Last days in London

In London I suffer from a three-pronged obsession: street names, station names, and the architectural remnants of Victorian London.

I think it has something to do with the ring of English in London, and the structure of the city. It marries a love of maps and dictionaries; a fixation that finds perfect expression in one of my favourite books, the London A–Z (an atlas of the city).

Whenever I feel self-conscious about this (let’s face it, some people will find it odd) I’m reminded of Bill Bryson writing in Notes from a Small Island:

… as ever amazed and quietly excited to find it peppered with districts, villages, sometimes small swallowed cities whose names, I would swear, had not been there the last time I looked – Dudden Hill, Plashet, Snaresbrook, Fulwell cross…

He is writing about the A–Z, and it gets better:

The A–Z really is quite the most absorbing tome. It scrupulously fixes and identifies every cricket ground and sewage works, every forgotten cemetery and wandering suburban close, and packs the densest names onto the tiniest, most obscure spaces. I flipped to the index and, for want of anything better to do, lost myself there.

Now, lying on the couch and flipping through the A–Z, it doesn’t feel strange at all.

That’s what I’ll be doing – at times – during my last nine days in London.

And I’m grateful to be able to.

Mister Sengi first review… and the serval

Mister Sengi cover

Mister Sengi’s Very Big Friend by David du Plessis & Charles de Villiers (Struik Nature 2013) is book of the month on Bookchat. Jay Heale writes:

An animal picture book story about size and safety in the bushveld, with the details remaining true to nature. Sengi is an elephant shrew (that’s what a ‘sengi’ is) whose new friend Tortoise tries to take him to meet a real elephant. On the way they encounter the dangers of a Hornbill and a Serval – and having a Very Big Friend comes in handy. Sensible, enjoyable text with some superb artwork. Computer graphics used as art. Soft graded colour-washes in the background, stylised grasses, clearly outlined main characters. I loved the way that the tortoise’s shell (and the Moon) suggested a map of the world. This is quality stuff, with atmosphere, character, drama (the first appearance of the serval is magnificently menacing) and still a splendid story for children 3 to 8.

How the serval came to be

Now that reviews are appearing I’m thinking about the amount of work it takes to create a picture book. A sane person wouldn’t attempt it. But it’s the drawings themselves that inspire you to keep working, and when they emerge fully formed you know you’re on the right track. About halfway through the book I met Mister Serval in Charles’s evocative writing ‘with his neat whiskers and his big ears sticking straight up like a top-hat’.

So I sketched him like this,

Sengi Pencil

and then all that remained was adding colour,

Sengi Colour

he is one of the stars of the show!

I’m lucky to have the opportunity to do this.

Mister Sengi’s Very Big Friend

The mopane bushveld of southern Botswana is a magical place. This is how I remember it:

The Magical Bushveld

orange-yellow rust coloured earth – scraggly mopane trees with leathery butterfly shaped leaves – abandoned shells of giant land snails – trees snapped at the base by rambling elephants – rhino dung set upon anxiously by tribes of dung beetles – southern yellow-billed hornbills gliding in wide arcs from tree to tree – baobab trees towering above the bushveld scrub, ancient and otherworldly – the sound of a startled leopard’s nails gripping dry tree bark – the crimson African sunsets – abandoned ant hills excavated by aardvarks…

And that’s only a fraction of what’s on show in daylight; after dark everything changes when a cast of noisy and unusual characters wake up: bushbabies, aardvarks, pangolins, giant crickets, nightjars.

All the buzzing bush activity made me curious so I decided to explore on my own (not a good idea in the wild) – risking it down an overgrown footpath on the banks of the Limpopo River. I was on high alert for something big and potentially angry, but instead, I was startled by a tiny creature racing across the footpath. It stopped suddenly, hiding in the shade under a nearby shrub. I peered into the shadows and slowly an elephant shrew, or sengi, came into view, looking something like this:

Mister Sengi's Very Big Friend

We froze – sized each other up and waited – then he, or she, was gone.

The result of that day is a new book, Mister Sengi’s Very Big Friend. It is the story of an elephant shrew who wants to see the world through the eyes of something much bigger than himself.

Mister Sengi's Very Big Friend

A number of story iterations, and many drawings later, the tale was beautifully captured and written by Charles de Villiers. The book is scheduled to appear in December 2013.

It is available in English and Afrikaans from You can also buy it as an ebook.

Meneer Koning se Ongelooflike Reis

Meneer Koning se Ongelooflike Reis

Meneer Koning se Ongelooflike Reis verskyn binnekort.

Luister na ‘n voorlesing van die afrikaanse teks deur Melanie Basson.

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Thinking with your hands

Mister King’s Incredible Journey – Activity Book

Those with young children get up early. It is most painful on weekends, especially if you live in climes where winter lasts six months or more.

What follows is a number of realisations and strategies devised at 6 am.

The same things are going to be repeated many times

Blackboard paint is amazing. It is tough and can take almost anything thrown at it: wet, dry, sharp, blunt or unreasonably heavy. Invest in an inexpensive piece of plywood, or hardboard, and paint it black.

Sketch whatever comes into your head

The results of random sketching make great conversation topics. It is an effective way to develop vocabulary and understanding. It is thinking in action. It is similar to the conversations I have with colleagues in my work as a designer. But even these conversations are not as free flowing as perhaps they should be.

This started me thinking about the sketching process, deconstructing line making and realising (again) that letters and numbers are nothing but lines, and that a sketch is nothing but a combination of different line types.

Draw short lines

Draw lines that follow a clown riding a unicycle

With a child you experience the stripped down mechanics of creative thinking. They have no past experiences to craft clichéd responses out of. ‘Child’s play’ made me realise how conditioned I’ve become as an adult and not realising it.

Penguin Beach

Scanning complex images

Make things you don’t mind throwing in the recycling bin

In addition to sketching, I started making objects from cardboard; a plane, a boat, a robot … on to paper toys. Toys are great, but the associated packaging waste is not. Some of the packaging I’ll keep as raw material for making. I find it easier on the conscience to throw packaging away once I’ve given it a second life.

King Penguin Paper Toys

Making paper toys

I like paper toys because making them is pure prototyping – thinking with your hands. And I know it is valuable to spend time doing this. I had forgotten the value of playfulness, experimentation and serendipity. Being a parent took me back to that place.

King Penguin Paper Toy

Paper toy template

“What happens if a car drives over a puffer fish,” a perfectly reasonable thing to ponder at 6 am.

On screen or on paper?

I’m interested to know whether performing similar actions on a screen and on paper involve the same areas of the brain. My uneducated guess would be that, to a degree, different areas of the brain are involved – mastering something on a computer is just that, a computer skill.

But maybe computer skills are what we now need. In a future where computers make most things for us, why bother making things with our hands. I’d argue that transferring repetitive making to computers liberates time for better thinking and planning. Thinking with our hands then becomes a most valuable skill.

These ideas started me on the road to creating activity books and revisiting the basics.

Mister King’s Incredible Journey

Mister King's Incredible Journey

I’ve been asked more than once whether the events in the book, when Mister King arrives on the beach and thereafter, really happened. The story combines elements of experience, fact and fiction.

My grandfather passed away in 2009, he was the last remaining link I had to Cape St Francis, a small village on South Africa’s east coast. A flood of memories followed, the most vivid being of my grandmother and her love for the sea.

She told me that, early one morning, she came upon an albatross sitting on the beach, it wasn’t afraid of her, she recalled that it had the most beautiful eyes. The phone would then start ringing at the Port Elizabeth aquarium and she passed the information on. She believed such events were significant.

Cape St Francis lighthouse

The lighthouse at Cape St Francis.

As a child our family spent summer holidays at Cape St Francis. The lighthouse fascinated me and I’d roam about the rocks at its foot for hours. Cape St Francis is renowned for rough seas and storms regularly carry debris from boats and the deep onto the rocks, including exhausted penguins clinging on to life. Frequent visitors were African Penguins from Cape Town, but one day I came upon a tall penguin with distinctive orange markings at the side of its head.

I told my grandmother about this and she in turn spoke to the other locals, a number of theories developed in an attempt to explain how the stranger arrived at the lighthouse. The one I liked best ran like this: fishermen capture penguins on remote islands and take them onto their boats, and when they grow tired of them the penguins are thrown overboard (that is if they don’t end up as lunch).

Penguin sanctuary

The Penguin Sanctuary at Cape St Francis in 2007. A King Penguin (far left) standing in the shade with his back towards a fan.

On my last visit to Cape St Francis in 2007 I walked out to the lighthouse where a penguin sanctuary had recently been built. In the shadows, at the side of the pool, a lone King Penguin stood motionless under a fan to keep cool. My grandmother had already passed away at that time which is probably the reason why the memories surfaced with such poignancy years later when I was living in London.

King Penguins are still arriving at Cape St Francis, the story continues …

Blue Sky



Under Water Dragon

A new space to experiment with time, cameras, microphones and ideas. And to work in Beta, rapid movies and storytelling.

Read more at Under Water Dragon.

Mordicand the Mouse in Paris

Mordicand the Mouse loves travelling … and eating …

Those with young children will know, early mornings can be challenging … and devising things to do an artform – activities that don’t involve constantly adding to the pile of plastic toys … toys that often struggle to remain in a child’s imagination. Well, that is how Mordicand was born: chickenpox, early morning, an old sock, buttons …

Why Mordicand? Mispelling … named after Henry Miller’s Parisian friend, Moricand …

Mordicand now travels with us …

Looking at London

I invest a significant amount of time just looking at London.

It is a hobby that gives me great pleasure; meditating on seams where young and old buildings join up, gothic Victorian ironwork, new bricks added in ancient walls.

There is evidence of working and reworking spanning centuries.

There are many who share this passion, studies of Flickr photos regularly place London at the top of the list of the world’s most photographed cities.

To fully appreciate London, and England in general, you have to know what it is that you are looking at.

For example, a deteriorating building occupied by squatters today inspired Charles Dickens more than a century ago to use it as a setting in Oliver Twist, an unassuming park the place where Virginia Woolf regularly took walks and a painfully bumpy bridle path (if you’re on a mountain bike) in the country the remains of a major Roman road.

It is a place where big history speaks in modest tones.