It’s strange and deeply moving, how a small, sea-facing house that I briefly occupy on a tiny remote island which is firmly planted in the North Sea, is so far removed from a home that I once occupied deep in the Chinese ancient hutongs of Suzhou, but that it can so vividly and completely remind me of that other place in another country, in another continent so powerfully that it is as if I am back in the middle of the dusty, noisy hutongs themselves. How can this be? This small house on Fair Isle does not have any of the same look, smells or sounds from as that place in Suzhou but as I am unceremoniously dropped off and left alone here, I turn around and instantly feel China, India, the old Vicarage at Chatsworth from 20 years ago and an old house in the hutongs of Suzhou. All at once past places and people surge back and I am hit in the chest by the power of a sensory connection that I haven’t felt in years. How can I feel that I am in China or an old library in an old vicarage when I am in a tiny area in the middle of a tiny house on Fair Isle?
Initially, there is nothing immediate about the place this is fundamentally Chinese, though these things appear later. It is not about a brush or Chinese paper or mark or anything tangible. It is the scent of it all, its essence.
When I arrived here, quite tired and late, I cared not about eating nor for food and certainly not for unpacking, because I had to just sit and take in my new surroundings.
One week there, one week there and now one week here. Three weeks on this island and three very different places to sleep – all creative in their own way but this tiny place has something other than creativity.
Stepping into this place is an intense, pure moment where nothing else really matters. To someone else, it would appear totally differently but to me, everything here is placed precisely to create a space entirely conducive to creative thought and drawing. I can see the sea, hear the wind and the clock ticking but mostly and above all, I feel intensely and acutely aware of my surroundings – so much so that I am winded. So much detail, so much accumulated stuff. There is not one pen but over a hundred, there is not one sharpened, labelled, categorised pencil but over two hundred. There is not one book of antiquity but countless and the same with paint brushes, ink pens, nibs and tools, glue, tape, light bulbs, bags. A sea of multiples. Everything is used and reused and used again and mended. Most things here bear the scars of being broken and mended or of having a long journey and life – this being pans, pots, cups, plates and all manner of utensils. This tiny place in an ocean of stuff bearing the memory of past lives and other countries. Every single thing in this home has a visible memory. It is a simple place with an intoxicating, hugely complex interior.
No place has made me feel so deeply and powerfully inside my chest and belly since living in China. but this is not China, it is a small, tiny house on a small tiny island in the North sea.
How many years did this place take to evolve? It has the same enchantment as Lao Wang’s one roomed home in Suzhou. The walls are closing in from the towering collections of brushes, pens, pencils all in neat rows in jugs, pots, tins, jars. Everything is magnified through sheer volume and a scent of far, far away. There is no internet connection. I am so disconnected that I can only become connected. I decide that I shall live in a very small way here.
Tools, oil paint, inks, books and more books, Indian textiles, Chinese ink stamps and brushes, old tins, new tins, tea boxes, old rugs covering bare boards – so little floor space – the walls encroaching in. there is no space for any of the doors to the rooms – these now being used as shelving above the bed to store artwork. The single bed is encased beneath the doors, beside bookshelves and pillars of 4×4 to hold the doors, next to a small table and sofa.
In truth, I am a little cold. I will have to wear my feather coat the whole time, as I did in china. I care about nothing practical. I care not that I am cold and will get colder, not that my finger is sticky nor about the wind gathering momentum and speed outside, nor do I care that there is not one comfortable chair because I feel that all the world is here. The freezer whines. I open a flask of tea that I made 11 hours ago and feel at home with a tepid drink. I’ve been left with instructions not to touch any of his things. His things, not being his personal space or intimate space – bed, nor even his books. I know instantly what his most precious things are – its his tools to create art, though this was never mentioned. The tools that support his practice are the things I cannot touch. I respect that but am drawn to his drawing desk. This point of clear sharp focus will focus me. Amidst a million small things, I decide to stick to 4 physical places within this sea of things only because a fear of putting things down in any other place, that I will certainly not find it again. I allow myself to use the single bed, the small sofa bed for bags and clothes, a square foot on the kitchen works surface to prepare food and one square foot on the desk to write. I am getting to know the man through his things before I have ever really spoken to him.
After sitting for some time, on a garden chair by the desk, I finally understand the power of this place – there is a combined memory of three wise men that I have known before who rise among the books and brushes here.
Mr Beddoes and his worldly library of first editions at Chatsworth, Lao Wang in his old Chinese one roomed house with walls lined with hooks for bird cages and old fur skins and with an old Chinese bed surrounded by a sheet with small boxes pinned to the inside containing a pen and his glasses and other small important things, and then there is also Cai Gen Lin – the wisest man of all who owns no material objects and who lives a simple life as a devout Buddhist and cuts the hair of the locals for 8 kuai. The qualities of those three men are tangible but not visible in this tiny house decades and thousands of miles apart. It is a special place lived in by a man I do not know at all, on a tiny island 3 miles long, in the North sea.