"When the wind and the weather blow your dreams sky high
Sail away, sail away, sail away" — Noel Coward
The trigger for this exhibition was a small painting, Sail Away, which I made in late 2001 for a fundraiser exhibition. The image floated, forgive me, into my mind, seemingly connected in some way to September 11. A second version of that picture appears in this exhibition. A number of related images came to me at around the same time. Other projects precluded my painting them until several years later.
I stood at New York’s Ground Zero early in 2002. My spontaneous reaction: ‘this is bad, but no excuse to go ape-shit around the world’. A forlorn thought, because since the 1950s even pretexts have been virtually redundant. Countering fascism with fascism is disastrous, yet sweet, sick dreams of empire blend with childish fantasies of conquest and adventure for many of us, I guess. For evidence, look around you, and not, of course, just at the exhibition.
But these are certainly not edged political pictures. I used to enjoy drawing pirate galleons and smoky sea battles when I was seven or eight. The big wave could be from my bathtub of those years, when I liked to create, relative to the size of toy boats, such maritime monsters. Terror, the Iraq/Afghan wars, the brute realities of nautical commerce and the European Space Agency’s MaxWave project all reaffirm a connection between dreams and reality. A need to venture something of the real thing led me to traverse the Pacific on a container ship in 2006. I am not the first nor surely the last—however cool we have been about nature, a warming planet not withstanding—to see the void as a promise of freedom.
To each and every one: fair winds and a following sea.
On the pillow John Mateer’s sleepy head
is a goldfish bowl aswirl with Venetian water
and on that galleon, that luminous toy
he is at the helm, telescope to his eye
swearing he can’t see Australia
And when his caravel glides into the Tagus
as poised and cerebral as a black swan
he orders a glass of port and a pastel de nata
then takes to his bed in a quiet hotel in the Alfama
And dreams the dream
that one day there will be a poet
named John Mateer, just as there was once,
off the edge of maps, a monster
The ship of state goes sailing by
supremely one fine morning
unaware of dangers in the air.
Zephyrs turn to gales.
America was combing its hair one morning
when the sirens went.
Elegance and confidence rain down
in flames. Men of war, supremely beautiful
yet fragile, tower through clouds.
Waves grow higher and Turner comes
How voluptuous and lovely romance is
Beguiling and yet more dangerous
than sirens singing from their rocks.
The sublime beckons the eye –
the voluptuous courtesan and yet
sailors know that in every port
there's another chance of syphilis.
Torment and battle rage
around these great tall ships –
they seem like feathers on the sea.
Gigantic waves arise,
sometimes out of a serene morning
when the ship was simply sailing
to where it was meant to go
and the ploughman was ploughing
yet, like Icarus out of the sky
comes the shock.
Beauty and pride are always with us
and from time to time
everything we took for granted
is swept away.
Faith and trust go out into the weather
when these sweet craft link the sublime
between the ocean and the sky,
in a daft and tragic gesture
that holds nobility and the cargo
of our hope.