Candlemas

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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

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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

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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.