It is an unlikely place to find beauty, the derelict pub next door. The former Mermaid Inn. For the first five of the six years I’ve lived beside it, it was empty. A decaying Victorian hulk with an abandoned skittles alley out the back, whose main purpose seemed to me to be to reduce the price of my house enough to make it vaguely affordable.
Periodically the site was broken into by teenagers to set fires or just to hang out. Brambles and young sycamores were reclaiming the plot for nature, until the developers finally moved in last year. It is now in the process of becoming, beneath a tattered plastic chrysalis, a gastropub and B&B, with four tiny new houses out the back to fund the whole enterprise. And so it endures as a symbol of hope that things might really return to just the way they were. Work has continued on the site – slowly, inexorably – all this time.
This morning, I drew my curtains to see possibly the most mournful wheelbarrow in history, illuminated by a shaft of sunlight like a lone commuter in Grand Central Station, and I suddenly remembered how, a few years ago, I dreamed of having enough money to buy the whole place and turn it into Mermaid Arts. I used to talk about Mermaid Arts as if it were a real concern. In the main pub building, there would have been spaces to rent – cheaply – for artists and writers and other creative types. There would have been an office and a little cafe selling amazing coffee and cakes to the occupants, as well as any passersby. There’d have been a noticeboard bristling with intriguing flyers for local events and artisans. I’d have taken a little corner in there myself to run my editorial business, do a bit of writing, and keep an eye on the whole thing. Out the back the skittles alley would have become more studios; perhaps we’d have had some musicians in there too. The patch of ground between the main building and the satellite would have been cleared of its tangle of brambles and seedlings and bits of charred wood and packaging and nails and syringes, and turned into a community garden – ungated – with flowers and scented plants and trees and hand-carved benches. It would have been welcoming, free, and open for anyone to use at any time of day, and it definitely wouldn’t have become a handily semi-concealed space in which to deal drugs.
I suppose I always knew it wouldn’t happen (I’m a proofreader, not a property developer), I know it never will happen, and yet there is a part of my mind in which Mermaid Arts is as real as it ever was. It still has the power to make me smile. Perhaps my belief in it is so strong that somehow, somewhere, there is a parallel universe in which it thrives. I can almost taste the excellent chocolate beetroot brownies. I’m salivating as I type.
I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the need to dream, the need to seek solace in beauty. It’s escape, but not escape as such. Escape seems too much like something we could be encouraged to learn to do without; it’s more fundamental than that. This current reality is so relentless and so open-ended that really I think we are beginning to know we can’t hide from it, circumvent it or outrun it. We need to find ways to live through it.
I wrote the other week that one of the things we do in my household in order to live through it is to watch art documentaries. While I don’t believe that so many people read my blog I should therefore take personally the devastating news that BBC4 is under threat, it irks me beyond all reason. They would like that, wouldn’t they? They would like us to accept that everything will inevitably, out of necessity, get worse in the name of the common good. They would like us to sacrifice ourselves at the altar of the economy, to eschew all arbitrarily decreed non-essentials, to fret over the nonsensical and contradictory rules, to feel that unless we are suffering as much hardship as possible, we’re just not getting it. And they would like us to think that art, and creativity, and frivolous thought, and access to beauty, and taking joy in inspiration for inspiration’s sake are all definitely, undeniably, inarguably, non-essentials. Except that’s not true, is it? Of all the shitty things that have been going on in the past weeks and months, the one that makes me actually want to give up is the BBC4 thing. Yes, let’s take away something that does no harm at all and really only uplifts, partly because it doesn’t make money, and partly because it might cause people to remember that they have an imagination, remember that they have a soul.
Meanwhile, back at Mermaid Arts, the restored building takes shape unseen. It has been covered by this plastic for months now, presumably while they remake the roof and until it is watertight. Bouts of high wind have tattered the plastic and torn it free of its moorings so it flaps like sails in a squall, and sheds white strands all over our yard. I can’t imagine what it’s going to look like when the covers come off. There’s all sorts of stuff happening under there, which we can’t know about, we just have to trust in them. It might be wonderful when it is revealed. A place where people come to feel good and to enjoy themselves. New life taking breath. Or, the project could falter, and it might never be finished. It might rot beneath its shroud for many more years to come. The brambles will return, and the teenagers will storm the fence once more. This terrifying void, this not-knowing how it will all end, what kind of thing will emerge, is enough to make me need to sit down.
Liz Jones has worked as an editor in the publishing industry since 1998, and freelance since 2008. She still believes in art, coffee and cakes.