Sunday, 26 April 2015

Small things.

As I started to reassess my writing style, I  thought about what I liked doing - what gave me satisfaction - and realised the primary one was just... pointing at things. Pointing out things I liked, and showing them to other people.
... However many terrible, rankling, peeve-inducing things may occur, there are always libraries. And rain-falling-on-sea. And the Moon. And love. There is always something to look back on, with satisfaction, or look forward to, with joy.
~ Caitlin Moran

This week was a good week. 
I struggle at times with recurring mental and physical health problems - and some days are easier than others. This week was one of the better ones. So I started to write the list below - which grew quickly, and made me feel very happy. 
I have some pretty bad days, still, and it's good for me to be reminded of the beautiful things in my life - the tiny joys and small wonders.
 So here's some small things that made me really happy this week, and kept me afloat. 

1. Receiving a surprise lemur card (filled with glitter) in the post from my Mum. This made me incredibly happy :) 

2. This post from The Bloggess, on depression and hope.  I found this to be very moving - partly for its bravery, and partly as it's always hugely comforting to know that others can be in the same headspace as you, and you're not weird or stupid for feeling fragile, even when life is generally good. 
But I mainly loved it because of the comments beneath. Jenny asked her readers to comment, and to tell her '...something good. Something you’re proud of. Something that makes you happy.'
And they did. Over 600 comments were posted.  They had me in happy tears. These are some of my favourites, but they're all well worth running through:

My Kickstarter tarot cards are doing really well! Which means yes, money, always needed, but also that people, most of whom AREN’T EVEN RELATED TO ME think my cartoons are worth cashy money. This is very exciting.

I’m almost half-way through making all the pieces to a giant weird ceramic totem pole that I’m going to put up on my front lawn and scare the neighbors. Making it makes me very happy and nervous that it might not work out but I do it anyway because I like the happy part more than the scary part.

i’m normally 5’2 and today i’m 5’7 because I have amazing shoes, and the very best part is that I havent fallen a single time.

I have thick legs. They make me a little crazy because I’ve always wanted to have long thin gorgeous gams. Last week I was snorkeling with my husband and he was following me in the water. After we got out and were drying off he said, “You are such a strong swimmer! When you would see something and take off I had a really hard time keeping up!”
Because of my thick legs. Because they are thick with muscles.
So now I know if I am out snorkeling with a group of people and we see a shark I can out-swim most of them and not become dinner. So I totally have that going for me now.

I started taking fencing lessons and it makes me feel like a badass pirate.

Next year I’ll be celebrating 20 cancer-free years! I was diagnosed with Stage 3 ovarian cancer when I was 25, and I won’t lie, it was ROUGH. But I’m happy and healthy and that [insert your favorite, most breathtakingly offensive word here] cancer hasn’t shown its face since. There were so many times I just wanted to give up, especially since the next two years were awful as well, but I’m so glad I didn’t. Things can always, ALWAYS get better. I promise.

Last week, my youngest son told me that he didn’t think the tooth fairy was real anymore. I started to feel a little wistful and sad. But then he told me he had figured out that instead of the tooth fairy, there was an underground village of very rich people who were nocturnal. At night, the tooth under his pillow rolled out and into the air conditioning vents and down into their village. The underground folks had special machines that could then extend out of the vent and deposit a coin under his pillow. He doesn’t believe in the tooth fairy anymore but he believes in something even cooler.

i remembered to get out of bed this morning.
I made it to an aqua aerobics class.
My 12 year old asked if I had a copy of hitchikers guide to the Galaxy and a towel.

On Friday, I get to dress up as a unicorn and perform aerial work to accompany a musician I really, really like.

3. My cat being uncharacteristically sinister.
Grand High Evil Genius Cat watches all from above, and surveys his kingdom. 
I can see you, minions. 

4. Wanting to gift this to my 14-year-old-Harrison-Ford-obsessed self. (Mind you, my 37 year old self still appreciates it very much too.)

5. Spending Tuesday in solitary happy calm in Manchester:
 I walked in the glorious sunshine through teaming city centre crowds..... admired shy purple and white blossom erupting on willowy trees..... bought healthy ethical edible goodies at the 8th Day Cafe/Shop .... admired my sales assistant's beautiful tattooed arms and rainbow garments...... learned about Easter Island sculptures at Manchester Museum...... watched tiny jewel-like frogs in their Vivarium navigating rich rainforest leaves...... green and blue lizards darting along walls like quicksilver....... a small dragon dozing blissfully with its claws wrapped casually round a branch...... said hallo to my favourite resident - the bejewelled and stately chameleon........ Then sat on a bench in the sunshine with strangers and watched people drift out of activist tents that had been pitched in the town square..... sipped Elderflower cordial and read Amanda Palmer and felt the sun on my shoulders and the bustle of the city whizz around me .... found a book about the adventures of an underwater tiger.....

And came and sat in the Royal Exchange and drew. Even with scaffolding up for necessary repairs, its still one of the most stunning and serene places in the world.

6. Reading Amanda Palmer's exquisitely honest and perceptive book, and going yesyesyes over her recollections and observations from time spent as a human statue (street performer) - and of the unspoken connections that are made with those who passed by:
...What I hadn't anticipated was the sudden, powerful encounters with people - especially lonely people who looked like they hadn't connected with anyone in ages. I was amazed by the intimate moments of prolonged eye contact happening on the busy city sidewalk as traffic whizzed by, as sirens blared, as street vendors hawked their wares and activists thrust flyers at every passerby, as bedraggled transients tried to sell the local homeless community newspaper to rushing commuters...where more than a second or two of a direct, silent gaze between strangers is usually verboten.
My eyes would say:
Thank you. I see you. 
And their eyes would say:
Nobody ever sees me.
Thank you.
(My human statue friend Alberto - taken on the afternoon that we first met.)
This brought back all sorts of happy memories of times I spent in Covent Garden, with three human statue friends (one silver-painted, one gold, one white), and of quietly watching the beautiful, subtle, intimate-yet-fleeting connection they formed with their audiences.

7. Watching this interview, with Ian McShane (at 5 mins 48) doing a silky impression of Richard Burton coveting his breakfast, and really, really looking forward to the prospect of eating a plate of kippers. Ooooooh, kippers - I love kippers.
And at 8 mins 14, of the same clip, Ian having a gorgeous hearty laugh at his younger self being awkwardly earnest during the chorus breaks of Avalon.

8. Finding one of my all-time favourite paintings again in the Walker
Although it's currently hung very high up on a wall, which restricts your view somewhat, there's something amazing about seeing the painting itself, and admiring the brush strokes, the texture of the oils, the light and the colour.
Here's the original. It's even more magnificent in real life.

9. Starting listening to my epic 44-hour audiobook of It, by Stephen King again, after a long period - and finding myself all surprised and moved (and scared) by the bits I'd forgotten. And remembering why Steven Weber is one of the all-time best audiobook readers I've heard - his wonderful, multi-voiced narration is not only compelling and inventive, but also by turns tender, playful and vivacious. 
(And he does all the voices. For eight key characters, and for countless others. All completely different, and completely believable. Which is no mean feat.)

10.  Hearing that my bookshop was featured in a list of reasons why Liverpool is totally and utterly ace

11. Rediscovering Gabriella Bir's Dance All Night video

This is another little gem from Jenny The Bloggess - who wrote  about her young niece Gabi, - and includes her self-made music videos, which are simple and sweet and incredibly uplifting. In the second of the videos, on a street decorated with amber and scarlet autumn leaves, Gabi wears a white tutu and sturdy boots, and dances an unselfconscious, ragged, twirling soft-shoe shuffle with her lacy parasol. It's really lovely - and wonderfully joyful.

12. Getting up at a reasonable hour every day this week and doing stretching exercises and a small workout. This is after two nights of getting only three hours sleep (due to bad insomnia), and a few weeks of bad-health-related recurring fatigue, so felt like a real achievement.

13. Finding curious and intriguing things at the Victoria Gallery and Museum.

And not being able to resist trying on a fez in the children's dressing-up area, while the curator wasn't looking. 
(And then pretending to be Doctor Who. Fezzes are cool.)

14. Making myself smile when I realised I'm harbouring secret hopes of one day turning into Lix Storm or Bel Rowley
Or if nothing else, being as brilliantly bold, eloquent, and brave as either of them. 
(Yes, they are both fictional characters from The Hour. But that doesn't stop them being marvellous.)

15. Receiving excitable greetings and big bearhugs from a friend's rambunctious 9-year-old triplet boys, when they came to visit my bookshopAnd marvelling at their insatiable, delightful inquisitive natures. Everything in my workplace was fascinating, and had to be investigated and questioned and exclaimed over and played with. 
It was an apt reminder to retain that generosity of affection - and a sense of curiosity about the world - long after we pass 9 years old. They're beautiful qualities to keep.

16. Where the Hell is Matt?
This is the third (I think?) of Matt Harding's uplifting, celebratory dancing-around-the-world videos, and I think it's his best yet. It's one of the most joyful things I've seen on the internet, and shows how - in spite of cultural and language differences - we really are all just the same. 
All these people coming together, to dance. Or bounce, leap, or cheer. 
(I think the Hungarians have the niftiest moves... or maybe the Rwandans.... although I do like the Hungarians' hats.)

17. Very nearly finishing a new illustration.

Now, let's see what next week brings.

Friday, 24 April 2015

In praise of 'Night Train' - and on ageing gracefully.

 ...Life is a bit like a mountain. Isn't it? ...You spend most of your life climbing up it. And then you suddenly realise - when you've got to the top of it - that you've got to spend the rest of your life going down it.
But you've got to remember that going down is as much fun as going up. And actually.... it's a little bit more fun because you... you can remember the struggle of getting up. And you can go down... a little bit more gently, perhaps. 

But it's certainly no less exciting...
~ John Hurt.

In a clip I watched online recently - from the excellent New York, I Love You - a tender, subtle, fleeting-yet-profound connection slowly builds between a woman in her late 60s (played by Julie Christie), and a young man in his 20s (Shia LaBeouf). Although the scene is very brief, the chemistry between them is dazzling.
I was deeply moved by this tender scene, but saddened and shocked to read the comments following - from horrified viewers, who couldn't believe such a romance would be allowed to take place. A woman in her 60s was seen (by nature of her age) to be instantly unattractive - and a wholly inappropriate match for a younger man.

Later that week, a friend asked me if I didn't feel some sense of trepidation or anxiety about the idea of becoming 40, 50, 60 or 70. I told him - with absolute honesty - that I don't. I've enjoyed being every age I've come to, and I don't feel any fear about growing old - I hope it'll continue to be an adventure.

So as an antidote to such strange thoughts about age and ageing, I dug out and re-watched John Lynch's Night Train - with John Hurt and Brenda Blethyn - which is, at its core, a slow and tender romance between two ordinary people - who happen to be middle-aged.

(Please note - the following contains spoilers.)

Hurt plays Michael Poole - a world-weary ex-con, newly released from prison and on the run from a Dublin mobster who's money he's embezzled. Blethyn is Alice Mooney - a frustrated legal secretary, living at home and caring for her elderly, sour, emotionally abusive mother (played with casual acidity by the wonderful Pauline Flanagan).  Seeking a safe house to hide, Poole takes up lodgings in Alice's rented upstairs rooms, and there installs his 'pride and joy' - an enormous model train set.

The main narrative is compelling enough, (Poole is eventually forced to go on the run again, after being tracked down by the mobsters, and there's a stunning segment aboard the Orient Express) - but really fades into to the background. What is most striking is the connection that sparks between the two.

Poole and Alice begin a tentative, endearingly-awkward and initially shy relationship, sparked by mutual curiosity and loneliness - but that blooms slowly around sandwiches, late night instant coffees, quiet cigarettes and Graham Greene novels, and which eventually blossoms amidst the clickety-clack chatter of his room-wide elaborate and glorious train set.

John Hurt was 58 when this film was made, and Brenda Blethyn was 52. Both have faces that tell of age and experience. Hurt, particularly - with his weathered, lined and worn visage and troubled eyes - speaks wordlessly of Michael Poole's long-worn regrets and nicotine-stained nights. But it is this reality that makes the story all the more real, the more honest - and the more moving. 

'I'd like to read your sort of books...'
'I've a room full of books, upstairs, Mr. Poole. You can borrow one at any time....'

There's a gentle formality to their courtship that (as one reviewer put) is reminiscent of Brief Encounter's Laura and Alec. It's polite and hesitant and sweetly stumbling:  

Alice carefully times her rushed breakfast in order to contrive a chance meeting with Poole at the front door, when they both leave for work... 
He bounds happily round the train set, pointing out the stops on its journey with undisguised passionate zeal - yet instantly folds back into shy formalities when she's called to leave... 
She leaps at the chance to make him supper, and constructs a sandwich with endearing, eager enthusiasm... 
Later, she gift-wraps him a new model carriage for his train set, and presents to him with nervous off-hand briskness - and yet he opens it with genuine, child-like wonder and unaffected gratitude.

'What happened in Paris?'
'Nothing. That's just the point, y'see. I came home. To all this.'

 Slowly, slowly, they both begin to open up about the frustrations and regrets of their own lives. They've both been through the impulsive years of youth, missed opportunities and wrong decisions. And their hopes. For simple things - a home, a sense of belonging, for acceptance, for a connection. Their dreams are small and uncomplicated. Neither asks for much.

In spite of their initial shyness, there's an ease and an unquestioning respect and acceptance between the two. She does not demean him for his lack of education - and neither is he put off by the difficult bond that ties her to her mother. They find an instant sense of being seen, when the rest of the world has passed them by and dismissed them with barely a second glance.

'You're so different from other people...'
'In what way?'
'I think you just read things right.'

'I think you're rather beautiful...' Poole eventually tells Alice, after their first real date - a night out on a peaceful pub crawl.
Yet when they finally exchange their first hesitant kiss, he's visibly trembling.
'...And I thought you were such a man of the world....' she chides gently, returning his shaky smile - and they fall into a relieved embrace.

It's a refreshing love story that takes a more gentle, unconventional telling, and is an apt reminder that love, romance and sex should not be limited to any age - and that significant connections between people take place at all stages of life.
Sometimes it's when we've lived a little - and come to know ourselves better - that we have much more to offer. And the journey down the other side of the mountain may be a little slower, but is still glorious - and can be filled with profound beauty.

Thursday, 16 April 2015

They parted where the wild poppies grew.

All stories are about wolves. All worth repeating, that is.
~ Margaret Atwood

They parted where the wild poppies grew. They blossomed year-round, fighting their way even through the harshest snowfalls, bright startling scarlet drops amidst the pure white drifts.

She clambered on top of the great wolf's back, clinging tightly to his dense fur. He waited calmly, while she settled herself into place, and smoothed the folds of her red coat neatly along his back.

No words were needed. They raised their hands in a final farewell. Then they finally turned, moved off without a whisper, and melted away into the forest.

The others watched in thoughtful silence, until the figures became a single pinpoint speck of red.
And vanished into the horizon.

This one came about when I was sketching ideas for a Red Riding Hood tale - for inclusion in a book of world folk and fairy tales that I am writing and illustrating. It started off as a rough sketch but filled out quickly and made itself known, and called to be finished.
I got stuck part-way in, however, and abandoned it for a time, while I researched another story (which is now underway - I'm re-telling a tale from Africa...)

In the meantime, I'd also been discussing a new illustration idea with my very lovely friend Mike - we'd long wished to collaborate together, but for one reason or another, it simply hadn't happened. Finally, everything seemed to click - and we began to happily chat about ideas for an illustration for his current book.

Very suddenly, at the beginning of last month, Mike died. His death was unexpected, and left me stunned. I did not draw for a time.

When I finally returned to this picture, Mike was in my mind.

As I wrote in my previous post - Mike was a beautifully eccentric, gentle, whimsical wonder of a man - an artist, craftsman, musician, poet and photographer. He was also a great observer of life and the absurd, and of the enormous beauty of the world. And, particularly in the last years of his life, a very prolific writer. He found wonder and humour in tiny things and unusual connections, and wrote with a precision and rare insight that reflected this.
He spun strange and lovely worlds and characters into existence.
He was a true - and most unique - storyteller in his own right.

And so, instead of being an addition to my fairy tales book (or perhaps, as well as), this one is simply for him.

A fond goodbye, and an unknown journey.
For my dear friend, who left at the beginning of the Spring.

Mike: thank you for all the stories, all the wonder, all the joy.

...And when great souls die,
after a period peace blooms,
slowly and always
irregularly. Spaces fill
with a kind of
soothing electric vibration.
Our senses, restored, never
to be the same, whisper to us.
They existed. They existed.
We can be. Be and be
better. For they existed.

~ Maya Angelou