Black flowers on the train to Arezzo
Just as success in our world is random (a useful trick if you can pull it off), and rarely relates to any amount of effort or quality, so disenchantment can come out of the blue – a sudden fall without warning. Regarding the 26th May 2019, it’s been difficult to avoid reinfection even 11 months later. Only thunder and sun near the village of cherry trees at Incisa in Val d’Arno, the following day, provided a cure.
Dragged up recently[i] again, was the idea that you can’t rely on fate, circumstance or friends to provide happiness. Instead, you need to be able to generate fulfillment, in whatever form you need, from within. This is the capacity I realized I’d lost on the train to Arezzo. Such ‘happiness’ need not appear in an obvious way. At an hour and seven minutes into Oliver Assayas’, Late August, Early September (1998)[ii] Jeanne Balibar says: “I am bitter. I want to be bitter. I can find fulfillment in bitterness.” Even if only temporarily, she’s discovered an unusual index to happiness – one which considering the huge number of people who have every reason to feel bitter, could be extremely valuable. By contrast Charlotte Rampling, in a section which extends yet partially counteracts the most haunting 17 seconds[iii] of Un Taxi Mauve (1977)[iv] finds bitterness “désagréable”[v]. And the sadness potentially generated by such moments, will always be partly drawn from the lake that lies, never quite fathomable and always unique, within each of us.[vi]
The walk to Passignano station took us back along the lakeshore and past the merry-go- round calculated to appeal to children in the way that glossy magazines, holiday brochures and so many other material artefacts are calculated to appeal to adults. Vampire-like, they prey upon our inevitable internal longing, draining in the process, our ability to perceive beyond the surface of reality, replacing it with an illusory sense of luxury or warmth. Though profound questions may never be finally answered, in such self-deceived states of comfort they cease even to be asked. Unlike the visionary ‘escape’, this is a mental torpor warmed by acquisitive fantasy, a form of sensuality – good for everyone once in a while, but only temporarily. An indulgence likely to lead to later disenchantment. As with films or books that over-indulge what they aimed to observe, contrast or critique, it’s always easy to become mesmerized by a cosmetic surface.
Though the cloudy weather separating one century from another, was a change conducive to leaving, as the train headed north east into Tuscany, I realised that what I was suffering from was perhaps a kind of hangover caused by the lightness, the excess of clemency and escape of that long white lane and golden lakeshore of the day before[vii]. As though my kaleidoscope of connection had been replaced by a lead-lined coffin and all the singing birds had dropped off their twigs, that supposed Edwardian ideal (as it might have seemed to those inside its beneficence) was separated not just by a curtain of rain, but by a whole century of precipitation . . . while all meteorological records were ruined and riddled by silverfish.
My notes of the 26th are not fully legible but indicate that I couldn’t recall a “semi documentary” about a lost civilisation whose “scratches reached into the sea.” Was this depressing idea or its atmosphere, just an enigmatic fragment left over from a dream? Certainly, no up-beat, self-help guru or glossy magazine could have reassured me. Passing Castello Tuoro on its overcast hill, the linked story had departed from my life, leaving insufficient will to consider eternal values, far less summon the transcendental. Instead, a type of grief had returned me to the relativist mire we are largely forced to inhabit.
11 months later, shifted 1310 miles north-west, it’s strange to remember this disenchantment in the light of the current pandemic[viii], which to the faintest sound or hint of jackboots – faint, at least in the UK – insists that we spend so much time considering the topical. To me the topical will always remain grade B: interesting, sometimes vital, but rarely of ultimate importance. A sentence calculated to irritate those who believe that no-one thinks about art or metaphysics unless they are warm, well-fed and have a roof over their head. This may be generally true, but while I’ve never had to live for a long period without a roof, I’ve often found that I think as much or even more of ‘higher things’, when I’m cold, tired, hungry or ill. If life had no other meaning than the passing moment, or the next food or comfort, then perhaps not so very much of it would matter in the end? Much of it, especially the social and the political, would boil down to a question of better or shoddier housework. If, on the other hand, life does have any extra meaning, then topicality isn’t it. To take a quote from Rick Roderick’s lecture on Heidegger, we shouldn’t waste so much time “sweating the small stuff!”[ix
Travelling seems to be entirely about the here and now, yet paradoxically, especially if you are in a foreign country and not competent with the language, topicality recedes. For one thing, without gadgets, apart from the occasional and usually enigmatic newspaper board, you cease to follow or care about the news. Even important news becomes grade C or D in importance. Take the supposed crisis of our time, trundling along now like some conformist bandwagon, big faceless companies who did not care before, all wishing us well: I know the situation’s bad for the vulnerable and those on the “front line”, but excepting its possible capacity to shake things up for the better, the whole thing is as uninteresting to me as every new technological marvel, every latest thrill of entertainment. I’m as sick of the C word as I have long been of hearing about any number of unputdownable books[x] or franchises from the derivative Harry Potter multiverse to the latest Marvel adaptation[xi]. Even the good ones aren’t. That there is so much of this c**p nowadays in every field is truly dismaying – a cheerful hand of triviality waving to our ‘civilisation’ from within, as our shrinking minds dwindle into pointlessness to avoid the real challenges from outside[xii]. Maybe it was the sudden memory of this on the train to Arezzo that deepened my depression: being dragged back from a day out of time, into the here and now, the daily world, where even the supposed bigger stuff is small. Maybe it was also a sense that we were nearing the end of our time away?
One background anxiety that stems from topicality – with its daily display of conflicting and largely ill-considered viewpoints – is how often does anyone truly communicate with anyone else? This is the concern that can drive anyone toward despair: that real communication is virtually impossible; that we all not only die alone . . . but live that way too.
With only one atmospheric night by the lake, had we simply moved on too soon? As we’ve found driving around Europe in a 50-year-old car – half the boot full of tools, spares and lucky charms – travelling can become different things. It takes a while to acclimatize to the overstimulation of the road trip. Breaks for meals must wait for the ideal location. Then, for an hour you become exaggeratedly still. You feel you own the glade or beach or rocky hillside you sit upon, and sometimes it’s hard to tear yourself away. I recall particularly an abandoned mine in the mountains of Sardinia and a roadside forest in Spain – sunnier version of the Sequoia sequence in Vertigo[xiii] – during which our youngest son drank my wine when nobody was looking! But with most of our road trips nothing was booked in advance. The pressure to move on rarely slackened. Tents had to be concealed at nightfall or a cheap motel chanced upon . . . Too slow and burdened with luggage for the road trip, in Italy, we were rarely still enough to aspire to the ease of holiday.
Perhaps by the time the train pulled into Arezzo the extreme of my disenchantment was burnt out, relapsing towards apathy or inertia? As usual there were no lockers or anywhere you could leave stuff, so, shouldering our loads we headed towards the centre of town. With a kind of grim, hubristic self-pity, I projected myself as Baltazar[xiv] humping 30 kilos of luggage around the hilly streets hoping that if it didn’t actually rain, I might find the luxury that poor Baltazar didn’t.
At first, I was happy just to sit in a sloping central piazza, not really caring to see the town. Later, I did get a chance to leave the luggage under the eye of K and the children, eating lunch. Climbing to the fortress and the cathedral, I also took a turn exploring the Sunday flower market whose stalls appeared mostly of cacti, succulents or carnivorous traps. Adding to our awkward luggage, we bought a flowering stone plant for our son as a thank-you for taking care of the mail and garden whilst we were away.
After Arezzo we had another double-decker train – a novelty the children always enjoyed. At Incisa station, Gioia came to meet us from her and Pietro’s bed and breakfast, Rifugio delle Fate – which rather than Refuge from Fate, translates as Refuge of the Fairies. On the short drive home, in English and Italian she bubbled over with enthusiasm for everything, and their welcoming smallholding turned out to be a very relaxing sanctuary for those with or without wings.
Outside their restored farmhouse, along with a donkey, an unusual assortment of goats, chickens and pigs, there was a swimming pool, and although this was only a very small body of water, it took us back to an earlier conversation about the importance of water for psychological well-being. Was the lake at Passignano an undervalued relief after all the landlocked heat we’d experienced in Perugia? Since diverging from the Adriatic at Pescara, we’d only seen the sea in the distance from Nemi, but we’d had rivers, lakes and gallons of rain. Would large areas of openness – plains or deserts – serve as well? Or is there something specifically connected with water that delivers some relief?
The only time I’ve lived within sight of the sea – it literally filled the entire view of a lone holiday chalet rented one winter at Eype’s Mouth in Dorset – I quickly realised the therapeutic effect of that massive watery panorama. It was so wide that you could see the curve of the earth. Glittering under a winter sunlight, the effect was overwhelming – as was the abstract, metaphysical quality of it. There was a fear though, especially during storms, when the wind whistled through the flimsy wooden pavilion and rippled the tiles on the roof, that we would end up in this metaphysical quality, cold and drowning, since at the nearest point the cliff was only four feet away[xv].
Despite that ocean journeys in large ships rapidly get tedious without the land to give context[xvi], the first glimpse of the sea, especially lit by sun, has always been a sight to take the breath away and fill the head with freedom. Perhaps my reaction is more extreme having grown up so far from the coast? At one time, Aylesbury was reputedly the most landlocked town in England – a distinction Wikipedia now cedes to Coton in the Elms, in Derbyshire[xvii].
In a way, Gioia and Pietro’s refuge could appear close in spirit to the artist’s retreat idea queried in the Notes with regard to Un Taxi Mauve. Such rural removal, however, remains close to my heart. Personally, it’s the way I’ve always lived. Even Redfield[xviii] the sociable, North Bucks community where I lived for 16 months on first leaving home at 16 in 1979, was a group manifestation of retreat. After that, apart from a year in Exeter, I’ve habitually lived remotely, 5 to 10 miles from the nearest town.
The need for a global change of direction has become so urgent however, that rather than retreat, while our rotten society has self-destruction on pause, we should all be putting the boot in . . . prior to attempting to evolve a better way forward. Simultaneously however, it’s also obvious (to me anyway), that there are higher values: values above human society, values above even life as we perceive it. The life of active contemplation or the efforts of ‘true’ artists, have long been undervalued and disenfranchised – which is why second-rate art, its tedious skill or playing around, its personal therapy or gimmicks, is irritating in the extreme. We have plenty of dross for amusement (as mentioned above: all those franchises in urgent need of a stake through their artificial hearts). Art needs to provide, or at least suggest, more than that . . . and despite that its ideal semi-detached life does not guarantee either continued passion, insight or clarity, still I can’t help yearning for the borderlands and fringes, even for its ivory towers[xix].
What prevented Rifugio delle Fate, being like the fugitive bothy or rural retreat of the 70s was partly its family orientation, plus that at the time, it was run as a “going concern’. A warm, inclusive place, where guests could become friends of the family if they wished, it was about understanding international visitors from all walks of life and could be geared to a future when air travel is ruled out or restricted. In this sense it was more like an island of expansive hope rather than an outpost “to preserve truth from the consumer plague . . . to store a few treasures against the onrush of degeneration – just like the Saints of the past!”[xx]
Now, I worry that Gioia and Pietro’s ‘going concern’ might have gone – for what flow of guests can they have had this spring? Under the recurring ‘lockdowns’ it’s been suggested may be a regular feature of the future, no holiday business, no matter how ecological, would be likely to prosper. Meanwhile, getting together to avert environmental disaster has been confined to virtual reality – though I’m hoping such strictures (no doubt one of the tactical advantages many Governments are relieved to exploit) will be ignored before long?[xxi] This is hard to predict because every now and then supposed ‘facts’ emerge that tilt my attitude regarding the current panic one way or the other. What is being hidden? It’s not hard – semi-seriously, given that it’s most likely that “we did it to ourselves”[xxii] – to posit the dreaded virus as a variant on Lovelock’s Gaia theory developed way back in the 70s[xxiii], and which surely influenced the black flowers depicted near the end of arguably the best TV series of the 80s: Edge of Darkness[xxiv]. All of which connects (but probably only in my head) with the profuse bounty of the Manic Street Preachers’, Small Black Flowers That Grow in the Sky[xxv]. . . though the image foremost to my mind, rather than arctic flowers, is of anti-aircraft flak[xxvi], crossed perhaps with some strange, mystically positive visual equivalent bloomed from Paul Nash’s gentle, amusing and modest essay, Aerial Flowers[xxvii]. Written just before he died, Aerial Flowers was published posthumously in 1947, and amongst other paintings, features Flight of the Magnolia[xxviii].
But no black-petalled arctic flowers aiming either to slow us into sense, or rid the earth of our presence, were flowering in my thoughts by the pleasantly makeshift swimming pool at Gioia and Pietro’s. Though similar in size to the outdoor pool at my junior school in the late 60s, the mood was in total contrast. The old cold school pool had two large canvas tents pitched alongside it as changing rooms – one for boys and one for girls – and I remember it as if we used it all the year round and had to crack the ice in winter. Here, on our day of rest, it was warm, and the sky was very blue between the thunder blackouts of indigo.
It’s natural to be attracted to the fantasy of other lives . . . but excepting my own fictions (in which its possible to be young again), I don’t usually envy them. It’s also easy to covet the visibility and influence of successful artists; but I’d rarely want their lives and never their probable compromise. Gioia and Pietro’s situation however, had much to be said for it – though personally, I’ve had enough of chickens!
Thinking back almost a year to the idyll by the pool – bright sun emphasised by the next wave of thunderstorm coming – many of the ideas I lived inside for a while whilst travelling, all come together again. The overlap with Redfield in the late 70s, Rimbaud at Chagford in the mid-80s . . . and on it goes – an infinitely positive version of the drowning life seen before your eyes, before it flowers and the past becomes the present. As this point, travelling escapes all its disappointments and the “happier days” spoken of by people looking deeply through photograph albums, reach their apotheosis. Such days are only happier because half-forgotten and hazed. Now, through memory and an intricate web of idea and intuition, social, artistic and philosophical, plus something overarching, vague but certain, this expanding composite becomes the present – a better present than any past, a present that only hindsight makes possible.
Walking to the station early next morning in the rain, the Arno was flowing very high. Driving K, the children and the luggage, to the forecourt, Gioia hugged us all goodbye and we promised to be back one day. The sky was densely overcast as the railway followed the Arno, and when the delayed train pulled into Florence an hour and fifteen minutes later, another flurry of rain had just decorated the windows.
© Lawrence Freiesleben
Italy and Cumbria, 2019 & 2020
[iii] Cue the 17 seconds from at 1.02.16 to regain (or discover) 1977. The landscape, the harp and the sound of the sea . . . All the lives we might have had in other places, North Devon, West Penwith, the Celtic fringes, and still be there . . ..
[iv] Currently available as a free download at: https://rarefilmm.com/2019/07/un-taxi-mauve-1977/
[v] The haunting section above is cut off by the violent opening of a curtain which replicates the wash of the sea yet harshly dismisses it. For just over a minute, a more typical scene prevails. But at 1.03.41, as the Range Rover comes into sight moving through mountains and lakes, and the music, slightly orchestrated, returns, sight and sound together evoke circa 1977 so intensely, so personally, that it somehow shifts them into timelessness and universality. Afterwards, and perhaps adding to which, comes this following (subtitle) exchange:
Rampling: “We’re crossing the border.
I think I’ll always cherish the memory of what we left, behind that curtain of rain.
Perhaps we never grow old on the other side of this curtain.”
Noiret: “Perhaps we even forget that we can grow old.”
Rampling: “You’re bitter. That’s unpleasant.” (désagréable)
[vi] A sadness not alleviated overall by this film, despite its intense atmospheres – one notable example of which, would be the fantasy of the impoverished bothy becoming an artistic retreat, a vital withdrawal from society. This is perfectly embodied at dawn (12.04) and dusk (33.28); yet gives rise to the concomittant reflection that its too late now for such withdrawals – and probably always was. Now, we have to radically change society or we will perish. But while Un Taxi Mauve or The Purple Taxi (the English language version) is full of these precise details, stories within stories and haunting moments, it’s not remotely satisfying overall. For the sake of its landscape, music and indefinable essence of the 70s, I wish it were. But its mostly insufferable characters, rich or aloof eccentrics above the horde, spend too much time killing things. It doesn’t help that all the Oirish speak, understand and eavesdrop fluent French – but perhaps, if I was French, like the writer and the director, I wouldn’t notice. One reviewer claims that “it shows Ireland/Eire before it was ruined by a flood of EU money”. Although his suggestion of foul and inappropriate villas dotted everywhere beside abandoned traditional houses, tallies with a similar impression my sister and I gained, hitch-hiking all around the country in 1984, this despoliation could more fairly be blamed on inadequate planning restrictions.
[ix] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sDqDJJcJAOg At: 31.39 “If you wanted to sum up the wisdom of the East, oriental wisdom, in just one sentence, it might be something like: Don’t sweat the small stuff. There was a real, well-known Buddhist who told me, ‘I could sum up the Dao, and the Gita and all that for you quickly – it’s this: Don’t sweat the small stuff. You Westerners, you spend all your time sweating the small stuff.” On being told that a watered-down misunderstanding of this phrase is now in common use at for example, Kendal College, almost 30 years later, I couldn’t decide whether to be pleased or irritated . . .
[x] If they really are unputdownable – feverish page-turners – how kindred does that make them to an addiction to alcohol, drugs, porn or gambling? If things don’t require some effort to read, there’s rarely much value in them. Even as entertainment, such addictive effects are questionable – leading to an internal crash when you realise all the time you’ve wasted.
[xi] To quote Nick Pinkerton on Men in Black International (2019): “Its garbage, of course, the aesthetically undistinguished result of pure avarice and laziness, with nothing in it to command the attention of an adult with a functioning visual cortex.” Sight and Sound August 2019
[xii] A clear case of contradiction that has escaped from the NOTES, since many of the challenges facing us are undeniably topical.
I’ve been criticized for using excessive NOTES, but as well their obvious function, some NOTES are supposed to work as a corrective or contradiction to the ‘story’ or (sometimes) provide a linked series of parallels.
The main danger of topicality and temporality is that for many they obscure all potential higher qualities. Obviously, we should “rebel for life” in the Extinction Rebellion sense, yet its equally vital not to lose sight of those potential higher qualities.
[xiv] Au Hasard Balthazar (1966) directed by Robert Bresson
[xv] I was reminded of my six-month sojourn at Eype (1982/3) the other day while watching the largely hard to take Don’t Make Waves (1967) https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0061590/, in which Claudia Cardinale (the main reason to watch the film) and Tony Curtis, almost end up in the sea after a landslide carries their more upmarket dwelling down a cliff. A burst pipe the preceding winter at Eype and the subsequent undetected leak (the place was previously uninhabited during the winter months) had been the partial cause of erosion – moving a gulley in the cliff edge some ten feet closer to the chalet.
[xviii] http://www.redfieldcommunity.org.uk/ Redfield community – home of community pioneers, dreamers and misfits. See: https://internationaltimes.it/the-angst-of-extinction-a-leeds-influenced-digression/
[xix] Inevitably supplemented for me by the semi-fictional retreats of The Bow, Maze End, Certainty Under the Rose and Estuary and Shadow, whose worlds I hope provide more than personal therapy? In all of them love becomes more important than art – as perhaps it always is?
[xx] From Maze End, Chapter 4 – Letters From an old River.
[xxi] It’s approaching the point now (25th April 2020) when as a point of principle, people should be deciding for themselves how much to bother with ‘lockdown’. With the exception of the vulnerable, in health terms the continued long-term benefits are surely dubious – one new case easily able to set it all off again. On the other hand, ‘lockdown’ has been a great illustration of both the fictional farce of economics as a basis for society, and the neurotic car-driven agitation of our buzzing-hive mentality. The longer it lasts the more it might become the perfect stimulus for a total change of direction. With the exception of not seeing family or friends, ‘lockdown’ means little to me, but it is that very aspect that I doubt many will tolerate for much longer. A friend of mine suggested that teenagers will be suffering the most: “this is their glory time and they are stuck with their families like little kids,” she wrote, which at first made me sympathetic, until I realised how many I was seeing around and obviously not in family groups. I’d certainly have taken no notice of ‘lockdown’ as a teenager and I don’t think many of my friends would have either; the satisfaction and thrill of disregarding the rules and avoiding the police would only have heightened the extra freedom from usual routine. Socially minded we weren’t – and the contradictions and chaos of the current advice would have been ripe for scorn. Dogs not on leads for example, running about fawning, licking or harassing all and sundry, make a complete nonsense of social distancing. Yesterday, I saw quite a few paddle-boarders out on the estuary, and why not? They are more than two metres clear of everyone. Yet, similar to buying your essential shopping in an open-top car, some consider it just not done. It gives the impression of taking events too lightly; it’s bad for the general morale . . . but what is the general morale?
[xxii] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/apr/25/ourselves-scientist-says-human-intrusion-nature-pandemic-aoe to complete US biologist Thomas Lovejoy’s sentence: “The solution is to have a much more respectful approach to nature, which includes dealing with climate change and all the rest.”
[xxvii] https://www.tate.org.uk/art/archive/items/tga-8712-4-4/aerial-flowers-by-paul-nash/11 of which the Tate Archive were kind enough to send me a copy in 1993. At the end of Aerial Flowers Nash writes: “But it is death I have been writing about all this time, and I make no apology for mentioning it only at the end because anything written here is only the preliminary of my theme. . . . Death, about which we are all thinking, death, I believe, is the only solution to this problem of how to be able to fly. Personally, I feel that if death can give us that, death will be good.”