August bank holiday.
Saturday. Well, here I am in deepest Dorset, to spend a long weekend with Mike and discuss a book on creativity I have been writing over the past few years. It has eaten time, devoured energy and consumed passion. It is the culmination of a thousand conversations. It is simmering in my PowerBook. Mike is the first to read it. He has offered to design it. Now the book will come to life.
We are invited to a beach hut tea party in Greenhill Gardens - Weymouth. It’s a quintessentially sea-sidey gathering of Mike’s family and friends. Something about beach huts quickens the heart. They are glorified sheds with pretensions way above their station, but the words beach and hut invests them with a magical potential. No one can feel passive faced with such regimented cheerfulness. This enclosure of tongue & groove, paint and tarpaper epitomises spaces that generate other dimensions. In the ‘Timeless Way of Building’, Christopher Alexander describes it as “…a building coming to life as an entirety, the more it glows, the more it has that self maintaining fire…and when that building is on fire it becomes a part of nature. Like ocean waves or blades of grass its parts are governed by the endless play of repetition and variety created in the presence of the fact that all things pass.” Beach huts are security blankets, sea defences, shrines to common sense, as dependable as the shipping forecast, as accommodating as the Tardis. They have a transformational power to make British stiff-upper-lips throw off inhibitions and wear their knobbly knees and varicose veins with pride. My parents rented a hut in Southwold throughout my teenage years. My stepfather set up the typewriter and worked on scripts or drafts of books while my mother prepared fusillades of food to feed our voracious appetites. We scoffed warm sausage rolls, damp crisps, sandwich-spread, jammy doughnuts, soggy chocolate éclairs, and veal & ham pies smeared with Coleman’s mustard squeezed from a tube. Beach huts exude a smell of their own. Close your eyes, hold your breath, and conjure up a concoction of Calor gas, kettle steam, rotten apple cores, tuna paste, composting seaweed, mouldering flip-flops, Nivea cream, creosote, and the creepy odour that only exists inside an exhaling Li-Lo. But most of all I remember a little cinematographic miracle. Beach huts look resolutely outwards. The entire structure of ours was focussed on the view through upper barn doors. The action became intensified by the gloominess within, like sitting in a cinema dazzled by the projector, or the bright frame of a 16mm Bolex viewfinder. Passing heads became iridescent chimera with flapping hats and fluttering headscarves, lit by the electrified colours I was to recognise in Pressberger & Powell movies years later. Colour. Colour. Colour. I have been researching the spread in my book about colour and reading Chroma by Derek Jarman. Mike’s cottage is irrigated with colour. Dorset is drenched in colour. Fresh from my flat in Hackney I am gagging for colour.
Back in Weymouth, the beach huts are perched on municipal lawns above tiered and ramped pathways, notional fences and cast iron lampposts. The colours of the architectural furniture and urban vernacular are entirely manufactured: British racing green. Kellogg’s cornflakes orange. Hazard warning yellow. Pebbledash ochre. St John’s Ambulance black. Drainpipe umber. End of the pier day-glo. Even the colours of the flowers are too good to be true. Cloned crimsons and hybrid scarlets ring the floral clock and spell out a ...
to the esplanade. At precisely 4 o’clock we gather round and the party food is revealed on wobbly tables held together by string and goodwill. The ocean is our audience. Garibaldi pink. Piped icing purple. Marshmallow yellow. Meringue beige. Fruit salad puce. Cucumber silver. Granary loaf grey. Typhoo tea red. Nescafé brown.
Sunday. It has poured overnight but the sun is out. We park on a hilltop and walk down to the sea through steaming fields on a path of molten mud to a beach like a great grin of shingle. We lounge and talk and think and laugh and discover people in common. We stare up at Magritte clouds, which fold themselves into tubas, sofas, loaves and spinnakers. They cast shadows that paint the sea with flecks of turquoise, slashes of olive, sheens of sapphire, arcs of indigo and an insipid green I have not seen since our family Ford Cortina rolled off the production line in Dagenham. Sunlight ploughs chrome furrows in the sea that crash on the shore and splutter into infinity. Way down the bay Mike points out a regular visitor, an ancient land mariner who exercises daily naked on the beach, describing great arcs with his arms and moving tetchily from one position to another. This is not the body beautiful nudity of St Tropez, but a hymn to nature. A recognition that for all our sexy sophistication, we are just bags of skin and bone.
Monday. Breakfast, and a blanket of cloud sucks the colour from the fields. We hope for sunshine, but discover the monochromes illuminate subtler qualities; like one-dimensional texts that only supply the skeleton of a story, or a minimal stage set that leaves everything to the imagination. They force you to bring your goods to the table. And what have you got to contribute? I have just finished reading The Road by Cormac McCarthy. Set in a post-apocalyptic landscape, the writing is monochrome, the descriptions prosaic, the dialogue monosyllabic. This is the only way to describe the indescribable. Figures of speech are surplus to requirements.
We drive to the Abbotsbury Subtropical Gardens, a rolling arboretum of more greens that I have ever seen, but in lieu of sunbeams we become fascinated by other qualities - line, shape, form, vein, crenulation, texture, serration, groove, dimple, pattern, circumference. Colour takes second fiddle and we explore the content - not the spectacle. Beneath a canopy of pines is a SCULPTURE EXHIBITION (DO NOT TOUCH). All attractions have an art bit nowadays. A series of bronzes of contemplative figures. Although they don’t show a shred of life, they are chained to concrete blocks to stop them escaping.
This is partly why I am writing my book. To debunk the myths around creativity. To help people express themselves – not some tortured caricature. We sit on a strategically placed bench with a vista to St Catherine’s Chapel on a distant hill, suspended in a vignette of foliage.
Spectators shuffle up reverentially and gasp at the wonder. Mike begins to talk about a remarkable radio programme he heard some years ago; an audio diary about the sounds an old house makes as it shifts its timbers. All weekend we have been completing each other’s sentences, and champing at the bit to enrich some skein of thought. Before he even begins to finish, I realise I know this house inside out. It was the home of the writer Roger Deakin, and I stayed there many times; a Suffolk farmhouse constructed from oak logs and spiders’ webs and surrounded by a swimming moat. And this wonderful serendipity of minds sums up the whole weekend. The way creativity works. Conversations between ideas and structures and motives and momentum, pulled and pushed by the tides of our histories.
Guest Blogger Tom Lynham. August 2008