Friday, 10 October 2014

Drawings of Buildings

I'm not sure what first compelled me to draw a building, although my current theory is that I required a wider variety of artwork which I could take to my interview for the Art Foundation course at the Mid Warwickshire College of Further Education, not least because whilst my silk screen work and painting was all very imaginative and colourful, I didn't have very much which demonstrated that I could actually draw. Another possibility is that my mother had given me a gentle nudge in that direction in the hope that I would begin to spontaneously generate money and accordingly develop something resembling a work ethic.

Whatever the case, I stretched a sheet of decent quality paper on a large board - a process which I had been taught would keep the paper absolutely flat and free of warping in the event of my adding watercolours - and spent the best part of a relatively sunny day occupying a section of pavement on Church Street, Shipston-on-Stour, just opposite Saint Edmund's Church. I mapped out the block of shops and houses next to the church in pencil, then rendered the detail in black ink with the Rotring pen I'd received a few Christmases before. Finally I added thin washes of colour with gouache paints, defining sky, clouds, brick, tarmac and so on. The result seemed decent, an exercise in perspective if nothing else. It closely resembled that which it depicted, which was the point. It was in part an exercise to see if I could do this sort of thing, and it turned out that I could.

Personally I felt it lacked imagination and was somewhat laborious in that the creative process required me to sit on my arse for four or five hours, but it was nice to know that I was heir to at least some conventional artistic ability; and of course it was all very nice to have pedestrians and other complete strangers pausing to take a look before commenting upon my brilliance every five or ten minutes.

Regrettably one of these pedestrians was Michael Harvey, owner of a local tea room and Shipston's most famous homosexual. Whilst I doubt he could have had much interest in me - an awkwardly hairy teenager half-heartedly shambling towards a sort of industrial jumble sale look - he very much liked my drawing.

'That's really very good, you know,' he drawled, burping and swaying slightly.

'Thank you,' I said, fervently hoping that he would continue on his way before we were seen by anyone I knew.

Being quite clearly full of gin, Michael Harvey seemed to be having some difficulty remaining vertical, and so in brutal contrast to my wishes, sank to his feet, sliding down the wall to take his place at my side. He leaned over a little closer than I liked. 'Just one problem...'

I made a non-committal noise that could stand for curiosity.

'Those ghastly television aerials ...'

I considered my drawing and saw his point. The row of buildings I'd drawn were nineteenth century or possibly earlier, the kind with sash windows, and very typical of the Cotswolds. I had considered omitting all modern features from my drawing, but it felt as though it would be in some way dishonest, and the purpose of the exercise had been technical rather than aesthetic in the strictest sense. Furthermore, given that my favourite aspect of the drawing had been the perspective of a street plunging away towards its vanishing point somewhere over near where Jason Roberts lived, I had quite enjoyed drawing those television aerials.

I muttered something about honesty and realism and painting that which is seen by the human eye, but it probably didn't sound very convincing. In any case, Michael Harvey had fallen asleep, his head lolling onto my shoulder in boozy slumber as he began to gently snore. This was more physical contact than I had enjoyed with another human being in living memory, and I cursed my luck that the other party should be a slightly chunky and very drunk male in his late forties.

Michael Harvey was a local celebrity, or at least the local celebrity who didn't play Frank Spencer's long-suffering wife in Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em. Michele Dotrice had achieved fame through a phenomenally popular television sitcom, and her dad lived on the Stratford Road. Michael Harvey had achieved fame of a sort through being openly homosexual in a rural Warwickshire town in the early 1980s, or at least he had achieved fame amongst those of us who found his very existence hilarious because we were teenagers and we didn't know any better. Actually we did know better, or we should have done. My favourite band at the time was Soft Cell, and my favourite writer was William Burroughs. This distinguished me from most of the other kids in the town who preferred Queen and Judas Priest, and who generally seemed to regard not being one of those bumboys as a sort of achievement. I always had the impression that my failure to adopt a denim jacket with Status Quo written on the back in biro marked me out as gay and by definition an outsider. Despite being securely heterosexual and entirely aware of the contradictions, my friends and I embraced and repeated the jokes told about Michael Harvey because to do otherwise would be to take his side and share his supposed disgrace. If we were outsiders, we were at least not so far outside as the owner of the local tea rooms whom we impersonated as a limp-wristed hybrid of Larry Grayson and Mr. Humphries from Are You Being Served? without stretching anyone's imagination to breaking point.

One morning, as legend had it, some enormous hairy biker had materialised in the tea rooms demanding cash from the till. Michael Harvey emerged to calm the situation, but only made matters worse.

'I was good enough for you last night,' the hairy and apparently not-actually-heterosexual-like-ourselves biker bellowed with resentful fury, inadvertently supplying the entire town with enough scandal to keep us yapping for a good seven or eight years. We liked the story because it confirmed that Michael Harvey was very, very gay indeed, which for some reason made us all feel better about our small world.

Meanwhile back in Church Street, I coughed and accidentally-on-purpose jabbed Michael Harvey in the side with an elbow, but he was too drunk to be woken. Inevitably, after about five minutes, every knuckle-dragging shithead biker enemy I had ever made at school passed by on the other side of the road in a single group which seemed almost to have been assembled especially for the purpose. As one they regarded me and my new gay friend, then chuckled because it meant that they had been right about me all along. I tried a desperate sheepish smile as though this was something that happened to all of us from time to time - just minding your own business and wham there's a drunken homosexual asleep on top of you.

We've all been there, right guys?

Apparently we hadn't, and I experienced a sudden upsurge of self-loathing. I had seen myself and I hadn't liked it. I couldn't have cared less what Michael Harvey chose to do with either his own penis or those belonging to his close friends, and if anything I kind of admired the fact that he quite clearly didn't give a shit who knew about it. That took some guts in such a small town, the potential Wicker Man theme park in which my family had resided for six or seven years and yet were still regarded as outsiders. Screw these people, I decided. I'd take a thousand Michael Harveys over any one of those inbred Def Leppard-album-owning fucknuts any day of the week.

After another half an hour or so, he woke with a grunt and stumbled wordlessly away to sleep off the rest of the hangover at home. I finished my drawing with a scowl, resenting both the town in which I lived and at least some of its population.

By the summer of 1985 I was far away from Shipston, living at one-hundred and twenty miles distance in the village of Leeds, near Maidstone in Kent. I had just finished the first of three years of a degree course at the local art college, so I suppose you might say my drawing the houses of Church Street had paid off by some tenuous definition. Just before that first year of art college, the most money I'd ever had in either my hand or my junior savings account would have been the fifty pounds I saved with which to buy my sixty watt guitar amplifier - and this figure included a tenner on loan from my mother. Then all at once in September 1984 as I moved away from home, began my course, and discovered both alcohol and cigarettes, Warwickshire County Council and the hardworking taxpayers of the British Isles blessed my bank account with a full grant of at least a thousand pounds. This was more money than I was even able to imagine, and there were a lot of records and albums that I really, really needed, and the train fare back home every other weekend wasn't cheap...

Somehow by the time summer came around I was enormously overdrawn, and I knew that I needed to do something about this before it got out of hand. The job centre offered me a position in a biscuit packing factory, which I turned down on the grounds that it didn't actually seem like it would pay better than the dole which I could claim without really having to do anything. I took a summer job with a furniture restoration business run by one of the local farms, but the pay wasn't great and the work was tough, which in turn drove me back to the drawing board.

People liked drawings of old buildings, I decided, particularly drawings tastefully denuded of their television aerials such as one might see framed and on sale in the windows of twee art galleries in rustic villages. People would pay for that sort of thing, I concluded.

I began with a drawing of the local pub, The Ten Bells, just something to revive whatever skills I had brought to the fore a few years earlier with Michael Harvey burping appreciatively into my ear. The Ten Bells represented a focal point in the village of Leeds - not to be confused with the city of the same name, obviously - and was chosen for both architectural interest and in the hope that I would be observed by as many people as possible. The plan worked in so much as Terry, a regular at the pub, commissioned me to draw a house in the village of Chart Sutton, although I'm not sure whether it was his own house or that of a friend. For this I was paid thirty pounds - a figure I had produced off the top of my head - which seemed decent for a day's work even taking into account the sore arse incurred whilst sat on the ground for five or six hours.

I stepped my operation up a gear, each day setting off by nine to draw a building, weather permitting, wobbling along on my bicycle with a bag full of paints, brushes, water, a thermos flask of coffee,  and with a drawing board tied onto my back with washing line. Each day - I reasoned - I could produce something theoretically picturesque for eventual sale in some small gallery, hopefully bag a few commissions in the process, and then be home by six to stretch a fresh sheet of paper ready for the next morning. It worked in so much as I began to line up commissions here and there, and branched out to draw in the villages of Langley and East Farleigh, but it was also a little repetitive, sometimes frustrating, and harder work than I had anticipated. More frustrating was that I found each village I visited tended to have a saturation point beyond which new commissions became scarce. In East Farleigh I drew a caravan site by the river, then the house of the owner of the caravan site, then the local pub for a mere twenty because I didn't want to say no to the work, and then a moderately stately home inhabited by a reasonably glamorous women of upper class stock. The landlord of The Bull in East Farleigh had brought me a can of lager as I worked, and the upper class woman brought me a glass of wine, kissed me on the cheek and told me that I was wonderful, which was all very exciting; but the commissions had dried up, and I could no longer face starting over again, spending an entire unpaid day developing a sore arse on the chance of some passing stranger liking my work. So I briefly became my own door-to-door salesman, knocking at large old houses which looked as though they might contain the sort of people who would be likely to procure my services. I secured a couple of commissions by this method, but as many people telling me to piss off rendered it a chore, not least because I knew I would have told myself to piss off had I been in their shoes.

Nevertheless I managed to pay off the majority of my overdraft that summer, and college resumed in September bringing with it a new grant cheque which happily swallowed the rest. I ceased with my drawings of buildings, glad to be freed of both the obligation and the risk of haemorrhoids. I briefly returned to the house of the upper class woman with a camera borrowed from college on the flimsy pretext of needing to keep a record of my drawing work, but she was hungover, still married, and therefore unavailable.

I returned to the drawing board a third time following the end of my college degree. I was living in Chatham, unemployed and more overdrawn than ever with a frankly astonishing record collection to show for it, and it seemed there might be some milk left in the cow given my proximity to historic Rochester, arguably the Stratford-on-Avon of the south thanks to Charles Dickens having once stopped off for egg and chips at the Happy Eater on the M2 just outside Walderslade.

I painted the castle, and as I did so, I realised that Rochester was the sort of place which attracted artists like meth addicts to transvestite brothels, so my display of plein air draftsmanship hardly seemed worth a second glance. I returned to appearing pitiful upon the doorsteps of confused strangers, humbly beseeching that they might patronise the trade of a travelling artisan so badly in need of a haircut. The owner of The Gordon hotel viewed me with suspicion, but decided that the reception desk really did need a fancily framed portrait of his establishment, and so I had the job.

This commission was in a sense easier than usual in that Rochester High Street, being pedestrianised, provided seating on which I could sit whilst working on my masterpiece, yet ultimately proving to be as much a pain in the arse as before.

The hotel owner disliked my first drawing and asked that I try again, this time giving greater focus to his establishment, excluding those neighbouring architectural features which I felt had made the picture a little more interesting for the viewer. I began again, and as I came to finish the work with the customary watercolour wash, I found I had once again drawn an audience. There were two of them, and if they weren't quite so drunk as Michael Harvey had been, neither were they anywhere near as attractive as the upper class woman of East Farleigh. They were full of booze, slightly friendlier than I liked, and shared their cans of special brew with the sort of aggressive bonhomie that proved difficult to refuse. They praised my talent, and seemed to be asking questions about where I lived and whether I had any money; but their efforts - whatever it was they were after - seemed obviously devious and feeble, and were easily deflected; although getting them to piss off and leave me alone wasn't quite within my power.

At length I was done and ready to cut the drawing from the board. With relief I realised that my companions would almost certainly be unable to follow me into the hotel given the state they were in. I would be rid of them. I took out my craft knife as they swore and went on and on about how much fucking talent I had, man. I began to cut the picture from the board but, being full of diplomatically consumed special brew, my hand slipped and I sliced diagonally across the paper.

'Oh fuck!'

My companions laughed with the conspiratorial glee of naughty schoolboys who knew for sure that only I would suffer the consequences of their actions.

'You're fucked now, mate! Your beautiful picture and all!'

I ignored them, gathered up the tools of my trade, and went into the hotel with a massive sigh of relief at having escaped their company. I tried my best to appear sober.

'I've done it.' I readied myself for the explanation of how the cut would be invisible once the picture was framed.

'Just leave it.' The owner didn't even look up. He waved a hand, preoccupied with hotel business. I already had the money seeing as he'd paid me the thirty on completion of the earlier, unsatisfactory version. He'd given me the money then because he'd had it to hand and it seemed convenient to do so.

I looked out of the door. The two pissheads were nowhere to be seen. I left, quickly unchained my bike and cycled away.

I have drawn just one more building since then, or more accurately, I painted it. It was October 2007 and I'd moved on from the ink drawings. I had a full time job as a postman with Royal Mail and no longer needed to pay off any overdraft, but it was a full time job that had become increasingly unpleasant over the previous decade, and now we were on strike and I had been looking for a way out. I wanted to see if I could still do it, if I was still able to generate money by my own hand, and so I sat and painted Edward Alleyn House in West Dulwich. In six hours I attracted the interest of one passer-by, a woman to whom I delivered mail who kindly took the time to explain my own strike action to me.

'Of course,' she smiled with obnoxious conviction, 'the postmen only have themselves to blame.'

Friends have told me that the painting is very good, although my stylised rendition of the sky as it appeared has given the composition a Lovecraftian quality, as though something horrible is about to happen within the building.

I guess I took that as a sign.

It was nice to know that I could still turn out a picture if the worst came to the worst, but it was nicer to know that I didn't really have to.

1 comment:

  1. Ah, Michael Harvey - the late great.

    I very much enjoyed reading this, having also grown up in Shipston and indeed having been a pupil at the High School. I was brought here via a Google search for the Kerry Tea Rooms, Shipston. Your description of the aforementioned M Harvey was particularly vivid, and accurate. I was reminded of his fine establishment in Market Place, Shipston, after watching an episode of the BBC sitcom Joint Account starring Hannah Gordon and Peter Egan - which was filmed on location in Shipston and featured a scene set entirely in the Kerry Tea Rooms. Bishop's Menswear also features.

    Thank you for bringing the memories of Shipston to life - I had never heard the story of M Harvey and the biker!