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Saturday, October 28, 2006

A Brilliant Mind

Time and the elements (electricity and ISP charges) and SPAM cause me to occasionally change email addresses. I dropped an old one a year back but kept the freebie version as a junk mail filter. Other emailers may thank me for magnetically attracting the endless pleas for financial help from distraught Thingumbobbian princes. Though it's not very likely.

Somehow this dead account still retained emails sent by friends three or four years ago, including this marvelous piece of writing by John McCartney. Those of you who did not work with him or know him can get some idea of his really superior writing skills and brilliant mind from this short piece.

I only wish I'd thought of this obsolete account's 'saved' folder a few months ago when John asked me if I still retained a copy of this essay. Since I'd changed addresses the old files were quite naturally not there. My forgetfulness, in this case, was inexcusable.
The tale of the rat poison was located this morning. Here it is, in John's original English (far superior to the American). Enjoy.

Here's a short story, my first essay in about 40 years, and it concerns an incident that occured in another time; during my first marriage.
For about 3 years my wife Brenda & my 31/2 year old son James had lived in our fine Victorian semi in West London; she, a highly-qualified catering manager, and I, a musician, endured moderate prosperity.
Working mostly at night, it seemed common sense for me to look after our son, James, during the day.
Now, there are advantages to role reversal; e.g. most dads don't have the chance to spend that much time with their kids, pity, because you get to wear out the blade of a key-ring pen-knife digging up stones, chase seagulls across sodden fields, & convert a regular 10 minute round-trip for groceries into a 2 hour exercise in orientation... and here's the plus... your kids get out of coffee mornings.

Numbers 33 & 34, the semi-detached houses had been built for his family by our next door neighbour's grandfather, and he, when he married in 1927, had emigrated from our house to the one next door, where he had remained.

Solitary, tough old buzzard, that World War 1 infantry captain, had lived with his grey muzzled mutt pretty much alone since his wife had died a couple of years before we arrived.
Stone deaf. We knew what was on one of the other TV stations, because of the huge volume on his set thundering through the adjoining wall. When his grand-daughter came to collect him , the dog howled until he returned; the old man couldn't see... this duo was ill-equipped to deal with what was to come.

...mice; all that sound & fury wasn't going to put off these guys.

Across the vast waters of Fray's* river they had come in their thousands to pick clean the lean pantry that was our Rosecrucian neighbour's storehouse.
Once the mice had found that there was little to feed on; I suppose the old boy had been living out of tins & his dozy old dog couldn't waddle them away (the mice were safe but starving), their attention turned to our easy-access vegetable rack, and the battle was joined.
Impressive in its simplicity, their plan was to pilfer the supplies & relieve themselves in our house, whilst consuming the stuff in his. Soon at night we were to hear the shifting shale of their mass scamperings under the floorboards.

They're unhygenic, leaving their droppings all over the place & urinating at will, & when their activity naturally increased as Winter set in, I decided to wait up for the little bastards.
Rewards come to the patient it is said, & so it happened one night, mid-February, there I stood in the shadows of the kitchen, slightly pissed, small cylindrical waste-paper bin poised on my right hand, & the backing cardboard from an A3 sketch pad in the other.
With one deft & dare I say, rather elegant inversion of the bin, I nabbed one cheeky miscreant, as it dashed across the kitchen floor, & I slid the cardboard underneath to secure the fellow, then strode off, purposefully, to the local playing field through the snow.

....some quietetude comes to you from the gentle creak of your steps in freshly settled snow, especially in the early hours, the sound cannot escape & no other noise permeates the perfect acoustic to inerrupt the half-remembered sensations of childhood. Especially when you've just captured a small furry animal that you intend to dump into a totally hostile environment, in this case, the concrete base of a demolished changing room.

Mousey looked at me & shivered, I looked back & offered the cardboard, onto which the mite meakly climbed, and stayed until I had found it some suitable alternative accommodation. Soft as shit...these characters are threatening to destroy my family with cholera & Christ knows what else, & here I am, with one of them at my mercy, striking up some drunken understanding with the damned thing in the dead of night & the depths of Winter.

When I chucked the next one into the river, I had to remark on how aerodynamic they are, & how well they can swim.
Returning from a particularly late gig, alone on the sofa in the front room; a comfortable & wonderfully un- cluttered place, glass of Fleurie in one hand, bag of chips in the other, I became aware of the presence. Like mounds of small shingle being swept about under the floor they scuttled in concert. As I mellowed it occured that leaving the bag of chips in the middle of the carpet might be a jape, so I lowered the lights & waited. Not for long. Three of the little beggars put in an appearance within about 5 minutes & shot into the open bag, filling it with squabbling & snaffling. What a hoot, in the half-light the bag agitated, crinckled & rolled round the floor, tails flailing as these lumps machined their way through the contents. Yes, still chuckling, I realised that they had worked their way into my affections. It was at this point that I vowed to kill them all.

One of us bought some rodent poison, a sort of impregnated barley, dyed blue as a warning, which we left about the house in small trays on their most regular routes; my part was to prevent any of this ending up in the James.
We never saw or heard the mice again. We cleared up the poison, & thought no more about it, that is until just a few days later.

Shopping with James was always an exercise in patience; I must say that I found it therapeutic. Being an artist & musician, I'd always been an impatient, solipsistic sod & I found this business of constantly giving over to someone else an unexpectedly refreshing, if knackering, experience.
So it was that hot & hungry, we returned from Tesco. I went straight into the kitchen, filled the Le Creuset with tagliatelle, & began to unload the bags. Perhaps I should explain that the 'fridge-freezer stood alongside the gas cooker & that the top of it was a mass of clutter; there was a world of stuff up there, all above head height. Placed one of the two bottles of wine, together with a plastic bottle of oil on it with safety, but when I put the second wine bottle up there...I found the only remaining tray of rat poison. Of course as the mice had been climbing up the back of the freezer to get at the crisps on top, my wife had put a tray up there & we'd forgotten it. Wine bottle no. 2 was too much, pushing the tray of blue pellets off at the back towards the cooker.

It was perfect, showering the lunch, the cooker & the back of the 'fridge. This was an ideal time to panic, so I siezed the moment; first thing...throw away the pasta, where? how? this stuff is lethal, suppose James gets hold of any. No, get James into the back garden, then throw the lunch, damn, I was looking forward to that. What about that poison behind the freezer?
This is where mastermind here decides to waste no time & move the 'fridge/freezer away from the wall...with all the bottles still in place. The 'fridge, because the floor was eneven, stood on a thin wooden plank wedged underneath at the front to stop it tilting forward & to keep the doors closed. In moving, it came off the plank. The first bottle of wine fell & broke in half on the edge of the hob, spilling wine & broken glass into the well of the gas cooker, the bottom half continuing to the ground, where it sat with sharp pointy bits facing upwards, waiting for the bottle of oil which obligingly landed, sideways, on top of it shortly after. Two litres of sunflower oil now mixed freely with the wine & shards on the floor, soon to be joined by 75cl of a not indifferent Sainsbury's claret. The soup was coming together nicely; the poison now floated merrily from behind the 'fridge, around the cooker hob, while my jaw froze in disbelief. Leaning forward, the 'fridge door gently swung open as a full pint of milk slid out & crashed to floor, followed by an open pot of cole slaw, which inverted it's contents into the moat with a little plop. In the brief silence, as I paused for breath, I heard my son in the back garden telling old Charlie on the other side of the fence, 'my daddy's shouting'.


* In the early Georgian period, A man called Fray cut a spur from the ancient river Colne; no-one knows how old that name is, it preceeds the Romans, to power water mills, long since gone...

Thursday, October 26, 2006

A Most Proper Vulture

This is Barf.
Barf is a Turkey Vulture. He resides at the WILD WINGS raptor rescue center near Rochester, New York, along with eagles, hawks, owls, and one lone, declawed bobcat.

Barf was also a model in my Gesture Drawing for Animators class. This is more of a comparative anatomy course, and we've had human, greyhound, ferret, cat, and now avian models moving around the room as students draw them in action.

Our administrative assistant at the Film and Animation department suggested that I book Wild Wings since they visited schools, and our Chair okayed the funds (pretty reasonable) and so I and a couple of strong male students met our presenter Terry Kozakiewicz and one barn owl, one sparrowhawk, and Barf the turkey buzzard at the campus entrance and carried the birds' cases to the classroom.

I was worried that Barf would live up to his name. Turkey buzzards show that they are stressed by...barfing. A vulture defends itself with its lunch, which is in a condition that would repel most other buzzards let alone predators.

There was nothing to worry about. Barf was a perfect gentleman. He was actually a most endearing bird; he was curious about his surroundings, interested in the movement of the pencils and the sound of my camera's shutter, and showed off for the video camera by displaying his very handsome wings. There was no sign of a round trip meal ticket.

"He's enjoying himself", we were told. Barf was raised as a pet by someone who then probably saw him barf...and who simply released him into the wild. In this case the 'wild' was downtown Rochester, and Barf was apprehended while stealing french fries from outdoor tables at McDonald's. Thankfully no one shot the poor bird, who was unable to locate food that wasn't associated with people. He is so firmly imprinted on humans that he thought Ms. Kozakiewicz is his girlfriend.

He played with her and apparently has a lot of toys to amuse himself at home. Vultures are much maligned birds that perform a useful service. They are neat (for birds), and have very pretty feathers when seen close up. They also do not eat living animals.; they do not kill. The Cherokee apparently called them the 'peace eagle' for this reason.

A six foot wingspan is also very impressive. Despite his size and appearance (equivalent to a large turkey) Barf only weighs four pounds.

Melinda the barn owl was beautiful but dangerous. She was bred for a captive breeding program but showed no interest in other owls, or people, and prefers to remain alone. Maybe they should have named her Greta Garbo.

The third bird, Quiver the American Kestrel or Sparrowhawk, was a bit of a dirty birdie. I figured that the vulture would be best-behaved since I'd had visions of vulture lunch all over the classroom floor ever since booking the birds for the class.

The students' drawings were very good. They have to create their own 'creature' as a final project (all 'furries' and pre existing mythological beasts receive an automatic failing grade) and I suspect that a number of them may have wings. But then we also had a ferret, two greyhounds, and an Irish Setter modeling this term so there are lots to choose from.

It's going to be difficult to top this term but fortunately the Wild Wings birds are not averse to traveling in snowy weather, as Barf's picture proves.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

John McCartney

John McCartney’s desk was situated just opposite mine in an area of the Amblin’ London animation studio known as ‘Little America” despite the physical and vocal presence of Spanish, Italian, German, American, and Irish animators and assistants.

The desks, constructed of finest Ikea Ivar modular parts, resembled small horse boxes. Occupants were known to neigh when in high spirits.

John was more nay than neigh—he was a 25-year veteran of the Richard Williams studio who had just quit the Disney London studio and come over to our show because ‘the other studio was a mess’. Little did he know that he was about to get into a much bigger one!

The animators, all young and in need of a stress release, had developed a taste for cheap, easily assembled toys from the Kinder Egg candy line. John’s lead, animator Roy Meurin, had purchased forty pounds’ worth with animators Uli Meyer and Rob Stevenhagen. You could get a LOT of Kinder Eggs for forty pounds in 1988. They got sick on the candy, assembled the toys, and created a triumphal arch in their area using the plastic eggshells—and every spare pushpin in the studio. John had to walk beneath this cluster of yellow globes (the end of which I adorned with a rubber frog) every time he picked up an assignment. He let us all know that this was a singularly demeaning aspect of his job.

Then he noticed the small animating plastic skeleton on my desk. This toy hung from a small bar and would perform gyrations and flips when you pushed two buttons on the side of the base. I called it an illustration of the Chaos Theory. John called it something else – in a notable Scottish burr.

“I can’t understand why a supposedly-intelligent woman such as yourself has all this crrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrap on her desk.”

I’d made friends with another prank-and-toy-loving artist, Nina Haley, by that time. We agreed that if John was going to complain about the toys, it was only reasonable that he lament the condition of his OWN desk.

Since both of us arrived at work at the crack of dawn our plan was easy to implement. The next few months brought John a daily onslaught of “Find Mr. Smurf”. This most annoying articulated Kinder Egg toy could now be found on a daily basis hiding on his desk in a variety of interesting poses, whether committing suicide with its head in John’s pencil sharpener or hanging by the neck from the top of the desk-stall or (once) bouncing off John’s head. Animator Raul Garcia managed to make a ‘flasher’ Smurf by rotating the body and adding a tiny paper raincoat. This was the only addition John approved of.
At this time Nina and I decided to throw John a birthday party.
“You can’t. My birthday is in February.”
“You will have a birthday when we TELL you to have one, John.”

For the first time, he looked worried.

This operation required special assistance from Roy Meurin and the guys in the Kinder Egg crew. Three hundred toys (the spoils of the forty-pound splurge) and the arch of eggs including the rubber frog were relocated to John’s desk sometime around Halloween 1988.

We also ran a small and disreputable contest to find (a) the most wretchedly tacky card and (b) the most tasteless ‘birthday present’ for John. The gift competition, open to the entire studio, received a number of entries that were easy to come by in the tacky Acton stores. It was won by Cathy Kiss who somehow located a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Advent Calendar. I created a poorly designed card on a computer located in the off-license down the street featuring a rude inscription actually written by the computer. Other presents included elephant-diaper shaped marshmallows and some horrible stuffed toys.

Naturally the news of the prank spread throughout the studio. Our production manager took a look at the resulting mess. “I feel sorry for the poor bastard!” was his only reply. I am sorry to say we never photographed it.

John’s reaction was of stupefied silence, hilarious laughter at the Advent calendar, and extremely literate abuse chiding us for time wasted creating this ridiculous thing. But he did enjoy the attention.

Many other ‘birthday presents’ were left on John’s desk afterward on a near-weekly basis. All were British made and purchased locally by the usual suspects; the worst being a toilet paper roll insert that played God Save the Queen. John reacted with his usual acerbic appreciation.

I left Amblimation to work at Warner Brothers in New York City as a director in 1991. Shortly after I started there I received a long-distance phone call from John.
Here is the conversation in its entirety:

“You BITCH!!!”


“It’s the GOOSE!”

“What goose?”

“ The electric, ROTATING goose.”

“John, I….are you on something? What do you…”

“It’s ELECTRIC, it ROTATES, it plays MUSIC, and my children won’t let me turn it off!”

After some confusion it was discovered that Nina Haley had been saving all the American stamps from the letters I sent her, and pasting them on the ‘presents’ that she wrapped in brown paper and left on John’s desk, implying that they had been sent all the way from New York. This goose in fact originated in London. Nina owes me big time.

John never forgot that particular ‘present’.
Nina and I gifted John with a Californian ‘cup holder’ consisting of a headless female torso in 1999 when we visited London.

I last saw John in Paris in 2003, when I treated him and his family to lunch at Café Angelica on the Right Bank. He was his old acerbic self and we continued to correspond by email and phone until shortly before his passing.

A few of his lovely character designs grace my upcoming book. I was delighted to get them and John was, I hear, pleased to know that they would be published in something a bit more permanent than an e-message.
John McCartney was a man whose command of the English language (especially the invective) proved the inadequacy of an American education. I was pleased to have him as a friend and will miss him.