Images From the Floating World
My grandfather collected Japanese prints. Not just any Japanese prints but rare and valuable ones, including the erotic and what some might regard as the downright pornographic. The risqué items were locked away. When I learned of their existence, I was led to believe that one day I would be allowed to see them. I was to exercise patience, which, my grandfather told me, was a virtue. As if to conceal further the items that would eventually be revealed, he made a great show of familiarising me with the more chaste items in his collection. Even at a young age, I could see that there was something admirable about them. In 1957, at Christie’s in London, he successfully bid for the artist’s proof of Koryusai’s The Courtesan Morokoshi of Echizen-ya With Her Child, Attendant Standing By. Only when I was older did I appreciate its swirling lines and its other pictorial qualities. But what amused me at first was the depiction of the ‘child’ as a little bald man. Later, and in breach of my grandfather’s stricture that the image was uncomplicated and not to be interpreted otherwise, I think Koryusai was saying something about male-female relationships and that the ‘child’ was really the ‘man’ it would become, forever a dependant plaything in the hands of she who had given birth to it. After all, the geishas did wield a kind of power over their swooning and often corpulent admirers.
We all lived together in those days. If ignorance was not exactly bliss it was conducive to unexamined experience, mostly pleasurable. For example, for a while I didn’t know the source of my grandfather’s wealth, which was by extension the family’s; I was only aware of the joys it brought and the freedoms it won from all manner of strife and heartache. One didn’t have to travel far to see evidence of those, and occasionally they appeared in what to me was a milder form inside the house, or within other, less prosperous, family outposts. My maternal grandparents died when I was a toddler. The paternal ones, who included my art-loving grandpa, occupied most of one half of the building, though in effect there were few demarcations. We employed no staff, but my grandparents had retained from the time they lived separately from us a butler-cum-valet called Diggory (that was his surname), who had long dispensed with those formal titles to become an informal but still useful man-about-the-house. Later, when Diggory had moved on, I used to wonder if his name had not been fictitious; once I’d read Dickens, I realised how Dickensian it sounded. It was universally agreed that Diggory was ‘wicked’, meaning that he was mischievous, a conspiratorial eye-winker, especially in taking us children – me and my sister Mary – into his confidence behind the backs of the grown-ups. My parents and grandparents encouraged him in this, believing his influence to be an introduction to a ‘real’ world from which we were, for good and various reasons, protected – a world that didn’t shock them exactly but which always elicited the pretence of shock, such as a shrug of the shoulders accompanied by a gleeful, knowing smile and a biting of the lower lip. It made us curious but not fearful, whereas grandpa’s secreted prints were out of bounds. Not knowing about them meant they could not be the subject of conjecture.
To a man of Diggory’s personality, of course, over-stepping the mark was not far removed from the ever-present inclination to do so. In the same way that someone with a reputation for being able to perform magic tricks must eventually pull a white rabbit out of a hat, so Diggory gave us intimations of the world from which he was shielding us, basically an adult one in its more unseemly forms. The corridor leading to my grandparents’ part of the house was divided by an intersection, which to its left ended in a bow window at the front and to the right in an alcove. The whole area was full of my grandparents’ art works, including some framed Oriental prints, and in the alcove stood a marble sculpture of Cupid and Psyche, a copy of Canova’s masterpiece by a lesser, though competent, hand. In one of the corners next to the sculpture was a grandfather clock, a 1758 oak longcase by Smith of Chester.
One morning I was crossing the intersection to speak to my grandma when I caught sight of Diggory out of the corner of my eye. He was standing between the Cupid and Psyche and the clock and was beckoning me towards him. I’d awoken a couple of hours earlier aware of a damp patch on the mattress, my nostrils filled with a strange swimming-pool stench and my head buzzing with half-formed connections to do with things I’d heard from other boys in the remove. My first instinct had been to dry the sheet as best I could so that mother wouldn’t find out, though why I should have done that rather than drawn her attention to it and asked her what it was or what it meant, I couldn’t tell. But somehow I knew it was to do with all that crude, dormitory banter. Although Diggory never came to our bedrooms or did any work remotely domestic in our part of the house, he appeared to be responding to some sort of clue whose origin lay in my late confusion, itself, as I was to realise soon enough, reflecting the first emanations of guilt which had risen to disturb me like that whiff from the depths of my bedclothes. He’d timed things perfectly. Without saying anything, he pressed a finger to his lips as the clock was about to chime its single note on the half hour. Then, with one hand on Psyche’s buttocks he used the forefinger of the other to press her nipple immediately before the clock struck nine-thirty. That was it. With another silent injunction to make no sound, he tip-toed away. He must have known that shame was not something one shared or could possibly be dealt with by confession or betrayal. He knew he was safe and knew my secret was safe with him; he knew I was suddenly in possession of something that could not be spoken of except to oneself.
A few weeks later I discovered him stationed next to the sculpture as before. Again there was to be a comic interlude. Under the carpet directly beneath a slightly raised foot, he’d placed a flatulence balloon. Pointing to Cupid’s bum, he stepped firmly to create a farting sound, then waved his hand in front of a contorted face to remove the ‘smell’.
Diggory’s behaviour continued in this vein for a few years, until I was thirteen or fourteen. I discovered from Mary much later that she was oblivious to this new relationship he had established with me to mark the arrival of adolescence. To her, he was never anything other than the amusing family retainer who liked to bet on the horses and who greeted her with an exaggerated pretence of sobbing whenever he’d overheard her being ticked off for some trivial offence. Late one Saturday night, after we’d gone to our bedrooms on returning from a visit to relatives, Mary knocked at my door, entered and ran to the window. ‘Look!’ she whispered, pointing to a figure making his way uncertainly to the front of the house. It was Diggory, slightly the worse for drink. We laughed as he wobbled every few yards, stopped to compose himself, and then continued on his fitful journey. It often seemed as though Diggory’s function was to make us smile, which he always did.
In the late 1950s, television was a novelty. There were no computers and no internet, and therefore no way of accidentally coming across a grainy and juddering video illustration, filmed brutally on some remote Welsh farm, of the difficulties Daedalus must have experienced in enabling Queen Pasiphae to be impregnated by a Cretan bull. (It once occurred to me that such a clip, with its dark and slithery ambience, its atmosphere of low tragedy, might become an installation, a piece of conceptual art, repeated over and over and accompanied by a soundtrack of the relevant part of the Minotaur story declaimed, basso profondo, by Brian Blessed.) But libraries held items that not even their myopic stewards, with censorship in mind, could possibly have read in detail. It was in a book ostensibly about swimming but really a treatise on the mythical properties of water and immersion that I came across Hokusai’s The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife. I showed it to my grandfather. Eyeing me to make sure I didn’t fully understand its frisson of anxiety and thrill, he said, “Ah!” There followed a short lecture on the shadowy hinterlands of art (in Japanese picture-making, the shunga) and a stroll to the secret print tray, the revelation of whose contents waited on my patience. But even then I could tell in so many different ways that rapturous pain was Hokusai’s subject, not any kind of monstrous or scary anthropomorphism. Moreover, he was depicting a woman’s dream state or imagining, not her self-consciousness, which is the essential difference between erotica and pornography as well as an extraordinary comment on what a picture could tell you. Two years later, when I offered this to my grandfather as a precocious comment on his collection, he knew I would soon be ready to appreciate its contents. In my grandfather’s ideal state, nothing would be shamefully hidden from view. Was this kind of thinking a consequence of material wealth? I thought it was. Were the poor not enslaved by material want they might easily emulate it. Riches, my grandfather said, offered a short circuit to wisdom for those not seduced by its proximity to the meretricious, which led to ‘a different kind of poverty’.
I was at school when my mother phoned to say Diggory had decided to move on. She actually mentioned it in passing, the real reason for her call being to tell me that Mary was returning home from her school to recuperate after illness. I’d had no inkling that anything was wrong. “What kind of illness?” I asked. (It was typical of my mother to fail in an attempt to pass off something troublesome as perfectly ordinary.) “I think it’s probably a girl thing,” she explained, not very successfully. Of Diggory’s departure, she said, “I believe he wants a change of scene.” Considering he’d been in my grandparents’ employ for almost twenty years, I thought this, too, sounded less than convincing. “Did he say he wanted a change of scene?’” I asked, expecting her to dismiss the whole business and concentrate on what I’d been up to during the week, which she did.
The day Mary arrived home, I phoned. She seemed fine. “Just a bit tired,” she said. “Probably a bug. Nothing to worry about.” So I didn’t worry – not unduly. To my discredit, I was more intrigued by what had led to Diggory’s sudden exodus. I asked Mary. “Yes,” she said. “Strange, wasn’t it?” And that was it. She remained at home for almost a month before returning to school, apparently none the worse for her complaint, whatever it had been. But hardly a ‘bug’.
At half-term not long afterwards, my grandfather said he had an announcement to make. He gathered us together in their sitting-room before tea. Diggory had been gone three months. My grandfather told us that Diggory had stolen and taken with him three of the Japanese prints, including Koryusai’s The Courtesan Morokoshi of Echizen-ya With Her Child, Attendant Standing By. The missing items were all unframed, the Koryusai – 15¼ ins. by 10 ins. - having already been removed from the wall to await re-framing and transport to an exhibition in France. My grandfather said nothing about the other prints. Two questions occurred to me as I sat there wondering what was going on: had the undisclosed pictures been taken from the shunga drawer and, if so, which ones were they? I still had not been privy to the contents of that secret compartment, though something my grandfather had said a few weeks previously suggested to me that my patient wait was about to end. But I never got to see them until my grandfather died and my father and I, sometimes chuckling at its owner’s curtailed broad-mindedness, were sorting through the collection. The stolen items never turned up. When police eventually located Diggory, he denied theft. The evidence against him was circumstantial and he was never prosecuted. No-one in the family thought to make a note of his whereabouts.
The other missing items were Scene Of Jealousy, attributed to the Tosa/Genre School, and Settei’s Courtesan With Lover, possibly the supreme example of the dispassionately explicit in art. What my grandfather failed to disclose, however, was a fourth missing print, established by me and my father after checking each picture against its catalogue entry as Suzuki Takahashi’s A Harlot Seduced By Her Tattoos In The Kabuki District Of Edo.
Interest in the theft was eventually lost, with family members reminding one another that my grandfather had been growing forgetful and that possibly there had been no crime committed (he was in the habit of lending pictures to galleries and other collectors). But I became intrigued by this fourth missing item. No record exists of an artist called Suzuki Takahashi and it was either a pseudonym or a real but unknown practitioner of the highest skill. When my grandmother died less than a year after her husband – she’d been reluctant to allow my father to show me the prints, but he’d insisted in the interests of ’modern’ parenting – we discovered among her belongings an album of the collection – a second, illustrated catalogue no less – with each print and its details recorded under a snapshot photo taken with a Polaroid camera. (Although I never suspected it, my grandmother must have been as unconventional as my grandfather in the matter of refined art in which the sexual element is naturally incorporated. In any case, she had inherited the collection itself and was having it valued just before her death.) Many of the photos had faded badly but this had somehow enhanced the Takahashi print, in which a standing nude displayed the most ornate example of what we now call ‘body art’, consisting of vine-like motifs entwined about her legs and disappearing, apparently inside her, at the pudenda. These convoluted forms then emerged from the corners of her mouth to decorate a face transfigured by a religious ecstasy. That much could be seen under a magnifying-glass, including the clever way in which the artist had portrayed his subject’s leaning with abandon against her bedroom wall. Why my grandmother failed to disclose the existence of this pictorial record remains a mystery. So much dies with us when we ourselves die.
Yet, by the same token, much is revealed. About six years after Diggory had left, I arrived home to discover Mary in tears. She was sitting on the settee beside my mother, who had evidently been attempting to console her about something. They both turned towards me with looks that suggested I would have to be given an explanation. It turned out that Mary had been visiting a friend in London when she’d seen Diggory at King’s Cross. “So?” I queried. “Sit down,” my mother said.
Mary’s sighting of Diggory – he didn’t see her and she avoided making contact – had apparently brought back memories of an incident that took place an hour before Diggory had been summarily dismissed. My mother, encouraged by vague suspicions and foreboding, had seen Diggory follow Mary upstairs, and so went up to investigate. She saw them enter Diggory’s room but when she got to the door there was no sound, no conversation that could be heard. My mother burst in to find Diggory withdrawing his hand from beneath her skirt; Mary was sitting on the bed and Diggory was kneeling before her. “But it’s nothing,” he’d pleaded. “Nothing at all.” My mother ignored him, ushered a bemused Mary out of the room and reported what she had witnessed to my grandparents. Within an hour, Diggory had packed a suitcase and left the house. He returned two days later in a van with a friend to collect the rest of his belongings. In subsequent letters to my grandfather, my parents and me, he apologised for creating the wrong impression and gave an account of his actions, claiming that Mary had shown him my library book containing the illustration of Hokusai’s The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife and wished to know what was depicted. Eventually my parents got to know of the book and presumably saw the offending illustration, but they never chided me or otherwise drew attention to it. I have to say, that Diggory’s story, despite the hand on the thigh and what Mary told me after the King’s Cross incident, seemed reasonable. Both Mary and I had had virtually unlimited access to Diggory in his room, and our introductions to ‘the wider world’ were never formal.
I couldn’t help feeling sorry for old Diggory. (I say ‘old’ but he was younger than my parents and seemed to be of indeterminate age.) Even after my mother’s account of what had happened in his room and in the light of Mary’s trauma on her return from London, he seemed to be a victim of circumstance and possibly innocent of the charge against him. Moreover, and on her own admission, Mary in her late teens and twenties had become what my parents’ generation used to describe as ‘flighty’, an euphemism for ‘promiscuous’ which itself was often an umbrella term subsuming mild depravity. This was the Sixties, when the moral consensus was expanding. Not that Mary, again by her own testimony, was anything like depraved; but, as she later told me, one reaches a stage of freedom and temptation where one faces what used to be called ‘demons’ but which to those morally neutral are merely pointers to adventures possibly within our parents’ imagining yet by them self-proscribed.
I’ve had to work out so much of all this on my own. My parents never talked candidly to me about anything even remotely embarrassing, so that above an orderly family life, in most respects harmless and generating equanimity, hovered the suspicion of pretence and the idea that there was always something to hide, or avoid talking about. It was symbolised, of course, by my grandfather’s print collection and my grandmother’s shared interest in it. I was brought up to believe in separate male and female provinces. The suggestion that they might be mutual and that the sharing was not to be admitted had never occurred to me. And I often wondered why Diggory had been kept on.
All these questions, including the one concerning the source of my grandfather’s wealth arose unbidden during my adolescence and some answers slowly percolated. Prosperity had come to my grandparents from the profits of a small plastics company of which my grandfather had been co-founder and one of two partners, the other being a mysterious ‘Colonel’ Lewis. The firm pioneered extrusion techniques and was sold on for a sum which for most of my grandfather’s contemporaries would have been more than they’d earn in a lifetime. I never knew what Diggory’s precise duties were in his part of the household. He was certainly an indulgence, however affordable. Only when my grandmother died did my parents inherit any substantial sum of money or property, and they have never been interested in the trappings of riches, such as the employment of helpers, part-time or permanent. My father, in a bad mood uncharacteristic of him, once referred to Diggory as ‘the joker’. Perhaps that’s what he was – a source of amusement, or maybe someone who had given unstinting service and whose reward was to look after my grandparents in their old age for a small salary and a salubrious roof over his head. Although he never usurped any of my parents’ responsibilities towards their elders (in fact, he enabled my mother to pursue a career when she might have been expected to fulfil every minute domestic duty as parent and daughter-in-law), the relationship between them was never intimate, and in insisting on his dismissal may have been a chance for my mother to exercise an authority she’d guiltily allowed to be undermined.
I’ve often wondered why my parents never expressed a view of the book on swimming with its Hokusai illustration. In other respects it was truly non-controversial, with its anecdotes about Captain Webb, Johnny Weissmuller, Lord Byron and Esther Williams. Not making an issue of it may have been their way of explaining that the matters it aroused would interest me soon enough – and, I might add in retrospect, not be dealt with by them.
But these are difficult subjects to deal with in the light of what happened in the early 1990s. Within four years both my parents and Mary died, my parents in rapid succession and Mary of a ferocious cancer contracted while my father, the second to go, was ailing. My parents left everything to me and my sister. Mary, who might have died intestate, bequeathed to me the biggest portion of her inheritance. She also left me a letter, in which, let us say, I may have become aware of how people like Diggory operate. When discovered by my mother, Mary wrote, it was not the first time Diggory and she had been ensconced in his room together; there were several occasions when she was in the house alone with him and my unsuspecting grandparents. That’s if they were unsuspecting. Mary admits her shame but offers no detail. But shame for what? The shame of the compromised upper middle-class or the shame of personal proclivity, its source as obscure as it once was for me in respect of my grandfather’s wealth? And the London sighting was not the first time she’d seen Diggory since his departure: she’d spotted him strolling with my grandfather in a nearby town, and had subsequently been told that under no circumstances should she tell my parents, “who would not have understood”. At the end of the letter was an intriguing sentence: And then there were three – Diggory, grandma and Lewis.
Colonel Harald Orkney Lewis – the ‘Colonel‘, the ‘Orkney’ and the ‘a’ in Harald are correct – was the co-founder with my grandfather of Metaplastic Ltd., which made and exported pipeline fittings. Most of the initial investment was his, my grandfather bringing engineering expertise. I can find out nothing about him, neither on genealogy websites nor official census lists. There are Harald Lewises but none of them could be he. That I have his full name is down to a newspaper item about the company when it was sold. There was a little panel embedded in the story, giving his and my grandfather’s names, their academic background and the areas of their interests. The Colonel had worked on a post-war reclamation scheme in the Midlands, but I can find no history of it. He seems to have come into my grandfather’s life, helped him make a fortune, then vanished. I am assuming, of course, that he’s the Lewis mentioned in my sister’s letter. I know of no other in our family context. And then there were three – Diggory, grandma and Lewis - is not the implication that before there was Diggory, grandpa, grandma and Lewis?
My thoughts about these matters are similar to my thoughts about the picture of Takahashi’s tattooed harlot. Grandmother’s Polaroid shot of the missing piece, now faded almost to a white-out, seems the paradigm of slippery truth. The original is lost forever, the facsimile of the original is going the same way. One could almost imagine it were being spirited secretively out of reach. Yet A Harlot Seduced By Her Tattoos In The Kabuki District Of Edo is to me, and despite its dodgy provenance, the triumph of the erotic over the pornographic. Like the Hokusai, but obscurely and without the slightly comic aspect, it is about ecstasy achieved through passion, the point being that the artist, whoever he was, recognised that as the subject rather than the idea that the actual subject, the woman in extremis, was someone real who confused the means, the exhibitionism, with the ends and took as read that she were beyond those salivating to get in on her act. This is why pornography comes into its own in photographs and film, the ultimate realism, with their direct appeal to the voyeur – real women (it’s mostly women) performing for real but unseen men, the shrieking zeniths actual or imagined but always incidental.
My youth in a house divided is now beyond retrieving. It’s as if, like Diggory, matters difficult of apprehension have slipped away to another place, perhaps to be with Colonel Harald Orkney Lewis, a man so improbable and elusive that he might have been thought to be non-existent. Gone, too, is the sub-Canova Cupid and Psyche, frozen anew somewhere and keeping to itself its part in scenes of light introduction to what might have been, or actually were, much darker manoeuvres. As with his birth and later corporeal essence, the Colonel’s death remains, to my knowledge, virtually unrecorded. Whenever I think of him I’m reminded of the courtesan Morokoshi’s ’child’ in Koryusai’s picture, these days to me a disturbing homunculus already beyond the courtesan’s legendary power. And I shudder.