I was in the English Book Exchange last week browsing for nothing in particular. With the snowflakes falling outside, the Kloveniersburgwal lined with elms and those old-fashioned burgundy lampposts, I felt like I was in an Anton Piek illustration. The rather morose owner of the store, an American who took over from the store’s founder (less morose but equally American) when he died a decade or so ago, had his nose in a book as usual. He greeted me without looking up as I stamped the snow off my boots. I always start at the beginning, by the door, with Philosophy and Art, and work my way to the back of the store where good-quality paperbacks are stacked to the ceiling. The first book I picked up was ‘Doubly Gifted: The Author as Visual Artist’ by Kathleen G. Hjerter, crammed with writings and drawings by William Blake, e.e. cummings, Goethe and a host of others.
I didn’t buy it but the theme lingered in my daily ruminations. I had rediscovered the fun of playing with colour and shapes when I’d been helping with the design of my website, alongside my ever-patient designer friend Jan Abrahim. I used to design fabrics and would sketch wherever I went – my notebooks take up only marginally more shelf-space than my sketchbooks.
Why do writing and drawing so often go together, more often, say, than music and writing? John Updike: ‘Music is a world of its own; writing and drawing are relatively parasitic upon the world that is in place.’ True, but I prefer Mervyn Peake’s less analytical explanation, voiced through the main character in ‘Letters from a Lost Uncle’:
‘Oh, Blubber! I’ve been such a long time without a drawing. It comes as a great relief to stop prodding at this little black machine, and start making pictures again.’