Sweetness and Light, chapter 16

1975.

We sit here, outside of time, in our beautiful house.

Outside, day after day of hot sun. An occasional grey day. And then more heat. It can only turn the streets of Kensington into an angry buzz of aimless souls. I’d like to shuck them off the skin of the earth like so many unwanted ants. I fantasise about this house being uprooted and transported to the quiet green of the countryside, to peace, order and tranquillity, to the purity of a common purpose, undistracted by heat and traffic and noise.

Notes for a sermon: the pursuit of truth and beauty are our primary aims. Nothing else matters. I have come to realise that some of us are capable of elevating our souls in this manner; some of us are pulled irrevocably back towards the earth. We must all aim to rise upwards and do this house justice.

Clive, for instance, is fuelled by avarice and petty jealousy. Not for his soul the molten gold of his work. No, he is made of tin. And my little Annie and her neat clay pots, streaked with pooling splashes of paint. She wants to be a painter, she says, not a potter. Creating worlds with oil paint may seem preferable to modelling in mud, but that I’m not sure that Annie has it in her. And there is a worker bee honesty to clay. Annie – perhaps the sweetest of them all. No, sweet is the wrong word for her. She is not all sweetness and light. She’s sugar coated, but made of plainer stuff underneath.

This diary is for my eyes only and I must take care to keep it properly hidden. I need to work at maintaining that sheen of confidence on my actions and words, not to let slip a glimmer of frailty. Sometimes I forget how to play the part of Ralph – how to present myself correctly – and I think that this outlet is useful. It allows me to face the world with renewed energy.

Last night I dreamed of being back home in Lewes, sleeping in that wooden sled bed with the high sides. In my dream I’d forgotten to set the alarm and woke up in panic in the soot of the night. There, at the end of my bed, was the figure I dreaded seeing. Tall, hunched, hooded. He stood very still, as if he wasn’t subject to the same physical laws as the rest of us; as if he was suspended outside time and place. I cowered into the far corner of the bed, pressing my warm back against the wood, gathering the blankets up around me. Then, without any sense of movement, he got closer and closer to me – as though the world was turning, but he stayed in the same place. Finally, his face was right next to mine. He lifted his hood with waxy hands. My fear was punctured with the need to place the familiar face that was staring at me, contorted in rage. He reached a hand towards me and I had it. My father. I woke up.

The horror of feeling so small and so helpless. Do other people suffer these feelings of hopeless disjointedness, flicking between confidence and terror like channels on a half-tuned radio? With the correct application and effort, my mind can be focussed, and singular, and strong. I must try harder.

My mind flits back to Annie and her soft weakness and then, inevitably, turns to my Jenny – Jenny who has a core of steel, Jenny who is entirely capable of conducting herself with duplicitousness for the sake of the right ends. And so it should be.

As I said, the pursuit of truth and beauty – sweetness and light – are our primary aims, but I’ve grown to understand that my fellow artists aren’t moved by these causes alone. It would be generous to say, in fact, that they give them a second thought from one day to the next. I need to align them more carefully with our goals – to get this house in order. I could relax, then, and better focus on my work.

Last night I took myself to the front door and sat, cup of hot water in hand (I do not sully my body with caffeine), looking down through the hexagonal sky light at the glimmering hall. I like these hidden glimpses of the world under the stairs – the sense that its magic punctures the real world in places. Earlier in the day I overheard Clive and Jenny in conversation, arranging to meet that evening. I took the opportunity that was presented to me and made my way to the skylight at the appointed hour.

It was a warm, close night. Our street was peaceful, its silence only splintered by the sound of a few night birds, of doors slamming, of car ignitions spluttering and failing. Voices drifted towards me, but they were far away.

 I settled down next to the skylight. Once crystal clear, I could now see the green starting to take her at her edges. But however she ages, fades and changes, this building will always be beautiful to me.

Soon enough, Jenny and Clive arrived. They stared intently at one another for a while, Clive, as is his wont, repeatedly glancing nervously over his shoulder. Looking for whom, I wonder? The fallibilities of man fascinate me. Animals and insects are far more straight-dealing.

I waited and watched. Would they become intimate, the two of them, while I looked on? The thought made me shudder. But no, their lips didn’t touch. Instead, they sat on one of the wooden chapel benches that I’d acquired in the hope of lending my simple ministrations a priestly lift. They engaged in intense conversation.

I had a glass in my pocket, by chance, and found it comfortable to rest there on the pane, my ear pressed against the drinking glass, my eyes gazing skywards. It struck me that this was an apt metaphor for our work here.

Notes for a sermon: we look to the stars for inspiration while listening to the muse our beautiful building provides every day. Heaven and earth. Sweetness and light.

‘It’s impractical.’ This was Clive’s voice.

‘Perhaps.’ Jenny’s voice, clear as a bell, strong as aluminium.

‘But I think he has to go. We have to be rid of him.’

‘Perhaps.’

‘Listen. He’s a tyrant. Quite mad, probably. Intolerable, definitely.’

‘Perhaps.’ An irritated cough from Clive. She continued, ‘He may be all of those things. But what are we going to do about it? And why? We’re not forced to live here.’

‘You know as well as I do that we’d never find a studio like this, on these terms, anywhere else. I certainly couldn’t afford to practise if I had to pay rent. I’d have to go back to working in an office.’

‘Heaven forbid.’

‘And we have as much right to be here as he does.’

‘Slightly less, in fact. He owns the building. We just have the right to use it.’

‘Exactly. We have the right to inhabit it to work. We should be left in peace to do that. We’re followed, spied on, ordered about. The rules change on a weekly basis.’

‘Rules aren’t the end of the world.’

‘He gets inside your head. He leaves no space for anything else. I need to be able to work.’

‘I wouldn’t get yourself worked up about it if I were you. Just do what you’ve got to do.’

‘I feel like he’s deliberately trying to drive me mad. Constantly changing the goal posts, constantly making new demands. It’s intolerable. I haven’t slept in weeks – months. This insomnia’s killing me, and it’s his fault. It’s what he wants. He wants me to go mad. And that’s not the worst of it. He’s pestering Annie.’

Pestering! The way Clive’s mind works is a testament to his failures as a human being.

‘Well…’

‘Well, nothing. She’s my girlfriend.’

‘He’d say that there’s no such thing as ownership in an intimate relationship.’

Precisely, Jenny, precisely.

‘I don’t care what he’d say. It’s wrong.’

‘She’s a big girl, Clive.’

‘No, she’s not. She’s a slip of a thing. She’s just eighteen. She’s barely out of her gymslip.’

‘She knows her own mind.’

‘Does she, though? I doubt it. And there’s the matter of the stolen inheritance. This building should have been mine. By rights, it’s actually mine. He’s slipped someone else in by a side door and left me in poverty.’

‘Anyway. You asked me to meet you here. Surely you didn’t interrupt your precious work just to gossip.’

‘I’ve been up all night thinking about it. He’s taking away everything that’s mine. My girl. My focus. My ability to work, even. My personal freedom – just the right to go about my day without being watched. My sleep. He’s even stealing my fucking sleep. He’s probably spying on us right now.’

I realised at this point that Clive was not a well man. The heat from those flames all day, the smell of burning, the fumes of molten metal. I’ve always said that metalwork is the work of the devil.

 Notes for a sermon: although there is a woodman bee, there is no metalworking bee. Let us take a moment to consider the differences between the two and the lessons therein.

‘Most importantly,’ Clive continued, ‘I feel that, through all of this, I’m being forced out of my own home. A place I have a historical right to inhabit. It’s my birth right. I should be here.’

‘Okay,’ said Jenny mildly.

‘And he should not be here. He loses that right when he prevents all of us from exercising our rights.’

‘Well,’ said Jenny, ‘I can tell you now, there’s no way you’ll get Ralph out of this building. Not alive, at any rate.’

‘Hmm,’ was all that Clive said, but he didn’t sound displeased. It was the sound of a man who’s satisfied to have guided his audience to the same conclusion as he’s already reached himself.

‘And anyway, legally you have no recourse.’

‘Maybe I’m not thinking of legal routes.’

‘Clive, can I just ask how long it is since you’ve slept? You sound insane.’

‘That’s my precise point. He’s done this to me. I need to get back to my old self. Not to be tormented by that devil, stripped of my sanity.’ He paused. ‘Sixty-four days,’ he said. ‘I’ve had practically nothing in the way of sleep for sixty four days. I feel that the bloody building is watching me. It’s impossible to relax. Don’t you find? Or is it just me?’ This with a self-pitying despair. ‘Am I in the wrong? Am I?’

‘Well, I certainly think you’re a little overwrought.’

‘I need to know. Do I have your support here? I know you’re close to Ralph, but we’ve known each other much longer. Can I count on your support?’

We’ve all heard more than enough of Jenny and Clive’s idyllic Sussex childhood, apple-cheeked cousins running around the fields together, high on home-made lemonade. I didn’t want to hear more. Though they were in fairly easy reach of us in Lewes, we saw them just once or twice that I can remember in my entire childhood. Father didn’t approve of their upbringing. And nor, come to think of it, do I. Though Martha was the wayward one of our generation, of course, and she had a strict, right-thinking upbringing.

I waited for Jenny’s refusal to provide the reassurance that Clive wanted. Her loyalty would stretch out to me, a thin, golden cord, even if we were separated by vast distances or by years of silence.

‘Well,’ she said, ‘of course you have my support in a general sense, but I’d like to know the particulars.’

The way that Jenny expresses herself always sends a shiver of pleasure down my spine. She is as accurate as a marksman.

There was a short silence. Though my eyes were still directed towards the stars, I could as good as see Clive glance over his shoulder.

‘The particulars,’ he said, ‘are that I plan to rid us all of him. For good.’

Clive, let me say it without ceremony, is a showman. He speaks to impress, not to deliver the truth. I wondered whether his place in this house was so impregnable as he supposed. We are here in pursuit of truth and beauty after all – not self-aggrandisement, gossip and the creation of tinny little gold trinkets. I thought about Clive’s contract, in particular some of the small print on the above mentioned issues, and wondered at his confidence.

‘How,’ asked Jenny, ‘do you intend to do that?’

‘Oh,’ he said carelessly, ‘we can discuss that at a later date. Now that I know I can count on your loyalty.’

Jenny made a non-committal sound. They then moved onto such trivial matters as a kitty for biscuits and tea. That they could jump from discussing my dispatch to considering the need to jointly contribute to their custard cream consumption beggared belief.

Now being sufficiently rested, I sat up and replaced the glass in my pocket. I sat in the dirt of our small, tiled pathway, in the heat of the dying sun, in the gathering dark, and felt acutely aware of my small place in the world. Just a humble man, sitting on a red terracotta tile, thinking of the spirit of creation and every man’s God given right to survival. Slowly, I made my way back inside and upstairs to my new room in the eaves.

Now, let me pause for a while in my patient spelling out of treachery, letter by letter, and consider the notion of ownership. It may prove useful for me to lay the facts out here in black and white.

The ownership of this building has been passed down between generations since it was first built in 1850. Josiah William Parry commissioned its erection and began the tradition of renting studio space to deserving artists for a throwaway sum. He was, records indicate, motivated broadly by a desire to propagate beauty and truth. He was also sufficiently solvent to commission such a building from a leading proponent of Queen Anne architecture. He gathered around him a small but intimate circle of loyal followers, eager to hear the truth as he saw and told it.

The thought of my building in its infancy, a hundred and twenty-five years ago, is both stirring and melancholic. Many men must feel like this about the women they grow to love, I suppose – the wistful yearning to have seen her as a small child, to know the starting point as well as the fruition. I comfort myself that few will have known that precise joy.

So Josiah began the noble practise of supporting artistic endeavour and shackling his delightfully butterfly-minded companions to a firm and impenetrably phrased contract. And the tradition came to be passed on with each new generation, a touching of hands across the decades that leads us to today.

Today I, the direct descendant of Josiah Parry, own this building and I, with a few minor tweaks, pass on the same terms to my fellow artists. I’ve added the merest formality of a clause; that unless the artists can prove themselves to be in pursuit of truth and beauty – by my judgement alone, unfortunately; anything else would be impracticable – they are subject to eviction. I cannot do anything about the clause that allows inheritance to pass by circuitous, tortured routes – not only to sons and daughters but also to cousins, nephews, god children; all are considered acceptable inheritors. However, I can, in my own way, ensure that only the worthy can lay claim to a part of our home.

Ownership, as Jenny rightly pointed out, has no place in intimate human relationships, though this is a concept that many struggle with. Clive no more owns Annie than I do. In fact, if you think about it with a cool head, I have more of a claim to her, owning and maintaining the very building that she sleeps, eats and works in; providing the womb for her inspiration, as it were. She couldn’t be truly alive without this building – and the same is true of Clive and Jenny, of course. Ownership isn’t the right word. They’re cogs in a larger machine. They serve the house, as we all do.

Whatever Clive’s plan – the very word flatters him with its intimation of clear thinking and strategy – it cannot succeed.

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