Sunday, 18 January 2015

In memory of special times and a special person.

For Susan

12 months ago on 14th January, I lost a dear friend, and I wrote this when I learned she had passed ,in her memory.

Love has been the raging torrent that has carved out the landscape of my life
And Sue was there in the pure virginal meadow of my youth to witness the emergence of the spring from whence that river grew.
I loved her with the totality that only a 10 year old boy can muster, absorbed completely by her beauty and grace. She was my world, and the river began to shape and sculpt me.
Long summer afternoons playing in her garden between high hedges
Holding hands on a Sunday school trip while we watched the sun hanging low over a glass-still lake at the foot of the Mourne Mountains.
In these moments the poet and the artist in me were born, growing from a need to express the unbearable beauty of life.

In teenage years we briefly met again, and again I offered my heart in an awkward adolescent way to my muse.
Without malice or intent she stood me up on a warm summers day, and finding that I was tall enough if not old enough to buy alcohol I sought solace in my first cheap wine and cigarettes, retreating to the shade of an Irish hedge and punishing myself for hurting so much. Thus I embarked on a successful career as a serial drinker and smoker. I don’t bemoan these things or complain. I excelled in debauchery and I found a sense of belonging that had previously eluded me amongst other artistic souls, dented and damaged by love and life. From the twisting smoke of these first cigarettes a life long friendship was born, and many problems were caused or solved, and many other friendships forged and lost , all with the aid of alcohol and tobacco.

Through all of my adult life, when things felt disjointed, I would fantasize that our orbits might cross in some romantic way, and we could recapture those moments of pure romance. She was, however unwittingly, my emotional safety net.
But it was never destined for us. Many years later we found each other again, by now both of us with families of our own. And we were happy. Our rivers had taken different courses, and hers had meandered through other lives, bringing that same sweet smiling joy to people I would never know. For the first time in my life I was truly happy, so when we sat down , her family and mine, for an oh-so-brief coffee and cake, I knew that our destinies were not as lovers. I no longer needed a soft place to fall.
And I smiled.
I was pleased for the love she had in her life, for her faith, for her family, for all of those things that she had found and I had found that would forever keep us apart.

We kept in touch rarely now, always with the warmth of just fiendship rendering our connection safe and non-threatening.

But Sue was my first muse
You never forget your first.

Her river no longer cascades……

But I still hear it’s roar.
And the landscape that river carved in my soul in the very beginning is forever my home.
Goodbye, “little blonde plaits”
I will never forget.


Monday, 1 December 2014

The Discovery Part 2

I met Dave and Sarah at their house, and we walked down to the Chapel by the road.

“Knock Knock!” Dave called, and a muffled response from within told us they were in the chapel.
We went inside, accompanied by the collie, and there ,in the dim light, looking through a cardboard box ,stood a lady whose age I had no chance at guessing, as I’m no good at those things. I thought maybe she was in her 60s, but I must have been wrong, as it turned out.
Her son was there too, smiling. Dave did the introductions, and we exchange pleasantries. She had a friendly attractive smile and a quiet, clear voice, overlaid with a smooth dressing of Dutch accent.

Casting my eye around the partially organised chaos of the room my attention was first caught by a small group of marionettes, about 18” tall, and 2 rod puppets, hung on  or rested against a bare pine frame opposite the door. Even at a glance it was obvious that their creator was both technically and artistically very gifted. The faces were carved with individual personalities, and asymmetrically designed, in the way that I like to carve, and I felt myself in the presence of a kindred spirit.

I’m afraid I may have become a little excited at this point, as I examined the baby’s pram with a piglet in it, the ring master, mermaid, Arab ,weight lifter, fish etc. Mrs S patiently related what she knew of each of them, and the plays they were from: plays like “The Little Mermaid” and “Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves” etc.

The similarity to the Lanchester marionettes struck me right away, with various sea creatures being fairly heavily influenced by the cast of the underwater ballet, and indeed when Mrs. S explained the plot of the play, I was able to fill in the gaps in her recollection with my own knowledge of the plot.

The tell-tale hip joints, elbows and knees were of that same iconic design, and although this was the first time I had met these puppets I felt a warm glow of familiarity with them . Everything was exquisitely carved, moulded, or formed with wire. The exaggerated features of the probably politically incorrect black banjo player had a beautiful scratch built banjo, perfect in every detail, and his lovingly carved fingers looked like they were poised and ready to pluck some Jazz or Bluegrass from it’s strings.
Looking around the Chapel’s interior I became aware of the proscenium  to my right, a gaping rectangular hole through the end wall with a dark empty space behind and an apron stage in front. From there a gently stepped auditorium floor extended to the back of the room, cluttered with engineering and woodworking tools, large freestanding electrical ones and small hand tools, all looking like they had ceased work in the midst of a project and were awaiting the return of their owner.
Everywhere there were tool drawers and tool boxes, shelves and cupboards, overflowing with tools, circlips, wire, bolts, bearings, clock mechanisms, and things I didn’t even recognise, but they looked like they all had a use and were not at all randomly collected.

In the middle of the floor, between 2 large logs of what turned out to be limewood ,were stacks of musty cardboard boxes, about 2ft square and 1 ft deep. Distracted by the vision of such large lumps of well seasoned lime, the Holy Grail for carvers, I only slowly became aware that Mrs. S and her son were unpacking black bin-liners from the boxes, opening each to reveal...more marionettes !

Here there were a pair of camels about 2ft tall, witches, more fish, a shark, Ali Baba’s thieves, an enormous horse, the sweetest braying donkey, a lion, a juggler, a trapeze artist, musicians, a conductor, a crazy fat opera singer, dripping in jewellery...and on and on. Looking closely at the structure of one puppet I recognised the mechanism for the Indian knife thrower, and reminded Mrs S. of how it worked. I couldn’t believe my eyes, the range of puppets I was seeing...unicyclist, clowns...they just kept coming.

Mrs S. was saying “I’m sure you’ve seen enough” but she was as keen to share her husband’s work with me as I was to see it. As we looked through the puppets she bit by bit pieced together the story of how all this had come about.

He had been an engineer all his working life, even building cameras for big film studios to use in demanding circumstances..under water, extreme temperatures and the like. He even built some of the early stop-motion cameras for Aardman when they first set up. His passion, however, had always been marionettes, and he had tirelessly laboured away since the 1950s perfecting his art. Some of the early ones are obviously less proficient, but have a charm of their own ,and are an important part of the narrative of the collection. His quest had been a long and lonely one ,with very little contact with other puppeteers with whom he could exchange ideas and techniques. So he had been largely self taught, gleaning information from books and experimentation. He and his wife had once owned quite a large piece of land ,with a house and barns and stables, and the chapel. They had an animal park of sorts, and he began to convert the chapel to a theatre so that in wet weather visitors might have some indoor entertainment laid on to amuse them.

In the interim, he did have a couple of seasons of putting on shows for visitors, with a folding stage that the whole family would lug out to a local hotel and set up every week through the summer. He began to film some of the performances with some idea of maybe pitching them to the TV companies.

The pursuit of perfection in the building of the theatre was so time consuming and expensive that ,bit by bit, they had sold off the house, the barns, the land etc. Until all that was left was the chapel, an acre of land around it, caravans for him and his family, and the burning ambition to finish his dream. He undertook all of the work himself, extending the original building at both ends, building stone and block with great skill. He made gothic arch windows that he built into the roof, and sash windows for the auditorium. He even made some replacement ridge tiles for the roof by taking moulds from those that were there, and casting them with earthenware clay to match in. For 20 years he lived in the caravan, and there he and his wife brought up their 2 children.
Finally, old age and Altzheimers rendered him unable to continue his work, and cruelly started to strip him of his memories. Finally, in November of last year, he became resident in a full time care home, removed from his family, his puppets and his theatre.

The more of the story that unfolded as Mrs. S spoke lovingly and a little wistfully of her husband’s “lone voice crying aloud in the wilderness”, the more I heard echoes of my own plans and ambitions. The parallels were very peculiar, and as it turned out they had even lived in the same place that I had lived as a child before moving to Cornwall. He too was a slave to his muses, driving him on, with a Quixotic air, tilting at his own private windmills.
An idea began to form in my mind.
I suggested to Mrs. S. ,with the utmost respect, that these puppets were such a valuable resource that they really should be removed from the damp, dusty building where they would be susceptible to mould and mouse damage, and cleaned and hung in a dry room to prevent any further deterioration. If she would allow me to help, I would consider it a privilege to handle them, and learn from closely examining them whilst preserving them for posterity. A weary look came across her face, and she explained that she just couldn’t face the scale of the task, as she had pretty much run out of the energy and the will to even begin such a demanding project. She did say that she would have loved to share the puppets with the world, however, and maybe even see them on stage again one day. It was then that I made the offer.

“If you will allow me to take on the task, I would consider it an honour to do the work, and be instrumental in the rescuing of the puppets. Just say where and when, and I will be there. “....At least that’s how I heard it in my head, but I’m quite sure that the babble of excited  words, shaking with suppressed emotions, was probably much less eloquent.

They seemed excited but unsure, and I decided that the best way forward was to let them discuss it as a family and let me know how they felt, without any pressure from me. We chatted some more, in the fading light with bats whirring around our heads and the evening chill coming in, before bidding them farewell with further protestations of my sincerity hanging in the air.

I walked back up to Dave and Sarah’s home where they were preparing their evening meal, and talked animatedly and at some length about how stunned I was and grateful that they had told me about the puppets and arranged the meeting, whilst drinking coffee. Finally, remembering my manners I bid them good night, and returned home to relate the tale to Emily, then sleep fitfully, dreaming of theatres, puppets and possibilities.

At least now I had made contact, and laid the ground for our next meeting.....

Sunday, 23 November 2014

The discovery part 1


In the last few years landmark moments have been happening to me with almost alarming frequency.
They quite often seem to strike in September, or autumn at least. As this is the season that inspires me the most, I sometimes wonder whether these opportunities are always floating around in the ether, and one only needs to be in a receptive frame of mind to pluck one from the air, and nurture it to a fully fledged plan.
 Last night I stepped into a scene of beauty and decay, delight and despair, inspiration and near desperation.

To begin at the beginning.

My dear friends Dave and Sarah bought a house a couple of years ago, a converted barn in the countryside near to Bodmin.
For what seems like an eternity we have been trying to arrange an evening together, eating- drinking- laughing, as we used to do regularly in the various places we have lived. Dave and Sarah have been busy building and running a very successful art supplies and picture framing business, and I have been working long hours running my sign business, building the workshop to bring the business home while trying not to keep the customers waiting too long. Add into the mix my increasing obsession with making puppets and building my mobile marionette theatre, for all of us it seems, whatever time we have not been working in recent years we have been sleeping.

On a rare family trip out to Boscastle with Emily's dad, Raymond, the 4 of us bumped into Dave and Sarah, and resolved that this intolerable state of affairs must be rectified immediately, and that we must go to visit them in their new home and have some food ,wine and banter as we did in the old days of the "Full Moon Club".
So, about a week later we duly rang up to see how they were fixed, and were invited to the house for dinner.
What a lovely evening we had.
Winding through the country lanes in the wooded valleys just off Bodmin moor, we followed the directions given to us, turned left onto a steep track beside an old chapel, and wound our way up the hill between the hedges, over the cattle grid, and up to the house- a converted barn, surrounded
by gardens and fields to the rear, and a parking area to the front. They showed us around the workshops, stables gardens and fields, stopping to say "hi" to the horses. Freya ran and skipped and talked excitedly..and I felt slight pangs of sadness that we didnt have a garden like this for her to play in at home.
It was a lovely warm evening, late summer/ early autumn in all it's glory, and as the sun lowered in the sky, casting dramatic fingers of shadow across the fields, we went inside. After a quick tour of their lovely home, we went upstairs to the living/ dining room, relaxing with drinks in the charming open plan interior while they prepared dinner.

Over the meal we discussed life, work...and the strange and fascinating story of the family in the caravan next to the very picturesque chapel at the roadside at the end of the lane.
It emerged, almost as a casual comment, that they were in the process of building a puppet theatre when the patriarch of the family was taken ill, and that they had puppets and props and all sorts of wonders behind the modest walls of the chapel, that Dave and Sarah had only briefly glimpsed.

I couldn't believe my ears
Here ?

Barely able to restrain myself, I implored Dave that he request an audience with this mysterious Dutch lady, just so that I could see the puppets ,and how far the theatre had progressed before the works had come to a halt.
They said that they saw her almost every day and would mention me ,and gauge her reaction.
There was even talk of a collapsing grand piano prop among the bits and pieces, so at that point I dared to start hoping that these puppets might be of some quality, and worthy of research.

At the end of the evening we loaded up and went home, my fevered mind twitching with the possibilities that had been born of the evening's conversation.
The very next day, Dave, as good as his word,rang to say that he had really enjoyed the evening, and thanked us for coming, but more importantly that he had spoken to Mrs. S and she would be delighted to show me the puppets on Monday night, between 7 and 7.30, if I was interested.
"Yes ! Brilliant!" I replied, grinning like a bagful of stoned monkeys.

Monday dragged.

Work was difficult, concentration a lost cause. Eventually, after a hurried meal, I jumped in the van and headed off.

It was another lovely evening, just a hint of autumnal chill, but not enough to require coats and jumpers. On the way there I almost found myself hoping to be disappointed, because I am content with my lovely home and workshop, and didn't want to become infatuated with another property.
"Still," I thought, "I expect it won't be that good. Storm in a teacup I expect."

I began to prepare myself for an awkward situation, trying to formulate the words that would be a polite response to the work of an enthusiastic but untalented amateur. I was already suffering under the weight of too much inspiration, more than I had the time to fully explore. With 2 books, a mobile puppet theatre and a business to deal with, let alone having my lovely family to spend time with, I really didn't need something else to light yet another connected fire in me.

Shame that...

The Gods will have their sport........

The Chapel be continued...

Saturday, 1 March 2014

winter 2010....remember the snow ?

I wrote this in 2010, and have just found it again.
Thought I'd share it.

A confident sun eased itself, stretching, over the horizon
basting with melted butter
the uppermost limbs of the trees in the valley.
A pledge of restorative warmth
to the stoic waxy holly
and encumbered viridian ivy.
Improbably bright flickers of light
flashed and glanced on frigid leaf and branch.
Long fingers of shadow
the colour of robins' eggs
reached out over the pale golden hillside across the river.

Maybe today?

a single dusty flake

then two....three....
a flurry......

And turning to face the stiffening breeze I saw it.

A featureless, towering, slate-grey wave
Looming over the virginal, cowering landscape
and breaking on the shoreline of scratchy bare trees,
engulfing them in a swirling insistent smoke,
turning them to a muddy watercolour blur.

There would be no thaw

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

And so it begins

The cart is bought
The wooden panelling too
The plans are drawn
Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you...


Monday, 23 December 2013

Small marionette
 painted and ready for strings

Finally, a stem on his pie

He has a checked cap

I wonder what I should call him.....

Friday, 20 December 2013

Last Christmas I painted part of the Christmas display for Liberty of London

Process video, gilding and painting for Liberty.
Reverting to the earlier torso design, and loving how it looks and moves.

Thursday, 19 December 2013

Getting there now

He's coming together now, and developing a personality !
Next, a pair of trousers and a coat.

Wednesday, 18 December 2013

This is a puppet I'm working on at the moment

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Chasing the marionette dream

Some time ago I posted a picture of a puppet head I was carving. I've now added a bit of hair, and he is starting to get some character.
I have been inspired to redouble my efforts, as I have been accepted onto a course in long string marionette manipulation at the Little Angel Puppet Theatre in London.
I cant tell you how excited and scared I am about 9 days in London, but I couldn't miss the opportunity.
This will all help in forwarding my current project of building a mobile puppet theatre on a farm cart that's

over 100 years old. Pictures to follow soon.
This is a major new chapter in my life, and when it all comes together my aim is to leave children slack-jawed with wonder, and remind their parents what it felt like to dream

Monday, 16 July 2012

Here's a film poster that I provided the illustration for.
The film, " The Beast", is by Dream Seekers Productions, headed up by Peter Dukes, a very talented independent film maker in USA

Thursday, 23 February 2012

Some sketches for my book

These preliminary sketches are for some of the characters in the book I'm writing.More will be along soon.
Some of them will probably also be made as puppets.

Just had the privilege of meeting Brian and Wendy Froud, and attending Wendy's sculpture masterclass.
Learnt a lot there that will be very helpful.You should follow their blog, "Realm of Froud". Lovely stuff from sincere people.

Friday, 27 January 2012

Coming Home

After a whole year building the studio and moving the business I am finally home, and with big plans for the future.
I'm going to Live the Dream!