During a brief absence visiting the UK, the lilies in the garden have bloomed and are sporting petals the size of hubcaps. Hollyhocks are seven feet high, Spartan warriors presiding over an avalanche of botanical activity. Winged pollination is happening on an industrial scale. And, the grass needs mowing. Again.
Breathless transit from pillar A to post B – stopovers punctuated by hours of rapidly moving landscapes – can be unsettling. Returning to England reminded me of the shortness of breath, the partial vacuum I tended to experience before having left it. I remember various departures with a sense of loss tantamount to disappointment, disillusionment, smoggy morality and lack of belonging. I wasn’t looking forward much to returning, but, as it turned out, compensations were rich. Rochester, the old, drunken stamping ground, seemed little changed, its twelfth century castle and even older Cathedral presiding over flurries of small High Street shops all celebrating Dickensian characters, was much as I had left it.
The Byzantine themed fresco in the Cathedral was finished, being the first in an English Cathedral for eight hundred years. Its colours almost smelled of fresh flowers.
The Shard, the tallest building in Western Europe with its curiously unfinished spire, like a cathedral that has run out of money, was due to open the day I found myself, courtesy of our hosts, in the Members’ Room in Tate Modern to see the Damien Hirst and Edvard Munch exhibitions.
I quite enjoy a brief, exhilarating traverse around an art gallery, but am rather prone to information overload and cannot really manage more than, say, an average seven-year-old when it comes to appreciation. The Hirst exhibition was almost exactly large enough to satisfy my higher Maslow’s but I came to the realisation that I was an armadillo when it came to actually capturing the metaphor behind large numbers of painted spots, rooms full of neatly arranged medicine cabinets and surgical instruments, butterflies arranged to look like stained glass windows which reminded me of Sanskrit landscapes, a Black Moon consisting of resin covered dead flies and a neat little excursion through two halves of a cow. Had ‘For the Love of God’, his platinum cast of an eighteenth century skull covered with diamonds been on show – we missed it by a fortnight – I might have been more impressed. The piece is apparently thus titled because his mother once asked him ‘for the love of God, what are you going to do next?’ From a distance I think it looks like the Laughing Policeman. On a lighter note, live butterflies in one exhibit seemed inexplicably to be attracted by the colour of Gipsy’s trousers. The Munch was little better; both explored themes of death, resurrection and reincarnation which left one uncomfortably aware of one’s own mortality.
The souvenirs were buttock-clenchingly pricey. A roll of DH butterfly wallpaper sold for a modest 250GBP – enough to cover a toilet wall – and limited edition prints with not much on them stamped with various official seals guaranteeing authenticity had a price tag of several thousand. I’d dearly love to understand where art stops and fart begins, but, alas, I cannot.
By way of contrast, it was really quite nice to plan a trip to Oxford. Stripped bare of squadrons of students on bicycles, the town is reclaimed by tourists and locals – the aroma of learning and the stolid bulk of the Randolph was much as I had remembered it, persistent, unrelenting rain notwithstanding. It was good to catch up with an old friend in Oxford. Quintessentially tasteful, unmistakably English, his glass engravings are beautiful, sometimes breathtakingly so. I have owned a few of his pieces over the years and was glad to see him well, happy and a patriarchal grandfather of six. We shared an extended lunch, talked guitars and caught up.