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Blue Blankets, Bored Brendas and Fat Bags

It’s surprising to think sometimes that the book Fatbag, my first professional (i.e. paid!) job as an illustrator, was 30 years ago this year. I remember creating the drawings like it was yesterday.

Having graduated from Manchester I moved to Norwich, where my parents had decided to re-settle during my absence. Rural Norfolk was a complete contrast to Manchester. I knew nothing about Norwich at all, but there was a burgeoning music and arts scene which I slipped into pretty quickly. With virtually no budget I started anonymously publishing an indies music/arts fanzine The Blue Blanket, through which I interviewed bands, touring and local, ran local event listings, plus there were odd features on the arts, and opinionated flippant essays under various nom-de-plumes. And of course it was fully illustrated with my work. It was fun, made me a bunch of friends very quickly, and invariably sold out. Somewhere along the years of multiple housemoving I lost my own remaining copies, so I’ve only memories of the magazine now, but recently I did find one piece of artwork in my dad’s house.

from The Blue Blanket Issue 4, 1982

Any funds raised were pumped straight back into the production of the magazine, so the print quality and distribution gradually improved, the print run more than doubled over a year. However by then it was becoming a burden to write, illustrate, edit and publish largely by myself, the magazine was a full time job and I always paid for contributions, leaving very little for myself. I had to make a choice – am I going to do this for a living? In which case I’d need to generate some income from it, or take up the reins of freelance illustration, which I’d just spent 4 years studying? It was time to get serious about my career.

After throwing most of my student artwork out of the window on the last day at Manchester Poly (see previous post) I just had a simple portfolio of graduate pieces I wasn’t particularly happy with, mostly black and white. So I began looking with fresh eyes at the market for children’s illustration. I worked on some story ideas and drew a full colour dummy picture book Bored Brenda, (a modern day twist on The Fisherman’s Wife, set in Manchester) plus a couple of other watercolour portfolio pieces, and added drawings from The Blue Blanket to my degree show black and white work.

Bored Brenda at home (original dummy) 1982

Brenda finds the teapot (original dummy) 1982

On a bleak spring day I jumped on a train to London with around 4 or 5 appointments with publishers. It wasn’t the first time I’d carted my wares around the streets of the capital, but previous times were as a student, showing college projects. This was different, my portfolio had a purpose, it was much more focused towards getting me employed. It’s strange that all this energy had suddenly appeared after I left college, in retrospect, it was a combination of The Blue Blanket and fear of unemployment that cranked me into gear.

A and C Black were the last publisher I saw that day of lugging my portfolio around. It was belting down with rain and I was pretty drenched, I often wonder whether the art director (now Managing Director) Jill Coleman took pity on my bedraggled appearance. But she liked my drawings, and to my surprise and delight offered me a book to illustrate, written by the then largely unknown Jeremy Strong. Suddenly I was in business, the flat fee seemed very reasonable for the time (little did I know Fatbag would still be on the shelves 30 years later and I wouldn’t earn a penny from any of the subsequent printings or editions!).

The book is sheer pantomime farce, the story of an evil vacuum cleaner that takes on a life of its own and goes on the rampage. Growing bigger and more powerful the more it slurps, Fatbag trashes the town, chased by the completely ineffective police and fire brigade.

Eventually Fatbag meets his come-uppance thanks to the local school cleaner Elsie Bunce, with the help of a TV curry recipe.

I worked on Fatbag in my bedroom on an old kitchen table once belonging to my grandmother, such was the extent of my first studio, 30 line drawings and cover. Although I’m proud of the book as my first commission, I was clearly finding my way, some of the drawings are inconsistent, and I’ve always disliked the cover, but it was a start. Fatbag set me on the road, over the next year two more book commissions were to follow (Get Lavinia Goodbody! for the Andersen Press and A Canoe in the Mist for Jonathan Cape). My story Bored Brenda was eventually published (though truncated) in Storyteller magazine (Marshal Cavendish), by which time I’d moved to London. After a year of incubation I joined old Manchester mate Andy Royston to set up Façade Art Studios, from that point there was no looking back.

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