In Vino Veritas

Episode 10

Episode 10

By now I was getting used to the funny ways of my little cabin. Basic, yes, but also slightly problematic. When I first arrived, I noticed that immediately beyond the cabin bulkhead, the steel walls seemed to converge somewhat. The purpose of this marine architecture soon became apparent once we got underway. The sound of the waves slapping against the bow was a bit disconcerting at 3 in the morning.
I guess the likelihood of colliding with some unexploded ordnance or the odd ice-berg would be pretty remote in these latitudes. Accordingly, I took out some medicinal insurance (in 75 cl. bottles) to keep me warm in case I had to swim across the Tasman Sea.
My suit hung forlornly in a makeshift wardrobe. I was musing upon this apparent purchasing miscalculation when an invitation fluttered through the door.
The captains cocktail party no less! My mind fancy flew. Again.

AAAAHHH….The moonlight rippling across the gentle water, the air filled with the saccharine strings of Mantovani’s band …and… and… a young couple holding hands and gazing wistfully out to sea.
A Hollywood hologram no less.

Sod all that.
The reception area for the party was in an architectural style known as ‘EARLY GYMNASIUM’. Retsina and Ouzo seems mercifully absent from the drinks list. There were loads of olives and feta and all things Greek. The calamari was not a million miles away from a bicycle inner- tube. And, of course English and Greek are not the happiest linguistic bedfellows. Although glamour and chic had not caught this bus, it was agreeable enough.
Unhappily, my suit seemed to be a huge hit with the First Officer. Oh Dear.
At some point during the proceedings somebody picked up the communal boredom baton and indicated, inter alia, the good news that our ship had a table tennis table.
My ears pricked up at this. I was pretty hot stuff at this kiddie. The following day a group of us gathered for a few games. I felt like kicking off by handing out a good old fashioned thrashing.
So the score rattled along. 6-2, 8-3, 12,5 16-8, 20-12, 21-13, GAME OVER,
JOB DONE, THRASHED!

I got the 13.
She was bloody good.

AND STILL IS.

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In Vino Veritas

Episode 9

Episode 9

The lopsided passenger ratio on our luxury liner was accounted for by the high percentage of the sons of European emigre’s (mostly Greek and Italian) returning for a visit to their ancestral homelands. The gunwales were almost awash with these handsome lads, AND they oozed charisma to boot. Gloom. I had a couple of contingency plans up my sleeve, but I had not counted on being outflanked by this lot of Latin lovelies.
For some inexplicable reason (and one never to be repeated) I had kitted myself up with a suit! Not any old suit but a nice little pale linen number. The ensemble was given added glamour by the addition of a matching tie and classy suede shoes. When would I get to play this card? If at all?

Another such irresistible lure (or so I thought) was my genuine interest in the current vogue of existential philosophy. It wasn’t so much the goings on of Jean -Paul and Simone and their writings, but reading the novels of Albert Camus.
‘The stranger’ was impressive. When things were becoming unglued, I loved his concept of ‘the glorious indifference of the universe’. (my translation, others call it benign) [Editor: or “the tender indifference of the world” if you’re a Guardian reader!]

Hmmmm… Perhaps a bit heavy for a chat -up line. Of course, this combination of couture/ culture could backfire. Perhaps I might be approached by a woman of a certain age, of academic appearance, and clutching the complete oeuvre of Immanuel Kant’s metaphysics. These books would choke a horse.
She would be thrilled at the prospect of intellectual exploration and exchange of ideas that our relationship would provide for the next 30 days. I went to the library and got out a copy of ‘The Cruel Sea’.

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Back to life on the ocean wave. The good ship Ellinis only stopped at five ports on this mammoth journey. They were Auckland, Panama City, Curacao, Tahiti, and Southampton. The happenings at one of them had fairly lengthy implications, to say the least…

In Vino Veritas

Episode 8

A year of working in the theatre was drawing to a close. It was time to move on and go and see, for real, the artworks that I had been studying. Theatre life had been good, not only the painting, but also doing behind the scenes drawings of touring dance companies, the Russians in particular.

Working on a pantomime was great fun and was to have later repercussions. This one was all about the sea, with submerged wrecks, sea creatures, all manner of sailing ships and, of course, lighthouses.
Some things still stay with me.

1. How to get a dead level horizontal line running across 10 metres of stretched canvas.
I bet Raphael and his mates did this in Renaissance times. Simply attach a cord to the correct height at either end, ‘chalk’ and tension said cord. Stand in the middle, pull the cord back like a bowstring and let it go. SNAP! There is your line.
2. Painting scrims was also fun. This involved painting on an open weaved fabric (difficult), but when completed, if it was lit from the front it could be a brick wall, lit from the back it virtually disappeared.
3. My last theatre experience. This was at a different theatre and consisted of a one- man show of the most withering satire on Australian life. This guy was stunning, a class act. His name? Barry Humphries.

OK. How to get to Europe? The Boeing 707 was well and truly around by now, but pricey. The next cab off the rank was the good ship Ellinis. If one thumbs through the current crop of cruise liners, at jaw dropping prices, it might be tempting to put the Ellenis in this class. Not quite. Somebody less charitable than me described it as 8 million rivets sailing in formation. Unfair and untrue.

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Prospects of loads of female company for the best part of a month lent a certain sense of anticipation to this sojourn. What diminished said keenness was, to put it mathematically, the male/ female numbers ratio.
It was lopsidedly male.
WHY?

In Vino Veritas

Episode 7

Life in the theatre took a new turn. I was approached by the stage manager who sounded me out about working the follow spotlights during the next series of evening productions.
Why not? the dosh would come in handy.
These lights were based on a simple principle. They consisted of two carbon rods (about 2cm diameter) which were aligned at an angle of about 45 degrees. The high voltage electrical current flowing between them produced a crater in the lower carbon,
which in turn was the source of a brilliant light. This light could go from a ‘pin spot’ to a full flood, depending on the lens control. The carbons had to be ‘fed’ as the burning continued , one praying all the while that the top carbon did not come loose and land in the bottom of the lamp holder. All of this was conducted under ferocious temperatures, you could fry an egg on the lamp case, or roast a finger or two.
The whole caboodle was mounted on gimbals, so the beam could be directed wherever one wished, at whatever size. So far, so good . Two ‘operators’ were needed to cover the whole stage. This background info. makes sense of the following proceedings.

The opening evening of Swan Lake was upon us. I already had
several shows under my belt, so to speak, so I was ready for this. My colleague for the evening was Roland. This dear fellow was a ‘chocoholic’ an addiction to this confection going back for years. At any point during the day his Mae West boiler suit contained up to 10kg of assorted chocolates. This soporific substance, I discovered, has no equal.
He was an electrician and his colleagues feared for his life when he seemed to be drifting off atop a 10 metre ladder re-wiring the spot bars.
Finally, we we both had headphones to get our orders.

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Swan lake proceedings got underway with a total blackout. The orchestra concluded the overture and I got my first instruction from the director.
‘With the smallest of pin-spots, pick up the male dancer emerging from the wings on the prompt side of the stage’ Fine. Done. Ditto to Roland to pick up the female lead on the other side. NOT SO FINE. At this precise point Roland fell asleep. In so doing, he relaxed his grip on the lamp. The pin-spot, getting bigger, then drifted up to the proscenium arch, up and up until it came to rest on the theatre ceiling.
By now the stage director was apoplectic. His screams could be heard in the back rows of the gods. Roland came to. Desperately, he tried to put things right. The band played on…..Until the conductors desk and those of the first violins were illuminated by a thousand watt spotlight as Roland valiantly tried to find the stage.
As is (or was) the case in music based theatre, the actors or dancers will sometimes follow the music to gauge their arrival. In this case the entrance of the corps de ballet took place in total darkness, as they spilled, literally, on to the stage. One wonders what the collective noun is for a tangled heap of swans. I still had the male lead in a pin-spot, his facial incredulity was the only thing to be seen in the whole theatre.
The stage managers voice rose equally in volume and pitch. Then, a top C and a deafening silence.
I got home early that night.

In Vino Veritas

Chapter 6

Meanwhile, still back at the theatre, painting scenery continued. By now I was familiar with the whole set-up . In a long narrow-ish studio, the huge back- cloths were attached to stout wooden stretchers. A gap between the floor and the wall, (together with the aid of an electric motor), meant they could be raised and lowered as and when. Painting the flats and other props was very straightforward.
If one imagines about 200 ice-cream cartons filled with every tint, tone and high colour imaginable, the whole approximating the range of a High street DIY paint retailer, then they were occupying a central table. They were maintained, in exemplary fashion by Steve, the splodger… hardly a flash job description. All water-based, of course. …the colours, not Steve.
Work proceeded well on the Viennese hell. Endless drop shadows, highlights, reflected lights, marbling, wood graining, cast shadows, all the usual old tricks of trompe l’oeil orthodoxy cascaded down. Rather similar to sucking boiled sweets.
BUT WAIT. I was admiring the job I had done on some alcove encased temptress and then became aware of a fellow admirer. A delicious exchange followed.

‘Look’, said our leader, ‘um…hmmmm…this is rather good….ummm ..’
He glanced at his watch…’could you do a few more?’ I glanced at his efforts. Rather me do them than him, I thought.
‘No problem , I said, you go and have a rinse or 3 with your mates and leave the alcoves and little darlings to me.’
Not a lot was said, but it was hugely significant.
Theatre mythology is also huge; Quasimodo, phantoms, ghosts, creaking woodwork, strange meanings, wobbly stairs, all of that.
I usually arrived first in the morning to get the studio opened up.
Up the creaking stairs. I grabbed the handle of the ancient door. Resistance. Push then came to shove.
The door opened a bit to reveal a pair of shoes stuck underneath.
Why the hell would somebody?….. A closer look. There were legs in those shoes.
According to the coroner, the death must have been agonising. Huddled in the foetal position, Steve had tried several exit stratagems, but lethal photographic chemicals had been most effective, at God knows what agony.
To complete the theatrical… because of rigor mortis and the narrowness of the stairwell, his body had to be put in a sling and lowered down on a rope.

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One reflected upon previous conversations with Steve, but there was no indication of what he was thinking. More entry into the world.

 

In Vino Veritas

This post contains mature content in the form of life drawing and nudity.

Chapter 5: The Journey to Thinking Big

At the end of secondary school it was time to go back to Melbourne and stay with my Aunt. Why? It meant that I could study art at the grandly named Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology. This activity was not so much a learning curve, rather more a vertical axis.
The tuition was very good, three years illustration was followed by 2 years painting. I was , and still am, deeply devoted to both. Customer satisfaction. Life drawing, a splendid discipline, was included in all of this.

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DA studio NZ2
This is a shot of my continued life drawing practice, in my studio in Auckland a good few years later. More on that to come. Photograph courtesy of Geoff Studd. Models name Penny.

In my final year I was employed as a lecturer to teach the first years and part-timers this noble art…. a valuable experience. The students did not seem to be troubled by the age of their tutor. His love of the subject seemed to preclude this. I got my diploma and learnt how to do many things.
THEN! Overtaken by events. A major theatre in the city had approached the college to see if they had a student who could paint theatre scenery. I could imagine how the conversation went… ‘We need somebody who can draw and represent the physical world…for God’s sake don’t send us some abstract expressionist or cubist clown or a mystic Meg. We want technical skill. Give him, or her, anything, and they can do it. They will have to work on a huge scale. More than that, they will have to produce results before the pubs open’!

I got the nod. My meeting with the head honcho was salutary. He was short, golden bristled in a Scottish sort of way, and had the eye colouring of a Norwegian fjord.
He gave me a ‘O God, here’s another one’ sort of look and then pronounced in a voice flat with indifference, ‘Look,sunshine, if you can’t do this, I will bloody soon find somebody who can. I can’t frig around, let’s go’. I have heard similar sentiments expressed many times over the years. You either drop your bundle or it puts iron in the soul. As if to under- score this, he produced a cartoon ( in the original sense, a preparatory study). This was about A2 landscape in format and had to be scaled up to a massive 10×5 metre back cloth. Suddenly, a jaw dropping moment.
Our leader folded the cartoon twice, and tore it from top to bottom in order to make 3 identical panels. He took one, his long time assistant another, and he gave the third to me.
‘OK,’ he commanded, gesturing at the prepared canvas, ‘you guys start at either end, I’ll do the middle. Don’t screw it up’
I am as dry as a dead dingo’s….. ‘You have an hour to get the first stage knocked in’.

I looked at the cartoon. It was a kind of Baroque hell. Greek columns, acanthus leaves, Brunelleschian architecture, figures in alcoves, tracery, decorative stone and woodwork, and on and on. It was to accompany a Strauss type Viennese Operetta. I am sure the blue Danube must appear sooner or later. That would be a doddle.
Enter the real world…

Two legacies of all this… 1. Only ever using thin paint as the cloths had to be rolled for transport; and 2. An undying love for working on a very big scale.

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Opus 5 Requiem, dye and acrylic on canvas, 198 x 370cm

 

In Vino Veritas

Chapter 4

Primary school jogged along quite merrily. Caning was commonplace, pastoral care thinnish. But we did learn. The star of the show was the ‘times table’ lessons (up to 12) whereby the head teacher had a primitive but effective closed circuit classroom audio system so that the whole school had tables drill straight after breakfast.
This rote learning, to me at least, has lasted 70 years. Sticking to the brief and general orthodoxy was encouraged. Any deviation (such as when I found copying a prescribed pedestrian rendering of a ship could not compare with my Johnny Depp piratical galleon), was not tolerated.
The correction cane was produced. I saw the error of my ways, and resolved to change the error, not my ways.

Secondary school could have been done locally, but it was commonplace in those days, and probably still is, for country kids to be shunted off to boarding school in the bigger cities. Thus it was. There are some kids , particularly the introspective ones , who should never be made to do this. Communal living was abhorrent, the hand me down English public school hierarchy, complete with prefects and duxes and house masters and matrons, head boys and girls and vast mahogany panels crammed with acres of gilt lettering naming the great and the good, was hugely destabilising. One suddenly realises that there are hoards of people you really don’t want to know about. Ever. How I hated it.

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Love appeared in a strange guise at about this time. Her name was Adelaide, or more precisely, Queen Adelaide claret. She had more tannins than an Indian tea plantation, and feeble fruit, but notwithstanding that, the door she unlocked is still wide open.
The joys of a solitary life were made manifest during the 1956 Olympics. Those parents who could raise the wind sent their little darlings off to Melbourne for a week, slightly lesser mortals had a range of outings offered, and I was the only child left in the whole school for the duration. The school must have loved this, I know I did.
My school report linked ones attainments by a simple graph joining up the ‘score’ dots on one axis against the range of subjects on the other. Result: smart kids got a profile rather like that of the Himalayan peaks. I flat lined down in the foothills, littered with C’s D’s and E’s…. Highly amusing reading for my grandson.
Only one comment was in any way prescient ‘Has a deep interest in art and music’.
At least I persevered in Maths, Physics, Chemistry and something else to get my A levels. Yet, there was one sign of enlightenment. In my final year when I was given the nod to attend evening art classes at the local ‘Tech’. Thank God.
At last another door had opened. Praise be the Lord.

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