footnotes, appendices and apparatus to the anatomy
grouped loosely by subject
I realise I am getting ahead of myself – this woman, her garden, and the retelling of her husband’s mad project are all in the future – but the Ideal City is an exciting, bustling place and it is easy to lose control.
In brief then, the woman I refer to is known to us as Isobel Easter, and her husband as Ted Kelley. At the end of the 1980s Kelley built a football stand at our local ground which was almost immediately demolished, partly because it was in bold contravention of every planning and safety regulation, and partly because control of the land and the football club were sold from under him, although he remains a director of the latter.
I call Isobel's version of this a myth because while a certain amount of it is common knowledge - Clarke, for instance, was witness to much of it - she is the only one I know of who frames it as a move from private to public (the Great Public Work), and who is consequently able to resemble it to our own clubfooted emergence. Interestingly, Kelley's own fragmentary account, which I give elsewhere, emphasises the solitariness of his pursuit, as though it were an extension in brick and stone of his private manias.
No real names, of course. Except for Clarke, who doesn't care.
In my slightly confused z-index of frames of reference I started to see Kelley’s wife in these months as either an Isabella d’Este - formidable duchess of Mantova; or as an Isotta degli Atti to Kelley’s Sigismondo Malatesta. Isotta was Sigismondo's lover and then third wife. Sigismondo was said to have poisoned his second, whose name I forget, when she ceased to be of dynastic relevance; Isotta brought him no financial or dynastic gain, so it is assumed he married for love, and popular belief had it for many years that the intertwined S and I motif which peppers the decoration of the Tempio Malatestiano was an emblem of that love; but the S/I was in fact Sigismondo's own emblem and had nothing to do with Isotta.
Anyway, these are all purely fanciful ascriptions on my part. Proserpine, Minotaur, Isotta degli Atti, Isabella d'Este are just my ways of trying to place this strange woman in relation to everything else.
This is not to say that women get what they want, or do not suffer in other ways; but I think it is a fair generalisation to say that the abstract categories of success and failure are not quite tailored to their humours.
Clarke says this is owing to habits of sexual selection – men strut and wrestle for the amusement of women, who get to giggle and then choose. What man hasn’t strutted and wrestled till the veins stood out on his eyeballs, only to get passed over? It is one of the many humiliations we are heir to. No one looks his best when he’s trying to impress a woman.
Hunter Sidney, when I tell him I’ve met Isobel Kelley, says yes, we must seem pitiful creatures to her; because, in part, as a woman she is accustomed to live the Failed Life already, is at home there, in her element.
Or rather, he clarifies, women like Mrs Isobel Easter [he uses her maiden name] do not attempt to build an Ideal City so much as properly fit out a cheerful ship with which to bob on a constant swell of anxiety. Perhaps it would be better to say that we do know, certainly have known, some women; but that if they feature in the Ideal City only obliquely, in memory, then that is to their credit.
The discussion of habit with Mrs Isobel Easter took place over two or more conversations held in her garden in the early spring. Typically in that period she would bring me tea shortly after I arrived and thereafter every hour or so, swapping my old cup for a fresh one. Sometimes she would then stop and chat, sometimes not.
If I recall, it was a discussion on the nature of gardening work, conforming as it seems to do to a routine of pottering maintenance interspersed by moments of more violent contraction (uprooting a bramble bush) or innovation (planting, or as I am learning to distinguish, sewing something), which led to our discussion of habit and routine in general. On some days I leant conversationally on my spade more than I wielded it, but I took this to be an aspect of the tacit job description – the garden was a limb of Isobel’s sphere of possession as much as it was of mine, and the dialogues were a form of ritual parlay at the boundary, or intersection; we were like two Papua New Guineans comparing kinship rosters to see whether they need to try to kill and eat each other.
By, I suppose, ‘the forces at the heart of existence’ whatever they may be; I hesitate to point out that in a gravitational system each distinct body will exert its own counter pull; I think I would prefer to test the hypothesis that a life is a series of actions or inactions connected by their own internal, mutually interfering and reinforcing logic; like a Buckminster Fuller tensegrity structure.
I don’t think of saying this until later on, in the pub.
I would counter-observe (against my own hypothesis) that when Thomas Browne in the Religio Medici (1642) notes that ‘age doth not rectify, but incurvate our natures, turning bad dispositions into worser habits, and (like diseases) brings on incurable vices’ he seems to be supposing the pre-existence of a disposition which is then reinforced by habitual action. I concede that this has the merit of intuitive simplicity.
The Kelley garden, as described elsewhere, appears at first glance to be organised as a space of carnivalesque licence, stuff growing pretty much where and how it likes. It is founded, however, on a strong general architecture (admittedly only partially visible now, like medieval field systems seen from the air, or the stones of lost cities rising from the jungle); and from time to time over the years hands other than my own have been turned to the task of restraining its fecund baroque: beds have been restored, trees lopped, undergrowth cleared. Here and there, now and then.
It can be inferred, then, that someone, at some stage, decided that the brambles running along a part of the stone wall on the lower right of the garden as you descended from the house would be an interesting candidate for benign neglect. The brambles had been allowed to spread through an adjoining large rubbery bush of some sort – rhododendron? camellia? – and over an entire bed for the length of several metres and to a maximum depth of perhaps three.
I do not know that the someone in question was Isobel Kelley – as I do not know how far the garden is (as I like to think) a raggedy palimpsest of her struggles over the years with her husband - but I like to entertain the mental picture of her, a feigning sleeping beauty awake and silently patrolling the inside of her aggressive thorn hedge, picking the odd berry as she goes. Anyway, Kelley had decided, apparently without opposition, that the bush must go, it was a thicket – his word – and a menace (Clarke’s). So the three of us – Clarke, Kelley and I - pitched to one Saturday morning in spring.
It was a day’s work. We had first of all to cut the bush back to the root which, since the rambling thorn had infiltrated other more virtuous plants, was a job better done with secateurs and gloves than the hedge trimmer which Kelley produced. The lopped tentacles had then to be dragged out and cut up, adhering to and occasionally penetrating our stout-seeming gloves, stamped into bins and carried out through the small gate in the far back wall to the van. The exposed roots were then dug out, to begin with a surprisingly easy job, growing somewhat tougher as we approached the plant’s inner citadel, and finally near impossible as the roots delved under the wall itself, as though into some last underground redoubt.
Towards evening Kelley moved in for the kill. There was a last litter of leaves and scraps of bramble lying over the grass behind us, the newly bared dank earth in front was churned up like some medieval battlefield under the clodded boots of heavy men; Kelley’s greyhounds were lying some yards back, watching the weary activity of their master with the bureaucratic impassivity of a pair of diabolical sentinels. Clarke and I were leaning on our tools.
I had suggested pouring poison of some sort on what remained of the root, but Kelley seemed determined to finish it off by hand, and was on his knees, sweating and swearing, alternately digging and hacking with the spade and reaching into the hole and wrestling the stump back and forth, when his wife came out with cups of tea for the three of us. She had been doing this regularly all day, but this time she brought also a cup for herself, and she and Clarke and I stood around for a minute or so in silence, cups of tea in our hands, in the cooling air and under a reddening sky; no one said anything and I was moved briefly to take in the whole scene, as already described – the mud, the dogs, the gloaming, Clarke looming white and appalling like a tuberous god come to witness an act of propitiation on the part of Kelley - and momentarily the scene had about it something of the Primavera re-imagined by Bruegel.
But then after a minute Mrs Kelley said, under her breath, Jesus, he'll give himself a hernia for the sake a giant turnip he's got in his head; Kelley, to my mild surprise, turned and smiled, wiping mud over his forehead. He stood up and took his tea from the grass where she had put it, and Clarke, as though he had been waiting for this moment of, say, reconnection, leapt forward, stooped his pallid wobbling colossal arm into the hole, pulled and wrenched as though he had his hand around the vitals of the garden itself.
The struggle wavered this way and that, and then, with a final chthonic imprecation – come on out you cunt! – and an answering dull snap the hero's arm emerged from the hole with a fragment of thick root; in the gloom he chucked it to one side (one of the dogs got up, stretched, and went over to investigate) and stood peering into the hole; and he might have been waiting to see if devils were going to pour forth. They didn’t. We were done.
This is what I thought then, and I think, now, secretly, indulgently, from my retirement, that I wasn’t so far off the mark.
But rather than emphasizing the ornamental nature of the figures in Italian Renaissance art, it would have been more accurate, more taxonomically fitting, to return the ornament to the margins. To accord to the margins their own strange life. This was, after all, the initiatory impulse.
It is a truism to remark that the borders of anything – a painting, a building, an empire, a consciousness – are a sort of undergrowth, or hedgerow, concealing animals, grotesques, monstrosities: a zone of mutability, so to speak.
Thus I would not by any means be the first to recognise the marginal world as alive, as a source of patterned inventive growth. But to accord it is own strictly representational status is another matter. Here is the famous Chi-Rho page of the book of Kells:
This is ornamentation as hedgerow, a habitat for small creatures:
Like a gothic cathedral, it is not an ornamentation untouched by geometrical regularities, but those regularities are impossible to read in their entirety from any one vantage. It is centreless, just as those monks on Iona, or Lindesfarne, occupied the margins of a world which had no centre; a world not unlike our own universe. This is a privileged situation, one bettered only, I imagine, by inhabiting the centre of a world with no margins.
This was my ritual treading of the labyrinth, I suppose, on Hunter Sidney's behalf, the labyrinth in question being Mrs Isobel Easter's set of rooms, her elaborate but unobtrusive etiquette of deflection.
Of course, I am no Theseus, and Mrs Isobel Easter is no Minotaur. But in some traditions, notably the Cretan, the Labyrinth is host to a female deity - the Lady of the Labyrinth - before it is host to a bull-headed man. So, while there remains to a rational being something monstrous about even the most benign deity, perhaps my analogy is apt.
The heart of her labyrinthine world, its generative nucleus I suppose I must say, is the room I call her studiolo, which I gain now for the first time. While this room is not physically inaccessible - you could simply walk in the front door and up the stairs and in – it lies in a charmed circle. Merely to bluster through the front door would be to cross any number of invisible social, personal barriers. It would be unthinkable.
My arrival here has been instead by a series of circuitous stages. I typically enter the garden by the back gate; if I see Mrs Isobel Easter at all, she may or may not invite me in to the kitchen to drink my tea; a couple of times I have been invited up to her outer room - the room I call her grotta; and now for the first time I am invited to step through into the studiolo as though it is the most natural thing in the world.
It is a corner room, clean and sparse, with two large windows, a slender desk and a spindly chair, a narrow sofa upholstered in pale yellow and a single high-backed armchair, also in pale yellow.
I had been expecting to broach with her the possibility of a meeting with Hunter Sidney; it would mean mentioning his name for the first time in her presence, acknowledging openly their connection; but to my surprise, having been invited up and into this inner chamber for the first time and sat on the sofa with a cup of tea, she diplomatically indicates to me that she would be ready to receive any old friend of hers the following afternoon in the battered summer house in the garden, should I wish to arrange it, at around two o’clock.
She does not mention his name. But on some pretext or other she does produce an old photograph album and leaf through it, showing me, or letting me see, a cluster of pictures of her and various friends taken as I know towards the end of the 1980s; pictures of her and Ted Kelley, old Tony dell’Aquila, the Palladian North End; and one of Hunter Sidney in Rome.
It takes a sharp eye – I have a sharp eye – to notice that the solitary picture of Hunter Sidney, which she lets me glimpse for not more than two seconds, is of him standing on the Pincio, overlooking Piazza del Popolo; and that over the lintel of the door which connected Mrs Isobel Easter’s studiolo with her grotta, was a veduta of that same square.