“Anecdoche: n. a conversation in which everyone is talking but nobody is listening, simply overlaying disconnected words like a game of Scrabble, with each player borrowing bits of other anecdotes as a way to increase their own score, until we all run out of things to say.”

“Exulansis: when there’s not an actual word for what you’re trying to explain. We feel more than we have the language to articulate and express, which is itself profoundly frustrating.”

Solastalgia: “a form of psychic or existential distress caused by environmental change.”

Stuplimity: “the aesthetic experience in which astonishment is united with boredom, such that we overload on anxiety to the point of outrage-outage.”

The first two are from 40 Words For Emotions You’ve Felt But Couldn’t Explain; the second two from Robert Macfarlane’s long Guardian article Generation Anthropocene.

Reading both, I reacted similarly: deep waves of relief and recognition at somebody else naming feelings I knew I had (and was often puzzled or ashamed at having), but couldn’t elaborate and validate for myself. Then, stubbing on the awkwardness, randomness and alien-ness of the new words assigned to these emotions: words cobbled together in the hope that what we expect Greek or Germanic or Romantic language roots to do will still do. Words of mock lineage and raw seaming, which have not worn smooth and easy from long usage and do not roll easily off the tongue in the way that grace, dwelling and pumpernickel do.

The stubbing is as it needs to be. As Macfarlane too writes, the new words are “ugly coinages for an ugly epoch.” Beneath the ugliness a gap yawns, between the pressures of new emotions and inklings, responses somehow to shattering and unprecedented global reconfigurings that are beyond the familiar reaches of everyday experience, and to our suppressed complexities as human animals, and the rush to make sense, to define and assign meaning.

But, Bayo Akomolafe helpfully interrupts, “the correct answer is no longer enough to solve our problems.” The trouble with sense and meaning and critical tussling over the neologisms (pit Anthropocene, pat Anthropocene), is that they don’t speak nearly enough of or to the predicament in which we’re enmeshed. They become ways of not admitting helplessness, inadequacy, vulnerability, uncertainty, complicity. Seemingly sensible words turn us away from what we don’t know how to face or deal with. Labels, statements, facts, opinions, campaigns, arguments, assertions and pseudo-policies proliferate and oversimplify, barely grazing the vast complexities and paradoxes of present planetary realities.

As long as the new words speak and sound ungainly, snag in our awareness, perplex and fail us, they open ill-fitting doors into the gap. Down there, or out there, or in the space of no-space, things, worlds, other possibilities persist imperfectly well outwith the grasp of reasonable human understanding. Not a dictionary; something like a dance.

Occhiolism: n. the awareness of the smallness of your perspective, by which you couldn’t possibly draw any meaningful conclusions at all, about the world or the past or the complexities of culture, because although your life is an epic and unrepeatable anecdote, it still only has a sample size of one, and may end up being the control for a much wilder experiment happening in the next room.”

The Empty Spell


A king, with something to prove. Canute’s servants drag the heavy carved wooden throne down to the rocky shoreline, as the tide begins to turn, out in the afternoon distance. The king seats himself on the throne and waits, confident. Of course the sea will obey him. The tide draws closer. Of course it needs to be near enough to hear his command. When the lip of the water is about four strides away from Canute, he cries the words rehearsed many times in his head: ‘Turn back! Turn back!” The tide draws sharply closer, now licking around his ankles and drenching the hem of his robe, and the sun falls lower. “Turn back! Turn back!’ But the sea is deaf, or disobedient, or any other quality that still allows Canute to believe that it is paying him mind.

I wonder what happened next. Did the King flee when the sea reached his knees, or his neck? Did the first taste of bitter brine bring him home to the realization that the sea was not his to command? Would he drown rather than admit this, and did it fall to his servants to drag him gasping out of the water, leaving the carved throne to be shattered by the waves, then washed up as a mystery for some other shoreline to decipher?

Perhaps the mystery is simply that Canute wanted to die. As king, he could not consciously admit this wish, let alone see it through into suicide. As king, no longer magician or shaman able to bend space, time and matter at will, and pass back and forth through the portals of the Otherworlds (for the powers have long since been separated), he is bound to one span of life and the limits of the earthly realm. As king, his life and death are no longer his to command, he must wait on their ending. ‘The King is Dead, Long Live the King!’

Canute carries the shadow memory of what kings once were: magicians and shamans. He crafts of this memory his ruse, his hollowed-out intention to command the sea, when in his secret heart of hearts he knows that the sea cannot be commanded (at least, not by kings). He will cast everything into the wager and drown in the attempt, and so have his wish at last, without ever betraying it to his kingdom, or himself.


Glancing through the on-line version of The Guardian, I’m often struck by headlines in the Opinion section that contain words like ‘must’, ‘should’, ‘got to’, ‘have to’. This being The Guardian, I’m usually in agreement with the obligations being invoked, yet I sag under the improbability of what ‘must’ happen coming to pass any time soon. ‘Really? By this government?’ I mutter to myself, rarely inspired to click through and read on, and commonly disappointed by the lack of actionable substance when I do.

I think of Canute. What are you doing when you assert that something ‘has to’ happen, with no real power to make it happen? What are you creating, or waiting for, by expressing an opinion which both exposes and seeks to disguise your utter powerlessness?

The spell of hollow words keeps on being cast. Impotence and paralysis are hypnotic (everyone is spared the risks and uncertainty of doing things otherwise). The mainstream press remains at the stage of default institutional resistance to the arguments of positive journalism (that it’s perfectly possible, and far more empowering for readers, to report on more of how people can and do make a tangible and beneficial difference to the world.)  Ritual participation becomes peculiarly compelling when the only effectiveness left is participation. Venture below the editorial line and into the comments: it’s like everyone knows that the game is up, and still we all play on.


“Something within us seeks destruction”, writes James Hollis in Creating a Life: Finding Your Individual Path. “Hubris involves the extension of human possibility beyond the humanly possible. It involves crossing the line, even when the line is invisible.” (p.13) Hubris, as bequeathed to us by classical Greek tragedy, is the fatal flaw of believing you’re in control of circumstances when you’re not. The flaw is fatal because it brings death, and because it irresistibly provokes fate. The protagonists of tragedy are never conscious that their confident choices are flawed and unwise, until the full consequences inevitably unfold before them. Changing course before it’s too late is never an option, because that would require a difference of perspective that is simply not available to them.

Hubris can only culminate in its own destruction (and the destruction of much else besides, which compounds the tragedy). The game must be played out to the end. The mystery is how this destruction can also be desired, and fulfilled only by allowing hubris to run its course, to repeat the hollow spells in complete sincerity until their death is consummated.


I think again of Canute. What if he survived? What if his servants did rescue him, or he decided at the last to save himself? Could he have remained King after the debacle on the shoreline, or was he quietly, perhaps spectacularly, deposed? In the aftermath of being King, or as King of the Aftermath, what became of him? Did he keep going through the motions, spend the rest of his days trying to find the right spell to command the seas? Did his hubris finally leave him, sorting through his pile of empty words on another rocky beach? Did some of them rearrange themselves under his fingers and prickle with new life, the first words of a power and a story free of the weight and earthly limits of kingship and tragedy and fate?

Did he stay silent, and wait for the mystery to wash up at his feet?

A Crack in the Light


Going and coming back, the impulse to reactivate this blog has swelled, retreated, and now reached a tipping point where posting something every so often is a better use of the energy I put into wondering whether or not to resume posting.

Why return here, rather than start over under another header? Because the Place Between Stories won’t go away. It’s always present: in the moments that pass, expectant and unnoticed, between one breath and another. Because I haven’t left it, and it certainly won’t leave me, except with a mind-tangle of partly-thought thoughts that have no place else they want to belong. The question has arisen of who or what I am obeying by denying a home to this particular family of thoughts, these pressures of impression and experience that seek shape in writing.

In order to thrive, things have to exist in shapes you least expect. Before getting to here, the re-gestation of this blog has shed a number of skins of outdated formulation. Threads and patterns from before can indeed be left hanging there, gestures towards understanding generate resistance. Encompassing the world in a grain of sand, squinting at it from a distance, and passing judgment; that had to drop.

This much carries me on: that the world appears a stubbornly darker, crueler and stupider place since I last wrote regularly here. (Dark in the sense of mechanical destruction on repeat, not the fertile dark of rest, winter, the insides of womb and soil). It also appears, in the same momentum, stronger and lighter, as more intricate, just and joyful possibilities for living, deeper wisdoms, greater love, all stubbornly gain substance and traction.

It never satisfies me to weave, or be told, a story that makes too much anticipatory sense out of these two simultaneous growths. Some important wrinkle in reality is inevitably flattened out or overlooked, the encultured expectation that the heroine will make it to the other side of the abyss builds in only the gagged possibility that she won’t. Without a story, experience of the present world doesn’t file away so readily behind labels like ‘positive’, ‘negative’, ‘hope’, ‘despair’, ‘optimism’ and ‘pessimism’; words that are worth weighing, whenever you read or use them, for the extent to which they silence, oversimplify and police what is being admitted, and how far they allow the honest, unqualified movement of experience into expression.

Expectant and unnoticed, change waits between one breath and another. There is no point trying to force change to happen: as soon as you try to fit it to the pattern of what you already know, it slips away, and goes back to waiting. Waiting for the change that you already are, and that you do not know is possible, to ripen. Waiting for the light you have named inside you to crack open, and shine another light into the world. Another light which, until you know otherwise, it is better to leave nameless.


Over and Signing Out

For Catherine, for the future

photo: P. Rugani

The one year anniversary of my not posting on this blog came and went in March, accompanied by the expected flicker of good intentions to remedy the situation that quietly came to nothing.

Some time between then and this writing, the realisation settled in that it’s time for this blog to end.

I’ve tried to spin this realisation out into elaborate reasons and justifications, but it boils down simply to this: there’s no energy for me here any more. Blogs, and the creative cycles they offer platforms to, have natural lifespans, yet it’s so tempting when a cycle has ended to leave the blog hanging on, open and untended, in the event that one day, maybe ….

Trailing threads need to be tied off and snipped, or else they remain a subliminal tug on our attention. ‘It’s there, I really ought to be doing something with it’. For now, I don’t feel the need to have a public outlet for my writing that compels me to keep writing for an audience on my mental to-do list. So, there won’t be an immediate successor to The Place Between Stories.

Over the year that I’ve not been posting here my energies have turned elsewhere: to inhabiting my new home, to training as a life coach, and to the first steps of a shamanic healing course that I know is but the beginning of a far longer and deeper journey. In this time too, many things have been let go or fallen away for me, and I have both luxuriated and grieved in the empty spaces left behind.

I’ve also recently been taking Charles Eisenstein’s on-line course ‘The Space Between Stories’. One of the insights that has taken form for me through this course is that the space between stories is, received one way, itself a story; received another way, a salutary suspension of all stories. We go beyond it – or seek to get over it – and it remains with us, ever-present in its potential to interrupt the believed-in trajectory of a life, or a civilization. That space will have its way with us, and one of those ways is the realization that too many of our stories are too small. We – and it’s a westernized, rationalized, self-interested and in control ‘we’ that I’m invoking here – depend on stories, and make them too certain, too deterministic, too limited in the scope of their truth, too reliant on unacknowledged privilege. This can even be the case when we are trying with all our hearts to entertain and enter a new story.

Next to this, on the private Space Between Stories course forum, I’ve witnessed the tender, respectful accumulation of the stories lived by us course participants begin to pick away at these confinements.

A couple of the questions that have crystallised for me through The Space Between Stories are: ‘how to not know’ and ‘how to make a bigger container’. I think the spirit of those enquiries has always inspired The Place Between Stories in some oblique shape or form, but writing and illustrating a blog doesn’t currently satisfy me as a means of living those questions. My attention is travelling elsewhere, towards the admittedly pragmatic task of how to offer my coaching and, in time, my healing work to those who may need to find it; and towards emptying more space for myself in which to luxuriate, grieve and not know.

So I’ll be leaving this blog up on-line, archive of a sidestepping journey that it mattered a lot to me to take, and signing out for good with thanks, appreciation and blessings to those who have genuinely read, responded and travelled with me along some of the way.

Writing Process Blog Tour


Something a little different this time (or not so …) Big thanks to Jeppe Graugaard for inviting me to take part in the writing process blog tour. This asks writers who blog to share something about their current works and creative process, and to invite others to take up the baton and do the same.

1) What am I working on?

It’s funny, I’m just starting to come back to writing after a long hiatus over this past winter, which I spent immersed in an intensive visual arts course in northwest Scotland. In the initial excitement that came from discovering fresh media to play with, and from giving myself permission to take up visual art seriously, I became quite distanced from what I felt to be the fixity and abstraction of words. There were also practical reasons to do with time, and not having fast reliable internet constantly on tap at home, that made me disinclined to write. Yet writing is now finding its way back to me, and so I’m pondering how to travel between, and combine, visual art and writing. Currently I’m playing with a visual art project inspired by ash trees, and suspect that words will find their way into that. I’m also gradually returning to some of the inklings and ideas explored elsewhere in this blog, ‘The Place Between Stories’: taking them deeper, refining and clarifying, and making further connections with others for whom those explorations resonate.

2) How does my work differ from others of its genre?

I don’t approach my writing in terms of genre; my heart sinks when writing or any other kind of creative activity starts being slotted into some category or pigeonhole or another – especially when I catch myself compromising and doing exactly that! For the last few years I’ve mostly written short essays with a poetic bent, accompanied by photographs, and I’m interested in probing edges, what lies between stories and definitions, those inklings or textures of experience that arise somewhere in the wilds beyond what passes for normal, straight-up, culturally-defined and enclosed reality. My writing certainly isn’t unique in this respect – most of the writing, making and doing that excites and inspires me these days is coming from edge-probers of one stripe or another. But I guess (to anticipate the next question), I write to articulate something that I need to find words for myself, and that makes the difference.

3) Why do I write what I do?

As well as writing because of a need to articulate certain things for myself, I do it to connect with readers who might share similar patterns of experience or resonance. My writing comes most to life for me when I find the right metaphor (or, rather, when it finds me), to give form to something that someone else has been sensing or pondering, without having the words for it. The best fulfilment of all comes when that recognition triggers or nourishes a reader’s capacity to describe and express things their own way, whether in writing, a drawing or photograph, as music … Because I’m interested in things on the edges, between stories, fallen down the cracks in whatever the official (or unofficial) version is, I feel both responsibility towards, and affinity with, others who are provoked by similar insights, urges and questions, the kind that don’t have ready-made shapes and answers.

4) How does your writing process work?

I write when the germ of a piece of writing takes hold of me, and work at it until it’s done. From time to time my ego decides that I ought to have some kind of regular writing habit, regardless of inspiration, but this invariably collapses after a day or so. Writing only when inspired goes completely against the grain of all wise advice about becoming a writer, I know; my excuse is that I worked as a university academic for 20-odd years, and that was my writing apprenticeship. So  much of that work involved writing, for different audiences and in different registers, whether I felt like it or not, from the published fruits of my research to lectures, grant applications and feedback on student assignments. Although the writing I do now is about breaking away from the constraints of academic style and mindset, it’s still rooted in that ground of experience and basic confidence that I know (approximately) what I’m doing.

My actual writing process is up-and-down, unwieldy and ruminative, because I edit, process and push my writing as I go along. This makes me the kind of writer who’ll effortlessly knock out 1,000 words one day, then the next day spend five hours re-reading and re-writing a single sentence. As soon as I hit a problem, or reach an edge where I sense that the writing needs me to take a leap and do something fresh, I have to grapple with it until a solution or breakthrough comes,  before I can go any further. So I generally work best by creating enough space and open-ended time to resolve a whole piece of writing, because if I have to stop and turn my attention to something else in the midst of a messy patch, I risk losing the whole thread and getting so discouraged that I give up.

For next week, I’m bending the blog tour rules somewhat, firstly by having just one other writer to take up the baton, and secondly by widening the creative process remit, as next up from here is someone who works across visual art, gardening and community-tending alongside writing.

I’m delighted to hand on to Sarah Zoutewelle-Morris, born in Ireland and raised in the USA, and now living with her husband and their fox terrier Lucy in northern Holland. Sarah has had a long and varied career in fine art, calligraphy, period instrument decoration and as an art healthcare practitioner: she is the author of Chocolate Rain, 100 ideas for a creative approach to activities in dementia care, (Hawker Publications, 2011). Sarah is currently focusing on her oil painting, gardening, walking and local community, taking time for a path away from the pressures of the commercial gallery system.  Visit Sarah’s blog Art Calling next Monday, for her reflections on creative process.

A Line In Water

22. Elementary (detail)

Six months and four days since last I posted something here. A span of my life that in just under two weeks will draw to a close, as a new horizon comes into view.

I’ve spent the past winter in Ullapool, in the far north west of Scotland, as a student on the Bridge House Art Portfolio Course. A journey out and back towards inner and outer edges, to pick up a long-discarded dream of going to art school, and allow it to unfold me where it would. A journey through short, cold, windswept northern days; the classic darkness of incubation. A journey I did not have words for while I was on it. The depths sunk out of view, the surface of my mind railed at everything and nothing to compensate. In practical terms, my time was given to structured days in the studio and regular homework projects, making visual art without written attachments. Also, I didn’t have reliable fast home wifi to sustain easy blogging.

Now the course is over, and come the end of March I will be packing up and driving south, to a new home in Glastonbury. In this spring interlude of beginnings wrapped around endings (which in this year 2014 seem all sharpened, intensified), I find the impulse to write coming back. Words that want to be both tentative and decisive in touching, drawing out, the contours of some of what I’ve experienced and learned this past winter; the shapes of a transformation as it comes to my attention, and becomes what remains.

Draw a line in water and it starts disappearing as soon as it is made; yet the water is stirred, and will remember.


Taking the Portfolio Course, I learned to discern, trust and pursue my own impulses as an artist, however unfashionable / childlike / weird / unpredictable they seemed to my hyper-critical ego self. To recognise in my body the signs of an edge, an excitement (often in the guise of an initially-furious aversion or discomfort), that beckoned me to follow it. That I was seeking things that already knew how to find me. That the fruits of seeking turned me inside out, and brought me back to a truth I half-believed in but didn’t really know – that it isn’t the artist who makes art, but art that makes itself through the artist. If nothing else, that’s a far kinder belief to sustain the work of being an artist than the former – as Elizabeth Gilbert’s famous TED talk on creativity, and its huge popularity, together attest.

Fresh edges around a new space that is emerging for me – nascent, awaiting. In the latest issue (number 8) of Earthlines, Charlotte du Cann writes:

“We learn to wait because we don’t know the answer yet. It is not where you think it is. Some of it is embedded in the apples in the room, and some in the spark that reignites the relationships we once had by virtue of being human on this planet. One thing I know: it’s the artist who hosts the space in which that reconnection happens.”

She’s describing those alchemical moments when the world suddenly constellates around us in ways we can’t plan for or predict, moments in which interconnection and affinity, past, present and future, roiling water and late afternoon light and wind shifting the ash trees, exactly the right question and exactly the needed insight are all there together. Holding / hosting the space and learning how to wait are how the seeking happens, how the alchemical moments know to find us – and how they change everything.



Losing Perspective

In London’s National Gallery there’s a small tempera panel painting of The Vision of St Eustace, by the early 15th century Italian artist Pisanello, which draws me to it most times I visit.

In legend, Eustace was once a Roman general , Placidus, who was converted to Christianity while out hunting when he beheld a vision of the crucifix between the antlers of a stag. A string of misfortunes proceeded to test his new faith, until in 118 CE the emperor Hadrian finally condemned Eustace, along with his wife and sons, to be roasted to death inside a bronze ox, for refusing to perform a pagan sacrifice.

My fascination with this painting runs off in fanciful directions, supported on a sliver of art historical foundation. Pisanello’s Saint Eustace depicts a fleeting alignment of two worlds, two different ways of seeing and describing. One way, the almost-cohesive pictorial space that unites the fashionable Eustace and the crucifix-bearing stag, is the unifying humanist perspective of the High Renaissance, which is about to become the dominant presence in European art. The other way, seen in the surround of intricately-depicted creatures that each exist nested within their own field, their own numinosity, is the mediaeval vision of creation that is on the wane, and seems to attain here a defiant last insistence.

Hind, swans, storks, bear, hare, diminutive falcons: wild birds and animals appear in this painting in the symbolic, elusive density of dreams, myths, visionary journeying. They are drawn together in a space which doesn’t fit together, a  vertiginous flat backdrop of jagged cliffs, forest trees, and starry white flowers, which make the whole setting seem like a tattered veil hung against the boundless night sky. The scene is composed as if from several angles and distances at once, without regard for natural proportions. The creatures are off, each unto their own worlds, even as they seem to be waiting together for something. Perhaps for the toll of their own eventual disappearance. Already, mediaeval Christianity stood broadly against the idea of animals possessing souls, and the coming scientific revolution of the 17th and 18th centuries would further strip animals of meaning, sentience and intrinsic value. Down to the mass extinctions of our own time, the animals keep losing: their habitats, food, lives and futures. Pisanello’s animals, tucked in their self-containing spaces, recall to me my scrappy outsider knowledge of the Australian Aboriginal Dreamtime, when all the manifest forms of creation lie sleeping inside the earth, waiting for songs to awaken them, to call them continuously into being. But here the Dream is fading, the song on the cusp of being mocked and forgotten, replaced by the angular, linear, technocratic visions that lie in wait beyond the cross and the promise of Renaissance that the future saint locks his eyes upon. The head of the stag under the crucifix is dull and blurry, subordinate to the vision, dying to the mirror of his brighter brother opposite: the golden stag who stands on an edge behind Placidus-becoming-Eustace, destabilising  the gaze of the viewer with an intimation that all which came to pass might have been otherwise.

Meanwhile the dogs scatter and shift shape across the divide, half-decided. The pointers are obedient and train their heads in roughly the same direction as their master, but his greyhounds catch some deviant whiff of the old wolf-memory. One looks to and rhymes in colour with the bright stag, the other mimics the coil and spring of the fleeing hare.  The brush-tailed pair of dogs disappearing below the horse’s rear hooves nurse their own reasons for abandoning the scene, and aren’t saying.


Christian conversion stories are always decisive, and the pivotal event is over in a moment. There is a clean before and after, the fug of pagan sin and idolatry abruptly replaced by the bright absolution of Christ’s eternal presence. ‘Once I was blind, now I can see’. No looking back in yearning at the seductive, salt-encrusted remnants of your former life. No vacillating and emotional yo-yo-ing, wondering whether you’ve done the right thing or not. Conversion strikes once, from the outside, and is incontrovertible.

Or at least, the doctrinal lessons and hagiographies record no details of ambivalence or second thought. Doubts register in them only as tests of faith, only in order to be wrestled with and overcome.


‘What does a culture gain when it loses perspective?’ The words float up as I’m making free-association notes for another purpose and gently turning around in my mind a recent blog post about perception and definition by my friend Daniela Othieno. Reflecting on her experiences with the Dark Mountain Project and much else besides, Daniela ponders the urge, manifest in a certain style of journalism and commentary, to define, classify and pin down, in already-familiar terms, any initiative (like Dark Mountain, or Occupy), that does not set an agenda but instead seeks to remain open, for exploration and to question. She draws a parallel with the defining habits of early colonial anthropologists, confident in the power of their discipline and worldview to explain the rituals, customs and everyday practices of the indigenous cultures they studied. Neither approach seems prepared to admit that their self-appointed authority to define what something is and means is limited and possibly even distorted by their own cultural conditioning. Nor is there much willingness to tolerate and inhabit uncertainty, to feel anew into what a object or experience – bones hung in trees, say – might variously be or represent for themselves and invested others, instead of resorting to pre-prepared associations that might have accurately described some similar thing in the past, but perhaps don’t do justice to what’s arising in the present.

The technical mastery of perspective drawing – one of the artistic triumphs of the European Renaissance – nests within a wider modern cultural valuation of perspective, which is taken so much for granted that loss or failure or lack of perspective is decried as a hallmark of unreason, of bias or mental slippage, of an opinion that does not deserve to be taken seriously. The modernist art of the 20th century – Cubism, Futurism, Dada, the Expressionisms – still jolts consensual normality, requires extra layers of explanation and justification, at least in part to the extent that it set aside perspective in favour of other visual possibilities and priorities. Perspective, in both art and everyday usage, is a point of view that orders the world from an imaginary outside; an appearance of the real (reasonable, far-sighted, wise) that depends on an agreed illusion (that of three-dimensional space on a two-dimensional surface, that of matters seen and interpreted from a detached vantage point which is accepted by convention as the correct one.)

Pisanello’s Saint Eustace hangs on the moment of conversion: to Christianity and to single-viewpoint perspective. The curious assembly of wild creatures, meticulously rendered in (visually) inconsistent and unresolved relationships, mostly lacking subordination to the central drama of the future saint witnessing the cross, preserves in eternal suspension the tactile, proximate richness of the pre-perspective vision that is about – often literally – to be sucked away into the far distance, if not out of the picture altogether. If this is a swan song of late mediaeval art, so as in a musical the entire supporting cast takes to the stage for the final number, and through the painting drift notes and airs from far older times and places: the riddles and shadows of the archaic worlds which Christianity eclipsed.   Of course the Renaissance is already about rehabilitating the art, culture and learning of pre-Christian Greece and Rome, but its command of perspective also means that the more troublesome pagan mysteries will be kept in check (at least in much visual art, at least for a century or so), by their containment within a coherent illusion of depth.

I enjoy imagining all of this and at the same time, like the bones in the trees, The Vision of Saint Eustace beckons and prods me not to assume that I know what it is and means. The tipped-up visual plane and the hints of cosmic void stretching away behind the scattering of rocks, trees and star-flowers unsettle the easy confidence of my vision; the birds and animals shrink and swell, turn their backs, slink off the past the frame. Apart from the two beasts of burden and the servile pointers, they’re there, I suspect, for their own reasons. Not for Pisanello, nor Eustace, nor Placidus, nor the unknown patron, nor Christ. Not for me, or you either. As if they’re already aware that they will be sacrificed, without reason or limit, because the old pattern and meaning of sacrifice is going to be refused.

The gaps in the painting swallow me and hang me on the moment of conversion. I’m at once too close and too far away, as if disappearing under the tutelage of fur and feathers yet all the elements of the painting are constellations flung against the heavens, which make any sense I care to project onto them. There’s no space to turn in either of the obvious directions, with or against the tides that history has cast up – paganism and Christianity, mediaeval and Renaissance worldviews, perspective or the lack of it.

All that remains is to listen for what’s left of the song, and in it the doubts.