Motifs in mind: daydreaming and escapist inspiration

For anyone still moved by other times & placesa ramble on their role in the everyday

Regular readers (both of you) will know I’ve tried to explore something which would draw together all the eclectic strands of those things which capture my imagination. They extend into my domestic life: each time I made a house into a home, it was not a look I was seeking to achieve (as in our century’s ‘look’ that competes and seeks approval) but an atmosphere, something I could be transported by. It’s never been the time I am living in, and ideally I’d be able to hop between 1967, 1637, 1937, with maybe the odd bit of 1814, 897 and so on. Yes indeed, a carriage crash of design on the toll road.  

I know this sounds a bit grand, but my mind is a library of such atmospheres – scenes in books or films are not recalled in words but are felt. (Sure, all this will sound like something from Pseud’s Corner.) Sometimes the particular quality of the light or turn of the weather will send me to some glowering seventeenth century landscape, cider apples in the air, beeswax wafting through an oak door, the crackle of wood on the hearth.

Heat from a baked pavement might invoke a TV memory of a US city I’ve never been – distilled polaroid gold, a coffee-diesel bath of warm air, an oscillating bassline catching sky-high sun in the glitter pulse of cars on distant freeway, going where?

Just a glazing of frost and a finch squeaking on a bit of yew and I’m indoors with Mrs Oldknow at Green Knowe, a tang of woodsmoke, butter sliding off a muffin, amber light on old stone. I’m going to call these motifs – I’m sure there’s an official term, but that will do for a short ramble.

In a way it’s like a dog surveying a scene, contemplating the unremarkable, then wagging its tail for no perceptible reason. So why try to analyse the pleasure, which like most academic thought ultimately leads to a definition that dulls the magic?

I’ll quote this scene from the TV series The Durrells where the prosaic Leslie, who likes shooting animals, is talking with his sister Margo and articulates his role as a matter-of-fact foil for his family:

Margo: “Why are you so worried about the play?”

Leslie: “You’re all so artistic. I see… ‘a tree’, you lot see…”

Margo: “Broccoli. Trees look like upside down broccoli.”

…which is a neat puncturing of the concept of the artistic soul, but what if Margo had said, “I can hear hounds, there’s a figure through the acorns – I can hear his heart pounding and smell the sweat of fear…” where would it have come from? The Ladybird Book of Charles II?

Miss Bianca, Margery Sharp, illustration Garth Williams

A few years back I thought my imagination grew from children’s literature, but I think I have read more of it as an adult. At 10 years old I was trying to read Tess of the D’Urbevilles for example (before it got taken away). Maybe I felt all grown up after I’d finished Margery Sharp’s Miss Bianca books and went straight for the dour, tragic Victorians.

The worlds presented in a lot of young adult novels are often chaotic and unformed (thinking, for example, of Alan Garner or Penelope Farmer). But they also invite things to happen, quests for belonging and reinvention, or simply, change – characters running to escape the banal and mundane, the once weird and now weirder world of grown-ups where some odd reason to judge, to smirk, deny or destroy is just beneath the skin.

Is there an audience of grown-ups out there still hungry for Ambrosia like Billy Liar, disenfranchised and disappointed, still hoping to find something more through the back of the wardrobe? Should we be embarrassed?

Tom Courtenay as Billy Liar, 1963, struck by ill-timed motif visitation

There are pleasurable motifs we carry with us and I think they’re essential to our sense of wellbeing, cinematic flashes of images and experiences internalised from reality or art. They can be used, if we want, to ‘create’ with our own filters applied.

And of course, there are unpleasurable motifs – things that stifle, doubt and procrastinate, and darker places.

From Mary Shelley to Richard Jefferies, from the cult series Survivors of the 1970s to 28 Days Later, The Handmaid’s Tale right up to The Walking Dead (oh yes, Fear the… as well) I’ve always been fascinated by post-apocalyptic visions.

But visiting dystopian futures on screen or in novel has lost that playfully gothic frisson of unsettlement. Science fiction is an outdated term because stock fantasies are a reality, weaving their way into our lives like mutating tendrils from John Wyndham’s pen. We peer into our near future with Black Mirror or Years and Years. But where once it was reassuring to return from these nightmares, we’re now putting the kettle on with predictability now dearly-departed and anything seems possible.  

‘Look ahead of winter, let the breath of summer into you’ (Lyric, Julianne Regan)

Did we choose our motifs at an impressionable age? Do we know where we found our fascinations? Are we more than the product of those who shared their imaginary worlds, those authors and screenwriters who showed us Herne the Hunter or that strange things happen when the wolves are running? I’d like to think we came into the world predisposed to the things that move us.  

Is this ‘childish imagination’ a virtual reality overlay? Are we summoning these atmospheres from our personal motifs to challenge us (overcome our fears, the monsters under the bed) or enhance our reality, whether we want it simplified or decorated, or to realise ourselves and our possibilities, or just to feel some magic among the mundanity?

Somewhere I have the germ of an idea that this might be about noticing and recognising. In reading or watching a story we absorb what are, after all, other people’s experiences. If they strike a chord, as motifs they become part of our own consciousness.

This is part of the act of reading fiction, to download the working of another’s mind, though in film an actor can do the same with barely the flex of a facial muscle or the shift of an eyelash. In this shared consciousness, there are connections from our own experiences (those ‘oh, you feel like that too’ moments). To continue a theme, we might be Game of Thrones’ Three Eyed Raven (the one who can “perceive the past, present and future through visions and time travel with ease”).

I’m not for a moment suggesting there is anything supernatural here, just using the ‘visionary’ trope to explore how a response to external ‘art’ becomes an internal experience which is ‘not real’ – as in not first-hand experience – but it becomes part of us, hidden until we notice and recognise it again, like the lamp-post from Narnia outside a branch of Aldi.

These motifs serve to remind us that things have been and will be, which is affirming, whether from light or dark. And so we end of up with a form of faith, a belief in the power of the imagination.

It would be great to hear if others enjoy a bit of time travel in the course of the everyday, or get transported in unlikely places when a motif is triggered…

Photographs copyright WhistlesintheWind

Bloghead Revisited

Why we blog – escape portal, therapy or land of our people?

Blog stalled but open to restoration.

I went back to my blog this morning, which is over seven years old. It’s bizarre to me that people still visit it… understandable, perhaps, because there are a few seemingly forgotten books and films on here that clearly live on in some people’s imaginations.

‘What kind of imagination’ was the question I vaguely asked myself when I started collecting together some of the things I was still drawn to, having a notion they were formed in the ‘imaginative culture’ of my childhood – the books, the TV and the music. These were all portals which suggested more to life than the mundane things that the adults in our lives were slaves to, popularly known as responsibilities.

But what’s the function of these portals for well-worn grown-ups? I blogged with reservations: I was determined this wasn’t nostalgia (meaning, I understand, ‘a yearning to return home’). It was relevant now, and not all those inspirations escaped derision from the ghost of my long gone 20-year-old self.

There’s a letter from a parent to a child in Tracey Thorn’s book Another Planet. What struck a chord was the line:

‘So do I have any advice for you at all? Not really. Except that, like all young people (or come to that, even old people these days), I know you worry sometimes about being cool. But don’t. Who cares really? Cool’s overrated. Warm is better.’

Tracey Thorn, Another Planet, 2019

Which is something I have lamented quite a lot recently. To quote Morrissey, shyness is nice but it can stop you doing all the things in life you’d like to. And so can cool. And actually, being cool is the opposite of cool. Genuinely (and if you can manage it, passionately) getting a rush about the things that make you feel good, and sharing that – the instinct to want others to feel it too – is quite an innocent, child-like response. Most people won’t ‘get it’ or ‘get you’. Put yourself in your wrong context and you’ll feel as reduced as a bag of bargain bucket supermarket flowers. You might feel stagnant even if you don’t quite smell yet.

I’m not one for memes but I do like the one ‘Show your vibe, find your tribe’. Despite vibe always sounding like it could only be uttered for a short window of time – the weekend of some mythical prog-rock fest in 1973, for example – no other word quite sums up the often indefinable and intuitive response we have among others, be it a gentle dawn chorus or a dusty pall of possibly radioactive material.

My point being that blogs, and the subtleties they allow, and the space to reflect, seem to be used by people who need to reconnect with their inner world and relation to the outer world – the sense of self – when most online forms of expression are immediate, proclaiming and projecting an ideal.

I’ve discovered there are lots of carers who blog, caring being a stage of life, if chosen, which involves coming up close to the suffering of others and ourselves. It has the potential to consume identity. In addition, at any stage in life comes a time when we realise things once felt more carefree, and we don’t know yet if that feeling will ever come back.

Then there’s the rite of passage when we move into the front line of mortality when parents, once bedrocks of stone – regardless of the quality of relationship – turn to sand, and nothing will stop the tide.

Or all these things and everything in life that can take away the light. I started my blog in 2012 just after my dad got sick and went into a home, which I found pretty hard-going. I stopped blogging later because life then became a conveyor belt of dealing with elderly care, its fallout and the impact on everyone affected.

In stressful times many of us read or watch escapist fiction because it’s pretty good to get lost in a space where possibility is infinite and identity is an ongoing thing. I told someone that watching four seasons of an epic TV series one summer was great de-stress therapy. It threw me into greater challenges than mine and explored – with some nuance – how people deal with genuine adversity.

‘But it’s not real!!!’ they exclaimed.

Momentarily I was ready to be reduced, but instead announced – not without shades of Brian Sewell, minus the accent, ‘Of course not. But that is the purpose of all art, to help us make sense of life.’

Collecting the imagery, the books, the films – any of the portals to places that remind us that life is a pleasurable thing, either because they are familiar and suggest security, or, and where the real value lies, because they shine light on the selves that get lost or aren’t discovered yet in the fog of responsibility, makes a living resource.

When I wrote my ‘about’ page all those years ago I said:

‘Ambrosia’ is from the 1963 film of Keith Waterhouse’s book Billy Liar, an alternative land that Billy escapes to in his imagination, away from things that are small, narrow and dull. It’s anything that clears the fog in a sometimes mundane world…’

Now, I don’t think it’s the world that’s mundane. It’s the self that is mundane, forgetting what we need to thrive, and accepting what can feel like an inevitable way of dealing with whatever it is we all have to deal with in some way or other, wherever it is on the scale.

Yes, we can escape into ‘portals’ and the things we enjoy, but being around the people that ‘get’ whatever part of ourselves they connect to, is the happiest place to be.

Candlemas

Thus times do shift; each thing his turn does hold;
New things succeed, as former things grow old.

From Ceremonies for Candlemas Eve by Robert Herrick

The rough winds of the last few days I can’t get enough of. I’ve learned that gales at this time of year were known as Candlemas winds. Just now, they’re making the night sky a monastery of plainsong.

Clare Leighton Wuthering Heights
Clare Leighton from Wuthering Heights

Candlemas is invisible to modern lives and yet it’s a mark on the calendar we probably need now January has washed over the trepidation and optimism of New Year.

Back there was time for a state of being where the lull let us notice, absorb and reflect (as in light on water: a giving back rather than the ruminating, inward and bovine pondering which is sometimes what we have to make do with). These dreamtimes are shaken awake as everyday January asserts itself, planning motorways and service stations on our personal landscapes. But Candlemas is a place to take stock.

For those of a Romantic turn of nature just the word Candlemas is alluring enough. To approximate, it’s the mid-point of winter, a bright wash of candlelight – for candles are blessed in churches for the coming year – that also closes the Christmas season. Christmas could last until Candlemas, when the Christian world celebrates the purification of the Virgin Mary, hence Herrick’s poem is about taking down and replacing the greenery that decorated homes from Christmas Eve.

In the pagan calendar Candlemas is known as Imbolc – ‘of the belly’ – heralding lambing time and the fertility of spring. Candles have watched over us through winter but natural light will soon pale them. ‘New things succeed.’

Lighting up time - Stanhope Forbes

Study for the Carter in ‘Lighting up time’ by Stanhope Forbes

Candlemas is a chance to mark the calendar and keep sight of those flashes of perception, part-revealed patterns and half-realised epiphanies: our plans, those things we might glimpse when the world seems to slow at the turning of the year. Here’s a pause where we can refuse planning permission to those motorways and service stations and designate our dreamtime as a site of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

January, July, invisible artlessness

One of my Christmas presents was Miranda July’s book It Chooses You. Sometime last year I saw her second movie The Future (which you really need to see before reading the book, which is about the creative process in writing the screenplay, but to save time here’s the trailer at the risk of patronising everyone who saw it three years ago).

I don’t want to say it’s quirky, probably my most disliked label of the moment, but it is. I fell for this film with the kind of gratefulness with which I used to read Douglas Coupland in my twenties. There’s a scene in one of his books where in the middle of the hyperreal, over-familiar rituals of a plastic Christmas, a character fills a room with candles to restore some meaning. And that’s what I get from Miranda July: total immersion in ‘now’ to find feeling or at least something real. Somewhere in the weight of cynicism we give ourselves from mining for plain fact and unvarnished honesty there’s something life-affirming, if you stick at it long enough.

The book focuses on a project that July followed while stuck in the creative process: she phoned up a dozen or so people advertising items in the free PennySaver paper and taped their (life) story. It’s sometimes Mike Leigh uncomfortable but always honest and big enough to be revealing of subjects and author.

Idling around in the days after Christmas I watched a couple of programmes on YouTube – I started with a documentary about artist Kit Williams of Masquerade fame (it’s a hare thing). He made the comment that anyone creating was generally drawing on the years when everything was new, first experiences, and attempting to capture ‘those strong and clear impressions’. (I also loved his existence outside the art world. How awkward and husk-like was the critic who appeared, to present the dull accepted view of his, to them, old-fashioned saying-nothing art.)

I don’t know if it was the creation theme or a need to explore how I remember wildlife was depicted in the late seventies, but I went from here to Watership Down. I wanted the mystical sequences, rabbits as wild creatures, psychedelic sun explosions and brooding black rabbits. I hadn’t seen these outside of stills for decades, and they were wonderful.

And then I caught sight of Follyfoot, a TV series from 1971 from a book by Monica Dickens. I’d never seen this before (I was one at the time) but had caught the oddly-conceived contrapuntal jazz vocalising of the theme tune before. The programme titles attracted – the stark lightning tree echoed the swirling destruction scenes of Watership Down, so I went there.

Follyfoot titles

Follyfoot

It’s a simple programme, sometimes thin – and puts larkish opening titles at odds with both the moody title artwork above and the easy-listening dervishness of the theme tune. But in among the general horsiness it caught my imagination: the Yorkshire landscape was uncontrived, uncreated. The homes were those of people who didn’t bother to change furniture or lifestyle or constantly aspire to renew.

Directors like Michael Apted or Stephen Frears worked on it, and great character actors like Margery Mason, who crops up fractious as ever as a struggling Yorkshire widow. It has a social conscience, championing a miner’s strike, and if it’s moralising then the general message is that bigots are rubbish.

Scenes in local towns show endless individual shops, commonplace coming and going, and it looks artless. Follyfoot was not self-conscious, it did not measure itself against cynicism. Can we still be artless?

I took something from all this, one of those Zen-like little moments of being that come up now and again, despite the intrusion of my own cynicism wanting to belittle it. And it connected when I found these passages in Miranda July’s book.

It Chooses You

“I clicked through all the pictures Brigitte had taken so far [July takes a photographer out to each interview]. What was I looking for? I supposed I was looking for calendars. More pictures of calendars. And there they were. Everyone had them, and they were all hardworking calendars. They seemed weirdly compulsive for a moment, as if I’d stumbled on a group of calendar fanatics, and then I remembered that we all used to have these until very, very recently. We all laid our intricately handwritten lives across the grid and then put it on the wall for everyone to see. For a split second I could feel the way things were, the way time itself used to feel, before computers.

“Trying to see things that are invisible but nearby has always been alluring to me. It feels like a real cause, something to fight for, and yet so abstract that the fight has to be similarly subtle.”

And then this… (on asking each interviewee if they have a computer).

“I began to feel that I was asking the question just to remind myself that I was in a place where computers didn’t really matter, just to prompt my appreciation for this. As if I feared that the scope of what I could feel and imagine was being quietly limited by the world within a world, the internet. […]

The web seemed so inherently endless it didn’t occur to me what wasn’t there. […]

Most of life is offline, and I think it always will be; eating and aching and sleeping and loving happen in the body. But it’s not impossible to imagine losing my appetite for those things: they aren’t always easy and they take so much time. In twenty years I’d be interviewing air and water and heat just to remember they mattered.”

I’m not saying these words led me to think ‘life with internet = bad’; it’s the opposite. Without it I’d never have been able to follow those small viewing moments after Christmas on a whim that segued so perfectly.

But they did make me see the internet as a symbol of distraction leading to absorption. Not into a nostalgia of cultural leftovers either, but in the sense of being dragged into the undertow of the homogenous sludge the media and advertising tells us we are: a babbling and chattering supposed ‘now’.

Moorland path

There are invisible, unfashionable, unremarkable things too: life going on as it has for centuries, not constantly wallpapered at every opportunity. Here at my desk the chatter is invisible but it is buzzing in the wireless communications and the aerials outside.

But beyond the window there’s a wild moor, and it will still be wild, and oblivious of the chatter in the airwaves through the coming spring, the summer, and next Christmas. The future.

Needles in haystacks still shine

If you were born in a more distant decade of the 20th century, then you might have grown up with the sense that creative effort is not fully formed until it is printed, made into a record, hung in a gallery, or screened in a cinema. Until the advent of the ‘personal computer’ (a charmingly archaic term) it was difficult to create print that looked professional: in other words, like something you’d read in a book.

This created a mythic place in the imagination – a portal guarded by shadowy gatekeepers who could bless creativity with a validated state.

Only once work had passed through their cabbalistic hands was it transfigured. Until this happened, people could only desire the title of their craft: painter, actor, poet. For a writer, typesetters and printers worked with hot metal and ink, the alchemy for their particular validation. You couldn’t do this sort of thing on your own, even with a typewriter.

It’s said that creators are solely creators, and need someone to help their work find an audience (or – hushed tones here – sell it). I was sitting in a café not long ago overhearing a meeting between a couple of artists and someone who was going to market their work. The artists’ meek attempts to get a better deal were berated, having tied themselves to particularly harsh terms, and to my mind, were being fed upon.

And yet, creating is a process that doesn’t always sit happily with articulation, seeing opportunities, finding an audience. To be ‘validated’, in the way we inherited from pre-digital ways of doing things, someone has to pick the work out and take it through the portal. It needs tremendous drive, confidence, energy – and time. Lots of time.

Before the internet, we couldn’t see all the creativity and talent going on behind closed doors in village, town or city. We relied on what we were given by the papers, the library, two or three TV channels, the radio and galleries. It created a perception that these outlets brought the artists into being: other creators were forever ordinary.

There was a column for photographers in The Guardian recently, where unremarkable photos were transfigured by dubious text articulating their value for us. But with the internet we have easy access to any number of ‘unvalidated’ talents and can see that photography is no longer a mysterious skill. There are so many questions about how we respond to art here, and what it is, that I’m entering a viper’s nest. But any image, any work, must speak with its own voice.

Ability to create is within all of us, and there are far more people out there who do it, and do it well. Does it matter if photographers become ten-for-a-penny? Or if there are hundreds of female singer-songwriters with a love for Victorian fiction, electric guitars and a mandolin? Only that less people can earn a living from it.

We’re told that the world is now fluid, that there aren’t any boxes to contain anymore. Creativity cannot be fenced off as the preserve of a few – ideas, songs, images, paintings all flow fast as spilled water.

It’s a massive democratisation of the ‘validation’ process in art and artistry. Industries once needed to create things in a professional manner are being swept away, replaced by a few buttons that will make ideas just as perfectly manifest. If you weren’t born into this technology then it can take longer to realise what has happened.

I’m not suggesting the old punk take on art of anyone-can-do-it. It’s the idea that gatekeepers aren’t needed to validate all the work going on. They are still there, with an ability to articulate and sell, but their words create an illusion of visibility, respect and quality.

Music festivals let us discover bands that might exist in a tiny bubble, and yet through their artwork, web spaces and so on, they can create a world of the imagination for us to connect with. It’s barely making a living for them, but their art has been given form, and can equal the visions of any marketing machine that surrounds bands with a huge corporation behind them. A reviewer telling me it is good or not is now an irrelevance.

Thousands can flock to an event, directed by the gatekeepers, and twitter their attendance to their peers. But is it a more valid experience than following the grandmother taking pictures for the first time and posting them on the internet? Isn’t art about interpreting the world and our lives, and reaching out and making connections?

If her photos make us stop, think, or see something anew, then isn’t she validated already? And it is these voices that are the most beautiful: existing without concern for peer pressure or trend, or appropriation by a tribe.