Last Chance - 51cm x 73cm Watercolour
'Get your kicks on Route 66' - as the old Bobby Troup song goes. The USA has a romantic attachment to roads which the UK has never been able to fully share or quite understand – we don't have the distances and anyway the A66 from Workington to Middlesborough just doesn't have the same buzz as the old Route 66 from Chicago to Santa Monica. Of course times have changed and most of Route 66 is now Interstate 55 which is not quite the same thing either.
When I lived in the USA I liked to drive. I planned to drive the entire length of the I-95 from the Canadian border to Miami and then out to the Florida Keys but I only got as far as Savannah GA before exhaustion, boredom and the heat finally got to me.
Being English I naturally wanted to own a big old Cadillac or at least a convertible Ford Mustang but money and kind friends encouraged me to be more sensible and I ended up with a second hand Datsun that was cheap, tough and reliable if not exactly exciting or romantic. I used to cadge lifts in more glamorous cars and sometimes rented, or even borrowed, more interesting vehicles – Americans are the most generous and hospitable people and often I would be loaned not only cars but also houses or apartments to stay in en-route and even suitable clothing for the wilder places I wanted to visit. I once borrowed a 1970s Dodge Ram van (the American equivalent of a VW campervan) which my cousin insisted on calling a “pussy wagon” - I've no idea what he meant! I drove it one balmy Autumn to Nags Head on the North Carolina coast and then along the entire length of the Outer Banks from Duck to Morehead City before making my way back to Durham NC. It took six days but it was worth every moment and is high on the list of my best times.
The Outer Banks, off season, has got to be one of the best places. The bridge in this painting is the Lindsay C Warren Bridge across Alligator River heading out on Route 64 towards Nags Head. I was driving along with the cruise control set at 60mph - the speed limit was 55 but nobody stuck to that and the only time I was pulled over the highway police just passed the time of day asking dumb, dumber and even dumber questions just so they could listen to my 'British accent' – I was driving along, listening to the radio, minding my own business and wondering when the next gas station would be when a Rickie Lee Jones song came on the radio - “Last Chance Texaco” - and the gas station in the painting appeared in the distance. There was no thinking involved – I had to paint it.
Since then it's changed of course. A different oil company runs the gas station and the Outer Banks towns are bigger and less beautiful and new bridges are replacing the old. Even Ocracoke and Hatteras Islands have changed but my paintings are often of places that no longer exist - or in some cases never existed – it may look like I am recording something, a place, a scene or a view, but that's not the point of making a painting although, to be honest, I couldn't say exactly what the point is.
Just the other day I was driving along the A21 on my way down to the coast, passing signs that told me I was entering “1066 Country” and thinking about the time I came down this way for the 900th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings. It was 1966 and we, a motley group of art students from Croydon College of Art, had hired a coach to take us to join the celebrations but we got the date wrong and arrived the day after to find that not only had we missed the fireworks and everything but that the famous battle and its anniversary celebrations had actually taken place somewhere else entirely - the aptly named 'Battle' – a nice but unremarkable town just a few miles inland from Hastings - “I suppose 'The Battle of Battle' just doesn't have the same ring about it!” someone remarked as we climbed back on the coach.
But I digress - as I was saying - I was driving along the A21 thinking of nothing important when I noticed a roadside sign advertising a new transport cafe called unsurprisingly 'Cafe 1066'.
The sign read, “Get your chips at 1066.”
I didn't stop.