Sailing Marks

 

               On a drizzly summer morning, stick in hand, heels dragging in the mud of the towpath, I watch the ropes swinging off the bollards. Backwards, forwards. Towards me, and away. My feet stuck in leaky plastic boots, muck-dulled life jacket zipped so far up under my chin that I can hardly breathe. A duck swims by the bank, darting in and out from the corrugated steel.

                 The water around the boat is churning, stirred by the deep-throat engine hidden in its box of a hull. I watch for my father’s black baseball cap, bobbing up at the stern. His head, puffing steam into the cold air, is followed by the shining brass steering stick. This he fixes in place and disappears back below.

               I take my stick, an indiscriminate limb of a tree, and plant it in the mud. I put both hands around the top, both feet around the bottom, and press it into the canal bank with all my weight. It stands, leaning in a puddle, after I have clambered back into the hollowed prow. Ropes are coiled, thrown up on the roof. Mucky dishwater sloshes out of the hatch, adding to the puddles on the path. The engine roars into second gear, and we launch our boat further down the Birmingham canal.Sailing Marks Illustration 2.jpg

               In medieval navigation, sailing marks were raised at estuaries or further down rivers, to give sailors a sense of where they were in relation to the land. These could be church spires and mounds, seen from far out at sea, or sometimes wooden staves stuck in the mud. Some medieval trading sites in Scandinavia are thought to have hung grotesque masks on these staves so that approaching ships could tell the difference between one place of exchange and the next.

               Reading about sailing marks (an unexpected turn in my PhD), makes me think of my childhood voyages down the muddy canals of North West England and Wales. Travelling at the breakneck pace of two- to five-miles-per-hour, we would set out from Stoke and go as far as we could before we had to turn back, constrained by school holidays and rental tariffs. On the way, each mooring site became a place we did not want to leave. Once the tow ropes were fastened to the bank, through heavy iron hoops, our existence was fastened to that fifty-yard stretch of field, park, or woodland. Leaping from the gunwale, we raced off to scout out our new home for the night, finding places to run, hide, or sometimes building palaces out of rotting tree limbs and ferns. Recognising these places on the way back, however much we felt we had belonged to them, was always impossible. That must be the bit of woodland where we built our fort. Or, isn´t that where Dad set fire to the towpath as well as the sausages? You could never be certain, and once a place had been left behind it seemed to have stopped existing.

               I remember being obsessed with sticks – this fascination extended to the other children, my siblings, and friends, whoever I was travelling with on the boat. Some piece of tree or other persistently hid up on the roof, or in the engine room. In this way, craftily tucked into the corners, pieces of the lost mooring places came with us down the water. Shuffling around on the towpath to keep out of the way of the waking boat, I poked sticks into the mud in boredom, standing them in puddles, in a way I imagine now to be like sailing marks. I would sit on the roof of the boat as it chugged drowsily along, keeping watch for those sticks in the canal bank, the markers of the way we had come.

               Sticks in the canal bank never stay put. It only takes the kick of a boot, the jaws of an eager dog, or a fall of heavy rain to slip them into the brown water. There, they join tangles of branches and reeds in slowly spinning islands cast by the eddies of passing barges. The boats keep moving, lethargically, pulling the viscous surface of the water with them. Tugged along in this oily, plastic soup, my sailing marks cannot hold all those little pieces of home in place.Sailing Marks Illustration 1.jpg

              10th March, 2019 – Spring Term

 

Some characters from medieval romance

 

I have recently started a PhD, and now find myself catapulted into a world of fantastic stories. As I surround myself with ancient legends and far-off romances (the medieval kind), I find it difficult to ignore a childish sense of glee. I am reading and writing about the best kind of stories – stories about giants, trolls, kings and knights – and this is my day job.

After a term, just over two months, spent immersing myself in many Old Norse-Icelandic and Middle English romances, I have a few favourite characters. Here are three of them.

Sleeping Arthur

1. King Arthur

You are probably familiar with Britain´s legendary king. Hollywood has done a good job of perpetuating his image: recklessly brave, wise, incredibly handsome. Arthur is the king who will return to save England from the Saxons, the Normans, Brexit. But the Arthur of Middle English romance is quite different. In fact, his most famous characteristic is that he falls asleep a lot. In one story, Arthur bails on his own Christmas feast because he is feeling sleepy, and his knights continue the party while keeping watch outside his bedroom door.

 

 

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2. Surtr

This is by far the creepiest giant in Norse sagas. Surtr lives by the sea shore, somewhere far to the north, and hunts human beings. Even more terrifying, he catches them, salts their flesh, and keeps their bodies in huge storage pits which he has dug out of the beach. These pits are also filled with the flesh of whales, walruses, seals, polar bears, and fish. Meeting Surtr would be terrifying, and enough to put anyone off meat for life.

 

 

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3. Guinevere’s mother

I love the character of Guinevere’s mother because she is incredibly grisly. One day, while out hunting, Guinevere and Gawain stop by a lake, and a corpse rises out of it. Dripping wet, covered in pond slime and burned black by hell fire, the corpse of Guinevere´s mother speaks to the legendary queen, warning her to cease her sinful ways. Guinevere´s mother is terrifying. Her flesh has burned from her bones, and there are frogs living in her skull. This image must have been enough to terrify a medieval audience into behaving well.

 

 

York River Art Market

41554401_291273618357660_7760193450678419456_nHello again!

It’s been a long summer, and I don’t think I’ve spent any of it on the beach (except for one lovely afternoon in Aldeburgh, on a detour to a fish-smoking hut). I’ve been working, moving house, and getting some serious art done. Among this serious art-ing was my first ever art market, the York River Art Market. This was a wonderful day spent in the sun (and a fair buffeting of that unique York wind), chatting to passersby about my monster prints and medieval mashup cards – all of which I took along to the riverside in an old cardboard suitcase.

The day was something of a success. For me, the challenge has always been getting my work to a standard where I feel comfortable showing it publicly. I viewed my stand, a makeshift affair of garden string and a little blue table, as my own outdoor gallery. As people passed by, they stopped and asked me about the prints – where had the ideas come from? what was the process behind making them? This feels like its own victory.

Almost a year of work went into getting those prints and cards ready. Coming up with the idea for a print series and making the drawings has only been half of it. This year, I’ve also had to learn how to digitally edit my work, how to present and market my work in a way that will stand out, and how to fight down that little voice telling me people are going to laugh at me for doing this. (Actually, some people did laugh, but, as all my art has a joke in it somewhere, I take this to be a very good sign.)

A year of work went into finally getting to the next step with my artwork, but it’s been four years since I started this blog. This blog was the first step: showing my art to the internet. If you scroll back through all these posts, you come to the first pen and ink drawings, done at a university desk and intended to amuse friends and family. What follows are the pages of sketchbooks, hauled across Europe throughout a year of travelling, and finally the medieval-inspired monsters I worked on alongside my MA.

Now, as I stare down the last week and a bit until I start a PhD in Medieval literature, I can’t wait to see where these “doodles” will go next. I have monster zines and graphic novels brewing in the back of my mind, illustrated field journals and thought journals to accompany my research. I’m morphing this blog, once again, to suit the way I am using drawing in my life: welcome to my illustrated journal. I can’t wait to share it with you.

 

Keep an eye out.

— Drake

 

Doodle 28.94.17

Good morning, my chums!

Today’s doodle is a little bit horrifying. If you have been following my posts for a while, you’ll know that I am a little bit fascinated by monsters, and also by unusually monstrous creatures in medieval manuscripts, the most terrifying of which are snails, or rabbits riding snails. This week it was Alien Day and, following the hype, I went to see Alien on the big screen. Watching that illogically amusing plastic monster scurrying about a spaceship got me thinking about how modern monsters are just as funny as medieval monsters. Therefore, I present to you the ultimate battle of the beasts: Snail versus Alien. Who do you think would win in a fight?

Pen and ink, and madness.

Sleep well.

Drake