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Confessions of an Itinerant Batik Artist

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In the Fall, I went to England alone. I made the trip to visit my mother primarily but I traveled around the whole time and managed to see all of my English friends. It was funny but after being away for so long, all my friends there were people that I'd met on our recent travels. After a sleepless night flight, made even more disorientating by a series of meals, supper, dinner and breakfast all in the space of six hours, I arrived in London. My brother Phil met me at the Airport on a cold gray morning. We had a slightly bleak cup of tea together in the cafeteria at Charing Cross Station and then I went straight to my friend Howard's house in Brixton. Over the years since we had met Howard in India, he and I had exchanged letters and tapes regularly and he had definitely become one of my points of reference in England.

Nothing much ever seemed to change around at Howard's. The old gas fire still roared and spluttered in a vain attempt to keep the chill of the English winter out, the teapot was always full of hot black tea and there were always plenty of biscuits to eat. Life moved slowly on Mayall Road and each time I arrived there, it was almost as if I had never left. In many ways, Howard and his friends personified the disenchanted English. They seemed thoroughly alienated and marginal to society in their lifestyle but at the same time were quintessentially English in their loyalties, especially to certain television programs. Somehow they still held onto the British concept of the whole wide world being their oyster. Howard managed to escape the country quite often and always headed to India where he could live like a rajah until the money ran out. His tales of impoverished adventures and inspired survival on the trail were legion. I had long wanted to get him to come to America for I felt that his dour Northern anarchy would flourish there. This time, I found him living with a woman. She was a redheaded Cornish woman called Nicki whom I liked immediately. Nicki was relaxed and cheerful and had a job. I could see that Howard was a lot happier and more directed. His two friends had moved out and moved on and there was a room there that I could always stay in.

But I was in England to see my mother and took a slow cold train down to St Leonards by the sea. She had sold her little house in Rye Harbour and had bought a flat near to Hastings to be near to my sister Kate. As always, the first twenty-four hours we spent together were fine, for Joy and I actually have a lot in common. We were both artists with a keen eye for details and an interest in humanity in all its myriad forms. She seemed a little older, more bowed and more white-haired but obviously was living in a much more convenient place than before. Her new flat was on a corner halfway up a little hill which lead down to St Leonards' shopping street and from there down to the boardwalk and the sea. I stayed in the tiny spare room where I slept on an excruciatingly uncomfortable mattress on the floor. My own batik self-portrait hung on the wall in front of me. It still looked quite strong but after the first night, I took it down and stacked it face turned towards the wall. Joy showed me around her world on the first day there and we ritualistically ate fried eggs and chips at her local restaurant. I was the youngest customer and the newest song played on the cafe's tape-recorder was written before I was born. Joy was anxious that I liked her town but all I could see was the decay and dissipation of all my earliest memories of England and of the Empire that once had been. The weather was truly dismal, most of the people looked gray and pinched and the area was run down. There were lots of shops for sale and the sea front, once the sparkling facade of a flourishing resort, looked seedy. Several hotels were closed and boarded over. I took a long walk through the fog along the sea front, which ran from St Leonards to Hastings, past the long pier which still smelt of fried fish and chips and was mostly deserted. It felt pretty depressing but that only spurred me to walk faster, my leather jacket zipped up against the cold and a wool cap down over my ears. At the far end of the boardwalk, I passed by the cafes and antique shops and arrived at the part of the beach where the fishing boats were pulled up out of the water. There was a curious, dark group of wooden structures, looking rather like an old medieval settlement that was actually a bunch of sheds where the fishing nets were hung to dry. In front of them, I took the short funicular ride up the cliff face. From the green fields on top of the cliffs I had a panoramic view across Hastings to St Leonards and beyond. Even on such a dismal winter day, I could see the white capped waves rolling in across the North Sea and a few fragile-looking boats out on the horizon. The sun broke through the mist and clouds for a minute scattering gold light across the water and showing up the long precarious shape of the pier against the sea and the sky. Sunlight fell full onto the hotels along the boardwalk and for a moment Hastings shone like it must have one hundred years before. Then the clouds closed together and the grayness resettled over the huddled town. I knew that I didn't really want to live in England again. I walked on down the long series of steps which lead back to the dark drying sheds and the desperate little shops that still sold sticks of sweet rock with the word "Hastings" through their centers.

Inevitably, I quarreled with Joy at the end of my second day there. Her flat was small, her needs were great and there was no space to escape. I had learned on my last trip to England that three days was the optimum time for a visit. After seeing sister Kate and prowling through the gloom of the town one more time, I literally had to flee back to London on the afternoon local train. Howard and Nicki were away when I got back to Brixton but they had given me a key to the house and I rested up there, watched English TV and communed with the cat. The following day, I took the Tube into the West End and from there walked right along through Hyde Park to Nottinghill Gate and then down to look at Portobello Road Market on a busy Saturday morning. At Portobello Gold, the pub where the Ibiza crowd in London used to hang out, I ran into my old friends Richard and Renee. Later I met Selvin, our friend from Koh Phangan there. I couldn't stand the bar scene in the pub for long and Selvin and I quickly escaped and went to visit Bill who still lived just around the corner. Bill was completely unchanged, but still talking about the changes he would make in his life and still smoking too much. He was surrounded by cats and unfinished projects and was maybe just a little thinner and older than when I'd last seen him. We drank tea and I lent him $10 before we left to take a tube across the Old Street.

Selvin wanted to take me to the Whirligig Club at Shoreditch Town Hall. It was a "rave" scene that he'd talked a lot about, a club that opened just once a week in an otherwise quiet and respectable setting. It was certainly unlike any other club that I'd been to, for it was a "Family" club. There were no age limits at the Whirligig and children of all ages were admitted as long as they came with a parent or grown-up friend. As we waited in line to get in, a ten year old boy came up to me and asked me if I would be his Daddy and if I would take him in with me. His request was both funny and moving. By the time we finally got into the club, Selvin and I had collected a family of four, two very young boys and two slightly older girls who promptly vanished as soon as we got onto the dance floor. The Whirligig was held in the auditorium of the Town Hall where a huge parachute was hung from the center of the ceiling. It stretched out to the corners of the room so that all the straight lines and right angles of the room were lost. Projectors threw patterns onto all the walls and the stage was packed with frenetically dancing figures. The "house" and "ambient" music was deafeningly loud and the hall was packed with dancers. Around the dance floor, alcoves and carpets provided people space to relax. The cigarette smoke was incredibly thick. It seemed to me that everyone was smoking at least two cigarettes and three joints and pretty soon my eyes were running badly. The American ban on public cigarette smoking and the thinking behind it have yet to impact at all in Europe. Any protest I made about cigarette smoke while I was in England was dismissed as American, "New Age", rubbish. As an ex-smoker who's proud to have kicked the habit, I couldn't help thinking that all these nicotine addicts looked desperate rather than cool with their constant cigarettes. I wondered if they'd go on smoking if they knew how badly that they smelt. But I danced a lot that night and enjoyed the closing "chill-out" ritual at the end of the night when all the dancers sat down on the floor and the parachute was lowered on top of them. Then people stood all around the room holding the parachute by its edge and slowly flapped it up and down to cool people down for at least an hour. Selvin and I staggered out into the London night and walked for miles along the river all the way to Soho before I caught a bus from Trafalgar Square back to Brixton.

I spent another day in London walking vast distances across town before going back down to St Leonards to stay with Joy. I found myself terribly unhappy there, alone and alienated, only managing to escape on my long walks along the front and around Hastings. I was missing Catherine badly but managing to keep in touch with her through faxes, which I would send her from the local print shop in St Leonards. On my sister Kate's birthday at the end of October, Phil and Diana came down from London to visit. They confided to me that they were planning on moving down to live in Hastings in the New Year. They both wanted a break from Hackney, which I could well understand and Phil felt that he needed to live near to Joy.

Kate's birthday supper saw the dysfunctional family in full swing with Phil getting drunk and aggressive and being viciously rude to Joy. Friends of Kate's were there too and they slipped away in confusion at some point. I walked the bitterly upset Kate home later. I always felt that my family had lots of things to talk about and many deep issues to air but was mostly too uptight and British to ever deal with these problems. Probably we will never be able to resolve any of them but will always try to maintain the thin layer of veneer that separates us from one another. But the problems are there and the cracks show every time we are all together.

Phil having disgraced himself somewhat, I got to be the good guy for a change. I had a moment of real intimacy with Joy the next morning at the train station as I waited to catch a train back to London. As we kissed each other good-bye, I knew that in spite of our lack of communication and all our arguments, my mother wanted to see me. I pledged to come back to England every year from then on.

The following night was Halloween and Howard held a big dance party in his basement. There had been subtle changes in the house over the past four years. The basement, which had once been a dark damp black hole, was now a large, white, open space with a solid concrete floor. Howard brought in four DJs and a lot of sound equipment for a "Pagan Rave" which started at nine PM and ended at nine am. Somebody had crashed in my bed early on and I ended up sharing my bed -in shifts you understand- with in turn, a dreadlocked rasta, a young pair of loving neo-pagans and a sleeping-it-off drunk. Mostly I ended up dancing like a maniac pagan to the on-beat electronic thud of techno-tribal rhythms until I couldn't stand the music nor stay on my feet no longer.

I was beginning to run out of time and decided to make a lightning tour of England's Midlands in my last week in the country. My first stop was in Coventry where my young friend Selvin lived. I think that this was probably the first time that I'd spent time in this corner of the world and I found it a little depressing. Coventry was cold and gray and the sun didn't shine much while I was there. People seemed paralyzed generally and it was as if the city was on hold in time. Selvin and his young student friends spent most of the time at home, getting high, watching television with the thud thud of house music a constant backdrop to their lives. I spent a day walking around on my own and had a look at the famous Cathedral. It was built thirty years before and was radical for its day, but a vision of sixties' tack in the Nineties. Even Graham Sutherland's celebrated tapestry, which hung above the altar, looked dated with its central theme of nuclear threat all but irrelevant today. On my second night in Coventry, I stayed up late to see the US Presidential Election returns come in and Bill Clinton win a clear victory over George Bush. I am not a great fan of any politician but wished Clinton all the luck in the world. I knew that he was going to need it.

A two hour train ride took me to Leicester -it was Wednesday, I knew it must be Leicester- where Nick and Tad from Bali met me at the Station. They had returned from a couple of years living in Legian where Nick had worked as a computer programmer and where Tad had started her own kids' clothes business. They were in the middle of readjusting to their re-entry into the Mother country and were living in the guesthouse on Tad's mother's property outside of town in a little village called Drayton. Nick and I spent the day cruising Leicester, going to the Museum, Art Gallery, shops and cafes. It was a lot easier on the eyes and the senses than Coventry but I couldn't imagine living in either place. Drayton Village on Guy Fawkes Night was a lot more fun with fireworks and a family party for people who really liked to have a few drinks, eat and cut loose. This was archetypal English countryside and Nick and I took a long walk around little back lanes, which eventually lead us to the Nevil Holt School, an ancient very traditional public school for boys. No, Drayton wasn't yet quite living in the same time frame as I was but it was restful to drop off there for a couple of days and to hang out with old friends. Nick showed me some new tricks on his computer and I photographed some fantastic fractal images from one of his programs that I planned to use with the Retinal Blowjob.

After my short expeditions into the heart of England, all that remained before I flew back to the States was a last weekend in London. My old friend Chris flew over from Holland to hang out with me for a couple of days and it was great to run around town with him. We'd known each other for about thirty years now, had been great friends at University and of course I'd gone out to Ibiza to visit him when my marriage to Elspeth broke up. In a sense my whole odyssey and subsequent life as a batik artist had started with Chris. I've always felt that I've owed him a great deal. He and I did a lot of errands together and I bought a copy of my father's last book, a new addition of Shakespeare's Narrative Poem. I also bought a big box of crackers to take back with me. For some unknown reason, Americans, who love the tradition of Christmas so much, have yet to discover crackers. We paid a last visit to Bill in Nottinghill Gate.


On my last day, we took Maria and her little son Luke out to an Indian curry at lunchtime followed by a great walk on Hampstead Heath. In the evening I took Howard and Nicki out for another curry. This last curry meal was easily the most expensive Indian meal I'd ever had but also one of the best. Many of the dishes were new to me and I swear that one of the sauces, which came in paper-thin pastry cases, made me high somehow. Before I left, I had long telephone talks with my family and felt that the visit had a fairly good closure.

The flight back to Washington was very easy and Catherine was there to meet me at the Airport for a loving reunion. Winter had struck while I was away and the house was much emptier and quieter. Gareth and Pam had moved into a house of their own. These were rather strange last days at Gesundheit, with Patch away much of the time, Lynda laying low downstairs and Catherine immersed in her college course. We were moving gradually into transit mode ourselves, with a move to Kelly's house in a few weeks and a new chapter in our life about to begin. I walked straight back into my regular Lightshow night at the Fifth Column Club but I was working with worse and worse bands it seemed. But I got a gig to do a "rave" party at George Washington University late in November and that went well. I was back to work in the Studio, painting a landscape in acrylics and also working on a couple of new batiks, both inspired by our stay in Bali. I wanted to do a piece about my English trip, perhaps a view of the pier in Hastings, but I realized that it had all been a mildly depressing experience this time. I didn't really want to delve back into it so soon.

Catherine was hardly to be seen around the house as 1992 drew to a close. The Washington Project of the Arts asked me to perform with the Retinal Blowjob at a series of performance events that they were putting on under the banner of "Cabaret ReVoltaire". That kept me busy for the next three weekends. Each event was to be in the spirit of Dada (whatever that meant) and I was invited to provide visuals for some of the acts and to put on a dance at the end of each night. Most of the acts each night were hilarious and some were funnier than others. A few were horrific like the piece in which two actors took on the roles of Ken and Barbie dolls. Barbie proceeded to pull Ken verbally apart against a rear movie projection showing Nazis explicitly castrating a prisoner. It was excruciatingly painful to watch and there wasn't a man in the audience who wasn't squirming in his seat. I don't know if there was much pure surrealist performance each night but I do know that one piece affected me quite directly in a tragi-comic way. Two friends of mine acted out a rather silly but very funny piece in which they started off squirting Miracle Whip cream into their mouths. But they got carried away a little and started to cover each other with cream. It was pure slapstick rather than Surrealism and we all laughed a lot. Only when the show was over did I realize that my brand new leather jacket had been commandeered as a prop and was smothered in sweet sticky cream. I had only bought it the month before and was really angry for awhile.

Kelly of the "Tree of Life" showed up suddenly in December and we went to his house one night to meet his new girlfriend Rosie whom he'd met in Nova Scotia whilst building his boat. A pleasant woman about his age, she had decided to leave her home, her job as a social worker and her life in Halifax to start a life with Kelly. They planned to make their home on the boat together. I gave Kelly my acrylic painting of the boat and we arranged to move into his house on January 1st, so that his two daughters could use the house over Christmas.

But not all went so smoothly for us that month for Catherine discovered that she was pregnant. She had another abortion. It was all over very quickly but it upset me greatly, more than I realized at the time. It was of course unthinkable that Catherine should have a baby at the start of her college course and I totally supported her decision to abort the baby. But the episode, together with other experiences seemed to make the possibility of my ever having children increasingly remote. I was beginning to think that I would never be a father and would miss out on the most central of all adult human experiences. But of course, having lived without having any children for so long, I could probably go on living without them for awhile longer, despite my fantasy of being a father in my old age. I did enjoy my freedom, wanted to keep on traveling the world and kids would make that much more difficult. But, at the same time, it left me having to deal with a wonderful and terrible freedom at a time and age when I wasn't at all sure what I wanted to do with my life. I was Jonathan, ex-patriot Englishman, world traveler, music lover, artist, best friend and lover to Catherine. I'd spent the last twenty odd years ceaselessly making batik paintings and I was feeling deeply tired of the technique. Batik no longer seemed relevant to my life or times. I was only too aware how incredibly fortunate I was to be able to even consider changing my work and career at this point. Most men had kids and mortgages and payments to make. They often just seemed to be hanging in there by the skin of their teeth. Most men my age were working to support their lifestyle and to keep a car on the road so that they could keep on working. In varying degrees, they loved and cared for their children, worked to support them and in varying degrees identified themselves as fathers. Workers and Fathers! That seemed such a solid and uncompromising identity and one that echoed Sigmund Freud's assertion that a normal person should be able to love and to work well. I thought that I'd learned to love and loved to work but had no idea what work to focus on.

Christmas came and went and I deliberately spent it alone at Gesundheit while Catherine went home to her parents for a few days. I kept busy, was working hard to finish up the latest batiks and started to pack up our things. It was a Christmas to forget though I spent it profitably. Catherine and I got away together before New Year and drove to a State Park Lodge near Berkeley Springs in nearby West Virginia. We were the only people staying in the large wooden building. There was a thin coat of new snow on the ground and we walked around the golf course there early one morning leaving two neat sets of conferring tracks behind us. After breakfast, we took off for Berkeley Springs for a hot bath at the Spa there. On the way home, we had a look at Harper's Ferry, a little town steeped in history. We walked across the metal bridge at the meeting of the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers. On the far side of the river, a trail lead back towards Washington and we resolved to bicycle up to Harper's Ferry sometime. We were terribly happy together, Catherine and I, and it seemed like our love would conquer all that day. The following day, the last of 1992, Catherine and I got dressed up to go out but finally stayed at home and had a New Years Party for two.

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