We're delighted to present an exclusive extract from In Sight of Yellow Mountain: A Year in the Irish Countryside, the acclaimed new memoir from actor-turned-writer Philip Judge, published by Gill.
First, a dream of escaping the city ... and then a century-old cottage to match the dream. Moving to a small village in the heart of the Irish countryside was the beginning of a new life for Philip Judge - the beginning of life in sight of Yellow Mountain. Beginning and ending at Lughnasa - but taking in a number of years along the way - Philip describes the season-by-season charms and frustrations that he, his Beloved, and eventually, his two growing boys experience as they adapt to life in the countryside.
When I was a small boy, missing my father, I tried to fix many moments in my mind. The distance was so huge and letters so rare that my need for contact took refuge in fantasy. I imagined I had telepathic powers and that if I used these powers sparingly and precisely, I could send my dad a picture – mind to mind and in real time – of whatever activity or situation it was that I particularly wanted to share, good or bad, for approbation or reassurance.
I evolved a ritual that had to be followed minutely if this transmission were to work. I closed my eyes, concentrated hard on clearing my mind and inwardly intoned these words: ‘I wish Dad could see from my eyes and knew he was seeing from my eyes, from … now!’ Then I would open my eyes and he would see what I saw. It was important that I added the qualification ‘from my eyes’, otherwise he might be perplexed by these unattributed images popping up anonymously before his gaze. It was also vital that I said ‘now’ and opened my eyes at absolutely the same instant, otherwise the message wouldn’t be sent. It didn’t matter that he obviously lacked the power to communicate any acknowledgement – after all, I never got any. But this was unimportant. If I had got through, it was enough and I knew that he was steadily accruing an album of snapshots to connect him with his son’s life on the far side of the world. The technology now exists to do this for real.
On my phone, I have a large folder of photographs the Beloved has sent me of the boys’ various exploits. I also have a huge file of my own shots of my sons – some of which I have, in actuality, forwarded to my father in Africa. This is a reservoir of memory I can dip into at ease and I frequently do. When I am away from home, the last thing I often do before turning out the light is to flick through these pictures – these marked moments digitally captured – and I fall asleep with a smile on my face. This portable gallery goes with me everywhere, but the images of the deepest power are the ones in my own memory – the ones experienced personally and, usually, unexpectedly. At home, I don’t need the pictures in my phone. On this specific acre where I love and am loved, I breathe my own air contentedly. When I feel a need to connect to something other, something larger, I look around. Admittedly, I often see nothing except general dreariness, mist and rain. But the light never dies – it merely dwindles and then it re-kindles.
When the weather is fine, I have free access to the horizon, and the visible panorama of hills, woodlands, fields and sky imprints itself in my heart like a passage of imagined music. Wordsworth called these moments ‘spots of time’; he believed they had a ‘renovating virtue’ that worked continuously and unseen to bolster the subconscious mind and nourish the conscious one. Like him, I have learnt to see the natural world around me as a living presence and not merely as a static backdrop to my existence.
Sometimes a moment coalesces into something almost tangible, and I want to shout about it, like a hen delightedly declaring it has laid an egg. As a species we need to do this. We all have our private epiphanies – the brief instants when we grasp at intuition and sense beauty. But we also want to communally acknowledge the personally felt, so we create occasions which must be marked – sometimes arbitrarily and sometimes according to something immutable, like the circuit of the earth around the sun. We make our festivals, we dance around our fires and we sing with joy at the splendour of the dawn.
The medieval monk’s notion of beauty comes to my mind again. As well as claritas, Aquinas spoke of symmetry and integrity. To him, all things have a soul or an essence. When we see something we feel to be beautiful, we perceive a structured order of its parts – a symmetry; when we sense this symmetry, we are aware of the thing’s self-proclaiming wholeness – or integrity; and clarity occurs in the delightful moment when we recognise the thing’s essence – its soul, its ‘whatness’ outshines its mere appearance and we feel as well as see its completeness. We know its beauty and it achieves epiphany. Sometimes the landscape does this to me. I look across the valley to Sliabh Buí and I acknowledge its quiet, picturesque charm but I sense it deeper than sight and can’t say why. Ideas like these musings of a corpulent monk from hundreds of years ago, which I only partially grasp, help make some sense of the half-baked thoughts lurching about in my mind.
James Joyce fully understood the philosophy of Aquinas but he had the genius to apply it to the squalor of the city. He saw the sublime in disappointed lives and epiphanies in run-down streets. I have a much more vulgar soul and I find it easier to find these moments in the undeniable loveliness of my surroundings. I am also lucky. The moments keep coming in a continually unfolding succession. Another philosopher I remember from my university years, and whom I particularly liked because he wrote a really short book, was called Boethius. He was a sixth-century Roman and he wrote the book during a year in jail – where had been slung by the fabulously named Theodoric the Ostrogoth. To stop himself becoming deranged, he conjured up the image of a beautiful woman to talk to. She represented wisdom and wore a loose, slightly torn robe. He claims that her tattered dress symbolised the disrepute righteousness had fallen into and was not otherwise gratifying in any way. Apparently they had great chats, one of which was about how we perceive ‘the moment’.
He was trying to figure out how we could possibly have free will if at the same time we believe God to be all knowing. After all, if God knew everything, including the choices we would make in the future, then obviously we were not free to make them, as they must already have been determined. He fell to musing on time and how it must be experienced differently by God and by us. He decided there was a distinction between Eternity and Perpetuity. The world might well go on forever and ever – perpetually moving from the past into the future, each moment being the present for an instant. God, on the other hand, experienced all of time, totally and simultaneously in one eternal ‘Now’. The beautiful woman he was talking to was a sports fan and she came up with a racing metaphor. She imagined the hippodrome in Constantinople on a Saturday afternoon, when thousands were gathered in that massive amphitheatre to watch the chariot races. At any given moment during the huge, swirling spectacle, each charioteer would only be able to see the chariot immediately in front of him and the one immediately behind. Meanwhile, up in his lofty box, the emperor was able to see it all in one panoramic glance. We are in the race, looking before and after: God is up above, seeing all.
Time dragged slowly for Boethius in his cell, despite his alluring companion. He thought this ability to escape mundane perpetuity and experience everything – all life and all knowledge – in one totally encompassing, eternal moment was something to be aspired to. I am not so sure. It sounds too zen, too Buddhist and a little beyond me. I am still worldly and wish to remain so. I want to continue watching my boys pass through time and space and learn from the effortless grace with which they absorb each living moment. I would rather stay in the race and not watch from the high place. I don’t want more than I have, just more of the same – a perpetual cycle of ever-succeeding epiphanies. I am a charioteer, not an emperor. If I were an emperor, I would obviously fix the planet and ensure liberty, equality, limitless cake and free dentistry for all. But I have gradually accepted that I am largely powerless in the bigger society. Much as I loathe its currently prevailing values, I have slowly come to acknowledge that anger is ineffectual, and, besides, I am too old now to man a barricade. But I have power here, when Older Boy is not ignoring me and Younger Boy is not thwarting me. I have influence on this acre – this smaller, more vivid place to which I retreat. I know it all in fine detail: the top corner with the best view; my seat under the silver birch; the bench where my mum sits; the orchard, the kitchen garden and the hen run; the piggery full of wood, bordered by the Beloved’s herbs; the boys’ hedge hideouts and the tree where I carved their initials when we named them. But it is not the land that has inherent worth: it is the people I share it with who give it meaning. The more I have grown disheartened by the moral withering in the public and commercial realm, the more I have grown to love this private one. All I can really do is try to bring a sense of the practical values I learn here, back there. This personal axis of operation, the simple, small-scale intimacies in which I find such satisfaction, can sometimes give me purchase in the clamour of the public world.
But what is certain is this:
I have grown more deeply contented with every passing year the Beloved and I have spent together here and with every passing day of my sons’ lives. They, in their turn, breathe easily in a family environment steadier than the ones their parents knew. They are happier than I was at their age and, as importantly, are unconscious of the fact. I also know that with every harvest my chutney gets better. My most recent batch, made just two days ago, approaches perfection. I secreted a jar at the back of the cupboard under the stairs, just in case I decide to enter it in next year’s county show.
Next year. The cycle has started again. Not that it ever stopped. I began writing at Lughnasa but that was accidental – an opportune way in. The world turns and the seasons change regardless. I am now mindful of this in a way I never used to be. Perhaps as a child I had more of a sense of summer sun and winter snows, but for much of my youth and adulthood the circuit seemed broken. The wonderful thing is that you can reconnect at any time.
The Latin term for reconnect is religare – a binding together – and it gave rise to that huge word ‘religion’. When I had that glimpse lying in the hospital bed, that sense of a binding together of the atoms in my brain – a reconnection of my body and my mind – I had recently been near death. From time to time I have wondered if my subsequent openness to happiness and my sporadic ability to immerse myself in a particular moment in life was because I was so very nearly deprived of it. Is there a subconscious gratitude at play, and a consequently heightened appreciation of these years I might not have had? It is partly that, I expect – but who can be sure?
What I do know is that a moment I will always remember, a moment when I felt I could pick up the cut threads and retie them, a moment when everything changed and joy became not only possible but probable, was when I heard my son’s heartbeat from his mother’s womb. I felt like I was finally putting on a suit that was made to measure. I stepped into myself. Since that day I have been ready for anything and have looked to the future with a mostly benign expectation. Sometimes I have fallen into a hole but the Beloved usually pulls me out, and sometimes one of the boys does. Once in a while, I have done the hauling. Mostly, though, we laugh a lot. I passed the bathroom the other day and I heard clandestine murmurs through the slightly open door. I loitered and listened. I heard Older Boy whisper to his brother, ‘I’ll tell you a secret – I’m Dad’s favourite son.’ Younger Boy was confident that this was not the case, but he did check with me later – just to be sure – that he hadn’t been adopted.
My week at home is done now and I am off to the city again. I will have fun with this new role – a neat cameo in a rambunctious show in a gilded Victorian theatre – but I am leaving home with so much left undone. The hen house is still dilapidated and untouched. That will have to be left till next spring. As for the weeds … well, there comes a point when they can’t get any higher.
Across the valley, there are a few more windmills creeping up the flanks of Sliabh Buí. This is ominous but, for the moment at least, the pylon plan has been postponed for a year or two. So I sit on the bench and, instead of anxiously searching for signs, I just look at the view. When this play is finished, Halloween will have come and gone, I will have missed the long evenings and the weather will probably be ghastly. Then it will get worse until it can only get better … and then it will be glorious once more. The cycle continues, comfortingly, inexorably. Moments go, but then they return and new ones always come. Regretting the past and worrying about the future corrodes the only time we have, which is the present. On the horizon, the yellow mountain sits, daily different but annually unchanging, at the slow, constant heart of things.
In Sight of Yellow Mountain (published by Gill) is out now.
About the author: Philip Judge is an actor with many roles on television, film and theatre in Dublin and London. He lives - contentedly - in Wicklow with his Beloved and two small sons.