Tuesday, 30 June 2009

Cruising Down the River (again)

You’d think my life is one whirlwind round of pleasure. I do have my moments however and because we’ve been basking in virtual tropical sunshine (plus humidity) this last week I’ve spent as much time as I can on the river. On Sunday my friends the Sutherland’s held their annual ‘Strawberry Tea’ in the grounds of their beautiful Queen Anne House ‘Bird Place ‘ which borders the Thames right by Henley Bridge. Another scorching day. Pity I felt so ill (The previous day I’d rowed about 5 miles up stream and had become totally dehydrated which didn’t help) but it was a lovely afternoon. One of the highlights was to be taken along the Regatta course on one of the umpire launches by Tony Hobbs. The launch we went on is 97 years old. Canada Geese have really taken over the Thames, but I have noticed recently that a lot more Egyptian geese are giving them competition. My picture shows a few of the Canadian variety we encountered as we glided past Temple Island.

The geese are everywhere

On Thursday I took my big boat out for the afternoon. Tom and Sue came along as did Val – who made us a splendid picnic. We found an idyllic moorinpg space alongside Shiplake Lock where we could idly watch the boats go past as we enjoyed our prawns, smoked salmon, asparagus, new potatoes and baby carrots freshly dug up that morning from Val’s garden.

Tomorrow is the first day of The Henley Royal Regatta so the town will be overrun by visitors and seven-foot tall oarsmen and women. I’ll be going a couple of times so perhaps my next blog will be a bit more interesting than this one.

The Henley Bowling club is ideally located right next to the river (as I’ve mentioned before) but it is so nice to be surrounded by all sorts of other activities as we play. I’ll include a little picture of the green I took the other day.

Henley Bowling Club

On Tuesday Paul Daniels and Debbie invited me to join them on their electric canoe ‘The Lovely Debbie McGee’ for a cruise along the river. It’s so relaxing to be lying back on comfortable cushions with the river rushing by and, best of all, with no sound of the engine to interrupt the utter peace and tranquillity of the afternoon. The following day I’d been photographing Joceline (we artists need to draw models from time to time to keep our skills up) so she joined us for dinner at my favourite Italian restaurant in the evening. Paul amazed her with a few close up magic tricks. And I must say although I’ve seen many of them before I’m darned if I know how he does them. (I have a good idea about the disappearing coin trick. however!)

Paul, Joceline and Debbie

Children say the most wonderful things at times. When my great nieces Ellie and Charlotte went to the seaside for the first time I asked them if they’d had a swim in the big sea. “Yes we did,” they said “ but we only went in the shallow end!”.

I’ll add a little video I made on Tuesday from my vantage point sprawled on Paul and Debbie’s boat.

Tuesday, 23 June 2009

How to Win Wars

Harpsden – a little village on the outskirts of Henley – held its annual fete last Sunday. I was amused when, at the hoopla stall, Henley’s Member of Parliament, John Howell, bought 6 hoops, he was asked whether he’d like a receipt! Surprisingly I managed to win a prize there which I gave to Charlotte – one of my great nieces. These little country fetes are always fun, This year, apart from all the sideshows, raffles, children’s races, coconut shies, dog show, snake charmer, bookstall, birds of prey demonstrations, etc. etc, they also staged a gigantic ‘tug-o-war’ with scores of children taking part. It reminded me of the answer my great nephew Max
gave to his mother when she asked what they’d been taught at school that day (it was around Remembrance time). He thought for a bit and then said “We had to keep quiet and think about all the brave soldiers who had died in the Tug of War!" Wouldn’t it be great if wars were decided in that way today?

Although I like owls I’ve always thought that the white faces of barn owls are bland and somewhat disdainful, but it was only when I saw one close up at the fete that I realised how beautiful their feathers are.

On Wednesday I had an appointment with the surgeon Mr Farouk. As I’ve had fairly severe stomach pains which have lingered for a couple of months now he’s scheduled me for a colonoscopy and a CT scan within the next few weeks. I really don’t like the idea of a camera meandering its way though my body, but so be it!

Since last week I’ve been bowling twice and am thoroughly enjoying it. I had no idea there were so many rules, particularly about measuring distances. On Friday we played a team called ‘Portrait Software’. It was a beautiful balmy evening and as Henley Bowling Club is adjacent to the river we could appreciate all the many activities going on just over the hedge, which surrounds the green.

I haven’t been idle this week – in case you think my life is one long round of social activities. Here’s a miniature portrait I finished yesterday morning.

In 1784 The Houses of Parliament burned down. All the people watching the inferno from across the river cheered loudly. As the revelations about the greed, dishonesty and downright thieving by many of our ‘honourable’ members are revealed it wouldn’t surprise me if a similar protest took place today. With an overwhelming amount of our laws coming directly from Europe these days I suppose it’s inevitable that so many of our MP’s have time on their hands. Which would explain why they can unbelievably claim reimbursement from the public purse for such things as - one paper clip (39p), rubber bands (£1.44), a single carrier bag (25p), and a 68p subscription to ‘Practical Poultry’. These items are, of course, the tip of the iceberg as the MP’s are claiming many thousands of pounds in inflated council tax payments, mortgage interest, and all sorts of wierd and wonderful things.
The criteria for claiming expenses clearly states that they are to be “wholly, exclusively and necessarily incurred when staying overnight away from their main UK residence for the purpose of performing Parliamentary duties”. So how on earth can they justify claiming for dog food, toilet brushes, gay magazines, slug pellets, super glue, latex gloves - ad infinitum. I wonder if, or when, the 2006 Fraud Act and the 1968 Theft Act will be activated. Of course Tony Blair’s expenses claims have been very conveniently shredded!

The phrase “political correctness gone mad” has been done to death but how else do you describe just a few of the examples I read about lately? - British troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan have been banned from putting up regimental pictures in their barracks ‘in case they hurt themselves knocking a nail into the wall.’ One Regiment was charged £500 to install an electric socket. £500!!! A policeman was asked to pose on a stationary bicycle for a publicity photograph, but refused for ‘Health and Safety’ reasons as he hadn’t passed the cycling proficiency test! ASDA demanded proof of identity the other day for a customer who wanted to buy a spoon! (In case she decided to murder someone with it!) Hard to believe isn’t it?

This is Sue’s cat. I photographed her after the fete on Sunday when Val and I spent a pleasant hour or so sipping brandy and champagne in Sue and Tom’s magnificent garden. I’ll end this blog in a tranquil way by posting a little video I took of the pond in a corner of the garden.

Monday, 15 June 2009

A Riverside Affair

Sorry to disappoint you – I’m not going to write about a passionate encounter on the riverbank. No - this morning’s affair was the annual general meeting of the Hennerton Backwater Association. As always the sun shone brightly and the weather was warm. This year’s venue was Ivy Cottage and as you can see from the photograph the approach was quite steep. All sorts of lovely boats soon turned up – canoes, electric canoes, punts and slipper launches - and they were all wooden and traditional. About 50 people arrived, including Paul and Debbie. Simon was busy on the barbecue serving us up with sausage, bacon, baps, rolls, tea and coffee at about 9.30. I wrote earlier this year about one of my trips down the backwater made so much easier by the valiant efforts of some of the members last autumn when they pollarded a number of the overhanging trees and did a bit of ‘slashing and burning’. We all agreed how fortunate we were to live in such beautiful surroundings.

They came by canoe, dinghy and launch

Vince and Annie Hill celebrated their Golden Wedding anniversary last Saturday by hosting a glorious hog roast at Sagamore. – their riverside house in Shiplake. Shame it rained, but that didn’t matter – 130 guests really enjoyed the day and the spread was delicious.

Vince and Annie on their 50th Anniversary

The hog roast

I admit to having two big helpings of Pavlova. So many old friends were at the party – even Bryony and Ian were there. Ian told me that of the 140 novels left in manuscript form by his mother Barbara Cartland when she died, so far he has published 57 - one every month. She was such a prolific and popular author that the books are selling like hot cakes. Don’t you think the hog looks a bit like a tiger? It took seven hours to cook - roasting on a spit in the garden.
Talking of large animals, my sister-in-law Val wondered who had left such big paw marks all over her vegetable patch the other day. Next day a large black panther was sighted at the end of her lane and duly reported in the Henley Standard. It’s still prowling around somewhere!

Back in 1963 I entered a pan-Malaysian open competition to design three large murals for the soon to be opened Paya Lebar airport in Singapore. It so happened that I won two of the prizes (with enough prize money to enable me to buy a brand new TR4 sports car!). The murals were made of Italian Glass Mosaic and stretched about 30 ft wide in dominating positions in the concourse. Although Singapore has its new Changi airport these days the murals are still in position at Paya Lebar. Why I mention this is that a few days ago I was emailed by someone at the Nanyang University in Singapore who is writing about a famous Singapore author and poet, Arthur Yap. Apparently one of his poems describes one of my murals in glowing terms. Here’s the mural – it depicts the Singapore skyline at night in the early ‘60’s. The city has certainly changed dramatically since then.

Together with Felicity and Fenwick, I toured about 15 gardens in Binfield Heath as the village was having an open gardens day. It’s amazing what some people can achieve with just a tiny space for a garden, although some of the larger gardens were quite spectacular. Later we boarded the electric boat (Margot) and took a cruise up the River Loddon where it enters the Thames just below Shiplake lock. As the engine of their boat is almost soundless we could glide along the river in utter peace enjoying the tranquillity of the scene and listening to all the sounds of the river. I made a little video, which I’ll add to this blog. (It has to be at the end as I don’t know how to insert it where I’d like it to be.)

This really amused me – it’s on a poster advertising the Dorset Knob Throwing Festival. These are some of the events they are planning:

● Knob Painting
● Knob and Spoon Race
● Guess the Weight of the Big Knob
● Knob Darts
● Knob Pyramid

I’ll leave you with that thought. The mind boggles!

Thursday, 4 June 2009

An Eye for an Eye

During the Henley Literary Festival weekend last summer, among the many interesting events that took place then were trips on the Hibernia river cruiser. The highlight of the one-hour cruises we were treated to were poetry readings by well-known personalities. Simon Williams, the actor, was one of the performers when I was on board, and afterwards I took a couple of photographs of him with the intention of painting a miniature portrait some time in the future. The sun was particularly fierce that day which meant that my photos were in extremely high contrast. Last month I started work on the miniature but soon realised that the eyes were in such deep shadow that I could hardly work out their shape - let alone their colour. So when I finished the portrait I left the eyes completely blank. My next task was to establish the colour. When I finally managed to contact Simon he volunteered the fact that he thought his eyes were blue. His wife disagreed, and confirmed that they were in fact hazel and grey-green. So here is the completed portrait – without eyes and with eyes.

On the way back from Ian and Jane’s on Tuesday I called in to see Fergus and Zelia. They live deep in the heart of Devonshire. My instructions were rustic in the extreme, but finally, after a very bumpy drive down a long and winding track bordered by a forest of trees, their shadows dappled in the afternoon sunlight, I arrived at my destination. Fergus met me in a clearing (I almost said a clearing in the jungle) and led me through an overgrown grassy pathway I would never have found without a guide. He and his lovely wife Zelia live in the most interesting dwelling I’ve ever seen. It was crammed full with the most creative driftwood carvings, including a large dragon, which hovered menacingly over my head, its row of irregular teeth within an inch of snapping my head off as I sipped my tea. In a corner of the surrounding woodland Zelia showed me a towering bundle of stripped-down poles she’d made to support some of the ‘tipees’ they erect in their tipee village.
The afternoon was absolutely fascinating and although some people might think their way of life is in some way primitive, they are surely one of the happiest couples I know. Zelia told me that she loves the life they lead, and in the past had lived the simple life for several years in the foothills of the Himalayas.

Fergus and Zelia in the sunshine

The Royal Ballet presented ‘Ondine’ at the Royal Opera House in London on Wednesday evening

The Royal Opera House in London

Together with Jilly, Jane and Brian we were there – without leaving Henley! Beamed live by satellite we sat in the Regal cinema here in total comfort as the entire ballet unfolded before us. Quite amazing, and in my opinion, better than being at the Opera House itself, because from time to time throughout the ballet, close-ups of the performers were interspersed with the full stage. The sound was perfect, and of course, being live, we had two half-hour intervals. And as the choreography was by Sir Frederick Ashton, we enjoyed a masterly performance. Ondine herself was played by the prettiest of ballerinas – Miyako Yoshida – and during the shipwreck scene, as the masts came crashing down all around us, accompanied by loud thunder and lightning, I’m sure we were more intimately involved than the audience in London. What a marvellous evening.

The Wentworth Wooden Jigsaw Company has just produced a jigsaw of my painting ‘Swan Uppers in Marsh Lock’. (Click on the picture to see it full screen.) It contains what they call ‘whimsies’ – in other words interestingly shaped pieces. As it depicts a river scene you’ll find swans, kingfishers, fishes, boats, barges and all sorts of other fascinating pieces. If anyone is interested in knowing more about the jigsaw puzzle please click here.

Monday, 1 June 2009

Lost in Devon

I drove down to Somerset on Friday morning where I’d been invited to stay overnight with Sharran and Mike North (he of ‘Dragons Den’ fame). In the afternoon while Sharran was out getting her nails done( I think) Mike and I did a jigsaw puzzle on the verandah. What, you say, two grown men doing a jigsaw? In fact it was a special jigsaw. The Wentworth Wooden Jigsaw Company have just published my painting ‘SwanUppers at Marsh Lock’ as a lovely wooden jigsaw puzzle, and I’d given one to Sharran and Mike.
In the evening we joined about twenty miniaturists for a dinner at the Ancient Gate House adjacent to Wells Cathedral. What a beautiful and enormous cathedral it is. It dominates the city. Early next morning I drove back into Wells - Mike and Sharran had left some hours earlier to set up their Olive Trail stall in the Market Place there. By the way the gent in the green frockcoat is the Wells Town Crier.

Mike and Sharran

Wells Cathedral in the Sunshine

The exhibition looked really good – probably the best ever. It was enhanced by a collection of beautifully painted lacquered Russian boxes by our Russian members. After the well-attended lunch – preceded by a prayer in Latin to commemorate Nicholas Hilliard (the most famous miniaturist of the16th century) – the awards were given out. Sitting opposite to me at lunch was David Lawton – he won the award for Excellence in Acryllic or Oil for his splendid portrait entitled ‘The Egyptian Girl’ It’s always good to talk to fellow artists about techniques and methods. David hasn’t yet tried to paint on vellum, so I promised I’d send him a piece so he can try it out.
I was very pleased to win the Bell Award for the Best Portrait (it was of Leslie Thomas – the famous author). I’ll keep it for one year before returning it next year, when I’ll receive a small replica. How nice.

The Bell Award

At two in the afternoon I left Wells to drive down to Devon where I’d be staying with old friends from my Singapore days – Ian and Jane Stevens. I’d planned to take the country route to Torquay, but instead foolishly relied on the pleasant sounding girl who tells me where to go on my Sat Nav. Big mistake! She obstinately directed me on to the M5 motorway. I’d only been on it for about twenty minutes when the traffic started to slow, then after another mile or two, virtually stopped altogether. Two hours later I’d travelled just over a mile! There must have been a big accident somewhere because police cars, ambulances and other assorted official vehicles raced past on the hard shoulder. Eventually the whole motorway was closed and all the cars were directed on to a slipway to I know not where. Another hour in traffic jams until I lost patience and at the first roundabout retraced my route back to the M5. There I travelled back the way I’d come for about 20 miles, looking at the poor wretches on the other carriageway fuming in the heat (and it was the hottest day of the year - nearly 80 degrees)) as they stood by their immobile vehicles.
Isn’t this a boring story? Nearly finished. I eventually went round in a great big zig-zaggedly circle to finally end up here in the village of Bishopsteignton. The journey took over five hours, and should have taken just two. You feel so helpless when there’s a hold-up and you don’t know why or when it will clear. I got hopelessly lost in the narrow lanes of Devon as I went backwards and forwards retracing my steps time and time again. Luckily there was no one in the car with me as the air turned blue with my swearing.

But today is another day. And as I said I’m enjoying the peace of Ian and Jane’s garden. It’s another gloriously sunny day.

A yellow daisy in the garden

Ian with a suntan

David and Joyce joined us for champagne on the terrace prior to driving to a tiny hamlet called Marldon to have lunch in the Church House Inn. There’s nothing I like more than a Brandy Snap Basket with pineapple ice cream to finish a meal with. Which is what I did.

So what did I do earlier in the week? It was pretty boring, as I spent the first three days doing my income tax for the year. Finally the old washing machine was taken away which means I can get back into the kitchen once again.

On Monday I went for another tutorial at the Henley Bowling Club. David, the coach for the evening, put me right on my stance, which resulted in a big improvement. Now I have my own set of woods hopefully I’ll progress a bit more rapidly. I’m enjoying the game a lot – there’s a lot more to it than I thought, of course.

Felicity, Fenwick and I went to the cinema on Tuesday evening to see the film ‘Angels and Demons’ based on Dan Brown’s novel. Certainly the lavish scenes of the Vatican and the fabulous costumes were spectacular. But the story was beyond me. It reminded me more of an Indianan Jones epic. Tom Hanks in the leading role discovers the resurgence of an ancient secret brotherhood known as the Illuminati – the most powerful underground organisation in history. We were treated to a non-stop race around sealed crypts, catacombs and deserted cathedrals. It was all most frenetic and at one point the villain had removed one of the Cardinal’s eyes so he could use it to enter a secret vault, which needed eye recognition entry. Quite gruesome. I really wasn’t sure what to make of the film.

To keep you updated on the swans before they finally leave our garden, I took this little video the other day. You can see there are only five signets left. One of the original seven was taken by a crow, and the other one either fell victim to a pike or just got lost. We’ll never know.