And now a look back at the distant past when we could go to things like parties and gigs. Not that I ever go to any such things anyway so it’s not something I’m really missing. However I wanted to show you this sketch I did back in September when I was in Sacramento with my wife, at her father’s party in midtown, the one he holds each year to celebrate when he moved to the area. (He is generally a bit more social than me!). It was held at a cafe bar called Shine, and he had a couple of bands come to play at the party, one of which was called Band of Coyotes, and those are the ones I sketched. They were very good. I really enjoyed drawing this though and it was probably my favourite drawing in that particular sketchbook, because I wasn’t sure how it would turn out, but I just drew anyway, starting in the middle and working my way outwards. I added paint in a very let’s-see-what-happens fashion too, not having great light to really see the colour, and I loved the multicoloured outcome, going from warm in the middle and cooling off outwards. I put on a lot of washes, so many that it actually went through the thin Seawhite of Brighton page, I didn’t mind. It’s always more pleasant to draw when you have good music to draw to, no doubt. A lot of the time I wouldn’t want to draw musicians, they might turn out to be pretty bad, or maybe they themselves are kinda nobs, and you don’t want to draw those, but this band were very good, and I think that comes across in my enjoyment of sketching. Oh man, I want the world to go back to normal, and I can go and draw everything again.
The confinement continues. I don’t watch the news, not as much as I should, but I watch the numbers, and the numbers aren’t looking great. So I sketch. I’m really drawing this house a lot. It’s relaxing to sketch. Above, the view from the couch. We were watching Spider-Man Homecoming, which is one of our favourite films. We had just watch the original Tron movie from 1982, which I had never seen before, and I must admit I wish I had not seen yesterday either. It was not just the early 1980s slow computer generated scenery, surely technically advanced for the day (though even as a kid, I remember it looked naff and didn’t really want to see it), but the uninteresting story and barely perceptible storytelling. The only thing I enjoyed about it was that the bad guy was played by Evil from Time Bandits, David Warner, whose voice I could listen to for hours. He actually played two characters, a human bad guy who looked like Arsene Wenger, and an computer-game bad guy dressed like a cybernetic prawn. Other than that the movie was just bats, and gave me a headache. So watching Spider-Man afterwards was much more of a palette cleanser.
Above, this is my desk area. Working from home, this is where I sit. I’m there right now too. I’m here a lot. This was another late evening sketch, drawn from the dinner table. On the screen are the latest coronavirus numbers. Even though this was only a few days ago the numbers are so much worse; we are no closer to flattening this curve. Not going to lie, I’m very much not enjoying this whole timeline. And like you all, I’m snacking way more while at home, so there’s another curve I won’t flatten. I haven’t been for a run for a few days, mostly because I am staying up too late (sketching, and worrying) and feeling too tired next day. I keep saying to myself, I’ll go to bed earlier, I’ll get up early, run before breakfast, energy and positive for the day. But I find it’s harder than I think.
Here is the other view from the couch, looking at the desk and the table behind it. That box of tissues on the coffee table is in each picture. That coffee table is nice and big. We used it tonight to play Carcassonne. I just got that game last week as something new we could all play together. I really liked it, I want to play it more. I’ve never played it before so we are still learning. I’ve not really played any of those European-style table-top games before. Any more time at home and we’ll end up playing loads of them. I hope you are all doing well out there, at this crappy time. Let’s hope we’re out of this soon.
After a couple of weeks city-hopping the low countries of Europe, we Eurostarred it under the channel to fellow-EU-country-at-the-time UK for a week of family time before flying back to America. Seems like a Golden Age Of Travel now. That week was interesting, in an Interesting Times kind of way, but there were some highlights, like going to the new Spurs stadium to watch Tottenham v Inter (sure we lost on penalties, but I got that beer that pours from the bottom of the plastic glass). I did manage a few sketches that week though. Above, this is the York Water Gate found down in Victoria Embankment Gardens, by the Thames. This gateway dates from 1626 and if you turn your head sideways, you can read what I wrote about it, copied from a plaque. I used to like coming to these gardens to read and study when I was doing my master’s many years ago. There were a few dodgy characters lurking around, on the prowl for picking pockets. I social distanced myself from everyone even back then. Still it was nice to be back in London, on a warm early evening, down by the river. I like it by the river.
Earlier that day we had been to Brick Lane to visit the Classic Football Shirts shop, one of my favourite places of course. My son picked up a youth size 1994 navy Spurs away kit, quite a find. I actually bought that same shirt (adult size) on the day it was released, I was only 18, and it still fits. I wore it when I met Jurgen Klinsmann at his first training Spurs session in Mill Hill, where our old training ground used to be, near Copthall Swimming Pool. I met a few other legends that day, Sheringham, Barmby, Mabbutt, Anderton, Ian Walker, even Rony Rosenthal. But best of all of course was my long time hero Ossie Ardiles. What a gent. He even waved to me from his car when he drove past me and my sister walking down Bunns Lane. Look when I was six I used to want to BE Ossie Ardiles, that was my ambition when I grew up, to somehow be him. Anyway I digress. We ate at some food trucks (I got some tasty fried chicken and chips at a little truck called Mother Clucker), and I drew this ice-cream van above, Dappa.
Let’s call this one “Before Social Distancing”. We’ve never been social on the tube anyway. I drew these quickly with different pens while on a packed Northern Line carriage back to Burnt Oak. I always get very sleepy on the tube.
Here is Sophie the Stegosaurus. We like to go to the Natural History Museum, one of my favourite places in the entire galaxy, but my son mostly likes all the rocks and geology. I love the dinosaurs. This was a very quick one. Stegosaurus is my favourite of the dinosaurs.
We went to St Albans with my mum, and had a look at the cathedral there. I also joined one evening the London Urban Sketchers for a sketchcrawl down the banks of the Thames. After a busy day, I ended up down near London Bridge, I called my uncle Billy on his birthday. And then I met with the sketchers and drew them. There were great amazing vistas to behold, but this was a shirt summer evening sketchcrawl and I was done with architecture for now. It’ll be different next time I am back. So, I just sketched the sketchers. Here they are…
And then they laid out the sketchbooks as they do, and looked at them. They get large groups in London, I remember the very first Urban Sketchers London sketchcrawl in 2012, which I organized, called “Let’s Draw London”, we had a whopping number of over 50 participants, but that seems about average these days. I think the 2016 Wren crawl had around 70 or 80. It’s nice to come back and see familiar faces.
After that I met up with my friend Roshan (who I’ve been mates with since late teenage years) and we hung out on the South Bank for the rest of the evening, I sketched some singers who were performing at a pop-up bar by the river.
And that is that. At the end of the trip we flew back home to America (see the in-flight sketch below) and got back to work, and the credit card bill. That was a long trip. I’m still not completely recovered! But I have been back to London since then.
Last week I got a nice surprise in the post, a copy of my 2016 book “5 Minute People Sketching”, newly translated into Chinese. (I don’t get anything extra for that unfortunately, apart from a single free copy). I can’t read it, but my Chinese speaking friends showed me where my name is, and that is the first time I’ve seen my name in Chinese, which gave me a thrill. This is the second language other than English that my books have been published in. While I was in Belgium last summer I did manage to find both of the other ones in French: “L’Art Du Croquis”, on the shelf there, and “5 Minutes Pour Dessiner Les Gens”, which I was happy to find in a huge bookstore in Brussels. It was funny to come back to Belgium two decades after my year living there to find my name on a shelf. I wouldn’t have expected that back then. I definitely wouldn’t have expected to see my work published in Chinese too! That was one nice surprise among all this madness going on right now. Maybe I need to be spending some of this time stuck at home writing another book, maybe the long-talked-about sketchbook about Davis. I should have enough drawings to in it…
And so after so many places in Belgium and Holland we returned to France, and to our first visit to Disneyland Paris. We stayed at the Disneyland Hotel for that walk-right-into-the-park experience, and we were not disappointed. My wife is a huge Disney parks fan but has only been to the original (like a million times) so this was a novel experience. I have to say I really liked it, it wasn’t as crowded, the sidewalks seemed to be wider, the two arcades behind Main Street were nice and accessible and I really liked the Castle. I had to sketch it. Everything was a bit different from California, Space Mountain for example (which is still Hyperspace Mountain) repeated Star Wars phrases in French (naturally) and had an outside starting point, while Thunder Mountain Railroad was definitely longer and faster, and was located on an island that the ride went under a tunnel to get to. I also really liked Pirates of the Caribbean (“les morts ne raccontent pas d’histoires!”), probably more than the Californian one. The maze of caves near the pirate ship too was so much fun to run around. And of course, serving champagne on Main Street during fireworks (though I didn’t indulge). So yes, we liked it.
Our Thalys train from Brussels to Marne-La-Vallee was, amazingly, on time. I was sketching with the brush pen here, my son wearing his new Charleroi shirt. We spent some of our time on the train playing MarioKart on the Switch (I lost). When we got into Disneyland we had dinner at ‘King Ludwig’s Castle’, a lavishly decorated Bavarian themed restaurant, and we had hearty Bavarian fare (on our first night in France).
On the other side of the main park, in the place where California Adventure would be, is a second park called Parc Walt Disney Studios. I liked it there, although there was not as much going on, except the incredible Ratatouille ride. That one we enjoyed. In that whole area there were a number of mobile food carts, one from each culinary area of France (crepes from Bretagne, tarte flambee from Alsace, cider from Normandy etc), and then around the corner there were more, but from different European countries (we had some nice sangria and tapas from Spain, while my son went back to enjoying his favourite Belgian waffles).
The hotel was incredible. I enjoyed spending time in the pool, and they even gave my son a ball so he could have a kickaround on the grass (that made his trip). Above, I sketched my family playing ping-pong. Below, I tried one more fancy drink this time in the music-themed Cafe Fantasia. It was called the African Dream, made with rum, papaya, St Germain liqueur, lychee puree and bissap, I don’t know, I’ve heard of rum. It was tasty (and expensive), I got it because it looked like a vacation.
Above: Thunder Mountain Railroad, on an island in the middle of a lake. I drew this while tired legs were resting, colouring in later.
And finally, one more train journey, this time the Eurostar from Marne La Vallee to London, going back to the UK to see the family, go to a Spurs game at the new stadium, and hopefully unwind after a very busy trip.
We leave these depressing times and return to the European travels of last summer, before social distancing was even imagined. In the last chapter we were all done with Amsterdam, that was all finished, now it was time to return to my favourite country: Belgium. Land of very slow queues but very quick access to beer and frites. This time I was returning with my family for some more touristy travels – no Charleroi, more Bruges. In fact we were staying in central Brussels, although due to the heatwave-related Thalys delay we got in later than expected, but still early enough for an evening stroll around the Grand Place, Mannakin Pis, the chocolate shops, the waffle stands and of course the friteries. Belgian frites are just the best. The next day though we took the train to Bruges (or Brugge as it’s properly called in Flemish). We walked up the steep hill to centraal station, stopping for a pain-au-chocolat (or “couques” as they call them here) on the way. The ticket machines in Belgian stations are not very good for foreign visitors with US credit cards, as they didn’t seem to take them, so we had to line up in the slow Belgian train station ticket office line. By the time we figured out a way to but tickets online instead we had reached the window. I love the train system in Belgium, it goes absolutely everywhere and runs a good service, but I forget that when I last used it I lived there and had one of those Belgo-passes I think they were called, where you just paid an amount and got ten train journeys. Ah well, tant-pis, we got where we needed to go in the end. I sketched on the train as the language switched from French to Flemish. The heatwave was over, now we had an overcast muggy sky. We arrived in Bruges ready to tourist.
I last went to Bruges in, whew, either 1999 or 2000 and was pleased to see that it is still a medieval city. Above is a sketch of the Grote Markt. Bruges was busy as usual, as always expected, and we even took a horse-drawn carriage around the city. I love all the old architecture and lanes and canals. The first time I was here all those years ago it was Christmas-time and there was a lovely Christmas market in this square. I decided not to colour in (since I was touristing with family) but I packed a lot in while my wife and son explored. Below is the incredibly large Belfort on the other side of the Grote Markt. It reminded me a bit of Orthanc, the large tower of Isengard where Saruman lived, with Gandalf on the roof ready to jump onto the back of a massive eagle.
Below is a stone lion which is at the entrance to the twelfth-century Heilig-Bloedbasiliek (Basilica of the Holy Blood) in De Burg (don’t start singing The Lady In Red). The shield is the Bruges city coat of arms. Inside this basilica they have an old holy relic brought back from Jerusalem during the Second crusade, a phial containing a cloth which has some of the blood of Jesus on it. Glad they never called this place Christ De Burg (don’t start singing The Lady In Red). The building was amazing, dating back to the time of Thierry of Alsace, Count of Flanders. That would be some time between 1134 and 1157.
We had lunch before all of our touristing in a nice little restaurant called De Zevende Hemel. There I ate my moules. I’m a big fan of moules. These ones were nice, but just nice. The trappis beer I had with it was delicious, La Trappe.
We got the train back to Brussels, and while the family got an early night, I went out for one last sketch of the day. I was looking for a historic cafe called A La Becasse. I had never been there before, and it was hidden away down an alley near the Grand Place. There I had a table to myself in the corner, a Hoegaarden Grand Cru, and just enough time before closing to get a lot drawn. I actually sketched this paint first for the most part, adding in the ink afterwards. There were a few American tourists in here talking, but it wasn’t particularly busy. They have a lot of beers on the menu, as a good Belgian ‘estaminet’ should (that is another word for tavern), and dates back to 1877. Here’s their website: https://alabecasse.be/en. Every time I saw the name, I kept thinking “…the lady loves Milk Tray”. But then that made me think of The Lady In Red again, get that song out of my head.
If that wasn’t enough, I couldn’t help getting one last portion of late night frites from Fritland, near the Bourse, whose frites I absolutely love. Filthy delicious. Even seeing this picture makes me so hungry, and just want to get back to Belgium.
The next day we touristed some more (I did a quick sketch on the metro, above), going up to the Atomium (I don’t know if you are allowed to show that online, it was always banned, but it’s a massive great big sodding metal building you can see for miles). I don’t really love the Atomium, because it reminds me of being bored, when I lived in Belgium and I would sometimes come here, not all that interesting, and go back, or maybe I would get the tram that goes all around the city to reach here, so I would have somewhere to read a book and watch the city go by, and I never liked reaching the destination. Still, we all had fun walking in the parks around it, and (food photo alert) we got waffles from a waffle truck, simple no-nonsense waffles with a little bit of sugar on them, none of that fancy chocolate and kiwi fruit stuff for the tourists, and we all agreed it was the best waffle we had ever tasted. Cheap and cheerful, no pretensions, the most Belgian thing ever.
That isn’t of course to say Belgian doesn’t do fancy. When it does fancy it can outdo all of you. I’m talking about chocolate. There are some crazy super fine chocolatiers in Brussels, but maybe the nicest ones we had were at Pierre Marcolini (at least as recommended to me by my Belgian friends, and they would know). This is the real fancy stuff. Not cheap either, but worth it. I got some for my wife as a souvenir. We got some others from places such as Mary and Neuhaus, but we ended up leaving them for family in London. I tell you what, all this talk of Belgium makes me very hungry.
The days indoors continue. So I am looking out the window. I did get out for a run yesterday, staying away from people, and this evening (Sunday) I managed to go out for a walk, this time avoiding the green belt path I know lots of people take, to social distance as much as possible. I ended up walking down some streets I’ve never explored, and was amazed at some of the designs of the houses. I’d love to draw those. Right now is not a good time to be on the streets sketching. So, looking out of the window it is. Amazingly I have never drawn this view from the upstairs back window before. I had always thought of putting a desk in that room and using it as an office, but we never got round to it, and now it’s just basically the Room of Requirement. It’s where guests sleep when they visit, and for all I know there might still be some in there somewhere, finding their way through all my travel books. The cats love it in there, full of places to hide, though it’s not much bigger than a broom cupboard. But ti does have a pleasant view, so my project now during this period of indoorsiness is to Do Something About It. Isn’t that all our project? And yet, with this whole thing going on, even getting out of bed is a struggle. I did find some time a couple of days ago to Do Something In The Yard though. My yard is beyond help, but since we got someone to get rid of the tree, it feels a bit more manageable. So I cleared a little space and built a soccer rebounder (not pictured in the sketch below as it’s a bit too far to the left). I had ordered it ages ago, but it turned out to be bigger than I thought. I finally built it a couple of days ago for my son to use in the yard, but it really does rebound a lot, so will take a bit of control. Sleeping in the foreground is one of our cats, Whiskers. They are indoors cats, but I let them run around and explore the yard. They love all the nooks and crannies and webs and branches, and Whiskers likes to get into weird-cat-noise contests with a neighbour’s cat, and guard the bottom of the fence while our other cat Sawyer just rolls his eyes.