The Goldfinch

This week I was privileged to spot a very rare bird.

Carel Fabritius’ ‘The Goldfinch’(1675) alighted in Scotland in November and will fly back home to  the Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis, in The Hague, this month. So for a short time only, this iconic painting can be viewed at the Scottish National Gallery in Edinburgh.

goldfinch
The Goldfinch by Carel Fabritius, 1675.

 

The painting has never before been shown in Scotland, and has been exhibited in the UK on only a handful of occasions.

Fabritius’ depiction of a pet goldfinch chained to a perch is subtle yet exquisite. Finches have been highly prized throughout history for their melodious song. In Holland, goldfinches were popular pets, kept in captivity attached to a chain, and trained to perform tricks. The goldfinch is depicted at the centre of many iconic Madonna and Child paintings, sometimes ‘chained’ to the baby Jesus with string or something similar. Like the robin, the distinctive splash of red on its feathers is attributed to it giving succour to Christ on the Cross.In the goldfinch’s case, the bird is said to have drawn a thorn                                                                                                                 from his brow.

In Fabritius’ painting, the goldfinch’s understated loss of liberty is made all the more poignant by the fact that the artist lost his life to a freak gunpowder explosion in Delft in 1675, just months after he completed this work. Immediately, the painting takes on an almost premonitory quality. Donna Tartt, using it as the key to her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Goldfinch ( Abacus, 2014), must have felt this too. Her protagonist, Theo, is caught up in an explosion with tragic consequences that will have a bearing on the rest of his life. The painting inspired me to read this excellent novel, and it was a real struggle to put it down in order to write this!

I’m intrigued by the connection between art and place. To view this painting and then rediscover it within the pages of Tartt’s novel adds an extra frisson to both creations.

As always, there is an unexpected link to my Barry Mill residency here. In my second novel, The Bone Harp, my central character Lucie, is repelled by birds. The insistent beating of their wings represents for her a particularly chilling sort of music. Goldfinches are frequent visitors to the mill grounds, and I have tried to include many such tangible links to setting within my own work.The first draft of the novel is almost finished, so hopefully one day soon you will get the opportunity to find out more! I will leave you with a short passage from my work-in-progress:

It’s barley, I can see that now. That last time, when the sky was low with rain and mist, only the green edge of it was visible, but now acres and acres lie before me. A vast tawny fur, shifting in the breeze, and beyond that the sea. It’s tipping over into full golden ripeness. Not long now. I let my fingers trail through the wiry whiskered ears of corn and it needles my skin. The tall fibrous stalks are straight as soldiers, and there’s sharp edge to the path, where the plough scored the earth just six months ago. Only six months ago I’d arrived here, intent on breaking new ground.

Goldfinches dart in and out of the hawthorn. Their wings go  thrip thrip thrip against the leaves, a noise like someone plucking strings. It unnerves me. I should go back, but I’m mesmerised by the rise and fall of the barley- it’s like the whole field is breathing. I want to plough into it, feel it surround me, and I’m so unnerved by the notion that I take a step back,and fall heavily…

                                                   From The Bone Harp (unpublished) by Sandra Ireland

henriette-browne
A Girl Writing; The Pet Goldfinch by Henriette Browne 1870.

 

My debut novel Beneath the Skin (Polygon) is out now, and is available from all major book outlets.

Mill Gothic

In the last few months, I’ve been spending time looking at the landscape, and reactions to it, in terms of the sort of mythologies and folklore which respond to our need to understand our exterior world. As the year turns, and the days get shorter, the evenings darker and colder, it seems fitting that my thoughts should turn to the ‘shift’ which happens when the environment becomes more than just a backdrop; when our exterior and interior worlds collide and the setting begins to mirror our own anxieties and negative emotions.

This has been prompted in some ways by a chance comment (The Scotsman described my debut novel Beneath the Skin as ‘Stockbridge Gothic, which I like a lot!), and also by the fact that I’ve reached a critical stage in the writing of my second novel.

‘The wind has changed’, to quote Mary Poppins (odd choice of reference, true, but I’ll explain next time, even though M.P. NEVER explains anything ), and in my work-in-progress, a sudden storm provides the catalyst for the simmering resentments and preoccupations of the characters to break through the surface. This is underpinned by a darkening of the atmosphere; the setting becomes a hostile entity.

In many ways, this is a Gothic cliché, but it is a cliché because it resonates with us. As humans, we are susceptible  to minute changes in atmosphere. Fear is a result of our perception (real or imagined) of a shift occurring within our context, an unexplained ‘otherness’. Gothic is what happens when the setting bites back. For more of my thoughts on the idea of ‘the Uncanny’, check out my personal blog here.

Throughout my residency, I’ve had a great opportunity to observe the daily life of the mill; its times of quiet, and of chaos. From a single volunteer silently cataloguing the past, to hundreds of people enjoying a social event, the mill is in constant flux; comings and goings, arrivals and leavetakings. Can the thoughts, feelings and motivations of those associated with any building, past or present, leave an indelible energetic thumbprint? Individuals can be acutely conscious of ‘atmosphere’. How many times have you ‘felt’ the residual effects of an argument in a room, even when the row is over? Any environment is a sponge to these effects, and ‘writing the Gothic’ requires the writer to be just a shade more sensitive than most…

Any thoughts? Next time, I’ll be looking at this idea in more detail…

mill-window
‘Gothic…where the exterior and the interior collide…’

Territory and Tribe

Staying with the theme of ‘getting away from it all’ (see last week) I’ve been in Edinburgh again, mingling with the Bookish People. They’re definitely a separate tribe, recognisable by a certain faraway gleam in the eye and a slow, stooping gait as they struggle from the book shop with enough reading material to see their days out. Helpfully, the Ed Book Fest organisers are now issuing a free bag with every book purchase, presumably to encourage you to buy more!

One of my highlights this year has been ‘A Journey to Authenticity and Belonging’, featuring Sharon Blackie . Her new book, If Women Rose Rooted, chimes with many of my observations and thoughts  in relation to the landscape and how we interact with it. Using indigenous myth and folklore, Blackie lays down a blueprint for a more authentic and sustainable future. Her themes of rootedness and belonging resonate strongly with me in terms of my residency here at the mill.

In addition to my own creative workshops, there are other events taking place throughout the season at Barry; the main one being Music @ the Mill. Now in its eighth year, this is a music festival which is very family-oriented in character. Last weekend, we had over 600 revellers in the mill grounds, completely transforming the usual serene quality of the setting. A sense of community prevailed, however, and I took the opportunity to speak to the locals about their memories of and feelings about the mill.

What came across was a deep affection for the place, and a strong sense of identity associated with it. Some of the festival-goers had never visited before, but had strong family links; others told me that they experience a sense of being ‘at home’ when they walk in the mill den. In her talk, Sharon Blackie discussed notions of belonging, and how we can have an innate attachment to a place even if we don’t live there, or are an ‘outsider’; a relationship without ownership.

The following extract is from If Women Rose Rooted by Sharon Blackie:

‘Once we were native to our own places; once we belonged. There is a Gaelic word for it […] in Irish the word is dúchas; in Scottish Gaelic, dùthchas. It expresses a sense of belonging to a place, to a certain area of land; it expresses a sense of rootedness, by ancient lineage and ancestry, in the community which has responsibility for that place.’

The mill has been firmly rooted at the heart of the community for centuries (‘Barry’ has existed in some form for almost 800 years) so it seems reasonable to suppose that this ancient connection between mill and landscape; kith and kin is an indefinable and inextinguishable force, an energy still very much in evidence.

Book festival or music festival: pick a tribe…

Next week, I’ll be looking at what particular challenges this idea sets up for me, as I draft my second novel, The Bone Harp.

 

Stories and Stone Circles

Everyone encounters the urge to ‘get away from it all’ from time to time, but for me, that means leaving behind the peace and solitude of Barry Mill and picking up the pace a little!

Edinburgh during the Fringe is as far as you can get from Barry Mill…or is it?

The festival city is a melting pot of culture, art and ideas The Old Town teems with tourists and street performers, musicians and mime artists, while the New Town goes all continental on us; locals sipping wine under the stars, hugging the patio heaters, to a distant backdrop of bagpipes and fireworks.

Strangely, despite the allure of all this mayhem, I found myself in a stone circle on Calton Hill. Regent Road Park boasts the most fantastic views over Salisbury Crags, with the Scottish Parliament and Dynamic Earth buildings nestling in the valley below. The circle is comprised of representative rocks from every area of Scotland.

I loved this cryptic ‘sword-in-the-stone’ type of message (‘Whose the tread that fits this mark?’) and, of course, the Angus Stone (right)

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It made me think a lot about how the landscape can not only inspire our stories, but be used in the telling of them- an objective, no doubt,for the original stone circle builders: our ancestors.

We have a ‘quiet garden’ close to the mill, a circular patch of grass with a tree in the centre. I’m certain it would lend itself to a  feature such as this. I can imagine words scored into stone or poetry etched on wood.

Barry Mill and the bright cultural lights of the city- perhaps not so far apart at all!
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It made me think a lot about how the landscape can not only inspire our stories, but be used in the telling
of them- a familiar aim for the original stone circle builders, I’m sure.

We have a wonderful spot
at the mill, a quiet circular lawn with a tree in the centre, which would
lend itself to a such a feature. I can imagine words scored into stone or poetry etched on wood. Barry Mill and the bright cultural lights of the city- perhaps not so far apart at all!