Just what you’d expect for mid-January; grey slush underfoot and sleety showers drifting through every twenty or thirty minutes. Not a day to go out drawing, so this multi-trunked beech was drawn in centrally heated comfort, when we visited my mum. It was easier to draw during the gloomier periods; once the low midday winter sun came through, tree and shrubbery disappeared into a formless mass of twiggy darkness with the glistening highlights of drooping boughs etched across it.
As a simple way to get myself started on some short YouTube videos of my work, I tried filming myself drawing with this vintage pen nib.
These steel nibs were manufactured by Perry & C0. Limited, Old Bailey (Late Holborn Viaduct). I’m not sure what the connection was with the Scotsman on the lid of the box.
It’s revealing to study myself in action. I’ve got such tentative way of starting to make marks – I guess my motto is think twice and draw once, except I seem to go over each line two or three times as well. My shaky hands are much in evidence. In my defence, I found it cumbersome to work around the camera on the gorilla-pod on my desk.
It would be so useful to have someone else handling the camera while I focus on the drawing but at least for now I can explore the basic problems of putting together a little video before I enlist the help of my friend John Welding as my cameraman/director and stylist.
Goldfish can see in ultraviolet in addition to the regular colours that we see. The small openings – called nares – that look like nostrils just in front of the eyes direct water over scent receptors. They’re not connected to the gills, so they play no part in respiration.
Small pits dotted along the lateral line are sensitive to pressure.
3.45 pm, Kings Cross to Peterborough; Once you’ve gone through the tunnels north of Kings Cross, it’s amazing how soon you find yourself travelling through open country, starting with the rolling, wooded Chiltern Hills. Somewhere beneath the layer of glacial debris which was plastered over the landscape north of London during the last advance of the ice there are chalk downs.
For a short while we follow the course of the River Great Ouse, a delightful stretch of the river that would make a suitable setting for The Wind in the Willows then, after Huntingdon, we start crossing flat fenland which stretches out for miles, as flat as a chessboard.
The scribbled birches at the top of the next page of my sketchbook represent the brief view we get of Holme Fen national nature reserve (and before it, further from the railway, Woodwalton Fen) as we approach Peterborough.
As the light fades the colour seeps out of the landscape and I carry on in pen only until we cross the Trent at Newark and I decide that drawing is no longer possible.
How to be a Hit
Then I can indulge in the other pleasure of a train journey; reading something from the station bookstall. St Pancras does better than most because as you walk in and head towards the Eurostar terminus there’s a Hatchard’s on your left, built into the Victorian brick arches. However, I had my eyes on a magazine that I’d spotted earlier in W H Smith’s, How to be a Hit on You Tube; ‘Become rich and famous doing something you love.’
Don’t laugh, that could be me once I’ve read it, but at least I’ve managed one out of those three so far.
At last I’ve found the best spot to sit and sketch at Kings Cross; one of the tables overlooking the concourse. The balcony has plate glass panels so you get an unrestricted view of the travellers below.
Despite the length of the concourse, I struggle to sketch people walking from one end to the other but soon little groups settle with their cases, giving me more of a chance. I like the way they arrange themselves, echoing each other in their poses, as well as in the way they dress.
The Olympics Effect
We’re so taken with how friendly and helpful people are in London. I’m sure it wasn’t like this in my student days! People go out of their way to help you, for instance the man on the information desk at St Pancras who walked with us the thirty yards to the machine to talk us through how to buy an Oyster card, which saves you 30 or 40 percent on tube travel.
Our friend Chris in Putney suggests that this is partly a result of the Olympics a couple of years ago, when residents got used to directing people around the city, acting as ambassadors.
London came in for a lot of criticism during the debate surrounding Scottish independence but, probably because the place did so much for me in my student days, I have enormous affection for its streets, parks, river and people. It’s good to have so many galleries, museums and historical sites – plus the zoo and Kew Gardens – concentrated into an easily accessed few square miles, rather than have them spread thinly across the country.
The city always gives me a buzz and inspiration, and a glow of nostalgia for my formative years but that’s not to say that it isn’t a relief when we get on the train, sink into our seats, buy a coffee and a packet of shortbread from the trolley and head back to the hills and small towns of Yorkshire!
Hugh Johnson, The International Book of Trees, 1973
Apart from starting to sketch one of the urns on Victoria Gate at Kew Gardens, I didn’t get to do any drawing. We met up with friends and, as it was so cold, we kept on the move, popping into the greenhouses to warm up. My glasses steamed up instantly as we entered the palm house!
I picked up these pieces of the cones of the Atlas cedar, Cedrus atlantica, to draw back in our hotel room. The cones are described as dehiscent, meaning that they burst or gape open, scattering these scales on the ground below.
Atlas cedar grows on the northern flanks of the Atlas and Riff mountains of Morocco and Algeria. They can grow to forty metres.
David Attenborough, The First Eden, The Mediterranean World and Man, 1987.
The first photograph in Attenborough’s book shows an Atlas cedar with macaques resting on its boughs, a surprising contrast of conifer – which I’d associate with temperate or northern boreal climate zones – and African animal.
The man who brought this dog onto the District Line tube appeared to be prepared to sleep rough tonight (in sub-zero temperatures) as he’d brought an old candlewick bedspread with him. He dumped it by the doors, settling down on the seat opposite us with this terrier who reminds me of Bill Sykes’ Bulls-eye in Oliver Twist.
A stocky, smooth-haired terrier strikes me as the ideal companion if you’re sleeping rough, combining personal protection with a personal hot water bottle. A calm, reassuring but alert presence.
He (the man) rolled a slim cigarette which he lit as we prepared to leave at Putney Bridge. It’s the first time that I’ve seen anyone smoking on the tube for decades. A deadly fire on the escalator at Kings Cross put an end to the old world I remember of littered corners and tab ends.
At a party at a friend’s house near the Thames I sketch this coal scuttle, once an everyday object, the kind of thing you’d buy at an old fashioned ironmongers, but it’s been a long time since I’ve spotted one. Like the London Underground, the coke in it is smoke-free.
Veils of grey cloud in ripple-mark patterns scud along from the south-west against a pearly glare which is all we can see of the midday sun. The wind up here at Birstall retail park flattens the spring loaded signs, bends the trees and grabs at the doors of the Pizza Express so that the waitress has to reset the door-opening mechanism.