out my window), being one, Mr Tambourine Man (Let me forget about today until tomorrow.....) another.


Several years later, in Rome, friends formed Roisin Dubh, the Celtic connection being strong at the time, and I bought a new (Echo) guitar, which stayed in tune a little better than my old one.  With a friend and colleague, Gerry, I set up a folk group at our school, and we practised and sang loud and happily for some years.  It was, interestingly, a very cosmopolitan group, including Palestinians and Israelis as well as British and Italians, and we performed at concerts that I set up for Amnesty International, headlined by the likes of Adrian Mitchell and Roger McGough, with songs like I shall be released (They say ev’rything can be replaced....)

One iteration of our folk group in Rome


On my return to the UK I tried to keep going, but family life and then, eventually, my wife’s illness withered the vine.


And so, to my dream.  I am now searching furiously for my word books, sweating and frightened, the enormous audience restless (we are in something like the Ryman Auditorium now), but I am lost, and my soft fingers are not practised.


I stand and there is a hush.  I decide to talk about memory, and memory loss, and try to illustrate this with snatches from some of the songs I used to sing, plucking hopefully at the guitar.  At my door the leaves are falling/The cold wild wind will come/Sweethearts walk by together/And I still miss someone..... (Johnny Cash).  I struggle to complete the song, and then talk some more about my personal history as I have told you, dressing up my encounters with musicians and singers, grasping at memories of lines.  Things begin to fall into place, I see my light come shining/from the west unto the east/Any day now, any day now/I shall be released....

Danny, Andrew and Clive


My confidence grows, my fingertips harden, I use a pick, Must be the season of the witch!  I talk a bit about dementia, about the way my wife has lost all language, I strum a chord, and begin Love minus zero: (My love, she speaks like silence....) I falter.....  I begin Don’t Think Twice It’s All Right, but muddle the verses:  Well it ain’t no use to sit and wonder why babe, If’n you don’t know by now.....


The audience is standing, No wait!  I say.  I just remembered.  One more.....


May God bless and keep you always, May your wishes all come true,

May you always do for others and let others do for you,

May you build a ladder to the stars and climb on every rung,

May you stay for ever young

For ever young, for ever young, May you stay forever young.....


The auditorium is dark and empty.  The audience has gone.  The auditorium has gone.  I am in my wife’s Care Home, in the Dining Room; Amanda is asleep, head down on the table.  The cook brings me a cup of tea.  Very nice, she says.  You should go on Britain’s got talent......


Love Minus Zero/No Limit


My love she speaks like silence
Without ideals or violence
She doesn’t have to say she’s faithful
Yet she’s true, like ice, like fire
People carry roses
Make promises by the hours
My love she laughs like the flowers
Valentines can’t buy her


Bob Dylan


11 March 2023

A Family Celebration

 98 not out!

The Baker and McMullin families
Putney, June 18th 2017

It is March 8th, 2023 and we are in Putney, south west London.  My aunt, Eve, reclines on a sofa, a blanket across her knees.  The room is full of vases of cut flowers.  Cards are arranged on the mantelpiece and on the table.  A large fish tank contains a silent chorus of colour, choreographed to spell out Happy Birthday in the imagination.  The television lights a corner by the fireplace, subtitles misspelling the news.  My cousin, Nick, brings a telephone to his mother: “It’s Mark….”  Eve listens and speaks.  Another cousin, Sarah, explains to me that this was Isobel (her long-departed sister)’s partner, who regularly keeps in touch. 

Eve at 98


My aunt, Eve, was born on March 8th 1925, in a bungalow on Arnakal tea estate, at Vanderperiyar, 3,000 feet up in the Cardamon Hills in Kerala, southern India.  She was the third child of the family, my mother, Anna, being the second, just two years older.  Robert had been the firstborn, in 1921, and Peter was to be the last, in 1927.

Eve and Peter with their father, Major Robert McMullin
Arnakal, India, 1933


Of these four, Eve is the survivor; all the others, including their partners, with the exception of Adrienne, Robert’s wife, who was born in 1934 and who lives in Toronto, Canada, have now passed on.


Peter and Eve, Arnakal

None of this will matter to anyone outside our family circle.  Indeed, it doesn’t matter much at all, but I am happy my aunt survives and I celebrate the warmth of relationships.  If we turn our back on our nearest, then how can we care for others? And this human world is bad enough without any further loss of love.


Eve’s life is to be celebrated.  It isn’t over, yet, but it has run a fine course, bringing light and life to others.  And it is remarkable how alive some of Eve’s memories still are.  In the course of my brief stay that morning we talked about her mother, who I did just know when I was little, and about coming to England as a child, and going to school, with her sister, my mother.  She even recalled the name of the school, Storrington, in Eastbourne, where the two of them were boarders.  

Eve and Anna, c 1938?


After their father had brought the family home from India, he set up a Silver Fox farm at Robertsbridge, in Sussex, and the two girls would make their way by train to the school in Essex.  On the way through London, Eve still recalls, they might pass a little time at the newsreel cinema (I think I remember them as Jaceys, showing Pathe News) in one of the rail termini in the city.  I know this to be true as my mother also told me this years ago, but it is remarkable that such experience is still there to be related in Eve’s mind, and she cannot have been much more than eleven at the time, some 85 years ago. 

Eve at Pean's Farm


Eve wasn’t very happy at school as she was homesick and missed the gardens and the house at Arnakal where she had spent the first nine years of her life. In later life she wrote a book, The Tea Planter’s Children, all about her experiences there, which is still available. In her introduction to this she wrote that, All four of us, the Tea Planter’s Children, have always looked back on our life at Arnakal as a time of great happiness, and tranquillity. For our parents, too, it was the happiest time of their lives.


Peter and Eve, c 1941

Yes, Eve was literate, and an integral part of her life was a writers’ group, which she organised, and she was an artist, and became an excellent potter, producing beautiful glazed ceramic plates, cups, jugs and bowls some of which are still among my treasured possessions.  For years she exhibited annually with a friend and had her own kiln.

One of Eve's creations

For all her immediate family, the Second World War interrupted their lives and the four young people served in various ways. Although she was only 14 when the war broke out, Eve spent time after leaving school (which she remembers was evacuated to Devon) in the WAAF, as my mother did.  Then, after the war was over, she met Wilfred Baker, a friend of her brother Peter from University, and in the summer of 1951, they married.

Eve and their lovely Tansy
c late '50s


Wilfred was a businessman, and developed an import/export business in optical equipment.  For many years this was successful and their life together moved from a modest house (whose basement rooms flooded in heavy rain) in Holland Park, to a more substantial house near Portobello Road, to a fine big house in Putney, where I joined the family for a while as their interior decorator.  They also had a holiday cottage in Mayo, not far from a branch of our Irish family who lived in Westport (the McMullin family had had property in Sligo, but this is now lost).

Eve and Wilfred on their Golden Wedding, 2016


There were five children, three girls and two boys, and there was always a buzz about the place.  I had grown up with two brothers, and I enjoyed staying with my cousins.  I also enjoyed going for drinks with Wilfred, sometimes at the Grapes near Aldgate, where he had an office, sometimes at Gordon’s Wine Bar near Embankment Gardens, and more often at the Spread Eagle in Wandsworth.  Wilfred was excellent company, even though he quite often forgot to carry cash....


The house was alive, and there were always people coming and going.  The children had their talents, with Isobel taking after her father as a serious pianist.  Chris was a fine artist, and was for a time one of the original puppet makers for Spitting Image.  Sarah went from a teaching degree to work for the National Theatre, before moving to Italy as a professional artist.  Jenny was, and is, a great cook and Nick developed his skills as a carpenter.


Unfortunately, however, Wilfred’s business partner let him down, and they had to downsize, twice, over the years when he should have been able to retire comfortably.  Separately he developed Vascular Dementia, and at his death in 2017, Eve had to manage some difficult finances, but, as ever, she carried on, keeping her head, as she had done earlier when Isobel died, and later when Chris passed away.  


Taking in lodgers, and keeping a tight hold on the purse strings, Eve came through, and she was always warm and welcoming whenever I visited her.  And she was full of reminiscences and her bright memory shone to illuminate my interests in family history.  Even now, today, her 98th birthday, she remembers her mother, who was private secretary to Anna Pavlova in London before her marriage, and corrects me on details from a lifetime ago.

Eve and Anna's last meeting


Although she is weak and thin now, and depends on social workers, family and lodgers a great deal, her voice is still clear, with an unaffected accent that I believe carries a hint of Ireland and a touch of India and which breaks into a smiling laugh every now and then.  Old age can be a terrible thing, but Eve is weathering that storm, for now, and she gives hope to those who feel old before their time.  She engages with people and with life and always has done.  I left as Lauren, one of her eight grandchildren, arrived to pay her respects (and there are also three great grandchildren, so far....)  

Succeeding generations will remember Eve with great affection, love and gratitude for the part she has played in all our lives.  She did need to be reminded that it was her 98th birthday, and then she chuckled as if she didn’t quite believe it......