I listened to an interview with Australian author Delia Falconer on the ABC recently. She has written a book on Sydney and concludes that Sydney, with all its sweat and showiness, is a melancholy city at heart. I thought this was an interesting observation… maybe she’s right. Maybe Falconer is melancholy at heart and maybe we see what we want to see. I bought the book and have placed it on top of the large pile of others I will get around to reading one day.
In the meantime I remembered an historical novel she wrote about the Blue Mountains at the turn of the century (20C). I fished it out of the bookshelf and sat down to read a few pages. I forgot all the things I was supposed to be doing. Within a few minutes I had tears running down my cheeks. This woman’s prose and imagery is exquisite. I am touched… I have recently descended from the mountains and hell, I have a thing about clouds.
The novel is called The Service of Clouds and the title comes from John Ruskin (‘Of Modern Landscape’ Modern Painters 1856) ‘… if a general and characteristic name were needed for modern landscape art, none better could be invented than “the service of clouds”.’
Here are a couple of passages (God I want to type out the whole book – don’t know where to start or stop) mmm...
‘The year the Hydro Majestic Hotel failed as a hydropathic institute Harry Kitchings fell in love with the air and stayed. It was a romantic year. Men carried thermometers and dreamed of women struck by lightning. Postmen hauled packets filled with love and human hair. Woman carried notebooks and pressed storms in them like flowers. You could feel our love rising from the mountains tops like steam. At least that is how Harry Kitchings might tell it.
What were we in love with? That is an awkward question. If I were to reply that we loved each other it would be for the sake of expediency and politeness. But it is only a half-truth unsuited to this time in that Blue Mountains town when the clouds at the end of every street were filled with the Grand Dreams of elsewhere. It is more accurate to say that our lives were lived in the service of these clouds which took the forms of our desires. We loved them with a passion that expanded and filled the sky. It was our clouds, for example, which boys carried in photographs to the trenches.
To live in that high land is to lose familiarity with the shape of things. You cannot trust your eyes. In a single day I have witnessed the tremulous birth of the world. I have seen canyons boil. I have watched rain fall upwards from the foot of Mount Solitary. Before my eyes, beneath sliding veils of vapour, trees have formed soft oceans in the depth of valleys dappled by cold blue shadows in which parrots swam like tropical fish. When the mists come, the edges of the cliff blur, rocks melt, chasms close over and streets drop into precipices. Your feet are shod in Lichen. Your hair breathes vapour at the roots. You are walking on clouds. There were days when I have flung coins into the valleys and they have skipped across the billows.
Who can say precisely where love starts? I could tell you that my passion for Harry Kitchings had its origin thousands of years ago when that mighty ridge broke off from the Penrith plains and rose into the air… listen, I will make the clouds rain stories for you.
“[My mother] had read about this place; where kitchens were built at such high altitudes that the clouds drifted into bread through open windows and made it rise without the use of yeast; where the clouds were always white; where the mountains were so blue that bowerbirds, stunned by concupiscence, dashed their brains against the sapphire cliffs’
“Ancient peoples, Harry told me, did not speak of ‘weather’. Instead they found their deaths and fortunes in the trailing viscera of clouds… Sometimes, he said, he was afflicted by a certain sadness and had to go into the clouds until he felt himself filled with the bright blue breath of God.”
This is what painting does for me… and when the sadness grips me by the throat… a few hours in the landscape or in the studio can help to free my breath.
Thanks for the beauty Falconer.