I have taken a trip back to my native Tasmania for a few weeks and have been with my old art school mate. He has unearthed some ancient stuff… all done around 1964/5. A mixture of painting, linocuts and chalk sketches. Some of it’s not bad, if I do say so myself!
Somewhat reminiscent of our old chum Bacon? Who was a huge influence on me can you tell?!!
The above sketch was a study for a painting which was acquired by the Dunedin art gallery. (A few years ago!)
Some 40 plus years later, Ronda and I had an all expenses paid trip, plus fee, to Sakhalin Island, a place described by Chekhov in a landmark series of articles (c.1890) as ‘hell’. It was a prison camp in Tsarist days.
It lies to the north of Japan, being the easternmost part of Russia and was divided into the northern Russian section with the southern belonging to Japan.
At the end of the Second World War, in a brutal conflict, the Russians conquered the whole island and lay claim to it to this day. A big part of the prize lies underground, the huge quantities of oil and gas being heavily exploited. This industry is multi national and the children of the employees, of course, need international schools. Thus it was, early one week Ronda and I were happily doing a school visit in a local village, within a few days we flew to Seoul in Korea and then north to Sakhalin to work with the international kids. A remarkable (and exhausting) experience. Good exercise was provided by a fine tennis court and a sprinkling of tolerable tennis players amongst the staff.
And so into Poland, the nagging premonition still hanging in the freezing air.
My knowledge of this country was basic to say the least. When I was a kid in Tasmania our elderly Polish neighbours had escaped from that country at the end of the war. From my point of view it was hard to see southern Tasmania as a kind of earthly paradise but, to them, it was even more than that. I was too young and ignorant to comprehend the full horror of their lives. Of course, think Poland, think the Chopin who everybody knows, or should. The Polonaises and Mazurkas are old friends but it was his third piano sonata that caught me out. It emerged from the car radio, a sort of son et lumiere as the trailing car headlights indicated I might speed up a bit. I pulled over and entered this sublime world that Ashkenazy picked out with consummate skill. How extraordinary that a series of notes played on a single instrument with no devices, augmentations or frills whatsoever can have such profound power.
The road to Warsaw would not be dignified by such a term. There were no frills here either. At times it was very much a communal thoroughfare, carts, pedestrians, bikes, and the odd cow or two added to this bucolic agrarian landscape. Darkness had descended and Esmeralda’s lights struggled with this farming melange. This was not quite the sophisticated Europe that I had imagined.
The door pillar took the full force of the blow. Down he went with a sickening thud. Rounding a hairpin bend this swaying figure appeared in the middle of the road, 20 metres away. Good reflexes swerved but he was side-swiped. Oh God, we still had those German plates which were seen at once. People materialised from everywhere. By indication and gesture and the Polish for GO! GO! GO! was yelled at us. No we didn’t. Getting out of the car we approached our supine friend and , as we surveyed the damage, we were re-assured. We got him to his feet and a bit of self propelled arm rubbing started to happen. This good sign was dwarfed by the cloud of pungent vodka that wafted round our best efforts. Our man was legless. He seemed OK, but we could not be sure. A lengthy spell in a Polish gaol could be on the cards if things were otherwise, so we followed the advice of our farming friends and got going.
Warsaw cheered things up. At least it’s modest display of neon lights and signs was a tad more welcoming than the Russian equivalent. This city and it’s Jewish community suffered terribly during the war. This pogrom has been well documented, and despite the rebellion in 1944, this again was crushed by the Nazis. In September 1945, the Russians captured Warsaw. By January of 1945 80-90% of the buildings had been destroyed. Re-building of a sort commenced under a Soviet puppet regime. ‘Stalinism’ lasted until 1956.
Esmeralda was performing well, no hint of the sulks, so we set off for the East German border. The journey included the attractive university city of Poznan, it’s architecture and general aura giving a real lift to proceedings. The same could not be said of our ‘in car’ catering, perhaps the food would be better in a Polish prison, one of us joked.
Ho Ho!.. The East German border resembled a military parade ground with a load of police thrown in. Everybody had to get out of their cars and thorough searches of the whole vehicle, inside and out, led to long queues forming. I was almost certain they were looking for something or perhaps some collateral damage, particularly with foreign cars. No more jokes about Polish prison food. We got to the head of this vice-like road block. Nerves jangled.
A rather jaded para military waved us through, he did not even want us to stop.
A winter – themed post on this frosty morning. Excerpts from my book of illustrations inspired by the Schubert song cycle.
In 2016 I was inspired to create these illustrations by the wonderful imagery contained in Winterreise. This timeless song cycle for voice and piano, composed by Franz Schubert, was published in 1828. It consists of a setting of 24 poems by Wilhelm Muller. I produced a set of illustrations which are presented alongside Muller’s words, translated into English by Celia Sgroi. The resulting book can be purchased direct from myself. The original illustrations and giclee prints are also available. Email me for further details.
The illustrations are now also available to view on https://winterreise.online/. The site is the work of the wonderful Iain C Phillips, and is an amazing resource for all things Winterreise, including discography, texts and papers, along with other illustrations and artworks.
Below are some of the illustrations from my book, along with excerpts from the poems.
I cannot choose the time
To begin my journey,
Must find my own way
In this darkness.
Frozen drops are falling
Down from my cheeks.
How could I not have noticed
That I have been weeping?
In a charcoal-burner’s tiny house
I have found shelter;
But my limbs won’t relax,
Their hurts burn so much.
You, too, my heart, in strife and storm
So wild and so bold,
Feel first in the silence your serpent
Stir with burning sting!
So I travelled my road
Onward with sluggish feet,
Through bright, happy life,
Lonely and unrecognised.
A light does a friendly dance before me,
I follow it here and there;
I like to follow it and watch
The way it lures the wanderer.
Ah, a man as wretched as I am
Is glad to fall for the merry trick
That, beyond ice and night and fear,
Shows him a bright, warm house.
And a loving soul within –
Only illusion lets me win!
My way has led me
to a graveyard;
Here I’ll stop,
I told myself.
You green and mourning garlands
must be the sign
That invites weary travellers
into the cool inn.
The book was first published in 2016 by LKL Publishing and is available direct from the author.
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.