Sometimes I wish I didn’t have to do things like this blog. Don’t get me wrong – I love sharing my photos, and I love getting feedback even more! But if I wasn’t sitting at my desk publishing my photos I could be out and about in the streets of London forever meeting fascinating characters. People like John Dolan and his wonderful dog George.
I spotted George before I saw John. I was captivated by the sight of this dog with begging note and bowl and thought what a clever idea it was to dress a pet up in a jacket and get him to do the begging for you (though it turned out that the jacket was only on him because he was cold). But I soon discovered that George was more than just a characterful dog; he was a lifesaver. And his best friend happened to be a pretty good artist who was busy sketching his faithful friend while he was earning his Pedigree Chum. And John was more than just an artist – he was a man with an incredible story, whose life had been turned around thanks to this dog in front of me.
John didn’t need much encouragement to tell his story. It turns out that he is a former petty criminal who has been in and out of prison more times than George has shaken a leg; he is also an ex-heroin addict and has spent far too many years living rough on london’s streets than was good for him. It was George that got him off the crime because John realised that if he was sent away again he wouldn’t be able to look after him. (Incidentally, the affection between the two is palpable and the intense pleasure on George’s face when his master goes to pet him is so evident that I doubt John can bear to be away from him even for a second). So he switched to begging instead. But he found the process so demoralising that he decided to place George in prime position so that the focus didn’t fall on himself. But he had to do something to entertain himself while George was doing his job, so he returned to the one thing that he had been good at at school – art.
John gradually re-found his groove at drawing and, as generally happens when you have visible talent in the streets of London, he was eventually discovered. What happened next is like the script of a feature film. John got himself off the heroine; got himself an exhibition (his collaborative prints sold for up to £50k each); his book is about to hit the streets (which he assured us would be a bestseller); he’s a regular on TV and there is now an LA stamp in his passport.
Like George, who was sadly beaten up by some other dogs the night before and was looking very delicate as a result, John still bears his physical and emotional battle scars. And while there was no doubting his talent I could not help but wonder just how much of what he was telling me was true. I enquired how much it would cost to buy the sketch that he was working on. “They usually sell for £50 but I’ll let you have it for £20” he replied. I didn’t have that much on me and I was so distracted by the conversation and in taking photos of George that I forgot to pursue purchasing it. But I did tell John that I’d love to photograph him. “I tell you what, I have an event at Howard Griffin gallery in Shoreditch on Thursday” he replied. “Come along!” “Ok, give me the details”. With that John drew me a little picture of George and said “That will get you in”.
After saying our goodbyes I decided to view the gallery website just to check that the event really was taking place. Sure enough a rather impressive exhibition of John’s works was just coming to a close. But there was no mention of an event, so I phoned the gallery. “Yes there is a reception,” the employee told me, “but the entrance policy is very strict so you really have to prove that you have been invited to get in.” So I sent them a photograph of John’s sketch and a nice response came back saying that my friend and I were now indeed on the guest list. I felt rather honoured to be included, but also rather churlish for not having taken up John’s offer of his latest sketch of George for just £20!
Well least I still have his little sketch in my notebook, which had already felt rather special, but now has an extra monetary value that I hadn’t fully appreciated at the time!
You can find out more about John Dolan and George here: http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2014/jul/19/john-dolan-homeless-addict-to-artist-and-author
and see his pictures from his exhibition at Howard Griffin here: http://howardgriffingallery.com/exhibitions/john-and-george/
The event I am attending is in aid of Wrap Up – a charity that donates coats to the homeless. (John’s life may have moved forward in incredible ways, but he hasn’t forgotten where he once was, and could still be now, if it wasn’t for that rather special dog called George).