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.