Day 39: Lepidoptera Platonicus

Dear Readers,

This afternoon we all went to see the new Paddington bear movie. [1] I quite enjoyed it (I use “quite” in the American sense): as anyone who’s seen my book cover knows, I like bears. And, as regular readers of this blog will also be aware, I share Paddington’s fondness for marmalade sandwiches, and the sandwiches feature quite prominently in the film; indeed, a marmalade sandwich functions as a deus ex machina of sorts, saving the day when it looks as though all is lost. [2] I also rather envied the Brown family house, at the center of which was a wooden spiral staircase with a mural of a tree (a cherry tree, I believe), which curved around on the wall behind it.

That wall mural evoked a memory of a somewhat less charmingly rendered tree that I once helped paint on a wall of the house I grew up in.

This was back in 1989, which was a momentous year, I’m sure you’ll agree: the fall of the Berlin wall; the summit at which Bush the elder and Gorbachev declared the end of the Cold War; the birth of Taylor Swift. What you may not know is that it was also the year of a significant artistic dispute. I refer not to the Satanic Verses controversy, but to a less well-publicized mêlée that, happily, was ultimately resolved without bloodshed.

The site of the fracas: the uppermost landing of 25, Dalmeny Road, Tufnell Park, London.

The parties concerned: the duck-rabbit, aged fifteen, on one side; on the other side, two eleven year-olds, one of whom was the duck-rabbit’s younger brother, the other their beloved friend.

The context: The duck-rabbit’s parents had granted the three of us permission to paint a mural on the wall of the uppermost stairway landing, a landing that, my parents justly reasoned, no casual visitor to the house would ever have occasion to see.

The dispute: idealism versus mimesis.

The project started amicably enough: the three of us agreed that our subject should be pastoral: the mural would include a tree, possibly an oak; long grasses, bluebells and foxgloves; and butterflies would flit above the flowers.

Now, at the risk of prematurely revealing my own loyalties in this dispute, I will note here that our choice of subject matter, given that we lived in inner London, clearly indicated that we were not beholden to any principle of naturalism. We were, the three of us, urchins, born and raised on the streets of the grimy metropolis. Had we ever gazed up at an oak or smelled a bluebell? Of course we hadn’t!

It was on the vexed question of the size of the aforementioned butterflies that the controversy turned. I’ll put it as neutrally and diplomatically as I can: the eleven-year olds clung doggedly to what I can only describe as a naïve realism. It was important, they maintained, that the butterflies be sized in proportion to the plants as they would be in nature. It was, they argued, crucial, above all, that the butterflies not be larger than life, for in being oversized, they would risk the appearance of being—and this was the precise adjective used—“babyish,” which is to say, suitable for the walls of a nursery, but unbefitting of the uppermost landing of a house inhabited by mature persons over the age of ten. [3]

The duck-rabbit was resolutely opposed to this view. Clearly, the butterflies should be large, very large. They should be outsize; abstracted; radically simplified, stripped down to their essential form. Our touchstones should be Matisse; Marimekko; Mondrian. It was difficult for the duck-rabbit to keep from chuckling to itself (and, in fact, some snickers may have escaped from its lips) as it gently explained to the eleven-year olds that their stubborn insistence on adhering to a supposedly mature principle of verisimilitude was in fact evidence of their own extreme babyishness. Although the duck-rabbit used only the most soothing of tones as it patiently explained to the eleven-year olds why their artistic vision was infantile, they remained stubbornly wed to their ridiculous tiny butterflies. The duck-rabbit realized too late that the eleven-year olds had failed to understand that their role in this artistic project was to help bring the duck-rabbit’s vision to fruition, in the manner of Michelangelo’s assistants. [4] And so we arrived at an impasse.

At this juncture, you might wonder why the duck-rabbit’s fifteen-year old self was spending its weekends arguing about butterflies with eleven-year olds instead of going to raves and taking E, or whatever it was that other fifteen-year olds in London were doing in 1989. Sadly, that is beyond the scope of this dispatch, but it is certainly a good question.

You will also, in all likelihood, be eager to know how this controversy was ultimately resolved. So far as I can recall, so bitter was the dispute and so impassable the impasse, that we simply left the mural unfinished, bare and butterfly-less, for several months. But, eventually, I believe that we painted at least one butterfly and what I recall is that, curiously, both parties believed they had won, the butterfly striking the duck-rabbit as unmistakably oversized and abstracted, while the eleven-year-olds insisted that it was obviously realistic and proportionate to the surrounding vegetation.

What is the point of this story? That’s another excellent question, dear reader, one which, unfortunately, I am also unable to answer. I’ll mull it over, and in the meantime you should go make yourself a marmalade sandwich.


[1] Our family went with one of the elder flopsy-duckit’s best friends, whose first remark as the credits rolled was to observe that I resembled Mrs. Brown; I took this as a compliment since she was played by the lovely Sally Hawkins, whom I don’t resemble in the least; I do, however, share Mrs. Brown’s messy updo.

[2] Paddington’s species is also identified at one point in the film as Ursa marmalada.

[3] I don’t believe that this expression is used in the U.S. It means “characteristic of or suitable for a baby or young child; infantile, excessively childish; unsophisticated, silly” (OED).

[4] The beloved younger friend is now an extraordinarily talented professional artist. But this detail should not be given undue weight in considering whether she may, as a mere eleven-year-old, have had a better eye than the duck-rabbit. The duck-rabbit is not an acclaimed artist, but is competent at applying lipstick and hopes, eventually, to master eye-shadow.


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