Polly Devlin continues her series on collecting with a tale of syncope and synchronicity …
Sometimes I think that my external real life is not real. It’s not the imposter syndrome that some people suffer from, it’s more like I live in front of realistic theatrical sets where my performance takes place, while all the hard work in keeping up the artificial edifice goes on behind, an essential hidden, unacknowledged part of the Big Do that is being presented to spectators. In opera, for example, there are three or four people beavering away behind the scenes for every one singing on stage, and certainly I have much the same, a lot of hard-working gibbering backstage lunatics in my backstage brain.
My perception of reality is not helped by the fact that I’ve got an affliction called syncope, which makes the world spin so that you have no grip on reality nor gravity, a situation not helped by the actual fainting fits that are part of syncope’s little ways.
I’m lying down as I often have to do, but today I’m prone in my garden so no hardship there, though there is, as ever, a light drizzle pattering down. It’s a beautiful garden, lavish, jungly, created by the combined talents of prodigal Nature and my daughter Daisy who among myriad other things, is a professional gardener. I’m lying on a chaise-longue – and OH! A back-of-house prompter has just hissed into front-of-house that it’s called a lounger. I hate the word – as I hate patio and settee and vayse and clemAtis and many other in common parlance, pun intended, because I’m a word snob and have a puritanical attitude to the use of words, spoken and written.
I grew up on the edge of the world where leftover Elizabethan English idioms and pronunciation were still spoken; there were no chaises-longues, but rather settles – perfect word though uncomfortable to sit on – and clematis was a foreign thingy. We spoke of the wynd blowing and the tay being brewed and said aye for yes. Except that my family did not, as it was not genteel to speak like that. So my cherishing and collecting of the old names and pronunciations comes from what I heard around me at school or by the lough – we were foundered when we were cold, we were wee skitters when we were naughty (being naughty was being bold – and to think of the sad historic ambivalence that meaning carries!) In short, I collect words and have a precious word hoard hidden backstage… caballine and kenspeckle, caducity, oneiric and pavonine, nictate and chthonic … not many of those to a euro. All words are bearers of history and mystery and they all go into my collecting mania. Well, then again, what doesn’t.
I get the greatest satisfaction in reading when I come across a writer who uses a fabulous but unpretentious vocabulary. The number of published writers now whose word base is scant and tawdry is disheartening. To open, say Fifty Shades of Grey, the famous bestseller, is to have your heart sink at its horrid banality. It’s an insensible, deadening thing to do – to use words so badly, so baldly and it means you have no writing talent.
I read John McGahern, say, or Robert Lowell or Alice Munro or Patricia Craig as I have just done (her new book, Kilclief & Other Essays, is an exhilarating, sometimes acerbic, always witty independent foray into a host of subjects, from places in Northern Ireland to quicksilver divings into literature, and who could resist an essay called “Two Ends of an Irish Egg”?) and love their manipulation and choice of words, so freighted with baggage and meaning, in the telling of their unique stories. They are aware of the morality of words, as it were. So park that word-rant and come back through time with me. I used to travel around the back and front of Ireland searching for compensatory bounty, though the external front-of-house-me never let on that that was what I was doing. The backstage girls and boys were dab hands at keeping up illusions.
So, often it just so happened that there was a selling-up auction of the contents of an Anglo-Irish house in, say, Athlone or Galway or Castleblaney and I was there, by a devious circuitous route, all innocent accidentality to uncover treasure (and you could uncover it then, in auctions and antique shops in Ireland. By the same sly, deceiving means I find myself at a quayside in London in 1519 where a ship has just docked after a hazardous voyage out of the unknown into the homeland. I think of Seamus Heaney’s poem about the ship that sailed out of the air when the monks were at prayer in church. Its rope got accidentally anchored on the altar rail and a celestial sailor climbed down the rope from the sky to try to free it. The unfazed abbot told his monks to help. They did and “the freed ship sailed, and the man climbed back/Out of the marvellous as he had known it”. I marvel at these sailors on that real ship, anchored beside dry land, I marvel at their bravery, their skill in navigating unknown waters, sailing out of the cosmos, the exotic New World, carrying fabulous treasures unknown in the Old World and plundered at unspeakable cost from Mexico and its people, the civilized Aztecs, vanquished and almost exterminated by Hernán Cortés.
“Two squirrels” by Albrecht Durer, 1492.
From the quayside to the Alhambra, the palace of Charles V, King of Spain, Holy Roman Emperor, the product of endless inbreeding and son of Joan the Mad. Was he there at the unpacking? I am. I am waiting with apprehension and longing as the chests are unpacked. It must be almost like the scene 400 years later when the tomb of Tutankhamun is broached and Carter sees the glint of gold. This is not a glint of gold – this is a spectacular mass of gold and iridescence. A sun made of gold, six-foot-wide (“a whole fathom broad”) and a silver moon the same size. A trove of wonderful objects. I want every bit of it, I yearn for it. Obsidian and rubies and emeralds, armour and weapons, shields fledged with electric feathers of resplendent quetzals and others stretched with strange spotted jaguar skins.
(I’m not sure about those though, being a vegetarian and not much in favour of killing so ugly King Charles can have those and the weapons with obsidian blades sharper than steel and black mirrors of the same infernal substance in which you could see the future reflected.) Mirrors set in featherwork, books that unfolded like painted screens (yes! yes!) necklaces of gold and stone mosaic with strings of red and green jewels. Cortes had no words to describe some of the treasures. The inventory – in truth a fabulous manifest – was written for the most humdrum of reasons. He had to fill in a tax return on his booty. What happened afterwards hardly bears thinking of. Many precious objects, exquisitely worked pieces, were melted down for their gold, no doubt for fuelling wars.
I get this arcane information from a bewitching and bewildering book, Albert and the Whale by Philip Hoare. It’s a marvellous quixotic vault over centuries, barging through literature, across oceans, through adventures and experiences, memory and desire as he pursues the sublimely gifted Albrecht Dürer, the greatest artist of the Northern Renaissance, who himself is on a mission to see a whale – as mythical a beast to him as a rhinoceros – which he so famously drew from his imagination. On the chase, both men, centuries apart but both geared to timeless magic, come across marvels. And horrors.
On my desk are reproductions of two of Dürer’s most famous drawings – the squirrel nibbling a nut and the hare, and it’s hard to fathom how he actually made these exquisite, epic portraits, revealing an intimate understanding of animal reality. It’s called genius.
The visionary intensity leaves one breathless – yet apparently, Dürer did not use a magnifying glass – perhaps they were not even invented. One is needed to tease out the details and I know whereof I speak for I have held in my gloved hands some of these miraculous drawings in the Albertina Museum in Vienna. I’ll never get over the experience nor do I want to.
The Aztec plunder was one of the greatest collections of all time, yet little remains. if I had been there surely, I’d have brought them back for safekeeping, (talk about sublime to ridiculous) as I did so many non-exotic things discarded in Ireland, from lovely illustrated declensions of the making of flax into linen to the spongeware mug and bowls that were not treasured until too late or the exquisite naïve drawings of DJ Lynch. But some small details stand in my reality way – over 500 years and I am not the king of Spain.
But in my internal backstage life, I am there, watching, waiting, collecting, lying under my little nut tree.
A declaration of interest: Albert & the Whale by Philip Hoare is published by Fourth Estate and my son-in law was the editor. Not that I knew that when I read it.
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