Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Père Noël

Sometime in 1960 I decided that I would travel – see the world; the Taj Mahal, the Himalayas, the Statue of Liberty, whatever. My father had been born in Western Australia, went to high school in Seattle, started university in Barcelona, settled in London and later saw action on the beaches of Normandy. I think travel was in my blood.
To do this I needed money and started saving a little here and there. Alas when I eventually set off I had only saved about a month’s salary plus the silver coins I had slipped into an empty Dimple Haig whiskey bottle. This turned out to be a further £40, so maybe I had £100 in all, scarcely enough to buy a ticket to anywhere. My friends in the newspaper office where I worked placed a losing bet that I wouldn’t leave before Christmas, but most of that was spent in the pub on the eve of my departure.
But I did leave in late December 1960, getting a ride with friends who were going to spend Christmas in the South of France.
We set off in a Renault Dauphine, a small rear-engined French answer to the Volkswagen. It was noisy, underpowered and uncomfortable but it was a free ride. This was long before the construction of autoroutes and the main roads were lined with plane trees, the arbres d’alignment, of Napoleonic times. Apparently the Emperor had the roads lined with trees so his soldiers could march in the shade.
Our overnight stop was at Dijon and by the time we arrived it was dark and snow was falling. We drove into the courtyard of the hotel and shortly after the large wooden doors were closed for the night as if brigands might attack.
At the next table in the restaurant a portly Frenchman was eating a plate of snails and I remember asking him if they were good. He pushed his plate towards me and I had my first taste of escargot.
The following day we arrived chez Ted, who was the Riviera stringer for the Daily Express. He lived in the gatehouse of a chateau owned by an American couple, way up on the hillside above St Laurent du Var. We arrived on 23 December and the following day there were plans for Father Christmas to greet the children of the village. There was however, a problem in that the local children knew everyone and clearly would not believe that one of their own had suddenly transmogrified into Père Noël. It was therefore decided that I should become Father Christmas. Fame at last and I had the right outfit too in the form of a red nylon sleeping bag with a hood and white interior lining.
We contrived Santa’s white beard by tearing apart a Paddi-Pad, a disposable diaper, and glued the white wadding to my face for a beard. A chair was then put out in the street in front of the chateau gates and I was in business. A small sack of bon-bons was provided and I dispensed treats to the village. Most of the children wanted to kiss me (well it was France) and there were many complaints that Père Noël’s beard was coming apart. Other criticisms were that he had no legs – a sort of mermaid Noel – and his jacket didn’t have proper sleeves, but I managed to ignore that with a lot of Ho! Ho! Hoing until the candy was gone and I could jump back through the gates as if in a sack race.
Two days later I was on a train bound for Istanbul. And later still I ‘sold’ the sleeping bag to a student in Tehran, but he never paid me.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Exhibition at the Brooklyn Public Library

From now until August 24th, original paintings and artifacts from this project will be on display at the Central Branch of the Brooklyn Public Library.
There are also original picture book illustrations and sketches including work from The Crows of Pearblossom, Edwin Speaks Up, Spinster Goose, Wombat Walkabout and the Ivy Bean series, along with bits and pieces of ephemera collected in the process of making books. There are secret messages, some personal revelations and an arrangement of things universally accepted as "exciting", not to mention materials to do with the making of the MTA subway poster.
There will be an opening on June 7th from 6-8pm and I'll be talking about ink and gruel and Kathmandu (amongst other things) at 7:30pm. Please come!

Monday, April 16, 2012

James Lee Byars at Shokokuji

The James Byars installation at Shokokuji took place in 1963. Maybe in September. I received an invitation a few days beforehand which was just a screwed up piece of paper pushed into the letter box. It was a test of curiosity – either you discarded it immediately or unwrapped it and read the message. It just gave the day (a Monday), time (11.30pm) and place (Hondo – the main hall) of Shokokuji, a large Buddhist temple. That was all.
When I reached Shokokuji there were already a number of people waiting – mainly Japanese but a few foreigners. It was pitch dark and we wandered about for half an hour bumping into one another. Eventually an enormous black 1920s Buick drew up and out stepped James Lee Byars and his Japanese girlfriend Miss Taki, both dressed in black. James was wearing a black suit plus black top hat and she was wearing a beautiful ruched black silk dress that belled out from the waist. I think it was by Givenchy but second hand.
By this time the audience had become restless and there were some boos and other jibes.
Inside the Hondo a small naked light bulb was switched on and the performance art began. Slowly and carefully Miss Taki unfolded attached meter square sheets of handmade paper into a long serpentine strip to make a low wall. Once the whole pile was exhausted, and after a short pause for effect, she laboriously folded them back into a cube. Throughout this procedure James and Miss Taki remained silent and then walked slowly back to the limousine. Just before they were driven off, Byars stood on the running board and shouted over the abuse:

"This is to teach you patience, perseverance and an appreciation of art."

The car door was closed and James and Miss Taki disappeared into the night.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Royal Receptionist

My father’s office in Hamburg was in the former Gestapo HQ.  It was the North German Station of MI6 and of course I never actually got inside his office, only to a small reception area which, I remember, had a two-way mirror. When he came to collect me he would say ‘Ah, I see we have you in the interrogation chamber’.
But before I could even get that far I had to approach a sort of cinema-style ticket booth with bars separating any visitor from Vera, the multilingual receptionist. Her full name was Princess Vera Constantinovna (Romanov) and she was a great-granddaughter of Tsar Nicholas I, the last Tsar of Russia. My father had previously worked for an organization which screened the hundreds of thousands of displaced persons left in post-war Europe. When he moved across to Intelligence he took Vera with him. She was always very nice to me. At Christmas she received masses of greetings cards, many from other European royalty such as Queen Mary, the Queen Mother, the King of the Belgians and others. She would pass them to me through the bars of her little keep so I could see the royal signatures.

When I next visited my father’s office in the summer vacation I found that she had gone, moved to Paris so my father said, where she was looked after by the Russian Orthodox Church. Later I heard that she moved to New York and worked for the Tolstoy Foundation.
I remember my father saying that Vera was the last surviving member of the Romanov family who could remember Imperial Russia. And she was my friend.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Unidentified Flying Object

To say you have seen a UFO seems to consign you immediately to the lunatic fringe. For this reason I rarely mention having seen a UFO but now that I am old and grey I don’t suppose anyone cares.
My sighting happened in the 1950s at a time when there were many reports of unidentified flying objects or, as many scientists preferred to call them, ‘unexplained’ flying objects. There was always an inference that they, the scientists with their superior knowledge, could have immediately explained the phenomenon.
But with my UFO I think not.
Anyway, it happened at about 10 o’clock at night when I was at boarding school at Canterbury in England and well after ‘lights out’ in our dormitory. Suddenly I noticed a strange glow coming through the windows and got up to have a look. Our dormitory overlooked an orchard in the rear garden of the Dean of the Cathedral, the Very Reverend Hewlett Johnson, also known as ‘The Red Dean’ for his Marxist sympathies. Indeed he was the recipient of the Stalin Peace Prize which didn’t endear him to the general public during this period of the Cold War.
So there in his garden was a strange, very bright white glowing object which also emitted a soft but quite audible humming sound as it hovered about three feet above the ground. It was the size of a walk-in beach tent and shaped like an elongated football. There was no firm edge to its surface; it was wispy like cotton candy.
After looking at it for a few minutes I decided to wake some other boys to look at the ‘object’ and I still remember their names, David Collier and Brian Kemp. I pointed excitedly at it and said, ‘There is a UFO’, as it slowly rose then gathered speed and disappeared into the night sky.
The following morning I spoke to them again but they merely shrugged and declined to discuss it further. Later I mentioned it to our housemaster who just smiled at me.
In the newspapers the following day there was a report of my UFO being sighted to the north of Canterbury. It had been chased by two air force jets from the nearby Faversham air base but they lost contact with it over the North Sea.
Finally many months later at a talk given by Fred Hoyle, a famous English astronomer and mathematician, I asked him if he had an opinion on UFOs. ‘Absolute rubbish’ he roared. ‘Nonsense’. ‘Purely natural but unrecognized phenomena’.
‘Thank you sir’.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Parquet and Piano

Click image to enlarge

With the huge unemployment in postwar Germany our large house in Hamburg, which had been requisitioned from the family of a German admiral, was well staffed. In the basement was Willi and his family. He was the hausmeister (janitor), as well as the stoker of the boiler, who had been a merchant seaman. Upstairs were a live-in maid and a cleaning lady who came each day, and a nanny for my baby brother. The live-in maid was blond, buxom, Hannelore, a simple country girl from East Prussia, who spoke no English. In contrast, Clara the cleaner was an intense, well-educated woman in her twenties. Amongst her duties was the weekly chore of cleaning the beautiful oak parquet flooring. This entailed slipping an abrasive wire pad beneath one shoe and then slowly working her way to and fro over the intricately patterned wood blocks until all scuff marks were removed.
Half way through her first day Clara threw an almighty tantrum, screaming and cursing and finally burst into tears before she ran off and hid in the toilet. When she finally reappeared she apologized, saying that she was not a cleaner but a concert pianist, but had to do something to help feed the family.
My mother, the headmistress at the International School and experienced in dealing with outbursts in many tongues, quietly led her to the Admiral’s Bechstein grand and suggested she play something. From then on each afternoon, after some token cleaning, the ballroom in the house echoed to Chopin and Liszt.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Applying for a Chinese Visa

click on image for larger view

Gaining access to China in the 1960s was nigh on impossible without an invitation from the Chinese Government but I was determined to get there somehow.
Since the establishment of the Peoples’ Republic in 1949 nearly all foreigners had been expelled and there were relatively few countries that maintained diplomatic relations. Two academic friends had succeeded but they had letters of introduction from Chinese contacts whereas I had nothing. Despite that I still decided to give it a go.
I had been told that the only visa that I could expect to get was a transit visa and that would be for 14 days. When you think of it, there was really no reason why China should grant any transit visas for travelers from Europe so I had to create something.
The Soviet State travel bureau, Intourist was happy to sell me a ticket on the Moscow – Peking Express, so that was stage one. The next step was to send a reply paid cable to Luxingshe, the Chinese State travel bureau, requesting hotel accommodation in the capital.
Needless to say the Chinese did not reply but they did have my money for the replied paid cable.
With these two items in place I rocked up to the Chinese Embassy in London to apply for a visa.
As I approached the building I noticed that all the blinds on the windows facing the street were drawn and it looked as if the embassy was closed. However, when I rang the bell the door was opened and I was pointed up a long staircase to reception. There sat a man in a black Mao-style suit with a pair of scissors in his hand, cutting up papers. ‘Visa’ I said? And was wordlessly passed a form to complete. I filled in my details and attached two photographs and waited, and waited while the receptionist continued to cut paper. Nobody came and nobody went. Nothing happened. It was like waiting for Godot. Closing time came and the receptionist indicated that I should leave. I left.
The next day, Friday, I arrived at the opening hour and the blinds were still drawn. I climbed the staircase and said good morning to the scissor man and waited. At lunchtime he indicated that I should leave and pointed to his watch. I returned at two o’clock and continued to wait. Closing time came and once again I was politely evicted. The only interruption to my reverie had been the arrival of the post and a courier. This was real isolationism.
I returned on Monday morning and resumed my wait. After about two hours a man came out and explained to me that it was really not possible for someone to just decide they would like to visit China. ‘But, but, but’, I said, ‘I have bought a ticket from Moscow to Peking; tried to book a hotel, even sent money for the reply paid cable so at the very least the Peoples’ Republic should repay me that part’. The man nodded and walked out. Closing time came and I left the embassy.
The next day (Day Four) I resumed my place facing the scissor man and maybe an hour had gone by when suddenly in swept a new person.
‘Mr Blackall’ he said. ‘You are a nuisance’. His English was impeccable. ‘Why don’t you take the train straight across Siberia?’
‘Because the ports are all frozen up in winter.’ I didn’t know this to be true but he seemed to accept it.
‘Oh, all right’, he said. ‘Have you got enough money?’
‘Yes, yes’ I said, making a pile of Persian reals, Russian roubles, Japanese yen, a few hundred US dollars, and other assorted currencies. It was a large pile but the value was insignificant.
‘Give me your passport and come back in an hour.’

With passport and visa in hand I literally danced along the street.