skill and stamina and luck

warlock of firetop mountain

A couple of older digital drawings I did back in the summer time that I don’t think I ever posted, but now’s as good a time as ever. The drawing above is of ‘The Warlock of Firetop Mountain‘ by Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone. I got this book for my eighth birthday as a present from my big sister, and not only do I still have it but I still have all of my old Fighting Fantasy gamebooks from when I was a kid (see below). 2021 was the fortieth anniversary of its publication, and my one is one of the great editions with the famous green spine. If you have never played an adventure gamebook, “you are the hero”/”choose your own adventure” style, these ones were very cleverly formatted – almost always 400 entries – with a simple but effective gaming system. You don’t have overly complicated D&D style numbers, this is single player, two six-sided dice like everyone could get from their Monopoly set, you roll for a score for Skill, another for Stamina, another for Luck, and then you just get on with the story. You have provisions, you have some gold, and you have an ‘Adventure Sheet’ where you can list equipment that you pick up along the way – your sword, a few potions, the odd jewel, maybe the occasional scroll with important clues. As you go through the story you have to make decisions – go left or go right, stay at the inn or sleep in the woods, sneak past the orc guards or steal their keys, turn to 239, that sort of thing – but you also have to fight. It’s called ‘Fighting Fantasy’ after all, though running away is sometimes an option. Fighting is done on the roll of the dice and you might lose ‘stamina’ if your opponent gets hits on you. That opponent might be a Goblin, a Dragon, a a Giant Bat, anything really. In this book you have to go on an adventure to go and beat up a wizard – the Warlock of Firetop Mountain – there’s a fantastic colour hand-drawn map in my edition which very much informed how I like to draw maps later in life. The illustrations in these books was one of the things I liked the most, especially the heavy-lined drawings found in Caverns of the Snow Witch, which was always my favourite (along with Creature of Havoc), although I left my original copy of that back in London with my nephew (I’d like to get it back to go with the set some day). I drew this on the iPad with ProCreate, and posted it online, and to my amazement I was then sent a message by none other than the author himself, Ian Livingstone! And he said he liked it. I was fairly gobsmacked.

Or I should say ‘Sir Ian Livingstone’ – he was knighted in the New Years Honours list earlier this month! That is a great achievement and recognition for all his many years of pioneering work in the British gaming industry. He co-founded Games Workshop along with Steve Jackson and has done enormous work in the video gaming world. He did ask if I’d be drawing Forest of Doom next (that one has a great cover of a shape-shifter), but instead I showed him my bookshelf drawing from the previous month. There you can see what remains of my collection of Fighting Fantasy books (I don’t have a complete set, and two or three of mine are missing such as Caverns of the Snow Witch and Citadel of Chaos) (though I do have a copy of Caverns of the Snow Witch in French). After getting that first book from my sister, I would usually seek out these books in the local library, but then I would find them in the bookshops, but if I couldn’t afford to buy many books I would go to second hand bookshops all over the area to scour for copies of them. I displayed them proudly on my shelf at home, and on my windowsill, which didn’t help with the spines getting a bit discoloured. Although that is now a funny story, I assumed that the slightly different shades of green on all these books was due to some being in boxes in old shops, or left in the sun on my windowsill, but it turns out that it was an issue with the publishers; Sir Ian actually told me that himself, it used to annoy him that they’d be inconsistent with the green, and he appreciated that I’d captured that in my drawing! I would share the books with my friends at school, and we would get together and create our own games, using the same Fighting Fantasy gaming system. I would typically come up with the story and the setting (because I loved to draw maps and create worlds) rather than use anything pre-designed, and I created an entire world to set the stories in (it was called ‘Landica’; the name actually came from an attempt when I was 12 to create a new language called ‘Landic’ – this is what I was like at 12 – though I didn’t use the language in the games). Some of them were fun, we would use the big multi-coloured dice I would find at gaming shops, I still have many of the ones I got back then, kept like coloured plastic gems. We never did play more complicated games like Dungeons and Dragons or Warhammer, and I regret that a little, but I always liked to keep it simple. I was always a bit intimidated by Dungeons and Dragons if I’m honest, but I obsessed over the world of Fighting Fantasy, spending ages drawing swords and orcs and maps. I did write two full (though not super long) single-player gamebooks, hand-written and long enough to fit into a classic school exercise book: ‘The Sorceror of the Swamp‘ and ‘Trek to Terror Tower‘. I filled my world with places named after obscure languages (my other obsession, looking up all of the languages of the world), or constellations, or even interesting foreign surnames I’d heard. It was a fun creative time, but I was always frustrated with myself for rarely completing ideas. I tried many times to write longer, more complicated and intelligent stories, but that’s me all over, a million ideas, only so much time. But a lot of reading, a lot of imagination and inspiration, and a lot of fantastic memories.

Bedroom iPad 073021

And yet, as you can see right above this collection of gamebooks, on the top shelf are my sketchbooks. These are The Sketchbooks, the main landscape format ones I use, a collection of Moleskine or Stillman & Birn or Seawhite of Brighton, going from number 1 – 40 (some of them are facing a different direction). You can see all the contents of those on my sketchbooks page. Those books go back to 2007 and represent quite a lot of creative output, so I guess I do occasionally complete artistic projects huh. Though my life’s sketching work is never really finished. That quest does not end here…

in the hands of engineers

bainer uc davis

One last sketch from Fall that I forgot to post, this is a view of Bainer Hall, UC Davis, with those yellow-leaved trees in the foreground, another lunchtime sketch. You have to draw the world as it goes along. Those leaves are gone now. There are people in this sketch, three of them in fact, you just have to look for them. This is the place for Engineering on campus. I never thought of Engineering as a thing to do in my life, I didn’t realize the massive scope of what it could be, probably. To me, engineering was being stuck under a rusty old car with a wrench wearing overalls covered in oil, taking a break occasionally to read the Sun and swear about the football, and I figured, no I wouldn’t be any good at that, except the last bit of which I am really good at. I think Engineering may be a bit more than that, and it’s one of those areas where you have to be really really clever and know lots of very technical science, but also probably get your hands a bit dirty. Honestly I have no idea, like with most things. I draw little pictures of streets and things, slightly less complicated. I wonder if I’d have been a good engineer though? I wasn’t all that good in CDT class at school. CDT was ‘Craft Design Technology’, what Americans would call ‘Shop’. With all the big mechanical tools, gadgets, circuits, plastic moulding machines, and I remember being enthusiastic about it, except it was in a school setting where the politics of the classroom meant very little got actually learned. Lining up outside the class was the worst bit I think, there were always a couple of would-be bully lads trying to show off. It’s a shame, I remember I liked my CDT teacher, though for some reason I can’t remember his name, but really I wasn’t all that good at CDT, unless drawing was involved. I remember we learned about Ohms and Capacitors. Thinking back, I wish I’d been good at that class, I just wasn’t. Though I remember one occasion, a competition where we all had to design, make and then race cars out of a couple of bits of cardboard, some elastic bands, a couple of pencils and some plastic kinder egg shells. At least, that’s what I used. And my one actually won! I think my drawings of the design helped, but my actual little vehicle – like a paper airplane with elasticated wheels – won the race as well. One of very few things I actually won at school. I basically retired as an engineer after that, my career in the Formula 1 paddock was never going to burgeon.

grass valley

Grass Valley CA

Early December, we drove up to Grass Valley for our final soccer game of the NorCal Premier Fall season, for a game in which we lost, though it was a pretty close game for much of it. The other coaches were nice, and after the game the team all had pizza together. Afterwards I got to look around the town of Grass Valley for a bit, we had never been up that way before and the downtown area was quite historic looking. We went to a great little chocolate shop, and there was a lovely little music shop selling guitars and ukuleles. I have been getting much more into playing the ukulele lately, and been practicing on it much more, and I really wouldn’t mind getting back into the guitar again, though I put that instrument down a long time ago now. I also got to do a sketch (the music shop is the second one along, that flowery store on the furthest right was pretty cool as well and had a large Christmas tree inside that went up a couple of storeys. The shops snaking up the hill reminded me a little of Sonora, the place we visited before going to Yosemite. This was old gold mining country, so lots of these little old gold country towns looks a bit like this, quite sketchable. It was bright and sunny; down in the central valley where we live everything had been blanketed in a dense fog, but here in the foothills they were above the fog belt. Anyway that was Grass Valley.

at the desk

Office desk

Here is a sketch I did at my desk at work, during a very long meeting in early December in which I was mostly listening and taking lots of notes. We all came back to campus in Fall, although the majority of our meetings were still held via Zoom, except for a couple. I have my ring shaped light that I use for when I am in Zoom meetings, it helps me look less like a silhouette. And now Winter has started up again (and it’s taking me and probably all of you a lot of time to rev up the engines again), we’ve gone back to remote instruction and work again at least for the first month. It was going to be just the first week but they extended it yesterday to January 28 due to the large number of Omicron cases. I’m generally coming in still to work (very quiet at the office, but it keeps me further from the kitchen which still has many Christmas-shaped snacks to tempt me), but testing regularly, our campus has really good facilities for that. I have reorganized my office space a bit lately, right before we came back in Fall I moved out one of the filing cabinets (so heavy) to another space to give me a little more wiggle room, I replaced one of the bookshelves with an old wooden one that’s been floating around the department for years, it looks a bit nicer than pale green metal, and I even put up a couple of framed historic World Cup posters to give the office a bit more colour in the background when I am on Zoom calls. A few more pictures up, getting rid of the boxes of other people’s stuff that I was holding on to for them for years, still a few more piles of old files to go through but in general it feels a bit more like my space again. I still have the same chair I’ve had since I started nearly sixteen years ago, when I was in a different office, and sure the wheels are starting to fall off bit by bit but it’s still comfortable enough.

thanksgiving in the back yard

Thanksgiving 2021

Happy Thanksgiving! Oh wait it’s January the 7th. Right, well this sketch drawn on the iPad in my mother-in-law’s back yard in Santa Rosa was done on Thanksgiving 2021, the sky was very blue though the light was a little muted so shadows were soft, and we did absolutely zero Black Friday shopping the next day because ha, no more of that. Remember when they’d get up at 4am to stand in the cold outside Best Buy or Target? Those days are gone. Thanksgiving as you know is the big American holiday where you eat turkey, mash potatoes, cranberry sauce, all things I love, but I really love stuffing, and I really love gravy. Stuffing and gravy, oh man. I love a roast.

I’ve drawn this back yard before a couple of times, and it has changed a lot over the years, but here’s a very early one from way back in early 2007, when it looked very different. That’s the old dog Brutus asleep there, long since departed. That tree is gone too. This was when I drew in a WH Smith cartridge paper sketchbook from England, before I started using Moleskine sketchbooks, long before any iPads, and I was still figuring out watercolours, I was still using a fairly cheap but cheerful set from the university bookstore. I can tell exactly the colours used (payne’s gray mixed with ultramarine and purple lake) to get that specific shadow on the door, because I still sometimes mix those three to get the colour of shadow I want, and it was a bit of trial and error for this one at the time. I enjoy looking at the sketches from those first couple of years in the US, and I am glad I felt it so important to draw them. I still do.

lois's garden

knowing just where you are blowing

rice lane downtown davis

Well it is 2022 now, I suppose. The number at the end of the year changed a bit. Due to general busyness (and a few technical issues putting me off of scanning my sketchbook) I’ve not posted in a while so will make up for that now. I have also not drawn that much lately, December was a big slowdown in terms of my sketching output. Ah well. So it’s time to just catch up by posting these sketches from late Fall, when bright orange leaves were still on the trees and in the streets (long since blown away). Above is Rice Lane, which joins up B and A Streets near campus. I did this over a couple of days, so some of the leaves may have moved about a bit overnight, who knows. I was listening to a Terry Pratchett audiobook while drawing. I remember that because that’s what comes to mind when I look at my sketches, the sounds in my ears. Those are the things you don’t see. You’ll never look at a sketch I did of, say, Community Church and think, this puts me in mind of the Great Vowel Shift, but I would because I was probably listening to a podcast about that when I drew it. Associated sounds are personal. It’s good when visiting new places to keep the earphones out and listen to the city itself, the crunching leaves, the traffic, the language of the passers by, the sizzle of a hot dog, whatever. If I’m just here in Davis where I always am I want to listen to stories through my headphones, I already know what Davis sounds like.     

D St, Davis

Above is somewhere on D Street. I have long said we should rename the lettered streets to something more memorable, maybe something to do with university subjects, like Anthropology Street, Biostatistics Street, Chemistry Street, and I guess D would be Design Street? Drama? Then I thought in the spirit of fraternity / sorority we should rename them with Greek letters, so Alpha, Beta, C would have to be Gamma confusingly, but D would automatically be Delta. You don’t want to be Delta. Well now it’s Omicron that’s everywhere. This pandemic, it’s never going to end. I’ve been a bit depressed about it all lately (me and you and everyone else) and now the new year is here it’s like, oh, 2022, it’s going to keep going isn’t it. On and on and on. We will run out of Greek letters for variants, we will need to start using the NATO phonetic alphabet, you know, Foxtrot, Charlie, Bravo, those ones. Except Delta would still be Delta, and who would want to say they caught the ‘Mike’ variant? It gets a bit problematic that alphabet.  Or maybe Father Jack naming scale? The ‘Drink!’ variant, followed by the ‘Feck!’ ‘Arse! and ‘Girls!’ variants. No, that might be problematic too. That would be an ecumenical matter. You can’t use the Care Bears scale (“Tenderheart”, “Love-A-Lot”, “Grumpy”) though I’d like to see that scale used more for weather (“Hurricane Funshine”), but I could see the Transformers scale working (the “Megatron Variant” sounds terrifying) though maybe not the He-Man scale (really, the “Fisto Variant”?) I’ll leave naming conventions to the experts.

alphi chi omega davis

Speaking of Greek letters, I drew this Alpha Chi Omega house on C Street (we are back to regular alphabet for street names then), in mid-November. They are a pretty old women’s fraternity, dating back to 1885 in Indiana, that’s a long time. I have drawn this building before, because I date back to Davis in 2005 and that’s a long time for a sketcher. I remember when I first came to Davis, I was a little bit fascinated by all the fraternity and sorority houses, with those big greek letters outside, because this whole ‘panhellenic’ society thing you get at universities here is pretty alien to me, we don’t have those at British universities, at least not to the scale they have here. They would have their big Rush periods with their big dress up events, and their hazing (though I think there’s much less of that nowadays), but I was already well beyond student age when I came here and I just kept getting older, so anything the youthful did looked a bit alien to me. So I just occasionally draw the big old buildings with the big mystic-looking letter combinations on the wall. Sometimes there will be lads playing beer pong outside. I daresay these buildings hold a lot of memories for people.

shields library uc davis

And this last one, another from November, a little bit more autumn colour but not much, standing outside Walker Hall and looking towards Shields Library. I used to spend a lot of time in Shields when I first came to Davis, because my default mode was sitting in big quiet libraries looking at books (usually about language). I’d finished my Masters not long before flying out here (I had handed in my MA dissertation – about the relationship between the English and French languages within England in the late Middle Ages – a week before emigrating; my wife had originally set the leaving date for the day after I handed it in, but I’m really glad I had a week of non-library time before flying off, time to say all my bye-byes and party a little. I’ve lived in America ever since.) This library was the only place I could access the internet at first, so I would send my long emails home from here, update my old blog, and start looking for jobs. I was still a bit shell-shocked after moving countries so coming to the big Shields library felt like finding a little bit of familiar me-space, and even after I started working on campus I would come here at lunchtimes and try to translate some old Anglo-Saxon texts, most of which I’ve forgotten all about now. It’s 2022 now, I suppose…   

Everybody Loves Tardigrades

tardigrade uc davis

They do, don’t they. Everybody loves tardigrades. This is a sculpture of a tardigrade, also known as a ‘water bear’, outside the Academic Surge Building on campus, next to where I work, home to the Bohart Musuem of Entomology. I took me three attempts to spell ‘Entomology’ by the way, going through ‘Entemology’ and ‘Entimology’ before finding the right spelling. I knew it probably wasn’t ‘Entamology’, and ‘Entumology’ looks very wrong, and ‘Entermology’ is right out, but looking at it, it should really be a word for something and it’s a shame it isn’t. When I first came to campus I actually interviewed with the Viticulture and Enology department, and they actually offered me the position despite my response to “what is Enology” being “it’s insects, innit.” No, Enology isn’t insects (it’s actually wine science), but Entomology is. So, they have a big tardigrade sculpture outside, because yes, everybody loves tardigrades. Except students awaiting exam results, they don’t like tardy grades. Here’s one, “what is the difference between an Aquarius and a Tardigrade? One is a water bearer, and the other is a water bear.” Ok that joke needs a bit of work (actually I think that joke needs a different job), but it’s true, everybody loves tardigrades. They are tiny little super beings that can live in any temperature and in any environment, although even they probably avoid parts of south London after dark. They are miniscule, and have been found in every part of the Earth, from volcanoes to the deep oceans, from the Antarctic to the Amazon, from Tesco to Asda, they are everywhere and can survive any conditions, although even they probably couldn’t sit through half an hour of watching Mrs Brown’s Boys. Thanks to humans feeling the need to pop off into space, tardigrades are probably already colonizing the moon, and are watching down on us wondering why it’s taking us so long to come back and get them. They are sometimes called ‘Moss Piglets’ but that might just be their band name. They have survived all five mass extinctions, though I still don’t fancy their chances under the Tories. They don’t actually live for very long, about 3 or 4 months, but that’s still longer than most Tottenham managers’ careers. Everybody loves tardigrades.

“it’s lights out and away we go!”

Oct 24 2021 watching F1 on couch

A Sunday afternoon sketch at home from October, drawn on the iPad with Procreate, a slice of the life. Watching the Formula One, this was the United States Grand Prix, which seems like a million races ago now. More on that later. There’s my increasingly-tall teenage son on the couch stretched out with his favourite cat on his lap (apologies to the other cat, no he loves you both equally), while I draw. Outside was a massive rain storm. They called it the “Bomb Cyclone” because everything has to have a gimmicky name now. The “Atmospheric River” and the “Moisture Firehose” were also terms used by the weather news people, who frankly are just having a laugh now. Moisture Firehose indeed, do me a favour. We had such little rain this year, the drought in the west has been very worrying, but then all this rain came along on the same day and provided a perfect backdrop for staying inside, which we would have been doing anyway, especially with this race going on. I was worried that we would lose power, the lights were flickering for a bit, and not get to see the race (it really would have been “lights out and away we go” as they say at the start of the race). And boy, was it was exciting. The young Dutch buck Max Verstappen beat seven-times legend Lewis Hamilton in the end with them being close right down to the final lap of the race. This whole Formula One season has been one of the most exciting in years, with Max (we used to call him ‘Waluigi’- MarioKart reference) Verstappen storming about to win loads of races in the Honda-powered Red Bull, maybe on course for his first world title, while the GOAT Lewis Hamilton in the slick Mercedes has pulled off some of the best drives I’ve seen him do to bring it back to level-pegging, and they go into the final race of this season on EQUAL POINTS, a situation that’s only happened once before (back in the 70s), and that final race is this weekend in Abu Dhabi. Lewis has been magnificent in recent races but it all comes down to this. Whoever comes ahead of the other will WIN the title. If they both crash out (something that’s been done before), Max will win, because he has one more race win than Lewis. To say I’m excited for this grand finale is an understatement. I’m a long-time fan of Lewis (and especially after the way he raced in Brazil this year) but more than anything I’m just a fan of the sport and I like all the characters, and it would be interesting to have a different champion, and I’m not particularly interested in the arguments and entrenching into different camps and all that, I’m just glad we’ve had an epic season. It’s very much a team sport, and a technical sport, not just about the bloke in the cockpit, there’s so much involved. I think Red Bull need to win it now because Honda will leave the sport next season and they won’t have that great Honda engine. Max will be probably champion at some point regardless, but I’ve said that before about drivers. Still, I’m actually very nervous about this weekend. I really don’t want a ‘both crash, Max wins by default’ situation, that would be crap, I just want good racing, and good strategy. I’m still annoyed about Schumacher and Hill in 94. But it’s all drama, and the big race is this Sunday. I would love if the team principals Toto Wolff and Christian Horner just had a massive punch-up, the psychologicals between them all season has been just as entertaining. I have a feeling that Max will win. Aargh I’m so excited!  

lewis hamilton

And just as a throwback… November 2008, Lewis Hamilton’s second season in F1, and he won the title in the very last race of the season, in dramatic fashion, right at the end when local lad Massa thought he had won it (still feel so bad for him). Back then, we didn’t get the channel that Formula One came on but the cable channel still showed it without sound, and I’d have the closed-captioning on. The people writing the subtitles obviously weren’t familiar with a lot of the names, and would write “Lou Is Hamel Ton”, “Right Gone On” (that was Räikkönen), “Cove Align On” (Kovailainen), and “Along Sew” (Alonso). I would watch it for the subtitles mostly. Those were exciting seasons though, and so I drew this in my notebook back then, Lewis Hamilton’s winning McLaren. I didn’t draw cars much back then…

in rust we trust

rusty car on E street, davis

This old car has been parked in old north Davis for years, I’ve passed it many times thinking, I must draw that some day. That is definitely a thing to sketch. And then days pass into weeks, weeks into months, months into years, years back into months, and then months gives weeks a miss and jumps right back into days. So finally, on the day I ran the Turkey Trot, I took the afternoon to sketch around town. I decided to finally draw this old thing. It’s nice with the autumnal leaves all about. I saw fellow sketchers Allan and Alison while drawing this, they live nearby now. It was a nice afternoon, it had been a nice morning. I had a good race, I shaved 2.5 minutes off my previous 5k race time which I’m still well pleased about. For the first race back since early 2020, I didn’t feel rusty at all. I felt pretty good afterwards too, runnin’ makes you feel good. I ain’t ‘fraid of no ghosts. I do want to draw some more old vehicles. There are at least a couple I’ve had my eye on sketching for a while, one near my house which never moves and has a lot of cobwebs on it, I’ve just never sat outside drawing it. I like the ones that just sit there getting rusty. I like rusty.

ol’ bobby dazzler’s

Bobby Dazzlers Hearse

Yeah I know, these ones are from just before Halloween, and it’s already December. Halloween, alright grandad, that’s so fifty years ago, we’re decorating gingerbread houses now. The Friday night before Halloween, some of the players from our youth soccer team went to a pumpkin patch (we had a tournament the next day in Roseville, in which teams traditionally wear costumes; we had Spider-Man uniforms, many of the others were really elaborate, one team we played were dressed as Pac-Man ghosts, others dressed as robbers, one team were all cow-girls (the coaches had inflatable horses), one team were aliens, and there was even one team all dressed as Jake from State Farm (the coaches dressed as Flo form Progressive) (they were popular; people like adverts. One team even got the current zany Spurs away kit and all dressed as that. If I hadn’t been coaching that tournament, I would have enjoyed sketching everyone. Unfortunately our team ended up being drawn against some high-level opposition and we lost all our games, but at least the costumes were fun to see. I say high-level, because two of the teams were two divisions above us, while the other one literally play in the foothills of the Sierras, at a higher altitude than Davis. A bit like playing Bolivia, or West Brom. Anyway, the night before we went to the pumpkin patch and I drew some pumpkins, and this big old hearse, which was being driven by a skeleton. Bobby Dazzler’s is the place, it’s just outside Davis. Here are some pumpkins I drew as well. I had to draw them quickly because they were going to turn back into carriages. I’d never been to Bobby Dazzler’s before, it was pretty good. I suppose it made me think of Bobby Davro, a TV light entertainer and panting mimer from the 80s in England, and also leader of the Daleks if memory serves (nope, memory doesn’t serve). Bobby Dazzler is the sort of thing people would say in the old days up north, “he’s a reet Bobby Dazzler” they’d say, in the working mens’ clubs. Also, they are both the names of X-Men characters, Bobby and Dazzler. Maybe Bobby Dazzler is the younger brother of Adolf and Rupert Dassler, the founders of Adidas (short for Adolf ‘Adi’ Dassler) and Puma (Rupert’s spin-off which is short for for Poo, Man) (actually Puma was going to be called ‘RuDa’, true story, after Rudolf Dassler, but everyone said that sounds RuBbish). Maybe Bobby was the youngest Dassler and maybe he could never have a voice with his siblings so instead he voiced his sibilants. Ooh that was a stretch. Anyway enough rambling. They also have a Christmas tree farm in November and December and so I might go back up there again. I won’t get a tree though, because our Cat Overlords don’t allow such things, we just re-use our old plastic one. 

Bobby Dazzlers Pumpkins