We live by simple stories. X has a stroke. X recovers; or doesn’t. But we live inside more complicated stories. Recovering from a stroke is a long haul; I still have an almost useless left arm and walk like a wildly intoxicated sailor. In my mid-fifties, my stroke has been a special excursion ticket into old age — socks and toenails a bewildering distance away, walking sticks with minds of their own — that kind of thing. But here’s the odd bit. This is an old age whose effects (if you do the physio) lessen as the months pass. I’m living backwards — what a rare privilege! I am getting out again, walking, drawing and even shopping. But it still takes an hour to get dressed, and I still fall over. I was trying to sneak discreetly out of a showing of The Butler (don’t bother) when I took a terrible tumble. Very embarrassed, I was picked up by a great bear of a man who more or less carried me out of the cinema and offered to walk me wherever I was going next. He couldn’t have been nicer. And who was my good Samaritan? That demonised fellow Jonathan Ross. You never know what people are really like until you meet them in person.
During this year of recovery, I have enjoyed the turn of the seasons more than ever before. This has been a spectacularly beautiful autumn, with brighter colours going on for longer. London is brimming with beauty and magic: there’s the new bridge by Thomas Heatherwick coming — a kind of Hanging Gardens of Battersea — and a new indoor Jacobean theatre by the Globe, lit only by wax candles, for the long winter nights. But this is also a city being hollowed out by global investors. The pumping-up of house prices by clouds of foreign money is making central London completely unliveable-in for anyone on an ordinary salary. The term ‘residential’ is now a misnomer. I was talking to a developer who had been in Shanghai selling north London apartments. He was worried about empty buildings and asked some purchasers what they intended to do with their new multi-million-pound apartment. They wanted their son to have his education in London. He would come and live in the flat and then they would sell it to pay the fees. Interesting, replied my man. And how old is your son? Nearly six months, they replied.
This kind of behaviour is distorting life in all sorts of unexpected ways. A recent victim is Cork Street, for generations the heart of the commercial British art world. But as Spectator readers may know, it is ceasing to beat. Seven art galleries are going after Christmas, mostly to make way for flats for billionaires. Another four are to go next year. In a few years’ time there will still be galleries here but they will be run by international fashion houses who have the money. A unique part of London life, which grew by accident, will be destroyed by speculative investment.
My new book is about drawing and why I think that trying to draw is good for the soul. Brian Sewell attacked me for impertinence and being ‘a crass amateur’. Well, crass, obviously. But at the Daumier exhibition at the Royal Academy (go) there are a series of drawings of a print collector who is described as L’amateur des estampes. This means something like a lover of prints or a lover of art. Amateur in the original sense simply means somebody who has a passion for something, which goes beyond money or trying to make a career of it. I will settle for that.
At one book talk I found myself calling for a national campaign for visual literacy. If that sounds airy-fairy, consider the following designers: Thomas Heatherwick and Jonathan Ive (all things Apple); the inventor James Dyson; the architects Richard Rogers and Norman Foster; the fashion designers Sandra Blow and Paul Smith; and the international sculptors Antony Gormley and Anish Kapoor. These are just a few names whose work is rooted in drawing and who have brought wealth and glory to the country. British design is celebrated and purchased around the world. Rising nations, notably China, have noticed and are opening design and drawing schools at a frantic rate. They get it. Meanwhile, fools that we are, we try to push the whole subject to one side in schools and colleges. I challenged Michael Gove about this and to my happy surprise he agreed with me — he is a drawer himself. But art teachers feel under horrible pressure. Now the Campaign for Drawing is picking up the baton, or perhaps the brush: it deserves our support.