The breathing artist

Fire comes to the city

I WORKED AS part of an ever-changing small team of lighthouse keepers in 1973, on three uninhabited islands off the West Coast of Scotland. I was twenty years old. I spent a lot of time sitting on rocks in the Atlantic. It was on those rocks – some of them quite large islands the size of Uluru, others thin strips of lava chords in the Outer Hebrides – that I constructed some kind of worldview. It was neither utopian nor dystopian. Neither north nor south, Old World or New World. Just global and local. Full of sentient beings. ‘Let’s work together… every boy girl woman and man,’ as the Canned Heat lyrics of the day urged.

As summer comes on, as Australia burns, I spend a lot of my time writing in the wonderful State Library of New South Wales. I am trying to bring together three books of collected art writings, culling forty years of my work. One will be a book on ‘Art in Australia’ from 1990 to 2020. The ‘in’ is important in the title as it allows me to include all the great international exhibitions I have seen across this island continent – many in Australia’s seldom reported on, but always wonderful, regional galleries. A separate book is called Curious About Artists: Encounters With 50 Contemporary Artists. In the introduction I write: ‘The fifty artists you will meet on these pages come from over twenty different countries. But if there seems to be a disproportionate number of Scottish and Australian artists who I’ve encountered, that is a deliberate attempt to redress the usually skewed balance. In Australia especially – and you can tell from the surnames – many of these artists were born overseas, or have European or Asian heritage: Patricia Piccinini, Guan Wei, Jon Cattapan, Laresa Kosloff, Peter Booth, Angelica Mesiti (shown in the Australian Pavilion at the 2019 Venice Biennale), and Mathieu Briand. The Indigenous artists – Tracey Moffatt, Brook Andrew and others – also make work about their mixed heritage… As someone who was born to an Australian mother and a Scottish father I have, from as early an age as I can remember, embraced both countries and their histories as my own, while not always agreeing with all that was done in their name.’ 

At heart, I am a European-Scot and an Australian. I am also an internationalist. Both hemispheres of the planet are as important to me as both hemispheres of my head.


I’VE BEEN HOUSESITTING at the edge of Sydney Harbour in Balmain over Christmas and New Year – pretending to myself I am not homeless, trying not to feel unemployed. Balmain has a contained, village-like feel about it. A very different ambience to that of Centrelink, Darlinghurst, where I spend many of my days trying to wrestle a pension from a bureaucracy I have been paying into for over three decades. Back in Balmain, most streets have free community library boxes where you can help yourself to whatever you fancy, or leave a book for others. There are spectacular views down to Cockatoo Island from one side, site of many memorable Sydney Biennales. Or across to the Harbour Bridge and Opera House from the other.

For the past few weeks, Sydney has been surrounded by hundreds of bushfires. Where once I looked down to clear waters and up to tall skyscrapers, now there is a fog of smoke. This is not like sitting around a campfire or being in a Highland croft with a blocked chimney. This is a killer smoke, especially for asthma sufferers. It is made up of tiny particles each smaller than a red blood cell. These get into your lungs and from there into your blood stream. This, we are told, is the ‘new normal’. Sometimes, I try to remember what it was like to breathe fresh air. Coincidentally, it was reading Jack Kerouac’s Desolation Angels (André Deutsch, 1965) about the sixty-four days he worked in isolation as a fire watcher that first inspired me to become a lighthouse keeper. He’d have plenty of fires to watch out for in New South Wales.

I think of the Orkney Islands, and remember the freshness of the air and the clarity of the light. I listen to the music of Erland Cooper, the amazing young Stromness composer inspired by the sound of seabirds. I play his albums constantly while I am painting – Solan Goose, Sule Skerry, Murmuration. There are no lyrics in his work, but occasionally a beautiful Orcadian voice will speak a few everyday phrases, about the sea and the shore, the ‘flatties’ and other creatures pulled from the sea. George Mackay Brown (1921–1996) was the finest of Orcadian poets. His earth-and-seaweed poem cycle Fishermen with Ploughs (Hogarth Press, 1971) described the traditional multitasking of his contemporaries and their ancestors. He spent nearly his entire life in the town of Stromness, surrounded by Viking runes (they are still regarded as the ‘incomers’, arriving about 800 AD). The arrival of the Neolithic settlers (the real ancestors of today’s Orcadians) predates the building of the Pyramids.

Erland Cooper lives in London now. I heard a story recently about how he was performing at a huge warehouse party and asked the thousands of revellers to download the sound of a single gannet’s cry onto their phones from his website. He then got the audience to play it back simultaneously, and the whole space sounded like a huge gannet colony, transposed to the centre of London. I know what a gannet colony sounds like. Ailsa Craig, my second lighthouse posting, houses one of the world’s largest.

Birds have always been important to me. Or rather, their ability to migrate across oceans and continents. North to south, chasing the sun. South to north, flying back towards the light. Birds are my kind of people. These were the tales my father – a zoologist – told me.

Somewhere between the bushfires and COVID-19 – when south-east Australia’s latest worry was flooding – I went on a very wet night to view Robert Eggers’s movie The Lighthouse. I found it came a bit too close to Hitchcock’s The Birds as it reached its delirium tremens climax. But sometimes Hitchcock just comes with the territory of fear. As I wrote in Stargazing (Random House Australia, 2003), my lighthouse memoir, ‘My last night on Hyskeir (Goat Island) was like a nightmare scripted by Marcel Duchamp, filmed by Alfred Hitchcock and with sets designed by any number of contemporary conceptual artists.’ Our relief helicopter was cancelled because of fog. We’d all run out of tobacco, as Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson’s characters had run out of whiskey in Eggers’s movie. We were in a foul mood, searching through the black bin liners of rubbish for fag ends to harvest. And that night all the land birds across Scandinavia decided, by some advanced telepathy more sophisticated than a stealth bomber, to migrate south to Africa, from lighthouse to lighthouse, ‘down the left cheek of earth’ – England, France, Portugal, Morocco and further south still. Half a million of them circled the light all through the night. All through ‘the Rembrandts’ as I called our night watches. Mine was from 2 am to 6 am. One in a hundred flew into the glass and dropped dead on the flat roofs of our accommodation below. One in a thousand entered the light chamber through the hole in the roof through which the paraffin vapour escaped. (Even in the mid-twentieth century most lighthouses still used paraffin rather than electricity as the beam travelled greater distances.) All through the night they rose and fell with broken wings and legs, percolating inside the slowly turning Cyclops of the lighthouse, revolving on its frictionless bath of mercury.


MY GRANDPARENTS LIVED in Balmain, a few streets from where I am now staying. It’s where my mother, Mary Watt, and my Uncle Ed grew up. On those days when I feel motivated enough to walk through the smoke haze to the gym (I’m the old guy wearing the white-on-black Museum of Jurassic Technology T-shirt that states: ‘Tell It to the Bees’), I pass the house they lived in. Yesterday, I noticed a neat row of teenage shoes lined up outside the front door. At the back of the original house, a huge extension has been built – probably four times the size of the tiny cottage my family lived in. On a spur of the moment, I phone my sister in Cheshire and my brother in Longniddry to say I was standing outside Mum’s house. The three of us know that none of us would be here – nor nephews, nieces and a new generation of grand-nephews and grand-nieces – were it not for a mate of Sandy Watt, my grandfather. He signed up as an ANZAC almost as soon as he arrived in Australia from Dundee. He fought in the trenches in ‘the blood tub’ – the First Battle of Bullecourt – which The Journal of the Australian War Memorial 36 describes as ‘the first World War One battle that engendered the greatest distrust and contempt in Australian troops for their British commanders’.

The battle – one of the first using tanks – only lasted one day in April 1917, but it had a horrendous casualty toll for the Australians of two thirds of their men. One of those was my grandfather. Hit by shrapnel, he was mistaken for dead and thrown on a pile of bodies. His mate from Balmain later saw his arm move and pulled him out. We know that he arrived back at Circular Quay on Christmas Day 1917. I always think about this when I hear the tear-wrenching Pogues song, ‘And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda’, written by the Scottish-born Eric Bogle, who now lives in Adelaide. Mum was born in 1923. And in March 1932, at its opening, she was carried across Sydney Harbour Bridge on Sandy Watt’s shoulders. As close to a miracle as you can get.


SOON SCHOOLKIDS ARE returning from their fragmented summer break. Their parents are in Balmain’s Riverview bar or the Unity Hall Hotel describing the fires they have witnessed, the pets they have lost, the lucky escapes and the tragic deaths. The house I am sitting has three balconies and sits high on a hill. The voices of teenagers rise up to me. ‘You ask me why I seem worried?!’ one shouts at his young girlfriend, wearing an identical uniform. ‘The environment is dying. Nuclear war is closing in. And there’s a killer virus on the loose.’

Sometimes we are told on the radio the good news that the number of fires has reduced overnight. Then we are given the bad news that this is because many smaller fires have joined together into mega-fires, some half the size of Scotland. I now can’t remember the last time I breathed fresh air. There’s no point opening the windows as it just blows in more particles. Coughing around the house, and white face masks on the streets, have also become the new normal. And we are the lucky ones. We’re not in Lithgow or on Batemans Bay, looking for a ship to rescue us from the smoke-filled beaches, or for a helicopter to dump pink fire retardant on our roofs and veggie patches. In the morning, the landscape is as grey and desolate as an Anselm Kiefer artwork.

Now face masks are being worn – pointlessly we’re told – against COVID-19. And last week they said half a billion native animals had died in those fires. Yesterday they updated that to one billion. Then they added the footnote that this did not include insects – vital to our survival. Their death toll is put at over one trillion. My father was an entomologist and would have been dismayed by these figures. As he was, back in the 1950s, by the destruction of Britain’s hedgerows through industrial farming methods. Hedgerows supported insects, insects attracted birds, and both helped pollinate the wider landscape. To me, a budding four-year-old zoologist-in-waiting, hedgerows took on the aura of a holy site – from the way my father spoke of them – like Lord’s Cricket Ground, the Ring of Brodgar in Orkney, or the River Ganges.

As a young hippie lighthouse keeper, the book that kept me company on my long watches through the night was Gordon Rattray Taylor’s The Doomsday Book (Thames & Hudson, 1970). It was full of warnings about global warming, pollution, the population explosion, sustainability, extinction, refugee crises and international terrorism – planes flying into iconic buildings. Looking through my yellow lighthouse diaries, I find this quote from his book, in my cack-handed scrawl:

If you shoot eagles, it is said, you may find yourself with a plague of locusts. For the eagles keep down the lizards. When the lizards increase, the frogs on which they feed decline. And when the frogs decline, the locusts on which they feed multiply. The study of such relationships is known as ecology.

Many Australians today have the same distrust and contempt for their climate-change denying political leaders as their grandparents had for their British commanders at ‘the blood tub’. At least their generals, bad though they were, didn’t go on holiday to Hawaii in the middle of the battle they’d been told, almost a year ago by their own fire chiefs, was coming. Listen to your grandchildren.

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