It was such a cold week in October when I came across the Chewing Gum Artist, Ben Wilson, in Highgate. I'd just finished running a workshop at the Highgate Literary and Scientific Institution (HLSI), one of the oldest independent libraries in London. HLSI is a thriving cultural centre on Pond Square with around a thousand members. It has a wonderful library with over 25,000 books, as well as many old prints and documents regularly consulted by scholars. One of its rooms, the Colderidge Room, is dedicated to the great poet who lived the last part of his life in The Grove, a few minutes walk from the square.I have been leading writing workshops at HLSI for several years.
Ben Wilson has become a familiar figure on the streets of London in his one man campaign to draw attention to the quantity of gum spat out on our pavements. He believes that the gum is a symbol of our consumer society. "People have too much of everything today and so don't take care of the environment," says Ben.
I have blogged about Ben in a previous post when I met him outside the Royal Academy.
"Of course," he said. He handed me the notebook he always carries with him and asked me to draw out what I wanted. But of course, I'm a writer, so I needed words. I told Ben how Coleridge and Keats had famously met in Highgate and shaken hands. Afterwards Coleridge had remarked that Keats "was not long for this world." Had he felt the sickness in Keats' grip? Keats died at the age of 25 from TB. Even Coleridge with his heart problems and addiction to laudanum did better than that, dying in Highgate at the age of 62.
How could we fit all of this onto a piece of chewing gum a bit bigger than a ten pence piece?
First of all he took a picture of myself and fellow writer, Judi Sissons, shaking hands.
Then we agreed on all the wording, including Coleridge, Keats, Highgate, HLSI, my name and whatever else Ben could fit on.
We agreed that Ben would ring me on the morning he started the painting so that I could come along and see the finished product.
I went home on the bus thinking, This is madness, there's no way he'll fit all that plus the handshake onto a piece of flattened gum.
In fact I rang him from the bus and said, "Maybe leave out Coleridge and Keats."
"Fine," he said, "let's see how it goes."
But I needn't have worried.
Ben Wilson is a tremendously talented miniature artist and the final product was absolutely wonderful.
These pictures give an idea of the scale of the work.
What a wonderful celebration of writing in Highgate.
Ben takes care of his paintings, returning to them over the weeks to see how they are surviving. Kids come up to him and ask him to do their graffiti tags. He enjoys commissions and accepts donations. It can take Ben two hours to complete a painting, lying on the freezing cold pavements of London. He lies so close to the kerb he was even hit by a bus once.
I feel enormously privileged that I have featured in a painting by the Chewing Gum Artist.
And here is the link to the article in the Hampstead and Highgate newspaper.