“I loved it! This is a great story with a wonderful concept and excellent background.” Readers’ Favorite
As they continued slowly down the centre of the aisle Omri resumed his photography taking pictures of each of the six apses, of the ceiling, of the floor and the seating and then the stairs leading up to the transept and the choir.They passed behind the raised altar and stared up at the cupola before arriving at the two marble slabs denoting the tombs of Franco and de Rivera, about ten yards apart.‘So where exactly is our object?’ asked Omri in a lowered voice.‘You’re standing on it now’ Alex said looking at the slab beneath Omri’s feet. ‘You’re right on top of it.’
I think I’ve mentioned before on these pages how, very occasionally, I had my uses to the powers-that-be at Saint Martin’s School of Art. While generally I was shunned by most of the tutors for my work being “hopelessly representative”, every-so-often, when they required the services of someone with common-or-garden drawing and painting skills they came to your’s truly.
It was shortly after the Easter break in 1981 when St. Martins received a visit from a delegation of Communist Chinese dignitaries from their ministry of culture, led by the minister himself. Although I was blissfully unaware at the time, the visit was part of a drive by China to open up access for their top students to elite academic institutions in the UK and North America. I subsequently discovered that their “shopping list” of British institutions comprised, Oxford and Cambridge, University College London, Imperial College, the LSE, the Royal Ballet School, and (incredibly to me at least) Saint Martin’s School of Art. I was equally ignorant of the fact that the visit mattered at least as much to my school as it did to the visitors, as even back then, foreign students were a lucrative source of revenue.
Thus, in effect, I was an unwitting cultural/commercial ambassador for St. Martin’s. The fact that my work was the polar opposite of everything that St. Martin’s stood for mattered not. That it was “safe”, accessible, “good of its kind” and most important of all, unlikely to be considered “decadent” by our communist guests mattered a great deal. When I later asked my head tutor John Edwards, why they didn’t simply visit the Slade School or the Royal Academy Schools, where nearly all the art was like mine, he pointed out that St. Martin’s was “so much more than a mere school of painting”. And that its fashion and film departments, in addition to its art and sculpture “made it uniquely attractive” to the Chinese. “In truth”, he added, “the art department was the least significant element” of the school and the main thing was “not to rock the boat”. As things turned out, not only did my work prove the steady ship my superiors had hoped, one of my pictures actually ended up pleasing our visitors more than anyone could have predicted.
On the afternoon of the visit, the art department was cleared of students except for me, and the delegation was brought up directly to my studio. There were about ten Chinese, all men and all wearing expensive English-cut suits, and they were led into the room by John Edwards and the principal of the school, Ian Simpson. After some words of introduction from John, the visitors began to notice my pictures, which wasn’t difficult, as at that time I was working on a series of monumental canvases. However – and it’s a moment I shall never forget – as their eyes (and I mean theireyes, for they turned their ten heads as if a single organism) landed on “Apple Pickers at Rest” they let out a collective “ahhhh…” and all broke into broad smiles. Then, the leader of the delegation (the minister himself as it later turned out) looked at me and asked, or perhaps stated, “workers in the field yes?”. I think I just nodded. He then walked up to the picture, and pointing at one of “workers” contemplatively holding a raspberry ice lolly, he turned to me, and grinning and nodding enthusiastically queried, “Little Red Book, yes?”. Before I could respond, he’d already uttered something to his compatriots, to which they all responded with an even bigger collective “ahhhh…”, followed by more smiles and nods of approval. Finally, after each shaking hands and bowing their heads to me in turn, the principal led them out of my studio to continue their tour. The last person to leave was John, who, as he walked out the door, turned around and gave me a big thumb’s-up.
I was left feeling peculiarly frustrated, having been completely unable to explain what the painting was in fact depicting – a scene of Druze labourers, hired by the kibbutz on which I was a volunteer, enjoying a rest from picking apples with a refreshing ice lolly (ice pop). In retrospect, my being tongue-tied was a blessing, as Ian later informed me that the minister had described their visit to my studio as the highlight of their tour of the school and even inquired about the possibility of purchasing the painting. I declined this however, when it was made clear all the proceeds would be pocketed by St. Martin’s. After all, I thought, I had already done more than my bit for insuring the future prosperity of the school!
At the risk of breaking my rule of keeping this blog strictly apolitical, I feel the need to point out that these images date from December 10th – just two days before the recent UK general election.
It isn’t giving much away (especially to those who know me), to state that the weeks and days leading up to the election were among the most nerve-wracking and traumatic I have experienced in my life. Conversely, the moment the exit poll was announced, was one of such joyous and euphoric relief as I can recall.
Yet, at the time of the walk in my local Oxford park when I encountered these sublime scenes, I was so convinced by the narrowing of the opinion polls and the broadcast media mood-music that the election result would mean us having to pack up and leave England for good, it was as if the fates of nature were tormenting me with what I would be losing.
Looking at them now however, the images seem to offer the hope of new dawn for this remarkable little country that once again feels like my green and still pleasant home.
WIshing all my friends, viewers and followers a happy 2020
The single most impressive feature of our lives since we purchased our mountain finca (smallholding) in southern Spain, and becoming part-time farmers in 1993, is how it dramatically increased our awareness of the passing seasons. A perception intensified by having planted the best part of a thousand trees, and then watched as they gradually transformed our immediate environment.
While there are many sobering aspects to the passing of the years, we have found both solace and joy through the metamorphosis of our humble hilltop. Hopefully, it will continue past a good few new years yet!
As seasonal happenstance would have it, while thinking of a subject for this post I came upon slides of two Hanukkah-related pictures I made many years ago in my mid-teens. My original intention had been to create an epic account of the Hannukah story in the form of a heavily illustrated book-cum-comic, however, I soon found the task to be overwhelming and abandoned it after just a few weeks.
The unfinished project coincided with my growing interest in biblical and ancient history and this had a strong influence on the way I considered the story of the Maccabees and their war of liberation against the forces of the Seleucid Empire. This meant that I was passionate about executing not only an accurate visual portrayal of the Hebrews, their Macedonian foes, and the Judean backdrop, but also an historically objective account of the story itself.
As a little Jewish boy I had received the traditional, pious version of the story based on the first and second books of Maccabees, in which Judah Maccabee and his family are presented as flawless heroes, struggling against an evil foreign enemy and even wickeder “Hellenised” Jewish collaborators. Until I was about twelve, the Hasmoneans (Maccabees) were totally good and all those who opposed them, totally bad.
But as I grew older, and read more deeply into the history of the period I came to understand that the truth was – as it usually is in these sort of encounters – far more nuanced, and that if I’d been around at the time I might very well have seen the Hellenised Jews as enlightened and civilised, and the Maccabees as reactionary, intolerant and often cruel. Evidence for this probability lies in the fact that once the Maccabees were victorious and came to power, they too surrendered to many of the intellectual temptations of Greek culture and thought. Moreover, once the Hasmonean’s established their royal dynasty, the more powerful they became, the more they emulated their Seleucid and Ptolemaic imperial neighbours, including the hiring of large Greco-Macedonian mercenary armies – the very troops they had once fought against – to protect and expand their kingdom.
Thus, what I planned to do was to offer the first objective version of the epic struggle, which neither glossed over some the undoubted barbarities of the Macedonian occupiers, nor the fanatical fundamentalism of the Maccabee resistance fighters – and crucially, all wearing the correct gear, and inhabiting the genuine landscape. Looking at the two plates presented here, if I had completed the project, I might have created an early form of graphic novel. On the other hand, perhaps, my teen-self wasn’t yet ready to reveal myself as the “de-constructor” of a cherished myth and so risk the ire of many of my more traditional fellow Jews, something I did eventually manage to do thirty years later with my history of King Saul…
There’s nothing remarkable about spotting famous people in Hampstead and its environs; especially people famous in the performing arts, for whom it’s something of an English Beverly Hills. At one time or another, NW3 has been home for everyone from the Pythons and Peter Cook to Daniel Craig and Ridley Scott, and hundreds more. So, the fact I’ve had an unplanned beer with Robert Plant, and almost had my head removed from its shoulders (accidentally I hasten to add) by Ricky Gervais (whilst performing some kind of Capoeira-cum-Taekwondo / jogging exercise in the street) is hardly surprising.
In fact, it’s no exaggeration to state that I spot at least one notable each and every time I take a stroll down the High Street. However, in all these years of involuntary celebrity spotting there’s one such incident that stands out for the way it highlights both Karinthy’s hypothesis of six degrees of separation (more properly just two in this case) and perhaps also a classic “Jungian” synchronism…
The Holly Bush was and is Hampstead’s quaintest and most picturesque public house. Originally part of the home of the great portrait artist George Romney, it retains an 18th century charm and warmth irresistible to lovers of traditional English watering holes. And being just such a fan, I would often go there during my lunch-time break from my work in a nearby picture framery.
So it happened on one such occasion, when sat in the main saloon, I looked up from my newspaper and spotted a familiar face propping up the corner of the bar, who I instantly recognised as the actor Michael Williams. Although I knew him from his TV roles, he was more famous to me as being the husband of Judi Dench, already established as one of the greatest stage actresses of hers, or anybody else’s generation. Funnily enough, it wasn’t so much Michael Williams who caught my attention as it was his drinking partner – a gentleman in late middle-age with a strikingly luxuriant mop of silver hair.
Over the following weeks, during subsequent lunch-time visits to the pub, I was greeted by this same scene on a regular basis – Michael Williams, and the silver-haired gentleman, always at their allotted places, at the corner of the bar. All of which would have remained nothing more than several in a long list of similar such celebrity sightings during my time in Hampstead.
However, the following year I met my future-wife, Dido Nicholson, whose mother and younger sister it turned out had been at school, with none other than Judi Dench. The fact that Dido’s aunt remains close friends with Dame Judi to this very day is merely interesting of itself, but what is far more intriguing, was the fact that Michael William’s silver-haired drinking partner turned out to be none other than Dido’s paternal uncle John Leonard Nicholson (a noted professor of statistics who had worked for several British government administrations in the 60’s).
In other words, about a year before I met Dido or knew anything about her, I had regularly shared a pub bar with both her uncle, and her aunt’s best friend’s husband. And perhaps even more remarkably, Leonard’s friendship with Michael Williams, and Dido’s aunt’s friendship with Judi Dench were totally unrelated to each other – the former having met socially in Hampstead, while the latter met at school as explained above.
Despite this apparent synchronicity I remain separated from Dame Judi by those aforementioned two degrees, as I have yet to meet her in person…
AND HOW TWO THOROUGHBRED “FILLY foals” HAD THE SAME NAME…
When my then-wife-to-be, Dido, took her first lead dancing role as a member of the Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet Company in 1981, it represented the fruition of more than eleven years, (literally) blood, sweat and tears.
Dido’s life as a ballerina began in earnest at the age of thirteen when she left her home in Lexington, Kentucky for one year to go to the Washington (DC) School of Ballet. After attending the Joffrey Ballet summer school at the age of fifteen, she returned to New York City to train with the American Ballet / School. Later that same year Dido left America to join the Royal Ballet School in London, where as a student she danced with the Royal Ballet itself. She then took up her first professional position at the National Ballet of Canada based in Toronto, where she danced for a year. Finally she returned to London where she joined the Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet Company, seeing out the remainder of her brief career before a serious foot injury – sustained while dancing at Covent Garden – took its toll. Despite attempting a comeback in Monte Carlo, her foot never fully recovered and she was forced to retire at the age of twenty-three.
It remains one of my chief regrets that I never got to see Dido dance (we only met in 1988), and perhaps that’s why I treasure all and any archive material I can find from her time as a ballerina. However, when Dido left the ballet world for her second career in occupational therapy, and being one who rarely looked back, she kept very little such material.
Thus, a couple of weeks ago, when I was in the home of Dido’s mother Ann in Little Rock (Arkansas) I was overjoyed when we discovered a small envelope stuffed with photos of Dido as a fourteen-year-old aspirant ballerina. Although no expert, even I could tell that these were pictures of an precociously gifted and beautiful dancer, truly worthy of being given the “Degas”-type treatment presented here.
They date from when her family lived in Lexington, Kentucky, and from about the time Dido realised she had what it took to go far on her chosen path. Studying under Nels Jorgensen, who had recently started the Lexington Ballet, Dido went on to win the Southeast American Ballet Competition, and subsequently perform a solo dance before the great and the good of Kentucky at the mansion of Henry Clay.
As it happened, the lady who arranged the performance at the Clay Mansion owned a stud farm in Lexington, and was so enchanted with Dido that she named her recently acquired filly foal for her. The fact that Dido the foal was a daughter of the great Secretariat made the gesture all the more special. Talk about naming a thoroughbred for a thoroughbred…
I began drawing when I was a young boy. Not because I ever enjoyed it, or got any particular satisfaction out of it, but simply because I always could and it helped me get through the many school lessons I found otherwise pointless and boring – specifically maths and French.
Drawing, for all its tediousness was a survival strategy for me at school in a way similar to reading the Tanakh (Jewish Bible) had been for me in Synagogue – the main difference being that I actually found elements of reading the Bible genuinely thrilling (see my previous post).
I rarely got into serious disciplinary trouble at school, but the little opprobrium I did attract from my teachers was normally because of my drawing in class. Fortunately I suppose, my maths and French teachers regarded me as a hopeless cause, and often liked my sketches, and so they generally left me to get on with it undisturbed. I remember one episode in particular, when I must have been 12 years old, my maths teacher did finally loose her patience with me during an algebra class. She marched up to my desk at the end of the hour-long lesson intending to scold me until she saw what I had drawn… an epic depiction of French cavalry assailing the British infantry squares at the Battle of Waterloo. Instead, she simply leaned over my shoulder and marvelled at my felt-tip representation Napoleonic military mayhem.
Ultimately my drawing led me to the art room in senior school, where I learned the rudiments of painting, and which in turn led on to a foundation degree and then to a BA. It was all an oddly thoughtless and ill considered career path which was never really planned, but rather just happened to me.
Thus it is, that the vast majority of the thousands of drawings I did over the best part of 40 years are of distinctly average quality, and perhaps more interestingly, that I cannot begin to explain the hows or the whys of the half-dozen or so decent sketches I did manage to pull off.
All I can offer as a theory, is that practise really does make perfect, very occasionally.
As made plain in that post, my interest in the origins of those and other Jewish / Hebrew / Israelite festivals is now purely of an academic nature – in the literal sense of the word. And in truth, I think it always has been, going all the way back to when, as a little boy, I sat and stood, dutifully at the side of my righteous Zaida (grandfather), in shul (synagogue) for hour-upon-hour in a state of abject boredom.
As I expressed in the introduction to my book on King Saul, I only survived the tedium by reading my Zaida’s Tanakh (Jewish Bible), which he permitted me to do rather than pray, as a kind of compromise, in the vain hope that I might one day see the light. Although, from a precocious age, I generally skipped through the supernatural stuff and miracles, which I always found unconvincing, I was excited by the narrative and the stories. By the time I was in my very early teens I became fascinated with the two books of Samuel in particular, sensing in them the grains of a history for the birth of the first nation of Israel.
My own writings on King Saul, and my novel about the Ark of the Covenant are my ultimate expressions of that continuing fascination and interest. So, in a way, I suppose I am indebted to those countless hours in synagogue and my forced intimacy with my Zaida’s Tanakh.
Despite my own acquired indifference to the many annual festivals of my people, I do sometimes miss the sense of the seasons they used to evoke. Pesach (Passover) for instance was always the herald of Spring, while Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur and the close-ensuing Succot (Tabernacles) resonated with the feeling of Autumn and the approaching dark days of winter. This somewhat rambling post is thus intended as a seasonally inspired salutation to all my readers and followers, whatever your beliefs or none…
Falling in love with a once-loathed painting – of my first love
I first fell in love about the time I turned twenty. The relationship was as torrid, as it was brief and was doomed from the start due to irreconcilable logistics – among other things. I was a near-penniless artist, starting out on my career in London, and she was farmer’s daughter from a village near Cremona in northern Italy.
We’d met in London where she was au-pairing, and enjoyed several weeks of passion and fun. She barely spoke a word of English, and my Italian was all-but non-existent, but verbal communication was never an issue, for the simple reason, we didn’t spend much time attempting to talk. Rather, it was the very cliche of the shared language of love and a fizzing chemical attraction.
A short while after her return home I broke off from a skiing holiday in the Italian Alps to visit her , and despite having a wonderful time, I left her knowing that there was little chance of the relationship continuing.
At the time, I had dismissed it as clunky and awkward, and I put its “failure” down to me being too stimulated and emotionally agitated by the sitter, and I loathed it so much, I painted over it within days. However, seeing it again, for the first time in 28 years, I found that I actually quite like it, and that in an albeit quirky way (perhaps slightly derivative of Mark Gertler?), it captures something of the tenderness and fascination I had for the sitter. Although I hadn’t realised it at the time, the portrait was as pure an expression of my love as I could have hoped for…