Sketching Upside Down

It’s Spring 2019 and a friend of mine has just come back from a half term holiday with his family.

“Where did you go?” I ask.

“Center Parcs” he replies. “They were so smart adding those tree houses. It used to be like spending a wet weekend at a Premier Inn under a plastic dome. The tree house option isn’t cheap but it makes the whole experience a jungle adventure for the kids. They love it”.

“I’m so glad to hear that,” I say. “But tree houses? What about health and safety?”

“All covered”, he replies. “They’ve got this piratical feel but they’re really well built. It got pretty windy one night but the floor didn’t move at all. Hurricane-proof I’d say.”

Let’s spin back in time to 1987. Bedders, Mark Bedford and I are driving through Harlem. The Madness bass player has never seen The Cloisters up in Fort Tryon Park or the beaches of Long Island. I’ve hired a car for a week. Mark has been so generous getting me back in the studio after the Scritti Politti split it’s great to be in a position to give something in return.

I live here now. On the car radio we hear there was a hurricane in the UK last night. We’re so shocked we pull over to check this isn’t an Orson Welles’ ‘War of The Worlds’ type situation. No. It’s a Michael Fish, ‘Thousands of trees snapping like matchsticks’ situation. 

Fast forward five years to 1992 and I’m building a tree house on one of those tree stumps in my brother Bobby’s back garden. We’re at Tyne House in Lewes, East Sussex. Returning from Manhattan with a new band I’m taking a weekend off. Haha. Trap doors, escape slides, it takes me a month. Kate and Rupert, my niece and nephew, are delighted. The band? Let’s just say they’re happy when it’s finished. I’m not that good at multitasking. 

Three years later, in 1995, I’m having supper with a millionaire in Mayfair. 

“If you were to build a tree house for Rachel and James, what would it look like?” he asks. 

I’ve learned to draw upside down on restaurant napkins like the architect Richard Rogers. I saw him do it in a TV documentary. Few people notice but, as Rogers explains, what they experience is their dream coming true before their eyes. Rachel is six and James is eight, I’ve been a weekend guest at their house in the country many times.

“It would be like this Nick”, I say, sketching a rather attractive three-storey tower around their tree, with trap doors and rope ladders. “And the top floor would be open to the elements and styled exquisitely like the deck of a pirate ship, like this,” I say, employing another napkin.

The tiramisu arrives.

“If you can do it for ten grand let’s start next week” he says. It costs twelve but, as we agree when the time comes, there’s no point in spoiling the ship for a ha’pworth of tar. Nick is one of my truest friends, keenly intelligent and a very successful economist. 

As anyone who has renovated an old house, or built one from scratch, will tell you there’s a sense of wellbeing you get when you change the world with your own hands. It’s like caressing space. Sculpting with clouds. A love affair like no other. The unique details I add give me a sense of security in the world. I belong. Though I own neither of these tree houses I know I’ll always be welcome here. Personal relationships on projects like this deepen too. How could they not?

As the UK economy changes Bobby and his family and Nick and his family are presented with opportunities to move to new homes, one in Barcombe and one in Sydney. They have to take them.

The new owners destroy everything. My lofty treehouses become landfill. I’m heartbroken. I’ll never build a tree house again, it’s too painful.

Seven years later it’s 2002. No more jumping around. We’re staying here in 2002, I promise. Look, I’m all grown up and on a professional innovation team, employed by a major consultancy working with Centre Parcs. The brand is doing well but ‘looking tired’ according to their CEO. We’re here to help.

They’ve gathered ten families, five one-parent and five two-parent, who have been to Centre Parcs several times. It’s my job to drum them into a tribe then, as ‘Creative Director’ of this project, get them into a creative frame of mind. Having already sent in questionnaires about their likes and dislikes they’re about to draw up some of their own ideas themselves, be they ‘Hobbit’ houses, sunken moonlit jacuzzis, or computer gaming rooms.

My assistants are handing out generous amounts of paper, felt-tips and crayons. No client representatives are in the room, I’ve told them I’ll get a better result without any hint of corporate ‘desired outcomes’. 

“Thank you so much for coming, and thanks for all your written work,” I say to the energised crowd. 

“We’ve studied your questionnaires closely and now we’re setting you free to draw your own perfect tree house, or tree houses. They can be connected by bridges or zip wires, have proper safe stairs or more adventurous rope ladders, it’s completely up to you. This is your innovation session. Let your imaginations go wild. Any questions?”.

There are none from the group but pretty soon I’m approached quietly by a Dad in a Shadowfax T-shirt. 

I have two long paint brushes in my hands and I’m spinning them like a drummer in a marching band. 

“Just tree houses?” he says. He’s holding a list he’s printed out. There’s always one.

I throw my brushes into the air and catch them with the opposite hands, still spinning.

“Exactly,” I say, then whisper conspiratorially, “That’s the new brief, but you can do a Hobbit house if you want”.

Everyone’s getting down to it with focussed attention. There’s an excited vibe here. I put some reggae on while the sun streams in to this elevated hall.

After an hour we have one Hobbit house drawing and twenty seven deliciously different tree house designs. A boy of nine, Charlie, has been particularly enthusiastic. I’ve mentally selected one of his drawings for the client portfolio cover already.

I’m talking to Charlie’s Mum, Sheila, while my team clear up the delightfully creative mess. “Can I do one more drawing for my Dad?” asks Charlie, looking from my face to her face to my face. “Sure”, I reply, “Just don’t tell the others who are leaving, say you’re finishing a tree house detail if anyone asks”.

“These things are going to come true, right?” he says. 

“Well, there’s no guarantee Charlie but the theory is when you put energy into something there’s a bigger chance of it happening. However, yes, your teacher would probably describe it as dreams coming true.”

The rest of the precious drawings are being zipped into a black portfolio, ready to be laminated for Friday’s meeting with the CEO. Sheila seems keen to assist me packing the drum van, I never refuse such help, I just switch into listening mode. There is always a story waiting to come out. She tells me she split with Charlie’s father six months ago and he’s coming here to pick him up today.

“Is that OK Tom?”

“Sure, you’ve both been stars today. I’m not in any hurry to get away”, I say. 

Apparently they’re close to getting back together but there’s some sort of forgiveness needed on her side. She’s on the point of telling me. Drums eh? They build trust so quickly.

“Daddy!” Charlie rushes to the door.

“Did you win?” asks Sheila. Daddy coaches a local five-a-side football team. “I’ve got the cup in the car,” he smiles. They both smile. I’m trying to decide which James Bond he reminds me of. Sean Connery is my favourite but this guy is more Pierce Brosnan in a black track suit. He’ll do.

“Come and see my picture Daddy”, says Charlie. 

I spot a couple of drums hidden in the corner and head off to retrieve them.

“It’s a brand new house but it’s in space”, I hear Charlie explaining. “This is me drumming on my space drum and this is you and Mummy dancing. We’re all going on a space adventure together”.

As I close the doors to the van fifteen minutes later Sheila dashes across the car park and gives me a big hug. She might be crying, I’m not sure. “This has been a great day”, she says. “A truly great day”.

While my inner critic gets busy with what I could have done better in the drum session my intuition whispers over my self-talk clamour. “Hey Tom, give yourself a break. Some days you’re not just a drummer.”

Posted in