Saturday, 14 October 2017

D.U.S.K

Here it comes now as I write, edging crepuscular. This is dusk, of course, when "shadows of the evening steal across the sky".

The quoted line is from an old Lutheran hymn ('Now The Day Is Over') written by Sabine Baring-Gould in 1865, part of the heritage of my childhood as the son of a preacher-man.  In turn I used to sing it at their bedtime to my own little girls, liberally adapting the words to include references to wombats and various other furry creatures that were in vogue at the time, for the original hymn was much too generic with its "birds and beasts and flowers soon will be asleep." It was a settling, if often extemporized, lullaby shorn - in the form I used to render it - of its original religious connotations. It served its ritual purpose admirably.

How about a flash of fiction this week in lieu of a poem? If you're sitting comfortably, I need to acquaint you with an organisation that is known by the acronym D.U.S.K.

Like all such somewhat shadowy enterprises - S.P.E.C.T.R.E, U.N.C.L.E and W.A.S.T.E among them - there isn't a great deal I can divulge about Dessinateurs Unijambiste de Soir Krach (one-legged depicters of the falling evening) because much is shrouded in mystery. I will tell what I know.

D.U.S.K was founded (if that is the right word) in Belgium at an imprecise date in the mid-1960s. To qualify as a D.U.S.K agent (or dessinateur) one needed, through some misfortune, to have parted company with a single leg - there used to be quite a high quotient of ex-soldiers and ex-bikers in its ranks. One also needed a poste restante address, a photographic memory and to be extremely handy with a box of chalks - for this is what the agents had to depict exactly:

'Le soir qui tombe' - Rene Magritte
 - a reconstruction of  'Evening Falls' by Belgian surrealist artist Rene Magritte (the original painted circa 1964 towards the end of Magritte's own days).

D.U.S.K agents were typically male but not exclusively so. They often wore tangerine neck-scarves, smoked Gitanes in profusion and had a penchant for Pernod.  Every day except Monday, each would arrive at his (or her) 'pitch', some strategic piece of pavement in one of a dozen or more Belgian towns, shortly after the street-cleaners had finished their early-morning sluicing of the streets.

There the dessinateurs would lay aside their crutches, settle down as the pavement dried and begin to sketch the outlines of their day's work - always the same image meticulously depicted. They would chalk assiduously for hours, rarely acknowledging those who stopped to look at how the work was progressing. Sometimes passers-by dropped coins into an upturned beret placed carelessly beside the crutches on the pavement, though raising money was not the point of the exercise. Some time in early afternoon, the pavement artists would down chalks briefly for their home-made lunch of baguette and saucisson and then they would bend to the task again.

Occasionally onlookers would try and engage a dessinateur in conversation, but if these intent individuals replied at all it was only to say "art is not an end in itself but a means of evoking the essential mystery of the world." If it chanced to rain, they would retire to shelter until it was over and then repair and recommence their beautiful designs. In summer, they would work in quite a languid fashion but in winter they were more focussed - for timing was everything and they would always chalk in the last shard of shattered sunset at the quintessential moment of dusk. Having completed their work, they would wipe their hands, gather up chalks, beret, money and crutches and disappear into the shadows of the evening.

Why did they do this? Why enrol as a D.U.S.K agent? Not for the spare change, because every Monday morning there was waiting for them at their designated post office an envelope containing a crisp 500 franc Belgian bank note bearing the likeness of Rene Magritte.


Not for companionship, because they lived mostly silent and solitary lives, having no contact with each other and very little with their patron, whom they knew only as M (though this was not Magritte himself, as he died in 1967). Neither was it because they craved recognition for what they did, for they gave of their time and their talents self-effacingly and left unsigned what they had created each day, relinquishing it to the mercy of evening promenaders and the vagaries of the weather.

One has to conclude they did it because they were happy to do so, because it gave every day a challenge and a purpose, because they were good at what they did and because it was as meaningful - or meaningless - a human existence as any other on this earth. They did no harm, they lived at peace and they may have given pleasure to others through their efforts.

At its height, D.U.S.K allegedly had over forty agents engaged in the daily synchronised chalking of the falling evening. Today there are only three practitioners left. It might appear that the enterprise is in its twilight years, but you never know. Just as the sun sets, it also rises - so if you know of any one-legged artists with a yen for chalking the streets of Belgium, M would be happy to hear from them.

Thanks, as always, for reading this crazy stuff. Sleep tight everyone, S ;-)
Reactions:

7 comments:

Lady Curt said...

How interesting ....

Adele said...

Fascinating. You have a very surprising mind.

Anonymous said...

Yes, completely bonkers (as advertised)!

Steve Rowland said...

Awww - but I enjoyed writing it & I think it's fun to read (plus Magritte was awesome).

Anonymous said...

Jackson Browne used a Magritte painting (don't know its name) for the cover of his Late For The Sky LP. It is one of my favorite albums and one of my favorite covers.

Willie McTell said...

Not exactly. Jackson leaned on Magritte's L'Empire des lumières (not one painting, but three), but René didn't insert a car into his originals. And he wasn't alive in 1974 to sign off on Jackson Browne's expressed hope that the cover was "all reet with Magritte".

I enjoyed this little Pynchonian excursion, Steve. Your W.A.S.T.E. reference was not wasted here.

Best,

Will

P.S. Why you not show up to the "targeted" reunion do at Hills Road in April? If I could make it from Finland, Blackpool's really no distance at all.

Matt West said...

Weird & wonderful Steve.