Back when the world was quiet and shops were veiled and interactions few, I had reason to go to a small, private gallery in East Lothian to collect something. Because of the retreat from life, the shop owner had, like the rest of us, been staying at home, only nipping into her gallery occasionally to check on security. What she had not taken care of was a vase of dead flowers placed on the counter, which were, by now, encircled in crisp leaves and faded petals and dusty pollen. All the water in the vase had been drunk and in the absence of water to feed their rot, the blooms’ demise had been preserved, mummified in a wilted state I can only describe as beautiful. Unlike deliberately dried flowers, these flowers were in a state one might see on an untended grave, though less undone by the elements. The gallery owner agreed with me; she liked how the blooms crumpled, how the necks of the roses were fractured, how the tulip petals had shrived to a tenth of their original size, and the stems turned so pale green they were almost yellow. To have dead flowers in one’s house is not the convention, you’d either be branded depressed or dirty, squalid or sad, yet to enjoy their turning is just another way of looking at things, of removing worn out judgement from the act of seeing, of re-framing what is beautiful. The French have a word for someone who is attractive despite possessing what may not been viewed as conventionally beautiful features, it is, ‘jolie laide’ – an uninspired joining of the word ‘pretty’ with ‘ugly’, but at least they have a word. Or do we need a word? Why distinguish at all?
In the novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, author Milan Kundera has one of his characters speak of the ‘beauty by mistake’ that is New York. The character argues that, “Beauty in the European sense has always had a premeditated quality to it. We’ve always had an aesthetic intention and a long-range plan. The beauty of New York rests on a completely different base. It’s unintentional. It arose independent of human design, like a stalagmite cavern. Forms which are in themselves quite ugly turn up fortuitously, without design, in such incredible surroundings that they sparkle with a sudden wondrous poetry.”
Today, I sat out on Leith Walk drinking coffee in the late summer sun. Men in hard white hats, orange trousers, yellow vests, black gloves were laying girders into the ground along the two-mile length of road. Kneeling, bending, crawling, fixing to an uninterrupted soundtrack of drilling and digging as a small crane lifted and set huge iron girders into place. Theses structures looked like enormous spring casings from inside a burnt-out mattress. Two women sat down beside me, I overheard them lament the view. But it is endlessly interesting – I wanted to say to them – Look at that guy hooking the chains onto those big coffin-like cages, and look at the concrete the other man is pouring, and listen to the pound of the jack hammer half a mile away. Everything about it had its own beauty. But the only people who didn’t rush by were old men, they were the only ones to bide a while and take it all in. I don’t know what they were seeing; perhaps they were seeing it as it was seventy years ago, or they were wondering if they would still be around to see trams running on the finished lines, or maybe they were admiring the beauty of change: decline, destruction, construction, completion… and so it begins again.
In the town where I grew up, the local amusement park with funfair rides has been sold off for development, and, for a while anyway, it will continue to decline like that vase of flowers sitting in the little art gallery during lockdown. Already, it has an abandoned air to it. My friend took photographs and sent them to me; the razor wire against the big dipper against the blue sky as the place hunkers down waiting for its new life to begin. Nearby, a terrace of old Victorian boarding houses stare out to sea. Some are in use, others have slumped so far into abandonment that nature has begun to eat them up. Some people might hate these such houses look, they probably call them an eyesore, but just as I can see Kundera’s unintentional beauty that accompanies the unplanned, I can also see it in the abandoned, the aged, the decrepit. There is beauty in dereliction – particularly if we let go of our perceived notions of beauty – look at these ancient stone steps covered in thick green moss and turrets of long grass and heavy old front doors with layers of paint peeling back to decades past. I hope for life to be breathed into them again, but, in the meantime, why this need for symmetry, order, balance, proportion? The random and chaotic can be beautiful, and there is beauty in nature reclaiming order.