There are only sacred places and desecrated places [1]

May Bank Holiday, the year before last, Bradford Road. The protected eighty-year old conker tree in the field opposite my house had been attacked and those of us who maintain the space for public use were gathered to witness.

As when horses get stabbed: how it was. Obscene-looking, against nature, of alien intent. Skinned of bark six feet high; a flaying deep and neat and deliberate; effortful. We began to cast about for suspects – ‘Cui bono?’ someone kept saying – and to wonder whether the tree could be bandaged in some saving way: adult attempts to metabolise our shock. The children took a direct hit and cried. One of them held my hand and said ‘Why does someone hate the tree?’

My reaction was slower taking shape and came from a primitive place not tapped before, cocooned in books as I am. Some act of equal and opposite force was needed, but what? An answer came immediately I asked, with strange and compelling logic. The railings that ran the length of the field and my road – intricate, gone brown and brittle – I would paint them. By myself, on my knees, for as long as it took. Rebuke, reparation. An act both silly and serious.


What I say that first Bank Holiday Monday to some beery passersby amused by a middle-aged woman on her knees, stiff with bad back and green Hammerite, working while they are at leisure: I am a long, slow fuck you to the vandals.

But as hours pass in which I move only feet from my starting point something else sets in: A sense of place last felt in childhood when life was almost wholly in this key, this tempo – down low, slow, as in the time my friend and I spent a whole day circling her bungalow by fingertip to find and pick free every paintbrush hair that had come loose and dried into the whitewash. A sensory denseness, everything coming to me neat through the few inches between two railings: the icecream van’s jewelry box version of Greensleeves; a magpie rattling from the urine-tinged hawthorn; couples arguing on their way home, smelling of drink and barbecues.

I go to bed with the clearest head in years, emptied of self, saturated with day; on to something.




A few months of regular hours and I’ve become known for it. Children at school laugh up my sleeves at the green underneath; people stop me in the high street: ‘You’re that woman on Bradford Road who paints the railings.’

Despite my deep inclination towards privacy, I become an art installation, a performance artist in headscarf, slippers and apron, provoking responses from the public. To formalise the undertaking, I have a rule of engagement: Speak only when spoken to, and speak not at all if gestures will do:


‘Like the Forth Bridge this, eh?’ [Smile, nod, keep painting]
‘Community service is it?’ [Smile, nod, keep painting]
‘Getting paid?’ [Smile, shake head, keep painting]
‘How many left now?’ [Smile, shrug, keep painting]

A few people, very few, stop and watch without speaking. I paint then with elaborate care, my brush running intimately over the braided metal poles: a geisha feeling, to bend over an everyday action with devotion. And erotic almost, to be watched at work.

Only towards the end, a whole year in, does a person – a retired man in ill health – ask: Why have you kept going? And why alone? I stop work, take off my sunglasses:

Because: I was not born here but belong now through effort; and I have learned to sit still and be quiet finally; and I can write in the evenings with an ease in proportion to the hours my hand has painted in the day; and I almost died after the birth of my first child, as you know, and have been in pain ever since – this has cured me of that too.

I’ve spoken in my private voice; the earnest one like a book gone out of fashion. Despite the paint he takes me by the hands, is tearful, and we stand there a while, not speaking: two unemployed people in the second half of our lives, in a street like other streets in this expensive town, almost empty of residents during the week. Conduct a quiet moment of grace.

[1] Wendell Berry, ‘How to be a Poet’, Poetry (January 2001).