The Alien Within

I think I’m St Francis. I’ll pick up anything, sure that I’ll come to no harm. I’ve carefully picked up bees and wasps when I’ve noted their behaviour isn’t aggressive. I usually watch carefully and act accordingly. But last night when something clattered into the water glass at my bedside table as I was getting under the duvet, I didn’t have my spectacles, and so I assumed it was a cranefly and fished it out. I headed for the window with it on the back of my finger, but by the time I’d unlatched and raised the sash, the insect had flown back into the room. I cast about for a bit but couldn’t see it. Found my spectacles, and settled down for a read before sleeping.

 

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Ten minutes later a clattering of wings alerted me to the fact that it had returned and was blundering around inside the shade of the anglepoise lamp. I reached over and cupped the bottom of the shade, and when I felt the insect alight in my palm, closed my fingers to a loose fist to carry it to the window. In an instant there was stab of pain in the soft flesh of the base of my thumb, like a hot needle plunged deep. I yelled loudly and dropped the culprit. It sat on the bedside table looking at me, head turning from side to side like a mantis.

Once antihistamine had been applied, I went to the computer screen to see what I could find that looked like the creature, and after I was satisfied, headed back to bedroom armed with an empty glass and a postcard in order to safely retrieve and deposit it outside.

I’m not sure exactly which type, but it seems it was a Ichneumon wasp. A handsome thing about 3 cms long that looked as though it had been carved from amber. Though the males don’t sting, the females have a blade-like ovipositor used to pierce a living host and deposit eggs, and the procedure can be used defensively when the wasp is threatened.

Any deposited eggs in my hand won’t hatch, dealt wth effectively by my immune system, thank god! The alternative would just be too John Hurt for comfort!

 

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The pain had been considerable but instant, and died away quickly, perhaps indicating no venom. However this morning there’s a residue tingling and vague discomfort and heat, though that might just be my mind playing tricks. When I stretch my palm while theres no swelling, I have a disc of flesh the size of 1p that’s notably white at the site of my alien invasion!

Wasp photograph courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

The View from Ty Isaf

I have found that in almost every circumstance, just because questions can be asked, doesn’t necessarily mean that they should be. The thin veneer of civilness that keeps society running smoothly on a macro level – and personal relationships on a micro one – doesn’t function the moment people believe that honesty, no matter how brutally expressed, is a better option than a moderated reply. We could all learn to think a bit more before speaking. So when David Cameron decided to ask people what they thought, which is what a referendum essentially is, it was almost inevitable that some of the answers were going to be damned ugly.

And here we are, awakening each morning to a system broken, to good people feeling that they’re not wanted here, to Europe understandably turning her back on us and our government collapsing in ruins around ministers who did’t have any systems in place to prepare against this outcome. This isn’t government. This is an electorate reduced to a baying mob thanks to the hubris of a prime minister who thought he could run a referendum like a TV reality show, and those around him who complied.

I am so deeply, corrosively ashamed of what’s happened. I’m ashamed of a government, divided against itself to our terrible cost. I’m ashamed of the Labour party, that didn’t put up a decent fight against the terrible events unfolding, and spoke too late and too little. I’m ashamed of the media, who misinformed, fuelled anxieties and complicated issues. Most of all I’m ashamed of the electorate, who allowed themselves to be influenced by hucksters, and then used the system to smash everything into smithereens.

Put simply, when the question is ‘Does my bum look big in this?”, the answer must take account of many things: human frailty, the need to be loved, a desire for affirmation and the hope that kindness will prevail. Kindness has not played any part in what has transpired here, and that is the single thing waking me at 5 AM every morning to a sense of the deepest loss and fear for our future.

The China-Room

At the back of the hallway at Ty Isaf, a low, half-glazed door leads to the china-room. It’s little more than a cupboard really, made out of a section of what was once a servants’ passageway running the width of the house. Decorated in a glowing pinky-red chalk emulsion and fitted with a dresser-rack of black-painted shelves, it’s a combination cabinet-of-curiosities and china repository. There are clockwork tin toys, artists’ ceramics, toy farm animals made of painted lead, fossils and tacky souvenirs. Bits of model sets from my years as a stage designer, hand-crafted gifts from talented friends, a fine bone-china ‘blue dragon’ tea-service, found objects, plastic toys and family heirlooms.

Small children love it, as do I.

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The Spaces Between. Part 1: Getting Going

My studio at Ty Isaf in late 2009, with The Congregation of Birds nearing completion on the easel.

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The Artlog has been running since Nov 2009. Six years is ancient in the blogging world, so I’m lucky to be still going. (I’ve wondered about concluding it on several occasions.) The idea for it was hatched when it became apparent during discussions about the publication of the Lund Humphries monograph about my work, due out in 2011, that I wasn’t comfortable at the prospect of having someone write about my past. Or more specifically, I wasn’t happy about the idea of having to describe my life to someone who would then have to decide what and what not to include. I was apprehensive at the prospect of making a list of dates and events that would have to represent me. I fought against it, and fretted and lost sleep. My partner Peter Wakelin and our friend Rex Harley… who went on to write the monograph chapters on ‘Still-Life’ and ‘Book Illustration’… persisted in asking who I would trust with the biography. We made lists. Still I fretted. There were things in my past I knew I’d have to examine, and I dreaded the process. (Who wouldn’t?)

Eventually Peter and Rex said that if I wouldn’t discharge the responsibility to anyone, then there was nothing for it but to write the damned thing myself. I rose to the bait, dropped so cleverly by them, and snapped  “I BLOODY WELL WILL WRITE IT, THEN!” And that, was that, spoken in haste and heartily regretted almost before the words were out! But I put up and shut up, not least because it was a relief to have the two of them finally go quiet on the subject, and I stomped off for long walks with the dog, simmering with resentment at having been cornered into something I didn’t want to do.

I made a list of autobiographies I most admired. There was only one artist on that list, and moreover his books were not so much biographies, as out-of-sequence recollections threaded through his descriptions of making art and films. It was Derek Jarman.

I’d always loved Jarman’s writing, loved his work and loved him. I’d admired his activism, his refusal to bow to those who disapproved, and his white-hot outbursts against the establishment. In a world where homosexuals were visible in the media only when they mocked themselves… we all know who they were, so I won’t list them here… Jarman was handsome, eloquent, outspoken and as angry as a mad hornet. It was an alluring mix, and about as sexy as anyone I’d laid eyes on. To a teenager coming to terms with what it meant to be homosexual when public opinion and the law were rampantly homophobic, Jarman was a shining light.

In terms of writing, I would look to him for inspiration. But it’s one thing to be inspired, and quite another to acquire the skills. Somewhere along the line, I had the idea of starting a blog where I could write on a regular basis in order to get better at expressing myself in words. On it I could describe my activities in the studio, and perhaps even beyond it. After all, art doesn’t begin and end at the easel. There are all those spaces between times spent in the studio, where the rest of life has to fit.

For a blog such as this, I’d seen no model. There was a year in which to get things moving, after which I’d need to be preparing the biographical chapter for the monograph, so there was no time to be lost. Diving in deep ends is something I’ve been doing all my life, learning on the hoof being my familiar way forward. I figured that few people would come to read the blog, and so when I made mistakes… and I’d almost certainly make a lot… then hardly anyone would know about them.

My worktable in the studio

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In Part 2, inviting the readers in.

the collector’s eye

We’ve just enjoyed the company of our friends Dave and Philippa Roberts, here at Ty Isaf for a weekend of walks with Jack, reading in front of the blazing wood-burning stove, good conversation and meals prepared while chatting and quaffing wine in the cosy warmth of our kitchen.

Philippa took the above shot of the small china store-room at the back of our hall, where we keep a collection of ceramics, tin toys, fossils and various curiosities. Among them there’s an alabaster cosmetics jar from a tomb of the Ptolemaic dynasty, a clutch of Meri Wells porcelain beasts, a curious seedpod picked up in a Barcelona park and a tiny, obelisk-shaped throne made for the set model of a stage production of ‘Robin Hood’ I designed decades ago. (You can see it silhouetted against the light plate on the left of the top shelf.) Later Philippa sent me photographs taken on a trip she and Dave had made to Mexico, and I post them here to illustrate the collecting/curatorial aesthetic that fuels mankind’s need to put similar objects together.

Attack of the Cyclops

 

My friend Jac Hicks has sent me a beautiful, miniature set of French building-blocks that I’ve erected on the bookcase in the upstairs sitting-room. (I’ve been working at the table in there over the summer months on my various illustration projects, as it’s a corner room with a dual aspect and lots of light.) The blocks are keeping company with the Mexican nativity set from Marly Youmans that’s much too handsome to come out only at Christmas, and a rather dog-eared, over-twenty-five-year-old pop-up Christmas card I made of a Punch & Judy booth. The wooden christmas tree was another unexpected gift, one of four toy trees sent to me by Chloe Redfern.

Opposite the building-block archway is the model of the stage-set I designed for last year’s The Mare’s Tale chamber-work, now populated with a very early group of painted lead figures of Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, a christmas gift of many years ago from Peter, who wrapped the figures separately and stuffed them alongside satsumas and foil-covered chocolate coins down the toe of one of his knitted walking-socks! Note that Grumpy has gone off to survey the new building!

 

Our house is full of such tableaux. I suspect they rearrange themselves after dark!