A Minor Miracle -- by Susan Price

Wikimedia: Daniel Schwen
My Dad was always drawing. I remember, when I was around fifteen, sighing heavily as I lowered the newspaper and saying to him, "I don't mind when you draw aeroplanes or herds of horses in the margins or over the adverts. In fact, I like it. But I wish you wouldn't draw, in thick biro, dog-fights and jousts over the articles." He promised to try and do better.

I drew too, all the time. I drew things I saw and things I imagined. I illustrated scenes from favourite books. (When I first collided with the Greek Myths, at the age of about nine, I spent a year drawing scenes from them.) Both my brothers drew. The house was littered with opened-out envelopes, pages from sketch pads, paper bags, pieces of old wallpaper, all drawn or painted on.

My mother didn't draw but she was a cause of drawing in others. As soon as we could sit up, literally, she put a crayon in our hands and a sheet of paper in front of us. She did everything she could to encourage us to draw. With this in mind, she would pick a sheet from the drifts of paper, look at what was drawn on it and take a wild guess about which direction her praise should take.

If it was, say, a drawing of a person, she might say, "Sue, you're getting really good!" I would glance at the paper she held and say, "Mum, Dad drew that."

If it was an aeroplane, she'd say, "Oh, your Dad's always drawn planes, ever since I've known him." I'd look at it and tell her which one of my brothers had actually drawn it.

This is what I didn't understand then and still don't. I could no more have mistaken one of my Dad's drawings for one of my brothers' than I could have looked at their faces and not known which was which. And neither Dad nor my brothers would ever have mistaken my drawings for those of anyone else.

It wasn't my mother alone. Other family members and friends were also unable to tell who had drawn what. My brothers and I were all great fans of the Beano and we loved the cartoons. We were always disappointed to open the comic and find that a favourite cartoon, such as The Bash Street Kids, had not been drawn by the regular artist. We felt the same when we rushed in to see Tom and Jerry and found that the cartoons weren't by the (nameless) artist we favoured.

We complained long and loud -- and found that no one else we knew, except our Dad, understood what we were talking about. If they had simply not cared which artist drew the cartoons, we could have understood that. But close questioning revealed that they genuinely couldn't see anything different about the drawings. It was recognisably Tom and Jerry, wasn't it? Well then. What were we going on about?

This, to us, was baffling and is the nub of this blog. As someone who's always, supposedly, been 'good with words', I was at a loss. I still am. I could not find words to explain why that drawing was clearly by my Dad and could not be by anyone else. When a friend told me that the drawing of the cartoon we were watching looked exactly the same to them as the one we'd watched the night before, my jaw dropped but I could not find the words to describe the difference. "But this one is... Is-- bulgy. And light." They looked at me blankly.

What was it I recognised? What's the word for it? How do you describe it? I've tried for years and never been able to do it.

It wasn't subject matter. My Dad and brothers often drew machinery but not always -- nor did I always draw people. It made no difference anyway. Shown three drawings of a spitfire, one each from my Dad and brothers, I could have correctly identified who had made each drawing in an eye-blink. I didn't understand -- still don't -- why my mother and friends couldn't.

It was something to do with the weight of the lines, the way the lines enclosed space, the angles, the way shadow was indicated -- but this is waffle. It doesn't communicate what it was we instantly recognised. You could say, 'style.' But that seems an inadequate word for the task too.

I suppose when we say we 'recognise' someone, we're talking about the same thing. Tiny differences in the shape, tint and placement of eyes, hair, nose, lips and chin make us able to pick out someone we know in a crowded room. Everyone can do this -- except for those unfortunates with prosopagnosia or 'face-blindness'. But if friends could easily, instantly, identify people by noticing minute differences in their facial features, why couldn't they tell the difference between one cartoonist's drawings and another's?

My brothers, who became far better artists than me, experimented with different styles, like different suits of clothes. They'd have a straightforward 'realistic' style, something much more cartoony and perhaps something more like a woodcut or Art Noveau. These different styles could completely throw my mother. Had these, perhaps, been done by a friend? -- But, just as you'd recognise your brother whether he wore jeans or a suit, I immediately knew each brother's drawing, just as I would know them even if they shaved their heads and put on different clothes.

Wikimedia: Hustvedt
Another take on what may be the same thing: In my teens, I worked in a supermarket. In those far off and ancient days, there were no cameras and we had store-detectives haunting our aisles instead. They were often ex-police. I used to meet them in the staff-room but always, as etiquette dictated, pretended not to know them on the shop-floor.

Sometimes, when visiting other shops and stores in the town, I'd recognise one of 'our' shop-detectives among the shoppers. They were employed by an agency and used to move around from shop to shop. I recognised them because I knew them and thought nothing of it.

But occasionally I travelled to Birmingham, to look around the shops there and something odd happened. On entering a shop, I found my head swivelling round, as if moved by motors outside my control, to fixate on a particular person -- because that person was a store-detective. In Birmingham, I didn't know them personally. It wasn't their face or figure I recognised. It was their 'store-detectiveness' I somehow, instantly, sussed -- without ever making any conscious effort to learn what store-detectiveness looked like.

In one case, I loitered nearby -- probably becoming pretty obvious myself -- and worked out that the man leaning on his trolley wasn't looking at the shelves but almost exclusively at the other shoppers. I also picked out the people he was taking a lot of interest in. But I had to hang around and study him to work this out. What was it about him that had immediately seized my attention as soon as I came through the door, even though I'd been thinking of other things?

At around the same time, I went for a night out to a Wolverhampton pub. Again, I was no sooner inside than my head was on swivels, focussing my attention on a man at the bar. Raincoat, short hair, nothing special. Another store-detective?

One of my companions happened to be well known to the local constabulary because of time spent drinking with them after-hours in this very pub. So I indicated the man at the bar to my friend. Was he--? Yes, my friend said. A detective-sergeant. Vice squad. I'll introduce you.

I'd often read crime stories where it was claimed that a criminal could enter a pub and immediately pick out the plain-clothes coppers. I'd dismissed it as romanticising nonsense. But that's what I'd done and I wasn't even criminal. Nor had I been thinking about policemen or expecting to see any. I was there for the live music. What was it that I spotted, in seconds, about the Birmingham store-detectives and the Wolverhampton policeman, who were all strangers to me?

 I could say: body-language but that doesn't really explain anything. You could say clothing and that might explain the policeman, who wore the regular uniform of plain-clothes -- but the store-detectives wore clothes no different to clothes worn by most at that time. Also, the store-detectives were working and perhaps gave themselves away by being more interested in other customers than in their pretended shopping -- but the Wolverhampton detective was as off-duty as coppers ever are and was simply propping up the bar like every other man against it.

Wikimedia: Stan Shebs
Words fail me, with the detectives and the drawings. It was recognition, but recognition of what? I could say: I recognised the sum of many infinitesimal details but that's a lot of words for something instant which I wasn't even trying to achieve.

It makes me think that the act of recognising something, whether
our friend, or a rose, or our house after a fortnight away is a much under-appreciated minor miracle, one that our brain performs many times a day.
A day may come when we don't know our own face in a mirror. Celebrate this talent, whatever it is, while you have it. 


Sandra Horn said…
Fascinating! Perhaps it's about survival - ? The faster someone can spot a potential ally or foe, the better their chances of living to tell the tale, and it may be that, over time, many of us have lost the capacity. You've still got it, though, girl!
Griselda Heppel said…
Well I can't help feeling both the plain clothes store detectives and the off duty policeman weren't very good at disguise! Not much good if the only people who don't see through you are the innocent shoppers, is it?
What an intriguing post, fascinating both in that subject and about all the drawing going on in your family, and how you could tell at once who'd drawn what while your mother couldn't. My brothers both drew, and my mother is an artist, and their styles were all so different there's no way one could confuse any of them, even if they adopted each other's subject matter. Your poor mum probably just didn't have time to look properly?
When it comes to recognising people... ahem, that's a different matter. I am extremely good at confusing people, even ones I know quite well, especially if they have the same first name. Must try harder, I know.
I expect you'd prefer not to witness a crime but if you did, it sounds as if you'd be a huge help to the police! I really envy you and your family your gift for drawing as well as for recognising people.

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