Felt Trips: “Nature Project” by Blue-John Benjamin

The artwork of the school project is perhaps the most neglected and forsaken of all our childhood treasures. With our felt-tip depictions of Armstrong’s giant leap, with our wax crayon Pharoahs and the pastel-shaded pencil lines of our wonky Roman invasions, we toiled in pursuit of appreciative red ticks or stick-on golden stars. And then? The fruits of our labours lay neglected in plastic trays or staff room cupboards; often even thrown away at the end of term, forgotten completely in the giddy rush of summer holiday excitement. This was artwork never afforded the same doe-eyed romance as the pictures we drew for our own entertainment: the skew-whiff Daleks and lopsided Darth Vaders that we treasured into adulthood, preserving them through the decades in lofts and spare room cupboards.

Except in the case of Whitby-based singer-songwriter Blue-John Benjamin, who – in characteristically contrary fashion – owns none of his “off duty” childhood artwork, but instead stands guard over an evocative treasure trove of his 1980s school projects. It’s a body of work that forms a beautiful, and genuinely touching, time capsule. The perfect evocation of childhood spent in rural Lincolnshire; and a period where his obsession with the minutiae (and, indeed, the macabre side) of the natural world was occasionally overshadowed by the darker concerns of the decade.

Over to you, Blue-John…

“I no longer have any childhood artwork created purely for pleasure. ‘Trailing palm leaves behind me’ (as Vashti Bunyan sings), I removed all traces. What remains are school projects foxed with age, kept by my parents. I did very little work on them in the classroom: they were completed in a secretive way at home.

As part of the police project of the mid-80s, I remember officers visiting us at the village junior school. One had a briefcase – a salmagundi of narcotics. I also remember looking at a truncheon, dented and pockmarked. Out on the playing field, a display was abandoned: writhing on its leash, the Alsatian concerned went, for whatever reason, berserk. A poem in my project begins with ‘A is for the Anti-Bomb-Squad that acts on demand’, which is perhaps redolent of the times. At that age, ‘Police and Pickets’ was a game that I enjoyed. Being a picket was best: you got to hurl abuse, lob muck, and frenetically resist arrest.

I was already living with what is now termed OCD, and wondering how to tell Mum that I was mad. I spent the Easter holiday of 1986 on my nature project; there was going to be a prize for the best one. ‘Pellets coughed up by a kestrel’ (still at the back, perfectly preserved by Dad) swung the decision in my favour. I knew it was illegal to take a young kestrel from the nest, but, I regret to report, had a magpie named Fagin. He was what we called a ‘wreckling’ – the weakest of the brood.

Radio Lincolnshire gave me a prize for my picture of Prince Andrew and Fergie (imagined at the altar, prior to their wedding), which was essentially a selection of unwanted vinyl, and included The Pretty Things. Quite what a boy of eleven is supposed to do with lyrics such as ‘blind sparrows carry me’, I don’t know, but my brother Rich rediscovered that disc beneath the bunk beds years later, and we would play it on Sunday mornings.

When I arrived at big school – where the older girls looked like Rita and Sue and, if you were lucky, would mother you, and give you a snog at Christmas – I met up with Miss Frost, who lived up to her name and had survived the Brighton hotel bombing, although she was alright when she got to know you. I did a falconry project for her in those pre-Ofsted days, when, in one history lesson, we ended up sitting in the library and watching an episode of Miss Marple, with Joan Hickson. In the Easter holiday of 1987, my parents found me literally working on that project in my sleep. Even at a young age, I was aching for a time that I had never lived through.

The last piece of artwork from my childhood is a poster that I designed for the Horncastle Town & Country Fayre in 1988 – an annual event that is now a thing of the past.”

Thanks so much to Blue-John Benjamin… please investigate his rather wonderful music here:

http://bluejohnbenjamin.com/

Felt Trips is a collaborative effort. If anyone wants to contribute their own childhood drawings from the era, I would be utterly delighted – please drop me a line using the “Contact” link at the top of the page. A good quality scan would be perfect, but – if not – then a clear photo of your artwork, lying flat, is fine. And maybe a few words of explanation, too: when the drawings were done, how old you were, what inspired you to tackle those particular subjects? Thanks so much.

Felt Trips: “The Silver Flame” by Ben Graham

For several decades of the 20th century, the lowest shelf of every pokey, street-corner newsagent would groan wearily beneath the weight of a lurid assembly of gloriously overripe comics. From The Beano and Whizzer and Chips to June, Bunty and Misty; from the old-school derring-do of The Eagle and Commando to the bone-crunching futurism of 2000AD, these crinkled, 5p delights were precious school night treats, spread out on living room floors and candlewick bedspreads alike.

No surprise, then, that many of us attempted to create our own versions. We drew brilliantly inventive spoofs or imitations of our favourite titles: thick wodges of DIY felt-tip strips awkwardly stapled together and passed around obliging family members and friends, eagerly awaiting tacit approval. Among this teeny legion of aspiring comic book moguls was writer Ben Graham, now a writer and music journalist for the likes of The Quietus, but – during his childhood – the genius behind titles like this:

Over to you, Ben…

“I grew up in Sowerby Bridge in West Yorkshire in the 1970s and ‘80s. I was writing and drawing my own comics constantly from the age of about five to around 14, when I moved seamlessly into RPGs and then alternative music fanzines. My main influences were the UK reprints of Marvel comics, but I was also into books like The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, The Dark Is Rising and The Wizard of Earthsea; Ray Harryhausen films like Jason And The Argonauts and Clash Of The Titans; and anything about King Arthur and his knights, which led to a love of what I generally referred to as “mythology”.

My dad was going through a phase of rediscovering his Scottish roots, and we always had summer holidays in Galloway in Scotland, near where much of The Wicker Man was filmed. He encouraged my interest in Celtic, Scottish and Irish myth cycles, as well as the Viking stuff that I knew from the Puffin edition of Roger Lancelyn Green’s Myths of the Norsemen ,and from Marvel’s The Mighty Thor and Tales of Asgard features.  

The Silver Flame starring The Man Called Mystic dates from 1979 or 1980, when I was eight or nine years old. “The Mystic” was obviously a Dr Strange rip-off, though the actual story was based more upon the original Captain Britain, with stone circles, Merlin, and references to “Otherworld”.

The free gift was probably a home-made badge – cardboard with a safety pin sellotaped to the back – though I can’t be certain if I ever actually got that far!

The Saga of Lugh I’d say came from around the same time but – despite my regressing from felt tips to crayons for the colouring-in – it looks a little better drawn. It was virtually a graphic novel, filling the whole of a 20-page A4 sketch pad, probably drawn over one long summer holiday. 1980? I’d decided that the Irish sun god Lugh was the likeliest candidate for a Celtic superhero in the vein of Marvel’s Thor, and went ahead and did my version of his battle with the Fomorian giant Balor, who I made into a kind of Irish cyclops with one deadly eye.

The Viking warrior on the cover of Cult Comic #2 and the Gamma 6 comic came a couple of years later: it’s 1982 and I’m 11. The science fiction imagery and cynical humour of the Gamma 6 cover suggests the influence of 2000 AD, but the material inside was still a mix of swords & sorcery and superheroes.

I’ve included pages from ‘Knights of Silver Tower’ and ‘The Mysterious Isle’ to give some of the flavour:

I’m not sure that I ever grew out of this stuff, as I now earn a precarious living as a writer, including as a music journalist for The Quietus and Shindig. A couple of years ago I self-published a science fiction novel called Amorphous Albion and I’m still into “mythology.” Under the influence of Alan Moore, I declared myself a magician on the top of Glastonbury Tor on my 40th birthday, and I’ve had the most enjoyable and rewarding decade of my life since then as a result. I’d recommend it to anyone.”

Thanks, Ben! Felt Trips is a collaborative effort. If anyone wants to contribute their own childhood drawings from the era, I would be utterly delighted – please drop me a line using the “Contact” link at the top of the page. A good quality scan would be perfect, but – if not – then a clear photo of your artwork, lying flat, is fine. And maybe a few words of explanation, too: when the drawings were done, how old you were, what inspired you to tackle those particular subjects? Thanks so much.

Felt Trips: “C-3PO’s Exercise Book” by Richard Littler

When I was five years old, I had three homes. The first was my actual home, in the small North-Eastern town of Yarm, where I lived and went to school. The second was my grandmother’s bungalow in the Middlesbrough suburb of Acklam, which provided a cosy weekend haven. The third was the desert planet Tatooine, on the outer rim of the galaxy, whose rolling landscape of sand dunes, moisture farms and seedy spaceports I knew just as intimately as any of its real-life counterparts. In my head, I was Luke Skywalker: and a journey to the Stockton Autoparts shop in my dad’s battered Triumph Toledo was, essentially, a ride in a runaway landspeeder, bullseyeing Womp Rats on the dusty track to Beggar’s Canyon. 1970s motorcyclists were blank-faced Imperial Stormtroopers, and the family dogs on the back seat were Wookies manning the laser cannons.

Such was the seismic impact of Star Wars on the psyche of 1970s children. It was an impact also clearly felt by artist and writer Richard Littler, the twisted genius in charge of communications from the dystopian realm of Scarfolk, and I’m very grateful to Richard for contributing our latest Felt Trips feature: the contents of this carefully-preserved childhood journal…

Over to you, Richard…

“I wrote my first book when I was six years old. Kind of. I’d seen Star Wars for the first time in early 1978 and like many children at the time I was soon an avid disciple. In the days before home video we had to sate our hunger for everything Star Wars by amassing toy figures, comics, bed linen, wallpaper, abridged ‘Story Of’ records, party accessories, and school stationery.

I had a school satchel full of the latter, including C-3PO’s Exercise Book, which I completely filled with Star Wars related drawings and texts. It started out as a catalogue of the Topps Star Wars bubble gum cards I had collected, but I didn’t actually own that many. I completed that task by the end of the first page and was left wondering what to do with the rest of the book.

So the remainder of this slender volume contains my versions of excerpts from The Star Wars Storybook, published by Collins/Armada – and newly acquired by me – in the April of that year. Additionally, there are mini-stories and character biographies that I had written myself, based on my sometimes erroneous memories of having seen the film only once. For example, I recalled incorrectly that Princess Leia had inserted the Death Star plans into R2D2 on the Millennium Falcon…

The difference between the writing styles is glaringly obvious. Suffice it to say that sentences such as ‘Stormtrooper a kind of robot what can fight in war’ and ‘Chewbacca […] was brawt into war if a stormtrooper tryed to kill him he cuold bash them very hard’ do not feature in the Collins/Armada publication.

When I rediscovered and opened my Star Wars exercise book decades later, I found tiny white and coloured fragments of the rubber I had used, caught in the book’s central gutter. I’m almost sure it was a Luke Skywalker eraser, and I know I will have been conflicted over whether to use it or not: every Star Wars item to a six-year-old fan was a treasure – a holy relic – and to deface it would have been an act of heresy.”

Thanks Richard. The force will be with you… always.

Except on Tuesdays, when it only works a half day.

Felt Trips is a collaborative effort. If anyone wants to contribute their own childhood drawings from the era, I would be utterly delighted – please drop me a line using the “Contact” link at the top of the page. A good quality scan would be perfect, but – if not – then a clear photo of your artwork, lying flat, is fine. And maybe a few words of explanation, too: when the drawings were done, how old you were, what inspired you to tackle those particular subjects? Thanks so much.

Felt Trips: “Daleks Are Great” by Nick Setchfield

“Give me the child for the first seven years and I will give you the man.” So states the famous Jesuit proverb, commonly attributed to Saint Ignatius of Loyola. And this sentiment has never been more appropriate than in the case of Nick Setchfield, who – at the age of seven, in 1975 – was drawing self-aggrandising Daleks in his Cardiff home, and – in his adulthood – is now a prolific entertainment journalist, editor-at-large of SFX magazine, and the author of two acclaimed novels, The War in the Dark and The Spider Dance, both of which combine Cold War-era espionage with folkloric and magical elements.

Anyway…

As Nick himself says:

“This is either a Dalek propaganda poster found in the ruins of Britain circa space year 2150 AD – or it’s me expressing my deep obsession with all things Skaro at the age of seven. I think the covers of the 1960s Dalek annuals must have been an inspiration, given the way I’ve drawn the midriff. I found The Dalek World at a local jumble sale for 2p and devoured every page, memorising all the survival tips in case of an imminent invasion of suburban Cardiff.

I was certainly building Daleks out of upturned Ski yogurt pots and cocktail sticks around this time. The red polka dot starfield possibly represents an unspoken fear of measles – and are those twin Saturns in the sky?

I still stand by the sentiment.”

Yes, Nick. Daleks are great. And thanks for sharing.

Felt Trips is a collaborative effort. If anyone wants to contribute their own childhood drawings from the era, I would be utterly delighted – please drop me a line using the “Contact” link at the top of the page. A good quality scan would be perfect, but – if not – then a clear photo of your artwork, lying flat, is fine. And maybe a few words of explanation, too: when the drawings were done, how old you were, what inspired you to tackle those particular subjects? Thanks so much.

Felt Trips: “The Glade of the Willowmen” by Bob Fischer

In dusty cardboard boxes, shoved to the back of cobweb-strewn attics; so many of us seem to have held on proudly to the artwork of our childhoods. Completely unfettered by either ambition or inhibition, drawn or painted purely for pleasure, these crumpled sheets and exercise books almost comprise a record of the national childhood psyche of the era. Favourite books, comics, films and TV shows were enthusiastically aped, and brand new creations were pulled straight from our teeming imaginations.

I’ve decided to expand the blog a little with a collaborative gallery of childhood artwork from the era, and would love to receive submissions. But I’ll start off with one of my own:

Drawn towards the end of 1984, this was my attempt to create the cover of a Fighting Fantasy role-playing book, and one that I full intended to write. Except, of course, I never any got further than the illustration that you see above. I was approaching my twelfth birthday, and the influence of Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson’s best-selling books had seeped into my creative pores. In addition, there was the seismic impact that The Weirdstone Of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath, Alan Garner’s barnstorming brace of folklore-influenced childrens’ books, had made on me: I’d read both books earlier in the year, following a priceless, life-changing school library tip-off from the softly-spoken and impressively moustachioed Mr Millward.

So I’d become entranced by the imagery and the atmosphere of British folklore; of wraith-like spirits darting between trees, and horned (pronounced, obviously, as two syllables) Old Gods rising from the mists. The illustration above clearly owes a lot to the depiction of Herne the Hunter in HTV’s Robin of Sherwood, also broadcast earlier in 1984:

But, oddly enough, I’d also been captivated by this TV advertisement for “Shell Grip” road surfacing, with a silent role for North-Eastern legend Tim Healy, and a typically chilling voiceover from John Hurt:

So the idea of terrifying folkloric figures teeming from the woodland glades of 1984, on a wet country lane potentially somewhere near my house, was too much to resist. I distinctly remember sitting in my bedroom one autumnal evening, filled with a sensation that there was “magic in the air” (I actually had this phrase in my head) and fired with a burning determination that the book simply had to be written.

Which, obviously, it never was. Not a word of it. But drawing the cover with felt-tip pens is further progress than I’ve made on virtually any other book since.

I would love Felt Trips to become a collaborative effort. If anyone wants to contribute their own childhood drawings from the era, I would be utterly delighted – please drop me a line using the “Contact” link at the top of the page. A good quality scan would be perfect, but – if not – then a clear photo of your artwork, lying flat, is fine. And maybe a few words of explanation, too: when the drawings were done, how old you were, what inspired you to tackle those particular subjects? Thanks so much.