Saturday, 29 March 2014

Artist and Sailor A. Donald Rudd, the man who gave me Astronomy

Most people of my age (and many others!) would probably say that Patrick Moore was their earliest astronomy hero, and indeed for me he was incredibly important. I was utterly in awe to meet the great man, as I did at his Selsey home in 1989. However, he was not my first astronomical mentor. This honour went to Donald Rudd, Kircudbright artist, sailor, and owner of a Morris car with moss growing in the engine.

I don't ever remember how Donald came to be in my life, he just always was. Certainly he was near neighbours to my mum and I when we moved back to my mum's hometown in South West Scotland in 1974. His artist's biography states he was married to a woman called Helen, but until I read that I had no idea. As long as I knew him he shared a house with the formidable chain-smoking Oona, mother of my mum's best friend from way back and to all intents and purposes family. As was Donald himself, always known as “Rudd” to Oona, my mother, and everyone in town.

He was a heavy heavy man, thick necked, balding, and possessor of old school sideburns that didn't quite meet to become a beard. He smoked either a pipe – which I remember sucking on when unlit and finding the most disgusting thing in my five year old experience – or a cigarette that for reasons of greater nicotine and tar intake, he'd pierce through the middle just after the filter, swinging the fag about on a needle.

His voice was what I always remember as the soft Scot's accent of the South West, harshly treated by a larynx with the inbuilt effect pedal of “gruff” turned up to full. There was also a curious wateriness about his voice, a bubbling quality like it was rising up through one of those mud geysers you get in New Zealand. It's hard to believe that when I first knew him, he was only the same age as I am now, he seemed incredibly ancient to me.

He and Oona's house was a long, dark place down an alleyway next door to ours, and thus also near the Tollbooth where scenes from the Wicker Man were filmed. The only light bit was the kitchen, which was custardly linoed and a permanent mess of cat and / or dog food and endless packets of Ryvita that were clearly having no effect on Oona's mass whatsoever. There was a small living area, stone clad, filled with ash trays and dark brown furniture to go with the dark brown carpet. Then there treacherous wooden slippery stairs with no balcony, behind that a nether world of sailing ships in glass cases, painted copies of “The Fighting Temeraire” and other nauticalia surrounding a huge and never ever used dining table.

I remember endless plastic bottles of some kind of home brew filling this back area up at one time, possibly 50 or 60 bottles. It was some kind of mildly alcoholic hibiscus type cordial, and a few of the bottles exploded. In my memory at least. Rudd's favourite other tipple I was allowed to know about was “Green Pop”, some limeade concoction. At night, he preferred stronger brews.

Up the steep stairs, where I'd frequently explore unrestrained, were the bedrooms – untidy, and eventually at the top, Rudd's attic studio, a rose hip sauce on semolina mess of colour, easels, and paint encrusted pallets festooned with sheets of toilet paper and soaked with the smell of white spirit. For some reason I was always equally fascinated with the header tank and the big orange plastic ball on a stick within it. Strange child.

Our Donald Rudd landscape, apparently not many of his works survive
 A lasting memory is of Rudd taking us egg rolling one Easter Sunday on the Moat Brae, the castle grounds overlooking the harbour. We had painted the eggs the previous night, in the delicate blue of antique china, and violet, lovely dyes rather better handled by my mother than my clumsy smudges. The rolled eggs were brought back to us by Rudd's manchester terrier Speedie – who put me in hospital once when he bit me on the face – and then eaten by me irrespective of dog saliva or the dye soaking through the shell to give the eggs an alien quality. 

I remember also Rudd's boat “Fourness” - a noisy sloop with a square cabin, belching smoke up and down the Dee estuary. I think we went out on it once, chugging away out to Ross Island Lighthouse. I hid in a cabin full of spiders.

But above all, Rudd gave me astronomy. He had some kind of ancient almanac, in a rough sort of hessian blue cover, detailing the positions of the stars at each month. The constellation of “Bootes” obsessed me, I thought it was the most wonderful thing ever, and tracked its movements across the faded creamy pages of the almanac. Noting I was fascinated, he gave me a proper guide to the planets – back in those days Jupiter only had 13 moons – and let me look through a little monocular telescope he had. He said he had been a navigator aboard HMS Warspite, although he must have been incredibly young. It was only later that I got given Patrick Moore's “Observer's Guide to Astronomy”, possibly by my Grandmother, and began to recognise the constellations properly. Nevertheless it was Rudd who was my inspiration.

When he died in 1993, I was deeply saddened. It was round about my 21st birthday, and must have seen him for the last time the year before, his “Rudd's Spuds” cafe abandoned as a last commercial venture. I was given a sort of granite stargazing hare as a birthday present, and in honour of Rudd, it still sits, gazing at the heavens, on my mantelpiece.

Copyright Cream Crackered Nature 29.03.14

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