Poppy Ackroyd – Seven

The day before yesterday I was at the funeral of a talented and kind woman. Marion was a sculptor and painter, and lived about as exciting a life as it’s possible to live. Throughout most of her 94 years she lived it with a glass of something in her hand and a passion for getting the absolute most out of whatever situation she was in.

Days after I’d first heard the news of her death I was sitting in an audience listening to Edna O’Brien talking about her books; her life in Ireland and the battles she’s had with censorship and bigotry. At 82, she could have gone for a “water under the bridge” line, but no, she’s still angry at the small-minded intolerance she endured. Rightly.

She told the story of two dreams she’s had frequently concerning the house she grew up in Tuamgraney, Co.Clare. In one, two men with white-hot spears guard the house and prevent her entry. She cannot go back. In the other, she’s in the blue bedroom where she was born, but there is no exit; even the doors are sealed. She cannot leave. She probably already knows her village is named after a tomb (“Tuaim”) in Irish. It’s reputedly the tomb of Gráinne, the heroine of an Irish legend and another young woman at odds with an old patriarchy.

Her first novel, “The Country Girls” came out in 1960. Talking about the reaction in rural Clare to the book, and the impact it had on her mother, she recounted an episode where a neighbour said to her mother that she (Edna) “should be whipped naked through the streets”. “Oh,” replied the younger Edna, “…why naked?”

Throughout the talk there was constant references to having to get away, to escape. In that, she follows a long line of Irish writers. She was asked:

Q. What has England given you?

A. Freedom. Well no, I’m not free. But more freedom.

That same week I’m listening to music called “Escapement” by Polly Ackroyd. She’s called it that because  ‘escapement’ is “the part of the mechanism in a piano that enables the hammer to be released, so that the string can vibrate once it is struck”. But it can also mean the physical act of escaping and the release of emotion when we listen to music. By using natural sounds such as birdsong from the Outer Hebrides and the pelt of Scottish rain, she’s plugged in to the transcendentalist revival that’s everywhere now. Books by Robert Macfarlane being a case in point. Only nature can help us get some insight into the whole thing of this universe, and why we hurtle through it like the minor miniscule specks of nothingness that we are. Walking and meditation are our best tools.

I remember a conversation with Marion about another female sculptor; the one who’d done the statue of Arthur “Bomber” Harris that stands outside the RAF church. The “orange and lemons” one – St Clements Dane near the Aldwych in London. The statue had to be guarded 24 hours a day for a long time to stop it being vandalized. After all, it was the Press that called him “Bomber”; his nickname in the RAF was “Butcher” Harris. The writer W.G. Sebald was another escapee emigrant – a German living in England – and he was conflicted by the thought that in one period of 1000 days during WWII, the RAF dropped 752,000 tons of bombs on German cities. With a “conchie” husband and a life in Germany before the war, Marion was in a position to understand the tension between Art (making a statue) and Life (killing German civilians). Should that artist have taken that commission? And if she was wrong to do so, at what point do you offset that against the inherent niceness of the artist herself? No easy answers.

And so we rush to escape.

Edna finished her hour by referring to the case of Savita Halappanavar and the general cowardice of politicians in Ireland when State meets Church. When I spoke in this blog about my feelings about that tragic case, I talked about the need to escape from Ireland. To get out and never come back. To warn others not to go there. To tell them women have a role in Catholicism in the way cheddar has a role with a cheese grater.

Marion had a cottage on the west coast of Ireland. She went there for long spells to paint (because of the light). I know a thing about Irish scenery, but this was a place apart. It had three views, depending which window you looked out from. Through this one was the watery verdant green of fields; all washed-out grass and trees dripping in their summer foliage. From this one was the grey-blue limestone of a tall hill, with scree slopes dropping down to the turquoise mirror of a small, still lake. And best of all this one: a golden-white strip of sand separating the green land from the grey-metal sea and the indigo darkness of the cliffs beyond. The whole seascape flecked with those white-horse waves that you only seem to get in the Atlantic.

We talked and drank there one night. Depleted the Irish national stocks of whiskey and turf sods; the one to fuel conversation and the other to fuel the more psychopathic needs of a blazing hearth. Next day we drove the scenic route back around Clifden and across the Roundstone bog. As we sped along the old bog road she talked about what she was seeing in the colours of the sky and the land. It made me see Ireland again, in a different way, and to a very considerable extent it gave me my country back. It isn’t the fault of the land that bitter old men can’t let go of the past; that tired and small-thinking people clutch the shabby hem of religion.

Again, Edna said something similar. She talked about the way that gentians grow in the Burren, and the blue of it against the grey limestone.

Did I mention that Marion loved life and the odd drop of something warming? That old creature-medicine that can cure the ills and extract that extra percentage from whatever is going. And in-between that she (like the rest of us) had to make a living.

Edna O’Brien quoted a couple of lines from Ogden Nash that make me think immediately of Marion:

I would live all my life in nonchalance and insouciance,

Were it not for making a living, which is rather a nouciance.

It was obvious from the service and conversations after that I was far from being the only one touched by Marion’s influence. As I trudged away from the after-service get-together in the place she’d lived in since making it her home in 1948, I remembered another sentiment and quotation: “Ce qui est dur, c’est le sentiment que quelque chose se termine.