Monday, 11 April 2016

Route 66 and All That

  Last Chance - 51cm x 73cm Watercolour 

'Get your kicks on Route 66' - as the old Bobby Troup song goes. The USA has a romantic attachment to roads which the UK has never been able to fully share or quite understand – we don't have the distances and anyway the A66 from Workington to Middlesborough just doesn't have the same buzz as the old Route 66 from Chicago to Santa Monica. Of course times have changed and most of Route 66 is now Interstate 55 which is not quite the same thing either.

When I lived in the USA I liked to drive. I planned to drive the entire length of the I-95 from the Canadian border to Miami and then out to the Florida Keys but I only got as far as Savannah GA before exhaustion, boredom and the heat finally got to me.

Being English I naturally wanted to own a big old Cadillac or at least a convertible Ford Mustang but money and kind friends encouraged me to be more sensible and I ended up with a second hand Datsun that was cheap, tough and reliable if not exactly exciting or romantic. I used to cadge lifts in more glamorous cars and sometimes rented, or even borrowed, more interesting vehicles – Americans are the most generous and hospitable people and often I would be loaned not only cars but also houses or apartments to stay in en-route and even suitable clothing for the wilder places I wanted to visit. I once borrowed a 1970s Dodge Ram van (the American equivalent of a VW campervan) which my cousin insisted on calling a “pussy wagon” - I've no idea what he meant! I drove it one balmy Autumn to Nags Head on the North Carolina coast and then along the entire length of the Outer Banks from Duck to Morehead City before making my way back to Durham NC. It took six days but it was worth every moment and is high on the list of my best times.

The Outer Banks, off season, has got to be one of the best places. The bridge in this painting is the Lindsay C Warren Bridge across Alligator River heading out on Route 64 towards Nags Head. I was driving along with the cruise control set at 60mph - the speed limit was 55 but nobody stuck to that and the only time I was pulled over the highway police just passed the time of day asking dumb, dumber and even dumber questions just so they could listen to my 'British accent' – I was driving along, listening to the radio, minding my own business and wondering when the next gas station would be when a Rickie Lee Jones song came on the radio - “Last Chance Texaco” - and the gas station in the painting appeared in the distance. There was no thinking involved – I had to paint it.

Since then it's changed of course. A different oil company runs the gas station and the Outer Banks towns are bigger and less beautiful and new bridges are replacing the old. Even Ocracoke and Hatteras Islands have changed but my paintings are often of places that no longer exist - or in some cases never existed – it may look like I am recording something, a place, a scene or a view, but that's not the point of making a painting although, to be honest, I couldn't say exactly what the point is.

Just the other day I was driving along the A21 on my way down to the coast, passing signs that told me I was entering “1066 Country” and thinking about the time I came down this way for the 900th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings. It was 1966 and we, a motley group of art students from Croydon College of Art, had hired a coach to take us to join the celebrations but we got the date wrong and arrived the day after to find that not only had we missed the fireworks and everything but that the famous battle and its anniversary celebrations had actually taken place somewhere else entirely - the aptly named 'Battle' – a nice but unremarkable town just a few miles inland from Hastings - “I suppose 'The Battle of Battle' just doesn't have the same ring about it!” someone remarked as we climbed back on the coach.

But I digress - as I was saying - I was driving along the A21 thinking of nothing important when I noticed a roadside sign advertising a new transport cafe called unsurprisingly 'Cafe 1066'.

The sign read, “Get your chips at 1066.”

I didn't stop.

Friday, 25 March 2016

Let's Go to the Pictures

'Cinema' - Acrylic on Board

I've just heard that the 1930s, Art Deco, Regent Cinema in Lyme Regis has burnt down. Although it's been years since I was there, the news of its loss has upset me - I have always been a film fan and the Regent was one of my favourite cinemas.

Much of my childhood in Walton on Thames was spent at the pictures. My family had been connected with films and film making from the beginning. My maternal grandparents and a much loved maiden aunt had worked for Cecil Hepworth, the pioneer film maker, until his studios went bankrupt in 1923 and my father's family advertised the local cinema on hoardings outside their garage/petrol station in return for which they received free tickets. Using these my Grandmother would take us to see selected films at the Odeon and later on my brother and I became regulars at Saturday morning pictures at the Regal – sixpence to get in plus tuppence ha'penny for an ice lolly during the interval. As I grew older I would sometimes bunk off school in the afternoon to go and see a film – something I now regret - although, to be honest, my only real regret is that I didn't do it often enough.

At art school I ran the college film society. I even worked in films, albeit briefly. As an eleven year old schoolboy I had had a small part in an advert for Ribena, the blackcurrant juice drink, and later on I worked as a runner on a couple of films but by then the twin lures of fame and fortune had lost their charm and all I really wanted to do was paint.

After moving to Lyme Regis I soon became a regular at the Regent, happily sitting through even the crumbiest of films. In the holiday season the town quadrupled in size and the cinema did good business which probably kept it solvent the rest of the year. However at midweek showings during the long winter months it was not unusual to be almost alone in the auditorium. Occasionally the projectionist, whose concentration was variable, might allow the film to go out of focus at which point a member of the audience would have to go and ask for it to be sharpened up. I remember once when I was almost the only customer having to go and ask if he would put the Cinemascope lens on – which he had forgotten to do – and feeling guilty that I had not only disturbed him but also quite possibly woken him up.

In the summer of 1981 I was invited by one of the usherettes to attend a secret, midnight, pre-release, staff-only viewing of 'The French Lieutenant's Woman' much of which had been filmed in the town. There were only a handful of us and, despite it being the height of summer, the cinema was freezing because the manager hadn't been told about the screening and no-one dared turn the heating on in case he found out. Consequently we all had to cuddle up together in the centre row just to keep warm.

The film enjoyed a long run in Lyme Regis mainly because almost all the townspeople had been involved in its making. One consequence of this mass involvement was that often during a showing one or more of the locals in the audience would point at the screen and whisper loudly to their companion, “Look - that's me!” I fondly remember one screening during which somebody spoke up during a quiet moment and - clearly referring to one of the locals over-acting her heart out as an extra in a street scene - said, “Look at her the silly cow!” at which point the woman herself who just happened to be sitting only a couple of rows in front, turned round and replied, “You can't talk, you fat, f***ing bitch!”

An undocumented but popular local belief was that another consequence of the filming of the French Lieutenant's Woman and the occupation of the town by its undeniably glamorous film crew was that nine months later there was a small but significant upturn in the local birthrate.

A few years ago I was commissioned by a fellow film fan to paint a cinema audience made up entirely of film stars from the 1950s and 60s (above). During its planning I was given permission by the manager to draw and photograph the empty theatre out of hours. In the finished painting most of the auditorium is invented, mainly because I had to make it bigger to accommodate all those actors, but the empty place at the front is a faithful portrait of one of the seats from the front row of the old Regent.

The cinema is now just an empty shell and that seat is gone along with the rest, although the latest news is that the owners have said that they will rebuild it - The Regent is dead, long live the Regent!