Now to what I really want to say.
Oxfordshire is buzzing this month. Artweeks is here again. Every May, artists in different parts of the county throw open their studios to the public or band together for group exhibitions in venues sometimes far away from where they live. Saturday is the start of Oxford city's week. Last week it was North Oxfordshire.
Inside an Artweeks group exhibition
The Blue Room, Worton Park, near Oxford
I love Artweeks. It's exciting, you can go from studio to studio, group exhibition to group exhibition, painters, sculptors, potters, ceramic artists, jewellers, flower arrangers, at least one hatmaker. You can run the whole gamut of art forms, painting from still lifes to cubism, every sort of pot, plate, pan and even hat you can imagine. Amateur hobbyists and well-known professional artists vie for attention. And as I go round all these wonderful venues, see the different styles, techniques, genres, forms, in front of me in an amazing profusion and wish I could do something like them myself, I can't help pondering on the whole question of creativity, its manifold manifestations - and of course the relationship of all this Artweeks activity to our own creative endeavour, that of writing.
I've always thought that Robert Browning is a great poet. I know others don't: they see him as a novelist in verse, someone who doesn't write poetry but a sort of rhyming prose, who gave us vapid, Victorian phrases like 'God's in his heaven, all's right with the world', forgetting that it's not Browning who says that but Pippa, the girl in the poem, Pippa Passes, and that characters in stories aren't necessarily their creators talking. But his dramatic monologues are, I think, quite unsurpassed. I know he didn't write much personal lyric poetry - but he knew it and said so. 'I give you truth broken into prismatic hues and fear the bright white light, even if it is in me.' Well, any novelist knows about the prismatic hues because they're what they deal in, but they don't often question the bright white light within them. Browning did, and this to me sounds a supreme honesty, self-knowledge and even humility, a quality most people don't allow him. So when he gives us truth in a startlingly vivid prismatic hue we ought to listen very carefully.
Of all his dramatic monologues, the one which touches me the most is Fra Lippo Lippi, the anguish of the monk-painter desperate to break away from the censorship of the church and paint freely, paint not just devotional religious subjects, but what he sees around him, what he knows is the real truth of humanity. His vision is hobbled by his circumstances. He is a medieval Ah Wei Wei. And in one passage he says, very simply, not just the whole point of painting but, it seems to me, of all art and, in particular, writing - poems, plays, stories, novels.
For, don't you mark, we're made so that we love
First when we see them painted, things we have passed
Perhaps a hundred times, nor cared to see;
And so they are better painted, better to us,
Which is the same thing.
Simple enough. But it expresses more than it seems at first sight to be saying. The clue lies in that innocuous-seeming word 'better.' What does he mean, 'better'? Better in what way?
Every day we pass by, let us say, an old railway bridge. We either ignore it or idly think to ourselves what an eyesore it is, no trains run over it any more and it should be pulled down. But then an artist comes along, sets up her easel en plain air and starts painting a picture of it. And perhaps we stop and watch her working. At first we might see a number of what look to us unconnected blobs and lines going nowhere and wonder what on earth she's doing. And then we begin to see a system. Gradually, shapes stop being formless, colours are no longer haphazard but part of a scene, a pattern. The full image is forming in her mind. And then, if we can wait long enough to see, there it is, our useless bridge, transformed into a thing of beauty. Or perhaps of ruin and desolation. It may transmit horror. Or joy. Or hope. Or regret. Or intense grief. Or anger. But whatever quality it is, we may see significance in it. It has become, whatever feelings it conveys to us, an impression, a representation, an interpretation which gives aesthetic pleasure. Perhaps this pleasure is because the artist has found beauty in the bridge, perhaps she's found magnificent ugliness. But, whatever it is, that old bridge has become something unique, made special, presented in such a way that our perceptions are altered for ever. The artist's interpretations are unique to her but the significance is, if we have eyes to see, something universal. Our perceptions and our understanding are changed for ever.
So, I think, with writing. 'The intolerable wrestle with words and meanings,' as TS Eliot says. They go nowhere, our ideas seem inchoate and formless. There is a feeling deep down that our ideas are right, that they will lead somewhere, all will be well, but the trail is weak and some times we leave the paper or the screen in despair because it's not going to work. But sometimes after a good night's sleep, lo and behold, the problem is solved, our unconscious minds have followed the trail and, though not everything is clear and sorted, certainly the road ahead is at least passable. And so the situations evolve, the characters live, breathe, walk and speak, the interactions between them come and the feeling and emotions are made manifest. We recognise these feelings because they are our own and we relive them through our own creations - which paradoxically makes us detached but non-judgemental. But we know that, however special and particular these characters and situations are to us, they are common to all human beings and so our readers will recognise them and understand them. They can be as judgemental and critical as they like, and perhaps what we write gives them good cause to be. But that's their privilege.
There's another consequence. As the artist's interpretation of the bridge can alter our perceptions for ever, so our presentation of human conduct and feeling cause new insights to come to our readers. They may see familiar situations re-interpreted. they may find their own experience reproduced and therefore justified. One priceless feature of narrative is to help some readers feel that they are not bizarre or outsiders but share in the world's traffic like other people. Young adult writers are often told by their readers that until they read their books they had no idea that other people might feel like them. We have a better idea of how it is to have feelings we haven't yet explored and perhaps a better understanding of those we have. So, in the end, the effect of the story and the effect of the painting are the same. In both cases we have seen a sort of truth beyond the surface.
What is this truth? Sometimes art can be truer than life. One example I've long thought about concerns a well-known place, the Cob at Lyme Regis. We all know this long, ancient stone quay which has for centuries defined the town. For generations, people have met and parted, cargoes have been landed and loaded on it. But who knows what actually ever happened there? People who have lived there may. But I know two things which happened, which stand out like beacons. A girl called Louisa once fell off it and another girl called Sara Woodruff waited in vain on it for the return of her French lover. That's what the Cob means to me. Of course they never really happened. They come from Persuasion and The French Lieutenant's Woman. But they are so iconic, so symbolic of human passion and possibility that they are true in a very, very real sense. They are general human feelings made particular and significant: things we have passed a hundred times nor cared to see.
Art was given for that.
God uses us to help each other so,
Lending our minds out.
I think that the last line says exactly what the artist, whether painter, sculptor, composer or writer, tries to do. When I ran creative writing courses for children, first in Hertfordshire when I was the English Adviser and later in Youth Hostels up and down the country until they sadly became too expensive to keep going, that's what I called them. The Lending Our Minds Out courses. There's just a chance that I may be able to run something like them again fairly soon. They will keep the title.
From a painting by Kay Jamieson in her Oxford Canal series
'Things we have passed perhaps a hundred times nor cared to see'
Kay, my partner, exhibited in the Worton Park group exhibition pictured above during the first week of Artweeks and in Summertown, Oxford, during the second week.