Friday, 29 October 2021

The War on Chastity -- and Vera Lynn's part in it

"When the lights go on again all over the world ...
Then we'll have time for things like wedding rings"

(from "When the Lights Go on Again" by Bennie Benjamin, Sol Marcus and Eddie Seiler, Warner/Chappell Music)

I've been immersing myself in the wartime hits of Vera Lynn and enjoying a fantasy of giving a Stars in Their Eyes type performance one day. My 'set' is up to ten songs now, none of them the ones that Vera is most famous for, and some of them still have the power to reduce me to tears, which is tricky when driving. It used to be "A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square" that made me blub, but thoroughly learning a song, including the timing of the crisp consonants that Vera always includes at the ends of her words (she has such exquisite diction!), seems to neutralise the devastating power of the lyrics after a while. Currently it's "How Green Was My Valley" and the end of "That Lovely Week-end" that still have the pathos to draw my tears.
     Singing these marvellous songs over and over has made me focus on the lyrics and what the effect of them must have been when they were hits during World War II. Two in particular have made me think about the way the war speeded up changes in behaviour and hastened the dismantling of sexual restrictions that we more often associate with the Sixties.
     While I've been writing my novel, Don't You Ever Cry, which is set in 1946, I watched as many Forties films as I could and a strong theme I noticed in several of them was a push-me-pull-you wavering of the morality around women's sexuality and agency (see, for example, My Reputation from 1946). The war effort needed women to step up into men's roles, to do the work that the men had done before they went off to fight which was liberating and empowering. There was also an accelerated social acceptance of the idea that Our Boys should enjoy the love (and sex) of a good woman when they were on leave, to fortify them for their return to the front. Both of those things represented rapid and disruptive changes to the social structures that were in place before the war (such as 'saving yourself' until you were married -- of course not everyone did by any means but that was the social standard). Yet at the same time women were still expected to be good wives and mothers, and once the war was over they had to be able to be corralled back into the home, so that the men could have their jobs back again. To put it crudely, they had to pull off the old Madonna/whore conundrum, an almost impossible challenge. However, some of Vera's songs offer a kind of primer in how to do it.
     I'm going to look closely at two song lyrics. I think they contained interesting messages to the women who first heard them. There are links to YouTube so you can hear Vera's recordings.

First up is "That Lovely Week-end", written by Moira and Ted Heath and recorded by Vera in 1942. It's a narrative song in which Vera takes the part of a woman who has just spent the eponymous weekend with her soldier boyfriend. She's writing him a letter to thank him for "Those two days of heaven you helped me spend". Make no mistake, the song is about the fact that she slept with him during his weekend leave:

"To mark the occasion we went out to dine
Remember the laughter, the music, the wine..."

     Note that the one thing she doesn't mention is the food, which was probably not terribly nice, given rationing. The song continues:
"That drive in the taxi when midnight had flown
Then breakfast next morning, just we two alone."

     The lyrics can't touch on the sex itself, but they symbolise it by referring to the heady anticipation of a taxi ride back to the hotel and then with a jump over the intimate night-time hours to breakfast in their room. This is rather racy stuff for the time.
     The song has already established that the woman's boyfriend is worth risking her reputation for. Not only is he sexy ("The thrill of your kiss as you stepped off the train"), he's also kind ("The smile in your eyes like the sun after rain"). The whole premise of sleeping with your man before marriage is that he has to be worth it and the woman has to trust his commitment to a shared future. She isn't fooling around.
     After the dreamy melody of the verse, there's a bridge with a much more urgent and anxious feel -- the tone changes, there's a kind of crisis in both the music and the lyrics:

"You had to go, the time was too short
We both had so much to say
Your kit to be packed, the train to be caught
Sorry I cried but I just felt that way."

     Emotions are running high, understandably. She has given herself to her man and now, at the point of greatest intimacy, they have to part almost immediately and the chap is heading into mortal danger. But then the melody of the verse returns to pour balm on their wounds:
"And now you have gone, dear, this letter I pen
My heart travels with you till we meet again
Keep smiling, my darling, and someday we'll spend
A lifetime as sweet as that lovely weekend."

     I like the echo of Vera's greatest hit, "We'll Meet Again", recorded three years earlier so already embedded in the national conscience. The song's great payoff is the promise that the "lovely weekend" is just a taster of the long and happy life the couple will spend together. It combines reassurance that one day the misery of the war will be over (though it would be another three long years before peace was declared) with justification of the decision to have sex before marriage -- don't worry, ladies, you're simply borrowing a little intimacy on credit from your expected lifetime with your man. No doubt in many cases this didn't turn out to be the case, but I think the lyric represents a pragmatic squaring of the circle of chastity vs sexual reward for Our Boys.

The other song that seems to speak to the same anxiety -- and even more intimately -- is the wonderful "Room Five Hundred and Four" (lyrics by Eric Maschwitz, music by George Posford). It was written for Maschwitz's 1940 revue New Faces, which also gave us "A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square". The sheet music above shows Judy Campbell, who was in the original cast. Vera Lynn recorded it in 1942, with Jay Wilbur and His Band. It's another narrative song in which a woman tells of a night spent with her lover in an expensive hotel. Unlike "That Lovely Week-end", the lyrics don't refer explicitly to wartime, but this story of one night in a hotel certainly fits in to the theme of squaring the circle of chastity vs the "gift of sex".

The first verse establishes the scene:
"Such a big hotel, a very grand one,
Right upon the avenue.
We could not afford it
But, Sweet, I just adored it,
My very first and only rendezvous"

     The modest bank balances of the pair are important to declare, so as not to alienate anyone listening -- this is an ordinary couple, just like you and me. The word "sweet", together with "sweetest" and "dearest", set the tone of non-threatening loveliness: this night of sex is going to be presented in as unthreatening manner as possible and, let's get this absolutely straight, our lady has never done anything like this before and never will again: her "first and only rendezvous". So don't go thinking she's some sort of loose woman.
     Let's go on to the next verse:
"In room five hundred and four,
So sweet a room, so strange and new,
It was romance, a dream come true
That perfect honeymoon alone with you
In room five hundred and four."

     The song is calling this a "honeymoon" but I don't think it's what we conventionally think of as a honeymoon, which is taken immediately after marriage. Rather, it's a kind of symbolic honeymoon -- as good as, a marker for the marriage that will surely follow. In this, it's exactly the same as "That Lovely Weekend" which looks forward to a "lifetime" together. Women were "allowed" to sleep with their boyfriend before marriage as long as they were fully committed to each other and intended to marry. In fact this get-around was socially sanctioned much longer ago than this -- in the 19th century the same quiet blind eye was turned to sex out of wedlock, as long as a couple were betrothed, certainly among the working class. But it was not alluded to in popular songs, as far as I know.
     The couple, no doubt by now anticipating their fast-approaching intimacy, go into their hotel room:

"We turned the key in the door
We hadn't dared to ask the price
That kind of thrill can't happen twice
And who could bargain over paradise
In room five hundred and four?"

     I love the line about bargaining over paradise, and the mention of a "thrill" is the raciest moment of the whole song. Let's not get overwrought, now! 

     Here comes the bridge:
"The lovely night, the starlight above,
The sleeping town below.
And in the dark you said, my love,
The dearest things I know."

     This is it, the actual bit where they, you know, In the dark. But the song veers away from passion and substitutes words in its place, the rather tame "dearest things I know". I feel this is part of the song's mission not to frighten the horses. As before, the sexual act is like an empty space at the heart of the song, and the lyrics always look away from it rather than at it -- up at the stars, down at the town, at the room itself, which becomes a metaphor for what happens there. The subtext of the song is that a "nice" woman will understandably be nervous about going to a hotel with a man, even if it's the man she fully intends to spend the rest of her life with, and so she can take comfort in the pretty hotel room and the reassurance that her man will only talk to her, not do anything physical and alarming. There's a twofold blurring of reality here, firstly the song sells the idea that sex is "sweet" and "dear" (which of course it can be, but it's not just that). Secondly, it also reinforces the idea that women won't be just as excited and passionate as men when it comes to sex. Mid-century mores are deeply embedded in this song.

     The final verse takes us forward in time and the woman looks back fondly on that night in Room 504:
"We don't live there any more,
But still in memory I adore
The sweetest room I ever saw,
A seventh heaven on the old fifth floor,
Our room five hundred and four."

     What strikes me here is the idea that the couple "lived" in the room. And this is underlined still further by it becoming "our room" in the last line. There's a sleight of hand that makes a single night in an anonymous hotel be part of the couple's "life together", a home. It isn't, but that's all part of the reassuring story which overlays rule-breaking sex with a veneer of photo-album sanctity.
     I love this song -- but it amuses me to dissect the have-your-cake-and-eat-it lyrics that gave women permission to sleep with their boyfriends at a time when no one knew if there would be a happy ever after.

If you'd like to read other posts relating to Don't You Ever Cry, my novel about love, sex and murder in 1946, read "Vera Lynn -- One of the Boys" and "Going Back to 1946".

Thursday, 28 October 2021

John James and Catherine Rosa Harris -- sleuthing an old photo


Catherine Rosa and John James Harris

I bought this nice old photograph for £1 from Snoopers Paradise in Brighton, happy source of many of the old photographs I've previously explored on this blog. As with all the photos I've 'investigated', one of the main reasons for choosing it, if not the main one, was that the subjects in it are identified on the back. Much as I like to think I have sleuthing skills, even I can't intuit the names of people in photos without a bit of help.

So, from the writing on the back, we know we have Catherine Rosa and John James Harris, who look to be aged around five and seven respectively, perhaps a little younger. They look like nice children and are probably dressed in their best clothes for the photo session -- although you can see that their footwear is a little worn, so perhaps the family were not terribly well off.
     When I first brought this photograph home, I thought it would be relatively easy to identify these two, because I assumed they were probably brother and sister, and I had full names for each of them. But as it turned out, I drew a blank -- I couldn't even see any candidates for the pair when I broadened the search on Ancestry to include variations on the spelling of Catherine's name. As I had bought other photos in Brighton which I got a 'hit' with, I set the Harris children aside -- for several years, as it turned out.
     Then, just recently, I came across the photo again and decided to have another go at cracking it. New information is added to Ancestry all the time, particularly by people who are researching their own family trees. At first I got nowhere again, and then, for the first time, I noticed that at the bottom right of the photo there's an address -- 62 Rundle Street. The photo card has actually been mis-cut, so that the name of the photographic studio that took the picture is almost completely cut off (bottom left), but the studio's address was still eminently searchable. To Google StreetView where Rundle Street turns out to be a highly developed shopping street in the centre of Adelaide, South Australia. Well, no wonder I was drawing a blank as I had my Ancestry search set to UK & Ireland only!
     While the turn-of-the-century buildings have disappeared from this very commercial part of Adelaide now, I found a photo of Fruhling Studios, which had its premises at 62 Rundle Street (corner of Gawler Place):

You can just make out the tops of the letters spelling 'Fruhling' on the bottom left of the photo.
     And now I soon found the Harris siblings in the Australian records as well. They were both native-born Australians, indeed born in Adelaide: John in August 1893 and Catherine in July 1895 -- so I'm dating the photograph to around 1899/1900. As far as I can tell, they were the only children born to John and Mary Harris who married in Adelaide in November 1891. Mary's maiden name was McGuire and she was also born in Adelaide, but her father, John McGuire, had been born in Co. Tyrone, Ireland before emigrating to Australia. Mary's mother (nee Grant) was also an emigre from Ireland and the couple married in Adelaide in 1862 (Mary was born in 1865 but many of her siblings were born before 1862, so there may be a mistake with the marriage date or they may have left it a bit late). 

John and Catherine's father John Harris had been born in Melksham, Wiltshire in 1862. His father, Jeremiah Harris, was a sheep farmer and Methodist preacher who married Rosa James in 1861 (and there's the link to Catherine's lovely middle name -- and possibly to John's middle name too). By 1871, the family had moved to Bysshe Court farm, Smallfield, near Horley in Surrey. On the date of the next census, 1881, John (the children's father) was 19 and living in Reading, lodging with a family and working as a butcher, no doubt a useful trade to have and one that you could carry out almost anywhere.
     He was 28 when, in November 1890, he embarked on the 75-day journey to Australia on the steamship Oruba, bound for Sydney with calls at Colombo, Albany, Adelaide and Melbourne on the way. This is assuming I've found the right John Harris in the passenger records:

 There is a small question mark over whether this is 'our' John Harris because his age is given as 24 whereas he would have been 28 -- but there is often a degree of uncertainty about ages.

John Harry Grainger

By chance, on the same voyage, the very successful architect and engineer John Harry Grainger was also a passenger, returning to Australia where he had a company (his other claim to fame is that he was the father of the well-known composer Percy Grainger). He had been back to England for a break following the breakdown of his marriage. Grainger was also a very accomplished artist and he painted this great watercolour of the Oruba setting sail on her voyage halfway around the globe:

S.S. Oruba leaving Plymouth for Australia, Nov 12, 1890 by J H Grainger, courtesy The Grainger Museum, Melbourne

When Grainger arrived back in Australia he settled in Adelaide -- and so did John Harris, perhaps growing tired of being at sea and jumping off when the ship made port in Adelaide rather than hanging on until they reached Sydney.
     John Harris seems to have landed on his feet as he was married to Mary McGuire within a year of his arrival and then his two children were born just a few years after that. I haven't found out much more about him except that he died in 1927, aged 65. It was to John's father that the photograph was sent: Jeremiah Harris, the farmer and Methodist preacher who lived near Horley in Surrey. His wife, Rosa, had died in 1892, which is why the photo is just 'To Grandpa'. It isn't very far from Horley to Brighton, which helps to explain how a photograph taken in Adelaide ended up in a vintage emporium there. Jeremiah died in 1908 and probably never got to meet his daughter-in law or his grandchildren in person.

What of John James and Catherine Rosa themselves? I found grown-up Catherine, married to an Alf Edwards, plasterer, at 90 Campbell Street, in the Collingwood area of Melbourne, from about 1931. The section where no.90 would be has been redeveloped, but I bet they lived in a little house like this one, further down Campbell St:

As for John James, he fought in World War I, in the Imperial Camel Corps in Egypt:

According to his military records (which you can see via Ancestry), he seems to have been hospitalised several times for illnesses such as gastritis but he made it through and returned to Adelaide in 1919. After that, I'm not sure -- there are several John James Harrises in the Australian records. I was quite excited to find a John James Harris who had been in trouble with the police in Adelaide and further afield in the late 1920s -- to the genealogist, such events always cause excitement. In September 1929, he illegally cut down some sandalwood along with an assistant, Frederick Lambert:

Then, one month later, the same John James Harris was in trouble for not paying Lambert's wages. He and his wife and three children left Adelaide (on the lam?):

However, I'm not 100% sure this is our John James. There's an ambiguity over his age (possibly a typo in the first report -- our John James would have been 36 in 1929), and the description is somewhat at odds with this one, from John James' sign-up papers in 1915 (which I'm much more confident about -- for a start, the age is exactly right, down to the month):

 Then in 1933 a John James Harris is wanted for non-payment of a fine (this is definitely a John James Harris, as other reports, not included here, use his full name):

Maybe it is him? But now he has fair hair and skin. His eyes are sometimes described as blue and sometimes as grey... You'll have to decide for yourself. Is this the grown-up version of the little boy in the photo, who perhaps found life hard after he returned from the traumas of the first world war?
     The lives that can unfold from one random photograph are so fascinating.

Saturday, 7 August 2021

Postcard Art / Postcard Writing

This post is to mark publication of my book of stories inspired by old postcards

I've loved postcards for as long as I can remember. I've also collected them since I was a child. In 1974, I wrote in my diary, 'I put some postcards in my album. I want them to be museum pieces some day.' Well, at the age of twelve I wasn't very realistic about the likely future interest of the world in my album of postcards from my first holiday abroad plus assorted pictures of Victorian girls and boys bought in the giftshop at Bowes Museum (near enough to home for an afternoon's visit), but my collecting instinct was already strong.

A glimpse of one of my boxes of modern postcards...

Since then, my postcard collecting has continued, branching out in various directions. That original set of modern cards has grown, added to with cards from art shows and holidays -- I've sorted them into groups by subject, as you can see above. 

But then there's the older postcards I've bought in job lots at auctions which I haven't entirely got to grips with yet: hundreds of cards (as you can see above), mostly from the 1950s to the 1980s, of holiday destinations, largely in the UK. From these I've started to pick out the treasures, cards which for one reason or another, have a special appeal. I keep these in albums, which I like to rearrange every so often, just like my twelve-year-old self.

Above is a page from the album where I keep cards that I've used in paintings. If you follow me on Instagram (@foundandchosen), you'll perhaps recognise the iceskater in a pink dress -- I use my painting of her as my avatar. I've done paintings of four of the other images you can see here as well (spot them here). 

In this album, above, I keep cards that I use to make digital prints, some already realised and some waiting to be done. I'm fascinated by different postcards of the same place and I like to overlay them to get the effect of changes over time. I've done a post about my overlay prints recently, if you're interested.

Above is a page taken more or less at random out of my big album of postcards which have the potential to inspire stories. I love these so much, and it's these I've used in the book you can see at the top of this post: Blow-Ups: Stories from old postcards. The two postcards of 'Brighton by night' made me imagine a scenario where the man and woman in the two different shots have missed each other on a blind date that their friend has set them up on. Here's the page in the book: 


They each send their friend an (imagined) postcard after the disastrous attempt at matchmaking. 

And here's the page in the book inspired by the postcard of Broad Haven in Pembrokeshire (bottom left in the album page): 

Robert and his father -- appreciating Wales

There are fifteen different stories in the book alongside an introduction about my passion for these cards (with a nod to Antonioni's seminal 1966 film Blow-Up) and lots of lovely 'blow-ups' of details from old postcards . If I've piqued your interest, you can buy the book for £12.99 from the foundandchosen Etsy shop or from online retailers such as, Barnes and Noble or Amazon or you could even order it from a bookshop (ISBN 978-1-9196197-0-5). And thank you so much, if you do!

A spread from my book -- for the sheer loveliness of blown-up litho postcards. You've got to love the dots!

As a postcard-lover, I've also become a collector of books about postcards and postcard art. It wasn't until I went round the house gathering these together for this post that I realised I had quite so many. Naturally I have a copy of Tom Jackson's Postcard From The Past (4th Estate, 2017).

Tom has made finding funny or poignant messages on the backs of old postcards his life's work (by which I mean he excels at it) and his Twitter feed (@pastpostcard) is a constant delight. He also does a lovely podcast, Podcast From The Past, where guests talk about postcards that have special significance to them. Perhaps Tom will have me on there one day...?

My Instagram friend, Michelle Abadie (@majandmaltbydesigns and also @johnhindecollection) is a true postcard aficionado, in particular the glorious output of John Hinde Studios. Above are two of her postcard books, both great. The John Hinde Collection (extended edition, 2020) is just beautiful, with restored prints of the work of Hinde's team of photographers. Nothing To Write Home About (Friday Books, 2007) is an earlier book (with Sue Beale) which gives the reader the enjoyable combination of Hinde postcards and the funny messages written on their backs. I've shown both the back and front of this book, as it cleverly uses a postcard back and front.

Then there's:

A spread from Bizarro Postcards, edited by Jim Heimann (Taschen, 2002)

and, of course:

Martin Parr's Postcards (Chris Boot, 2008)

I feel very in tune with Parr's propensity to sort his postcard collection by theme:

This page is especially pleasing

I like the cover of this 2008 book from Laurence King publishers very much:

The lettering of the title (simply Post Card) is cut out and there are postcard-sized pockets behind so that, if you wish, you can change the book's appearance by slotting in different cards. However, inside it is akin to one of those fairly commercial directories of graphic designers and I don't feel so in tune with the very contemporary designs. Give me an impossibly blue sea and a miniature railway any day.

Incidentally, whenever I find myself desperately trying to flick through an entire box of old postcards on a market stall or at a car boot sale -- with members of my family standing right behind me impatiently tapping their feet -- as a short cut I look for the little strip of blue sky sticking out at the top, a sure sign that the postcard is likely to be one I'll like:

I can see a few likely candidates above -- can you?

What I really need to do, though, is to stop buying more old postcards and thoroughly sort out the ones I've already got -- thousands by now, I suspect. But how to order them? By place? By subject matter? By colour? By their potential for various art projects? The permutations are endless. But I will leave you with the happiness that is my (growing) collection of postcards of the Piramide in Rome...

I feel sure there's a book in here somewhere...

Saturday, 12 June 2021

My 1989 Diary -- A Painting Holiday in St David's


In 1989 I was living in London and working at a big publishers as a junior commissioning editor. I was trying to specialise in non-fiction, especially comedy books which were very popular at the time. It was going fairly well, although I hadn't actually commissioned a 'big' Christmas stocking filler book yet. This is me at around that time, sitting on the beautiful garden bench in Lady Serena James's gardens at St Nicholas in Richmond (Yorkshire) just along the road from our house. I wish I still had that skirt.

Anyhow, according to my date-diary (I've kept most of mine, and now I'm really glad that I did), on Thursday 3 August I was to 'ring Dawn French', which sounds good, although my efforts to sign up French and Saunders failed and all that happened was that they based a sketch on my pathetic efforts to persuade them to write a 'tiny little book'. The next day my Mum arrived in London from Richmond and the day after that we caught the train to Haverfordwest in West Wales for a painting holiday.

The photo above is the only image I have of Mum and I together on the holiday -- this is at Picton Beach, which we'll come back to. My mother was a keen artist who worked in different media including watercolour, pen and wash, collage, free stitch, pastels and acrylics. I was also keen on art but didn't spend as much time on it as Mum and wasn't nearly as accomplished. But this was the first time we'd been on an organised painting holiday. I had it in mind to try to write an article about the holiday which I intended to submit to the Guardian travel section (another ambition of mine was to do some journalism) so I kept notes from the outset. I found them again recently and thought they might make an amusing post on here. I'll add bits in square brackets where needed.

[We were collected from Haverfordwest station by our tutor for the week, Rod Williams. Several of the seven of us who would be doing the holiday arrived at the same time and were driven to Rod's house in New St, St David's, our base for the week. Rod gave us a running commentary as he drove:]

[The area is known as] 'Little England beyond Wales. Defended by a strong line of Norman castles, the invading Norsemen, Normans and Flemings have maintained an English colony here for 800 years.

[We saw the] Castle where King Charles II’s mistress was born. [Lucy Walter, born at Roch Castle in about 1630].

Sitting in the back of Rod’s Spacecruiser – London frame of mind [I'm not sure what I meant by that. I guess I still needed to unwind].

St David’s – smallest city in the world (only 21 people – check – live within the walls).

House – tea and biscuits. [First sight of] Our rooms.

Dinner – awkward silence broken by the ‘silent one’. First chance to get an idea of everyone else.

Rod is tutor and waiter. Sue [his wife] invisible. The Group: Michael, Betty, Doreen, Barbara, Georgina, me, Mum.

This chapel was just over the road from the house -- it's an exhibition venue now.

First evening:

[Rod’s] calming talk:

The slate: the equipment cupboard [I think the slate was where you wrote up anything you took from the cupboard, and Rod would add it to your bill later]. Slides of the region. Rod’s sketchbooks. His artistic development on the walls. [Rod was a good artist.]

Videos, books, magazines – you can take them to your room – secret hoarding [by me and Mum].

Day One [Sunday]

Breakfast – huge. Rod assessing our toast level. The naming of flasks. Nervous in the bus [Rod's Spacecruiser] – didn’t know where we were going. Colours of the moundy hedges; cement-roofed cottages; high and flat plateau; buzzards; pinkish bays.

Mum at Abereiddy -- looks rather murky but was a good place to do art. Also has the Blue Lagoon -- lovely!

ABEREIDDY [our first art location]

Walking round together. Rod pointing out clusters of cottages, vantage points, how a composition is altered by being higher or lower. Brilliant blue chicory – dies by lunchtime [does this mean we had picked some? Bad, if so.]

Michael’s straw hat among the reeds. All of us on folding chairs in the slate quarry.

A horrible man [not sure who he was now -- a nosy parker, probably]. Rod coming round with the water -- got rid of man. Subject too hard. Me in despair.

Rod comes round every hour or so. Ask us if we are happy with our composition. If you ask for help he’ll give it. Extremely helpful and succinct comments – simple pointers that would affect the entire picture. Lunch in overgrown farmyard. Rod gives out simple, delicious snacks and our flasks. He delivers a little talk while we eat. He knows all the people who live in these tiny places but is himself an incomer.

After lunch, work till 4.30. There’s always a loo at the site, but very discreet. These are not tourist traps. An increasing sense of urgency as 4.30 comes – our subject will be taken away.

That evening’s dinner talk much looser. Mum getting people's names wrong and doing Welsh accents. Discreet curiosity about each other’s work. Much interest in my pastels. Mum and I explore St David’s after dinner: wonderful lanes; dampish evening smell of garlic; little seat overlooking the cathedral; birds look like gargoyles.

'Our' seat looking down on St David's Cathedral (via StreetView)

Day Two [Monday]


Rod doesn’t have just five sites which he goes to regularly – he picks, apparently at whim, from loads of sites, perhaps already tailoring the course to suit the group’s emerging personality. [He tells us that] only one person ever antagonised the group so badly that he had to take them to a separate site.

St Bride's is a pink bay – it invests a classic shorescape with new challenges. Mum and I sit facing inland. Rod tells me how to make a white gull show against a white sky [How? In any case it doesn't sound like my kind of thing]. I feel slightly fractious. He explains that often when you’ve been in the groove one day, your concentration can burn out the next day, leaving you feeling a little dissatisfied.

Mum’s radical freedom of style!

Evening: we watch a video of David Bellamy (not the naturalist but a handsome, scrawny athlete type who abseils down cliffs, is shown standing thigh-deep in Fishguard harbour sketching and almost being swept off a rock. Makes our gentle outings seem tame, but the video is shot around exactly the area we’re in and all the wildness is just as available to us. His paintings are good too.

Day Three [Tuesday]

My photo of Porthgain and, below, via StreetView, the view (to the left) to the derelict works and sheds -- great fish cafe in the sheds now!

PORTHGAIN [my favourite of the locations]

A derelict granite-crushing works. A row of cottages, re-roofed with tiles salvaged from a wreck. The villagers bought the village. Wonderful Italianate/Spanish/Moorish ruins – views through windows/chutes like seeing into the Caliph’s secret garden at the Alhambra [steady on, Jane!].

Greatest drama of the week: Georgina’s chair blowing over the edge. Rod to the rescue! Exquisite light on the shallow water. Betty tries to do the harbour, but is really happiest doing flowers.

I'm not too keen to show the pastel drawings that I did at the time -- not very good -- but since I mention this one in my notes...

My boat is huge in comparison to the real model. Rod comments on it but says no one else will know. 

Day Four [Wednesday – free day]

Everyone except us goes off: to the woollen mill; to walk on the coastal path (memories of the recent murder: we’re instructed to go in groups); one person to visit her Mum.

It’s raining. Mum and I work in the studio, radio on, endless cups of tea. I do a completely different picture [a childish underwater scene -- see below]. Mum sketches out of the window.

In the evening, Rod looks at our work if we want him to (secretly we do because he is so nice about it). We are all getting much more confident with each other. Doreen issues a very forthright command to me to deepen the shadows in my picture. Taken aback, I realise she is right. Mum is trying Barbara’s watercolour crayons, Doreen is working over a painting she’s unhappy with using pastels, exclaiming at their amazing potency after pale watercolours.

Rod delivers a lecture in the studio: how to start to extrapolate abstract images from nature. He shows slides from the places we’ve been to, then projects the paintings he has developed from the landscapes he loves. He has been moved by rocks – the crushing and yielding ‘presences’ of huge rock forms. He passes round sketches of the finished work on the projector. He has us all crisped and primed for the next day. I long for rocks.

A composite of some of the many photos of texture I took on the holiday: rock, wood, slate

Day Five [Thursday]


Getting into the bus feels like a way of life now. Michael always sits in front. A little polite jostling in the back. We are, above all, tremendously happy. We love the game of not knowing where we’re going. We call out to each other to look at the tunnel of trees we are bowling through, to identify those brilliant purple flowers, to see that glimpse of sea. I still want rocks, but we arrive at the least rockish place of all the week’s sites.

Nevern bridge

Nevern has a wonderful church; Ogam writing on the Roman cross, a soldier, ‘VITALIANI EMERETO’; also a Celtic cross and a [yew] tree that bleeds.

Inspired by Rod’s talk, Mum and I embark on the tree. It’s too much for me, but Mum’s sketch is great. We had our eyes on the little bridge but George is there. In the end we sit there too.

My awful pastel of the bridge at Nevern -- the water under the bridge is the only bit I like

Rod remarks on the blackness of my black [he almost certainly thought it was too black – ‘never use black’ is an artists' mantra]. Most of us do our best work here.Then we visit the local art show: Rod tells us to go in if we want to be heartened [meaning he thinks the work in it is v bad, I'm guessing?]

Then a quick visit to John Knapp-Fisher’s gallery. Black brooding scenes with brilliant surreal suns. Doreen buys a card of Solva Harbour and worries about whether it’s night or day.

Day Six [Friday]

Almost unbearably, it’s our last day. I feel so solid and self-confident, physically more concrete, clear skin. Only a slightly aching neck from all the painting.

The water really was that colour. I did a half-decent picture of this view but can't find it just now. It's somewhere in the house...


An inland beach where Graham Sutherland came to paint the swirling, sculpted forms of tree carcases.

Brilliant green algae; embroidery of sea lavender; impossibly picturesque rotting boat; cranes [the birds]; beautifully retreating lines of trees; stripes of plant layers; scooped-out rock.

I was determined to break out of the representational mould, but I didn't find it as gratifying. Mum does her best picture yet. Michael does startling abstract, like a Thai silk painting.

We visit the Sutherland Gallery at Picton Castle. Sutherland donated loads of pictures and did 15 pictures specially. Marvellous to see them in the context of the beach – makes them instantly make sense. A great castle and gardens.

Evening: the great exhibition [of all the work we’ve done in the course of the week]. Much excitement, pride, feigned shame at the worthlessness of our pictures. In turn we put our week’s work up on chairs in front of the group. Rod talks briefly, charmingly, about what we’ve achieved, what areas we might explore further, where our strengths lie. He is perceptive and genuinely inspirational. In truth, the total of all the pictures the seven of us have done would make a tidy little exhibition. Some of us would be selling [our work -- not me], some just going home fired up and healed.

The next day, Saturday, Rod would drop us off at Haverfordwest station, go to Tesco’s and then pick up the next group of people from the station, clutching their brushes and wondering if they’d made a wise choice of holiday. They had.

Mum in conversation with a rather wooden fellow (with a passing resemblance to a good friend of hers). I've just realised that she was the age then that I am now. She looks better than me on it!
[Oh, I never wrote the article...]