I’ve always thought of automats as lonely, melancholy places. I entered my first automat when I was 14 and visiting the first of many, many navy bases.
Naval establishments in those days were almost defined by their automats and automats were the place to be for a certain kind of junior rating. There were the living quarters, the dining hall, the bar if you were old enough and the automat if you were not. I was not.
There were two occasions to visit the automat and it presented a quite different aspect for each occasion.
Killing time after lunch, waiting for class to begin, you encountered the brash, flashing automat. At lunch time, the automat was a buzzing hive of sailors drinking crap coffee from the crap coffee machine, playing video games and sitting round crap little tables munching crap snacks from the crap little dispenser things tempting you with their little A-H and 1-9 buttons that made their inner robot spring to life and threaten to dispense the pack of tutti-fruities to keep you awake through the afternoon’s boredom but, ultimately, disappointing you with physics-defying feats of cruelty, snatching your tutti-fruities back into a greedy maw or dangling the little snack mere inches above the dispenser tray with all the other unreachable tokens of misfortune.
It was in such an automat that I first completed Dragon’s Lair to great applause (the fantasy adventure where you become a valiant knight on your quest to rescue the fair princess from the clutches of an eeeevil dragon…. can you tell how many times I played it?) and where I first found all the Easter eggs in Track ‘n’ Field. It was where Alf Menzies and I made it to the end of Super Mario Bros (though I never did defeat the final Bowser or, as we called him, the big green thing) and where we daily emptied the trivia machine, Blockbusters, of all its pound coins. But that was the happy automat. The other automat is the one that looms, forbidding, in my memory.
Melancholy automat was a dark, empty hall of flickering lights; the only place open at 2:30AM when the bus back to base after a weekend in civvy street dispensed its young, tired cargo.
I remember several variations of that journey back from the exciting world of stolen kisses, distant family and fading friends still plodding their way through their school years while I served Queen and country: Portsmouth to Hellensburgh; Bexleyheath to Fareham. The worst of all was the journey from Sidcup to Torpoint and HMS Fisgard.
It started on Platform 2 at Sidcup Station (where the Rolling Stones began) and the 12¾ miles to Charing Cross. Then came the long, rumbling Circle Line trip to Paddington in time for the 4 hour train ride down to Plymouth. At Plymouth Station, it was short cab ride to Devonport and, most romantic in my misty memories, the long chug-a-lug of the Torpoint Ferry as it dragged itself along its heavy chains across the dark, forbidding Hamoaze.
By the time you got to the Cornwall side of the river you were well into the wee hours of the morning and, if you were lucky, could share a cab ride to the base and that was the moment when it hit you that you were in the Navy for real and for the foreseeable future. Then the short walk up the hill and the flash of the ID card to the bloke unlucky enough to be on gate duty at that time of the morning – those were my rituals until, finally, the automat.
The automat was the only place to get food at that hour and it was a place entirely transformed from the bustling, mechanical bazaar of the daytime. At night, there was just you and the whir of the carousel dispensing your stale pastie: desperately needed sustenance after so many hours of travel.
The main lights were always off and you were condemned to peer at your pastie in the ancient microwave oven – the same oven used by Admiral Nelson himself -Â lit intermittently by the brazen flashing of the video games. Those sounds are still fresh and familiar – from the ding-a-ling-a-ling! of the fruit machine to the Beep-beep-Boooooop! of Pole Position – until, eventually, the bright Ding! of the microwave would announce that it was time to wolf down my oggie before the sun came up and summoned me to my classes just a few, short hours later.
I didn’t think I’d ever finish this drawing. I thought my muse was gone. It happened before. I have a half-finished charcoal drawing of my wife that I started in 2001. I don’t know how many times I’ve picked up that drawing and stared at it, wondering how I would ever draw anything ever again.
I picked Hopper’s Automat precisely because it looked easy. I expected I’d be able to lose myself in the memories of automats past as my finger rubbed the image of Hopper’s lonely flapper girl onto the screen of my iPad but just the act of opening Art Studio was a challenge. The splash screen to me was Oglaf’s Muse or, more likely, her successor. Under her withering gaze, all confidence faded.
My previous painting had become a slog. My earliest finger-paintings took a mere hour or two each – no wonder The Impressionists were so prolific! – but copying the old masters was hard work and a drain on my enthusiasm. Hopper was easier but each time I fired up Art Studio the memory of Sassoferrato bade me close it down just as quickly. But it’s done now and the long, forgotten memories of automats past can go to back to the dark place where they so lately rested.