Essays and Images: Prologue
So - the first evening. It has started for me much the same as others these last few years. A meal at around 8 o’clock, having drunk half a bottle of wine during the cooking of it. The usual thing would be to drink the other half in front of unsatisfactory television or, more rarely, while reading books that always drop from my hands onto my face at about half past ten. This would signal either bed or a desperate search for DVD images which might entertain me to beyond twelve. I live alone and this has been the pattern of my evenings.
But tonight is different. I am trying out a new arrangement of a room in my small terraced cottage. The house is part of a row of red brick dwellings that lies off one of the straight Roman roads which lead, spoke-like, out of Winchester. It’s set in seemingly remote countryside, but the lack of street lighting belies the wealthy surroundings. In this room the M3 provides a faint, constant hiss under the occasional hoot or scream of a tawny owl. For the last three years this room has posed as a studio for my painting activities, but which in truth has lain idle, the few images which have emerged being a treading of art water and a slow working-out of other urges and thoughts. Now, having cleared the old worktable of its dried up painting gear, and under the light of this old angle-poise lamp, I sit here in the silence of an ordered room, and begin something new.
I look up and see the faint image of an elderly man reflected in the window beyond the desk, his reading glasses ridiculous on his nose, his balding head and lined forehead a barely visible blur on the glass. Beyond that, the dark.
Out of this then. Out of this.
“So they opened the door and the rat said ‘It’s this way?’ And the mole said ‘Yes, follow me.’ And they went down the tunnel and the big rats were coming after them and they came to another door. They couldn’t find the key but the mole dug in the ground with his big claws and there it was and they opened the door with it and it was a tunnel going up and they went on and they opened a lid and it was in the open air and that’s the end”.
‘NO! It’s not! We’re not asleep yet’.
‘So the rat said we’d better go down again and they went down and there was another tunnel, another tunnel and ano.. .’
I could hear my brother, lying next to me in the pulled-down sofa that was our bed, begin to breathe deeply. My eldest brother was silent across the room in his own bed. I was still on the wakeful edge of oblivion and in the dark room could hear the distant drunks coming back from the pub, singing in that throaty, sentimental throwaway voice that drunks had after closing time on a Saturday night. My brother the story-teller, had done his job. In the hot summer night, the windows open, the net curtains hanging limp in the heat and us lying under one light sheet, we too were going down the tunnel of sleep to that other world.
Gathered outside the vast mouth of the cave at Niaux in the Ariege district of the Pyrenees is a disparate group of about a dozen people, of which I am one. We are each handed large torches by our guide and then follow him through a door into the massive fissure in the cliff face before us. The tunnel ahead vanishes into darkness. We switch on our torches and start to descend into a broader cavern. The way is varied. Sometimes it seems that we are strolling down wide boulevards with the occasional stalagmite and stalagtite giving an air of cheap theatre to the place. Then the cave will suddenly narrow so we must scramble through holes barely wide enough to take us. I find this very exciting and am lifted with a sort of adolescent breathlessness. These caves have been known for centuries and intricate graffiti appear on the rock walls in the beams of our torches - 19th,18th, 17th century visitors leaving their mark in the fashionable scripts of their times.
Lower and deeper, a half hour after we have entered the cave, the guide stops and takes our torches from us. This is a little worrying. We are left with just the single light of his own torch shining on the rocky and dusty floor. Then that goes out too. We find ourselves in a blackness so profound as to stupefy our senses. I start to sense faint shapes and lights beginning to edge into vision but I reason that these must be mind generated, not outside in the utter dark. There is nothing. Then the guide switches on his torch. The beam is directed to the base of the side wall of the cave. Very slowly he directs the beam upwards. It passes like water over the rugosities and we start to see some shapes painted on the rock - red dots in a pattern. Then - the image of a mountain goat, quite small and drawn in black. Exquisite, wonderfully observed, it must have been drawn in a minute or two with a few gestures of a skilled hand. I think of my own complex drawings and feel rather ashamed in front of this simple, utterly unpretentious image. It is shown in a single beam of light at the end of a half mile long tunnel and it is 18,000 years old.
The station master of the Eigerwand station led Mark and me from the train towards an iron grid door. We had been on the railway that leads through the innards of the Eiger mountain to the startling views at the Jungfraujoch station and had got out, heaving on our heavy rucksacks, at the stop half-way up the tunnel. We were objects of some fascination to the other passengers of the train. Real climbers, going out into the dangerous world of the high mountains. Some got out and looked through the windows which are cut in the rock and allow a view into the vast space that spreads below from half way up the north wall of the Eiger. To the tourists, we must have seemed to be some part of the old drama of the place, the real McCoy. We had all the gear, ice axes and crampons, strapped ostentatiously to our rucksacks, and must have looked impressive. They had no idea what amateurs we were, nor what fearful anticipation we felt.
We were going to attempt to climb the Mitteleggi Ridge on the Eiger and even the way to the foot of the route filled me with a mad excitement.
The station master unlocked the iron grid gate and allowed us into an unlit tunnel hewn out of the rock. The dim illumination from the station platform could only light the first few feet of the tight chasm opening before us. We wobbled the head torches on over our woolly hats and went through. After a moment or two the grating iron door shut behind us and was locked. We switched on the torches and headed downwards. Our footsteps echoed, and water ice, seeped in through ancient fissures of the mountain, twinkled around us. It felt like the realisation of something, the coming into reality of a dream. The tunnel led steeply downwards. We didn’t know what to expect at the end. Another door? After some time we sensed light ahead. It grew stronger. A diffused glow grew around us and we could make out the texture of the rock more strongly from this other source than from our torch beams. We approached a wall of white light. The tunnel ended. We were standing before a sheet of ice, made brilliant by the sun outside the mouth of the tunnel. I was buoyed up, tense and full of wonder. Unhooking our ice axes we struck at the ice. Our first big gesture. It shattered with ease and we stepped out into a glory. The blinding sunshine struck off the surrounding glaciers and snowfields. Great mountains surrounded us. Clear, clear air stung our nostrils. We could see glacial ice, snow mountains, rock mountains and deep blue sky. The space was immense, unforeseen. The sense of infinite possibility and the fear of what we had in mind to do and the utter strangeness of this new world blended with dream images and the gorgeousness of being alive. We paused in silence to put on our crampons. We adjusted our sacks and walked out onto the ice.
Transitions from one place to another. Or rather the transition from the everyday contact with the material world, the social world, the world of others, into the dream world. Or, further and more simply, the transition of one dream into another dream. Down through the tunnels of forgetting into the stunning brightness of illuminated life and life where all is possible and time gone away. One tunnel led to sleep, another to the dream which is art, the last to a landscape so far beyond my normal habitation as to have the quality of dream. It is these transitions, both real and symbolic, that I worry and probe in this book.