“THE CAUDILLO IS RAISING HELL…!”

EXERPT 2 FROM MY NOVEL “ARK”

When he arrived in his office at the institute, there on his desk barely a day after he had submitted the samples for examination, was a thin dog-eared envelope with the words “analysis results” scrawled across the front in biro. 

The slim envelope instantly set alarm bells off in Alex’s head. He knew that meaningful reports took weeks and more often months to complete and would be presented in the form of a weighty file. But when he then read the note contained within the envelope his alarm turned to dismay:

Dear Professor Martinez,

Following careful examination, we find nothing remarkable to report regarding the nature of the stone, the timber or the graffito at the Transito site. In the light of these unexceptional findings, it has been decided to resume the engineering works to the synagogue’s eastern wall in the interests of securing the building with immediate effect.

The Department thanks you and your team for all your efforts in this matter.

Sincerely,

Diego Ruiz – Chief Secretary, Department of Antiquities

Alex immediately telephoned his main contact at the department, the medieval projects manager Miguel Garcia. 

Garcia claimed tersely that he knew nothing about it and refused to put him through to Ruiz saying that the director was busy. He then offered Alex a piece of ‘friendly advice’ to ‘drop the whole thing.’ 

Alex reminded Garcia that he had ‘uncovered a site of potentially great importance to the cultural heritage of Spain and that ‘both as an archaeologist and a patriot he was bound to publish a full site report.’

‘Nevertheless’ Garcia told him, ‘do not under any circumstances publish a report.’

To which Alex replied; ‘You mean like the people who discovered the structure in 1964?’

For several seconds there was silence at the other end of the phone. Then Garcia asked; ‘How the hell do you know that it was discovered in 1964? How can you know that?’

‘Hombre! I’m trained to know these things’ he replied surprised at the effectiveness of his gambit. ‘It’s what the government pays me for. Now would you be so kind as to tell me what is this all about? What’s with all the fucking secrecy?’

Alex’s swearing had an incendiary effect on Garcia. ‘There’s no fucking secrecy!’ he yelled. ‘No fucking anything! Just a fucking boring, fucking meaningless little fucking structure…’

Meaningless!’ Alex cried back. ‘A structure unique in Iberian medieval architecture decorated with enough solid gold to shame the tomb of the average Pharaoh! A structure moreover in perfect condition—except for the fact ten years ago someone removed its roof and then covered it over again as if nothing had happened? If that’s meaningless then I’m a Dutchman!’

‘Alex, I’m telling you again as a friend’ Miguel said quietly, almost pleading, ‘just forget all about this. It’s all a mistake, a bloody great cock-up!’

‘A mistake? What do you mean a mistake?’

‘The excavation Alex—the excavation was a mistake. It should never have been sanctioned. Whoever ticked off on the excavation didn’t know. He didn’t know about the original works in 64. But now they’ve found the old records and it should never have been sanctioned. The Caudillo himself is raising hell here Alex. Please, please just let it go.’ 

Both the desperation in Garcia’s voice and the mention of Franco were disturbing. Alex had always enjoyed a cordial and constructive working relationship with Miguel Garcia. He’d found him to be an affable chap always willing to go that extra mile for a colleague. This exchange was totally out of character. 

‘Listen Miguel, I don’t want to make problems for you. I just want…I just need to know one thing and then I’ll leave you alone. I promise.’

‘What is it?’

‘Whoever took the roof off the canopy found something inside it, and whatever it was, they removed it in a big hurry…’

‘How do you know all this?’

‘Why else would they have deserted nearly half a ton of gold panelling? They must have found something so…so hot…’

Hot?’

‘I don’t know hombre! Hot, incredible, astonishing―something so precious in some way that they ignored the gold and covered up their tracks in a rush.’  Garcia did not respond. Alex could hear him breathing heavily down the phone.

‘I won’t write anything Miguel. No report. But please just tell me what was inside the structure?’

After another few seconds Garcia eventually said in a low weary voice; ‘Nothing Alex…they found absolutely nothing.’

‘You swear to me that’s the truth Miguel? You’re telling me that the Caudillo is getting all worked up over nothing because you’re acting like they found the fucking Holy Grail or something?’  Again, silence at the other end of the phone.

Calmly now, he repeated the question; ‘Miguel. Do you swear to me that what you just told me is the truth?’ 

Garcia hung up without answering.

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!

A POSTCARD FROM “BC”

AND WHEN LONG-HAUL FLYING WAS ALMOST FUN

Not wishing to bore anyone with all the tedious whys and wherefores (which will be pretty obvious to many), suffice to say here, that long-haul travel – even when “turning left” onto a brand new 787c Dreamliner is something we will not do again until normal/normal returns – which probably means never.

Our recent flights, to and from the United States, to scatter my mother-in-law’s ashes, among many other essential tasks related to her passing 13 months ago would have been a sombre experience in any event, but with the added maelstrom of Covid-19 related dos and don’ts, a sad business was transformed into a sinister taste of dystopia.

But never mind all of that; these posts were never intended as platforms for my views on anything more serious than daubs of paint, poor grammar and the correct way to render chicken fat. Although, over the past two years I have hinted at my opinion on Covid, and our various governments attempts at dealing with it, I realised by the first April of the crisis, that my views were at odds with the consensus, and thus I risked being regarded as a hopeless heretic – at best! So, not wishing to alienate or offend many of the readers of these pages, I have thus far kept my feelings more or less to myself, and this post will be no different.

One of the things many of us can agree upon, is what a miracle of modern life long haul air travel used to be BC, especially if one was fortunate enough to travel at the front of the aircraft, when the getting to wherever, could be almost as much fun as the destinations themselves. However, nothing epitomises for me what we are missing from our lives more starkly now – from a UK perspective at least – than the current inaccessibility of the extraordinary lands of the Antipodes. Hence this offering of a series of my favourite scenes of Australia (Victoria, New South Wales and Western Australia, to be precise), which either offer longing for a return to a normal future, or images of a golden past, lost forever…who knows?

CAROB, SNAILS AND SARDINES

a postcard from a normal day in malaga…

Whenever people ask us about our commercial crops on our little Andalusian farm, we always mention olives and our almonds. Grapes were once a commercial crop for us – in the form of our Malaga-style wine – but that was many years ago. And, while it’s true we also once sold a bushel of pink grapefruit to a greengrocer in our local village, the only other crop we ever used to sell regularly was carob (algaroba in Spanish). Known as boxer in Britain, carob was best known as a chocolate substitute, especially during wartime, when supplies of the real stuff were sparse, and these days, it’s popular as candy (in the States), ground for flour, eaten as a dried fruit and made into syrups and even alcoholic drinks. But, in the 90’s it’s popularity seriously waned, and the price for the brown pods and seeds fell so low, it cost us more in diesel to get the carob to the factory than we got paid for it.

However, the emergence of veganism has seen a massive spike in the demand for carob, and a corresponding rise in its value, making it a worthwhile crop once again. And, in the event we were paid a handsome €60.00 for our modest three sacks, giving us in turn, a pleasant excuse to continue along the road, to spend our earnings – somewhat ironically – on some delicious, decidedly non-vegan Malagueño cuisine…

Adding our 50kilos (highlighted) to the mountain of carob at our local depot/factory.
Then off to Malaga to spend our not-so-hard earned pocket money – firstly on these delicious caracoles (snails) in a spicy, cumin-infused sauce (a recipe from Córdoba)...
…Then down to the beach, for a few espetos (wooden skewers) of sardines , roast against smouldering olive wood. This shot, taken through a Perspex windshield, gives the scene a slightly wobbly look!

BEGIN THE BEGUINE – ON THE MUSICAL SAW & CHRISTMAS CAKE AT COVENT GARDEN…

remembering my great-uncle sid

Great-Uncle Sid Marcus, in a publicity photo taken at the outset of his career, around 1936.

My mother’s uncle, Sidney Marcus was a gifted musician and an accomplished violinist, and like many gifted people, he was also slightly eccentric. Occasionally, his eccentricity and his musicianship would overlap, such as when he led the band at my mother’s wedding; not with his fiddle, but on the musical saw! To this day I’ve yet to learn of another wedding, or function of any kind, where the opening dance was Begin the Beguine, to the eerie strains of a vibrating hand saw. And then there was the incident at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, with Sid and the Christmas Cake…

However, before I relate this tale I should perhaps provide some illuminating context: Firstly, we’re going back to the late 1960’s, around the time Sid rose to be first violin of the Royal Opera House Orchestra; Secondly, the fact that this elevation coincided with my mother and her brother Sidney’s (my family went for a narrow range of names back in the day) infatuation with grand Italian opera; Thirdly, that Sid became a source of complementary tickets for productions of those very works; And finally, that Sid’s non-Jewish wife Edie provided us with a fabulous Christmas cake every December. Thus, the scene is set…

It’s a late December evening, shortly before Christmas at the Royal Opera House, ten-minutes before the curtain is due to rise on a production of Aida, or Tosca, or something along those lines. My mother and Sidney have just settled down into their fifth-row stalls seats, eagerly anticipating the approaching performance when they spy uncle Sid peering over at them from the orchestra pit, presumably from the conductor’s rostrum. As soon as Sid sees they have spotted him, he firmly beckons Sidney to come to him, which he dutifully does. Sid then produces a large box, tied with a ribbon, and hands it over to Sidney. The box turns out not only to be very large, but also very heavy. “It’s from Edie” says Sid to Sidney, “Keep it this way up, it’s a Christmas cake…” and then, without further ado, about turns and disappears into the bowels of the orchestra pit, leaving his suddenly-burdened nephew to negotiate his way back to his seat past a host of bemused fellow opera-goers.

The box was too large to put on the floor, and thus poor, red-faced Sidney had no choice but to sit with it on his lap throughout the evening. By the time opera was finished, his legs had gone to sleep and he could barely stagger to Covent Garden Tube to get the train home. Fortunately, he did get it home though, and in one piece, for Edie’s cake was as delicious as it was enormous.

On a more serious note, it would be remis of me not to mention, that in addition to being an exceptional violinist, and an eccentric, great-uncle Sid was one of the gentlest, kindest and most generous people one could hope to meet.

30 YEARS ON…

…but celebrations on hold

The picture which heads this little post shows a painting I did of my wife Dido’s mews house in Paddington, in the heart of London – the first home we shared at the outset of our thirty-two years together – and our current home, here on Finca Carmel. The contrast in the two dwellings forms a neat allegory for the rich diversity of our adventures over the past three decades-plus, and thus I thought it would make a fitting image for the milestone we reach this New Year’s Eve.

Like countless millions across the globe however, all the fabulous plans we had made by way of celebration, have been confounded by the new ‘C’ word, and thus delayed until some semblance of normality returns.

In the meantime, things as seemingly mundane as our olive harvest provide comfort and reassurance that much of the essential rhythm of life continues regardless of the actions of viruses and governments.

Wishing everyone reading this piece, a relatively happy New Year, and a much improved, celebration -packed 2021 and beyond!

THE FESTIVAL OF LIGHTS…

…DRAWN DARKLY

Another year passes, another Hanukkah arrives. For those unfamiliar with the story of the festival, I explain quite a lot about it here, in last year’s post. The reason it held a particular attraction for me as a child was – apart from the delicious foods, fun rituals and of course, the presents – was that it emanated from a period of history that fascinated me from an early age. So much did the story interest me in fact, that at some point, when I was about fourteen I decided to turn it into a comic strip.

Obsessed as I was with the actual history behind the story, rather than with the traditions and alleged miracles, I was keen for the strip to be as close to the ancient reality as possible. Hence, the “evil Greek soldiers” were less evil Greek, and more, ruthless, professional Macedonian mercenaries; while my “heroic freedom-fighter” Maccabees were more, (equally) ruthless, uncompromising zealots. Moreover, although the comic never made it that deep into the narrative, I intended to portray the Hellenised Jews, as less “treacherous collaborators” and more, worldly, pragmatic rationalists (one of which I would like to think I would have been myself!).

However, as was often the case with my juvenile projects, the initial flame of enthusiasm died out before I’d really got going – in this case, after barely the first two pages.

Nevertheless, it remains fun to look at now, and had I finished it, with its austere red-to-black tonality, it might have emerged as an early example of the graphic novel.

In the meantime, I wish all my Jewish readers a very happy, healthy and peaceful Hannukah, and a very merry Christmas to everyone else!

DRAWING LIGHT AND SHADE…

and the dramatic potential of the humble pencil…

My recent post on line drawing was so well received that I thought I would follow it up with this look at a set of my more studied drawings from 1996.

The images here will be familiar to some, as they form the basis of one of my most successful and enduring themes, which I returned to many times over the course of decade or more. It all started with a casual photo-shoot on the sunny south terrace of our Spanish home, when my wife Dido (the blonde lady in these pictures) and Lynne, an old ballet pal of hers, performed a variety of impromptu poses for my camera. Mostly, they involved dance (see this related post), but they also acted these three, far more contemplative vignettes.

Unlike line drawing sketches, these take account of light and shade as much as form, giving them a more obvious dramatic content. But, as with line sketching, often, what is left undrawn, is as important to the feel of the picture as what is drawn. In the case of these works, it was my intention that the whiteness of the untouched paper in contrast to the painstakingly executed figures, and the shadows they contain and cast, would accentuate the feeling of the harsh Spanish sun, saturating the tender friendship of the two girls.

All in all, I think they succeed pretty well, and for me at least, remain precious moments captured in lead.

Dido and Lynne 1 – 1996 – pencil on paper
Dido and Lynne 2 – 1996 – pencil on paper
Dido and Lynne 3 – 1996 – pencil on paper

HANNAH – ten years gone

and her dignified death

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…

This beautifully tender portrait of Hannah, having just been deserted by my father, dates from early 1961, by her brother Sidney.
This picture – also 1961 – is very special to me. It was one of a series taken of me as a baby by Sidney for the Johnson’s Baby Powder campaign featured in another recent post – but this one shows mum clearly.
This dates from 1962. The model Sandra Paul was late for a Max Factor shoot and Sidney had his make-up girl prepare Hannah to stand in.
In 1962 again, this was taken (also by Sidney) at the sports day at my brother’s boarding school – mum, always stylish in those days.