Tuesday 27 December 2011

Spider baby!

Yes, I know, if you are at all freaked out by spiders you’re not going to want to read this post, let alone look at the picture… I do understand, they’re not everybody’s cup of tea.  But if you can bear it, I’d like to give these ones a bit of positive PR.

On Christmas Day I happened to be looking upwards and spotted something that warmed my heart – not Santa on his sleigh nor a shining star of wonder, but certainly there was a birth of sorts to be celebrated. Or rather, about twenty births (or should that be hatchings?)  Behold the spider babies, hanging from the ceiling!

Mother and babies doing well...

Baby spiders are called ‘spiderlings’ and these particular ones are from the species ‘pholcus phalangioides’, more commonly known as ‘cellar’, ‘skull’ or ‘daddy longlegs’ spiders.  Here at Sun Dried Sparrows Towers we call them ‘spindlies’.  We’re pretty tolerant of them.  They don’t move around very much, instead preferring to just hang about really – usually from ceiling corners where they’re quite hard to see anyway.  I often wonder how on earth they survive; you don’t notice them catching a lot in their fine webs but, contrary to their somewhat delicate and fragile appearance, they are effective predators.  Other spiders, flies or bugs that inadvertently venture near them are easily killed and eaten, even if they seem much bigger or more robust than their captors. For that reason some people accept them as miniature pest controllers.

Spindlies are fragile in another way though in that they can’t take the cold - it literally kills them.  The species originated from warmer climes but have spread to cooler countries purely through being able to find heat and shelter in our buildings.  I suppose I should evict this family when the spiderlings are a bit bigger as there comes a point when you really don’t want to live in a house so full of eight-legged beasties and cobwebs that it resembles Miss Havisham’s room in Great Expectations.  However, I can’t help but have a strange fondness for these particular ones.  Spindly mum has carried the eggs with her in their sac and kept them safe since she laid them and now she’s staying with the littl’uns until they go off to corners new.  Apparently she’ll even feed them while they’re small, not a behaviour generally associated with creepy crawly life where parental care is rarely a characteristic.

When you think about it, they’d make the perfect pets.  No vet’s bills, no feeding required, no litter trays to empty nor walks to take on during cold winter mornings.  All you’ve got to do is make sure they don’t get too cold.  So… anyone fancy a spiderling?  I’ll do a twenty-for-one offer on them if you like.  Just as long as you remember: spiders are for life and not just for Christmas.

Maybe I’ll just have to take them to Fun Land?

Sunday 18 December 2011

Take three girls

My two longest-standing friends and I try to meet up a couple of times a year and last week was one of those occasions.  We’ve known each other since the age of eleven, when we started at the same school, our home town’s equivalent of a 1970s St Trinian’s – all hockey sticks and Latin lessons.  We went through the same humiliation of wearing the awful brown uniform (which, for the first two years was a shapeless tunic because, the school’s Ministry of Uniform dictated, “we don’t offer the option of a skirt to the younger years because they haven’t yet developed waists”.)  Our bond of friendship helped to get us through all those awkward moments of adolescence, comparing notes on buying our first bra and fancying boys.  And developing waists, amongst other things.

We pooled our pocket money to buy Cadbury’s chunky chocolate bars from the tuck shop to share at break times and some years later upgraded this to the occasional Benson & Hedges, ten in a pack from a slot machine in town, having meticulously planned our movements well in advance to avoid being seen by grown-ups.  We’d sneak them into school and find a quiet corner of the playing field to try a furtive puff or two.  I’m pretty sure no actual inhalation ever took place.

By the age of 14 we were also into punk together.  We’d invade the local record shop on a Saturday afternoon and pore over the album covers, longing for the day when we’d saved up enough to buy one.  (see 'The first album you ever bought...?') We also made forays into the local hardware stores – rummaging through trays of bulldog clips and sink chains and any other strange looking metal fasteners or hooks we could find with which to accessorise our DIY clothes.  On the last day of term in 1978 when the school finally allowed a ‘no uniform’ day, we all got into trouble together.  It was our one chance to ditch the brown uniform and proudly wear our bulldog clips and Sex Pistols badges on our DIY clothes into school.  That afternoon we were called in by a teacher and given a stern talking-to; there had been complaints at our apparent lack of respect.  We could not have been awarded a better compliment.

We left school and went to different colleges, got jobs, got married, moved house a few times, but always kept in touch.  Now in our late forties, we meet when we can for lunch in our old home-town, our old stomping-ground, where none of us live any more.  And now our bond of friendship helps to get us through all these awkward moments of middle-age – comparing notes on a whole new set of life experiences.

As I sat there with my two lovely friends last Friday, and we reminisced about the time we had tried to write dirty stories in the school lunch-hour, only to be so mortified at the thought of them being found by a teacher that we tried, unsuccessfully, to flush the offending pages of our exercise books down the toilets, it seemed impossible that 37 years have passed since we first met. 

Monday 12 December 2011

Forties ephemera and a missing mojo

As people who know me are no doubt bored of hearing recently, I’ve mislaid my mojo (my creative one! It inspires and helps me draw…).  I last saw it when I finished the book I was working on, but now that job is complete and it’s nowhere to be found.  At others’ suggestions I’ve tried looking down the back of the sofa (where I discovered 33 pence, a furry peanut and one of those long bits out of a packet of Bombay Mix), and almost accused a friend of slipping it into their pocket when I wasn’t looking.  However, I’ve been here before, and I know it’ll turn up again some time, probably when I least expect it.  Until then I just have to find some substitutes.  These include, but are not limited to: music, wine, savoury snacks and one particular ‘how to draw’ book.

I love this little book.  It belonged to my mum when she was a teenager; this edition was published in 1944 when she was fifteen. 

The beauty of it, for me, is that essentially nothing has changed – all the ‘how to draw’ principles are completely unaltered by the passing decades.  But the fashions are so of the time; the men are moustachioed and suave, the women look pristine, the families seem wholesome.  Knowing it was first published in wartime and, who knows, perhaps my teenage mum even took it down into the air–raid shelter with her, imbues it with an even greater historical - and personal - significance.  And it’s still the best ‘how to draw’ book I’ve ever seen.  Maybe my mojo will turn up somewhere amongst its warmly yellowed pages some day soon. 

Until then, this book, some music and a glass of red will have to do. I really wish I hadn’t eaten that bit of Bombay Mix just now, though.

All images from 'How To Draw Portraits' by Charles Wood
first printed in June 1943


Monday 5 December 2011

Just chilling

There’s a chill in the air now in these English flatlands and a sense that Winter has finally arrived, albeit belatedly.

Much as I hate the shortness of the days, the frequent lack of light and all the practical inconveniences like scraping ice off the car windscreen and having to dry the washing indoors (freshly laundered socks and knickers are draped over the radiators as I type this) it is at least compensated by certain sights, sounds, smells, etc. which have an idiosyncratic charm.   I find it in stark skies and crunchy leaves underfoot, welcoming lights behind window panes, a waft of woodsmoke and wrapping myself up in a thick woolly scarf: the responses to Winter which have remained unchanged since my childhood, when I didn’t have to worry about de-icing the car and drying the laundry.

I think music can also be seasonal.  Some songs just sound better at certain times of year.  My favourite Winter (and Autumn) tracks tend to be a bit on the wistful side, maybe a little melancholy.  Thanks to the good man over at Anorak Thing blog I’ve just been introduced to one which captures the ambience perfectly and I can't seem to get enough of it at the moment.  It’s like tired daylight fading behind skeletal trees, sharp air seizing your breath.  And a north wind blowing south….

Philamore Lincoln: The North Wind Blew South

Sunday 27 November 2011

Not just a load of old shed

I thought I would give you a little peek into my shud. Or should I say: my “hovel, swyne kote or howse…to kepe yn beestys”…?

I know that looks like some strange text message (u just have 2 read it phonetically) but it’s the Medieval definition of the word ‘shud’, from which it’s thought our modern term ‘shed’ developed.  My shed (which, being my place of artistic pursuit and thus my studio, has developed one stage further into a ‘shedio’), is indeed a hovel and a house in which to keep beasts.  There are a few real ones in there, usually of the eight-legged variety, but thankfully most of the beestys in my shud exist only as one-dimensional characters: bears, rabbits and the like, in paint on paper.

A very old picture of my (then) very new shedio.  It's changed...

I love my shedio and sheds in general and I’m not alone; apparently there are whole legions of ‘sheddies’ out there.  There is a ‘Shed Of The Year’ competition in this country,  a national ‘Shed Week’ and a popular website devoted to all manner of wooden hut type constructions for fans.  The traditional idea of it being the haven to which the man of the house retreats to smoke his pipe and practise reeling his fishing rod (nudge nudge wink wink) now seems dated, as sheds become offices, studios, worskhops and so much more.  You’d be surprised (or maybe not) at how many Dr Who ‘Tardis’ sheds can be found in back gardens here and one ‘Shed Of The Year’ winner went for a Roman temple theme. A shed can be just about anything you want it to be.

If there was a Roman god of untidiness mine could be a temple to such a deity, but otherwise it wins no prizes.  I’ve just finished a long project and I haven’t sorted or cleaned it since the final brushstroke left the paper, so I took these photos to remind me just how bad things can get.  There is an almost Mary Celeste feel to it right now -everything is just where I last used it, pencils are scattered in disarray like jackstraws, screwed up bits of paint-soiled kitchen roll remain where I threw them. Stacks of sketches are piled up in the corner and the waste bin is full of the ones that went wrong; I shall just have to get in there next week and give it a good tidy-up so it looks more like a studio and less like a swyne kote.  After that the only place here resembling a hovel to “kepe yn beestys” is the howse.

Some very new pictures of my not-so-new shedio

Thursday 24 November 2011

Story train

I know lots of people do it every day but, for me, travelling on public transport is a bit of a rarity.  Working from home requires no commuting and living in a rural area means that when I do occasionally go out I use the car.

I had a trip to London yesterday though, so I went by train.  I like train journeys.  I love to absorb the gradually changing landscape as the flat Suffolk fields we travel past become replaced by suburban back gardens and then industrial estates, and just before we are swallowed up by Liverpool Street Station’s gaping mouth we witness the rapidly developing Olympics 2012 site.  I used to like looking out at the old wasteland that preceded it, an unintentional wildlife haven on the edge of the urban chaos, but that’s another story.

I love observing my fellow travellers too.  I find myself wondering what their stories are, and creating some for them myself.

Yesterday a woman got on at my station and she was very, very drunk.  It was 2 in the afternoon.  She had an air of tragedy about her.  With a slur and an apologetic smile she paid for her ticket with pocketfuls of small change all spread out on the counter; it was as if she’d just raided a parking meter. 

She had one of those faces that was probably once very attractive but was now worn-looking beyond her years.  The deep tan (with a reddish tinge) that looked out of place in an English winter had given her skin a leathery finish.  She got on the train and poured a drink from an ordinary vacuum flask, but I could smell spirit rather than coffee.  Then she produced an aerosol fragrance and sprayed herself all over, for what seemed like several minutes.  Her jacket, jeans and trainers all got liberal soakings in something rather floral.  If I’d been sitting any closer I would have too.  When we got to our destination I wasn’t surprised when she got up and left her large bag behind her, realising a few moments later and having to squeeze past everyone else going in the opposite direction, wafting gin and lilies with a hint of stale tobacco over us, her eyes a little glazed and her gait unsteady. 

Her story?  I decided she was a prostitute down on her luck, maybe she’d got all that loose change from begging, or maybe she’d done a few very cheap, ahem, 'jobs' for some quick cash…  But I hope I haven’t done her a disservice and I do hope she was ok.

Halfway through the journey we go through some typical Essex towns.  I can’t quite figure out how Essex’s much-parodied stereotypes became real and why they are so prevalent.  Is it just that fashions and tastes catch on quickly in some communities and then nobody wants to be seen as the odd one out? Or is it that, if you like those particular stereotypical things you naturally gravitate there and that vision of Estuary Englishness is perpetuated? Anyway, if I had needed proof that the only way in Essex is the Essex way, I simply had to notice the passengers that got on at Romford.  Every female seemed to be bottle-blonde.  (This is not meant to be a put-down, just one of those observations that jumps out at you.)  One in her twenties sat near me and was talking on her mobile phone. “No way!  I can’t believe it!” she exclaimed to her friend on the other end.  “Kelly’s had botox?  OMG!  I can’t believe Kel’s had botox… “  I felt slightly reassured by her reaction to the botox revelation.  But then came the unexpected punchline: “But she’s a dying woman…”   There was clearly a story there too, but I didn’t really want to make it up.

I was cheered up soon after by the sight of five young Elvises.  Well, I mean five lads dressed in full Elvis attire with big black wigs and mirror Aviator shades. Just one would have been eye-catching - five was surreal. I started to wonder what the collective noun for a group of Elvises might be.  When I put this to the friend I met with later, explaining that they’d all gone for the white-jumpsuit-and-rhinestone-belt look, the perfect answer came back:  why, a Vegas of Elvises.  Of  course!  I trust they enjoyed the Elvis themed party they must have been going to; it didn’t take much imagination to work out that story.

Tuesday 8 November 2011

I am a cliché

A lovely friend sent me a surprise in the post the other day.  I opened the package, pulled it out, and found myself grinning broadly just at the sight of this…

It was one of those books I had forgotten even existed until I saw its anachronistic cover again and then it suddenly seemed incredibly familiar.  I couldn’t even remember if I had owned it or borrowed it many years ago, but whatever the case it hadn’t been in my possession for that long.  Yet seeing it once more I just felt so well-acquainted with it.

I haven’t re-read it yet - I will do soon, just for the hell of it, and doubt it will take me more than an hour - but simply flicking through its pages, all 62 of them, is so evocative.  Everything about this book is a cliché (even its manual typewriter style typeface) and yet somehow that is exactly what confirms its authenticity.  You could say it looks crap now and it looked crap then, but I think it could only have been taken the slightest bit seriously at the time it was created, in 1977.  If it had been written in 1987, you’d notice the detailed fashion descriptions, the daft names (and dropped names) and you’d imagine it had been concocted by someone who’d pulled out all the most obvious references from some kind of ‘Punk Rock For Dummies’ type tome.  You’d laugh slightly disbelievingly and file it away under ‘punk parodies’ along with Kenny Everett’s ‘Sid Snot’ TV slot.

The  narrator of this self-proclaimed ‘first punk novel’  is ‘Adolph Sphitz’.  He goes down the Kings Road.  He sees the Sex Pistols, the Damned and the Clash at the Roxy.  He knows someone called Captain Vicious.  He shares his small, chaotic teenage world with other punks and…. Teds.  Teddy-boys – remember them?!  Who knows where they are now, but my recollections of a suburban punk youth are full of them.  In the England smalltown where I pushed a few boundaries as far as I dare (which admittedly wasn’t that far but back then it was easier to shock), Teds were ever-present.  Teds were the punk nemesis.  They were always a bit older and I have this image of them burnt into my memory, where they hung around chain-smoking on street-corners, their thin-ness emphasised by chunky brothel-creeper footwear, drainpipe trousers and big quiffy, brylcreemed hair. 

Gideon Sams was only 14 when he wrote this book – originally a school project - and it shows.  I was around the same age as him at the time and if you had asked me to write my own version it would not have been that different in content.  I’d have done everything I could to make sure anyone reading it knew where my loyalties lay and how much I was influenced by a certain scene, as he clearly did too.  When you read his descriptions you’re reminded of the importance of detail to a young mind when it comes to identity – and the importance of that identity and sense of belonging to your chosen youth-tribe.  For instance, I love this description of one character’s clothing: ‘She was dressed in a pair of black cotton dungarees, and a blue, yellow and red pinstripe blazer. She was wearing pale blue lurex socks and black plastic sandals…’

This book is little more than a series of stereotypical freeze-frames of a time long gone but in some bizarre way, given a thirty-four year gap since last seeing it, that is enough to make me want to hang onto it now.  It takes me back to schooldays, buying that first Clash album, putting egg-white in my hair, listening to John Peel, hoarding safety-pins and skulking past those Teds on the street corner.  I was a cliché too.

As the person who sent it to me said, “it’s more a case of the existence of it that’s fun rather than any merit whatsoever in what is between the covers”.  (Thank you.)

Monday 24 October 2011

An avian observation post

I’ve only got two ‘Observer’ guide books but I treasure them.  I can’t fully explain why – maybe it’s the combination of them being pocket-sized (this always makes things which aren’t normally that small seem extra attractive for some reason) and also that they’re old.  They have an appealing vintage look, feel and scruffiness, like the Penguin paperbacks I’ve written about before on here.  So I’m holding on to my collection of two - well, it’s not as if they take up much room. 

‘Observer’ books were discontinued in the eighties, after 100 titles had been published in just over fifty years. There is even an ‘Observer’s Book of Observer’s Books’.    I’m not quite sure how they managed to fill two hundred plus pages on some topics: ‘mosses and liverworts’,  sewing’ or ‘glass’,  for instance, but there are others about which I think the opposite, wondering how they managed to condense vast subjects such as ‘modern art’ and ‘wild flowers’ into relatively small volumes.  Birds and trees are just right for these little guides, though. 

‘The Observer’s Book of Birds’ was actually the very first in the series.  I’ve plenty of books about birds but I still refer to this one from time to time, it’s simple to use and it doesn’t go out of date.  It also has a notably endearing way of describing bird note/calls phonetically; for example, apparently the bearded tit makes the sound: ‘ “Cht, cht” and a twanging “ping” ’ and the tree pipit’s song is described as having ‘…a sweet rallentando at the end: “tweedle, tweedle, sweet, sweet, sweet.” ’ Well, I’ve never seen a tree pipit nor come across the term, ‘rallentando’ before, but I like the sound of them both already. 

I’m somewhat fanatical about birds. It’s just a love thing.  They make my eyes light up and my heart lift.   I’ve tried to analyse many times what exactly it is about birds which makes them special, but I can’t really nail it.  I love the fact that they are the only wild creature we share our lives with so visibly, so obviously, every day.  No matter where you are, whether it’s on a city street or in the middle of a forest, you’re bound to notice a bird at some point.  I love the way they are entirely free-willed but we can still find ways to interact with them – like the blackbird who comes to the back door for sultanas, or the robin who surveys as you do some gardening, almost seeming to urge you to notice him.  You can learn a lot about life just watching and trying to understand birds – recognizing all those behaviour patterns which are not so dissimilar to our own when you consider the basic motivations.  They get on with every aspect of their lives without fuss, clearly aware of us but relatively unperturbed.  The more time you devote to observing ordinary birds going about their business, the more you get out of it, and the more you get out of it the more you will want to share in their lives. 

Even when you can’t see them, you invariably hear them and once you’re tuned in it seems you become more aware of birdsong than any other sound.  Earlier today I could hear the jarring metallic clatter of a pneumatic drill somewhere up the road, but the sweet whistling of a territorial robin drew my attention away.  I think there may even have been a rallentando in his song somewhere.

For some reason my love of birds seems to be directly linked to my inability to represent them well on paper.  You’d think it’d make it easier as I spend so much time watching them, but it’s almost as if that’s all I can do: observe.  Observe and enjoy.  My drawings don’t do them justice; maybe I’m inhibited by the challenge of how to capture their spirit and essence, although occasionally I do I try the odd quick sketch…

 Images copyright C / Sun Dried Sparrows

But I’ll leave the proper pictures to the illustrators of my pocket guide. All I really want to do is see, hear and experience birds for real, and if I’m lucky I may get to hear the ‘ “fullock”…”chirrick” and “quark” ’ of a moorhen or the ‘ “whitz” and an explosive scream or groan’ of the water rail.

A musical tribute - Alan Ross: Blackbird (not the Beatles' song of the same name)

Not sure what species this is, but it isn't in my Observer's Book...
Image copyright C (aged about 8)

Tuesday 18 October 2011

The worst clothes you've ever worn...?

Well, you might look at me now and suggest that the ill-fitting jeans and scruffy black jumper (with holes in the elbows) which I’m currently wearing would be good contenders – and you’d be right – but at least I’m under no illusion that they look any good.  What I’ve been thinking about today, however, is some of those clothes I’ve had and actually believed were decent at the time, but later realised to be the worst things I’ve ever worn. The worst things anyone could have worn.  I know it’s subjective, but I feel sure we can be unanimous about some items.

Maybe the seventies threw up the best (worst?) examples, and I use the phrase ‘threw up’ without irony.  I’m not talking about my punk/DIY clothes – I’ll always look back at them fondly no matter what anyone says.  But there was that time between being a kid and being a punk, and it really was a pubescent fashion wasteland. For instance, I had a pair of white flares.  White.  Flares.  And with my thighs!  I chose to wear these frequently with a fetching, knitted, collared, zip-up cardigan in cream with a black zig-zag pattern.  This woolly monstrosity was loosely based on something I had seen David Starsky wearing in ‘Starsky and Hutch’.  ‘Nuff said.

Then there were those wedgy platform shoes I dared to wear for the walk home from school.  They were too high to be permitted in school (a place where the height of heels was actually measured by a teacher if they looked to be above one and a half inches, and thus a major breach of uniform rules).  So at the 4.15pm bell, I’d change into this pair of brown, lace-up shoes that were attached, somewhat incongruously, to high wedge soles which were covered with some kind of woven, beige, hessian type stuff.  They were like some strange hybrid of footwear and flooring.  The toe area must have been raised off the ground by about two inches and the heel roughly four.  I hobbled and wobbled home in these stupid shoes, and found I had great difficulty getting up hills. This was unfortunate as I lived at the top of quite a steep one.  In order to make it all the way to my front door I had to compensate for the gradient in the shoe with every step, which meant leaning forward from the ankle joint in a most unnatural manner.  Perhaps I should have tried walking backwards? 

Some years later I discovered the joy of buying my clothes from charity shops and I got some wondeful items – big old coats, the occasional fifties dress and little suede ankle boots, all of which were a thrill to find and a bargain too.  I couldn’t believe my eyes one day when I saw a pair of black PVC trousers in my size hanging on the rail in Oxfam.  I’d always wanted some PVC or leather trews, but they just weren’t a viable purchase on a student budget.  So, without any hesitation I bought these second-hand ones and started to wear them at the first opportunity. Only problem was, they were a bit, well, cracked, just where the shiny coating had got a little worn away.  It seemed an obvious solution to simply apply a coating of Kiwi shoe polish and give them a bit of a buff with a cloth until they were nice and shiny again.  Easy. It wasn’t until some time later that I realised the black smudgy marks on the furniture (and the bus seat) corresponded exactly with where I’d been sitting earlier….

Talking of charity shops and second-hand trousers, what about these, though…?

In vivid turquoise cordurouy, complete with a wide plastic multi-coloured belt, these little beauties cost me a mere £2.99 just a few months ago.  How could I possibly resist?  I will admit, though, that I’ve only worn them once, and that was to a fancy dress party.

Monday 10 October 2011

Can't stop the work...

Seems like ages since I last posted.  It’s been - and continues to be - a bit of a busy time for me with work, so here's something brief just to keep things moving. Sandy Sarjeant's frantic leg work seems strangely appropriate to the way I feel right now…

Sandy Sarjeant: Can't Stop The Want

Sunday 25 September 2011

A soul thing for a Sunday morning II

It's a fine, sunny Autumn morning here, and I'm up against a tight deadline with an illustration project, which means I'm off to work in a minute.  But first:

I think this Sunday morning soul thing may become a series of occasional posts...

And here's a sneak preview of the book I'm working on at the moment, just part of an early rough of some polar bears.  A North Pole thing for a Sunday morning?

Image copyright C / Sun Dried Sparrows

Friday 16 September 2011

Playing along with the art school boys, part one

When I left school at sixteen I had one ambition - I wanted to design record covers.  It seemed like it would be the perfect job, to create pictures to go with the music I loved.  Going to Art School would be my direct route to this nirvana.  Simple.

Of course the reality was always going to be different.  The Foundation Art course I embarked on at that tender age was perhaps not always as exciting as I’d hoped.  There were definitely some fun moments, but ironically many of these were outside the curriculum – drunken afternoons at the end of term and  adolescent pranks with studio props (a favourite being to wrap up lumps of cow-gum glue in Toffo wrappers and pass them off to a hapless friend as real sweets…)  But a lot of time was spent on  more prosaic practices such as the rules of perspective, drawing from life and understanding the colour spectrum.  I didn’t get to design any record covers at all.

Some rather embarrassing college work from 1980.  Who needs the great masters when you're making pictures like this..?!

With the benefit of hindsight  I think I might have tackled that first year differently.  I might have paid more attention to the technicalities and spent less time pondering on what I was going to wear each day (ooh - Siouxsie T-shirt or holey jumper? Leather jacket or charity shop raincoat?)  Perhaps I would also have taken more of an interest in the Art History lesson which we were obliged to attend once a week.

Sadly, I truly didn’t appreciate the relevance of learning a bit of background to a subject so vast - didn’t realise the benefits of opening up to the bigger picture (excuse the pun).  My world was small and self-obsessed.  So, I’m ashamed to say, the two hours a week watching a film about the Pre-Raphaelites, Surrealism or the Impressionists  became an excuse to do anything but learn or open up to such greatness.  I daydreamed in the soporific half light, and contemplated the latest episode of ‘Monkey’ or the thought of having a Findus crispy pancake for tea.  The most artistic thing I did during Art History was the occasional doodle in my notebook, in which only a few cursory educational notes had been jotted down : Florence, 1400s, Botticelli.”   120 sleepy minutes would pass in which I barely even noticed his Venus.  And then it was home time (no doubt to watch ‘Monkey’ and have that Findus crispy pancake for tea.)

So I was totally unprepared when it came to sitting the Art History ‘O’ Level exam at the end of the year.  What was worse was that, somehow, I got the day of the exam wrong.  I thought it was on the Thursday, but it was on the Wednesday.  I’d presumed I had Wednesday off and the house to myself - such bliss.  So I stayed in bed for an extra hour.....only to be suddenly and unhappily awoken by a phone call. 

It was my Art History teacher. "Where are you??? The exam starts in half an hour...!” 
“Oh no…”   It felt like a large stone had been dropped inside my stomach as her words assembled themselves in my brain. “Oh NO! I’ve got to get the bus… I don’t know when the next one is… erm…” The rock in my gut felt even heavier.
“No, you’'ll be too late!  I'll come and pick you up in my car.  Now."
Oh shit.  College was eight miles from my home.  She’d be here in less than half an hour.

Not only did I have to face an exam and the wrath of my tutor, but I had to get ready.  Hair!  Oh no! Would there be time to spike it up? Oh hell, could I go to college with non-spikey hair?  Oh fuck.... could I?  And what about make-up?  And clothes? What was I going to wear?  I quickly rinsed my bed-curled mop, unsuccessfully tried to blow-dry it upright, smudged black kohl around my eyes and pulled a smelly, crumpled mohair jumper out of the linen basket where it had been awaiting a much-needed wash.  No time to even finish my bowl of Ricicles before Miss Art History pulled up outside in her Morris Minor Traveller. 

It took a long while, not to mention a lot of egg-white, to get my hair to defy gravity this way...

Anyway I got into the exam late – flustered, embarrassed and, worst of all, with floppy hair - and I was all over the place.  I hadn't a clue.  I tried to recall as much as I could - something about Florence in the 1400s and Botticelli? - but I knew it was doomed.  It was awful.  And when the exam was over all I wanted to do was go home (I had nothing to stay for) but - in the hurry to get out that morning and with not needing to catch the bus -  I only had 12 pence on me. 12 pence was enough to buy a whole packet of Polos, but only a tiny fraction of an eight-mile bus fare. So I decided to walk.

It took me nearly three hours.   I got offers of lifts from a very persistent biker (who kept turning round, coming back and asking again) and a rather pushy lorry driver who scowled nastily at me for rejecting the invitation of a ride in his cab.  I think he had a different kind of ride in mind.  I refused both, and continued on blistered feet – eventually getting home to be greeted by my mum, who was now back from work, with a cheery, “Good day at college, dear?”

I failed my Art History exam miserably.

An art history film with a difference.  The artist, Guiseppe Ragazzini, uses pieces
of masterpieces by Botticelli, Da Vinci, Giotto, etc. in this collage animation...

Friday 9 September 2011

The first pet you ever had...?

(And no, I don’t mean in the 'petting' sense.  I’m not going into those kinds of ‘firsts’ on this blog.  At least not yet...)

I know it’s not very rock’n’roll compared to my previous ‘firsts’ posts (first album, first gig, first T-shirt) but it’s just one of those subjects that I’m sure a lot of people can relate to.  I think everyone I know had a pet when they were a child.  And, strangely enough, it seems like certain ‘types’ of pets go in and out of fashion - and may even be linked to certain eras.  So perhaps there are more resonances to albums, gigs and T-shirts than I first thought? 

Tortoises, for instance.  Tortoises were very popular pets here in the seventies; unfortunately for them they were being shipped to the UK from more exotic climes in huge numbers, cruelly packed in appalling conditions – a great percentage never made the journey.  But the lucky few that survived were quickly despatched to pet shops around the country and bought by enthusiastic children, many of whom had been watching Blue Peter (the TV programme no doubt responsible for impulse purchases of border collies, tabby cats, parrots and, indeed, these slow-moving, land-dwelling reptiles).  Many of these cold-blooded characters must have been relocated to small British gardens where they somehow coped with our often chilly, damp weather. Many would have had their names (or owners’ names) painted on their shells and occasionally may even have had chains or ropes drilled into them (nobody questioned whether or not this process would have caused them any stress or pain).  So I was not unusual in being the proud owner of a tortoise in the seventies.  Timmy somehow managed to survive a few winter hibernations in a cardboard box in the garage (and his name was never painted on, nor his shell ever drilled into).   He enjoyed a diet of dandelion leaves and bananas and had a remarkably runny nose out of which he could blow the most impressive little bubbles of snot.  I could relate to him rather well at the age of nine.

But Timmy was not my very first personal pet.  My first was a goldfish.  During a trip to the local fair my sister and I each won a goldfish sealed into a tiny polythene bag of water.  I’d probably despair at the number of these ‘prizes’ that were flushed down toilets soon after being won on the coconut shy – but I’m happy to report that ours were relocated into a rather splendid tank with rocks and shells and all sorts of Neptunian items in it to make them feel a bit at home.  

As is the way with naming pets, you have to think of something which begins with the same letter as the creature itself.  Yes, we later did it with Timmy the Tortoise (and subsequently Toby and Twinkle).  But ‘G’ for Goldfish is not a particularly inspiring letter.  And our goldfish were definitely girls.  Eventually my sister decided on ‘Geraldine’.  Aged about six at the time, I was inspired by her lead.  But what other girls’ names sound like Geraldine?  Somehow I missed the point, and started looking for names with that soft ‘G’ sound, same as Geraldine.  Ah – got it.  G… G…. Guuuu...?  I proudly named my goldfish ‘Judith’.  (Oh well.  But you can understand my thinking…)

From inauspicious beginnings in a plastic bag at a small-town-England fair with its rock’n’roll soundtrack and dodgy dodgems, Judith and Geraldine went on to live surprisingly long (and hopefully happy) lives in their comfortable tank chez nous.  In summer they got a holiday in the little pond in the garden, where they got to mingle with tadpoles and the occasional newt.  The rest of the year they were safe and warm on a ledge in the bathroom where we watched them, and from which they had a fish-eye lens view of a human family as we took our baths and used the loo.    I think we got the better deal of the two.

Sunday 28 August 2011

The first T-shirt you ever wore...?

I don’t know about you but I find I just can’t wear band-name T-shirts any more.  I can wear other logos, art and random images across my chest when I’m in the right mood, but band names - no.   The funny thing is that I don’t wear them now for exactly the same reason that I did wear them once: because the name you’re displaying immediately puts you into a very specific box.

The first T-shirt of that ilk that I ever had was one I loved wearing ‘til it was almost threadbare.  I even remember getting it - I had just turned 15 and I’d gone to London on the train (with my mum!) with the sole purpose of coming home with something special for my birthday.  The Clash T-shirt that I found in a little shop in Carnaby Street fitted the bill - as well as me - perfectly. It was special – and, yes, it put me into a very specific box. 

It was a tone-reduced black and white photo of the band standing in a street looking seriously cool, all zippy jackets and skinny trousers, with The Clash above (same typeface as on the first album) in a screen printed rainbow of neon colours.  I can remember looking through the rack, and even though there were several of the same main design, the colours were all very slightly different, so I could pick my favourite.  I wore that T-shirt frequently (if only I could have worn it to school…)  and thought it went very well with both leopard-print and paint-splattered trousers or those early straight-legged jeans which I wore over black monkey boots.

So that was my first…. I wish I had a photo with me in (or out of) it, and maybe someone else does somewhere, but sadly I don’t.   No doubt if I had kept it I could sell it on ebay now as a vintage item for an extortionate sum, but instead it went the way of all my subsequent band-name T-shirts, i.e. to one of three places – the charity shop, the rubbish bin, or the cupboard under the sink to fulfil a new role as a cleaning rag…

I have hardly any decent photographic records of other T-shirts either but there have certainly been a few since that one bought in 1978.   Here we have the rather mixed bunch of Crass, Bauhaus and the Dread Broadcasting Corporation (so not strictly a band  but it shouted to the world that you liked a bit of dub…)

Later I sometimes designed my own one-offs too, using Dylon and a fine paintbrush, or the basic screen-printing kit bought from a craft shop.   But whether bought or studiously painted, they all meant something important for a while.  They told the world who you were into - really into.  I mean, back then, wearing a Ramones T-shirt meant you were into the Ramones. You know what I’m saying…

Sunday 21 August 2011

They say love can move a mountain

Quite by chance this week I discovered that Joe Strummer was born on this day in 1952.

As I love this song (even though, like many, I’d heard the Clash first), any excuse to put it on here is fine by me.  So today's date gives me a perfect one.

The 101'ers: Keys To Your Heart

Joe Strummer (John Mellor):  21st August 1952 – 22nd December 2002
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