Friday, 23 January 2015

The week's drawings...

Art Nexus Cafe in Manchester, Tuesday.

Beach House in winter.

In the fridge.

in the cellar.

Socks napping.

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

An Excerpt in which Mrs Danby Thwarts Octopi and Pops our Corks.

(Being an excerpt from 'Mrs Danby and Company' - by Paul Magrs. In this section, renowned adventurer
Professor George Edward Zarathustra tells of doings in the ocean deeps, within and without his patented two man / one woman submersible as he and his fellows encounter a gaggle of terrifying octopi.)


"In our moment of most awful need, the astonishing Mrs Danby devised a plan upon the instant that took my breath away. It also nearly boiled both Van Halfling and me alive, but that is by the by.

Even I had to admit that the octopi seemed indefatigable. Van Halfling – who must be seventy if he’s a day – was flagging considerably, waving a harpoon gun around quite ineffectually.

Once, I spied Mrs Danby’s worried face at a portal. What would become of that poor, rather plain, woman, if we two gentleman failed in our mission and died out here at the bottom of the sea?

However, it was that resourceful domestic servant who, in the end, saved us all. Somehow she cudgelled her feminine brains and realized that she could utilize the submersible itself to defeat our undersea nemeses. Her eyes turned to the control panels in front of her and lit fortuitously upon the dials that controlled the temperature of the inner and outer skins of the vehicle.

Now, the excellent Mrs Danby saw these controls and noticed that the thermostats were throbbing away and warming the interior of the sub quite nicely. What if… she must have thought… What if I turned the dials right up to the very highest settings? And what if I heated up the exterior of the craft as well? She knew – from her daily labours as cook and housekeeper – rather a lot about the conduction of heat and the uses of hot steam. And so she turned that domestic knowledge to the advantage of us all. On went the switches! Round went the dials! She barely gave herself pause to have doubts. The sweat began running freely at once. That poor lady glowed, perspired and sweated like a horse as the interior of the sub quickly started to overheat. She turned the hue of lobster thermidor before her efforts had any appreciable effect on the beings outside.

The first I knew of it, the umbilicus tethering Van Halfling and I to the sub turned hot. Soon my lungs were scorching and I was feeling rather clammy all over. Van Halfling shot me a look of alarm through his visor and before I could think further, I became aware of the effect that this over-heating was having upon our assailants.

They were being scalded!

All the while, as they had tangled with us, the octopi had left several of their limbs still wrapped securely around the sub. Now, with Mrs Danby’s flash of inspiration, they found themselves and their suckers welded and melting against the metal hull. Mrs Danby was cooking the murderous beggars!

How I wished I could smell them, sizzling away. I chortled at the sight of it. I guffawed – despite my discomfort – at the opaque and doomed look that came into their horrible eyes.

Oh, Mrs Danby! What a genius is she! Van Halfling and I capered happily as all five of our attackers were broiled and blackened and fell from our ship and our exhausted selves. We had triumphed!

Then we had to wave frantically at Mrs Danby, to get her to turn the gauges back down. Otherwise we two would be cooked as well, which would have been very counter-productive. In a lather of sweat and self-congratulation, she grappled with the controls, and then set about finding the correct way to open the airlock and re-admit us to the sub.

Oh, dear Mrs George Herbert Zarathustra. Imagine our glee! Just picture our ruddy complexions as we clambered back inside my tiny sub and stripped off our metal armour. It was still too hot, almost to touch. Van Halfling and I were hopping about in our undergarments, singed and bruised and too excited for words. It was the first time I had seen the old man shaken out of his impeccable calm. He was prancing about in jubilation, ecstatic to be alive. Poor Mrs Danby was flustered and damp, laughing as the pair of us gathered her up in a hug.

Most unseemly behaviour! I am sure you will agree, my darling wife. Who else in the history of mankind has weathered such bizarre calamities – and gigantic calamari – and come out quite unscathed at the other end? Why, only Zarathustra and Company!

Oh, possibly that rapscallion Captain Zero, too. He’s probably encountered such things as well, but that’s a story for another day, as they say.

But here we were – overly hot and overtired – and glad to be alive. Imagine, taking a steam bath at the bottom of the ocean! My very eyeballs felt as if they were being poached like eggs. I had the most marvellous idea then, and flung open the mini-bar, which was sequestered behind an oak panel, revealing several bottles of champagne on ice. We took the ice and rubbed it all over ourselves in order to cool down, and then Mrs Danby opened all the bottles in quick succession. The noise of popping corks was most welcome, though she was careful where they shot off in the confined space.

And so – before we faced our next challenge – I am afraid we three adventurers became rather tiddly."

('Mrs Danby and Company' is available here and here! Please do buy a copy, and tell all your friends about it.)

Monday, 19 January 2015

A Novel Surprise - 'Mrs Danby and Company'

Here's my surprise announcement for January the 19th. 

It's a brand new novel - published today! 


by Paul Magrs

When world-famous detective Nightshade Jones of Balcombe Street retires to Sussex to look after hornets, housekeeper Mrs Martha Danby packs her bags and sets off on a luxury cruise on the doomed SS Utopia

En route to the dazzling city of New York, she soon meets legendary vampire-slayer Abraham Van Halfling, who claims his demon-hunting days are over. But soon the pair are embroiled in a series of wild adventures when, one stormy evening, the irascible and brilliant Professor Zarathustra stomps aboard, brimming with outlandish tales of giant cephalopods, guarding an ancient lost city at the bottom of the Atlantic.

Our heroes are drawn into a steampunky adventure involving disaster at sea, evil underwater backwards-speaking arachnids, an elixir of eternal youth, vampires in Central Park, sinister Eastern travel agents, a swift trip to Mars and an altogether rollicking time in an early, rather hectic portion of the Twentieth Century.

It would be altogether splendid if you were to join Mrs Danby and Company in doing their level best to save the world!


I hope you'll enjoy it!  It's available in paperback right now, here and here!

Sunday, 18 January 2015

This week's drawings

'Food Savoury Cuisine!' in Longsight

the garden in snow

 the corner where I work.

the fridge doors.

The Triangle and Cathedral, Manchester.

Friday, 16 January 2015

My first published story - 'Patient Iris'

Patient Iris

by Paul Magrs

(First published in New Writing Four, Edited by AS Byatt and Alan Hollinghurst, March 1995. Also published in 'Playing Out', my first collection of short stories, by Vintage in 1997.)

I sent this story on spec to New Writing and luckily, they took it in a flash. It's my twentieth anniversary as a published writer this year, so I thought I'd bring some stuff out of the archive for you. Here's the first thing I ever had in print...



She has a friend called Patient Iris who lives at the top of the town by the Roman remains.

Irises take a good while to open. She thinks if you place them by the window they stand a better chance.

Iris is patient. She watches men reconstructing the Roman remains.

At the top of the town you can see all of South Shields, the grey flank of North Shields, the blue sash of sea.

The Romans must have built here for the view.

Their fort is vast. When they rebuild it, do they use the old stones or do they have all new, cut into shapes they have guessed at? She and Patient Iris watch them working and the stone certainly looks new. Newer and more yellow than even those private estates they’ve been putting up.

She feels bad about Patient Iris. Who has turned bright yellow and sits by the phone. Who is ready to ring out in case she has an emergency. Her bedsores are a sight to see. She has looked under Patient Iris’s nightgown, at Patient Iris’s bidding. She instructed Patient Iris to sit by her window, to get some air, watch the world outside. Lying down all day does you no good in the end.

Fat purple welts, all down the back of her. Succulent, like burst fruit.

Patient Iris can’t quite remember, but didn’t the coast here once freeze entirely?

It is so high up. The Roman soldiers, with the north wind shushing up their leather skirts, parading on those ramparts, must have had it hard.

And didn’t it once freeze over?

Patient Iris lived at the end of a street. When the coast froze up, surely it was before the time they bombed the row’s other end? The houses went down like dominoes, a trail of gunpowder, stopping just short of Iris’s door.

Patient Iris is a survivor. She survived the freezing-over that winter when, she realises now, she must still have been a child.

She talks on the phone with her friend. Her friend phones now more often than she visits. They both agree that visiting is not much use. There’s nothing new to see. Although the Roman remains, across the way, grow a little higher every day.

And these two women don’t need to see each other. They are so accustomed to the sight that the phone is all they need. And it saves Iris’s friend a trip out. Up the hill is arduous work, after all. Yet they used to walk it happily, to get to the Spiritualist church. When calling up your husband was the thing, before bingo.

Her friend phones to check up on Patient Iris’s back. Both know that her health can’t last this winter.

And winter is stealing in. When Patient Iris wakes in her chair each morning, the first thing she sees is the Roman remains blanched white with scabs of frost, their outlines etched in by an impossibly blue sky.

Winters like this, everything turns to jewels. Patient Iris runs her fingers over and round her tender sores as she speaks into the receiver to her oldest living friend. Will they turn to rubies, drop away, make her well again and rich?

‘Do you remember -’ she says, breaking into her friend’s flow. ‘Do you remember when the coast froze up?’

Her friend is thrown for a moment. Then she sees the orange cranes frozen in the docks, useless and wading on ice. The monstrous keels of half-completed ships, abandoned, like wedding dresses on dummies with the arms not on yet and pins sticking out.

‘I think so,’ she mumbles. She had been telling Patient Iris about the local women, bonded in a syndicate, who won a million pounds between them on the football pools. They were all supermarket cashiers and had their photos taken by the local press, sitting in shopping trolleys.

‘But do you remember the seals on the ice?’ They appeared from nowhere. Came thousands of miles south because it was so cold that winter.

Her friend doesn’t remember the seals.

Patient Iris recalls seeing grey sides of beef stranded on ice. She worked in a butchers, running errands. The butcher boys joked about serving up seal chops.

The seals grew bigger. From the top of the town Patient Iris could hear them bark at night. Not like dogs; grunting coughs like old men in the park. They were getting bigger because they were pregnant. The whiskered seals with large, inscrutable eyes, beached on the useless docks.

‘Imagine,’ says Patient Iris suddenly. ‘Imagine giving birth on sheer ice. Imagine being born on sheer ice. You come out of blubbery safety, straight into snow. The seals try to cover each other, but…’

Her friend decides Iris’s mind is wandering. Tomorrow she will visit her in person. She begins to end the phone call. She wants Iris to put down the phone in case she needs to phone herself an ambulance. She knows Patient Iris all too well and how she likes to do things for herself.

Patient Iris has been kneading the bedsores as she talks. Down the side of her leg, through stiff white cotton, fresh stains of primrose and carmine bloom.

Patient Iris puts down the phone and thinks.

One night when the seals were barking out their birth pangs, she left the house in her nightie and slippers and walked down to the docks.

The dark, slumped shapes, dividing and reproducing, unabashed on the exposed span of gleaming ice. The high pig squeals of baby seals. The mothers rolling over, moist with their own cooling gels, careful not to slip and crush their children.

Patient Iris met a woman, a hag, really, with great hooped skirts and a basket of herring on her back. She said her name was Dolly. She was a lunatic, screaming the odds at the clock face when it struck the hour. In her basket the fish slipped and goggled their frozen eyes as Dolly jogged about to keep warm.

‘I keep sailors inside my skirts. That’s why I wear them so big. So they can hide inside and dodge the draft. They needn’t have to go to sea. Or do what they don’t want.’

Dolly’s face was like a coconut, the hairs growing thick inside the grooves so she’d never be able to shave them if she tried.

Tonight Iris’s oldest living friend dreams of Iris turning yellow and sitting by the phone. The moonlight shines off stark Roman walls and drops into her room.

Patient Iris is still, asleep sitting up, looking dead already. Apart from the slight hiss of breath, which issues as smoke from her open mouth. She is awkward in her chair, doubled up with her precious jumble of ruined organs preserved in that clatter of limbs. She looks just as uncomfortable as those cashiers posing in their shopping trolleys, arms and legs akimbo and waving their champagne glasses and oversized cheques as photographers’ bulbs go off.

Patient Iris’s friend of many years dreams that this winter will be cold. Colder even than that winter before the town was bombed and Tyne Dock was sheeted over in ice.

Colder still and the men decide to down tools and abandon the Roman remains till spring. It is so cold that it frightens them. This kind of weather will crystallise fragments of lost souls in the air. They rekindle themselves and brighten jewellike when it comes in dark. Centurions gather on the ramparts in their leather skirts with the wind whistling through them, their eyes dead quartz.

In the cold imagined by Iris’s friend, the Roman remains can complete themselves.

Old outlines glisten silver on the air, tugging at each other like a big top going up. They stir the air to recall what once stood there. Moisture freezes, clicks into place and recreates a fabulous ice palace on the reconstructed site at the top of the town above the docks.

Patient Iris’s window is open and the time is right for irises to open. Unseasonably, perhaps, even dangerously, in midwinter. But what does Patient Iris care for danger now?

She is open to the elements. Her sores expose her to the harshest that the north can offer.

The cold of the north heals up Patient Iris forever. Her gasping, fishlike internal organs stop collapsing and freeze. Her bedsores harden. Iris reaches with one arthritic hand to splash a little scent behind each ear before she allows the cold to come over her entirely.

Scent catches at each earlobe and dangles there, perfect crystal earrings. And now Patient Iris is sealed forever. The fate of those at extremes, like here, at the top of the hill.

She decides to pop out for a walk. It is the first time she has fancied walking in ages. Perhaps Dolly is still out there somewhere, saving sailors, or Roman centurions, under her voluminous skirts.

Patient Iris stops by the docks to see the seal mothers return and, sure enough, she is rewarded by the sight of their stolid hard-working, bodies.

She is much braver now that her phone is left off the hook and she can wear her bedsores as jewellery. She will skate over the ice to see how the burgeoning families are doing. She will talk the snorting, whiskered mothers through a difficult night, as their children are slapped out like old shoes onto the bloodied glass.

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

'Great Pleasures' by Edward Southgate


Encapsulate the book in one sentence?

Chapters in the life of a publisher and writer in New York, mostly erotic and mostly about late night hook-ups and adventures.

Did you finish it? Did it work for you?

It’s an episodic book of encounters, detailed wryly by a dispassionate, self-deprecating voice. There’s a muscularity to the prose, and also an unflinching eye for detail, and we get the low-down on every single encounter. It’s a kind of taxonomy of trysts – the boys who are richer, better looking, the boys who are drunker, more desperate, or more cool. Every age, ethnicity and degree of dodgy is explored here.

At first I thought the whole book was going to be sexy adventures, one after the next, but after about a third of the way in, the world of the narrator, Edward, starts to open out. We get glimpses of his day-to-day life, and his work, and his place in the world. More colour and life enters into the book, with the addition of his longer term friends and occasional lovers, and his trips to bars, galleries and a ridiculous holiday he takes to a gay resort. It becomes a more warmly inviting book as it goes along, and we are drawn into his world.

What genre would you say it is?

It’s erotic picaresque, to put it politely. Less politely and it’s hardcore smut. But… it effectively breaks its own genre, in a very witty way. Edward is such a self-deprecating and clever narrator, he can’t quite keep it up, in terms of maintaining that po-faced anality of the mucky-book protagonist. A prerequisite of that genre is lack of irony and just plain old showing off and self-valorization. Gay erotica is often a kind of adventure story, substituting fist fights and sword play for more intimate tussles.

Here, though, Edward stresses his own middle-aged dweebiness. There’s a pathos and a wit that makes the book into something more honest and moving than your average dirty fantasy novel. I love the fact that the most romantic moment in the book is an evening spent happily alone with a nice bottle of wine and a movie about penguins, and the most desperate search for the beloved is subordinated into a hunt for pumpkin ravioli (he settles for butternut squash.) It’s funny.

What surprises did it hold – if any?

Having said all that, there is still a fair amount of sexual exhibition going on - and the dexterity and skill involved is very impressive. It all felt exhausting.

What scene will stay with you? What character will stay with you?

There’s a chapter about going to a gallery with a friend, and then a bar on top of a museum. Nothing much happens. Chat and reflection, and a few hours off from the relentless pursuit of men. Fervent hope and blind desire are laid aside for a few hours, and it’s a lovely holiday. A day off. It’s much more restful as a vacation than that other, chapter-long trip to the resort in Florida, which is memorable for its own reasons – to do with excess and desperation and the most challenging moment – in terms of bad taste – in the whole novel…

Have you read anything else by this author? Or anything this book reminds you of?

It reminded me most of Edmund White, and first reading his early novels, or later memoirs such as ‘City Boy.’

What will you do with this copy now?

It’s a keeper. It’s on my Kindle – where, it turns out, everything is a keeper. One of those strange things about ebooks is that they are with you, wherever you go, so long as you keep a device that works. I’d like to read more by this writer / character, though. There are glimpses towards the end of the book of his trying to live a more integrated, less compartmentalized life – and there are surely developments to come. I hope there’ll be a follow-up.

Is it available today?

Yes – ebook and paperback are available via Amazon.

Give me a good quote:

“I must believe that the slutty deserve love, too.”

Friday, 9 January 2015

FIVE YEARS Lyrics by Alan Bennett

FIVE YEARS  (Lyrics by Alan Bennett.)

(From ‘The Rise and Fall of Thora Stardust.’)

I nipped through the market place, even though it was Tuesday and they go mad on Tuesdays round there, and there was a proper palaver going on. Her off the wet fish stall was in floods.

Turns out there’d been this thing on the news. Mother and I don’t watch it much. It’s too upsetting, and the papers aren’t much help either. They’re mostly about lifestyle and we don’t have one. So I felt a bit out of the loop with it all, I must admit, but then, I generally do.

They had all the flatscreen tellies in the windows of the Secondhand shop tuned in to what they call the rolling news and I tried to follow that for a bit. They kept showing people crying on there, too, and pointing at diagrams and graphs. There were riots in the major capital cities of the world. Looting, even – electric irons and video recorders. I thought, I hope we don’t get that carry on in Leeds again.

There I was in the little crowd, clutching my string bag with our few messages and I thought – Eh up, something’s not right with the world. Even that newsreader – the one mother doesn’t like because she puts on this false kind of sympathy when she reads out a sad story – was looking proper stricken.

My head was thumping by then, I must say. I felt a bit squashed in the crowd with all those people, all kinds of people – some of them were rough types - milling about, going on about the news. Well, there’s always something to get het up about, isn’t there? People don’t need much encouragement to turn daft.

I saw this woman, I forget her name. I think I was at school with her, donkey’s years ago. Anyway, she was hitting her kids. Giving them a right wallop in public, outside the post office. I was about to steel myself to intercede because you can’t let people do that nowadays, can you? Hitting bairns where everyone can see? Luckily, some fella in a turban got there before me and he had a word with her. She didn’t look best pleased.

And it was freezing then, and the rain was pelting down. I bumped into a quite attractive soldier with a broken arm and felt awful because he winced at the contact with my macintosh. Then someone was bending down in front of the vicar and I couldn’t see what was transpiring because someone else started being sick, in broad daylight. On the pavement right outside Marks and Spencers, if you can believe it. And I don’t call that very nice, neither.

Any road, I think I saw you in the window of the Wimpy Bar, but I wasn't sure, and I gave a tentative kind of wave, but you were busy with one of those spicy bean burger affairs or somesuch. Something I can't have anyhow, on account of my acid reflux (don’t get me started on that.)

I'm not sure even you were aware that you were in my monologue, actually, as you sucked on the straw of your milkshake. But I won't say anything, I thought. And that's when I felt like I was an actor in something from ‘Play for Today’, because the rain had gone through to my cardy.

All of a sudden I thought of mother. And I had to get home but the bus had just gone. ‘That'll be another twenty minutes' wait,’ I thought.

Just then you came out of the Wimpy's and I thought, oh, help, I shall have to say hello. There's no avoiding it. ‘Hello Thora,’ I said. ‘Remember me?’ And you gave me an awkward little peck on the cheek and said, ‘Guess what Alan? We've only got Five Years.’ And I said, ‘Whatever to? Not that Millennium thing again. That was a lot of bother over nothing, as well.’

And you said, ‘No, Alan - the Apocalypse. And I didn't say anything because it seemed a bit melodramatic-sounding. Like something they'd have down south. And we’d hear about it months later, like when they all started doing the Twist.

We set about waiting for the bus together, and she said, ‘All the timetables will have gone to pot due to the impending end of the world.’ and I said, ‘I expect you’re right. Shall we just walk?’ And she said, ‘I suppose we might as well.’

‘How long did you say we’ve got, Thora?’ I asked, as we moved away from the market square.

‘Five years,’ she shrugged, and dug around in her shopping bag for her usual Mint Imperials.

‘That’s ages,’ I said. ‘Don’t some folk let themselves get mithered?’


(With thanks to James Gent, and Elton Townend Jones (who did the picture))

Thursday, 8 January 2015

This week's drawings...

2015 is my year of trying to do at least one drawing every single day. Here's the best of week one...!

Wednesday, 7 January 2015

As You Wish - Cary Elwes


Encapsulate the book in one sentence?

A flashback to 1986 and the making of one of my all-time favourite movies, written by the actor in the lead role – and accounting for the wonderful time they all had making it, and how they always knew that it would end up being a film the world would eventually treasure.

When did I buy it? Where and why did I buy it?

Another present from Jeremy – much-hinted at.

What year or edition?

First edition, brand new, just out – not published in the UK yet.

What’s your verdict?

I thoroughly enjoyed it. I love reading behind-the-scenes stuff about movies, even though I always think I don’t. I love every dull anecdote about broken toes and dodgy egos and all the waiting around they have to do in rainy locations. For some reason I don’t mind reading that stuff. And when it comes to reading that stuff about one of my favourite movies – that’s a perfect match.

This is sweet, engaging stuff. The director was a genius, the writer was a genius, all the actors were geniuses. Everyone was brilliant and funny and on top of that – they were nice. They all did their damndest and made a classic movie. They had a couple of decades following that when they thought no one cared, but now the whole world loves it. It’s a dullish story of mild tribulations and eventual triumph over disinterest. Hurray!

Did you finish it? Did it work for you?

Yes, it worked. It did the business. I found it a bit plainly written, and a bit mild in many ways. Everyone is lovely and generous with their praise of each other. There are no ‘scenes’ and no traumas. Everyone was perfectly decent and did their best. There is no mystery or darkness. (NB. My favourite ever book devoted to the making of a single movie is INSIDE THE WICKER MAN by Allan Brown. This book doesn’t come anywhere near that one, in which the combo of style, mystery, intrigue and cult movie is utterly compelling.)

The ‘box-outs’ with quotes from other actors are sometimes worth hearing (William Goldman, Carole Kane, Billy Crystal) – other times, less so. Hilariously, whenever the author is being particularly modest about his own talents or looks, there is a conveniently-placed box-out containing a quote, quite nearby, praising him to the skies…

What genre would you say it is?

I’d say – rather than an insightful and historic examination of the Princess Bride as both movie and phenomenon – this is more along the lines of a celebration. We hear about costume fittings and learning to fence. I didn’t really learn anything about how they captured magic on the screen – and made a wobbly, uneven comic tone work so fantastically well.  

What surprises did it hold – if any?

The locations! Finding out that so much of the location work was shot less than an hour away from here was wonderful. We often go out for spins in the car near Buxton and Bakewell! And, thinking about those lush, strangely-shaped wooded hills around Castleton and the like – well, of course that’s the world of the Princess Bride. I should have known. And now I want our next writing retreat to happen down that way again, and for us to make a pilgrimage…

What scene will stay with you? What character will stay with you?

The stories to do with Andre the Giant will stick with me most, I think. The revelation that, growing up in a rural French village, even as a child he was too big to get aboard the school bus. The writer Samuel Beckett lived in the same village at that time, and offered to drive Andre to school each day in his convertible. Andre comes back to life as a hugely generous and sweet character, and the real star of the book.

What will you do with this copy now?

It’s a keeper. I think there’s yet to be a great book written about the amazing fantasy movies of the 1980s – in that pre-CGI age. Those films look astonishing on Blu-Ray (Labyrinth, Dark Crystal, Willow, Neverending Story, Time Bandits, Flash Gordon and The Princess Bride. For those of us who’ve always loved them, it’s good to see (at least some of) them getting attention now.

Is it available today?

Yes, in the US.

Give me a good quote:

“Your Holiness…” I stammered. “You’ve seen the movie?”

He nodded approvingly. “Yes, yes. Very good film. Very funny.”

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

One Drawing a Day - Veronica Lawlor


Encapsulate the book in one sentence?

It’s a book of prompts and ideas for your drawing book, taking you through six weeks of fearless fun and experimentation with what they call ‘urban sketching.’

When did I buy it? Where and why did I buy it?

A Christmas present – much hinted at – from Jeremy.

Why is it something you stashed away and hoarded?

Something I had to wait patiently for!  Having read about it, and several other recent-ish books on drawing, I’d geared myself up for a New Year’s resolution to get back to proper drawing. I’d promised myself to do a drawing of some kind every day in 2015. This book had a fortuitous title, and I liked the buzz around it – it seemed informal and fun, splashy and colourful – and the product of a whole set of illustrators and bloggers who enjoy drawing messily wherever they are.

What year or edition?

Out in 2011.

What’s your verdict?

Overall, I think it’s a very beautiful book. It’s filled with examples of work from the sketchbooks of the author and her friends. They’re really very impressive and it makes for a visually stunning book. I love how action-packed their sketches are. They’re alive on the page. So many books about drawing or painting or sketching are very formal and dull and well-behaved.

Did you finish it? Did it work for you?
I pored over each exercise and every page and peered at every illustration for ages over Christmas. I mulled over the prompts and checked through the (rather large) list of suggested equipment. I felt enthused and energized.

But I’m not sure it helps.

I find it inspirational – to an extent. It’s saying – look at all this brilliant, accomplished work by my friends and I! It doesn’t quite tell you how to find your own style. It says ‘be fearless’, while running the risk of paralysing the reader and hopeful artist with fear.

I’ve drawn for many years. After my A levels it became ‘merely’ a hobby, and it’s something I’ve been through highs and lows with. I’ve neglected that urge to make pictures at times, and discovered it again with joy several times over the years. Also, I love drawing when I’m out and about, in between bouts of writing. My writing journals are filled with little pictures of people at other tables and of street scenes and all kinds of things. I’m someone used to making marks on paper – on napkins, receipts, paper bags – anything that comes to hand when I’m sitting and something catches my eye.

But even so… the lack of actual instruction and zappy ideas in this book made me feel a bit deflated after a while. I wanted it to shake me out of my accumulated habits and look at drawing afresh.

There’s a very funny cartoon that circulates on social media quite regularly – the ‘how to draw an owl’ cartoon. ‘Draw two circles’, it says in the first box, and then the second box contains a finished, perfect drawing of an owl with a somewhat brusque imperative printed underneath exhorting us to finish the thing ourselves. At times this book comes a little close to that…

It could and should have taken its time, I think. We all need baby steps and gentle encouragement to push us out of our creative safety zones.

What genre would you say it is?

It’s art instruction, but it’s also a touch self-helpy. It has that feeling about it of ‘take better care of your withered and wasted soul by getting a bit creative.’

What surprises did it hold – if any?

The gallery of pics at the end, with two pages and a C.V from each featured artist was a bit much, I thought. I felt like I was reading advertisements. Their paragraphs about why they draw were a bit sappy, too.

What will stay with you, from this book?

There are some truly beautiful reproductions of hasty, provisional sketches, giving us a real feel for the materials and media used – lovely close-ups of soft pencil marks, oil pastel and molten water colours. They fill you with desire to get your hands mucky as soon as you can. And maybe that’s the best encouragement of all?

Have you read anything else by this author? Or anything this book reminds you of?

It reminds me of a whole host of other – slightly hip and trendy – art books out there at the moment. They’re better than the stuffier variety…

What will you do with this copy now?

It’s a keeper – because it was a present and for the illustrations. And perhaps for dipping into, in order to try out the prompts. But I need more than this book offers. ‘Go out and paint clouds. They’re cool’ is not enough…!

Is it available today?

US edition available online.

Give me a good quote:

“It’s work, for sure, but it’s work that we love.”

Monday, 5 January 2015

Beach House Books - Jim Henson: The Biography


Encapsulate the book in one sentence?

Exhaustive and wonderfully detailed biography of a man who built an empire out of doodles and hand puppets and silly voices.

When did I buy it? Where and why did I buy it?

Borrowed from Manchester City Library.  One of those books you’d be tempted to buy in hardback, but it’s such a relief and a pleasure to find it in the library. It’s published by Virgin (2013), with thin pages and a very poor number of illustrations and photos, given the subject.

What’s your verdict?

It’s a brilliant biography, about someone I’ve always wanted to know more about, and to understand a little. It always seemed to me that Henson would be a wonderful, creatively generous man, and so it seems he was. We really get to find out all the good stuff from his family, closest colleagues and friends – they all talk brilliantly about him. Also, he left such a wonderful amount of stuff – finished work on film and tape and in notebooks and journals – we get a fantastically complete sense of this disarmingly idealistic man.

Did you finish it? Did it work for you?

The book lets us know what he was up to almost every week of his working life and, while in the most exciting parts – when he’s working on the late 70s Muppet Show, or making Labyrinth in the 80s, or on the point of selling his company to Disney at the end of his life, this can be fascinating and suspenseful – sometimes there can by a bit too much detail. The first hundred pages of his young life were a slog compared with what came after. It could have done with some tightening, perhaps.

What genre would you say it is?

It’s one of those blockbusting biographies of a famous person who was a great creator – whose career is measured in the ideas they had, and were determined to realise.

What surprises did it hold – if any?

Lots of behind-the-scenes type surprises. We learn so much about the process of making his shows and movies. I was surprised by stuff like – how he just slipped seamlessly into being a puppetry genius on TV at the age of nineteen. I was surprised at the way doors seemed to open at every turn for him, and how his struggles were mostly aesthetic ones. It’s refreshing to read, for once, about a non-thwarted genius. The world of TV and film in the decades when he was working seemed to greet a great innovator with open arms – and that’s a lovely thing to read about.

What scene will stay with you? What character will stay with you?

The grueling detail of his last days will stay with me, I think. His death was needless and sudden – and it takes us by surprise. But there are many other scenes and characters that will stay with me, too – of happier times. I love the tales of him settling into life in England in the Eighties, and making wonderful films like ‘Dark Crystal’ and ‘Labyrinth’ – and jetting back and forth between the US and Britain with almost unseemly regularity.

What will you do with this copy now?

Back to the library. But I’ll be tempted to buy my own copy. Perhaps the US edition. It’s the kind of biog it would be good to dip into again.

Give me a good quote:

“Today you’d rely on computers or visual effects to accomplish all that we did. But back then, everything on the screen – everything – was handmade…”