The search for hap­pi­ness by a dif­fer­ent set of rules

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Living - - PEOPLE -

An en­counter with Sufi Mus­lims led to artist John Kinger­lee and his wife Mo chang­ing their be­liefs on life and love, writes Emily Houri­can

‘ITRIED hav­ing a job or two here and there,” says John Kinger­lee (82) “I’ve sold cig­a­rettes, been a waiter, a chef, a gar­dener. Then I got drawn into the art thing, by older men who were artists who made friends with me, and I dis­cov­ered that by vo­ca­tion, I’m an artist. I get very dis­tressed if I can’t prac­tice art of some sort. Once I found that, I could take a step to­wards be­ing happy. It be­came like a weapon of sur­vival.”

For a man who has ac­tively sought hap­pi­ness through­out his life — in travel, in drugs, in reli­gion, in es­cape — this was some­thing of a rev­e­la­tion. “Art is some­thing I do that I can for­get about my­self, and then at the end of work­ing, I come back to me. I re­alised that one of the best things you can do is to get away from your­self.”

John — who has a joint ex­hi­bi­tion with his pro­tege, Long­ford artist Gary Robin­son, at the Ori­gin Gallery, — grew up mainly in Devon­shire. His mother’s fam­ily were Ho­gans from Cork, but a few gen­er­a­tions back, and John never vis­ited as a child. His father was a waiter — “He ailed a lot phys­i­cally and the rest of my fam­ily said he was a lazy man but I’ve got an af­fec­tion for him,” John re­calls. John was an only child, “I was car­ry­ing the whole bur­den. That’s not easy,” and of his par­ents, he says: “I won’t talk about them. They weren’t that happy. As I’ve got­ten older, I’ve got­ten more and more sym­pa­thy with them. As you grow older, you grow in com­pas­sion.”

He de­scribes him­self as a “prob­lem child”, who was sent to a Catholic board­ing school, run by Marist Fa­thers, when he was 12. “I would sneak out at night and sit with the gyp­sies,” he re­calls. He left home and school as soon as he could, find­ing his ed­u­ca­tion in the world around him rather than in col­lege or uni­ver­sity, and met Mo, his wife, when he was 19 and she was 16, at a Methodist youth club. “It was at­trac­tion at first sight,” he says. “Love grew later. I love her now more than ever. We’ve had some hard times, very hard times, but it’s great.”

John and Mo came to West Cork in 1982, ini­tially for “a cou­ple of years”, and have stayed for 36. What was it that brought them here? “My chief con­nec­tion to Ire­land be­gan in board­ing school,” John says. “By lit­er­a­ture, I was drawn to Ire­land, by some of the Ir­ish priests, and by a feel­ing of a whole other cul­ture I’d stepped in to. As a boy at school, I had some very deep in­tu­itions. When I read the his­tory of the Trou­bles in Ire­land, sud­denly I was read­ing an­other ver­sion of his­tory, and it was an eye-opener. It let me know how pro­pa­gan­dised I’d been, how taken over by a ver­sion.”

He had, he says, “a very sim­i­lar ex­pe­ri­ence when I went to Mo­rocco first, in 1969, as a 33-year-old. I sud­denly re­alised, these peo­ple were dif­fer­ent, put to­gether in a dif­fer­ent way. I loved it im­me­di­ately.” Then he laughs and adds: “It was some­what com­pli­cated by the fact that I was with a young guide who had given me a pot of honey to dip my fin­ger in and suck, and that was five times more pow­er­ful than LSD.” It would, he says “have been in­ter­est­ing to know what would have hap­pened if I’d been to­tally straight. But at that point I hadn’t been straight in a long time.”

So he was trip­ping, the first time he saw Mo­rocco? “Yes. And I was there for 10 days; it com­pletely changed my life. It seemed like a year. Mo­rocco was a much wilder place than it is now. The near­est thing I’ve ever en­coun­tered to it was the play­ground when I was very young: the op­tions were plen­ti­ful and the dan­ger was great.” When he talks about that first trip to Mo­rocco, the places he went, the peo­ple he met — in­clud­ing a cou­ple of po­lice­men who set out to ar­rest him for posses­sion of hashish but ended up de­cid­ing to “leave him alone, he’s a nice boy, he loves us and he loves our coun­try” — he is vis­i­bly moved. “I get over­whelmed with the mem­ory of it all,” he says, with tears in his eyes.

He and Mo had been liv­ing in Ibiza, with their five chil­dren, for a few months by the time John took that trip to Mo­rocco, and “at that time, in Ibiza, it was all about ‘open your mind, man, ex­pand your con­scious­ness’.” The is­land at­tracted many young Amer­i­cans, “they came over with the whole ahead­ness in their cul­ture — bring­ing to us what was hap­pen­ing in Cal­i­for­nia, and it was quite won­der­ful.”

They moved there “be­cause it was cheap,” John says. “Bri­tain was poor and gloomy and still com­ing out of the war. I was sell­ing pic­tures in Lon­don, and I met some­one who’d been out in Ibiza and told me you could live well for about a fiver a week. Sud­denly I was mak­ing a bit of money, sell­ing paint­ings, com­ing out of the poverty we’d been in, and if you can live twice as cheaply, why wouldn’t you? So we went to Ibiza. The kids loved it. We had a finca in the coun­try­side with ter­races. They went to school, but they played tru­ant and ran semi-wild. Mo ed­u­cated them — she taught them maths and made a pretty good job of it.”

When I ask Mo about that time, she says “they were the only chil­dren in our group of blow-ins, so ev­ery­one took them out and off. If we went into Ibiza town to shop, they knew ev­ery­body and we knew no­body.”

It sounds like par­adise, and yet it ended. “We came back to Eng­land, but I couldn’t make any money in Eng­land,” John says. “I went in­sane for a while. It’s very dif­fi­cult for her and the kids when dad goes in­sane. I was very de­struc­tive for a while. An­gry, frus­trated. All com­pli­cated by drugs. A lot of drugs in Ibiza. That took a year or two to get over.”

For a time, John moved out of home and went to live in a squat in Lon­don while the fam­ily stayed be­hind in Corn­wall. “I had to get out of there,” he says. “It was too de­struc­tive. So I went off on my own and lived in a squat.” While there, he be­gan to no­tice peo­ple around him who were very dif­fer­ent. “I saw these peo­ple in the street who were con­sis­tently high but they didn’t use drugs. They were al­ways clean, dig­ni­fied. I got to know some of them. They had a shop in the street, the Poor Man’s Trad­ing Com­pany.

“I’d hitch up with a sack of pot­tery I’d made in Corn­wall. I couldn’t paint at that time so we’d started mak­ing pots,” — Mo would throw the shapes and John would paint them — “I was sell­ing pots to a man there, and I looked into his eyes, and re­alised he was out of his brains. He was hang­ing on, pre­tend­ing to be very sober and dig­ni­fied, but in­side he was go­ing nuts from joy. Peo­ple around me were go­ing in­sane from grief, sor­row, frus­tra­tion. That was a rev­e­la­tion.

“I en­tered their house, and they were all so joy­ful. I liked the way they prayed, with their hands open like beg­gars. High on pure spir­i­tu­al­ity. So joy­ful, so re­moved from the ob­vi­ous drug cor­rup­tion and sprawl­ing, mean­ing­less sex­u­al­ity of the rest of the street. They had in­tegrity.

“I met their sheik. That was like be­ing hit on the head with a ham­mer. I had to see the sort of per­son I’d be­come. And I didn’t like what I saw. I saw the dark­ness in my­self. It took me a year or two to re­cover from that.”

What kind of dark­ness did he see? “Just the dark­ness that comes with try­ing to ne­go­ti­ate hav­ing a life within this struc­ture.” By which he means our so­ci­ety, a set-up he de­scribes thus: “If any­one thinks they can find hap­pi­ness by the rules of this so­ci­ety, they are very fool­ish.”

These peo­ple he met and was so im­pressed by were, he dis­cov­ered, Sufi Mus­lims. “Su­fism is like the lifeblood in the body of Is­lam,” he says. And so be­gan a new and vi­tal phase in John’s life. “I tried the Hindu thing, Bud­dhism, but there was al­ways a pull to­wards Is­lam.” And so he stud­ied, and learned, and con­verted. Does he call him­self a Sufi now? “My friends are Su­fis. I hes­i­tate to call my­self one but some­times I have the priv­i­lege and honour of be­ing in their com­pany, and it’s the high­est com­pany you can ever be in.”

By this time, John and Mo’s chil­dren had left home, and they had moved to West Cork. Was it hard to prac­tise in West Cork? “There are two mosques in Cork but I don’t go to them be­cause we are more than two hours’ away, so I just pray at the house. Five times a day.”

‘The sit­u­a­tion is you can have four wives. Which is ter­rific. It’s great’

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