The Fool on the Hill (30cm x 15cm ink and coloured pencil 2022)
In my previous post I mentioned that last year, I’d tried to overcome a creative block by taking part in online challenges, particularly one, created by a group of illustrators, on folklore and folk customs. For those of you not on Instagram, I thought I’d share a few of the prompts and my responses.
Folklore is not an area I know a great deal about, so the research alone would be distracting before I’d even put pencil to paper. The first prompt was Fool, which was nicely open-ended for a starting point. It’s also great fun to draw medieval fools with their caps and bells and exaggerated movements. I chose The Fool on the Hill (above) just for the chance to draw an impossible hill, not to illustrate the Beatles song (in which, you’ll remember, the Fool stands ‘perfectly still’ and doesn’t prance around like a hare on a griddle).
The Tale of the Disappointing Tree (A4 ink and coloured pencil 2022)
The next prompt was Tree, which is where the research – and the strangeness – began.
James Frazer’s The Golden Bough describes a folk tradition in Bulgaria. On Christmas Eve, a woodsman would threaten a low-yielding fruit tree with an axe while a second man intercedes on the tree’s behalf. Three times the tree is threatened with destruction, three times its advocate pleads for mercy. The threat of extinction is enough to frighten the tree into producing fruit abundantly the following year.
Stars (A4 ink and coloured pencil 2022)
Later in the week we were given the prompt, Stars.
There are numerous approaches to this: Orion being killed by a giant scorpion and the gods arranging their constellations so that they never appear together in the night sky; the belief that shooting stars were the souls of new-born babies being despatched to Earth; or the rule that you should never point at stars because they represent gods who don’t like mortals pointing at them.
In the end I went for this charming medieval folk belief. Trying to count stars is again considered bad luck, but if you’re looking for a life partner you may count up to seven of them for seven nights, then on the eighth day the first person with whom you shake hands will become your husband or wife. So here’s my pale poet, eagerly counting up to seven while his troubadour strums upon a lute. He looks eager enough, doesn’t he? I do hope he finds someone.
There were further prompts for Costume, Victory, Tricks and Potions, all of which sent me off to reference books and internet searches. It was an inspiring week of learning, drawing, posting and admiring the efforts of others involved in the challenge. It also demonstrated that as much as I enjoy painting still life arrangements or churches or flowers, I’m at ease with this sort of pen and ink illustration and can concentrate on the subject without too much worrying about technique. If I’d been compelled to use acrylics or pastels without the comfort of the inked line I’d probably still be working on them. In that sense the challenge helped me return to creativity without too many hurdles to jump which, at that time, was more than welcome.
Most of all, looking at different subjects for six days (I missed Potions) and having to produce a drawing each day was a useful exercise to restore drawing muscles I’d neglected over the previous months. As I mentioned in my previous post, regardless of your particular area of creativity, these challenges can be both useful and inspiring. At the very least, you’ll discover something about trees and stars.
Times flies. I’ve written nothing on this blog since last March – nearly a year ago. If anyone is still listening, let me explain.
For most of 2022 I suffered from a chronic, non-life-threatening illness, one that has not only sapped my strength but also drained my creativity. I simply had no inspiration. My attempts at drawing and painting were scuppered by the tank being firmly on zero: something I’d never experienced before. I’ve been able to create even in the depths of grief, of loss, of stress – but not during this debilitating ill health.
I was going to post something a few weeks ago about if you want to get back into your creative stride, try an online challenge. Whether your thing is drawing, painting, music, or writing, there are projects on the internet to kick start your creativity. I did one – a delightful drawing challenge about folktales (my contributions are on Instagram) – which really kindled the flame: the research into folktales inspired by a simple key word, thinking through the scenario and the composition, doing the actual drawing – but once the challenge was over the inspiration seeped away once more.
The only thing that combats lack of inspiration caused by ill health is, in my experience, getting better.
However, returning to the art you love gives you a helpful nudge. I looked again at TheArtofRichardThomson – my hero on high, plucked from us so early – and luxuriated in his linework and his humour. I read books by the recently deceased German illustrator, Wolf Erlbruch, and marvelled at his invention in each new project. We visited the Tate Modern Cézanne exhibition with friends not seen since the start of Covid and once again I was thrilled at his way with the humble apple. “Even for Cézanne the apple would only matter if it called up a breast in the painter’s mind…art’s subject is always the human clay,” writes NewYorker writer Adam Gopnik in his wonderful book, AttheStrangers‘ Gate.
Slowly, the flame started to sputter into life again. I drew a card for a friend’s significant birthday. A building in a nearby town. Then the Christmas card design above and the angels’ heads below. Pulling in influences and transforming them, feeling creativity flow again as my health improved.
In retrospect, I wish I’d performed some sort of daily drawing exercise, even during the most challenging months of my illness. Taking one object and drawing it every day – no pressure, no expectations, no need for inspiration, just flexing those drawing muscles. It would have kept the spirit buoyant, like the scent of a familiar room, a cocktail on a warm summer’s evening, a conversation with an old friend.
So that’s the story of my non-blogging ten months. Hopefully now that I’m drawing again I can also think of something to say about them. Fingers crossed!
A couple of years ago, a friend of mine called Tom Dykstra sent me a story he’d written for the children’s sermon at his Dutch Reformed Church in Holland, Michigan. It was a re-telling of the Grimm brothers’ story, The Fisherman’s Wife, although in Tom’s version the fisherman is the architect of his own downfall rather than being able to blame a greedy spouse. Sending me the piece, Tom wrote “I have no intentions to publish and am not asking you to illustrate the story. I just thought you might be interested in reading it and…visualizing wizened old Simeon scurrying over the dune. If you are moved to a sketch or two, I would love to see them!”
From time to time I put together an idea and sent it to Tom and his wife, Lois. They seemed to enjoy seeing them which encouraged me to continue. It became a fun thing to do, and I sent Lois a birthday card with Simeon holding a chubby fish which I hoped would cheer her up a little during a long and difficult series of medical interventions which, tragically, she didn’t survive. In February of this year I was halfway through another drawing for the story when Tom, too, passed away unexpectedly.
Tom and Lois’s daughter agreed to let me publish the story here with the handful of drawings I completed as a tribute to them both. I should say at the outset that I’m not a skilled illustrator of children’s stories but it was a great pleasure to do them, even with my limited expertise. I should also mention that Tom had thought of changing the ending – removing some of the religious references in the final paragraph – so that it could be read by those whose faith was not as central to their lives as his own. However, whether you share Tom’s faith or not, the story is a delightful one with a simple, honest and compassionate message. I’m thrilled and honoured that Tom shared it with me.
So, here it is, the story of Simeon and the magic fish that he found in his net one day:
In a time long ago and a place far away there lived a poor fisherman named Simeon. Simeon was so poor that he did not have enough money to live in a house like the other villagers. So, behind a dune, away from the wind and the sea, he put together a small shack made from the wooden timbers of wrecked ships that had washed up on the beach. Simeon’s little house had no door and no window, but only a small space where he could crawl in out of the weather. And, because it was made from the timbers of ships, it looked like a boat turned upside down.
Simeon earned a few pennies each day by taking his net over the dune and down to the seashore. All day he would throw his net into the sea. The few fish he caught he would take to the village to sell. Though Simeon had very little money, he was rich in other important ways. He was kind to other people and always willing to help them and had many friends among the local people. And the children, they loved him. When he came to town he would play games with them, and they would always crowd around him as he told them stories about when he was a child.
Simeon was not happy being poor, but he had long ago given up hope that things for him would ever be any different. Then one day something happened that completely changed his life. He was fishing as usual when his net happened to snare a large, strange looking fish. Simeon had never in his life seen that kind of fish before. And imagine his surprise when the fish began to talk! And as if that was not enough, Simeon was even more surprised by what the fish said. The large, strange fish begged in a loud voice, “If you will let me go instead of selling me in the village, I will give you whatever you wish.”
After Simeon got over the shock of hearing the fish talk, he said to himself: “I have to make a decision. This fish will certainly earn me more than a few pennies in the village. And what if the fish is not telling the truth and does not grant me my wish? I will lose the extra money I could have earned by selling it!” Then he had an idea: “I will make a wish and let the fish go. If my wish doesn’t come true, then the next time he comes I will catch him and then sell him in the village!” So Simeon said to the fish, “My boat shack is open to the outside weather. If you can, I would very much like to have a door and a window in my little house to keep out the wind and the rain.” “It will be done,” said the fish and he swam away. Simeon pulled in his net and sailed to the shore, running as fast his short skinny legs would take him to the top of the dune. And guess what? He looked down, and there was his shack fitted with a nice little door and a large glass window! He was so happy and thankful that he ran down the dune and opened and shut the door and window several times just to make sure they were real. It was an amazing thing: he had been blessed with a fish who could grant his wishes.
The next time the fish landed in his net, Simeon asked if he might please, please have a well for water and a small tree for shade near his house. It would be oh so nice not to have to walk all the way to the spring, and to have a cool place to sit when the sun was hot. And, of course, as you can guess, these wishes were granted. Simeon decided then and there that he would never, ever sell the fish; he knew a good thing when he saw it.
Weeks and months and years passed. Whatever Simeon wished for came to be, and he began to wish for more and more. Slowly his little upside down boat shack grew into a magnificent estate. There was a large, fancy mansion filled with fine furniture and large closets to hold his fancy clothes, a carriage house with several carriages, fields of corn and wheat, herds of cattle, horses, and pigs; and large barns to hold all of his crops and animals. Simeon became very rich. Soon he needed help to do all the work on his estate, so he went to the village to hire those people who used to pay him pennies for his fish.
Through all this time, it was not only Simeon’s house that changed, but Simeon himself became a changed man. Instead of humbly asking the fish for things, he started to demand them; he began to think he deserved them and had earned them. And Simeon became very proud and very vain. He bought fancy clothes; he got a fancy haircut which showed his large ears; he grew a mustache and had it curled into fancy swirls. Simeon’s eyes were no longer soft and gentle as they used to be but became hard and narrowed. His face became anxious and red. (The children thought it was because his new designer clothes were too tight!)
Although he was rich, he became poor in other important ways. He lost his friends in the village because he was no longer generous and helpful, but selfish and always greedy to get more things for himself. He became grouchy toward other people because he thought they were after his money. He began to yell at the children not to bother him. And so, when the children saw him coming, they didn’t flock to him as before but crossed over to the other side of the lane. Simeon thought that because he was rich he was important. And because he thought he was important, he thought he could boss other people around. The villagers began to dislike him and began to think he was just a boring old man who only thought about, and always talked about the things he owned. A few of the villagers felt sorry for him because he had lost the very things that had made him truly rich.
One day this rich, unhappy man, bored with all his stuff, had a crazy idea. He thought, “Because I am the most wealthy and important man around, I deserve to have a house like God has! I will go to see the fish.” Simeon hitched up his best horses to his chariot (he never walked anywhere anymore.) and drove to the seashore. He was surprised to see the fish already there, waiting for him. The fish said to Simeon, “I can indeed give you a house like God had. But this will be the last wish I can grant you; because in God’s house there is everything anyone could ever want.” Simeon let out with a nasty laugh, “That’s just fine with me. Be gone and don’t come back. Who needs a stupid old fish anyway, when he has a house like God’s?” And with that he drove his chariot as fast as he could to the top of the dune to look down on his wonderful prize.
But when he got to the top of the dune, he could not believe what he saw. It sent him into a panic which stopped his breath and seized his heart. Everything he owned was gone! His magnificent house with all his precious possessions, his barns, his fields, his orchards, his crops and herds of animals, all gone! The only building was a ramshackle shed that looked like a place where animals lived. Instead of the fruit orchards there was a single dead tree with two branches that stuck out sideways, sort of like the arms of a cross. There were no fancy clothes; just a single large piece of cloth caught in the tree and fluttering in the wind. In place of his animal herds there was just one small, skinny donkey standing patiently by. Well, Simeon was so angry that his red face turned purple. He leaped out of his chariot, jumped up and down, screamed, and shook his hands at the heavens.
Then a very loud voice said, “SIMEON! WHAT IS YOUR PROBLEM?” It was so loud that Simeon was stunned into silence and the six white horses ran away with the chariot. When Simeon finally got his voice and his courage back, he shouted, “I asked for a house like God’s house and the fish said I could have it! All there is here is this stupid old shack, a dead tree, and half-dead donkey!” There was a long silence. Then the voice said, “Simeon, Simeon, you did not know what you were asking for. When I came to live on earth I was born in a stable like that. My clothing was a simple cape. I never rode in a chariot, but on a donkey. And in the last hours of my life I hung on a tree like the one you see. And Simeon, … I did it all for YOU.”
Simeon realized that the voice was the voice of Jesus. The poor man did not know what to do! He wanted to escape the voice but he knew he never could. He wanted to make excuses for himself but could not think of any good ones. He wanted to blame others for what he now realized was his own very bad behavior, but there was no-one else to blame. At last, he was overcome by a feeling of deep, deep shame, and guilt, and sorrow. He realized he had become a terrible person: greedy and jealous and grouchy and unkind and proud and self-centered, and on and on. In the end, all that this miserable, lonely man could do was to lie face down in the sand and cry. He cried so hard that his tears formed little mud puddles in the dune. And then the voice returned, more gently now: ”Do not cry Simeon. I came to forgive and to heal all those who have a sin-sick soul. And by my Spirit I have come to live with such people in shacks even worse than the one you see. I have come to live with them in caves and trenches and foxholes, in hospital rooms and jail cells, under bridges and in sewer pipes. And if you will have me, I will come to live with you in that little shack below the dune.” Slowly, very slowly, Simeon raised his head from the sand. His voice was weak and wavering: “Oh please, please, if you would, I would like very much to have you come into my house and live with me.”
And thus began the happiest days of Simeon’s life. He was a new man. The villagers welcomed him back as a long-lost friend, and the children once again ran to him for games and stories. He whistled his way through his days of fishing and was happy never to see the magic fish again. One evening as he lay on his cot, there came to his mind the tune of a song he had learned long ago as a child. As he hummed the tune the words of the song slowly came back to him; and he sang: “Into my heart, into my heart; come into my heart, Lord Jesus. Come in today, come in to stay; Come into my heart Lord Jesus.” It was a song that would become Simeon’s theme song all the rest of his life. The very next morning he hurried into the village and instead of telling the children a story, he taught them his song.
Text (c) Estate of Thomas Dykstra; illustrations (c) Michael Richards
We’re told that we have ten years to slash the emissions that lead to climate change before it will become impossible to reverse the process. The pollution of the world’s oceans disturbs me more than any other environmental crisis, possibly because it’s easier to observe its effect than rising temperatures or melting polar icecaps.
This drawing was inspired by two events. Recently I walked along a holiday resort beach at the end of a sunny day, when families were packing up to go home. The amount of rubbish they left behind was unbelievable: polystyrene food containers, plastic wrappers and carrier bags, all sorts of junk they could have taken home. Some helpfully put all their garbage in a plastic bag and left it on the beach for seagulls to tear apart and the tide to wash away.
The other event happened 25 years ago off the coast of Mumbai. I was on a boat with about 30 others when the engine stalled. As the crew tried to fix it and the boat drifted aimlessly, I wondered if we might have to swim to the shore. The water was brown and uninviting, dotted with the untreated detritus of a large, densely populated city.
My previous post, way back in April, was all about drawing and featured an image of St Margaret and the dragon. It was based on a medieval French oak carving in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Apparently Margaret was swallowed by the devil who appeared to her in the form of a dragon. Fortunately for her, the crucifix she was carrying got caught in the devil’s throat and he threw her up again. I had such fun drawing that improbable situation I thought saints and martyrs might make an interesting occasional series.
I next came across St Vitus. He was only 12 years old, and had already been tortured by his father, when he was asked to expel a demon from the son of the Roman Emperor Diocletian. This he did but made the foolish error of not joining in the pagan celebrations that followed. Rather ungratefully, Diocletian had him thrown into a pot of boiling oil, along with a rooster to ward off evil spirits. Vitus died of his injuries the following day. The fate of the chicken is unknown.
The dancing (St Vitus’ Dance) came much later when medieval Germans believed that throwing shapes in front of statues of the hapless boy would ensure a year of good health. Since then, Vitus has become the patron saint of entertainers, Methodists, epileptics and, oddly, oversleeping.
These are irresistible stories, I hope you’ll agree. In case anyone is concerned about the practice of throwing mystical youths into boiling oil or virgins being swallowed by dragons, neither of these stories can be historically verified, deadpans Wikipedia.
These drawings originally appeared on my Instagram feed: both were drawn in ink and coloured pencil.
Quinces on a Plate (A5 ink and coloured pencil on Stillman & Birn Gamma paper sample 2018)
This year I didn’t have to drive around the country lanes of Suffolk looking for unwanted quinces, left at garden gates with a sign saying “Help yourself.” This year my own tree – encouraged by the hot summer – had its own bumper crop.
I’ve no idea what it is about them that I find so alluring. Perhaps it’s their irregular shape: sometimes bulbous and knobbly, sometimes like tight yellow apples, sometimes golden pears. It could be their range of colour, from orangey-gold to clear, bright cadmium yellow through pale greens, their bruises turning from a rich reddish-brown to the darkness of old varnished oak.
There is also a certain mystery about the noble quince. Is it ripe yet? Wait for the distinctive scent and the pure yellow colour, my neighbours said. But they rot from the inside out: cut open a fruit that looks perfect on the outside and the flesh is already turning brown.
And that scent: so long absent, then suddenly there. The downy skin and the gentle perfume, like the touch and scent of a baby’s head. It smells, too, of the sun and the south, of shady gardens in places where you’d like to be – far away from your computer and your workload and your deadlines. The scent, in short, of contentment, of joy, of delight.
This year I decided not to risk making my own jelly or marmalade, which always results in several jars of quince syrup. Instead a much more competent friend agreed to make it on my behalf. The first results of this arrangement have been jars of golden jelly, fragrant as the fruit itself, looking like a fairy tale gift when held up to the light.
Do I exaggerate the wonders of quince? I think not. It’s very possible I was put under some spell that holds me in thrall to their beauty, that I’ll admit. I never tire of drawing and painting them, as long-standing readers of this blog will know. I bet that breakfast in Heaven is quince marmalade on Pump Street Bakery sourdough bread, lightly toasted.
I have a theory about baseball: I don’t think it’s a sport at all, but rather a type of performance art.
At the risk of offending readers in the US, as a sport it’s pretty unexciting: there’s a lot of standing around, no-one ever seems to hit the ball and, if they do, it’s nearly always caught or they get run out.
Seen as performance art, however, it’s fascinating. The costumes, the many rituals, that weird rule that someone on first or second base can run unless the pitcher spots him, the movements of the individual players, the organ accompaniment that offers an ironic musical commentary on the action (or lack of it) – all of this adds up to a rather ritualistic type of performance.
Have you ever seen a field full of rabbits? It has a similar dynamic: the rabbits appear to move in a predestined way which might appear random at first but soon suggests a bigger pattern. Are they being controlled or do they know when it’s their turn in the game?
I’ve developed this theory after seeing one game. I was fortunate enough to be invited to a baseball game the last time I was in the US, and I expected to enjoy the hot-dogs and beer thing but be bored senseless by the actual play (I’d seen it on TV once and it made drying paint look edgy…). In fact the game was compelling: seeing the field as a whole, instead of just close-ups of the players as happens on TV, was what suggested performance art. What’s more, at one stage I went downstairs to the men’s room and hundreds of people were waiting in line for food and drink – it was like a parallel event down there: a festival of deep-fried food, perhaps?
I drew the two batters (never batsmen, I was informed) above from photographs I took at the game. I would like to thank Jim and Susie for introducing me to this new and unforgettable artform, masquerading as a sport.
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.
Tomatillos, Rochester NY (A5 ink and coloured pencil 2018)
In this year of rethinking the direction of my painting and drawing – trying to rein in some of the tangents I follow and develop a recognisable style – I’ve more or less decided to follow two paths simultaneously.
First, there is the line drawing path. I do enjoy drawing people wearing animal heads or household items on their noses. I like ‘illustrating’ Carly Simon’s imaginary friends or a woman in love with a fish (a similar idea won several Oscars, let me remind you). It’s fun to draw Benedict Cumberbatch as a vampire, legendary gallery owner Kasmin naked and the lines and folds on the faces of Jasper Johns.
On the other hand, I love painting fruit. My passion for the lovely quince is well known to regular readers of this blog. Occasionally I’ll let my head be turned by a ripe pomegranate or an exotic purple mangosteen, a gaggle of plums or even a delicately-coloured Swede. Fruit favours acrylics or oils, I think: layering on those colours and shades, adding a touch of shocking blue to a red and orange pomegranate or positioning a highlight of purest titanium white – all very satisfying.
This makes shopping in a well-stocked market or a foreign food store even more of an adventure. For me, Borough Market in London is a place to buy overpriced cheese and subjects for painting. That’s where I first discovered the almost comic mangosteen, shaped like a smaller, purple version of those plastic tomatoes that hold ketchup in transport cafes.
My latest hunting ground is Wegmans, a supermarket in Rochester, NY, on my frequent visits to this under-rated American city. For some time I’ve been eyeing the blousy pitaya (dragon fruit), vibrant pink with little green and yellow horns. Only the fact that I’m here without my acrylics has prevented me from dropping a couple into my shopping cart. Then last Saturday, while seeking out herbs for a New York Times recipe which pairs chicken and mushrooms with cognac and madeira sauce, I discovered tomatillos.
Like small green tomatoes wearing diaphanous outer skins over their shiny green bodies, these Mexican fruits are mainly used to make salsa verde. You can gently peel back the delicate husks, allowing them to tear into interesting shapes that describe the arc of the succulent green flesh where they remain joined to the fruit. I drew them in charcoal, in pencil and, at the top of this post, in watercolour pencil and ink. At under 70 cents for three, they’re the cheapest still life models I’ve found.
Things Americans Say (A4 Moleskine Storyboard Sketchbook spread) 2017 [Click to enlarge]
Recently I came across a book of American colloquial phrases and sayings from the 1940s. It made the perfect birthday present for one of my dearest friends, an American who – despite having lived in Paris for nearly forty years – still refers to ‘candy’ and ‘gas stations’. I drew a birthday card highlighting some of the differences in our common language (the meanings of ‘vest’ and ‘derby’) and included a couple of these superannuated phrases.
They were such fun that I carried on, not attempting to illustrate them in any way but simply drawing Richard Thompsonesque characters saying them to each other. I also added a contemporary one: the ubiquitous and deeply annoying ‘reach out’. The result was the drawing at the head of this post. It was meant as an affectionate hommage to our various Englishes, in case anyone is feeling overly teased.
A few days ago, I was drinking Californian Shiraz with some Americans, one of whom asked me the following question, inspired by The Great British Bake-Off: “If you British say ‘bluebriz’ for blueberries and ‘guzzbriz’ for gooseberries, why do you pronounce the cook’s name on Bake-Off Mary Berry rather than Mary ‘Bree’?” It’s a good question.
Last week I went to an American supermarket. A simple shop took the best part of an hour as I tried to translate my mental shopping list from British English into American: chicken stock was found to be broth, sweet potatoes appeared to be yams, not to mention the whole aubergine and courgette confusions (luckily peanut butter is the same in both languages so my breakfast was assured). Were matters of nomenclature not enough to confuse this Englishman abroad, you Americans contrive to store eggs in the refridgerated section. Is there no end to this?
I have nothing profound to say about all of this, except the obvious point that we’re different, you and I. Even if you don’t chill your eggs or talk about ‘razzbriz’, we’re still different. If you hate or fear those who are different, then you have to include members of your own family in all probability: my brother thinks it’s important to wash your car every week whereas I just leave mine out in the rain.
Ultimately such fears – perhaps even starting over something as trivial as the way we speak – leads to hatred, even civil war and genocide: to Rwandans who lived side by side for years suddenly turning on one another; to Bosnians who co-existed for decades in the same city, the same streets, being marched up into the hills outside Srebrenica.
The Germans have a saying – possibly the subject of a future series of drawings – that we’re all foreigners, almost everywhere. If we could only keep that thought in mind when someone walks into our local bar and talks funny. In the meantime our respective governments encourage us to point the finger and exploit the differences between us for their own ends. In that way at least, British and American people are alike.