It is almost a hundred years since my uncle died in France in the trench warfare of the First World War. Most families have war stories – they punctuate and warp the family’s movement through time.
They embed themselves into pillars of consciousness. We are haunted by the lies, the atrocities and the awesome, strange courage of soldiers. They move through our psyches, staying close in, even if they seem distant and foreign from our daily lives.
My uncle is close in with me. His loss and its impact on his father and my father resonate now in my studio. The ninety-seven years close like a telescope. That split second near La Bassée – they said he died instantly. They always said that they died instantly. Four hundred thousand lost over a few weeks at the Battle of Ypes. Just the start of a century of war stories and holocausts. It’s all personal. We get to carry our pieces – our fragments.
Time in a drawing is a strange thing. It is part of what is needed for the drawing to come in. Without this quality it will not belong – it will not take its place – it will not sit right. I work away trying to crack the surface of the drawing – to open up space. Time needs space to unfold, to inhabit. How it happens is mysterious. It appears unknowable. Sometimes I just smash the drawing, strip it down, roughly, with frustration, scraping and slashing the surface and it just falls open. There it is. The quiet. The silence. Sometimes it is coaxed out and opens slowly like a flower. Other times it comes unnoticed – I leave a drawing that I believe to be in process and I come back the next day and it is there. Done. I think of Einstein’s metaphor of a permanently sealed clock that you can never open. You can only observe from the outside – speculate, hypothesize – the secret of the universe evidenced by the ticking and the turning.
My uncle Lieutenant Stanley Hawkesworth’s death was on the 25th of January 1915. His name was listed on the casualty list on the 27th which would have been his 21st birthday. I think of my own son just past twenty-one. I think of his Bar Mitzvah when he was fourteen. Rites of passage. My dad was fourteen when his brother died. He turned his grief into a loyalty to the British Empire so deeply held that he could not forgive Gandhi – too much loss – too much investment – too many lies – too much heart break. Gandhi saw clearly. He saw the tyranny playing out on the streets of India. He also understood that although it was propelled by power, money, racism and brutality it was backed by a set of ideas touched by conscience. Just enough so that he could show them up, and he did. It fell open. His discipline and clarity bringing power to its knees – the alchemy of a seer – a steady gaze.
My Grandfather, as the vicar of the Church of England in Ambleside, had to summon himself up to lead his parish as the devastation of loss spread through the countryside like a plague – random, dropped house after house, family after family, death by death. ”They will not grow old like we that are left grow old” reads the village memorial. A trick of time. A turning of the screw. My Grandfather died that year. His heart gave out. My father lived, but not to grow old. The workings of the clock are hidden from us. As Jorge Luis Borges say: “Know this: in some way you are already dead….a marble slab is saved for you, one you won’t read.” Don’t be so sure about the marble slab Mr. Borges, my uncle got a makeshift cross in a churchyard in Givenchy. He was one of the lucky ones – found in one piece – not piled up with others – bulldozed.
Strange that thought – in some way I am already dead – and my uncle vibrant in his loss and promise here in my studio. His photo is earnest in the “Roll of Honor” newspaper cutting. I must remember to give my children a copy even though they seem freed of these matters, constructed in another force field.
Time sits inside me, like in the drawings, holding itself wider than the illusions of myself, my life. It is more a dream state. It lifts me up and opens my consciousness. It is delicious, spacious, this now. It breaks open and shatters into a million pieces – part of the dissolution.
Quote: Jorge Luis Borges poem ’To the One Who is Reading This’