A few weeks ago I was having a few pints with some friends when I got into a bit of an argument. In my defence, it was exactly a week before Xmas, the anniversary of my fathers death, so Yule is always a bad time for me mental health wise. Not that its much of an excuse. The row centred on the Harry Potter books. I made some drunk old man arsehole comment along the lines of its wrong to read kids books when you’ve not read all the grown up ones. My pal Paloma, quite rightly, shot me down to ribbons. There is, Paloma told me, magic in the books. And what’s wrong with a bit of magic in a world where magic is in such scant supply? I agreed and went home feeling a bit of a tit, but it got me thinking.
The magic for me in art is its relatablity. It needs to be sourced from the real. The first book I really fell for was a Gumbles Yard by John Rowe Townsend. I must have been all of nine years old. It was read out by our teacher, Mrs. Watson, who I had a walloping crush on. Mr. Watson was an archaeologist like Indiana Jones. He unearthed a load of woolly mammoth bones not far from school, so I knew I had no chance bit it didn’t stop me daydreaming. The book left a stamp on younger me. I remember little of the characters of the book and little of the plot, but I can still recall the sense of dark broody panic and sense of loss in the abandoned kids. I really loved the heaviness of it all. It wasn’t wizards or pirates or even footballers in books that got nine year old me going, it was two scared kids and the sense of dread hanging over them like dirty great cloud. I could never really relate to wizards as a kid, but to kids scared of coming home and finding their lost ones gone? Certainly.
The next big book was probably Catcher in the Rye, read out in class by a wonderful woman called Miss Herbert when I was about fourteen. She insisted on reading it a New Yoik accent ('it was real swaaaanky') and Salingers words buried themselves in to the very core of my mind and bones. I loved it. I took it home and read it all over the weekend. Next class Miss Herbert took me to one side afterwards and inquired to why I looked bored when in the last one I was sat open mouthed in rapture. I confessed I had finished the book under my own steam and asked if there were any more books like it I could read. I saw a little light turn on behind her eyes. Finally she had inspired one of the little sods. She wrote me a list of books (one of them was To Esme with Love and Squalor, still my favourite) with a barely concealed grin. It was, to put it lightly, an interesting time in my life. Around the same time I discovered Salinger I found girls no longer annoying but incredible and a source of deep fascination. The period took intellectualism and sexiness in females and entwined them as tight as stitches in a woollen jumper. From then on I would find intelligent and well read women almost unbearably sexy. Its a feeling I'm yet to lose.
Looking back, my tastes in art have barely wavered from Gumbles Yard. The art I like has a dark underbelly, a sense of sadness. An arm waiting to grab me from reality and plunge me somewhere deeper, somewhere scarier. Its there in the books of Donna Tartt and Richard Yates, in the music of Joy Division, The Smiths and the sixties girl group sound. In the paintings of John Waterhouse and photography of Francesca Woodman. Art to me is reality and reality is often sad. But magic? Yes I’ve seen magic. But not in tales of boy wizards but in the days on a cusp a seasons change. In the pint that turns the night into an adventure. In the last hungry kiss before the walk home. In holding hands with someone who really understands you. In drunk arguments that lead you to write. Magic seems an all encompassing word, but its not, its beauty truly is in the eye of the beholder. Finding someone to share the magic with is unfeignedly fantastic and beautiful. Hogwarts and all.