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John Welch


Notes on a Career Perhaps

Chelsea. This would be the 1950’s when writers and artists lived there. Bohemians. We’re in my aunt’s flat  and she’s showing us this manuscript, someone’s novel that she’s typing up, to make some extra money on top of her job as a secretary at Australia House. Now we’re sitting in a restaurant and the man at a nearby table is talking about smells, how reminiscent they are, how they can trigger off such powerful memories, and then he says “I’m putting that in my next novel”, and my mother gives a half-knowing half-embarrassed little laugh. The first faint whiff of it, this other life.

A heavy manuscript book with a clasp on it. . . It  had belonged to my grandmother who had inherited it from a friend.  The thing is, the clasp was locked and there was no key.  One day I decided I would simply have to force it open. It turned out to be a manuscript collection of poems written in the 1880’s.  They were humorous, facetious verses, commentaries on current affairs and so on, written when the author was working in France. But what was striking was the inscription in faint pencil next to the first poem  It was addressed to a woman  who had apparently rejected him and to whom he was saying goodbye as he left to go abroad. The note read ‘May her shadow grow visibly less’. Breaking the lock on the book, I felt afterwards, it was like forcing open someone’s lips.

You start to imagine one perfect reader is it the one who has mastered the art of silent applause? Getting into conversation with a well-published poet at some event or other, and he gets quite excited and says ‘O a reader, a real reader,’ glad to have actually met one, one who has condensed from ‘out there’. But what he didn’t realise at first was that I was one too, and there followed a slightly edgy exchange of books and postcards.

‘I’m someone who wants to like everyone and be liked, that’s all’ I tell myself. Rejections? I wear them like a row of medals. When I bump into the man who recently rejected my work, I want to smile and say, ‘It really doesn’t matter you know. I don’t take it personally.’ I mean this isn’t some sort of act on my part – I really do want to offer him some words of comfort. The thing is, I feel he’ll be embarrassed by our little encounter but I won’t be, so that puts me at an advantage. It happened only the other day at a book launch. He looked so upset when our eyes met across the room. I followed him around for the rest of the evening but it was a big event and very crowded and I never quite managed to get close enough to him and pin  him down.

Here in this bookshop in the West End we have come for the launch reading.  A collection of translations from the Slovak. The chairs are have been set out in the ‘Psychology and  Religion’ section of the shop, upstairs on the first floor – it’s a very large shop and still open, with a few customers peering from time to time round the shelves where we are seated listening to the poet reading. We are not many, and it feels a bit as if we are witnessing for an obscure faith. The poet says there are four hundred readers of poetry in Slovakia. She is described as ‘Slovakia’s leading woman poet’. She trained as an agronomist. At one time she went to live in Canada but after a year she returned. ‘It is difficult there’, she says afterwards. ‘Only one Slovak writer ever made it.’  An old man in the audience asks about someone who was ‘Slovakia’s leading lyric poet between the wars.’ What do people think of his work now – is he still read? In the Stalinist  period, the translator explains, he ‘fell silent’, but after his death a lot poems were found that he had been writing during that time. Now they have been published. The poet called them ‘poems against the night.’ They are now sometimes referred to as the ‘desk poems’.

An archive . . . I’d donated mine to a university library not long before I had this dream. There was a largish piece of crumpled paper or cloth – it was something between the two – which I was burying with difficulty in some earth. The earth was contained in a sort of window box and was of a garden peat consistency. I had a feeling I shouldn’t really be doing this. This container had to do with a school project. They would eventually find this ‘paper’ and have to deal with it as  it was unlikely to rot down altogether. Well that’ll be interesting for them I thought, a sort of archaeology project – though I’m not sure I really believed this. That was part one of the dream. In part two (they seemed separate though connected) I was out on the Walthamstow Marshes, across which I used to walk each day on my way to the East London school where I was working. I was on the track that led up to the railway, and I was clearing up lots of bits of paper scattered around and putting them into a very large carrier bag. I was worried about these bits of paper, as there might be something incriminating about them, something indecent. My anxiety was increased by the presence of the good-looking man standing looking down at me with a superior expression. He was talking a lot. He referred to a map of the area. He said there was a new kind of map they could make with lots of white space on it. I was hurrying to finish clearing up my bits of paper hoping he wouldn’t examine them. The bag was going to be very heavy, a burden. I had just about cleared up the final scraps but now there were smallish bits of broken white china left on the path.



Some Rooms

In a reading by Roger Langley an image was proposed of a room where, for the time being,
he was staying. Shadows of house martens passing over the floor and across the wall, travelling to meet at the window, point of light's entry. It is a seductive image. I go into the room. I ‘am’ the room. In another poem he read he is in the church looking through the doors at the others, passing outside - as in that dream where I was the church. I was the being of stone, looking out from my deep-cut windows, across a landscape of grey fields, towards a river. That room held over against the dark. Outside each leaf is the sum of light.

There’s the room the painter Paul Nash evokes in his autobiography Outline. ‘From the window of the morning room there was a view of part of the virgin field from which the garden had been made. It was undoubtedly the first place which expressed for me something more than its natural features seemed to contain, something which the Ancients spoke of as genius loci – the spirit of a place, but something which did not suggest that the place was haunted or inhabited by a genie in a psychic sense. The place took on a startling beauty, a beauty to my eyes wholly unreal. It was this “unreality”, or rather this reality of another aspect of the accepted world, this mystery of clarity, which was at once so elusive and so positive.’

The Icelandic sculptor Einar Jonsson donated  his work to the nation on condition a gallery was built in Reykjavik to house it. ‘It should impose itself on the landscape as a monumental expression if Icelandic sculpture’ he said. The sculptures inside the gallery and in the garden behind combine classical and traditional Nordic mythology – the emphasis being on the latter. They are massive, tending towards the expressionist, heavily symbolic and sometimes they feel a bit sinister. But perched atop all this, on the top floor, is a flat where the artist and his wife, a weaver,  lived. The two principal rooms face one another across a landing, his and hers. The powerful attraction I feel towards these spaces  has to do partly with the view, out over the city, and then the sea in the distance, and in here the domestic quiet, the peacefulness of these two rooms, the way it is  perched on top of the enormous weight of all those tormented sculptures.

An artist’s studio is a special sort of room, a place where you go to do this special thing. John Richardson, biographer of Picasso, says of Braque, ‘His studio had become the centre of his universe . . . if the light was curiously palpable – what Braque called ‘tactile’ it was because he kept his studio skylight veiled with thinnish, whitish material, which veiled and seemingly liquefied the light. On my first visit tothe artist’s studio I felt I had arrived at the very heart of painting.’ As for Francis Bacon’s studio, it has an excremental quality, impacted paint, a mass of old newspapers. old photographs and other detritus. After his death it had to be carefully dismantled, packed up, and reassembled in Dublin.. It has become a sacred relic.

Rooms in a series of paintings by the artist Jeff Gibbons that feature disused, bleak, and for the time being abandoned spaces –  I feel a brief rush of nostalgia for such institutional-looking rooms where you feel nothing much will happen, a quality that seems to offer a kind of safety,. They are rooms that have been  at some point crowded with people so there is both presence and absence.It could be a Teacher’s Centre with a that sort of neutral hard-wearing carpet substitute, institutional metal-framed chairs and desks, a blackboard. Photographs in an exhibition at the Royal Academy by the photographer Mary Maclean depict something very similar. Her photographs, the curators, Bernice Donzelmann and Tim Renshaw, write ‘suggest a paradoxical temporal space: where presence of mind is irrevocably folded into escape, reverie and that mode of looking-without-seeing which Maclean’s photographic gaze captures in a singular way’. These are the qualities that draw me in. Now I am writing – as if always needing to replenish an absence.


Copyright © John Welch, 2019