By Michael Cook
This is the place where I grew up.
It was a large house with a large barn and a number of outbuildings. It was once a farm, and my family had been (until a few years before my birth) market gardeners. My home was surrounded by fields, orchards, the garden merging with the fields; there was hardly a distinction between cabbage and rose, rockery and furrow. There were no longer any animals (other than cats and dogs), but there were stables, a cow shed and a pigsty, brick and stone housing musty air and memories of animals, buildings with names so prosaic that they become poetry, trap place, rhubarb house, onion chamber. Some work was still done in the fields, mostly by tenants, and there were tractors and potato sorters and other pieces of machinery, and many other signs of farm life, piles of old sacks, bales of hay and many tools which I never knew the use of. Not a working farm then, but a farm trudging home from the fields. A farm, tired and dusty from work, lying down to take its rest.
There is a lane that runs below the house, and I spent many hours walking its way. At one end of the lane, where it joins a small hamlet, is a holy well. At the other is a long bridge, an ancient causeway, and if you go further, following the river, there are a series of arches carved into the rock where a hermit once lived, which we visited often. But everything, barn as much as the saints cave, puddle as much as holy well, was imbued with a sense of mystery, a beyondness. Hedges bounded the lane, an avenue of mysteries, at once human-made and entirely natural. Once, walking there with my mother, I saw a small bird hopping about in the hedge, negotiating the hawthorn. I was afraid for the bird, that it might hurt itself, but my mother said the thorns protected the bird and her nest from the fox and the magpie. Something blossomed in my mind, and I knew the thorns were good and beautiful. Pointing to the silent white trumpets of the bindweed, she said it strangled the other hedgerow plants. Another unfurling in my mind, and I knew that things fought for survival. I remember struggling to free the cow parsley from its tendrils.
The youngest of six children, I spent a lot of time alone, hiding from my older brother. It was so easy to withdraw in that place, to hide in cellar or loft, behind bales of hay in the barn, or to run to the fields, to disappear like a hare into a furrow of dark earth, or to sit beneath a large tree, hidden from view by its wide trunk, the tall grasses. I became an expert at hiding. But I also learned something beautiful, how an arc of foliage consoles, how a tree gives sanctuary and solace.
I drew and drew and drew. I drew with my finger, with a pencil, with a ball-point pen, with crayons and felt-tips. I drew with my mother’s lipstick on the reed-patterned wallpaper of my parents' bedroom. A little later, I drew anthropomorphic fish, insects mowing the lawn, ostriches getting married in top hats, and above all, I drew faces. With my head bent at a right angle over my pad, my uncontrollable mop of hair itself like random brown brushstrokes, I drew never-ending patterns, swirls and arabesques. I got others to draw squiggles so I could make them into something, turning the page around until I saw it - a mouse, a kite-flyer, a dragon - magic! I drew at every available opportunity, obsessively, because drawing was for me creation ex nihilo, order from chaos, and the one thing I could do really well, where I excelled, where I was in control and lost and free. It became for me a language, a speaking without saying, and was a gift to me, the pleasure of which is to always give it back, over and over, and receive it again, ten times, a hundredfold.
My father was a gentle man who enjoyed poetry, valued warmth, fell easily into sleep, and had a love of cats. He also felt deeply the suffering of the world, and aged twelve informed his mother that he was an atheist; God’s only excuse was that He didn’t exist, and he pointed to the tooth and claw of nature as proof. A good Swedenborgian, she advised him that if he couldn’t believe in God then believing in love would do just as well, being the same thing. He remained a lifelong and vocal disbeliever. Faith then was not part of my upbringing, yet as a child I felt dissatisfied with unbelief, and came home from junior school one day with a crucifix I had made from clay, which must have puzzled both of my parents greatly, signalling as it did the reversal of my father’s path. There, in the clay man hung on the clay tree, the thorns were absurdly entwined with hope, the nails driven into forgiveness. I sometimes wonder how much I really believe, but at the very least it’s an idea, an image, aperson, that won’t let go of me. In the saints I have found images of human tenderness towards creation that make no rational sense, going far beyond mere ecology, as the Sermon on the Mount goes infinitely beyond ethics. Kevin hatches a blackbird’s eggs in his prayerful hand, and Giles stands between an arrow and a hart, taking the blow. There’s Francis, of course. His namesake Pope has said we must first love creation for its own sake, otherwise our concern will always stop at utility, and he is surely right. We must look to the saints and regard their naivety with wonder.
I grew, and stayed, and stayed, then met and learned to love another, and left. Made a home together in town, had neighbours, a narrow garden. No nightjars, but blackbirds. A pond with frogs. No hares, but brazen foxes that slink between the two long hedges.
A few years ago my mother died, and last September my father, suddenly fearful of the God he’d never believed in, followed. So now, with some trepidation, we’re preparing to move back to the family home. Builders are busy uncovering all the signs of age in the house my parents wanted to cover, carpet is coming off brick floors, beams are being exposed to light. The stable which once housed the horse will soon house my paintings; the stable, so long empty of animals, will once again come alive, but now with leaping or boxing hares, prowling foxes, patterned nightjars, and other creatures in tangles of leaf and thorn. With figures holding and being held by the earth, and saints foolishly making nests of their hands.