The Small Things

I’ve been away from home a lot. Preparations for Hansel & Gretel are in that stage of pre-production count-down once so familiar to me when my career was in the theatre, but which became a distant memory after I’d made a new life as an artist. (There are countdowns for exhibitions, too, though they’re as nothing in comparison to what happens when preparations for a stage production are in the final throes, and particularly so when there has been the commissioning of new music and text.) However these last two years have seen the blending together of my past and present practices as Hansel & Gretel evolved from a picture book to a toy theatre, and from a toy theatre to a stage-production-in-the-making before somewhat unexpectedly transforming back into a new though entirely different book, this time based on Simon Armitage’s reinvention of the fairy tale into the poem that became the libretto to Matt Kaner’s music.

The last two stages of the journey – rehearsals for the stage production and preparations for the new book – will be described in detail in Artlog posts yet-to-come. My absence here has been caused by the congested schedules of many projects coalescing, and there being no time to digest and write about the experiences as they’ve happened. I will make good the deficit later by way of recollection, when life slows down to a more manageable pace. But right now there’s the endless packing and unpacking of suitcases, the planning and booking for many train journeys, the changes of work spaces, the various beds and the hustle and bustle of editing suites and rehearsal rooms and getting across London in rush hour and trying to find the time to eat and sleep. Right now I must concentrate on the business in hand because very soon we’ll enter the final stages of rehearsals for Hansel & Gretel, and what has been planned for two years will be in performance, rather than existing only as a series of ideas in the minds of the collaborators.

Throughout all this, absence has lain like a shard of ice in my chest. My journeys home are are conflicted because though I always long to return Ty Isaf when I am away from it too much, that longing is now wrapped in sadness.

The past couple of days at home have been a welcome respite from the recent pace and intensity of work, but they reveal too the small absences that cut: an empty window-seat where Jack once kept vigil over his domain, and none of the smears on the window-glass that were the evidence of his enthusiasm for barking welcomes and warnings. The cushions on the sofas are neatly arranged, no longer reorganised by him into his preference for high-vantage sleeping platforms. No dog-hair-tumbleweed on the painted floorboards or stairs, no splashed puddles by his water-bowl (no water-bowl) and our bed now smoothed and pristine when it’s time for sleep, no longer subject to Jack’s habit of retiring early to make it a cosy nest ready for Peter and me to join him. No dog-lead and harness on the back seat of the car. No towel at the ready in the boot-room. No red frisbee on the grass waiting for throw and fetch. On waking, no weight of dog on my chest, or across my legs or neck, or tucked into shoulder, elbow or armpit. No dog-hair on my clothes any more, and no Sellotape in my pocket to remove it so as to look halfway to presentable.

I miss all this. I miss, I miss, I miss….

 

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Jack and the toad he made friends with.

 

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Missing

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I Miss

I miss you in the kitchen, my constant companion throughout the preparation of meals.

I miss you sitting watchfully at the table, taking as much interest in the chopping of peppers for Ratatouille as you did in going for a walk or having a game of fetch.

I miss your eyes on me, and your paw, gently reaching up to tap a reassurance to both of us.

I miss you waiting patiently for your portion of the food served. I miss walking from the room knowing you wouldn’t touch any morsels left on the table as I prepared a meal, not even a tasty piece of fish, or a scrap of cheese tantalisingly in reach.

I miss the pride I always felt when any guest noticed you could be trusted in this way, and the warmth of affection when I watched you take proffered tidbits from visitors with gentleness, never snapping or wolfing down. Always gentlemanly and reticent.

I miss the way you’d lock on my eyes, watching for any small expression of encouragement. A tiny nod would bring you to my hand, a tilt of the head would alert you to step back.

I miss the chatter between us, me in words and you in the soft vocalisations you used to express your feelings. You did it more as you got older, and perhaps as you got more deaf.

I miss the kitchen door banging open when you arrived to join me. Closed doors were never an impediment to you.

I miss you massaging my back. Was there ever a dog who did such a thing? You were extraordinary.

 

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I miss you, all the time.

Sir Jack and the Green Knight

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Jack was my companion in the studio throughout the long process of making the 14 prints of the Sir Gawain and the Green Knight series. He kept vigil in his basket beneath my work table every working day of the project. There would be occasional forays downstairs to discover what was going on elsewhere, to greet the postman, check up on Peter and see if anything interesting – or promising – was going on in the kitchen. But afterwards he’d always return to take up his post with me, and he’d stay until it was time for his walk, and again after that, until the day’s work was done. Whenever I was overtired I’d stretch out for a nap on the studio floor, my head resting on the pillow of his flank, and he’d tuck his head into my neck and sigh deeply with contentment as we both drifted off in the dust and sunshine.

For the many years we’ve attended exhibition openings at MoMA Machynlleth, Jack has always accompanied us.  Weather allowing he would sit patiently in the courtyard while Peter and I were off viewing art, though I’d regularly check on him from the window up in the Owen Owen Room, from where I could see who’d decided to keep him company. There was always someone, and often a queue of admirers, children and adults, proffering tidbits of sausage-rolls and ham sandwiches from the buffet. Jack never went short of food at a MoMA opening and rarely needed super after one. However, willing courtyard dog-minders notwithstanding, this year, with the weather so cold and Jack feeling it more than when he was a youngster, I’d determined he was coming in for the Gawain event. I knew it wasn’t permitted for dogs to enter the building, but as my studio companion throughout the two and a half years of preparation for the exhibition, I was determined Jack would have his place in the spotlight on the big day. (And I strongly suspect Richard and Ruth Lambert would have allowed it!)

But in the end, though he made it to the completion of the fourteenth print, Jack didn’t manage to stay long enough for the exhibition. On Saturday, in memory of him, I shall fasten his leash into a belt-loop at my waist, the way I always did whenever we were out and about together. Jack eschewed a lead at social occasions, always behaving impeccably when off it. So although I’ll be without him, I’ll feel better for having his leash at my side, the way it has been for so many years.

Below: my birthday supper at La Cuina in Cardiff, June 2016, with Philipa and Dave Robbins, Peter, Richard Edwards, and of course, Jack, who had a bit of everything on offer! I’m behind the camera.

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‘The House-Dog’s Grave’, by Robinson Jeffers

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Robinson Jeffers: The House-Dog’s Grave

I’ve changed my ways a little; I cannot now
Run with you in the evenings along the shore,
Except in a kind of dream; and you,
If you dream a moment,
You see me there.

So leave awhile the paw-marks on the front door
Where I used to scratch to go out or in,
And you’d soon open; leave on the kitchen floor
The marks of my drinking-pan.

I cannot lie by your fire as I used to do
On the warm stone,
Nor at the foot of your bed; no,
All the nights through I lie alone.

But your kind thought has laid me less than six feet
Outside your window where firelight so often plays,
And where you sit to read‚
And I fear often grieving for me‚
Every night your lamplight lies on my place.

You, man and woman, live so long, it is hard
To think of you ever dying.
A little dog would get tired, living so long.
I hope that when you are lying
Under the ground like me your lives will appear
As good and joyful as mine.

No, dears, that’s too much hope:
You are not so well cared for as I have been.
And never have known the passionate undivided
Fidelities that I knew.
Your minds are perhaps too active, too many-sided…
But to me you were true.

You were never masters, but friends. I was your friend.
I loved you well, and was loved. Deep love endures
To the end and far past the end. If this is my end,
I am not lonely. I am not afraid. I am still yours.

 

My thanks to Julie Whitmore, who sent me this beautiful poem, so eloquent of many thoughts crowding my head at this time.

We didn’t bury Jack ‘less than six feet’ from our door, though he lies in the paddock where he ran joyfully for eleven of his fourteen years, and his view is of Ty Isaf and all its comings and goings.

 

Dog Gone

 

Every sensation in this house has changed in an instant. No longer the click of his nails on floorboards and no longer his blissful morning roll on the bedroom rug as he stretches and yawns and attends to his start-the-day lick-and-brush-up prior to setting out to get me moving because time is passing and still no breakfast.

No sounds of him industriously rearranging and making Jack-nests of the piles of cushions on the various sofas he was master of, or of the friendly though insistent growl that told me he was ready for food, or a walk or for simply a lap-cuddle.

Above: Peter napping while Jack keeps watch.

He announced every telephone call with wince-making wolf-howls – just in case we hadn’t noticed the ringing – and from his lookout post in the sitting-room window-seat he had a friendly bark for anyone he recognised coming up the drive, as opposed to the outraged one he reserved for suspect intruders and marauding rabbits. Jack was always the first out of the door to inspect and greet all legitimate comers, and for the years we’ve lived at Ty Isaf, our directions to travellers have concluded with ‘You’ll know you’re in the right place when Jack runs out to greet you!’

Above: Jack at Ty Isaf.

Above: sitting behind me and gently massaging my back. We never taught him to do this, but I always found it very soothing.

He was practical in matters of his own comfort. He would lead me to the fireplace wood-burner and fasten his eyes on mine to let me know he’d appreciate a blaze to stretch out in front of. Jack was always eloquent when expressing his needs and preferences, and was quite capable of many nuances of exasperation if he found we weren’t satisfactorily co-operating with him.

Above: paying a visit to Pip Koppel at Lletty Caws, where he’d been born.

Throughout Jack’s life he slept in our bed, and in the winter months Peter and I vied for him, each stealthily pulling him closer for warmth. Jack was at his most comfortable and happy with one or the other of us spooned around him. He’d curl up and press so hard into you, the tighter the better, only pulling away when he got too hot and had to rearrange himself, usually on his back so that his belly would cool faster.

He travelled the UK with us by car – his favourite mode of transport – watching the road ahead, preferably from the lap of whoever was in the passenger seat, and when that wasn’t possible, from the gap between driver and passenger.

Above: keeping an eye on things from the navigator’s perch next to our friend Dave.

 

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But he made trips by train and ferry, too, and just last year had his first experience of the top deck of a London bus when he accompanied us to the London Illustrators’ Book Fair, a mode of transport he entirely approved of when he discovered that he could wander off and make new acquaintances. He was a seasoned and polite guest in the homes of friends, in hotels, in rental properties and in B + Bs. He behaved so well that he occasionally gained access to restaurants that didn’t usually allow four-legged visitors.

Above: the first stage-rehearsal of The Mare’s Tale by the composer Mark Bowden – in the blue t-shirt. The librettist was Damian Walford Davies, whose children loved Jack so much they persuaded their hapless parents to get them a Jack Russell of their own!

When in 2014 I directed The Mare’s Tale, he attended every rehearsal. Somewhere I have a picture of him sitting in a stalls seat of the theatre while every musician on stage aimed a phone camera at him. Later he had a reserved seat next to mine for the premiere. Ian Hamilton recalls that when he walked into the auditorium that evening, there were more people crowded around Jack than there were around me.

Throughout his life he loved to play and was very good at it. In his prime his frisbee retrieval was nigh on legendary, and it was wonderful to see him run and leap and perfectly field even the most far-flying throw. He took fences like a steeple-chaser and what couldn’t be got over, he took a route under. I loved to see him chasing in the long summer grass of the paddock, because he’d progress like a Springbok, in high prances.

Jack was an extraordinary presence in our lives: sweet-natured, courteous, attentive, adventure-loving and laughter provoking. From his earliest days he was a pup who got a joke, and that’s a rare thing. Moreover his ease in all company made him in so many ways not quite what most dogs are. Yesterday in a phone conversation, Dan, my friend and collaborator on the Gawain project, explained that he’d realised whenever speaking to others about Peter, me and Jack, he never referred to the latter as being a dog, which I think must occasionally have led to misunderstandings. He said he just didn’t think of Jack that way when talking about him, and I can quite understand why.

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Above: in the audience of a concert given by the Mid-Wales Chamber Orchestra. He behaved impeccably until the applause at the end, when he barked vociferously to show his proper appreciation.

Above: enjoying a cake-fest with my cousin Katy in Dolgellau.

Above: encouraging Susan Trueman to play!

Above: Jack and a visiting Mari Lwyd

Above: in the River Ystwyth just below Ty Isaf.

Above: with Peter just prior to the opening of my ‘Telling Tales’ exhibition at the Tegfryn Gallery, Anglesey.

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Above: his favourite ‘Ducky’, a gift from Alfie and Elsie Bugg.

Above: the best game of all, trying to kill the shining snake that comes out of the hosepipe!

Above: being watered by Rhys Edwards at the 2017 London Artists’ Book Fair.

Above: on holiday on Bryher in the Isles of Scilly.

Gentlemen Jack

2004 – 2018

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The Alien Within

I think I’m St Francis. I’ll pick up anything, sure that I’ll come to no harm. I’ve carefully picked up bees and wasps when I’ve noted their behaviour isn’t aggressive. I usually watch carefully and act accordingly. But last night when something clattered into the water glass at my bedside table as I was getting under the duvet, I didn’t have my spectacles, and so I assumed it was a cranefly and fished it out. I headed for the window with it on the back of my finger, but by the time I’d unlatched and raised the sash, the insect had flown back into the room. I cast about for a bit but couldn’t see it. Found my spectacles, and settled down for a read before sleeping.

 

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Ten minutes later a clattering of wings alerted me to the fact that it had returned and was blundering around inside the shade of the anglepoise lamp. I reached over and cupped the bottom of the shade, and when I felt the insect alight in my palm, closed my fingers to a loose fist to carry it to the window. In an instant there was stab of pain in the soft flesh of the base of my thumb, like a hot needle plunged deep. I yelled loudly and dropped the culprit. It sat on the bedside table looking at me, head turning from side to side like a mantis.

Once antihistamine had been applied, I went to the computer screen to see what I could find that looked like the creature, and after I was satisfied, headed back to bedroom armed with an empty glass and a postcard in order to safely retrieve and deposit it outside.

I’m not sure exactly which type, but it seems it was a Ichneumon wasp. A handsome thing about 3 cms long that looked as though it had been carved from amber. Though the males don’t sting, the females have a blade-like ovipositor used to pierce a living host and deposit eggs, and the procedure can be used defensively when the wasp is threatened.

Any deposited eggs in my hand won’t hatch, dealt wth effectively by my immune system, thank god! The alternative would just be too John Hurt for comfort!

 

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The pain had been considerable but instant, and died away quickly, perhaps indicating no venom. However this morning there’s a residue tingling and vague discomfort and heat, though that might just be my mind playing tricks. When I stretch my palm while theres no swelling, I have a disc of flesh the size of 1p that’s notably white at the site of my alien invasion!

Wasp photograph courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

The View from Ty Isaf

I have found that in almost every circumstance, just because questions can be asked, doesn’t necessarily mean that they should be. The thin veneer of civilness that keeps society running smoothly on a macro level – and personal relationships on a micro one – doesn’t function the moment people believe that honesty, no matter how brutally expressed, is a better option than a moderated reply. We could all learn to think a bit more before speaking. So when David Cameron decided to ask people what they thought, which is what a referendum essentially is, it was almost inevitable that some of the answers were going to be damned ugly.

And here we are, awakening each morning to a system broken, to good people feeling that they’re not wanted here, to Europe understandably turning her back on us and our government collapsing in ruins around ministers who did’t have any systems in place to prepare against this outcome. This isn’t government. This is an electorate reduced to a baying mob thanks to the hubris of a prime minister who thought he could run a referendum like a TV reality show, and those around him who complied.

I am so deeply, corrosively ashamed of what’s happened. I’m ashamed of a government, divided against itself to our terrible cost. I’m ashamed of the Labour party, that didn’t put up a decent fight against the terrible events unfolding, and spoke too late and too little. I’m ashamed of the media, who misinformed, fuelled anxieties and complicated issues. Most of all I’m ashamed of the electorate, who allowed themselves to be influenced by hucksters, and then used the system to smash everything into smithereens.

Put simply, when the question is ‘Does my bum look big in this?”, the answer must take account of many things: human frailty, the need to be loved, a desire for affirmation and the hope that kindness will prevail. Kindness has not played any part in what has transpired here, and that is the single thing waking me at 5 AM every morning to a sense of the deepest loss and fear for our future.