The Clearing: A memoir of art, family and mental health by Samantha Clark

clearing

This house has been a regular presence in my life for as long as I can remember.

My heart has sunk a little every time I walk in . . . Samantha Clark enjoyed a busy career as an artist before returning home to Glasgow to take care of the house that her parents had left behind.

Moving from room to room, sifting through the clutter of belongings, reflecting on her mother’s long, sedated years of mental illness and her father’s retreat to the world of amateur radio and model planes, Samantha began to contemplate her inheritance. A need for creativity and a desire for solitude had sprung up from a childhood shaped by anxiety and confusion.

Weaving in the works and lives of others, including celebrated painter Agnes Martin and scientist of dark matter Vera Rubin, The Clearing is a powerful account of what we must do with the things we cannot know. ‘Samantha Clark writes on the subtle edge of words and thought.

She renders the world within and the world of ideas with electric sensitivity and acute intelligence’ Jay Griffiths

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Extract from ‘The Clearing’

All along one wall of my father’s room wall are stacked dozens of model aircraft wings. Each wing is carefully glued together from tiny struts of balsa wood across which is stretched a fragile membrane. One set of wings is spectacular, spanning a full ten feet, suspended diagonally across the ceiling. The others rest on pegs, in descending order of size. I lift one gingerly, blow off the dust, and my finger pops straight through the desiccated membrane. It is as fine and light as a bee’s wing. The bodies of the model planes, to which these wings belong, are piled in a heap on another bench. Among them lie remote control units with retractable aerials and levers. There must be dozens of models here. I had no idea he had made so many. I had hardly known my father fly them since I was a schoolgirl, but he must have kept on building them.

My brothers grew into their own adult lives before I grew into mine. Younger by five and ten years respectively, my childhood scarcely overlapped with theirs, and when my mother was ill I often spent time alone with my father. When I was about ten or eleven years old, I once stood with him in a broad, breezy field where men fussed and tinkered companionably with model planes, big ones, with intricate struts and blunt wingtips. All around us the little engines buzzed like angry bees, the tone shifting and juddering as the planes banked and turned following the twitch of the levers on the remote control units the men held. These weren’t toys. This I understood. My father’s friend Murdo had the ends of two fingers missing and the blunt stubs of them fascinated me as he flicked the propeller to start the engine up, whipping them out of the way just in time. I don’t think he actually did lose those fingers starting a model engine, but for me, the thought that he might have done gave the proceedings a buccaneering thrill of danger. I stood beside my father as he took up his remote-control box, placed a thumb on each lever and taxied the little plane over the tussocky ground until it lifted into the air with a fat rasping sound. I felt a great swooping inside me as he sent the model up high and far, a tiny black fleck in the bright and blowy sky, then I whooped aloud as he banked it steeply round to skim low and fast over the reedy grass right beside us.

My father would show me a cross-section of a wing and explain to me the theory of flight, how faster airflow across the upper curve of the wing creates lift, how, to be able to take off, a plane needs just the right balance between weight and lift, drag and thrust. Lift coefficients. Thermal updrafts and katabatic winds. How birds soar. I try to remember when he told me these things, but those moments are beyond recall now. I can hear his voice, explaining. I can see his eyebrows bristling as he squints into the light, as he points out something in the sky, a bird riding the rising air current on the windward side of a hill: ‘Orographic lift,’ he says. The words have stayed, the bird is still there, a soaring speck, but his voice, his face, his hand, pointing, these flash clear for an instant but then are gone. All I can take hold of now, so carefully, is something about flight, about being in my father’s room and him gone from it, a feeling that all these stacked wings give me, a feeling of catching a bird that’s been trapped in a room, of a wren’s panicky fluttering between my gently cupped hands, like holding a beating heart, and of opening my hands outside, and the small brown thing bursting from them to lift itself into the sky. He must have kept on building them for years. So many wings.’

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