Friday 28 September 2012

Girl next door

My parents, sister and I lived at No. 2 for many years, while some different families moved in and out of No. 3.  The first was a sweet German couple with three children.  Micha, the youngest, and I quickly became playmates.  Every Saturday afternoon she’d call round and she had a habit of being early.   “It’s Bing Bong,” my mum would say, knowing that the little girl pressing our two-note doorbell  bing-bong, bing-bong, bing-bong - while we were still finishing our lunch - would be Micha.   I still think of her as Bing Bong.  However, on summer Sunday mornings she would forego the bing-bong and the signal to go out to play would be the tinkling of a cowbell coming from her open bedroom window.  I’d go to my shelf full of model animals and Ladybird books to find the little brass bell with the painting of eidelweiss on it (that she’d given me), open my window and shake it in response. 

I was sad when Micha and her family moved back to Germany, but she left me her golden yellow painted bike, which I named Dobbin, and a pair of children’s skis.  The skis got stored away in our draughty garage, along with Dobbin; unlike that bike they never got any use, although I did slip my feet into them sometimes just to try and imagine what it might feel like to be a skier.  Dobbin, meanwhile, was ridden with great frequency, round and round the quiet road in front of the house, up and over splintery planks set up as ramps, and in and out of slaloms of upturned seaside buckets and other assorted objects.  He was used and abused, until his paint rubbed off, his brakes rusted and his tyres perished, just as a bike should be.

Next in at No 3 was a contrasting family.  The dad was a lorry driver and the mum was a hairdresser, they drove a Ford Cortina and had two white, rather smelly poodles whose curly-haired heads were often decorated with red ribbons.  There was an Aunty Renee who visited them frequently, usually turning up in full ballroom dancing regalia and beehive hairdo, wearing more make-up than Divine.  The older of their two daughters, Mandy, was the same age as me.  I wasn’t sure about Mandy at first; she didn’t seem to understand the concept of sharing.   She would happily eat her way through a packet of Spangles or a paper bag of Sherbet Pips without offering them around.  At her birthday parties we played Pass The Parcel and every time the music stopped her mum made sure it was when the brown paper package reached Mandy’s grasping hands.  And every time her little girl excitedly tore at each layer of wrapping, there would be a  present under it for her, like a pencil-top rubber shaped like a mouse or packet of sweet cigarettes.  After an afternoon of similarly manipulated games, the rest of us went home empty-handed.  Maybe that’s why she never latched on to the sharing thing.  She was also the biggest liar I’d ever met.  I got used to Mandy’s ways, though, and when we were nine she took me to my very first (and only) under-12s disco on the other side of town in a hall where there were snooker tables and dartboards.  “They have striptease nights here sometimes,” Mandy told me proudly, “and a lady takes all her clothes off”.   I was shocked.  All her clothes?” I ventured, nervously, trying to imagine something that I couldn’t really understand, but which seemed horrifying and unspeakable. I was haunted by this thought for some time.  Ladies took all their clothes off in places like this?  Something told me, though, that Mandy wasn’t lying this time.

No. 3’s next occupants were a headmaster, his teacher wife and their only child, Janet.  “Oh, you look like a little pixie,” were Janet’s first words to me, to which I took great offence.  She was a bit older than me and seemed very bossy and bookish; I couldn’t imagine ringing bells out of the window to her or accompanying her to junior discos.  She wasn’t very good at sharing, either.  And, unlike mine, her house was like a showroom, with nothing ever out of place and strange looking objects kept in highly polished glass fronted cabinets. But we got on in a remote kind of way and sometimes walked home from school together or rode our bikes around.  One Summer, Janet’s cousin Robert came over to their house for a week and she persuaded me to let him borrow Dobbin, which he did enthusiastically, every day, while I propelled myself along behind them on my annoyingly tiring metal scooter.   On the day of his departure Robert announced,  “I don’t like your bike.  You’ll have to get a bigger one for next time I come here.” 

Playing was easier with the family of six at No. 1, who moved in the same time as us and stayed there long after mine had gone our separate ways.  They were an eccentric family at times with some idiosyncracies, but then so were we.  With two boys and two girls, an apple tree in the garden, assorted bikes, a piano, a mangey cat (left to them by the German family from No. 3 – I think I got the better deal), bows, arrows and a selection of cowboy and indian outfits, an inflatable paddling pool and a Spacehopper, theirs was like something out of an Enid Blyton story.  We all frolicked, fought, laughed, argued, teased, climbed, made mud pies, grazed knees, built snowmen and did bicycle slaloms together - and we all knew how to share.  I think I was quite a lucky girl next door.

Happy days with the neighbours
(That's me in the middle, with black tights and missing front tooth)

Monday 24 September 2012


Someone (I’m sorry, but I forget who) once said: the only way to cure an obsession is to get another one, and I’m sure there’s a lot of truth in that.   My definition of obsession is when an interest in, or a need for, something is so powerful that it controls you, rather than the other way around.  It’s a word that smacks of unhealthiness in so many respects and sets me thinking about scarily obsessive fans (not that I have any...), OCD and other addictive behaviour with negative associations.  But at the same time, a creative obsession can drive you to do something, to make something happen, or to help you actually finish something you’ve started, so maybe it’s not all bad.

I really don’t like the idea of becoming fixated on anything although I know sometimes I do get a little bit obsessed (if it is possible to rate obsession by degrees).  But then, who doesn’t at one time or another? 

I’ve tried to learn by some of my slightly, and temporarily, obsessive mistakes – most of which are quite ridiculous.  For instance, some years ago, I got obsessed by a massive, volcanic-looking spot (don’t laugh) which, typically, appeared on my cheek the day before a rare night out to a party which had promised to be full of influential and amazing people (it wasn’t).  I thought if I dabbed a bit of undiluted antiseptic on the offending pimple on an hourly basis I might zap it into oblivion just in time.  I was in and out of the bathroom with my cotton buds and bottle of Savlon (other brands are available) like a creature possessed - which I suppose I was.  Indeed I managed to nuke the zit, but it was a good square inch of skin around it as well that I also zapped into a very red and raw oblivion.  By the way, if anyone wants a cheap and ugly chemical face peel, I can highly recommend this method.  I went to the party that night looking like I’d stuck a piece of overcooked bacon on my cheek….and I’ve never mourned the absence of a stupid spot so much.  I won’t be doing that again.

On the creative obsession front, I once bought a pack of Fymo modelling clay which, if you’re not familiar with it,  is similar to plasticine so you can perhaps imagine how much fun it was to play with.  With Fymo, though, you can bake your creations in the oven for twenty minutes which hardens and preserves them forever, and it even comes with a little bottle of varnish to give that professional looking glaze.   You can also mix the colours into lovely vivid patterns and swirls so, unlike plasticine, you don’t get that horrible shitty brown when you blend them.  Well, I don’t know why, but… I started making psychedelically coloured Fymo slugs and caterpillars.  And I got obsessed.  I spent hours each weekend making them in as many different groovy colour combinations as I could.  Every surface in the flat started to fill up with these many-hued creatures, in various stages of production: raw, cooked, cooling off, just-varnished...   I think my obsession with creating Fymo creepy-crawlies only stopped when my interest turned to making intricately patterned gift boxes, or was it when I started hand-writing my own fanzine, or was it when I got my table-top screenprinting kit…?  You get the idea.

However, perhaps one of my more healthy (?) obsessions is to do with music.  Yours too?  I thought so.  Just one song can get under my skin intensely for a period of time too and during that phase I simply want to hear it over and over again.  It hits the spot (without the need for Savlon…)  So it is with some irony that I’ve written this post because the song which is currently obsessing me is this:

And it works on so many levels.

Thursday 20 September 2012

The final curtain

I’m not sure how I feel about 'The Laughing Policeman’ *  being played at Mr SDS’ funeral but he tells me that’s what he wants.  He’s not dead yet, but you know how these things come up in conversation every so often.  Either that, he says, or ‘The Galaxy Song’ from the end credits of Monty Python’s ‘The Meaning Of Life’.  I think I’d be more comfortable with that choice, although I can’t help wonder mischievously what the reaction might be to the aforementioned cackling copper from those long lost relatives who just came for the after-show egg & cress sarnies. (Incidentally, his third and perhaps most sinister request is the Beatles' ’I’ll Be Back’…)

Don’t you think it’d be a good idea for everybody to keep a note of their preferred funeral playlist which loved ones could then refer to when the time comes?  You’d need to update it as and when your tastes change, of course, not that it will actually matter to you at the time whether your remains are wheeled in or out to ‘Pretty Vacant’ or a throat-singing Tibetan monk’s chants, but it would be one less thing for your bereaved to have to mull over.   My instructions would definitely stipulate, at the very least, that there must be no clich├ęs.  Pleeease, no ‘Angels’ by Robbie Williams, nor Celine Dion’s ‘My Heart Will Go On’.  Yuk.  If I didn’t like it in life then you can be assured that I’m not going to like it in death; even though I’ll be (presumably) in blissful ignorance, please don’t insult my memory.

Then there’s the matter of ego.  If  I got off on the thought that my friends and family might weep inconsolably at my departure, I’d want them to choose something heart-rendingly sad.  The kind of song that makes your eyes water and your throat go dry even when the sun is shining and you’ve just found a tenner down the back of the sofa.   ‘Banks Of The Nile’ by Fotheringay turns on my saltwater taps in an instant, as does Bowie’s version of ‘Wild Is The Wind’ (and here I must also mention his superb rendition of Jacques Brel’s ‘My Death’ which doesn’t so much have me in tears as make my spine tingle rather nicely).  But I wouldn’t want my funeral-goers to have to deal with all that awkwardness of snotty noses, running mascara and where to keep their man-size tissues, uncontrollably triggered by a mere minor key or mournful vocal; I’d rather they could smile.

For me, nobody says it better than Jake Thackray in ‘Last Will and Testament’.  Perhaps that’s the song I’d want?

* Mr SDS is very definitely NOT a policeman.  Far from it.

Saturday 15 September 2012

Abstract moment of the week

Have been chuckling to myself since finding that my mother-in-law, who will be 81 next month, had filled in a crossword puzzle with the solution M  O  T  O  R  H  E  A  D.  The clue was simply 'Lemmy's rock band'.   It's just the fact that she knew it...

Gotta love Motorhead...

Wednesday 12 September 2012

Only an illustrator

My flagging morale was recently boosted by this blog post.  Amongst many other interesting points, it promotes the notion that good illustrators are also good artists. 

I love art in all its forms, but there’s an unspoken hierarchy in the art world, and in some people’s minds illustrators are down at the bottom of it, ranking far below painters, sculptors and graphic designers.  As if that’s not enough, children’s book illustrators have for many years been consigned to the murky depths of that particular category too.  It’s as if, because we make pictures aimed at young and undeveloped minds, we are not to be taken seriously. 

Recently I dropped in to a local gallery which sells all different kinds of lovely prints and paintings, to ask about the possibility of exhibiting there.  The owner was all enthusiastic and friendly until I actually started to explain what my work was.  Honestly, her facial expression and attitude changed so suddenly and so obviously it was as if I’d just let out a loud and pungent fart.  She nearly wafted me out of the door like one, anyway…   I didn’t get the chance to tell her that I’d sold several original illustrations (framed and ready to hang as art on your wall) at every exhibition I’ve done.  Please forgive me indulging in a bit of name-dropping, but I wanted to tell her that my buyers included the lead singer of a long-established folk rock band (oh go on then, it was Dave Cousins of the Strawbs, not that I’m suggesting that gives it credibility but, y'know…!) and the star of a popular West End musical (what is it about singers?!).  I sold a rough pencil sketch from one book to an Art Buyer from Sotheby’s who was so poshly spoken I could barely understand her, but who said (when I finally tuned in to her accent) that she loved to see a work in its unfinished form and to be able to appreciate what went into it.  I would have hugged her but I was afraid of crushing her pearls.  And yet this gallery woman looked down her nose at me and discouraged me from even showing her what I could do.  I really wouldn't have minded if she'd just said she didn't think it would be right for her, but it was the way she made me feel so inferior that pissed me off.  I should have farted as I went out the door, shouldn’t I?!

Fortunately, though, views are gradually starting to change and children’s book illustration has become more recognised as an important art form in its own right.  There are always going to be those low-end, mass-market products that cater for children in which artwork has been lazily commissioned and unimaginatively or sloppily executed, but these days thankfully there is increasing recognition of the fact that good book illustration - ok, good book art! - is to be valued.  Not only do you need the ability to draw and paint, but you need the kind of mind which can conjure up these images from within.  You only have what’s in your head to draw from (in both senses), whether it’s a trumpet-playing monkey or a dragon taking a bath (or a surfing rhino…)  It’s a huge amount of fun, but it takes a lot of energy and a particular way of thinking, and that’s before you’ve even put pencil to paper.

Not only that, but because your work is going to be used commercially and publicly, rather than sold as a piece in its own right to one person, you’re subject to a massive amount of critique.  A whole team of people get involved, scrutinising your compositional ideas, poring over your every pencil stroke, making judgements about the tiniest details, sometimes conflicting ones.  On top of that you’re working to continuous deadlines.  It can take up to six months to complete one picture book, and the advance is rarely over a few thousand pounds, unless you’re Quentin Blake or Lauren Child… 

So you do it for love.  Why else would you do it?  Not to have anyone look down their nose at you, that’s for sure.

Saturday 8 September 2012

Grace space race

Thanks to my Dad having a good job which involved some dealings overseas, I was lucky enough as a kid to spend three weeks travelling around Germany in the back of a Jaguar Mk II. 

It was the Summer of ’69 and I was coming up to six.  Dad bought the car specially for the trip as we needed something more spacious and comfortable than the Triumph Herald he used for work.

The Jaguar was racing green, with dark red leather upholstery and walnut trim.  I remember getting in the back of it for the first time and, although my interest in cars didn’t extend beyond my sister’s purple ‘Hot Wheels’ toy (with its bright orange track), I was very excited about our new vehicle.  It had a special smell, for a start.  The back seat, where I’d be spending a lot of time, felt like a luxurious sofa, and the best part was that there were these little flip-down, wooden, semi-circular ‘trays’ inserted into the back of the front seats, a bit like you have in aeroplanes.  These alone made me want to always eat in it, just for the pleasure of pulling them out and enjoying the novelty of a little James Bond-style gadget (or so it seemed).

So we drove all over Germany in this lovely, characterful car, staying in a variety of houses and hotels along the way.  I remember one old Bed & Breakfast place in the middle of a busy town, maybe it was Nuremberg, and it was the first time I’d slept under a continental quilt.  I missed my English sheets and blanket.  There was a thunderstorm and I had a wobbly tooth.  My sister scared me with tales of how some people tied one end of a piece of string around a loose tooth and the other to a door handle and then slammed the door to pull it out.  In the background, as she explained this horrific extraction method, the skies rumbled and the lightning lit up the room like a camera flashcube.  That night I had bad dreams about teeth and doors and suffocating under demonic Deutsch duvets.  But a few days later my tooth fell out naturally and painlessly - and, amazingly, it turned out there was such a thing as a German tooth fairy, who kindly left a pfennig under my pillow the following morning. I was most impressed.

Some time after the German road trip the car started to play up and wasn’t practical to drive any more.  My Dad left it at the end of the road with the intention of doing a bit of weekend tinkering to get it back to roadworthy standard, but… ahem… he never got round to it. (A similar fate befell a rotting boat, a stringless violin, a valve TV and numerous other objects.  Our home was like a shrine to unfinished projects.)  After some months - or maybe years -  the Mk II became home to spiders and ivy and probably several families of mice.  When bits of it started falling off and the neighbours threatened to petition for its removal, he finally advertised it for sale in the local paper. Soon a bald man in a sheepskin jacket came round to the house, gave him a crisp blue five pound note and towed the Jaguar away.  He was going to use it for Banger Racing, he said.  We didn’t mind the idea of our poor neglected car getting a new lease of life on a muddy race track, with black and white numbers painted on its bonnet; it seemed quite thrilling.

It never turned up on the Banger Racing circuit, though.  That autumn we saw it being driven proudly around town, all resprayed paintwork and shiny chrome, by a bald man in a sheepskin jacket.  I bet he loved those flip-down trays too.  Maybe he’d even drive it round Germany one day?  If ever there was a car for the Autobahn, it was that one.

Mind you, my Mum had kept something from the car as a memento before we parted with it.  She unscrewed the beautiful silver jaguar ornament from the long bonnet and replaced the traditional handle on the inside of our front door with it.  It stayed there for years and was a great conversation piece: “What an unusual door handle!  It looks like one of those bonnet ornaments from a Jaguar car!”  “Yes - that’s exactly what it is….”   Luckily it never got used for pulling teeth.

Tuesday 4 September 2012

Travels with my camera

The irony is that I haven’t travelled anywhere much in weeks, not anywhere.  Apart from daily jaunts round the  garden, where I now like to venture with my camera at the ready – just in case.   I feel like a wildlife paparazzo, lying in wait for an unsuspecting spider to come out to its web, or lurking behind a bush to spy on a beetle.

I like it when I come across photogenic things by chance.  Yesterday, having hung the washing out on the line an hour or two earlier, I noticed a Red Admiral sunning itself… on my knickers!  Both of them were flapping gently in the breeze.   I sneaked up to study the delicate beauty, rather liking the combined colour scheme and the way the edges of its wings complemented the lacy trim of my undies.  You know, that juxtaposition thing.   Or maybe you had to be there?

Anyway, I’m not airing my dirty - or clean, for that matter - linen in public, so instead here are some other shots of smalls from yesterday's travels down the garden path.   And if you're not feeling quite so sunny yourself, I hope this little fix of natural beauty may help a bit.

Also - it gives me a tenuous excuse to include an early album track from the highly prolific and charismatic Joseph Arthur... someone I've seen live so many times now I've lost count.  If he comes to the UK to gig again soon I'll be travelling to that - but I'll leave my camera behind.

Joseph Arthur: 'Evidence' from 'Redemption's Son' (2002)

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