remembering catriona

Catriona’s Jug 2001

(Read about the jug HERE)

As spring manifests everywhere around us my thoughts turn to my friend Catriona Urquhart, who while she never saw the garden at Ty Isaf, nevertheless exerts a tangible influence over what we have done and plan to do here. Catriona was a great gardener and plantswoman, and in my head she accompanies me on every turn of the garden I take, come wind or shine.

The beloved dead, I have increasingly found, stay with us, and getting on for seven years after her departure on May Day 2005, Catriona is as present in my head today… perhaps even more so… than she has ever been. Of course she’s present in more tangible ways too, surrounded as Peter and I are by the things… ceramics, furniture and plants… that she and her partner Ian gifted to us. Then there are the words and thoughts she left in the two slender Old Stile Press books that comprise the published works of her lifetime: the short story Palmyra Jones and the volume of poetry The Mare’s Tale. I fear there can be no more, because it seems our girl was thorough in destroying any of the writing with which she was dissatisfied.

French Jug and Anchovy Dish: Ceredigion still-life 2006

Yesterday I travelled to give a talk to members of the North West Wales Art Fund at Plas Tan-y-Bwlch. The subject was titled Clive Hicks-Jenkins Among the Poets, and alongside the projected images of paintings, I read the works of Dave Bonta, Callum James, Andrea Selch, Damian Walford Davies, Marly Youmans and of course Catriona. (More of that occasion in the next Artlog post.) Hard to select a single work by any poet that will represent them, but as I was showing the Mari Lwyd images that were in part the inspiration for Catriona’s poems on that subject, I decided to read Pegasus, her poem about my father’s death, in which she transforms the Mari of  his nightmares into the winged Pegasus that will carry him away from his sick bed.

Peter gave the ‘Friends’ Eulogy’ at Catriona’s funeral. I think it possibly the best prose he’s ever produced. For those of you who never knew her, this is the most vivid account that could be wished for.

 

Golden Catriona

 

We have carried with us for years now fears that we would one day lose Catriona; but still, when the news came, it was impossible to believe.

 

So many friends have talked about the special, golden glow Catriona emanated. We all bathed in it. Catriona was one of the great ‘appreciators’ – especially of good company, gardens, the seaside, books, old china, poetry read aloud, paintings, and thoughtfully-prepared food, which we were always sharing. She adored to give gifts, her generosity leading her to spend days potting cuttings for other people’s gardens or seeking out the perfect book. She received gifts with infectious enthusiasm, too. When things were right, her pleasures seemed amplified far beyond those most of us can feel. Every time one discovered something beautiful, it was the reaction to think, ‘Ah, we must show Catriona this!’, ‘We must bring Catriona here!’ And so, until we learn to remember rather than grieve, every taste and every pleasure seems to turn to charcoal in our mouths, because she is not here to share them.

 

She seemed sometimes to know everything – the origins of words, the name of every rose, the biographies of writers, even the history of one’s own family. If she had bothered to go on Mastermind with these as special subjects she would have been a champion. She possessed the strong opinions and the disarming insights of the brilliant mind. She could dissect the frailties and foibles of everyone she met, whilst cherishing them as part of the rich and piebald world we all inhabit.

 

She had talent falling from her fingertips; though she wore it so carelessly that many never realised. She was an affecting singer and musician, though there are few recordings. She was strong and sporting. One of her father’s ciné films of his young family preserves an image of her fleet as an amazon, golden hair flying, leading out her sibling tribe; and she told us how she used to run with utter confidence the terrifying sheeptrack over ‘the elephant’, a rocky promontory near Ferryden that had us sinking to our knees with vertigo. She was a star at school and university. The Nobel Prize winner Seamus Heaney told her always to keep in touch and come and stay; but she never liked to bother him.

 

We knew that she had once been good at languages. With hesitation, we introduced her to Julia, a Russian girl working here who was all-at-sea and lonely through her lack of English. We believed Catriona could speak a little Russian, which might be nice. Within a minute they were chattering away, like old friends in a Moscow restaurant, Julia laughing and smiling for what seemed to be the first time in all her visit. Catriona picked up languages like most of us pick up colds, recently gaining fluent Portuguese on two visits to Brazil.

 

She told stories with such extraordinary vividness and ease that I badgered her to write them down. She said for months that she was writing a story for me. Finally, she announced that it would be my birthday present, and it was nearly finished. When she and Ian arrived for dinner, there was just the little problem that she had not put pen to paper! Trina locked herself away, and an hour later, there the story was, without so much as a crossing-out, perfectly formed in her head and transcribed unhesitatingly. What a gift she gave me; and what a gift she had! She was persuaded to read it out, and I will always hear it in her honeyed singer’s voice and Scottish accent (even though the narrator in the story was in fact an Irish seaman!). Like Alan Bennett, Catriona was the exception to prove the rule that authors are poor readers of their work. Among those rapt by her magic that birthday evening were Nicolas and Frances McDowall, who later published the story, Palmyra Jones, at The Old Stile Press, and later still her cycle of poems, The Mare’s Tale.

 

There were short-lived times when ill-health took away Catriona’s ability to be the things she was, but she fought back courageously. She used every ounce of concentration to write her Mare’s Tale poems through a haze of anxiety and depression. They are masterpieces.

 

Catriona was unforgiving of the second-rate, the lazy and the puffed-up. Perhaps she avoided writing because she knew how gruelling it is to achieve real quality, but that excellence was how you showed proper generosity in giving things to others. I for one was influenced by Catriona to try harder, not to take the easy route. And I believe many of us will go on to seek the best in everything – propagating all the best plants in the garden for our friends, caring for each other, and sharing around a table food that warms the cockles of the heart.

 

Sometimes Catriona loved to be the princess, served by those who brought her flowers and sweetmeats, answering her whims, making her comfortable. For nearly thirty years Ian was her hero, her young Lochinvar. He undertook quests for her, fought monsters, brought back treasures: commissioning an alteration to the alterations to the house, buying an old piece of furniture that needed her to love it, or taking her on a journey literally to the other side of the world. Of course she was no princess at heart, and she cared for Ian and others in return, especially her friends and family, and her nephews and nieces, whom she adored. But in her last illness she accepted care with calm contentment. Her family wrapped around her like a warm blanket of love. It was heart-rending to watch her brother Roddy gently cradling her head in his strong hands, Ishbel, face swollen with tears, leaping on her bed with cheerful cry of ‘Hi Trina’, and all of them at her side – Alasdair, Rhona, Cathy, the partners and the children. Catriona floated above the house-full, as she always liked to do in the bedroom at Ferryden or the croglofft at Penparc, knowing all was well, listening to the gentle tinkle of the tea-cups, raising an ironic eyebrow to things overheard, dozing, dreaming, waking with a smile to those who visited.

 

This will be a cruel summer, seeing Catriona’s flowers bloom – in many different gardens. People passing by will wonder, ‘Why is he sobbing at that beautiful new iris? Why does she look so sad amid that bower of roses?’ We will all move on, every one of us, and some die much younger than Catriona. But there were many things we wanted still to do together. She would have been an exceptional old lady – wise, surprising, generous, a keeper of traditions but subversive. She had so much more to give, and I suspect she would have found the best age to give it.

 

We must follow Catriona’s guiding light. She showed the joy there is in life. Even in her death, she tells us life is not for ever, and we should do the things that count, particularly those that cherish one another and the world around us. We will still hear her laugh sometimes – that irrepressible, mischievous, clear laugh; and we will still think often, ‘Ah, Catriona would love this!’

 

She will be strong in our memories, and she knew better than anyone that memories turn into stories. Stories sometimes transform to myths. And one day in future I know Catriona will be just that – the myth of she who glowed with love and wonder at the world and taught others to appreciate it: “Golden Catriona”. I think she will rather like that.

 

PW

11 May 2005

11 May 2005

 …


25 thoughts on “remembering catriona

  1. Pingback: Palmyra Jones | Clive Hicks-Jenkins' Artlog:

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  3. Hello Clive,
    I am just returned here to Canada after several weeks of wandering, camping, and sharing with a friend, the wilds of Utah and other corners of the southwest. I will be doing some catch up reading today now that I have a net connection, but just had to stop in the midst of reading to comment on this post in memory of Catriona. It is beautiul. Peter’s eulogy is one of the most moving tributes that I have ever read, and for me, particularly the part about the flowers in gardens. Having had many flowers from others in my old garden – what I think of as “memory flowers” – I felt very in that moment. How fortunate you were to have known such a spirit!

    • Hello Bev. How lovely to hear from you. Always good to see you blowing in from your wanderings for a brief reunion with the world-wide web.

      Peter is touched by your comment. We loved Catriona so much, and he wanted to strike the right balance between understandable melancholy and a celebration of all she had been. I thought it was a pretty wonderful piece of writing, and he was pitch perfect in his delivery. I saw him struggle every now and then to batten down the emotional hatches, but then that did no more than make it even more heartfelt. I’m glad that you found things within it that seem to speak particularly to you. I think the best eulogies should have that quality.

  4. Clive, the painting is beautiful and I’m sure Peter’s eulogy is too but unfortunatelly I find the blue type on black impossible to read – I seem to be the only one to have difficulty with this so I can’t ask you to change the type colour! But if you could…….

    • Hello Natalie

      I cut and pasted the eulogy from a Word document. It was blue on white in the document, and I was rather surprised to find that the blue survived the relocation. I shall send it to you in an e-mail. It’s worth reading. Peter wrote and read it beautifully!

  5. I am in the same boat as Liz in that I didn’t meet Catriona but through the beautiful words I feel I know her, or at least I feel her spirit though the words and that spirit lives on through you and Peter because you too appreciate the same things she did and share them with all of us. Giving us a new eye to look at things and appreciate them as new again. She will never leave you because she is in your hearts as I think you are in hers. xx

  6. A lovely tribute by Peter: I remember rambling through the hills with you talking about how you met her. It is always wonderful to meet those shining people who seem to spill over with an excess of life.

    Yeats said that a poet had to choose between perfection of the work and perfection of the life, and though you may regret that she did not leave behind more poems and stories and songs, it sounds as though she made a wonderful, joyous choice.

  7. That is quite beautiful, as your Peter said, it seems as if she would have been an exceptional old lady, this subversive keeper of tradition; lovely phrases for what seems to have been a lovely friend and inspiration. There are very few friends such as yours, I have met only one, and she lives far away in Johannesburg- I need to Skype her right away.
    Thank you.
    Your painting, particularly the first is haunting and quite beautiful.
    LG

    • Thank you Leonard. Peter will be pleased to read that.

      The two rather blue-toned paintings were done when Catriona was still with us. The one with the beach came later, when I was casting off the Neo-romantic, elegiac trappings that had begun to stifle me. I brightened my palette, pared away the lush brushwork and flattened the perspective. I think I was trying to overcome my sadness at Catriona’s death, and find a simpler, clearer approach to expression.

      • That’s of interest, I had been curious of the switch, I had noticed it of course but hadn’t asked. I like the notion of switching so radically when a period or a muse passes. Lovely to have that moment captured so permanently.

        And of course the vibrancy and vigor of your new work is quite singular, the romanticism still intact but fresher.
        But of course, I am a bit of a fan (-;

        • You could have asked. I would have explained.

          I have always striven to keep my creativity in a state of quest, sometimes overturning the tables to really shake myself up. When things become easy, then for me that signals time for change!

  8. I love that I can see her through Peter’s (and your) eyes. Absolutely beautiful eulogy. How blessed for all of you to have been in each others lives and for her to live on and touch others through you. Sometimes the brightest candles burn too fast. xoxo

    • Oh she was bright alright, Elizabeth. We all basked in her radiance. And now we bask in the warmth of all she left behind for us to enjoy. It’s quite a legacy. I smile now when I hear people lamenting that they never knew her. She’d be astounded were she to come back and hear that. In some ways Trina could be quite private and shy. Often we tried to get her to meet with other of our friends we thought she’d like, but she’d become elusive and reticent in those circumstances, as though there were already enough people in her life, and more were simply not an option. I’m just glad that I had her in my life for as long as I did, and that we were so happy and at ease in each others company.

      Yesterday many people told me how much they loved the poem of Catriona’s that I read at Plas Tan-y-Bwlch. That warms my heart.

  9. Having met you one year to the day after Catriona’s death, when your grief was still externally palpable, I feel I knew her, too. You and Peter both have carried Catriona’s banner in the most dignified, yet sharing, ways… and thus, have allowed those of us who never had the pleasure of her company to know much of her spirit. Catriona smiles upon you forever more.
    xo
    AM

    • I can’t tell you how much your words mean to me, Anita. I do carry Catriona’s banner, though always I hesitate before sharing because while it should be kept flying, I don’t want to bang on about her or have people grow weary of my occasional paeans. If you say that we’re managing that with dignity, then I believe you and I am content. Thank you my friend. You have the most generous spirit.

  10. You are right (as usual) Clive, Peter’s eulogy is one of the best tributes to a loved one I have ever read. Not an easy task to perform. You were fortunate to have known Catriona and she was fortunate in having you two as friends. Love, Flo.

    • Hello stranger! Thanks for popping by.

      Yes, she was a star in our lives, and the lives of others too. Peter did a good job there. I think he was acutely aware that had she been present, she would have judged him caustically if he’d failed her! It gave his prose wings.

      I kid around. It was love, and not fear, that gave his prose wings.

  11. Hello Clive and Peter, what a beautiful eulogy. How strange that in all the years that I have known you, we never met her- Reading that wonderful prose- I feel I knew her well. I am so sorry you feel sad now , but I see you feel blessed to have known her, with my love Liz

    • Mmmmm. I guess I do feel sad. Happy too, for all the good times, but sad at a deep level of loss. It never goes away. With Catriona I always felt that there could have been so much more. We had a project in mind. She was going to make a new translation of the Ramuz libretto for Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale, and I was to make the images. We’d interested Nicolas at the Old Stile Press, but it was never to be. ‘Trina died and that was that. Of course, this is one of the reasons that I so leapt at the recent opportunity to produce a version of The Soldier’s Tale for the concert in Washington DC. The enthusiasm we had, Catriona and I, for that marvellous text, still burns in my heart.

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