artists

Northern Rail Odyssey part 2: the North East

We start the day with a look at the rail map and the weather forecast. Though it’s not bad with us, there are claims of heavy rain along the Tyne during the morning and we briefly wonder whether to change our plan. That would be a shame, I say – I quite fancied walking in the footsteps of OneMonkey’s Haltwhistle ancestors who moved to Hexham for a while before ending up in North Shields 150 years ago. He points to another circle on the rail map. You’ve got another strand of ancestors there, I say, so that’ll do. Or we could go there, he says, tracing his finger over the glossy paper. That’s ok, you have ancestors from there too. Exasperated, he asks where else we could go that some dead relative of his has already settled in, and I point to Windermere, Kendal, Whitby, Northallerton, Darlington, Sunderland, Newcastle. Oh yes, and Hull. Unlike me and my smallish swathe of Yorkshire, you don’t have to go far back in OneMonkey’s family tree to get pins in a map all over the North. He looks at the map for a moment. We stick with our original journey.

By the time we arrive in Hexham the worst of the rain is over, though evidence of its earlier ferocity is abundant. This is particularly true in the park, where some kind of Spring fair is underway. We join hosts of other determined souls in wellies and walking boots, wax jackets, cagoules and parkas, and trudge round dripping stalls selling candles and stained glass, jewellery, local cheese. There are human traffic jams on the paths as despite the boots, no-one quite wants to squelch onto the churned-up grass to get by. Small children plod up and down a fifty-yard stretch, perched on placid ponies. I feel mildly guilty for not buying anything as the stallholders are clearly cold and wet, but I tell myself we could come back after we’ve been round the abbey (we don’t).

Door at Hexham Abbey

Hexham abbey

Hexham is the sort of small town that’s dotted with art galleries, and before we even reach the town proper from the station we’re lured into a couple. One is the sort that’s nice to look at but is all original canvases for hundreds or thousands of pounds. Unfortunately, though there’s no indication from outside it turns out to be the artist’s house, and we spend a strained ten minutes making smalltalk (something neither of us is good at. Remember, we both have physics degrees) before sneaking out as soon as he leaves the room to attend to his jazz CD. The second is a mixture of originals, prints, cards, sculptures, glass paperweights. This one contains an artist too, but he doesn’t seem to have invited us into his house (though he may live upstairs for all I know) and not everything on show is his own work. I feel I can mutter criticism to OneMonkey about the odd modern canvas. There are paintings of the ghosts of shipyard workers streaming through the streets of Wallsend (another OneMonkey family connection) which I particularly like, and we dive back in an hour later so I can buy a card of one on the way to not quite missing the train.

Strung out between Newcastle and Carlisle, this train line is like stepping through a door to the countryside. A sudden hop from the Metro Centre surrounded by Primark bags and young couples, to being sandwiched between the river and a stretch of fields, and the further along the valley we travel the more remote from city life it feels. As we venture slowly through some remote cutting I look at the violets and primroses dotting the embankment. Elsewhere there are great walls of orangey-yellow gorse, but due to the non-opening windows on this train I have to imagine the soft coconut smell that this weak sunshine might be coaxing forth. I also imagine (though of course don’t see) kingfishers diving in this stretch of South Tyne, and drink in the colours of the woodland, spot the half-hidden waterfalls. It makes me wonder why OneMonkey’s ancestors would want to leave.

Haltwhistle is closed when we get there. Possibly everyone has decamped to Hexham for the Spring fair. A walk to Hadrian’s Wall is suggested and dismissed, as we don’t want the possibility of missing the train – we’re more than a couple of miles away from the wall at this point. That leaves a visit to OneMonkey’s ancestors, in a churchyard that seems to grow as we walk through it, and then we race back down to the deserted station. I thought Haltwhistle was supposed to be the centre of Britain, I say as the train putters into view. You’d think they’d have a plaque or something. OneMonkey looks at me – you were stood on it, he says, remember when we looked at the map to see where the church was? Oh, I say. Maybe I should have taken a photo.

Haltwhistle Holy Cross church

Haltwhistle Holy Cross church

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Go hug an illustrator, tell them I sent you

It’s the second annual International Illustrator Appreciation Day – I know this because I made it up a year ago. The aim was to draw some attention (no pun intended, I swear) to the illustrators who interpret and enhance stories (or novels, with cover art) and enrich the reading experience. It’s probably more relevant if you read a lot of sci-fi or fantasy but I’d like to encourage you to take this opportunity to highlight an artist you’ve enjoyed in a recent magazine, or leave a comment on someone’s blog. You might think they won’t care, but even apparently successful artists may well appreciate some confirmation that someone’s noticed what they do.

To that end, I’ll point you at Darren Winter, stand-out artist in the last Interzone I read, and of course Mark Pexton who hasn’t been in Interzone for a while but we’ll forgive him because he’s been working on our stunning graphic novel (I’m allowed to refer to the art as stunning, I didn’t do it).

International Illustrator Appreciation Day: October 22nd

Talking to my artist friend LeMat the other day (now mainly reverting to the use of his real name Mark Pexton on his art, just to confuse everyone), I realised what a rough deal illustrators get. Whereas writers might (and do) sometimes complain about editors, low pay rates and a lack of appreciation, when was the last time you saw anyone mention the illustrations or cover art from a magazine? Mark’s had a full-page illustration in each of the last 3 copies of Interzone, and has apparently provided illustrations for the next 3 as well, but no-one seems to mention any of the illustrations in reviews, except to list the featured artists. He’s done a book cover, which adds a real atmosphere, but no-one mentions his name (except presumably in small print on the back cover). Even in magazines where the writers are paid, the artists often aren’t, not even with a contributor copy. To add insult to injury, illustrations are often classed as lower status than gallery art.

Cover illustrations, whether for books or magazines, are the first thing to catch the reader’s eye. Before I know what a novel’s about, I’ve got to notice it, pick it up and read the synopsis – what makes me do that? The cover (colours, image, lettering) have to convey some idea to me and look attractive enough to make me single that book out from all the surrounding ones. That takes some doing in the overloaded bookshelves of the modern world. So why aren’t the artists more prominent? Occasionally there’ll be a Quentin Blake, but mostly there are hundreds of Mark Pextons.

In a short story magazine, it’s easier and cheaper to leave the illustrations out, so there must be some reason why magazines like Interzone continue to include them. They can help to enhance the atmosphere, set the scene, and even to catch the reader’s eye in a way that the opening line of the story might not. I notice Mark’s illustrations because they’re usually familiar to me and I have a personal connection with them, but I confess I’m often guilty of overlooking illustrations. Or rather, I don’t mention them – they must filter through on some level because I’ll picture a character the way they’ve been drawn, or I’ll read the story waiting for a robot to appear and feel cheated when it doesn’t, because there was one in the main illustration.

Our reading lives would be less rich without illustrators, though we may not always realise that. I’d like to declare October 22nd International Illustrator Appreciation Day – phone an illustrator of your acquaintance, write a blog post, send an email or leave a comment on someone’s website (here, if you like), but somehow let those great artists know that they’re not being ignored.