I’d spent nearly 25 years of my life in merry old Blighty, learning my craft and falling in love, but in that time I’d never thought of leaving the country.
As I mentioned before, I met Rita in 1979, she was the ideal woman for me at the time: an idealist, headstrong and American. I’d never met an American until that night in London, and I’ve never met one since who’s proven her match in charm, skills or grace.
I met Rita just as her stay in the UK was coming to an end. She’d spent 9 months working as an au pair before travelling throughout the country for 3 months. Ours was a whirlwind romance which left both of us breathless and distraught at the prospect of being separated. We promised each other that we would be reunited and for the first time in my life I understood what it meant to sacrifice one’s art for someone else.
In order to save the money to fly to San Francisco I was forced into the very first job of my life. With my Art School qualifications I was the ideal candidate for a newly established print shop in London. At that time sign-writers were still in much demand, especially in the capital where new businesses opened on a daily basis. I was put to work designing and cutting vinyl decals which would then be whisked away to their new permanent home. Ironically, the work that I created there has probably be seen by more people than will ever see my artwork today….
With three months of work experience under my belt, not to mention enough cash to buy my plane tickets, I was ready to leave and start my new life in America. Rita and I had been sending letters back and forth in the time between, but her letters had slowly been changing in tone. The messages felt less immediate and strangely distant. I told myself that I was over-reacting, that our affection was still real but even when I was boarding the plane I suspected that something was awry.
By the time my plane swooped over the glittering San Francisco horizon I’d resigned myself to my fate. I’d spent the flight reading Rita’s letters over and over again, searching for meaning between the lines and had come to the conclusion that ‘the spark’ had gone. She had lost interest and was now merely sending the letters out of a sense of duty. With this said, I was more than a little surprised to see her waiting at the airport departures lounge.
The three months apart had been difficult for both of us. Rita had returned home to discover that her parents were in the midst of a divorce. Her childhood bedroom had been packed into boxes and her life had been turned upside down. She hadn’t wanted to share her private turmoil, preferring to keep our conversations free from the daily drama that she had become embroiled in. Rita took me out to a waiting taxi which was packed with her boxes, it looked like we were starting our new life together at little earlier than planned!
…peppered with curious encounters, lovers tiffs and no fewer than 6 different jobs, some of which I was juggling simultaneously.
Before the age of digital application forms and workers rights it was a lot easier for a British immigrant on a holiday visa to pick up work, especially if they had an enjoyable novel accent and a loveable mop of hair.
I was disappointed to discover on my first shift at Big Joe’s Burger Shack that there was no ‘Big Joe’ in residence. The name had been devised by a team of marketing types at the behest of the initial investors. Despite it’s disarming name, this restaurant was a rather corporate affair, yet it also happened to be one of my most enjoyable places to work. The staff were all my age and no one minded the demeaning uniforms as long as they got paid on time.
I was disappointed that my art skills couldn’t procure me a job in San Francisco as easily as it did in London, however, I noticed that a number of caricature artists were doing good businesses on the busy tourist-packed streets. I picked up a few basic supplies from a cheap art shop and was able to find a secluded spot to make a quick buck whenever I had a free day, I always enjoyed meeting the happy tourists who were a little confused as to why an Englishman was drawing them.
I never day-dreamed as much as I did when I was spinning that sign in Japantown. I was told by the kindly owner of the noodle shop that I was a natural which I found amusing considering that I was half-baked most of the time. During that Summer I must’ve spent 80 hours or so pointing folks in the direction of Tanaka’s Noodle Shop and I slowly perfected a number of bizarre dance moves which I used to usher tourists to a bowl of perfectly good Japanese food. My one regret is never trying a bowl for myself.
Darlene’s was the kind of place that was ripped straight from a pulp fiction novel from the 50s. Cigarette smoke hung at eye-line in a dingy drinking saloon which always felt like it was stuck in a perpetual night-time whatever the time of day it was. I never got to know many people in this job, I was paid in grubby dollar bills at the end of my shift and spent an hour in the shower each night trying to scrub away the stench of stale beer and cheap tobacco.
1974 was a particularly good year for American cinema. Such hits as the The Godfather II, Blazing Saddles and the San Franciso set Chinatown kept audiences so enthralled that I rarely had to keep order during the shows, giving me ample time to soak up the balmy evening air and some excellent movies. My favourite film of the Summer was The Conversation, making me briefly consider moving to New York before I learned how expensive it was to live there.
I’d learned to juggle when I was a kid but I never thought that it would be a skill that would earn me money later in life. After bumming around the Golden Gate Park during lazy Summer days, I noticed that a few slapdash clowns were picking up the odd buck bumbling around the green spaces and I figured this was a gig that I could get in on. One trip to a budget costume shop equipped me with everything I needed and soon I was picking up lunch money tumbling and juggling fruit…
Whilst I cycled around San Francisco picking up odd jobs where I could find them, she was at home painting and drawing on commission for a group of artists that she’d fallen in with. In between jobs, when I could find the time, I would return back to our studio apartment and eat lunch with her, looking out over the golden suburban hills of the city whilst we discussed our futures.
Unfortunately our planning was about to be put to a halt, as word had got out about mop-haired Englishman picking up tax-free income all across town. One day he could be seen clearing tables at a filthy club, the next day he’d be juggling for the amusement of families in Golden Gate Park and on the weekend he was spinning signs with a bleary eye and sketching iffy caricatures for confused tourists. He thought no one had cared about his little side-gigs, unfortunately someone had taken notice – the IRS.
A stern letter informed me one day that I had 7 days to set my affairs in order and then leave the USA. Although I wasn’t barred from re-entering the country, it was suggested that I would be wise not to return for at least 10 years. My Summer of Love had come to an abrupt end. I could do nothing but book my flight home, bid farewell to my various employers and, worst of all, Rita who had did not have the money or the inclination to follow me back to the UK. Her travelling days were behind her and I knew that her heart belonged in San Francisco and not with me.
When I touched down in London, all but penniless and heartbroken, the clouds were fit to burst and I felt that the time had come for me to return to my art. A distant uncle, hearing of my plight, got in touch with me and promised me free board at his holiday home in the North of England. I imagined a dismal smoke-filled sky, grubby faced children and a hard done by working class then accepted his offer.
Before I left for America I knew that my uncle had been looking to buy a residential park home in Lancashire. A holiday home had long been his dream, a place where he could vacation in during the summers and eventually retire to when he was old enough. He’d found his ‘slice of heaven’, as he liked to call it, in Mowbreck Park. This residential caravan park was set in a quiet corner of Lancashire and was certainly a far cry from my last home. Instead of the rumble of the streetcars I was woken by the distant cry of gulls. Despite this huge change in environment, I would still find myself reaching over for Rita each morning only to be brought back to earth with the realisation that she was half a world away…
We’re obsessed with looking back at our ‘glory days’ and obsessing over how wonderful our lives were back then.
Whilst a certain amount of retrospection is certainly conducive to the development of self-awareness, indulging too much in this past-time can lead to an unhealthy obsession with the past and a worrying case of ‘rose-tinted’ glasses.
Despite these niggles, I’ve decided to take a retrospective look at my journey thus far in both the world of art, as well as my personal development as a human being in order to better introduce you, the reader, to me.
Life began for me, as it must do for many, in my mother’s womb. I don’t remember much of my time there, in fact I remember nothing at all. My first memories are of Mother stroking my hair as I was put to sleep in a bed for the very first time. I must have been 2 at the time, but I can still recall the sensation of slowly falling asleep whilst gazing at the ceiling of my bedroom. It was decorated as a clear blue sky with a few dots of clouds skimming across the horizon.
My journey as an artist began with one bold prod of a pudgy finger into a shiny ball of acrylic paint. Red has been my favourite colour for as long as I remember and I’ve aged I’ve only grown more fascinated with this seductive, alluring tone. My first foray into fine art was a self-portrait, I’m lucky enough to still own it, although I doubt it’ll be selling for a good price any time soon…The portrait is framed in pride of place in my bathroom, my abstract scrawl sternly gazing down at anyone choosing to take a seat on my throne.
It wasn’t until I reached the age of 9 that I started to take a concerted interest in the act of creating. I’d become enthralled with the sculpting and had deplored my Mother to give me just a small handful of clay so that I start working on my first pieces. Initially, she refused, stating that the mess would be too great, but after much prostrating I was granted 5kg of the stuff and even given a little corner of the kitchen with which to begin my work.
I obsessed over sculpture for the majority of my youth. I loved the moist feel of the wet clay betwixt my hands made me feel like a God, quite a feeling to come to terms with considering I was only 11 years old. When I arrived at art school I felt that I was already head and shoulders above my classmates. They clumsily thumbed their way through their sculptures whilst I was intent on creating a masterpiece, however, my life was about to take a turn that I had not expected at that point.
I met my first and only wife Rita whilst joyously bouncing through a mosh pit at an underground punk night in London. We bumped, jostled and smashed into each other’s arms that night and have never managed to untangle ourselves since, something which I’m rather glad of. Up until that point I’d considered myself a loner, someone destined to purse his artistic dreams but never his romantic ones. When our lives became entwined in the summer of 1979 my life was irreversibly changed.