Saturday, December 13, 2014

Pandora by the river

Apart from the wildlife, welcome and not, I had a dog and a horse for a while when I lived on the banks of the Never Never. The land was in two section, the road and a couple of paddocks where the house was, then the river and a large 10 hectare back paddock which was really a flood plane surrounded by forest, very private and only accessible by crossing the river on foot or tractor.
My horse, Pandora, was an autistic horse, somewhere quite high up the spectrum I think, she'd been deprived of the company of man and beast as a foal and was beyond being socialised. I knew she was a bit strange but thought that if I could work on her in a kindly manner all would be well. One day I threw some big cabbage leaves into her paddock for her which she picked up to eat, the leaf started flapping in the wind in her mouth and there she was galloping round the paddock in terror of this live thing after her, clenching her teeth tighter and tighter over her tormentor, terrified of a cabbage leaf. I think I knew that she was really daft from that day on, but I wasn't giving up.
The strange, non connective relationship continued for some months until the time I was riding her in the back paddock, it was a hot January afternoon when she suddenly bucked and pig rooted many feet into the air, I remember seeing the sky go round two or three times before I landed. First thing I pulled my boot off to ease my broken leg, and then lay down, my hand hanging from the end of my wrist, Pandora galloped back over the river, reins and stirrups flying, where luckily there were some friends with a four wheel drive who came over the river to get me. Then it was ambulances, hospitals, sets, resets, months with an arm and leg in plaster, delirious from pain killers, the end of my life with horses.
I think now that Pandora must have seen a snake sunning itself in the grass on that hot afternoon and over reacted as she had with the cabbage leaf. She went off to become a brood mare with a local arab stallion, she was a well bred horse herself, but this was a failure too, she ran away through several fences to another stallion, a runty beast,  her bit of rough, and got pregnant with him to have a foal that nobody wanted.
I'd wanted my own horse since I'd been a kid, I painted and drew horses my whole childhood in lieu of actually owning one, maybe it's the idea of ownership that was my problem. I went to visit some polo ponies in the dark and cold this morning and they came snuffling up, frost on their whiskers, we spent a few amiable moments and then they galloped off to do what horses do.

The third river (cont)

I drank the water of the Never Never for three years, it was pumped up to the house through a very inefficient filter that would have stopped a dead rat but not mush else. One day when I was swimming and the wind was blowing a carpet of casuarina needles onto the surface of the water, I noticed one of the needles wriggling and swimming. That's how I discovered that there were liver fluke in the river and started boiling all the drinking water, there were cattle upstream so it was to be expected.
The Never Never rises up on the Range before plummeting rapidly down three thousand feet and on out to the sea, from my land you looked straight up to the source, into the blue sky and the ancient forest on the edge of the escarpment. The land on the edge of the Range is too steep to log and remnants of the old forest are still up there, sometimes I used to be able to see the left -behind red cedars flowering, gloriously alone up on the mountainside. They always grew a mile apart to combat disease. The escarpment is a place of big thunder and lightening, usually in the evening and often at the cocktail hour, wonderful to view from a safe deck with a drink in hand and the ground shaking, or when the substation blew up on the other side of the paddock, so much more exciting than television.
My studio had a service station door of clear corrugated plastic that swung open upwards and looked straight into the trees and down into the river. I could eyeball a tawny frogmouth owl during the day as he disguised himself as a tree branch, or in the summer holidays dismay passing canoeists by making unearthly, heart stopping noises.
When I lived there on my own a tiny bat kept me company at night, it lived behind the bedding that was folded away during the day and dive bombed me in the dark, I liked it much more than the rats.
I tried lots of things with the rats, I even borrowed a cat, a cat that I found out was scared of rats, at one point I bought some traps which looked large and substantial but weren't heavy enough to kill the beasts. The rats would flop about on the kitchen floor with their heads caught in the traps, strangled but not enough, and for several nights I was sitting naked on the floor, crying, with a hammer bashing them on their half dead heads. Then I put the whole bloody mess into the slow combustion stove to deal with in the morning. I don't know if you've ever tried to light a fire using a stack of dead rats and their traps as kindling, there are easier things to do. My whole life had imploded a few months before and being alone in a house out in the bush with a load of rats, alive and dead, seemed just pitiful. So much against my principals I went and bought some poison and it was bye bye ratty.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

The third River

When I first saw the Never Never River in Gleniffer I thought that I'd arrived in paradise, a crystal clear flow with deep pools for swimming, huge grey rocks for sunning, lush green trees bending over, garden like, kingfishers for colour and movement, it was a perfect river.
We built a tall house on stilts beside the river with a platform out over the bank looking down to the water, and the life going on, twenty feet below. On one special night we were taking some wine out on the deck and the fireflies danced for us, right there in front of us, in our faces, like a message from the life force to respect where we were, respect even the huge red bellied black snake that lived under the laundry and the enormous eel that swam idly around the sunning rock with me naked on top.
It was a lovely place to swim in the summer, after hours slashing in the baking paddock I used to drive the tractor over to the bank in top gear, send the dog, Lizzie, in first and then jump in with all my clothes on, instantly twenty degrees cooler.
My first Christmas present there was a li-lo and a perfect 35 degree day, plus a jug of black velvet. As I floated up and down the river all day in n alcoholic dream my never seen the sunshine bum went alizarin crimson, by the end of the day I felt like one of those monkeys with the red arses, which is the only thing you ever notice about them, never their faces of their hands.
In the winter when most of the rain fell, this is the wettest part of southern Australia, the river would turn into a raging, noisy, black beast, rocks rolling and crashing past, fence posts, cows, trees, anything caught would race past or lodge awkwardly in the bank. I stopped buying firewood and got in the river to pull out fence posts and chain saw them up into firebox sized fuel. I used to play chicken with that chain saw, being at a very low ebb in my life I wasn't very mind full of it's dangers, I didn't really care about those but being very scared was enlivening. (to be cont)

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Three Rivers (cont)

At one point in my valley life  Nambour Council, always short of water for the coast, decided that they'd dam Brown's Creek and flood our valley. This would have been a double whammy for them - get rid of the hippies and supply the thirsty, moneyed golf courses by the ocean with a limitless supply of fresh green.
When I became an Australian citizen in a ceremony in Nambour in 1977 I was seated at one end of a long table with all the other candidates, next to the mayor, the very same man who was trying to drown us out. I don't think he'd ever met a hippy before, I dressed to impress by wearing shoes for the day and I remember having a reasonable conversation with him about what interesting, well behaved people we were living out in the bush, and certainly not the anarchistic antichrists that the straight people imagined we were.
The ceremony itself was surreal, especially the bit where I had to deny all other allegiance and then swear allegiance to the Queen of Australia, who, because I'm a pom, was the same person I'd just denied all other allegiance too.
They did give up on the dam but only because of the expense, nothing at all to do with words in the mayor's ear and so left another generation of hippies to grow up in relative peace.
In the wet season we could be isolated up the valley for extended periods as dark, cold, cyclonic water poured down on us. There were two clankety clank wooden bridges, one car wide, that the menacing, swirling water could cover in half an hour, followed by a dirt road into town, fine and dandy in the dry but impossibly dangerous in the wet. So when it started raining I'd make a dash to town for supplies as you never knew when it would stop raining. I went to get food but much more importantly lots of wine, you didn't want to be stuck in a leaky shack out bush with no phone, electricity or booze, that was how people went troppo.
It took me years to train myself not to run out and shop every time it rained, which would be a pretty stupid thing to do if you lived on a wet, windy island on the edge of the North Atlantic like I do.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

more Three Rivers

It was very, very hot to an non acclimatised pom arriving in Sydney in the summer of 1974, there was little air con then and I used to dream of the cool, clear waters of the Misbourne. Rivers in Australia are different, I went to an evening course at Sydney Uni about the river systems in 1976, wanting to understand this eco system in my new home. I've never forgotten what I learnt about the completeness of what happens in the water itself, but there was no mention of the red bellied black snakes that I later lived along side and that always live beside fresh water.
When it came to Brown's Creek I knew that we were fortunate to have water out in the bush but it really was a dark, snakey place, water twisting round rocks with overhanging trees making sure that the sun light never reached the bottom of the valley. We had no running water for the first year that we lived out there, we lived half way up a steep hill and carried jerry cans from the river up to the shack where we lived. Eventually we worked out that this was pretty stupid, so  we filled the cans in town and carried them half as far.
Plants grew by the minute in that valley, tendrils crept across the windows and up through the floor. It was an old failed farm on three titles, it had been cleared and some of it fenced but it was poor land for European style use. Forty years ago it was scrubby with pockets of rainforest and a few large seed trees with a rough track through it. Today it's a triumph of re-wilding, the trees are huge, everything has grown lush, luxuriant and very dense, the whole place pulsates with life, singing, sliding, flying, gliding, climaxing, in that amazing oasis just two hours from Brisbane.
There were great swimming holes along the river, and being an alternative community in the seventies, we'd all strip off and jump into the cool dark water to be refreshed for a minute in the tropical heat. It was like jumping into ink and was definitely not up to my criteria of being able to see the bottom but it was so hot I even had to paint with no clothes on. The locals used to hide in the bushes and get their thrills from seeing naked hippies, we were brown, hairy and carefree, draping lovely colourful sarongs over ourselves, we must have looked like another species. I certainly felt that I'd arrived in a paradise and that I had to shed contemporary values on beauty, cleanliness and convenience.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

more Three Rivers

Of course by the time I was a child the river hadn't been used as a toilet for at least fifty years and the polluted water course had recovered somewhat. In days before there were outdoor dunnies at the bottom of the gardens along the river bank emptying straight out into the water. The ruins of one of these facilities was still in the corner of our garden when we moved in in 1957. The stench must have been awful, no wonder the houses faced the street. Our house has high walls around the garden and a wall at the end to shut out the river and the smell of whatever happened to have been tipped into it.
As the water wasn't fit to drink everyone drank beer, there were three breweries in the town to supply the numerous pubs, coaching inns and thirsty population with liquid that wouldn't make them ill, I suppose that from childhood on everyone just got used to being a bit drunk all the time.
The old, windowless stable over the river with it's two stalls for coach horses and dark upstairs hay loft was damp and full spiders, three hundred years of generations of spiders, they still think it's theirs and I just happen to be a large being amongst them, they live in more comfort these days. My studio above the river is heated and clean these days, but still home to wildlife, bees come and go, on hot days frogs hop in and on autumn nights Glisglis try to eat their way through the facia board to find a winter hideout.
I sleep in great comfort facing downstream, going with the flow and dreaming strange dreams, I used to sleep across the flow of the river, like a bridge but this never felt right.
I went away when I was eighteen and saw many fine and pleasant rivers but the clear chalk streams of the Chilterns are unique, I've never trusted water that I can't see to the bottom of. In the 11th Century church a few miles upriver amongst the old murals is a picture of a salmon. So before the river was tamed with walls and buildings the fish swam up to spawn. It's a long, long way up the Thames Estuary and small tributaries to reach the Chilterns.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Three Rivers

The three rivers are the Misbourne, Brown's Creek and the Never Never River, rivers that I've lived alongside, crossed, recrossed, swum in, fished in and, in the case of the Misbourne, lived on top of. Only the Never Never is a proper river, so called because it never dries up, running straight down a thousand meters from the Great Dividing Range into the Bellinger River and then into the Pacific Ocean. It's a short potent river, not only because of it's name.
The name says everything about Brown's Creek, the water is muddy, turbid, ordinary, an unreliable water source of small stagnant pools in hot weather, a roaring beast in the wet season. The creek runs through a narrow valley in South East Queensland to flow into the Maroochy River which meanders across a small soggy plain before running into the Pacific.
A bourn denotes a small stream of water that runs sometimes and the Misbourne is certainly true to that, some years there is a dry river bed, dead fish, rusty cans and other years a very low water table devoid of oxygen. In the winter of 2013/14 it surprised everyone by going rogue, it burst it's banks to follow it's own course, rampaging through gardens and outbuildings. It seemed like a war of logs smashing into each other was going on underneath my studio, where the river runs, a dark space previously home to some sluggish crayfish and a few trout that never seemed to grow big enough to eat.
My brother and I grew up beside the Misbourne, we were considered fortunate kids because we had access to the stream to build dams, to swim and float on lilos on glorious summer days, to fish for trout on cloudy days. It's a clear chalk stream that you can watch for hours to see creatures moving about. Fifty years ago there were large grey water rats living in the banks beside where we sloshed about, nobody had heard of the waterborne diseases that terrify people now.
There were leeches that we used to put in jam jars beside the house and watch as they made their way back to the river, one body stretch at a time. We caught minnows and newts and tadpoles in nets, there were many things alive in the water to interest a child fifty years ago.     (cont. later)

Interior Landscape

Interior Landscape is a wood block in oils with pastel layered on top, the wood for the print came from an old stable where I live in the UK. It's a desert scene in the middle of Australia where I go in my imagination, dreaming of the dry heat and noise of insects, the isolation and connection to everything.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Journey to Australia with Marquez

When I left England on a one way ticket to Sydney in September 1974 I had amongst my baggage a copy of One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez to read on the plane. It seemed an appropriate choice of reading considering what I was leaving behind, it was rumoured to be a strange and unusual book written by a Colombiano who's native country was the source of a product I was very interested in and had been consuming at a furious rate for a couple of years, I don't mean coffee.
I travelled on one of the first 747s, a virtual bus trip, stopping everywhere picking people up, so you'd be sitting next to somebody for a few hours and then another person would get on, another conversation, another story, you could smoke on the planes then and you paid for your drinks, a bar in the sky. I was deranged, sad, paranoid and scared, beyond caring about a lot of important things,  a twenty two year old with a habit and a book for a talisman, bolting for a new life in Australia where I knew there was no connection to any product, except coffee, from South America.
The book was exotic and profound, it seemed to express what was in my mind, what I had experienced, everything that was unsaid, and a lot is unsaid in England, it was comfortingly chaotic and unpredictable, it was magical.
When I arrived in Sydney with my chest ray, shocked by the space and sunshine and freedom from Englishness I went for job interviews and met the person I would spend the next nine and a half  years with. The major connection for me was that he'd just read the book too, he knew and understood, it was maybe a small bond in a big space but it kept me anchored in the mysterious for a few years, enabled me to start painting again.