Cornwall 1955 -1957 (continued from Part One)
I found in a book a princess named Griselda. Suddenly the pages opened to me their secret. Like water, they joined up as stories, after long months – I am a slow learner – of patching capital letters together with the Janet and John books, to spell “catch” – (and I get a whiff of it now.) Then it dawned: I could read for myself, whenever and wherever I liked: it didn’t have to ‘spell’.
At school they couldn’t stop me from reading. I read and read through all the lessons. At 7, I began to read Charles Kingsley’s The Heroes – the Greek myths of Perseus and the Gorgon, Jason and the Golden Fleece, and Theseus and the Minotaur. I drank up the rhythmic prose of the Aegean sea, the stars they sailed by, the labours of the heroes, and the beauty of their captured queens.
I copied out these stories with great labour in my round hand, embellished them with further detail about the loveliness of the queens, and illustrated them. I sat at a round table in Jim and Mam’s house. They gave me Renaissance paintings to copy with my pencil. Botticelli whom I loved best, was my drawing Master. There were two large plain cloth-bound books, which I looked at and worked from. One was blue and called “Details” and the other was green, and called “More Details”. They were full of paintings of the Madonnas in the National Gallery, close up, and of the Primavera, the Birth of Venus, and Centaur Cheiron with Pallas Athene. I was in love with their faces, and the flowers around them, and the way their hands and feet were drawn. They were my music. They smelled and sounded like my grandparents Mam and Jim.
I drew that beauty into my drawing-book, usually with a pencil, sometimes with brush and ink, and the grownups said they liked my clean bold lines. They didn’t like shading or scribbled drawings, or drawings done to look like somebody else’s at school.
In the story of The Golden Branch by Countess d’Aulnoy, a crippled prince and princess transformed to their essential nature: “They set out in solemn silence and found the golden branch itself in the middle of a wonderful garden. The walks in lieu of sand, were strewn with small oriental pearls, rounder than peas. The roses were crimson coloured diamonds, and the leaves were emeralds ; the blossoms of the pomegranates were garnets ; the marigolds were topazes; the jonquils, yellow brilliants; and the violets, sapphires; the bluebells, turquoises; the tulips, amethysts, opals and diamonds. In short the number and variety of these beautiful flowers dazzled more than the sun.”
This I heard again as sound, many years later, in the music of Olivier Messiaen. Of his ‘Amen de la Consummation’ for two pianos, he says : “In ever-closer rhythmic canons, precious stones of the Apocalypse ring, collide with, dance, colour and perfume the light of life.”
Here is a link, Messiaen’s Visions de l’Amen V – Vll: the ‘Amen de la Consommation’ is Vll, it begins at 13 minutes 24 seconds. A fine performance, with score.
GALLERY 2 – mostly from a bit earlier
I had a passion for wild flowers, fairies and for jewels; my favorite colours were “gold and silver”. I began to draw girls in fields by the sea picking flowers, while I was still learning to write. Then, after I discovered the Greek myths and heroes, I wrote and illustrated long tales about tragic queens who for hundreds of years “strived against progress”, were stabbed with swords by John Knox in Scotland, or chained to rocks like Andromeda. I drew Perseus coming to rescue the naked Andromeda with his great sword and shield; I was deeply aware of eros and of cruelty to queens and to animals. Very dreamy at school, I told lies, and was often feverish, susceptible to viruses. I had a weird feeling about being ill and about doctors – both unpleasant and erotic. But I loved falling down and having a plaster put on, loved blood.
GALLERY 3, including two from 1987 when dowsing memories
The village school at Caerhays was a bundly brick building with big arched windows surrounded by a playground of tarmac and grass with a see-saw and a slide, and a high wall around it.
On my very first day – I began with half a day – I had a strange new feeling in my tummy which I had never known before. It was butterflies. It felt very important. My school teacher was called Mrs Willis. She wasn’t young or pretty. She had curly grey hair and a plump face with red veins in her cheeks, and a chatty sort of voice without a forehead, but she was kind. She took my hand and said “Would you like to go to the toilet?” I glowed, jumped up and went with her to see the toys. But there were no toys at all, just a shed behind the schoolhouse with a lavatory inside. I didn’t want to go.
My favourite lessons with her were when she taught us how the insides of our bodies work. She sat at her desk and explained about our “digestion”; how hard it works all day long, kneading and working away at the food which comes down at mealtimes. Her plump hands would mix and grind and turn until it was nearly done, and she could rest. Then she looked up, her rosy face turned to dismay: “Oh dear, here comes some more!” Those, she told us severely, were the between-meals snacks, the sweets and the chocolate. One day she slapped my hand crossly when I started to paint blue decorations on a small clay cake we had made. “You silly little girl! Who ever heard of a blue cake?”
Mrs Willis and Mummy were friends, and Quince went to stay with her when Simon was born. Mr Willis wore funny glasses and had a round nose. He could balance a telegraph pole on it, and walk around their yard. They had a big daughter called Linda who was busy doing “Extrams”.
I saw pictures of Queen Elizabeth II in her ermine and jewels. If anyone in our family mentioned royalty, I got excited and blushed. One day they told me she was coming to Cornwall to look at one of her farms. A great crowd gathered along the lane outside Tregony to welcome her. It was raining. The car came at last, and went by so fast, you could hardly see her. There was no ermine, no jewels or crown – just a woman in a suit waving a gloved hand. I was bitterly disappointed. But I never grew out of Kings and Queens.
We lived at Ventonwyn Farm near Caerhays on the South Coast near Mevagissey. Our house was a large white cottage with hollyhocks and apple-trees around it. I didn’t at first like it, because I wanted to live in a big grand house in the city of Gathertegen. But my parents said it was very pretty, and the garden was full of flowers. Fruit-trees grew at the far end of the front garden, by the lane.
Tall stems. Tall stems by a window sill, and the blue corona of the scabious flower. Here is the pungent scent of red geranium leaves. The blood-purple heart of a pansy’s yellow velvet sun, on the ground. Round furry leaves of drab green whose vein of purple releases to the touch the cloying fragrance of mud and cowpats in the yard, of weathered concrete, of trees in the sky and wet grass down the lane, of Quince trying to play Mummy’s cello in the garden. It releases the flowers I drew and named as I drew, and the tart tang of Lionel Miskin’s metal paintbox. I wore socks on my feet, and sandals and cardigans, and I was ashamed of my body when I was ill, just like a car. Streams drench the lush thorny meadows, and the clouds fall down when it thunders. Hot sunshine on the chalky concrete road leads up to the farm called Pencois where I waited for the taxi to school. At Pencois in a new concrete house lived Mr and Mrs Dowidge and their boy called Brian, he with whom I trod on a snail.
It is a smell of grey soil and cool trees bursting hot warmth from summer. It is full of stories. The round and purple heart of it has crimson edges. It splits the world into golden voices. It hovers at the very edge of my senses. I can’t catch it. Nor do I try. It’s just there. It is red and green by a window, sharp rot and turpentine. And it is warm and kind. It’s a lane going down to a seaside beach, a beach I cannot quite remember. It opens all the passages behind my throat and all the way down my back, it strokes my hair; the metal of it is soft, and when it happens I fall for that second into a place where light glances and slants, and I am wide.
Red flowers, white walls, and the sunlight in the lane. At the other end of the lane, the meadowsweet grew. It has a luscious, unbelievable smell that you eat. The meadowsweet with golden kingcups crossed an overgrown brook. Here I looked for and found the magic Swallowtail Butterfly: my prince with long horned moon-yellow wings, darkling tipped. But the grownups didn’t believe me. They said there were no swallowtail butterflies in England. Nearby, in the wood, the wet dark undergrowth pushed up in spills and clusters, the pungent flavour of dogwort, and of flowers which did not wear bright party dresses.
Daddy loved the ragged robin flowers, and pink campions. He called them “Bridget in her Bravery” because they bloomed when all the other flowers died. Near our house was a tall wide oak tree, which had had its top cut off. One day Daddy climbed right to the very top and sat on the stump, looking fierce. His employer Mr Strauss who came sometimes in his big car in a big suit and tie with big gangsters, wanted to cut the tree right down, and Daddy did not.
We kept geese in the back garden by the orchard, who stretched out their long white necks and hissed and frightened me. Once I found an egg in the grass. I picked it up and dropped it on the ground to see what would happen. It burst open, sticky and yellow and messy. Mummy arrived – “I didn’t do it!” I said – and scolded me.
After that, I started to tell a lot of lies. If I wasn’t happy with my day at school, I improvised a wonderful day by the sea, on the beach. Mummy had to ring up Mrs Willis to find out what was going on. Below Caerhays and the school was a long narrow bay. The tide went out so far, you couldn’t see the sea any more. It left wide shining sheets of sand and big dark rocks.
The Schlapps – Mam’s brother Robin and his wife Mary – gave us a quantity of very peculiar homemade clothes, which their children had grown out of. They were both professors at Edinburgh university, and so these clothes didn’t look like anyone else’s clothes, and none of them fitted. We used some of them to bathe in the sea. We wore hand-knitted Schlapp swimsuits, which hung down dark and heavy with sea-water, almost to our knees. Auntie Lonie came to stay. Daddy showed her the Bach violin sonata he was learning, would she play with him? and they did, and she was most excited – “Well you see dears, we keep on making discoveries!” She wore her wispy hair in a net, and a black velvet band around her throat, because she said her old neck was too long and scraggy. She had a funny sweet smell rather like Daddy’s, and an agitated voice. She came with us by the sea, and crawled along the cliff-path in her stockings and big narrow shoes, to play with us.
One day they found out that Auntie Lonie had taught the piano to Mr Strauss, when he was a small boy in Hazelmere. On one of Mr Strauss’s visits in his big car, Daddy let her look at him from an upstairs window, and Aunt said “yes dear, oh dear, there’s my little Ronnie!”
Mummy called Mr Strauss and his gangster brothers “the Four Apocalyptic Horses”, when she wrote to Jim and Mam in France. One day we were taken for a sail from Mevagissy harbour on Mr Strauss’s big yacht.
In the yard there lay a bad tempered dog with sore bones called Bonzo, who did not belong to us. Our own dogs, Moss and Nell, were working collie dogs and lived outdoors; they had both taught my father about sheep. In the winter it snowed – the only heavy Cornish snowfall on record; we must have brought it with us – and I made three big round snowmen with lumps of coal for their eyes. My fingers were red and numb; thick ropes of green mucus ran down from my nose all day, and I wore the black and white striped hat Mummy had knitted for my birthday. She took a photograph. They also gave me a green fairy bicycle. It was in the living-room, wrapped up for my seventh birthday in strips of brown paper. At first I thought it was too big, a motorbike, and was cross, but then I learnt to ride it in the farmyard, by scooting down the concrete slope again and again until my balance suddenly and joyfully stayed up by itself. Sometimes Mummy ran with me and held the saddle.
I learned to skip with a skipping rope. I told Mummy seven is such a wonderful age to be, because I learned to do so many new things. But I hated and feared snails and slugs.
My parents became friendly with Derek Savage, Louis Adean (who lived in a wood near the sea), Michael and Evie Fussell and other local painters and poets. I watched Lionel Miskin – his long bony body and dirty hands, his laughing lined face and exaggerated pantomime way of speaking, violent like the strange faery voice of Cornwall and its weather, darned end to end with telegraph poles.
I watched Lionel paint the clay-tip landscape from our back garden, with his square-tip brushes, and smelled his strong turps. Mummy made me a swing in the orchard – the new ropes squeaked around the wooden seat. I swung on this swing and watched the sun chasing clouds in huge galloping shadows across the fields. I lay in the fields and watched the great clouds changing faces in the blue sky. Sometimes the clouds turned to rainbow coloured petrol or oil, and fell as thunder. They bruised and hurt the shining wet fields, and frightened the cows.
Along the horizon there was a range of mountains. They all had triangular white points like a fairy story. The pyramids rose in a jumble from a dark bumpy ridge of moorland. As the day passed, they turned from white to blue, violet or silver. Sometimes they sparkled and sometimes the weather hid them. Sometimes they were grey as the ridge they grew from. Among them clung small tin houses, a shambles, a fairyland. They were our back-drop. They were there always.
Lionel sat on the grass and painted them onto his narrow boards. His paints smelled thick, strong and sharp. I watched him mix a thick corrugate of colour on his stiff brush and dab it accurately onto a small, unpainted place among autumnal tints. Then I looked at the view. There it was, that same patch of gold or pale yellow, in the clump of a distant copse. Lionel built a patchwork of sour strong smells, drab light and pungent colour, realising the tints and flavours of that very ground. His painting belonged to the white dusty hills. There was no gap between these and what he did with his hand, brush and messes.
I did not “like” or “love” this. I took it absolutely for granted, like the times my body filled with sound and didn’t move. His painting crossed the sky between me and the hills, and happened here. And his painting, with my hills, was messy and smelly and sometimes menacing, and I lived with it.
Sometimes we would go for a drive among these pointed hills – the china-clay mines behind St Austell. They were very untidy. Their violent intimacy didn’t know itself – it was all exposed, skinless and open. Many years later, Lionel gave me a book of savage poems by a man called Jack Clemo who lived in one of the little tin houses among the white peaks and the black pits. He was most of the time totally blind and stone deaf, he lived in darkness. And sometimes his eyes and ears for a moment would open and he could see and write his poems of darkness and of dazzling light. Then he fell into their unspeaking shadow again.
At school the monster was arithmetic. I hated sums. We were made to learn our times tables by heart and chant them. I didn’t know how they worked, or what they were for, and I couldn’t remember them. Mrs Willis got cross and so did my parents. One day we had to have a test and I was terrified. At the very last moment I found out how it worked. After six twos are twelve, you carefully count up another six on your fingers and add it on, to get six threes are eighteen, and so on. At last it worked. For the first time I got them all right – I had discovered how to cheat – and Mrs Willis gave me a star. But figures were my continuing horror throughout my school life. I got tied up in knots with the punishment around them. I couldn’t follow Daddy’s repeated and finally infuriated attempts to explain, or my mother’s. There were many tears. My mind became blank, a block swamped with stuck metal like a car which won’t go.
Mrs Willis could do nothing to stop my incessant reading. I left the ground and flew. I made up my own fairytales. In the school taxi I sat in front and told them to the other farm children, as they unfolded in my mind, and as I lived them. I had no trouble in telling them at all – that came later. Princesses, flowers and fairies poured through me and I took it for granted. When I came back to school after being away ill, they pestered me in the taxi for more, and the driver warned them, “Leave her be. She’s got a cough, she hasn’t been well.” At the other side of our house, near the concrete lane which goes up to Pencois Farm, there is a brown pond with a tree across it like a bridge. I sat on this bridge to read my book. One day I dropped my book in the still brown water, and never saw it again.
Quince was fond of drinking beer out of bottles, and helping with the cows. She and her boy-doll called Jollis brought them in from the field for milking. Jollis had been named by a smart Frenchwoman to whom he was shown in France, when we went to see Jim and Mam. I think she probably said “mais c’est joli”.
I wondered if French children laughed in the same way as we do. The French words and the Cossong river were strange sharp nasal noises which often sounded cross. Jim made French noises sometimes, but we were told he did them badly.
I had another doll called Canchumemba who looked like Mrs Ireson, the teacher at school who taught the older ones. She looked rather severe, and was made out of pale velvet and black hair. I may have been given her in Bransdale. Mummy asked me time after time, what’s her name? what are you going to call her? I replied always “I can’t-chu-memba.” Mummy said crossly “Alright then.” So Canchumemba settled down with that regal name for herself among the Friends. She reminds me of Auntie Lonie. Quince was given another doll for Christmas, a larger and more modern one than Susan, called Judy. I was jealous.
I often found it hard to get other children to play with me, or to join their games. Sometimes it was alright, with Grandmothers Footsteps and huge circle games of tag. I hated the “rough boys” with their skinny arms. In the school playground, the best thing was the big see-saw. We sat each end in twos, back to back. One day I edged myself further up and pushed Ivor who was sitting with his back to me right off the edge. I think this was an accident. He splattered to the ground, and when he got up his face from nose to chin was gristle.
Sometimes we would climb and sit on the high wall at the edge of the playground. The woman who lived in the next-door house looked up at us from her area where she gossiped, and said “YOU’LL KILL YOURSELVES UP THERE.” I didn’t know what “kill” meant. I thought it meant to be hurt very badly, and gloated down at her from my summit. If one is hurt very badly, it means Smart Plasters of an enormity beyond one’s wildest dreams.
My importance was boundless. One day I walked up the ridged concrete road – raised slightly from the grass – to Pencois and School, and a big white van came slowly down the hill towards me and stopped. The people in it wore peaked hats and looked concerned: “Is this the way to Ventonwyn?” “I’m Off to School,” I replied, with self conscious dignity.
Later that day, I found that I was going to stay with my friend Mary Jobson for a whole week, because Mummy had gone off in an ambulance to hospital in Red Roof to have her new baby. Quince went off to stay with the Willises and their daughter who did Extrams. Mummy has just told me that this clear memory is inaccurate. She says her waters broke during the night, and the ambulance came for her before I went off to school; we all waved bye bye to her and I said to her “I hope you have a LOVELY time.”
I was very happy in Mary’s big grand house at the bottom of a garden full of rhododendrons. Our mothers were friends. Mary had a small fierce daddy called Major and a horrid small brother called Robert. Her mummy was tall, dark and brisk; I liked her being my mummy for a week, except when she made me go to the lavatory each morning after breakfast. I pushed and pushed but nothing came out. I didn’t want to go, but she might make me stay there all day in that little room with the door shut, so I tried.
Mary’s mother helped me to write letters to Mummy in hospital in Red Roof. I felt so important that I began my letters with “Dear Mrs Adams”. Mary’s mother didn’t think this was quite right, why don’t I write “My Dear Mummy”? It is more loving. So I obeyed. I wrote to her that I was very pleased about the Baby, and yes I should like to call him Simon, and that Mary and I had such a lot of fun climbing and sliding down the ruff.
Mary’s house had such big attics that you could climb out from them onto the roof and go everywhere on the tiles. One attic led into another, mouldy and brown with dust. In them hung grey columns of sleeping bats upside-down, like strings of onions. They had sharp pointed wings and squeaked like mice if disturbed.
When Mummy came back from Red Roof with tiny baby Simon, she was smart and slim, and we all came back home again. She brought him in his shawl up to Pencois where the school taxi came, and held him up in the air so that all the other children could see my new little brother and cry “Aa-a-aah!”
She let him lie out in the sun all summer, and fed him from her warm brown nipples. He turned brown as well, like a shining conker with white hair. He was a gentle baby with bright blue eyes, and Mummy said he looked exactly like Jane.
Quince let her doll Jollis lie in the hot sun with Simon: but Jollis – who was made of rubber – perished, began to smell very bad, and eventually had to be buried.
Daddy argued with the owner of Ventonwyn, Mr.Strauss, whose regular visits in his big car with gangsters upset everybody – Daddy refused to cut down any trees at all – and we had to move. Mr Strauss rang up Daddy and said “You are a nasty, rude, ungrateful young man, Goodbye,” and put the phone down with a bang.
My adventure invites fellow travellers. I am a poet, an artist and a seer. I welcome conversation among the PHILO SOFIA, the lovers of wisdom. This blog is a vehicle to promote also my published work – The Sacred India Tarot (with Rohit Arya, Yogi Impressions Books) and The Dreamer in the Dream – a collection of short stories (0 Books). Watch this space.
All art and creative writing in this blog is copyright © Janeadamsart 2012. May not be used for commercial purposes. May be used and shared for non-commercial means with credit to Jane Adams and a link to the web address https://janeadamsart.wordpress.com/