Sunday, February 25, 2007

A Stable, A Memory, A Play, Some Pictures

At the end of the road where I lived as a boy was a riding stables. It was badly maintained: the grass in the paddocks was always sparse, the compacted dirt broken by gnarly lumps of weed: dandelions, ragworts and so on. There was a tall hay-loft with long upright pillars of crumbly wood supporting a corrugated iron roof, it was filled too high with straw bales that had holes and passageways in them where we few local children played and felt as though we were hidden from the world. The stables themselves were in a long, narrow building of crumbling brick with some seven or eight individual stables on either side, backed onto each other. There were, in all the years I lived there, never more than six or seven horses, a stable half-full.

It is a place inextricably linked in my mind with growing, painfully through puberty. Here I saw and handled another boy's cock for the first time. Here were dens in the straw so hot and torrid that puberty smelt like bailing twine. Here I first heard filthy gossip about the horsy girl who came everyday: ‘she wanked off her horse you know’. Here I saw a tiny scrap of a boy hurled in his t-shirt and tight shorts into a patch of stinging nettles by an older girl, for what crime I don’t know, but his pain was both horrifying and delicious to me then. Here I…

Back then there was no one living on the site and from dusk till dawn it was deserted. Some nights I would climb over the lower sections of one of the empty stable doors and huddle, breathless in the dark, listening to the soft noises of the horses shifting in the straw on the other side of the walls and to the thumping of my own heart which raced at the sense of secret and mystery and the thrill of being caught. I would then undress, leaving my clothes in a small pile in the corner of the empty stable and climb, with difficulty and with knees scuffed to bleeding, on top of the wall which ran down the centre of the building, dividing the stables in half. The wall was only one brick wide but once on top, it was possible to walk carefully along it using the slanting roof beams on either side as hand-holds. In the play, Equus, the boy, the psychiatrist and Equus himself are the moving presences on stage but there is another, unmoving and ever-present; the stage, which is both stable and temple. At roughly the same time as these events I started attending church.

This is not the strange ritualised psychopathology of Alan Strang in Equus, nor is it, I believe, any more abnormal than any of the thousand secret acts of exploration that thousands of people undertake as children and would likely never speak of again - you are free to disagree. And the wonder of it was the horses. To a twelve year old a horse is a massive and violently ‘different’ kind of creature. Walking the top of the wall took me into a realm of half-darkness where the steam of the straw and the haze of the horses, their waxy hair, their piss, their shit and their sweat, rose and hung like a miasma - and in the middle of it, I stood far above (or so it seemed) their vast and solid bulk: skinny, nimble, frail and naked, breathing in the risk and the animals. I have not thought about these night time moments for years until, several experiences recently came together at once: a play, a memory, an artists work and some forgotten pieces of poetry.

“The Mari Lwyd was a mid-winter tradition popular especially in the villages of Glamorgan and Monmouthshire. A horse’s skull, decked with ribbons and carried on a pole by a man hidden beneath a sheet, was taken from house to house by a group of revellers. The skull’s jaw could be manipulated to make snapping movements as the Mari Lwyd demanded payment at each house.”
The Art of Clive Hicks-Jenkins
By John Barnie

It is possible to be haunted by other people’s ghosts. I got the ghost of my never-known grandfather from my mother: a dark and sinister presence whose malign influence reaches from the past without the need of supernatural mechanisms to rake dead fingernails down a number of lives. Alan Strang found a mutilated Christ and a looming horse-head and worshipped where they joined. The Mari Lwyd, a much more tangible thing, something which can be delineated in line and paint, is the ghost that haunts every one of these phenomenal pictures by Clive Hicks-Jenkins. It is a ghost of Wales, it has the bitterness of a poem by R. S. Thomas, it was the nightmare of his father and is both ghost and god in these pictures.

To a twelve year old a horse is indeed a massive thing. It is a masculine thing. It is tacitly acknowledged but never aloud, that girls find a pleasure in riding which is to do with maturing, with sexual awakening, with the first feel of firm flesh under the hand and between the legs. Perhaps in Equus, and in these pictures of the Mari Lwyd, and in my night times in the stables there is a male equivalent. There is an unmistakeable sexuality about a horse and, mare or stallion, it is a masculine energy. To touch a horse is to feel dense, hard-packed muscle, it is to feel the heat of something so powerful as to be overwhelming, it is to feel vulnerable and small against the power of a creature on the outside edge of domesticity. To walk above horses on a precarious wall is an act of initiation and trembling. Here is death and sex and worship and sacrifice.

The psychiatrist in Equus muses that some things come ‘before’. To Alan’s mother this thing which comes ‘before’ is the devil. Although the word is never used, they both feel the active power of an archetype at work in themselves and in the boy. The active power of an archetype is not to be trifled with and whether it comes ‘before’ or is placed in our psyche by parents or trauma, what are archetypes but other people’s ghosts? and what is its active power but a haunting or a possession?

These pictures are, to me, a set of stations. Stations of the Cross they may not be but there is a journey here. Stations of the Cross are the points at which one stops on a journey towards death. The Mari Lwyd was a dead thing on a journey round a village, pausing like a religious procession round a church, or through the streets of Jerusalem, or on its way to a crucifixion.

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