Monday, 18 June 2012

Blue Blankets, Bored Brendas and Fat Bags

It's surprising to think sometimes that the book Fatbag, my first professional (i.e. paid!) job as an illustrator, was 30 years ago this year. I remember creating the drawings like it was yesterday.

Having graduated from Manchester I moved to Norwich, where my parents had decided to re-settle during my absence. Rural Norfolk was a complete contrast to Manchester. I knew nothing about Norwich at all, but there was a burgeoning music and arts scene which I slipped into pretty quickly. With virtually no budget I started anonymously publishing an indies music/arts fanzine The Blue Blanket, through which I interviewed bands, touring and local, ran local event listings, plus there were odd features on the arts, and opinionated flippant essays under various nom-de-plumes. And of course it was fully illustrated with my work. It was fun, made me a bunch of friends very quickly, and invariably sold out. Somewhere along the years of multiple housemoving I lost my own remaining copies, so I've only memories of the magazine now, but recently I did find one piece of artwork in my dad's house.

from The Blue Blanket Issue 4, 1982
Any funds raised were pumped straight back into the production of the magazine, so the print quality and distribution gradually improved, the print run more than doubled over a year. However by then it was becoming a burden to write, illustrate, edit and publish largely by myself, the magazine was a full time job and I always paid for contributions, leaving very little for myself. I had to make a choice - am I going to do this for a living? In which case I'd need to generate some income from it, or take up the reins of freelance illustration, which I'd just spent 4 years studying? It was time to get serious about my career.

After throwing most of my student artwork out of the window on the last day at Manchester Poly (see previous post) I just had a simple portfolio of graduate pieces I wasn't particularly happy with, mostly black and white. So I began looking with fresh eyes at the market for children's illustration. I worked on some story ideas and drew a full colour dummy picture book Bored Brenda, (a modern day twist on The Fisherman's Wife, set in Manchester) plus a couple of other watercolour portfolio pieces, and added drawings from The Blue Blanket to my degree show black and white work.

Bored Brenda at home (original dummy) 1982
Brenda finds the teapot (original dummy) 1982
On a bleak spring day I jumped on a train to London with around 4 or 5 appointments with publishers. It wasn't the first time I'd carted my wares around the streets of the capital, but previous times were as a student, showing college projects. This was different, my portfolio had a purpose, it was much more focused towards getting me employed. It's strange that all this energy had suddenly appeared after I left college, in retrospect, it was a combination of The Blue Blanket and fear of unemployment that cranked me into gear.

A and C Black were the last publisher I saw that day of lugging my portfolio around. It was belting down with rain and I was pretty drenched, I often wonder whether the art director (now Managing Director) Jill Coleman took pity on my bedraggled appearance. But she liked my drawings, and to my surprise and delight offered me a book to illustrate, written by the then largely unknown Jeremy Strong. Suddenly I was in business, the flat fee seemed very reasonable for the time (little did I know Fatbag would still be on the shelves 30 years later and I wouldn't earn a penny from any of the subsequent printings or editions!).

The book is sheer pantomime farce, the story of an evil vacuum cleaner that takes on a life of its own and goes on the rampage. Growing bigger and more powerful the more it slurps, Fatbag trashes the town, chased by the completely ineffective police and fire brigade.

Eventually Fatbag meets his come-uppance thanks to the local school cleaner Elsie Bunce, with the help of a TV curry recipe.

I worked on Fatbag in my bedroom on an old kitchen table once belonging to my grandmother, such was the extent of my first studio, 30 line drawings and cover. Although I'm proud of the book as my first commission, I was clearly finding my way, some of the drawings are inconsistent, and I've always disliked the cover, but it was a start. Fatbag set me on the road, over the next year two more book commissions were to follow (Get Lavinia Goodbody! for the Andersen Press and A Canoe in the Mist for Jonathan Cape). My story Bored Brenda was eventually published (though truncated) in Storyteller magazine (Marshal Cavendish), by which time I'd moved to London. After a year of incubation I joined old Manchester mate Andy Royston to set up Façade Art Studios, from that point there was no looking back.

Saturday, 16 June 2012

Punk rock, Manchester illustration and Nihilism

There are a lot of anniversaries in the UK this year, most significant for me being the 30th year since my first professional illustration job. The commission for Fatbag in 1982 was an important threshold on a journey that had begun years before. Recent programmes on BBC TV and radio celebrating punk and it's legacy have brought back a lot of memories of that time.

First let me say I was never truely a punk, the revolution was arguably already over by the time I cottoned onto it all in 1978. Although the Sex Pistols played a secret gig in Walsall as the Spots, just a few miles from my house, I was blissfully unaware, and wouldn't have been able to go anyway even if I'd heard of the Pistols, which I hadn't. I glided gormlessly through '76 and '77 more interested in folklore than phlem, my badge of honour was a sketchbook, not safety pins. When the Pistols were in the headlines I was 16, a quiet mouse in suburban Sutton Coldfield, with dreams of following in the footsteps of Golden Age illustrators of 100 years before. No interest in the hippy/heavy metal bars in Birmingham (unlike brother and sister), I spent my spare time miniature wargaming and drawing.

Leaving home for the illustration course at Manchester Polytechnic jolted me out of this cosy world and plunged into the dynamic Manchester music scene. Thanks to compatriots on the course I was quickly introduced to the delights of the Russell Club in the grim no man's land of Hulme and Factory Records first major venue in Manchester. One of the first gigs I remember seeing there were the Rezillos, shortly after that the Buzzcocks headlined, supported by The Fall and John Cooper Clarke, after which there was no looking back. I was lucky enough to see nearly every notable band of the era, some of them in their earliest gigs.

The illustration course at Manchester was a curious experience. 11 students, all of widely differing styles and interests, meandered through experiments and projects overseen by tutors under the overall leadership of Tony Ross, but we were never really taught a great deal. It was an oasis from the urban world around us where we could nurture our craft, but to me the energy of Manchester at that time was in music, John Peel became more important than anything within the walls of the Poly. I saw as many gigs as I could afford on my meagre budget, while in the studio my sense of direction and enthusiasm for illustration became sapped as I was told to forget about the long-dead artists that inspired me, "nobody works like that anymore, those kind of conditions don't exist today". It was a hard learning curve, though necessary. As I fumbled through graphic experiments looking for new inspiration I began questioning whether I really wanted to be an artist or join a band. I bought my first guitar for £45 on Oxford Road, a cheap but functional Gibson Les Paul copy. By the end of the course in 1981 I almost felt had a stronger bond to music than I did to illustration.
Members of the illustration course 1978-1981. Jean Yarwood, Lorraine Formstone, Heather Farr, John Goodwin, myself, Bob Wood, Tammy Wong, Lynn Wakefield.

Three years studying illustration at Manchester Poly were a very powerful experience, I treasure every moment of it. I found my voice, I came out of my shell, and it sparked an attitude of cavalier optimism (some would say stupidity), a disregard for disaster, a determination to give things a go. Nomatter how much or how little support the course tutors were, it was largely the Manchester music scene, my mates (Bob, John and Andy) and experiences outside the course that really made the biggest difference.

The infamous Sans Culottes
I even created a band, dubbed the Sans Culottes after the French Revolutionary mobs, had some totally spurious gig reviews printed in the Poly newsletter, and sent them off to the national press with photos. John Peel mentioned them on his radio programme, looking forward to our upcoming record release. They were interviewed for a fanzine.

But there was no record, no gigs, in fact no band.

My sense of direction may have meandered, especially in the final year, but there was always a purpose to it all, the energy was there, it just needed some serious focus.

On the last day of the course, 27th July 1981, in a gesture indicative of the time (or my state of mind perhaps) I gathered all my student artwork and threw the lot out of the 6th Floor window, to be scattered like confetti over the streets of Manchester.

the first pile...

...and more...

....cast to the wind....

I considered burning it, but casting it all to the skies seemed somehow more apt.  I kept my degree show work and a few other things I really liked, but not much else. The rest littered the roofs of the Poly buildings below,  a final statement of nihilistic tomfoolery before leaving the city and starting a new chapter with fresh vision and new work to take on the world. As the words of the song go, "Rip it up and start again". I wasn't a punk, nor ever fulfilled my band ambitions. But that gesture came close to the mark.

Monday, 4 June 2012

Queens and Anniversaries

I like my royalty in fairy tales and history books, but I have to admit I've little enthusiasm for, or interest in the real thing. I've more of a Cromwellian leaning shall we say, more a disciple of Liberté, égalité, fraternité so to speak.

Just because the venerable lady is old and has been in the job a long time doesn't make her any more attractive to me, the royal family has as much relevance to me as I personally do to the Queen herself. I've absolutely nothing against the Queen or any of her family, they're in a job which they didn't ask for and they do it well enough, I wouldn't want to sweep them aside in revolutionary fervour, they're useful for tourism, a convenient figure-head, so they serve their purpose. But I don't understand all the hysteria, nor why taxpayers should spend millions celebrating it all. She's the one with the cash, she should pay for her own damned party. I wouldn't ask taxpayers to pay for my birthday, or other anniversary. Often I really don't feel very British at all!

I'm told that the country has warmed to the royal family since Diana's death, but I was in Japan when that happened so none of the hysteria reached my corner of the world anyway. Diana was as remote to me as any other member of the royal family. It was sad news to hear, but of no relevance to my life in Tokyo. I've no idea what the royal family has done to re-establish themselves in the hearts of the British people because they were never in mine in the first place. So over this weekend of hysteria I've done my utmost to ignore everything about the Jubilee. I actually didn't even know it was on this past weekend until it was broadcast on the radio on Saturday morning, that's the absolute truth!

I detest idolatry and hierarchy in all it's shape and forms, with an intense dislike of celebrities, fame for it's own sake and so on. People should be respected for their talents and their achievements, so I save my respect for those who have talent and have actually achieved something that others can appreciate. It's difficult to judge what the Queen has achieved or her talents, as it's not as if she had to qualify for her job, we don't have others to compare her performance against. I've yet to see her do anything for her people that warrants her and her family stripping us of our land or our taxes. As Michael Rosen very adequately points out, it's a hierarchy established for so long, over so many generations, that we accept it as normal. But it's not normal, in this day and age I don't believe anyone has the right to privilege as a birth right.

I've actually found the whole Jubilee thing very easy to ignore as I'm overwhelmed with too many things on my plate right now, deadlines, house-hunting etc. I haven't watched TV, no street parties around here that I know of, rain kept us indoors yesterday. I've seen a few union flags around and some merchandise in the local supermarket but that's about it.

Hardback original cover from the 1982 edition
But wait a minute! I am celebrating an anniversary! 30 years ago this year I completed and saw published my first professional illustration job, the book Fatbag by Jeremy Strong, commissioned by Jill Coleman at A and C Black, (who's still with the company!) for which I drew 30 or so black and white drawings and (admittedly awful) colour cover. It's still on sale in it's Puffin paperback edition, Nick Sharratt re-did the paperback cover, but my interior drawings are still there. My first ever illustration job, still on the shelves!

30 years as a freelance illustrator, and still going! Whahey! Now that's worthy of a celebration. Maybe I should ask the government for some fireworks and a commemorative mug.