The Secret Garden

The Secret Garden is a 3 1/2 acre site, a haven amid dense housing, implementing organic permaculture of plants and promoting wildlife.  It is run by the charity Mind to provide people with an environment supporting mental health.  My son has the great good fortune to be support worker there.  He originally trained in 3D design and then horticulture.  He is using these skills in a way that makes the garden accessible to individuals and which also reaches out to the community.  Weekends during May, they are raising funds through plant sales.  My wife, nephew and step-daughter have all been baking cakes for this enterprise.

The beds contain diverse growing frames, some simple and functional, others spiralling out of the ground.  I spent a few minutes yesterday sketching, in my smallest pad, first a willow growing frame and then a metallic sculpture turning gently in the wind, both set by the pond, home to newts.

Back to drawing birds

The Italian countryside, the heavily wooded hills and marshy lowlands were largely devoid of bird song.  An eerie quiet pervaded the landscape.  In the marshes, the few ducks were well hidden and the open water was mostly populated by herons, egrets and flamingos.  I understand from the media that Italians’ passion for hunting has overwhelmed the ecosystem and left it depleted of its natural bird life.  I did see a family of wild pigs snorting their way through the undergrowth.  Again, I read that wild pigs had been devastated by hunting and the population has been rebuilt using a strain from Hungary which is smaller and which breeds more rapidly.

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I shared a bird hide made of dry reeds with a photographer smoking a cigar.  He caught some fabulous shots of circling raptors and a kingfisher which alighted close to us.  I concentrated on the flamingos and egrets.  These were some distance away.  I stated drawing, spotting through the telescope and copying awkwardly onto the pad.  As juvenile flamingos came closer, I worked more loosely using brief glimpses through binoculars and drawing more from memory.  There is a tension between seeking anatomical accuracy for an unfamiliar species versus failing to capture movement through slavish copying.

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I found once again that I have no standard technique for drawing in the field. Here, in great frustration, I have switched between drawing in pen, and painting a rapid shape which is then overlaid with conte crayon.

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Schroedinger’s election

It’s six in the morning and I write this after taking down the election poster, but not yet knowing the outcomes.  Reflecting my mood, I am listening to Leonard Cohen’s Famous Blue Raincoat.

The last polls suggested the leading parties were neck and neck, leadership of the next government balanced on a knife edge.  For as long as I don’t look, this is still true: we have at one and the same time both Labour and Conservative-led coalitions.  In a few minutes, I will collapse the probabilities by looking.  And I fear that what I will find is a Conservative near majority.  Their interests converge with those of the Scots Nationalists in breaking up the country so a narrow cadre of financial interests can rule without check the broken remnants.

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Election day was also my son’s tenth birthday.  The day turned out themed around sloths, his totemic animal.  Here he is last weekend, sitting on the train reading Philip Pullman on his way to watch his mother run her first 10K race: 58 minutes by the way.

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Here are my remaining sketches from the last week, an attempt to visualise the bird beneath the feathers.

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In an attempt to get back to sleep in the early hours this morning, I plugged the radio into my ear and started by catching up on Friday evening’s satirical comedy. First item linked systematic tax avoidance arranged by high street bank HSBC (Hide Some Bent Cash) with a function for the very rich at which  access to government ministers was auctioned (including, strangely, the opportunity to go shoe shopping with the Home Secretary, holder of one of the three great offices of state).  Second item explored the effect of the release of the film Fifty Shades of Grey on hardware stores.  This was not, as you might think, an increase in sales of gaffer tape and rope, but increased general sales as men suddenly remember all those DIY jobs that just have to be done right away making them really really busy right now.

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Marsh Lane Reserve evening light, ice – blue and black pen, indelible marker, conte crayon, chalk pastel, clean water, watercolour.

Comedy was followed by arts (skipping the agricultural soap opera).  The reviewer commented that Fifty Shades lacked a plot but the sex scenes were “pretty buff”.  She liked the many shots of the leading man’s chest muscles.  Still awake, I switched to Sunday morning scheduling, coming in on a sequence of diverse philosophical and literary readings connected by an incomprehensible theme: it is called “Something Understood”.  I actually drifted off in the next programme as they explained the ecological relationship between wood mice and field voles in an Oxfordshire woodland, awaking during the sermon of the Daily Service.  The preacher took as his theme Fifty Shades of Grey and reflected on his own forty years of marriage.  I fell asleep again during the hymn, the beautiful “My Song is Love Unknown“.  Were these connected in some way?  What was he trying to tell us?

Cormorants roosting in distant tree - charcoal, conte crayon, ink

Cormorants roosting in distant tree – charcoal, conte crayon, ink

Like many others, we celebrated Valentine’s day by going to watch Fifty Shades of Grey.  I enjoyed the sex and related scenes though it is an odd experience to watch these, sitting surrounded by strangers.  The reviewer was right, there are no narrative twists or surprises.  It is really very simple and highly moral: it describes, step by step, a process by which two people achieve or decline consent for sex.  This film comes from the viewpoint of the female gaze.  The leading male, the eponymous Grey, is not a character as such, more a cipher of a certain idealised manhood for women (stern, rich, powerful, young, potent, fit, flawed, curable by love) just as Lara Croft or any girl in a James Bond movie are cartoon versions of a certain male idea of femininity.  For me, that is what makes this film interesting, since most Western culture seems to be dominated by the male gaze.  Still, I could not warm to Grey.  I reflected that I have greater feelings of empathy with more human, rounded characterisations of masculinity, say, Gollum or R2D2.  I did wonder, also, who Christian Grey had fleeced to become so very rich so quickly, whether he banks in a secret offshore account to avoid tax and to which high ranking elected officials he has direct access.

Bar code

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This week I learned that discount retailers have made bar codes three times larger and present on three sides of a product.  This allows faster scanning, contributing to a 40% increase in productivity (i.e. checkout throughput).  The snipe’s bar coded plumage extend the length of its back and head, mimicking the dark and light of the reeds within which it hides.  These birds were hidden in plain view 20 feet from me.  I guessed they might be there but found them only with binoculars.

I am looking forward to evenings with longer light and the chance to draw duels and courtship in the nature reserve once again.

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The icy water surface of the flooded gravel pit is full of piping teal and wigeon, mallards, barnacle and pink footed geese, ascending lapwings and clouds of circling black headed gulls.  Silent and hidden among broken reeds and rushes, the snipe are hunkering down.  The stripes down their backs almost completely mimic their surroundings. A shrill cry above from a possible predator catapults birds into the air, but snipe stay still.


Snipe in the rushes: pen and watercolour

The soft winter evening light glows off their plumage and the myriad stripes of surrounding vegetation.

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Snipe 2: fountain pen, conte crayon and photoshop glow filter

Snipe: fountain pen, conte crayon - original sketchbook

Snipe: fountain pen, conte crayon – original sketchbook

Laid back

My son practices the trumpet while gazing at the ceiling. He can play three notes, C, D and E.  I don’t think an interval separates them but playing the trumpet starts with breath control and rhythm.

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I read to him most nights, selecting fiction and poetry aimed a few years beyond what he might read for himself.  I have just completed Garth Nix’ fantasy series based in an alternative Britain in which a Wall and perimeter defences separate the technological South from the magical North.  Against orders from the capital, soldiers patrolling the border use cross-bows because the machine guns fail so close to the Wall, an inconvenience when facing a necromancer’s slaves.  In choosing something different to read next, it occurred to me that real boys drafted to fight real wars are pretty much the same age as the made-up characters battling in these fantasy novels.

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When he was called up in 1940, Spike Milligan took his trumpet. I have started reading out to my son the first volume of Milligan’s anarchic war memoirs, recounting the daftness of war and of young men away from home for the first time.   It has dawned on me that this book is way over his head (I missed most of the implications when I first read it too)  but he seems keen for me to carry on.  Perhaps it’s because Milligan is playing jazz while the chaos carries on around him.

Juvenile herons

I rarely see the heron chicks in the spring but come the autumn, the juveniles are present in abundance.  As the population remains stable, I guess many must migrate to new areas.

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With only an hour to spare, there is a tension between observing and drawing such that interesting behaviour never makes it on the page. I watched for many minutes as one hunted through the reedy margins, striking at tiny fish.  It also snapped at and caught a large flying insect.  I think herons’ eyes are angled downwards but these young birds were fascinated by the passing trains and the aeroplanes ascending overhead.  Their necks curled and their heads tilted sideways so they could get a view.

I focussed my sketches on preening.  Here too is a little egret, aptly called compared to the much larger heron on the same bank.

Holiday sketches: last ones

On our last day in Mallorca I took a full day out, hiring a car to drive further afield.  I had seen booted eagles and buzzards  hunting over the Albufereta Nature Reserve but I wanted to see and draw black vultures.  I drove to the Cuber reservoir in the northern mountain range.  This is a wide valley between steep heights.  The slopes were patrolled by what I am sure were common kestrels but their colouring seemed much lighter than I see at home, their wings almost transparent in the sunshine.  High up, out of sight except with a telescope, an osprey watched.

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These sketches were drawn in ink with water to catch the tones.

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There is no detail for the talons because I could not see them.

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There were no vultures to be seen.  I drove back along the high plateau.  Late in the afternoon, near a vineyard and winery at Mortitz, I found a path winding off into the mountains, and from the map, I could see it would eventually reach a spectacular view of the sea.  Posters advertised this was a conservation area for the Bonelli’s eagle and I had picked up intelligence that vultures were encouraged to congregate there.  But it was too late.  I had abandoned my family all day and I could not stay.

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This sketch was done in minutes and wholly fails to capture the appearance and mood of the place.  It was like a film setting for a magical tale, perhaps one might see Oberon and Titania laughing at Bottom there.  The bare karst rocks were broken by aromatic greenery and twisted trunks against the backdrop of the limestone heights.