Dick French: On The Town – January 2017

“For we know it’s right, it’s in black and white, and it’s written down in his diary.”

The immortal words of Benny Hill came to mind as I purchased the complete set of Samuel Pepys’s diaries for fifty quid. This pleased me exceedingly as such a set can usually cost – the venality of bookmongers being so great – well over a hundred. In an old box outside the same shop I discovered a full set of Reginald Perrin videos for just £2. “I didn’t get where I am today without rummaging around in old boxes.”

Up very betimes and to my workroom and then by omnibus to the alehouse in St Martin’s Lane for my morning draught. By and by comes Mrs Cravat and Calamity Jane. The daughter, a comely wench who weareth the lipsticke, is a rug muncher withal, so dalliance is ill-advised. She runs an alehouse on Warren Street clept The Smugglers and is needed become so tattooed that she resembles a very privateer herself. They provide there a cocke-tail called The Black Spot of rum coffee, sassafrass and jaggery – a vicious little nip. They dined upon neat’s tongue and an udder which did please them exceedingly. But I demurred as my appetite is grown delicate betimes and doth not revive until the evening.

Returning to my workroom I continue my series of diverse, lewd, impious and obscene drawings, representing men and women in the act of carnal copulation.

I pondered awhile on that cunning jade Miss Prickens, whose proclivities are the talk of both Whitehall and Covent Garden. She hath abilities beyond those of most women and is said to perform The Whirligig. I decided to send her a message by my boy, e’en though I knew she would be busy.

To Hampstead to purchase art materials. Whatever happened to Bird and Davis of Kentish Towne? I went there one morning and they had disappeared. The art shop in Hampstead provides carrier bags bearing the legend “Let’s fill this town with artists!” What a horrible thought.

Just downhill from the art shoppe is an alehouse, The Flask. I was enjoying a morning livener of winter warmer when I noticed that a new beauty salon had opened across the way. It advertised “wart and verruca removal”. I had no idea the good folk of Hampstead suffered such low afflictions. So much for the Chalybeate spring waters… obviously not all they’re cracked up to be. And so I begin to learn modern expressions.

Down river to Bankside, there to attend an exhibition of curious art pictures in a converted power station. They are by an American fellow, Robert Rauschenberg. To enter this show one must part with £15. I could hire an able bodied seaman at 21 shillings a month for well over a year for this exorbitant sum. A socialite with a finger in many a pie, and a bugger withal, Rauschenberg could not fail, nor did he. The paintings are a congeries of sundry miscellaneous rubbidge, two of which, Charlene and Gold Standard, I liked exceedingly. That latter incorporates a small dog of the sort to be found on record labels. Yellow overall; and projecting some distance from the wall and across the floor. Charlene is mostly a red piece with a segmented circle in the top right hand corner. Both works look much better in photographs, the cheap paint having deteriorated unpleasantly.

In another room a collection of drawings with not a line in sight. Instead they are transferred from newspaper cuttings with the aid of lighter fluid. They are said ‘to deal with’ Dante’s Inferno. This technique has for decades been used by schoolchildren and I remember it being much discouraged as lazy.

A most amusing piece is a large shallow tank filled with streaming and occasionally erupting sloppy clay. It reminded me of the snood of porridge looked after lovingly by Adam Lambsbreath in Cold Comfort Farm. “Nat nay nivver say that Robert Poste’s child and to think that I cowdled thee as a mommet.”

A number of ballet performances are displayed on televisions. The dancers are trolloping about with umbrellas stuck to their backs. I found them unbearably ‘artistic’ and whimsical.

He did some amusing things with corrugated cardboard but over a long career there was very little development. He finished as he started, a respected member of the institutional avant-garde, and he never drew a line.

I forgot to mention that on my way to the show I was looking forward exceedingly to the “iconic upwardly soaring escalators” about which I had read so much, and I was not disappointed. Up they soar and down they swoop, although swoop is a misnomer as progress is effective but stately. On my final descent I lighted on the basement, a cavernous space of great cacophony and flashing lights. By and by I realised I was in the midst of a prodigious thunderstorm, but without the wetness thereof and it did please me to wander about up and down.

Back over the bridge and up to St Paul’s to catch an omnibus, but the traffic so bad that I light on Ludgate Hill and proceed on foot to St Martin’s Lane. Pausing by and by at an ale house in Bull Alley to meet Mrs Bagwell where I had great enjoyment. “Apres avant toccado les mamelles que erant ouvert como siempre, she made shift to fudle mi cosa, but I demurred, it being too publique. ‘Some other time Mrs Bagwell. I am after all in charge of the Royal Navy’. ‘Oh rum bum and concertina!’, she cackled as she flounced off to the company of a bunch of knaves in the next room.

On betimes to The Salisbury where talk was of that impertinent prating coxcomb Widow Twankey. I would happily see him in the ducking stool were it not that he would probably enjoy it. It would make a good television programme withal, introduced by that tedious pricke Melvyn Barg. Picture the scene. On the banks of the Thames, strapped in with the chair raised to its highest extent, his still dry party frock is caught in a gust of wind and, flying up, reveals a pair of crisp Y fronts. Perry, his secret revealed, is mortified and begs to be released, but it is too late, the beam is already descending.

Bob Rhodes, artist, friend and dandy has just written to say he is dying of brain cancer and has three months. An unusual man, the like of whom I’ve never met before or since, his sartorial ideal was the striding figure on the Johnny Walker label to which end he always wore tight white trousers and a red crushed velvet long jacket and a neckstock. I was always jealous of his buggers’ grips as I’ve never been able to grow them. I’ve written before here about The School of Pubism which flourished at Sheffield Art School in the mid-’60s. Bob Rhodes was King of the Pubists. The things he could do with chammy leather, kapok and a bit of gloss paint would make your eyes pop out. It was like a desecration of Pop Art. The greatest compliment in those times was for an observer to say “Ooh that’s really sick!” Later on he turned to sculpture and then a series of constructions based on Art Deco cinemas. Some of these were painted Day-Glo pink on the back so that on a white wall they seemed to be hovering in a halo. After moving to Ironbridge in Shropshire he turned his attention to Coalbrookdale. He was keen on the idea that the power station at the end of the gorge created a micro-climate. Whatever its theme his work was always meticulously well made. A later theme was of ruined holiday resorts evoking scenes from J G Ballard.

A curious thing about Coalbrookdale is that the people who live there have mining rights to their gardens. Bob was rather proud of this, but as far as I knew he never took advantage. He never married but I remember a series of unusual and sometimes spectacular girlfriends, one of whom he kept in a hut in the garden.

Bob was a champion gurner though he never used a horse’s collar. He always cracked up the opposition by dribbling. I’ll never forget his 21st birthday party when he drank 21 whiskys and ended up in the model’s dais with just his foot poking out. A conscientious tutor, Dave Smith, noticed the problem and took him to the hospital to have his stomach pumped. He was back in the pub by 8.30.

Bob was also an intrepid potholer. I remember once, deep under Stoney Middleton, dragging him out of a sump on the end of a piece of clothes line. (A sump is when the roof dips down under the water and you go through it hoping to find air on the other side.) Having a carbide lamp on the front of his helmet, he was the best equipped. We were all so ill-kitted it’s a wonder any of us survived.

Dick French
The Jackdaw, Jan/Feb 2017