Monday, September 11, 2017

five years like this…

Well, somewhat remarkably, it’s been FIVE years since I started my ‘one day like this’ blog (setting myself a challenge of posting a daily drawing or photograph). When I first started, I had absolutely no idea of how long I might keep this daily ‘routine’ going… but it’s actually become very much a significant (albeit ‘normal’) part of my life. I still haven’t set myself any end date for the ‘challenge’… and don’t suppose I ever will. 
I started my blog very soon after returning from two months of volunteering with the Iona Community in 2012 (on that beautiful island of Iona, having met some wonderful people during the course of my stay and formed life-long friendships)… very much thanks to Ruth’s encouragement for me to send 40 postcards (which ended up being quick drawings) to various friends during the course of my stay.
Inevitably, the drawing quality has been somewhat variable (at best), but I’ve been quite pleased to have been able to produce the sketches relatively quickly – these days, the average time for each sketch has probably been 20-30 minutes (but sometimes they take 3 minutes and sometimes maybe an hour)… but I’ve really enjoyed the discipline the daily blog post has provided and the fact that I’m actually drawing on a regular basis. I’m very much a ‘project’ person and so my blog ticks a lot of boxes as far as retired life is concerned.
There’s part of me that thinks I should change from my current ‘project’… perhaps just post a daily Instagram drawing instead, for example? I did experiment with Instagram for a relatively brief period (posting stuff from my daily blog via Gramblr) but then the link packed up and I didn’t persevere. Let’s face it, I’m essentially a man of habit (with OCD tendencies!), so I suspect I’ll simply continue down my tried-and-tested road! Boringly, I quite like continuity!
I’ve produced a couple of Blurb books along the way… and perhaps I’ll produce another one in due course (maybe “2,000 days like this”? – I’m already over 1,800! – or maybe I should just wait until I’ve clocked 10,000 days!?).
PS: but it’s STILL costing me a small fortune in sketchbooks!
PPS: collection of twelve  ‘ordinary lines’ images ‘: sketches of small, incidental, ordinary ‘details’ within much bigger, equally ordinary, pictures.


Monday, September 04, 2017

half century…

Fifty years ago this week (well, maybe not quite this week… but pretty close), I started at Oxford School of Architecture. A handful of my close friends from that time (plus hangers-on!) will be duly getting together in Oxford to celebrate this momentous occasion.
It might get messy!
Fifty years ago, I was young. I was na├»ve. I was innocent(!?). I really didn’t know much about life or the world (when I compare myself to 18 year-olds of today).
Thanks to a random conversation with my Maths teacher, Gwyn Jones, I’d set my goals on becoming an architect (as opposed to a ‘draughtsman’, whatever that meant).
I’d passed my 11-plus and, much to my parents’ surprise (and staunch resistance), had gone through the ‘Remove-stream’ at Handsworth Grammar School and taken my O Level exams a year early.
Like many of my generation, no one in our family had previously gone to university. For both me and my family, it was an utterly different world. As far as my parents were concerned, I would be studying in Birmingham. I applied for a place on the architecture course at Aston, Leicester and Oxford. Much to my relief, Aston didn’t want me but Oxford offered me an interview (I can’t remember anything about Leicester apart from submitting an application).
As a very young 17 year-old, I duly went down to Oxford by train and was interviewed by the Principal – the wonderful, charismatic, unique Reginald Cave. My memory is that the interview lasted more than an hour… Reggie looked at my sketchbooks (yes, this was still a time when you needed to be able to draw if you wanted to be an architect!), asked me all sorts of mystifying questions and chatted about life and about my A Level subjects (Maths, Further Maths and Art). At the end, he offered me a place on the course… BUT, due to my young age, insisted that this be deferred for a year.
Being offered an unconditional place was absolute music to my ears and I readily accepted it - I’m pretty sure that my parents were a) similarly proud and b) at a complete loss as to how they were going to afford to make it all happen (we were very much a working class family)! 
You can imagine an equivalent situation/opportunity for a student today… So, what did I decide to do? Gap year? World travel? Somewhat ridiculously (when I now look back on things), I decided that I’d stay on for another year in the sixth form – that way, I could have another year playing for the school’s first eleven football and cricket teams. How utterly, utterly embarrassing, looking back… but despite the illogicality of the decision, my parents agreed.

A year on and I was preparing to make my way to Oxford. I needed to purchase, amongst other things, a drawing board, set square and T-square… plus drawing pens and pencils. I remember my uncle Len (who worked for the Water Board and knew about such things) telling which pens to buy (in the event, he was wrong and it took me another year or so to compile appropriate replacements!).
I distinctly remember being driven down to Oxford in our Ford Anglia (I had digs with a Mrs Brown in Headington), accompanied by my mother and our ‘auntie’ Ella. In the car’s small boot were my entire life’s possessions (or so it seemed): a medium-sized case, a portfolio and bag containing various pieces of equipment and books. Contrast this, for example, with when we took our daughter Hannah to Bath Spa University thirty years later… Moira and I had to drive her down in TWO cars, because she insisted that she NEEDED to have ALL her shoes with her (and, believe me, there were dozens!). Incidentally, I should point out that, amongst my small ‘array’ of clothes was a ‘sports jacket’… an item that my mother insisted I would need in order to attend the ‘Saturday dances’.
I kid you not.
My memories of enrolment day are relatively hazy. I remember getting my grant cheque and paying it into the bank (I was on a ‘full’ grant - £360 per year – and, amazingly, this really did suffice, just)(and without parental contributions). Of course, there were also no course fees! I think I remember getting stuck in a lift that first morning(?) and shaking hands with Steve Bowles (who was later to become my best man – he clearly thought that shaking hands was a very strange thing for students to do and has spent the past 50 years reminding me of this sad occasion).
But, hey man, this was the 1960s… flower power, drugs, Woodstock and much, much more.
On that first morning, I decided to walk into Oxford with one of my fellow architectural students, Rob Parkinson… he was public school-educated, had a posh accent and AMAZINGLY was walking around in his BARE feet (I know)! Boy, did I feel incredibly ‘un-cool’ (or whatever the word was in those days). The rest is history (obviously)…
You could buy a pint of mild in Old Headington for 1s 3d, but us hard-drinkers got into a routine of spending a whole £1 at the Turf pub on a Friday night (that’s 8 pints @ 2s 6d a pint).
Oh, yes, we knew how to live the high life!
Student life was very enjoyable, but tough… architecture students worked bloomin’ hard (even if it seemed to us that the rest of the student community spent most of their time in the common room – somewhat incredibly, we didn’t have a student bar in those early days!). Long hours and unremitting days… culminating in gruelling ‘crits’ when we had to explain and justify our schemes to our tutors (and, sometimes, to fellow students)… and then followed by two or three days of ‘rest and relaxation’ (drinking). Very competitive and great fun… but, crucially for me, it was all part of the process of ‘growing up’… and having the freedom to do this away from the confines of home was incredibly important. Those first three years on the course – and especially the first year – were gloriously life-transforming.

I readily accept that university is not for everyone (although it seems that’s what most young people are pushed into these days… wrongly, in my opinion), but just having time-off from family/home life gives young people the freedom to take their own decisions and make their own mistakes (which they will) and to learn about life, money, responsibility and relationships… still, hopefully, with the parental bail-out contingency if everything goes terribly wrong (in theory)!
As I say, for me, university WAS life-transforming and I’m just so grateful that I was given a chance to take advantage of the opportunity.
No doubt, the next few days will involve recalling various embarrassing stories and situations that we’ve spent the last 50 years trying to erase from our memories. Fortunately, there’ll also be LOTS of very fond memories too.
Photo: From a similar get together 5 years ago (very sadly, Christiane is no longer with us x).


Sunday, September 03, 2017

august-september 2017 books…

Land’s Edge (Tim Winton): Winton, born in 1960, is an award-winning Australian writer (as you probably already know). He lives on the Western Australian coast (where he also spent most of his childhood) and has a life-long fascination with all things coast-related. This short book is something of a “eulogy to a life lived from boyhood to manhood by and on the beach” (as ‘The Times’ critic accurately described it). As a coast-lover myself, I found it absolutely captivating. He has a beautiful, lyrical style of writing… this was one of those books one wants to read or dip into again and again. I’ve never read any of his other books, but will certainly be looking out for them in future (both fiction and non-fiction). A rather nice discovery!  
Uncle Fred In The Springtime (PG Wodehouse): You know exactly what you’re going to get with Wodehouse… a somewhat predictable, preposterous plot, several upper-class toffs, country houses, much hilarity and wonderful Wodehouse descriptions! All in all, a pleasant, relaxing summer reading (unless you absolutely can’t stand Wodehouse)!
Aung San Suu Kyi: A Portrait In Words And Pictures (Christophe Loviny): The first of two books about two brave, principled, political women (Caroline Lucas’s book follows!). Aung San Suu Kyi’s courage and personal sacrifices made in the struggle against Burma’s military regime has been extraordinary and inspiring. Celebrated journalist/photographer Christophe Loviny has been photographing Suu since 1996. The photographs are both beautiful and humbling and, together with Loviny’s words and insights from her family and friends, they are a powerful reminder of what this remarkable woman has been through and achieved. Archbishop Desmond Tutu described her thus: “This remarkable woman said she bore no one malice; she nursed no grudges against those who had treated her so unjustly; she had no bitterness; and she was ready to work for the healing of her motherland, which had suffered so grievously. In revealing this extraordinary magnanimity she was emulating Nelson Mandela… Without forgiveness there can be no future. Forgiveness is not a nebulous spiritual thing. It is practical politics”. An excellent, enlightening book.
Honourable Friends? (Caroline Lucas): I’ve read LOTS of political autobiographies, but I think this one (perhaps together with Chris Mullin’s?) is probably my all-time favourite. Published in 2015, it provides her ‘take’ on our dysfunctional parliamentary democracy and the “fight for change”. Unlike so many of other similar books, this isn’t a reflection on parliament from the perspective of a long political career. This is a view from a newby (and from a MP who isn’t from one of the main political parties) and highlights the tragic consequences of the first-past-the-post voting system… and parliament’s antiquated procedures; its malign voting system; the frequent deceit and harmful rhetoric; the two-party system which suffocates sensible debate; the bias towards big business over the individual; the awful influence of lobbyists… Since first being elected a MP in 2010, Lucas has been named Ethical Politician of the Year three times and won the 2014 MP of the Year award. It’s not at all surprising that this book has received enthusiastic endorsements from a wide range of commentators. What are surprising perhaps are the endorsements she has received from her fellow politicians, for example: “Our democracy is dysfunctional and our political system absurd on many levels. But in the mess that is modern politics, there are some MPs who stand out; people like Caroline Lucas whose commitment to improving our democracy and environment has never wavered, and who has been guided consistently by the same principles on which she was first elected to parliament” (Zac Goldsmith, Conservative). “For all those who want to understand better how Parliament works and how deficient it is in delivering the radical social and environmental agenda now so desperately needed, this is the book you need to read. Caroline Lucas has been phenomenally active in the House and outside, almost a party alone in her own right, and has blown a refreshing wind through politics on almost all the crucial issues facing Britain today, always pointing with a critical eye to the transformation needed. She is an inspiration to us all” (Michael Meacher, Labour). “By sheer force of personality, Parliamentary insistence and dogged commitment to the chamber, the committees, the procedures of the house, she has advanced her causes. It shows that it can be done. She has made one hell of an impact in the House” (John Bercow, Speaker). It’s a brilliant (albeit depressing), stimulating and challenging book.
True To Life: British Realist Paintings In The 1920s+1930s (Patrick Elliott+Sacha Llewellyn): I treated myself to this from the Arnolfini bookshop (having originally been made aware of the exhibition at The Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh some weeks ago via the BBC). For me, this is a favourite, fascinating, oft-forgotten era of British painting (but by no means all the work of this period, I hasten to add!). Typical favourite artists of this time include: Joseph Southall, Harold Williamson, Dod Procter, Gladys Hynes, Stanley Spencer, Lancelot Glasson, Hilda Carline, Fortunino Matania, Stanislaus S Longley, James Cowie, John Downton, Bernard Fleetwood-Walker, Colin Gill, Laura Knight, Clifford Rowe and James Walker Tucker. A beautiful book.

Saturday, September 02, 2017

vice versa…

Moira and I went to Stratford to see the RSC’s “Vice Versa” at the Swan Theatre on Thursday evening. Written by Phil Porter and directed by Janice Honeyman, this ‘Roman Comedy’ was inspired by the plays of Plautus (Roman playwright who died in 185BC… and who’d actually based his plays on Greek plays, ideas and stories… as if you didn’t already know!). The RSC programme also provides the play’s alternative title: “The decline and fall of General Braggadocio at the hands of his canny servant Dexter and Terence the monkey”.
You get the general idea… it’s a comedy!
We love going to Stratford and we love the RSC… but one other reason for making the trip was that the play also featured Felix Hayes (Hannah’s husband - but you knew that, didn’t you?) in the role of General Braggadocio. The RSC programme describes the action thus: “General Braggadocio is in no doubt that everyone adores him – especially the local women of Rome. His servants, Feclus, Omnivorous and the savvy Dexter, are at his mercy and either flatter, fear or avoid him. The truth is, Braggadocio lives up to his name. Unable to bear life enslaved, Dexter has a plan…”.

It’s all a ridiculous, over-the-top farce (featuring almost predictable comic situations, double entendres, stock characters, thwarted lovers and identical twins)… but wonderfully played by a really excellent cast. Sophia Nomvete, as Dexter, and Felix, as General B, are both brilliant. I may be biased (who me?), but one theatre critic described his performance in the following terms: Felix Hayes as the cocksure but crackpot General Braggadocio starts off with all the dials on ten and never lets up. Red-faced and on the point of meltdown throughout, he blusters and bullies but still has time to ridicule himself. It’s a case of excellent material meeting a superb characterisation”.
I think that’s just about spot on.
Despite all its humour, the play also contains relevant themes of chauvinism, freedom from oppression, and migration… and, indeed, there are various direct and indirect references to a certain US President (indeed, the programme includes a large colour photograph of the current President, smiling gormlessly whilst being kissed by his wife and daughter)!
In the programme, the writer Phil Porter beautifully describes it thus: “… the aspect that should be most recognisable in our world today is a certain strand of masculine, bullying behaviour, and the association of this behaviour with power”.
The sad thing is that Mr Trump, the pathetic egotist, would probably be delighted to know he’d made it into a programme of the Royal Shakespeare Company!

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

final portrait…

I went along to the Watershed yesterday afternoon to see Stanley Tucci’s film “Final Portrait”. It’s based on American art critic James Lord’s memoir of how Alberto Giacometti (1901-1966) invited him to sit for him in Paris in 1964. Armie Hammer plays the part of young James Lord and Geoffrey Rush is simply superb as Giacometti (perhaps the film should have carried a warning along the lines of “several hundred cigarettes were consumed in the making of this film”!).
It recounts the story of how what had originally been ”sitting for a portrait for a few hours” ended up extending into days and then weeks (with Lord, flattered by the attention, being forced to cancel and rearrange a series of flights back home) as Giacometti is distracted by ruminations on art, death, money (not to mention his lover)… regularly being frustrated and dissatisfied by what he was producing (and frequently starting all over again).
It’s a comedy drama – sometimes quite touching – about an offbeat friendship amid the utter chaos of the artistic, creative process. I particularly loved the stark visual contrast between with the monochrome nature of the studio (which reminded me of Barbara Hepworth’s studio in St Ives) and the colour of Parisian life.
It won’t be to everyone’s taste, but I REALLY enjoyed the film… it’s worth seeing for Geoffrey Rush’s mesmerising performance alone.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

july-august 2017 books

Enter A Fox (Simon Gray): To be honest, although I had come across Simon Gray (he died in 2008, aged 71), I hadn’t previously actually seen any of his plays (as far as I can recall) or read any of his memoirs. The cover of this short book, first published in 2001, includes various enthusiastic endorsements, such as: “The second funniest book I have read this year is The Smoking Diaries by Simon Gray. (For the record, the funniest is Enter a Fox” by the same author” or “Has a man ever written such sustained and hilarious diatribes against himself?”. Well, sorry, but I was somewhat disappointed and left underwhelmed. To my mind, the book (written apparently in an attempt “to learn to write fluently” on his new Apple) is no more than a stream of consciousness rant by a bit of a grumpy old man (I should know – being both old and prone to ranting!). Entertaining at times but, if this is a recipe for making money, I should be sending my facebook rants to a publisher!
The Terracotta Dog (Andrea Camilleri): I really do like these Inspector Montalbano mysteries. It’s taken me a little time to get into them (Montalbano, with his “sardonic, engaging take on Sicilian small-town life and his genius for deciphering the most enigmatic of crimes”), but I’m now a big fan. The stories and characters are always entertaining, funny and irreverent; they all involve references to food, beautiful women, the ‘Mafioso’… and Montalbano relaxing on his veranda overlooking the sea and going for long swims… The crimes are always the focus but, for me, the characters, humour and colour of southern Italy are the crucial keys.
Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? (Raymond Carver): A book of short stories, first published in the USA in 1976 (1993 in the UK). I’d not previously read any Carver books (and I wasn’t aware that he was particularly noted for his short stories). All the stories are set in America and are almost banal in content and seemingly full of insignificant detail. I frequently found them frustratingly open-ended and inconclusive – but that is clearly Carver’s style. Storylines are often feature the struggling relationships and frustrated dreams of ‘ordinary people’ (and plenty of alcohol, cigarettes and violence!). After I’d finished the book, I read that Carver (who died of cancer in 1977 at the age of 50) that he was born into a poverty-stricken family at the tail-end of the Depression and was the son of a violent alcoholic... and that (according to Wikipedia) he married at 19, started a series of menial jobs and his own career of 'full-time drinking as a serious pursuit', a career that would eventually kill him. It seems that he constantly struggled to support his wife and family, before enrolling in a writing programme in 1958 (which he ultimately saw as a turning point in his life). His stories clearly reflect his own experiences. I enjoyed the book – somewhat frustrating (and just a little disturbing at times), but compelling nevertheless.
The Goldfish Boy (Lisa Thompson): Essentially, this is a children’s book (albeit 400 pages long). It’s about a 12 year-old boy with OCD… who, amongst other things, is obsessed with clean surfaces and making notes about his neighbours (spied through his bedroom window). But it’s also a mysterious story about a missing toddler… and finding friendship when you’re lonely. It’s a very beautiful book (poignant, joyful and funny) and very beautifully written… I loved it.

On The Danger Line (Georges Simenon): First published in 1944, this is a volume of two short novels (‘Home Town’ and ‘The Green Thermos’) which essentially relate to criminal psychology. In ‘Home Town’, after an extended absence, travelling abroad and living on the fringes of the underworld, a man returns to the place of his early years. He’s a controlling bully and fraudster. He tells lies to impress his family and friends. He’s a nasty piece of work! The second book, ‘The Green Thermos’, tells the story of an anarchist in Paris who tries to prevent a bomb plot – in spite of police pursuit and dangers from those he has turned against. Both stories are intriguing and yet, to my mind, not totally convincing. Simenon was clearly one of the most prolific writers of the twentieth century – apparently “capable of writing 60 to 80 pages per day”! I reckon he would have rattled these off by Friday lunchtime! (PS: I’ve STILL to read ANY of his Maigret novels!).

Tuesday, August 08, 2017

drawing group exhibitions

If you live in or around Bristol, then I strongly recommend that you check out these two exhibitions at the historic city churches of St John on the Wall (in the crypt) in Broad Street and Saint Stephen’s in St Stephen’s Street:

St John on the Wall:
Wednesday 30 August-Monday 11 September (11.30am-2pm, Monday- Sunday). Preview/Open evening: Thursday 31 August 5.30-7.30pm.

Saint Stephen’s:
Thursday 7 September-Wednesday 20 September (9.30am-3.30pm Monday-Friday). Preview/Open evening: Thursday 7 September 5.30-7.30pm.

They will be exhibitions with a difference…
For the past 16 months or so, I’ve belonged to an amazing Drawing Group, which meets from 10.30am-12.30pm every Tuesday in either Saint Stephen’s Church (first Tuesdays in the month) or St John-on-the-Wall Church in Broad St (all other Tuesdays) to draw or write poetry or take photographs.
It’s a very lovely, welcoming and diverse collection of individuals with a wide range of artistic abilities, experience and backgrounds… led by the brilliant Charlotte and Alice Pain, wonderful artists in their own right. The exhibitions consist of sketches that group members have undertaken over the past year (we had a similar exhibition in St John’s Crypt last July/August). Some people have some drawing or photographic experience behind them (but, perhaps, have let the habit lapse?). Others have hardly previously drawn at all. For some, it’s an opportunity to experiment. For some, the group’s principal benefit is the group’s sociability.
Anyone/everyone is welcome to join and I’ve been incredibly impressed by the warmth of the welcome and its non-judgemental approach to art and creativity.
This is what Charlotte has previously written about the project and the group:
“This project is about helping the public connect to buildings and locations. It is about breathing a new breath of life into churches, bringing community back within them and exploring their uses. It’s about getting people drawing and making. It’s about a belief that creativity can help us to strengthen our voices, nurture our mental health and help us connect to each other.

From a core group of people who rarely miss a session to random visitors to the city who have long left Bristol behind them, each drawing is a moment in the life of St John’s/Saint and of the people who have walked through the doors. With the support and open-mindedness of The Churches Conservation Trust the project has flourished.
We are a diverse group of people who have developed a passion for St John’s/ Stephen’s and have spent many hours drawing, photographing and admiring these special buildings. This is not only a celebration, but an invitation to the rest of Bristol to join us”.
As you might realise, Charlotte and Alice are a bit special!

I don’t want to embarrass people by highlighting their individual talents or what they bring to the group but, hopefully, this will provide a flavour: Mike has produced more than 100 sketches over the past couple of years and his friendliness encapsulates all that the group stands for; Brian is another of those gentle, generous, welcoming people and his photographs of the churches are an inspiration; David is a simply brilliant artist (especially his watercolours!) who can draw beautifully and chat amusingly at the same time(!); Betty has been something of a revelation for me – every week, she produces her simple, intricate, beautiful sketches; Jonathan loves coming to the group – he’s industrious, friendly and with a passion for art; Jaki simply draws beautifully… and then there’s also Christine, Chris, Frances, Anne-Marie, DaveP, CharlotteM, DaveW, Justin, Jeff, Jean, Alex, Helen, Marc, Aran, Ed etc etc.     
Membership of the group is completely free so, if you fancy having an excuse to do some drawing, then why not give it a try?
Please take an opportunity to pop into the exhibitions to see examples of the work the group has produced over the past twelve months (and also to see these two beautiful Grade I Listed churches).

Photo: Artwork set out on the floor of the Crypt at St John's... selecting from the huge wealth of work produced over the past year wasn't easy!!