The Blue Chamber
text by Duncan McLean
Exhibition shown at:
Duff House, Banff, Aberdeenshire, Scotland,
March 4 to April 30 2000.
Introduction (from catalogue)
Humans on the whole are inquisitive. We look for new experiences, places and people even if that means taking a chance, testing the water or just plunging in and hang the consequences. We also can’t help telling others of what we saw or who we met sharing our adventures, telling the story of a film we’ve just seen, or the plot of a book we’ve just read. The public here too are intrigued for a glimpse into the past and many visit Duff House to experience the lives and surroundings of previous residents. Their visit allows them to wander, examine and snoop into the rooms, where they become confronted by an array of objects and fine art. Perhaps they are unsure of what to expect. Perhaps they linger. Perhaps they quickly go from room to room. “The Blue Chamber” is an exhibition about this human condition: the need for search and research; the need for exploration and possibly risk- sometimes our yearnings and travels end in disaster; sometimes our desires take us beyond our wildest dreams and imaginings.
In the North-east of Scotland there are no contemporary exhibition spaces: the places where we expect to see the work of these artists, we have to use other available and willing locations. Duff House has recently broadened its programme of exhibitions to include a range of exciting contemporary projects, and so encouraging new audiences to experience both the work and the house. The uniqueness of the venue and the essence of showing contemporary artwork in a historical setting creates an exciting and stimulating experience for both the showing artists and the potential viewing audience. It is hoped that the exhibition attracts a broad audience, in terms of both geography and demographics.
The exhibition has had a long preparation period and I would like to thank everyone who has been involved in the project, particularly the artists and writer, Claire Barclay, Annie Cattrell, Ross Sinclair, Kenny Hunter, Gareth Fisher, Jessica Stockholder and Duncan McLean, who all entered into it with great spirit, understanding and belief. I also want to thank all the staff at Duff House, particularly Claudia Zeiske, Charles Burnett, Jenny Reid, John Mair, Jo Edwards and Josephine Anthony for their support and assistance.
Works in the exhibition
image: Ross Sinclair
Images : Matthew Dalziel
HOUSEWARMING by Duncan McLean
Canny Man spent the morning collecting driftwood for the stove, and the afternoon making three big pots of chilli con carne. As they were having their final simmer, he wrote out labels in red marker pen and taped them to the potlids. The first label said HOT, the second label said VERY HOT, and the third label said DANGER! DO NOT EAT THIS CHILLI!
That done, Canny Man turned all the lights on, closed the door behind him, and walked round the shore to the village. It was getting dark by this time, but the streetlamp lit up the noticeboard outside the post office, and the redmarker poster he’d pinned there a week before:
COME TO CANNY’S HOOSE!
It’s taken 12 year’s but it’s finally finished Thank God. So
“HOUSEWARMING”, SATURDAY 11th,
7pm to whenever.
ALL WELCOME! (Except Alan of Taftsness,
any of the Simonson’s, Mary Grady
and all Faeroe Islander’s.)
Canny Man carried on along the empty street to the hotel. He paused outside and took one last look along the curve of the bay to his house out on the point, all windows ablaze, the dark hulk of the caravan lurking off to one side. The whitewashed walls shone with reflected light as they rose from their happing of carefully pointed-up rubble: the shell of the old herring station he’d bought and gutted and grown his new place out of.
Canny Man looked down at his hands, examined the grimy palms and thick fingers. He turned them over and looked at the skinned knuckles and chipped nails. Then he clenched them into fists and walked into the bar.
A couple hours later, Canny Man looked up from his fifth pint and said, Quiet thenight, Peat.
The barman nodded, sighed, and looked around the empty lounge. The World’s Biggest Halibut, stuffed above the mantelpiece, looked back, just as banana-mouthed. Course you ken why it’s quiet? said Peat.
Something good on the telly? said Canny Man. I never look at it myself. Can’t abide sitting doing nothing. He drained his glass, slid it towards Peat for a refill. Anyone that says different can go to hell.
No, said Peat, That’s not it. Every bastard’s away up to your place for the party.
Eh? Oh aye! Canny Man chuckled, checked the clock above the gantry. The housewarming: I forgot about that.
Peat handed over a full pint. How many years has it taken you?
Ninety-nine years, said Canny Man. With time added on for bad behaviour.
Twelve years, said Peat. I mind when you bought that place. Big plans you had. Night after night you’d be in here, drawing on the beer mats, telling us all what you were going to do. Under-floor heating beneath the flags. A door from the bedroom straight to the boathouse. The bothy at the back for nothing but home brew
Ach well, said Canny Man, The best laid plans He looked away, sniffed, then stuck out his chin. At least I got the bastard built, he said. That’s the main thing: it’d still be a rickle of stones and a stink of fish guts if I hadn’t stepped in. He took a big gulp of beer, swilled it around his gob, then swallowed. All my own work too, he said. No one can say The Canny Man doesn’t finish nothing.
Och, no one could ever say that, said Peat. I’ve seen you finish hundreds of things. Pints, mostly. But a good few nips as well. Even a cup of tea once, when you came by the house a few summers ago with Esther.
Canny man set his glass down on the wooden bartop with a crack, and fixed Peat in a glower. Do NOT, he said, Do NOT mention that woman to me. Jesus Christ! Don’t even mention her near to me. She’s gone, thank Christ, and I don’t want reminding. I’m well shot of her and I don’t wish her back. The last thing I need is bastards like you going on and on and ON about her. It’s finished. Good riddance. Esther Broch is nothing to me. So drop it, just drop it. Forget her. Just let her go, eh? Do us all a favour and shut the fuck up about Esther.
Aye, said Peat. Sorry. He turned round to the gantry and filled one nip glass with Glenlivet, another with 100 Pipers. Here Canny, he said, sliding along the Pipers. On the house.
An hour or so later the door battered open and Douglas and Irene Tulloch came walloping in, the pair of them laughing like gite horses, their cheeks red from cold, the smell of spirits, wind and seaweed all about them.
Canny! cried Douglas. What the hell are you doing here?
Ice skating, said Canny Man.
You’re missing yourself, said Irene. The party’s going great. It was a bit slow to start, like, with you not being there and that, but after a while we all just thought, we’ll start without him he can catch up!
Great grub by the way, said Douglas. That chilli’s just the ticket on a night like this. Then he laughed.
Canny man frowned. What? he said.
Douglas was giggling too much to answer.
Irene laughed too, then leant forward. Was it deliberate? she said.
The labels? said Canny Man. Were the labels deliberate? No. I wrote them out by accident. I was actually trying to do the Record fucking crossword at the time, but I took my eye off the page and WOOPS! before I knew it I’d written out three labels and stuck them to the pan.
He doesn’t ken! cried Douglas, and gave another hoot of laughter.
You’re a gink, said Irene, shaking her head and grinning. You got the labels mixed up. The mild pot had the DANGEROUS label on it, and the dangerous pot said MILD. Suzy Inkster just about died! Took one spoonful of what she thought was the safe one and went ballistic! You should’ve seen her. Steam coming out her nostrils in three seconds flat, face the colour of a lobster
The names she was calling you, said Douglas. Your lugs should’ve been bizzing.
Canny Man looked at them. They were, he said. But not as much as her arse will be the morn’s morn. And he jumped off his stool amidst the laughter and strolled off to the lavvy, slate-faced.
When he came back from the bog, Douglas was holding open a string bag and Irene was slotting in cans and bottles.
We were just talking, said Peat, About Jimmy Wilson out at Warness. Mind he spent ages doing up the old manse finest place in the South End, so it was till the night afore they were due to move back in, there was an electrical fault in the freezer, and the place burnt to the ground.
He was so pissed off, said Irene, That he moved to Wick. Can you imagine!
Canny Man shrugged. Doesn’t bother me, he said. I haven’t got a freezer.
And there was another bunch on the Mainland, said Douglas. Friends of my brother’s wife. Clam divers. They scrimped and saved every penny, finally managed to pay off their twenty-five year mortgage in seventeen years. Threw a big shindig, burnt the mortgage documents at midnight to celebrate their freedom. Course, they were waving these flaming papers about in the air as they danced, and before they knew it the lampshade had caught fire, and then the curtains, and then the whole bloody house.
I mind that fine, said Peat. They’d put every penny into the mortgage fund they’d never bothered with insurance.
Canny Man rubbed his nose. I’ve no mortgage to burn, he said. Paid the whole damn lot out of my own sweat and blood, and no one can say any different. If they do they’re lying, fuck them.
Hear hear, said Irene.
We must be off, said Douglas. Drams all round afore we go.
Peat obliged, including one for himself.
A toast, cried Irene. To the new Canny house! They all raised their glasses.
Lang may yer lum reek, said Douglas.
Lang hairy bum cheeks, said Canny Man.
Twelve years I’ve been staring at those walls, said Canny Man, after the Tullochs headed off. From rubble to pointing to plaster to paint. I need a few hours away.
Some folk think you’ll never move in, said Peat, polishing the nip glasses. You’ve spent so long on the place that you’ve scunnered yourself with it.
Maybe, said Canny Man. But I’m no tinkler. I’m scunnered of the caravan as well. Scunnered with every fucking place on this island, if you really want to know. Maybe Esther had the right idea after all get right away from the bloody wet turd. Though why she had to go with that Faeroese fish-fucker I’ll never ken. Bastard. That house was mean for the both of us, and where’s she? In some pink-painted glorified garden-shed in Torshaven! I hope it blows away in a gale. Aye, and Jens Peter Penis with it.
Some of the Westray boys were telling me he’s named his new trawler after her, said Peat. Three million quid it cost him. The Girl Esther. It’s got a sauna and everything, and a big double bedroom so the pair of them can go on trips together, sail away anywhere they like.
Canny Man let out a low moan, then slid his elbows across the bar till his chin hit the wood.
Well, said Peat, Anywhere there’s cod.
By half-ten all but the gantry lights were out, and Peat had finished cashing up. Counting the night’s takings had only taken a couple of minutes: apart from Canny Man, no one else had so much as sat down in the place. Apparently the party of the decade was going on at the house out on the point: two or three different folk had said so when they came in for reinforcement carry-outs.
Eventually Canny Man said cheerio, his first word for near an hour, and headed off. Stopping to button his jacket, he heard Peat bolting the door behind him before he was even off the front step. He stood there and listened to the key turning in the lock behind him. Away to his left, round the curve of the bay, he could see his new house, the windows blasting out light, and tiny figures jumping about behind the triple-glazing. Somebody must’ve opened a window or two, cause the sound of music and laughter and dancing-skirls came floating over the water on the cold night air.
He crossed the road, took the short path that lead through the grass down to the shore, and turned along it, the shingle crinching under his feet. Behind him, he heard a car start up then drive off through the village. It was Peat, heading off for the party. It looked like everyone in the whole damn village was up at the house now – apart from the man of the moment, the host, the idiot who’d spent near half his life patching and shoring up the place, rebuilding and roofing, damp-coursing and rewiring, painting and decorating, sweating and bleeding. And all for what? To turn an old ruin intoa dream house? The house of fun? Home?
Maybe he should moved into one of the council semis down by the school. Or bought one of those Norwegian kit houses: like Lego, those things, you could have them up in a weekend
As Canny Man walked on along the beach, the music and laughter coming from his house got louder. There was a gentle breeze blowing from that direction, rubbing his nose right in the sounds of the party. He stopped to listen, and to look at the bright windows, the only lights on the north side of the bay. Then he shifted his gaze to look out over the dark, empty sea beyond the point. Nothing but water all the way. All the way to Faeroe.
He must’ve been closer to the edge than he’d thought, for cold water was starting to seep in through the lace holes on his boots, and the split where the sole was coming away on the right one. But instead of stepping back up the slope, he started to walk on into the bay. Slowly at first, then quicker, he walked straight out, northwards. The water came up to his ankles, then his knees, then his thighs. He stopped. He could feel his balls shrivelling as the North Sea slapped them.
Jesus, he said, standing there. That is cold.
He looked out over the darkness of the sea, his house blazing away in the corner of his eye.
That is cold, he said.
© Duncan McLean 2000