The artist, 1970.
Just this past evening, while pouring through a collection of early childhood sketchbooks and diaries, I hit upon the inspiration for my next novel (I write novels, they aren’t necessarily published).
The impetus for this upcoming work came hurtling out of the following gallery of seventeen drawings, all taken from the period 1967–1971, during which time I was living in the rural north of Glasgow, in Scotland, my fourth year quickly becoming my seventh, a phase of childhood colored with the hue and cry of violence, a time of sanctioned beatings and thrashings, of the ugly face of nationalistic prejudice, of teeth liberated from a bloody mouth by an unexpected fist, of furtive figures pacing the moors, of football thugs and skinheads, of physical experiments and the doctoring of nature’s surroundings.
These violent visual cacophonies of lead and crayon, a time-compressed collage of WWII armies, ancient barbarians, and medieval knights, were drawn carefully, yet forcefully, from a young consciousness, the determining features of the psyche of a boy who had grown up surrounded by the threat of recent English history, by the seemingly eternal, advancing armies of Adolf Hitler, as portrayed in the oft-terrifying stories of my mother, told only on rare occasion, when she felt compelled to make known her experience as a child of that terrible war.
She’d tell of the German “Doodlebugs”, the surface-to-surface missiles that held their shrapnel in hollow cavities encircling their canisters, deadly caches that rotated as they hurtled through the sky, creating a great noise that sounded, after much dreadful repetition, like doodle-bug, doodle-bug, doodle-bug.
She’d tell of how the tiny farmhouse she grew up in shook as the chattering death candles ripped at the night sky, how she and her parents huddled beneath their small kitchen table, every window blocked with dark crate paper, a gauntlet of homes, blackened like crouching ninjas, running the course to London, north from the icy grey surface of the English Channel, across which hovered the German army, resting on the bent pride of the French, waiting for its most-vaunted strategists to come up with a victorious plan for crossing the twenty-mile waterway from Calais, to take England and wring liberty from its pale neck.
She’d tell of the Stuka, shot down into an oak tree just down the road from the family farm, of seeing the pilot’s parachute hanging from the cockpit, like the messy strands of some giant broken spider’s web, the pilot nowhere to be found.
She’d tell me of my Papa, her father, a bunion-toed farmer named George Holland, who, during this time of great shortage in able-bodied men left to stand the shores of home, was picked to be one of the infamous “Home Guard”, a ragtag brigade of little men who took turns, terrified sentries marking the highest point in each of the many rural villages lining the bloody blitzkrieg to London. Papa, his feet so tight in his army-issue boots, spent one or two evenings a week, poised atop Leith Hill, in the county of Surrey, his plow-worn fingers tight about his plywood rifle, his neck sore from the weight of his steel helmet, shivering, wanting for a cup of tea, dreading the painful walk home.
What I learned from these family-spun tales was that war could be both the worst, and the funniest, thing imaginable, as strange as that might sound, especially to those whose history has not been so marked with war’s trenchant din.
Even in the very real face of a German invasion, my family found the humor in the fact that, if Hitler had plowed across the Channel, it would have mostly been men like my granddad who would have met him in “armed” resistance. If you knew my poor Papa’s feet like my mother knew them, the regular Epsom salt baths in the stone-floored pantry, Papa’s trousers rolled up to his knees, his bare legs dropping into a metal bucket sporting a head of steam, then you’d have every right to see the ultimate humor, and the reflective horror, in such an imagined scenario, one which, thankfully, never transpired (more to miscalculation than any inability on the German side). Nevertheless, mine was a country where family died, where family bled, where families were torn apart, but still there was laughter – laughter and the very precious sanity it preserved.
My father, for his part, told me of the mile-long convoys of tanks and trucks and cannons that regularly groaned as they made their way across the North Country, from the seaside of Liverpool to the bleak working class houses of Manchester, to the opposite coast, of the bombers whose bellies rumbled about the heavens, of the shortage of fresh food, of the muted bugles for the returning dead. And he reminded me that three of my great uncles had been killed in WWI.
It was this atmosphere, one still scented with the sulfur of combat, the cost of sacrifice, in which I was raised, some eighteen years after the war had ended, a time in Great Britain when the best-selling comics were mostly war-based, bearing titles like Commando, War Picture Library, Victor, Battle, Warlord, and Smash!, publications that rode a seemingly ever-increasing popularity, keeping a nation of boys alert to the recent threat of the Nazi menace and the insidiously industrious means by which it set about taking the world.
I was engulfed in the war-torn adventures of characters like Baddock of the Bombers, Policeman in Khaki, Steel Commando, Captain Hurricane, and my favorites, The Breakneck Patrol, a crack British motorcycle stunt team who, trapped in Germany at the outbreak of war with Britain, disguise themselves as German soldiers in order to wreak motorcycle-driven havoc on Hitler’s doorstep.
These were the direct descendants of my father’s Biggles and Gimlet novels, the pulpy adventures featuring ace flyers, penned between the wars by W.E. Johns, a sort of Santa Claus of the military literature canon, a peddler of soft-war tales featuring irrefutably heroic and virtuous men of British birth.
Being weaned on such a heavy diet of war by-product, it is hard to imagine it not, in some fashion, clamping down hard upon my young psyche. The comics I read were still printed on war-ration newsprint (anyone at all familiar with the uniquely-British phenomena of “government toilet paper” will understand how poorly this paper compared to standard newsprint), to say nothing of the obsessively-detailed toy soldiers I collected at the time, amassing the complete forces of numerous countries, like some tiny, scruff-kneed dictator, sending them off in legion, to destroy one another upon the carpet covering my bedroom floor.
The drawings I made during this early adolescent period, I feel, are represented both my informed familial history and by the very primal heart of our species, the legions of boys, and girls, rising from the steamy stench of the battlefield of the id, their forearms thick with the blood of their ego’s enemy. We might seek to surround our children in a secondary womb of blues and pinks, wrapping them in the fuzzy and the cuddly, but the inescapable truth is that there is a tiny killer in every smiling infant, a creature who’s very existence hinges upon the instinct to defend, to strike out at that which seeks to inflict restraint on its physical being, acting upon the subconscious directive to take the life that would take its life.
There is nothing either extraordinary, nor particularly unique, about these drawings, and yet I believe they are a valid representation of our inherent relationship with war and conflict, of the silent fury that dwells in the human belly.
The process by which they were created, largely based on my three-dimensional game playing upon my bedroom floor, generally involved first drawing two armies, one occupying the right, one the left, or folded in upon one another, as the battle progressed and armed birds fell from the sky. I would then equip these shape-delineated or color-coded adversaries with individual weapons, as well as an armada of vehicles, stationary guns, flags, and other equipment. Next, I would proceed to commencing the action, drawing the intersecting paths of bullet and bomb, creating an intense, angry scribble at the heart of each, marks that I find represent, through future reflection and assignation, the trails of battle’s indiscriminate lack of mercy, the veins of its heartless heart.
Finally, each man, or weapon, thus destroyed, was then either buried in a sea of tighter scribbling, or hastily erased from the drawing, leaving its ghostly impression to linger the killing paper.
Add to this the omnipresent Swastika, the sad and ominous presence of hovering bombers (like bees seeking pollen), the frequent cries of HELP! coming from those succumbing to war’s thirsty grip, and it all, to me, seems as resonant as any tale thus told of the blind madness of man at war.
But, then again, what do I know? I’ve never lived through one.
Papa and George Protect Leith Hill, 1968
Procession of the King of the Holy Trident, with Zombie Troopers, 1967
Low Bomber Over Exploding Convoy, 1971
Foot Soldiers Raiding Psychedelic Rocket Launcher, 1970
Nazi Canon Artillery, with Cavalry, Encounter Mongol Hordes, 1968
So Much Help, Angel Soldier vs. Pirates, 1970
German Plane Entering Houses, 1970
Planes Dying Above the London Zoo, 1968
Rear Flank Attack is Imminent, at Castle Black Sun, 1969
Knights Encounter Barbarians, On a Sandy Dune, 1971
Big Bomber Escapes Castle for Firefight, 1971
Barbarian Village Burns By the Bay, 1968
The Battle at Ghost Castle, Our Memories of…, 1968
It Was in 1870, with Battleships, 1969
Jeremy’s Army, 1968
Three-Eyed Bomber Vanquishes German Tank, 1970
The Red Swirl of The Mosquito Fighter, 1970