Friday 21 February 2014

Snog, marry, avoid

I'm not quite sure how it happened, but I ended up saying that I would marry Boris Johnson. Actually, that's a lie. I do know exactly how it happened. The other day Mr SDS subjected me to a series of 'Snog, Marry, Avoid' scenarios, and he wasn't particularly generous with his choice of candidates. So when I said I'd marry Boris, it was merely because he was the best of a bad bunch, and I reckoned his bumbling babbling (and perhaps even a reminiscence or two about the Clash) would be marginally more fun than being shackled to the alternatives on offer who happened to be David Cameron and Ed Milliband. David Cameron got the snog - I mean, we wouldn't need to exchange political views, just a little bit of saliva.

In playing this game it's interesting how you find ways to justify your marriage choice above everything. I'm thinking: “Who would make me laugh? Who might I share some possible topics of interest with? Who could I bear to wander around Homebase with when choosing a new swing-bin?” Which is kind of what marriage boils down to in the end, I suppose, whilst the the snogging and avoiding become pretty incidental really (I could always keep eyes, lips and legs closed during the former, if required).

Anyway, I was shown no mercy, and the game continued. So now I have to snog, marry and avoid a number of characters, both real and fictional.

I'm snogging Jim Davidson, marrying Nick Hewer and avoiding Alan Sugar. It was obvious to me that I couldn't possibly marry or snog Alan, whilst – say what you like, but - I think I could tolerate a quickie with Jim. However, Nick would have to be the best for stimulating conversation; we could share our admiration for Susie Dent and bitch about Apprentice contestants, then we could play our own version of Countdown together on rainy Sunday afternoons, not bad.

Of Ricky Gervais' fictional characters I've ended up getting hitched to Andy Millman from Extras (because I think we'd understand each other's creative dilemmas), thus having a quick canoodle with David Brent from The Office (I feel a bit sorry for him) and avoiding the eponymous Derek (which made me feel really mean).

When I move to Coronation Street, bad boy Peter Barlow can get it on with me if he can find room in his busy womanising schedule, but I'll keep out the way of Owen Armstrong - although he would be good at putting up shelves and – this is the killer – I'll become the new Mrs Roy Cropper. I know, I know. But I reckoned he'd be faithful, kind and make me nice breakfasts.

Russell Brand, Liam Gallagher and Justin Bieber presented a dilemma. I wanted to snog and marry Russell and avoid the other two but them's the rules. You can probably guess my choices.

Never mind that they're gay: I'm marrying Graham Norton, whilst snogging Rylan Clark (cue clashing of teeth) and deftly avoiding Louis Spence who would drive me up the fucking wall.

And I was even given a crack at the women, thus marrying Emma Willis, kissing Pink (it just sounded good, and I think she might be a man anyway) and avoiding Emma Bunton.

I'll have to bat a few back, of course. Madonna, Cher or Mel B? Ann Widdecombe, Edwina Currie or Christine Hamilton? Valerie Singleton, Lesley Judd or Shep?  Hours of fun, and it beats that trip to Homebase.

POST SCRIPT:  2016....I hate Boris Johnson.  I could not nor would not have anything to do with him.

Wednesday 19 February 2014

Where babies come from

It was so simple. I thought that all girls automatically had tiny babies inside them from birth and it was only when you got married that they started to grow and then you actually laid them, like a hen laying eggs. The fact that this only happened when you had a husband was due to the same kind of magic that allowed Father Christmas to come down our chimney in spite of the fact that we didn't actually have a fireplace. I remember jumping up and down one day and saying to my mum, “I hope I'm not making my baby feel sick!”. I was only about seven or eight; just for a brief moment there my mum may well have felt a little nauseous herself. The 'getting married' bit was the trick, though - maybe it was something to do with the ring. Anyway, when I got married, probably to the blonde-haired, blue-eyed Christopher, who had given me a clockwork helicopter for my sixth birthday, the baby would come out of my bottom and we'd all live happily ever after in one of those houses with the sticky-out windows that I'd seen on the way to Aunty Margaret's.

So it was all a bit of a shock when Elizabeth told me what really happened. Elizabeth was off school for a trip to the dentists that fateful day. It was a Wednesday, and on Wednesdays at 10 o'clock Mrs Williams took her class of 9-year-olds into the assembly hall whereupon she wheeled out the big television with wooden shutters on its tall stand and we spent the next half hour sitting on the floor cross-legged being educated and entertained, often by some rather excellent programme such as Merry Go Round. However, for some reason that Mrs Williams wouldn't explain, that Wednesday the routine was changed and we didn't get our usual telly session.

Meanwhile, Elizabeth, being a very good, studious, little girl, thought she'd watch it at home anyway before she went to the dentist. Her mum was upstairs cleaning the bathroom and left her daughter to it. If only she'd realised.

When Elizabeth and I sat together on the pudding stone at playtime the next day she was a different girl. She knew. She knew all about how babies were made... she'd seen it on Merry Go Round... and she couldn't wait to tell me. It was shocking. “The man puts his thing right inside the woman!” “But how? Where?” I was aghast. It was hard to imagine Christopher putting his thing... well... you get the idea.

By the time I got to secondary school, just turned 11, I felt I knew the basics, but I was surprised to discover it was complete news to some of my classmates. We had to watch a creaky, unimaginative film about The Facts Of Life, all very cold and anatomical, and one of the Bagwell twins fainted. I don't think she even knew about periods, poor thing.  But later in the year we got the gory childbirth film in our Biology lesson and with all the blood and guts and umbilical cords in that I nearly fainted too. It was even worse than having to look at the dissected pregnant rat (and I can still smell the formaldehyde from that particular traumatic event).

Then there were those conversations on the way home from school. Sarah T revealed what her biggest sister had told her she'd done with her boyfriend... that “she put his... you know... in her mouth!” We giggled uncontrollably, shocked, embarrassed and uncomprehending. Gradually we notched up a bit more knowledge, like when Tracy P found a load of torn out pages from Playboy and Mayfair strewn around on the footpath behind her house (how did they end up there?) She brought them in to school and we pored nervously over the naughty pictures, in disbelief, unable to compare those oddly pink bodies on the pages to our own not yet fully formed ones.. so much hair! much strange-looking flesh!...such huge nipples! These must be the kind of women who'd put their boyfriend's... you know... in their mouths!

I don't know what kids of that age know now, how much is taught or when, nor how much sense it makes to minds that may have already been exposed from infancy to the internet and Keith-ubiquitous-Lemon. There must be a fine line between a refreshing openness and too much too soon – but not having kids of my own I've swerved that particular challenge.

Elizabeth went on to be a midwife, by the way.  And by the age of ten Christopher and I were no longer talking, so I wanted to marry Simon, who had a bicycle with gears.

Monday 17 February 2014

Old age and the war

Carole, my lovely French tutor, expressed her surprise recently at the degree to which Brits still go on about 'the war'. It's just not the same in France apparently, not a subject that takes much precedence. I'm sure there are some theories as to why the French feel that way which I don't feel qualified to discuss, but I don't really get why we still have such a preoccupation with it here.

It's become a source of ridicule in some ways, like when Uncle Albert of Only Fools and Horses was always trotting out his famous line of, “During the wa-ahr...” I never used to think about what people actually must have gone through; I'd switch off, it seemed so long ago and irrelevant, boring even. And I'd wonder why some discussed their wartime experiences with a nostalgic relish, as if they were good times, as if they were times to look back on fondly! But I think I get it more now. Those moments of extreme adversity, endured and survived individually and communally, are a big deal. Most of us ordinary (younger) civilians haven't a clue.

I have to remind myself of that when I'm frustrated by the old dears in the charity shop bumbling around and getting in the way of the box of CDs (or knitting patterns) on the floor, and when I'm stuck behind the elderly chap in the supermarket queue who can't find his reading glasses or the right change. It's so easy to disregard older people for all the obvious reasons, isn't it? Especially the ones who can't help talking shite. We've all been there I'm sure, stuck listening endlessly and patiently to someone who tells you the minutiae of their dull daily routine because they just want someone to chat to, but whose lonely desperation to talk has unfortunately become the very reason why people avoid them, and thus that lonely desperation cycle continues.  I know it could be me one day, struggling to get to grips with my Google Glass and ducking out the way of Amazon drones.  But who knows what they've been through, what they've seen, how they coped? None of it through choice.

I was reminded of this the other day on finding a letter from 30 years ago written by my mum to an ex-teacher from her school who had serendipitously gone into the bookshop where she worked at the time. In it she explained about her first days at secondary school where she started in 1939, amid pupils from several other schools who hadn't been evacuated.

“...It was a trying time as we spent a great part of the day in the sand-bagged cloisters of the school building trying to learn normal lessons with air-raids in progress...

In 1943 we were still experiencing bombing raids and I have a very strong memory of the day we received news of the death of our classmate, Pauline Egglesfield, who had been suffocated in the ruins of her home in Ilford. I also remember returning home one afternoon and as I neared the long avenue which led to my house I could see a dark plume of smoke. I flew home, that long mile, to discover that incendiaries had destroyed a nearby farm. Ilford received the highest percentage of doodle-bug damage, being at the range where most of the dreaded flying bombs eventually blew up”

Still, it wasn't all about the bombs:

...Uniforms were available but had to be bought with clothing coupons. I remember going to a very old fashioned drapers store to select the gym tunic. Mother would make the square-necked blouses and summer dresses. But, oh! The terrible little hats. This last creation was jammed down flat on my head nearly over my eyes. Eventually the girls managed to rearrange these little cloth affairs in a more flattering shape – but I almost ran away when I discovered they had to be worn at all times travelling back and forth to school.”

Glad to see my mum had the same thoughts about school uniform as I did.

Radiohead: Bones (not The Bends!)
I'm not usually a big fan of Radiohead, but this.... I think it's stunning.

Saturday 15 February 2014

Gmail is reading my mind

Lying in bed this morning, as I was wondering if we still had a roof*, Mr SDS suddenly asked, “Who did that song 'The Lone Ranger'? God knows why but I've got it going through my head”. I couldn't remember, all I could recall was a fuzzy memory of something with the name 'Kimosabi' in the lyrics, the rest of the song long lost to the vagaries of my ageing mind. Besides, I was more preoccupied with the thought of looking out of the window to find my shedio reduced to a pile of rubble.

I grunted and turned over.

“1970 something, '76? '77?” he prompted. Then it came to him, “Quantum Jump!”

It still didn't mean much to me.  So that was that.

After getting up to find that a) we still have a roof and b) the piles of sketches inside my shedio are not scattered across East Anglia, I was checking my email this morning. I've been using Gmail for the last year or so; are you familiar with Gmail's advertising in the side bar? I've had a few laughs from them. Your friend sends you an email that includes a phrase like, “...I was listening to Blondie's Parallel Lines...” and there on the right hand side are all those adverts automatically 'linked' to the message content, which in that instance would probably include something to do with hearing aids, hair bleach and how to improve your maths... Anyway I was reading a short email from a friend, thanking me for a book I'd sent him and passing on a phone number, nothing more. So why this advert:

What Is Quantum Jumping?
Discover Why Thousands of People
are “Jumping” to Change Their Life.


I'm not one of those people who believes there must be a deeply mystical reason for this odd coincidence and that someone somewhere is telling me something (presumably to try quantum jumping?) But it is weird, isn't it? I might have to check the bedroom for bugging devices.... hmm.

Later of course I had to look up Quantum Jump's Lone Ranger song on youtube. It came flooding back to me, especially that bloody 'taumatawhakatangihangakoayauotamateaturipukakapikimaungahoronukypokaiwhenuakitanatahu' bit.
I don't think there can be many other songs which include such politically incorrect lines as this: “maybe masked man he a poofter” - it could only have been in the '70s!  Apparently it was banned by the BBC for its references to homosexuality and illegal substances too.  Having said all that, it was only a short step from hearing that to reminding myself of a song a friend introduced me to last year which I like a lot more... the association being a bit more relevant than I believe any Gmail linked advert would be, what with the thoughts of cowboys, drugs and stuff now so firmly in my head:

*hope you still have too.

Tuesday 11 February 2014

Knit it

Does anyone still knit? The last person I saw knitting regularly was when I briefly worked at a Benefits Office in the 1980s, there was a woman there with a leathery complexion who used to knit and smoke her way through every lunch-hour. The clicking of knitting needles punctuated by cigarette-sucking and her phlegmy cough still sticks with me. Oh and she used to suck boiled sweets too. Tucked them into her cheek whenever she took a drag.

I thought of her today whilst browsing the charity shops because I was irresistibly drawn to some 1970s knitting magazines in a box on the floor in Help The Aged. 'Golden Hands' they were called (and then I couldn't stop thinking of the Klaxons'  'Golden Skans' and I've had that going through my head all day). But the mags were only pence so I bought a couple, just for the pictures. I might have to incorporate them into something ironic and artistic some time. Before I do, though, you've just got to see them...

From the feature: 'Knit him a casual sweater'

 The caption says 'Meet Sacha and her brother Gregor'

This article tells you how to 'Machine knit a glamorous evening dress'

From the feature: 'Romantic party looks for mothers-to-be'

Friday 7 February 2014

Some time in 1981

Got the bus into college today as usual, chatted to that girl who's on the secretarial course, she was enthusing madly about my eye make-up. I showed her my big green eye pencil, it's so fat it's like a kid's crayon, I love it! I draw around my eyes like I'm painting a picture, then smudge the black underneath them into it so it blends gradually, quite an art.

First session this morning was photography with Alan. He's a funny man, I don't know whether I like him or not, he's inoffensive enough, though. He's always telling us stories about how he used to photograph sixties models. Today he mentioned Celia Hammond, and there was another one whose name I've forgotten already, but he said that they had to give up on photographing her in the nude because her skin was so translucent that, although it looked alright in the flesh (literally), in the photos you could see all her veins! She must have looked like a road map.

Anyway he brought in his professional lighting equipment and was teaching us about how the lighting can change the mood of a portrait photo. Lighting from above is quite flattering, bringing out the shadows under the chin and nose, but lighting from below can give an almost malevolent look. Then he picked one of us to demonstrate on. Of course he bloody went and picked me, didn't he? I felt like a right wally sat there in the middle of the room while he ponced about with all these lights and everyone was looking at me. Wished I hadn't worn my baggy grey jumper, but at least I'd covered up the tatty neck with Mum's old green and blue scarf.  It still smells of her perfume.  I've got some spots on my chin, though, fuck it! Anyway he told me to sit with my head tilted upwards and look to the side for a classic portrait, really serious. I don't know quite how I did it without laughing, although I know I went a bit red. Thank god they'll be in black and white.

We're developing them tomorrow in the dark room, that should be fun, always feels like we're bunking off because there's so much waiting around time, always feels like a secret place too, must be the red light!

Katy was naughty at lunchtime. She'd brought in some dope. Apparently it's Red Leb. I think it was Black Leb that she had last time, that was when I tried it and ended up feeling so ill I thought I was going to have a heart attack. I was all over the place, I remember making some comment about Joseph and the Technicoloured Dreamcoat but I'd said Multicoloured Raincoat. God knows what the context was, I just remember that bit. Anyway Katy was well into smoking this Red Leb at lunchtime but after the last experience I didn't fancy it. I'm just not cut out for that stuff. Wish I was. As usual she rolled up some spliffs very ritualistically in the studio while John and Ray kept watch at the door. She doesn't care what she uses to roll them up on – she'd brought a Frank Zappa album in to lend me and she used the sleeve, bits of baccy everywhere. I'm not sure what I'm going to think of Zappa, I've heard of him but I don't know much about him, all seems a bit old to me. Katy keeps going on about a song with the line “Catholic girls with a tiny little moustache”... makes her laugh because she's Catholic.  But she hasn't got a moustache.  She looks like Kate Bush, and she never wears a bra. Anyway I'll give it a listen some time.

This afternoon we were working on our book cover designs. I'm quite enjoying being a bit abstract on this project, I've made a marbled design with ink and oil and I'm going to superimpose some kind of face on it.

Kris is doing the most amazing drawing for a Raymond Chandler book, from the perspective of looking up at someone, it's technically brilliant, I don't know how he does it. Bob, meanwhile, is doing a Jackson Pollock. He put large sheets of paper all over the floor and just splattered them with paint. He was pissing himself., getting paint everywhere, attacking it like a madman.  Don is running this session and he wants us to be proper graphic artists, all neat and tidy, and it's really winding him up that Bob is doing what he's doing. To make matters worse, Bob keeps coming up with all this brilliant bullshit about how that splatter there represents this and this blob here is meant to be that and he's just making it all up as he goes along, but there's nothing Don can do except twiddle with his beard.

Anyway that was college. Got home and Mum was in a bit of a funny mood. There was a pile of ironing in the linen basket and it was a load of Dad's shirts. I don't know why she's still ironing his shirts. Perhaps he hasn't got an ironing board at the place he's staying at. I know the landlord is a bit weird because he's not allowed to use the phone in the house, he has to go to a payphone. Not that I care. I hate him right now. I'm not going to fucking iron his shirts, that's for sure.

Wednesday 5 February 2014


A couple of things you should know about me: I fall in love all the time and I like being teased. Right now I'm falling in love and being teased simultaneously by the same character. He seems quite cocky but I like his confidence. I think he's had me in his sights for a while now.  He has this habit of whistling loudly when he sees me and a way of making sure I notice him by crossing my path frequently whenever he can and making eye contact with me briefly but very obviously before disappearing again to watch me from a distance. That's the teasing bit. He's like: “ You can look but you can't touch”. (Well, mate, I'd love to touch you if you'd just let me...)  Sometimes he even sings!

This morning he was particularly obvious, when he flew straight across in front of me, landed on the bird table just a few inches away where I'd been topping up the feeders, and later on he perched on the branch of the buddleia right outside my window and stared in at me through the glass, almost taunting me to react to his pluckiness.

We are only just getting to know each other but we have a connection and I love him already.  I've loved a few of his kind in the past too -  had them eating out of my hand ;-)

Now harmless youngsters, ye are free!
Yet stay awhile and sing to me;
And make these sheltered bounds your home,
Nor towards those dangerous meadows roam.
Your ruddy bosoms pant with fear
But no dark snare awaits you here.
No artful note of tame decoy
Shall lure you from your native joy.
These blossom shrubs are all your own,
And lawns with sweetest berries strewn;
And when bleak winter thins your store,
This friendly hand shall furnish more;
Nor shall my window shutters fold
Against my robins numb with cold.

Thomas, Lord Erskine, 1798

Sunday 2 February 2014

Aye Aye Captain

I don't even give it a second thought these days.  Any time I see a lone magpie, I hold my hand up to my cocked head in salute and say, “Aye Aye Captain!”  I've no idea where or when I first heard this but it seems as natural as saying “bless you” when someone sneezes, just one of those things you do. Maybe it's not so dissimilar in origin either, rooted in ancient custom and linked to superstitious beliefs.  I don't know quite how greeting a black and white bird like a naval officer is supposed to reduce the chances of shit happening, but still I do it and I'm not alone.  Apparently there are many variations of this saying, from that simple salutation to the more long-winded, “Hello Mr Magpie, how are your wife and children?”   A quick survey of friends also threw a “Good day Sergeant” into the mix.

The subject of this, and the magpie rhyme ”one for sorrow, two for joy” etc. came up on Radio 2 Drivetime's 'Homework Sucks!' feature some months back.  I usually catch the end of it every Tuesday evening when I do a short trip in the car and I like the curious snippets of info you can pick up – unfortunately, though, I always seem to remember more about the questions than the answers.  Funny what sticks though - there was one about the weight of a raindrop falling on a small bird, it was something like equivalent to ten tons dropping on a human (I could be making that up) but of course I can't recall exactly nor the real science behind why the bird doesn't get flattened like something out of a Tom and Jerry cartoon.  Must try harder.  However, I did remember some about the magpie thing. An early version of the rhyme was “one for sorrow, two for mirth, three for a death and four for a birth” and it was used as a form of fortune telling, the sighting of however many magpies being thought of as some kind of prediction. Delve a little bit deeper and it's believed that seeing just one magpie is evidence that its mate (they mate for life apparently) may either have died, or 'be up to no good' somewhere else and is therefore symbolic of sorrow or bad luck.  As a way of warding off the misfortune that the lonesome Magpie No-mates could bring on us, the act of greeting him with a respectful salutation became a superstitious tradition.

I don't see many magpies in our garden, but my mother-in-law gets one quite regularly at her bird table. She doesn't bother with all that Aye Aye Captain wife and children twaddle, though; instead she keeps to the rather more prosaic exclamation of “Get off you greedy bugger!” preferring to see the sparrows and bluetits get the scraps. But I don't think the Captain can hear her through the window and presumably thinks the shooing action of her hand is a fanciful salute.

Saturday 1 February 2014

Crash course in the day job

Bit preoccupied with work at the mo so thought I might as well post something about it! Right now I'm illustrating a book for a Korean publisher, it's for teaching English to toddlers. You've perhaps already heard about the current education system in South Korea and its high standards, a controversial subject that has raised the question of whether the pressure and resulting expectation on pupils is potentially as harmful to some as it is helpful to others. I can't imagine three-year-olds from English-speaking countries learning Korean! I didn't even learn our alphabet until I was five... Anyway, that's not for me to worry about, I know. My remit is to produce sweet illustrations for a simple animal story for Korean children, and I hope I can give them pictures that will engage and make their learning experience fun.

This is one of my favourite types of commission because I've had complete freedom to create the characters and compositions from scratch. I was just given the words for each page and basic story structure. Just in case you've ever been curious about how this ends up as a finished book, here's how it goes.

First I start sketching character ideas. Need to do a bit of research and in this instance, as there aren't any monkeys or elephants etc. nearby to draw from life I do a bit of googling (other search engines are available) and look through books to help inform with anatomical details. Then I pare back the realism, try to translate them into simplified, partly anthropomorphic versions (for example, I give my animals eyebrows, they help me convey facial expressions). The character sketches start off so scrappy but eventually something stands out. Next I visualise how the pages could look, and jot down ideas as thumbnail pictures – like a storyboard – miniature versions that are just an inch or two wide. Don't need to worry much about detail, it's just to get the compositions in place. This really helps, as working out how the pages will have space for the text and how they follow on successfully from one another with enough variation (as well as helping to tell the story) is a bit of a puzzle, so the drawings themselves can be pretty rough at this stage, just indications really.

First thumbnail ideas, drawn very small

Once these are approved - various ideas may get rejected or changed - I scan them, then scale the scans up to the actual book size (generally single page edges are somewhere between 20 – 30cm), print out and trace over the basic shapes using one of my favourite possessions of all time, my trusty light box.

Oh light box, I love thee

 Next I work on these to produce more detailed, actual size, pencil roughs. I love this part of the process the most, drawing in pencil is a joy.

 Full size pencil roughs

These are checked by the publisher, there might be some amendments to make but once they've been given the go-ahead, I get the light box out again and trace the roughs onto my final artwork paper. Then I paint. I hate the halfway stage of a painting, when it just looks awful, and I have to be patient and remember it'll get better eventually, but there are so many times when I just want to screw it up and throw it away rather than persevere!

Hate this stage!

The acrylic paints I use here need to be built up in layers for best effect so it's rather labour-intensive and can be long-winded, but the good thing is that you can also paint over your mistakes or change your mind about shades and get away with it (most of the time).

The whole process from start to finish takes a couple of months (and I get to listen to music all day!)  Then when all the paintings are finished I post them to the publisher for professional scanning. Their designer will add the text in. Six months to a year later it gets printed, by which time I've almost forgotten it and, with any luck, might be working on something else.  

Gets there in the end
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