Making distinctions and observing boundaries are two activities central to my working life. They tend to bleed through, inevitably, to the rare minutes when I believe myself instead to be at liberty. I was struck in various ways, recently, by the near-impossibility of delivering crisp limits in an increasingly greyscale academic/life framework. Three images are important here.

Robert Healy: Castletowns, skating

1. Robert Healy’s elegant eighteenth-century vision of three Castletowns, skating, with a small excited dog. We saw this in the (greyscale) flesh a few weeks ago, and yesterday I was confronted by it again when a card arrived from Dublin/home, recalling visits to Castletown, the vanishing ’60s into which I was born, and the muted quality attained by family who have died.

Castletown House, Ireland’s first and largest Palladian extravaganza, was a familiar haunt for my toddler self, before the strictures of compulsory education divorced me from the freedom to roam history-haunted architectural sites favoured by my parents and still, then, in some disfavour in uncomfortably post colonial Ireland.

Revisiting Castletown, and its sister, Carton, recalled real memories of picnics, follies, shell houses; all overlaid with a veneer of Kubrick whose lusciously tonal reinvention of Carton as Barry Lyndon’s first erotic hunting-ground quickly blended cinematic verité with my authentic recall.


2. Pick up a p-p-p-penguin. Why were Penguin biscuits so luridly colourful? A staple of ’70s lunchboxes, they were gaudy instances of how cultural cannibalisation churns out triumphant novelty, cheerfully overwriting genuine alterity with an ersatz strangeness. I found myself singing the Penguin ditty strolling up towards and past Roscioli this morning, en route for breakfast with a friend. Why? I saw a shop, shuttered, with a meditative penguin occupying the space and with sidelong glance challenging passers by.

Time flies, Via Giulia, Rome

3. Both of these, colliding in my thoughts as I strolled home, guided my footsteps involuntarily down Via Giulia. That moment when, with the bustle of the Campo well behind one, the plashing of the great classical basins of the Farnese fountains still echoing, Via Giulia’s memento mori seep slyly into focus. That’s an instant of acrid pleasure in the stark reality of life: it’s all we get. Death comes. Every day untouched by death is a day for living, enjoying, relishing. And nowhere more so than in Rome.

Unlike #1 (ice-skating) and #2 (de-iced penguin), the addendum to my b/w set is at once novel and intimately mine. Few things hug the thoughts like a snug-fitting helmet, and this morning’s purchase of a black-with-white-stripe open-face helmet takes me to the b/w woodland of the icy Castletown scene and also to the b/w heart of penguin iconicity. Badgers, skunks, raccoons, penguins. All inhabit margins, all signal difference and perhaps, just a little antipathy to the colourful norms and semiotic carnival of real life.

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