The Pebbles on the Beach

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We’ve just returned from three glorious days of seaside frolicking at Boggle Hole in Robin Hood’s Bay. Within moments of arriving, I dawned on me that I’d made a huge mistake and neglected to buy Clarence Ellis’ rock-spotter’s guide The Pebbles on the Beach. Faber's beautiful new edition, designed by Alex Kirby and illustrated by Eleanor Crow, has a wonderful fold-out jacket for easy reference and would’ve really come in handy for imparting some geological wisdom to my boy.

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In its absence, he had to make do with my own home-brewed classifications, such as: small pebble; largish pebble; black pebble with a stripe; pebble that is probably a new potato; don’t touch that pebble, a dog made it; and fossil it’s a fossil FOSSIL no wait it’s seaweed.

Pestering artists about their pens

Jeffrey Alan Love recently tweeted a sketch, simply captioned “illustrator’s funeral”. Leaning over an open casket, a mourner asks one final question of the deceased: “What pen was that?”.

Ah yes, the question, I know it well. Artists, particularly those with distinctive styles (such as none-more-black Love), must spend an unseemly amount of time fielding this one. The thing is, it’s not so much the corpse I relate to in this situation, but the inquisitor. I don’t know why, but I simply must know what tools people use.

Years ago, I read an interview with cartoonist and illustrator Tom Gauld, in which he declared the Uniball Eye Micro his favourite pen. Jealous of his robots and monsters and jetpacks, I immediately bought one, certain that it would magically imbue me with his drawing skills and invention. And sure enough … well apparently pens don’t work like that.

Still, who am I to let the obvious realities of the universe get in my way? Years later, I still love reading about what’s in other people’s pencil cases, and picking these things up, hoping to immediately adopt some new technique or style.

And yes, dead or alive, I will pester people directly. What pen was that? Where can I get one? And what about that? What pen was that? Creatives have made themselves constantly botherable, the immediacy of social networks allowing me to tap them on the shoulder day or night with whatever inane question has popped into my head. What am I supposed to do, just leave it un-asked, let the curiosity fester in my mind? That can’t be healthy.

Yes, I’m aware that, as well as being bloody annoying, the question is also kind of incredibly insulting. The insinuation is that the credit for the work goes to the tool rather than the hand – “Wow, you’re so talented at choosing pens! They make such wonderful pictures while you hold them! Teach me where I might procure these mystical ink-wands!”

Maybe I would give it a rest if only they didn’t respond – but they always respond. Even when having their talents tacitly undermined, it turns out that people who love pens love talking about pens.

So now I have a big pot full of the accumulated preferences of strangers. Copic markers, Japanese brush pens, graphite sticks and obscure imported mechanical pencils of very particular pedigrees and girths. I’ve even developed a thing for expensive professional pencil sharpeners, as if they will somehow improve anything. And now I’ve started sketching on my iPad, I have a whole new line of enquiry. Yes, that’ll be me at the funeral, politely harassing the deceased’s family about Procreate brush settings.

And yet, as much as I leech other’s inventories, this obsession over the tools of others isn’t actually reflected in my own work. The more coveted and hard-to-get a pen is, the more likely it will stay in my pot, untouched and precious. Sure, the Gauld-approved Uniball still gets a lot of use – but mostly for writing shopping lists.

I suspect my own response to “what pen was that?” would be rather uninspiring. I invariably end up with whatever is in reach: one of the numerous almost-dry felt-tips scattered about the house; a shattered and blotchy kitchen-drawer Bic; that antique Argos pen that hibernates in the lining of my coat.

And of course – of course! – it doesn’t matter one jot. A pen, all you need is a pen. Find your own line. Whatever it takes to get the drawing from in here to out there, to make some marks and get ideas down onto … onto … um … What paper is that?

Written for Creative Review

Personal project: Madame Bovary

Way over here on the furthest back of back-burners, I am very gradually working my way through David Bowie's list of 100 favourite books, redesigning the cover for each title. Here’s the latest, Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. The picture is Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot’s 1870 painting A Woman Reading. I’ve posted/deleted this four times now. The problem with personal projects is that there’s no client to take it off my hands, so I end up tweaking and tweaking and tweaking and …

Reading: A Burglar’s Guide to the City

I’ve been a fan of Geoff Manaugh’s BLDGBLOG for a years – his intelligent look at the world from a very particular architectural perspective makes it one of those blogs that leaves you feeling a little bit smarter after every visit. His post Nakatomi Space , which reappraises Die Hard as one of the all time great films about architecture, radically altered the way I read films and buildings.

That piece pops up again in A Burglar’s Guide to the City, Manaugh's entertaining and insightful exploration of how city and crime are shaped by one another. It’s filled with anecdotes from both sides of the law and across history. There's the 19th century architect and socialite who was at one time responsible for 80 percent of all bank robberies in the US; the burglar who lived inside a Toys R Us for months, setting up his own surveillance network using baby monitors; the inventor who developed a material so sturdy and impenetrable that his panic rooms may well be the last architectural structures left standing long after the collapse of civilisation.

It’s an absolutely cracking read, and well worth dipping your nose into even if your aren’t planning any heists in the foreseeable future – although by the end of it you may well be tempted.

The Face Redux

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NME RIP. It was a slow, painful death, but it’s still left a great void in British pop journalism. Which seems like as good an excuse as any to relaunch The Face, right? But not your grandma's The Face; a different kind of magazine to the original, but retaining the same core pop ethos. Quarterly, thick, high production values, passionate writing about pop, not fighting the tide of the web. And NOT nostalgic. So no dragging back the old writers to relive the good old days; get some new voices out there (consider this a very optimistic job application). Structurally, the Little White Lies model would work well. One big fat interview with the cover star – guess who my suggestion for the first issue would be – followed by lots of tangentially related stories, offering the sort of depth you don't get online.

You never know, it could happen.