There is a feeling, it’s almost in the air in the first few falling leaves, when the nights noticeably draw in and the weather turns cooler. It speaks to you, whispers in your ears, the holiday is over it’s time to think of work again...what will you do?
This year was unusual for me, as for the first time in my life, I didn’t have either college or school to go back to. There were shows to participate in and leads to follow up. I knew that I needed to find a studio and I also guessed correctly as it turned out, that this was not going to be either simple or fast to achieve. But I had earned quite a lot of money from the final show, which I meant I did at least have time.
I was also looking for an accountant and spent some time talking with Julian Ryder who was/is a self-employed journalist about the subject. It was during one of these conversations that he brought up the Bol Dor.
Every year he and a photographer friend called Kell would travel down to Provence to cover this 24 hour motorbike race. Julian was employed to do the English commentary at the track while Kell spent his time taking pictures for bike magazines.
At the time Julian was an editor at Motorcycle International, a glossy that would grace most new agents’ shelves. He also had some input into the features that were commissioned and it had occurred to him that it might be interesting and highly unusual to make an artist’s view of the Bol. He said he had a writer in mind to do the editorial and he would have a word with the team of the magazine. So we left it like that, as one does, down the pub.
Not long afterwards I received a call, the green light had been given, the job was on. He would pick me up with Kell, or Kell would pick me up with Julian, as it happened (in his new BMW, not a Volvo, a very important fact) at a specific time on such and such date, in September. We would then drive down to Bandol, drop our bags and head for the track.
On the morning of the journey I remember sitting in the back of Kell’s car, just as we were pulling out from his house. They were telling me what to expect there in some detail, when I remembered that I hadn’t asked who was going to write the article. Julian casually said John Berger.
"John Berger, what the John Berger, the one that writes about art? ” To which Julian after some thought eventually replied, in his rich Macclesfield accent “yeah yes I think so, he likes bikes, got a Honda (something), rides it around the Pyrenees and lives in the mountains somewhere in France...that John Berger.”
The guys had their usual habits; I guess they became a tradition after a while. “Always buy local porn, race women driving alone in sports cars, stop at this cheap motel and not that type, and always drink a glass of scotch before going to bed”…kills germs, Kell said. A tradition worth upholding I say, and made some sense too. As a matter of fact this had been my first trip down to the South of France; I had been particularly excited when we were approaching Aix in Provence. My face stuck to the window looking out for Mont St Victoir long before actually seeing it and I also remember my dismay,when catching a glimpse of Cezanne’s family home, right next to the motor way.
Sometime in the middle of the afternoon we rolled up at the gates of their favourite hotel in Bandol. We didn’t stay long before heading for the hills. The surrounding backdrop of the Paul Richard Circuit was very impressive and on arrival we were issued with our yellow press passes, then went straight to the press room. The guys were busy now, they both knew many people there and had many things to sort out. I just observed. I was half looking out for JB, expecting to see a scruffy haired intellectual looking hippy in a 70’s shirt to walk through the door, looking no older than I had remembered him from ways of seeing, however JB didn’t appear.
I followed either Julian or Kell around at first to get my bearings. I found myself mostly with Kell while he prowled around looking for good photographic spots. Julian would disappear into a tower for a couple of hours at time; obviously you always knew where he was, because you could hear him.
The pit lane was the best place; it all happened or didn’t there and at the back of the garages the teams had their canteens which once the race had started and progressed into the night became quite a relief to go to.
I was introduced to various riders, some ex world champions I never heard of, all without exception strong characters. I particularly liked Peter Lindon whose day job was in the Swiss Air Force. Apparently he used to fly his Saab Vigan over the circuit from time to time, his speciality was doing a vertical ascent which, win or lose the race, would let the others know who was “The Boss". The other rider, who was with Ducati team, that stayed in my mind, was Fred Merkel. He was a 6 foot something Texan, clearly charming and good looking in that blond American way. He had been the super bike champion a few years before. I got the impression that no one thought he would be again. I was 24 at the time and he was at most 6 years older, I had hardly started he was almost at the end.
At some point earlier on I followed Kell and Julian into the Phase One canteen. There were a couple of long tables with benches and some pleasant ladies serving tea. Their team was an English privateer team which affectively meant that they had a lot less money than the works team. Usually say with Honda Kawasaki Suzuki etc. there would be one main works team, with all the resources and then satellite that used last year’s bikes and parts (that’s the gist) so I tended to support the cash strapped bikes, for obvious reasons. The race got underway, there was a huge fan fare, Gerard Depardieu was on the grid, I stood right next to him at one point, and all cameras were rolling.
I accompanied Kell, carried some of his camera kit, circulated around the stationary bikes until it was time to take cover by the side of the track. The riders ran to their bikes, there was a huge roar and they disappeared around the first corner.
After few hours the race settled down and I began to have few more concrete thoughts about what I wanted to draw. I’d taken my camera, as I thought this would be a good point of reference. I also knew it was important for me to be very accurate with information I included in the drawings, as I knew the bikers knew their stuff and I didn’t. The evening turned in to night,the atmosphere changed to my liking. The crowd wasn't concentrating on the race now, the riders were more alone...problems started to occur.
Late into the night I was standing opposite the Ducati team’s garage, watching them prepare for the changeover. All the mechanics were running about in their red suits there were many gestures and much agitation, Fred Merkel remained squatting close to the big red arrow board and waited, then there were more gestures, many eyes were staring down into the darkness of the pit lane,there was agitation, but no bike. This continued for a while, until news came out that the bike had ran out of fuel and the driver was pushing it back. What a royal fuck up, Fred was facing away from me and even in his crash helmet, I wouldn’t have liked to have been in the receiving of his stare. A tired looking rider did eventually appear, it was not an ideal way to finish six hours of racing.
As the night continued, we were all getting tired, I remember I was sitting with Julian in the Phase One canteen when we heard the news. An air ambulance had been called, Simon Buckmaster who I had met and spoken with earlier, had been involved in an accident.Two bikes had collided at a very fast corner, one of his legs have been seriously damaged in the crash. The atmosphere changed again,we all felt the darkness, that night.
We left in the early hours and returned early the next day.The news wasn’t good for Simon, he had had to have his leg amputated below the knee, nothing about the race seemed the same after that.
Many months later the magazine contacted me about the article, they gave me a deadline to work to and the number of images they wanted. While at the track I had made a number of drawings mostly of the lap timers as they made interesting shapes on their perches . I had made a good little water colour from the commentary tower on the Sunday morning, I tentatively sketched a line of spectators above the Ducati garage and had a handful of doodles of the back of the time sheets that I’d made while sitting in the press room. To be honest, I was surprised at the amount of images I was been asked for and when first asked or told, wasn’t sure I had enough reference for it. Added it to this was the fact that I wasn’t get paid much money...hardly more than the cost in fact. But a deadline is a deadline, John Berger is John Berger and it was worth doing well.
I hadn't spoken to anyone about the content of the piece, but I had a good idea of what I wanted to say and in The Ducati Pit Stop Composition, I wanted to say it all. I made drawing after drawing of this, sitting on my squeaky chair in my study at home, late into the night...but I couldn’t nail it. The deadline was fast approaching, I had more or less prepared the rest, but the main image was not making an appearance. I remember the early evening, the night before the motorbike courier was due to collect all of the work. I remember looking at the many empty rectangles with a few marks, the wrong marks, time and again. Sometimes when you are in this situation you look to feel a sensation from the paper, you pick up each one left untouched and look at it, almost asking are you it, are you the one for the image?
I worked late into the night and into the next morning; I don’t remember at what time I went to bed. I had very little sleep, but I do remember jumping out of bed and going into the study to check that the image was still there, that I haven't been mistaken and that it was just as good in day light. Thankfully, it was.
The magazine went out at the end of November, the words and pictures went together really well,which was great. In December the drawings were included in a group exhibition at the Paton Gallery in Hackney. A few days after the opening, Bill Leberman came to the gallery to look at someone else's work, but ended up buying the Ducati Pit Stop composition for the Metropolitan Museum of Art New York.
I would like to add that working at the track wasn’t easy. The sound of the bikes was fine the first few hours, but it was really distracting and very trying after six hours of it. I remember sitting and drawing in charcoal between the pit lane and the lap timers in the early hours of the night, with quite a headache.
In the finished article they used five images after I gave them six or seven to use. Of those only the watercolour was made while being there. I ended up using photographs for a small image of a bike being refilled which later I gave to Simon Buckmaster,partly because by coincidence the image was of a Phase One pit stop, with him in it. A line of The Lap timers was also from a photograph which I simplified somewhat and ended up looking like a frieze that you might find on Roman ceramics.
The Ducati Pit Stop composition I have explained…I later went onto sell some of the other preparatory work at Agnew's and made a large oil painting from the composition which also later sold. The final image was a lap timer at night. This originated from a doodle on a time sheet. It had the numbers 7205 on it, I was very careful not to make “artistic” changes so kept to what I copied from life. I did have Julian questioning these numbers later, after some doubt, he did finally work out that they meant, laps and track position.
I later gave this gouache to him, as a way to say thank you.