There’s a particular row of terraced houses in Whitstable that always looks particularly decorative at this time of year, the residents of Gladstone Road doing their utmost to bring some light and colour to the darkness. I popped out a few nights back and tried a few things to capture its painterly appeal.
As you walk up the beach towards the West Beach at Whitstable, you pass this impressive row of three storied houses, known as Wavecrest, and every year the residents co-ordinate to put a row of diminutive Christmas trees across the front of their respective houses. It makes for a particularly cheering sight, and I went out there for another muck-about, with the gloom and Wavecrest’s demure light-show as my muse.
Two alternate views of Harbour Street here in Whitstable, in all its glittery splendour. These photographs were taken on the night of December 3rd, as we did our usual quick circuit around the quiet, windswept town.
On Christmas Eve in our house, there was always a tradition of telling ghost stories just before bed, often with a flickering candle for a bit of Dickensian ambience.
Sometimes the stories were read from a book, but often they were created by the family itself, each of us taking it in turns to make up a new bit of the story, before letting the next person continue it, cliff-hanger by cliff-hanger. Mostly, these descended into fits of giggles, as my brother and I failed to resist the temptation to slip rude words into our respective sections, and by ‘rude’, I mean words like ‘bum’, and ‘knickers’.
Christmas Eve has always had this touch of spook about it, and I think my sensitivity for this peculiar atmosphere predates any knowledge of Scrooge and his ghosts. It was just a night with an imminence like no other. The prompt for The Kick-About No. 43, Arthur Rackham’s 1931 illustration for The Night Before Christmas, depicting three little boys heading up to bed, captures this feeling very precisely. It’s there in the contrast between their cherubic faces and what is not so angelic about the rendering of their shadows on the wall behind them. I thought this a perfect opportunity to revisit that childhood tradition of a Christmas ghost story, while also exploring a few other ideas too.
You can find a PDF version here
Our last Andy Goldsworthy-themed Kick-About together inspired some winter wonderlands (and some much less wintry offerings too, courtesy of Brisbane-based artist, James Randall). For this, our last creative runaround of 2021, we’re keeping things seasonal, with an illustration by Arthur Rackham for a festive classic. Enjoy this showcase of new works made in a short time, and wherever you are, and whoever you are, I wish you and yours all the very best. “Merry Christmas, one and all.”
“I jumped into this sweet text with no clear ideas, so dug out my favourite Pelican fountain pen and began a repetitive process of re-writing the narrative onto lightweight card cut to 140cm lengths. On completion, to counter the banality of what I’d done I re-wrote it, word-for-word, in free-form graffitti style; less mind-numbing, yet still clueless as to the intention. Days later, in woodland, I happened upon a magnificent, towering, perfectly-formed evergreen. With willow twigs in-hand, and the echo of Goldsworthy, I then attempted this balancing act. It may not be towering at 150cm, unless perhaps you’re that mouse not stirring on Christmas Eve. May all Kick-Abouters enjoy a healthy and happy holiday.”
“It’s the season of giving gifts, but these days it’s more like the season of GIFs for me. I’ve been making a lot of quick fire animations in my spare time, and producing some looping Christmas tree things seemed quite natural. I think this one is suitably high-tech but festively cheesy at the same time.”
“The night sky needs no man in a red suit, sleigh, or reindeer to inspire wonder.”
What To My Wondering Eyes
the night lengthens
into hours that refuse to pass
the stars grow larger,
suddenly a bridge,
a ladder made of light
silence becomes a dance,
its ancient steps retraced
the circle keeps its promise–
a child will lead the way
“I have taken some artistic license with this Kick-About, and you must imagine that it is early on Christmas Eve when the light is just starting to change before darkness falls. The weather is cold and there has been snow a few days earlier, which is now slushy . This young boy’s mother has said, ‘Hey Jack. Can you just run up to the woods and bring us back a little tree to decorate tonight? Your father’s so busy at the farm he’ll be exhausted by the time he get’s home and your brothers and sisters are so excited and can’t wait to start decorating it. I’ll never get them bathed and into bed asleep before Santa comes tonight!’ Christmas Eve is such a magical time and there is so much to do that it always flies by before you know it.
“And wishing all the Kick-About gang a relaxed, leisurely Christmas and a healthy new Year – artwork courtesy of Toby, my youngest grandson, who proudly carried this picture out from school this week.”
“The shadows in Arthur Rackham’s drawing are rather ominous, but I find there’s a spookiness lurking in so many of his images. His work is, on the surface, often enchanting and whimsical, but there’s a darkness and strangeness to them hiding just out of frame.
I’m submitting a painting that plays with similar themes for this Kick-About; shadows and light, mysterious things unseen, and a prickle of unease. I don’t know what’s going on behind the topiary here, perhaps somebody burning rubbish on a bonfire, or a streetlamp, or maybe something else…”
“Not much from me today, as I did these quick sketches on the journey to Stansted airport on my way back to Ireland! I couldn’t get over the eerie nature of Rackham’s scratchy shadows! I found his illustration horrifying – in the best way! For me, Rackham’s art always veers towards that polarising view of what is ‘charming’, where it is uncanny and not quite right. There’s something about the blackness of the line work, particularly with the scratchy shadows, and the way the sickly stained walls progressively get more bruised towards the top; making me think old Saint Nick isn’t as jolly as it’s told, and could be hiding in those shadows, ready to unhinge his bearded jaw and gobble up those kids as they run right up to him… ‘He sees you when you’re sleeping, He knows when you’re awake…'”
“I grew up in a very tall, very dark, very cold Victorian house, and although Arthur Rackham‘s drawing was done a quarter century earlier, the image instantly brought all my childhood fears back to me. There were shadows everywhere and permanently icy draughts that stroked the back of your neck, and then savagely slammed any door you were unwise enough not to shut securely behind you. It was great in daylight: high-ceilinged rooms and long corridors, changing floor levels, and plenty of hiding places. But when the night drew in…”
You you can find a PDF version here.
“I was thinking of the brilliant film, Nosferatu, with the shadow of the vampire climbing the stairs then put that into the traditional snack left out for Santa! Enjoy Christmas everybody, however you choose to spend the time. Have fun and keep cosy.”
“On Christmas Eve in our house, there was always a tradition of telling ghost stories just before bed, often with a flickering candle for a bit of Dickensian ambience. Sometimes the stories were read from a book, but often they were created by the family itself, each of us taking it in turns to make up a new bit of the story, before letting the next person continue it, cliff-hanger by cliff-hanger. Mostly, these descended into fits of giggles, as my brother and I failed to resist the temptation to slip rude words into our respective sections, and by ‘rude’, I mean words like ‘bum’, and ‘knickers’. *Snicker*.
Christmas Eve has always had this touch of spook about it, and I think my sensitivity for this peculiar atmosphere predates any knowledge of Scrooge and his ghosts. It was just a night with an imminence like no other. Rackham’s illustration of these three boys heading up to bed captures this feeling very precisely; it’s there in the contrast between their cherubic faces and what is not so angelic about the rendering of their shadows on the wall behind them. I thought this a perfect opportunity to revisit that childhood tradition of a Christmas ghost story.”
You can find a PDF version here
“Thanks Gary Thorne for your good advice to take a sub-tropical approach. And so I landed on the hot nights when the heat spins about you as you search for the numbness of sleep. I could have used a darker palette for night. I had the Christmas excuse to use the gold paint that I was too conservative to use previously – wish I could share the metallic on screen. So as the year darts to a close thanks to all of you wonderful KAers and your inspirational works. They amaze me every week and make me want to try harder to capture some of your spark. May you all have a wonderful Christmas and a healthy happy 2022!”
Courtesy of Kick-Abouter (and artful Christmas Tree wrangler) Gary Thorne, we have a new prompt to carry you through those moments when, despite all the food and other festivities, you’re twiddling your thumbs and wish there was a classic example of mid-Century kinetic art to inspire you…
A little festive offering today, throwing back but a few short days to the last weekend in November, when we gathered with a few of our neighbours for the grand switching on the Albert Street lights… Well, if not grand exactly, then a nice touch nonetheless, with the residents in our short row of terraced houses agreeing to string cascades of glowing icicles along the length of the street. There were even hot mince pies and mugs of mulled wine to stave off the cold – and it was cold, of course, the wind coming straight off the north sea to flap our coats and chase us back inside.
Andante quasi lento e contabile, the third movement from Victor Hely-Hutchinson’s A Carol Symphony, is one of my favourite things. Here’s why.
Admittedly, the lower 4th floor of a brick-built brutalist building is an unlikely fount of yuletide nostalgia. Even so, whenever I listen to Hely-Hutchinson’s A Carol Symphony, it is to this particular corner of this particular edifice my imagination travels first.
The corner in question is the base room for the undergraduate animation programme for which I was course leader, up until my resignation from the role in July 2019. Originally, there was very little ‘kerb appeal’ about this corner of the campus; the space in question had no natural daylight, and its ceiling dominated by a defunct network of ventilation tubes and vents. Over time, my staff and I transformed the unprepossessing bunker into a much envied cocoon of warm vibrant colour, modelled after a cinema foyer, complete with galleries of old movie posters, vintage folding cinema seats, and warm, pooling circles of light. I loved seeing the base room brimming with staff and students – as noisy together sometimes as a roost of parrots – deriving secret pleasure from the oft-repeated rituals of pushing chairs back under the tables after the students had left for their respective classes and restoring order to their scattering of film books, magazines and chocolate wrappers. On occasion, I feigned annoyance at their messiness, their apparent inability to eat a sausage roll without fountaining flakes of pastry over the base room’s rich red carpet, but in some heart-and-sinews way, I didn’t mind at all.
I likewise enjoyed the base room when it was empty and quiet, the orderliness and hush following the end of the autumn term, the majority of our students having upped sticks for Christmas. In direct conflict with edicts from campus managers and their kind, my colleagues and I would conspire to create further opportunities for our keenest students to continue working on campus in the days running up to the big holiday shut-down. In this one small way, I was trying to do as I’d been done by, recalling how supported I’d been made to feel by the teachers and tutors who’d populated my own educational experience; how it felt when my a-level art teacher trusted me to continue working in the classroom long after the school day was over; how it felt when he offered to make me a cup of instant coffee too, this simple erasure of hierarchy between master and the apprentice; how it felt during my Foundation Art degree, when the technician allowed me to work early, or late, in the workshop – because I was trusted; what it felt like to be a valued part of a community, where creativity was a shared act of support and time-giving, an existential thing more glorious than the precise letter of someone’s job description or the increments of a clock-face.
Thus, with a few industrious students scattered throughout the various studios and computer rooms, I myself would sit, not in my office, but rather at the large lozenge-shaped table in the middle of the base room, and finish off whatever remaining workload remained – usually writing heaps of feedback. The base room boasted a very large LED screen television and set of powerful speakers, and when the mood took me, I’d play Hely-Hutchinson’s A Carol Symphony at some considerable volume, it’s third slow movement filling the long empty corridor outside with its midnight-clear and swirling snow. I suppose I fancied myself as an Edward Scissorhands figure; while Edward produced wintery effects where once there was none by shaving blizzards from blocks of ice, I sent Hely-Hutchinson’s darkling dream of winter whirling out of the base room to meet the opening doors of the campus lift, always thrilling slightly at the idea that my foot-sore wearied colleagues might delight, as I did, at finding their workplace enhanced so unexpectedly.
This is what I tell myself, such is the chicanery of nostalgia. My colleagues more likely wondered why I appeared so intent on propelling Christmas before me when there was no one around to care or notice, spraying Hely-Hutchinson’s seasonal music about the place like one of those blowers of artificial snow. For some of them, I may have struck a rather tragic figure, sitting alone at a large communal table in a largely deserted brick fortress. Their ear-buds packed tightly into their ears, my students were, in most cases, entirely oblivious to the ice and nightscape of Hely-Hutchinson’s third movement blowing past their respective studios – and if they were listening, they were probably rolling their eyes.
I don’t really know what anyone else was thinking if and when they heard Hely-Hutchinson’s music moving through the quiet conduits of the empty building – spooky, magical, wonderful, like the advance of frost. I’ll more confidently tell you what I was thinking. I was thinking, ‘This is how you do it!’ This is how you see off the barbarism of the fluorescent lights and long walks of grey non-slip flooring! This is how you unfurl the dark-bright heart of a Narnian wood within the confines of a concrete silo. This is how you turn an ordinary corner on an otherwise ordinary day and find yourself somewhere magical.
The other thing I know is this: whenever I hear the Andante quasi lento e contabile, I miss my former colleagues, all of us always knackered, all of us true-believers in the job-at–hand, and I miss all those twenty-somethings with their explosive sausage rolls and unicorn-coloured hair. I miss them, as I miss their delight in acts as simple as my donning a ridiculous santa hat, or handing around a mass-produced tin of mass-produced chocolates, recognising that delight for what it was – the trust generated by the moments when tutors choose to make themselves back into people. And yes, I miss pushing in all their bloody chairs.
But rather like one of those mass-produced chocolates in those big mass-produced tins, this specific bonbon of Christmas nostalgia is wrapped around a softer centre, for baked inside this Proustian madeleine is another. That I cleave so affectionately to Hely-Hutchinson’s atmospheric conflation of The Coventry Carol and The First Noel has as much to do with the age I was when I first heard it, as it does with the particular merits – or otherwise – of the music itself.
First and foremost, Andante quasi lento e contabile reminds me of my father in ways both welcome and less so. Hely-Hutchinson’s music carries inside it a very pure memory of my family, and thanks to the internet, I can be super-exact about its temporal coordinates: Christmas Eve, 1984, a little after 5pm. Our Christmas tree is sitting on top of the triangle-shaped coffee-table, squidged between the armchair and the sofa and throwing up scintillas against the rice-pudding sheen of our chip paper wallpaper. Dad is home early from work, and we’re all waiting for the final episode of The Box Of Delights to begin, the BBC’s adaptation of John Masefield’s novel. For its signature tune, The Box Of Delights has taken the plucked harp from Hely-Hutchinson’s take on The First Noel. I don’t know the provenance of the music then, but I absolutely delight in the way it calls immediately for the hairs on my arms to rise in anticipation of what it to come. I’m fizzing with a curious brew of ‘Christmasness’ and dread, with pleasure and suspense – with pleasure in suspense. As the gas fire hisses, filling our living room with luxurious heat, I realise this is Christmas right here, right now; that it lives not in the brash adverts for children’s toys, or on Top of the Pops, but here, in this moment of exciting suspenseful darkness, here in this haunted music-box of a Christmas carol. For the record, it’s not just me, as someone wrote in the Radio Times back in 2015:
“The Box of Delights made a big impression on those who saw it when it originally aired more than three decades ago on BBC1. Mainly because it somehow managed to be the image of snowy Edwardian chocolate-box perfection, and pretty bloody creepy at the same time…”
That dad was home to watch this final episode with us is no small part of why this memory endures so powerfully. In common with my future self, who will later propel Hely-Hutchinson’s music out into the empty spaces of a near-deserted University campus in an effort to transform it for others, my pleasure at watching The Box of Delights was a pleasure doubled because it was pleasure shared. That my dad was there, taking this fantastical journey with me, seemed to be of special importance. Our family felt very close that Christmas Eve, drawing closer, Hely-Hutchinson’s music helping us towards each other with all its mystery, threat and promise of magic. This was the start of Christmas proper, the front door shut against the cold, work finished, school a distant memory, and the embargo on that year’s special purchases of Paynes Chocolate Brazils and Turkish Delight finally lifted.
In March of the following year, my father would leave us for another life with another family. Realistically speaking, this last Christmas spent as a family was surely a strained and miserable episode for my parents, and I think for my older brother too, who knew all of it before me. I wonder what they were thinking about as Hely-Hutchinson’s music began to play on our television? At least two of us were dreaming about journeying to another world entirely. It beggars belief I failed to intuit some of what was happening before it happened. Or maybe I did? Maybe the proof of what I knew is found in everything I’ve already written here, the import, clarity and preciousness of this perfect Christmas memory deriving from a child’s desperate act of magical thinking.
When, as sometimes happens, I find myself crying at the Andante quasi lento e contabile, I always try to figure out why. It is not a simple grief, because sometimes the tears feel like they are the physical expression of a surplus of hope. They squeeze out of me, silvered and involuntary. I suspect they are tears of frustration too, of disappointment with the synthetic sentimentality of the Christmas season and my struggle to go on feeling it – any of it. Hely-Hutchinson’s music surely makes me yearn for long walks at midnight on Christmas Eve, crumping across thick snow, and I think, if one day I do take a walk like that, I will come to understand how to ‘do’ Christmas again in some profound, legitimate way, and that it will fit with me again, as I think it once did.
And when I cry a bit, yes, I’m missing all those bloody students and the feeling being there for them gave me. I think, hand-on-heart, what I’m experiencing when I hear Hely-Hutchinson’s Andante quasi lento e contabile is loss – the loss of the child I once was and will never be again, and the loss of the children I don’t have and will never have, that pyjamaed tribe for whom I know I could get Christmas right; a sprinkle of ghosts and shadow, a perfect fragrance of clementine spritzed with my thumbnail, and all this imagination of mine poured into theirs, children I would never leave.