It’s a lovely sunny cool day here in Tunstall. These photographs were taken when I took Oskar for a walk at about 10.45. The sun is low so creating strong shadows and highlighting leaves and branches. The photographs are a mix of my walk through the backs and into the park. Taken on my Xperia phone.
Today’s photographs are in my ‘garden’. In the corner is an elderberry tree and this year there has been a reasonable crop. There are a few left and as the autumn deepens it is one of the only tree with green leaves.
Next to it is some ivy which is slowly (as I want) taking over a very bland wall, new growth is not beautiful, just constant and quite unstoppable.
Taken on a cool breezy sunny autumn day at 11.55am.
Chapter 18 of my novel Underpainting which moves on to 1992. For previous chapters use the link above or in Categories.
Rachel was tired and lay on her sofa in front of a spitting gas fire, slowly unwinding, listening to cold winter rain beating on her window. She’d been working all day at The Old Horse, preparing meals.
Rachel lived in a flat that Henry had found for her, it was cheap and far from spacious but it was a base, and best of all a base in London. She was surrounded by her drawings. Her life revolved around the need to make some money to eat and to create work. Peter had given her a contact at Clapton Community College and she taught life drawing to students one day a week, then she worked at The Old Horse over the weekend which left four days to draw and paint. Henry was being very helpful and had already sold eight drawings for her, he even took a lower percentage to help out, seeing that she was an investment. The drawings were vaguely erotic contortions of herself, she still couldn’t afford a model, and the idea of using herself began to take hold, she was in control of what and how the figure became an image.
Rachel’s flat was part of a former council block in Shoreditch. On her floor from what she could tell most of the other flats were used by prostitutes, the ones who advertise in phone booths. The girls seemed young even to Rachel, frightened, and many could hardly speak English, sometimes there’d be trouble and two heavies would run along the walkways and sort things out.
The door-bell rang.
She ignored it as it was nearly midnight, and she knew it would probably be a punter for one of the girls, got the wrong flat number. It happened most nights.
The bell rang again and again.
“Who d’you want?” she shouted.
“Rachel, is that you?”
It sounded like Tom’s voice.
“Is that you Tom?” she looked through the spyhole, Tom was soaking wet, and weighed down on one side. Rachel quickly opened the door, Tom came in dragging the dead weight of another person.
“Have you got twelve quid …for the taxi? I’m skint”
Rachel sorted it and when she got back in the room it seemed full of bodies, wet clothes, bags. Tom was cleaning up a young male, who eventually she recognised as Lizzie’s brother Philip.
“Are you OK Tom? What’s Philip doing, I thought…”
“I’m soaking. Philip he’s, well, coming down I think the term is.”
“I was walking to Euston, I was going home, the late train. I saw a bundle on the floor and realised it was Philip, he was covered in puke, someone had nicked everything he had, and there was a policeman coming. Well, I thought I better do something. I used to see Philip at the Watsons.”
“Why bring him here? I’ve got no room, you can see that”
“I rang Lizzie and Ryan’s number and only got the answer phone, I supposed they were out looking for him, I know there’s been some problems, I didn’t know what else to do”
“Is he alright?”
“Well, he could be better, he’s puked about ten times! All over me as well but I think that’s over”
“He smells awful, you’re not much better Tom. Why didn’t you take him to hospital?”
“I didn’t want Angela to get in trouble”
“She’s worried that if they find him, or he gets in trouble again the other kids will be taken into care”
“I didn’t know you knew Angela? But why?”
“He’s only fifteen, still a minor, she’s worried, I’ll tell you about it later. Can we stay here?”
For Rachel there couldn’t be much later in it, she was dead beat. She took a deep breath, “I suppose so, there’s only one bed, I suppose Philip better have it. It’s only for one night though” she insisted.
With some difficulty they moved Philip to the bed, Rachel and Tom undressed him, he was covered in bruises and sores.
“He really should see a doctor Tom”
“Tomorrow, let him be for now”
When they’d settled him down they sat and drank coffee.
“So how come you were down here again, I thought you’d gone home?”
“I came for an interview, teaching course at Goldsmiths”
“Teaching! You must be mad Tom!”
“Oh I want to do it, that job at the city farm after the set, I loved it. I found I could work with kids, they responded to me.”
“But Tom, school kills all that, great on a city farm, but in school, its all league tables, jackets and ties…”
They sat in silence staring at the gas fire.
“You’ve been busy” Tom said looking round at the pictures.
“Yes. I’m also doing some teaching, but at a college. Tom, teaching in school seems like giving up, a giving up of all you held dear…”
“It’s not Rachel, it really isn’t. I know I’ll never be like you, it isn’t there, you’ve got something to say. I can paint, but what for, it’s not important, what I have to say is only, well, more of the same, you have an eye, you can put down what you feel, these are you, my paintings were not me, I can’t put down what’s inside me.”
Rachel knew what he meant and felt he was brave and honest to realise it. She also knew that some of her most recent work was produced because she knew Henry could sell it, was that keeping to an ideal?
“And what’s all this about Angela?”
“Yes. I’m not too sure where to begin. I used to go round sometimes to the Watson’s, with Peter, to do odd jobs, I remember we knocked down an old garage once, and I painted a room and the staircase. Bill never thought he should do decorating… it was a bit of cash. Anyway it was while I was home I had a phone call from Angela, she asked me to come round and help her out, some floorboards were loose upstairs. Well while I was doing the repair, she came out of her bedroom in a dressing gown, took it off and was totally naked. She’s a good looking woman…”
“Old enough to be your mother!”
“…suppose so, but well I ended up in bed with her. She seemed lonely and I was sorry for her, Bill dying and Lizzie going away like she has…”
“And I suppose you fucked her out of the goodness of your heart, typical male!”
“…no it wasn’t like that. She was very nice to me”
“I bet she was, and that’s when she told you about Philip and her fears”
“Well, that was the next time, but around then”
“So you went back for more!”
Rachel remembered with some unease and disgust the time she had sex with the manager of the circus she worked at, he was around sixty five, eighteen stone and she had little choice, her dad was in trouble and they owed him money, she was only fifteen, it paid off the debt. After what she’d had to do she’d no appetite for sex. She knew in her heart that Angela wasn’t really old, why shouldn’t she have a young man good luck to her, she thought.
“That wasn’t all. I heard a rumour that she was pregnant…”
“And that she was saying it was me…”
“Well you did…”
“But it couldn’t be, something to do with sperm count, I can never have children”
Rachel was dumbstruck.
“Oh I am sorry Tom, I didn’t mean…”
“Don’t worry, it doesn’t bother me. Something happened when I was a baby, some sort of effect of the drugs they gave pregnant mothers, you know the sort of thing, at least I’ve got my hands and legs”
“Is she really pregnant?”
“No, only a story to get Lizzie back home. Angela’s like that, that’s why Philip’s probably like this”
They heard a moan from the bedroom and they went and checked Philip, he was sweating, but asleep. A knock on the front door broke the silence.
“Is Astrid there?” a male voice shouted.
“Next one along!” shouted Rachel.
“It really is good of you to put me up at such short notice, odd that booking going wrong”
Ryan sat at Peter and Marianne’s kitchen table, a bottle of dark French beer in his hand.
“This is good”
“Mari will be back home soon. I’m off to Paris early in the morning. A lecture…” Peter said.
“That’s good, you’re getting famous, who’d have thought eh?” Ryan took a long drink of the beer “…Weaker, they brew weaker beer for the Brits”
There was a couple of minutes silence, they had little in common.
“Is Lizzie visiting Angela?” Ryan asked.
“No, she’s still in London”
Another minute of silence.
“That was a good do at Constantine’s?”
“Yes, I’m not too struck on that sort of thing, but Henry insists” Peter said.
“You seemed to be enjoying yourself. You seem to know Frank well?”
“Well? He came from our estate, did bits of work for my dad” Peter could see Ryan was very interested, “… when he was about fifteen, then went…”
“You sold him some work didn’t you?”
“Yes, that’s why we were talking, you know?”
“Yes, I sold him a building. That one you were in to do the set, I’d bought it for a studio complex, well you know… things change…”
They sat for another minute in silence.
“Good looking girl that Rachel you brought with you”
“She said you’d been in touch” Peter replied.
“Ah, well not really, Lizzie and she get on well, Lizzie needs friends… especially with that damn brother of hers… we could do without him”
They heard Marianne coming through the front door.
“Look who’s come to visit” shouted Peter.
Marianne walked into the kitchen, the air seemed to lighten.
“Ryan, how nice to see you. Is Lizzie here?”
“No… no she had things to do in town, I was passing through and I hadn’t been to see you here, so… Peter said you can put me up…” Marianne glanced a dagger at Peter, “I’d have found a hotel, but he insisted”.
“Oh, of course not, it’s good to see you Ryan” Marianne was disappointed, she’d been planning how to tell Peter about Juliet Farrow and most of everything else, this spoilt it.
“Look why don’t I take you both out for a meal, OK?”
“That would be nice… Angela’s coming over tomorrow, will you still be here? I don’t think you’ve met yet?”
“No, we haven’t, Lizzie’s kept her at arm’s length. I may be, I’ve got to see someone at ten, then I was heading back, I’ll see, anyway, where’s the best place to eat?”
The morning came slowly. Rachel had slept fitfully on the two seater settee, Tom in a sleeping bag on the floor. They’d both been woken in the night, first by the heavies sorting out a client who wouldn’t paid, then by Philip needing a drink and some food.
It was only 7 o’clock and they’d been up for an hour. Tom and Rachel sat eating the last of the toast and black tea, as the milk had run out hours before. Tom said he’d go and buy more but he had run out of money, all he had was a train ticket and that was now invalid. Rachel had used most of what she had left on the taxi.
“What shall we do, we can’t go on like this?” Rachel said while scraping the last of the marmalade onto a crust.
“Perhaps we need to ring Lizzie again”
Rachel went to the phone box next to the block of flats. No answer.
Back at the flat they sat in silence, then the doorbell rang.
“Not again”, Rachel shuffled to the door, “Yes” she said angrily.
“Is that you Rachel?” she looked through the spy hole, it was Lizzie, she opened the door.
“How did you know Philip was here?”
“I didn’t” Lizzie walked in, “Oh… Hi Tom”
“Anyway what are you doing here so early?”
“Ryan and I have split up… you said Philip’s here, how did he…?”
“Tom found him at Euston… So, what happened? I suppose it was Philip was it?”
“Oh partly. I don’t know, I think I used Ryan as a bolt hole from Queen B. He was nice, gave me things, he gave me a thousand quid! Look…”
Tom and Rachel looked in her bag, there was a thick wad of tenners.
“Philip got in the way. All that stealing, the drugs, then his so called friends started coming round, they wrecked the house, Ryan called the police, I couldn’t handle it, and well…. Is Philip OK?”
“He’s a mess”
Rachel was overwhelmed by the overcrowded flat, and just wanted everyone out and her life back to normal. The three of them sat trying to work out what to do next. Tom felt they should take Philip to hospital. Lizzie didn’t want that, she said they’d put him in care or prison. Rachel suggested they take him to a doctor and kept telling herself ‘this isn’t my problem, just kick them out’, however she couldn’t, she remembered how people had helped her when she was in need. They went over and over the same ground. Philip was getting worse, he was sweating and cold, thirsty then sick.
Lizzie had her mobile and started ringing people. Ryan was still not answering, nor was Peter. Rachel suggested ringing Henry, Mark answered and told her he was away. She explained what was wrong and that she couldn’t get through to anyone, Mark said he’d do what he could.
Mark came to the flat. Henry had never told Rachel that Mark worked with homeless people, many of them had drug problems, he was used to cleaning people up. Rachel saw a different side to him, to her he was a light hearted joker, someone to gossip with, to bitch about people, to go shopping with, but Mark came into the disorder of the flat and within half an hour all was sorted.
It was decided that the next day Mark would drive Philip home to Angela and there he would organise some proper help for him. Tom would go with them. Lizzie would stay at Rachel’s for a couple of days and see if she could iron things out with Ryan, if not she’d find a flat of her own and get back to playing with the band.
They said their goodbyes and the sun broke through the grey clouds for the first time for days.
I didn’t hear about Lou Reed’s death until I switched on the news at about 10pm yesterday. I was watching football then a dvd (Jiri Menzel’s charming 1967 film Capricious Summer), and oddly for a couple of days I’d had Walk on the Wildside as an earworm!
I bought Transformer in late 1972 having heard that track once on the radio, I was 18 and at Leek School of Art, it was of course was perfect timing. My favourite track was Vicious, but Transformer is one of those rare albums with no ‘filler’ track.
This was a real alternative, the words frank and straightforward, offering a New York lifestyle of transvestites, drugs, art, sex, style which couldn’t have been more opposite to dull and dowdy Stoke-on-Trent and Leek! At the time I knew nothing of The Velvet Underground work but soon found out and loved that too.
As an art student you should be looking for the alternative, the shock, the rebellion, discarding the old, changing the world – I tried but wasn’t really up to it! It wasn’t just the music but the way he and others like Bowie looked. My idea of rebellion at the time was long hair, scruffy clothes and a long scarf – Lou Reed offered a transgendered uncertain edgy look. I tried for a very short while and very luckily there are no photographs!
Today’s photograph is of The World Trade Centre in New York, taken on an icy Sunday in November 1978, quite the opposite to the world of Lou Reed’s New York, but also a lost icon. It was taken with my Olympus 35RD on Ektachrome. As I was adjusting the picture in Lightroom for contrast I tried it out in black and white which I skewed to straighten it and added a red filter. Not sure which I prefer, though I think the coldness and ugliness of the building comes through best in colour.
This last week I’ve been watching the box set of the excellent remake of House of Cards. I was reminded of a photograph I took in DC late on a Sunday afternoon in November 1978. This is where most of the ‘action’ takes place. The image is one of the most iconic in the USA and as the clouds began to cross the sky behind the Capitol what came to mind were all the B-film UFO shots! I was there as a tourist with my brother who lived in Baltimore, his wife and her relatives, so it was hard to get away and explore. Many years later I went a few times for work purposes and liked DC very much, an odd city of contrasts. Like most tourists I was just scratching the surface, now I can see the immense possibilities for shots I missed then, but that is experience.
This was taken on my OM-1 with 50mm lens on Ektachrome 200. I had to do some touching up in Lightroom on the sky as there were scratches on the slide, I also made sure the horizontal was corrected and I increased the contrast, otherwise it is pretty well as shot and what I was probably looking for in the original.
As I was walking to the doctors I saw this ‘still life’. The backs around me are often blighted by dumped furniture as well as the usual rubbish, the council come regularly to tidy it up, then within a few days some more appears. In the years I’ve lived around here I’ve never actually seen the process of dumping. But this is not just through the thoughtlessness and laziness of people. It costs about £15 to get just a couple of items taken away by the council, not much if you are working, a considerable sum when you’re on benefits. There is also the issue of short term leases brought in many years ago to give landlords the ability to get families out of their property. The streets around here are ever changing, many houses are let just for six or twelve months and one of the offshoots is that furniture is often discarded rather than be moved yet again. But the discarding gives interesting compositions for my artists’ eye. On my way home I saw this below which doesn’t look unlike some work I have seen in galleries.
The day began overcast and damp, then the sun came out and skies are blue with clouds rushing in and out.
Chapter 17 of my novel Underpainting. For previous chapters use the link above or the Categories to the right.
Peter slowed the car down as Coombe Bay came into view. From the steep angle of the road, choppy grey green sea reached high into the distance. An empty orange bus lumbered up the hill heading for Bodmin. Peter drove on and reached the small sea front where a few elderly people walked their dogs, leaning into the wind. He stopped at a newsagents and asked for directions. Eventually he pulled up at a tidy row of council bungalows for elderly people which jarred against the pretty Devon cottages of the rest of the small town. Wherever you were in Coombe Bay you could hear the sea. He knocked on a blue door and it was answered by a woman with a stick wearing a dark red cardigan and a flowered apron on which she was wiping her hands, she must have been eighty, hard to tell.
“Mrs. Williams? I wrote to you. I’m Peter Marten… about the pictures?”
“Oh yes, of course… yes, I wasn’t sure if you’d come… such a long way… come in…. I’m not sure if I can be of any help really, no, I’m not… but it’s nice to meet you”.
It surprised Peter that she didn’t speak with a Devon accent, he thought it sounded Welsh, but could as easily have been Liverpool. They went inside. The hallway felt chilly but her living room was warm, stuffy, a gas fire hissing on low. Mrs. Williams made tea that was the colour of mahogany and opened a tin of plain biscuits. They sat at a table next to the window. Rain suddenly pattered the glass and stopped as quickly.
“… as I said Mr. Marten, I didn’t really know Mr. Miller, I did his cleaning when he was up at Whitefields. If you’re interested in pictures he gave me that one there…”, she pointed to a small portrait drawing of Vic, hanging beside the TV, almost hidden behind a cheap china horse. Peter stood up and examined it. It had the same fine lines of the drawings he’d brought with him to show her. Peter took the drawing off the wall, leaving lighter coloured wallpaper where it had hung. “… it’s of my son, Victor. He modelled for Mr. Miller sometimes. Mr. Miller gave me that after he heard he’d died, very young he was…”
Peter felt he should say something and felt ashamed at his pretence of writing a biography of Raymond Miller. He’d found Mrs Williams address easily, she’d never moved for nearly forty years. He didn’t know why but he needed to know more. The visit from ‘Eva’ and what Frank had been saying led him to examine his past, about Vic and his death. Nothing he knew fitted.
“It’s a fine drawing”
“Yes it’s a good likeness”
Peter noticed that there were no photographs of Vic, however there was one of a man who looked like a larger version of Vic. Mrs Williams noticed Peter looking at them.
“That’s not my son, that’s my husband, Ali. You look surprised he was black.”
“…don’t worry, plenty think so. It wasn’t that odd, not where I’m from. He was a Somali sailor, they used to employ them to do all the dirty work. Big man, about six foot five, huge hands, he could hold Victor in one outstretched hand when he was a baby. He could use those hands as well, had to sometimes, especially in the years after the war and all the men came back looking for work. We met in a café where I worked, he walked in, could only speak English swear words, but over a couple of weeks I helped him with proper words and before he went off again we were married, I was fifteen, 1935, pregnant with Victor. Never thought he’d come back, but he did, he was a good man. Then came the war. Ali worked the convoys, Russia, America, North Africa, all over, glad of him and his kind they were then. He used to shovel coal day after day, he’d come back exhausted, sleep for a week then off. Whenever he left I never expected to see him again, so many were sunk, then there he’d be back a couple of months later, worn out, always with a present, oranges or something like that, sort of thing we couldn’t get in the war. He was a good man, gave me all his money, didn’t drink, don’t think he had other women, wouldn’t have mattered anyway, never hit me, better than most in Butetown. We called him Victor after Victor Sylvester who was always on the radio, makes you laugh now to think. Called ourselves Williams, my maiden name, Ali said it would help the boy fit in… I’m sorry Mr. Marten, I do go on…”
“No, no, please carry on, please” Peter could tell that like his mother, she had few people to tell her story to.
“… well after the war people became harder, as work was hard to get, Victor was getting bigger and Ali could only get cleaning jobs on cattle ships, endlessly crossing the Irish Sea. One day he came back with a huge gash in his head, the other sailors had set on him with shovels, made him stay in the cattle pens, his right arm was broken… So I put my foot down, told him I did, that was it, damn the sea. I had a sister who worked in a big house down here, Cunnigham’s lived there now, they needed a driver and someone to do cleaning, cooking and things, so we came. There was a cottage. Victor grew healthy, the locals they called Ali ‘Golly’, you know after the marmalade, those badges. Anywayd life quietened down for a few years. But then Ali died, of exhaustion I think, all those years of shovelling, cold and wet, doctor said it was pneumonia. Victor and I had to leave the cottage and he was growing quickly, always getting into trouble at school, fights and things. Council found me a flat. So I took him to the boxing club at the navy yard over in Dartmouth, won some medals, area champion at fourteen”. She stood up slowly and went to a drawer, she took out some medals and handed them to Peter, who made appreciative noises. “…I got jobs cleaning in hotels and houses, to tide us over, that’s how I got to know Mr. Miller. Victor would sometimes come with me and Mr. Miller would draw him. I knew Mr. Miller liked, well, young men, so I kept an eye on what was going on. As you can see Victor was a handsome lad, Mr. Miller was a professional artist, he could capture a likeness…”
Peter opened the portfolio of drawings of Victor, Mrs. Williams looked at them.
“Oh these are later, when Victor came back, after he got married”
This bold statement shocked Peter. Should he say anything, he’d got himself into an awkward position, he wanted to know more about Vic, not Raymond Miller.
“Yes, Victor got a job with a removals and haulage company, Massey’s, he moved to their depot in London for a while, carried on boxing a bit, also when Mr. Miller was in London he introduced him to other artists, and Victor started to earn quite a good living as an artists model, you see he had good muscles, kept himself fit. He left Massey’s and went to Paris for a year, modelling for artists, then one day I got a letter to say he was back in London, he’d met this girl Jean and was going to marry her! Well I was happy until I met her, hard bitch. Slatern, you know what I mean Mr Marten, all made up, sort that can’t get their knickers off quick enough. Sorry Mr. Marten, I don’t mean to be… I get a bit carried away. It’s good of you to listen”.
She poured another cup of tea.
“Anyway, soon they moved back down here… moved in to Mr. Miller’s house. She was a lazy cow, mess everywhere, I was always having to clean up after her. Both of them worked for Mr. Miller as models, but he, Mr. Miller, used to say that she was no good, couldn’t stand correctly, you know. Then came all that trouble, she soon skedaddled when that blew up, didn’t see her for dust! Never seen her since.”
Peter wasn’t sure what she meant. She spoke as if he should do.
“What trouble was that?”
“Oh that” he said as if he did, “…well how did you see it, you know, from your point of view?”
“Well it was Mr. Miller really but Victor took all the blame. Two boys told the police that they’d seen Mr. Miller doing things with another man and they’d wanted them to join in, he was always inviting boys there”, she shuddered, “You must remember that it was illegal then, nineteen fifty nine. The police looked into it and the long and the short of it was Victor took the blame, was prosecuted and went to prison somewhere up North, they moved him around. Victor said that prison would kill Mr. Miller, I think it nearly killed Victor. Mr. Miller gave me money for Victor and helped me out, he knew I knew he was the guilty one and Mr. Miller told me Victor wasn’t involved, never had been.”
“But why didn’t you say something?”
“Victor didn’t want me to, he said how good Mr. Miller had been to him and that this was repaying him, some repayment.”
“Never seen her since, never wanted to, don’t know if she’s alive or dead.”
“…and Victor?” Peter knew of course, but wanted her side.
“Died two years after coming out of prison. An accident the police said.”
“But…” Peter almost told her what he knew, then thought perhaps better not. Mrs. Williams waited for Peter to finish, Peter quickly made up a question, “…didn’t Victor and Jean get back together?”
“No, as I said disappeared, and good riddance”
They sat in silence. The small room was quite dark now, the gas fire glowing and outside the last of the day was wrapping itself up for a windy chilly night.
“I better go Mrs. Williams”
“I’m sorry I’ve hardly talked about Mr. Miller”
“Perhaps another day, I’ll write to you, you’ve no phone?”
“No one to talk to”, a blunt all too true statement.
As Peter left she looked lonely.
“Thank you Mr. Marten for listening, and thank you for showing me the drawings… you forget.”
The phone was ringing as Peter rushed through his front door
“Hello Peter” it was Marianne, “Where’ve you been? I tried a couple of times earlier”, Peter could see the answer phone light flashing. “Tried your mobile…”
“Batteries dead… I was in Devon… it’s nice to hear you, how’s Washington?”
“Yes, some business, sales, you know, Henry and so on, you sound very clear?”
Peter felt bad about lying.
“Actually I’m at Heathrow”
“I thought you weren’t coming home ‘til Monday?”
“I felt like coming back, too much to do, you know?”
Marianne felt bad about lying.