Desperate for a pee, Sjaak Langenberg and Rosé de Beer find themselves down a side road somewhere in Normandy. As he’s peeing against a tree, they discover an information sign showing a watercolour by Eugène Delacroix.
This completely randomly picked piss-stop turns out to be hanging in the Louvre. So, are there any places left that have never been written about, villages that aren’t in the guide books?
In his forthcoming book which has the working title Wildplassen met Delacroix (Taking a leak with Delacroix) Sjaak Langenberg investigates how one can relate to one’s predecessors now that even the back of beyond has been provided with several layers deep of meaning and Google is making a brain scan of our planet every millisecond. Each object, every place, each and every person has been captured in the thousands of interpretations of objects, places and people that exist. Everything has snowballed, each and every idea is immediately estranged from its origin.
‘Through Monet we see the sea for the first time in all her facets,’ claimed a critic in his time.
Nowadays, liberating things from their interpretation seems to be the motto.
"ever better I can hear the grass
guard the dandelions
until their fluff sticks to my eyelashes"
Fragment from the poem ‘Growth’ by the Icelandic poet Sigurbjorg Thrastardottir
If you happen to live under the smoke of Mount Fuji then you’ve been blessed with a view that could compete with the most beautiful ones on earth. Indulged by this iconic mountain, much in life can be a disappointment. I once asked a Norwegian who lived in a picture postcard, if you begin to get used to fiords after a while; if you really can be blinded by beauty? He didn’t even comprehend my question, so stone-blind he was.
In your native land a perfect landscape can be your demise. In a cliff face you perceive an excellent spot for a suicide. Aokigahara, a large forest at the foot of Mount Fuji, is known as ‘suicide forest’. Every year almost a hundred Japanese take their own lives there. Stress, bullying at school or at work, or social pressure are the most significant causes leading to Japan’s high suicide rate. A feeling of insignificance in the face of this volcanic landscape is not likely to be named as a possible cause.
The Japanese women who speak with me in Castle Combe, the ‘Prettiest village in England’, are neither snow-blind nor world-weary. On the contrary, they pay attention to all that grows and flowers along the roadside leading to this most English of English villages. Bestowing their complete attention, they bend over the hogweed, wild parsnip and cow parsley, tourist guides in their hands. This makes me wonder whether this particular form of wayside tourism is being promoted in special chapters regarding weeds in Japanese travel guides. Their fixation seems to be for plants which I would simply pass over. Cow parsley – the Dutch name is fluitenkruid which translates as fluteweed - has a particular hereditary defect seeing as it’s the title of a book of tunes for the bamboo flute. I cannot imagine how, as a child, I was ever able to play that instrument. Just like the Japanese women, I too photograph the cow parsley, in the realisation that it’s probably the most widespread vegetation I’m going to come across on this journey. Having always been in search of the exception to the rule, I’d never really noticed ‘Dutch lace’ as Jaq. P. Thijsse named it.
The women remind me of the two biologists who allowed their journey to be dictated by the times of the flowering of dandelions in Iceland. The idea of travelling to Iceland for dandelions was a revelation to me. Everywhere that the Taraxacum officinale appeared on the surface of this sparsely covered land, these retired gentlemen parked their van. On the dashboard they kept test-tubes with picked flowers. Where I saw only boring old dandelions, they saw hundreds of sub-species. As if it was the most normal thing in the world, they discussed dandelion congresses organised for the fetishists of the flower loving world.
My blind spot is the endless search for the surprise of the new. In this I am almost English. When everyone looks to the right, I look left. If I could just let go of my aversion to images which are consumed en-masse, then perhaps a new world would open up for me. We’re in Castle Combe for an hour. On the timeline of this flower-pot village, an hour is nothing. Sometimes I’m ashamed of my short attention span, but life is too short to keep everyone satisfied.
Most of the people in Castle Combe come from Japan. The two women who approach me are no exception to this rule, although their excellent English accents are. Japanese has become the lingua-franca of the Cotswolds, a group of idyllic villages in South-West England to which Castle Combe belongs. After the Romans came the Normans, then the wool industry, and now the Japanese wander about this well conserved region. How come? According to the women who set off from London for various day trips, Japanese travel agents offer these cheap excursions. They present their travel-guides as proof. Yesterday they went to Edinburgh for the day – that’s 534 kilometres from London! People seem to lose their sense of time when something is “free”. Can it be only the financial consideration that explains this Japanese invasion? Perhaps the Arcadian landscape of the Cotswolds is the Japanese image of paradise? In the first sentence on the English website acclaiming the villages in Japanese, the size of the area is compared to the size of Greater-Tokyo.
The friendly Japanese women return to itinerary and join up with their countrymen under the roof of Market Cross to observe their surroundings with the help of watercolours and paper. They don’t paint everything they see. Immediately in front of their faces, two men in fluorescent yellow waistcoats are doing a very professional job of filling in a three-foot hole in the road. Fluorescence has no place on the paint pallet of the Japanese women. The men’s van is parked pontifically in front of the rosy-cheeked houses in the otherwise relatively car-free street. Of that too, there is no trace on the paintings-to-be. Yet for many others, asphalt is perhaps the most important association with Castle Combe. Though it has the appearance of being a sleepy hamlet, appearances can be mistaken. One of the oldest race tracks in England is situated just outside the village. The horrendous noise of motorbikes regularly disturbs the peace. The race track covers eight times the surface area of the village. The navvies draw my attention to the road’s surface. Oil on the street. Oil on canvas. The road repairs look like slug trails, shining more brightly in the sunlight than the parts which are still intact. The undervalued Sunday-painters of the asphalt depart an hour later, leaving a fresh scar on the unblemished (for the Japanese in any case) countenance of Castle Combe.
We visit another Cotswold village. In Lacock, Henry Fox Talbot made what was perhaps the first photograph in the world. Around the year 1830 he photographed a window of the abbey. It’s possible today to take that same photograph. Nothing has changed. In the bakers in Lacock there’s a woman in traditional costume behind the counter. A Jane Austen novel has been filmed here, and Harry Potter too has strolled the streets of Lacock. In rural England, historicized street furniture and re-enactment seem not to be a topic of discussion.
The telephone boxes, the lampposts and the litter bins all have a retro look. In the department of public works they have set-builders on the job. Do the English want to freeze their culture? ‘It’s time for a change. Choose Conservative’ - an election campaign poster sums the mentality up beautifully. In The George Inn too, where the owner keeps his staff in an iron grip, photos on the walls attest to street scenes that appear to have escaped any form of modernisation. Appear. Lacock has no race track, but the streets are pretty well ‘sullied’ by parked cars. Not old-timers but vehicles of Japanese ilk, which were momentarily banished when Harry Potter happened by. The olden-days are fine, but not without modern comforts. The banana bread we bought in the morning by posting our money through a letter box was probably prepared in a designer kitchen and baked in a luxury oven.
But why should I reproach the English for their myopia? What do I see when I look? I’m no better than the Norwegian who no longer saw the unbelievably beautiful fiord in which he was living. I need others to guide me in my blindness. Japanese women and navvies show me the way with watercolours and tar.
© Sjaak Langenberg, 2010. All rights reserved. This text is intended solely for personal use. No part of this publication may be reproduced or displayed without prior written permission from the author.