Seeing things

My faith in ‘Charbonnel 55985’ has suffered under a new scrutiny, this black etching ink, the crème de la crème of unctuous noirism, has served my purposes for many years but suddenly I’m no longer convinced. Cool, warm, opaque, transparent, gradations of soft and stiff. Am I dancing on the head of a pin?

Able to draw, or at least able to make things look like the things I was looking at, when I was a kid mimetic pleasure was matched equally by pleasure in the materials themselves. Pencils, without HB value, were simply either stubby or long. Markers ran dry but you could remove the interior tube of colour-impregnated sponge and use them like paint. And crayons, the smell of a new box, a window in the yellow packaging anticipating the range of colours within. Multiples of twelve, twenty-four, thirty-six! Once I had a box that made room for a crayon of pure white – an object whose mystery will never be unraveled. Paper sheets were standard but to work big you had to improvise. A roll of unused wallpaper was two feet wide, working on the reverse side you could unroll it to whatever length you needed – the limit set by the length of the dining room table.

Remembering other things I had then, toys, bikes, a transistor radio with a one-piece earplug, two objects resonate particularly. I had a torch and couldn’t wait for it to get dark. Twisting the plastic collar around the housing of the bulb focused the beam or made it wider. Hidden corners became illuminated, objects on the bedroom shelf newly mysterious in its tube of light. Lifting an edge of the living-room carpet, the space beneath the floorboards revealed no hidden safe, only a subterranean world of complex cabling and dust. A telescope was a present for Christmas or a birthday. I had no interest in the night sky – though I fantasized about a torch powerful enough to penetrate it – and trained the lens instead on the houses across the park. Pebble-dashed surfaces, the details of a wrought iron gate, examined closely, their banality seemed strange from a distance.

Contemplating the purpose of life the philosopher John Gray notes how other animals don’t need one. At the conclusion of Straw Dogs he writes, “Can we not think of the aim of life as being simply to see?”

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