The Animals: Love Letters Between Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy

Like many couples, they communicated in a private language, a sort of nursery camp in which they were cast as the “Animals”.

Christopher Isherwood. Image: Getty
 
In 1952, the then 48-year-old Christopher Isherwood met a beautiful teenage boy on the beach in Santa Monica. None of his friends thought the liaison would last but it proved unexpectedly durable. Despite a 30-year age gap and affairs on both sides, the two men remained emphatically together until Isherwood’s death in 1986 – a relationship considerably longer-lasting than most Hollywood marriages.
 
Like many couples, they communicated in a private language, a sort of nursery camp in which they were cast as the “Animals”, sometimes beleaguered by the human world (the “Others”) and sometimes resplendent in their difference. The Animals were evidently well established by the time written communication began, on a trip to London in the winter of 1956. They make their inaugural appearance not in the first, rather shy letter from Isherwood but in Bachardy’s reply. “I miss rides through London on old Dobbin,” he writes, “and think a lot about him, sleeping in a strange stable, eating cold oats out of an ill-fitting feed bag and having no cat fur to keep him warm . . . And tell him an anxious Tabby is at the mercy of the RSPCA and counting the days till his return.”
 
In this pleasurable and increasingly powerful masque, Bachardy is Kitty, a small, well-bred white kitten, while Isherwood is Dobbin, Dub, Drub or Plug, a weary, reliable old horse (sometimes a stallion, sometimes a loyal mare). Gags about riding and furry parts aside, it’s a mode for the establishment and continuance of intimacy, rather than any especially outspoken sexual desire.
 
When the Animals are separated (most often because Bachardy, a gifted and increasingly adept portrait artist, is in London or New York pursuing commissions), they long to be reunited in their dear dilapidated “basket”. “It seems so wrong and unnecessary for the Animals to be apart,” Bachardy declares in one homesick missive. “Nobody understands about them really.”
 
There’s plenty going on outside the basket. The letters run intermittently through to 1970, after which there was no separation long enough to require epistolary infill. During that period, Isherwood wrote Down There on a Visit (1962), his late masterpiece A Single Man (1964) and A Meeting by the River (1967); he also worked on film scripts and saw his novel Goodbye to Berlin (1939) transformed for the stage and screen into I Am a Camera and the lucrative Cabaret. Bachardy, meanwhile, schmoozed and sketched on both sides of the Atlantic, producing portraits of an impressive array of artists, aristocrats and writers, among them Francis Bacon, Roman Polanski, Andy Warhol, Frank O’Hara and Tennessee Williams.
 
Although work is a regular topic of conversation (particularly Bachardy’s sometimes anguished attempts to find his métier), the keynote here is gossip. On Auden at 59, Isherwood notes, “Wystan can never possibly look older,” while Bachardy memorably describes Vanessa Redgrave as a “pod-born replacement for real humans”. Observations on the love lives of the beau monde are traded back and forth like cigarette cards (a pearl for the susceptible: Vivien Leigh’s private number in the 1960s was Sloane 1955).
 
Gossip is a leveller but one of the oddities of this capacious book is how similar the two voices sound, considering the vast gulf in age and experience, background and nationality. The struggle to bridge these gaps forms the great underlying drama of the letters. Dobbin is Kitty’s mentor and teacher, someone to mimic but also to rebel against, escape and defy, while Kitty is a prodigal whose return will always be an occasion for joy. Isherwood, who had been a serial connoisseur of boys in his youth, wisely gave Bachardy his freedom, allowing him to roam romantically and providing instead the absolute security of home.
 
In Iris, the critic John Bayley wrote of how he and his first wife, Iris Murdoch, communicated from the start in an infantile babble, a private language that nourished them through the decades, well into her descent into dementia. Virginia Woolf, too, had a penchant for writing in the persona of animals. “I often feel,” Isherwood wrote of his contribution to this canon, “that the Animals are far more than just a nursery joke or a cuteness . . . They express a kind of freedom and truth which we otherwise wouldn’t have.”
 
At times, the constant references to tiny kittens threatens to contradict him. Yet it becomes increasingly apparent that the Animals sustained the pair through their early travails and that as such they served as the glue for one of the few publicly gay relationships of the period. As Isherwood put it, writing one Christmas Eve from a monastery near Kolkata: “Away from you, I can’t talk, I don’t feel this is my language or my world.” One might think he was talking about the culture shock of India but for the next plaintive sentence: “I want to talk Cat-Horse again.”
 
Olivia Laing’s latest book is “The Trip to Echo Spring” (Canongate, £20)
Christopher Isherwood. Image: Getty

This article first appeared in the 30 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory Game of Thrones

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“I see the world in rectangles”: Life as a Lego Master Builder

Nathan Sawaya stunned colleagues when he quit his job as a lawyer to play with Lego full-time. Now everyone from Lady Gaga to Barack Obama’s a fan.

Nathan Sawaya is describing his favourite Lego brick, shiny-eyed and grinning at the thought of it. But he’s not a child proudly displaying a beloved toy. He’s a 43-year-old former corporate lawyer, and well over six foot tall. The brick he is evangelising about is a small 1x2 socket plate with a stud in the centre of its top. He calls this a “Jumper”.

“You know your Lego lingo?” he asks, looking crestfallen when I shake my head. “It has only one stud instead of two, and it allows you to do even more detail because you can offset the brick a little bit. But in general, I focus on the rectangular pieces.”


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Sawaya is one of the world’s eight Lego Master Builders, having left his job at a New York law firm when he was 32 to dedicate his life to building Lego constructions full-time. His most striking works include a torso of a man ripping his chest open with bricks spilling out, called Yellow, a lifesize T-Rex skeleton, a two-metre long model of Brooklyn Bridge, and replicas of famous paintings, including the Mona Lisa, and Edvard Munch’s Scream.

I meet him in a dark exhibition space in a tent on London’s Southbank, where his works are lit up around us. His latest constructions consist of a series of DC Comics superheroes, so we are surrounded by expressionless Supermen flying around us, capes realistically rippling, and a full-size Batmobile with glistening batwings. His boyish eagerness aside, Sawaya himself looks like a comic book villain – a hulking figure dressed in black from top to toe, with a long black overcoat, piercing eyes and thick dark hair.


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Back in his early thirties when he was a lawyer, he would come home after a punishing day at work and do something creative – drawing, painting, sculpting with clay and wire. He soon began to experiment with Lego, constructing models out of sets he had lying around the house. His son, now 17, was never particularly interested in playing with it himself.

“Eventually I made the choice to leave the law firm behind and become a full-time artist who plays with toys,” he beams.

His family was supportive, his colleagues jealous, and his bosses confused – but it wasn’t long until Sawaya found success as a Lego artist. He has had exhibitions of his work on every continent but Antarctica, and gained some high-profile fans. When he was US President, Barack Obama posed with one of his installations – monochrome life-size men sitting on park benches in Washington – and Bill Clinton has a sculpture in his office, as does Lady Gaga in a music video.

“That is the magic of Lego,” he says of his popularity. “It has become a universal language in a way.”


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Sawaya’s Master Builder status means he can buy all his bricks directly from Lego in bulk – not possible for us Lego civilians. He used to buy sets in toy shops and on eBay when starting out; now he can email asking for 500,000 red 2x4 bricks, say, and Lego ships them to him on wooden pallets. He has six million bricks on hand at his studio in Los Angeles. “Millions of each colour and shape and size,” he says. “And they’re all organised by shape and colour.”

He works away for hours at a time in his studio, with his dogs obediently at his feet, in what he describes as a “trance”. He plans designs on special “brick paper” like graph paper, but sometimes he free-builds from his imagination. “I do often see the world in rectangles,” he says, and sometimes he even dreams in bricks.

Just like children do with Lego sets, he simply snaps the bricks together – though he does dab glue between each brick, which triples the time it takes. He describes it as “therapeutic”, but says making a mistake can be “heartbreaking” – he can lose days and weeks of work at a time. “There may be times where I start questioning my choices in life,” he smiles.


Photos: Copyright Jane Hobson

Sawaya faced snobbery from the art world when he first began approaching galleries as a Lego artist. “Oh, is that cars and trucks and little castles?” was the response. He feels it’s now a more acceptable medium. “It makes art accessible,” he says. “And in doing that, it democratises the art world a bit. It allows people to relate to the art. Everyone has snapped a brick together at one point, every child has played a little bit with Lego.

“As an artist, my role is to inspire. And what better way to do it than through a medium everyone is familiar with? If someone sees a marble statue, they can appreciate it, but very few people have marble at home they can chip away at.”

The first Lego creation Sawaya can remember making was a little house, when he was first given the toy at the age of five. He then made a city that grew to 36 square feet. When he was ten, he was desperate for a dog. His parents refused, so he tore all his creations down and built a lifesize one. “It was blocky and very multi-coloured, of course,” he says. “But it was that ‘Aha!’ moment – when I realised it doesn’t have to be on the front of the box. It can be whatever I want.”

The Art of the Brick: DC Super Heroes is on at Upper Ground, Southbank, London, until 3 September 2017.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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