Wednesday, 30 November 2011

365 Doodles - Day 333

Several new paintings on the go - I'm going out with a bang. The first is called 'Painting myself into a corner' ...

The second is an accompanying picture for my Dead Astaire pic (see here) and will be Ninja Rogers ...

And the third is my first ever attempt at a serious self portrait. and it's HUGE ...

Plus I have a couple more commissions to finish and post out in the next few days and then I'm done as a pro artist. The New Year will see a fresh start and all of my efforts going int writing instead.

And on the subject of writing ... there will be an interesting announcement very soon ...

Second trailer for John Carter

Still cautiously over-excited ... (see previous post here).

The importance of being tenacious

In the past I have written a few blog posts about my frustration with lazy research. I've written about bad research involving RMS Titanic, the urban myth of HMS Friday and the use of 'the size of a fox terrier' to describe a prehistoric ancestor of the horse. I've even had my Wikipedia page vandalised because I corrected some spurious urban myth on the page about Harold Shipman. I'm a stickler for the facts and will always try to trace the original source if I can. I'm not perfect - I make mistakes the same as everyone does - but at least do my damnedest to get it right. Sadly, I seem to be a dying breed.

Just this week on TV I've seen a whole bunch of inaccurate stuff being given out as fact, presumably because all the programmes' researchers did was a quick internet search. For example, the otherwise great little ITV show Ade in Britain - in which comic Ade Edmondson visits a different county every day in search of local recipes and old customs - regularly regurgitates spurious facts. Last week he was in Cheshire and gave us that old chestnut about it being legal to shoot a Welsh person with a bow and arrow inside Chester city walls after midnight. It is simply not true. That particular statute relates to a bloody uprising by Welsh forces (led by Glyndwr) that was suppressed in the early 1400s. To ensure it didn't happen again, Henry IV wrote to the Mayor, Sheriffs and Aldermen of the City of Chester, commanding that 'All manner of Welsh persons or Welsh sympathies should be expelled from the City; that no Welshman should enter the City before sunrise or tarry in it after sunset, under pain of decapitation'. The King specified that these new laws should be 'proclaimed publicly in your bailiwick for the informing of the people.' (Source: Chester City Council). No mention of bows and arrows you'll note. Also, although this royal order may not have been repealed or recinded, it has been superceded by every Act of Parliament since that deals with the subject of murder, specifically the Homicide Act 1957, Offences Against the Person Act 1861 and the Human Rights Act 1998.  As Joshua Rozenberg, legal editor of the Daily Telegraph, points out: ‘The main safeguard is the Human Rights Act and other legislation usually has to be read in light of it, unless there's a conflict between the two and that's resolved by Parliament. The only reason these laws have survived the statute law revision team is that they've not been causing any harm.’

Okay, so it's a charming little story and no harm done, not even to Welsh people, but it's indicative of a greater malaise in the media where sloppy research is leading the the proliferation and prolongation of incorrect information.

Just today I've been researching a quite well known story that relates to the biologist Georges Cuvier. I've heard it on TV and radio shows for years and wanted to use it in my new book. So I started with Wikipedia and, lifted verbatim, it says this:

'When the French Academy was preparing its first dictionary, it defined 'crab' as 'A small red fish which walks backwards.' This definition was sent with a number of others to the naturalist Cuvier for his approval. The scientist wrote back, 'Your definition, gentlemen, would be perfect, only for three exceptions. The crab is not a fish, it is not red and it does not walk backwards'.

It then states 'Source unknown, but probably Times Literary Supplement (UK).'

That's pretty much the same story I've been hearing; it's a great little anecdote. But just how true is it? Warning bells start to sound for me as soon as I saw the words 'first dictionary'. And I was right to listen. The Academy's first complete edition was published in 1694 and Cuvier wasn't born until 1769. So, if the story is true at all, it would have been most likely the 5th edition (1798) or more probably the 6th (1835) even though Cuvier died in 1832. Let me explain ...

Having got the bit between my teeth, I started to dig a little deeper. In no time at all I was discovering variants of the story. In the Wikipedia version it states that Cuvier was sent the entry to comment upon it. However, older sources actually have him at the Academy and him being asked his opinion. This is possible as Cuvier was made one of the Academy's Immortels in 1818 and remained so until his death. He was not, however, on the dictionary committee. This supports the idea that the 'crab' entry was for the upcoming 6th edition eventually published in 1835 as Cuvier would not have been staff at the Academy in 1798 (when he was just 29) when the 5th edition was being prepared. Then there's the whole 'crab' issue. That may be wrong too. According to researcher Thora van Male, who teaches at the Institut d'Etudes Politiques de Grenoble, the disputed definition related to the word ecrevisse which is normally used for crayfish and not crab (crabe).

These are the kinds of problems you encounter in research. The answer is to always go for the earliest reliable source that you can find. In this case, the oldest I've found so far appears in Volume 2 of Charles F Horne’s four volume Great Men and Great Women: Statesmen and Sages (Selmar Hess 1894) in which the story goes:

'A curious anecdote is recorded of the ignorance of natural objects which continued even after the opening of the present century. When the committee of the French Academy were employed in preparing the well-known Academy dictionary, Cuvier came one day into the room where they were holding a session. 'Glad to see you, M. Cuvier,' said one of the forty; 'we have just finished a definition which we think quite satisfactory, but on which we should like to have your opinion. We have been defining the word 'crab,' and explained it thus: 'Crab, a small red fish, which walks backward'.' 'Perfect, gentlemen,' said Cuvier; 'only, if you will give me leave, I will make one small observation in natural history. The crab is not a fish, it is not red, and it does not walk backward. With these exceptions your definition is excellent'.'

Sadly, Horne does not provide me with his source for the story so, for the moment anyway, this is the oldest I have. And it is within the possible lifetime of someone who knew the story first-hand. It was published in 1894, just 64 years after Cuvier's death. And I have an actual quote I can re-print. So that's what I will use until I find something better. It's likely to be more accurate than the Wikipedia version at least. I have not been able to find the Times Literary Supplement that it cites as 'unknown but probable' but, even if it is a viable source, the majority of the TLS's content is reviews of books so, chances are, the TLS isn't the actual source anyway. This research took me no longer than an hour. And yet, sadly, I have today noted that on a Google search of 'Cuvier red fish backwards', almost all of the entries cite the source as Wikipedia or the Times Literary Supplement.

Don't misunderstnd me - I have nothing against Wikipedia. It's a wonderful thing and a great deal of it is completely accurate. I use it all of the time and I love how easy and accessible it makes everything. However, that's also why our kids (and TV researchers) love using it too - it's easy! They often don't bother researching any further. 'If it's on the internet it must be true'. Incidentally, that's something called False Authority Syndrome and merits a blog post of its own (here's one I wrote earlier). The fact is that Wikipedia, and many websites like it, are written and edited by non-experts much of the time and therefore should only ever be used as the starting point on a longer journey. I will always check their sources and, wherever possible, ensure that what I write is correct. In doing so, I'll be doing my my small and relatively insignificant bit to ensure that accurate information remains available to future researchers.

I just hope that they can be bothered to look.

Footnote: Since writing this - and in a perfect example of why it's so important to check your facts - an even older example has turned up and it seems to support Thora Van Male's version. The reference is in the original French and says:

'A quoi les habitants de Pointrieux, Plancoët et Saint-Brieuc pourraient lui répondre comme le fit Cuvier à l’un des rédacteurs du nouveau dictionnaire de l’Academie française, qui soumettait à son approbation l’article Ecrevisse, ainsi conçu:
‘L’écrevisse est un poisson rouge, qui marche à reculons.’
‘L’écrevisse n’est pas un poisson; L’écrevisse n’est pas rouge; L’écrevisse ne marche pas à reculons; du reste, l’article est fort bien.’

Roughly translated, it says:

'The people of Pointrieux, Plancoët and Saint-Brieuc could answer him like Cuvier did to one of the drafters of the new dictionary of the French Academy, who submitted the Article crayfish for approval as follows:

'Crayfish are red fish that walk backwards.'

'The crayfish is not a fish; the Crayfish is not red; the crayfish does not walk backwards; however, the article is good.'

The source is the Annual of the Archaeological and Historical Society of Côtes-du-Nord, published in 1844.

The Creepy Portrait Art Challenge - The Results

So here they are ... the weird and the wonderful, the insane and the unhinged; the fantastic photos that were submitted to me for the Creepy Portrait Art Challenge. As you know, I wanted at least 12 separate eccentric family portraits for a book project I'm currently working on. Sadly, there were very few submissions but those I did get in were SUPERB, as you'll see. I intend to use them all. We kick off with this slice of scary pie from Andy Kerr:

Then we have this from Cheryl Lancaster:

An uncomfortable portrait by Phillip Groombridge:

And Rob (@gigerpunk) sent me this image of manly splendour:

Finally, a veritable cornucopia of mad images from the damaged minds of Mo McFarland and Caroline V (@amberprophet):

They really are brilliant, every single one. And deeply disturbing for all the right reasons. Thank you people. Magnificent effort all round.

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

One final dollop of Creepy Inspiration

A few more weird and occasionally inexplicable old photos from my collection to spur you on to great things:

Get snapping!

Final Call for the Creepy Portrait Art Challenge

Just two days to go in my final (for some time anyway) art challenge. For this one, I've asked people to create a surreal or downright creepy postcard of the kind that seemed to proliferate around Halloween and Christmas in the days when black and white photography was the norm. Among the genuine examples I've found online are gems like these:

I've had some amazing submissions so far and will post them all on December 1st. All you need to do is send me the photo - I can do the ageing and distressing etc. No prizes on offer this time except that I'm 2/3rds of the way through writing a comic novel that requires photos of mad and eccentric relatives throughout. This seemed the perfect way to get those portraits and for people to see their name in a book as one of the contributors.

So there you go. You have until Midnight on the 30th. Get snapping!

365 Doodles - Day 332 - RCA Secret Special

I can now reveal the three postcards that I did for this year's RCA Secret Auction. Every year, artists are invited to donate these original artworks that are then sold off to raise much needed funds for the Royal College of Art. The mix of artists includes current RCA students, working artists like me and more than a few celebrity names. The idea is that the cards are anonymous and cost £45 each; you don't know whose work you're buying so you could find yourself with a Stevyn Colgan or, if luck is with you, a Tracey Emin, Grayson Perry, Manolo Blahnick, Nick Park or Yoko Ono (they all took part this year). Here are my three:

They are Cards 625 (Page 13 of online catalogue), 1524 (31) and 2566 (52). All three are quick watercolour pencil sketches of people I've seen in real life. The large chap was eating chicken in Regents Park and inspired not only this doodle but a full painting in acrylics (see it here). The lady pensioner was someone I saw in Ayr, Scotland in 2006. She was struggling to stay standing up and eat an ice cream during a gale on the seafront. The gale won. The third card is of an absolutely huge bloke I saw not so long ago in Notting Hill. I'd just had lunch with writer and director Graham Linehan and was walking back to the tube station when this guy - he must have been 6ft 6ins easily - came walking along the road with his Staffy on a lead. Well, I say walking. Mincing is was the word. He was very camp and the incongruity of the whole image made me smile. I have no doubt at all that, if he wanted to, he could crush most homophobes' skulls like an egg. The Union Flag cap sleeved T-shirt - so often misused by racists to represent their foul agenda - was the icing on the cake.

I enjoyed taking part this year and was honoured to be asked.

Monday, 28 November 2011

365 Doodles - Day 331

Not a lot to show for today. Just a couple of doodles. Not a great doodling day.

Sunday, 27 November 2011

Jack the Ripper away in a Manger

My grandchildren - aged 6 and 5 - have both scored half-decent roles in their school Nativity plays this year. One is a shopkeeper and the other is an angel. However, some of their friends weren't quite so lucky. Among the shepherds, wise men, Mary and Joseph, sheep and cows there's a child who is playing the stable door.

In the spirit of 'inclusivity' that is foisted upon teachers these days, no child - no matter how inept or undramatic they might be - can be left out. I guess it's better than how it was in my day when the dullards got nothing and the divas got everything. But a door? It got me wondering what other strange roles teachers have created to ensure that all of the kids get something meaningful to do during school productions. So I asked around and heard some amazing stories. Twitter was a particularly fecund source of anecdotes, some quite tragic.

@the_lady_sybil told me that she'd been the 'glamorous assistant' to a quoit thrower played by a kid called Wayne. To do this she was forced into a green leotard and, in her words, 'I wasn't a skinny kid'. Ouch.

Poor Ally Craig told me a tale that brought a tear to my eye: 'Being unable to walk, they made me Santa in the school play. They built a chimney around me and sang When Santa Got Stuck Up the Chimney.'

Trina Wright got to play the mirror in Snow White but, in a moment of exquisite torture, discovered that she'd have to tell the girl she hated most in school how pretty she was.

The winner for sheer pathos however is Michael Moran who had to dress as a duck for a school play. This entailed getting dressed up at home and travelling 11 miles to school. Alone. Dressed as a duck.

Among the more curious inanimate objects people were asked to play, I heard that Gary Hills had played a leaf, @cosmiclaire played a hailstone, Damon Shaw was the Moon and @bamberries was, on separate occasions, required to be an ant and a milk bottle. Several people recalled being animals or parts of animals or Christmas puddings. And @shanisolly once had to dress up as a Space Invader in a Waitrose cardboard box costume. In a Nativity.

Not that the traditional Nativity is a stranger to introducing new characters. @svmitchie was once asked to play 'a woman who wanted to shop at Harrods instead of giving money to a homeless man - hard hitting stuff for a six-year-old.' Meanwhile, Simon Johnson was a 'welly wanger' - one who chucks Wellington boots - but had to do it with a haggis instead. Mo McFarland was a Hula Girl and @grumly_grimly once played 'Optional spear carrier' (?). But the prize must go to @mr_Geoff who played Jack the Ripper. Apparently, the Nativity that year was loosely based on A Christmas Carol and one possible future for the star was likely to be a trifle visceral and grim. Extraordinary.

Do you know of a worse or more bizarre role? Do let me know.

365 Doodles - Day 330

I haven't got as many new doodles done as I would have liked today as my heart isn't in it, to be honest. Fresh mojo tomorrow. So here are a few to be going on with:

Sour grapes? Yes, enough to keep Oliver Reed happy for a year

In years to come, arts pundits will look back on 2011 and talk about 'The Pippa Middleton Moment' - the turning point in the history of publishing. Her name will be cursed through clenched teeth by some. Others will hang posters of her on the wall, like some modern day Che Guevarra. Although, let's be honest, she'll probably be facing the other way.

To be fair to fair Pippa, she will be entirely blameless. Her actions will have been entirely justified and proper. However, hers will be the name that people remember and attach to the pivotal moment when traditional book publishing shot itself in both feet.

In case you don't know, the various newspapers and publishing feeds have been buzzing these past few weeks with the news that a 'significant deal' was about to be brokered for Pippa Middleton to write a book about organising a party. The rumours were that her advance would be in the region of six figures. Now, I won't be so crass as to suggest that the words will be written by anyone other than Ms. Middleton; for all I know she may be a very good writer indeed. I'm sure she's also an excellent party organiser - it is what she does for a living after all. But these issues will not be the reason why the various publishing houses have been cramming themselves into the starting gates and preparing themselves for a bidding war. It's because of who she is or, rather, who she's related to.

Today, a figure emerged of £400,000. I have no idea if it's correct as the sources are tabloid-based (another publishing story altogether) but, if it is, I feel genuinely saddened.

Don't get me wrong, I don't begrudge her the money. Hell, wouldn't we all like to score a deal like that? Of course we would. As I say, she's blameless. Good luck to her. My ire and frustration and annoyance is focused solely on the publishing industry - no, the beam is even narrower than that - it's focused on the accountants that now run the publishing industry and, it seems, everything else. Money has not become the dominant factor in the arts and entertainment (it always was, let's be honest) - it now seems to be the only factor.

You all know, I'm sure, that Richard Adams' Watership Down was rejected 13 times and that The Diary of Young Girl by Anne Frank was rejected 15 times. Frank Herbert's Dune was turned down 23 times, Stephen King's Carrie was rejected 30 times, and Marina Lewycka's recent worldwide best-seller A Short History of Tractors in Ukranian was rejected 36 times. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig was rejected a staggering 121 times. But the winner so far (I've only done 10 minutes of research and am sure it can be beaten) is Chicken Soup for the Soul by Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen, which was rejected a staggering 140 times. It has since gone on to sell 80 million copies in 37 languages. And, guess what? J K Rowling's first Harry Potter book was rejected 12 times. All of which means that, in the current climate, it would probably never have been published because it was not a dead cert from the off.

In the past, publishers chose what books to carry on merit and gut instinct. If they felt that the book deserved to be out there in the world and was 'worth a punt', they signed the author. Some failed, many went on to become bestsellers. Which is how J K Rowling eventually got signed by Bloomsbury, despite 12 other publishers saying no. Someone took and risk because they liked it. However, that kind of decision-making is now driven solely by profit margins. If you don't believe me, go and look in the High Street book shop (if you can find one). It's celebrity book after celebrity book. Some of them may be very good; I can't judge them without having read them. But it seems more than likely that many were published simply because there's a readymade fan base that will lap them up. They're dead certs. There's nothing essentially wrong with that  - it makes good business sense. But the problem is that, in order to secure the 'author', the publishers will have had to shell out a small fortune every time. And the amounts are getting bigger and bigger. In these times of austerity, that means that the pot for signing new authors is getting smaller every day. Publishers are as hard-hit by the recession as anyone else and, let's be realistic about this, they are businesses that will collapse themselves if they don't turn a profit. There isn't unlimited cash to splash about. But what cash there is seems to flow only in the direction of the rich or already famous.

I've had some experience of this. If you look to the right of this blog page you'll see some reviews for my first book, Joined-Up Thinking. They were all very positive and complimentary. I didn't get a single bad review. Stephen Fry attached his name to the project with a cover quote. My publisher loved it and paid me a generous advance. I was even asked to go away and write the sequel immediately. But then, as the book awaited printing and distribution, the UK lost several major book retailers - Ottakars, Books etc. and Borders among them - and, within just a few months of signing my book deal, the dominant force in bookselling was the retailers: W H Smiths, John Menzies and the supermarkets. Smaller branches of the stores will only stock the Top 50 charting books and supermarkets are celeb-driven. And neither promote new authors. All of the advertising money is spent on promoting books by celebrities and well-established authors who, let's be honest, don't actually need it. No Dan Brown fan is going to miss the fact that he has a new one out. All that advertising is simply gilding an already 24 carat lily. The result was that my book sold okay - if you'd actually heard about it or could find it. Despite all the predictions of success it had recieved from reviewers and trade magazines, it never stood a chance. And guess what? As the result, the second book I'd been asked to write was dropped like a warm dog turd.

Yes, of course there are some sour grapes on my part. I'm honest enough to admit that. But the story illustrates a much bigger point, namely that my book was considered good enough to warrant an advance, publication and a sequel ... but it was never given the chance to prove itself. My editor was so apologetic. He really believed in both books but he just couldn't get anyone to promote Book 1 and he couldn't get Book 2 past the acountants. Had I been a footballer, or a reality show contestant or the sister-in-law of the future king, he would have had no such problem no matter how good or bad the book would have been.

Which brings me back to the Pippa Middleton case. I wish her well, I really do. I hope the book is a huge success. I'd wish that to any author. But that £400,000 is not going to discover the next J K Rowling or the next Stephen king. It won't provide an advance that will allow some brilliant new author to research their novel. It won't pay someone's food and rent while they work on that next great children's book. It won't be used to promote new books by new writers. And, I suspect, it won't generate a book that we'll all be talking about in 10 years time, let alone 100.

What it will do is drive more frustrated authors into the arms of self-publishing companies. Or maybe they'll try their luck with a crowd-funded enterprise like Unbound. Crowd-funding is a model we've already seen working successfully in the music industry where popular bands and artists have been dropped by their labels for being unprofitable but have then bounced back with fan-funded albums. Marillion are a great case in point. Despite selling millions of albums, they were dropped. So their fans now pay for every new album and touring generates the rest of their income. They're free of corporate restraint and enjoy a relationship with their fans that is closer than most other bands enjoy. I helped fund the most recent albums by Emmy the Great and Jim Moray and they are wonderful. And that's the way I see publishing going in the future. There will come a point when authors choose this path as the desired path; Bestselling tweeter and author Mrs Stephen Fry has already taken the plunge this last week. And even though they'd have no problem getting a more traditional deal, Monty Python's Terry Jones and Red Dwarf's Robert Llewelyn have also gone with Unbound because they believe in it too. With this model of publishing, it's the readers who dictate what they want to read rather than the accountants offering only what they choose to publish. Subscription is how books used to be funded before the days of big publishing houses so there's no shame in returning to those roots. The quiet revolution has already begun.

This week, public sector workers will go on strike in an attempt to preserve their pensions. The Leveson Inquiry will continue to hear how corporate greed led certain newspapers and individuals to illegally invade people's privacy in order to sell papers. Bankers will be paid bonuses for helping to make big profits while people on the breadline will be charged £30 for going a quid or two overdrawn. Footballers and pop stars and other celebrities will earn millions - much of it from publishing deals. Meanwhile, in New York and London and other major cities, groups of ordinary, angry citizens will be spending another day camped on the streets to show their utter disgust at a culture where greed is good and the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.

Traditional publishing, it seems to me, has made the mistake of aligning itself with this philosophy. I would suggest that in doing so they are pushing their own tumbrel towards the gallows.

The Best of Bandhands

I love getting involved in art projects and some of the best are those odd, off-the-cuff, inspired memes that begin on Twitter. Last night the always funny Gareth Aveyard started a game called Band Hands in which people were asked to ... er ... draw a famous band on their hand. The results were hilarious. Here are a few of my favourites ... can you guess who they are?

They were, of course, The Small Faces, Rage against the Machine, the B52s, Badfinger, The Beatles, Blur, Guns 'n Roses, Kraftwerk, Madonna, Kiss, Slade, The Fall, ZZ Top, Westlife (Genius!) ... and Emerson, Lake and Palmer (Ha!) The Three Degrees (Ha ha!) and Men at Work (superb!). My own humble submissions included Queen and the four eras of Elvis:

There were so many brilliant entries. I couldn't possible include them all here. Well done everyone - you kept me smiling for hours.

Contributors: @garethaveyard, @thishenryjames, @steand, @markhyson, @moogyboobles, @gordonbibby, @fthc, @mikewinship, @richlieu_uk, @keaton76, @johnnybeelzebub, @scubadog, @lcg326, @nobrelmes, @danbm, @mizzlizwhiz, @the_no_show, @scottrywrotem, @killingflowers, @gdorean, @buxtontheblue, @mixmasterfestus, @iamannabellelee, @gomark, @lucasblack, @olliehester, @cheeserus, @stephjl, @suzepeelan, @markhyson, @lucy_peel, @purehilton, @belljarred, @mtrh, @dandouglas, @slackattacks ... hope I haven't missed anyone.