As the lane leading to the house in St Laurent de Cerdans was too narrow to accept the big truck, we parked up in the main square down the hill opposite the '8 till 8' supermarche. It was seven o’clock and closed!
Ryley saw an old English plated Volvo estate loaded with boxes in the car park and waved hello to the occupants. They came over and introduced themselves. Geoff and Susan and their two dogs Lola and Theo were full of smiles and barks. They were also under the impression that eight meant eight and had missed the day’s food shop. We English have a lot to learn. This was my first mutual groan about food with an ex pat! They had also chosen this day and hour to move into a run down mas they had bought on the border by the River Muga. Coincidence?
These were the first people we met in St Laurent. Geoff was into information technology, a big jovial chap full of humour and instant, open recognition and Susan a bubbly, red haired Irish lady full of a more loaded wit and a recognition of something more charged behind it all. She was an artist. They bore the excitement of a new, cyber-dated, middle-aged life in France. She had a certain fateful acceptance of our meeting and the unknown, mystical reasons for choosing this area of the Pyrenees Orientales. Susan didn’t believe in coincidence. I explained that we hadn’t chosen this area and hadn’t found a suitable property in the hills but had bought a large Maison de ville as an investment until such a property appeared. “But the area has chosen you,” came the instant reply. I couldn’t quite share their enthusiasm as a permanent fixture in an alternative ex pat scene here, but her tone had a suggestion of knowing.
They explained they had been looking for a town house themselves, which also hadn’t appeared! We understood that we had bought each other’s house! Susan explained her vision. She had dreamed of a large, red conglomerate boulder and had seen the same stone in the kitchen of the mas upon viewing. This was certainly her omen, her sign that the property, however unsuitable in the physical, practical sense was the correct choice in some karmic or unconscious way. She talked about an owl flying in front of the car seemingly showing them the way…? They definitely seemed to be connected spiritually to the area but were unsure how this would manifest. They were open to the mission! They were like two young, eager cadets on a spiritual quest and I empathized with their brave journey. It was good to see two friendly faces in an otherwise empty and closed town square and speak English as the first language upon arriving! Wasn’t it?
The Vito van ferried our ‘database’ of Nant Peris artefacts from the truck to their new home. The information and shapes had certainly shifted since the Ryley ‘bug’ had made his nests in the truck. It looked like the indoor wormery I remember at school! It seemed an arbitrary arrangement of forgotten objects in a space that belonged to somebody else! Early days. Ryley captured the ground floor and made it definitely his. The rest was shared out in the remaining rooms, awaiting that little bit extra to make it home. Toothbrush, cap, pile on the floor soon appeared, a generic collection that could be anywhere! Homes are not built in a day! I felt suddenly tired with all the stuff from a previous life and searched for that precious something that spoke of my life as an artist. I found this in a cardboard box marked ‘odd stuff’. Forget the paints and brushes, it was a Neolithic stone lantern that I used to burn resin incense on and came from the old studio in Settle. It was a reminder of the clarity and process of working, not the application. This totem signified a real homecoming and brought a smile of recognition for that world which I hoped I would soon enter. All that was left in the truck were the four large paintings, which, because of their size, seemed destined never to leave the truck. I smiled again!
We noticed that the little Placa opposite the house was visited every day by an old man. He walked with a homemade stick the handle of which he had carved into the shape of a circumcised penis. It was painted bright red. He would sit on the stone slab under the Horse Chestnut and take off his shoes. He reached into a crevice at the base of the tree and pulled out a wooden spike, looking something like a cocktail stick. With this he would systematically scrape along the grooves in the soles of his shoes until he was satisfied with the task. He would then place his spike back into the tree, put his shoes back on and wander on his way. He was the first local we talked to – our incomprehensible French felt at ease with the obviously deranged but friendly, French gibberish that greeted us!
La Cirque Apollo.
Within a week of moving into the house we had noticed the circus posters on the walls and trees and posts approaching St Laurent. We thought it strange that it depicted a roaring lion. Surely this could not be a real lion in a circus? The cruelty of keeping an animal in a cage in the name of entertainment was outlawed in Europe a long time ago, wasn’t it? The image certainly belonged to my childhood. Like the notion of smoking in public had become such a barbaric act, it was bizarre.
One morning we were woken by the growls of a lion and the banging of iron rails. Sure enough, down from the house in the square were several lions in cages and wagons painted bright red and yellow, the spectacular Cirque Apollo! The tricolor French flag sat proudly on top. The troupe had come to town in the middle of the night. We were shocked and saddened by the sight. We were even more shocked when the lion tamer prodded one lion with an iron bar. The abuse continued throughout the day for all to see. The rails were rattled with the bar and the lion poked and prodded and even spat upon by the tamer. We saw the lion lash out with a claw at the tamer’s hand. Angrily, the tamer lashed out too with the bar on the animal’s flank, causing an anguished scream of pain. This was too painful to watch. We thought that somebody would step in and stop it. However it seemed the bystanders were amused and impressed at this behavior.
I said to Mel that we should get some fliers together to raise attention to this horrendous animal abuse and propose a boycott of the show. I turned my back and Mel had gone! She was so angry and upset at the pain this animal was suffering she decided to confront the lion-tamer personally. Ryley and I heard the angry shouting of the tamer in the square and caught sight of a slap that took Mel to the floor. We ran out to the square, Ryley grabbing a stick on the way. We were confronted by an angry and violent circus family, a mob of flying fists and abuse! A large amused crowd stood by as a melee developed and we parried the blows back up the hill. This was a street fight that blocked the road! The lion tamer goes down clutching his heart and the town sirens blast from the church that summons the ambulance. His son throws fists and kicks and spits my whole family will die! It must have been his daughter, wearing a sequined leotard, shouting, “Fucking English, this is France, our lion” whose flying fist finally clocked me. We held our own, but clutching a sore eye I was perplexed at the lack of support. Somebody explained later that nobody puts their nose into another’s business around here, and if someone beats their animal then it’s their business! It was their lion and their business! If the tamer wants to beat her he can! If he wants to beat his wife he can! It seemed they had a right to try and beat us too for interfering. Mel wrote a letter to the Maire explaining the situation and drawing attention to European Animal Rights. It was never replied to. Mel then wrote to an animal rights group in Perpignan who said they would look into it.
It was also explained that the circus people were Citanes to which nobody confronts for fear of reprisals. Even the Maire and police back off. The Citanes have a heavy and fairly automonous presence in Perpignan in an area called ‘St. Jacques’. We made it clear that no matter who they are they have no right to abuse an animal. The Gypsies I know back in Wales would never treat an animal like that. We printed some flyers saying ‘stop the animal abuse’ and stuck them on all their flashy posters going down the valley. I answered the door one morning to a hefty Citane holding one of these posters. He pointed to a fist behind his back. I shrugged, “El leon es un problema senor?” He didn’t come to talk, just shook his fist and walked away!
I keep perspective and recall a scene that sparked the riots in Perpignan in 2005. This was over the savage murder of Mohamed Bachir by a band of Gypsies. Returning to his car after shopping he confronted a teenage Gypsy boy of stealing his car radio. Furious, the boy ran off to find friends and seek revenge on the man who humiliated him. He returned with family members, who chased Bachir and beat him with lead pipes and iron bars. The victim ran desperately through the narrow streets and tried to find refuge in several stores and cafes. Still pursued by the gypsies, they would pull him out again and continue the beating until he lay bloody and dying on the street. This was in full view of local people, neighbours and tourists and not one person intervened. The famous ‘law of silence’ that reigns in this Perpignan neighbourhood that is home to both Gypsies and North Africans impeded enquiries and arrests. The notorious riots between Arabs and Gypsies in the ghettos followed.
It is from St. Jacques that the bizarre and eerie ‘procession de la sanch’ originates. Today, the ‘brotherhood of the blood’ emerge in their black and red, hooded robes, like brethren of the Klu Klux Klan, and with somber tambourines, open the Easter holy week. Originally a society dedicated to helping and assisting those who had been condemned to be executed. The robes concealed the identities of the prisoners, and executioners, which prevented the wrath of an angry mob and a possible lynching in the street! Next year Cirque Apollo returned without the lions! Noel Craine was spot on for predicting an incident within the first week of arriving!
Within a few days the word was out that new guys were in town. We were introduced to the alternative scene that Vishva and Yamuna swished and swooned amongst for company. Vishva affectionately called them freaks! This alternative base-camp and hostel for the wayward operated vaguely around Martin’s kind and sympathetic, ethical thinking. Here congregated a vast assortment of ‘off the wall’ characters and dropouts from international society. They spread out from a smoky, ramshackle epicenter that was known as number nine. Number nine Rue de Nivet was a house that Martin had bought as part of an association called Les Amis Du Numero Neuf, the aims of which seemed to be somewhat community based. Due to Martin’s ‘rainbow’ values, it operated by consensus, which meant nothing seemed to ever get done. Well, perhaps things did get done, eventually, within the luxury of mind politics, another fag and a slurry of time! I am also suspicious of associations! They run through the backbone of France and are a formidable barrier to what I see as nourishing a free spirit and individual creativity. Marxist values have been sold out long ago and are used today as an excuse to play power games for the ragged and dispossessed! And here was a ragged army coughing under a canopy of ill health and hand-outs. But Martin did seem a knowledgeable and genuine follower and researcher of the alternative. Martin had hailed from Edinburgh and had held a position with the Theosophical Society. However, the quest for the divine was never apparent within this parcel of stumbling life forms that emerged from number nine.
A small chap with a quiet voice and a hat for every day, his clothes hung randomly and torn about his slouched gait, seemingly musing, fag in hand, on some cosmic puzzle. Looking like this, I could see him in some piss-stained, Edinburgh doorway muttering Blavatski, cap in one hand and beer can in the other instead of being the president of this Association des Numero Neuf! A brave attempt I thought. If such a thing were ethically possible, he was the general of his army in this sunny valley. I think he meant well and could even be ‘the man’! But on face value, on street ‘cred’, it didn’t look good and he did not summon respect within officialdom or the community. He seemed a target for misunderstanding and prejudice. It wasn’t consumerist, middle class values that kept my distance but the energy of sickness and smoke that number nine emitted. I couldn’t understand how anyone, with or without spiritual values, could smoke in front of a child? I found it hard to see beyond the carcinogenic fog. Does an occultist or esotericist, pondering on the Cosmos, have time to consider the effects of passive smoking!
We were invited to a Rainbow type gathering in the woods further up the valley. A young English couple Dave and Jenny lived here in a bus with their three young children. Also here were Martine and Fidel. Martine was German and the grand daughter of a prominent Nazi Field Marshall. Fidel was a physicist from South Africa. They lived in the woods. Jan and Daman were present. Jan had trained as an actress and heroin addict in Liverpool and Daman was a self-proclaimed, Occitan speaking French Duke. Atmo was an Osho guru from Rennes le Bains. Steve was from Glastonbury and was a devotee of someone or other. Mihuk was also South African and was also a serial, addicted devotee with two young children to Tony, a Frenchman, following native American shamanism and herbalism. Karen and Pete were Rainbow travelling people. Theosophical Society Martin of course and his friend Lillian, a Glaswegian chanellist and psychic. Sigi and Carsten and their son Teva were also Rainbow folk and lived in an old red Mercedes fire engine in the woods. Sigi was Israeli and had done the Far East devotee thing and Carsten was Danish having done the anarchy, squatting, practical, mending and dealing thing. Teva became a good friend of Ryley and seemed to epitomize that there are more important tools for stability than that of growing up in a house. As ‘house dwelling people’ we were outsiders but seemingly cool. Phew, grand company!
Of all the odd characters gathered around the campfire, passing the communal truth-stick to tell the story of their appearance, hopes and desires, ‘Planet’ Atmo revealed himself as the most serious contender for help or serious consideration! Even the most alternative ‘freak’ found him hard to deal with – they brought it on but Atmo cut loose on the weird/divine monkey puzzle! He was middle-aged, short and stocky and exploded a shock of long blond hair and a guru beard to match. His eyes were so mad I found it hard not to imagine them on storks. He was on everybody’s case with demented, ‘psychic readings’, and if given an inch would talk himself into your house, your bed, your wallet, your psyche, your soul! He asked what brought me to St Laurent and I said I seriously didn’t know. He said, “You are here as the Son of David!” “No”, I replied, “I am the son of Sydney!”
As Atmo was a stranger in the area, we found it peculiar and sinister seeing him hanging out his washing in the neighbour’s garden! He seemed to have hypnotized them into believing he was a family member? Daman was in bed one night and saw what he thought was a rat under the blankets and threw a heavy boot to see it off. Atmo crawled out howling with a sore head! Eventually, for his own good and for the ‘sanity’ of the other oddballs, Martin drove him back to Rennes le Bains and has never been seen since! Obviously found a spacecraft! The alternative scene seemed to normalize after his dismissal, as if it suddenly realizing that a little normality wasn’t that bad after all!
There are many families and groups of families living alternatively in the hills here. Many are here with 2012 in mind! Ramtha’s School of Enlightenment have followers who have bought land here and are busy building their underground shelters. ‘When calamities strike, as we are witnessing with ever-increasing frequency and intensity, RSE culture is one of preparedness and sovereignty’. Cosmic knowledge apart, they know they have to watch their back and keep a low profile. No green, neon lights saying ‘survival freaks here’! This is not from incoming ‘aliens’ or earthquakes, as such, but from the fact that France does not tolerate much beyond its regime of what it thinks is right for its society. The ban on cults and sects has been said to be worthy of a totalitarian state. Like China, there are departments that monitor and combat ‘cultural deviance’. These ‘undesirables’ are learning from experience not to put their heads above the parapet if they wish to avoid the surveillance and the visits from the ‘tricolour lads’! Reading the government’s woolly definition of ‘cult-like movements’, I am in danger, as a freethinking artist outside the system, of also being ascertained as a cultural deviant!
The world would be a sterile place without the Atmos’ and the Martins’, and an immeasurable richness would be lost, and the uncertainty too of how oddball ideas become mainstream thought. The future is open for business when you understand the vagaries of learning.
What is more difficult to ascertain and define is the ‘divine spirit’ within the character and personality. It cannot easily be judged. I had recently been invited to take part in a two-day discourse with The Divine Mother Avatari Devi. A temple yurt had been erected on the land of Geoff and Susan. This lady was not dressed in rags but bathed like a goddess in finery and attention. Drapes and red carpets and roses scattered in front of her throne was her entitlement to divine status. Her assistants attended to her every need. She certainly attracted those with personal problems, and reduced those paying two hundred pounds to tearful wrecks and taken out to sleep by her intense staring and psychic intervention. She was German of Indian origin and had a spiritual psychology centre in Dusseldorf, where the feminine principal informed her psychic teachings. Her seminars and satsangs funded a girl’s school in India. She called her followers butterflies.
To call yourself the Divine Mother begs a few questions! I was interested in her game and approach and spent time with this lady. I took her to see my latest free-standing paintings and sounds ‘Hero Gone Bent’, and she was horrified at the ‘hell’ that confronted her! She was disturbed by the black soul of my work as if it had something to do with my own psyche! I explained that I work ‘objectively’ and the work takes on the energy of the subject matter. She didn’t understand this language. Not being of ‘the mind’ is something that psychologists struggle with. So where is the divine?
“How can it be so, you have painted them and composed the sounds?” She turned away from the sounds and images as I told her of heroin addiction and prostitution. She couldn’t see that I was merely an instrument for the subject’s shapes and form to manifest and explore. You cannot have a ‘black soul’ for this work. The safe, white light of the spirit world that had enveloped her persona had no time for its creepy, twisted sister on the sidelines. She freaked. This wasn’t her remit. She seemed to have no stomach for the balance. We walked and talked between black and white and she confided that she had been diagnosed with liver cancer and expressed her fears of death and dying. We had crisps and coffee in a bar at which she laughed uncontrollably like a six year old girl would to a silly joke. Holding her hand at the table, I found the six year old girl comforting, knowing this child was inside of her with the cancer. Hysterical, she was laughing at the coffee and crisps! She explained that normally, a banquet would have been prepared for her! She laughed and laughed and laughed as the little girl resigned to her death. She was tired of her game. I think the hare’s paw that I gave her sped her on her way? I am reminded of her every time I see a butterfly.
Karen and Pete were ‘residents’ of numero neuf. They seemed to be chilling out from their Rainbow travelling days due to assortments of ill health. They had a daughter called Jade. Jade had been ‘van schooled’ but was now doing very well at school due to her quirky self esteem. Of course, they were Scousers! They had both been heroin addicts in Liverpool and related totally to my intervention, Interview with the Streets. I asked Karen if she wanted to do some voice-overs for the sound sculpture. I thought how strange it was for the project to have started in Liverpool at my warehouse studio in the centre of town and still be ongoing and finding new form in the south of France years later! I find this process reassuring as nothing is finalized, as if there is no conclusion but an ongoing energy that fuels itself. I have no control of this! The energy exists in its own right and cannot be commercialised or contained. For me this is the language of art! It is organic and cannot be bought! Karen could have been one of the girls I interviewed in Liverpool! Having done much wandering and soul searching for peace and health she offered herself humbly and without ego as ‘the angel with a dirty face’ for her Tai Chi, Reiki and counseling skills.
Karen and Pete’s latest message was to go to sleep on an evening with the mouth taped over! They talked about problems associated with ‘deep type’ breathing and the greediness in taking breath that cause disasters and disease in the world. In Buteyko therapy it is stated that amounts of co2 is removed from the lungs and tissue cells and produces a ph alkaline shift that can be fatal. I imagined them sleeping in bed with their mouths taped over and thanked the world for the marvelous oddness that is number nine!
John Redhead:Colonists Out 2011:All photographs except'riot'-John Redhead Collection