Sunday, June 18, 2006

Brighton, again

I'm back in Brighton for a bit to sort some stuff out before going back to Wales again. I wasn't sure how it was going to be, being back here, it was such a wrench leaving my family, but I seem to be doing okay. My flat is always quite a point of stability for me; it does good things for my state of mind and heart; so it is good to be here, at least for now.
     I actually had a lovely day today, catching the train with Jo out to Berwick to go to Charleston. This was the home of Vanessa Bell, her two sons, Duncan Grant and various other artists, writers and thinkers who were friends and lovers at different times throughout the years the house was occupied. I've been there before and it moved me tremendously last time, this time was no different.
     Fifty years of history, of lives lived inside this house. Loves born and lost, death, birth, tragedy and beauty. The walls of the house are testament to this, and each room was designed and painted by one of the household, mainly Vanessa or Duncan, down to the crockery and rugs. We passed through the room where TS Eliot read out The Wasteland, where Vanessa's daughter was born and another where she found out Duncan Grant was her real father. Where countless affairs were started and ended, where Vanessa's sons kicked a hole in the study door in an over zealous game that only got fixed years later, where Vanessa finally died, in a bedroom with French windows and a bath in the corner.
     There is something incredibly intimate about other peoples' beds, about seeing where another person sleeps night after night, where they drop off and awake, where they dream and have nightmares, make love, get close to another or lie alone or apart.

I also find other peoples' writing desks and studios especially moving. There is something so exquisitely tender and vulnerable about it, these humble spots in a house where someone reveals their soul only to themselves, and sometimes, as in the cases of those at Charleston, beginning and creating great works of beauty and meaning. It was touching seeing Vanessa Bell's actual desk in her bedroom, with its little photos and oddments. We also saw the library table at which Virginia Woolf sat amongst the shouts and screams of the noisy Charleston household, and realised that for her or any woman to write, she needed a room of her own. And from there the book was born.
     Before Jo and I left Charleston, we had a look at Patti Smith's photo exhibition. It was beautiful. Many of her pictures were of subjects such as Vanessa's and Virginia's beds, Victor Hugo's desk in Paris, William Burroughs' bandana, Rudolph Nureyev's slippers. It was touching to see such seemingly ordinary objects, knowing the life that inhabited them (knowing how any inanimate object becomes sacred when its in the context of a life lived - every hairbrush, cup, pillow.... ordinary objects become charged with such meaning, beauty, pain, sorrow, affection). And people I admire or revere who have influenced me or even changed my life with their words and art, well, imagining them too sitting at a rickety old table, alone is encouraging, and the humanness of that inspires me so much more than any idea of them as some great established figure of artistic or literary significance.
     In the corner of the room where Vanessa's boys slept at one point and sometimes stole out of the window and across the roofs to avoid the tedious social whirl of their parents, there is a huge aged mirror. Apparently it was in front of this very mirror that Vanessa and Virginia were told to kiss their mother goodbye for the last time as she lay dying. My favourite photo in the Patti Smith exhibition is a photo taken actually in the old pitted mirror, of a reflected room and Patti's face peering out from the edges, looking back at the viewer. A mirror that has seen so much, still the silent observer, of what lives and dies, of what is born and moves with wonder.
     I love the sense of history and lives here, the passion with which this place has been kept going. I love the gardens with their sweet scents and lily pad pond and floating sculpture. I love the surrounding countryside - so English - birds and smells and grass and rabbits, glorious in the sunshine. We walked back to Berwick in the early evening, caught one of the last trains home.

I walked the final stretch from Brighton station to my flat along the sea front. A hot summer Saturday night, the beach was teeming with families and teenagers, trendies and hippies. Music wafted across the pathway, people drank and the smoke from barbeques formed a fog all the way up Hove Lawns. As I walked that stretch of sea front I could almost believe that life was ok, and would always be ok - how could it not, there alongside the pale blue water, glistening white at its edges, past the cafes and bars brimming with life, the children, the bronzed skin? I wondered if my mum would like it here. Somehow, I don't think so. And I wonder about all the people who couldn't make it to the beach today because they are too ill, or too old and weak, or caring for another who is, or just too worn out or busy to get down there. Like the old ladies in the hospital ward in Chester, lying there in a row like a set of white teeth, swathed in their clinical sheets.
     Brighton; the land of the young and free, the up and coming; the hip and happening. If you squint you could almost believe death doesn't happen around here.
     I was glad to reach my road, to feel the images in my eyes of the bodies of holidaymakers dissolving into smoke, and I tiredly climbed the stairs of my turreted building, up to my little attic, my very own sanctuary.
    Brighton is an easy place to return to: so much beauty here. It's like a golden bubble, drifting along the water's edge, a haze of beauty making you forget all the things you would rather not see. That turns the other way when the crippled horses pass by.

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