Friday 29 October 2004

Fame calls after all.

The Burning Bush (oil on canvas, 36 x 36 ins) Posted by Hello

Given that I was standing in my underwear in the draughty hall, I probably didn't acquit myself overly well when the woman from the Chronicle phoned today.

Seems I misjudged them and they do intend to publish a piece on me and my work, either tomorrow or Monday.

That'll teach me not to be so pessimistic.

Saturday 23 October 2004

A Heath Robinson Affair

Posted by Hello
I met some old friends for lunch in town on Friday. I hadn't seen Mad Mal and his wife for about a year, so we had some catching up to do.

We met in the cafe area of the
Laing Art Gallery, which, along with the rest of the gallery, has been newly decorated. The horrid custard walls, which had such a disastrous effect on the viewing of their fine David Bomberg, have been replaced by a much less obnoxious cream.

Which is fine, except the Bomberg is no longer on the wall. Nor are any of the good pictures that used to line the staircase walls.

It's an unfortunate fact that the modern breed of curators seem not to like things cluttering up their walls, especially those old-fashioned painted things. I'm hoping they're going to put them back in due course, but I can't forget that when Sunderland Museum and Art Gallery was refurbished a few years ago, the big Victorian pictures which used to hang on the walls of the staircase were never put back. And both galleries are run by Tyne & Wear Museums.

Nevertheless, we did have a good time in the current exhibition of
W. Heath Robinson illustrations and paintings. Heath Robinson was always one of my heroes, particularly as I once thought I'd like to be an illustrator. I gave up on that when I found I got bored with having to draw the same character more than once - I wanted to invent new ones each time.

The exhibition covers most of his career, from the early work much inspired by Victorian wood-engraving, through his illustrations for Rabelais, Shakespeare and various collections of fairy tales, including Perrault and
Hans Andersen, to the illustrations he is best remembered for - the improbable inventions.

There were one or two watercolours done, not as illustrations, but as fine art. I have to say that, despite the blurb attached to them which suggested he was using a much more loose style, they looked very uncomfortable, as if he yearned to get back to his trademark precision.

His mature drawing style is wonderfully concise. He developed a balance of clean even line set off by one or two areas of (usually) solid black which, together with his fondness for an elevated viewpoint, endeared him to me forever.

Friday 22 October 2004

Mr Zip's Nature Diary Contd.

So there I was, getting on with my little jobs in the garden. I'd finished putting some chunky brass screws into the fence panels ripped loose by the rampaging Italian topiarists and was getting ready to fill up the birds' seed feeders.

Then the mouse walked by.

It's that mouse I've seen before, scoffing the birdseed, but this time he was really close. He crept over and picked up a sunflower seed, tested it , then ran off with it to wherever his apartment is under the badly-laid concrete path.

Seconds later he was back, so I threw him a piece of breadcrust. He thought about it briefly, then came forward and picked it up. It too passed the nibble test, so he went off with it.

When he came back I was bending over, filling up the container with peanuts, so I threw a couple his way. He liked those too. Then he came back and edged nearer the little heap of seed I put down for the ground feeders. Eventually, he was directly below me and as I was still bending over, he was within a foot of my hand. I could see his pale little limbs with their beautifully delicate paws and his bright, bright little dark eyes.

Why should it be that a fieldmouse isn't scared of me? I'd have thought that by it's very size and nature he would be scared of just about everything. I accept that I'm probably too slow to actually catch him, but getting within a foot of me seems like extreme rodent bravado.

Whatever he felt about the experience, it gave me a little thrill.

Thursday 21 October 2004

Careful with that axe, Eugene

A gang of crazy Italians has destroyed my hedge.

Woken by the sound of rhythmic thumping from a reverie over what to do with the stalled picture on the easel, I went outside to find three old men armed with a big axe and a pair of loppers cutting into the hedge.

Watching them wield the axe in a most un-Boy Scout-like manner (I had my Woodsman's Badge, so I know about these things) was really frightening. If the axe hadn't been quite so obviously sharp, I'd have feared for arms or legs ending up on my lawn. And arms and legs do make such a mess in the shredder.

Within an hour they'd hacked it down to fence height, luckily sparing the thick branch to which one end of my washing line is tied.

So why didn't I tell them to piss off and leave my hedge alone (apart from the presence of a glintingly sharp axe)? Well, because it's not really my hedge. It belongs to Lucy Smooth, whose husband used to keep it under control until he died.

It's not exactly hedge material. Not your privet or Leylandii. The gardens round here are regularly visited by the Tree Fairy who leaves little trees agrowing. Most people just pull them up, but years ago Lucy Smooth's husband thought it a good idea to let one grow and turn it into a hedge. Although it flowers, I've never seen it produce any kind of fruit, but I think it's some kind of Mountain Ash.

Training the trunk to grow horizontally, he allowed the branches to shoot away in a vertical direction, weaving some of them into a dense screen.

However, by the end of every year the branches are some fifteen to twenty feet high and have to be cut down or they'll turn into trunks. Since he died, I've done my best to deal with the monster. But as the tree-hedge is actually in the garden next door, I can't quite reach some of the branches and Lucy Smooth's son (who lives just over the road) is too indolent to lend a hand.

So it seems she's called in the local mafiosi to make the hedge an offer it couldn't refuse.

But I've been there. I know how the prune-craze can grip you when you set to with the secateurs, let alone a pair of loppers and an axe.

In a pruning frenzy, they gave the olive tree a flat-top. Then they parted the apple tree from its crown. By then everything in the garden was no taller than they were, so they retired indoors to shout at one another. It's the Italian way of having a conversation, compounded by aging hearing I imagine.

The wind sure as hell is whistling across the blasted heath and through the gap where the hedge and trees used to be. To make matters worse, on my way out today I noticed that a small blight on the hedge at the front (not mine either) has turned into some kind of arborial alopecia and there are huge areas of dead leaves and shrivelled berries.

I feel like my cocoon is under attack.

And the birds aren't gonna like it.

Wednesday 20 October 2004

Fickle Fate

Newgate Street (oil on canvas, 35.5 x 26 ins)) Posted by Hello

Do you ever get the feeling that you've jinxed yourself? However irrational it may seem, however foolishly superstitious, does it ever seem to you that by telling everyone some good news about something about to occur, you somehow prevent it from happening?

I picked up a copy of the Chronicle tonight and found they'd run with a story about the guy whose pictures are hanging next to mine at the Gallery. I knew they'd photographed them, but apparently he was in the happy position of being at the Gallery when they were there and was able to be interviewed.

Now they've done that, I think it unlikely they'll run anything about me.

Poot. If only I'd kept my m........

Anyway, this is one of the pictures they probably won't be showing.

Monday 18 October 2004

The Photographer Calls

I was woken at the ungodly hour of 11.30 this morning by the insistent ringing of the telephone.

It was a man whose name appears to be The Photographer From The Chronicle. At least that was what he called himself throughout all of our conversations.

Apparently, when there's no news and The Photographer From The Chronicle is twiddling his thumbs, the accepted solution is to go down to the Big Gallery and take some shots of the pictures in there.

Anyway, that was what The Photographer From The Chronicle did today. And as he'd taken some shots of my pictures, he thought it would be good to get some extra shots of me to go with the shots of the pictures. Maybe it'll make a feature.

When he arrived, he said "Hello, I'm The Photographer From The Chronicle."

So it was that I found myself in the studio with my nose shoved up against The Madonna of the Toboggan, my palette (which I never pick up) clutched near my left ear, a dry paintbrush in my right hand.

"Do you always hold the brush like that? Looks kind of funny"

"Unlike the palette by my left ear?" I asked.

"Ah, that's to keep the striplight out of shot," he explained.

We finished off the session with me down on my knees with my head pressed up against some of the figures in The Great North Run, staring into the void like El Greco's
St Peter.

I'm sure it'll look great when it's in print. And, of course, any publicity is good publicity.

Saturday 16 October 2004


Just as I was leaving the house this evening, I saw a blackbird in the garden. I retrieved the latest gowk from the compost.

Walking up the path that runs by the dene, I met a toad.

Sometimes it's like a jungle out there.

I've always been rather fond of toads. I never quite forgave my mother for making me take back the one I found in Saltwell Park all those years ago. After all, she let me keep the tiddlers, and they all died.

In the gloom, I almost trod on the toad. Only the fact that he might have been a turd saved him. He was looking pretty miserable. You may think it's difficult to tell whether a toad is miserable or not. Trust me, he was miserable.

Maybe it was because his normally rough and leathery skin was slicked with rain, or maybe he was just, you know, having one of those days. A kind of toady brown study.

Sitting there on the path was not in his best interests, and I told him so. I'm not averse to carrying on conversations with animals, providing no-one is looking, so I explained that just where he was sitting, the Future of the Nation normally hang out, drinking lager, smerkin' tabs, scribbling their infantile messages on the fence and generally cussing as much as the sentence will allow.

"They will make short work of you, I can assure you," I warned.

I bent down to pick him up. He hopped a couple of hops towards the hedge. But that seemed to be it. I tapped him with my finger. No more hopping took place.

Since I did actually have shopping to do and it was pissing down, I figured bold moves were called for.

Very carefully, with the edge of my foot, I slid him, and the leaves he was sitting on, under the hedge.

"Thanks, bonny lad," he said, " I couldn't have hopped another inch."

Know how it feels?

Patsy123 sent me this poem, though I can't quite recall when:


The name of the author is the first to go
followed obediently by the title, the plot,
the heartbreaking conclusion, the entire novel
which suddenly becomes one you have never read,
never even heard of,

as if, one by one, the memories you used to harbor
decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain,
to a little fishing village where there are no phones.

Long ago you kissed the names of the nine Muses goodbye
and watched the quadratic equation pack its bag,
and even now as you memorize the order of the planets,

something else is slipping away, a state flower perhaps,
the address of an uncle, the capital of Paraguay.

Whatever it is you are struggling to remember
it is not poised on the tip of your tongue,
not even lurking in some obscure corner of your spleen.

It has floated away down a dark mythological river
whose name begins with an L as far as you can recall,
well on your own way to oblivion where you will join those
who have even
forgotten how to swim and how to ride a bicycle.

No wonder you rise in the middle of the night
to look up the date of a famous battle in a book on war.

No wonder the moon in the window seems to have drifted
out of a love poem that you used to know by heart.

Billy Collins

Wednesday 13 October 2004

Harvest Fest

The TV told me today that weatherforecasters are predicting a cold and icy winter, with some of it coming along real soon now. This means I may have to throw out my firm belief that trees laden with berries do not constitute a sign of a forthcoming Bad Winter.

Because the trees and bushes round here are certainly heavily laden this year. My pyracantha has never had such a crop of orangeness and the dene at the end of the street is crunchy underfoot with hundreds of acorns. Best of all, next door in Bob Eh's garden, the hawthorn is full of fat little fruit. Fat little fluttery fruit. The best crop of sparrows in years.

I'm getting at least a dozen in the garden every day. I've not had that many for almost ten years. It's getting to the point where I may have to buy another feeder for them.

But still no blackbirds. I was up at Hexham today for a seminar on self-promotion and the trees were full of blackbirds gulping down berries from the rowans. The blackbird I reported here a while ago proved to be a young straggler who's not been seen since.

The gowks continue to go in the compost.

Interesting Facts

In my mailbox when I got home, was this from Will Barrow:

1. The Japanese eat very little fat and suffer fewer heart attacks than the Aussies, British or Americans.

2. Mexicans eat a lot of fat and suffer fewer heart attacks than the Aussies, British or Americans.

3. Africans drink very little red wine and suffer fewer heart attacks than the Aussies, British or Americans.

4. Italians drink large amounts of red wine and suffer fewer heart attacks than the Aussies, British or Americans.

5. Germans drink a lot of beer and eat lots of sausages and fats and suffer fewer heart attacks than the Aussies, British or Americans.

MEDICAL CONCLUSION: Eat and drink whatever you like. Speaking English is apparently what kills you.


Well, back from Crete already. Weather was wonderful, food excellent and I completed my fifth walk down the Samaria Gorge.

When I've assembled my thoughts, photographs and like so, I may have more to say. Didn't do any drawing, however (tsk!), so you've had that.