20 July 2013, Saturday
There's something of the undead about potatoes, don't you think? Ill-formed, ambiguous, kept in the dark - pommes de terre, erdapfel. At a bonfire night long ago, I'm handed a potato raked from the embers, hard to hold but enticing, and juggled from hand to hand. Cutting it open reveals a blackness as deep as an abyss opening underfoot. A nothing. In horror I drop it like the hot potato it is. I say nothing.
Anyway, I'm in the superstore and it's a bit rushed. I've got to finish the shopping and get to the station to meet S from the train. I pick up a small bag of potatoes - Jersey, New - then see that there are others on a 2 for £3 offer, so I replace the one and pick up two of the other. Then I see that I have misread the sign and that the offer is in fact 3 for 2. I don't need 3, so I replace the 2 and go back to my original choice. Time is now very short so I hurry to the checkout in order to be on time to meet the train. When we get back to the house, and before going out again, I unload the shopping, putting the vegetables - including the potatoes - in the bottom tray of the fridge, where there is already a part-used bag from last week.
In the evening, as I start to prepare the supper, I take everything out of the fridge that I need - fish, shrimps, spring onions, broad beans (2 packets), cucumber, potatoes, and put them on the work top ready to begin. Deciding that the best plan is to deal with the potatoes first and to let them cook whilst I am preparing the rest, I take out a saucepan, fill it with cold water, put it on the stove, and go to pick up the potatoes from the worktop. Strangely, the bag is not there.
Thinking I have moved it somewhere in the course of anticipating its use, I begin a fruitless search of increasingly unlikely places where I might have absentmindedly put it. The part used-bag is still in the fridge, as I verify, but that morning's purchase is nowhere to be seen. Finally, and now feeling quite anxious about what seems to be a piece of very erratic behaviour, I ask S if she can see the bag (she can't) whilst I rummage through the rubbish for the sales receipt.
Finding this, I carefully check the itemised list, only to discover that I'd never bought potatoes in the first place! Evidently the intention was there, but I hadn't completed the act. I'd replaced the two bags, but I hadn't picked up another. The existing bag in the fridge must have somehow reinforced the idea that I'd bought another one, and put it in there with the other vegetables. So far, so good.
But the last bit still remains a puzzle - that I didn't look in the fridge and think 'That's strange, where's the bag of potatoes that I bought this morning?' Instead, I hallucinated taking the bag out and putting it with the other ingredients before turning to take a pan, filling it with water, putting it on the stove, then phouff! Finally the potatoes disappear, at the very moment they are being called upon to be present.
The light gutters and a brief chill descends. Then it's gone, the undead pass on. The chasm closes, nothing happens.
Another one of Cocteau's many tragic misdemeanours
It is unlikely that you will ever have seen the exquisite drawing by Jean Cocteau on this page. It was pulled out of the archives of Kettle's Yard in Cambridge, from a box marked 'C', during the preparations for their show of work by the English artist Christopher Wood. Cocteau was, briefly, Wood's lover during the 1920s.
Later in his life Cocteau, that social gadfly and literary jack-of-all-trades, sought to make amends for the excesses of his youth by becoming a Trappist monk and ministering to lepers. Good. Long before that happened, he had led the young, handsome, bi-sexual English painter Wood astray by introducing him to the seductive pleasures of opium, which Cocteau regarded as a stimulant to creativity. Wood was completely besotted by Cocteau. 'He is a god,' he wrote to his mother Clare in an undated letter. Oh dear.
Was Wood in a state of near paranoia then when he took the boat from Dieppe to Southampton in August 1930, accompanied by a bevy of suitcases containing his belongings, bundles of paintings beneath his arm, his opium pipe (which he tossed overboard) and a pistol in his pocket? Did he believe that he was being tailed by the vengeful ghost of Jean Cocteau or some such? Perhaps. Perhaps not.
Why otherwise though, having taken lunch with his doting mother Clare in Southampton, who had so lovingly nursed him back to health after a terrible bout of septicaemia (he often wrote to her daily), would he have thrown himself under the train that was approaching to take him up to London later that afternoon?
Will this tangled web of mysteries ever be unravelled? It seems unlikely. His friend Jim Ede, who later created a marvellous home in Cambridge called Kettle's Yard, which is still full of the paintings, sculptures and objects acquired from his many artist friends during his lifetime, made the first attempt to understand exactly what happened on that tragic afternoon by hiring a private detective to look into the matter. We have no reason to believe that Ede found enlightenment. And so the murk surrounding the tragic early death of Christopher Wood at the age of 29, at the very moment when he was coming into his own as a painter, remains.
Lovers of Wood's work should hurry to see this small, tightly focussed show of Wood's paintings, drawings, letters and belongings in Cambridge. You have until 1 September to take in Wood's monogrammed matchbox and many of his other bits and pieces - oh, he was such a dandy.