PRELUDE – A Nineteen-Sixties Odyssey:
INTRODUCTION TO “THE RECKLESS FRUIT”
This is an artist’s autobiography of drawings, paintings, poems, songs, sketches and impressions, to illustrate an era. They were done when I was a teenager. Ever since then, I called them my “Taunton Black drawings”, but they express something of that dark and light energy, the awakening kraken in any country town.
I’ve been asked – “But what a lout! What does she see in him?” I replied –but don’t you see? the attraction beckons from way beyond the decent boy next door.
I am now looking back more than 45 years, to the 1960s. I was at school in Taunton, Somerset, doing O and A levels. The post-war generation came of age to travel through the Swinging Sixties into Flower Power. We seem to have reacted collectively to the Cuban crisis in 1962, when civilized humanity stood on the brink of destruction.
A recklessness of feeling grew. In confused reprieve, we grew like flowers on a bomb-site. That scent of survival through the gate of death prevailed subconsciously: rebelling against our parents’ social and political conventions, it would urge us to create radical life styles, and to blaze our defiant rainbow poppies.
Rhythm & blues is gallows-humour music. The roots are in the deep negro South. In slavery, exile and abuse, those people sang. Through Ray Charles and others, battling with heroin addiction, the “gospel” music hit the big time. The sound grew, made wealth, and crossed the seas. In cellars and dance-halls, the Rolling Stones and other young white British bands picked up the gritty pulse and stoned the crows with it! – it fed itself. It was incredibly fresh and raw. It enticed freedom and alluringly beautiful people.
The commercial adult circus – the “dead and grey”, racial segregation’s Shadow – at first tried to suppress, then latched onto the wild child for the ride, the vitality and the loot, which mushroomed to popular hysteria. As it grew denser and more dark, glamour piled on glamour, drug cultures cross-fertilised. “Things will be great when you’re Down town!” (How my mother disliked that song! She thought it meant not facing up to things.) Down town, the consciousness submerged.
The wild child reacted to social parenting: to teachers, government and family infrastructure, and to the threat of mass destruction. But after a brief bid for freedom, most of the wild children became re-mortgaged to the bonds of fame and self-destruction; or to marriage, family and livelihood; for the infrastructure must irresistibly maintain itself. Many of us expressed a talent for the times, the song for the day, and we were very young. If we touched the pulse, the fans couldn’t get enough. And the screams, the carousel of celebrity, sudden wealth, big business, addiction and the drug culture itself, shackled us. Some of us fell to ashes. Yet we survived. The spirit rehabilitated.
I seem to see a relationship bridging the cult of celebrity to current emergencies of addiction and child abuse – even the way that today’s darker songs target ten and twelve-year-olds. The social learning curve exposes its underside. Through the awakening gleam of puberty, we encounter Death and have a love affair with danger. We are ancient children of the dark, seeking sight. In the 1960s and early 70s, the invitation to bloom in the bomb site, sprouted in small towns everywhere, with fresh, throbbing songs of boy meets girl, of joy and sorrow, of adolescent yearning, of street poetry, cheek, grace, and the invitation to “blow your mind” … with wild things.
These ballads of our release from school, seem sweet, simple and innocent nowadays – and yet their bards lived already over the top. They catalyzed our rebellion through sexuality – the hunger, meeting itself eye to eye on the disco floor, or in a street; the mating signals, the shine, the craving for life ; the Shadow into which the soul must dive for full redemption, for rediscovery.
Yet do you remember The Shadows? – their “instrumental” hit, Flingel Bunt? How clean and fresh they looked, those boys next door – Cliff Richard’s group! And there were The Searchers, their good advice – “Don’t Throw Your Love Away” …
The urban initiation feels unique to each adolescent generation. Over the decades, sub-cultures of jazz, dance music, rock and roll, rhythm & blues, acid rock, punk, heavy metal, disco, drum & bass, trance, hip-hop and rap, would succeed one another and relay the pulse. Keeping pace with fashion, street cred and technology, we grew sophisticated and less satisfied. Adolescence is psychedelic; a seductive turmoil of awakenings, depression and violent release.
This book is my personal response to the 1960s. It can only hint at what would surf the breaking wave. The wild time drums for each of us, in a private way. A pair of eyes, when I did these drawings, surprised and looked back at me in a character I named Dick Tresilian. He was on the road, and he became “Young Death”. He’s a dealer in strange brews. My uncharted soul on the move, was about to roam, to travel overland collectively, to Cornwall and Afghanistan, through Samarkand. When I drew his left eye, gazing into mine, it awoke and winked, and knocked me for six.
Nowadays we’ve reached Afghanistan – beyond our romantic pioneering youth – and inherit tragically that Pamir knot – the Empire’s old meddlings in the melting-pot. This is another unconscious night, becoming conscious. Every generation battles a darkness – a plutonic insolvency, intolerance, or emergence from the underworld: a Vietnam, a Gulf war, an Afghanistan.
I am a portrait painter and picture-framer, and I write poetry; I also learned to play the piano. But my main approach is as a mystic; so I see things through that lens, and plough back into it my talents.
I am interested in the creative process; its timelessness, its intimacy, its renaissance, its source. I study “hidden knowledge” – a revealed or alternative discovery of the cosmos. As I grew older, I learned to adapt and observe more objectively, becoming aware of patterns and processes that play above, below and through the surface of our world affairs. I had a peculiar life training or initiation: a pressure to understand – standunder – my “dark side of the moon”: to go right through the valley of the shadow with the light – the opening up of Nature’s immensity and mystery, unconditionally. As an outsider to the mainstream of world affairs, I am fascinated to travel deep within the story, to be again the fruit: the fruit still held in Adam’s hand. Thus the title of this book.
What travels through the reckless fruit? Even when caught up in turbulence, the still, small voice or “tao”, is peace. It ripens. It outstrips and outlasts the hurtling, reckless fruit.
The wisdom of our world is inconceivably ancient. It does not alter, since before the Indian Vedic seers. It survived innumerable holocausts and “end-games”. The way of the sun, the stars and cosmic cycles, moves our physical world. It moves our everyday intimacies and the quantum-atomic field. It finds expression through each of us, uniquely.
Background to the Drawings
In early childhood, my intuitions and experiences felt larger than life. I grew up with my brother and sister in remote country districts among farm animals; my parents left the rat race after the war. They combined a hard shepherding life, with their passion for poetry and late Beethoven quartets. My upbringing was sheltered and quite unconventionaI. I was given space to draw, write stories and play the piano, from quite an early age. I was late to read, but by the time I was eight, I was enthralled by Charles Kingsley’s Greek myths in The Heroes; I was also a tomboy, and pony-mad.
At thirteen, I developed a romantic spiritual passion for mountains and mountaineers. At fifteen I went on a climbing course at the Snowdon Hut (my first time away from home) and fell in love – a crush – with a young man. I was a child among young adults. Each evening, after the day’s climb, everyone relaxed. The horseplay, cider and steaming socks in the Snowdon Hut, were pickled in Radio Luxembourg’s hit songs of the day – the Beatles, Gerry and the Pacemakers, Billy J.Kramer, the Swinging Blue Jeans, Helen Shapiro, Dusty Springfield, Lulu, Cilla Black, the Rolling Stones. It was 1964! Those pregnant, potent tunes around my first romance, faded in and out of crackling static; I hear them ever since.
I came home obsessed with this alternative to my family’s refined interests. I shut myself away, devoured the tunes on the old wireless, and began to draw from my imagination, the pubs, the back-streets and characters they invoked for me. I dived into dark roots of my shining, celestial mountains. I created new heroes in drainpipe jeans and winkle pickers: the outrageous wonder of a man or boy with long hair.
My mother protested that I listened all the time to cheap “background music” and didn’t help with the housework. But she was intrigued. As the weeks passed, my work became more fluent, to cope with the sequences of drawings. The black charcoal technique first exploded through my hands for real, with “there she was, Just a-Walking down the street, singin’ Do Wa Diddy…” Suddenly, I was a painter! This figure was also driven by the song Pretty Woman … Are you lonely, just like me? … I thought it was a Stones song, but the singer was Roy Orbison. The drawings developed a web of stories, characters and movement. The passion is the key. My little brother caught it too, and became a drummer.
I was thrilled by the blackness. The drawings got darker and darker. I used tiny flakes for facial expression, and the sides of fat black twigs. I charcoaled, then sprayed with fixative, to give it a “key”, then charcoaled and sprayed again, to get those rich, dense, textures. It was a bit like back-combing one’s hair, or fingering a scoop on a horned guitar. There is a special feeling, at puberty, for the “sparkling darkness” – the gritty gorgeous black stuff. Initially, it is a wild joy. The chords of life are changing, they thicken the “feeling inside”. It is deep. It is inviting. You create with it, you follow its song. And you despise everyone who isn’t touching this great secret; and you long to be understood.
Most of “the Taunton Black drawings” were born from brief vignettes, captured in the corner of my eye as we flashed by in the family car, or from my sly street prowlings on winter evenings after school. I became a hunter. I soaked up the atmosphere in alleys and outside coffeebars, and rode home on the bus to draw it, and write poems. I suffered much adolescent intensity and turmoil. I continued to love the mountains, and Brahms. My sexuality remained naïve, abstract and confused. Socially, I was painfully gauche and self-conscious, and didn’t know what to wear.
The streets at night, in the 1960s, were dark. You reached a lamp-post, an illumined pool of light on the paving stones, and then you walked on through the night until you came to the next one. The lighting in the shops did not glare, it glowed; it was adequate. The night was not our enemy, and we used our eyes.
West Country Impressions
My documentary follows through my school days in Taunton, to my first visits to London and Paris – where I discovered a human river, a cosmopolitan world of many races and flavours. I sought out dense crowds in the street and the Underground, to swim in. Those new drawings were done from memory, weeks later.
This work does not include any impressions of the Pink Floyd, the Traffic, Clapton, the Doors, Jimi Hendrix, Sergeant Pepper or West-coast acid rock. These did not come to me until I left home and went to college. I also seem to have by-passed David Bowie. There is however, an un-informed intuition of the negro roots of rhythm & blues – the wave which our talented lads surfed to fabulous, ephemeral fame.
In those days, there were no seatbelts on the road, no black flat shiny toys and no supermarkets. A sober but colourful variety of private businesses, grocers, drapers and small shops lined the streets, and people worked hard. Woolworths sold clothes, crockery and curios: a refuge on a rainy day. The Wimpy Bar opened on the corner of the Parade, and our headmistress declared it “out of bounds”.
We wore school uniform, and back-combed our hair to hide the beret badge. I coveted textured and fishnet stockings. I prowled the styles in the shops, but I had very little pocket-money – earned from scything thistles or milking the cow. At school, someone announced in morning Assembly, that the Beatles’ train would pass through Taunton. Screams broke out among fifth and sixth formers; and disgusted smirks among the staff. The phenomenon was as yet uncharted. Even Presley had remained discreet – on the bedroom record-player stack.
It was rare to see Asian or African people. Their appearance was exotic; I recall when I visited London and started to draw them, they were for me, humanity’s soul, with their beautiful skin and dark eyes; I empathised with what they had suffered from slavery in the deep South, and “the colour bar”. Back home, I went out with an African boy at public school. My first kiss was at a school dance; I was 16.
Social mores were suburbanly settled and secure; but mini skirts and Vidal Sassoon hairdos were dazzlingly flaunted, and we spoke of Mary Quant as if we were “those who know”. Families and courting couples began to dine in the Chinese or the Indian restaurant, for an occasional treat. Otherwise, there were milk-bars, coffee bars, pubs, hotel ballrooms and greasy spoons. In La Ronde and The Merlin after school, I bravely ordered lemon squash, and waited for the buzz. TV was black and white, and closed down with the pubs, at 10.30pm; so family life was laced together with heavy household chores and evening pastimes – mending, drawing, listening to music, knitting, card-games and visits. My family did not have TV. My brother and sister and I crossed the lane to Nelly Stone’s, to watch it there.
I remember carol singing with neighbours in West Newton village, from farm to farm across the countryside; our freezing fingers clasped hot toddies and Christmas cake. On Christmas Eve, we had “the Farm Party” in the music-room at our house – in the old tradition of the squires. The men arrived with their wives – almost unrecognizable without their caps, in smart ties, with slicked hair and scrubbed fingernails. They accepted glasses of Guinness (it looked marvelous but tasted disgusting), sat in a circle by the fire, and sang songs…
“Now our milkman he’s been getting in a fuss, Cause the milk it has been getting steadily wuss; So he had a kind of scheme, and coloured all the cream, which made all the women kind of … cuss.” When Arthur the tractor-man reached the word “cuss”, he blushed through his ruddy Somerset cheeks, because there were women and children present. My father sang Irish songs he had learnt during the War… “So I lathered him with my shaghlelly, cos he trod on the tail of me coat, like that …”
There were communal bonfires at Manor Farm on Fireworks Night. Old John o’Groats fed us Fishermans Friend liquorice lozenges, and warned us through his Andy-Capp fag-end: “mustn’t smoke, mustn’t smoke”. We roasted potatoes in the hot ashes till their black crusts stained our teeth. The tractor-man’s wife, Nelly Stone, diluted Warninck’s Advocaat in fizzy Corona, and offered it to young and old.
I walked a mile to the bus stop every day, to catch the green double-decker to school. When I got off the bus at night, it was pitch dark, and I groped between the hedges, into the lane. The bus conductors – an elderly couple called Sidney and Ruby – took morning and evening shifts. Ruby ruled the bus with a rod of iron. She was very strict. When we were all seated, she sang Englebert Humperdinck’s ballads – “Two Lonely People Together” – in her mellow red-head voice, tapping the rhythm with both hands on her ticket box, up and down the stairs. Her husband Sidney was a white-haired old softy. He let us ride on the back platform to open and shut the door for passengers; and he flirted his cigarettes to me, from behind his back. At eleven, I smoked clematis stalks – the Old Mans Beard from the hedges.
The 266 from Glastonbury through Thurloxton to Taunton, was a soap opera on wheels – the regular passengers confided their woes to Ruby. I remember Carol Prat, a shop girl whom I was friendly with; and Simple Peter, whom they supervised, each day; he got on at Burrowbridge. There was an old man in a bowler hat, who smelt badly of peppermint. There was a shy giantess with enormous shoes and a tiny name – Ann. A large, affluent old matron in sharp glasses, gossiped to her neighbour – “Oh you know, when I had mynervous breakdown …” Whatever is a nervous breakdown? I pinned back my ears.
Regrettably, I did not sketch the farm festivities, or the 266 bus. I sketch them here and now, briefly, as they arise in my memory.
The drawings and caricatures of my family and their friends, sawing away on their musical instruments, must serve to serenade this “other establishment” in my young life, its tastes, sounds and smells – the rich, deep-red Somerset soil or setting for my dark street odyssey to flourish.
Juxtapositions enrich each other. I cherish having grown up with the village people, men of earth untainted by the media – their furrowed skin, their weathered Somerset burr; their wives, grandmothers and new babies; the coal fires in their cottages, the brasses, Toby jugs, ashtrays and fringed tablecloths. They are gentle. Jack Nation the shepherd, was my early hero. He was a swarthy, wiry young man, with a “way with the sheep” – he knew every single individual in a flock, and could catch any ewe without fuss, to sit her on her bottom and tend her feet with his penknife, or palpate her lambs. He let me ride with him on the back of his motorbike – my spirit soared, and whenever he was unwell with his lumbago, I fretted. Jack had a nervous way of speech – “Yeah, yeah, right yeah.” When I sat for a while in the field with the Clun Forest herd, I too knew their black faces and their individual ways.
My father has an inner picture of me at the age of four gazing dreamily at the shepherd shearing a sheep – we lived in Yorkshire then. He tells me I produced an accurate drawing of it, some six months later.
I mention this, because the same faculty produced most of the “Taunton Black drawings”, and those inspired by London and Paris. I do not have an eidetic memory. The reconstruction was always laborious, and it frustrated me that I could not retain details of engineering and wiring – in streets for instance, or in the Underground – without taking sketches on the spot. My strength is in recalling facial expressions, body language and feeling, from inside myself. It is very sensuous, to visualize and sketch a man or woman authentically, and the way they dress. It is an act of love.
Finally: this is the work of a teenager. I was self-absorbed, and the underside of that passion is depression – as expressed in a good many of the drawings. I was notorious in our family, for caricaturing them also in this gloomy, down turned way. When we are very young, we are proud of how grim we can be.