Illustration: Charlie Bannon of Calumet K

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This is an illustration of one of my favorite fictional characters, Charlie Bannon, the wily man-with-a-plan from Merwin and Webster’s Calumet K (1901). I’ve been trying to capture this guy for a while, and I think with this drawing, I’m getting close. Translating the shadows of my imagination onto paper is a struggle.

The novel, set in 1901 Chicago, pits Bannon against banking collusion and labor strikes to complete a grain elevator before the bumper wheat crop arrives on the rails. He arrives to find the job hopelessly behind schedule and the odds stacked against him. Bannon never slows down for a minute. Expert at pulling a win from disaster, he uses know-how, strategy and daring to get the job done. Watching this guy in action is thrilling. Give it a try.

 

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Prizes of Janet Frame

The Reservoir, short stories by Janet Frame (1963) Angel

I got interested in New Zealand writer Janet Frame after watching the film, An Angel at My Table (1990), based on her memoirs. Very loosely based, as some critics will have it, but it’s still a good film. Poverty, shyness, creative interests and possibly other issues marginalize Frame as much as her location far from the cultural mainstreams of the 1950s. I recently picked up one of her short story collections, The Reservoir (1963), and though I’ve not finished it, I was especially taken by the story, “Prizes.”

Life is hell, but at least there are prizes. Or so one thought.

These words open the story, and are Frame’s most frequently quotes lines. A lifetime is packed into these seven pages, so much of innocence and its misunderstandings, of desire and disappointment and unanswered needs, but also how easily, especially in childhood, the most precious things we have, even what we are, can be sullied by the remarks and silent judgments of other people. Children may not understand what they see, but they know what they feel, often with more clarity than adults. “I did not realize that people’s actions are mysteries that are so seldom solved” our narrator says, yet the reader has no trouble parsing much that the child cannot.

The story begins in the eyes of a little girl and the style seems as simple and straightforward as a child’s essay, but the visual imagery—bright poppies, wheeling crows, a burnished dock leaf, curdled milk, boys like rabbits—creates a poetic overlay. Colors are vivid with meaning: all that is rosy, red and orange, is good and full of life; white, while clean, milky and welcome, is aggressive and unreliable; black is shame and death; and all the rest of the world is drab gray and dirty brown. As the child gets older, life seems bleaker; the hierarchy of the world and its dismal end are increasingly oppressive as she is distanced from the people around her. And still she doesn’t understand.

Poverty is the water she swims in, like a fish, without seeing it, but her poverty goes deeper, generations deep, drowning in neglect, emptied of all but a striving and observant mind. Over and over, the brightness fades and dims, she sees it, she strives for all that’s polished, gold, best, but prizes aren’t enough. It makes you wonder: Is anything?

I love Frame’s spare, poetic style, while being intrigued by a certain oddness in her vision of life in the world. This year, I’ll definitely be reading as many of her books as I can find.

62 Books

  1. Sinclair Lewis, The Trail of the Hawk (1914)tree_of_knowledge_BW
  2. Sinclair Lewis, Main Street, (1920)
  3. Charles Dickens, Our Mutual Friend (1865)
  4. Sinclair Lewis, The Job (1915)
  5. Will Eisner, Comics and Sequential Art (1985)
  6. John Berger, About Looking (1990)
  7. Sinclair Lewis, It Can’t Happen Here (1935)
  8. Sinclair Lewis, The Innocents (1917)
  9. Charles Dickens, Bleak House (1853)
  10. Sinclair Lewis, Free Air (1919)
  11. Margot Livesy, Eva Moves the Furniture (2001)
  12. Charles Dickens, David Copperfield (1850)
  13. Walter Crane, Line and Form (1900)
  14. Ralph Adams Cram, Toward the Great Peace (1922)
  15. Ken Ilgunas, Walden on Wheels (2013)
  16. Mike Mignola, The Amazing Screw-On Head (2010)
  17. Patrick McCabe, The Butcher Boy (1992)
  18. Carol Armstrong, Cezanne in the Studio (2004)
  19. Ramiel Nagel, Cure Tooth Decay (2011)
  20. Richard Thomson, Edgard Degas: Waiting (1995)
  21. Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist (1839)
  22. Frederick Buechner, Brendan (1987)
  23. Michel Daguet, Portrait of Jeanne Kéfer (2004)
  24. Barry Unsworth, Morality Play (1995)
  25. Elizabeth Cropper, Pontormo: Portrait of a Halberdier (1997)
  26. Arthur Wesley Dow, Composition (1914)
  27. Masterpieces of the Getty, Illuminated Manuscripts (1997)
  28. Charles Dickens, Nicholas Nickelby (1839)
  29. Edmund Sullivan, Line: An Art Study (1922)
  30. Goldner and L. Hendrix, European Drawings 2 (1992)
  31. Bruce Perry, Fitness for Geeks (2012)
  32. M-M Gauthier and G. Francois, Medieval Enamels (1981)
  33. Patricia Anderson, Images of Charity, Conflict and Kingship (1981)
  34. Kristen Kimball, The Dirty Life (2010)
  35. Elizabeth Teviotdale, The Stammheim Missal (2001)
  36. Manga Study Society, How to Draw Manga, Vol. 3 (2000)
  37. J. Holmes, Notes on the Science of Picture-Making (1920)
  38. Charles Maginnis, Pen Drawing: An Illustrated Treatise (1903)
  39. John Crowley, Little, Big (1981)
  40. Andrew Loomis, The Eye of the Painter (1961)
  41. Paul Graham, Hackers and Painters (2004)
  42. Allie Brosh, Hyperbole and a Half (2013)
  43. Arthur Guptill, Why Architects Still Draw (2014)
  44. Paolo Belardi, Lectures on the Science of Human Life (1849)
  45. John Caspar Lavatar, Aphorisms on Man (1724)
  46. Veronika Sekules, Medieval Art (2001)
  47. JK Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (1998)
  48. JK Rowling, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (1999)
  49. Thomas Moore, Care of the Soul (1993)
  50. R. Poore, Pictorial Composition (1903)
  51. Rudyard Kipling, Stalky & Co. (1899)
  52. JK Rowling, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (1999)
  53. Henry James, Picture and Text (1893)
  54. Henry James, Washington Square (1880)
  55. James Hillman, The Soul’s Code (1996)
  56. Jay McInnerny, A Hedonist in the Cellar (2006)
  57. Anthony Bourdain, Kitchen Confidential (2000)
  58. MFK Fisher, Musings on Wine and Other Libations (2012)
  59. Kenneth Patchen, But Even So (1968)
  60. Theodule Ribot, Essay of the Creative Imagination (1906)
  61. MFK Fisher, A Cordiall Water (1961)
  62. Auberon Waugh, Will This Do? (1991)

Behold the prodigious reading of the past year… A few of these books I’ve written about already and I’m sure a few themes are obvious….drawing instruction books from the early 1900s… comics… art historical books (long ago college major)…six novels by Sinclair Lewis, five by Dickens…dabbled a bit more with Henry James (his novel What Maisie Knew, 1897, I read last year; it was a favorite)… and toward the end of the year, books on cooking and wine.

Little, Big was a book that came to me as a recommendation. The first part was some of the most pleasurable fiction I’ve ever read, fantastically imaginative in the way the first 200 pages of Helprin’s Winter’s Tale was; the middle painful, poignant, but perfect in its breath-stopping way; but the end was such a disappointment that I can’t in good faith recommend it. When it was right, it was as inevitably perfect as an elegant mathematical equation, but its failures felt like failures of vision, perhaps a desire in Crowley to make an end to the gigantic task he’d set out upon. Yet I will re-read it one day, hoping that the magic at the start is not tainted by my knowledge of the unconvincing end.

My choices were varied this year, drifting back as far as the 18th century and as contemporary as 2013’s Walden on Wheels by Ken Ilgunas and Allie Brosh’s very funny comics on depression Hyperbole and a Half. I truly, deeply loved the Ilgunas book, which would be no surprise to those who know me, fondly I hope, as a bit of a tightwad. Ilgunas was buying freedom with his frugality and so am I. A great read about a very determined (and smart) young man. Brosh is best when she writes about dogs; she also draws them exceptionally well, not so much in a da Vinci sort of way, but more that her pictures capture the souls of dogs. Her style can be pretty goofy, but effective just the same.The other smart man I was excited to discover was  Paul Graham. His essays are profoundly insightful: he has a way of finding a new perspective on controversial ideas and curious phenomena, leading you through his thought process in his lucidly constructed arguments. God, I love smart people! I now read everything he writes as soon as it’s posted.

The “bests” though were the early Sinclair Lewis novels, Trail of the Hawk being the favorite of the ones I read this year (Our Mr Wrenn, another favorite, I read late last year.) There’s something about the sense of life you find in the writing in the early 19th century that I can’t get enough of. It’s a picture of youth and optimism, of chasing dreams and holding onto ideals, and when it’s important, going your own way. Maybe it’s the belief in progress and limitless horizons, a conviction in the goodness of living, that seems so utterly alien to the world we live in now. Reading these books is a refreshing, hip-pocket vacation. But it was apparently no easier for these writers to hold to these values than it is for the rest of us. Past 1920, it’s gone from Lewis: I found Main Street a depressing inversion of his previous values, though oddly, for a dystopian-future novel, It Can’t Happen Here was not so bad. Same goes for James Branch Cabell, another favorite writer, but it took a bit longer for cynicism to overrun his work. I feel I have an essay in me about the writers of this period, but I’m not done ruminating on it yet. Meantime, these books will be part of my regular, re-reading rotation.

Reading is a real adventure for me. I don’t travel much or do much that’s daring, except in my head. I never know where I’ll end up when I start reading or even what sort of thing will appeal, and while I do try to complete certain programs of study, half the joy is the serendipity of finding a kindred spirit in the pages of the book. Some of the best people I’ve known live in them….and always will.

 

Six Books

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  • MFK Fisher, A Cordiall Water (1961)
  • Auberon Waugh, Will This Do? (1991)
  • Jay McInerney, Bacchus & Me (2000)
  • Theodule Ribot, Essay on the Creative Imagination (1906)
  • Connie Zweig and Jeremiah Abrams (ed.), Meeting the Shadow (1991)
  • JK Rowling, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2003)

I’m always vaguely aware that I have a few books going at once, but I was a little surprised to discover how many I’m reading right now. Six. See, it’s all about the different reading circumstances: the bedside books, ones on my work table at home, things to read on the bus. It’s also a fact that I ordered way too many books from the library in a gout of bibliophilic enthusiasm, and when they—naturally—all came at once, I faced a task requiring disciplined, dedicated readership. I am very good at that; it is one of the few personally useful skills I picked up in grad school. Not to say I don’t enjoy it–I could read all day.

As you can see, there is a refreshing variety in my reading material. Fisher is warm and chatty, sharing her experiences and research into old “cures,” while Waugh’s biography is cynical and amusingly self-deprecating. Both would have been great dinner guests, full of humor and stories, quirks and preferences to keep conversation flowing across a long, leisurely meal. Or so I imagine it…

McInerney writes in such a boisterously poetic way about wine with metaphors that come alive for me. I’m too much of a novice to do much with apricot fruit, tar and leather undertones and long finishes, but when he described one wine as the Catherine Denueve to the other’s Baywatch blonde I knew what he meant precisely. Art, poetry, literature all are part of his metaphorical mix. I enjoy that he will describe the rare, “life-changing” treasures you’ll likely never taste while giving practical advice on where to find an exquisite experience for under $20 a bottle. I haven’t read his novels, but maybe I should; he seems to have a unique vision.

Ribot’s book is in the line of fin de siècle books on art and creativity I have been consuming this year. There is a particular flavor to the works of that time, of people meeting their lives and their work in clean open air, with the sun about to rise and nothing to stop them from joy and achievement. I intend, one day, to write an essay about this sense of life—to steal a term from Ayn Rand, who, whatever you may think of her philosophy and politics, captured this sense of élan in her novels—especially as embodied in illustration, Frank Capra films, and the early writing of Sinclair Lewis. One day I will, definitely. Ribot is serious and scientific in that “we now know everything” way of the 19th century that makes Sherlock Holmes so much fun. One of my favorite things is tracking down his casual references to men of letters and science strewn throughout his book, men mostly long-forgotten. Without the Internet, it would be impossible…or really really frustrating.

The essays about confronting the Shadow elements of one’s personality was taken from my shelves during my dismally depressed summer, as was Harry Potter, who always cheers me up. (Though anymore, it’s mostly the fandom that makes me merry.) I’m still moving steadily through both works, though my mood is much improved. I’m sure they are both partially why it is much improved, though other elements, personal, cultural and bibliophilic, all have done their work.

I have a few more Fishers and McInerneys on the shelf to read and I am looking forward to getting my hands on Tom Spanbauer’s new book, I Loved You More. It’s been out since April! How in the world did I miss that fact? I’ll likely finish about half of these before year-end, bringing my total for 2014 to around 65 books. It seems like a lot until I realize how many things I still want to read….

Hard Luck Boys: Oliver Twist (1839) and The Butcher Boy (1992)

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I read these books in sequence, not intentionally, but they made an interesting juxtaposition. Oliver Twist was new to me—I’ve been working through the Dickens novels all year—but The Butcher Boy was a re-read. As Dickens goes, Oliver was not one of my favorites. The initial escapes and ordeals held my attention, but as they repeated, my patience flagged. Not again? Dickens was writing a serial, so dangers and reversals at every turn kept his readers on the hook, week by week.

My other problem was with the beatific goodness of Oliver himself and his role as Victim. He never stood up for himself, planned escapes or fought back; nothing affected him for better or worse. I felt sorry for the kid, but I didn’t like him. Dickens had latched onto the growing notion of his times that childhood was a special province of innocence and purity that needed protection, not simply a stage in which future adults were shorter in size and skill. Oliver is the embodiment of this glowing ideal. I’m not sure how true Oliver reads to modern eyes; I’m sufficiently jaded to think him unreal. The child that lit up the book, however, was the Artful Dodger. Corrupted young, he still had the pluck, energy and enthusiasms of youth, qualities the vulnerable Oliver notable lacked. Someone protect the sweet thing! The text seemed to lament. I’d rather have more of the resourceful Dodger any day.

Which brings us to self-styled man of adventure, Francie Brady. Fueled by comic book heroes, movie idols and the family stories of his romantic (if failed) parents, Francie thinks he’s moving through a simple boy’s tale, but then, he thinks a lot of things that aren’t quite so. Like Oliver, he’s a victim, but of a very different kind of neglect, but unlike Oliver, Francie reacts. He’s frightened, angry and extreme, but even something as ordinary as running away from home, has devastating consequences. Both of these boys live lives of uncommon hardship. Oliver, in spite of all, remains serenely innocent and good. So does Francie Brady, to a degree. Innocent, he is, perhaps, protected by his crazy self-conceits, but good he cannot remain. Francie seems never to really know what hit him; or rather, he knows what hit him—the Nugents—but he seems incapable of understanding the chain of events their arrival unleashes. Some essential innocence remains with him; otherwise, it’s doubtful readers could remain sympathetic. The extraordinary first-person voice of the book goes a long way here. Francie often relates things he clearly misunderstands, though adult readers can draw more accurate conclusions. In fact, Francie can’t seem to escape from his aborted childhood, even as his friends grow up and move on; he has trapped himself in the only vision of life he knew as good. And yet, Francie makes a certain peace with life, in the end; Oliver is merely rescued at last by kindly adults.

Both Dickens and McCabe manage to show how terrifying and difficult childhood can be: children often don’t understand what’s happening, have little self-control, almost no idea of how they affect life around them and have no real way to escape any of it. Dickens, reformer that he is, admonishes adults to care more for the tender young spirits, to save them from the world, rallying us to change; while McCabe suggests that maybe the world can’t touch what is most innocent in us and that, in spite of every horror, self-created and otherwise, we can make peace with life. The world is the world, big and messy; best see to yourself.

Good advice, lest you become, or create, another Francie Brady.

Week in Review

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Really a week of ups and downs….mid-week I was about useless and did very little, but what there is has a nice variety. I felt very strong this weekend especially… I started with color and a very loose style of drawing, very exaggerated, much like the wild style I used just out of high school. I just can’t seem to let go like I did then, but then, I felt I was lousy at art and had no audience…no more art class at school (same place I learned I was mediocre at best)… so it didn’t matter what I did. Funny how it’s that style of all the ways I’ve worked across the years that I wish I could get back, that and the feeling of pressure-less freedom, of drawing just for fun. Now I’m ambitious to improve, to make beautiful things, and it’s probably holding me back.

The marker drawing was one in which I was trying to incorporate things I was learning from a curmudgeonly Loomis book, The Eye of the Painter (1960) and from Pen Drawing by Charles Maginnis (1903). The woman, Joann Gonchar, is an editor for Architectural Record which I get at work. I liked her face and made the picture. I went a little too far with the shading, but overall it’s good. The Loomis book has its moments, but he’s so cranky and judgmental in other sections it bothered me. The Maginnis book though was great. I love books, art, just about anything from that era. Real skills, technique, concern about Beauty. Love it. Great illustrations, too.

I did a number of very quick sketches of the lunch crowd during the week, trying again to loosen up. I liked some of the poses and want to do more with them, but they are nothing much to look at. I did like the line drawing of the man on the phone. He’s a very elegant older gentleman I see around sometimes, but he rarely stops in the lobby. This time though he did (must have been me repeating stop stop stop in my head that changed his mind.) I may have elongated him a bit but he had great style. What a pleasure. I hope my drawing like that doesn’t annoy people.

The photography of Daniel Murtagh inspired the watercolor/marker drawing (I found his work through Pinterest). I liked the way this one came out; it did pretty much what I wanted it to do. The ink drawing was less satisfactory, always the problem of what you imagine versus your skills (or lack thereof). But I kind of like the pencil drawing, especially the silvery way it scans. I took more care on laying it out than I usually do, but my pencil skills were the really stumbling block. So it goes. practice, practice. And that’s the week!

Composition

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Reading: Arthur Wesley Dow, Composition (1914)

“In a word, first cultivate the mind, set the thoughts in order, utilize the power within; then the eye and the hand can be trained effectively, with a definite end in view. The usual way, in our systems of art‐instruction, is to put drill first, leaving thought and appreciation out of account.”–Arthur Wesley Dow

I finished this book a few days ago and it is without a doubt one of the best art instruction books I’ve ever read. Composition has always been a weak point for me, and since I tend to love books of this era, I gave it a try. Only after I was well into it did I discover that it was Dow’s teachings that O’Keeffe credited as a major influence in the development of her famous style. Makes sense once you’ve been through this book.

I did most of the exercises as I went along and will do them again because they really are effective. It’s rare for me to jump into the doing quite so readily; my way of learning is by reading, but the ideas this time made sense and sounded fun. They built from simple to complex and got your mind thinking and seeing in patterns rather than fussing with the technical aspects of drawing. I can see this working well for younger students or for anyone who wants to do art but gets frustrated when they can’t “draw well.” This book still won’t give them that–only time and practice will–but it might help in the creation of powerful images with the skills they already have, just the way children do. Most artists envy the sure genius of kids–this books can help you find your way back there, with smart instruction, not with commands to trust your intuition. It works.

 

Tank Girl in the 21st Century

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21st Century Tank Girl: a book by Hewlett and Martin & Co. on Kickstarter

Am I excited? Oh, hell YES! I love Tank Girl and I love Jamie Hewlett’s work. Aside from the occasional art (and inspiration) that he posts on Instagram, I haven’t seen anything from him in a few years. (I didn’t get to NYC to see Monkey last summer.) There was no way I could miss this opportunity, plus I love Kickstarter. It’s such a great way to support creative work, directly, leave control in the hands of the artists.

Come on now, click that pic and support Tank Girl. You know you want to.

 

Mr. Head

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I’ve been having some fun lately drawing pages, panels and characters from Mike Mignola’s The Amazing Screw-On Head and Other Curious Objects. Not that I’m saying I’m any good at it, but I get so involved with rendering the details of these drawings, learning with my hand what only looking will not convey, whiling away a lunch hour like it was only 5 minutes, having fun like a kid with a new box of crayons and a coloring book. There’s that word fun again. Never was that common in my vocabulary, sad but true. But I am having fun now, especially with Emperor Zombie. Now I certainly appreciate, nay, admire, the grit and ingenuity of our Mr. Head, but I am smitten with Emperor Z. He’s the perfect foil for doughty Mr. Head; a puckish Darth Vader with his soulful, empty eyes and his ever-present halo of flies. How can you not love this guy?

Quidditch reveals all…or does it?

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Reading: Ralph Adams Cram, Towards the Great Peace (1922)

“The only thing that is left in the line of emotional stimulus is competitive athletics, and for this reason I sometimes think it one of the most valuable factors in public education. It has, however, another function, and that is the coordination of training and life; it is in a sense an école d’application, and through it the student, for once in a way, tries out his acquired mental equipment and his expanding character—as well as his physical prowess—against the circumstances of active vitality. It is just this sort of thing that for so long made the “public schools” of England, however limited or defective may have been the curriculum, a vital force in the development of British character.”

That’s Cram discoursing on one of the few things he likes about public education in America and Britain, c. 1922. Believe me, he didn’t like much; and interestingly, in the intervening 92 years, schools are still bad in a lot of the same ways they were then. Cram was a religious-minded architect who built Gothic-style churches and university buildings in the first years of the 20th century, and I came to his writings while researching a restoration project that had come to an architectural firm I was working for at the time. He is extremely insightful in his diagnosis of the ills of his (and our) era, and well worth reading for that, though I can’t say his solutions were too practical, but I think he knew it. As I read this comment though, the Harry Potter books sprang to mind, but then, a lot of things remind me of Harry Potter. Just wait till I start talking about David Copperfield!

Harry Potter gains popularity early on in the series when he takes up Quidditch, a sort of irrational, flying rugby on broomsticks, for which he has a natural gift. The books have been criticized for the centrality of this goofy sport in the lives of the entire wizarding world from student to the highest levels of govenment, but those critics must never have lived where the fortunes and failures of the local football heroes provided the social and emotional core of a community. Or maybe they wished they didn’t… Even Rowling supposedly rued the day she injected Quidditch into the books, primarily because she found it tedious to try to conjure exciting action for each match that she wrote, but sport was always a part of the boarding school book tradition from which Harry Potter sprang, so there had to be a wizard equivalent. QED Quidditch.

So how do the characters in Harry Potter demonstrate Cram’s ideas? Most of the characters played Quidditch; it was a huge social factor in the school. Excellence in studies… less so. Sic erat scriptum Hermione. I was the same. Harry Potter, our erstwhile hero, came from obscurity to discover he had the makings of an athletic superstar. In Cram’s terms, this was a literary sign of his character and potential, and the books proved this out. His parents had risked their lives to save others and he grows up to become the same sort of man. Harry’s nemesis, Draco Malfoy, was also a skilled player, but his lack of character was made plain in his cheating, lying and generally underhanded methods of manipulating the game. His father, acting in the world of politics, operated in the same way. Harry’s buddy, Ron Weasley, had enormous potential when his self-doubt didn’t cripple him, which it mostly did. That was the view of the world his parents had taught him to see–poverty standing in the way of active participation and serving as an excuse for weakness and shortcuts. Exposed to stronger personalities like Harry, Hermione and Neville, Ron has a chance to grow, but his path is often an unhappy one. The only character that stands apart form this paradigm is Neville Longbottom: an orphaned loner who struggles for success in everything he attempts, Neville never played the sport, but nonetheless became a hero of the same stature as Harry. And with less outsized praise and more dignity, for my money.

Me, I was never very good at school athletics; I was not encouraged in it at home–and how many girls were, back in the day?–but I wanted to be a part of it, I wanted to get better, but mainly it was just the catalyst of anxiety attacks. Small wonder that Ron Weasley was my favorite from the books. But since athletics was not going to be the way for me, and surely cannot be anymore, perhaps I ought to study the Path of Neville. Own my differences, judge for myself, enjoy the victories of my friends. Maybe we all should.