Animal rescue: but in this case it was dog that saved master, says John Dolan. Photo: Marcus Peel
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How one man escaped homelessness through drawing – and his bull terrier muse

John Dolan spent almost two decades in the “revolving door” between homelessness and prison. That changed when he adopted George in 2009. 

John Dolan seemed restless. He paced up and down the gallery, occasionally darting outside or disappearing downstairs without warning. At times I thought he might have settled, as he perched on a windowsill or lit another cigarette, but then he would be off again with George, his Staffordshire bull terrier, following patiently behind and me trying to keep my Dictaphone in range.

It wasn’t surprising that John was feeling on edge. He had just over a week to complete as many as 500 drawings of George before the launch of his exhibition on 16 July. The plan is that more than 1,000 sketches will cover every inch of wall at the Howard Griffin Gallery in Shoreditch, east London. The installation will be a fitting tribute to an animal Dolan says turned his life around. “It was all down to the dog,” he reminded me several times.

Dolan, who is now 43, spent almost two decades in what he describes as a “revolving door” between homelessness and prison. That changed when he adopted George in 2009. Caring for the dog gave him a new sense of purpose and a reason for staying out of jail. He started to draw, something he hadn’t done since school. The first picture he sold was of George, for £20.

With time, the pair became a familiar fixture on Shoreditch High Street. John drew street scenes and sold the pictures for £20 or so. When passers-by were abusive, George would bark at them as John had trained him to do. He showed me their secret signal: he pointed his finger and George yelped. “Then I’d say, ‘I’ve never seen the dog behave like that before. You’d better step away.’ ”

In 2011, the publishers of Shoreditch Unbound asked if they could print some of John’s work in their book, which celebrates East End cultural life. Other commissions followed, and after meeting Richard Howard-Griffin (who runs the Howard Griffin Gallery) he began collaborating with high-profile street artists including Stik, Thierry Noir and ROA. In 2013, he held his first solo exhibition at the Howard Griffin, where he sold some of his drawings for more than £2,000 – an impressive rate of inflation for any artist.

Predictably, a book deal ensued. Discussing his life with a ghostwriter was “like therapy”, he says. But John and George: the Dog Who Changed My Life is too sappy for me. I prefer his direct storytelling, which veers wildly from soaring self-confidence – “I thought I’m a naturally gifted artist so I might see if people wanted to buy my art . . . within a few months I was published alongside Tracey Emin” – to heartbreaking, matter-of-fact descriptions of living with mental illness and addiction.

Dolan is still adjusting to his new life. A few days before we met, he’d joined a gym. He is reducing his methadone dose, because he needs to be clean to travel to Los Angeles for his first US exhibition later this year. Although newly reunited with his family, he felt unable to spend Christmas with them. “I’ve been out of the system for so long,” he said.

Sometimes you can still see John sketching on his old patch of pavement in Shoreditch. He was trying not to sell any more drawings of George before the show, but on occasion, if he felt “sympathy” for someone, he might relent. (I suspect this happens often, because he insisted that I take one home.)

Leafing through some of his ink drawings of landscapes, I told him I wasn’t entirely convinced by his story. Surely his artistic talent – and not George – is the reason for his success?

“Nah, if it weren’t for the dog I wouldn’t have picked up the pen.” And then he was off, maybe for another cigarette, or to sketch a few hundred more Georges before bed. 

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 16 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Our Island Story

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How did I, obsessed with non-places, not know about the Trafford Centre?

My wife had booked us all in to a showing of the latest Bond film at the IMAX Cinema at the Trafford Centre. “Why the Trafford Centre?” I taxed her. She looked at me as if I were a complete ass, but refused to enlighten me. 

Last year I bought a copy of J G Ballard’s last novel, Kingdom Come, a dystopic tale of the near future in which bored suburbanites descend into anomic violence as they retreat inside a giant shopping mall. Predictably, I bought my copy at the Bluewater shopping mall in north Kent, on the outskirts of London. Bluewater held the title of Britain’s biggest shopping mall for a number of years and it is surpassing large: a huge circular corridor that has become a destination. I asked a police officer where the Waterstones was and discovered she was a good old-fashioned bobby-on-the-beat – her beat having been, for seven years, to walk slowly around and around . . . Bluewater.

But I wasn’t fettered by Bluewater’s surly gravity, any more than I was galvanised by rampant consumerism. Novel purchased, I took a cab over the soaring Queen Elizabeth II Bridge to Essex, where I alighted at Bluewater’s twin establishment: the Lakeside shopping mall in West Thurrock. I headed for the Lakeside branch of Waterstones, where I . . . well, you guessed it: I returned my copy of Kingdom Come. This surreal little exercise was undertaken for the BBC Radio 4 documentary Malled: Sixty Years of Undercover Shopping, and I’ve detailed it here purely in order to illustrate this point: I have more than a passing interest in shopping malls.

This is why the events of a fortnight ago, when Family Self went up to Manchester for what is termed, I believe, a “city break”, seemed quite so bizarre. My wife had booked us all in to a showing of the latest Bond film at the IMAX Cinema at the Trafford Centre. “Why the Trafford Centre?” I taxed her. “It’s in Trafford, which is five miles from the city centre.” She looked at me as if I were a complete ass, but refused to enlighten me. My revelation came later, when we were wandering the rococo halls of the Trafford Centre, marvelling at the lashings of gold leaf applied to the serried columns as our soles slapped on the Italian marble flooring. My wife couldn’t believe that one such as I, obsessed by what the French philosopher Marc Augé has named “non-places”, didn’t know about the Trafford Centre.

But I didn’t – it was a 207,000-square-metre hole in my map of the world. I knew nothing of the bitter and protracted wrangling that attended its inception, as successive planning applications were rejected by ever higher authorities, until our Noble Lords had to step in to ensure future generations will be able to buy their schmutter at TK Maxx and then sip their lattes at Starbucks without having to brave the harsh Lancashire elements. Did I feel small as my savvier spouse led me through these storied halls? You bet your waddling, wobbling, standing-still-on-the-travelator bum I did. How could I not have known about the great central dome of the Trafford mall, which is bigger – and statelier – than that of St Paul’s? How could I have been unaware of the Orient, Europe’s largest food court, with its seating for 1,800 diners, served by a plethora of exciting outlets including Harry Ramsden’s, Carluccio’s and those piquant bun-pushers, McDonald’s?

Actually, the Orient completely bowled me over. The Trafford Centre’s imagineers point to the nearby Manchester Ship Canal as influencing this wholly novel and utterly weird space, which is formed by a sort of Möbius strip of 1930s ocean-liner design, being at once superstructure – railings, funnels, tables arranged to simulate the deckchairs on a sun deck – and interior. However, nothing like this ever cruised by Runcorn. Not that I object to this, any more than I objected to the cluttered corridor full of orientalism – noodle bars, sushi joints, all-you-can-eat Chinese barbecues – that debouched from it and led us back into the weirdly glistering main retail areas, with their ornamental griffins and neoclassical columns bodged up out of medium-density fibreboard.

The Trafford Centre’s imagineers also make great play of design features – such as the aforementioned griffins – that are meant to tie the humongous mall to its hinterland (these are the heraldic symbols of the de Traffords, who used to own hereabouts), and to the north-east’s proud industrial heritage. But this is all ornamental balls; the truth is that the Trafford Centre’s ambience is so sumptuously wacky, it could quite reasonably be twinned with Las Vegas.

While the rest of the family went in search of retail opportunities, I watched the Mancunians process. It occurred to me that if there were any influences at work here – besides the Baudrillardian ones of hyperreality and simulation that underpin so much of the contemporary built environment – it was the presence of a large British Asian community. The only people who didn’t look out of both place and time, wandering about among all the gilded pomp and crystalline circumstance, were women wearing saris, shalwar kameez and burqas. Tracksuit bottoms and hoodies just didn’t cut it – although, I concede, come the breakdown in civil society anticipated in Kingdom Come, this pseudo-sportswear will come into its own as the perfect pillaging outfit.

Next week: Lives of Others

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State