“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.’
As I pressed the “Publish” button for this post, exactly ten years ago to the day, the hour and the minute, my mother Hannah died. Knowing the exact moment of a loved-one’s death well before it happens is a dubious privilege, which until very recently in human history was the sole preserve of the relatives and friends of those on death row. However, in recent times this situation changed when, in a handful of places in the world, the laws on assisted dying were liberalised.
One such place was the country of Switzerland, which in addition to permitting assisted dying to its own citizens, allowed the setting up of Dignitas, a unique facility, on the outskirts of the city of Zurich, for the use of foreigners.
My mother was diagnosed with terminal stage-4 lung cancer in 2008, and was “given” about two-and-a-half years to live. After her first round of chemotherapy, she contacted the organisation Dignity in Dying to discuss her options for placing the end her life within her own control. Ultimately, as a British citizen, her only option when the time came, was to travel to Zurich.
And the time came in September 2010: The cancer was now spreading throughout her body and she was facing about six months of a slow and increasingly painful death. Rather than take the normal option for her compatriots, of moving into a hospice and relying on palliative care with ever-increasing doses of drugs – or, as mum regarded it, surrendering to the cancer – she decided to “take control away from the cancer, and put it into [her] own hands”.
So, on the 6th of September, accompanied by a companion, but crucially, under her own locomotion, Hannah flew to Switzerland, where four days later, at 11 o’clock Swiss time, she took a fatal draught of pentobarbital.
These are the basic facts of my mother’s passing. This post is not intended as either a vindication or a condemnation of Hannah’s actions, nor is it a discourse on the rights and wrongs of assisted suicide. Moreover, were I ever to be in a similar situation, I have no idea whether or not I would make the same choice. The one observation I will make, is that while I totally respected my mother’s decision, being aware of the exact moment of her suicide added a strange dimension to my sense of grief and loss, even as she left for the airport. Whether or not this particular form of grief and loss is preferable to what I would have gone through watching her slow demise in a hospice bed, I genuinely cannot say. The one great comfort I did have, and continue to have, is that she died in a manner of her choosing and; according to her companion, in a state of peace; and most wonderful of all, with her sharp sense of humour intact until the end, as evidenced by this closing anecdote…
When mum and her companion arrived at the house used by Dignitas, they were met by two nurses and shown into a sitting room. One of the nurses (a male), was exceedingly friendly, and especially chatty, to the point, that when he went off for a few moments to prepare the overdose, Hannah, leaned over to her companion, and whispered, “I don’t envy you having to listen to him for the rest of the day!” This says much about my mother’s indomitable personality, and I hope this small selection of photographs , taken between 1961 and 63, reveals her outward beauty too…
We grow three types of almond here on our finca in southern Spain, including the indigenous (earthy) “fina” , the (scented, sweet) “desmayo” (similar to the Californian nut, and what is typically seen on the shelves of north European and British supermarkets and fruit shops) and (the dry) “marcona“. With summer water so scarce here, Andalusian farmers, as a rule, do not irrigate their almond trees, which on the one hand means lower yields and smaller fruits, but on the other, ensures their fruits are intensely flavoured. All delicious in their different ways, we find that the marcona works best for most cooking purposes.
Before we spent so much time in Spain, I only knew the almond as something seen in the nut bowl at Hanukkah / Christmas time; and in its ground form, as a cake ingredient (my great aunt Fanny’s almond cake was my favourite), and as the famous Jewish party nosh, rozhinkes mit mandlen (raisins and almonds).
However, that all changed drastically, and much for the better once we discovered the local cuisine, here in Andalusia, and throughout the Iberian peninsular, where the humble almond (always known to be a “super-food” by the long-lived locals) is a key constituent of every cooks larder.
Of course, just about everyone around here, with a finca, like us, or just a small patio garden, has at least one almond tree, so that in addition to the ubiquitous sack of stored almonds in the pantry, or the bodega, there’s generally a proliferation of the fresh fruits from mid-July until the end of August. Whereas the older nuts will typically be used for such winter staples as Almond Chicken and Albondigas (meatballs) in Almond Sauce, in summer, the fresh, softer fruits, will be blended with stale bread, garlic, olive oil and spring water to produce, rich-yet refreshing ajo-blanco – garnished with halved moscatel grapes, perhaps the greatest of all chilled soups (commercial “almond milk” – eat your heart out!).
But undoubtedly the simplest of all our regular almond recipes, is also the most moreish and is equally good made with fresh or dried almonds. It even works quite well with the sort of (mostly American – heavily irrigated) almonds one has knocking about in plastic packets in British, European and American kitchen store cupboards. The only thing I would suggest doing differently from my recipe below, is to use a cheap, refined olive oil, rather than the first cold press oil I use. Unless one has a Spanish finca like ours, with our own olives and copious amounts of the finest oil, or is extremely wealthy, the taste benefit of using extra virgin oil over refined olive oil is minimal.
Whatever olive oil you use, if you’ve had a packet of almonds hanging around for too long, this recipe is a simple and delicious way to use them up. Salud y buen provecho!
And so, in 1999, I felt the need to celebrate with this set of colourful, impasto gouache sketches, done as postcards; intended to express our sense of freedom and joy at the regaining of our lost paradise. But never in our wildest dreams could we have imagined, even in that seminal year of 1999, just quite how fortunate we really were…
Not until experiencing the madness of three months of semi-house arrest in a small Oxford apartment (I refuse to dignify the “L” word by using it), followed by the oddly, even more disturbing new “normality”, did we truly grasp how blessed we are to have our little, private, mask-less, socially intimate, sanctuary of peace and sanity.
(I should add, that I still have the entire original set of 10 postcards, signed, titled and dated, and in near-mint condition, and far brighter and more charming in real life. I had originally intended to send them to select friends and family, but for some reason never got around to it. So now, I would be happy to sell them as a set for £200 – or other currency equivalent – plus postage. If anyone is interested please contact me through the “Purchasing artwork” link at the top of this page.)
…and the stark difference between copying and INTERPRETING.
This is not the post I had planned. But that was before I had the great misfortune, not to say fright of seeing the latest portrait of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. A few posts ago I discussed how I came to paint from photographs, and how and why it can work brilliantly in the right hands. What I did not discuss however (and perhaps I should have done), was the converse of this, when photographs are simply copied as a form of craft, with the art all but forgotten.
The “artist” has succeeded in confirming every prejudice I ever had thrown at me by detractors of “photograph-method”, and arrived at a plasticised and peculiarly scary image, obsessed with technical finesse while utterly devoid of empathy and artistry. This is not so much a majestic portrait as a grotesquely kitsch, 2-dimensional waxwork. This is the produce of a copyist and not an artist all, and says much – none of it complementary – about the judges of the BP National Portrait Award; the winning of which landed the alleged “artist” this most august of portrait commissions.
As I attempted to illustrate in a previous post, copying from photographs offers so much more than the absolute stability of the reference material (i.e. total stillness and unchanging light). IN THE RIGHT HANDS – from Vermeer (with his Photo Obscura) to Rockwell – it offers up an essence and intensity of “moment” that resulted in some of the most empathetic and compassionate pictures ever achieved.
While I would never be so hubristic as to place my own photograph-method creations on a par with those of the great masters of the past, I dare to claim, that at their best, my efforts do at least show some of the positives of the genre. Three of the pictures below were not only exciting and fun to create, they are human expressions accentuated by technique rather than masked by it. The fourth picture is an example of my own, of what happened when I allowed technique to subsume the human moment.
…my brief spell “DESIGNING” JOKES FOR A top GREETINGS CARD COMPAny.
In previous postsI have described the frustrations I often experienced at the hands of unscrupulous greetings cards companies (of which there were a surprisingly large number), who would reject my artwork but then use my jokes and ideas without paying me. As described, I would submit a folio of cards designs; the company would sit on them for several weeks (sometimes months) and then return them with barely an acknowledgement (sometimes none); and then, a month or two later, cards with my jokes and ideas would suddenly appear on the shop-shelves made by different (presumably in-house, and thus far cheaper) artists.
I don’t know if things have changed since, but the problem back in the late 80’s, early 90’s, was that, unlike in almost all other areas of commercial art/illustration, there was no formal contract system in place for freelance artists doing work for greetings cards companies. Normally, you sent in your work on “spec”, and took a chance on the integrity, or otherwise of the company.
Thus it happened, that around 1990, I found myself with a pile of ideas and jokes, but wary of being stung yet again, I decided to try a different tack.
I telephoned the-then biggest card firm in the UK (they might still be, for all I know now) and asked to speak to their art director. I had never approached them before because I knew they only used in-house artists for their finished cards, but as I’d now reached the point where I would be content with at least earning something for my ideas, I guessed I had nothing much to loose.
I was put straight through to the lady in question, and told her of what I had experienced at the hands of several of her rival companies, and asked her frankly if I would be taking the same risk sending my material in to her for consideration.
My guess was, perhaps naively, that such a large company would be more straightforward to deal with, for the sake of their professional reputation if not for their innate honesty. However, she explained that they could not enter in contractual arrangements with freelancers as this undermined the morale of their in-house artists. Nevertheless, she offered to put a non-binding assurance in a hand written letter that her firm would definitely pay me a fair price for each and every idea of mine they liked.
Good to her word, the letter arrived a day or two later, containing her assurance, and a request for sketched roughs of my jokes and ideas – about 12 of which I duly dispatched to her, albeit on a wing and a prayer.
After hearing nothing for weeks I began to think the worst, but about two months later I was pleasantly surprised to not only receive back my roughs, but also a cheque for the half-dozen or so ideas they had decided to use.
Several of those roughs are displayed here, and I wonder which, if any ring a bell…?
I nearly titled this as a third straight “yearning” post, in the sense that after three months lock-down here in Oxford we are desperate to get back to our finca in southern Spain. But seeing as we are actually returning there tomorrow I decided on a catchier and hopefully more optimistic heading.
In fairness, when we’ve been in Spain for as long as we’ve now been in England there’s plenty I miss about our other lives in London and Oxford, but the longing is rarely as intense as what we are experiencing right now for our Andalusian home.
And perhaps there’s the clue; the fact that our little farm in the foothills of the Sierra Tajeda is the nearest thing Dido and I have ever had to a settled home. We’ve certainly owned it for more than three times as long as any of our previous homes (separately or together), and then there’s all the sweat and blood we’ve dripped into the building of our house and the rocky soil upon which it stands.
But perhaps, more than all of that, it’s simply the way the setting of our finca has ingrained itself into the fabric of our being through the sheer power of its ridiculous beauty.
So, although we missed wonders like the almond blossom display this year, thanks to about thirty years of memories, and images like the ones on show here, we can never truly miss them – they live inside of us, rendering us unusually fortunate.
A fact of the current restrictions upon our normal lives is at once curious, obvious and virtually universal; that being the loss of, and consequent longing for, normal, boring, and even tedious everyday experience. Missing erstwhile unremarkable pleasures of life, like going to the pub, restaurants and concerts is bad enough, but when one starts to get nostalgic over things like hopping on and off buses and even journeys on the tube, it’s apparent that the present regime is really starting to bite.
This nostalgia struck me keenly the other day when I was trawling through slides of old sketchpads dating from the time of my commutes to art school (an incredible forty-plus years ago). And, as an artist’s sketchbook is often a tool for magnifying the seemingly mundane into something more meaningful, it occurred to me that the drawings from those old books might provide a peculiarly apposite reminder, for all its apparent dinginess and dreariness, of the glory of normality…
a PICTORIAL celebration of my WIFE DIDO’S sixtieth birthday*
2020 is a particularly auspicious year for my wife Dido and I, for, not only do we both turn 60 this year, on New Year’s Eve we will have been married for 30 years. As a rule, we don’t pay too much attention to birthdays or anniversaries, but for this rare accretion of events we had for once made some serious celebratory plans. However, Covid-19 has meant that both main birthday plans have been (in my case), and will be (in Dido’s case) put on hold for the duration, to possibly both be enjoyed together with our anniversary – a kind of 150 year grand party.
In the meantime I didn’t feel I could let Dido’s big day pass without some kind of surprise acknowledgement of the 32 of those 60 years I have been privileged to share with her. So, with apologies to any strangers happening upon this site, I am dedicating this post to a series of highly distinctive picture impressions of my remarkable life companion and love…
* Header photo shows Dido approaching the Great Crater during a drive through the Negev Dessert in 2011
…and the bitterness of life without hand-drawn bitter
The “lock-down” started to really get to me about a week ago. It actually hit quite suddenly, as we stepped out on a balmy April evening for our “permitted” once-daily ration of exercise, and I had an overwhelming desire to walk down into the centre of Oxford, to The Bear Inn for a pint of beer. It was the impossibility of enjoying that simplest, most basic of pleasures which hurt in a way more serious deprivations had failed to register.
Sure, I miss things like travelling, and meeting up with friends, and I miss terribly our Spanish finca. Yet, none of these “misses”, and many more “misses” besides brought home the severity of the restrictive regulations than not being able to go for pint on a whim.
One of the persistent observations made of current British public opinion, justly or not, is that it reveals a country that has become timid and which is governed by fear. Some observers have remarked how the recent Victory in Europe Day commemorations, rather than jolt our collective backbone, merely resulted in a mass national wallowing in sentimental nostalgia. And in the midst of all of this, as I struggle to make up my own mind about the accuracy of these opinions, my craving for a hand-drawn pint of bitter reminded me of a little poem I learned at school. The poem, “Strong Beer”, by Robert Graves is particularly apposite to my current condition, for not only does it imply a link between courage, and lovers of good ale, but also the fact that it was written when he was a student at Oxford, and was perhaps inspired by a session at the same “beerhouse” I so longed to visit the other evening. The poem could have been written for this very crisis.
In all seriousness, I do believe, that the prompt reopening of our pubs and taverns is essential for the intellectual and physical health of the nation. One only has to consider the many great advances in the arts and in the sciences which were achieved with the help of a refreshing pint or two in the pubs of places like Oxford (e.g. King James Bible – at The Bear), Cambridge (e.g. DNA at The Eagle) and London (e.g. Penicillin at the Fountains Abbey), to appreciate the urgency of restoring hand-drawn ale to the national palette ASAP. Judging by his poem, if Robert Graves were still alive, he would agree most strongly…
A poem by Robert Graves
“What do you think
The bravest drink
Under the sky?”
“Strong beer,” said I.“There’s a place for everything,
There’s a place for everything
Where it ought to be:
For a chicken, the hen’s wing;
For poison, the bee’s sting;
For almond-blossom, Spring;
A beerhouse for me.”“There’s a prize for every one
Every one, any one,There’s a prize for every one,
Whoever he may be:
Crags for the mountaineer,
Flags for the Fusilier,
For English poets, beer!
Strong beer for me!”“Tell us, now, how and when
We may find the bravest men?”
“A sure test, an easy test:
Those that drink beer are the best,
Brown beer strongly brewed,
English drink and English food.”
Oh, never choose as Gideon chose
By the cold well, but rather those
Who look on beer when it is brown,
Smack their lips and gulp it down.Leave the lads who tamely drink
With Gideon by the water brink,
But search the benches of the Plough,
The Tun, the Sun, the Spotted Cow,For jolly rascal lads who pray,
Pewter in hand, at close of day,
“Teach me to live that I may fear
The grave as little as my beer.”
My “first career”, MODELLING rubber products and other things…
In an earlier post I wrote about my wife Dido’s work as a model during her time in the ballet. What may be much more surprising for many of my readers and followers, is that I too had a brief career in front of the Hasselblads and Rolleiflex. For the first four or five years of my life, I was an occasional child model. In my case however, unlike my gorgeous wife, it was less to do with my photogenic qualities and more to do with the fact that the photographer in question was my mum’s brother, Sidney Pizan.
While the fact I was a cute baby and toddler (well, it’s true) was undoubtedly helpful, the main advantage for an aspiring commercial photographer based in the highly competitive world of 1960’s London advertising, was the fact my services came for free! The pictures here offer a record of what was in effect, my first career, and looking back at some of them now raises a whole gamut of emotions for reasons explained in the captions…