Monday, 26 September 2016

New Year’s Day is Black: an Artist's Journey Through Memory - a graphic novel by Nicky Loutit

To Daunts for the launch of Nicky Loutit’s graphic novel “New Year’s Day is Black.” This is a profoundly moving memoir about Nicky’s childhood, interspersed with walks on ‘The Freshes’ in Norfolk that take place in the present day. 

Nicky was brought up amongst the bohemian post-war intellectual avant garde and inheritors of the Bloomsbury group - George Orwell, Cyril Connolly, Frances and Ralph Partridge and others feature in the book. The set was also bohemian in its way of conducting personal relationships: her mother married several times, and Nicky as a child coped with anger and abuse from a series of step fathers. This, and sexual abuse at the hands of Nicky’s own father, is laid out in the book.

Remembering tea at Ham Spray, home of Ralph and Frances Partridge. Nicky Loutit's bold and expressive way of illustrating the memories jostling and finding order in her mind. 
Graphic novels lend themselves to the confessional: the combination of words and images is potent and creates associations in the mind more swiftly, and deeply, than words alone. Although this was a childhood full of abandonment, Nicky was also exposed to art and ideas about artistic freedom that surely gave wings to her talent. She notes in the book: "I'd been in many other painters studios. I loved looking at paintings, and had gathered that to paint was approved of, and that my interest in it was one good thing about me." 

I’ve known Nicky since I was about 8 years old - playing with her three sons when they lived in the wing of Wiveton Hall and we rented the cottage in the summer holidays. They had just come back to England from the Rajneesh ashram in Poona, India, where Nicky was with two of her sons and her husband at that time. 

After her return to England, she married the writer Johnny Gathorne Hardy - they moved to a house in Binham and I have loved to visit them there ever since. As she says in the graphic novel, ‘My house is hand painted in colours that move me. Our home is a giant colouring in book.’

The kitchen is painted a soft green, with birds sketched in paint on it, and there are flowers in the sitting room, another shade of green, mixed by Nicky. 

There was always a feeling there that ideas and feelings could be explored. There is a giant (or so it seemed to me) naked self portrait by Tim Behrens with ginger pubes on one wall of the sitting room. That immediately made me feel that I could say whatever I wanted, indeed that confession and revealing vulnerabilities was welcomed. This was a welcome respite during long family holidays.

I remember one night staying in a room at their house in Binham - a whitewashed room with a large painting, perhaps by Nicky, above the bed. I had light-filled dreams and felt great happiness on awakening.

My painting by Nicky, opposite my bed, bought soon after I moved to Golden Lane 6 years ago.
I have a painting by Nicky opposite my bed here in London - it is the first thing I see when I sit up in the morning - it has words and images on it, though the words cannot fully be read, which I like. I look at the picture now and try and detect the three colours that Nicky says she discovers on a first trip to Paris as a young girl where she joined her mother who was divorcing her second husband, Nicky’s stepfather. “It was in Paris that I learnt about colour - and creating another world as I endlessly drew and coloured in with thick waxy crayons that never gave out full flooded glow. The tones of those colours still nauseate me - and no longer exist.” 

Nicky returns to talking about colours and drawing after her biological father sexually abuses her during a boat trip to France. Nicky paints herself escaping from the porthole of the boat’s cabin where it took place - the disassociation, as she detaches from the act.
In the painting opposite my bed I do not see the colours of those first wax crayons but I see the green of her kitchen today. 

There is great peace in the memoir, alongside the spiky black anger also present, and the sadness. Her peace is found in The Freshes, a beautiful place in Norfolk. It is a meeting point, where salt water and fresh water meet and somehow, for many of us who know it, it has a powerful hold. I once had a kind of visionary experience walking there with my father. It is a place of healing and perhaps access to another world, the world of angels that Nicky refers to, without sentimentality but with great feeling. 

The memoir faces abuse squarely in the face: abandonment, physical violence, emotional and sexual abuse. It is extremely powerful, and by dint of its own sincerity invokes courage in the reader. After reading it, I found myself writing about a difficult period in my past that until then I had not had the words for.  

Nicky may have felt powerless at the hands of abusers in her own childhood but in this book she makes her own rules: the story is not in boxes like in many graphic novels - there are crossings out, different drawing styles, and each of her 3 sons also have a contribution, immediately following a page on which they are all born.  There is a feeling of levelling out in the Norfolk flat landscapes and skies - no more being thrown downstairs by angry stepfathers, and when she has a fall at the end, it is as if she is falling back into herself. 

Nicky and her dog Neddy