Now here, I am going to tell you the curious story of my profile picture on AngloInfo. By way of context, about a month a go an international website called AngloInfo asked me to put my blog on their site, and that I get them a profile picture and an innovative panoramic shot of London to use as my header as quickly as possible (you can see it here: http://blogs.angloinfo.com/1000-things-in-london/). I could have just gone with my twitter profile picture (which is very charming, and has me standing in front of an actual real TARDIS), look:
But I thought it would be more in the spirit of adventure to get my caricature done, which coincidentally is listed in Time Out’s “1000 things in London” as something NOT to do as it is so appallingly touristy. The book is 100% right on that score.
I hit the streets of London looking for caricaturists. Like buses, they are a difficult thing to find when you actually want one. I had to wander the horror that is Leicester Square, which is currently a range of cinemas, fast food restaurants and tourist tat shops surrounding a very large piece of corrugated iron. In addition to looking exceptionally ugly, it also has the effect of cramming the thousands of tourists into an even smaller space than usual. It is difficult to love this part of London, and I pressed on to Piccadilly Circus quickly, where hiding under an old shop front were four caricaturists.
An eccentrically dressed German lady in a Desigual frock coat, white hat and glasses leapt out and asked me if I wanted my portrait done, which would only cost £10. The magic number. I looked at her wares: a range of decidedly retro pictures in chalks which reminded me of the naff collectibles my babysitter used to have in the 80s. Normally saying no comes exceptionally difficult to me, but out of nowhere came an assertive voice: “No, I prefer the style of those ones.” I looked at the artist, an Eastern European gentleman wearing a grey sweatshirt and his hair tied back in a pony tail. “Would you do my caricature please?”
“Sure,” he said in a husky voice straight out of the Balkans, or perhaps mother Russia. He directed me to sit on a tiny little canvas milking stool. “So, what do you want?” he asked.
“I’d like a caricature, but…” a flash of vanity, “you know, pretty. What do people normally have?”
He shrugged in the manner of a Russian oligarch who has fallen on hard times. “Normally half body, all smiley. You want background?”
“Ooh, well, I’d like a TARDIS,” I said. He looked blank. I showed him my twitter profile picture.
“Police….Box,” he read. He looked up. “Is… political statement?”
“Well, no not really, but I really like this TV programme called Doctor Who, and when I was talking to my friend I said that through my blog I was having adventures in both time and space because sometimes the things I visit have a really interesting history…” I ground to a halt. “Its pretentious isn’t it?”
There was a pause, reminiscent of a cold wind passing over the Siberian ice floes. “OK. I draw box. Now, you have to hold whatever position you want, including smile, OK?”
I nodded. Now, whatever impression you may have got about having your portrait done from Kate Winslet’s performance in Titanic, I can assure you it is a very curious business indeed. First, it is very odd to have somebody really, really looking at you for an extended period of time. As it happened, the artist had a simply beautiful pair of flashing blue eyes which looked penetratingly into mine, before turning back to his easel, his eyes half closed as his pencil flashed across the page. Second, although I laugh and joke quite a lot, I am not in the habit of unleashing my smile at fullest beam at someone for well over ten minutes at a time. In fact the only time I can recall giving continuous full smile and protracted eye contact is when flirting with my beloved spouse of 17 years, and it felt extremely odd to be doing that with someone else. The third weird thing is that you become a tourist attraction in your own right for a while, as everyone else wanders past looking at you and your portrait. Some took photos. The German lady kept looking at me encouragingly: I asked her if I would like the portrait. “Oh, yes,” she said before changing the subject suspiciously quickly, “So, you are journalist?”
“Um, well, sort of,” I said, feeling quietly smug. “I’m a blogger.”
“A famous blogger?” she asked.
“Um, no.” I said, and her face fell, as did mine. There was an awkward pause, and I turned back to the Russian artist and made polite conversation. “How long have you been doing this?”
He shrugged, “Fifteen years, off and on. Sometimes carpenter.”
“Fifteen years! Do you like it?”
“Yeah, for last five years I like.”
I furrowed, “Fifteen years is a long time to do something if you only liked it for the last five. How come you stuck with it?”
“Off and on,” he said. And then for no reason at all, he continued. “I wrote about it once. People move away from the country to the big city to make money, they work really hard, and then they retire back to the country to enjoy the peace. It’s funny.”
“You mean like in the Alchemist, the young boy travels the world searching for his treasure, and finds it exactly where he started?”
“Yes, of course. People used to think I’d be a teacher, that I should teach young people, but I thought, what do I have to tell them? They need to find their own lessons. I don’t read books now for the same reason, you learn through doing. But I’ve made peace with myself now.”
“Gosh,” said I. Ice broken, we chatted about all sorts, why I wanted the caricature, how everyone he drew was a tourist apart from in the winter, what I did for a job and what my blog was about. Eventually he told me I could stop smiling, which was a relief as I couldn’t afford the wrinkles. My posture throughout had got worse and worse, sitting forward in my seat to hear him speak against the roar of the traffic. My hands were clasping tighter and tighter as I knew not what else to do with them, and my smile had become more and more occasional as he drew. None of the tourists were looking particularly positive about my picture, and I was getting increasingly nervous about what I was going to get. Eventually I got to see it. No TARDIS. He’d not known where to put it, and I couldn’t work it out either, so I gave up on my little emblem. I spluttered a bit when it turned out the picture cost £20 not £10, but I knew I should have set my £10 limit more clearly up front. I tried to kiss him goodbye, and missed. He gave me his card, in case I ever wanted sketching again. I assured him I’d e-mail when this blog went live, and he told me I was pretty, and it had made it easier that we’d chatted. Not many do, apparently. I looked at the card: his name was entirely English, and it occurred to me my artist was probably not a lapsed Russian oligarch, but from Wolverhampton.
I took his photo two or three times to get a decent shot, but none of them did him justice. He assured me this wasn’t my fault, and I walked out into the dark and neon of Piccadilly Circus clutching my portrait wrapped in newspaper.
I met spouse by Leicester Square tube, and he kissed me hello. We chatted amiably and I told him I thought I had flirted with a caricature artist for about 45 minutes. He rolled his eyes and demanded to see the goods. I unfurled the portrait. Spouse furrowed. “Well, I wouldn’t recognise you in a police line-up based on it…” he said, “but, yes, I recognise bits of you. It’s very nice,” he said stoutly. I do love the spouse.