By Oliver East
East’s fourth comic travelogue take us on a familiar journey; his walking diaries of place and location by now well travelled ground. But Swear Down takes the usual, the original, and adds something absolutely personal and moving. Poetic, romantic, Swear Down is East’s best yet.
I’ll warn you now, you’re at the start of a long, rambly review with lots of art. But if you do just scroll down to look at the pictures, keep this in mind; Swear Down is East’s finest yet, with all of the walking, all the landscape beauty, but now with extra emotional punch, a romantic comedy and a tragedy with a very happy ending, a portrait of the artist as a very happy man….
The brief with Swear Down is to begin a grand journey, with east walking the line of longitude that cuts through most of England and on as far as he can go … Manchester, Brittany, Spain, Morocco, Algeria, Mali, Burkino Faso and ending in Ghana.
With Swear Down he gets as far as Congleton. About 23 miles. He may be some time.
But that’s the point in many ways. This grand traveller is actually in love with heading home, retiring to his new world, no longer that of the anti-social artist who walks alone, this is more than ever a story of East and his family, and the near death of his wife when their son was born premature.
That extra dimension to his work opens this up, suddenly this is far more than a simple walking diary, so much more than psycho-geography and the social commentary / ethnological treatise that we’ve grown accustomed to with East’s previous work, Swear Down is something much more; more raw, more personal, more emotional.
In fact the first half and more of Swear Down actually sees East use his walking practically as an excuse, a distraction from what he’s really meant to be talking about here, a reason not open up about the trauma of his son’s birth.
Now suddenly, tasked with writing about these still raw memories, memories he’s really done his best to shut out, we’re seeing the man who doesn’t like writing unless it’s writing about walking finding himself walking away from his problem, walking to forget, yet knowing he must remember.
“It’s one way of avoiding what I’m supposed to be doing anyway.”
“I’m supposed to be, or at least be thinking about, writing my thoughts on my son’s birth in some scrapbook.”
“His mum’s written down ages ago”
“I’m not one for writing unless I’m walking and I’m in no rush to relive his two month premature birth.”
Swear Down gets right inside East’s head, looking back to the birth, forcing Ollie to relive this most agonising of times. Yet for a man who supposedly doesn’t like writing East finds some wonderful ways to express himself when addressing the subject of his wife and child, and his own reaction to the trauma they suffered.
“…watching my wife fall into translucent unconsciousness, or circling the slowly congealing pool of blood while surgeons saved her life”.
Bloody hell. Just let that line settle in your head for a moment, imagine it was you in East’s position, now come back and read it again. That’s powerful, that’s emotive and heartfelt, and raw, and as desperate as it gets.
What about this one…?
“… she hit the shower floor like a bag of wet linen, white stones where her eyes had been.”
“Almost instantly everyone in uniform was in our room and I was strongly ushered into a corner.”
Again, that’s powerful, raw, emotive, shocking imagery in East’s words. So incredibly personal, something you read and feel privileged to be allowed into the shared East family experience.
But as you may expect if you know his work, its not all misery and torment, even when dealing with subjects so terrible and traumatic as these. East’s walking is almost light relief at times, with us safe in the knowledge that both Clare and Hunter come out of this safe and well, hale and hearty. East looking back is a man terrified by what happened, by what might have happened, but safe in the knowledge that it’s far enough back that the jokes can break his mood. They serve to make the terrible moments all the more jarring.
“It’ll be some dry but well paced gag”
“about how I’d wanted to watch The Ashes as the last thing on my own terms”
“but you came as a complete surprise. (‘We thought your mum needed a poo!’ I might write.)
And his ability to puncture and punctuate the mod with his casual observations and memories of the time are much needed, always expertly timed interjections…..
“I quickly discover a secret network of desire lines where there’s no pavements…. emerging into a policeman’s path, he couldn’t be less interested in a man taking notes around an airport”.
There’s a risk in reading East’s work that you’ll find yourself dissecting rather than absorbing, much the same way I remember learning poetry or Shakespeare many years ago at school, breaking down each line, each phrase, each word to rip every shred of meaning out, and in doing so absolutely destroying the heart and soul of the thing. It’s an apposite analogy really, as East’s work smacks of pure poetry in comic form (and if you wont take my word for it, Frank Santoro says the same on a back cover quote).
East’s art is abstract, minimal, simplistic, complicated, difficult, it can make you work at understanding, or it can deliver the most wonderful beauty on a plate (either way works just fine for me). Likewise his work is capable of intense emotional range, far more than you’d ever think given that essentially each book so far has been a long walk with a voice-over. Even without the extra emotional injection from the intensely personal recollections here, East’s work has always been something moving and emotional, his memoirs love letters to the modern landscape, just as likely to find beauty in an old railway building, a tatty bus shelter or a field of finest colour.
Here are two pages, two marvelous artistic moments in a book full of them…
The beautiful thing here? East’s sky. Or the lack of sky, all negative space evoking the sheer awe and wonder of the view far better than actually putting something in there. East a solitary figure amongst the fields, looking across to the endless, beautiful horizon. But even there there’s chance to throw lightness into it all…
“The vista is so all encompassing I feel I could run this path and still take it all in.”
“Boots, beer and fags have seen to that.”
“But I can drink it all in at a canter.”
Lovely, so lovely. Just enough to make us smile, but not enough to distract from the beauty of the scene.
Here it’s all in page design, East’s never really been one to stick to anything rigid in his page design or panel structure, but here in Swear Down there’s a dazzling array of page styles, white space the thing to mark out panels, or strips of hedges to guide us through a page. Or here, where you hop with a bunny across and down the page, breaking out of the green, through the wall, and into the white to deliver yet another moment to melt your heart…
“You were out of the woods quite quickly”
“and a lot sooner than your mum”
“after two days in the HDU”
“they downgraded you to the ICU”
“and I couldn’t have been prouder”
“I sat on the end of your mum’s bed and wept heavy tears”
“How silly, I thought. To be so proud of someone I’ve only known two days.”
You can wipe that tear away now.
You see what I mean about the poetry? And the art merely adds to it, the rabbit hopping, breaking up the words, giving it a rhythm.
Swear Down finds East far more open than any-time previously, we swiftly realise this work is not just a work of walking and recording, but it’s also about the development of East the man, the husband, the father, and of East the artist. Previously his perambulations were solitary, isolated things, other people to be avoided, other walkers to be ignored, as Clare puts it on one walk together, the
“… most anti-social man in Manchester suddenly turns into the nicest man in the world when he goes on a walk”.
“You throw all of your sociopathic tendencies out the window as soon as you’re on a train”.
As funny as East can be, I reckon Clare’s the real wit in the East clan, and I’m sure Ollie would agree with a smile and not inconsiderable pride and all.
I’ve seen East describe Swear Down as a romantic comedy at various points, and once that got in my head I couldn’t refute it. In fact I don’t want to. I’ve seen some unlikely moments of romance put down on the page in my time, but here, East manges a really beautifully touching love letter to so many things, to his walk, to the landscape, to the sheer joy of turning a corner and realising the view is just perfect…
But more than anything else, it’s such a perfect love letter to Clare, and his son… but mostly Clare…
“You look like you’re gonna weep”
“But that’s what it’s all about”
Ollie and Clare share a moment, turning a corner, walking smack into the path of Jodrell Bank, and East has one of those moments we’ve grown to love on his walks, the ecstatic moment where it all falls into place. Except this time you damn well know it’s a hundred, a thousand times better just because Clare’s by his side.
I’ll leave you with one page which is atypical of Swear Down artistically… the jarring brown colour, something akin to panel borders… but in just a little scene of Clare cracking through a little ice puddle on the ground and celebrating so joyfully, we see everything that makes Swear Down special. It’s all in Ollie’s final words… “Nah, that’s huge”, and more than that it’s in the art, the beauty of Clare, in just a few lines. Love coming through Ollie’s pens…
Swear Down is my favourite of East’s works thus far, it’s also I feel the most accessible, and a perfect book for you to venture into the really original artist’s work. Swear Down shows Oliver East’s talent once more, but most importantly confirms just how good his work can be when he deviates from his line of desire, when his comics are more than his excellent journals of the road/path/rail travelled. East’s voice is still remarkably fresh and new, his line original, and the potential for the future absolutely huge. He improves every single time I read his work… how long can you resist something this good?