As I write, I’m on a train, with Isobel. She is busy with her latest, serious addiction: crocheting. The mystery of the little hooked stick, wiggling in and out of purple wool hypnotises me for a while. And then I look up and see huge metal girders passing by the windows, and there’s a mass of grey water far below. How is it that all that space, between us and the tiny far waves down there, looks as if it is a thing itself? The emptiness monster: something you can’t see but you know it’s there because it must be.
We were visiting my dad in Edinburgh. He was showing us some books of paintings he got from the library. Three modern artists. The only one I’d heard of was Mark Rothko. Last year we had a big calendar of Rothko prints in the hall. I said I’d love to see his actual paintings, as I’d heard that the effect was very powerful. His original paintings are huge blocs of colour which – and you partly see it in the best reproductions – have a luminosity and depth like nothing else. Looking at some of the red and orange paintings is like being able to stare into the heart of the sun. And the way one bloc of colour melts or fades into a colour above or below creates unique horizons: ones you can only see in a Mark Rothko painting.
My dad said that he’d noticed recently that a lot of the painters whose work he likes died before their time, often from suicide. He said it’s like they saw so deeply it became too much for them to bear. In a conversation like that one, I was glad that my dad spent decades working as an engineer before becoming an artist. Like Irn Bru, he’s made out of girders. The strength of his own past is always there. Or, I really hope it is.
One of the library books was about a sculptor called Chillida who makes sculptures out of iron. Huge pieces exuding the solidity of the world and our role in it. One sculpture was called: Tribute to Nikki Lauder. Another one, its name I forget, looked like a huge spider forming itself out of iron. My dad said he felt drawn to the man’s work as it reminded him of his years working at the Caledon shipyard. A workplace long gone.
Earlier this week, I was thinking of another lost industry. Jute. I was heading through the Overgate shopping centre, when I noticed a big photograph on a wall: young women workers in a jute mill in Dundee, from sometime early in the 20th century. Their faces looked bright, confident, but with a hint of uncertainty. They stood beside large jute looms. Below the photograph was a printed caption saying that for 200 years, Dundee was the biggest manufacturer of jute in the world.
Soon, I’ll have finished a book I’m writing, about people living in poverty. We spoke about that too. And about how uneasy and sad my dad always feels when he sees people who are homeless on the streets of Edinburgh. I have the same feeling most days in Dundee , so does Isobel, perhaps we all do. We grew up in a world where people who made all the things in the world: jute, ships, clothes, buildings – were too often treated as if they were expendable if they got sick, or disabled, unemployed, or old and tired. But at the same time, we also grew up in a world where people fought long and hard to look after each other. We didn’t just make things. We made the world a better place. And now all of that is being taken from us, we need to remember all we did and all we can do again, and more. People are still fighting. Hoping. Making things. Creating the future.
It’s dark outside the train. Nearly home. Isobel has crocheted a large something. I think it’s a scarf for the train. It’s been a good day.