The Clearing is a vision of the future in the grounds of Compton Verney Art Gallery and Park

Caretaker report

1 September 2017

Peter Cragg

What do you think you're doing?

I don’t know what I was expecting, but it certainly wasn’t this.

The Clearing sits at the junction between the past, the present and the future. And if you slip too far into the past or the future, sawing wood or showering in cold water behind a modesty-screen of brown leaves, the present will loudly remind you that it’s there. This usually came in the form of an army of visitors. I had prepared to be unprepared and hopeless, but had not prepared to be unprepared and hopeless in front of hundreds of people. After a while I started to feel like a wild-haired, smelly tour-guide at a post-apocalyptic Beamish - embracing the role of “Caretaker #15” with demented relish.

Stock responses got me through the endless variations on the same questions/observations. Every time someone noted the Constable painting in the corner, I would stage-whisper “it’s an original…”. I would pretend not to have checked on the hens, and send group after group of excited children to discover the same 4 speckled eggs. Was Caretaker #15 really covering someone who’d dropped out at the last minute? Was he the only caretaker brave or foolish enough to have stayed in The Clearing alone? Was the thing he missed most in the real world (pause for effect) hummus?

The toughest moment of the whole fiction/fact-performance art/hey-I’m-living-here enterprise didn't come till the end of the week (more on which later) but the challenges began on arrival. I quickly learned that some people have no concept of boundaries. I found a child in poo-covered wellies sitting on the crows-nest bed, holding up my possessions for inspection by the assembled crowd. I suggested to his mother that he might want to come down now; she looked straight through me. I left my notebook on the table, and found a bored-looking visitor flicking through it, scanning my most intimate thoughts like an Argos catalogue. I should probably have had a less British approach to telling them to keep their filthy mitts off my precious things, but instead I learned to pack anything of value in my bag and stuff it at the end of the bed.

I also quickly got used to the less palatable side of some of those visitors who didn’t just ignore me. The pair of old women who tutted ‘I suppose they’ll fill this place full of immigrants when you leave…’. The very downtrodden-looking woman with a bob who sloped in to announce ‘looking at that water filter makes you think, why don’t all them starving Africans just make water filters out of sand like we did in Victorian times.’ The angry man in trousers with zips at the knees and a million utility pockets who pointed at my chest, shouting ‘I’d do this properly if I was staying here - have yer got a phone with yer? Well chuck it in the bloody lake…’ Everyone who trod hen poo all over the rugs then announced “it stinks in here.” The sheer, overwhelming, never-ending volume of curious, slow-moving visitors.

But, reader, I reached my lowest point as Caretaker #15 on the afternoon of the fourth day whilst trying to make a fire. I’d gotten fairly frustrated with this process on the first day, when it took me 4 hours to make a simple cup of tea; I may have booted a pile of wet hay at a passing hen. The process makes you think deeply about what resources hide behind the simple act of putting the kettle on - which is handy as you have a lot of spare time for acts of lofty contemplation whilst sawing logs, chopping logs, starting the fire, adding small sticks, blowing on the dying embers, adding bigger twigs, blowing some more, adding bits of log, wafting for dear life using the plastic dustpan, and exhaling a plume of carbon emissions when you finally have a flame that will stand on its own two feet. Eventually I’d gotten into it, helped by an old man who had been a Scout in his youth. He had an impenetrable Welsh mumble as wiry and tangled as his white beard, and showed me how to make a newspaper firelighter out of the joyless property section of the Evening Standard. Take that modernity.

But on that fourth day, I struggled so badly to make a fire that, as 3pm rolled around and I still hadn’t eaten, desperation caused me to put the DO NOT DISTURB - CARETAKER BUSY sign on the rickety gate. I put my head down to focus on starting just one bastard fire. Kneeling in the dirt, blowing, praying and swearing at a pile of ash, I was conscious that visitors were watching me struggle from the other side of the white picket fence. The pitiful flame died, and with it any hope of even a brew.

I turned to go inside. Confining myself to the decking area for 10 mins whilst the shaky-angriness died down, I was surprised to find a red-faced woman in oversized sunglasses stood at the doorway, who greeted me with ‘what DO you think you’re doing?’ She then laid into me with both barrels. Her sense of entitlement (‘we’ve paid an awful lot of money to see this’), her ignorance (‘the ticket office said this was open to the public - why have you closed it?’), her selfishness (‘well you don’t look busy to me’) all struck a nerve. This woman was the reason we are going to hell in a handcart, the reason we will all be living in domes, she was the reason we will be fighting over bags of weevil-ridden flour in abandoned car parks during nuclear hailstorms. She even put in a complaint about me, by email. The present took over. That evening, I embraced the real world. I cycled into Kineton and bought some Babybel, and sat by the firepit messaging my boyfriend and drinking very cheap Shiraz. The confusion over what this was, and my part in it, had gotten too much for me. Maybe it was time to give up and go home.

(Strangely, that night was the only night I wasn’t gripped with terror. When night falls, the darkness - save for three mysterious lights on in the main house - is absolute, and the silence - save for wildlife and the dome creaking - is total. On every other night, my mind had wandered into the wildest horrors: killer clowns and roof straddling mummers were hiding in the mirror, or in the door’s reflection. On more than one occasion that week I was so scared my only remaining option was to go to bed.)

I woke up on Friday a new person, having slept deeply. I felt strangely proud of myself - that I could face down hunger, frustration, and unpleasant upper-middle class people. I sat on the deck and had a bit of a cry. And this was the other side The Clearing for me. Throughout the week, I found my emotions would flip like a coin at the simplest things. A robin who sang in the fir tree, with no other human around to hear him; a horde of rooks disturbed, flying across the evening sky; rabbits playing on the opposite riverbank, hiding from a bird of prey, then dancing defiantly moments later; Geraldine The Hen’s endless, comforting chatter. All these moved me to tears, and like Fotherington-Thomas I found myself saying ‘hullo clouds hullo birds hullo trees’.

The good side of humanity came out, too. An older gentleman dressed in hiking clothes, leaning heavily on a walking stick, tentatively following his friend through the gate and his mouth falling open - “I stayed in a Buckminster Fuller dome near San Francisco in 1972, doing whatever young people do when they’re young. I never thought I’d see one again... It makes me very happy to know there are people like you alive.” A woman in a floral sundress with a large straw hat perched on top of her wild black hair, who had “had the worst week of my life,’ whose reaction to the dome was so strong that she had to sit down, who hid from the torrential rain and shared my lunch, laughing at nothing. The gently spoken, tattooed, Dylan-esque couple arriving just before closing time, as the light entered the magical evening phase, who couldn’t disguise their glee when I said they could try fishing - “can we really? Really really?!”. My parents visiting and sitting proudly round the fire, watching this strange scene unfold - the enthusiasm, curiosity and confusion it brought out in people, the patchwork of their stories and experiences, the endless flow of people and questions and feelings.

I used to say that when the apocalypse hits, I’d be the first out there in the mushroom cloud. Now I’m not so sure. If the future is anything like the Clearing, with its stream of pot-luck passers-by, its peaceful mornings, its roasted tins of baked beans, its community of creatures, even its share of unpleasant incidents, maybe the end of times won’t be so bad.