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Sunday, 4th May 2003, West Yorkshire

George and Izzy beeWhen you take a close look at it, George's drawing is an accurate picture map of the features of our back garden. There's the extension on the back of the house with my studio window in the sloping roof, a large wasp or bee buzzing menacingly towards us and, in the pond, edged on one side by pebbles and on the other by grass and iris leaves, he's shown a representative selection of pond life: a frog, a tadpole and a small fish (as far as I know we don't have any fish in there, not even sticklebacks).

pond by George, aged 6.
I'm just saying that we've never had a child fall in the pond when George's younger sister, Izzy, 3, totters alarmingly as she dips a net into the water. Close thing.

You'll notice that George has included Izzy's pigtails in his stick-figure sketch, and caught her sunny disposition but he evidently feels it's himself, not his sister, who is best put in charge of the pond net.


George's frog, my colour addedI find frogs difficult to draw, even after all my years as a wildlife illustrator, so I'm impressed, not to say envious of the spontaneity of the design, with George's interpretation of it. He's shown it leaping or swimming, rather than going for the familiar sitting-on-a-lily-pad pose.

It's surprising how long-limbed frogs are when they're outstretched and he's got those proportions in his drawing.

The springy, arching line of George's drawing reminds me of the Dreamtime images of aboriginal paintings. It's got that shamanistic feel to it; as if the artist has entered into the watery world of the frog and imagined what it would be like to experience being that creature, moving as it moves.

According to Encyclopaedia Britannica, aboriginal oral tradition

serves to relate the individual and the landscape to the continuing spiritual influence of the Dreaming, or Dreamtime--a mythological past in which the existing natural environment was shaped and humanized by ancestral beings.

The aborigines believe 'that what is given cannot be changed and that the past exists in an eternal present'. I'd go along with that, I do feel that the past is all around us, not just in a misty mythological sense but literally in the layers of history and geology that surround us. There's even a lot of history in our DNA.

George shows a tadpole, an almost embryonic forerunner of the frog. Each of us has been through an embryonic form not that dissimilar in outward appearance to the tadpole, in what might be a kind of rerun of our evolutionary past.

pond by George,  colour added by myself.To me the three pond creatures look as if they're setting out on some kind of journey, perhaps in some aboriginal myth. To quote Britannica again, in aboriginal myth;

man is regarded as part of nature, not fundamentally dissimilar to the mythic beings or to the animal species, all of which share a common life force.

I get that feeling from George's drawing. His work also reminds me of Paul Klee, who explored the mysteries in the microcosms of nature, often presented, as George does here, with a touch of humour.

By the way, the colour in these drawings isn't by George; that's me, having fun messing around in Photoshop 7.0.

To judge by its size in the composition, George, rightly, considers the frog as being at the centre of the microcosm of the pond. It is indeed at the top of the food pyramid (until a heron comes along, as in the Aesop fable sometimes referred to as Old King Log).

Frog by Brian Robb, copyright Penguin Books 1954, from 'Fables of Aesop'The Frogs Asking For A King

THE FROGS, grieved at having no established Ruler, sent ambassadors to Jupiter entreating for a King. Perceiving their simplicity, he cast down a huge log into the lake. The Frogs were terrified at the splash occasioned by its fall and hid themselves in the depths of the pool. But as soon as they realized that the huge log was motionless, they swam again to the top of the water, dismissed their fears, climbed up, and began squatting on it in contempt. After some time they began to think themselves ill-treated in the appointment of so inert a Ruler, and sent a second deputation to Jupiter to pray that he would set over them another sovereign. He then gave them an Eel to govern them. When the Frogs discovered his easy good nature, they sent yet a third time to Jupiter to beg him to choose for them still another King. Jupiter, displeased with all their complaints, sent a Heron, who preyed upon the Frogs day by day till there were none left to croak upon the lake.

The frog above is a detail from an illustration by Brian Robb to Fables of Aesop, translated by S.A.Handford, © Penguin Books, 1954. Brian Robb was head of illustration at the Royal College of Art when I was a student there and I enjoyed my weekly tutorials with him. Looking at that frog again I feel privileged that I had as my tutor one of the last of the black and white nineteenth century illustrators. Actually come to think of it, he didn't date from the nineteenth century but he was in that tradition, along with E.H.Shepherd with his contemporary, Edward Ardizonne.

The translation of the fable above is from a well-presented online edition of the Fables translated by George Fyler Townsend on the website, an online library of literature.

frog in aquariumWhether our frogs appreciate the close attention that the children are giving them is another thing. George catches one and puts it in the plastic aquarium but it looks so glum in there that we ask him to release the unfortunate creature. However it isn't long before he catches another.

Liquid Deterrent

Penny barkingPenny, next door's dog, barks at me ferociously as I walk down the garden and she gets a good telling off from Sandra, our neighbour.

'Naughty dog! What are you doing? You mustn't bark at Richard . . . No! - don't try smiling at me. Come here!'

'She was chancing it the other day,' I tell Sandra, 'I had a bucket of muddy water in my hands.'

'You should have thrown it at her Richard. Really you should. She has to learn.'

water pistolSandra presents me with her grandson, Kyle's, pump-action water pistol with instructions that I should squirt Penny if she barks at me again.

I try out the weapon. Wow! - I don't in any way consider myself a violent man but I can't help hoping in the back of my mind that Penny will come out barking again and I'll get a chance to use this liquid deterrent!

I'm writing this a week later and she hasn't barked at me since. She's just observed me through the hedge with an expression that seems to suggest that's she's thinking 'I wonder if he's still got Kyle's water pistol?'

Loathsome Dove

collared doveWe're wondering why nothing has come up on the bed we planted out with broad beans and vegetable seeds a week or two ago. I look out of the back bedroom window as I'm about to get in the bath and see a collared dove pecking about there. I tap on the window and it goes on pecking.

brushI go out the back door, in my dressing gown, and shout but it continues, uninterrupted. Not having Kyle's water canon handy I pick up the nearest missile, an old plastic brush, and hurl it at the dove.

We've since covered the bed with garden fleece, weighed down around the edges by a few bricks, and I'm glad to say the beans and seeds are just starting to show.

Since our neighbours Gill and Jim moved to their little farm we don't have raiding parties of hens but I am going to have to keep my young crops covered because of the doves, wood pigeons and the occasional rabbit that tends to show up in the garden at this time of year. next page

Richard Bell