‘Field Grey’ by Philip Kerr

Bernie Gunther was a policeman in 1930s Berlin, and by the mid 1950s is in Cuba trying to extricate himself from the gang with which he’s become embroiled.

His wish just to be left alone is foiled just off the coast of Cuba when he is arrested by the US Navy and taken back to Germany to be interrogated by the CIA for war crimes in which he may or may not have been implicated during the time he served in the SS.

It’s a challenging read, dramatising events which took place before many of the stories of earlier novels in the Bernie Gunther series.  For a while, at the beginning of my read, it did slightly bother me that I was trying unsuccessfully to fit the stories in ‘Field Grey’ into what I remembered of the earlier novels.  But then I abandoned that worry, and simply accepted the new story I was being told.

Bernie is a great character, a disaffected policeman bound only by his own sense of right and wrong, largely focussed on self preservation.

But then in the period in which he lives, the ability to survive is at a premium, as the waves of the war ebb and flow across the continent, and when moral distinctions on both sides are sometimes hard to reconcile.

The story develops in a series of flashbacks starting in 1931, showing each occasion that Bernie’s path has crossed with that of Eric Mielke, and each time he has tried to kill him.  Over the course of his interrogation by the CIA, Bernie reveals how he was buffeted by the events of history, first when he is coerced into the SS, becomes a prisoner of war in Russia, returns to a Germany in ruins, and after his arrest by the Americans is bartered between them and the French forces in the divided Berlin.

It’s a complicated story, and not a straight forward thriller plot, as it’s not always clear where the mystery really lies.  But having said that I found the story completely gripping.  I especially enjoyed the moral ambiguity of all the parties involved.  No-one behaves well; it is only their level of cynicism and calculation which separates them.

The sudden changes of allegiance that are required as political realities hit, like the end of the Hitler/Stalin pact which left German communists in a perilous situation, or the hazy rules of engagement in Vichy France form the background to the ducking and diving required of Bernie in his efforts to get by.

The traditions of British World War 2 fiction, of the clear lines between good, everyone on our side, and bad, everyone else, are challenged in this novel.

If you’re looking for a straightforward thriller, I suggest it might not be for you; but of you’d like a read that might make you wonder, for a moment, how you might behave when everything around you is in chaos, then try it.

So, what did you learn?

Just another bridge in London

A couple of people have asked me what it was I thought I had learnt by doing my drawing class.

For a start, I freely acknowledge that it didn’t reveal a hitherto hidden, but fantastic talent; but it did show that I can make a reasonable effort, and more importantly, that I found it to be an entirely engrossing activity.  Time passed very quickly while I was concentrating on the task in hand, so at worst, I have acquired a brand new displacement activity, at best I’ve started to learn how to use a different part of my brain.

I found the course by searching on the internet.  If you ever do such a search you will find that there are an overwhelming number of courses, many of them distance learning, promising that they can teach YOU to draw.  I specifically wanted to do a programme that forced me into contact with people, otherwise I’ll tend to spend too much time alone.  I proved to myself that I can put myself in a group of strangers and enjoy the experience, something that introverts need to check every now and again.

In fact, the diversity of the class was one of the pleasures of the experience; for a collection of just 11 people we represented a wide range, from a person still at school wanting to build a portfolio for University entrance applications, through sculptors wanting to improve their drawing skills, to the complete novice.  The range in backgrounds was matched by the variation in the results produced.  It was most noticeable on the last day; we were each given a blank piece of paper and three hours, and were invited to draw something of our own composition.  The choices made by each person could not have been more different one from the other.

I’ve done quite a few writing classes involving exercises, sharing work and commenting on drafts produced by others.  I realise that some of the skills acquired there were transferable to the drawing programme.  If you’re going to achieve anything, you just have to get on with it; use the ideas that come into your head, don’t wait around for a better one.  Learn from the less successful efforts to make the next one better.

Trying something for yourself helps you understand it better.  So studying the paintings in the Tate I saw things I’d not noticed before, and I could appreciate both the decisions made by the artist, as well as their skill in achieving the end result.  While we were in the galleries, I also remarked how little time the average visitors spends in front of any given picture.

In having such a positive, energetic teacher I appreciated what a difference a little bit of encouragement makes.  Although I may have been alone in my need for this, as one of my classmates expressed the view that it was all very well being told what was good in her work;  she wanted to be criticised more.

And more frivolously, I hadn’t anticipated how tired I would get standing at an easel with my arm outstretched for long periods of time  nor how sore my feet would be at the end of the day; nor indeed how dirty my hands would get.

Helensburgh in Tate Modern

On Monday while I was wandering around the Tate Modern I happened across an installation by Abraham Cruzvillegas, which at first glance mystified me.  The feature that caught my eye first was an arrangement across two walls and into a corner of scraps of paper all painted red.  Seeking a bit of enlightenment I read the accompanying wall note; and that well and truly stopped me in my tracks.

It spoke of the artist, originally from Mexico, taking inspiration from time he had spent in the West of Scotland, an interesting juxtaposition in itself; but the more, he had spent time at Cove Park.

I’ve spent time at Cove Park too, so it feels a little like only ‘three degrees of separation’ from the Tate to me.  Yep, it’s delusional, but it felt extraordinarily coincidental.

I spent my teenage years in Helensburgh and it felt like a small enclosed place at the time.  Glasgow, an hour’s train ride away was still rather run down before its revitalisation in the late 1980s and was yet to offer much in the way of bright lights.  I felt as if I was a million miles away from anything interesting.

Cove Park, on the Rosneath peninsular, was not even a glimmer in anyone’s eye, was near the end of a rutted road along the shore of Loch Long.  Now it benefits from the smooth speedy military road built to support the nearby Trident bases, yet provides an inspirational environment for international artists.

The transformation over thirty years is extraordinary, both physically and philosophically.

In a video the artist spoke about collecting scraps of paper, leaflets, tickets and advertising flyers for use in his work, painting over them and treating them all as blind portraits.  He may not be very pleased with me sneaking around to have a look at the back of one of the pieces.

Matt black on one side, the reverse side revealed it to be made up of advertising posters for the Helensburgh Advertiser, the local paper.  ‘Bus Boss Blasts Council’ is an unusually serious headline for the paper, which usually favours things along the lines of ‘Dog Worries Sheep’, or ‘Potholes on Sinclair Street’.

Overall, being painted black and hung in Tate Modern by a Mexican artist exploring what it is to make do and mend with bits of detritus that catch his eye, is the best the newspaper could ever hope for.

A View From the Tate

The experiences from last week’s Drawing for All course are still filtering through; in fact I hope they continue to do so for some time to come, as I found it a fascinating and engrossing experience irrespective of the sketches I managed to produce.

I had some time to kill on Monday afternoon so I wandered across the Millennium Bridge to visit Tate Modern again.  I popped in on the paintings I’d spent time drawing last week, and the detailed perception I’d developed of them as I’d studied them was still there.  My eyes went straight to the characteristics that I’d only noticed for the first time after a period of careful study, things I might have always missed had I not taken that extra time last week.

I’ve been a member of the Tate for years, but have never been in the Members’ room at either of the London galleries.  Once, about 4 years ago I went up to the one at Tate Modern, only to be turned away because it was full.  I’ve never bothered since, as it’s a bit out of the way, up an extra flight of stairs, and there’s only so many steps I’m prepared to take to before being refused entry.

So on Monday I made it part of my mission to break in.  And very pleasant it was too.  One outside space looks over the building sites to the rear of the building, but another, smaller one, grants a view out over the River, the City and St Paul’s.  I sat imagining how I might draw the view, capturing the lines, shapes and patterns of the arrangements of the architecture.

It sounds verging on the utterly obvious, now, but it was only last week that I understood how differently each person sees the world.

I’ve known it in the writing context as long as I’ve been reading and writing: everyone has a unique point of view and experience of life, but in writing we hope that by presenting our peculiar view, we might chime a chord with our readers.

It was only when I saw the drawings of my class mates and what a range of visual experience of the same objects they showed in their drawings that I appreciated that while my attention is drawn to the patterns and lines, other people see shades and shapes.

I didn’t draw the view, largely because I was so fascinated by the conversation of the people at the adjacent table; a sort of Harold Pinter meets Tony Hart.  I think my writer instinct still trumps the neophyte sketcher.

‘Journey’s End’ at Duke of Yorks

In many ways ‘Journey’s End’ by R C Sherriff, currently playing at Duke of Yorks could be a collection of recognisable clichés of First World War imagery; trenches, stiff upper lips, talks of a topping adventure, quiet honour and chaps from public schools.  But in David Grindlay’s production these familiar tropes are so truthfully shown they have a gripping, moving authenticity.

Written by Sherriff, based on his own wartime experiences, it has no real agenda other than as a portrait of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances.  In the dugout there is talk of food, ‘cutlets’ made from formed meat, onion flavoured tea, fresh fish only to be dreamt of unless invited to battalion HQ.  No wonder everyone focussed on cigarettes and whiskey.

Eighteen year old second lieutenant Raleigh is the new arrival in the company commanded by the boy he had idolised at school, Captain Stanhope.  There is only three years between then in age, but a lifetime of experience on the battlefield has altered Stanhope irrevocably.  Raleigh is young and excited about the great adventure on which he is embarking; the contrast with Stanhope’s world weary bitterness and desperate dependency on alcohol is stark.

The production is dark, both literally and figuratively.  As the lights in the theatre went down the auditorium filled with the deep rumbling of gunfire that resonated through my ribcage, large reports made some of the many children in the audience cry out in alarm.

The stage is dimly lit throughout, forcing a concentration in the members of the audience.  The relative darkness, the drab uniforms and the spareness of the staging mean that it’s all down to the performances, which are excellent, creating fully rounded characters, whose fate matters to all of us.

The play is set in the few days before an anticipated big attack; Stanhope’s efforts and planning to keep his company as secure as possible are undermined by an order to send a raiding party to the German trenches only a few yards away to capture some prisoners.

Half of the raid group do not return, and it is a terrible harbinger of what is likely to happen next.  As the curtain falls, there are three minutes or so of a crescendo of bombardment, louder and louder, until we have no doubt that few will survive.

At the curtain call the cast stand in a silent, still line as the rising curtain gradually reveals more and more names engraved on a stone cenotaph behind them.

An affecting, thought provoking production.

Rufus Wainwright Buys Bangle

Honestly, the bangle's in the carrier bag.

Apologies, but it’s satisfied my wish to attempt a ridiculous ‘headline’ familiar from the front of a tabloid; pick out the most irrelevant detail of a story and print it big and bold.  It’s even better to be able to write it alongside a slightly odd photo of the ‘celebrity’ in question.

My brush with fame took place last week when I was killing a little bit of time near Charing Cross Road.  I was browsing in the windows of the weird little shops in Cecil Court when I caught sight of Rufus in a shop selling flamboyant costume jewellery.

As always, he looked smaller than I had expected; but then whenever I see anyone familiar to me from the television, they are smaller than I think they should be.  His voice, audible through the open door, was, however, as I had expected: that slightly nasal, languid delivery of his stage persona.

I pretended an avid interest in the broaches and necklaces in the shop window as I watched him, out of the corner of my eye, try different pieces against the lapel of his jacket, looking in the mirror and checking the opinion of his companion.

There’s something fascinating in seeing someone in the flesh whom you’ve previously only ever seen on film; it happens relatively frequently to me as I spend quite a lot of time out and about in London, and I have one of those brains that means I do recognise them and can place them quite quickly even if I can’t remember their names.  But just because I recognise them, it doesn’t mean that I’m deluded enough to think they want to talk to me.

Eventually as Rufus made his final selection of a wide resin bangle and paid for it, I turned away; I hated the thought they might realise I had been spying on them.

Clearly it didn’t stop me taking a photo, no matter from what great distance, and so dominated by the Westminster Council bins, at that.

Maybe I’d have spoken to him if I had tickets to see him at the Royal Opera House where I know he is due to do a residency around about now.  But then again, maybe I wouldn’t have.

Reflections of the Novice in Life Drawing Class

I’ve been thinking a lot about my first experiences of drawing a life model.  It was something I had not expected to be part of the programme: it seemed a major endeavour, something much too serious for the complete novice to have someone stand before me in that way, while I managed a very poor attempt at a sketch.

Over the five days we had four models, as different from each other as it is possible to be.

Inevitably, I became fascinated by the unwritten rules that govern the dynamics of what is, looked at objectively, quite an odd thing to be doing.

The distinctions were clear, while we were in posing/drawing periods, I was entirely focussed on the shape of the leg or the way the arm flexed over the back of the chair; only in the breaks did they revert to being a person.

Each model avoided eye contact; the key is clearly to take your mind somewhere else, without letting the face become completely blank.  A skill set I’d never previously considered.

Fabia was the only one who spoke to the models, agreeing with each of them what they should do, checking with them periodically that they were still comfortable; the class was a private affair with large sheets of newsprint paper taped to the windows to shield it from being overlooked by the adjacent office buildings; when they were ‘on’ we could look as intently as we wished; when they was ‘off’ and clothed, looking would be considered rude.

On Tuesday, during the breaks, when Ronald put his track suit on and sat reading the Daily Mirror, eating a fruit salad out of a plastic dish, I wondered about his story.  His posture on the chair, lent over the paper was entirely different to when he was posing; his concentration on the news clearly a technique to avoid any casual interaction with the strangers in the class who were drawing him.

Caitlin on Wednesday wrapped herself in a purple throw when she was ‘off’, and wandered away into the little back room in search of a cup of tea until she was needed again.  She had carefully applied eye make up and lipstick, so that when she was posing everything was naked apart from her face.

Where I had remarked on the extreme stillness of the first two models, the extraordinary thing about Ian on Wednesday afternoon was his calm repetition of a sequence of moves along a runway across the middle of the studio.  He was also interested in looking at the drawings we had done; he sat on the stool in the middle of the room and scanned the pictures, adding his own comments to the teacher’s feedback.

Finally, Zoe on Thursday lay in an Odalisque type pose up on a makeshift couch made up of a table and a few cushions.  She stayed in the same position for two sessions of 45 minutes each, the position of her hands, feet and shoulders marked by gaffer tape while she had a break in the middle.  How do you sit still for that long?  Where do you have to go inside your head to keep your fingers still and your head from drooping?

Of course, I had to ask the teacher about the models.  Where do they come from; is there a lot of competition for the job, or does the academy find it hard to find models.  How long does it take to overcome self consciousness?  Do  they tell their friends about modelling?    Can they tell who’s doing a good drawing and who’s not?  Do they care either way?

There’s a story there somewhere.

Colourful – a Photo

Here I have the perfect opportunity to include a photo that I took, simply because it amused me, but for which there is unlikely to be any other purpose.

It’s a row of rubber boots on display at Liberty’s in London at the beginning of July.  Evidently the discerning customer needs an expensive pair of brightly coloured Wellies in anticipation of the Summer festival season.  One colour for Glastonbury, another for Reading, a third for Latitude, perhaps?  But if you go for Hunter Wellingtons, what kind of tent would you need?

So, while on the subject of over priced basics, here’s some flowers at Borough Market.

This week was the first time I’ve spent any time at the Market, and I was there to observe closely and to try to sketch the surroundings.  It’s a fascinating place.  Quiet on Monday, but packed and humming on Thursday and Friday, the air thick with the tantalising aroma of roasting and frying meat.  Flowers tumble out of carts and hanging baskets, piles of fruit and veg are artfully arranged on trestle tables, jars of specialists honey and unusual oils stand under red and green parasols.  It’s the Market of the visual and olfactory imagination.

But on closer inspection, it’s a bit ‘fur coat and no knickers’: the nectarines I bought to sketch were expensive and entirely ordinary, and before I selected them they were on a stand next to punnets of strawberries imported from the USA.  American strawberries, in July, in England, when the much derided supermarkets are stocking domestically grown produce at much better prices.

It’s a great place to look and observe, but I’ll not be buying anything again.

Not the Last Day of Drawing

The ghost of the stuffed deer of Kelvingrove is officially dead.  It’s taken near on 40 years, but it’s gone now.

I’ve not yet digested everything I’ve learnt in my week of Drawing for All, so I expect there will be more posts on this subject to come, as the experience filters through, but one thing I have leant is that it’s possible to have a go.

There is a strong parallel to writing creatively.  The more I practice, the better at achieving my intent I will become; and so long as I am satisfied with the outcome, it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks about it.

The last day of the programme was spent first in Borough Market sketching people in action, and then, in the afternoon we were back in the studio to draw anything we liked in our own composition, taking inspiration from anything and everything  we had done during the week.

By then I felt reasonably comfortable standing by a pillar or sitting in Southwark Cathedral Yard with a pad and pencil trying to capture a little taste of what I saw.  Borough Market was humming with people, none of whom was in the slightest bit interested in what I was doing.  It’s the same dynamic as sitting writing in a cafe, the more people who are about, the less interested they are in any one person.

I managed a couple of little sketches of people who sat still long enough for me to make something of them, but the capturing of figures in movement still looks a bit like stickmen cartoons.

While I was wandering the market I also picked up a couple of things for the composition I planned for the afternoon.   I was both pleased and relieved that, as Fabia had been setting out the plan for the afternoon, I had a couple of ideas; and, the same as when I’m set a writing challenge, I know it’s usually the best policy to go with the first notion that jumps into my head.

When I had been at Tate Modern I had randomly chosen to copy two very different paintings both representing a still life in front of a window.  As I’m a dedicated starer out of windows I had spent quite a lot of time looking at the building across the vacant lot from the studio; I liked its rounded window tops and the way the edge of the building curved away from me.

I bought the pot of olives because I wanted some olives; but I got the nectarines because of their shape, and I splashed out on four, even though there were chronically over priced, because I thought two wouldn’t be enough and I had planned to eat one for lunch, but then got chatting instead.

I worked on the sketch all afternoon, by the end regretting the number of windows on the building, and sending myself a little cross eyed looking on either side of the window frame which bisected my view – if I stood forward I saw the edge of the building through the pane to the left of the line, and if I stood back it was on the right; the downside of having two eyes.

So, it is with trepidation that I display my ‘end of term’ piece.  All I can say is that I am pleased that I have captured the curve of the building, at least in the window at the top, as well as the fold of the paper bag over the edge of the window sill.

 One I worked hard on, the other just happened; which is, for the moment, a pretty good summary of my experiences of the week.

Drawing on a Thursday

Four days' accumulation of work

Day 4 of my Drawing for All course started at the Victoria and Albert Museum.  We were there to sketch sculpture, and think about rhythm and mood  in a piece of art.

We started in the Indian sculpture section, looking at how a sense of movement is created through decoration or sweeps and curves in the stone and metal pieces.

On the floor again; this time a mosaic surface, harder and colder than the wood of that at Tate Modern, for those for whom it might be relevant.

I attempted the Nogini, a woman’s head, and struggled to get the angles right, so was pleased when the time came to move on, in our whistle-stop tour.  Next stop was further East to China, where I lent on a window sill to study Buddha and the curves and drapes of his cloaks.

I was reasonably satisfied with his clothing, but I fear that I ended up making him look rather too smug for a Buddha.

But there was no time to get into too much of a twist about it as we were off to Europe.  Samson Slaying the Philistine has a very handy seat right beside it, so I was happy to perch there peering up at the two intertwined bodies, Samson’s hand high in the air for the coup de grace with a jaw bone.  I didn’t quite do it justice, but I could see the flowing lines linking the two characters like a helter skelter in human form.

Our last stop was at the Rodins.  I’ll freely admit that I chose The Prodigal mainly on the basis of the nearby bench, but am pleased that I did, as it was by far and away the most successful of my morning’s efforts.  I think it’s the simplicity of the form that made sense to me.

It was back to base for the afternoon and Zoe, another life model, reclining on a series of cushions covered in a velvety drape.  The task was to capture the pose and surroundings with particular reference to the mood and rhythm.  This was the longest pose, and the longest we would spend on a single drawing.

I was enjoying it, but by the time we arrived at the half time break, I had reached a point with my sketch from which I had no idea what to do next.  I knew it wasn’t finished, but felt I was on the verge of spoiling it.   I asked Fabia, and she told me to start a new drawing.

It was only after I had finished the second attempt that I could see that the teacher had seen something in my work that I thought was why it wasn’t very good, but which she saw showed the way that I visualise things.  I see the big lines, the swags, shapes and patterns; I’m much less aware of all the textures and shades.  Taking that on board was immensely helpful.  I’m going to stop envying those people who can do all the subtle shading, and stick to my lines and curves.

So, it will be the last day tomorrow, and then what will I do?

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