After a couple of months lecturing in Canada, I returned to the UK. The churn of London never fails to stimulate. Board the underground at Heathrow Airport early on a Sunday morning, and by the time you reach the centre of town the car is as full as rush hour on a weekday. Stop into any café or restaurant, and it is humming with patrons. That constant action, the colours and accents and languages from around the world, the rich cast of characters from charismatic to just plain mad, the endless lines of travellers looking lost and moving slowly along crowded train platforms as they drag their suitcases behind them, this full theatre of life loosens any writer’s block. Want to have a bit of variety in your life? Get on the upper deck of a bus and go through the city, observing what’s happening around you.
But still, after a bit of this, it’s always good to retreat some place for a bit of quiet to actually reflect upon it and open up the laptop, putting words down. Emotion recollected in tranquillity, is what Wordsworth called it (though he was speaking of poetry, but there, but I flatter myself:-)). Although I spent a day up in Cambridge for a couple of meetings, I forewent that ultra-tranquil town to return to my old stomping-ground, in Oxfordshire. A post-doctoral fellow in Oxford some twenty years ago, I was now staying at the house of a colleague of mine, who happened to be an old friend, and who lived one village over from where I had lived in my Oxford days (Beckley).
Horton-cum-Studley, next one over from Beckley of the seven villages which ring the Otmoor (the low-lying marshland which gets its name from pre-Roman times: the fields belonged to a farmer named Ota), is as quiet and scenic as any Oxfordshire village. Its pub and village shop have gone, as has happened in so many English villages, and the church clings to life with a congregation of just a dozen or so who meet amid its Victorian brickwork for services every other week – the vicar rotating among a number of villages. But it still has a lively and engaged community, with an annual pig roast at the village hall. And while there, I caught up with an old friend of mine, an artist named Nick Mynheer.
Back in my Oxford days, Nick and I were drinking buddies. I recall many a dark fog-bound night when we would take off in his car on winding roads at breakneck speed; Nick could seemingly smell what was around the corner and avoid hitting any foxes that wandered onto the country lane. We’d find our way to one of the pubs of the Otmoor villages. Most often, we hit The Star in Stanton Saint John, another village-pub that has since disappeared. There, under low-beamed ceilings by a warm coalfire, we’d drink beer drawn from oak casks – Wadworth being one of the few remaining breweries to send its ale to its pubs that way (occasionally even using carts drawn by its famous shire horses to make the delivery).
Back then, Nick was a struggling artist fortunate to have the forbearance of a wife who shared his calling – though she might have preferred had the painting he then did brought in more money. Having previously earned a small mint as a graphic designer doing advertising work, one day he upped and declared he was going to henceforth devote his life to his art. His wife, no doubt flummoxed by the declaration, nonetheless went along with his mission. So began a decade or so of his wanderings in the wilderness during which he’d flog the occasional painting and put in yeoman’s work at art viewings and galleries. Nick was driven by a simple religious faith to use his art to proselytise, and the market for religious art in a country whose Protestant churches had little tradition of art patronage was always going to make that a difficult sell.
However, things really changed around the turn of the millennium. Having migrated from painting into sculpture and the production of stained glass, Nick got a rash of commissions from churches seeking to mark the occasion of the Jubilee. And the more his art went up, the bigger his audience grew, until he reached the point that he was getting commissions around the world. And yet, while he had become an international success, finally ending his wife’s anxiety about how their next mortgage-payment would be met, he continues to lead his life much as he ever was. The two of them are warm, generous, hospitable, and totally unpretentious. And, of course, like any good artist, he’s a bit mad: as he admits, his neighbours always wonder what he’ll do next, as when the morning they woke up and found a piece of poetry in Elizabethan English painted on the side of his house.
The scenes in Nick’s art works are all taken from the Bible or popular Christian lore. The day I visited him, he was at work on the stone that would serve as the base of a large stained-glass installation, ultimately destined for the cathedral in Nottingham. But while to Nick art offers a means of gentle evangelisation, what impresses me most about his chosen vocation is the almost religious manner in which he talks of his craft, and the sense of communion he experiences when at work. He describes the stone he cuts almost as if it were a living object with a character and sound all its own, and depending on the type of stone, he must use different cajolements and inducements to persuade it to come into the shape he wants it to assume. Meanwhile he is candid that while he can design the work, he lacks the skill of, for instance, the glaziers in actually executing it. The reverence with which he describes their work, and the delight he conveys in speaking of his partnership with them, suggests that together they combine to make something greater than the sum of their own parts.
Whenever I step into Nick’s garden or studio, I feel as if I have left behind a world of deadlines and ticking clocks for one in which time disappears into a long continuum — no doubt a sense that is aided by Nick’s tendency to just up and disappear on three-hour bike rides in the middle of his workday for no other reason than that the urge has taken him. Yet Nick is mindful that his creations will outlast him by some: the stained-glass he was making will stand in a thousand year-old Romanesque cathedral, and is meant for the ages. I, however, would return to my work desk to read the day’s news — I had a couple of small commissions of my own to deal with — and there I would be reminded there are some things just press on us. I was writing a two-part series on the Greek crisis, a story I had been following since the winter (my two articles appeared in the Jamaican Gleaner, a paper for which I’ve been writing for years: http://jamaica-gleaner.com/article/commentary/20150701/puerto-rico-canary-our-gold-mine, http://jamaica-gleaner.com/article/commentary/20150708/john-rapley-greek-tragedy-nears-climax#). The Greek tragedy worked its way to a climax, with each day’s headlines sounding more dire than the previous. Some of this is real — the situation in Greece is deteriorating rapidly. Some of it is the effect of the news-cycle and the need to grab over-stimulated readers with headlines that outdo last night’s for drama. But somewhere beneath these exclamation marks on life’s spectacle, there lies a continuum; a deeper current under the waves we observe at the surface. That’s the narrative I try to find hidden in the stories I cover. And as I suggested in those two columns, I don’t think the Greek drama is confined to Greece. I think it is an instance of a deeper tale many of us are acting out. And it may soon be coming to a theatre near us.