Richard Yates

I’m only interested in stories that are about the crushing of the human heart.

My 2017 portrait of the author Richard Yates. He’s the subject of one of the best literary biographies I’ve ever read, Blake Bailey’s A Tragic Honesty. In it, he reveals a complex and damaged man, who drank like a fiend, smoked even harder, and left scorched earth and devastation in his wake. He also wrote some books, of which there is a common theme which can be summed up as follows: nothing you want is ever going to happen. His first novel – Revolutionary Road, adapted for cinema in 2008 and starring Leonardo Di Caprio and Kate Winslett in the lead roles – made his name, and he spent the rest of his life trying to live up to its achievements, but never quite could. Taking his commitment to the Sisyphean toil of writing to tbe point of absurdity – witness the tales of a charred skull of a writing room, littered with the squashed remains of cockroaches and held together by a choking miasma of cigarette smoke – he kept his typed manuscripts pristine and fire-proofed in his freezer, while his own body hurtled towards a scarecrow ruination. Inspirational in some ways, but also the ultimate cautionary tale for giving too much of yourself to The Work.

Bobby Beausoleil

At some point, one has to transcend, and come to the realization that the environment, the external, does not define you. The internal is what we use to create our own reality, and we all jointly create an overall reality, mutually experienced in individual ways. It’s frightening to be part of the evolutionary process, part of the vanguard in adapting in new ways, and diversifying. It is frightening. And people find safety in sameness and fashion and all those things are really distracting, but ultimately everyone is going to become aware in the end.

Those are the words of Robert ‘Bobby’ Beausoleil, doomed by his own hand to forever be associated with Charles Manson and his ‘Family’ and, as a result, will never be paroled. I wrote about his case, and the general climate of mayhem that was California in the late 1960’s, in my chapter ‘Requiem For Lucifer’ in the never-to-be published book project Saturn In Retrograde. Download a free copy HERE.

Charles Manson

You know, a long time ago being crazy meant something. Nowadays everybody’s crazy.

For my generation, familiarising yourself with the whole sorry Manson Family saga was as much a rite of passage as getting pissed on cider down the woods or setting fire to your school. “Errr…not everyone shared your experience,” says a voice and, as usual, I don’t listen to it. Anyway, back to Charlie. It was just one of those stories you get drawn into, a fascination fuelled by Sonic Youth’s ‘Death Valley ’69‘ and all the rock & roll related elements of the story – from Charlie writing songs for the Beach Boys, to the Family’s girl’s dosing most of LA’s rock fraternity with clap. It remains a fascinating story, one that no-one will ever get to the bottom of, but I think it’s been well established at this point that the whole ‘Helter Skelter’ agenda was total bollocks and that the prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi was mentally ill, but none of that detracts from the absolute horror unleashed over two nights in August 1969. The guilty were convicted. The dead are still dead. Tarantino’s recent dalliance with the story was the best way to deal with it: take the “facts” and have some fun, weaving your own fantasy around them.

Friedrich Nietzsche

Good old Nietzsche, the most quotable of the philosophers:

Is man merely a mistake of God’s? Or God merely a mistake of man?

There are no beautiful surfaces without a terrible depth

We have art in order not to die of the truth

You must be ready to burn yourself in your own flame;
how could you rise anew if you have not first become ashes?

Thoughts are the shadows of our feelings — always darker, emptier and simpler

In heaven, all the interesting people are missing

The surest way to corrupt a youth is to instruct him to hold in higher esteem those who think alike than those who think differently

Thoughts are the shadows of our feelings — always darker, emptier and simpler

Every deep thinker is more afraid of being understood than of being misunderstood

The Return Of The King

You will recognise this drawing, cropped and tarted up as my former site header. I’ve often wanted to make a painting based on the reference I used for this drawing, but over time I’ve come to accept that it works best in this form. There’s a lightness of touch to the line work that was revelatory to me at the time, as I’d started going down the rabbit hole of obsessive detail with every millimetre of the paper’s surface bearing some kind of mark. Sometimes, it’s what you leave out that’s more important.

The End Of Winter

Out at the end of winter, turning away to where the dark begins, far in the trees – John Burnside

A painting from 2014. There’s no sign of the end of winter just yet.

Barry Hines: A Kestrel for a Knave

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve mocked up covers for this novel, which is one of my favourite books. This, I promise, will be the final definitive mock-up. I’m not naive enough to believe this could ever happen, but if I were able to design and illustrate a new edition of the book then I could probably retire, confident in the knowledge that I had achieved all I set out to do and now had absolutely nothing left to prove.

Barry Hines, a fellow Yorkshireman was a great writer, possessed of what another author described as his “iron integrity”. Utterly grounded in his place and the reality of the times he lived through, he never deviated from his true calling and never wrote a weak book in his life.

A Kestrel For A Knave has never been out of print, and gone through numerous editions, including this classic edition from the 1970’s, the one we had when studying it for English O-level in 1984:

That cover, I’ve often said, could be the official flag of Yorkshire. It says everything you need to know about my homeland.

When it was first published in the 1960’s, this was the remarkable dustcover design:

This is my 2014 painting inspired by the book, prints of which are still available:

A Kestrel For A Knave (2014)

And, finally, while I’m at it, here’s John Cameron’s hugely evocative soundtrack to Ken Loach’s film adaptation, which remains one of the greatest British films ever made. Kids always get upset by the ending, but as my old man said to me when I first saw it: “Kes lives, lad. And don’t let anyone tell you different.”

John Cameron – Kes

Thoor Ballylee

W.B. Yeats’ old home. I have much Irish in my heritage, but have yet to explore that country. One day, perhaps.

The Dark Monarch

A personal favourite from my black & white phase, and one that’s For Sale. The title comes from the Sven Berlin novel which was used as inspiration for a memorable 2010 exhibition at Tate Modern: The Dark Monarch: Magic & Modernity in British Art. One of those where the older work was the most interesting, and closer to the spirit of the curator’s intentions, whereas the contemporary content was the usual plop.

John Steinbeck

I was born lost and take no pleasure in being found.

This is one of the very first drawings in my sketchbook, which I started in 2010. Steinbeck was a writer we had foisted upon us at school, studying Of Mice & Men for O-level, but I was a teenage dickhead and didn’t get it at the time. Now I do, and he was one of the first writers I encouraged my daughter to read after she matured past the ‘YA’ titles. Reading Steinbeck when you’re young raises the bar of your expectations for any future writers you come across. While in California in 2000 we visited Monterey, where they really milk the Steinbeck connection for the tourist trade, but I couldn’t get too exercised about it because if it means more people ended up buying an reading his books, that can only be a good thing.

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