Jul 252017
 

Sell ticker rain jurrs, wee chwonn?!” Said he. “Huh? Oi dahnd unnerstehnn wotcha saiyin!” Said I. It was my first day at primary school in Glasgow and a mutually unintelligible clash of regional English accents was under way; Glasgow Scots vs Rural Aussie. Like me, the other kid was a knock kneed 9 year old Celt, but wearing a belligerent expression on his pasty dial, and I had no idea what his agitation was about.

Another ginger haired Scots tyke told him that my incomprehension was because I was Australian, at which my stroppy interrogator huffed off someplace, muttering (I think) about kangaroos. Dad later decoded this tense exchange for me after school, as we trudged home along the Crow Road shivering in the clammy gloom (Glasgow nightfall was as early as 3:45pm in winter, meaning that it was already twilight when I got out of school, and pitch dark by the time I’d walked home). Dad said that my adversary had been asking “Celtic or Rangers, which one?!“ but this was still utter gibberish to me, even when I understood the individual words. Dad explained that the boy’s question had challenged me to swear allegiance to either of two local soccer teams who were mortal enemies. What I know now but didn’t yet understand back then was that the important subtext of the question was that one of these teams was historically Catholic and the other was Protestant, and my inability to understand the question had probably saved my head from being punched in, as I was Catholic. The wrong answer in that area. More to the point, I didn’t (and still don’t) give a toss about sports anyway, but as luck would have it, I’d soon assert myself as a soccer savant purely by accident.

The school had one soccer pitch where multiple games were played concurrently during our lunch break. Exactly how many only became clear by counting the number of goalies in each goal mouth, often upwards of four. These kids had to make sense of multiple matches and call any game headed toward goal as “MINE!” when other goalies would briefly step aside to let him face the oncoming storm. I was running in this swirling melee myself, trying to understand crisscrossing swarms of tykes in the exact same school uniform kicking a multitude of soccer balls every which-way, when a ball cannoned out of nowhere, savagely caromed off my face and into goal. By pure luck, it was the ball from the game I was associated with and won a point for my team. With ears still ringing and my face throbbing five shades of red from chin to hairline, I did my best to pass off this fluke as a famous Australian header technique, and was hailed as the athletic hero of the day by one and all. I further cemented my schoolyard network when it turned out that a few classmates were Cub Scouts.

I had been a Cub Scout in Australia, and after my family moved to Scotland I joined a Cub Scout pack near our new home in Glasgow. I was a novelty right away because of my old style blue uniform and distinctive Australian merit badges. The Scots wore khaki/green outfits and their way of denoting rank was ARROWS on the sleeve (like sergeant’s stripes) whereas in Australia it was BOOMERANGS. I’d earned a bronze boomerang by accumulating a few art/craft merit badges and my one great Cub Scout achievement; raising the most money in a ‘Bob a Job‘ fundraiser. In every other field of Cub Scout endeavour, requiring bushcraft or physical coordination, I was mediocre at best. Like a dog pack, a Cub Scout pack could sniff out the status of other Cubs by merely looking at this resume of little boy achievement on our uniforms. (If this merit badge system continued into adulthood you’d know immediately if your date was worth your time by his ‘Good Boyfriend‘ badge — semiotic icon: peeing with seat UP). In my brief time in Scottish Scouts I attended weekly meetings where two grown men referred to as ‘Akela & Baloo‘ (in kilted scout outfits) tried to channel the energies of their pack of little wolves toward the high minded ideals of the organisation (a lot of ‘Queen & Country’ bollocks in hindsight) while the pack itself often focused on a simmering rivalry with a similar organisation of tribal brats a few blocks away (that variation on the ‘Lord Of The Flies With Supervision‘ concept was called Boys’ Brigade).

The main memory I have of my time in Scottish Scouts is of a several-day trip to the Scottish Highlands. After a bus drove us Cub Scouts all the way up there, we slept in a large empty hall, rather than tents as I’d done at similar Jamborees in Australia (called ‘Coroborees’ down our way) but inside camping worked well in the Highlands, as the weather was shitty most of the time, and the pack went rambling on moors and craggy coastlines between intermittent downpours. One afternoon we Cub Scouts were dodging rain and amusing ourselves back at the hall when I noticed a concerned huddle of Akela & Baloo. They glanced furtively at me and discussed some paperwork, before quietly taking me aside and asking me; “are you Catholic?” in hushed tones of concern and fear, as if asking “do you have ebola?” Weeks earlier my parents had filled out a permission form for me to go on the trip, with the usual stuff (medical issues, allergies, and so on) and even though the religion section clearly stated that I was Catholic, Akela & Baloo appeared to need further verbal clarification from me to believe this particular detail (apparently unnoticed until we were already on the trip). Upon careful consideration, I had to admit that I wasn’t exactly sure, but; “Maybe I might be Catholic?” Their tension eased a little; “So your family doesn’t go to church, then?” they enquired. “Oh no“, I corrected, “We go every Sunday“. Their shoulders sagged. “Where?” I described the drive from our house in Glasgow to our church, and Akela & Baloo drooped even further, exchanging looks. They seemed to know where I meant, but I could not decode their reaction.

At the time, I was oblivious to the pickle that me & my form had dropped them in. I did not yet understand the distinction between ‘Catholic’ and ‘Protestant’ at the age of 9, but in Britain of the early 1970s, with the IRA tossing bombs about the place, and Catholics being occasionally shot by military forces in Northern Ireland, it was a very important distinction indeed. Later that same year my family saw ground zero of this Catholic/Protestant clash in Belfast. I still have jagged impressions from that day, of a broken grey town, spooled with barbed wire, patrolled by grim-faced troops wielding machine guns & driving Saracens, all seen through the wide goggling eyes of a small boy from a small town half a world away. At numerous checkpoints our family car full of 4 tiny children was inspected by armed soldiers, as my family drove through Belfast on our way to connect with a ferry back to Scotland. It was the first time I’d seen a real machine gun, and by the end of that day I’d seen quite a few. 21st century Britain is afraid of Muslim terrorism, but in 1974 Muslims were simply the people who sold us comics and sweeties at our corner store, and terrorism was the exclusive speciality of Catholics.

These many years later, I understand this context for the furtive glances and kid gloves that Akela & Baloo handled me with back then, when I was a little boy; Catholics were clearly testy nutjobs, and God only knew what the Australian variety might be capable of. Better find this kid a Catholic church pronto, unless his roo-riding parents launch an Aussie Left-Footer fatwah on the Jordan Hill scout hall. However, even in Glasgow we had to drive a long way from where we lived to attend a Catholic church (I remember my family picnicking near this church after mass, when a throng of angry blokes in orange shawls appeared. “What are those men yelling about?” I asked Mum & Dad. “Us!” they replied, as Mum gave me my sticky bun). Way up in the remote Highlands, Akela & Baloo had less options for finding me the right flavour of church to kneel in.

That Sunday we Cub Scouts got up VERY early before church and went for a long drive in our bus out into the beautiful heathered bleakness of a Scottish Highland moor. To my surprise, the bus stopped at an intersection out in this barren landscape and Akela gestured at a tiny rustic chapel, saying this was the right church for me, that they would pick me up after mass, and to please be patient as it might take a while. I got off the coach and walked over to the tiny stone chapel out in the backside of beyond, as my Cub Scout pack zoomed away to attend their own brand of Church on time. Imagine that classic scene in a western where all the owl hoots in the Dodge City saloon turn to see the new gunslinger walk through the swinging saloon doors. Now substitute the dusty saloon with a tiny rundown chapel on a Highland moor, for the piano player swap a Celtic crone seated at an organ, replace the bar patrons with a few elderly parishioners, and the new kid in town standing backlit at the door is me, in my garish Cub Scout uniform. Thinking back on it now, I must have been a bizarre sight from the point of view of these Highland parishioners waiting for mass. Outside they’d heard the squeal of brakes, the pneumatic hiss of an opening door, and turned to see a solitary sawn off creature in blue crossing their threshold.

In total silence I took a pew at the very back of the tiny chapel and waited. Slowly, more craggy Highlanders came in and took their seats. It was only then that I realised I’d broken with some local protocol. Unlike my parish, these Highland Catholics preferred that all lads sit on one side of the aisle and all lassies on the other, and I had been sitting amongst the womenfolk (though I fixed my mistake after communion). When the service got under way I had great difficulty in understanding what was being said. I’d eventually learned the rhythms of Glasgow speech, but this Highland Scots accent was impenetrable to me. It occurs to me only now that the service may have been in Gaelic, depending on where I was, but I couldn’t even guess where it might have been. Wherever I was, it was a long way from everywhere else, and my Cub Scout pack had gone well out of their way to get me there. Thankfully, although the priest’s words were opaque to me, I knew the rhythm of a Catholic mass by heart, and when to stand, sit, kneel, mumble or be silent.

After the mass ended, the tiny congregation quickly dispersed and hobbled away into the mist. I’m racking my memory as hard as I can now to remember if anyone queried me after mass. Even though it seems reasonable that somebody might be curious to know the identity of the mysterious tiny stranger in the blue uniform festooned with arcane symbols, I don’t have any recollection of even one of this taciturn crew talking with me, not even the priest. Let’s assume however that the good Father did check in with me, if only briefly, and after I assured him that I’d be picked up presently, he too hightailed it back into the Highlands. Thereafter, was a very long wait in the misty middle of nowhere until the rest of my Cub Scout pack returned.

Later, when I got back to Glasgow and Mum & Dad heard about Akela & Baloo’s furtive pre-church interview, the efforts my Cub Scout pack had taken to get me to a Catholic church, get to their own mass, and then drive back to pick me up, it became clear that none of it was necessary. Though touched by these efforts, Mum & Dad wouldn’t have minded in the slightest if I’d been taken to a church of another denomination. However, Akela & Baloo had never encountered someone of my peculiar breed in their Cub Scout pack ever before, and decided the best policy at the last minute was to be sensitive to causing offence. Everywhere in Scotland was a clan and/or a feud. Were you Catholic or Protestant? Celtic or Rangers? Campbell or MacDonald? Cub Scout or Boys Brigade? Highlander or Sassanach? Akela & Baloo clearly knew the protocols of dealing with Scots clans, and erred on the side of caution.

Our school too was divided into clans of a sort, the separate competing school houses (Harry Potter style). My schoolmates with classic Scottish surnames displayed their traditional clan tartans with utmost pride, on scarves, socks, hats, and other clothing accepted in school uniform rules. Not just clans, but hierarchies too were important. As a school newbie, I initially sat in the seat closest to the classroom door, and it took me a while to understand why the teacher (a fierce though loveable Scottish war hammer who could’ve been the model for Professor Minerva McGonagall) would rearrange our desks every fortnight. I eventually learned that placement of students within the classroom denoted their academic rank (a variation on the the at-a-glance merit badge ranking system used by Cub Scouts). Everyone knew exactly where you were within the hierarchy based on seating order; the front seat closest to the door (where I’d started) was for dummy numero uno, and the kid sitting over by the window at the back was class brainiac (for the record, I’d almost climbed to my traditional academic sweet spot of ‘the middle’ by the end of my time in Scotland).

With this pecking order humiliatingly displayed for all to see, each child asserted their own hierarchies in constantly revised lists taped to the underside of their desk lids. Not just the standard lists of fave bands, movie stars, athletes, and so on, but also best friend lists. These were prominently displayed as each student opened their desks to retrieve a book, when surrounding classmates would check to see whether their own currency had risen or fallen in these multiple social stock exchanges. My own ranking, if I made any lists at all, was once again ‘bottom of the middle’. It was all a lot to keep track of; the ‘LIKES’ of 1970s social media.

It was while in Scotland that I learned about British comics (such as Valiant, Beano & Dandy) and my drawing made a quantum leap as a result. I eagerly digested daily TV helpings of Brit Sci-Fi (Doctor Who, Space 1999, UFO) and Supermarionation (Captain Scarlet, Joe 90 and Thunderbirds). In Scotland I belatedly learned to ride a bicycle, camped by Loch Ness (fervently seeking Nessie) visited real castles and torture dungeons, and was impressed by many other things that made indelible impressions on a little boy. But my time there was extra special for personal reasons too. Though raised in Australia by Australian parents, I’d actually been born in Scotland (in Edinburgh while my father studied there) and my mother was of Scots ancestry on her father’s side. She was a STUART (clan Stuart of Bute) and during the year I turned 10 years old and my family briefly lived in Glasgow, I learned about my mother’s clan so fierce and proud; THE SCOTS.

Nov 052015
 

I first started working at the Hanna-Barbera animation studio in Sydney when I was 17 years old, joyfully working on some of the crappiest cartoons ever made. I remember that time as one of great personal triumph, but also profound and enduring heartbreak.

The inbetweener: cartoons

I’d wanted to work in animation since I was 8 years old but thought such a career wasn’t even possible in Australia because I’d never seen a cartoon with Australian voices. When attending a weekend animation seminar at the age of 15 however, I learned that many American cartoons on TV were actually made at a big animation studio in Sydney; Hanna-Barbera. This was an alleluia moment for a lifelong cartoon nerd and I set about getting a job there. After mailing them letters and drawings for a year or more, they finally responded by sending me a drawing test. Using character model-sheets as a guide, I was to pose Hanna-Barbera characters in as many different situations as I could. The model-sheets were from “Kwicky Koala”, the last ever cartoon by Tex Avery, a TV series that was made in Sydney the year before. (The characters “Ratso the rat” and “Dirty Dawg” were where the great Tex Avery ended his career, but where I started my own).

Hanna-Barbera liked my attempts at drawing their characters and called me in for an interview, and Dad accompanied me on the long train journey from my hometown to Sydney. While the typical animation/cartoon portfolio of today is badly drawn anime, back then it was poor man’s Frazetta; lumpy drawings of awkwardly posed, axe-wielding barbarians, accompanied by equally misshapen warrior maidens in brass bikinis, whereas my own portfolio consisted of a few illustration jobs I’d done in my hometown. When I showed my T-shirt designs, cartoons for the local newspaper, and some illustrations for the school magazine, to my surprise and delight Hanna-Barbera offered me a job on the spot. I was 17 years old and could barely contain my excitement, and it took the tag-team of Mum and Dad to calm me down and counsel me not to throw off my final year of high school with only a few months till my final exams. To stop my teen-whining about their repressive parental fascism, they compromised by allowing me to work at Hanna-Barbera during term breaks in my final year of high school.

In September 1981 I was unbelievably excited to have several weeks working as an animation assistant, an ‘inbetweener‘, at Hanna-Barbera in Sydney. I stayed with my Aunty Marg and Uncle Keith near Manly Beach, and caught the 144 bus to St. Leonards and the Hanna-Barbera studio, where I worked my arse off every day and eagerly stayed late most nights. Every animation studio I’ve worked at since has at least one annoying spotty-faced, cardigan-wearing, eager beaver, and in 1981 it was me; “Animation! Oh boy!” One memory of this time which doesn’t involve me sitting at a lightbox and quivering with febrile excitement from head to toe, was going into downtown Sydney to see a new movie that everyone at the studio was talking about; “Raiders Of The Lost Ark” which had just opened in Australia. Hollywood’s early 1980s power couple of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg had just produced a bouncing baby mega-hit and I was working in showbiz myself. Life was just peachy-keen. When my time as an inbetweener was over I went back to finish high school as per the agreement with Mum and Dad, secure in the knowledge that I’d lined up a job for myself when I finished high school (which was just as well, because a few months later I botched my final written exam so it’s fortunate that I wasn’t relying on my HSC marks to get a job). Hanna-Barbera had a late-starting season in 1982 and the timing was perfect, as my family had a lot going on that year and I was glad to be with them.

My mother had given birth to the last of her seven children, my brother Alex, in mid December 1981, and began having mysterious seizures culminating in a particularly terrifying fit after she’d come home from hospital. In the many years since, I’ve often thought about the unbelievable bad luck that not only did my mother have that seizure at all, but that it occurred at the exact moment she had a pan of boiling water in her hands. One minute earlier or later and her hands would’ve been empty. She’d have still had the seizure but would’ve fallen to the ground otherwise unscathed and been spared the intense pain of being doused with a spilled pan of boiling water. So much misery hinged on the quirks of an instant. Apart from the agonizing burns this brought her, it also made for a puzzle of symptoms for the doctors to pick through; partial paralysis, ongoing seizures, burns, all after a history of blood clotting.. Which were causes and which were effects? Answering these questions was the focus of early 1982, when Dad (and later myself) accompanied Mum to Sydney for a variety of medical tests and examinations at St. Vincent’s Hospital. Back then they didn’t have the wonderful brain imaging gizmos available today. I’ve recently had brain scans aplenty and the resolution these days is surprisingly clear, but in 1982 the images were hopelessly vague and ambiguous, like photos of Big Foot or the Loch Ness Monster, and just as likely to cause wooly theorising. There was a dark smudge on my Mum’s brain scans but what was it? A blood clot? Or perhaps something more sinister?

the inbetweener: brain scans

With any other organ in the human body, the very next step would be surgery to find out what that ominous shadow actually is. However, cutting into the living human brain – the repository of what makes each of us actually ‘us‘ – is only a last resort. First, many tests were done in an attempt to surmise what that shadowy thing might be but they were all inconclusive, and the mystery of what horror lurked inside my poor Mum’s head was not resolved until she underwent a brain biopsy; the crude and invasive process of opening up her skull and cutting into her brain to look inside. When Dad and I visited Mum after this grim procedure her head was shaved and the horrifying scars on her skull were bandaged, but I was keenly aware of their presence. She had pipes going into her nose and mouth and was connected to electrodes and monitors. It was a nightmare image that haunts me still. She was weakly conscious though, and gave us a reassuring little smile before needing to rest. It was a sombre ferry ride back across Sydney Harbour to Manly. Although I’d always thought she’d pull through her ordeal, and had blithely reassured her many times, I finally sensed in that knowing part of my guts that my dear Mum would actually die, and when we got back to my Aunty Marg’s house I lost my composure and broke down in grief at the realisation.

The doctors soon confirmed what I somehow knew; she had terminal brain cancer and not a blood clot as was previously hoped. Mum decided to return to our hometown rather than submit to a treatment at a Big City specialist hospital that would not save her, but merely prolong a hospital stay far from her family and her newly-born child. We all returned to Armidale to await the inevitable and Mum was setup in her own room at the hospital near our house. Depending on her strength sometimes Mum would come home for the day, where our focus was on her comfort and hers was on getting to know her youngest child, Alex, (who was not even one year old when months later Mum finally died). I’ve recently had to endure a tiny fraction of the physical difficulties that my Mother went through, a mere crumb by comparison, but I now have a visceral reminder of what a brave and wonderful soul she was. I already knew this, and felt it keenly, but more recently my appreciation for her ability to persevere bravely in the face of hopeless heartbreaking hardship now verges on awe.

One night, after hospital visiting hours were over, I went to the Drive-In with my mates to sit in the back of my mate Phil’s ute, and watch a movie and drink. Drink quite a lot, in fact. I’d already downed substantially more booze than my meagre alcohol capacity, when I stuck my head in the cab to ask Phil to pass me another bottle, at the precise moment he slammed the door. It should be noted here that the door to Phil’s ute was ‘sticky’ and always required an extra HEAVE to close. A force that was applied to my skull, and it rang like a gong from the mighty blow. There was much hilarity, even from me, and as I lay down in the tray of the ute I heard my own laughter as if from afar but could feel no pain, which should have been a sign. The chattering voices of my mates faded in my head, leaving me in a mental still point as I looked up into the star-mottled blackness of the night. Without the distractions I’d prepared for it, my mind dwelled on horrifying realities- the cruel specifics of my mother’s predicament and the fact that she’d soon leave us forever hit me every bit as hard as the truck door had pounded on my skull, and I started to quietly sob. At first my mates thought I was joking, but quickly realised what was happening. They drove to pick up supplies, and took me out into the bush someplace where they built a fire and we sat and talked through the night. I cannot now remember the details of what was said. I was drunk, and probably mildly concussed, but I do remember how much it meant to let out my grief while being supported by my friends.

The long-awaited telephone call from Hanna-Barbera finally came. They wanted me to start work for good but once again it was not a simple decision. Now the issue was not finishing high school, but that my Mother was terminally ill. Mum however was adamant that this time I go and start work so that’s what I did, vowing to travel home each weekend from Sydney. I regret that decision with all my heart now, and wish I’d stayed home in Armidale till the end. All these many years later a few more months with her would be so much more valuable to me than a few months being an inbetweener on “The Animated Mork & Mindy show”. If I could go back in time I’d counsel my younger self much the way my parents had coached him the previous year; ‘don’t throw this time away, you’ll regret it later‘, but in mid 1982 I moved to Sydney to live with my Uncle John in Manly Beach and start work at Hanna-Barbera in earnest. My first day on the job there was one of those snafus that often happen in production, where the person who’d interviewed and hired me the year prior, and who’d finally called me down to Sydney a mere few weeks earlier, no longer worked at the studio and his replacement had never even heard of me. When I suggested she call the other guy for clarification it transpired that he’d gone to England. In the days before email, getting prompt feedback in such circumstances was out of the question so that was a squirmy moment to be sure. Thankfully, she gave me another try out and I re-won my spot as a member of her department, and threw myself into the work with nerdy teen intensity, coupled with the need to distract myself from bigger realities. After years of yearning for it I was finally working in animation at last, though not under ideal circumstances.

the inbetweener: desk

When not at work, I spent many weekday evenings at the cinema, and 1982 was a great year to use movies as a distraction from my troubles, with “Blade Runner“, “Road Warrior“, “Wrath of Khan” “ET“, “Tron“, “Tootsie“, “Poltergeist” and other such fantastic faire. Ironically, all these years later, re-watching the escapist movies that helped me hide from my emotions back then brings back that complicated mix of real-world feelings to me now as fresh as ever. In fact, there are a few movies from that time that I simply cannot watch at all, especially one that my Mother herself loved, often playing the soundtrack music in her hospital room that year (merely hearing that melody now, over 30 years later, brings on a tidal wave of raw emotions from that time).

After working Monday to Friday in Sydney, I caught the Friday NORTHERN MAIL TRAIN at around 9:00 PM from Sydney’s Central Station for the chilly overnight journey to the New England Tablelands, finally arriving at Armidale at about 8 AM Saturday to be with my dying Mother and family. Rural NSW trains had some truly antiquated rolling stock as late as the mid 1980s with compartments that seated about 8, and they weren’t heated even in winter. Sometimes the conductor would toss a heated brick ‘foot warmer’ under the seats. City folk unfamiliar with this drill were aghast; “Is that it?!” they’d cry, dressed on the assumption that there’d be heating. We country folk wore sturdy greatcoats and Ugg boots (which were merely a cheap way for Aussies to keep our feet warm till LA super-models ‘discovered’ them). We’d laugh hollowly that, yes, the pathetic brick was the extent of the heating and add that the really chilling part of the arrangement was that the brick would be long-cold before we got to the really icy spots in the mountains. We’d offer a blanket and thermos of warm drink to the newbies lest we shared the compartment with a frozen corpse by Murrurundi. Many people, including Australians themselves, are unprepared for the fact that anywhere in Australia is COLD but my hometown, and the New England Tablelands region in general, will take those people’s breath away in the winter. The journeys were slow, with the train splitting at Werris Creek and if the cold didn’t mess up your sleep then 30 minutes of to-and-fro shunting sure would. I’d finally be getting to sleep when we arrived at Armidale. I remember at least one time when I dozed through the stop and poor Dad had to step on it and drive to the next town and meet the train there (at Dumaresq or Guyra).

The travel schedule was punishing but my time away from the sorrow each week, and the distractions of work and travel, allowed me to compose a cheerful demeanour when visiting Mum, as the last thing a terminally sick person needs is visits from hangdog sad-sacks. In my weekly visits home, Mum was curious about my new life as a worker in the Big City. She’d always taken a keen interest in my adventures even when I truly had none, and ever since I was a small boy it was a ritual of the day to sit with Mum in the kitchen after I’d come home from school. She’d take a quick break from whatever she was doing (probably preparing food for her brood) and have a cuppa with me and ask about my day in school or how things went with various of my mates. Now that I was working she was full of curiosity and enthusiasm for this seemingly exotic new life I’d somehow found for myself, asking me about the details of the job and my new life in Sydney. Often in my life since I’ve thought how my Mother would’ve liked certain things in my adult life. To meet my girlfriend, hear of my adventures abroad, or my professional exploits. I know too that my siblings who are now parents themselves wonder how Mum would have enjoyed being a grandma (for the record, I think she’d have liked it very much, and would’ve been a wonderfully attentive grandparent). So I feel blessed that, in my case, Mum was able to see me start my own career and express her joy at seeing me finding my own way in the world.

the inbetweener: hospital

As the months of her decline wore on, Mum’s communication skills suffered due to the expanding evil in her head, so she mostly listened while we did the talking, but the spark of her keen intelligence never left her eyes. Intelligence minus the ability to communicate may seem a contradiction, but I’ve recently had the experience myself of desperately trying to speak from within a mind that has lost the neural connections to speech. It is utterly terrifying, though in my case I saw daily improvement rather than daily decline like my poor Mum. Despite the overwhelming number of afflictions that beset her last days, and they mounted one-by-one as time wore on, she never gave in to ‘why me’ bitterness. One of the incredible qualities that my Mother possessed was her warm stoicism, and although all of us around her were increasingly distressed by her tragic situation, I never saw Mum herself rail against the cruel circumstances that had befallen her. The cancer robbed her body of the ability to speak at the precise moment when she had so much to say, and this often made her heartbreakingly frustrated, but her ordeal never caused her to vent at medical staff, God or Fate. Now that I’m more than ten years older than she was then, I’m even more amazed at the grace that this brave young woman, my dear Mother, brought to her plight.

I remember my Sydney-bound return journeys, as the train rushed through spectacular sunrises over the coastal regions around Gosford, the verdant beauty at odds with my sadness at what I’d seen that past weekend. My head out an open window, the wind tousled my hair as I swept past beautifully lush mountainous areas over foggy deltas, and inlets flecked with low morning cloud, and ruminated upon my Mother’s increasing frailty. The train click-clacked over railway bridges and through towns as I came closer to Sydney and prepared for the work day ahead. At Central station I’d grab something to eat, then transfer to the North Shore Line to St. Leonards, and go to the studio. It was a strange double life; shuttling back and forth between inanely detailed work on a cheesy animated TV cartoon in Sydney, where none of my coworkers knew of my family’s predicament, and being at the bedside of my dying Mother in a small country town, where the entire community was aware of our tragedy. My job-title that year was ‘inbetweener’ but it summed up the half-here-half-there state of my existence as well. Weekdays in the city, overnight journeys to weekends in the country, then catching the Sunday overnight train back to Sydney to be at work again on Monday morning, all through the mid-year winter months until November 1982, when Mum finally died, about a fortnight after her 39th birthday.

The day before, my Uncle Keith had phoned me at the studio to say that Mum had taken a turn for the worst and I should head home to Armidale immediately, by plane if possible. Flights were all fully booked so once more I caught the overnight train, and arrived too late. She had died in the night. Tears did not come to me that day. Instead, I was left with a hollow empty feeling. Cancer creates disorienting shifts in the apparent progress of time. It is both excruciatingly slow – a death rattle prolonged over months – and shockingly fast, as the person appears to age years overnight. The grieving process is drawn out into a gruelling emotional marathon, and the horrified realisation of loss happens long before the death itself. With me, it had been back on the day that Mum had her brain biopsy, I’d felt the cold and terrifying certainty of it, wept in anguish at what was about to happen and I’d been grieving ever since, but the actual day of her death I was numb as a plank. It is a sad and terrible thing to watch someone that you love deteriorate in front of your eyes. There can be an impulse to stay away and spare yourself the sight of someone who was once a powerful presence in your life reduced to a mere wisp, and that inclination brings with it stabbing pangs of remorse. I myself felt a strange relief after my Mother died and hated myself for that at the time, and for a long while afterwards, even though I knew that my Mother too was grateful to be done with her pain.

the inbetweener: Mum's grave

As her body failed her and she prepared for her end, Mum was in many ways ready to go, though she made it quite clear that she would whole heartedly regret not seeing her children grow older. Mum died in the company of my brother Rob, who was 12 years old at the time. In those last days, when she was so weak as to be drifting in and out of consciousness, family & friends were taking turns to visit Mum and read to her despite being outwardly unresponsive, hoping that she might hear our voices and be comforted. Rob was reading to Mum when she suddenly woke up. As Mum’s friend Phyl rushed to find a nurse, Mum’s eyes looked at Rob, and then she died. This was a shocking burden for a 12 year old boy to bear, but I told Rob many years later, in his adulthood, that I will always be grateful that he was there, so that poor Mum did not regain consciousness in an empty room with nobody she loved by her side at the end.

The first time most of her children had ever experienced the death of a loved one, it was of their own darling Mother. Children usually ease into awareness of death as firstly, older, more distant relatives die, but all our Grandparents and many Great Aunts attended Mum’s funeral, and most of our parish was there too. The entire process was very harrowing and has left a mark on my clan to this day. Certainly it has left a mark on me to this day, it fills me with sadness to even think about it. That a woman so young should die, at 39 years old, survived by a husband and 6 of her kids, including an 11 month old baby; it seemed so unfair that I was coldly angry about it for quite some time. Try as I might, I could not adopt my Mother’s warmly humane stoicism back then, much as I admired it, but I try to apply her example in my life now. There is an instinct in all of us to help our friends through the dark passages in their lives by pointing out a ‘silver lining‘, and while there’s sometimes wisdom to that approach I’ve never found any optimistic consolation to offer when someone dies. There is no ‘upside‘ to it. We must accept that death inevitably happens to us all, good people as well as bad, healthy as well as sick, young and old alike. Personally, I believe that there’s no divine reason for it, but by the same token, there is no one to blame for it either.

The year I started working in animation was a landmark year for me, and one full of conflicting emotions, both then as it happened, and now as I reflect back upon it. Joyfully, I finally got my foot in the door of a job I’d always dreamed of but as I crossed that exciting threshold, tragically, my young Mother was stricken with terminal cancer and taken from us. Even now, the feelings from that long-ago year are brought vividly to life each time I go back go to my hometown, as my visits there have been so infrequent, living abroad for nearly 30 years. Perhaps we all feel the death of our own childhoods, often associated with a specific place, but the year that I turned 18 and my childhood officially ended, was the exact same year that my Mother died. My trips back to Armidale are always ever-so faintly tinged with sadness, because I associate them not only with the end of the childhood I once had there, but with my sad journeys home in that last year of my beloved Mother’s life. But, as the first-born of all her 7 children, I was was blessed to have had Mum’s loving guidance all the way up to my own adulthood, unlike my younger siblings, so I consider myself very much the lucky one among us.

the inbetweener: family photo
Vicki Patricia Baker (née Stuart) 1943-1982

Aug 092014
 

My Brother Jo and his family recently invited Julia and I to join them, and my Dad and his wife Wendy, for a holiday in Mexico. We’ve had a rocky time of things the past few years, and this was a wonderful opportunity to relax. Despite feeling ill the entire time, I did some sketching, and broke in a beautiful new sketchbook that Julia got me for Christmas a few years ago.

PV_BeachCafe

A few days before we were due to fly to Mexico, I came down with an asthmatic chest cold, and it was touch and go whether we would fly at all. The morning of our departure, I felt a little better and so off we went.. only to arrive in a Puerto Vallarta that was astonishingly hot and humid. Wow. I felt immediately drained by the brutal heat and felt sicker almost as soon as we checked in to our hotel. The next morning, a doctor came to visit me in my hotel room, diagnosed me with Bronchitis, and pumped me full of antibiotics. This certainly helped, but didn’t heal me 100%. In fact, a few days ago I was put on another round of antibiotics here in the USA.

PV_Balcony

Unfortunately, being sick, my sightseeing was confined to the hotel itself, but I was very happy to spend time with my family, who I do not often see.  While the others would go off on tours, I would draw in the hotel or try to sleep off my chest-bug, and it was lovely to see my family each evening for dinner. On about the 3rd day, there was an absolutely spectacular lightening storm and the torrential rain on that and a few subsequent afternoons thankfully cooled the temperature a great deal, making the trip much more pleasant. Just as I started to feel a bit more human, Julia got the bad news that her division is to be closed and she will soon be out of a job. I’m not sure why it is so, but all of our attempts at holidays in the past few years have been fraught with illness and bad luck, and I’m afraid of what this Holiday Curse will escalate to next.

PV_Pool

I had visited Puerto Vallarta once before, in 1989, and I remember a quaint little seaside town of cobblestone streets, but sadly this time around I only got to see the grounds of the hotel, and the nearby beach, because of my illness. The nexus of the hotel was a huge network of swimming pools, some with a bar right inside the pool itself,  blasting Euro-beat rave music around the clock. We favoured the much quiter family pool, which was a new concept for me; I’m used to the kids area being rowdy, but at this hotel it was the grownups who were the boisterous ones. (Must’ve been the Magaritas).

PV_Iggy

When we finally found a spot to sit poolside (where chairs are jealously guarded) we met one of the pool regulars; the POOL IGUANA. I’ve exaggerated his size here, making him look as big as a crocodile, but although he was not that big, he was surprisingly large; at least as big as a medium sized dog. It was quite a surprise when we finally nabbed a poolside spot to have this guy dive into the pool, and make a beeline for us through the water, crawl out of the pool and panhandle us for snacks. (For the record, he liked guacamole and salsa but declined our offer of “Fruit Loops”).

PV_Cervesa

The Iguanas were not the only colouful wildlife. There were many racous screeching birds, most notably the PEACOCKS. I did not think to sketch them, but they kept up an almost constant squawking, day and night, reaching a frenzied pitch during the thunderstorms, when I think they lost their tiny feathered minds. They had the run of the place, and their favourite trick was to walk up and snatch the BUTTER off your breadroll right under your nose. BRAWK! After that first night, we always chose a table inside the restaurant.

PV_Figurines

On one of her visits to town, Julia found a pretty little figurine. When she bought it, she found out that it was the MOTHER MARY figure of this Nativity SET. We didn’t have room for this many dolls, either in our luggage or our flat, so we gave the set (minus Mother Mary) to my Dad and Wendy (they planned to have one of the other female figurines stand in for Mary). I decided to sketch the nativity group before they were bundled up for their journey to Australia.

Xmas_sketchbooks

Christmas 2012, Julia got me these two beautiful leather-bound and monogrammed sketchbooks, but I didn’t feel capable of doing them justice until recently, as I lost my drawing ability the day after I was given the sketchbooks, when my right hand became paralysed. Although my drawing skill is still not where I would like it to be, after filling a big sketchook with left-handed doodles and drawings from life, I now feel ready to crack open these handmade beauties and do some drawing in them. The pages are about half the dimension of my previous sketchbook, and therefore the drawings in these will probably be more gestural, and hopefully looser, more stylised and ‘cartoony’ than the painstaking drawing I’ve been doing lately.

I look forward to filling them both up.

Mar 172014
 

I have recently been wrestling with re-learning how to draw. The loss of my former ability has led me to reflect on what drawing has meant to me in my 30 year career as a cartoonist, and how and why I came to be so interested in drawing in the first place.

on_drawing_1

Back when I was very little, when my active interest in drawing began, there was no ’creative’ person in my family, apart from my Mother who played piano, and certainly nobody that drew. However, my Father enjoyed cartoons, whether in magazines or animated films, and I remember being endlessly fascinated at a very young age by the idle doodles on his desk blotter; silly faces and the like. His younger brothers, my uncles, could be relied upon as a source of cartoon books, comics, Mad magazine, and so forth, and in general, I grew up in an environment appreciative of cartoons. As I got older, I certainly never had to fight anyone to pursue drawing as a career. While many of my colleagues had to battle their families, I’m lucky that my own encouraged my interests.

Drawing became a big part of my life since as far back as 7 or 8 years old. I drew before then, of course, as all children do. I had drawing battles with many of my classmates in 1st and 2nd class, and at that age everyone drew, at least to some degree. But the beginning of my serious interest in drawing dates from the time when most kids were turning away from it, around the age of 8. Children become self conscious at that age and reject anything identified as childish. I too remember self-importantly announcing to my mother that I was too old to lick the excess cake batter from her cooking bowl, much to the great delight of my Father, who licked it clean with great relish (though it is unclear which gave him more glee; the tasty morsel or the crestfallen expression of an 8 year old realising he’d given away the crown jewels?)

I became more intrigued by drawing rather than less, and maybe the solo-escapism of drawing became part of its appeal. When I had turned 7, my family moved to a new town, and I felt disconnected, and again when we moved abroad 3 years later. If this had not happened, would I have clung so determinedly to drawing? This interesting thought was first pointed out to me by my childhood friend Peter Lawlor when we were both adults. As a child, I deeply regretted the family move, but if Peter is right, I may have gotten something wonderful, in addition to his friendship, in return for the brief period of childhood alienation.

After the age of 8, when most classmates lost interest in drawing, the one exception was a boy called Warwick Cook. While I staked out the lowbrow, cartoon end of the drawing spectrum, Warwick was a fully fledged watercolour painter, doing beautiful landscapes of the rugged bush around our town. In my memory, these were very sophisticated paintings for a boy of 9 or 10 and I admired Warwick’s ability a great deal. He really was a remarkable boy; good at sports, a good student and one of those likeable people who can mingle easily with everyone, perhaps because of his easy facility with many different facets of life. Rather than grabbing obsessively onto drawing with both hands as I did, (sometimes to the detriment of other things) it was merely one of many things that he enjoyed.

on_drawing_2

Warwick made a great impression on me, but I only have memories of him from 2nd-4th class, because I went abroad in 5th class and he’d moved to a new town later on, when I returned. From mutual friends, I’d hear of Warwick’s exploits during high school, and expected great things from him. Sure enough, many years later, when I began working in animation, Warwick went to study painting at art school in London, and he seemed well on his way. Tragically, he was struck by a tube train in a ghastly accident, when he slipped from a wet and crowded underground railway platform one rainy New Years Eve. I had not seen him for 10 years by then, but keenly felt his loss just the same. Warwick will always stay with me as one of my early inspirations at the dawn of my interest in drawing.

It’s hard to overstate the effect that adult attention can have on a kid, especially when not from family members. When I was 8 years old my parents held a party at our house, and I was introduced to Anne Gunner, a student of Dad’s who herself was an educator; an art teacher. On hearing that I liked to draw, she asked to see my drawings and made an ego-gratifying song-and-dance about whatever crude scribblings I showed her (perhaps even some of those here). I remember that she immediately talked to me as one artist to another. Was this a semi-theatrical show for the benefit of amused adults nearby? Possibly, but the important thing is that her unsolicited attention was like water sprinkled on a flower, and I responded to it. She told me that as an aspiring artist I must absolutely make a portfolio. I had no idea what this was, but earnestly understood it to be of paramount importance.

1972_portfolio

So, hilariously, at the age of 8, I gathered together all my drawings and compiled a crude ‘portfolio’, using left-over wallpaper from the renovation of the ’good room’ of our house for the cover. Not clear on what the purpose of such a thing must be, in practice it became a sort of scrapbook; half my own drawings and half whatever interested me at the time, and I carried that thing everywhere. Many of my childhood drawings, including those here, survive to this day mainly because I kept them in that binder, although it was a close thing; a few years later, when my drawings began to markedly improve, I almost threw out these early scribblings in a fit of tween self-consciousness, but I am so glad now that I did not.

A few weeks after meeting Anne Gunner, there was a surprise parcel for me at the front door, even though it wasn’t my birthday or Christmas. She’d sent a huge box of art supplies; crayons, brushes, poster paints, plasticine, and other goodies that lasted me for years, as well as some Walter T. Foster art-instruction books that I still have to this day. I have no idea where Anne Gunner is now, though I’ve tried searching for her on the web several times, but if I ever did get her contact info, I would like to thank her for taking an interest in a 8-year-old boy and following up with a thoughtful gift that changed his life in a very real way.

Drawing; thinking about it, and consciously trying to get ’better’ by understanding how other people did it, became my focus. I’d always loved animation and attempts to draw famous cartoon characters were there right from the very beginning. Though these scribbles are of Disney characters, the cartoons that played most often on TV were by Warner Bros. and they made me laugh hardest and got most of my attention. It wasn’t only that cartoons were funny, but that mere drawings could move and seem alive was magic to me at that age (and hand-drawn animation has that effect on me even now). I wanted to be able to do that too. There’s something about plucking an idea out of my own mind, shaping it, and making it graphically ’real’ on a piece of paper so that it appears to have a life of its own, that endlessly fascinated me, both then and now, and it’s equally intriguing if someone else does it.

The ability for human beings to do marvelous things in sports, the arts or the sciences; the various ways in which the human mind and body dance together, exerts a fascination over all of us, each to their own preference. But the ability to draw, to capture a personal slice of the world, or a quirky phantasm of the mind, is the particular area of human achievement that intrigues me. Over time, drawing became not only a fascination, but also my chosen means of expression. Where someone else may strum a guitar, kick a ball, or dance to vent their pent up emotions, drawing became my go-to means of expressing the inexpressible.

Why were the drawings in magazines and TV cartoons were so good; ’How come I can’t draw like that?’ Seeing this crude page of bird drawings (an attempt to draw the Warner Brothers’ Chicken Hawk so obsessed with Foghorn Leghorn) brings back a memory of a frustrating day trying to draw beaks; ’How do they make the beaks look so good in cartoons?’ I’m not sure why the inability to do something ’well’ led to the abandonment of certain pursuits (mathematics, sport, getting the girls to like me) whereas, my inability to draw was an obstacle to overcome. I lost interest in many things that I was not good at (that list was long indeed) but drawing held my attention despite the frustration of constant failure. I drew no better than the next child, but stayed with it. Why is that? I have thought about it often, but ultimately, I do not know whether it was circumstantial that I would fall in love with drawing, or inevitable, but love it I do.

People who don’t draw sometimes ask me ’When did you start drawing?’ I answer ’When did you stop?’ because every child draws and I just never stopped. I believe that the amount of time a child spends drawing, and more importantly enjoying drawing, is the key to artistic ability, rather than innate talent, which is a factor too, but not as often as you’d expect. Whether a child enjoys drawing enough to stay with it is not tied to their ability, in the beginning anyway. Looking at drawings by a group of 4 and 5 year olds, it is hard to predict which of the kids will become artists in future, and which will become accountants. At around age 8 or 9, the difference in artistic ability becomes more obvious, but by then, many children have already abandoned drawing. Those who enjoy it, despite the frustration, will keep drawing, and the extra time spent scribbling makes a difference that you can see.

For me, drawing was an interest, an escape, and it even played a part in healing me at times. Being alone, drawing in my room, or figuring out how others did the drawings that amused me in magazines and books, is a constant memory of my childhood. I have a vivid memory of a magazine article about the animation director Chuck Jones I read at around the age of 9. I’d already noticed that his name on the cartoon credits meant something hilarious was about to happen, so this article didn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know, but it was full of pictures from the cartoons themselves, and this was more precious to me than gold. In an age when every home was not connected to the internet or a digital printer, we didn’t have access to images whenever we wanted, so an article about cartoons complete with pictures I could cut out and keep was a treasure. Reverently, I glued them into my ’portfolio’.

on_drawing_3

Children are very concerned with ’growing up’ and so abandoning drawing can be a self conscious attempt to leave ’childish’ things behind. When we learn to read, we move from picture books, then to picture books with some words, then to story books with spot illustrations, and finally to books that are all text with no pictures at all. Thus, we are culturally conditioned to associate pictures with immaturity. Even my career as a cartoonist is rooted firmly in children’s media; animation is occasionally done for adults, but not very often, so if you want to draw as I do for a living you must make your peace with your role as babysitter.  Even though you could make the case that running around chasing a ball is childish too, the fact that adults stay focused on sports means that children stay with it too, but we have ingrained in us that pictures are for kids.

The fact that our education system doesn’t place much importance on visual skills beyond kindergarten is another reason that many children give up drawing. At a similar age, we are being awarded prizes for academic and athletic achievement, so improvement in those areas (and overcoming the frustrations of your limitations) is rewarded. In my experience that was not the case with drawing, where the rewards were all purely personal.

On the other hand, drawing skill not being rewarded, or even acknowledged by ’the system’ was a large part of its appeal to me as a child. Making pictures was the only thing that gave me pleasure that wasn’t contingent on the opinions of team members, class mates, parents or teachers. After about the age of 10, none of my other classmates drew, so it wasn’t a question of competing or being compared to anyone else. Drawing was something that I could do on my own, free from any judgements or comparisons with others.

In adulthood, when I discovered the camaraderie of the art community on the internet, I wished there’d been such a fantastic resource when I was a child. In a small country town, to have had access to a community of like-minded people around the globe would have been marvelous, it seemed to me. But I’ve come to realize that being left to my own devices was probably just what my frail ego needed. By the time I was about 13, my younger brother Rob too took an interest in drawing. It shames me now to remember that at the time, I found this a source of insecurity rather than joy, as I do now. At that age, I’d finally found a persona and identified myself as ’the kid who drew’ and feared sharing the title, as ridiculous as that now sounds. Thankfully, my shrill note of insecurity passed, Rob continued to draw, and in fact he later went to art school. I’m happy to say that he paints to this day, and we often swap notes about the creative process.

At times, it seemed a disadvantage that my interest in drawing grew in isolation, because I had no one to speak with about my interests. Yet, it was really an amazing advantage, because I had many years to develop my own voice, free of comparisons with others. Eventually, my lifelong interest in drawing led me to do it for a living rather than solely to amuse myself, as I did as a child. By the time I was compared to others, and as a pro-cartoonist it is a fact of life, I’d already built a solid relationship with drawing. Even though I was constantly challenged, and worked daily in the presence of masters whose abilities far overshadow my own, it didn’t change the fact that I love drawing. But if I’d been subjected to the ego acid-bath of this process earlier, my frail adolescent ego may not have survived the competition, and I might have tossed drawing aside, as I did so many other worthy pursuits.

As a pro-cartoonist I was surrounded by other people who drew, and drew astonishingly well. Like it or not, I had to accept that I was no longer ‘special’. But in exchange for this reality-check, I became part of a creative collaboration, which is wonderfully rewarding in another way. I grew to take pleasure in the prowess of others, and seeing those phantoms plucked from other people’s minds and then made ‘real’, via their drawings gave me daily delight. Sometimes, it is hard for a pro to summon up that spirit of pure joy that drawing gave as a child, because the drawings are now tied to budgets and schedules, and generally bogged down in other mundane things, yes, even including the judgements of others that I was blissfully spared as a kid. But I think that my best work as a pro came on those days when I could somehow find that childish, playful joy, and pour it into a picture. That spirit sustains me now that I’m learning to draw again these many years later.

childhood_drawings_1972_004

It is difficult for me to imagine my life over the past 30 years without drawing, which ultimately led me out of my home town, took me around around the world, allowed me to see (and sketch!) many foreign lands, and connects me to so many of my friends today. Animation is at times a topsy-turvy business, and I’ve been at it long enough to have seen the great breathing cycle of the industry expand and contract several times already. It can be nerve wracking, but it’s never felt like the wrong choice. I’ve loved living a life led by drawing, and I sincerely hope to get back at it one day; as a south-paw now that my trusty right hand is kaput.

But what about that alternate-universe version of me pointed out by my childhood friend, Peter? An other James Baker whose Dad did not accept a job in another state, and who may not have been briefly thrown on his own inner resources, and might never have discovered the lifelong joys of drawing? Well, what did HE do for a career for the past 30 years, I wonder?

Jan 072014
 

It’s difficult to preserve memory when your older-self’s revised view constantly overwrites the original impression. How do you file a loving memory of someone you no-longer like? Or childhood memories of wonder, but of things now uncool? Do you owe it to your earlier-self to keep that first impression alive?

SW_yard

One such moment, is a memory of awe and fascination from a lazy summer day in my home town; Boxing Day 1977. The day before, we’d opened presents under our Christmas tree, which was a eucalypt decorated with ornaments and lights (snaffling an Australian-themed Christmas tree was Dad’s own personal tradition). Then we’d had a sunny Christmas lunch outside, under a crabapple tree humming with cicadas. Now Christmas was over, the salvageable wrapping paper was already put away by Mum, and it would be another year before we’d see sweat-soaked Santas in the Australian summer sun, Dad would be complaining about rampant Christmas commercialism again, and the cycle would begin anew.

Hakuna Matata.

My pal Stephen and I sat in my family kitchen thinking of what to do now that Christmas was behind us and we’d “rounded the horn” of the Summer Holidays. As I picked holiday fruitcake out of my braces, Stephen read a movie synopsis from the newspaper about a farmhand from outer-space. I was not like the sophisticated, eyeball-rolling 13 year-olds of today, yet even to me “Luke Skywalker” was the dumbest name I’d ever heard, but a movie with my mates was the best idea I’d heard on that particular Boxing Day, so off we went to watch a new film called STAR WARS.

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In 1977, there weren’t world-wide simultaneous movie releases, and film-prints just crawled from cinema to cinema around the planet, taking 7 months for a mid-year American release to reach my home town. Amazingly, I knew nothing about the cinema sensation of the year, when Stephen and I entered a packed theatre to watch it. First, there was a documentary (an Australian content-quota meant countless naff documentaries) and that night it was about auto-racing and was extra boring, but thankfully the screen went dark when a blown fuse threw the theatre into chaos. We threw lollies at our pal John in the dark, and he lobbed them back at us, while everyone played the fool, rolled Jaffas down the aisle, and called out silly names. After what seemed forever, the power was restored, the audience settled down, the documentary was shelved, and the feature-attraction finally began.

A NEW HOPE
Immediately, I sat up and took notice because Star Wars was way more spectacular than anything I’d ever seen. Without messing about with credits, we were dropped into a budget-blowing opening sequence of battling spaceships, gun fights and robots. I was used to waiting an hour to see anything half as spectacular as the opening shot of this movie. True, Bond films started with action, and that same year, SPY WHO LOVED ME opened with a stuntman skiing off a cliff under a UNION JACK parachute. But first, I’d had to watch Roger Moore’s smirking eyebrow-dance, his alpine snog-sesh, then a cheesy rear-projected ski chase I’d seen before. Star Wars on the other hand, had an opening sequence unlike anything I’d seen, plus aliens and robots, and had the show-stoppingest, climactic action sequence of the year (with Roger Moore’s wrinkly chest nowhere to be seen.)

Seeing Star Wars for the first time at the age of 13 put me in the demographic sweet-spot it was made for, but I remember how much I did not understand in 1977. For example, the movie starts on two robots, then white-armoured troopers arrive, who I thought were robots too. They were led by (I thought) another black-clad robot, using robot-strength to lift a goodie off the deck and bust his neck. I don’t remember when I learned who was a robot and who was human (from a novelisation, I expect) but I watched the movie that first time none the wiser. Unspectacular details also blew my mind in 1977: Aunt Beru serving Luke’s space-lunch with BLUE MILK (Bantha milk perhaps?) WOW. And when Luke slouches off for his teenage-sulk, he stares at a view of not one but two setting suns. WOAH. (I did teen-sulks that year too, but only had the view of Dad’s compost heap at the bottom of our vegetable garden to pose wistfully with.)

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I was floored by Star Wars at 13 years old, but I didn’t see it again before finishing its 1977 run, and in the pre-video age I couldn’t see it whenever I wanted. Thus, for many years, the power of this movie was that it existed largely in my mind, and my life as a day-dreaming fan was under way. I ordered the “Art of Star Wars” book (which eventually fell apart from re-reading) and though I’d already decided on a career in animation, I considered being a movie concept-designer, and drew spaceships and robots in addition to the cartoons I’d drawn for years.

I was too young for 1960s “Beatlemania” (only becoming aware of The Beatles many years after they’d disbanded and John already looked like the Unabomber) but was at ground-zero for its 1970s equivalent; the Star Wars phenomenon. I doubt that a movie will ever have that impact again, simply because the scale of its success was not anticipated. The media-blitz IS anticipated now, and in fact planned for whether we want it or not, and is an attempt to artificially recreate the run-away explosion of interest in (and subsequent consumer purchasing of) Star Wars. Thanks to the media frenzy, there were interviews, behind-the-scenes articles, cultural-theorisings, novelisations, and comics and magazines like never before, and of course, unprecedented merchandising. (That alone left me uninterested. Though I carry the NERD gene, it’s a mutation that leaves me immune to toys).

While awaiting the Star Wars sequel, I sought out director George Lucas’ influences, with mixed results. After wading through LORD OF THE RINGS, a book thicker than our telephone directory, I was outraged to realise by the last chapters that the insufferable band of bloody hobbits, wretched wizards and mincing elves had essentially just decided to do something, and got nowhere near blasted Mordor by the end of the first book. (Structurally the equivalent of Luke Skywalker getting to Mos Eisley; The End.) I hurled the book against the wall in frustration, and never knew what happened next till Peter Jackson ‘read’ the trilogy for me.

EMPIRE STRIKES BACK
When the Star Wars sequel came out a few Christmases later I was 16 years old and a textbook example of a teenage nerd. Reader of comics? CHECK. Animation Aficionado? OF COURSE. Lousy at sports? GUILTY. Lover of sci-fi movies? MAIS OUI. Obsessed with Star Wars? DOUBLE CHECK. Terminally celibate? CHECK and MATE! (Minus the mating part). I’d often imagined what Mr Lucas might do with his next Star Wars film (snort) but EMPIRE STRIKES BACK surpassed all my expectations, and delivered perhaps THE surprise twist of my cinema going life (“His father?! Wha!!”)

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By 1980, I was old enough to baby-sit my siblings and urged Mum & Dad to see the sequel, assuring them it was a masterpiece. While they wasted their date-night seeing MY obsession, we boys teased my 5 year old sister Victoria that she could not be Princess Leia in our Star Wars game (“Aw! I don’t wanna be an Ugnaught!”) Later, the kids were in bed and Mum & Dad retuned. Far from being awestruck, they appeared to give substantially less than even one shit about the movie. When pressed, Mum said, “Well… It’s a bit… LURID, isn’t it, dear.” I was aghast at this tepid reaction, and more so after checking a dictionary;

LURID- Adj: very vivid in color, especially so as to create an unpleasantly harsh or unnatural effect.

What the?! My parents grew up on the serials that inspired Star Wars, but interestingly, the 1970s redo of their childhoods did nothing for them.

Around this time, I learned of a Sydney animation studio and set my sights on getting a job there, gravitating back to my first love of drawing cartoons, but my brain still marinated in a brine of Star Wars, and the obsession strangely broadened my horizons. I read about director George Lucas’ film-maker heroes; about Kurosawa, about John Ford (and others) and when I moved to Sydney to start work, I was finally able to track down their films at art-house and repertory theatres, and learned a lot about cinema history and filmic language. This exciting period is the closest thing I had to film school.

RETURN OF THE JEDI
Christmas of 1983, I was working at Hanna Barbera when RETURN OF THE JEDI arrived in Sydney theatres. I was excited to see how the Star Wars saga wrapped up, and after the previous instalment, my expectations were unbelievably high. Perhaps inevitably, the film itself was anticlimactic. Maybe it was that the Star Wars series was finally (I thought) over? Or was it the failings of the film itself; the unblinking Space Teddy Bears and so on? Perhaps it was because I’d recently been through a lot (Mum died around the previous Christmas). Or simply that I was too old, at the age of 19, and could now see the movie ‘strings and wires’?

SW_jedi

I work within an industry that makes stories for children, and my colleagues and I were called to this life as an extension of our own childhood awe at similar films. In fact, many friends are working on those exact film-series that they loved as children, including Star Wars. “The circle is now complete” (as a certain trouble-maker once said). We Pro-nerds started as child-fans but now make the mind-candy. That must be cool, right? Well, yes and no. We love the process but are now part of the artifice, and no longer feel the magic of these things. Sometimes we must work hard at keeping our pro-present from twisting the feelings of our fan-past.

After a few more years working in Sydney studios in the mid-1980s- a time when it honestly felt that the animation industry was dwindling, and would be dead within 10 years- I travelled while pondering my plan-B career options. I worked for various studios, first in Asia, then in Europe, then the USA, arriving in the very city where the Star Wars movies were made in time for an animation renaissance that revitalised the industry. Before long, I actually worked for George Lucas’ company itself, while he made the first of the Star Wars prequels. I was 35 and despite myself, excited to see what Mr Lucas would do with Star Wars next..

REVENGE OF THE PHANTOM CLONES
..until I saw the movie, that is. While it is very true that STAR WARS changed my life, the PHANTOM MENACE changed it back again, which is perhaps for the best. They are, after all, only movies. A fact that Mr Lucas himself may have forgotten. In 1970s interviews after his Star Wars success, Mr Lucas cited a fun blend of movie serials, comics, and pulp magazines as its foundation. The Joseph Campbell theorising came later, initially offered by others, and George may have gotten drunk on it. When you see yourself as the modern myth-maker laureate, instead of a modern maker of pulp-serials, it’s not surprising that you might forget the essential ingredient of FUN.

Imagine the 1977 Star Wars without Han Solo. Instead, Luke & Obi-Wan are helped by another pontificating Jedi-dude in his spaceship. Structurally, the story would be the same, and I would’ve still loved that version at the age of 13 because, well, I was 13. However, without Han Solo taking the piss out of The Force and the rest of it, anyone older would’ve only had a whiny kid or a pair of ponderous old gits to connect with. To a general audience, Star Wars would’ve been insufferable without Han Solo (and to some extent, The Princess) as the ‘way in’ to the Jedi malarkey. This is essentially what we have in the Star Wars prequels; they are very dour (Yoda used to be a cheeky trickster, remember?) and the only character not bound to Jedi mumbo jumbo is a CGI Rasta duck/rabbit. 13 year olds love it (I would’ve too at that age) but without a likable adult foil the prequels are a ponderous tale about a cult of bearded virgins taking themselves very seriously, and well, if I’d wanted to see that I’d just buy a ticket to Comic Con.

THE NERD APOCALYPSE
Many original-trilogy Star Wars fans have theories about the prequels, and Mr Lucas’ missteps that led him there, and I’m no different. But perhaps the more interesting thing to think about is that WE too lost our perspective? The Phantom Menace is the best value for money ever spent on a movie ticket, because people are still talking about it. What other movie of 1999, or other year for that matter, has given that return on an $8 investment? I myself have participated in many fun geek-out discussions about it, but worry that ‘hating movies’ is the new ‘loving movies’. Fan-love is strong, but has a bitter taste when it curdles, and in the crazy hyperbole of The Internet, many fans even claimed that George Lucas had raped their childhoods.

It was as if the Beatles reformed, but as a polka band, much to the horror of their old fans, who were aghast when the Re-Beatles’ POLKA album found new fans and went triple platinum anyway. The fact that Lucas himself directed the prequels made the anger more intense, and rabid Star Wars fans forgot that these were movies, not holy scriptures, and were supposed to be FUN. Fans complaining that Mr Lucas ruined their childhoods, should relax. If what we fondly remember is a moment in time, and what it meant to us back then, then we still have it.

SW_poster

I saw Star Wars once in 1977 and not again until 1983, and never had a scene-for-scene memory of it, the way some fans do. Yet I had the film indelibly stored inside me anyway, as a collection of memories, feelings and impressions. This, along with photos from magazines, novelisations and comics, became my own personal “Special Edition”, existing only in my head. But if you fetishise the object itself, you are at the mercy of the Nerd/Media complex; that relationship between fans and the companies that own the intellectual properties. When a nerd cherishes an adolescent moment of wonder, the company does too if it centres on a THING that can be sold (and resold) to the nerd.
Q: But what happens if the company (even the original filmmaker) messes with the fetishised object, changing the context of things?
A: Lo, a great wailing and gnashing of teeth that will echo all down the numerous vales of the Internet.

In an old interview with Mr Lucas, he talked of the movie serials he loved as a child, and how surprised he was to later discover that they were actually shoddily made, when he saw them again at film school. For this disconnect to happen, not constantly re-watching the original was a key element in its growth into something else in his mind. As a pro-nerd himself, Mr Lucas processed his disappointment by making something that captured the MEMORY of his beloved serials, but was better made, and STAR WARS was born. For my generation Star Wars was new, and made a huge impression, but my parents saw Star Wars for the slick rehash that it was. Now that I’m middle-aged myself, and neck-deep in rehash after redo, homage after rip-off, ad infinitum, of things I grew up on, I finally understand why Mum & Dad were unimpressed when they saw Empire Strikes Back in 1980. (Verily, I forgive you now, Mum & Dad.)

Keep your cherished childhood impressions free of bitterness by remembering that it’s not only the object (film, book, record or whatever) that you love, but also how old you were, who you were with, the entire place and time itself and your relationship to it. This can never be recreated when simply re-watching that same movie, over and over, but happily, is always part of your internal world, and thus not at the mercy of corporate “re-imaginings” or director’s “re-edits”. Just as Mr Lucas found inspiration for Star Wars in a moment of disappointment with serials from his childhood, hopefully LOADS of material is gestating in the minds of disappointed fans who saw the Star Wars prequels, maybe even a couple that are truly original creations. Cherishing a moment of wonder but then fetishising the film that inspired it is a dead end, but using that feeling to inspire the creation of something new, keeps the flame alive.

If my 13 year old self knew that the two Nerd-Gods of my adolescent world; Walt Disney and George Lucas, would one day be in bed together, my 13 year old brain would be aquiver in febrile anticipation. Now, having been an eager Storm-trooper for both their companies, I’m not so sure. Creatively, it could go either way; bring STAR WARS back to life? Or flog the dead horse into glue? But the fact that Lucasfilm was an Indie film studio, hugely successful yes, but working outside of Hollywood as an independent, means that I was saddened by the Lucas/Disney marriage and to see Lucasfilm consumed.

Hakuna Matata

There are strange moments in Star Wars, viewed now as an adult. If it was intended for children, Luke finding his Aunt and Uncle cooked into beef jerky by Imperial troopers (the only time they ever hit what they aimed at) is a very unsettling image. It was for me, anyway. On the other hand, if it was for grown ups, then Princess Leia’s emotional life is hard to read; she sees her planet and everyone she loved, destroyed, and the next that we see her, she cooly sasses Luke Skywalker for being too short. Smart-arse sociopath? Or still stoned after her visit from the Pusher-Droidâ„¢ with the syringe? Her forgetting of Chewie’s Victory Medal (which I was peeved about at 13) could be anti-Wookie racism, but maybe we should give her the benefit of the doubt and chalk it ALL up to her Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.. (Verily, I forgive you now, Princess). Seen today, the disco hair in Star Wars roots it firmly in the era of Donna Summer and the special effects that floored a generation no longer seem so special. In fact, how long before Disney reboots the series altogether? Probably as soon as they have episodes 7, 8, and 9 in the can. I hope they tread carefully, lest they start the unholy rehash-backlash Nerd-Apocalypse II. (I might just sit that one out.)

It’s difficult to make sense of a lifetime of impressions of such an iconic and over-watched movie. I have vivid memories of seeing it for the very first time with the wide-eyed awe of a child, and also with the eyes of an adult who’s seen it umpteen times and aware of its limitations. This constant layering of memory- not just of this movie but of everything in our experience- means that, inevitably, we are ALL Lucas-like in our heads; constantly tinkering with the edits of our lives. So how to sum it all up? Maybe the trick to memory is to hold on to multiple versions simultaneously; the current view AND the younger view… By all means have a REVISED edition, and as many alternate versions as you like, but unlike Mr Lucas, don’t make the mistake of ever taking that original CLASSIC version out of circulation.

———

SW_walk

I have kept alight within me many memories of childhood wonder, trying to hold onto them lightly lest they break, or worse, become twisted. In one of them, it is always Boxing Day 1977 and I am just walking out of the Capitol Theatre with my friends Stephen and John, into an Australian summer evening. Like many people, I’m agog at what I just saw up on that movie-screen, but maybe a little more agog than most. With the perspective of time (and a little self-knowledge) I see why that particular 13 year old kid identifies with the story of a dweeb from a small town in the middle of nowhere and his quest for adventure. Of course I was primed to love this movie of fantasy and escapism, and was on the hook from the first frame till the last, and always will be.

Luke Skywalker whined about not going to Toshi Station to pickup those tasty power-converters, and meanwhile, a few galaxies away, 13 year old me whines that I’ll never fly a spaceship, meet a robot or make friends with a giant alien ape. Walking home, I mention to Stephen what a bummer it is that real life is never going to live up to that movie. I say good night, go inside my house, and sit on the couch. A career in animation is a few years away, adventures around the world are further away, and working for George Lucas himself is even further away and, as my mind joyfully races through the galaxies, I stare at the tinfoil STAR over the shedding Christmas tree…

SW_couch

Oct 012013
 

As a child, going to the cinema was special. Seeing even a crummy movie back then was somehow way more fun than seeing an absolutely amazing movie is for me today. Of course, my childhood was in the pre-video era, when perhaps the anticipation of a movie and the fond memories of it afterward were greater than they are now, even though the movies themselves were less spectacular by far. Having no video, I could not replay the movies I liked whenever I wanted. I saw them only once and then they were gone, continuing only in my mind where they often grew over time into something much more fascinating than the movie that inspired them.

These days, we guzzle at the media-trough, day-in day-out, and forget those leaner times. Compared with the children of today I was media malnourished; we didn’t have an X-Box, 100 TV channels or a library of streaming video to choose from at home. There were only two TV channels in my home town, and one of those didn’t broadcast till after lunch, when you’d get hours of boring cricket, and even that would be in black and white. (Australia didn’t get colour TV till about 1975 and my family not till years after that).

So, for colour movie entertainment, there were really only two ways to go. My very earliest memories of movie-going are of the Drive-In, in a car packed with crying younger siblings. Or, for a more refined viewing experience, there was the Cinema, where on special occasions, Dad would take me on a lad’s night out. In my home town, the movie palace was the old 1920s CAPITOL THEATRE, where my Dad watched films when he was growing up, and I experienced a lot of my own great movie memories too, including seeing my first JAMES BOND film. My vivid memories of cinema-going start with a viewing of DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER with my Dad at the age of 7. I had not seen anything like it.

DAF_poster

I remember we walked the few blocks to the “THE PICTURES” one summer evening, probably in early 1972. Dad bought our Maltesers, Jaffas and Fantales, we took our seats and when the house lights went down, we watched the cartoon. I get my love of cartoons, which ultimately led me to working in animation myself, from my Dad. My Mum never “got” cartoons. (I am reminded of the time Dad and I laughed so hard at a BUGS BUNNY cartoon on the Telly, that Mum stomped out of the kitchen, mixing bowl still in hand, to see what the hilarity was about. After alternately staring blank-faced at the cartoon, and watching us kack ourselves with laughter, she sighed in resignation to this mystery and went away none the wiser.) Anyway, it saddens me that nowadays cinemas show commercials instead of cartoons, but they were still dependably shown at the cinema when I was little, to our great enjoyment. With any luck the cartoon that day would have been by WARNER BROTHERS (maybe even the beloved Bunny) then after some brief COMING SOON info, the movie itself finally began. I leaned forward to watch…

CRASH! A judo guy is hurled through a window. BASH! A man in dark glasses is choked and gruffly interrogated by a mystery man. Wait, now there’s a pretty lady in a bikini. We finally meet the mystery man; an intense-looking bloke with cranky eyebrows in a polyester safari suit, who inexplicably strangles the friendly bikini lady with her own bikini top. (!?) In the next scene, eyebrows-man is confronted by the bloke he seeks; a smug-looking man flanked by henchmen, their guns understandably leveled at violent eyebrow-man, who suddenly steams fiercely about the place, stabbing the henchmen; THUNK! THUNK! Then, in a scene I remember most vividly, he tosses smug-man into a vat of molten mud. (Wow.) And all of this before the opening titles, which featured a diamond encrusted cat and silhouettes of cavorting and bejeweled naked ladies.

DAF_Bond

That was a lot to process for someone more used to DOCTOR DOLITTLE (seen on a previous boys’ movie night). Amazingly to me at the time, I soon discovered that the cranky guy with the eyebrows, who single-handedly provoked this non-stop sequence of unexplained violence, was the “goodie” of this movie; James Bond. He was a “real” person but capable of unloading just as much cartoon violence as Bugs Bunny and, unlike the rabbit, when he despatched his foes in cartoonishly outrageous ways, they bled and stayed very dead. This was a new idea.

I’m not even sure if Dad himself knew what was in store for us when he bought our tickets. Had he ever seen a Bond movie before? Perhaps not. I seem to remember him squirming uncomfortably in his seat as James Bond did his all baddie-murdering and lady-strangling. This must have been a racier evening than Dad had planned for his 7 year old son, who was transfixed in goggle-eyed amazement nevertheless. I had absolutely no idea what it was all about, but unlike DOCTOR DOLITTLE, which has almost evaporated from my memory completely, I sat at the very edge of my seat engrossed in finding out what this naughty Bond fellow got up to next. It was some grownup code that needed deciphering, especially the scenes with pretty ladies that had, to my 7 year old brain, a weird undefinable something extra that I could not fathom..

DAF_BambiThumper

A much later viewing in my adulthood identified this mystery element as a cheesy, nudge-nudge-wink-wink 1970s kitsch-eroticism, only one notch up the bogus-innuendo scale from Benny Hill. In the early 2000s, myself and my friend ROBERT had decided to watch all the Bond movies in order over several days, with the easy review-ability of LAZER DISC. We both had dim, fond memories of seeing a few of these films in our childhoods, and watching them ALL seemed a grand idea. However, like an all-you-can-eat challenge at the neighborhood Hof Brau, that once-grand idea soon fills you with regret and nausea when you are at half way, and will ultimately break you completely. Fond memories or not, we simply could not chew our way through all the pap. (For the record, Roger Moore was the greasy plate of macaroni and beef that sent us scuttling to the lavatory).

Seeing these Bond movies again was a revelation. Some were cheesy-but-good, one or two were actually good-good, but the vast majority were just plain silly. As for DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER, it was revealed to be the most lackluster of Sean Connery’s Bond movies by far. He was beyond his sleek, 1960s, dangerous-panther phase, and had not yet reached his later, 1980s, silver-fox phase. It was those awkward in-between years; his 1970s, bored, toupee-and-girdle phase. The film had little of the danger I had remembered, and was actually tame compared to what children watch today, almost AUSTIN POWERS.DAF_BondGun

I rather preferred the deadliness of the film I had carried around in my head since childhood, and perhaps that’s the secret to the Bond Franchise’s success? Maybe this film series lives so vividly because we’ve EACH selected our favourite dishes from the Bond buffet table– the best baddie, best helicopter chase, most vivacious babe, snazziest theme song, most bruising brawl, scariest henchman, most exciting car chase, greatest gizmo and the best Bond-actor– and assembled in our minds a custom-made, mega-meta-movie platter all along? We each remember an absolutely awesome Bond movie that perhaps never really existed.

In fact, this may be the case with many of the films that I love, especially those that impressed me as a child. The versions of those films that I hold in my mind were merely inspired by the actual films, and what I love was only ever in my imagination. After all, foods, wines and whiskeys often gain more flavour by being allowed to age undisturbed in a cellar, and perhaps this true of film as well. Is the human mind the oak-barrel aging room of media? If so, perhaps our relationship to film has fundamentally changed in the post-video age, when we can instantly call up any scene from any movie that we wish on YouTube or streaming video. Easy access to the originals doesn’t allow for the distortions and amplifications of memory.

DAF_car

So rather than overwrite that old memory of being enthralled by DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER at the age of 7, with the unimpeachable evidence that the film is actually pretty shoddy, with a puffy lead actor who barely performs above a yawn, I prefer to keep the thrilling memory of the movie experience I’ve had in my head all those years: Me at the age of 7, with my Dad on a boys night out to see a great movie! Vividly-remembered scenes of James Bond brawling in a swimming pool with not one but TWO kung fu bikini girls, WOW! And that deadly fight in a lift, COOL! What about that stunt with a car going though a skinny alleyway? YEAH! And what’s going on with those two very creepy assassin guys? Hey Dad, maybe we shouldn’t talk about it too much, because Mum wouldn’t “get it”, don’t you think?

It’s the stuff that a cuddly childhood memory is made of.

Sep 082009
 

In honour of my Dad’s visit to San Francisco last week, here is another image from our elephant book collaboration from a year or two ago.

My father and his wife Wendy landed here on the home-bound leg of an around the world trip, and I played host to them at my tiny apartment. I also took on the role of turbo-tour-guide as I showed them as much of San Francisco as possible in the brief time that they were here, which made for a sometimes tiring schedule, especially as it is still tourist season so we had lots of competition in trying to get onto cable cars, buses and ferries and into art museums and galleries…

But having out-of-town visitors makes for a good excuse to really get out and take a look at this beautiful city that I am so lucky to live in. The weather has been beautiful and we couldn’t have had a better week for sightseeing (The visibility from Twin Peaks was the best I have ever seen in my many visits up there).

Apart from time spent with my family, I have also been trying to draw and paint on location lately, but I haven’t done much of anything that I am very happy to show yet, despite the enjoyment I get from doing this. Hopefully, I will generate some drawings worthy of posting here sometime soon. The art-posts have become infrequent on my blog this year and I need to address that…

If I am posting a lot on my blog it usually means I have a lot of spare time, and conversely when posts become sparse, it is often a sign that I have some fun things happening in the real world. That has been the case lately; I have been busy with real life and haven’t been posting much on here… but there will be some scribbles posted soon, I promise!

Feb 082008
 

On my trip back home to Australia I had many chances to reminisce with old friends and family members about childhood memories. Disturbingly, I discovered on more than one occasion that my memories were inaccurate.

One happy childhood memory concerns my favourite children’s book, THE MAGIC PUDDING. I remember being very young and my Dad reading to me from this book over the course of a few nights just before I went to sleep. In my memory he is sitting on the edge of my bed doing all the voices of the characters as he reads. At the end of each chapter he snaps the book closed, saying that the rest will have to be read NEXT time, and I eagerly look forward to the next instalment. This happy memory is one of the many reasons that I love the book. The only problem is that it didn’t happen.

I found out this past Christmas that my Dad has never even read the Magic Pudding. He was quite adamant about it. I could easily absorb the idea that he may have forgotten reading the book to me, after all he had seven children, but it is harder to ignore the fact that he has no memory of reading the most famous Australian children’s book that there is.

Where did this memory come from? Did someone ELSE read the book to me and I somehow confused them with my own Dad (unlikely) Or did I make the memory up myself? If that is true how many of my other memories are fictions? Not being able to trust your memories of your own life is a very disturbing sensation…

Dec 272007
 

My blog-posting will be a bit spotty while I am travelling; I am not always able to get to the internet and when I do I am not always able to use my own laptop to upload new images.

This is a portrait of PLINY THE ELDER, used to illustrate a quote from his famous Naturalis Historia, which was part of the introduction to my Dad’s Elephant limerick book. (The pencil sketch for this illustration was posted earlier, HERE.) Nobody knows for sure what Pliny the Elder actually looked like, so my version of him was modelled on another classical scholar; my own Dad, who was, of course, the author of the limericks in our collaboration.

I gave my Dad’s new wife, WENDY, a framed 11×14 Giclee print of this image as a Christmas present. It went over very well with her because, unlike Dad, she understood that it was a caricature of him immediately. She wasn’t the only person that I gave artwork to; using my new Epson printer, I printed out a LOT of Giclee prints of my artwork and brought them home to Australia as easy-to-carry Christmas presents to give to my Family this year…

My family doesn’t get many opportunities to gather, now that we live at all points on the compass, but when we do manage to wrangle a family get-together, it is always a lot of fun, and this year’s Christmas was no exception. I had a wonderful time.

I hope that that all of you had a Happy Christmas, as well!

Dec 152007
 

This is an illustration from my Dad’s Elephant book, for a limerick about a dual Elephant Wedding held at a Thai Elephant preserve.


My Father got married today in my home town, and I was his Best Man. For a laugh, I gave my speech entirely in Limerick. When HE finds the time to illustrate MY limericks, we’ll have our second collaboration ready to go. Despite the stresses of public speaking and the behind-the-scenes logistics of Wedding planning, it was a very happy day with lots of family and friends that I had not seen in years.