Blue cornflowers, or Centaurea cyanus, are also known as Bachelor’s buttons. In earlier
traditions, it was noted that young men in love would pin a single cornflower into their
button hole to read the fortune of their beloved’s returning vow. If the flower wilted too quickly, so too did their chosen ladies’ desire. In more recent tradition, surface analysis has revealed that in several of his iconic patterned wallpapers, including his intricate evocation of the Bachelor’s button, William Morris unwittingly used a green pigment derived from arsenic. In damp rooms, fungi living in wallpaper paste turned these arsenic salts into highly toxic trimethylarsine, to fatal effect. A longing for the visual beauty of the Bachelor’s button to crawl across your walls, could also creep into your body and flower a pretty death upon you in your sleep. The history of this bloom is curiously linked with a sense of The End; the demise of enchantments of the heart, or the creaking last breath of a fragile lung.
Unaware of their romantic folklore, blue cornflowers were the wild blossom I chose to take down to my “spot” on the Thames Path running from Greenwich to the Thames Barrier, a personal tradition that began in 2004 after I experienced what Jean Anlouilh speculated through his plays as the most perfect love; one only possible in death. The Thames path of the early 2000s was a deserted playground with a trail that petered out onto a dirt track punctuated with concrete tunnels and rotting pontoons. Empty factories, deserted ships and loading bays provided excellent cubbyholes for drinking whisky, playing cards, kissing, and fooling around.
My memorial trips were varied – the first time, I struggled past the first quarter mile of
desolate space, flinching at the sight of another thames-wanderer, ushering up a faint
version of the robust “hello” reserved for passings between walkers, ending up tying the cornflowers to some metal railings with a note that read simply "sorry". Upon the second official trip, I made it to the cluttered gap of industrial half-beach I’d wanted to leave the flowers in the first time, but became acutely self-aware of the perverse intimacy between my slight figure and the expansive, isolated surroundings. Between shipyard and empty garage, I had not seen another person for an hour or so, which meant I was at least a mile from any kind of interference. Just me and the lurid Thames, tossing up my losses, offering no answers. I threw the bunch of cornflowers onto the beach, and they fell clumsily in an uncomfortable unsymmetrical pile, decorated by empty bottles, scraps of metal and bits of flotsam. It was a situation that would have been relaxed by the addition of a hipflask, but the last time I’d drank whisky on that stretch of water I embarked upon a dangerous swimming excursion that had robbed me of most of my dignity and almost my life. Sometimes, I’d try to speak through the wreckage into the sky’s ashen basin, speculating unconvincingly that the dead might hear these quiet, self-conscious affirmations of love. But mostly I just kicked stones about.
I chose the blue cornflowers in consideration of their slightly ragged, wild nature,
in-keeping with the character of a man whom often referred to himself as a wayward
sparrow, a staggering knight, as the bachelor of the 15th Century was defined: “…not old enough, or having too few vassals, to display his own banner”, and who therefore followed the banner of another; a novice in arms. Or perhaps also the historically named Knight Bachelor himself; of the lowest kind, but of the highest order. Blue was his favourite colour, and the bachelor’s buttons were, when available, cheap and abundant. His ashes had been taken to France, and in lieu of an English grave the Thames path became a confusing network of possible shrines to his memory - a particularly good metal pole with swears and love hearts sprayed upon it, a nice collection of stones, the particular wooden decking section we lay together on once. Always harrowed by these sporadic visits, I was drawn to the path with less intense frequency over the years, until the physical act of going there was replaced by a repetitive VHS-style brain tape of the stretch of land flickering between night and day, between before and after, him there and then decidedly not there.
Abandoned and awash in my own life, I became a bachelor-girl of questionable vagary in the summer following his death, powered by an excessive electrical charge that would be medically explained as an excess of adrenalin and offered batches of sedatives. Showing no sign of switching off or even dimming down, I pleaded against this surging alertness by beginning each afternoon with a glass of whisky in the bath, reading a Henry Miller tome which had become so warped by it’s constant position above steaming hot water that only several pages were available to read. “They keep us chained to the rock, that the vultures may eat out our hearts.” Miller here spoke of the role of the artist against the secular, and against the state, but I always imagined myself always in a less creatively important way mentally chained to the rocks of the deserted Thames path, picked at and shit on by seagulls. In reality I kept myself warm in the whisky bath for a few more months, until eventually I knew I had to get out.
Eventually, the bachelor’s button of my lapel withered away and yet pulsed with a distant blue electric energy, always ready to summon a strange memory at a moment's notice.
The Batchelers buttons, whose vertue is to make wanton maidens weepe.