John Craxton, Still Life with Three Sailors, 1980-85
It began with a poem, which Bill Herbert used in teaching an MA class at Cardiff last month. The poem was ‘Crete, 1980’ by Jacqueline Saphra, from her collection All My Mad Mothers. I reproduce it here:
I lived on hard-boiled eggs and yogurt
with a slug or ten of ouzo as my waist grew
waspish and my flesh indifferent
through my lean and solitary season.
I was girlish and abandoned, took my bed
of sand, those oh-so-green and casual boys
for granted, dreamed on beaches
naked, mouth grazed with the taste
of smoke and strangers’ kisses
and I howled into the drunken dark for
stupid reasons and I thought
this was an education.
The poem had me thinking about my own time on Crete; first a prolonged stay in 1975 as an awestruck eighteen year old, when I spent three months squatting a deserted shepherd’s hut that overlooked the Libyan sea; then an ill-fated trip in the autumn of 1977 as one side of a thorny love triangle, and finally a stay of nearly three years between 1981 and 1983, when I lived mainly in Hania.
I have been back only once, in 2004, to research a novel I was writing, but the island lives deep inside me and from time to time I visit it in dreams. It has had a similar effect on other people I know. So any reminder, especially one that stirs such deeply entrenched memories as those dislodged by Saphra’s poem, is bound to linger, and breed a contagion of contingent reminders. This is how synchronicity works, as a cascade of little jolts, each one nudging you into the realisation of something you often cannot quite put your finger on. But this time, clearly, it was Crete.
I have been looking for a picture that might go on the cover of a new collection of poems concerned with (largely) imagined journeys in the Eastern Mediterranean, and I immediately thought of John Craxton. On Thursday I ordered the wonderful book on Craxton’s life and work by Ian Collins which arrived in the post yesterday.
Just before the delivery man popped it through the door, I had been reading, in the TLS, of an exhibition by Tacita Dean – ‘Landscape’ at the Royal Academy, and shortly afterwards, leafing through my newly arrived book on John Craxton, the artist’s name leapt out at me again:
‘Tacita Dean met John Craxton by chance in Crete when she was 17, and he said her rotary-pen drawings of street scenes, plants and people had ‘linear confidence’. But his way of life was even more inspiring. She says:
“He was having fun and living doing what he loved. It was the first time I’d met a REAL artist and suddenly I could see such a life was possible. I still carry around the dream that I might one day live my life in the way that I imagined then John Craxton was living his: peaceably making my work in a beautiful room with the light from the water outside reflected on the ceiling – deadlines, budgets, emails and unremitting travel as yet unimaginable ingredients of my artistic life. It’s good to remember these fantasies of the unattainable, in order to make some adjustments from time to time.”’
In a recent interview with The Guardian, Dean makes a reference to W.G. Sebald, which further excited my demand for overlapping interests:
‘She cites the late German writer WG Sebald as an important influence on her method, in particular the way his writing made the life of the past so present, as if in a dream. “I really liked his description of his work,” she says. “He said when he worked he was like a dog crossing a field, following its nose.” She picks points A and B in the National Gallery air, and traces a slow meandering line between them with her finger.’
(The idea of ‘working like a dog’, by which I mean following one’s nose like a dog in a field, chimes with me particularly strongly just now. My own dog, Bruno, now in his twelfth year, and somewhat arthritic, takes his time crossing any open space. I may be projecting here, but in the past year or so, it has seemed to me that his prolonged dawdling – the achingly long caresses of snout on grass as he inches across park or field – involves a kind of remembering; that the savouring of the scent, indulgence in the raw odour of matter, involves the stuff of memory, a comparing of smells encountered by his doggy brain across the years, and that by sniffing he is remembering, and in remembering, the urge to sniff simply grows and grows, in a hall of scented mirrors.)
So it is with me and the jolts to the imagination that – by analogy – these reminders of the part of my life I call ‘Crete’ continue to bring about.
I remember the first time I met John Craxton. It was in 1981 on the harbour front in Hania. I was with Peter Green, painter and piss-artist extraordinaire, who introduced us: ‘This is my friend Richard, he’s a poet’ – the kind of thing I found deeply embarrassing, having published precisely nothing at the time. I sensed that Craxton did not suffer fools lightly. All I knew about him in those days was that he designed the covers of Paddy Leigh Fermor’s books. And there lies another story, as over my nearly three years in Crete, I devoutly followed the PLF trail, and even – without planning it, following an introduction from a Cretan friend – spent an afternoon in the village of Tavronitis chatting with George Psychoundakis, author of The Cretan Runner.
I came across John a few more times and we exchanged greetings but little else, as he was a regular visitor to To Diporto – The Two Doors – a rather insalubrious fish restaurant in Hania’s Leather Street (Odos Skridlov) in which I worked as the (only) waiter through the winter of 1981-2. To Diporto has been closed for many years now, but in the 70s and 80s it was a favourite haunt of Greek sailors, a cacophony of local low life, backpackers, students and terminally stoned hippies on their way back (but where to, man?) from India. I always suspected the Craxton painting reproduced above was set there, and am now convinced, having read Patrick Leigh Fermor’s notes to the 1985 Christopher Hull Gallery exhibition of Craxton’s work:
‘the composition . . . finally took shape in a cheap taverna in the lanes of Hania, none too clean, and very noisy, in spite of ‘NO BREAKAGE BY ORDER’ on the wall. The walls are green, the table blue; the red plastic bread-basket nudges the used beer-bottles [Amstel, as I recall], now recycled as carafes to hold bad wine.’ This could only be To Diporto.
And here another memory begins to twitch: I do remember a very young English woman in Hania in 1982, who was always drawing, and with whom I chatted on a couple of occasions when she came to eat at To Diporto. She was staying up above the harbour, in the part of town where John Craxton lived . . . could she have been Tacita Dean?
According to Ian Collins’ account, Craxton ‘revelled in the continuous settlement of Hania from early Minoan times, saying: “I like living on a dung-heap. I love the idea of thousands of people underneath the house. Nothing would put me off painting more than living in a new town.’ A similar sense of wonderment at living on the ‘dung-heap’ of human remains lay behind my own collection of prose poems, Walking on Bones (Parthian, 2000), many of which are set in Crete.
If these synchronicities happen for a purpose, I am still figuring out why this one came along, and is with me still. I had better get along to the Royal Academy of Arts and see Tacita Dean’s exhibition, and find out where that leads. Perhaps to Bloomsbury, and to John Craxton’s exhibition – alongside Nikos Ghia and Patrick Leigh Fermor – at the British Museum. And then, with any luck – like Bruno the dog – I will simply continue sniffing my way across this particular, fragrant Cretan field.