Saturday, 15 October 2011
Our family affliction is insomnia. This comes from my dad’s side of the family tree though, so my mum really does sleep easy. However the other three of us are affected by anything from stormy nights to the looming full moon. My favourite phrase when I was younger was, “I can’t sleep!”
The one thing that has passed us by though is sleep-walking (and its subconscious cousin: sleep-talking). The very idea appeared quite extraordinary to my six year old self. There were the stories from childhood friends – a granddad who went downstairs, still fully asleep, to put on his galoshes “because there was a flood”; other people’s brothers who woke the house, shouting at 3am in the morning at "the nightmare-monster attacking me", and the sensationalist tales from newspapers, with people being found on motorways in their pyjamas as the red sky of dawn approached. All this behaviour being involuntary and uncontrollable sounds odd to we humans – so used we are to being in command of every action.
Of course, the intrinsic link to dreams makes it all the more fascinating. Dreams can be serene or scary, or to borrow Evelyn Waugh’s title, 'Beautiful and Damned'. But no matter what happens – whether we miss trains (my recurring theme), find ourselves inexplicably back at school with exams that have not been prepared for, or with marshmallows glued all over a favourite pair of shoes (yes, that was a recent dream – try analysing that) – we can always wake up again.
The idea of dreamy sleepwalking inspired these photos, and aptly my peaceful slumber was interrupted with an alarm at 6am so that it could be completed. While away on holiday in the early summer, mum and I rose at the hour known only to dog-walkers, commuters and parents of small children - to make our way down to the beautiful beach with a sixties two piece nightgown (from a charity shop) in hand. The nature of the outfit only complemented the theme, especially as I felt like a carefree Betty Draper wearing it. (The nylon blue 70s robe featured a while ago was also paraded the same morning). By the time we arrived at the sandy shore it was already warm – the only time we saw sun in the five days we were there. The wooden posts that poke up from the water are like attentive soldiers, ever-stationary as barnacles creep across the surface and the waves eat splinters. The same waves crashed over the back of my legs as I waded in.
Immersing dresses in water is perhaps a recurring theme on this blog – as a long time ago I featured both a silk river dress, and an Ophelia inspired shoot where I submersed myself completely. I wasn’t willing to be that devoted to the photos this time though, not least because post-surgery I get quite extreme itching radiating out across my back after swimming in very cold river or sea water.
I find this intensely frustrating, because it means that each time I want to go swimming outside, I have to carefully weigh up the pros and cons in the style of a complex maths equation. Is it worth the discomfort, or should I play it safe? During our stunning holiday to Spain several months ago, I went with the former. The consequences were always worth it to go snorkelling in the clear water, with a whole micro-system of multicoloured seaweed and shoals of fish like iron filings beneath my nose. Magical.
The cold Welsh sea before 7am though? No! Even though 'wild' swimming is to immerse oneself in the outside entirely, there are limits.
Standing in the water I watched the shapes made by the frothy layers of fabric and lace; snake-like. The sea crashed and seethed as gulls circled. By the time we walked back, photos finished, the sun had once again disappeared behind a cloud and coffee beckoned.
Back home a few days later, I pulled out my book on the Pre-Raphaelites to have another quick look at the famous Ophelia painting – which is both dreamy and sinister. It was painted by John Everett Millais in 1852, who asked his model Elizabeth Sidell to recline in a bath for the duration of its creation. I wanted to recreate that idea at some point, with a bathtub and armfuls of wild flowers, but I think that plenty have trod that path before me.
One of the things the painting does reflect though is the restless nature of water. It’s both a killer and a lifesaver. It’s quite understandable why the pre-Socratic philosopher Thales could think that water was 'the principle of all things in existence' (blame my ‘History of philosophy’ podcasts). We drink it, swim in it, boat on it, our body is 50% to 70% made up of it, and we sometimes drown in it. But statistically, that last one’s unlikely!