Drawing Lessons

She told me her name was Anna. The big bonfire, on the lawn behind the old house, burned in her eyes. I was dazzled. She had long hennaed curls and a dress sense somewhere between hippie and goth. She didn’t like alcohol, and had only drunk a concoction made from lemonade, lime, soda water and ice – a ‘Bugger Me’, she called it. When some of the party-goers became boorishly drunk, she took my hand and led me away, over the lawn to the hedge, where we sidled through a gap into the trees beyond.

We walked through rattling darkness, her hand still in mine, her tall figure moving gracefully ahead of me. Eventually we came to a road on the other side of the spinney, which we followed until we arrived at a brick-built building, a stable block I thought. She squeezed my hand and led me up wooden steps, at the top of which was a wooden plank door that she unlocked with a key she shook from her shoulder bag.

As she went through the door, she slapped a dimmer switch on the wall. The light revealed a large, one-roomed, studio flat. Kitchen units lined the far wall. The bare floorboards were painted blue, and dotted with rugs stained with tea and paint. A bed, neatly made, was pushed against one wall. There was a small dining table, empty but for a bowl of fruit in its centre. The washing-up was done and stacked in the drainer. Chaos only began as we moved closer to the centre of the room, past an old and worn bed-settee and a walnut coffee table – stained with tea-cup rings, and oils and turps and white spirits – on which sat paints and brushes. Unemptied ashtrays spilled their grey, white and brown contents onto the table and the arm of a ripped leather armchair. At the centre of the room, beneath a skylight, stood an easel. On the floor around it bloomed the tiny flower heads of dripped paint. Finished and half-finished canvases lined one wall. On the floor, on tables, on chairs, lay pieces and pads of paper of all sizes, some containing dabs of watercolour, some pen and ink, others charcoal.

She flopped into the leather armchair and lit a cigarette. She threw the match towards an ashtray and missed. The match joined others on the floor under her chair. She crossed long legs encased in horizontally-striped black and beige tights.

I looked around the white-walled room. ‘This is…’ I began.

‘Quaint?’ Anna interrupted with a laugh. ‘Nice? Interesting?’

‘You took all the words out of my mouth.’

She looked around. ‘It will do for now,’ she said. ‘I would like better light, but I can’t afford a studio that provides it.’

I picked up a pad and flipped through the pages. The pad mostly contained pencil drawings.

‘You’re good,’ I said.

She smiled enigmatically. ‘How would you know?’

‘I’m no expert, but I know what I like.’

She laughed. ‘Do you draw or paint?’

‘No. I’m more practical. I’m an engineer. I only dabble in photography.’

‘A true novice,’ she said. ‘Let me see what you can do.’

She tossed me a pad and a pencil.

‘What shall I draw?’

‘Me.’

I tried my best to draw her, but her essence kept slipping away. Her tartan miniskirt and a tie-dyed, strappy top that she wore over her unconstrained, small breasts I rendered almost successfully. Her pale oval face and brown eyes had escaped me entirely. I frowned at the paper.

‘Have you finished, Mr Engineer?’ Anna asked.

I said I had. She came over, took the pad and knelt on the wooden floor in front of me.

‘It looks like a child’s drawing,’ she mused. ‘More sophisticated, perhaps, than a child. But still…’ She looked up at me. ‘You don’t mind me saying this?’

I shook my head. I knew she wasn’t being unkind. Her assessment was accurate. I had never been able to draw.

‘Everything has thick black lines. You draw like a child,’ she repeated. ‘You shouldn’t rely on the lines. Here, I’ll draw you.’

She stubbed out her cigarette, and picked up a stick of charcoal and a pad. I could hear the black stick scratching on the paper. She was quiet for a few moments, occasionally smudging the charcoal with her fingers. Then, she flipped the pad around with a smile.

It was me, all right. My wide mouth, narrow eyes, sticky-out ears. Her drawing had light lines that defined the shapes, but the form was provided by her shading, by the way she had represented light and shadow.

She looked at her picture again. ‘You could learn to to do it, too,’ she said. ‘It’s just practice.’

That night we drank Earl Grey, smoked cigarettes, and talked until the morning. I fell in love with her. I hoped that, one day, she could love me too, even though I knew that, in my Levis, trainers, and Fred Perry, I was far too straight for her. We were now friends, at least, and whenever I saw her I tried to draw her. There was no doubt that, with her help, I was getting better. One day, while she was making a pot of Earl Grey for us, I stole a photo of her from a photo album so that I could practice drawing her at home.

I came to love that picture. I studied it day after day as I tried to get the shapes and shades right, cross-hatching here and there, smudging my heavy pencil lines, learning to leave spaces where light should be. In the photograph she sat in the battered leather armchair, nursing a mug that I guessed was full of her favourite Earl Grey. A smile played about her lips, a smile just in the process of forming or dying – I couldn’t work out which – and her brown eyes seemed to throw out a challenge.

I struggled with my drawing. I returned to it whenever I could, applying what I learned from her. I filled pads with attempts that weren’t quite right. Sometimes I would fill a page with only the shapes of her eyes or her lips, or the fall of her curls to her shoulders. Page after page contained my attempts at shapes and textures, light and shadow. But I was getting closer to her. With each improvement, I was shaping a whole. My drawing, when complete, would be an emblem of my love.

Finally, struggle turned to success. I could see it. The image on the page was her, I was sure of it. I was so happy to have captured her at last. I was eager for her to know that I too was now an artist. I ran up the steps to the studio on a cool, grey October afternoon filled with swirling brown leaves. She was alone, as usual. She put the kettle on the hob, laughing at my enthusiasm. Then she sat me in the leather armchair and kneeled on the floor in front of me. She took the pad, and flipped it open. In my excitement, I had torn-out out my drawing and placed it at the very front of the pad, so that she would see it sooner. She studied the drawing for some time. The kettle whistled but she made no move to get it.

Then she looked at me. ‘Is this how you see me?’

I said yes, so excited by what I had achieved that I failed to see the sadness in her eyes. But the tone of her voice I could not mistake.

‘You can go now. Please go. And take your picture away.’

The kettle continued to whistle as I left.

Something for World Book Day

I had cause today to look at a couple of old books on my shelves, and this reminded me that the oldest book on my shelves that I have read probably dates back to 1976. I thought it might be fun to check through all my shelves, and my database of books I have read*, to find out what still sits on my shelves in the edition I read at that time.

I then decided it might be… a lark? an education? nostalgic? to reread all such books. And to keep this topical and relevant, I decided to read only the books I still own that I owned and read before the end of 1977, forty years ago this year.

So, here they are, the foxed, cocked, water-stained and creased books, smelling of mould and cigarette smoke, that I shall be re-reading.

Under Milk Wood — I began an O-level in English Literature at evening classes with my friend and co-author John in 1975 (while he was also doing an A-level!). Dylan Thomas’s lovely radio play was first on the syllabus. But we both had to drop out of the course as his A-levels and my OND took up more time. I mean, come on man, we had skywatches and band practices to attend as well, you know!

The Trial – I remember finding Franz Kafka’s novel a tough old read back in ’76. Partly down to the translation, I think, and partly down to the tiny text. It might be better now I’m older and wiser; however, I also fear it might not.

Darkness at Noon — I bought this because a friend had raved on about something else Arthur Koestler had written. It is, I recall, gripping, and I read it in a couple of days — although during the course of the revolution described in the book, people switched sides so often that I remember being confused about who was on what side. But that was partly the point, I believe.

The Drought — An early entry in J G Ballard’s disaster cycle, it’s short but elliptical, and I remember it being slightly dry (geddit?) and distant, yet with odd and arresting images.

Operation Trojan Horse — This is, thankfully, the only UFO book. John Keel’s slightly nutty entry in this list will at least be entertaining.

Total Man — A very long exposition by Stan Gooch on the two-sided nature of man, with his A and B personality types, and how these need to be integrated to become… yes, Total Man! I’d like to think that Gooch was using “man” in the old-fashioned sense of mankind, but fear this actually was only about men. Probably the longest and heaviest book I’ll be re-reading. (This turned up for 50p in a sale in W H Smiths. Ah, those were the days.)

Stranger in a Strange Land — Heinlein’s sci-fi epic might out-page Total Man, but one hopes it will be somewhat lighter than Gooch’s opus. I have a horrible feeling, though, that Stranger… is a book best read by 17-year-olds, but we’ll see.

The Private Future — Woolworths used to have a bargain bin of remainders, and very odd things used to turn up in it. This, I seem to recall, was one of them, a short-ish work of popular sociology/cultural studies that envisaged a future in which the world became more private because of electronic media. The author, Martin Pawley meant private in the sense of social physicality and proximity rather than the kind of connections or sociability we might maintain through media now. And yet, given trends such as the decline of the pub, Pawley might have been onto something. This one will be interesting to revisit.

There are three further books that should perhaps be given consideration. It’s possible that Orwell’s 1984 should be on this list, but my copy has my brother’s name in it. And although he did like 1984 it’s difficult to imagine him paying good money for a mere book when he was 15. So, part of me thinks he might have been simply fulfilling his role as an annoying younger brother, and thought it hilarious to put his name in my book. However, neither of us is going to remember the course of events forty years ago with any certainty, so I’ve left it off the list.

Also on the list should be two UFO books, The Warminster Mystery and Warnings From Flying Friends, which relate the ufological events that occurred in Warminster in the 1960s. However, in the course of writing In Alien Heat, my own critical and historical examination of that mystery, I read both books more times than any human should. I have no desire to read them again.

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* Yes, I’m one of those sad people who has a database of books he’s read!

Review – The Little Friend, Donna Tartt

The Little FriendThe Little Friend by Donna Tartt

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book has been sitting on my shelves for the last few years, taunting me. 555 pages long in my Bloomsbury edition, with narrow margins and tiny print, the first time I tried reading it I didn’t get much beyond page 50. But this is the year of attempting the big books; the year when I read many pages but few actual tomes as I work my through the neglected pile of “large, daunting books”.

I read The Secret History many years ago now, and while I enjoyed it, it wasn’t particularly memorable. I liked it and Tarrt’s style enough to want to explore any other books she might publish (and The Little Friend was the next), but couldn’t quite understand the reviews and plaudits Tartt had received.

I really enjoyed this book. Yes, there are a few longeurs — not so much tedious, as drifting slightly, Tartt caught up in her descriptions of her sensuous, well-realised world — but overall, the book kept up to its own slow, dreamy pace throughout. I was suprised, half-way through, to note a review on the cover saying the novel was “unputdownable”. I found it very putdownable. But also — and here’s the important point — easy enough to pick up again. I did want to return to that summer in Mississippi, somewhen in the 1970s, and settle down into the book’s ryhthms, wondering if young Harriet would avenge her brother’s murder or even know how to do that. Again, another review spoke of Tartt’s mastery of suspense; and again, I found myself surprised because the book never struck me as a novel of “suspense”. There are a few tense, gripping incidents, but over the course of nearly six hundred pages, suspense would be stretched far too thin, and the sensation would be lost. The book was better for having hard knots of action rather than tenuous “suspense”.

Tartt has a lovely way with language. It’s not my way, and I rather envy her for it; at the same time, were I to write like that, I’d be Tartt, and not me. She conjures a very rich world, a world thick with sight and sound and scents. And yet there lies the danger… Such evocations can spin away, and the language itself seems to become the point of paragraph after paragraph; it is during such flights that you might find yourself wishing for some of that promised suspense.

Nonetheless, the book was a qualified delight, and I shall now look forward to the equally daunting The Goldfinch with slightly less trepidation.

View all my reviews

Dereham Connections – Node 4 – “Raven of Dispersion”

So, after the contactees and spies and conspiracies of the early 1970s, Node 4 — Raven of Dispersion moves us into the middle of the decade, and the long, hot summer of 1976. We leave behind characters that we have followed through the two preceding novels. Now, instead of spies and contactees and night-club owners, we become involved with young adults.

But I don’t like to think of this as a young adult novel — the characters are simply young; when I was that age, I didn’t think of myself as a young adult. I just thought I was brilliant and knew everything.

The characters in Raven of Dispersion are burgeoning intellectuals, exploring the world of ideas through the unconventional route of UFOs and the paranormal, and their first explorations of T S Eliot, Karl Marx, DH Lawrence,  Colin Wilson, and so on. Of course, being young, there are feelings to contend with  — love, and that new-fangled word, relationships.

It is at this nexus of love and the unconventional that things go a little bit awry. Because the young can be just a bit too sure of themselves, certain that they know what they are doing. And the young might also think their experiments — with balloons and lights, let us say — can surely have no consequences beyond the scientific.

And yet one balloon, and one set of lights — mixed with a pinch of beauty and one lovin’ spoonful of psychosis — are the ingredients for a proper brouhaha.

Dereham Connections – Node 3 – “Crossing the Line”

Having established (see previous posts!) that all the Nodes in the Dereham Connections have some linkage to Dereham, how are they connected?

Well, I can’t tell you too much without giving several games away. While all the books are designed to stand alone, inevitably, things happen in the books that will affect other books.

Still, Node 3 is called Crossing the Line. In Crossing the Line, several lines are crossed. Spies spy on people they really shouldn’t, agencies operate where they’re not allowed and chase information fruitlessly. An agent falls in love with the sister of the woman he was watching. Security services work with terrorists. A bad man becomes much worse. And all because Peta Shepherd might finally have discovered something and told nobody except Archibald Franklin Conn. Everybody is searching for information. Many people are searching for Archie, for various reasons. All Archie is searching for is an easy life.

Set in London, South Wales and Reading, in late 1972 and early 1973, Crossing the Line is the book that has least to do with Dereham. And yet the events in Dereham, described in Sorrow Mystica, are the impetus for the drama in Crossing the Line. And the man who Archie becomes in Crossing the Line reverberates through the connections and has consequences in 1976, in Node 5.

After the vague sci-fi feel of Sorrow Mystica, Crossing the Line crosses into the spy and thriller genres. There are no aliens or spaceships, no skywatchers or paranormal mysteries. But the aliens we meet in Sorrow Mystica, and their channel, Peta Shepherd, provide the McGuffin that propels Crossing the Line.

Crossing the Line should be available early in the new year.

(For more information on the series of Dereham Connections novels, see the Come to Dereham blog and Facebook page.

Sorrow Mystica — Why Connections, Why Nodes…

The perspicacious among you might have noticed the subtitle to Sorrow MysticaDereham Connections: Node 2 — and wondered what that was all about…

Well, the novels so far written are all connected in some way. They are a series, a chronicle, or what have you. Informally, they were known for some time as The Dereham Chronicles; but that implied they were all set in the imaginary Dereham — that they were a chronicle of the town. However, the series is not so much about Dereham, as about people whose lives intersect and are in some way influenced by events in the town. (Although, if the books also lead you to want to move to Dereham, I’ll have done my job.)

Still, I wanted to give notice that the novels are connected in some way. I thought an overall title like A Dance to the Music of Time might work. But then I thought something like that might be a bit too… precious… for some scifi-spy-thriller-paranormal-romance-based novels; such a “series” title might make the books appear as, “that is to say, literature”, as Henry Miller once wrote. And the fact that at least one of the books is not set in Dereham bugged me. And then one day I concluded that the books were about the connections between the characters in them; it was the connections that were important. And that’s how Dereham Connections came to be.

And then I saw each novel as a coming together, a meeting point, of the strands and webs of the lives I was weaving, where the connections created a knot, a tangle of wires — a node. And that was how each book came to be called a Node. So why is the first book Node: 2? Because there is no Node 1. Not yet, at any rate. All the Nodes are ordered by when they are set – starting in 1971 for Node 2, and ending in 1984 for Node 6. But they might yet be published in a different order; expect the unexpected.

Anyway, here are the nodes that we — co-author Kevin and I — know for sure will be published over the next year or so:

Node 2         Sorrow Mystica                                                    
Node 3         Crossing the Line
Node 3.5      Genial — Being the Tale of the Courtship of Simon and Julie
Node 4         Raven of Dispersion
Node 5         The Ethical Hitman
Node 6         German Overalls

Only Node 6 remains unwritten — but I know what it’s about. There are notes. And it has to be written. Nodes 2 and 3 are co-written with Kevin. Nodes 3.5 through 6 are written solely by me.

There are other nodes in the pipeline, but they remain a little vague (and depend on my co-author)…