Thursday, 14 August 2014

Sometimes it pays to stick your head in the sand

I first encountered Martin Handford at Maidstone College of Art back in 1980. He was a couple of years above me and had got himself onto the prestigious illustration course, which at that time was one of the best in the country. (The college has since been merged into the Kent Institute of Art in Canterbury.)

At the time I remember him being a pretty chirpy chap despite being so skint that he had resorted to selling his entire wardrobe, including an impressive pair of brothel creepers, in a desperate bid to raise much needed funds.

Unlike all his compatriots at Maidstone, Martin stood out from the crowd ('crowd' being an appropriate word to use here). You see, all he ever drew were crowd scenes. And his technique hadn't changed a jot since he was a young lad. He would labour over his intricate compositions for weeks on end, using nothing more than felt tips. And his finished pieces were mind-bogglingly detailed with countless characters immaculately rendered in miniature.

The tutors at Maidstone went to great pains to get him to experiment and evolve his style of drawing, but Martin wasn't having any of it. For his entire time at Maidstone, he continued producing the most astonishing series of crowd compositions, and I very clearly remember his final year exhibition, which attracted by far the largest number of visitors who seemed drawn by these unusual works like bees around a honey pot. One piece in particular still sticks in my memory. It was a crowd scene depicted at Lords cricket ground. Besides being able to see thousands of spectators, ones eyes were drawn to the playing area where you could discern several little white figures, and one solitary pink figure jumping over the stumps. This, of course, was the famous Lords streaker whose unexpected appearance during the 1975 test match prompted the late John Arlott to coin the phrase 'freaker.' "We have a freaker down the wicket," quipped Arlott. "It's not very shapely; it's masculine; and I would think it's seen the last of its cricket for the day."

By this stage, Martin was already getting real illustration jobs for national publications and was much in demand. A couple of years later while in my first advertising agency and working with my Art Director, Colin Underhay (also from Maidstone), we had the opportunity to employ Martin's considerable talents. The agency wanted to create a special Christmas card, and Martin seemed like the ideal illustrator for the job. We deliberately kept the creative brief fairly open and asked Martin to create an amusing Oxford Street Christmas scene. His solution was certainly novel. The scene he came up with depicted a throng of shoppers intermingled with  a series of unconventional Father Christmases indulging in the most uncharacteristic activities including vomiting, urinating, mugging passers-by and in one instance, carrying a blow-up sex doll. It was a kind of modern-day take on one of those debauched scenes by Bruegel or Hieronymus Bosch. And had it been produced in today's politically correct atmosphere, I'm sure it would have been shelved in favour of something rather tame and less offensive. But this, of course, was 1980. The card went into production and was sent out to all the agency's clients.

In 1986, Martin was asked by Walker Books to create a character with distinctive features that would give his compositions a focal point in much the same way as his pink figure jumping over the stumps or his Father Christmases did. His response was to come up with a character named 'Wally' - a world traveller and time travel aficionado. And in 1987 'Where's Wally?' first appeared in the UK. Its popularity was instantaneous and huge. There would be seven books published in 28 countries. (In the US, the title was tweaked to 'Where's Waldo?') Then there were the inevitable spin-offs of notebooks, pillows, posters and video games, not to mention syndicated comic strips and an animated TV series.

By 2007, 'Where's Wally' had sold no fewer than 74 million copies worldwide, and in the same year Martin sold the global rights to the acquisitive Entertainment Rights group for £2.5 million.

I don't suppose Martin has recently felt the need to sell off items of his wardrobe. Though I suspect that signed copies of red stripy T-shirts might fetch a small fortune.

Alex Pearl is author of Sleeping with the Blackbirds 

Thursday, 7 August 2014

The day Bob Dylan dropped by for coffee

Hanging on our walls at home are two Graham Clarke hand-coloured etchings. Clarke's naive, wobbly renditions of English scenes are his stock-in-trade, and are the kind of items that will occasionally turn up in their frames at Oxfam.

The two that hang at home are nicely framed and mounted, but for me their intrinsic value lies not in their charm but their provenance. You see, they were once the property of one, Lou Hart and back in the 80s, adorned the walls of Winkles Wine Bar in Litchfield Street.

Lou was my father's Best Man and an old family friend. He was quite possibly the shortest man I've ever known, being slightly shorter than my mother who is barely five foot high. But what he lacked in stature he more than made up for with a larger than life personality. He was in short (no pun intended) one of life's natural raconteurs with a very dry wit and fabulous comic timing, and thrived on holding court while chain smoking.

Lou, as far as I can gather, wasn't a great student, left school early at 14 and took a succession of mundane, dead-end office jobs before doing National Service at the end of the war. And then, around the time that my father was engaged to marry my mother, his fortunes were to change quite dramatically. He was to win the football pools. I'm not sure how much his prize money amounted to, but I suspect it was in the hundreds rather than thousands. It was, however, something of a small fortune back then in the early 50s. And with this new found wealth, he very sensibly set himself up in business. First there was a newsagent and sweet shop, which he later sold and with the proceeds bought a cafe in Litchfield Street in the heart of London's theatre land. The cafe included a very dingy and dank wine cellar. Under Lou's stewardship the cafe was named Bunjies, and this underground cavern, though small and decidedly poky, was opened up as a venue for live music. And it was this most unlikely of venues that in the 60s became something of a cult haunt for anyone who was anyone on the musical scene. Such became its status that it attracted the likes of  Phil Collins, Sandie Shaw, Art Garfunkle, Rod Stewart, David Bowie and Jarvis Cocker, to name just some of the burgeoning talent to grace this place with its presence. At the very height of its fame in the 60s, Bob Dylan who happened to be in town, dropped by unannounced and had to pay his entrance fee to get in.

Morgan Levitt used to cook at Bunjies and remembers a young guy who used to do the washing up. "We used to rib him about wearing rubber gloves to protect his fingernails," says Levitt. The young man in question had a distinctive name: Cat Stevens. A couple of months after his stint in the kitchen at Bunjies, Stevens released his first album. The rest, as they say, is history.

In the 80s Lou sold the business and around the same time the LP album 'Live at Bunjies' was released. As a young kid I vaguely remember the black sleeve nestling between my father's collection of classical music. I don't think it ever got played.

Lou's next venture was just doors away from Bunjies. This was to become Winkles Wine Bar. I remember it well. A clean, bright establishment with polished pine furniture that had a distinctly Alpine feel, a good selection of wines, and little Lou occupying centre stage with his acolytes hanging on his every word. He was, of course, in his element.

In truth, the place wasn't run as a business so much as  a social club. And Lou would constantly complain that the tax man was becoming the bane of his life. I strongly suspect that he ran the establishment year in year out at a loss. On several occasions, my brother and I would drop by unannounced and Lou would immediately ensure we were well fed and watered before regaling us with his latest anecdotes, and would, of course, refuse to accept a penny in return. I'm sure he treated all his customers this way. His customers, after all, were his good friends.

Years later, after Lou's untimely death in his seventies, my father would become one of several beneficiaries of his will, and would encounter for the first time some of Lou's good friends. In many ways his was a life lived to the full. I remember hearing from someone that two of his regulars at Winkles, a couple of gay senior civil servants, were in the habit of offering Lou the run of their Mediterranean villa during the summer months. But I also sense that his life was tinged with sadness, for as far as I know he never had a soul mate, and would invariably take the last train home to an empty house each evening.

As for Bungies, I remember visiting it one afternoon in the 90s. I was with my working partner and we were working nearby in Soho, and had quite literally stumbled upon Bunjies by chance. At that time I had no idea that it still existed, so we both stepped down into its once famous cellar and ordered lunch - an unappetising concoction of lentils and pasta - from a girl with dyed hair and a pierced nose. Some months later the place closed down and has since reopened as a Turkish restaurant complete with belly dancers. I'm not sure that Lou would have approved.

Alex Pearl is author of Sleeping with the Blackbirds