The other day I came across a few pieces of folded paper. Bloody hell! Childhood drawings by yours truly. They are seriously troubling. So troubling, they're very funny. One is of a striped felt-tipped sea dragon with huge claws, rampaging across the page in a riot of frills and crests and teeth. Another is a hawk carrying a mouse, the tentativeness of baby Pluvialis' messy pencil attempt at childhood draughtsmanship quite outstripped by the bloodiness of the scene. There are even blood drips falling from the mouse's tail. Eww! And last, a picture of a battle. Thirty or so knights and archers, and appallingly-rendered Arthurian horses in black ink, with severed heads and arrows sprouting from eyes and shoulderblades, and big swords brandished high in an A4 sky.
I looked at them for a long while. I actually remember drawing them, and the memory of moving the pen is clear. What isn't clear is who the hell I was then. Now they seem to me to be the psychodramas of a very disturbed child. A child with tight lips, icy eyes and some kind of battle to settle. Anger problems? Hello?
I don't think I was this child, but it gives me pause. At this age, Viking longships and volcanos and dragons and dinosaurs and hawks and battles were my entire repertoire. But later there came pictures of girls with long dresses and animals on their shoulders—squirrels, perhaps — and birds sitting on their wonky heads, or hovering around them. That’s called growing up, right?
Drawing is magic, though. Really it is. I find myself skating bored over discussions of rock art's religio-mythical purposes. Drawing is magic. When it works, you bring all sorts of airy or chthonic things into the moving line without being in control of it, but still, being fierce with it. It's that half-in control, half-not-in-control delight where you and the subject of the drawing compete for existence. It's like hunting in all sorts of ways.
People who know me know that I draw birds all the time; while I'm on the phone, while I'm talking in cafés, sitting in seminars, on paper napkins in restaurants. Bits of paper, the edges of newspapers; receipt-backs. And it's true that most often, after completing these shorthand animals, I scribble them out so furiously that the paper tears.
I do all this quite unconsciously. When you draw an animal and it works, you conjure it into existence. Once you've finished the drawing, you have to let go of it once it's alive, and you don't want it to turn on you. You don't want the drawing to be your enemy. Sometimes it won't be -- sometimes the drawings remain decorative and never rise into life; they are merely the printed half-tone of a bird. These are safe and boring and discardable.
Sometimes the drawings are indubitably alive. I can’t explain this, bar to say that some birds become alive and some are never alive. The alive birds are the ones that make me happy, as if I’ve found them by accident; or they have found their own way into the world.
The ones I scribble out, furiously, are the ones in the uncanny valley. The ones that are monstrously not quite alive, but not quite dead, which makes them horrifying. I need to kill them before bad things happen.
My life is littered with pieces of paper with little birds on, and little scribbles where I've destroyed the ones that didn't quite make it.
This is why, if I do have a tattoo, it can't be by me. Also why it has to be a stylised depiction of a hawk, rather than anything attempting to be real. I don't know if this makes sense, but having a live animal on your back seems a very scary thing to have. Having a depiction, a design -- and from a different time and cultural milieu -- that seems safe.
I have probably just convinced everyone who's read this that I'm mad as the sea and wind. Not all of me; just my pen hand, right?