Sunday, 27 July 2014

My Life as a Tapestry - 4 (early strutting and fretting)

My parents were in a parish amateur dramatics group (which they started). Every Christmas the group did a pantomime, which Dad wrote and his brother Bernard put to music, and which we all acted in. 

English pantomime is known for its gender-bending: men play dames, women play principal boys. In this picture Mum is Prince Charming and a man called Cyril is Mrs. Baba (Ali’s mum) or Widow Twanky or whatever idiotic name Dad thought up for her. Dad is a villain naked in a barrel being kicked around the stage as usual. I’ve shown Gillian being upset by this because I remember that she was, just as I was, at her age, seeing him being manhandled in some Gilbert & Sullivan operetta that the local YMCA put on.

Susan is an Egyptian slave girl (all pantomimes have one) and I've drawn Bernard in broad arrows because that’s where he ended up, even though he was a respected headmaster of a primary school in Basildon. (More about this in a later tapestry, probably). 

I’m on the toilet, in a spotlight, for reasons I find difficult to explain (see below) but are sort of hinted at in the bad Latin caption ‘here the libido is diplayed - here is shame’.
In case anyone thinks putting on pantomimes was an odd thing for a family to be doing let me draw their attention to a story in the Guardian in December 2013 showing that it wasn’t an oddity confined to the Goodfellows, back in the early 1960s.
The tapestry borders depict some of the images and icons I associate with the theatre: ancient dramatic and more recent commercial symbols, accolades, greasepaint, light, scenery and all the arts of the mask. I and my siblings and cousins were stage-struck to various degrees, and Gillian and I went as far as trying it out professionally (although not mainstream naturally) in the course of our patchwork careers (see other tapestries yet to come).
This panel has taken me 8 months to complete, with more preparatory drawings and revisions than any of the previous three. Perhaps I’m becoming more self-critical (always likely) or perhaps because this is all getting bit Freudian – it expresses something of the ambivalence between excitement and shame that I have always felt about performance, and the possible relation of this ambivalence to oedipal views of my parents. Hence the toilet in the spotlight – a recurring dream of mine.

 (nb: I’ve noticed a general tendency towards the psychoanalytical in some of the graphic novelists that I read, eg: Alison Bechdel, Sawa Harasymowicz, but it ain’t normally me babe…)

My Life as a Tapestry - 3 (never mind the Education act 1944)

Schooling in the 1950s and 60s came with bells and whistles, and, for some, uniforms - navy blue for St. Ignatius, brown for St. Ursula, and a sort of sludgy turquoise for St. Anne. Catholic schooling set out to teach me and my sisters about wickedness, though I don't know how much attention we paid. 

I learned about goodness from a man who stopped his lorry in the busy arterial road and handed me a puppy through the cab window. Susan learned about it from "Susan of St. Brides". Gillian was just naturally good - she was born without original sin. (I've used her in this drawing to experiment with breaking the 'border' convention between picture and margin - as the Bayeux artists did in the 'Harold's coronation' and 'Crossing' scenes).
I was impressed by the Church's sympathy for thieves, and alarmed by its paranoia. Sister Dympna wanted me to believe there was a lurking bus waiting to end my life in an instant, if I wasn't careful, and woe betide me if I wasn't in a state of grace when I turned up for judgement. The Canon told me that non-catholic kids would always be trying to trick me into losing my faith. Father Maloney said a scruffy exercise book was the first step to hell, and gave me 12 to make the lesson stick.
The margins here denote the Vatican and the distinctive 1870s school architecture that was still housing most younger children 80 years later. The 11+ examination was our rite of passage to even older grammar schools, or the occasional new secondary modern, if we didn't pass. School milk and the catechism were rituals that marked every school day.

The Latin caption is supposed to mean 'here they learn to be pure and holy' but Google Translate gave me the perfect form of the verb disco (I learn) instead of the present. Given the form of the 
3rd person plural for the present indicative of that verb it's probably just as well (thanks to Alan Woodley for pointing this out).

My life as a tapestry - 2 (the first hurdle)

I was part of the post-war baby boom. Being a child in those years meant receiving all the determined postwar care of a society breathless with relief and obsessed with minding everyone's business. Those 'Demmit Cynthia' accents concealed a steely resolve to vaccinate and educate.

My Auntie Doreen looms large in my pre-school memory - she was an overworked housewife, with both her children and her own parents to care for, not to mention a sick husband. 

Amongst the kids in the picture are my extended family of cousins: Stephen and Sheila, Andrew and Christopher, Wendy and Jane. Three of these families had later additions who will get mentions in this tapestry in their proper time and place.

..and the chronology is all over the place as Susan is still in the pram here while the others are shown as children. However - who's to say that the Bayeux tapestry shows everyone exactly as they were when the events depicted took place? I think I can take a few liberties with my own memories!

My childhood self loved his little sister but also developed an unaccountable hatred of prams.

All childhoods have their dark side. For the polio kids at my school it was pain and being left out, and sometimes,  all too sadly, mockery. For me, it was the wordless terror of the moon and the sensation of my head gradually turning to stone.

In the subtext, the Labour government, the NHS and the BBC administer to the daily needs of our bodies, minds and sense of nationhood.

My life as a tapestry - 1 (once upon a time in 1947)

I was inspired by the Bayeux tapestry to start a tapestry of my own life. (Not literally a tapestry as I can't embroider, but a drawing of a tapestry).

Where to begin?

The recent death of my Uncle John sent me back to 1947 - the year he returned from several years abroad in the service of World War II, only to find that the family home in Romford that he had left was now occupied by strangers. His father had sold up and gone back to Ireland without telling anyone. A not uncommon story amongst returning servicepeople after that war I'm told.

1947 was also the year I was born - in a family home that my parents already shared with my aunt and uncle. I and my cousin Andrew were born about 2 months apart - I thought of our sister-mums as rather like the 
Cholmondeley Ladies of the 17th century.

My aunt Eileen coming back from being a nurse in Syria is in the picture too. As is my Dad, proudly starting his new life in civvy street. And a man clearing rubble, and a scientist observing something vaguely atomic.

The Latin narrative is completely cod, of course. It says 'a new lifeworld starts here'.

The sub-text running round the borders is about patriotism, militarism, industrialisation, and the rather more scarce self-harming luxuries of everyday life after the greatest man-made disaster the World had ever seen.

The Tapestry begins

The idea of telling my life story in the style of the Bayeux tapestry came to me when Steph and I visited Bayeux whilst staying in Honfleur in September 2012.

The famous tapestry depicting the Norman invasion of Britain in 1066 combines figurative images (the events depicted), symbolic images (around the borders), and written text (the Latin commentary), all mediated via a popular representational technology of the time -- embroidery. I copied this section of it from a postcard, and found it fun and challenging to draw and also intriguing as a story-telling form that can carry all sorts of intuited visual and textual messages as well as its surface narrative.Just what I needed for a retirement project, except I don’t embroider. Well, I thought, Grayson Perry probably doesn’t embroider either but he’s still done tapestries so what the hell I’ll just draw them.

It’s taking me longer than I thought it would, but I’m finding it enthralling. Chronologies get a bit mixed up in some of them, but the memories they invoke while I’m researching and doing them are rich and satisfying. Thanks to everyone who appears in them (recognisably or otherwise) for being in the story.

Wonder what the ending will be? (Although, like the original, I/we may never know).