The past. We’re more used to seeing it on the walls of museums and ancient ruins than on the walls of our homes. And yet you’ll find it there too, if you scrape hard enough.
Ancient ruins? Yeah, like those of Pompeii, with all their candid graffiti. ‘I screwed the barmaid,’ scrawls one Roman. ‘O walls,’ writes another, ‘you have held up so much tedious graffiti that I am amazed that you have not already collapsed in ruin.’ And then there’s ‘Nothing ever happens in this shitty little city,’ which, sadly, I had to make up.
Anyway, that’s what this budding novelist has been doing for the past week: scraping old paint off the walls of his house. Stripping away the past, as it were, layer by colourful layer. Brown, blue, purple, orange – it’s as if I’ve been living under a rainbow.
A toxic rainbow, of course, which explains why my family has decamped for the duration, and why for a week my noble visage has been half-hidden by a mask. Weep, ladies, weep! It’s the lead, you see, it’s dleadly.
In ancient Rome, people put this highly malleable metal in water pipes; in the nineteenth century, they put it in wine (to sweeten it); in the twentieth century, they put it in paint. That’s progress for you. Now paint comes free from artificial sweeteners, which makes it harder to swallow but supposedly much safer. Goody.
So there I am, perched on a stepladder, laying bare the history of my house with a hand-scraper, stroke by wearisome stroke, as if I’m turning the pages of a book. And I’m thinking, why does old stuff always seem so dangerous; I mean, that’s what Freud was essentially on about, right? Buried stuff coming back to bite us.
That’s when I get to the woody flesh beneath the sickly skin. Pure, unadulterated timber that once formed part of a wholesome, harmless tree, one that would never drop a branch on your head or try to trip you up with a rearing root. O, I cry (metaphorically), why did we ever exchange nature for culture? Then I put my blade through a rotten board and immediately I know. Like the present, the past is as much enemy as ally.
And, yes, that’s pretty profound.
But wait – there’s more. A lot more, alas, because this post was supposed to save me work by featuring something I wrote in the past, about the past. Something from another blog I once kept. Something called ‘Little Chicago’.
What’s in a hat? Memories, of course.
Over Easter, Queen Jane and I were whisked away by Dennis Potter’s redolent rendering of the Mayor of Casterbridge to Upper Wessex, where we followed the fall of a man undone, like Achilles, by unassuageable anger. Afterwards, we made our own descent: into the heart of our local hamlet, where Jane browsed wares while I sat reading in the sun.
‘There’s a bluebeardy look about ’en,’ Nance Mockridge said, of the aforementioned Mayor. ‘Stuff – he’s well enough!’ replied Christopher Coney. ‘Some folk want their luck buttered.’
Before long I was approached by a nuggety old bloke, who drew me out of Casterbridge (for, having finished the screenplay, I had started the book) and into conversation. Like townsfolk from Hardy’s tale, we parleyed in High Street.
My companion spoke, in thick English, of various things: of his heart’s fatal flaw and his decision to stay the surgeon’s hand; of his native country, Poland, and his arrival in this, his chosen land; and then, remarkably, of my own adopted home, the suburb of Springfield. It, he said, had been a Polish place, like another, in America, only smaller. Little Chicago, they called it.
Finally, he said he liked my hat.
I own two hats. One came to me from a market stall; the other, from my grandfather. As usual, I was wearing the first, for, unlike the second, which is heavy with age, it is young and lightweight.
My companion added to its store of memories. More importantly, though, he wore his own dusky thin-brimmed cap as if it were more ballast than burden. History, he showed, has a steadying hand.
So, you see, it’s not all bad.
I don’t care. The rain having stopped, I’m now going to go and do my bit to poison and preserve humankind. I’m going to go and paint over the past.