Last Sunday, as I walked west from Soho through Hyde Park, I was struck by the beauty of the evening light, as though golden light-rays were pooling together for one last knees-up before the onset of winter. It made me feel all floaty and ethereal (although that could have been the yoga, too). At times like this, I find myself endlessly scanning my gaze across the full extent of the visible vista to make sure I don’t miss any of the detail, and to try and imprint the memory fully in my mind, through sheer concentration. Or, even better, I’ll grab my notebook and try and describe it, so that I’ll remember the moment.
This kind of almost panicked behaviour is actually covered in a book that I have just read: The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton. In one chapter, the author talks about the human need to ‘possess’ beauty, for example through taking photos and buying souvenirs, such that we’re able to carry away the mental image with us. He then goes on to explain John Ruskin’s take on this idea of capturing beauty for longevity. Mr Ruskin was a great proponent of drawing a scene or writing a description of it, in order to fully understand its beauty and therefore retain a faithful memory of it. It’s simple really: by drawing or writing, we see more detail and thus come to understand why the scene is beautiful to us, and if we understand the why, then the memory embeds (horrible flashbacks to exam revision, shudder). On the other hand, if we just glance our eyes over a scene, we’ll only register generic beauty in a vague way, and the subsequent memory of it will be blurred, transient and, ultimately, elusive when we grapple to evoke it in the future.
Anyway, without realising it, I have been an adherent of John Ruskin’s approach for most of my literate life, and Sunday evening in Hyde Park was no different. So here’s what I wrote about my walk through the park, whilst sat on a bench. I really tried to focus on the specific details of what I was seeing, mixing flowery descriptions with an almost scientific approach as to why the particular aesthetics were pleasing to me:
The filter of my lashes, half-closed against the remnant sliver of a September sun, creates softness from clarity as harsh lines blur to a golden haze. A host of heavenly beings move towards me in silhouette, backlit by white, sparkling auras. Sylvian-filtered rays shift on the breeze, probing the mellow brume with horizontal sharpness, restlessly seeking. Burnished foliage shivers, teetering on the cusp of Autumn.
Yes, I know – it’s a classic example of the kind of whimsical over-describing that editors love to hate. However, on reading it back just now, it did conjure up the specifics of that moment in the park. And, whenever I find myself reading one of my old notebooks, many of the hastily scribbled descriptive sentences and passages also take me right back to a specific moment, and evoke warm, pleasant feelings as I remember the magic of the particular elements of beauty that had caught my attention enough to put pen to paper.
So, I think Mr Ruskin was definitely onto something – and the good news is that you don’t have to be good at writing or drawing for the process to work. It is merely the act of taking the time to consider the ‘whys’ of the beauty in detail that allows us to ‘own’ the beauty. So, yep, I officially own Hyde Park now, as it was at about 6pm on Sunday 30th September 2012. Please keep off the grass…
(And sorry, in true Ruskin style, I have no photos to show you of the beautiful evening – but I guess that’s kind of the point, isn’t it?)