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.

Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Day nine

Jacqueline arrives, raring to start drawing life under the canopy.

Duncan Anderson comes over (long white hair and beard, the one who said I made him look deranged on Day Seven). 'I've lost my soul,' he says. He points to his shoe. Oh, sole. It's peeling off.

'This is the canopy of lost souls,' says Jacqueline. I hear it as 'canape'. I automatically start sketching him but he moves on. 'No,' he says, 'you're gonna capture my soul. I'll have nightmares.'

I scratch my forehead with the tip of my pen. It is a double-ended brush-pen. 'You've just drawn on your forehead,' says Jacqueline.

Kilimanjaro, whom I drew yesterday, wanders by, disturbed. 'Someone tore my picture last night. There was a fight.'
'Stay for a couple of minutes and I'll do you another one.'
'Not now, I've got some business.'
He goes to have a bitter row with someone about a supermarket trolley.

'I'm the same age as the Westway,' reflects Jacqueline.
'You're holding up better,' I say. 'And you aren't covered in graffiti.'
'Give it time,' she says.

My phone vibrates. An email from Woking Freecycle. Wanted: a franking machine, drum parts. Offered: stick insects, Trivial Pursuit. Taken: a wormery. It all speaks of home and safety.

Yesterday's heatwave has given way to biblical thunderstorms. 'What I like about this time of year is that people don't know what to wear,' says Jacqueline.

A girl in a yellow crash-helmet, flimsy flower-print dress, bomber jacket, wooden wedge heels and a yoga mat protecting her lap sets off on a pink scooter through horizontal rain. 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.'

My friend Oliver turns up to sit and talk. His beautiful angular nobility eludes my chalks, not for the first time. I wonder if I should practise on his identical twin whom I have never met.

Monday, 27 June 2011

Day eight

I feel like a windsock.

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

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 detaches himself from the Rasta group. ‘I saw what you did for my friend,’ he says courteously, resting his black spoon on the concrete slab. ‘I clean vehicles for a living and play reggae very loud.’

I draw; he falls asleep with dignity and gradually folds into himself. Perfect. I want to draw the comatose, the departed, the flayed, the anatomised. 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.

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Day six

Foul weather. Phone goes on blink. Faff around with it for an hour, don't ask.

Delve into bag for healthful snacks. Have forgotten to bring them. Buy hot chocolate and chips at corner cafe where the salt has gone missing. 

Stare out at first-week-of-Wimbledon downpour. Wonder what to push for with drawing. Listen hard for what my teachers would be saying.

In Kipling's story The Man Who Would Be King, the destitute cripple Peachey is guided by an illusion of his comrade whose head he carries wrapped in rags. I think the teacher-pupil relationship is a bit like that. It wasn't Peachey who killed his comrade, although that can sometimes be one aspect of the relationship.

Monday, 20 June 2011

Day four

Away from my bleak Westway empire [right], I’ve been at countryside festivities where nobody noticed that one of the belly-dancers had a prosthetic leg. And if you’re one of those people who feels a need to google ‘belly dancer prosthetic leg’, welcome to my blog about drawing under the A40.

A pretty girl sits down, eats, smokes and texts.

The girl is Irana and goes back to Spain tomorrow. I spray the drawing with fixative and hand it to her. ‘I love it!’ she cries, sparkling. Look, she’s not telling me it’s a great work of art or anything – she’s just happy.

Buoyed up by the love, I break for hot chocolate from the corner café. A couple of men walk past, talking:
‘Bernard Matthews. Is he dead?’
‘Oh shit.’


My friend Peter wanders along to say hello. He says how wonderful it is to have an excuse to sit and stare. A drunk in shades shuffles up to Peter, nudges him, mumbles, grins. The drunk’s teeth are corroded black chips.

My drive home touches the tectonic plates of sleek London and just-surviving London. It feels as if people are being ground between the plates.

A girl of primary school age with what used to be called flaxen hair, carrying a violin case, walks under her mother’s wing. Another mother, with a baby in a buggy and a small child alongside, is confident in that moment that nothing bad can happen and steps out in front of the car without looking.

Monday, 13 June 2011

Day 3 - elegant pissing

Hasty email from a girlfriend: ‘You must draw under the Westway – it’s nuts!!!! Get a bit of that ganja in your lungs and you may even enjoy it. Wear Converse and clothes with labels (not M&S) and a few cans of spray paint in pink/purple and silver. Forget Isobel and call yourself IZZY much more impressive in metre high letters. Probly to be on the safe side a couple of rubbers would be a good idea too!!!! Sounds Fun!!!’

So far I have been offered weed, cigarettes and coffee but not sex, solvents or alcohol. I don’t have any Converse. My labels today are Clarks, Muji, H&M, the Israeli army and, to keep out the cold, Max Mara and black opaques from M&S.

I draw Michael while he talks and gesticulates. He did three years’ service with the Israeli army and translates the care label on my military jacket for me. It dates from 1972, the year before the Yom Kippur War. I point to some damage in the fabric. ‘A bullet?’ I ask. ‘A needle,’ he says.

Gusty wind. I use two perfect clementines as weights but my drawing paper goes flying and one clementine rolls thirty feet away. I bustle after my drawings but leave the clementine, a point of gold on the asphalt. 

On the other side of Portobello Road, a man without a mobile phone is waiting by a poster that says:

Green spaces
Innovative arts
Room to PERFORM.

He sits on a bollard, stands, sighs, stares, walks around, sits. I draw him over and over again. He waits for more than an hour, disappears behind a wall, presumably to pee, reappears, walks away.

Oh Christ, what’s that on my paper? Coffee? Birdshit?

A statuesque Jamaican in ankle-length fitted black coat and wide trilby, carrying a heavy laundry bag, returns my look with penetrating black eyes, swaggers past, dumps the bag and elegantly pisses through the railings into the unresisting bushes of Portobello Green. Why don’t I draw this? He turns, retrieves his bag, strides off and scoops up the clementine. He is the most beautiful creature I see all day.

Two children cycle up and stare at my hazy, hard-to-read sketches of people in movement. ‘Wicked,’ says one. ‘Stay and let me draw you,’ I plead, but they are gone.

A phrase comes into my head: ‘to my heart’s content.’

Oh God, a noisy lopsided drunk with can of lager. Please let him not notice me. But in this asphalt-coloured coat I am invisible. He accosts a couple of stray smokers instead. ‘New York, New York,’ he sings. ‘Glory glory hallelujah.’

I get two paper cuts. Not enough blood to draw with.

Thursday, 9 June 2011

Day 2 - twitching and altercations

Pakkey (for Patrick) is an Ulsterman with two cats (Crackers and Gizmo) and, once upon a time, a rat who liked cannabis. He puts down his can of Guinness. 'Don't drink and die,' he says. He twists round to show me the back of his denim jacket. 'It's the pentangle of Solomon - I put it there myself.'

He has purple leather gloves with the fingers cut off and a walking stick embellished with nail varnish flourishes. He says he is 'a sculptor or a sculpture'.  A blonde German woman admires the pictures of him. 'Oh no,' he says, 'you can see I've had my nose broken twice. Altercations.'

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Day 1 - passion more or less

Anyone remember the late Stanley Green? He paraded up and down Oxford Street in all weathers with his banner: 'LESS PASSION FROM LESS PROTEIN: LESS FISH MEAT BIRD CHEESE EGG: PEAS BEANS, NUTS and SITTING.' Then he would wobble off home on his bike along the North Circular, never exuding good health.

Today I felt I could become another human landmark, spending the rest of my life drawing on this tidal stretch below the Westway which flips from deserted to busy in seconds. Unlike Mr Green, I have no message.

So. My friend Julia and I took out our sketchbooks. Julia produced an exemplary pen and ink study of the houses opposite which was much admired by passers by. 

I thought I would tout for sitters. I tried a man working in the second-hand furniture shop on the corner. He was embarrassed for me. I gave up and left it to chance.

A woman walked by with a packet of fags and a pint of milk. She stopped for a chat and a throaty laugh and I did a two-minute pencil sketch including the health warning on the fags; she asked me to make the fact that the bottle contained milk clearer so I wrote MILK on it. She took the drawing and offered me a couple of quid. I refused and she gave me two hugs. She is called Eleanor.

Horn Head cycled up in a black baseball cap to check us out. He is a graffiti artist of great charm. He drew me his identifier and promised to come and draw with us. 

A woman with a pink crutch said Eleanor had told her someone was drawing people. I did another two-minute portrait and said that her eyes were beautiful. She said no one had told her that before. She quoted the saying that the eyes were the windows to the soul. She offered me reiki in return for the picture. She is Doreen: she is an MBE and runs a supplementary school.

Julia left to keep an appointment. I sprinted home for a winter coat and filled its pockets with raisins and BabyBel cheeses.

Little human constellations formed and re-formed. Lone smokers, agitated phone-callers, hand-holding tourists, dazed street locals, a school crocodile. A man stuffed his shirt into his trousers and pulled them up front and back. He saw me sketching him and glared. A couple taking photographs of the rain photographed me drawing them.

A man lugging a black zip-up suitcase fell forwards very slowly then managed to sit slumped against a pillar. Two policemen approached him. I felt it was not appropriate to draw the man but sketched the police. Then the man lay down with his face in his hands. 'You can't sleep here,' said a policeman. My heart hardened and I included the man because of the beauty of the groupings as he lay, or knelt, or spread out his palms in appeal. More police appeared; they put on gloves.

'What's in the case?' asked a policeman. 'Open it, please.' Over and over again. 

Kneeling, the man opened the suitcase and slowly picked out paperbacks. I couldn't see the titles. His trousers were loose and as he stood up for a paramedic his naked buttocks appeared. 

Thick pencil on thick A4 paper - I am not pleased with my drawings today. 

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

My Westway life-drawing hell

From 8 June I will be drawing under the Westway Monday-Thursday for a month and blogging about it. I think.
No I don't know why either.