Precious

Mystery object – see below (pastel and collage 60 cms x 42 cms) 2018

Recently the New York Times printed a photograph (by Nat Farbman) of the young Lawrence Ferlinghetti – one of the leading lights of the Beats – reading his work to a group of onlookers. There he stood, dark and dashing in a tweed jacket and cord trousers, looking every inch the charismatic 1960s poet. At his feet lounged a young man in a similar outfit and a woman in a black sweater and tight skirt. People are drinking wine from tumblers.

As well as being an admired poet, Ferlinghetti was one of the co-founders of the City Lights Bookstore and Publishers. He was the first publisher of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, for example, which – whatever you think of it now – was a tornado blasting its way through the poetry landscape of the time.

San Francisco is a different place than it was when Ferlinghetti first opened the doors of City Lights in 1953. It was never a city associated with business, but with alternative lifestyles, freedom and revolution. Paul Kantner of Jefferson Airplane called it “49 square miles surrounded by reality.” Now, with the arrival of Google, Apple, Twitter and the – seriously – 5,249 tech start-ups in the city, there’s no place for California Dreaming.

City Lights is not just a bookstore but a vital landmark on the map of modern culture. Ferlinghetti is 99 this year – what’ll happen when the inevitable occurs? I fear poetry isn’t that high on the list of requirements of the twentysomething techies waiting for the WiFi enabled buses to whisk them off to Silicon Valley, so will it just become another artisan coffee shop?

I thought of this recently when I was having dinner with a close friend in Greenwich Village. We’d booked a table at the magnificent Pearl and were enjoying a pre-dinner drink at the Cornelia Street Cafe. The Village is another place where cultural history swirls around you like ghosts in a cartoon film. Think of those writers, artists and jazz musicians who lived, worked and played here. The Bottom Line and the Village Gate –  names familiar from the sleeves of jazz albums of the 1950s and 1960s, are gone – replaced by a pharmacy and university departments.

Shouldn’t places like City Lights be preserved, immune from rent rises and speculation? These are the names that pepper the cultural histories of the 20th century and should be as precious to us as medieval castles or Tudor chimneys. It’s not just architectural excellence that should be preserved but those places that contributed to the spirit of the times, and preferably not turned into tacky museums. Slap them all on the National Register of Historic Places before it’s too late!

So what is that thing that heads this post? Is it Ferlinghetti’s appendix, perhaps? Far from it: it’s a steamed clam, drawn from a photograph of one taken from my dinner companion’s plate. Or should I say it started off as a drawing of a clam, but then I added more and more colour and texture to it and made it into something that is now just an abstract idea of a steamed clam, a variation on a theme of a steamed clam. Don’t worry, chef Rebecca Charles would never serve this to you in Pearl.

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Cast away with Colm Tóibín

CT Greyscale blog

Colm Tóibín (A5 pencil on sketchbook page 2015)

For many years on BBC Radio Four, Sunday mornings have been rounded off by a programme called Desert Island Discs. A celebrity is asked to imagine themselves as a castaway on an uninhabited island and to choose eight records, a book and a luxury item.

Recently this rather tired format was enlivened by Irish writer, Colm Tóibín. The author of The Master and Brooklyn demonstrated what a supreme story-teller he is with wonderful evocations of his sisters and aunts talking about buying clothes, his late Mother’s way of laying a table, and repeatedly not winning the Booker Prize. He also provided insights into the life of a creative writer (“Swimming is fun; sitting on a chair in the corner writing is not”) and why a novelist cannot spare the feelings of his grandmother.

Most of all, Tóibín’s good-natured, kind personality came across in his moving account of the Irish vote on gay marriage and his feelings on the loss of his Father. His chosen book was Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady (“I discover something new every time I read it.”) – a choice I agree with wholeheartedly.

If rights issues prevent you from hearing it on the BBC iPlayer at the link above, do head over to Apple iTunes and download the free podcast. I’m sure you’ll be as charmed as I was.

This drawing is from last year. Tóibín has a charming, not conventionally handsome but very attractive face, and this pencil sketch was drawn from a photograph in the Guardian. He is also, I’m pleased to say, a fan of New York’s Pearl Oyster Bar.

Pearl and the Oyster

Oyster 151124 blog

Oyster (A4, ink and watercolour, 2015)

This weekend I’ll fly to Rochester NY with a brief stopover in New York City to visit a colleague there.

A favourite stop in the city is the Pearl Oyster Bar. After a seven hour flight and another hour or so negotiating the Saturday night subway system with my suitcase, I’ll make my way over to Cornelia Street for a lobster roll.

Pearl is owned by the sister of a dear friend whose guitar-playing skills I’ve mentioned below. Not only is the restaurant a delight and the food superb, it’s a wonderful way to acclimatise.

After a while, seated at the bar with a glass of something white and crisp, surrounded by New Yorkers sharing plates of oysters or scallops, the tensions of intercontinental travel start to fall away. Slowly you begin to feel part of it all – the hot metallic smell of the subway, the sounds of the streets, the unique quality of the city night – rather than just another  traveler superimposed on the landscape. You’re no longer a seat number or someone waiting in line at immigration or hurtling under the city in a subway train. You melt into the city and it gently enfolds you. You are there.

This ink and watercolour painting of an oyster should be seen as semi-abstract. Rebecca Charles would never serve something coloured like this at Pearl’s – it’s an excuse to use pigment and ink and masking fluid to create an oyster-like shape rather than a realistic depiction. The three little capers look rather Japanese, don’t you think? I was rather proud of those!