Dog days are over
Despite initial concerns, it seems that town life suits Truman and Fitzgerald very well indeed
It’s been almost a year since we made the move from country back into town. We left our farm on the other side of Cleeve Hill and moved into a town house in Cheltenham. This was mainly because my kids wanted “fast internet and Deliveroo” but, oh, how they regretted this decision when lockdown came. No more cricket nets, swimming pools, acres of socially distant space to play in. I thought it might be even worse for my dogs, Fitzgerald and Truman. How were they going to adapt to town life? After all, neither had ever been on a lead in their lives and we’d all howled with laughter when, on a drive through town, we spotted a human picking up their dog’s poop and putting it into a plastic bag.
“What on earth is that about?” giggled Truman, wiping away tears of laughter.
“Town people are strange,” replied Fitzgerald, who always took the role of a dog who knew a lot about things.
“What do they do with the poop in the bag?” asked Truman, watching the woman continue walking, carrying her little poo package like a box from Tiffany & CO.
“They feed it to their cats. Never get involved with a town cat. They are arrogant and filthy creatures.” Fitzgerald was no fan of cats.
“Why do dogs wear clothes here?” asked Truman, spotting a small poodle sporting a bright check coat.
“It’s an affectation and not massively common. It’s mainly popular amongst Continental dogs, but they will all be gone soon.” Fitzgerald looked triumphant.
“The dog-catcher?” asked Truman nervously.
“Brexit. We’ve got our country back.’ Said Fitzgerald adopting what he felt was something of a heroic pose, his back arched stiffly, his nose out the window, fighting the urge to let his tongue hang out.
“How do you know about all these things?” Inquired Truman.
“That bulldog, Trevor, at the end of the village is big into politics and he told me about how great life was going to be for us British dogs soon.” Fitzgerald felt a wave of pride wash over him and he barked imperiously at a chihuahua being carried in a hand bag by an overly manicured woman.
“But… I’m not British. I’m a Labrador. Technically I’m Canadian,” said Truman, his big worried eyes staring at Fitzgerald.
“But you’re not French Canadian, are you?” Fitzgerald looked at him accusingly.
“I don’t think so. I’m the same as you,” Truman whimpered.
“Then everything is fine,” said Fitzgerald and he stuck his head far out of the car window to indicate that this discussion was over.
Now we are in town and the dogs have taken to it like… dogs to towns. Every day I get dragged violently around Pittville like some out-of-control Lapland dog-sledder as they explore more and more of their new environs. But there is trouble in paradise. Fitzgerald has fallen head over heels in love with a neighbouring dog, who is both male and French. His world-view has been turned upside down. On the way back from a walk along the Honeybourne Line, I listened in to their conversation.
“How’s your boyfriend doing?” asked Truman.
“He’s not my boyfriend,” growled Fitzgerald.
“You seem very close,” smiled Truman.
“We get on very well.
He is a very intelligent dog and we have a lot of things to talk about that you wouldn’t be able to understand.” Fitzgerald was not comfortable with the conversation.
“You seem to do a lot of talking into his bottom. You’re always sniffing around back there with zero social distance.” Truman tried to keep a straight face while Fitzgerald pretended to concentrate on his collar.
“Also, isn’t he… French?” asked Truman.
“Yes… and… what’s your point?” snapped Fitzgerald.
“It’s just that, you said all those things about them and you said that Trevor said that all French were cheese-eating surrender monkeys.” Truman’s poker face was on point.
“Trevor’s an idiot. He’d never even left the village. He wouldn’t understand the way things go down in town.” Fitzgerald tried to change the subject by staring at a squirrel.
“But what about Brexit and kicking the French out?” Truman was enjoying this.
“SQUIRREL!!!” screamed Fitzgerald before bolting off towards a nearby tree.
Truman smiled to himself. He liked being in town.
How have the months of lockdown been for you, PJ, and how have you been filling the time?
Perhaps I learned about separation as a child – when I was seven my Mum had TB and so my sister and I lived with a foster mother for two years through her treatment and recovery. So I have never taken life for granted. But as an artist I have always worked from my studio at home, but our problem was that Richard now lives with lymphoma, which is a cancer of the blood. He received multiple warnings from the government and the NHS that he must not go out as he would be dangerously ill if he caught Covid-19, and that anyone who lived in the house with him also could not venture out as if they did they would have to isolate from him.
My biggest dilemma was how we would keep Richard fit. I’ve always done exercises or a work-out before
I start the day, but we knew for him it would need to have more purpose. And so I suggested making a vegetable garden, which he took to with such vigour and enthusiasm that we had to allocate more and more areas to the project. Soon he was creating woodland gardens and arbors under the trees, and laying decorative paths to them.
As I write, he’s digging up the lawn to reseed it so it can live up to the rest of his work. I’ve nurtured the tomato seeds into tall plants on the window sills, and various herbs during my breaks from painting. Richard has also become a baker; most days when I come down I’m greeted by the delicious aroma of freshly-baked bread, banana loaf or walnut cookies. Because of his condition, we’ve been fortunate to have dedicated online shopping deliveries each week, and blessed with kind friends who collect our post, etc.
I have to admit I’ve shed many tears on hearing how many have lost their loved ones and the sacrifices made by our NHS, carers and key workers. But having recently read Camus’ The Plague and Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year, I realise how fortunate we are by comparison – in 1665 the situation was far more frightening and dire, so much so it often sent people mad. There weren’t magazines like this or newspapers to keep them informed, educated and entertained, or the radio, television and social media. Global communication meant we could see this coming and its inevitability. It is fortuitous that we have a sophisticated programme set up by the state to try to look after us all, including the homeless. I am moved and encouraged by the great kindness and humanity I observe in all others, although a few have acted more selfishly. Even through
idea between me and Trinity House Modern. They did’t auction it as auctions normally go, but accepted sealed bids. There were four other artists who then joined in and we raised £18,350 – £5,200 of which came from Heroes of the Hour – for the NHS Charities Together Covid-19 Emergency Fund.
Your Twitter feed over the last few months has shown some of your works which have really resonated with many of us during the pandemic, such as Times Past and The Writing on the Wall. Has it made you see some of your own work in a different light?
Yes, it is interesting when I look back over my work. Much of it mirrors what is happening in the world at that time. This era of the coronavirus has concentrated many of those elements into this period of extremes. In Times Past I was looking at the loneliness of old age; it is based loosely on ‘ Auntie’, the woman who fostered my sister and I whilst my mother had TB. She was in her eighties when I made the painting, and had been widowed since the War and only had one son. Even though I would visit her at regular intervals, I know she was intensely lonely living with her cat Sammy and her memories. The plight of the elderly in both care homes and their own homes, and their vulnerability, became magnified during the recent pandemic. People, such as Robert Fripp, have suggested that some of my work is prophetic, although The Writing on the Wall, which hung in the Royal Academy in 1991, was painted at the time of the first Gulf War when scud missiles were being fired into Israel and many there were seen wearing gas masks in news footage. It struck me that it would feel very strange for infants to see their parents transformed into these surreal elephantine creatures. The Hebrew script around the frame made reference to the Biblical Belshazzar’s Feast and Rembrandt’s painting “...you have been weighed in the balance and found wanting...”
When I put these images on social media, I felt that they might resonate with other people because we see art through our present experiences, even when the impulse that created it was not quite the same... art mirrors life.
Trinity House Modern in Broadway is staging your next exhibition. What can we expect to see?
Although this isn’t a retrospective, the exhibition has three works from early on in my career. Passé, Présent, Futur was first shown in the Royal Academy in 1983 from whence it travelled to the USA, but I was recently able to acquire it and two other works from the same period ( The Seven Ages and
The Dream) back. The rest of the show is a collection of paintings created over the past three years, and also includes three-dimensional works such as my soft sculpture In Prayer made last year – perhaps a premonition of what was to unfold this year.
Several of the works make reference to the plight of our planet, referring simultaneously to the Extinction Rebellion theme, and Noah and his Ark. Also climate change in the painting Happy New Year 2020, where most of the newspaper painted in the foreground is taken up with a large photograph and caption ‘Australia Ablaze’. Others, like The Nightwatch, Distance Dancing and The Prayer, are expressions of this era of Covid-19.
The Black Nativity refers to the mass demonstrations across our globe, Black Lives Matter, now running concurrently with the coronavirus. We need to love each other, whatever our colour or creed, as well as our planet and all that inhabits it.