Thursday, April 05, 2018

One's own books

To clarify the reason for writing this piece I have to start by repeating some already related items of my past. 
In the late 1970s I felt that I was becoming more of a sculptor of large wooden blocks than a painter, when a car accident and a broken wrist forced a change of direction for my creative processes.
  As I had, for years, been importing wine in cask, and bottling it for my own domestic use, and at the same time writing down what I had learned about vines and vinification, and had started two small vineyards of my own, it seemed natural that I might fill the void of journalism at that time concerning supermarket wines. They were then retailing at around £2 a bottle, and no one, to my knowledge, was informing the public about which ones were good to drink and good value to buy.
Starting first with a column in a free newspaper, then a weekly one in a proper, paid-for newspaper, then writing a small book on starting a vineyard in England, then other wine guide books and columns, membership of The Circle of Wine Writers… and on it went. I was enjoying the life of authorship. And it was going well.
The transition process from painting to sculpting and then on to writing had been minimal. They were, after all, much to do with ideas.
I wrote many books and articles over the next 25 years. They were mainly on wine, vines and docks, but other subjects as well.
For the last five books I established my own publishing company as “real” publishers found my target buyers in London’s dockland to be too localised to justify publication. But those five books, with 2,000 initial print runs, each made a profit within three months – somewhat of a record I imagine.
Having said what I wanted to say about wine and the London docks, it was time to return to painting once more.
Preamble over, what I want to say now is the surprising pleasure that I/we have found in getting rid of all the mainly dockland books that were not sold and, being out of print were piled up against a wall in our kitchen.
There have been days when authors gave away their books to the public to encourage reading. This made a wonderful outlet for many of the unsold paperbacks. Some recipients were suspicious, thinking that it was some sort of con or other. But mainly most books were received with pleasure both on our own and their behalf.
Our local Underground station now has a few shelves where books are placed to be read and returned. We have been supplying these shelves with my dockland paperbacks (three different ones at a time), and by the end of each delivery day, all have gone – none to be returned as far as we can see.
Then, whenever we visit such as hospital or dentist, the receptionist, doctor or assistant may be given a copy. Or perhaps a helpful girl on a supermarket check-out counter might be the recipient. They are well received.
Last evening, on returning from St Pancras Station, a far-eastern-looking young man got up in a crowded compartment to give me his seat. He was just finishing a very serious, religious-looking tome, and obviously relishing every gospel word. As a gesture of thanks, I managed to give him a copy of one of my own books. It had the very inappropriate title of “Cooking in Docklands” as he probably ate mostly curries, whereas my book dealt with the suet pudding kind of fare made by the wives of inter-war dockers. The three of us, he, Margreet and I, discussed religion as we progressed. He then gave us the book he had been reading (late 16th century, heaven above and the devil below stuff), which must have been a treasure to him as the more important parts had been marked with a yellow dye pen. We parted as friends at our joint destination.
It is little incidents like this that have given us quite unexpected pleasures – gained from a pile of unwanted books that are still in pristine condition, but rather in the way.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Secret and Confidential

When throwing away old bank statements have you ever wondered if someone with a criminal mind might find them and use them for untoward activities?
My sister did, giving me a handful once in a while to shred in our domestic-size electric shredder.
This machine would accept three sheets at a time to produce a fluffy mix of finely shredded paper that we would share to add to our respective compost bins.
Not long after I married Margreet, who was working for a foreign embassy, she asked if I would like to shred some secret and confidential documents for, I think, a small remuneration. This I did willingly.
I was an ideal person to do the job of shredding secret government missives as I was quite ignorant of the language in which they were written.
I was able to feed their shredder with more documents at a time than the smaller one at home. Even then it was a slow, painstaking and dull job.
As I progressed, I suddenly saw a document in English. 
I am afraid that curiosity overtook my natural inclinations of confidentiality and probity to take a quick glance at its contents,
Surprisingly, the date on this secret document was somewhere in the 1930s.
My quick and surreptitious look might, I thought, reveal information on which the fate of nations had depended.
Its headline was “The Price of Irish Potatoes”.

Monday, March 05, 2018

The Weather

I have always been keen on the weather – sometimes out of curiosity, sometimes of necessity.
I suppose that I started this interest (which goes with that of aviation) when I was a boy. My father, being a farmer, kept a close eye on the weather for such as rain quantity, sowing, harvesting, planting and the rest.
Our family was keen on aviation, which was then in its infancy, though I believe my father only saw one aeroplane in the sky during WW1 when fighting the Turks in Mesopotamia.
He took us children to fly with Allen Cobham’s Flying Circus, which would take place in a local farmer’s field. On offer were flips in an Avro Tutor for 2/6 and with a loop-the-loop thrown in for 5/-. We also went to the Solent to see Supermarine seaplanes break airspeed records. My flying bible and most treasured book then was The Pictorial Flying Course, written by F/O W.E. Johns, the author of Biggles books. Copiously illustrated with line drawings, it told you almost everything you wanted to know about flying a biplane. As for the weather, avoid clouds. And should you see either snow or fog forming, get home as quickly as you can.
In good weather The King’s Cup Air Race’s flight path went almost over our house at Silchester, near Reading. Its mixture of private, fast and slow aircraft flew so low that one could usually see the pilots in their cockpits.
Kingsford Smith, that famous Australian aviator, was due to fly in to our large chicken field for a visit. So we laid out a landing T with sheets held down with stones, but, being unreliable, he never turned up, even though the weather was fine – a great disappointment.
All grass fields for aeroplanes in those days, had a landing T that ground crew pointed toward the direction from which the wind was blowing (windsocks, too, were also used). I imagine that it is the same now although I have not flown an aeroplane for many a day. Aircraft, even today, always take off or land into wind. This gives them maximum lift for their speed through the air.
In WW2 we used landing Ts and windsocks to determine wind direction when flying from grass fields in England and America. Having joined the RAF in 1942, after signing on, I had to wait for a vacancy for pilot training and took a job as a prop-swinger starting up Tiger Moth engines on an RAF training airfield by swinging their propellers.
We had no meteorological service then, so an instructor would fly upwind to see if the approaching weather was suitable for novice pilots (which meant no clouds). I often went along in the spare cockpit, and it was there that I learned the basic rudiments of flying an aeroplane. 
With those, and more sophisticated machines later, one’s life might well depend on understanding weather patterns and dangerous cloud formations.
That interest in meteorology has continued throughout my life.
Lying in bed early each morning I listen to noises outdoors. Chimes from the church clock may tell me of wind direction, its intensity and thickness of the air. In very cold or hot weather the resonant brittleness of the sound from footsteps on the pavement below gives me a good indication of what the day’s weather will be. Snow produces silence. The sounds of weather are very important.
On rising at around 6 o’clock in winter and much earlier in summer, I look out of my studio window over a London landscape of streets, pavements, roofs and trees. I see the direction in which aircraft are landing or taking off from Heathrow airport. This will only indicate if the prevailing wind is roughly from the east or west as the runways there run almost directly east-west. If it is a cross-wind, then the aircraft have to crab in to counteract drift. I look at the bending of twigs or leaves on trees to judge wind speed. Birds land into wind. I can see rime frost on house and car roofs. When aircraft are landing toward the west, if they are below cloud and visible when passing the line of our street, their altitude is 1,800’. Or if in cloud they may appear in sight just before landing at London airport. Then the cloud base is about 800’. If I never see them at all on their approach, then the cloud base is lower still. Gulls leave their feeding grounds on rubbish tips and head for the sea. But if the weather is stormy they fly inland.
As for weather forecasts, experience tells me that weather can change very quickly, fooling the pundits – however sophisticated their equipment. So I dismiss forecasts beyond a day or so, preferring to predict it myself. I rely on wind direction, cloud formation and type (high cirrus clouds, for instance, usually precede a warm front, culminating in low, rain-filled nimbostratus cloud). And with my back to the wind I know that the low pressure area is on my left hand side.
With so much interest to be had from the sky and what inhabits it, I think how lucky I am to live in England where our climate is so splendidly variable and unpredictable.

Friday, February 16, 2018

A Painting

Even before I start writing this piece I feel that it might be a long and very personal one. As it concerns the way I work at present, it could be of no interest to anyone but myself. So be warned should you wish to continue.
I favour working on a series theme. The present one is on “Events”. These may take minutes to complete – or months. All are done from happenings large or small (stories) that I set myself the task of turning thoughts of objects of interest and pleasure into a flat painting of two dimensions to hang on a wall (very old fashioned nowadays, I suppose).
For instance: one was done having witnessed a fight on the ground between a wood pigeon and a carrion crow. The pastel took minutes to do – quite a different matter to the present one that I describe here, which took four months, though interrupted by a bout of acute bronchitis that turned into whooping cough when a fight for life took precedence over artistic output.
My modus operandi is, after deciding on the event(s), or story, is to make drawings of the proposed ideas on scraps of used paper, then to progress to acid-free A4 paper for the application of line and then pastel colour. There may be several of these to retain or discard. Then, if thought to be satisfactory, I will progress to a work on a large, A1 edition (33” x 23 ¼”) (79.5 cm x 59 cm) on card. 
Small works are done usually at my desk in a little room (my studio) at the top of the house. This suits me as I have always favoured working in a small space. For the much larger A1s I kneel beside a bed where the card lies on brown paper pulled from a large roll of it at one end.
Also on the bed are several boxes of large pastels that contain roughly colours of the same kind.
I might at some time in the future abandon “Events” and strike out on another theme. Nature seems to dictate when these changes might happen. But for now it’s events.
At least I am my own master, with no-one asking or demanding what I might do, no galleries to provide for and no corporate artistic bodies to influence my work.
What my eyes have seen is the usual motivation for an event painting. After that everything comes from the brain – the imagination.
This imagination is mine alone, and although each process is very real to me, other people are sometimes mystified by the result. To my mind, that is the way of art. It may be self-indulgent, but it represents the special art world in which I live. What I produce is, I hope, grist to the imagination of others.
The just-finished painting, an A1 size Event, number 48, developed thus.
When our cleaner comes once a week to smarten up the house in her robust and rather forceful Polish way, we leave the house to her and have breakfast in our local, insalubrious cafĂ©, called The Ritz (where our dustmen take their morning break). We have tried much of the breakfast fare on offer and have settled on a toasted brown bacon sandwich for Margreet and a plain white bacon sandwich for me. We drink builders’ tea.
After one such early breakfast, where we look out over busy, cosmopolitan  King Street, Hammersmith, we attended an evening birthday party, given by a retired banker cousin, at Brooks’s, the height of gentlemen’s clubs in St. James’s Street, off Piccadilly, London. The latter is a club where, in the 18th century men gambled away their fortunes, estates and even wives.
So this painting (actually pastel), entitled From the Ritz to Brooks’s, was about a day’s event, starting at society’s lowest order and finishing at its highest. Such a contrast not only made a splendid event but an extreme contrast of pleasures that we experienced in one day – an event.
But how to present this as a painting of composition and colour? That was the problem (as it is with all works of art that flow from the mind).
I decided to start with The Ritz, which has its name engraved on the street window, and is seen in reverse from the inside. Across the road, in contrast, is a Sainsbury’s sign, seen as normal. Then there were cars on the street, people on the move, and us in the foreground with our bacon sandwiches and builders’ tea in mugs.
Drawings (compositions) were made, with avenues of thought in the form of lines. Then, on acid-free A4 sheets of paper, further developments, simplifications and colour added.
After those, I felt like combining them with my thoughts on the extremes, working directly on to a large A1 sheet of card.
As I think about the painting in operation night and day, I may suddenly alter and evolve it. Mostly this takes place very early in the morning when the mind and air are fresh and all is still, but can take place at any time.
The Brooks’s part of the painting had to include a grand, red-carpeted staircase, a crowd of people meeting and talking, large portraits of past worthies, long, black limousines and a factotum on watch.
Then, when the piece was finished, it had to be fixed, as pastel chalk would smudge, fall from the board and get everywhere. This I do on dry flagstones in the garden with special spray. As it had rained for a few weeks I had to wait for the weather to change before sealing it.
Then, after the pastel was fixed, the piece had to be signed, dated and studio stamped with the reference code.
From this account the painting sounds like a very complicated one. But it is, in fact, rather simple and stark.
Is it a good, bad, or indifferent work? An artist never knows as we think that each one is good – otherwise we wouldn’t be artists doing what we do as part of our being.
So what is considered to be one’s success (or failure) as an artist? Does it depend on demand and high prices at auction or the number of solo exhibitions achieved? Is it the close connection with a well-known gallery or the number of private buyers interested in their work? Might it be satisfied owners, public purchases, or good reviews? Or could it be income from sales, notoriety, or demand from foreign buyers? Yet again it could be membership of an artistic corporation or consistency of style. It could be any or all of the above that go to form an individual’s or critic’s opinion of success or failure.
As for the artists, they carry on doing their best and, hopefully, enjoying what they do. They can do no more.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018


I once worked in the theatre painting scenery at The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, designing sets for repertory, touring shows, and even pantomime and ice shows.
At some time in this life of illusion I had to deliver a manuscript to Alec Guinness.
He then lived in a late Georgian square in Hammersmith. I was surprised and delighted to discover an area of London that seemed to be an ideal place in which to live. At that time I was in residence and rebuilding a bombed-out house in Fulham, right beside the Chelsea football ground. In time, noise, regular isolation on match days, and then the over-abundance of home games all became drawbacks to life there.
Time passed in many interesting ways until I needed to return to London from life in the Hampshire countryside. But where to look for a home? Why, near to that square in Hammersmith, of course.
A small house in the district suited me. Depending on the approval of my youngest son, I bought it – at a time when property prices were in a trough and, by present standards, low.
There was little to do structurally as the owners had done it up for sale – installing gold taps in the bathrooms, for instance.
But they had employed a lousy electrician. Although one could switch on the lights to climb the stairs, there was no way of turning them off having reached either the first or second floors.
Our street’s cars were possibly a couple of beat-up Fords. My soft-top VW not only looked rather out of place, but was vulnerable at that time to having its roof slashed by vandals.
I then knew most of the residents who lived in our street, many of whom were renting from a property landlord on a long term, sitting tenant basis.
What has prompted this blog is that Margreet and I have just returned from friends in a neighbouring road who were celebrating having lived there for fifty years.
We were almost newcomers among our fellow guests, having been residents nearby for only 29 years.
I wonder if there are many enclaves in London where residents are as happy as we and they are, and would not think of leaving voluntarily to live in another district.
But there have been naturally many changes over our years of occupancy.
Neighbouring houses have been bought to let. So their temporary occupants move on and have never had time to become part of our community. They are transient. Even those renters who we get to know move on and are lost, except possibly for a welcome Christmas card.
And there have always been at least one, two, or even three complete misfits around (I’m sure every street has them) who, for one reason or another, dislike the neighbours or the close community and continue to live among us, but apart.
One hopes that community bonds of friendship are not formed by class, breeding, nationality, birth, history, fortune, ancestry, accent, race, religion, origins, upbringing, occupation, schooling, or any other such mark of identity.
When I was a child in the country, it was thought that you became part of our village only after living there for at least 25 years.
So perhaps, even today, close communities are still formed mainly by the seemingly outdated idea of long residency.

Friday, January 05, 2018


With this first blog of the year, I would like to wish all my readers a very Happy and Healthy New Year.


The daughter of a couple that met at one of our tennis parties in the country when I was a child, died.
Her memorial service was to take place in Salisbury Cathedral, around which is a lovely Close, where she had lived.
We were asked to say if we were going to attend – in view of the catering arrangements.
The “catering arrangements” part sounded good. But beside our attendance to remember this very nice person, we wanted to visit the Cathedral for Margreet to see the Page-Roberts stained glass window there.
So down we go by rail, have lunch at an inn, and take seats in the body of that wondrous, Early English Gothic, medieval cathedral. Conducting the service were two clerics (not in full drag I’m glad to say).
The choir sang beautifully. The setting was magnificent.
In an address from a pulpit by a son of the deceased, he mentioned that on her death she wanted no fuss. And here we were at about the grandest memorial service one could imagine, in defiance of her wishes. So having been told that we might meet in the afterlife, those who arranged this grand farewell might well approach her in Heaven with caution.
After the service we repaired to a medieval hall to enjoy the catering – of tea and egg or tomato sandwiches. It was nice to meet some old friends.
We retreated, and returned to the cathedral to find the P-R window.
Walk the length on the right hand side until you must turn left, and the window faces you across the nave.
It has the merit of containing much clear glass, so admitting plenty of light. Its pictorial element is of biblical scenes executed in the Pre-Raphaelite manner.
At the bottom of the window it says: To the Glory of God and Remembrance of the Very Reverend Page-Roberts, Dean of the Cathedral from 1908 – 1919, and of his wife Margaret Grace.

That done, we returned to London, parched but not hungry, for a generous and very welcome memorial glass. 

Monday, December 11, 2017

Chance meetings

Meeting new people, however briefly, is one of the pleasures of life.
You may never see them again, but in a short time you are transported to another life, new thoughts, other modes of existence, ideas foreign to your own and so on. Sometimes a longer friendship is formed from a chance meeting or encounter, and they are often the strongest.
It is generally at parties that these meetings take place, but often by absolute chance, on the street, in a queue, at an accident, a waiting room, or just with a congenial-looking stranger.
One such meeting has happened recently.
At a smart auction house’s private view we paused at one of those typical Elizabeth Frink bronze heads, near to a man who was staring at it and smiling.
This person did not seem to be quite the normal posh purchaser of expensive art. So we talked.
He came from the West Country and, as a rugby football enthusiast, had found this sculpted head to be not unlike that of a fellow member in his club’s scrum. He, too, reminded me a bit of a front row scummager.
In asking him about his life he said that he was in London to sell a Churchill. This was information that hardly registered with us in the course of our conversation. 
Anyhow, we got on splendidly. I gave him my card in case he would like a 6 o’clock drink when next he visited the big city. We thought of it no more.
Then an email arrived from our rugby-following acquaintance to say that it was so nice to talk with us at the private view and that he would, one day, take us up on our offer. He had spent several hours reading my blogs and, as he was a countryman, especially enjoyed one when I had, in an open car, been showered with cow’s urine when passing a cattle truck on the road.
A short time afterwards I read a short piece in our newspaper saying that a Sir Winston Churchill painting, with an estimate of eighty thousand pounds had been sold at auction for over three hundred and fifty thousand pounds.
Could our newly-made friend have been the very seller of the last painting done by Sir Winston Churchill, which, before the great man’s death, been given to his personal bodyguard of many years?
We looked at the surname on his email. And, sure enough, he was in all probability the seller of the painting given to his father by Sir Winston.

Yes, meeting new people, however briefly, is one of the pleasures of life.