Riddles of Form
Quentin Blake & Mrs Armitage’s Desiring Machines
My first encounter with Quentin Blake was in Camberley public library c. 1971 – and his illustrations for J.P. Martin’s Uncle books. (Actually, I had seen his drawings before in my father’s back issues of ‘Punch’ – slightly different in style admittedly).
For years I’ve loved the drawings and the increasing number of books. Lara and I even met him in Tropismes a few years ago – he was rather astonished to see a first edition ‘Uncle’ I presented for him to sign.
Why do I like Quentin Blake’s work? In part it’s the world he creates. It’s a world populated with characters drawn from some benign Bloomsbury Bohemia. Uncles in mustard yellow waistcoats fall asleep on divans, wispy young ladies in long dresses skip across lawns, down at heel Proustian professors search for parrots in wine cellars. Everywhere there’s an aesthetically pleasing jumble, bric-a-brac, shabby gentility, pots and pans. It’s an atmosphere redolent of the afternoon siesta, a morning stroll to the market to buy fruit, of neighbouring gardens full of adventure. English eccentricity and leisure.
I don’t see any violence or cruelty. Things go splash, and bang, and splat but no one gets hurt. Trees blossom with jellies and hot-buttered toast. It’s a sunny arcadia. More P.G. Wodehouse than Lewis Carroll. Even the Hell’s Angels Mrs Armitage meets are a jolly bunch decked out in clothes plundered from a dressing-up box (pirate patch, soldier’s helmet). Repertory theatre extras.
After a weekend reading Gilles Deleuze is it so surprising that Mrs Armitage Queen of the Road and Mrs Armitage and the Big Wave read as stories of desire? In MAQotR it is perpetual drive (literally) despite a series of breakdowns leading to a new becoming in the Crazy Duck Cafe. In MAatBW it is a succession of needs leading without end (“But what we really need, what we really need, is ...”). Wave after wave.
Both books – although written and published separately – deserve to be read together: systole and diastole, continuous interruption.
Let’s take MAQotR. Despite the uninviting look of the car (a gift from Uncle Cosmo – now there’s an interesting name) Mrs Armitage decides to “give it a try”. From the outset, the text announces improvisation, the for-the-sake-of-it, an act without foreseeable goal or result.
What follows is a succession of breakdowns: hubcaps, mudguards, bumpers, bonnet, roof, doors and boot. Part after part falls off, becomes redundant, is cast off. Is it necessary to state that the car is Mrs Armitage (or that Mrs Armitage is the car)? By the end of the story Mrs Armitage’s machine is stripped down to its basics, its defences dispensed with. “Wow” says Gizzy, before inviting her for a “banana fizz”. An ending that is full of promise – fizz, exciting, crackling energy – a different ‘trip’ with schizzy Gizzy and his pals.
I noticed how Mrs Armitage’s car magnetizes trouble. What does it desire – so many contacts with the world? The bumpy road, the bollard, its bumper caught on old bedstead, the lorry that backs into it, the block of concrete that crashes through the roof. The car acts upon and is acted upon. So many concrete encounters. And each ‘encounter’ is accompanied by its onomatopoeiac refrain: “boing”, “bong”, “dang”. Language as action.
Despite it all, Mrs Armitage keeps going – she’s not blocked (there is a traffic jam but this occasions a further breakdown). “Who needs it?” she replies after each damaged part. It’s as if in true Deleuzean fashion she knows that every rupture occasions a further occasion for becoming. And, indeed, what does she receive at the end of the story but a series of new objects: leather jacket, collar, bendy masts, motor horn.
It’s tempting, of course, to apply a cheap Freudian symbolism: a series of penises and vaginas.* Better, perhaps, to see the collar as a becoming dog-becoming Lulu; the leather jacket as a becoming animal-becoming Smudge; the mast as a becoming aerial receiver-becoming Gizzy; the motor horn as a becoming-breast:mouth-becoming Fedinando. So many new friends, so many new possibilities! (“Breakspear ... this is blissful!”).
But this is only part of the story. The drawings are at work even before the story commences. Mrs Armitage and Breakspear (her dog) have exchanged qualities. Breakspear’s muzzle is Mrs Armitage’s nose which is also her slippers (and, later, the birds’ beaks in the country). Breakspear’s ears are Mrs Armitage’s hair bunches. Where Breakspear has his tail, Mrs Armitage has two dressing gown cord ‘tails’. Throughout the story we see Breakspear’s tail – its curves and kinks and wags – in Mrs Armitage’s scarf.
Shakespeare, Breakspear, Mrs Armitage Shanks, your Uncle is the Cosmos, and schizzy Gizzy is your friend ...
* Interesting in this context to compare MAQotR with MAatBW. In the latter, the little girl – Miranda – is saved from drowning and returned to her parents. A little tempest in a nursery teacup? Quentin Blake’s ‘The Waves’? Or a little Oedipal moral story where mummy and daddy are on the shore to save you from drowning in the surging urges and swells of the Big Ocean? The point is, Mrs Armitage is still desiring: (“But what we really need, what we really need, is ...”).