This painting is called Race You to the Bottom and was created sometime in the late 1990s I imagine, or even more recently, because the artist was born in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne in 1979. I’ve read that Leigh Lambert’s primary inspiration is his own memories of growing up in North East England, but he draws on things other than memory for a painting like this. Conciously or not, he must have been influenced by earlier generations of artists who depicted working class life. And even by William Blake’s dark, satanic mills because surely clean air legislation would have shut down those smoke-gushing stacks by the time Leigh was playing in the streets. I sincerely hope so.
But the reason I feel certain that the artist didn’t rely on memory alone is the things he didn’t paint. There are no cars, moving or parked, no street furniture or signage, no markings on the wide expanse of tarmac to tell cars what to do. Cars don’t exist because they weren’t important to the children in the painting. They passed by unnoticed. What was important was that Mickey had a new yellow bike or Tom had been made to wear the red jumper his nan knitted. They are a few static adults in the picture but the life and colour comes from the children.
The artist isn’t remembering. He is feeling what it was like then and he must have struck a chord with many because I gather there is a waiting list for his original pieces and the limited edition prints are also popular.
This is what fiction can do. History books can tell us what happened at the storming of the Bastille or the court of Queen Elizabeth, but only fiction can tell us what it felt like to be there. And leaving things out may be a way of capturing the emotional life of the past. This is what the writer and journalist Ian Jack calls the ‘bakelite problem’. The phrase refers to a period novel which described a character turning the bakelite knob on the wireless. She didn’t: she switched it on. Just as we don’t put a Denby mug of Columbian dark roast coffee on to the mdf table top…
Writers beware: just because you’ve done your research, you shouldn’t put it all in. And you don’t need to map every detail of your childhood, just the ones that make you (and others) re-live it.
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