Monday, 13 July 2020

Biting off more nonsense than you can chew….with Mini Grey


...in which Mini discusses complete nonsense, beards, and what happens if you leave illustrators alone for too long...

As a child in the 1970s, brought up largely by TV, I especially loved the Banana Splits Show and the Tomfoolery Show that both appeared on Saturday mornings.
The Bananas were a psychedelic collection of baggy saggy happy animals and Tomfoolery was crazy cartoonery featuring a fish on stilt-feet. So when I met the work of Edward Lear, his Complete Nonsense fitted right in.
Mr Lear's self-portrait with Foss the Cat
The world of Lear is full of troubled individuals doing their own thing, and strange creatures such as Pobbles and Dongs, often with deep unresolved longings.
But this is Complete Nonsense so there's much more: there are alphabets, stories, cookery, a herbarium. When he wasn’t making nonsense Lear was an accomplished painter and depicter of animals, particularly birds, so he knew his natural history. I just have to show you a few specimens from Nonsense Botany:
  Here we have the useful-looking Bottlephorkia Spoonifolia, the dangling bloom of the Manypeeplia Upsidownia, an impressive specimen of Phattfacia Stupenda, and the rather disturbing Nasticreechia Krorluppia

The Complete Nonsense is a compendium with something for everybody. You can have a go at Nonsense Cookery – perhaps make an Amblongus Pie, where you need 4 ½ pounds of fresh Amblongusses, and end up serving it up in a clean dish, and throwing the whole thing out of the window as fast as possible.

Last year I was invited (by Bloomsbury publishers) to illustrate a compendium from another bearded poet, AF Harrold. The Book of Not Entirely Useful Advice, was to be the title.
 
Now I mostly knew AF Harrold from reading his story books to my son Herbie. I remember us reading The Song From Somewhere Else –and feeling we were in the presence of a clear voice with words that made you sit up and shiver. It featured a talking stomach as one of its characters. It was funny but heart-bending, and coming after some books by other authors that had disappointed us a bit, it was like a refreshing slap by an unexpected wave at the seaside.
A lone cat by Levi Pinfold, from The Song from Somewhere Else
Now AF Harrold has worked with quite a bunch of illustrators. The Song From Somewhere Else is broodingly illustrated in exquisite monochrome by Levi Pinfold. Emily Gravett has created the magical pictures for The Imaginary and The Afterwards.
A lone cat by Emily Gravett, from The Imaginary
AF’s other funny fiction series about Fizzlebert Stump and Greta Zargo have riotous pictures by Sarah Horne and Joe Todd-Stanton. His poetry has been illustrated with delicious pictures by both Chris Riddell and Katy Riddell. 
An enormous bit of a bear erupts from cornflakes in this watercolour by Katy Riddell
An entire bear has been found in the cornflakes in this drawing by Chris Riddell. Plus an insight into how poets wear socks.
I noticed from observing the work of Chris Riddell that putting your poet in the bath or other dire circumstances, is a thing that the illustrator can do. This could be useful. 
Here Chris Riddell has depicted AF Harrold sat nude in the bath.
The Book of Not Entirely Useful Advice, like Lear’s Complete Nonsense, has something for everyone. There’s a lot of foodstuffs – sausages, jelly, crisps, toast. Rock cakes.

There’s quite a lot of animals – koalas, foxes, tigers, snakes. Some swearing Parrots. 



These are all tempting ingredients to draw. The whole thing seemed like an attempt to shoehorn Life, the Universe and Everything into a sort of bonkers self-help book with a colossal index.
.And also GIANTS.
 It’s interesting to compare illustrating poetry versus a narrative. With poetry you can have freedom from the Continuity Police: you don’t need to stick to the same characters, you don’t need to have a specific location. You can possibly be free from having to draw backgrounds at all. You can have that magical mixing where words and pictures come together side by side and by their juxtaposition create something new. It might be possible to unleash creatures like swearing parrots and ducks and just have them wandering about among the pages.
Just a fabulous collage television by David Tazzyman, from Jelly Boots Smelly Boots
 The team at Bloomsbury gave me a copy of Jelly Boots Smelly Boots, where David Tazzyman had been let loose among the poems of marvellous Michael Rosen, pictures that were awash with spontaneity and fun. And collage. I especially liked the collage. This too could be useful. 
 
The usual picture book is 32 pages, which is about 15 double page spreads. My usual speed of picture making was a week per spread. But this book was going to be 148 pages long – about 70 spreads. I couldn’t work out the maths but I suspected if I didn’t up my speed this project might take the rest of my life. So I had to do a spread a day, for about 14 weeks.  Working out how to start making roughs I realised the only way to get it in a manageable format was to shrink it to thumbnails and scribble on these, then blow them back up to full size to use as the roughs.
I’ve said a bit more about the Power of Teeny in this Picture BookDen post here.

In the margins of illuminated manuscripts from around 700 years ago, you can discover some quite weird things.

There are fighty rabbits doing bad things to people. There are knights battling snails.
There are nuns harvesting unmentionable fruits from trees. Clearly, someone left the illustrator alone to do their own thing, and what they’ve chosen to do is hide the scatalogical and the mad and the bizarre in those pages: demented doodles that can talk to us from 700 years ago. These illuminators were enjoying the secret power of the illustrator: to shrink and expand, to undermine, to winch things in, to be the last one on the job who got to have the last (pictorial) word on the page. 
 (Plus – I noticed this medieval appearance of the Walking Fish – the ancestor of the Fizzgiggious Fish of Lear, and the walking fish who often wander the drawings of John Vernon Lord.)
Medieval walking fish (left) Lear's walking fish (centre) John Vernon Lord's fish wearing the best hat (right)
The voice of The Book of Not Entirely Useful Advice, comes of course straight from AF Harrold. If you want to know what this voice is like, tune in to the AFHLEKPoPod podcasts.
These may be about subjects such as Toast, and brought to you by kind association with items such as Sausages (“like food but tubular…plop ‘em on your plate and stick ‘em in your mouth.”) and then at the end advise you about what to do if you didn’t like the podcast (eg “If this wasn’t your cup of tea, why not make yourself a cup of tea, and see if that’s better…”)
Edward Lear (left) Darwin (top right) John Vernon lord (bottom right)
Also as I may have mentioned before, AF has a magnificent beard, which put me in mind of other magnificently bearded individuals, like Edward Lear, of course, but also that illustrator of Lear, John Vernon Lord, and also that collector of botanical ideas, Charles Darwin.

Could I shrink AF and have him roaming though his book, perhaps with a bit of a net for catching ingredients for poems?

Yes I could.

There’s one poem in the Not Entirely Useful Advice called Winch – which gave me the idea – that maybe in this book a lot of winching can happen.
Signs could be lowered down on hooks. So there’s somewhere beyond the pages where things are being lowered in from. There’s also the chance to force your poet to do ridiculous things, like dangle a puppet version of themselves. And of course put them in the bath.

Also as the illustrator there’s the power to take over entirely and completely fill the page with knots, and also add my own useful notes pointing out where AF has got things wrong.



Luckily both AF Harrold and our fantastic team at Bloomsbury (Zoe Griffiths, Sarah Baldwin, Stephanie Amster and Jeni Child) were completely up for all this, in fact they positively encouraged it and wanted as much of it as possible. I guess we were attempting to make the ultimate unreliable narrator nonsense work.
The other good thing about just being the illustrator rather than the author-illustrator, is that I am just not responsible for the content or whether it makes sense. Actually as it turned out it seems that AF wasn’t either. I was really puzzled about the jelly in the bath in this poem here, plus why "quack quack quack"?

When questioned, the author admitted he had no idea either. So now random quacking has been turned into a repeating feature in The Book of Not Entirely Useful Advice.


When I first encountered AF Harrold, I was much impressed by the badge collection he was wearing. And badges are a perfect transportation device for good or bad advice. So to finish, here is your own cut out & keep badge selection, to create a badge for every occasion. I’m off to have another go on the Advice-a-tron 216.



The Book of Not Entirely Useful Advice by AF Harrold with pictures by Mini is published by Bloomsbury and released into the wild on the 3rd September 2020.





8 comments:

Alison said...

I loved this - a brilliant start to the week, thank you.

Mini Grey said...

Thanks Alison!

Anonymous said...

Love the sound of Amblongus Pie! I didn't know all that information about Edward Lear. Though of course I know the pobble! Thanks Mini. Lucy Rowland

Mini Grey said...

Thanks Lucy! If I could just track down some fresh amblongusses at my local Waitrose I'd have a crack at Amblongus Pie, but they're very hard to come by...Incidentally there's a very good (and beautiful) biography of Lear by Jenny Uglow - there's lots more to find out about him!

Pippa Goodhart said...

Well that was an utter delight! Thank you, Mini.

Mini Grey said...

It's a pleasure!

Hayley said...

Can't wait for this to come out. It looks brilliantly bonkers!

Mini Grey said...

Thanks Hayley. I can't wait either to tell the truth!