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Posts Tagged ‘school’

drawing

Moonlit hills with Landrover

I still have my sketchbooks from school (1972-77). I was a more prolific drawer then than I am now, more driven, more inspired I think, whether I was actually any good or not is another question and it isn’t relevant anyway. All that matters is I was drawing, creating, doing, all the time. And mostly I was doing it without thought or care for an audience. Once you start doing it with a view to pleasing someone else, you’re screwed because then the lens of imagination through which you view the world dissolves. It’s like the tide going out, and then instead of the light dancing on the waves, all you see is a dreary plane of mud.

Life as a young teen is a hotbed of emotion, of unrequited love, of poetry, of romantic adventure, and every day a mystery to be solved. I did not write much then, suspected writing was for experts, had yet to discover it was also for poseurs and fools, that it led more often to obscurity, alcholoism and destitution than to fame and riches. I drew instead. A drawing can be a doodle in the margin of an exercise book, or it can cover a sheet of A0. It’s still a drawing, and it can still mean something to the drawer.

If I drew for anyone at all it was for a mysterious and entirely imaginary “other” who was always watching, but in a benign way, like I imagined my teachers were watching, assessing, marking. Sometimes I projected the watcher out onto all sorts of people, made protective sages of them when in fact they were nobody, just adults caught up in their own small lives, and oblivious of mine. It took a while to work that one out.

I see themes emerging in those drawings that would shape my later imagination and are still with me – the archetypal women, presence in a landscape, and a hunger for the hidden meaning of past lives as evidenced by their time-weathered remains in the present day – the ruins, the megalithic markers and other fey geomancies.

I’m being selective here. Flipping through my sketchbooks I see there were also fast cars and guns, but they belonged to adolescence, and have been left there where they belong. All of this was idiosyncratic yet of inestimable value, and if only I could understand it and present it to the mysterious “watcher” then all things would be resolved and the world would be a much better place.

I could not see then what I see now, that it was a personal quest, that all lives are founded on myth, some borrowed, some told, some self invented. Myths grant meaning to life, and I was inventing my own, rejecting the native mythologies of Albion and Christianity, things I suspect are common enough among teens who tend towards loneliness and misanthropy.

The picture above is one I drew in 1974 or thereabouts – I’d be thirteen. I remember it meaning something to me then, as it does still, though it’s physical manifestation is now fading and smudged. This is its first wider airing, but I use it only to illustrate a point. It changes nothing, means nothing to anyone other than me, speaks only to my own myth, looks a bit childish actually – indeed I recall my art teacher commented that it was “a corny and rather bland response” to a homework assignment. Oh, Miss T, you were such a stern mistress.

I see reverence for landscape, for exploration, for field skills. We are also looking at moonlight here, a big moon rising, rendering in paleness and deep shadow an endlessly pristine landscape – something slightly pagan about it too in the way the figure pays homage as he contemplates the endless feminine swell of the land. All of these are themes, symbols that still animate me four and a half decades later.

Miss T told me to stop drawing from imagination, or my work would stagnate. Nor was she ever impressed by cleverness with line – look, Miss, it’s a Landrover!. She preferred more the spontaneous Rosrchashis splash and daub of the avant guard – and who was I to argue with an art graduate from the University of Manchester? I did as I was told, and my work stagnated anyway. There was never anything inspirational, I found, in drawing wood shavings from observation, nor in splashing and daubing murky poster paint on sugar paper. The key insight of youth is that while many adults profess wisdom, sometimes they’re just bull-shitting. The trick is to tell the difference, and I’m still working on that.

But what I do know for sure is what we bring out of ourselves in the act of creation is like wiping the mist from a mirror, revealing aspects of ourselves hitherto hidden from awareness. But more than that is it is also a means of rendering unconscious elements of the psyche conscious. We live our art primarily for ourselves. Our vision may be corny in the eyes others more erudite, should we be inclined to exhibit, but some of us are slower to grasp the existential axioms, if such there be. It does not mean we are barred from the artistic life, which means of course, all the clever critics tossing spitballs at our work, can cheerfully go take a running jump.

Some say art should shock, that it should shake the foundations of the world, that is should prove a visceral reaction, and I can relate to that. But I am not working for the revolutionaries, and if I seek an audience at all it is comprised of others like me, inhabiting that same zone of liminality, a place of infinite strangeness and shadow. Look, I’m saying. I’ve felt this, seen this. You may have seen it too.

I don’t understand it either, but it’s probably okay.

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When I was five I ran away from school. I didn’t understand my incarceration there, and felt I was getting nothing in return, so I decided to leave. Escape wasn’t difficult. I chose the chaos of a playtime, observed the gate, observed the inattentiveness of the guards and simply walked out. Yes, I went entirely undetected by “authority”, which I learned early on, for all ¬†of its bluster, is actually a bit numb. I was, however, observed by one of my fellow inmates, a bossy, busybody of a girl, who raised the alarm. So, with authority now awakening like a dozy hippo at her shrill call, I decided to run for it.

I did well, made it a good mile towards home. But “authority”, not being sufficiently fleet of foot itself, had dispatched another inmate to catch me, a swift limbed girl, older than me. I gave her a run for her money, but catch me she did, eventually. She would grow to become the most beautiful girl in the village, but for now she took my hand gently, and led me back into imprisonment. The snitch probably became a kingpin of Human Resources in a bland multinational.

If I was reprimanded on return it went over my head, for I remember none of it. I think my father was expected to have a word, which he did, but he was more amused than outraged, more impressed than dismayed. He seemed to be saying that while rebellion was not to be universally despised, I still had a lot to learn about the world, and what it meant to be alive within it.

But I had already learned some important lessons here. Number one, escape was not going to be easy. Number two: ones fellow inmates were blind to their incarceration and could not be relied upon to assist in evading ones own. And number three: a man does well to be circumspect in his dealings with women, especially bossy ones, but even more so those who chase after him, no matter how beautiful , because it’s unlikely to be to his advantage in the end.

Of course as I thought more about the problem, and my father’s words, I realised the bounds of incarceration extended beyond the school gates, so it was impossible to ascertain when safe ground had been attained. Indeed observing the world, I realised the whole of it had been constructed as a fiendishly clever prison, one in which the inmates thought they were free. Escape from such a place would require more than a swift pair of legs. It would require a perpetual awareness of the madness, but also, since one could not rely upon one’s fellow inmates for discretion, it would also require one to go deep under cover, to pretend absolute conformity, and while pretending, to remain vigilant, and to plot!

I was inspired by the true story of the wooden horse, the one where POW’s in Germany, made a wooden vaulting horse, carried it brazenly into the prison yard each day and, while a group of men vaulted over it, another, hidden within the horse, began digging a tunnel underneath it. It was a painstaking business, the dirt grubbed away, scoop by scoop, under the very noses of the guards. It sounds improbable, but it worked, and three men got away.

Me? I’m still digging, still pretending conformity,while dreaming of the freedom to simply be, to not have to get up at crack of dawn every morning , to say to myself: “Now, what shall I do today?” And if the answer is “nothing” then so be it, for there will be time a plenty to enjoy both the nothings and the fullness of days, days entirely of my own shaping, like the days before I was captured as a child from the wild of preschool years.

Of course, time itself is the biggest prison, and my tunnel is taking an awful lot of it in the digging. We begin to fear old age and frailty will deny us the pleasure of our lives when we are finally free to enjoy them, that there is a possibility, having spent the war years digging our tunnel out under the wire, the war will be over by the time we’ve cut that final slice of turf to daylight and liberation. Then we’ll be standing on the other side looking back, the guards themselves having long turned for home anyway, and we’ll be thinking: was that it?

I wonder if it would not be better to have simply joined in a bit more. I don’t mean this in the sense that I have not engaged with the world – at least physically – for indeed I have. I have sampled much of what it has to offer, but while doing so I have always held a part of me in reserve, never forgetting the imperative for escaping the madness at some point.

Or is this talk of escape not merely cowardice? Is the madness not my own? So, the years pass and the school-desk becomes the work-desk, and the puzzling thing is, I can walk away from my incarceration tomorrow. There is no need for a tunnel now, and no swift limbed beauty will come to drag me back to that desk. So why don’t I? I can argue I’m doing it for the money, that a man must eat, that the money is now the trap. Sure, there are monks who go into the world wrapped in only a binding of cloth and with a bowl to beg and that may be a definition of true liberation, but who among us is willing to live like that?

So is it not the falsehood, but the truth itself I am running from?

And is the truth not this:

Welcome to your life. Freedom will come to each of us soon enough. In the meantime, we should make the best of what we have, otherwise the most secure prison is the one we build around ourselves, not so much preventing us from getting out, but preventing others from getting in.

It’s something to think about, but for now, if you’ll excuse me, I still have a lot of digging to do.

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