Sophie is trying to house train Minnie, a tiny terrier puppy with glossy black fur. So far as I can discern, Sophie is a perfect trainer: gentle, yet firm. When Minnie voids one of her mousy little turds on the stone flags of the kitchen, or pees on the settee, Sophie scoops her up, taps her on the nose and says: “Oooh! You bad girl! How could you? How could you?” They say a dog returns to its own shit (do they? Who are they, and why do they say such things?), but in this case it’s me who feels a compulsion to return to writing on the subject: a doleful, incontinent scribe, I am, describing the world with a thick stroke, extruded from my dogged pen.
We’re with Bruce and Sophie in the Black Mountains. Bruce doesn’t like to travel too much. The last time he went on a low-cost airline was — well, the last time he’ll ever go. “I wouldn’t have minded if it’d crashed,” he tells me, “so long as all my fellow passengers died too.” Such misanthropy isn’t easily contained in the built environment, which is why Bruce has retreated here, to the rucked-up folds of westernmost Herefordshire, where serried ranks of polytunnels snake over the fields, as if the Welsh borders were being consumed by an infestation of giant caterpillars designed by the Dr Who props department.
Here, in their 14th-century farmhouse, Bruce labours on his magnum opus: a re-evaluation of all values to rival that of Nietzsche. Predictably his preferred writing instrument is an antique IBM golf ball electric typewriter, with an early spell-checking gizmo bolted on to it that looks as anachronistic as a sheet of vellum. While Bruce types, Sophie trains Minnie and administers antibiotics to the horse with pneumonia, using a syringe the size of a bicycle pump. It’s a strange set up — but not half as weird as the one over the hill. I should say “the one that was over the hill”, but the polytunnels have got to me besides which, the small boys are obsessed by Dr Who at the moment, and every time we get in the car they make Tardis-taking-off noises.
Ten miles over the high, stark range of the Black Mountains, and some 80 years ago, Eric Gill and his extended family pitched up at the monastery of Capel-y-Ffin to pursue their experiments in communal living, stone carving and wacky Catholicism. Gill had abandoned his earlier settlement at Ditchling in Sussex, on the grounds that it was too near to town and becoming infected with the spirit of the petit-bourgeoisie.
There was nothing petit-bourgeois about Gill, whose sexual experimentation ran to serial mistresses, troilism, penile etchings, incest, and a smidgeon of paedophilia. In later life, Gill’s daughters were wont to say that his fiddling about with them during puberty didn’t do them any harm at all, but I don’t know if the same could be said for the family dog, who couldn’t say much about anything. Gill, who kept copious private diaries, recorded his congress with the animal in laconic terms: “Wondered how P would feel in D” one entry reads then a further one notes: “Put P in D”.
Yes, they say a dog always returns to its shit, but I’m equally certain that a sculptor always returns to his bestiality. Even in full sunlight, the run-down 19th-century monastery, where Gill’s womenfolk wove rough tunics out of wool- trouve has a slightly unsettling appearance. It’s now a pony-trekking centre, and as the boys and I wander up the valley, we’re passed by pony trekkers coming down from the hills. Dumpy little girls auditioning for Thelwell illustrations accompanied by older girls who might be Dr Who’s sidekick in some very alternative universe.
The small boys play in the stream, and Luther, the five-year-old, takes possession of a rocky islet he names Selfland. Later on we climb up the side of the range and enter a curious little wood caught in a col. He’s overcome by the strangeness of the locale — as well he might be. It’s only mid-April but the temperature is in the eighties; the juxtaposition between the heat haze in the valley and the bare branches is quite uncanny. The bracken is tinder-dry, and I wouldn’t be that surprised if we came upon the wiry, bearded Gill, wearing his square stone-cutter’s hat, folded from a sheet of paper. He may have been the apostle of the everyday erotic, as well as possessing the greatest purity of line of any 20th-century English artists, but if he were walking his dog I’d run a mile.
As for Luther, he’s already well-trained in the soiled house of the contemporary world. Looking around at the woodland he remarks: “I don’t think humans ever come here much — there’s no wrappers.”