God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble (Psalm 46.1)
A Place of Safekeeping (1983) 396.3 × 315, acrylic on wood
Towards the end of my MA Visual Art degree (1982–4), I painted A Place of Safekeeping. The work referenced both verse 1 of Psalm 46 and a curious enclosure that was cut into the rock at the rear of the, then, University College of Wales, Aberystwyth’s Visual Art Department, on Llanbadarn Road. It was a ‘man’-made (and, at the time of its construction, a secret) concrete bunker built to store valuable pictures and documents that’d been evacuated from museums and galleries in London during World War II. Here, the treasures were completely safe from aerial bombing, explosions, fire, water, collapse, and discovery.
For the psalmist, God was a strongroom – an unassailable and indestructible refuge that would preserve him from far worse calamities than the blitz: Therefore, I will not fear, though the earth be removed, and though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea (Psalm 46.2). The works in the bunker were returned to London in 1946. God, however, was his perpetual place of safekeeping, as well as a source of strength. It protected him in the ‘eternal now’ (as the old hippies used to say). Troubles would inevitably come. But this sanctuary was active, concerned, immediate, and remedial. God was not only the refuge, but also inside it, with the psalmist, supporting him, and changing his situation for the better.
5.45 am: I got up after a dismal night’s sleep, and made final preparations for a research trip to Sheffield. (I was last there in 2013.) After dutifully putting away the crockery, utensils, and pans on the draining boarding (my usual morning routine), breakfasted, and dealt with emails that had arrived late last night, I pushed out into the streets and headed toward the railway station:
The notification advised that Borth station (the next down the line) had been closed due to recent storm damage. 7.30 am: Off we went. With an overpriced cardboard cup of PG tips in hand (‘You never learn, Buddy!’), I broke out my computer. Llanbadarn – looking for all the world like a village that Samuel Palmer might have painted – receded into the distance. On with work.
9.16 am: I arrived at Shrewsbury and headed for a watering hole. My next train wasn’t due for another three-quarters of an hour. But I appreciated this slower pace. Parts of my mind began to thaw. 10.00 am: On the Stockport leg. I wish people wouldn’t conduct their business in public on phones. ‘I’ve not paid good money to be in your office!’, I thought:
Over the next few days, business will done (in private), aspirations framed, possibilities explored, and resolutions (professional and personal) made. I’d made this journey, passed the magnificent Jodrell Bank (where they used to offer a really good beef burger and chips), so many times when visiting my sons at university. The power of the radio telescopes interferes with a mobile phone’s GPS, pulling the marker off the train track and into a field. Why do I always find this so inordinately funny?
10.50 am: Stockport (light and sound):
The journey to Sheffield was slow, and through tunnels and a perpetual phone-signal wilderness. I arrived at 12.10 pm, under the same weather as on the last occasion. Little in the city had changed, as far as I could see. I’ve a penchant for reliving exactly the same experiences. It’s a close as I can get to time travel:
I took lunch at the Cafe Gallery and joined informal meetings with colleagues in order to discuss a way ahead. All hush-hush and tentative at the moment.
6.00 pm: We ate at a local Italian restaurant. Not ‘proper’ Italian. Nevertheless, they served a darned-good lasagne:
7.30 pm: Catch up. The beginning of reflection. This will be focussed, as it was the last time I was in Sheffield. Indeed, the previous occasion has prepared me for this one, in a number of ways. (Who could have known?) The I. Nothing. Lack. suite was released, quietly, now that the Commission’s permissions had been granted: