Saturday 14 October 2023

Catullus Bound: exhibition of drawings and books, Senate House

Tenshiko tied by Kirigami
I’d never heard of Japanese rope bondage (aka shibari, Japanese for ‘to tie’) until a chance meeting led me to draw in a club for performing this elaborate and consensual pursuit. Its fluctuations between dominance and submission gave me a setting for my translations of Catullus, the poet of hating and wanting.

Some of my shibari drawings are on show throughout Michaelmas 2023 in the lobby of the Institute of Classical Studies, Senate House, London. The exhibition leaflet is here

Showcase 1

Being a top (the one who ties) is about humility. Being a bottom is about power. Odysseus takes rope-bottoming to extremes, putting others in harm’s way for his own gratification. Troy: myth and reality lies open at three images of Odysseus bound to the mast so that he can safely hear the Sirens.

Catullus launched an infinity of kiss poems, some of them here: The Poetry of Kissing in Early Modern Europe: From the Catullan Revival to Secundus, Shakespeare and the English Cavaliers by Alex Wong.

The cover of my Switch: The Complete Catullus is held in place with tiny magnets so that it won’t curl in the showcase. The Senior Conservator at Senate House Library, Salvador Alcántara Peláez, set up the exhibition with his ingenious bag of tricks, and made something coherent out of my doomed theoretical layout.

Showcase 2

Paul Jackson, Deputy Librarian at the Institute of Classical Studies, administers the Hellenic and Roman Library’s rare books. He supplied a beautiful C. Valerii Catulli Opera combined with Propertius and Tibullus (Paris, 1685). At his suggestion it lies open at poem 8, ‘Miser Catulle…’, in which the poet unconvincingly orders himself to get over his failed affair with his nemesis, Lesbia.

The human condition makes bondage a powerful metaphor. I chose two poems to illustrate this and Lucy Evans, Head of Collections at Senate House Library, selected exquisite rare books in response to my brief: ‘small’.

Poems, &c. by John Donne, late Dean of St. Pauls (Henry Herringman, 1669)

Holy Sonnet XIV
Batter my heart, three-person'd God; for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o'rthrow me, and bend
Your force, to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurpt Town to another due,
Labour to admit you, but oh, to no end;
Reason your Viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captiv'd, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you and would be lov'd fain,
But am betroth'd unto your enemy;
Divorce me, untie, or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I
Except you enthral me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

From Hesperides, or, The works both humane & divine of Robert Herrick, Esq. (John Williams and Francis Eglesfield, 1648):

The Braclet to Julia.
Why I tye about thy wrist,
Julia, this my silken twist;
For what other reason is't
But to shew thee how in part,
Thou my pretty Captive art?
But thy Bondslave is my heart:
’Tis but silke that bindeth thee,
Knap the thread, and thou art free:
But ’tis otherwise with me;
I am bound, and fast bound so,
That from thee I cannot go;
If I co’d, I wo’d not so.

Showcase 3  

Miss Bones tied by Fred Hatt
Catullus was often censored. Richard Espley, now Chief Librarian at the National Art Library in the V&A, advised me to look in Senate House Library’s Craig Collection.

The British writer and poet Alec Craig (1897-1973) amassed books on sexuality and erotica, including banned or censored works. I picked Le Livre d’amour des anciens (Bibliothèque des Curieux, Paris, 1912), open at anonymous French translations of Catullus – including, in poem 32, a comparatively chaste ‘prépare-toi à me reçevoir neuf fois de suite dans tes bras’ where Catullus promises nine frank ‘fututiones’.

Swinging Catullx contains gender-fluid versions of Catullus based in Dr Maureen Almond’s Teesside, where she also locates Horace. Living Classics: Greece and Rome in contemporary poetry in English edited by S.J. Harrison is open at her version of Horace Epode 2, pervaded by the menace of pigs’ trotters.

Andrea Brady’s Poetry and Bondage: A History and Theory of Lyric Constraint focuses on the works of people who are imprisoned, enslaved or oppressed.

Showcase 4

Catullus influenced Virgil. Paul Jackson produced a first edition of the Baskerville Virgil, Publii Virgilii Maronis Bucolica, Georgica et Æneis, printed in Birmingham in 1757. Recalling our A-Levels, we agreed to show Aeneid, Book 4.

John Baskerville (1706-75) asked James Whatman the Elder (1702-59) to make a new ultra-smooth wove paper, facilitating the ‘kiss impression’ – the lightest possible pressure of printing on the surface – required by the detail of his Baskerville font.

Virgil influenced Dante. B (After Dante) (Carcanet) is an acclaimed interpretation by  Ned Denny.

‘Hands tied behind with living ropes that reared to hiss
at their loins where head and tail were knotted tight’

Shibari performance usually involves suspension. Plato describes a chain of artistic suspension in Ion: ‘One poet is suspended from one Muse, another from another: the word we use for it is “possessed,” but it is much the same thing, for he is held. And from these first rings — the poets — are suspended various others, which are thus inspired, some by Orpheus and others by Musaeus; but the majority are possessed and held by Homer.’

Open at this passage is Plato: The Statesman, Philebus (translation by Harold N. Fowler); Ion (translation by W.R.M. Lamb), Loeb 164, 1925.

With thanks to Joanna Ashe and Paul Jackson of the Hellenic and Roman Library/Institute of Classical Studies, and Lucy Evans and Salvador Alcántara Peláez of Senate House Library.


Monday 11 July 2022

On having it easy, and not, and my beautiful mother

Kathleen Rixon, my mother
Kathleen, my mother
I wrote this for a college old girls' thing. I was pleased to be told it 'might not meet their criteria' as it is about not meeting their criteria.

My mother Kathleen had left home, which had not been happy, by the age of 16. Her father, a good man whom I never met, was a stonemason on the Earl of Pembroke’s estate in Wiltshire; he rented a damp tied cottage with a spider-haunted outside toilet and poached the Earl’s trout in the River Nadder which ran past the garden.

She became a telephonist. Allied Command was based at Wilton House and she once disconnected Winston Churchill so that she could speak to him – ‘Trying to connect you.’ As her job was in the civil service she had to give it up on marriage to a handsome soldier from Toxteth during the war. They wrote beautifully expressed love letters (you don’t need a formal education for that) during their wartime years of separation. To my grief she ordered my father to burn them when she died.

I have never met anyone more alert or intelligent than she was. It rankled with her that her richer cousin Doris had been able to stay at school for longer. Doris teased my big sister for her ‘book-learning’ but I was secretly entranced by Doris’s plastic shower curtain with tropical fish on it and Spanish lady toilet roll cover.

A few feet from my desk is – are – the wooden tongs with which my mother fiercely stabbed and heaved laundry in the middle of our council house kitchen. The washing machine was a lidded cauldron on wheels. Attached to it was a stiff mangle which she turned to squeeze the hot sudsy water into a metal bucket.

Eventually my parents were able to buy a house with slightly more modern appliances, but homework remained the priority and our mother was determined that her daughters would not learn to do housework. When I arrived precipitately at Somerville, without a gap year, I had never boiled an egg and could just about assemble Vesta packet chow mein. I fell mute around the noisy self-sufficient boarding school girls.

I thought I understood my mother and her tormented anxiety but it is only now, in a shielding household (the significance of that idiom will be lost; let it die), cooking dinner every single evening and denied my Bulgarian cleaning lady (‘I do love Maupassant, don’t you, Isobel?’), that I am even beginning to learn how much the tongs pinched and wrung. My story is not unique. Members of this cohort born in the UK were lucky to arrive in the post-war blip.

Wednesday 8 June 2022

RIP Egbert Knight Polycarp Glasgow

Egbert Knight Polycarp Glasgow was charming, courteous, elegant and entertaining. I first met him when I was drawing people under the Westway where it flies over Portobello Road. Below are (edited) the posts from that time which feature him. A lovely man, he will be missed.

Monday, 27 June 2011

Drawing under the Westway - day eight

I'm introduced to Clifton, aka what sounds like Killer (below).

He doesn’t look like one.
‘Short for Kilimanjaro,’ he says.
‘Ah, I say, ‘snow on the top.’
‘And everything else all the way down,’ he says. 'What’s your name?’
He laughs. ‘Queen Isabella and Christopher Columbus!’

He accepts his picture. ‘You make me look handsome and I’m gonna get some girlfriends.’

He takes the picture over to a group of lean weatherbeaten Rastas. I hear raucous rasping laughter.

Egbert (below) detaches himself from the Rasta group. ‘I saw what you did for my friend,’ he says courteously. ‘I clean vehicles for a living and play reggae very loud.’

I draw; he falls asleep with dignity and gradually folds into himself. Perfect. We are peaceful together.

He coughs himself awake and I give him a bottle of water. ‘People say to me why do you speak to all people? I try to read,’ he says. ‘They say I should write my life story but too many people gonna get hurt. I speak the truth. My grandmother says speak the truth and shame ol’ Beelzebub himself. I left St Lucia on the eighth of January 1959 by boat. My first address here was 19 Colville Square.’

A woman stops her car and asks him to clean and vacuum the car on Friday.

He studies the picture. Harsh lines let me down but he says: ‘You’ve captured the essence of me. My mother would have been proud of this.’ I go to shake his hand but he says, ‘No, I am from St Lucia,’ and kisses my hand three times.

He takes the picture back to his companions and I hear more cackling.

Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Day nine

Another client from yesterday, Egbert, turns up in a black hoodie with cannabis plants emblazoned on the back, a herringbone tweed jacket, a striped shirt and a Haile Selassie sweatshirt. The rain is practically opaque.

More thunder. Egbert addresses heaven: 'I hear you. Thank you. Rastafari Jah. Lion of Judah.'

Thursday, 30 June 2011

Day eleven

Egbert from St Lucia comes to sit for me again, my spare plastic chair being the main attraction. This time I'm ready for him so I scrawl his head frantically just before it slumps forward in sleep. 

Someone wanders over and peers under Egbert's hat. 'You can't get the models these days,' he says.
'He's my favourite,' I say, and he is, because he allows more time than a restive wide-awake one. (There are other reasons as well.)

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Day thirteen

Egbert arrives, this time with his supermarket trolley: 'That trolley don't answer me back.' Inside it is a hand-written notice:
SINGED [sic]

I've no idea why we start talking about the royal family. 'Oh, Margaret, she was a raver. She'd go where royalty is not supposed to. If there was a problem she'd sit down with a bottle of wine or Champagne and deal with it. When Diana died I cried, yes.'

He points out that the Notting Hill riots of 1976 began just round the corner, after some boys had stolen jewellery in Queensway: 'Instead of takin' it home and hidin' it they were flashin' it off. A policeman said what's that and the youth said mind your own effin' business. Then it started.'

Egbert peers around. 'That man is lookin' at the circumference of that woman.'

He holds his picture at arm's length and talks to it: 'You look as ugly as sin. But I like you. You are me. Who said I was as ugly as sin? Oh, I know. My mother.'

Benjy [left], profoundly courteous, limps over slowly; I've seen him most days, always elegant with a hat and stick. He arrived here from Dominica in 1960. He announces: 'For deviosity, women are the champions.'

Jacqueline turns up for a chat. I like being generally available, out on the asphalt - a geographical reference point. Turn left at the windswept woman with the drawing board. We talk about drawing children and the risk of making them look like little adults. Study the proportions, she says; there's a roundness to their faces.

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Day whatever 

Egbert the St Lucian Rasta
soliloquises in his hypnotic voice then begins a rapid dive into sleep. As his head droops I start another drawing. Neither is finished, even by my hazy speed-freak standards: he wakes and has to keep an appointment.

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Day 17 - closeted

Yesterday evening, after Monday's looting, Portobello Road was deserted apart from some police and a few listless tourists. Only the chip shop kept going. Today it's business as usual except for the shops that were trashed. I need the view of Egbert, the St Lucian Rasta, on current events. It's like having a colleague.

'There's a new nutter out here,' he announces. 'Just arrived from the madhouse.' I hope I find him soon.

I ask Egbert what he thinks about the riots. 'I wasn't around. Someone accused me of being in Hackney. I don't think so. I'm not into confrontation or the rioting business so I stayed here.' 

What about the carnival? 'You can't suppress the residents. Let them enjoy themselves, they won't loot or shoot nobody.' He falls asleep with his usual abruptness, wakes, coughs, makes a liquorice paper roll-up, sleeps again.

Sunday, 28 August 2011

The day before the Notting Hill carnival

Electric drills as shops board up. Stacks of crush barriers. Portaloos. Tourists at a loss, waiting for fun.

I sit outside a cafe on Portobello Road. Kilimanjaro has been in hospital with stomach pains. 

Courtesy of me, a photo of Egbert the St Lucian Rasta has appeared in ES magazine. Tesco's on Portobello Road stocks the Evening Standard but not its aspirational Friday colour magazine, ES, which indicates what the distributors think of Portobello Road. I ask Kilimanjaro what Egbert feels about it. 'It's made him the happiest he's ever been,' he says. (That's an exaggeration but the short article is here.)

Egbert appears, looking happy and holding a copy of the magazine which looks like papier mache after prolonged handling. I offer to make him a durable copy of the page sealed in plastic. 'One for each of my daughters,' he says. 'I went to a funeral party the other day and for the first time I saw my daughter Victoria in black. She looked WICK-ED.' He walks away, waving. 'I love all women, even the married ones,' he says.

Friday, 23 September 2011

Walk on by

To the people who found my blog after googling 'notting hill carnival 2011 peeing' - welcome.

Out on Portobello I find Kilimanjaro and Egbert the St Lucian Rasta. I tell them I am waiting for Jacqueline, whose husband is a trainee rabbi. 'He trainin' to rabbi,' says Kilimanjaro. Egbert and I admire this greatly but are also jealous that we didn't think of it ourselves.

Rab I. Rob. In dialect. Oh come on.

Egbert tells me his eyes are blue-grey. I should have noticed by now. He points out a man called Beddoes. Then he tells me about eddoes, starchy vegetables that he says are very scratchy on the way down. He reminisces about his mother: 'She never hit me with her left. She only hit me with the right once and she knocked me out. Then she threw cold water over me.' 

By now Jacqueline has arrived.  We're next to a record stall and we sing along with Dionne Warwick - Walk On By and This Girl's in Love with You. Egbert sits for us in a nonchalant, practised way. His rib cage is tiny, elegant. 

'Egbert draws himself,' says Jacqueline. Egbert has true grace.

Saturday, 22 September 2012


Overheard outside Tom's Delicatessen:
A: 'I have a yoga class now.'
B: 'Oh, do you go to the Life Centre?'
A: 'No, someone comes to my house.'

B looks as if dashing her brains out against the nearby lamp-post will be the only cure for her humiliation.

Clifton aka Kili
I'm in army fatigues searching among the street people for a man without a telephone. Egbert, the St Lucian Rasta, my most reliable and loquacious model. I find him holding court outside a cafe on Portobello Road, all cheekbones and diminutive elegance.

Egbert kisses my hand fervently and calls me empress. I feel like one.

'Wie geht es Ihnen?' says Egbert to Kili.
'Es geht mir gut.'
'Heil Hitler.'
'Sieg Heil.'

Egbert gets up to go. He whispers in my ear: 'Her name is Doreen. She is short and chunky with bow legs. She is a wonderful cook. She's cooking me fish. One love.'

Saturday 18 December 2021

BVL cover pictures

BVL, formerly Big Voice London, now reaches beyond the capital to inspire students in non-fee-paying schools to explore the legal system. Since 2017, Peter Sloper and I have been doing the covers for the students' annual reports on how they would change the law.

Graphic design: Peter Sloper
Illustration concepts: me


For the background I used the painting overalls of Ben Wilson, the Chewing Gum Man - I write about being out on the pavement with him here.


Tuesday 4 May 2021

Life class and a Gerry Adams court case: sketchbook muddle

Don't take anything for granted. Things I sort of took for granted were the weekly life class, the Good Friday Agreement and live drawing (with permission) in the UK Supreme Court. Two are currently impossible because of Covid-19 and one is under threat because of human idiocy.

This muddled-up sketchbook has become an accidental record of two, with overtones of the GFA, in that a court case in central London involving Gerry Adams (although absent) did not require massive security.

It shows life drawings from a couple of weeks' sessions, and sketches R v Adams (Northern Ireland) which was heard on 19 November 2019. In May 2020, the Supreme Court quashed Gerry Adams's convictions for escaping from the Maze prison in the 1970s.