Do these serendipitous moments happen more frequently as one gets older? Or is it simply that one becomes more alert to the possibility of connections as intimations of mortality start to bear in and one seeks a more secure anchorage in the waters of life? I don’t know, but here is another one.
26 Words is the current project of a series in which writers from the organisation 26 are paired up with artists to create something from a randomly assigned starting point. This time the artists are calligraphers and typographers from a group called the Letter Exchange. The starting point is a word, one representing each of the 26 letters, selected at knife-point from a dictionary.
My partner is a calligrapher and artist called Susie Leiper, whom I had not met before. Our letter is M and our word is Mate – unpromisingly short, flat-sounding and limited in meaning (if rich in sentimental potential), or so we both agreed in our first exchange of emails.
Still, we arranged to meet and see what we could mine from it. Susie lives in Edinburgh. It was a sunny, blustery day in early May and I suggested that a walk might lubricate our imaginations. (Sitting across a table with a stranger trying to create something from practically nothing can be awkward.)
We went down to the Edinburgh Botanical Gardens and strolled there, admiring the profusion of new greenery and early blossom as we explored all the possible meanings of Mate. Perhaps it was the surroundings, but I found myself starting to think about a different kind of Mate, yerba mate (pronounced maté), the green leaf tea drunk widely in South America, but most notably by the Argentine cowboys, the gauchos.
I had tried it myself many years ago in Argentina and found it unpalatably bitter, but I’d been fascinated by the small decorated calabashes in which it’s brewed, and the silver straws through which it is drunk, as well as the whole ritual of preparation and communal drinking – the gourd, also called the mate, being passed from one person to the next and back again to the master of ceremonies for frequent replenishment.
I voiced the thought to Susie as we walked, explaining that it had a particular resonance for me on account of a relatively recent ancestor who had gone out to South America as a young man in the mid-19th century and ended up living and riding with the gauchos for a number of years.
‘Sounds like old whatsisname …’ said Susie, ‘the one who was a writer and politician – ’
‘Cunninghame Graham?’ I ventured (I’ve written about him here before).
‘That’s who I’m talking about,’ I said. ‘My great-great uncle. You know about him?’
She looked at me. ‘The one who’s buried on Inchmahome?’
Inchmahome is an island in the Lake of Menteith which lies west of Stirling, on the edge of the Trossachs. On the island are the ruins of a medieval priory where Mary Queen of Scots was given refuge as a child after the Battle of Pinkie. It is a place of great beauty and extraordinary tranquillity. It is also the resting place not only of my great-great uncle and his wife but also of my grandparents, all buried under the open sky in the chancel of the roofless priory church.
‘Yes,’ I answered
Susie had an odd look on her face. ‘That’s extraordinary,’ she replied. ‘I’m the guardian of Inchmahome.’
For genealogical reasons too abstruse to explain here it transpired that we had a common, if extremely distant, ancestor and that both her family and mine had long and deep connections with Inchmahome and its neighbouring island of Inchtalla.
We grinned at each other. Mate or Mate, it no longer mattered. Our collaboration was going to work out. Susie, this artist I had never met until that day, and I were mates in a way we could never have expected.
You can click here to see her beautiful work.
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