On ‘being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts…’

It isn’t, to the Western mind – schooled as it is in science and reason – a comfortable place to be.  It feels risky, subversive almost. There are times when even the most hardened venturers into this zone yearn for more solid ground.  Many have teetered on the edge and scurried back to the reassurance of what, in their world, is believed to be real and provable.

The poet Keats coined the term Negative Capability to describe this other state.  He defined it thus:

Capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.

I found that quote in the second of Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials books – The Subtle Knife.  His character Mary sees it as the frame of mind one needs to access in order to open to communication from a level of consciousness normally concealed behind the current world view.  Lyra, his young heroine, immediately recognises it as the state she enters to read the alethiometer – her divination machine.

Fractal, Abstract, Yellow, Design, LightIf you are reading this, you have almost certainly experienced that state.  It has overtaken you as you painted, wrote, sang, created or became so absorbed in any task that you moved beyond time and rationality, lost yourself in something wider, stronger and vaster and briefly allowed it to override your thoughts and rationally derived aims.  What you created during that period of Negative Capability will have been sublime.  If it is a work of art or craft, you may have wondered where the inspiration came from and why it surpasses what you produce while striving to impose order and perfection in the accepted way.  You will be aware – and perhaps alarmed – that time has passed of which you have little or no memory.

A musician friend tells of how she would enter the space during an operatic performance and ‘come to’ afterwards in a panic, wondering whether her singing had kept pace with the accompanists.  Poets and writers are, of course, able to review the words which arrived from their sojourn in this otherworld, but are still left wondering where the inspiration came from.  I’ve often been aware that certain passages in my books ‘wrote themselves’.  They are easily the best passages – far superior to those where I’ve wrestled with syntax and thesaurus to capture the right mood.

As should be obvious, though, the ‘irritable reaching’ towards the rational and familiar is difficult to resist.  It’s like trying to remain in a dream once you have realised that you are dreaming.  There is no proof, and proof for us has become the touchstone of all that is rational and acceptable.  Whenever we stray there, despite the inspirations and gifts we receive, we must tolerate as our companions Uncertainty and Doubt.

What a choice!

Girl, Space, Mystic, Brain, MysticalFor poets and artists it’s one thing; for those who venture into the world of the seer, the channel, the diviner or the clairvoyant, the experience is harder yet.  This extract, for example, written by my friend and erstwhile collaborator William, hints at the complex balancing act involved in remote viewing:

It is necessary to be able to correctly focus at the correct time while ensuring the knowledge held is sufficiently minimalistic to avoid involuntary logical assumptions clouding the receipt of information through remote viewing, but sufficient to ensure the information received can be interpreted correctly.

So the person who strays into the realms of Negative Capability must be willing to retain only a modicum of what we commonly know as logic and fact while being prepared to accept a quite different and infinitely more nebulous source of psychological information.

The rewards can be astounding but the path takes courage and a willingness to embrace, or at least make close contact with, what Keats calls, “sensations rather than thoughts”.

The Art of Magic (and the magic of art)

“Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.” Pablo Picasso

Oekaki, Drawing, Children, GraffitiThat from the artist who also claimed that it took him four years to learn to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to learn to paint like a child.  It’s a perspective that interests me.

About thirty years ago I recall a family picnic on the banks of the River Stour on the Essex-Suffolk border.  My 18 month old son (now a professional graphic artist and illustrator) seized his father’s sketchbook and pencil, stared intently at the reeds and bull rushes growing at the water’s edge, then proceeded to draw a series of vertical and near-vertical lines on the paper.  It took him seconds.  His first representational landscape drawing!  The child moved on to other ways of exploring the environment immediately.  It was as if the drawing was some kind of instinctive yet fleeting need to capture the 3D world in just two dimensions.  He didn’t, as his older siblings might have done, compare it to his father’s sketches or seek anyone’s approval or praise.  In fact he was confused by our excitement and delight.

A tiny child will not seek out the ‘right’ colours or consider shapes and ratios.  What they do, though, when you think about it, is pure magic.  They use their crayons to create the significant people and objects around them at that moment in time.  Their art freezes an aspect of the swirl of life and movement and emotion they find themselves in and places it on a flat sheet of paper.   How very different that is from our own self-conscious attempts to draw a representational image.  We are hung up on how realistic it looks, whether our lines are straight or whether the perspective is right.  Most of all, we are worried about how others will judge it.  That, I suspect, is the ‘problem’ Picasso was referring to.

“That’s a lovely picture.  Would you like to tell me about it?” we were taught to say when I was training to be a teacher.  It avoided the problems of, “What a beautiful picture of Mummy!  Oh, I see – it’s a green tractor with lots of mud, is it?  Right.”

Gradually we ‘help’ the child to fit their depictions to the conventions of art in our world.  In medieval times, drawing the mother or self far larger than other people would have been quite acceptable.  The convention was ‘important people are shown larger than less significant people’.  In our modern world the convention is photographic, so a person shown large is closer in physical space to the artist’s viewpoint than those standing further away.

 

Light, Effect, Light Effect, Magic LightAnd what of magic?  I would argue that this, too, is something a small child experiences and responds to in a very natural, comfortable way and trying to regain that instinctive connection to the magic inherent in their lives takes many years, once the child has been trained to put it aside.

We allow – even encourage – small children to fill their lives with magic.  We tell them of Santa Claus, the tooth fairy, the Easter bunny and read them stories or show them videos of unicorns and dragons, magicians and heroes with fantastic powers.

At some point, though – perhaps around the same time we start insisting that humans should be drawn with bodies, not just a circular head with legs and arms – we begin to teach them what is ‘real’ and what is ‘pretend’.  What many of us don’t recognise is that this is just as arbitrary and incomplete a world view as the one we are asking them to leave behind.

Magic has a strong similarity to art.  When painting and drawing we encapsulate three dimensions in two.  With magic, we bring multiple dimensions into the three that form what current convention sees as our world.  (Again, I suspect our ancestors would have viewed it quite differently.)

In the children’s story book I’ve just published, I made sure enough magic was embedded within it to at least allow my 8-12 year old audience to keep wondering.  My metaphysician (yes, of course there had to be one!) observes three members of a family who find themselves confronted with a magical ‘coincidence’ as follows:

The lady in the blue dress looked from one to the other of them – the mother, who was slowly shaking her head and muttering, “Extraordinary…”, the boy who was now clutching his cheeks and laughing with amazement and pure delight, and the small child beside her who was still young enough to understand how real magic was and therefore not surprised at all.

I’d love to think that a few children reading The Glassmaker’s Children will recognise the magic my young hero Stellan rediscovers and notice how, by using attention and intention, both he and they can find way of surviving and thriving, despite the setbacks and challenges they encounter.

 

Small note:  I originally set up this blog (back in 2012) to publicise my first book.  Since then it’s be come more of a vehicle for my metaphysical ramblings, and I’d like it to stay that way.  For that reason, I’m placing most of my posts about The Glassmaker’s Children on my Open the Box blog.  This one, for example, explains the particular challenges my two young characters face as they battle to cope with a narcissistic parent.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Musing in Miniature

This isn’t a covert way of publicising my tiny cottage industry.  You’d need to head over to my other blog for that.  It’s just that most of my days at the moment are spent transforming, upcycling and creating tiny objects of various kinds from what most people would regard as junk, and it gives me an absurd amount of joy and satisfaction.

reject purchaseBack in the summer, I picked up this little 12th scale (that’s one inch to one foot) figure from a reject box at a miniatures fair.

Not difficult to see why he was a reject.  He wasn’t, at first sight, the most promising of specimens, with his vacant stare, twisted legs and stringy hair, but I knew his day would come!

In some strange way, discovering the hidden potential in what others consider rejects is what has always given me the greatest pleasure.  I remember the scruffy, fidgety boy I once taught who auditioned for a part in our school production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat.  I remember my pure delight as the clearest, most beautiful voice drifted across the room.  The head teacher and I glanced at each other and smiled – Joseph!  True, he took up many, many hours of rehearsals – far more than one of the bright young hopefuls who had expected the part would have done.  True, I had to tape the complicated words of Close Every Door to Me to the floor of his prison cell, because he’d never have learnt them, but it worked perfectly and the pleasure of watching that kid revel in his hour or two of fame has stayed with me forever.

It was the same with the shy, quiet, dumpy little girl who produced a beautiful piece of writing.  Before I handed back the class’s work, I read out this one piece and they were all staring round the room, wondering who had written it, mouthing, ‘You?’ to the high fliers and looking puzzled.  That simple act, and then handing the work back to the young author with the words, ‘Superb work – well done’, was enough to raise that child’s self-esteem and status within the class to a ridiculous degree.

upcycled doll by Jan StoneSadly, my little porcelain doll had no esteem for me to raise, but when I decided I wanted to make a replica of one of my idols – Nikola Tesla – he was the one I chose.  I looked beyond his defects to the long face, the high cheekbones, the firm chin and the centre-parted hair.  The face was removed as easily as a spot of nail varnish and painted anew, the hair was cut, styled and recoloured.  A tiny shirt, trousers and jacket were cut out and hand stitched.  The dodgy leg was re-wired and, once dressed, Mr Tesla looked as proud as a small piece of porcelain, foam and wire could hope to.

room box by Jan StoneAnd now, when I look at him sitting calmly in his experimental station, gazing at the coils and equipment I’ve been patiently wrapping in copper wire all week, I feel proud too!

This is what we all do – take something rough and unfinished and inject enough energy into it to allow it to transform it into something so much better.

 

A Voyage Around my Grandfather

I remember only one encounter with my grandad.  I was four or five and he was standing at the end of a long hallway in a Victorian terraced house, bending down with his arms outstretched to greet me and chuckling delightedly as I ran into his arms.  There were clearly many forgotten meetings before that, but few after it.  He and my grandmother moved to the coast where he remained as an invalid for the rest of his short life, dying when I was nine.

Historical map with Bohemia proper outlined in...

Historical map with Bohemia proper outlined in pink, Moravia in yellow, and Austrian Silesia in orange. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As children we were simply told he was too ill to see us and our exotic Bohemian grandfather (that’s a geographical term, not a comment on his lifestyle) became a shadowy  figure of mystery.

Grandad Oscar had arrived on these shores to seek his fortune at the beginning of the twentieth century.  He was a barber-surgeon, possessing in his tool kit, amongst other things, an amputation saw and an amazing machine with dials and probes that produced some kind of early electro-therapy.

He seems to have wasted little time in sweeping the daughter of a London policeman off her feet and together they produced three sons in quick succession, the oldest being my dad.

As I understood it, when the First World War broke out, Grandad’s pronounced Germanic accent didn’t go down too well with the British authorities and he was interned for the duration of the War, leaving his young bride to rear the little boys alone and in considerable hardship.

Eventually the family was reunited and Dad told fond stories of how he accompanied his father on foraging trips in Epping Forest, collecting mushrooms, or of the hands-on healing skills he employed to relieve Dad’s migraines.  It made me long to have known this gentle, sweet man for longer.

Something I’d all but forgotten was that a portrait of him as a young man, drawn in pastels, had been passed down to me by my father.  In the manner of such heirlooms in bad novels and TV antique shows, it really had lain at the back of a garage for many years, swathed in bubble wrap.

Grandad OscarYesterday, when the Ex arrived at the cottage with a car-full of my possessions, the portrait re-emerged.  The frame had come loose, so we took the opportunity to prise it apart and examine the picture.  Once the glass was removed and cleaned, I was able to see the image clearly for the first time.

Quite apart from the time-slip sensation of staring into the eyes of my grandfather as a man around my son’s age, I was impressed with the skill of the artist.

Hidden beneath the frame was a signature: Lino Ve?co 1916.  The letter in the centre of the surname was either a ‘g’ or an ‘s’.  I Googled both.

A famous auction house had recently sold a landscape by Lino Vegco for a couple of hundred pounds.  They’d clearly had the same problem we had in reading the signature.

Lino Vesco, however, appeared as an Austrian artist born in 1879.  His pictures were selling for considerably more.This rather wonderful interior, for example, changed hands for over $3000.

 Animation dans la galerie des Abencerage by Lino Vesco So how did my grandfather come to sit for so distinguished an artist?

“He was your grandfather’s best friend,” my Ex informed my casually.  “He did the portrait as a present.”

Apparently my father had shared this information with him, but neglected to tell my brother or myself.

Quite how it came to be drawn during the middle of the war, when Grandad was in a prison camp, I’m not sure, but still.

The next mystery was the ornate frame.  The carefully carved oval at the top has a strange inscription.  This really is sounding more like a cheap detective story by the minute, don’t you think?

2015-01-25 17.15.36Here’s a very blurred image of the inscription, to give you a general idea.

I hadn’t a clue what language it was in, let alone what it said.  My son, having done some searches of his own, tells me it’s Arabic and seems to be a name – Arno Lawrence being the most likely translation.

I wish I could end this post by explaining the link.  I fear it will forever remain a mystery.  (Although yet another Google search revealed that around a hundred years ago DH Lawrence was staying in a room overlooking the River Arno and that TE Lawrence  – Lawrence of Arabia – was fighting in Arab lands…)

Hmm.

Perhaps one day, when time and funds allow, I’ll try researching my family tree and discover more about this grandfather I barely knew and his friends.  For now though, although mystery will continue to surround him, I will enjoy our new-found connection as he gazes thoughtfully down at me from the wall of my living room in Lime Cottage.