The Tankerton bus drew up. The passenger door opened and the bus settled down with an emphatic hiss. No one left and no one came. It was high summer. The driver shut off his engine, opened the half-door of his cab and emerged into the sunshine. Pausing in the doorway, he yawned and stretched, and extended his arms and legs into all four corners of the door.
For a fleeting moment I see him as l’uomo vitruviano, a living example of the Leonardo anatomical drawing designed to illustrate the architectural qualities of the perfect male body. Before I have time to acknowledge him as a fellow Renaissance man, I notice he is a little on the tubby side, his shirt needs tucking in. We nod at each other, though he is probably unaware that he is witness to the first day of my New Life. Squinting at him in the afternoon sun we share a moment of silence. I’m happy and, in my mind at least, I embrace him and I embrace the newness of the afternoon.
My wife and I are sitting outside The Plough at Stalisfield Green. We have come here on our bicycles from our temporary home on the Kent Downs expecting to find our local pub to be open on a summer afternoon. It isn’t. We can wait an hour or so, or we could cycle on to The Bowl.
On the way here, we cycle past carefully tended fields, rolling, rich agricultural land. We come across a half-hidden sign to an overgrown public footpath and follow it into a dappled wood. Disappointingly (for those of us who like to be hit in the face by our metaphors) there are no divergent paths here – this is the path less travelled – so we wheel our bikes on through the ancient wood, stopping to admire a beech tree that is quite possibly 350 years old.
Kent is called the Garden of England for a reason. You could throw seeds of almost anything into the earth round here and you’d end up with a crop. Much of the land is given over to wheat or barley, but we pass other fields with black cows and black sheep in them, and black hens pecking around their feet. In Stalisfield you can keep any kind of animal, as long as it’s black. In an unkempt field nearby, in deliberate contradiction, a troupe of white geese march towards us along the line of the hedge. Rabbits in a scrubby hollow scatter as we approach. Dogs bark at us from the safety of their cottage gates and, if they could, they’d grab their leads and join us. Stretched out below us are orchards and vineyards and fields of herbs. Along the narrow lanes, pheasant and partridge scatter as we approach and when cornered, they wind themselves up like clockwork birds for a noisy take-off. The fields beyond roll on down towards Faversham and Whitstable and, to the east, in the haze, to Herne Bay and Margate. To the north, in the distant estuary, there is the London array, a massive offshore wind farm, its sails unmoved by the languid afternoon.
West London in early August can be sticky but it feels entirely different here. The air is clear and clean. The noise of the aircraft that skimmed the rooftops of our Kew home and interrupted my sleep for 32 years at 5:15 am is felt here only only as a far-off rumble. Vapour trails mark out this time, and this place, in an otherwise timeless sky. This is the Thanet sky that inspired Turner, “The loveliest in all Europe,” he said. Here there are extravagant, piled up banks of cloud that echo the shape of the land, daubed onto a boundless blue sky.
A few weeks later, we will find ourselves under Turner’s sky again, in the Margate gallery that bears his name, standing in front of an unmade bed – that unmade bed – “My Bed” by Tracey Emin, who hails from these parts. My wife voices the statutory “you call that Art!” response of somebody who knows what she likes – and it isn’t ashtrays and used condoms.
But I feel rather like the small boy in the crowd who can see the point. I want to see art in terms of metaphor, so I am wondering whether it is true that “Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life?” Is this really all about sex and death? It seems to me that Emin is cleverly saying that Art is Life, Life is Art. The metaphor and the thing are one and the same.
Back at the pub, the bus driver has been stretched out on the grass basking in the sunshine but it is now his time to depart. We untether our bikes from the antique ploughs half-buried in the green. We too have decided to move on. This, after all, is our temporary home while we wait for our new house in Canterbury to be finished. Like the Tankerton bus, we are stopping here, but not for long.
I should credit Edward Thomas for references (and ideas) borrowed from his poem “Adlestrop”. It describes a “day of heat”, a tranquil day in June 1914 just before the outbreak of WW1. Some say that the waiting express train that draws up ‘unwontedly’ is a metaphor for the industrial war machine; at rest in a transcendent moment of calm, before the hell of WW1 breaks loose.
His friend, Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken” also referenced is said to have influenced Thomas’s decision to enlist in the infantry, even though Frost had urged Thomas to join him in the USA. Thomas was killed in action on 9th April 1917 at the Battle of Arras.
See also: Wikipedia – Life imitating art