DOG DAYS – revisited…

Sometime around the mid 90’s of the last century, for some reason I can’t remember now I decided to make a series of 6-box comic strips describing amusing experiences that had had happened to us – “us” being my wife Dido, our Maremma Sheepdog Aura, and yours truly – on our travels. Thus, while all of them are based upon actual events, some are more close to actuality than others.

1: Aura’s Big Sniff

I’m starting this series off with one of the less exaggerated episodes. In fact this is true in every detail, except that it happened in London, in The Alexander Fleming Pub in Paddington and not in the famous old wine bar in Malaga (La Antigua Casa de Guardia) in which the drawings are set. In addition, the barman at the pub was so amused by what happened that he gave Aura a Cumberland sausage as a thank you for making his day!

Again, do please click on the images to follow the comics in all their glory…

2: Phoning From Bar Angel

As with the previous episode, this too actually happened as described, but at the location depicted. Bar Angel was one of a handful of bars and restaurants located in our local mountain peublo blanco (white village), and in the days before mobile phones had taken on here in Andalusia, provided one of the few pay-phones in the area…

3: A Dog in the Room

This is the first in the series where I stretched the truth somewhat, insomuch as the last box is a slight exaggeration – in reality, Dido merely manhandled the hotel manager out of the room. This happened on our drive down through Spain on the journey when we actually moved here – in the early summer of 1993. The most amazing element of the episode was how passive Aura remained throughout the contretemps – which was fortunate for all concerned!

4: Michelin Maremma

This episode also occurred during our 1993 move trip down to Spain in a 2 Michelin Star establishment in the French Pyrenees. There are just two “slight” exaggerations in this strip: Firstly; we didn’t really exchange places with Aura – as much as we wanted to, and secondly; all the chef actually gave to Aura was merely a plate of duck carpaccio followed by sautéed calves liver in butter. There’s also one priceless thing which I failed to get across in this strip, and that was the horrified expressions of the mostly-American patrons at the neighbouring tables!

And a PS: Aura really did often eat reclining, true to her ancient Roman heritage…

5: Short-Back-and-Boobs!

This is almost totally true except for the fact that the lady cutting my hair had two girlfriends in the salon with her, and for much of the time my head was compressed by three sets of boobs rather than just merely one as they passed the time of day over my poor noggin!

The “salon” was situated in our local pueblo blanco, where, back in the 90’s “men were men” and never entered – let alone got their hair cut in such a “feminine” establishment. Thus, the hairdresser’s surprise and thrill at getting her hands on a head like mine was extreme.

Fortunately, Dido took pity on me and immediately raced me down to our local town on the coast for a remedial styling…

6: Swatting the Fly…

This one speaks for itself…needless to say, we avoided further visits to this couple.

7: Dido’s Strong Swim

The parable contained here is obvious; that a love of long distance, wild-water swimming and extreme myopia are a dangerous combination.

Those of you who know my wife Dido will be aware that this combination exists strongly within her person and the strip below tells the tale of what once nearly happened because of it. Just a couple of things to point out; firstly, the actual swim happened at La Serena on the Pacific coast of Chile, and not on a cold winter’s day in the UK – my point at the time (I made these comics in 1994) was to highlight Dido’s love of freezing conditions. She was one of those strange people who used to break the ice of the Serpentine Lake in London’s Hyde Park on New Year’s Day, and once, she even managed to shock a load of hardy Swedes by going for an inter-Island swim near Stockholm, in mid-winter. And secondly (and also obviously), she didn’t actually crash into the oil tanker (let alone sink it), but merely swam far too close to it, causing a crew-member to warn her away using a megaphone.

Aura and I spent many a terrifying hour, just as depicted in the strip, staring out to sea, waiting for Dido to return, which thank goodness, she always did, eventually, though often landing up a mile or so up the coast because of currents and her appalling eyesight.

These days, with the mellowing of age, and out of compassion for me, she only swims “laterally” so that I can keep an eye on her at all times…

8: The Last Almond

I’ve saved the most prosaic of my 1994 “Dog Days” comic strips for last. Prosaic in the sense that this is an experience, that to one degree or another almost everyone viewing this site will have gone through themselves – that infuriating feeling of the last, biggest, juiciest fruit being just out of reach. Perhaps, the only difference with almond trees though, from say apple, cherry or even blackberry picking, is that one does not customarily shake and whack the bejesus out of the host plant to acquire every last fruit. Professional farmers even have specially designed, automated tree-shaking machines for doing the job.

However, down here at least in the Axarquia region of Andalusia, almond trees are not irrigated during the drought season, and while this ensures the almonds have a richer more intense flavour, it also makes the trees highly resinous, thus causing many of the nuts to cling stubbornly to the branches.

Basically, the work is hot, sticky, scratchy, itchy, back-breaking and in the past, financially unrewarding. So, about six years after I made this comic we replaced our main almond orchard with a vineyard, the planting of which was also back-breaking, but with the promise of greater fulfillment – through the act of wine-making – and a hugely greater income. But, as our luck would have it, the market for traditional Malaga wines collapsed about the time I planted our last vine, with the almond price (due to the fruit’s recent elevation to “super-food” status) rising exponentially in the last ten years.

Still, at least we have enough Malaga wine for six lifetimes…

LOVERS & ROMANCES FROM MYTHOLOGIES OF THE WORLD (Revisited – first published August, 2015)

As an illustrator my most lucrative commissions, pro-rata, were for advertising agencies. I rarely earned less than the equivalent of £500 per day and often considerably more than that, and this was back in the 1980’s. But there was a catch; a burdensome and irritating trade-off, which was having to deal with the agencies themselves and especially the members of the “creative-teams”. These “creatives”, often genuinely brilliant and yes, creative young people were, more often than not, hampered by their competing egos, their manufactured passion for the job at hand and their-oh-so-cool agency “patois” made them highly ineffective givers of briefs.

Briefs were generally muddled and unclear, and always – but always – the artwork was required yesterday at the latest. I can honestly say that in the dozen or so jobs I did for agencies I can’t recall ever being entirely sure of what I was supposed to be doing, and nearly always having to do it through the night to have it ready for the courier the next day.

By contrast, although book covers could also pay very handsomely, for most book illustration work one earned relatively little. Yet despite this, I nearly always enjoyed the work. Most publishing house art directors were – or had been – illustrators and artists themselves and had had an instinctive knowledge of how to give clear and lucid briefs. Similarly, time was never a major issue, being determined more by the scale of the illustration job itself rather than purely commercial considerations.

One such job in the summer of 1998, which turned out to be my final excursion into illustration, was something of an epic. I was commissioned, again by Cassell Illustrated to make a series of 16 gouache colour plates to front each chapter of a book called “Mythical Lovers”. The author, Sarah Bartlett, was/is a well-known astrologer who had compiled and written a coffee-table history based around 16 ancient and iconic love myths from around the world.

After the job was completed and I had been paid, I left illustration for good, and rarely gave Mythical Lovers another thought. And because I no longer required a portfolio  it was the only job for which I never received or asked for finished copy.

Then the other day, I was going through the drawers of my old plan-chest here in Spain and I came across my original gouache plates – all sixteen of them, and in a state of perfect preservation, and thought what a curious subject they would make for my next “gallery” post. For me, it’s a reminder of just how versatile one had to be as a commercial illustrator – the “Carol Kaye-type session artists” of the visual art world.

And yes…as one or two of you who know us have noticed, Dido and I (plus a girlfriend of Dido’s) were the models for most of the characters portrayed. Much hilarity was had by all during the photography and as for the photos themselves – well, they’re indescribable! But that’s another story…

(Click on a picture to view the gallery with titles)

CHILE – OUR REAL CARTOON ADVENTURE (revisited and refined)*

In November of 1991 my wife Dido won a Winston Churchill Traveling Fellowship to Chile to study the role of folk dance as a therapeutic tool for children with learning problems. Because it was going to be a long trip – about three months in all – and we had been married less than a year we decided that I would go along too. As it happened, Dido required her work to be visually recorded and so she appointed me her video cameraman.

When we arrived, Chile had been a democracy about the same length of time that we had been married, so this was a dramatic voyage of discovery in more ways than one. In fact, looking back on that trip now, over 30 years later, Dido and I agree that it remains one of our two or three most remarkable joint experiences.

We decided to keep a written journal of the trip even before we left England, but within a few days of our arrival so many weird and wonderful – not to mention hysterical – things had happened to us that I decided to record the most amusing and surreal in a series of cartoons. Presented here are a selection of those pictures – made literally on the hoof; on trains, on buses and even on planes as we traveled the length (there is relatively little breadth) of one the world’s most spectacular, most beautiful and most crazy countries. These pictures are a humorous and affectionate record of all aspects of the-then new democratic Chile, through the eyes of two wide-eyed newly-weds.

In the words of Inti Illimani – “VIVA CHILE”!!

When we arrived at Santiago Airport we were virtually kidnapped by a trolley porter who then took us through the red channel. When we were then searched by fearsome looking Carabineros and I couldn’t find the paperwork for the large video camera in my possession. My explanation that the camera was not new and the property of the Ealing Educational Authority failed to impress the policemen who then separated me from Dido and escorted me – with the camera – to a small room by the side of the customs hall. Once in the room they told me to sit down on a low wooden chair in the corner and to keep the camera on my lap. There was a glass window in the middle of the opposite wall through which I could see a very worried Dido still standing among all our ransacked baggage and suitcases. For about twenty minutes I was left alone with one Carabinero, who stood leaning against the door just staring at me expressionlessly. Then two more policemen entered the room and – ignoring me completely – turned on a TV fixed to a bracket suspended from the low ceiling. There was a football match on and soon all three men were totally engrossed, occasionally shouting at the screen. At first I’d been too frightened by my predicament to take much notice of the game, but as the minutes passed I realised it was an international game and one of the teams was Chile. And then, as fear turned to boredom I began to watch the match too, until I finally recognised one of the Chilean players. Without thinking, at the moment I recalled his name I blurted it out, “Ivan Zamorano!” The three jackbooted Carabineros all instantly turned to look at me with looks of amazement on their faces. Then, one of them who spoke English asked me, “Zamorano! You know him?” “Of course! He plays in Italy for Internazionale” I replied, then added, lying through my teeth, “He’s one of my favourite players. I’m a big fan!” And with that it was as if I had turned on a switch. Next thing I knew, the three men were all smiles and charm personified and I was being escorted back to Dido, with our camera and sent on our way. Who says football is just a game…
Dido’s first port of call was the small Atacama Desert town of San Pedro – just over 1000 miles north of Santiago. We decided to use the same mode of transport that most Chileans used then for such long journeys – the famous Tramaca coach. Being only the start of the trip we were as-yet uncertain of how our funds would hold out, so rather than travel in the relative luxury of the cama bus with their lauded 1st class aircraft seats and cocktails, and airline-style meals served by attentive stewards, we opted for the regular-seated bus. We would be traveling to San Pedro in three stages, stopping first for a day at the port of Antofagasta – a journey of twenty-five hours. Initially, apart from the stunningly beautiful landscapes we motored through, there was nothing remarkable about the coach journey itself. But then we stopped for a  driver’s rest break and it was like no driver’s rest break on any coach journey we had ever encountered before. As the doors of the coach opened a virtual caravan of peddlers and food sellers streamed onto the vehicle, offering assorted newspapers and magazines, all sorts of drinks, from fresh juices to beer and tasty things to eat. Most delicious of all were the empanadas, fried and baked – reminiscent of Cornish pasties – filled with either cheese, tuna or meat. And there were also huge, green, sweet ripe palta – known to just about everyone else in the world beyond the borders of Chile and Peru as avocado…
One of the most exciting aspects for me in particular regarding our adventure was that it was my first time across the Atlantic Ocean – in fact, it was my first journey into a significantly different time-zone. So, when by our second evening in Chile I still hadn’t suffered any apparent symptoms of jet-lag it made me sceptical about the whole concept. That evening, following our long bus journey from Santiago, we were spending the night in the coastal city of Antofagasta before catching our next ride to Calama the following afternoon. Dido was still quasi vegetarian in those days (she ate some fish) and often got a craving for pasta, and as luck would have it, our Lonely Planet guide recommended an Italian restaurant as being the best place in town. After almost a day on a coach eating nothing but snacks, we were both ravenous and ordered extra large portions of pasta and we must have been about half-way through our respective plates of spaghetti when I was struck by an acute attack of something known as “delayed jet-lag”. The last thing I remember was feeling as if I’d been given a sudden heavy dose of anesthetic gas. Then, the next thing I knew, I was staggering into the street with my arm over Dido’s shoulder with Bolognese sauce all over my face. According to my mortified wife, I had fainted head-first into my pasta, and the maitre d, assuming I was drunk demanded that we leave – immediately…
The breakfast at the Hotel Splendid in Calama turned out to be as “charming” as the sleeping arrangements. As we took our table in the dingy breakfast room we were confronted with a pot of hot water, a jar of instant coffee and two slices of dry toast. When I asked the lady of the establishment – a stocky little woman with unkempt greasy grey hair, a cigarette stub apparently glued to her lower lip, and wearing a food-stained pinny –  if there was any butter, she grunted in the affirmative. Then, to my amazement and horror, she went over to the neighbouring table where an elderly man in a dressing-gown was eating his breakfast and took the piece of toast from his hand, picked up his knife and scraped all the butter she could from it. She then came back to us and spread his butter scrapings onto my toast…

Back in the early 90’s the place to stay in San Pedro de Atacama, at least if one considered oneself a real traveller, was “Bobby’s Place”. From what I can recall Bobby herself (Bobby was a she not a he) was an Australian lady in late middle-age. She was the epitome – almost to the point of being a walking-talking cliché – of the intrepid travelling adventuress, finally settling down in the  evening of her years. Long silver hair tied back in a ponytail; sun-stained leathery skin; bright eyes glistening with weary knowledge and intelligence, she could have been Karen Blixen’s antipodean younger sister. And her eponymous establishment was as laid-back, affable and welcoming-yet-world-weary as she was herself. We loved almost everything about our stay at Bobby’s – the faded Hemingway-esque hunting-lodge atmosphere, chilly evenings, sat around the vast open fireplace sipping her delicious pisco sours and the clean, comfortable quiet rooms. The only feature of Bobby’s place which failed to please was the shower. Not so much a shower actually as a gravity defying twin trickle/dribble of water which miraculously descended in a form of arc, so that if one stood beneath the shower-head it missed one altogether. Getting clean meant opting for one of the two dribbles  and having the patience of a saint…
Bobby had a large dog of mixed parentage and as with his owner, the dog was hugely affable towards all the guests staying at his mistress’s establishment. But on occasion, with guests who reciprocated his friendliness, he would take a special liking and become virtually inseparable. During our stay the dog took just such a liking to another couple. His affection towards them was understandable as they were particularly charming and charismatic. A little older than us, she was German and ran a travel business in Santiago, while he was a  junior English diplomat on secondment at the British Embassy. They’d come to San Pedro for a romantic long-weekend and their favourite pastime (when not in their bedroom) was going for ambles alongside the local river. On the third afternoon of our stay we were sitting on the stoop outside our room when we were confronted with the scene portrayed in the drawing above. But it was only later that night that we found out the story behind the picture: Our couple had gone off on their usual riverside walk accompanied by the dog, which was fine, until they passed by a woman grazing her two sheep. Without warning the dog jumped one of the sheep and killed it. The woman, naturally distraught and angry began screaming and shouting at our couple for failing to control their dog – at which point, as if on cue, the local mounted policeman appeared. After listening to the woman he told our couple that they would have to compensate the woman for her dead sheep. When they then explained the situation and their relationship to the dog, the dubious policeman told them to take him to the actual owner of the dog, which they did, with him – bearing the woolly carcass on his mount – the bloodied dog, the woman and her remaining sheep in tow. Of course Bobby sorted out the situation, and even cooked the sheep a couple of days later for her guests. It was the best mutton stew I ever tasted!
During our stay in Iquique we took a day trip to see one of Chile’s ancient man-made wonders, The Giant of the Atacama. We anticipated that getting to see the “largest anthropomorphic geoglyph in the world” with our own eyes would be a highlight of our visit to Chile, and so it would have been, if we hadn’t vastly overestimated the number of fellow travelers to the same site. We presumed The Giant would be a mecca for a whole host of visitors, including everyone from the millions of credulous believers in Von Daniken to the thousands of people with an interest in pre-Columbian civilization – and all those in between. Obviously, aware of the remoteness of the site we didn’t expect everyone to be there at the same moment, but we took it for granted that there would be dozens of people there at any one time. Thus, it never entered our minds that we would have any trouble getting to and from The Giant without our own car. Even worse, we had misread the distance on our – by now very worn – map, from the Highway 5 bus stop to The Giant as being only 2 kilometers (easily walkable, even under the desert sun) when it was in fact 12! Nevertheless, when a car stopped and we were given a ride to The Giant almost before we had even begun to raise our thumbs, our original presumption seemed to have been correct. However, we had been at the site barely ten minutes when our kindly lift-givers got bored and decided to leave. So, when they offered to take us back to the highway bus stop (which we now realised was 12 k’s and not 2) we had a decision to make. Ignore the significant fact that we and our ride buddies were the only people there, and stay on a while longer at this amazing site, or do the sensible – “been there / seen it” – thing and accept the lift. Like the classic “Darwin Award” idiots we all read about everyday in the newspapers (who go fell walking in sneakers, or swimming in pools known to be infested with salt-water crocodiles, or who light up a cigarette while standing over a cesspit) we decided to stay on “a while longer”… Needless to say, an hour passed and nobody came. So, we decided to walk the actual 2 kilometers back to the dirt track (marked as “minor-road 15) and see if we could at least get a lift from there. Problem was, by this time we were already down to the last few sips of water in our single 1/2 liter bottle and beginning to roast as the sun reached its highest point in the vast desert sky. By the time we made it onto the track we knew that we might be in serious trouble. There was no shelter of any kind, our water was gone, and our exposed arms were beginning to burn. At this point we didn’t know whether we should stay put or attempt the 10 k walk to the main road. After a ten minute rest we began to walk – or rather, stagger along the track, and then almost immediately we heard a vehicle approaching from behind, going in our direction. But our elation was only momentary, as the car sped past without even slowing down, it’s exhaust and dust adding mocking insult to injury. But then, after about another hour, a second vehicle – a small truck – emerged from the east, heading west and its driver , this time, took pity on us and dropped us at the bus stop. Now whenever we think of The Giant, or just about any other South American geoglyph our first reflex is to reach for a water bottle…
No stay in Chile’s northernmost city of Arica is complete without an excursion to the Lauca National Park – with its fabled lakes and volcanoes. Only problem was, the park sat at 4500 meters above sea-level, and altitude sickness was likely to be a serious issue. One of the ways of militating against the worst effects of this however was to make sure one traveled up to the park in the hands of expert guides with state-of-the-art oxygen and resuscitation equipment. But sadly, our limited budget made us forget the lessons of our near-disastrous trip the previous week to Atacama Giant and we opted for the cheapest guided tour we could find. We sensed the worst when we boarded the clapped-out minibus with hard wooden benches for seats and two broken windows. However, there was a big oxygen canister on a shelf above the driver, and it was only a day-trip for goodness sake, we reassured ourselves – what could go wrong on such a short trip? There were about ten of us on the bus, and by the time our vehicle had crawled up past 3.500 meters the more elderly passengers were already beginning to feel the effects of the thinning air. Dido and I at least, felt fine during the entire drive up and it was only when we disembarked at Lake Chungara that the “puna” (the colloquial term for altitude sickness) hit us both – like a brick. The only way I can explain the sensation was that when I tried to walk it felt like one of those bad dreams, when one is trying to flee from some horror or other and one’s legs won’t move. And it wasn’t just the sluggishness; it was actually quite hard to think straight. To this day, I have barely any recollection of how I managed to fill an entire roll of film with some the most spectacular shots of the entire trip – of the lake itself, the surrounding volcanoes, the herds of grazing guanaco and the incredible candlestick cacti. Even Dido, who was super fit in those days, had to lie down after a few minutes of walking around, while I found the only way I could be comfortable at all was to adopt a kind of Muslim prayer position on the ground. Meanwhile, I recall seeing people chucking-up all over the place and one other poor old American guy pass out altogether. It was then that the guide told us that the oxygen canister was empty, resulting in another member of our party – a retired GP as it turned out – having to resuscitate the American gentleman in the manner illustrated in the picture above. Eventually, we all managed to clamber back onto the bus where the guide had brewed up a kettle of coca tea. Whether or not the tea had any effect, somehow we were all still alive by the time we got back to Arica…
About halfway through our stay in Chile we decided to take a few days off and visit the lake district. We booked the train for the overnight journey from Santiago to Puerto Varas, believing we had reserved a compartment. However, we were disappointed to discover on boarding that we were in a couchette with half-dozen other people. A short time out of Santiago Dido went looking for the loo. She returned in an animated state saying that the next carriage comprised only compartments, and that they were all empty. When the porter then came to clip our tickets I asked him if it was possible to upgrade to a compartment to which he shrugged, smiled and muttered under his breath ‘perhaps’… Without thinking I reached into my pocket, and pulled out about $40.00 worth of Chilean Pesos from my wallet . Then, checking his expression and seeing that he was receptive I discreetly slipped the money into his hand. ‘Twenty minutes’ he said gesturing with his head back towards the next carriage; ‘I will prepare the first compartment for you’. And good to his word, the compartment was prepared. It was beautiful: Old British rolling stock from the age of steam, like a scene from From Russia with Love or Murder on Orient Express; only slightly faded, deep green velvet drapes and furniture and shimmering mahogany paneling. The porter had immaculately turned down the crisp Egyptian cotton sheets on the two broad bunk beds, in addition to his final touch – two expertly prepared pisco sours in old-style crystal cocktail glasses placed on the little pull-out table. We were in romantic heaven, and needless to say we enjoyed one of the best nights of our trip…

The Chile trip was our first and last experiment with Lonely Planet travel guides.  While most of gripes with the book could be regarded as somewhat subjective – e.g. our constant disagreement with the guide’s descriptive terminology, such as “basic”, when they really meant “squalid”; “faded” when they really meant “decrepit” and; “comfortable” when they really meant “incredibly uncomfortable” – the several times they got essential facts wrong were far more serious. The worst example was when we decided to hike the five miles from our old hotel on Lake Villarica to another hotel out in the country. We knew it would be a long hard yomp, carrying our rucksacks and that was fine, because we wanted the exercise and most importantly, because we also “knew” – from our Lonely Planet Guide – that the hotel was open and that because this was the beginning of the season there was absolutely no need to phone first to reserve a room. Sadly for us, the hotel didn’t in fact open until the following day. The picture tells only half the story as we had to walk all the way back too!

Before we began what would be an intense five days of work with the kids in Santiago, we hired a car and drove up north to the small coastal town of Tongoy. Set on broad sands at the south tip of a spectacular bay it seemed like an excellent place for enjoying a few days by the South Pacific. But as with just about every feature of our Chilean adventure whatever our preconceptions or expectations had been before we arrived at a given location, the reality had surprises in store for us. In Tongoy, as with so many of our previous destinations, it was our hotel which offered the biggest shock to the system. But in this case at least, it wasn’t a detrimental shock – no squalor, no shared butter and no gravity defying showers – but rather a jolt to our visual senses: For our hotel was decorated to such a degree it was like walking into a dazzling palace of kitsch. Each and every surface was coated, draped, carpeted or covered in garish, luridly decorated flower motifs – every façade clashing dramatically with its neighbour; Every chair, table and bed, painted, lacquered or otherwise coated in every colour, shade and tone of the spectrum and beyond; Each and every shelf and windowsill densely “adorned” with myriad pieces of chintz and fake ivory, such that if “ivorine” came from “real” plastic elephants, then plastic elephants would surely have been as an endangered a species as their actual living-breathing inspirations. And to cap it all there was the landlady: A movable temple of kitsch in her own right, who, as she strolled proudly through her establishment: with her stiffly set blue-rinse; down through her heavily painted, rouged and lipsticked face; to her violent-pink, be-flowered, polyester dress to her spangle-encrusted, patent turquoise stilettos, resembled a chameleon in a psychedelic forest…
We met several wonderful people during our stay in Chile, and made some enduring friendships. Perhaps the most exotic and exciting person we met was Georgina Gubbins, an English-born woman with a truly international upbringing, who had ended up with Chile as her’s and her family’s primary home. Craftswoman, artist, author and beautiful mother of three equally beautiful daughters Georgina was one of those energetic people whose bristling enthusiasm is so infectious she had the knack of getting her friends to do things they wouldn’t normally consider in a month of Sundays.
I can’t quite recall what prompted Georgina to suggest we try going up in a glider over Santiago – bizarrely it might have had something to do with me telling her about the acute flying phobia I was suffering from at the time – but I can honestly say it was an activity which neither of us had ever before contemplated. Anyhow, one afternoon towards the end our trip, before we knew what was going on, she had driven us to a Santiago gliding club and convinced us both to “have a go” in a powerless aircraft.
I should point out at this point, before readers get too alarmed that these were two-seater gliders, and that we were in the hands of experienced pilots. Nevertheless, as we were towed thousands of feet up into the sky by a single-engine biplane I’ve rarely felt a greater thrill.
Like most people who had only ever viewed them from terra firma I had always had two firm conceptions about gliders and gliding, both of which were dispelled the moment we were released from the towrope. Gliding is neither silent nor smooth; quite the opposite in fact! The air whistles and howls around the cockpit canopy, and the wind buffets and jolts the wings and fuselage with each and every movement of the aircraft for the entirety of the flight . So much so, that my pilot was forced to yelling at me when he wanted to point out all the gob-smacking sights and vistas beneath and around us.
Most of the flight was over Santiago’s sprawling eastern suburbs, but we also skimmed past the western edge of the neighboring Andean wall of snow-capped mountains, the tallest of which in the far Argentinian distance was the mighty Aconcagua. Towards the end of the mini-voyage we flew over a large compound that comprised the dwelling of the retired dictator, Augosto Pinochet, and shortly after that the pilot gave me control of the glider. The picture above describes what happened next – or at least how it seemed to me at the time, when in my over-excited state I put the glider into a virtual role. Thankfully, my pilot was unfazed by my surprise maneuver  and instantly regained control to land us safely back at the gliding club.
My amateur aerobatics notwithstanding, the brief glide over the outskirts of Santiago remains a vivid and treasured memory from a trip already rich in awe-inspiring memories. Thank you Georgina!
As a fitting finale to our trip, on our very last day in Chile, Dido had somehow arranged for a meeting with Chile’s top academic in the field of South American folk music and dance. Among other things she was keen to learn more from him about the native dances of Chile, especially the history of the national dance of Chile, the famous Cueca.
The good professor – who shall remain nameless – manifested as a human whirlwind. A cross between the Looney Tunes’ Tasmanian Devil and a classical ballet dancer, from the instant he welcomed us into his small office at the University of Santiago until the time it came for us to leave he was in perpetual motion. We never sat down during the hour or so we were with him and neither did he – in fact I don’t recall seeing a single chair in the room. Thinking about it now, I don’t think that the professor was physically capable of sitting down, any more than a goldfish can stop swimming. Occasionally, as he considered one of Dido’s many queries, he would momentarily hover on one leg balancing himself by making elegant conductor-like movements with his outstretched arms. Then, as an answer came to him he would pirouette back into spinning mode, all the time grabbing papers and pamphlets from the top of shelves and filing cabinets – before seemingly in one motion, depositing them in an ever-growing pile in Dido’s grateful arms.
Like his beloved Chile, the professor was quirky and rewarding in equal measure, and we will never forget him or his equally weird and wonderful country.

PHOTO-CURIOS (revisited)

I’ve been making greetings card designs and images for decades now – initially doing freelance work for greetings card companies and poster publishers and more recently producing images for my own Moody By Nature label. Over the years I’ve done everything from cartoon smut (professionally referred to as “erotic humour”) to soppy Christmas and birthday penguins and polar bears (yes, you can probably blame me for the proliferation of penguin cards from the 90’s onward). Lately though, I’ve been busy with more photographic based themes and images.

Here is a small selection from a series I somewhat blandly titled curiosities, for obvious reasons…

“Bolt Masala” is from a photo I took in a metal engineering factory reception office in Coimbatore in southern India – hence the “masala” connotation.

I spotted the old boots suspended by their laces for “Good Use” in the delightful artists village of Ein Hod on Israel’s Mediterranean coast. It’s proven popular both as a retirement and as an anniversary card…

…as has “Growing Old Together Gracefully” (as an anniversary card that is!) which displays two venerable phone boxes in Hampstead.
“Pond Life” was snapped in the exquisite Alcazar gardens in Seville.
I was struck by the image of “The Blue Cup” in the unlikely setting of Sherwood Forrest – more famous for hosting the “merry men” in Lincoln Green.
Finally, I saw the yellow balloon languishing in a puddle on the Regent’s Canal  towpath (north London) on “New Years Day” 2011 – having lost my dear mother barely three months before it seemed like a poignant metaphor for the past year…

THE DUKE, THE DUCHESS, THE LOO AND THE BATHROOM (and me) (part II)

THE AMUSING TALE OF HOW I ACQUIRED MY MOST ILLUSTRIUS PATRON, CONCLUDED (part I here)…

I arrived at the imposing front door of the Duke of Devonshire’s red brick Mayfair house in Chesterfield Street a few minutes early. Because I was carrying two 3×2 foot canvases my mother had kindly offered to drive me into town from our home in Edgware (north London), rather than have me negotiate the tube or a bus with my awkward burden. With just a polythene sheet to protect them, I was terrified of presenting two dented paintings.

Mum offered to try and find a parking space and wait for me, but I told her not to bother. For one thing, I had no clue how long I would be with the Duke, and for another, I’d either be returning with one or two “rejected” pictures, or hopefully, emptyhanded. In any case, I would be happy to risk some form of London transport.

Tel Hai – oil on canvas – 1983 – The painting which was kept at Chesterfield Street

Within moments of me ringing the door bell, for the first and (thus far) last time in my life, I was greeted by a butler, who with a mixture of firmness and politeness guided me up a flight of stairs to the “drawing room”. After I carefully set down the paintings against an armchair, the butler, who could have been the role model for Jeeves himself, informed me that “His Grace” would be down “presently”, then, gesturing toward a well stocked eponymously-named tray, asked me if I would like a drink while I waited. Thinking a stiff scotch might be just the thing to calm my slightly frazzled nerves I answered in the affirmative. Then, after having served me a large, heavy, cut glass highball, filled to the brim with Dimple Haig and ice, the butler left me alone to contemplate my extraordinary surroundings.

The fine regency and early Victorian furnishings were typical of such an environment, but what was less expected was the array of modern artwork hanging on all the walls. It comprised a comprehensive collection of pictures by nearly all the major painters of the 20th Century – from Picasso to Rothko, and from Matisse to Miro. While I knew the Duke was a keen collector of contemporary art, nothing could have prepared me for such a superlative display.

The Hula Valley (from Tel Hai) – oil on canvas – 1983 – The painting destined for Chatsworth.

As I shifted my gaze from an unexpectedly vivid and jolly early portrait by Munch to my own two modest canvases, I found myself taking an extra large slug of the Dimple. Then, fortunately, before I had time to terrorise myself further, the door opened and the Duke entered, walked toward me, a welcoming smile on his face, and arm outstretched. He was taller and leaner than I expected, and similarly to his butler, drawn straight from the pages of a Wodehouse novel, almost as if I was being approached by Lord Emsworth. “What a great pleasure to meet you Mr Green!” he said, with disarming warmth and charm, gently but firmly shaking my hand. “How kind of you to come!” Then, noticing the state of my glass, and no-doubt sensing my agitated state he suggested I go and top myself up, which I gratefully did.

“If you would be so kind, I think we had better take a look at what you’ve brought, don’t you?” he said, then added, “Why don’t you unwrap them and put them up on the couch.” I did as he requested, and then stood back, by the Duke’s side while, chin in hand, he contemplated my two humble landscapes. “From the north of the country, if I’m not mistaken?”

Impressed with his knowledge of Israeli geography, I confirmed he was correct and then explained a little about the paintings. “I think they are both terrific Mr Green! Sadly, one doesn’t see many competent landscapes like this of Israel – at least not done by Israeli artists. They capture the essence of the place so precisely! I would love to add them to my collection!”

With that, he went over to a sideboard, opened a drawer, withdrew a large chequebook and a pen, handed me both and asked me to write a cheque for the value of the two pictures. Having done as requested, the Duke then signed the cheque, tore it out of the book and handed it to me. “Now” he said, “let’s go and see where we can hang the one staying here…”

Chatsworth House – arguably, the greatest stately home and palace in Britain, with an art collection to rival that of the Queen herself.

He then led me on a remarkable tour of the Chesterfield Street house, from the cellar to the upper bedrooms, stopping from time to time, to give me some fascinating anecdote about this or that amazing picture, the artist who made it and how he came to purchase it. About ten minutes into the tour, we were half way down a staircase, when he pointed out a space between two small oil paintings. “I think we could put your Tel Hai painting here? What do you think Mr Green?” he asked. The painting on the right of the space was a very early Lowry painting of a street scene, dating from before he developed his stick-figure style – and all the better for it – while the painting on the right was a colourful still-life by Mathew Smith. I was speechless for a moment or two, then mumbled my approval. “In case you were wondering, I thought we’d take the other one of the Hula Valley back to Chatsworth. I think it would be lovely to have a picture of Israel in our bedroom. I hope that’s okay?”

A few minutes later, with me still in a kind of euphoric daze, we walked into a bathroom, and there, leaning over the sink, putting on her lipstick, dressed only in a black silk and lace negligee, was the most beautiful sexagenarian lady I had ever seen. “Excuse us Debs darling” said the Duke, “this is that brilliant young artist I told you about, Adam Green, and I just wanted to show him that little Henry Moore by the bath”. “Don’t mind me you two” replied the Duchess (and the youngest and last surviving of the famous and infamous Mitford sisters). “A pleasure to meet you” she added, glancing at me in the mirror, still applying the finishing touches of lipstick, “but do hurry Andrew dear, we can’t be late for the reception”.

The Moore was a miniature, or possibly a sketch piece for a far larger work I thought I recognised, but my main impression from that fleeting visit to the Ducal bathroom was the blemish-less, glowing skin, and youthful form of the Dowager Duchess of Chatsworth, not to mention her lack of inhibition.

If the Duke reminded me of a more together version of Lord Emsworth, the Duchess, even in her underwear, oozed that peculiar type of serene confidence that is the birthright of the British upper class.

The tour lasted about 45 minutes in all, and I was shown to the door by the Duke himself. As we shook hands for the second time, he said in parting, “Do be sure to keep me informed about your progress Mr Green, and do let me know if I can ever be of service…” As I sat on the top of the 113 bus back to Edgware, I felt as if I was waking slowly from a dream.

It wasn’t a dream however, and several years later, the Duke, true to his word, generously opened my one and only West End one-man-show with a typically kind and charming address.

Looking back at it all now, my abiding memory isn’t of walls laden with modern masterpieces, nor of my own pictures being among them, nor even of the sweet and kindly old Duke; but of the beautiful Debs, in her negligee, and her stick of crimson lippy…

THE DUKE, THE DUCHESS, THE LOO AND THE BATHROOM (and me) (part I)

The amusing tale of how i acquired my most illustrius patron…

Although I failed to make the big time as a fine artist, I did nevertheless manage to acquire one or two illustrious clients/patrons, and the most prominent of these was a certain Andrew Robert Buxton Cavendish, 11th Duke of Devonshire.

In 1983, a couple of years following my graduation from Saint Martin’s, I had just been part of a major exhibition at the Ben Uri Gallery in London’s Soho (all, landscapes of Israel). However, despite a healthy number of sales, I was left with about a dozen canvases, several of which I thought were far better paintings than most of those that had been purchased.

My page from the Jewish Chronicle colour magazine’s article on the “Four Young Artist’s show at the Ben Uri Art Gallery in Soho.

About that time I read an article in the paper about the Duke of Devonshire covering a trip he had recently made to Israel, in which he was revealed as being a keen admirer of the Jewish State – making him a very rare beast indeed within the ranks of the British upper class. But for this fact alone I might have not have given the Duke much more thought, but the piece also discussed his passion for 20th century art and his support for aspiring British artists. While I was well aware, that his ducal palace of Chatsworth, had one of the finest private art collections in Europe, the fact that he was a collector in his own right was news to me. Thus I thought, as an aspiring British artist, with a hat-full of 20th century landscapes of a place he liked, might it not be worth my while approaching him. After all, what did I have to lose, except a wasted letter?

And so, after some research on how to address such an august personage in writing, I wrote to “[His] Grace”, at his home at Chatsworth in Derbyshire* It was a short letter, and to the point, appealing both to his love of art and his affection for the State of Israel. I also enclosed a handful of photos of my paintings, and a copy of a magazine with an article about me and my exhibition at the Ben Uri.

The late Duke and Duchess (Andrew and Debs, to their friends – Debs being originally Deborah Mitford, the youngest of the famous, and infamous “Mitford Girls“) in the Chatsworth library, with Hans Eworth’s fine copy of Holbein’s original portrait of Henry VIII.

About a week later, I was deeply engaged in my morning visit to the smallest room in the house when the telephone rang. I heard my mother answer it (I was still living at home in 1983), and then a few seconds later she banged on the door and demanded I take phone from her, immediately, whispering loudly, “It’s the Duke of Devonshire!”

Twice in my life I have been compelled to hold seminal, life-changing conversations while seated on the lavatory – the first being this one, with the Duke of Devonshire, and the second, with the publisher-to-be of my book, King Saul. I’ve often mused, that if I’d spent more time on the loo, I might have enjoyed greater success in my professional life!

Fortunately, given my state of indisposition, the conversation with His Grace did not take too long, and by the time it was over, he had invited me, and two examples of my oil paintings to his London home, the following week.

What occurred there, goes down as one of the more interesting and eccentric episodes of my professional life, and will comprise part II of this little tale…

*(all those wondering why the seat of the Dukes of Devonshire is in Derbyshire please see here)

MY BEST WORST-PAID JOB – and how I cracked Krak…

In my previous post I discussed some of my work on book covers back in the late 1980’s, which also happened to be among the best paid work I ever did. Best paid, both in regards to the amounts, and the time-to-work ratio. I think that the longest I ever spent on a cover was about two days, with the pay, rarely less than four-figure sums, and in the spectacular case of Billy Bathgate, just 20 minutes work for over £3000!

I also made many illustrations for the inside pages of books, and these were often less well rewarded financially. Normally, if one was contributing a single illustration to a text-book, the rule of thumb was £250 for a half-page, and £500 for a full plate. And even this, seemed pretty good most of the time, when the typical job took less than a day to complete. However, on one occasion, in 1996, I received a commission for a half-page illustration which turned out to be the polar-time-to-work-ratio-opposite of the Billy Bathgate job.

My half-page reconstruction of Krak des Chevaliers – the original being pen and ink, with ink wash.

The commission offer was for only £150 (the lowest offer I ever accepted in my ten years or so as an illustrator), and I knew from the brief, that it would be enormously time-consuming. But, just as struggling actors, never turn down a role, however bleak, so it is with most freelance illustrators (as I then was).

Fortunately, as things turned out, what the commission lacked in remuneration, it more than made up for in job-satisfaction. For, not only was the illustration for a Thames and Hudson publication – the sort of encyclopaedic book I’d devoured as a child – the subject matter – the great Crusader castle of Krak des Chevaliers, in modern Syria – was truly thrilling, and not to mention, extremely challenging.

My task was to draw and colour an accurate as possible reconstruction of the castle based on two large black and white photographs, supplied by the art director, of its ruined state. Fortunately, I dug up some additional colour photos from my local library, and with just a touch of artistic license, after nearly three weeks of hard work, I arrived at a plausible vision for the how Krak would have looked in its intimidating pomp.

When, a little while later, I received my complementary copy of the book, I can honestly say, that seeing one of my own, lovingly executed illustrations, gracing the very sort of book which had thrilled me as a little boy, I have never experienced more gratification. Which all just goes to prove, it isn’t always only about the dosh!

Incidentally, for those interested in some photographic record of how the castle looks today (fortunately, I believe it has escaped the ravages of the civil war) do take a look at my cousin Ian Harris’s recent post from his 1997 trip to Syria and beyond…https://ianlouisharris.com/1997/03/06/journey-to-lebanon-syria-jordan-eilat-israel-day-four-tripoli-krak-des-chevaliers-on-to-homs-6-march-1997/

GETTING IT COVERED

Book covers were generally my most fun jobs as a commercial artist and illustrator, and I think it shows in much of the work that resulted. The main reason for the success of these commissions was the fact that I was employed by art directors, who were often artists themselves, and who thus gave good, clear briefs.

My first job as a professional commercial artist. The original artwork was gouache on board.

I’ve already discussed my successful partnership with George Sharp for Pan Picador in relation to my cover for the novel Billy Bathgate, but that was just one of several enjoyable collaborations. In fact, my first ever professional commercial art commission (soon after I joined the Virgil Pomfret Agency in late 1989), was for another Picador publication, called The Fruit Palace by the noted travel author, Charles Nicholl. In this case, George simply wanted me to copy the author’s own photograph of a Bogota street corner, in my classic poster style. It was an easy, dream first commission.

At the outset of my career as a freelance artist, I targeted several travel companies, sending them mini-folios of my travel poster artwork. Within days of my first mail-shot, I received a phone call from Thomas Cook Publishing, who went on to commission a series of covers from me for their new set of travel guides. They were all done in oil pastel, again, on board. This I always felt was the most successful of the group.

However, things got even better a few years later, when I tried my hand at freelancing, and found that I could target publishers and companies that appealed to me and my personal travel and epicurean related enthusiasms. Hence, for a period of about two years I became something of a go-to artist for those wanting hand-conceived images for the covers of travel guides and the like.

This was another of those exciting coincidences that seems to have occurred throughout my adult life, as within days of handing this in to Thomas Cook – having never been to the USA before – I was on a plane flying out to Seattle.

Book covers, as opposed to general illustrations (of which I also did plenty) were well paid and particularly gratifying. Short of seeing one’s own book in the window of your local book store, spying one’s own cover comes a very close second. The fact that I was often stimulated by the subject matter also didn’t hurt.

I love pubs and British beer almost as much as I love travelling. In fact, after nearly every spell abroad, my first port of call on my return to England will be to my local pub for a pint of fine ale. I did two covers for CAMRA (the Campaign for Real Ale); one for their cider guide, and this for family-friendly pubs. In this case, the model family entering the pub were our friends, the Crouches, from Tunbridge Wells in Kent, and that’s our late Maremma Sheepdog, Aura, sleeping on the lawn. The irony behind this particular cover is – being an adult (and well behaved dog) only pub seeker – that I tend to avoid family-friendly pubs at all costs, and thus I actually used the guide to help me steer clear of such terrifying establishments!

ROCKY REASSURANCE

There are rare things in life that never lose their impact, no matter how many times one experiences them, and for me, these have usually come in the form of a handful of visual experiences. Sometimes, it’s just the sheer majesty and or beauty of a vista that never pales, while at other times it has something to do with the emotional context of the scene, and occasionally, it’s a combination of the two. For instance, due to my lifelong fascination with King Saul, standing at the top of Mount Gilboa in northern Israel, looking out across the Jezreel Valley has been top of my enduring impact chart for the past forty years or more, but lately, running it a close second is our now oft-repeated approach to Gibraltar on the highway from Spain. This latest viewing was the most memorable yet, with the rock adorned by a plume of cloud, blown backwards like a massive shock of silver hair.

Perhaps, in this lunatic, unpredictable world, the sight of the great rock, immoveable and timeless, boldly withstanding all that the elements can throw at it, offers a sense of reassuring permanence which only seems to increase with repetition.

BBC RADIO 3, RON GEESIN, UNCLE SID, AND CHOPPED LIVER IN KOVNO…

Like one of those ingenuous celebrities at the beginning of an episode of “Who Do You Think You Are”, it turns out that I too have carried a deeply ingrained misconception concerning my ancestry.  In my case, while I knew that my maternal grandmother’s family were Litvak, I had always believed them to be Latvian Litvak, probably hailing from Riga. But then, a few months ago I published a post on my grandmother’s brother, the violinist Sidney Marcus, and that sparked off a chain of communications and discovery which revealed my quarter Litvak self in fact hails not from Riga in Latvia, but from Kaunas (Kovno) in Lithuania.

While, in and of itself, this is of no great interest to anyone except me and my close family, the story of how I was disabused of my misconception, and by whom, is truly surprising and worthy of repeating here…

As happenstance would have it, one morning, about two weeks after I published my post on Uncle Sid, making mention of his prowess on the musical saw (in addition to the violin – he was first violin of the orchestra at Covent Garden in the late 70’s/early 80’s), I was listening to Georgia Mann’s “Essential Classics” show on (BBC) Radio 3, when she played an old recording of someone playing the musical saw. The recordings had been sent to her by the composer Ron Geesin (famous for everything; from his work with Pink Floyd on the album Atom Heart Mother; his movie and TV scores, including for Sunday, Bloody Sunday; and a vast, eclectic and innovative body of work; plus being probably the world’s foremost authority and best selling author on the adjustable spanner!). Both Georgia Mann and Ron Geesin wondered if anyone listening might know the identity of the mysterious saw maestro, and even as I was listening to the piece, it occurred to me that it was almost certainly Sid. Thus, I immediately emailed Georgia, who then put me in touch with Ron, who after further research, using additional leads I was able to provide him with, confirmed that the eerie sounds on that old recording were indeed being produced by my late great uncle. Subsequently, I am the proud owner of all six Parlophone sides (of Sid), nicely restored digitally by Ron.

In addition to being an all round mensch and hugely gifted, Ron happens to have a voracious interest in musicology and music-related history; and wanting to learn more about Sid and his life and career, he turned up some revelatory facts about that branch of my family – including the fact that they originated from Kovno and not Riga.

Ron managed to turn up this copy from the 1921 UK Census, which revealed that Sid’s parents (my great-grandparent both hailed from Kovno – interestingly, in these chilling times, described here as being part of “Russia”). Of added interest was that my great-grandfather, Max, was a musician in the Regents Hotel Orchestra, then the largest hotel in Europe and known as the “palace for the people”. While I always knew that Max was a professional musician, like his son Sid, and that the Marcus branch of the family were mostly highly musical, it was exciting to learn where he actually plied his trade.

Funnily enough, I have never been to Riga, but in 2009 I did visit Kovno (or Kaunas as it more commonly known today) and although I found it interesting and highly photogenic (see below), I was oblivious of the city’s relevance to my ancestry. Had I been aware, imagine how I might have felt when at the hotel in Kovno, I was confronted with chopped liver as part of the breakfast buffet – chopped liver that looked and tasted exactly like that which my grandmother Becky (Sid’s sister) used to make every Friday for our Shabbat dinner. Now I know why!

Charming downtown Kovno (Kaunas) in 2009. So far as I know, all four of my grandparents’ families moved away from their respective homes in Lithuania, Galicia and Russia (in the case of my father’s family to South Africa) around the turn of the last century, and primarily as economic migrants, rather than fleeing persecution.