It’s a proper Christmas after all, presents AND snow!
This is the 9th and most recent Lighthouse saga. It is only a mere 16 years old and has some way to go to catch up with it’s illustrious 41 year old cousin. Good advice to a budding illustrator…. ‘Probably the best way to produce a picture book is to write and illustrate it yourself.’ Failing that, a close second is to marry or live with a top class children’s writer. That way help is always at hand! Is it ever. A down side can be the fact that most writers have a very strong visual sense and this is never more so than when their lovely text seems to lack sufficient illumination. This can lead, very infrequently, to either polar or tropical exchanges. But, after 40 years and a third generation of readers about to arrive, the world of the lighthouse keeper is as real to the creators as it is to the children. Mess with this institution at your peril. One’s audience would not stand for it.
The principal characters, Mr and Mrs Grinling, seem to have precious little in the way of an extended family. We are often quizzed about this by our young readers. Certainly Mr Grinling has a great- nephew George, and in this story the little chap spends his Christmas at the lighthouse. And what a visit. When the text is as good as this, the story illustrates itself.
One further reflection on working with children. A packed assembly hall, a presentation based on the ‘Christmas’ was well underway. I had produced a large seaside ‘skeleton’ outline and the children suggested various sea creatures et. al. to be included n the picture. Suggestions piled in at the rate of knots, so much so that I asked a 6 year old to wait for a bit as I was getting behind. Silence. She then stood up, turned to the assembled throng and, in a stentorian bellow, declared:
‘HE CAN’T MULTI- TASK!’
Convulsed with laughter, I dropped all my pens.
The Lighthouse Keeper’s Christmas is available from Waterstones, amazon and other good bookshops, or direct from the author.
This Russian exit border post resembled Dodge City when all the saloons were at full tilt. Loosely attired officials were all paralytic or pretty close to it. Bonhomie abounded, as did litres of vodka, the pervasive odour of which drifted through the airwaves. Would we bother trying to show these jolly elbow benders that, as agreed, a copy of Dr Zhivago was about to leave the USSR… or just decline the offer of a rinse or two and be on our way? The good doctor stayed put. Off we went. Goodwill prevailed.
I am certain that the Polish border was on the lovely sounding river Bug or one of it’s tributaries. When we arrived, the air splintered with the cold, and if there was a river, it would have been a metre below, buried under solid ice. Getting out of the car, we saw our reception committee, a load of bored squaddies armed to the teeth and dying for something to do. If for some reason I had panicked and made a run for it, my metamorphosis to cat food would have been instantaneous.
We were ushered into the border building. A fire crackled in the grate, comfy surroundings, no sign of booze, only two pale blue eyes greeted us, eyes that weighed up the new arrivals with measured calculation. They belonged to an officer of no mean rank, captain, major? He spoke fluent English and, settling in his creaky but cosy chair, asked about our travels. As by way of mere formality, he asked for our passports and travel documents. ‘This won’t take long’… A measured pause in his examination of the documents. His chair creaked as he his finger tapped on the desk top. Calculated silence. A card was about to be played… ‘We have a problem, a rather big one’, our man intoned in a gravitas sort of way. He was enjoying this, his chair creaking again in anticipation. He went on, ‘Your Russian visas have expired as of now, and your Polish visas don’t start until tomorrow. Oh Dear. You are persona non grata, you can’t go anywhere, you can’t stay here, but you have to. What are we going to do?’ He knew bloody well what we were going to do. We would find out. The next tangential musings from him told me exactly where this train was going. ‘Australia eh? Big country, isn’t it?’ A few more anodyne questions. Come on sweetie, I thought, time to play your big card. He did. ‘Is the Australian dollar a hard currency, a la Sterling, US Dollar?’ He wondered. So that way goes the game. ‘Yes, it is,’ I replied. ‘What do they look like?, old blue eyes moved his Queen to the pre-checkmate position. By chance I had about 80 bucks of varying denominations in my wallet.
The next exchange approached the speed of light. In a wonderful ambidextrous display he pocketed the money and stamped the passports with a resounding. ‘CHING! CHING!’ in the same swift movement.
‘Enjoy your stay in Poland’ he said as he indicated the door.
The chair chortled rather than creaked.
We set off. WHAT? … The premonition was still there…more so than ever….
Moscow was drab. The Italian sparkle of Rastrelli’s Leningrad architecture had not caught this bus. Worse, historical degradation of some earlier wonderful buildings was wholesale, with post industrial projects or raze and rebuild carrying all before it. But, one thought, the pride and joy of contemporary Russian space achievement (aka VDNKh… the All Russian Exhibition Centre) would be a jewel in the crown. God it was tired. Should I have been a space explorer and this kind of technical skill was the best on offer I would get the hell out of it. If one had a sneezing fit, the whole theme park would have flattened, domino like, before your eyes. A Tupelov rocket seemed to lean against a wall, totally unloved. Even Yuri Gagarin, in effigy, was covered up, as he could not bear to look.
A kind of wide -eyed ‘wow/hate’ spectacle replaced all this. No peeing about here, this took the form of good old fashioned social realist sculpture. Muscles the size of barracudas, breasts you could throw a hen party in, these heroic defenders were a mile high and the set of their jaws would discourage any kind of opposition. Their muscled legs and arms would get you to Vladivostok in one bound. Should spurs be needed to hasten the journey, loads of hammers and sickles were to hand to help things along. They induced a morbid fascination, imagining that some starving Stalinist peasant would see this and, so deluded, die a happy man.
I once gazed at a Brancusi sculpture which you could hold in the palm of your hand, it would dwarf all of this.
The Pushkin museum was wonderful.
One abiding memory. In many hotels, at the end of the corridor, a little babushka sat (for eternity it would seem) in order to monitor the comings and goings of the guests. Were we under surveillance? I doubt it. I once whispered to Ronda (Sotto voce) that Esmeralda was stuffed full of Western codes and detailed drawings of prototype Exocet rockets. Rosa Klebb wasn’t listening, or if she was, she was still thinking about the time she saw me on the dance floor in Leningrad.
The next stop was the city of Minsk, the capital of today’s Belarus. Until 1991 Belarus was part of the Soviet Union but now has become an independent state. It suffered terribly in WW2, a huge local museum testifies to this. It also has a rich tradition of Russian Orthodoxy and this was demonstrated to me by our charming guide. At one point we gazed at some stunning early ceiling frescoes which had additional sparkle provided but the cluster of icicles which refracted the light. How had they survived? All of this splendour sat cheek by jowl with hectares of Stalinist architecture.
However, Poland beckoned. The temperature dropped alarmingly, but the wind speed increased in the same ratio. On a dead straight road the snow cascaded across the road . Dead ahead an intrepid babushka was sweeping off the roadside blizzard. WHY?
I will never know. I could not understand.
Much later than this, I read Colin Thubron’s splendid book ‘In Siberia’, a masterpiece of travel writing. I wish I had this to hand as we traversed this country. His account of the gulags in Eastern Siberia has no equal.
‘At Oimyakon the temperature has been recorded at -97.8 F. In far lesser cold, steel splits, tyres explode and larch trees shower sparks at the touch of an axe. As the thermometer drops, your breath freezes into crystals, and tinkles to the ground with a noise they call ‘the whispering of the stars.’ ‘This country of Kolyma was fed every year by sea with tens of thousands of prisoners, mostly innocent. Where they landed, they built a port, then the city of Magadan,then the road inland to the mines where thy perished. At first the convicts were peasant kulaks and criminals, then as Stalin’s paranoia heightened – imagined saboteurs, and counter revolutionaries from every class: Party officials, soldiers, scientists, doctors, teachers, artists. They died in miners tunnels from falling rocks and snapped lift cables, from ammonal fumes and silicosis, scurvy and high blood pressure, spitting up blood and lung tissue. A prisoner had no name, no self. He could be addressed only by his number.’
From In Siberia by Colin Thubron
We approached the Polish border. Premonitions were not unknown to me, I think they were pretending to hide, although not very well, in the frozen air.
Becoming an ‘artist’ is so simple. Get out of bed, down to the art shop, get loads of gear, make some marks, and there you have it. BINGO! Of course you could have called yourself a brain surgeon, an airline captain, a chess grand master, a computer programmer, a Michelin starred chef, a cabinet maker, a concert pianist, a lawyer or an infant teacher. Spot the difference with the latter disciplines. They can take years to develop and master, and in many cases the applicants fall by the wayside. So art arrives in one bound, not only that, the idea is so seductive (an artist, wow!) the illusion takes root. And guess who supplies the nourishment for this little hot house plant? There is gold in them thar hills. The circling online art sites and paying exhibitions are legion, they will get your work seen everywhere, provide loads of collectors itching to get hold of your output.
Believe that and you would believe anything.
Occasionally, of course, by dint of sheer numbers, the quality of work can rise to pedestrian, but that’s about it. To provide some kind of contact from all this stuff, the trick would be to herd them all into some mega compound, set fire to the lot and create the biggest barbie in history. A bonfire of the vanities. Next week you could probably do the same. It’s one abiding virtue? It can be fun and therapeutic, of course. Quite right too.
I used to take adult art classes for many years and thoroughly enjoyed it.…AND, so did my students! We still keep in touch.
The lure of ‘artspeak’ or ‘art bollocks’ is irresistible, the pretentious and obfuscation of the words generally being in an inverse relationship to the threadbare quality of the image. Let’s finish with a little gem I spotted the other day:
‘Her critical eye casts outwards as well, challenging contemporary mores and identity politics through the medium of the ‘old masters.’ She examines ‘otherness’, intimacy and indeed masculinity via the tropes of the Elizabethan court; a metaphor for our own times.’
A little girl is moving house to go and live in the city. But she knows she can’t take her cat who would be very unhappy. So full of sadness and regret, she leaves him with her cousins. All her favourite games were with Charlie. What would she do in the city? Who would she play with? But city life has other excitements Soon she has new friends and new games and while the place in heart for Charlie remains strong, and she visits him as often as she can, she learns that he can be her friend without being with her all the time. Beautiful illustrations complement this moving text which deals gently with two topics which can be a source of anxiety for children: friendships and moving house.
The crowd surrounding Esmeralda was impressive. The main attraction was the car with an engine in the boot. Not a lot of those around. The interest in the mechanic was rather more desultory, perhaps fueled by a sense that he was pretty clueless. Unfair. The VW engine was and is a very clever bit of Teutonic engineering. A flat four boxer engine, air cooled, it neither freezes nor boils.
So far so good. As a kid, this mechanic had a bit of experience with car engines, at least enough to know the basics. The culprit was usually fuel or electrics. Petrol no problem, now, where was the distributor? Take that to bits and where the hell would I get a set of points, let alone install them? What I could try, following the advice of the previous owner, was to see if the plugs were oiling up. The only item in the ‘tool kit’ was a socket spanner for exactly that purpose. A search began for the plugs. My exploration was not helped by a load of interested heads peering into he engine bay and following every move. My air of quiet confidence did not fool anybody. Heavy snow was falling, the air temperature well below zero. Freezing.
EUREKA! I found the plugs and a couple of skinned knuckles later I got them out. They looked as though they had been dipped in oil. As I had no emery paper or feeler gauges, all they got was a basic drying off. She started at first crank. The audience was most impressed, more importantly, my sense of relief was palpable. What if this had happened on a lonely road, in the dark, about 100 kilometres from anywhere, with heavy snow drifts and the wind chill temperature around minus 20C. No heating whatsoever. Hmmmm…
Off to Moscow. This is a journey of about 710 km, driving time about 9 hours. By Russian standards this is rather like popping down to see Aunt Anastasia, a mere scratch on the map. Progress was good, and in due course, we decided to stop for lunch. Before that, I nipped off the roadside for a slash, and stepped softly into space. Well, snow space. It was rather like going down in a faulty lift, there was no resistance whatsoever. Eventually I got to the ground floor, with the top of my head just showing above the snow line. Panic receded, climbing commenced.
Ah, lunch. Our cooker was a little Gaz burner with a single flame and bottle. Pretty basic. The unit was placed in the footwell and coaxed into life, hoping all the while that a waft of petrol fumes had not insinuated themselves into the car. That would have livened things up no end. To have attempted this exercise outside would involve heating the whole of Russian air space. The food was edible, pre-packed anodyne anything. A food writer would have placed it somewhere between early and middle nothing. However, it was better than the alternative. Veg and Vegan hadn’t been invented. [This blog editor would surely have perished]
Our route to Moscow took us quite close to the town of Zagorsk, north of the city. Some years later, I revisited this town as part of a Russian package holiday. Our guide was an epitome of Komsomol, a Soviet youth whose brief was to show a load of capitalist tourists the neutered dinosaur of Russian Orthodoxy. His indifference to this task matched that of his tailor… couldn’t care less. He showed us to a splendid church where a service was in progress. He stayed put and relaxed into the arms of an evil cigar.
Another Matisse moment. As the door closed behind us, the darkened scene slowly materialised. Bathed in the heady aroma of incense the glorious iconostasis glowed, the little babushkas sang like angels and the service proceeded. Glory again. How far back in time would this have been played out? Deep involvement was immediate in this other sublime magical world. One did not have to be a born again anything, or even not born at all to be transported to this kitsch free place of deep devotion. Like Bach’s B minor mass, an indelible memory.
Another ‘cordon zero’ meal was prepared and soon after that Moscow hoved into view. I hoped there were more people here than greeted Napoleon and there might be the odd PECTOPAH making an appearance. Esmeralda purred. Deo gratias…
Working across different disciplines adds an element of confusion to the casual studio visitor, or, in one case it was somebody who wanted to see some work for a local show. Being familiar with the range of my children’s illustrations, the first thing she saw in the studio were several very large non-figurative paintings and lots of smaller ones. Puzzlement and doubt abounded. There was nothing cozy about these things. Had she come to the right place? How to extricate herself?
This was symptomatic of the reaction of many visitors and has led to me providing a brief tutorial in order to clarify this. Let’s start with the ‘abstract’ stuff.
My explanation was, and is, by invitation only otherwise the listeners boredom levels would be severely tested. Their interest was genuine and any hint of a patronising attitude from me would be spotted at once.
The gist of my riveting talk turned on learning the history and the language (or lack of it) of painting. As it is with literacy or numeracy or musical notation or culinary techniques, the study of these things is crucial. Otherwise, without the background knowledge of ‘reading’ paintings then the the lure of conventional pedestrian ‘proper pictures’ in all their tedium prevails.
Does one tackle this with a barrage of words? Heaven forbid. Consider this. After having enjoyed a play, or a novel, or a collection of poems, would you like to see a series of pictures to further increase one’s understanding? Or, conversely, does the visual experience have to be translated into mountains of words? Of course not. I once had a show where the only words were ‘fire exit’, and that was because it was compulsory. As somebody said ‘painting is about painting, everything else is about everything else.’ Quite so. Study it, learn about it, look at it, and even try it. Then forget the words.
As previously mentioned, illustrating childrens books has been quite a successful venture. And along with Ronda’s superior literary skill our Lighthouse Keeper books have kept us both busy for over 40 years. Being published by Scholastic they have been a hit in schools, with hundreds of lighthouses being crafted by kids all over the world!
Some years ago, Ronda and I were doing a school visit in London. For some reason, we worked with the kids in a lecture theatre, at the end of which was a grand piano. It was lunchtime and I was on my own finishing off some session pictures for my young audience. At some point a young man appeared, asked if I minded if he did a rehearsal on the piano. ‘Of course not’, I replied, ‘can I come and see?’ He was doing that wonderful warhorse, the piano part in Beethoven 5, a piece I had known since I was about 4 years old. His concert date was pretty close. He was nervous. He had umpteen goes at the start of the rondo. I approached the piano. ‘Look at this,’ he said, gesturing to the left hand page. He played a bit. ‘Now look at the right,’ he said. ‘You can see the problem! Bloody difficult, fancy a go?’ Of course, I could not see it at all. All I saw was a series of black marks on a piece of white paper. He looked at these marks and his head filled with music. This language was incomprehensible to me. My head filled with nothing. Not a hope. The music of top class painting is the same. It is wordless and deeply affecting.
And of course, the dross of the ordinary in this venture is just as evident and as easy to spot. There is acres of it. This can be very confusing. Online websites are full of the stuff, so much of it is of spellbinding mediocrity. More explanation required….
[A coda: Back to the lecture theatre type experience with the children….
Making images for children is wonderfully unequivocal and almost totally wordless. The scene is a draughty assembly hall. 200 kids, years 1 and 2 are settled down and expecting a good show. So, get to work and then grab them and hold them, but be quick about it. Do that and the rapport is a kind of silent and magical electricity. The children almost take all the oxygen out of the air. At the end, nobody wants to leave, including me and the teachers. If you are not up to it, death is not lingering, it is immediate and horribly final . Children don’t mess around with platitudes. This activity is not for the faint-hearted. In which case, go and do something else…..]