I sketched you in a bar down in old Soho

Old Coffee House pub

And so to the last night in England. It was an emotional trip, quick and busy, spent time with family, and friends, and places that I love. The last night there was just mine, all mine. I got back to Burnt Oak and watched old Alan Partridge shows on Netflix while packing my bag, never an easy task after even a short trip, what with all the various books (so many books) and new football shirts (more than one) and Cadbury’s cake bars and packs of Bisto gravy and Topic bars and whatever else I had to get. there was a lot I didn’t pick up. I didn’t get any Daddy’s Sauce, which I adore and am currently out of. For those who don’t know, Daddy’s is a brown sauce very similar to HP but less spicy and just tastes like home. I ate a Pot Noodle for dinner. I have not had a Pot Noodle for quite a long time. They seem a little less satisfying than I remember. I loved them when I was 14. I didn’t intend on ti being for dinner this time, but I left it a bit late to get much else when I finally finished packing my bag and venture back out into London one last time. I had a very early start the next morning and didn’t want to do any last-minute packing. So, I was along in London. I thought I might get some food and sketch an old pub. I wasn’t sure where I would go. London is vast and full of possibilities. I got off the train at Camden Town thinking, I could grab a curry at Masala Zone and then go up to sketch the Steele’s at Chalk Farm. But then at the last second I decided to jump back on the same tube because my head said, “you always go to Camden! Do that another time. London is yours!” So in the spirit of revisiting my youth, I got out at Tottenham Court Road instead. That was always my destination station whenever I would go into London as a teenager. It was right next to the Virgin Megastore – now long gone. It was also right next to the Hellfire Club, where as a 19-20 year old I would jump up and down to loud music with a group of international friends – also now long gone. In fact the station is completely different to the one from the 90s, having undergone a total transformation and rebuild in the past few years. All the old shortcuts are gone, and it’s a large, modern and open station now, not the cramped yellowing ticket hall of the past. I ended up not eating dinner, because I could not find somewhere that I fancied, and I wandered about Soho remembering all the old shortcuts that are thankfully still there. I passed by the Old Coffee House, a pub I have enjoyed a few fun evenings in with friends, one that I have tried to sketch before but at a time without pub-sketching confidence, and I saw through the window that there was a nice seat at the corner of the bar with a perfect panorama sketching view. That seat was mine. I would eat Dry Roasted Peanuts for dinner, hunger be damned.

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You’ll need to click on the sketch at the top of this post to see it in closer detail (it’ll take you to the Flickr site). As I sketched, I tried a couple of different beers, supplied by a local brewer, Brodies. The first was the Piccadilly Pale Ale, the second and third were the Old Street Pale Ale. I did all the ink at the bar, but added the watercolour paint on the plane next morning (my Stillman & Birn ‘Alpha’ sketchbook being exactly the same width as my Virgin Atlantic economy seat). The bar staff were friendly, and the pub was chilled out. Oh except for the bar fight which broke out behind me. I have discovered that I can apparently sketch undisturbed while a bar fight happens around me, looking up occasionally before getting back to work. Now don’t imagine a long Wild-West style mass brawl, it was more of a few seconds of pushing before a quick “break it up, boys”. There was a group of lads out on a jolly, very drunk and celebrating some birthday or other. I say ‘very drunk’ but it was varying degrees of drunkenness, ranging from ‘friendly and convivial’ to ‘barely able to speak or stand’, with a range of performative drunkenness in between. Two of them for example were enacting a bullfight in the bar, another was sat down loudly singing to a couple of ladies (he was one of the louder ones, but actually he had a very good singing voice), and then one lad who would drunkenly go and sit with random people who would grin and nod a lot back before he sat down with the wrong group of people, one of whom got angry at something or other and they started scuffling, a glass broke, the drunken guy was whisked away and I turned to see one offended young man displaying the classic pose of “hold me back, hold me back”. I didn’t see much more because I was zen-posed with my sketchbook, working to a tight schedule, I had a plane to catch in the morning. The kerfuffles were quickly dealt with by the, I must say, very capable and calming pub staff, who’ve seen it all before I am sure. There was none of that macho make-it-all-worse strutting. The large partying group departed, the broken glass cleaned up, the “hold me back” guy went calmly back to his fresh pint, and the evening went on. I’ve always quite enjoyed this pub, in a little corner of Soho near Carnaby Street, and have been here many times with friends, going back to the 1990s, so I was glad to finally get a sketch of the place. Drawing a pub with lots of details inevitably means you get some wrong, and in this case I drew one too many frames on the wall above the main bar area. You won’t notice, of course. I also drew one person twice. He was standing at the bar waiting for a drink, and then afterwards he had his jacket off and was sat with a woman enjoying conversation. His hair somehow went from black to brown as well but I blame the lighting, not my urban sketching skills. The world is as you see it at that moment (and that of course can change by the third pint).

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Seen through the window of a barbers in Soho. A popular night-time photo opportunity.

As it turns out it, I witnessed two bar fights that night. Typical London, you don’t see one for years and years and then two show up at once. On my way back to the station I popped into another old favourite, The Ship, for a quick pint of London Pride. As I was leaving, it seemed a ruck had broken out just outside between two people who had been in the pub, which was being broken apart by excited pub staff, and people were being directed away from it (so that they could stop and watch, as of course you would do). One rutting stag showed us the true meaning of “hold me back, hold me back”, and did some of the best “hold me back” moves I have ever seen, getting absolutely no fighting done whatsoever, while the main belligerent was drunkenly trying to pick up those metal poles that hold up barriers and swing it around like a broadsword. Maybe someone had asked if he wanted to go clubbing and his Google Translate had mis-google-translated. Security staff did that thing where they multiply, and both men were held back, and the audience started ambling off, as did I, because I had a plane to catch. An entertaining last night in London.

Brick Lane

Brick Lane, London
I had to go to Brick Lane. I used to come here twenty years ago when I was a student at Queen Mary, in nearby Mile End, usually after performing in a play, for curry and fairly decent amounts of wine or beer. This time I wasn’t here for curry (much as I wanted some), no this time I was here for Classic Football Shirts. I’ve followed Classic Football Shirts online a for a few years, they sell old football shirts, and last year after they had an exhibition in London I visited their pop-up store in Shoreditch. Now they have a more regular store in Brick Lane, well organized and full of absolute gems. A real treasure-trove of old footy kits, which for someone like me who is obsessed with them is the best thing ever. Most of the really interesting old ones were a bit out of my budget (tempted though I was by the early 1990s Northern Ireland Umbro kit with the weird triangular pattern, and the light blue Spurs 1992 third kit), but I did pick up for twenty quid an Accra Hearts of Oak home kit from Ghana, which I’d been looking for. I like their stripes. Contented with all football kit conversation with one of the guys who run the place, I started to head off back to Burnt Oak, but decided that I could not leave without a sketch. It was a lovely day to be out and about. So I stood on the corner of Hanbury Street and drew. There are lots of artistic murals and colourful shop fronts around here now. I walked through Spitalfields on the way back to Liverpool Street tube, the whole area being very, very different from when I was last here in 2013 for the Jack the Ripper sketchcrawl (it was that long ago? I’m going to have to do a sketchcrawl commemorating the sketchcrawl). And of course, all the new skyscrapers that have sprouted up in the past decade or so, I did one very quick sketch in pencil, and I was going to add paint (not ink) but ended up not doing so. London’s great, isn’t it. I could draw every inch of it, given the chance.

City of London in pencil

 

The South Bank Show

South Bank Feb2019
Every time I go back to London, my family members have grown older, a little bit. With the adults it’s slower, less noticeable, while with the children it’s a much more visible change. I am now the classic “look how tall you are!” uncle. My uncle jokes are also the best uncle jokes in the world. I too have grown; not taller, rather I have encroached into traditional green belt lands. See, uncle jokes. London on the other hand changes faster than I can think. When I left in 2005, the Gherkin (aka ‘the Erotic Gherkin’) was still the new shocking addition to the City’s skyline, pointing like a stubby fishnet bullet at the sky. The older NatWest building still dominated the Square Mile, sufficiently far from the unchanging dome of St. Paul’s (though that too has changed since I left, having been scrubbed of its layer of grey pollution-particles, so much it now gleams as Wren intended). One by one newer buildings started to be approved, all with their pre-approved nicknames: the Heron, the Walkie-Talkie, the Cheesegrater, the Shard, the Dodger’s Kerchief, the Ocelot Spleen, the Snood, and of course the Wizard’s Winkle. I might have made some of those up but you would be hard pressed to figure out which. London’s skyline is starting to resemble less a city and more a manual of Yoga positions. I don’t even know what some of the new ones being built are called (if only there was some way of finding out, some kind of instant source of all global information right at my fingertips!), but change is a good thing, I suppose. I never wanted London to stand still and miss me after I moved away, I wanted London to enjoy its life, meet other buildings, move on.
View from Tate Modern Feb2019

It was a lovely day when I went out sketching on the banks of the Thames. I miss the Thames more than I miss any part of London. I don’t have a Thames here in Davis. I used to come down to the Thames to have a look at it, and contemplate, and be pensive. Sounds stupid now I say it like that. You know like in films and TV shows when the main character has a lot on their mind and they go and look at the Hudson River or stand on the pier at Coney Island (all films and TV shows are set in New York), that was me, coming to the Thames, standing on the South Bank near Waterloo, looking at the Thames. I think I just like watching water move from left to right. Maybe it reminds me of the old Thames Television screen, which would come on just before Rainbow, and I always liked Rainbow. Geoffrey out of rainbow died recently. I met him when I was a kid, at Brentford’s football ground, he drew me a picture of Zippy. It wasn’t a super detailed picture of Zippy but I could tell it was meant to be Zippy. Unless it was meant to be a picture of himself and I misinterpreted it, or a picture of me. Either way, I always wondered what Zippy would be like as a modern-day politician. Yes, it is extremely easy to imagine that isn’t it (it’s even easier to imagine Bungle). When Boris Johnson became Mayor of London years ago I drew a picture of Zippy with Boris Johnson’s hair. A few years later, Johnson and his friend Joanna ‘George’ Lumley, had this crazy idea of building a new bridge across the Thames, right at the spot where I drew the sketch above. It was to be a ‘Garden Bridge’, covered in trees and plants and closed at night and on special corporate events such as when Rod Jane and Freddy would need to perform their Greatest Hits. If I recall, the plan was to build it “up above the streets and houses, everyone can see it smiling over the sky”. Being pedestrian only, it would not alleviate traffic, It would require cutting down scores of trees on the South Bank as well as blocking the view of the city with all its Yoga-position skyscrapers from much of the South Bank and Waterloo Bridge. Change is a good thing I suppose, but this was a change that really didn’t need to happen, at least not right here. When the pedestrian Millennium Bridge was built, it was visually unobtrusive and also in a place that had needed a crossing connecting St Paul’s with the new Tate Modern and Shakespeare’s Globe (I well remember the circuitous routes before). Also, it wobbled, meaning those crafty Cockneys could re-christen it the ‘Wobbly Bridge’, calling it that for many years even after the Wobble had been fixed and the joke had really lost its steam. The Garden Bridge was an expensive vanity project that probably wouldn’t even wobble. In the end, after millions being spent and many Bungles, the Garden Bridge was finally scrapped. I’m glad, and I think Geoffrey would have been glad too.

I sat on a bench by the Thames and drew in the sunshine. It’s one of my favourite spots in the whole world, even with the growing metropolis sprouting up across the river. A man stopped to have a look at my sketch, enthusiastically asking me what I do with them. “I colour them in,” I said, and he laughed. People often ask what my sketches are for, which is a fair question, since they could be for sale or to make into postcards or maybe I am out looking for views to dismantle with expensive vanity projects, but the answer is always the same – it’s because I love to draw. I just love drawing, so I have to just keep drawing. This city is worth drawing and drawing and drawing, and then drawing more. This city changes so quickly. After this sketch, I went to the Tate Modern and up to the tenth floor of that new building next door, to sketch the City from above. That is one of my favourite new viewing spots in London, although the crowded elevator means you need to book some additional vacation time if you want to go up there. I decided to colour in only the sky and the river, leaving the city itself uncoloured like in the opening credits of a certain TV show I used to watch as a kid, the large tower of Tate Modern in the foreground. Tate Modern used to be Bankside Power Station, designed by the same guy who made the phone box (I’ve talked about him before). I love listening to tourists talking to each other when visiting London, hearing their enthusiasm for the city. As I looked out over the skycrapers I though about the previous times I had sketched it, and as I sketched I thought that this would be a very good point to include some of those older sketches in this part of the blog post. I hope you have enjoyed this little trip to the South Bank with me. Next time I go back, it will look different again.

take me down to the riverover the thames to cannon street
by the banks of the thamesSt Pauls from Tate Modern
Waterloo panorama
The River Thames

seeking out the ship and shovell

Ship and Shovell, London
This is the Ship and Shovell pub in Charing Cross, a well-hidden mystery of a pub I had never known existed, like a character in a long-running TV show that shows up and everyone acts as if they had been there all the time. I had intended to colour this in, with its bright red barrels and atmospheric early morning lighting, but I never got time and I wanted to show it to you quickly. These days so many London pubs are under threat and you never know how long they will be there. The Ship and Shovell, not ‘Shovel’, but ‘Shovell’. Probably after Admiral Sir Cloudesley Shovell, his picture is in the sign (I didn’t draw him). The Ship and Shovell is found in Craven Passage, right behind Charing Cross Station, next to a tunnel that leads down to Villiers Street – I had never taken that tunnel before, just assuming it plops out unassumingly into Northumberland Avenue. In fact just a short block further is the Sherlock Holmes pub which I have been to. London is a place that is always worth exploring. Around the corner is the house where Benjamin Franklin used to live, which is called the Benjamin Franklin house, I’m assuming that’s no coincidence. I knew nothing of the existence of this pub – it’s not like I know every pub in London – until I saw a photo recently on one of those historic London Twitter feeds that you follow for old photos and stories, some of them are good. Some of them do attract the overly nostalgic commenters, if you get my drift, the “it was better before all the [insert xenophobic descriptive here] moved in” lot. I left several Facebook groups because of that, my reasoning being “it was better before all the xenophobes moved in”. Most however just like to reveal old London’s historic gems. I assumed this pub was long-gone, another casualty of six-quid pints and predatory property pirates, a blurred photo from the sixties, villains and rakes and lost tourists from Nebraska, “Underneaf the Arches”, “Roll Aht the Barrels” and “Let’s All Go Dahn the Strand”, but no, it’s very much still there, hiding away, having a banana. What is most interesting about the Ship and Shovell is that, as you can see, it’s actually two pubs rolled in one, split down the middle by Craven Passage. It’s joined by the cellars, but otherwise may as well be two pubs. As far as I can tell, one side isn’t the Ship and the other the Shovell, though I bet regulars have their preference. It was too early for me to go in and sketch inside. I left the house at 8am so was sketching this by 9, when people were still on their way to work. It was a bright morning, not very cold, and I was glad to have sought out and found this little red jewel. Some day I will pop in for a pint. Or maybe, half a pint in each side.
Map to Ship and Shovell

how to sketch in the rain

St Martins Lane, London
The weather was lovely while I was in England. Sunny, unseasonably warm for February, nothing like the huge storms I had left behind in California. Only one day was different, when some rain showers came down on the Monday, but that was my designated all-day-sketching-day so I was not letting that stop me. It was President’s Day in the US as well, so an official day off. I had my extendable London Underground umbrella and my AYSO soccer ‘Coach Pete’ raincoat, so I put the umbrella into my jacket firmly, rested the top on my head, and it stayed in place, keeping my sketching-zone dry. Totally worked! I’ll be doing this from now on. I drew a diagram below. It’s a little bit wrong though because the umbrella did not poke out of my jacket, I should have crossed that out or something. Ah well, do what works for you. Anyway, after sketching and exploring Westminster, I popped over to Leicester Square/Covent Garden to do some shopping in my favourite spots, and of course more sketching. Above, the view down St Martin’s Lane, one of my favourite scenes of London. I didn’t get the view which includes St. Martins-in-the-Fields itself, but the globe-topped English National Opera is visible.
Rain sketcher
I needed to visit my favourite map shop, Stanford’s. I love maps and travel books and I’ve been going there since I was a teenager, and I got there and IT WAS GONE! But not gone for good. It had just moved. I needed to read the map carefully to find the new location (just around the corner, but even to the well-trained Covent Gardener it can be a bit easy to get lost around there), but I found it and spent some good time looking at maps. I went to a few other places, and then at the end of the day I popped into the Nag’s Head opposite Covent Garden Station for a pint and a final sketch. The other way to sketch in the rain, you see, is to just pop into the pub where it is dry and sketch in there. It’s a good tip. The pub was filling up with tourists, tired after a day of London. They do nice McMullen’s beer here, from Hertford. I chickened out of drawing the detailed tile pattern on the floor. When I was done, it was back into the rush hour tube and back to Burnt Oak for dinner.
Nags Head Covent Garden

 

Westminster Cathedral, stripes and domes

Westminster cathedral , London
The only rainy day on my visit back to England was the day I dedicated to doing the most sketching, but I don’t mind the rain, and I wanted to explore anyway. A slightly later start than I had wanted (due to waking up super early – jetlag – after a night out seeing an old friend in Borough – hangover – meaning I stayed in bed trying to get back to sleep a bit more, rather than dashing out at 8am to sketch every inch – or centimetre – of the city). I wanted to explore Victoria – the area not the person – and maybe draw a map of the neighbourhood showing people all the interesting things to sketch around there. I haven’t drawn the map yet, and in fact Victoria has changed a lot since I last spent time around there, which was almost 20 years ago when I was a tour guide based out of there. It’s really different there now. I don’t know what has happened to New Scotland Yard but it’s an empty building site now. Lots of modern buildings have risen up. One building I have always been interested in but never sketched nor been inside was Westminster Cathedral. My old tour bus used to swing past this building while I gave a courteous nod to the recent history of Catholicism in England, on the way to (or was it from?) the much more illustrious and ancient Westminster Abbey, further up the road (which is not technically a Cathedral but a Royal Peculiar, our highly knowledgeable tour guide instructor instructed us to say. Regardless, only one of these buildings gave the City of Westminster its name and it wasn’t stripey boy here). I stood opposite Westminster Cathedral, in the light rain, my London Underground umbrella firmly stashed inside my jacket hands-free, sketching in the Stillman and Birn Alpha book. The tower had to be squashed ever so slightly because it’s actually very tall, but you wouldn’t notice unless I tell you, so I’ll keep quiet. I like the stiripes; some of the older buildings around the back of it have similar horizontal stripes either in mimicry or as a survival instinct to blend in; it’s nature’s way. The long name of this building is the “Metropolitan Cathedral of the Precious Blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ”. Or “No not Westminster Abbey, the stripey one around the corner”. It was built in 1903 out of brick with no steel reinforcements, none of your steel reinforcements, proper brick done properly. The flags waving above the entrance are that of the United Kingdom and that of the Vatican City. The domes and curves brought to mind the St Mark’s Basilica in Venice, but less glitzy. I had never been inside though, and so after a sandwich from Boots (Meal Deal of course – I love the Meal Deals in England) I went in and had a look around. I was very impressed, there was a lot to see and it had a fair bit of glitz itself (it’s the big Catholic church of the country, you need some glitz) such as golden neo-Byzantine mosaics, but most exciting was that for the tidy sum of six quid I could go up the tower.
View from Westminster cathedral's tower

“It’s very foggy today,” said the man in the gift shop who operated the elevator,  “you won’t see much.” Oh I don’t mind that, I said, thinking it might make drawing a bit easier if I can’t see all the details. It was a really good view (for six quid it had to be, but it supports keeping the elevator open so I’m all for it), and the wind did blow some of the rain in towards me, I stood pretty sheltered and draw as much as I could. The growing pattern of skyscrapers in the distance was a ghostly silhouette, dominated by the Shard. The Palace of Westminster’s Victoria Tower stands tall in the middle, and just behind Westminster Abbey you can see Big Ben still covered in scaffolding. I enjoyed drawing this so much. There’s nothing like drawing a city from a high perch, and I did it again a couple of days later at the Tate. If you like perspective drawing this is like a dream job. When I was done, I wandered about the streets of Victoria for a bit more, before heading back over towards the shops of Covent Garden. It’s times like this when I feel such an affection for London, the unbeatable metropolis that can never be completely discovered. I’ve always liked this building but never been in, and now I have.

Hampstead on a Sunday Morning

Hampstead High St

It was Sunday morning, and my restless nature meant I had to get out of the house and onto the tube. I decided to get off at Hampstead, one of my favourite hill-based places for a little bit of sketching and shop-going. I love Hampstead in the morning. People going out for breakfast, a tour guide bellowing history to a group of Americans outside the tube station, the little lanes off the High Street filled with cute houses. One of my life’s ambitions was that if I ever got rich I’d live in Hampstead, but you have to be really quite rich to do that nowadays I think. The other ambitions are still a place in Highgate and a place in the South of France, along with California of course, and I have at least lived in those places at some point along the way. I stood across the street from the station, putting my uphill perspective games to good use, not quite believing my good weather luck. Another of my ambitions, which I think would make a good book, is to location-draw every single station on the Northern Line, from Edgware to Morden and back up to High Barnet. Hampstead tube station, the deep red glossy ox-blood tiled building on the corner above, is London’s deepest station, regularly publishing philosophy, attending jazz poetry nights, and having meaningfully long walks along the beach. There are no long escalators here, no, you must use the elevators, or ‘lifts’ as we prefer to call them. After all this time away from England my mind’s vocabulary is slowly starting to flip Stateside – only now do I see the ‘Way Out’ signs on the Underground and think, Hahaha, it’s ‘Exit’, you Hippies. After sketching I went to the EE phone store to try and figure out why my unlimited texts plan was given me so far zero texts, only to find that the EE Store was closed on Sundays, because the Dark Ages. (I ended up finding an open EE store in Edgware, but they couldn’t figure out my texting issue, which is another story I won’t go into here, because it’s not interesting). I did get to go to Waterstones and spend money on books, because I can’t help it, and also go the Cass Arts and spend money on Seawhite of Brighton sketchbooks, because I can’t help myself.

The Flask, Hampstead

I did have to get back home though (via an unproductive pitstop at the EE store in Edgware – so I have an unlocked iPhone 8, and I could call and use data, and text other iPhones through iMessage, but for some reason could not send any texts to other non-iPhone phones, even with EE’s unlimited texts plan. I was unable to solve this the entire time I was back. I tried all sorts of settings on the phone, and the EE man in the store also could not figure it out. I didn’t have this problem with my older Nokia last time I was back.) I had to get back to meet my newest family member, my baby great-niece Frances, for the first time. However I did have some time to do a very quick sketch of the Flask pub in Flask Walk. Last time I came here I was ghost-hunting with my son a few years ago. Didn’t find any ghosts (what with the laws of thermodynamics pretty much disproving their existence – thanks a lot, thermodynamic party-poopers). I didn’t sketch much as you can see, and decided to leave it in the completely unfinished state rather than go back and do more, or finish off from a photo – this was too unfinished to do that. Besides, you get just enough with a sketch like this. That easel at the end of the lane, that was an oil-painting artist who I presume didn’t have to go and sort out his EE unlimited texting plan nor meet a new baby. He is unseen though, like a ghost. Also unseen, the ghosts of late morning brunchers, brunching away, many of them lined up outside the cafe to my right, a popular choice for the Hampstead brunching set, which if my ambitions are ever realized I will be one of them, brunching with a little dog at my heels, still sweaty from my jog across the Heath. Can you still afford brunch if you live in Hampstead? Is the existence of brunchers disproved by the laws of thermodynamics? Well they don’t appear in the sketch so you’ll have to make your own mind up. Brunching makes you feel good.

Hampstead Map

I drew a little map in my sketchbook. The colour scheme implies this is all fields, but of course it isn’t. To the north-west is Holly Hill. Up there somewhere among the ghosts and brunchers is the Holly Bush pub, which I have never been to, though I’ve always wanted to, both to have a drink and also to sketch. I’ll save that ambition for some future trip.