I’ve lived in so many places; I’m amazed anything important has survived. Drawings, oil paintings, sketch books - lost, stolen, destroyed (by me) or just gone…
A few oil paintings were recently discovered in the form of two and a quarter inch square negatives. I hope to have these digitally rescued soon.
The earliest surviving example of my artistic output is this scribble, from my skooldaze. I was about 12 years old.
The picture (scanned and edited in Photoshop) shows the back and front of the wrapping band of a packet of envelopes, which I expect was bought from the school tuck-shop (because the local shops were out of bounds.)
Fellow post-war baby-boomers may recognise the MainLine branding. Look at the price: 3d three old pence. Today’s 5p is the equivalent of twelve pre-decimalisation pence.
The doodle was done in red, black and green biro, probably one of those fat things that had three or four colours in one. Great, but why did they always break before the ink ran out?
Despite its lack of monetary value, the object sheds light on a number of factors that resonate and still have meaning.
For example, I was unsure about the spelling of ‘boring’. It still doesn’t look right to me. If not for my word processor’s spell checker, I would still be doubtful.
To whom was the message shown? A friend, of course, but who?
The bearded chap was my class and art teacher, Mr Pinner. He looks a lot like Jesus.
The drawing on the right shows his talent for raising one eyebrow. The upwards turn of one side of his mouth suggests he’s annoyed. He used to call out: ‘Gas bags - deflate!’
Apparently I was always talking and giggling in class. My school reports testify to my annoying (for adults) habit of being more interested in having fun than knuckling down to hard work. My parents were furious; double trouble.
Mr Pinner often referred to me as ‘Cackling Witch’ because of my laugh. Was this funny or cruel?
Drawing caricatures was possibly a way of coping with feelings of powerlessness. Mostly it was an escape from soul destroying tedium and a relief from the mind numbing boredom.
Two friends wrote to me recently, after seeing my blog. Both are writers, sometimes stuck and not yet published. One wrote:
"I've just kept the doors closed on so many things which I now find almost impossible to express … as if I always need to air my feelings and thoughts first to an objective person, to get their approval and permission to feel the way I do. …so difficult to get back into my writing … things I need to write about but feel far too inhibited."
Another friend sent me this poem (it inspired this picture) and permission to publish it anonymously.
Unwashed unshaven his smell filled her room
Belching loudly he peered into the gloom
Staggering forward he stood by her bed
His rough calloused hands caressing her head.
Pulling aside her ladybird vest
He pinched and bruised her newly formed breast
Her body cried out in fear and disgust
This was her stepfather the man she should trust.
Pulling the sheet tight under her chin
She can see his face clearly
The cruel sneering grin.
No one will help her she can't understand why
As she curls into a ball to silently cry.
About the picture my friend wrote:
"The Clown with the psychedelic colours .. phew .. pretty scary !!
It has always been a dark secret deep inside me .. so the picture .. as I see it ... is like a release after all these years to actually tell someone else about it ...an explosion of feelings .. shown in your picture by the psychedelic explosion of colour ... yet still a bad memory ... my overall feeling at the time .. was having to keep it secret .. that made it so much worse and the guilt of course... it cut me off from people ... hard to explain in writing easier when speaking to you. .... !
Not sure about Teddy with that smile on his face ... if he had known what was happening .. he would have been sad ..."
I replied that the teddy bear symbolises the trusting innocence of childhood. I had thought of doing a child's hand, and might put this in the next version.
About this picture …
The background is a sunny beach. The yellow represents the sand; the blue is the sea and sky.
The wardrobe represents my mother. She had a concern for physical appearance that bordered on obsession. She spent a lot of time on her hair, clothes and make-up, trying to look glamorous; but only when she went out.
The fish represents me.
As a child I was criticised a lot by adults, particularly my mother, especially about the way I looked, but also about what I said, how I said it, what I did and didn’t do. Etc etc.
Growing up, I always felt I was in the wrong place. At home, I felt scared and rejected. At Chailey I felt scared and rejected.
The inspiration for this picture is a black and white photograph taken on the beach at Walton-on-the-Naze in Essex. I was five years old.
In the photograph I’m struggling to hold myself up. I’m extremely thin, ill with a second bout of TB Spine. I’m smiling, of course.
My mother relaxes in a deck chair, wearing sun glasses. Composed. Posing.
The point about these pictures and this blog is about finding images that speak to a deeper truth.
I’m not sure how healthy this is, or if it is a good use of my time. This is a genuine and lifelong worry.
Is there something else (better) I should be doing?
PS. The fish is made of wood. It's beautiful, I think. I bought a whole shoal of them, twenty odd years ago, from Reading International Solidarity Centre.
This picture is the latest in what I believe will be a long series, the working title of which is ‘Sundays’.
Whereas the first one was hand drawn and painted, Sweet Sunday was created digitally, with a camera and scanner to get the images into the computer. I used a combination of Serif and Adobe software to edit the images and create the picture.
As previously described, Sunday visiting in the institution was special, extraordinary and transient.
Visitors invariably brought sweets. Not all would be eaten on the day. In later years, when I could walk about, I would save some, keeping them in my locker. This gave me a problem because I hated throwing away the wrappers. They were symbols of something rare and precious. Treasure.
The shape of the sweet wrappers reminded of people standing. So I lined them up, like a row of visitors at the bedside. My mother, who was pathologically self centred, occasionally brought aunts, uncles and cousins to see me. This was to show them how much she was suffering because of my illness.
We had proper hot summers in those days, hence the golden yellow background.
For several years I was completely static, strapped to a plaster bed. The wooden artist’s mannequin seemed a good image to convey this inertness, the limited amount of movement I had. The face is a scanned drawing done by my daughter age nine. I came across it recently during a rummage for old snaps (photographs, in post-war parlance).
The building on the left, part of the old school house at Chailey Heritage, substitutes for the dolls house my parents brought for me to play with during their visits.
The teddy bear came from Ikea a couple of years ago. He is naturally shy but enjoys being in my pictures. I didn’t have a bear as a child. I had a pink rabbit. It was thrown onto the roof of the ward by bad boy David Fox.
It’s a huge though somewhat time-consuming relief finally to give visual expression to these childhood events. I realise now that this is more than mere self-indulgence, but necessary coming-to-terms story-telling. It isn’t just my story.
It is an equally huge blessing that DAO has given me this blog space, to share and get feedback on my words and pictures, which is always pleasing.
The critics loved Reasons To Be Cheerful first time around. The Guardian said: 'The stage gives off a million volts.' Time Out opined: 'Rough, ready and bl**dy brilliant.' Even The Daily Mail managed a compliment: 'It's got a heart of gold.'
Aah, ain't that nice?
So, the Chailey kid came good. Well, nothing unusual in that. I won't mention any names (they might not thank me) but there are quite few of us Chailey kids in and about the (disability) movement.
Ian Dury wasn't an activist. He was an artist, hedonist, hard nut and a rock star. Talented too, but a nightmare to live and work with, if the film Sex & Drugs & Rock &Roll is to be believed. And why shouldn't we believe it?
There's a scene in the film where he goes back to Chailey, around the time he wrote Spasticus Autisticus for the International Year of Disabled People, 1981. I'd left years before, but I'm reliably informed that this visit never actually happened.
Hello to you out there in Normal Land/You may not comprehend my tale or understand.
I don't remember much violence in the film, whereas crip (and crip-on-crip) bashing did happen at Chailey in those days. Dury talked about it and we can assume it affected him, probably not in a pleasant way.
Oi! Cunt face! Who are you looking at?/I'll kick your fucking head off with shit on me boots!
Put that boy in detention!
When I went to see the film, in 2010, I think I secretly hoped I would recognise Chailey Heritage. Of course, it wasn't actually filmed there. The dormitory scenes couldn't possibly have been shot at St Georges because the place was turned into luxury flats more than a decade ago.
I always thought the Blockheads had a great sound, especially Chaz Jankel's piano, but some of Dury's lyrics are pure sexist rubbish:
I offer thee this band of gold/Now do exactly what you are told.
I guess he hated women. Or maybe he was just unconfident.
If I was with a woman I'd make believe I loved her/All the time I would not like her much.
So I prefer the instrumental version of Duff 'em up and Do 'em Over. Not that he didn't manage the occasional insightful social comment:
There ain't half been some clever bastards/lucky bleeders, lucky bleeders.
One thing you can say about Dury is that he was ace at alliteration:
Plaistow Patricia, Plaistow Patricia/Plaistow Patricia, Plaistow Patricia/Go on girl.
Chailey was a grim yet brief chapter in Dury's life; he spent a mere three years there in the early fifties. I was there for eleven years, 1955 - 1966, a big chunk of my childhood. He wrote and talked about it in less than glowing terms. I have yet to find words to adequately describe my loathing for the place.
An Instinct for Kindness. A play about assisted suicide.
A Bigger Picture. David Hockney at The Royal Academy.
Resistance; Which Way the Future. Liz Crow's important installation.
Cheltenham Science Festival 2011. Exploring the Autistic Mind & 3D Thinkers in a 2D World.
Access All Areas 2011. Live Art Extravanganza
Longcare Survivors; Biography of a Care Scandal. Review of John Pring's outstanding book.