chasing clouds on the banks of the thames

London battersea ps 2022 sm

On the first day of June, which is always a good day in the calendar, I took the tube down to Battersea to meet up with friend Simon, who was flying over from Dublin that morning for a few days. I say I took the tube down, well this being classic London, I left in good time only to find the Northern Line was down, so I had to get a bus to Queensbury to jump on the Jubilee Line. Can’t escape the Jubilee. Incidentally that Jubilee Line was named for the Queen’s 25th (Silver) Jubilee, which is why it is coloured in grey. This year it was the 70th (Platinum) Jubilee, and they named the new Crossrail after her, the Elizabeth Line (that was actually her mum’s name, Elizabeth Lines-Bowen) (I think they missed a trick by not renaming Crossrail as “we-are-not-amused-rail”, ok maybe not). Anyway silly jokes aside, I was hoping to see the new London underground station on the Northern Line, Battersea Power Station Station. That is actually its name. It is the tube station for Battersea Power Station, so therefore it is Battersea Power Station Station. However, once me and Simon met up, at Vauxhall Bridge, we never found it, as we were catching up on three years of silly jokes. It was a fun day out we had along the river, and then up into Chelsea, and the clouds were incredible. He’s a pro photographer and got some great shots – follow him on Instagram at https://www.instagram.com/naderissimo/ – and I started some sketches, very much in the ‘finish these later’ category. I had not drawn Battersea Power Station before, I do want to draw it from the other side of the river sometime, but it has all been redeveloped in recent years and is all a bit fancy now. I notice that the Urban Sketchers London had a sketching event down there recently, part of the ten year anniversary, as many Battersea Power Station sketches kept popping up on my feed, making me want to go back down that way. I haven’t really explored there before, so it was an eye opener.

London Albert Bridge 2022 sm

We walked down through Battersea Park, where I have not been for many years, until we took a rest by the Albert Bridge (above). I drew this bridge as an illustration for a book years ago, the “London Walks, London Stories” book in about 2008 or 2009, so I was keep to draw it in person. Not super easy, so I drew the main bits, the main outlines, and drew in the rest of the details later. We were busy chatting. Albert Bridge is named after Queen Victoria’s dead husband Prince Albert (I mean they are all dead now aren’t they, the Victorians), and is one of the best and most charming bridges in London. Lots of things are named after Prince Albert, you’ve got the Albert Embankment, the Albert Hall, the Albert Bridge, the Albert Memorial, Albert Square, and of course the Prince Albert, which I won’t elaborate on further. We crossed Albert Bridge and wandered about Chelsea, looking for one specific pub that Simon knew about, and I can definitely say I got my ten thousand steps in that day a couple of times over. Still at least we got to look at some cool shops and see loads more colourful Jubilee displays, including this union-jack-themed mini. Simon used to have a very beloved mini, so I just had to draw this, though now he lives in Dublin he probably wouldn’t drive this particular one about. There were so many interesting floral displays along the Kings Road, we spent a lot of time taking photos (and being silly of course) before resting with a pint in the old pub he was looking for, and then heading over to Harrods (I got some delicious cannoli). One thing about this trip, I did explore a fair bit of London I either hadn’t been to before, or not been to in years. It’s like a book you can keep coming back to and learning something new, but because it’s the city where I’m from there’s always a connection.

London UK Mini 2022 sm

love and bridges

Arboretum UC Davis

Another break, I was in Europe again recently, so I have many more sketches to post and stories to tell. But we are about four months behind, so you get those ones first. Here are a couple of bridges over the creek in the UC Davis Arboretum that I drew during the Spring quarter. I like a bridge. The one above is fairly newly renovated, having had a big upgrade in the past few years. The one below is a footbridge only, and people put those little padlocks with hearts and names scratched on onto the railings, which I am not a fan of. There’s that one in Paris isn’t there where so many of those silly padlocks have been attached to the bridge that the bridge starting creaking under the extra weight. “Oh I love you dear, I know, I will leave a stupid little padlock I bought off a guy for twenty quid on this bridge in a place we don’t live so that if we ever come back we can see if it’s still there or if it’s been cut off by council workers due to it being vandalism, just like the thousands of people have done before.” “Oh thank you dear you are so romantic and original.” “Well I try. Do you still have that single rose I bought you for a fiver from some guy bugging us at our restaurant table?” “That must have been someone else.” I put a lot of thought into these imaginary character conversations. In fact last week (late July) I was in Paris and that bridge there doesn’t allow those silly love-locks any more, but that doesn’t mean the stupid love-lock industry is dead, because they put them every bloody where else. Up at Montmartre, it felt like every metal fence was covered in them, you could see the cheap brass glistening in the light, and scrawny men were wandering about with bags of them trying to sell them to people. And they are mostly heart-shaped now as well. Honestly there are so many of them it would become utterly tedious to try and look through them when you return with your partner years later to find it, this unique special thing, yeurch. Anyway don’t do that. Don’t carve your initials onto trees either, nor into rocks, or write hit records for them, or build huge domed palaces for them or travel the universe gathering infinity stones so you can wipe out half of all existence with the snap of a finger for them, or any of that cheesy stuff, just be cool.

Arboretum Bridge 050422 sm

Anyway, I better start scanning the new sketches and coming up with more interesting things to say. I’ve done some travelling in the past few months and my legs hurt, but it’s the height of hot summer now and time to start catching up. Stay tuned.

VTDF #4: Amiens

04 Amiens

Stage 4 of the Virtual Tour de France finds us in the northern city of AMIENS, on the river (and department) Somme. It is difficult to say the name ‘Somme’ without thinking of the historic atrocity of the 1916 Battle of the Somme, in World War I. Three million soldiers fought in that battle, with over a million wounded or killed. Amiens is right in the heart of World War 1 country, and itself saw a 1918 battle that ended in an Allied victory. World War II didn’t exactly pass it by either, with another Battle of Amiens in 1940 when Germany took the town, and later on pretty heavy bombardment by the Allies in 1944 before it was liberated. There were wars and sieges and sackings here in the many centuries before, but Amiens and the Somme are inescapably linked with the awful World Wars.

This is a nice view though, down by the river, looking up at the cathedral. I could imagine coming here and eating lunch by the Somme, before driving on to another town for a bit more history. I found out recently that an ancestor of mine from Dublin fought in World War 1 and was wounded in a gas attack at Loos, not far from Lens. I saw my great-great grandfather’s photo (his name was James Higgins, as was his father, and his son who I think also fought in that war?) and he had the most amazing bushy “General Melchett” moustache. He wasn’t a general though, just a regular soldier. I also saw a postcard he sent home to his wife (my great-great granny) in Dublin from Loos before the battle took place. Fascinating stuff, I never knew he even existed until recently. I never inherited the moustache. It was a big handlebar one with two pointy tails, that reminds me a bit of the Red Bull logo, or two rats fighting. I would not know how to take care of an amazing moustache like that, I would probably get it in my soup, this is why I shave. I only briefly had a moustache, though it was part of a goatee, and that was for a few months in the 90s and that my friend is where for most people goatees should have stayed. Funnily enough I never saw anyone in France with that classic French moustache, the one with the twirly sides, that all cartoon French people have (along with the beret and the onions and the baguette), but I have seen many hipster people in America wear that ‘tache. I couldn’t pull it off.

There does appear what looks like a lifesize Subbuteo figure standing in the river, to the left there. I think it is called “L’Homme sur sa bouée” (“The man on his buoy”). It seems that it’s common for the people of the town to dress him up, put t-shirts on him and so on. He is the work of German sculptor Stephan Balkenhol and was originally installed there in 1993, but being made of wood and manhandled by so many locals it degraded a fair bit over the years and was replaced in 2019 by the artist, this time in aluminium. Or maybe it is still wood but now painted in aluminium, it’s hard to tell. L’Homme sur sa bouée has become a bit of local celebrity in Amiens. There are two other similar statues by the same artist placed nearby against the walls of buildings that the man in the river is looking at. If I ever got to Amiens I will look out for them all. 

After Amiens we leave Picardy behind and head into another part of France famous for its role in World War II: Normandy. So join me on the Road to Rouen. 

over the creek

LaRue Bridge UC Davis

While I’m only going to campus once a week it’s still good to track the changes going on. This bridge near my office, where LaRue crosses Putah Creek, reopened recently after a long and necessary update. So on one of those very windy days we had recently I walked over and drew it. The Robert Mondavi Institute (RMI) of Food and Wine Sciences is in the background; they have a whole beer lab, and their own research vineyard. The wind was blowing so I drew as quickly as I could and painted it in later. It was so windy I didn’t even listen to a podcast. In my last post I mentioned about all the things about podcasts that make me turn off, but didn’t mentioned what I am listening to most these days. So here goes, my current podcast list, good for listening to while sketching. I like it when a podcast is roughly 50 minutes – 1 hour long as that’s a good time for a full sketch, unless it’s a bigger more complicated one or a double-page panorama. So in no order:

(1) Adam Buxton Podcast (very funny, he did a really fun one with Paul McCartney recently but I love his specials with old comedy mate Joe Cornish); (2) You’re Dead To Me (presented by Greg Jenner, historian from Horrible Histories, another one where I really love his enthusiasm and voice and his guests again always provide a good balance for the listener, he always has a historian and a comedian and they illuminate any subject colourfully, it’s definitely a highlight when this podcast comes out) (3) Guardian Football Weekly (I really like Max Rushden as a presenter, and he makes a good-natured balance to the dour but hilarious Barry Glendenning, the grumpy wit Barney Ronay and the scholarly Sunderlander Jonathan Wilson), the only thing is I think I actually enjoyed football podcasts more last year when there was no football, and they found more interesting ways to talk about the game in general rather than analyzing the endless mill of games we have now, and I can tell they want a break from this season; (4) Totally Football Show (with James Richardson, formerly of Football Weekly but best known for Football Italia on Channel 4 in the 90s, which us 90s lads all have fond memories of, and I really love the special Golazzo podcasts he does about the great characters and teams of Italian football); (5) Jay and Miles X-Plain the X-Men (I’ve been listening to this for several years now, as they walk us through X-Men comics history,  over 300 episodes in and they have reached the late 90s and even if I am completely unfamiliar with the stories or characters they are talking about, I can’t help but be drawn in by their enthusiasm and knowledge, and audibly they make a perfect conversational balance with each other, I could listen to them both talk all day); (6) The Infinite Monkey Cage (with Brian Cox and Robin Ince, science based and with a mix of science people and comedians saying funny things (or trying to) after the science people have said the science stuff; (7) History of the English Language (Followed since episode 1, this one is right up my alley as a fellow history-of-English enthusiast); (8) Travel with Rick Steves (I like Rick and his friendly nature, and there are always a lot of interesting stories from the guests about the various places or themes they focus on, but he did lose a bit of travel-cred when he kept referring to Windsor Castle as “Windsor Palace” in one episode); (9) Join Us In France (this is presented by a French woman who lived in the US for a long time and talks about all different areas of France and French culture, and I’ve discovered a lot of places I would like to explore by listening to this); (10) Checkered Flag Podcast (This one runs during the Formula 1 season and is really just a review of what happened that race weekend, but it’s always quite fun even if the hosts tend to sometimes wind each other up a bit much). I also listen to “History Extra Podcast”, “History of the 20th Century”, “Revolutions”, “Formula 1 Beyond the Grid”, “Nessun Dorma” (about 80s/90s football), “Zonal Marking”, “Talking Comics”, “Full of Sith” (Star Wars related but the voice of one of the hosts annoys me a bit so I don’t listen often, but I love that they love the prequels), “Dan Snow’s History Hit”, “Shakespeare Unlimited”, “Grounded with Louis Theroux”, “In Our Time” (with Melvyn Bragg), “Listen Up A-Holes” (Marvel Cinematic Universe reviews, though I tend to skip past some of the long-winded stuff), “Star Talk Radio” (though Neil DeGrasse Tyson isn’t as funny as he thinks he is, nor is his comic sidekick, he does know his physics), “The Curious Cases of Rutherford and Fry” (science), and quite a lot more that I listen to occasionally. But I also just listen to music, and we’re not getting into that here. I’m thinking of starting to listen to audiobooks more as well, I do like a good story. 

But then again, when out sketching, usually I prefer to listen to the sounds of the environment around me, particularly if I am in a big city or somewhere new. The sounds make their way into the sketch. In this one though, it was the sound of the wind telling me to leave it for now and finish it up later.

Dublin Part 2: literally littered with literature

Dublin Beckett Bridge sm

Time to return to the second Shelter-In-Place sketchbook project I did, which was a short trip around Dublin in no particular direction. I drew this all in a book my friend Simon got me in Dublin, and since he ended up actually moving there this past summer I drew this in his honour, and then I mailed it over as a Christmas present recently; I hope he likes it. It’s been a while since I was last in Dublin, and it’ll be a while until I am back, but all of my grandparents (except the Belfast one) came from Dublin, and their parents, and their parents, and their parents, and so on for as long as ancestry.com can keep finding us. Lot of Scullys, Higginses, O’Donnells and other names too numerous to list. So Dublin kind of feels like home, in that special way which is completely and utterly imaginary; there are places where my dad lived in England that don’t particularly feel like home to me but places where grandparents who died before I was born, to be sure to be sure ’tis no place like wherever part of town they were from. Still I really enjoyed exploring the city virtually, and felt connections more from memories of previous visits over the course of my life than anything else. So, on which the journey! The bridge above was there when I last went, but not before. It’s the Samuel Beckett Bridge, named after surprisingly not the time-travelling Quantum Leaper but the bearded man who wrote that play with Magneto and Charles Xavier in it, En Attendant Gal Gadot. Spanning the Liffey at a wider point than many of the ones upstream, and is supposed to look like a harp on its side. It was designed by Santiago Calatrava, who also designed the Liège Guillemins station in Belgium, which I visited in 2019 (nothing I love more then a Belgian train station, but this one is pretty spectacular to look at and my friend Gerard Michel drew it in his own spectacular fashion). I liked this particular view because the sign (commonly seen around Dublin) says in Irish and English “Críoch /End”, which reminded me of Crouch End, an area where I used to live in London for a while.

Dublin Lilliput Press sm

This is the Lilliput Press, in Viking Place in the north side of Dublin. It’s an independent bookshop and publisher. My next door neighbour here in Davis told me he has been published by them (he’s from Dublin). I just liked the look of it at the end of this very Dublin road, the sort of thing I would seek out and draw. Although if I drew it in person the perspective would be slightly lower down and I might not be in the middle of the road. This is how you can tell it’s from Google Street View, they have those cameras that are higher up than human eye level. I like it when they are carried around in a backpack and you see the person’s reflection in a shop window, or when people sitting outside a pub all wave and call out, their faces erased by Google’s face-erasing tech. They have your face, it belongs to them now and you can’t have it back. Your haircut remains your own. The Lilliput Press (https://www.lilliputpress.ie/) looks interesting though (it is a Swift reference, I think it’s from his song “Lily put the kettle on”) and reminds me, I need to read more. I always forget to read books these days. We all do now don’t we, since we have those electronic face-stealing devices in our hands all the time. Yet every time I read a real actual book these days I am compelled to write, and write, and write. It probably shows then that I have not been reading enough, because I’ve not been writing. Until this week my last blog was in November, and I haven’t written my personal diary in many many months (a lot has happened in those months too, such as buying a house and the second half of the pandemic year, it’s like I’m going to need a long Star Wars opening crawl to get my diary back up to speed). Then again, I really haven’t many stories to tell, and I’m not going to tell the story of being at home during the pandemic lockdown because firstly, everyone has their own story and secondly nobody wants to hear it, or at least I don’t. Anyway back to the story about an imaginary trip around Dublin that I didn’t take this year. 

Dublin Trinity College sm

This is Trinity College Dublin. We did come here on my last visit, and it was an oasis of calm away from the very busy streets of central Dublin. Trinity College is a big important university in Dublin where very clever people work. I also work at a university with very clever people but they are pretty clever at Trinity. For example in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings, UC Davis ranks but #64 while Trinity ranks, let me have a look at the top 100 list again, ok I’ll look again later, it must be so high up I can’t find it. Wait, #155? Are you sure? That’s lower than Southampton, no disrespect to Southampton. The Sorbonne is listed at #87, tied with USTC in China (where a lot of our best Stats students in our program come from); Oxford is #1, followed by Harvard and Stanford. I’ve never been too invested in those particular rankings lists, except when I am using them to show prospective students how great we are (for example UC Davis is the #1 vet med school on Earth, and back in 2011 we were ranked as the “10th happiest college campus in America”, which meant that there were nine happier campuses, which made me feel a tiny bit sadder). Trinity is a pretty renowned research university though with a long history (and is ranked #1 in Ireland, of course). It dates back to 1592, Queen Elizabeth I opened it. It’s also where you can find the famous Book of Kells. I think I saw that on my trip here in ’97, I know that we went to the actual town of Kells, and I also read a book, so maybe my memory is playing up. The college grounds are pretty grand, but crammed right into the city centre there. I got away with drawing too much on this page by drawing one taller building, and then drawing all the other buildings smaller. However the paper being so thin, you can see the other drawings through the page. Famous alumni of Trinity include Bram Stoker, who wrote Count Dracula; Samuel Beckett, who wrote Waiting for Gal Godot; Oscar Wilde, who wrote/drew The Picture of Dory and Gray; Jonathan Swift, who wrote Gulliver’s Travels and Lily Put the Kettle On; and other people who maybe didn’t write stuff like that but were still very clever.

Dublin Gate Theatre sm

Dublin is a place full of writers though, just buckets of them, literally waste-paper-baskets full. Literary-bins. That’s why there are so many literary tours, they need people to write the guide leaflets for them all. Playwrights too, they love to wright plays, Dublin has a long tradition of the stage. The most famous theatre is the Abbey Theatre, which is the National Theatre of Ireland, but this is The Gate, which is a good theatre too. I mean it’s not the Abbey but it’s still totally fine. I admit, I don’t really know that much about Irish theatre. I have a degree in drama but I didn’t really study the history of Irish plays. Obviously I have heard of a lot of Irish dramatists, your Oscar Wildes, your Samuel Becketts (not the Quantum Leap one, the other one), your Roddy Doyles (lots of swearing, lots of “Feck This” and “Feck That”, and the other one, you know the one I mean, worse than “Feck”), your George Bernard Shaws (don’t call him George to his face, he hates it, and pronounce it BERNard nor BerNARD, and when he corrects you on his name don’t reply “are you Shaw?” because he really hates that too), your Jack Charltons (um, not Irish and not a dramatist, I just wanted to mention him here because he will come up later). Incidentally as well as “Pygmalion”, George Call-Me-Bernard Shaw also wrote “Man and Superman”, which is a prequel to Batman v Superman Dawn of Justice, before Batman became Batman and was just a crime-fighting crusader called Man. The Gate Theatre though was where many famous Irish acting people started out, your Michael Gambons (Dumbledore #2, Fantastic Mr Fox), your Geraldine Fitzgeralds (Wuthering Heights, Dark Victory, Arthur 2: On The Rocks) and your Orson Wellses (I know, not Irish, but according to Wikipedia, in 1931 while on a walking and painting trip to Ireland Orson waltzed into the Gate, still a new theatre then, and announced he was a Broadway star and that they should give him a place on the stage at once. It worked, they put him in a play as a Duke and within a year he was acting in a Somerset Maughan play at the Abbey, and by 1941 he was making Citizen Kane, so that’s a lesson for you kids right there). Drawing this, which is right past the top end of O’Connell Street, I was drawn to the spots of yellow so added those colours in. 

Dublin O Connell Street sm

Speaking of O’Connell Street (Sráid Uí Chonaill in Irish), this is the entrance of the great boulevard right down by the Liffey. The statue is of Daniel O’Connell himself, one of the greatest of all Irish political leaders from back in the 19th century. It is not Daniel O’Donnell, who is someone else entirely. I must admit, brought up with a degree of Irishness as we were in my north-west London family in the late 80s, I didn’t know who Daniel O’Connell was. I knew who Wolfe Tone was but only because we listened to the Wolfe Tones a lot. Daniel O’Donnell on the other hand well, he was much beloved by my mother and all those ladies older than her. Daniel O’Donnell records played in our house as much as anyone, the boyish Irish crooner was very popular. I like the version of him they did on Father Ted, Eoin McLove. There was a lot of Irish music in our house in the mid 80s to early 90s. We did listen to that Wolfe Tones tape over and over, but I think our favourite was the great Brendan Shine. “Catch me if you can, me name is Dan, sure I’m your man.” I did see him at the Irish festival in Southport (was he performing with Philomena Begley? I forget) but mum went to see him down at the Galtymore in Cricklewood if I remember rightly. Pretty sure she saw Daniel O’Donnell there more than once too. They liked going down to the Galty, and the Town and Country, back in the 80s. My mum and dad were very outgoing and social, much more than I’ve been as a grown up. Music was big in our house growing up though, and especially Irish music. When I learned the guitar one of the first songbooks I had was a book of Irish classics. It was written more for the piano but I just needed the words and the chord names. I always the songs liked James Connolly, The Mountains of Mourne, and The Banks Of My Own Lovely Lee. Honestly though, I really couldn’t sing for peanuts, so it was when I first heard the Pogues that I didn’t feel quite so bad. Anyway, O’Connell Street, the first time I came here as a kid I remember there was an older lady who would walk up and down smiling to the sky, oblivious to everyone, walking up a few steps, back a few more, on and on all day. My big sister pointed her out because she remembered seeing her when she came to Dublin as a kid in the 70s, and I’ve subsequently heard from other Dubliners that she walked up and down that street for years. I remember there was another character on that street she pointed out, a man who also walked up and down, but I don’t remember much about him. I’ve always found that the streets themselves are the best stage, and have the most interesting characters. Maybe I’ve just been to a lot of bad plays.

Dublin Aviva Stadium sm

And finally, a different sort of stage. This is the Aviva Stadium, aka Lansdowne Road, which is the great Irish football stadium. Not just football of course, but other sports too. Rugby, er, music, loads of sports. Not gaelic football or hurling though, as far as I’m aware, they take place at Croke Park. Among other places. I don’t really follow other sports, I’ve watched rugby a few times but my sport is football/soccer, which someone told me in Ireland was about the sixth or seventh most popular sport after gaelic football, hurling, rugby, fishing, cycling, and I don’t know, snap or snakes and ladders. I just remember lots of people supported (a) Celtic and (b) either Liverpool or Manchester Untied. My main national team is the Republic, I won five Ireland shirts compared to one England shirt (the 2010 red umbro away kit, well it is a lovely kit, though I don’t wear it that often). One of my favourite Ireland shirts is the 1995 Umbro shirt, the ‘Father Dougal’ shirt, the one Dougal wears to bed. I still have that shirt and it still fits. I remember Lansdowne Road from the great Jack Charlton era, when they were great in the late 80s / early 90s, when we were listening to a lot of Brendan Shine and Wolfe Tones and Daniel O’Donnell (well, Mum was). Jack Charlton died this year, famous World Cup winner with England and brother of the much more talented Bobby, Leeds legend and danger to ankles everywhere Jack Charlton was the man who transformed the Irish national team into one that would go to play in World Cups, partly by looking up the grandparents of half the players in the English Football League. He was a legend. My favourite moments with his team were (a) beating England in the Euro 88 (I still have the t-shirt), (b) his angry rant on the sidelines during Ireland v Mexico at USA 94, and (c) when Ireland beat Romania on penalties at Italia 90 and my Mum ran down the road screaming with joy. Also a big fan of when we beat Italy too, I still have the t-shirt celebrating that. The old Lansdowne Road was demolished and they built this great big modern stadium in its place. You might notice actually, in this little square of low-roofed houses dwarfed by the big glass spaceship that has landed behind it, there are a couple of Dublin lads playing hurling on the green. I have watched hurling a couple of times on tv as a kid, the All-Ireland Hurling Final, and witnessed the real passions this sport brings about, notably a punch-up between two pensioners in a pub in Kilburn over the result of a Galway-Tipperary game. I walked across a field of people playing it once too, which was one of the scariest moments in my life, that hurley ball looks like it’s made of concrete and flies about at several hundred miles an hour. 

And that is it for part two, join me at some point for part three, the finale.

(64) Loch Ness, (65) Inverness, and (66) John O’Groats

GB 64-66 sm Our virtual journey is at an end. The traditional end-point for the island of Great Britain is John O’Groats (or the beginning point; end, begin, all the same), and so after all the cities and dramatic valleys we end at a tiny hamlet, well less hamlet and more medallion of bacon, or lardon, on the way to the Orkneys. People walk from Land’s End to John O’Groats for charity, or to see how far it is, or just to explore a route across the island of Great Britain. I can vouch, it’s a long way, with a lot in between. You have to miss a lot out; you can’t explore Great Britain and see everything. Doing this virtually means you miss out on meeting all the people, but on the plus side you don’t have to meet as many people. I don’t think that’d be a problem up here. In Edinburgh during the Festival maybe, or London while Camden Market is on, or Manchester on a Saturday night, or Bournemouth beach after lockdown is lifted (or even before), too many people for a crowd-avoider like me. The north of Scotland is significantly less populated, though I am sure it still gets a lot of tourists.

And why not, it’s spectacular. Loch Ness is a highlight, stretching up the Great Glen and slicing Scotland in two. I have started getting very interested in the geology of Great Britain, and I bought a book all about it, and have watched some shows on YouTube that talk about it, but I feel like I still have a way to go before I can really understand it – Britain has a very deep geological history. What is now Scotland in fact was once on a different continent to England, something which can never happen again in our lifetimes, at least not geologically, though maybe geopolitically. The area that is now the border between the English and the Scots is roughly where the geological border lies. But then you have the Great Glen, up in the Highlands of Scotland, a massive deep diagonal lobotomy through the head of Great Britain. The faultline is called the Great Glen Fault, where two tectonic plates meet and move slowly in different directions. In the Ice Age huge glaciers carved up this land, and glacial erosion in the Quaternary period formed the immensely deep freshwater lake called Loch Ness. The bit I drew was of Urquart Castle, from street View (but obviously on a boat, so Loch view) (incidentally, wen you use Google Street View here the little yellow person icon changes into a green Loch Ness Monster). You’ve all heard of the Loch Ness Monster, aka Nessie. It’s a monster that looks a bit like a plesiosaur or a dragon, and has to hide with his family of other Nessies whenever those damned scientists come along (I think they’ve had enough of ‘experts’), and there’s this family who helps them out, a couple of kids and a bloke with a big bushy red beard, he plays the bagpipes to warn them I think. I saw a documentary but it’s been a really long time. Actually I did watch a movie about it called “Loch Ness” with your man from Cheers in it, I actually saw that at the cinema in 1996. Bit of a story to go with that, I was on a date in central London, and we decided to watch Loch Ness at Leicester Square. I remembered it was a fairly boring film, but we heard this loudish bang during the film, thought nothing of it. Afterwards it was freezing outside but we walked down by the Thames talking about how Loch Ness wasn’t all that, until time to go home as I had college next morning (I was heading back to north London, she to south). But then the bridges across the Thames were closed, and I was stuck. The reason the bridges were closed was because the loud bang we had heard was actually a bomb going off on a bus on Aldwych, not that far away. It was an IRA bomb, but unannounced (often there would be a phone warning in those days) – this one was being carried by the bomber but went off accidentally while he sat on the bus. There were quite a few IRA incidents in the mid 90s. So, many of the bridges were closed, meaning I was stuck on the other side of the Thames. My date’s friend was picking her up by car and offered me to stay over if need be but I really needed to get home so I could be up for college next day (I was so responsible) so I said I’d be fine. I walked for ages down the Thames until I got to a bridge that was actually open; by the time I managed to walk back up to Trafalgar Square, absolutely freezing in the light snow, it was way too late for the tube (which I assumed would be closed anyway due to the bomb, that was a thing) and wondered if I’d need to walk home (which is about a four hour walk), there was thankfully a Night Bus. The good old N5. So, when I think of the Loch Ness, I think of that freezing cold night. 

At the top of the Great Glen is Inverness. I have to say, I found it hard to find something on Street View I wanted to draw. I think I imagined more than I got, I thought maybe there’d be a great whisky shop or statue of Nessie or Ted Danson, but in the end I found this nice bridge across the water. What I really liked about it was the couple in the foreground, sat by the river, the woman’s head resting on the man’s shoulder, it just seemed warm and touching. I’ve kept in the people were I can in these drawings, because I’ve learned that geography is not just about the inanimate objects, but the inanimate human beings as well. It’s a nice view of the bridge looking over at the church, but these people give it a warmer, happier feel. Inverness is often voted the happiest place in Scotland, which makes me want to visit it more now. Apparently the accent is quite different, with none of the usual rolled ‘r’s, but the accents change as you get further north up here and can be quite different to what English or other people expect to hear from a Scottish voice. I want to travel just to hear all these accents, as interesting as differences in geology. Inverness historically was a stronghold of Gaelic speakers too, though use of the native language has dwindled over the years. Scottish Gaelic is similar linguistically to Irish and Manx, and also related to Welsh, Cornish and Breton, the Celtic languages. I know a little Irish, just a few phrases really (nobody in my Irish family spoke it), but the only thing I ever learned in Scottish Gaelic was “Alba gu bràth” which means something like “Scotland forever”. 

We can’t stay in Inverness forever, so time for the sixty-sixth and final stop on this long journey, John O’Groats. As mentioned this is where charity walkers like to start or finish. The spot I chose to draw is right by the edge of the sea, at the little harbour where you catch the ferry to the Orkneys. The town is apparently named after an old Dutch ferryman. There’s not much here, but it’s the knowledge that you’re right at the tip of this big island with thousands of years of history and culture behind you. It’s been a fun journey, I hope to do it in person someday, but for now I’m at the desk in my house in California, the air quality from the wildfire smoke still making it hard to breath outside, a global pandemic making everything difficult, my son just started his first day of Junior High, all completely remote, and we had no big summer travels this year for the first time in ages. I suppose it’s good, we can sit at home and see the world in other ways, but we are looking through a keyhole, seeing only the bits we want to see, not hearing any real voices, or accents, not smelling the air or tasting the food, not getting a chill from a North Sea breeze or drenched in a Mancunian downpour or sun-burned on a Cornish beach, no exhaustion from climbing steep hills in Bristol or Edinburgh, no rushing to finish my sketch so I don’t miss the last bus out of Portmeirion. I should write a final page to close out the book, that I will keep to myself; I’ve left it blank. Anyway I hope you’ve enjoyed the journey, even the long rambly often nonsensical and sometimes made-up-ish posts that go with them. If I ever do exhibit shows again this will be a fun curio to look at, of a virtual journey in a year when were were told to stay home. What a bloody year. I hope next year is better than this.   

(59) Edinburgh, and (60) Forth Bridge

GB 59-60 sm And so on to another spread that I really enjoyed drawing; I really like the spreads that have a big bridge spanning across the pages. I won’t try to do a Scottish accent, though if I am around Scots for a little while I find myself picking up little bits here and there in a way that has never happened while living in America. I can’t do an American accent to save my life, no matter how hard I try I always sound like John Wayne, or one of those 1930s gangsters (“maaaaaah, he’s a wise guy, seeee”). But I remember hanging around with my Glaswegian friend when I was a kid and my vowels would start changing without me noticing, I would say “Scaw’land”, and put “see me” at the start of sentences. I’ve never spent any real time in Scotland to see if I would pick up an accent but if my wife had been Caledonia rather than Californian, born in Rutherglen rather than Riverside, I might have ended up owning more raincoats and rolling my “r”s by now. Who knows. My London friends probably do think I sound American now and I just don’t realize it, just because I’ll say “sidewalk” occasionally, or “yeehaw” or “quit the lollygaggin, sheee, shtick em up, you doity rat, sheeee”. 

And so to Edinburgh, capital of Scotland. I have been to Edinburgh in 1999 for the Festival, with my university’s theatre company. I wasn’t acting, no I was doing technical stuff, lighting (trying to figure out the complicated lighting deck which occasionally didn’t work for me) and sound (pressing play and pause on a minidisk player, significantly easier). It was a very drinky-stay-out-late time, as is not unusual during the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, but I found the event a bit too overpopulated for my liking. My favourite bits were just going up that big hill and looking over the city in peace, as the sun went down. I remember going to see one comedian who was from South London or somewhere, who told a joke I still remember, he said that they have gangs in Edinburgh, but up here they have drive-by headbuttings. A few people laughed. Best show I saw was a crazy version of Ubu Roi (in English) at the theatre we were based in, I recall going on a pub crawl with most of the cast afterwards. Acting and performing friends love Edinburgh, it’s a big time for them, especially if trying out new shows. I would like to go back and see my friend Simon perform there some day when he gets back there, but I really don’t like being somewhere like that when it’s so crowded; this year of course coronavirus did for it, but I hope that the theatre industry can bounce back from all this. Edinburgh is an attractive place, lots of dramatic scenery, quite a diverse city, and one i’d like to go to at a more normal time. I think I applied there for university when I was doing A-Levels, but ended up going to Queen Mary in London. I didn’t get into Edinburgh, the only place I didn’t get an offer, but looking at my UCAS form afterwards it looks like I applied for the MA rather than the BA; the Scottish universities were a bit confusing. Scotland’s education system is a bit different from England and Wales – a little ahead, if the Scottish kids in our school were to be believed – and the legal system is also different. The money is different too – it’s pound sterling but the banknotes are issued by the Royal Bank of Scotland, not the Bank of England, and don’t have the Queen on them. I’d love to come and draw Edinburgh, but honestly, I’d be coming for this bridge.

The Forth Bridge, going over the massive Firth of Forth, is one of my favourite bridges. Even looking at the picture in Google Street View, I really had to study all the metal girders (pronounced “gar’dahs”, or however it was pronounced in the Irn Bru adverts) (similar to the way Taggart would pronounce ‘murder’, “Sir, there’s been anuthah mur’dah”). It’s a beauty of a bridge. You can’t really tell here but it’s red. It’s a railway bridge; there is aq different one for cars, which is more boring. I mean it’s ok, looks a bit like the older stretch of the Bay Bridge in San Francisco, but next to the rail bridge it’s very much the bass player nobody cares about, or Simon Le Bon. Or the less funny member of a comedy double act. I bet many comedy double acts came to Edinburgh over the years and came out here, and one of them knew they were the rail bridge, and the other knew they’d always be the road bridge. So, the Firth of Forth goes over to Fife. I’m not making that up. If you speak with a London accent as I do, switching your ‘th’ sounds to ‘f’ sounds, that’s a lot of ‘f’s all in one place, faffing about. “Fifty-five thieves in the Firth of Forth near Fife”. I need a glass of water. Speaking of girders though, I used to really like Irn Bru when I was a kid. You don’t see it over here, except on rare occasions like at the Scottish Games (they used to hold that in Woodland, all bagpipes and caber tossing), though I last had some at a Scottish food cart in Portland. It’s quite a sugary fizzy drink, some people call it Scotland’s national drink (after Whisky) (and Buckfast).

We move northwards through Scotland for two more spreads, before we will finally finish our virtual journey around Great Britain. I don’t really like whisky so I’ll need to find some virtual Irn Bru, shortbread, and deep-fried Mars bars for the last legs as we head into Dundee, home of the Beano, St Andrews, birthplace of golf, and the granite city, Aberdeen. 

(55) Sunderland, and (56) Newcastle-upon-Tyne

GB 55-56 sm

Howay man, wey aye pet, gannin reet op to NewCAStle noo! Apologies for my terrible attempt at a Newcastle “Geordie” accent, I definitely can’t do one in real life, though two of my best friends were born in the northeast, one in Sunderland and one in Newcastle (though they grew up in London so they have Tottenham and Harrow accents respectively). The Newcastle mate, Simon, can do a great Geordie accent though and comes back up here regularly, and I’d never be able to go there without him, this is very much his toon. I have never been to the north-east of England, not beyond Whitby, it really does feel like a different country to me, and the language spoken, it is English but the dialect sounds very different to mine from daahn saahf. It can be beautiful in its intonation, though growing up for me I associated it with two very specific TV programs – Byker Grove, and Auf Wiedersehen, Pet. There was Jossy’s Giants as well, but I only remember the theme tune now and not a lot else. I must say, I am very pleased with how this page turned out, it might be my favourite spread. I would love to stand beneath the real bridges and draw that angle. But I’d have to go with Simon, and I’d never attempt the accent in real life.

So first up on this North-Eastern leg, Sunderland. I liked this view of the Empire Theater and a pub with a big advert for Newcastle Ales on the side of it. Sunderland didn’t look like the prettiest city from my virtual tour view, I’ll be honest, but it had a charm about it that felt familiar to me. The name of the town reminds me of the Dark Crystal, “What was sundered and undone”, well that’s where the name came from, not the dark Crystal, but the word “sunder”. The land on the other side of the river Wear was separated or ‘sundered’ from the monastery on the other side at Monkwearmouth. That monastery was filled with Mystics, while Sunderland became filled with Skeksis who lived at Roker Park, and at first the Skeksis gave all the local Gelflings jobs, working in the palace as guards or looking after the coaches, until eventually they discovered that if you drain the essence from a Gelfling it makes you look a bit younger, so they just started draining all the Gelfling’s essence until all the Gelflings were dead, except two who were hidden away, only to come back and heal the Crystal reuniting the Skeksis with the Mystics to create a race of beings called the Mackems. Their new local football stadium was henceforth called the Stadium of Light. This is a true story, no need to look it up, definitely not made up. Speaking of football, the local team has been the subject of a Netflix series called “Sunderland ’til I die”, which I’ve seen some of, but I think they edited out all of the Skeksis but probably should have left the Podlings in, they might have done better on the pitch. Still, bit of a grim name, “Sunderland ’til I die”, perhaps they should call it “Sunderland ’til I get reunited with my evil other half and fly off into space to live forever”. Now, you may not know, but the town of Washington, which is within Sunderland, is the ancestral family home of one George Washington, the tall man that was in the musical Hamilton; he was Hamilton’s boss.

And so on to Newcastle-upon-Tyne. I like drawing bridges, and this place has bridges. Newcastle is a big port city, important for the coal industry historically, and a long tradition of ship-building on the Tyne. For those who don’t know, that is the river, the Tyne. There’s also a famous song by Lindisfarne called “Fog on the Tyne”, which famous Geordie son Gazza “Paul” Gascoigne re-released when asked to bring out a music video making sure people knew he was a Geordie in case they were not aware. Fellow North-Easter who played for Newcastle and Spurs, Chris Waddle, also tried his hand as a pop star alongside Glenn Hoddle in the mid 80s, with the most cringeworthy record of a cringeworthy time, “Diamond Lights”. I am still embarrassed to have ever watched the video for that. I’ve mentioned the word “Geordie” a few times as a descriptive name for people from Newcastle, that is like “Scouser” for Liverpool, “Cockney” for London, “Brummie” for Birmingham and “Someone from Bristol” for Bristol. The most famous Geordies in the world are Ant and/or Dec. They started out as PJ and/or Duncan, characters from Byker Byker Byker Byker Grove, with a hit song called “Let’s Get Ready To Rumble”, which was a good bit better than Fog on the Tyne, and light years better than Diamond Lights. They went on to become Britain’s most beloved TV presenters with their cheeky little faces and most famously presented the Jungle reality series “I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here!” which recreates the real situation of famous people being put in a tropical situation to talk behind each others backs, eat insects, and become more famous for that than anything they ever did. The other most famous Geordies in the world are Sting and Jimmy Nail, both named after things with sharp points. Mark Knopfler from Dire Straits is also a local Geordie and they play some of his music before Newcastle United games. That’s the big black and white striped football team from up here, with long suffering but very vocal fans. One of the best periods of football from them in my lifetime was the mid 90s when they came very close to winning the Premier League, under the great little North-East lad Kevin Keegan, a hero of mine. I met him in Charleroi when he was England manager, he signed my diary. But without doubt one of the best things to come out of Newcastle is the comic magazine Viz. Biffa Bacon, Billy the Fish, Finbarr Saunders, though I always liked the letters pages, and the Top Tips. It’s still going now, but I used to read it when my brother would buy it in the late 80s, and it’s from there that I learned all the Geordie words that I cannot say in real life.

Also coming out of Newcastle is Hadrian’s Wall, the Roman barrier between the Empire and the wild world beyond, and that is our next stop. I might take a break from posting while I catch up with some of my other sketches, though I’ve not been drawing that much lately. But the next spread will take us into the country of Scotland, the last leg of the virtual journey…

(29) Menai Bridge, and (30) Conwy

GB 29-30 sm
The last of the Welsh trilogy brings us right up to North Wales, although I wish I’d made space for the interior. I had to weigh up whether I needed to include Wrexham, but later on leave out Sunderland? It’s a weighty issue, and I’d only be including Wrexham because they knocked Arsenal out of the FA Cup that one time. I really enjoyed this spread though, I hope it shows. It was a very enjoyable virtual journey, very peaceful. It was still a couple of days or so before our flood, when I was still at the desk downstairs, and so it’s funny that two bridges ended up on these pages. Or not. But I imagined myself walking these areas, like Tony Robinson in that TV series I have watched a lot of lately. I’ve been thinking a lot about walking the UK, planning out hikes, right down to deciding which walking poles to bring. Of course I would need to factor in sketching time, so each walk would take a lot longer, but I draw pretty fast, and can always do half and finish the rest at the local pub in the evening, listening away for accents and dialects. I studied the history of the English language, and one of my popular-academic linguistic heroes lives up this way, David Crystal, on Anglesey. I have read many of his books, and I’ve always wanted to meet him and talk language and its history and future with him.

So, let’s have a butcher’s at the first drawing then, this is the mighty Menai Suspension Bridge, which crosses high above the Menai Strait that separates the mainland from the island of Anglesey (Ynys Môn in Welsh). The bridge was built by the great civil engineer and architect Thomas Telford and was opened in 1826, and the road that goes across it is actually the A5 – the very same road that links up what we call Watling Street, although that Roman road did not come out this far, although in that Watling Street book I started reading the author does continue past Wroxeter and up to Holyhead, but fails to talk about this amazing bridge. So technically this links it up with the first spread of the book. Now, this sketch was drawn on the Anglesey side of the Menai Strait, so technically it is not on the island of Great Britain – exception to the rule – but you can see the island of Great Britain in the drawing so no rules broken. The name “Anglesey” is likely of Viking origin, but the best place name on the island is unmistakably Welsh: Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch. It means “Stmaryschurchinthehollowofthewhitehazelneartotherapidwhirlpoolofllantysiliooftheredcave”, which is easy for you to say. It’s where you go to take a picture of the train station sign using panoramic mode on your phone. I have to go there.

It’s North Wales, so another castle was needed, and I like the one in Conwy, mostly because Caernarfon would mean backtracking again, and I’d already done that, or putting the first sketch on the bottom of a spread, and I had done that already. I’m trying to make the book interesting to pick up and look through. Not that I have any interest in publishing, this is just a curio to bring to events in future, but it’s good to mix it up. I get it right a few more times, and less right on a couple, but mostly I’m very happy with the spreads from Wales onwards, and this one more than most. I love a bridge, I love a castle. So for Conwy I needed to find a good angle, and so I went across the River Conwy and found a nice spot next to a little cottage, I can imagine standing here sketching, maybe with the brolly sticking out my coat, saying hello to a local old fellow who passed me by, and nodding while I pretended to understand what he was saying to me, and complementing him on the beautiful countryside as if he was personally responsible for it, and him telling me something about how when he was a kid he’d catch cockles and cook them up for breakfast but that his grandkids just want to listen to records and go to London and work at desks, but they come back for Christmas and they always want cockles for breakfast, but I’m a bit old to get out there now with my back the way it is. Nice chap, this completely imaginary passer-by. Now the castle itself is another one built by Patrick McGoohan from Braveheart, and it is a World Heritage Site. It is a proper example of a proper castle, one that if you have kids and they like castles you should take them to this one.

There’s a lot more in North Wales to draw – coastal towns like Llandudno, which always reminds me of Neville Southall, the great Wales and Everton goalie (and a great follow on Twitter), the peaks and valleys of Snowdonia, and resort towns like Rhyl to draw caravan parks, chalets and chip shops. But as it is, we had to get back to England, to the Midlands, to draw yet another bridge – the very first one made of cast iron…

Amsterdam Afterwards

Amsterdam Herengracht bridge Sunday sm
The Symposium finished, people went there separate ways, some together, some sticking about in Amsterdam, and I decided to have a lie in and a late start for a day of wandering and sketching some of the parts of the city I hadn’t explored much yet. My family were arriving in town later that day so I had a lot of time for some more sketching before the full-on tourist part of the trip started. The temperatures had dropped, the skies started to cloud up a little, it was still busy out but I finally had a bit of headspace. I walked over to Herengracht and sat down by the canal to draw this bridge. I saw a few other sketchers here and there, nobody I knew, but we know we’re all in the sketching family so there’s usually a nod of respect.
Amsterdam Leliegracht and Keizersgracht sm
I really like this particular junction at the corner of Leliegracht and Keizersgracht. Amsterdam has a lot of charm. I think I didn’t love Amsterdam, overall, it felt a little stressful with the tight sidewalks and cyclists, the tourists and the partygoers, and the dirt, far too many cigarette butts on the ground, but there is no denying Amsterdam is still beautiful, and so unlike many other cities. The first time I came to Amsterdam in the summer of 1998 I had the same impression, though I had also spent all night on a train from Berlin. There is so much to search though, no shortage of places to explore. I mooched around bookshops, tried samples in cheese shops, got lost in alleys and small squares, or as lost as my map-enable apple watch would let me. This side of the city west of Damrak is full of postcard views and long canal vistas. I knew I’d come back so I wandered back toward the Centraal Station area (perhaps my least favourite station area), had a look around the football-themed store Copa (perhaps my most favourite store in Amsterdam), buying two pairs of socks, one which features Diego Maradona doing the ‘Hand of God’ in 1986, and Zidane headbutting Materazzi in the 2006 world cup final, and went to meet up with my family. The next couple of days here would be doing more of the tourist stuff – a boat trip around the canals, Anne Frank’s house, the Van Gogh Museum, and a change of hotel.
Amsterdam Graffiti Fish Stand sm
Here are a couple of sketches I did near the Centraal station. Teh lamp-post thing below looks like some kind of city warning against public drunkenness.
Amsterdam Lamp-post sm
Amsterdam Spui sm

I didn’t sketch as much once the family arrived, just a few here and there, I think I had earned the break. Above is a quick one I drew at Spui while eating Flemish Frites (see below, they were delicious). I can’t reiterate how much I love the frites over here, they do taste delicious.

I did try to do a quick sketch of the tall houses at Damrak one evening, just to mess about with some of the new materials we were given at the symposium.Not my usueal sketching but fun to mess about.
Amsterdam Buildings Damrak sm
Amsterdam Buildings in Blue sm
Below, I drank a beer called “Bastaard” by Hertog Jan while we had an Indonesian meal at Kantjil by Spui. Sketching with pencil can get messy as you can see by the filthy page.
Amsterdam Kantjil beer
And here is one of the little tiny toy cars they have here in Amsterdam to get around the super narrow streets. I never did sketch one; I asked Lapin who loves to sketch cars if he was going to add one to his collection, but even he said no, that’s no car. Look at it, it’s like something from Richard Scarry. I expected another one to come along looking like a big carved out apple , and a pencil and a banana.

IMG_4512

I did change hotels when my family arrived, moving from the Grand Amrâth to the Doubletree, which my wife had booked (she got a really good deal). It was a nice hotel for sure, very modern, with amazing views over the city, but zero of the character of the Grand Amrâth. But these views! I had to sketch it. I did go up to the rooftop lounge to look over the city, but I did not want to sketch up there, it wasn’t really my thing to hang out there. The Doubletree hotel is right across the canal from the Grand Amrâth so we could see the whole building in all its glory from across the water, and I would get up for a run past it, and some of that lovely fresh juice from a nearby supermarket. I miss all the nice juices and foods from Holland. I would like to come back and explore more of the Netherlands. The Dutch people I met at the symposium came from all over and there are so many places I know not that much about. Aaargh, the world is so big, there is so much I want to see before I’m done. I want to see it all, and sketch it all.
Amsterdam View from Doubletree sm
But I was done with Amsterdam, we all were. Time to move on, time to go back to Belgium and eat some more frites and waffles. But the heatwave wasn’t done with us yet. We went to get our Thalys but of course, there were cancellations and delays, hung over from the travel chaos a week before. We waited and waited, a few hours with hundreds of others, until in the end a Thalys came and everyone was lucky to get on. But we had first class reservations (a good call as it turns out, for very little more cost) and so I was given a couple of free Belgian beers (a couple of cans of Leffe Blonde) in our carriage for the journey. It was all a bit stressful at the time, but I’m usually travel lucky, it all works out in the end. When life gives you lemons, draw in your sketchbook and be patient, and life will eventually give you Leffe. Onwards to Brussels!
Amsterdam Waiting for Thalys sm