Dick French: On The Town – July 2020

Dick French
July/August 2020

Reading Pepys again about the plague of 1666. Not one for self-isolating, he was still enthusiastically putting it about: “Thence to Betty Martin and there did tout ce que je voudrais avec her and drank and away by water, home and to dinner. Down to Deptford, loaded half my goods and sent them away into safekeeping.” (He buried his parmesan in the garden.) “So back home and then I found occasion to return in the dark and to Mrs Bagwell, and there nudo in lecto con ella did all that I desired. But though I did intend para demorado con ella la noche, yet when I had done ce que je voudrais I did hate both ella and la cosa, and taking occasion from the uncertainty of sa marido’s return esta noche, did me levar and so away home”.

These are difficult times if you are trying to write about the antics of the ‘art world’. One can almost hear Sir Arthur Streeb-Greebling drawling… “Well I think the word difficult is awfully well chosen.” It’s like trying to extract a ping-pong ball from a nun.

I’ve been reading one of Huysman’s most unreadable novels. Called Là-Bas, the hero is trying to write a biography of Gilles de Rais,


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the notorious medieval mass murderer of children all over France. In the end he repented his sins and went to the stake rejoicing. The writer becomes obsessed with the wicked Madame Chantelouve, but when they get around to performing the deed of darkness he is repelled by her enthusiasm and lewdness. One of Madame Chantelouve’s chums is “a most puissant priest” who claimed to have saved nuns who had been incubus-ridden for two, three or four days” – lucky old nuns. There’s a great deal of diabolism and Madame Chantelouve is intimate with many perverted priests. Sounds like it should be interesting, but for some reason it isn’t. It must be the creeping religiosity. Huysmans became devout in the end as did many writers of the period.

Beardsley is thought to have died a convert. I’m not so sure. Some have suggested that his swing to the church was more to keep André Raffalovich sweet as he sent him regular cheques. Raffalovich was a Russian Jew converted to Catholicism and a keen saver of souls. It was he and Smithers who kept the poor chap going in the end.

Brian Reade wrote of “the friendly talons closing in around him.” I think this is close to the truth. Beardsley’s driving force was mischief.

More on local characters … She seems to glide along the market as her gown trails the ground. All in white layers, even a white headdress and veil she must spend a lot of time at the washing machine. Years ago when I lived on Parkway in Camden Town there was a similar all-white woman. But she was more off the shoulder, sexier, but that was more than 20 years ago – maybe it’s the same woman. She was a great friend of Tullio De’Nardis, the Parkway crimper. Marvellous chap; he used to do Brazilians in the back. In the end he had to banish her from the salon as she insisted on smoking. I’ve got a feeling that when she gets home she has a great white table prepared for a feast with a crumbling wedding cake covered in cobwebs.

I’ve just discovered the Spanish word for gusset. It’s entretella, so instead of saying I’m as dry as a nun’s knickers (to my Spanish friends in Bradleys) I can now get it right: “Ay caramba, estoy tan seco como la entretela de una monja!” None of them had ever heard of a 404 Not Found gusset. I had to draw one for them … not easy.

Don’t worry it gets better. Did you know that Burne-Jones was Kipling’s uncle? “You may talk o’ gin and beer/when you’re quartered safe out ‘ere, an’ you’re sent to penny-fights an’ Aldershot it, but when it comes to slaughter/you will do

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your work on water, an’ lick the bloomin’ boots of’im that’s got it.”

A wonderful euphemism for being gay I’ve just discovered: “He’s light on the loafers.” And this brings us to … I’ve just added to the list of Lockdown’s Heroic Deeds by reading the new biography of Andy Warhol. Over 900 pages.

“You’re a killer of art, you’re a killer of beauty and you’re a killer of laughter.” So said Willem de Kooning to Warhol at a party. “Oh gee, I’ve always liked your paintings,” came the reply. There was no way of getting to him, he absorbed everything like a sponge. Someone said it was like being with a handful of fog. Before he slipped crab-wise into the fine art world he made a good living as an illustrator, mainly of shoes and boots. He did them in a blotted style transferring the wet drawing to the other side of the page by folding. They were much in demand. He was still churning them out while becoming famous as a pop artist, or rather one of his assistants was.

Paul Morrissey, his right hand man for longer than most, described him as “autistic, dyslexic, frightened, timid, and with no artistic instincts.” So why do people take him so seriously? Why were so many sucked into his orbit? After all, he was smelly and had crabs. A lifelong addiction to valium caused chronic constipation and he required a daily enema, which I imagine was no great inconvenience. His earnings from the world of commercial art enabled him to take a lease on a large mid-town industrial space which came to be known as The Factory. He had it decked out in silver foil by his friend Billy Name. It was very groovy and became his web. Drugs of all kinds were available, speed being the favourite at first. They didn’t get going on coke until the ’70s, even though it’s much better for you than speed. After all, it is organic, even if it does blow a hole in your nose.

I feel that the author Blake Gopnik is overly enamoured of his subject and his acolytes. How about this – “Billy Name and his gorgeous and sometimes naked friends from the dance world”… There is a “gorgeous and patrician curator called Sam Wagstaff.”

Perhaps the greatest hoot of all … one of the Campbell’s soup prints he describes as “the single greatest image in art painting as we know it.” As he knows it perhaps. The fact that the soups came in 32 different flavours is somehow linked to Bach’s 32 Goldberg Variations. 

A one-time favourite, Freddie Herko, danced out of a fifth-floor window leaving our Svengali to moan “Oh why didn’t he tell us he was going to do it. We could have been there and filmed it.” He expressed similar sentiments about Edie Sedgwick, one time superstar and favoured bit of art candy. He knew that she was going to destroy herself and just wanted to be in on the occasion. He missed out on her overdose of downers a year or so later.

Maybe his disarming sense of idiocy went some way to alleviate the effect of his passive sadism.

There was enormous rivalry between Warhol’s downtown crowd and Bob Dylan’s upstate lot. Downtown it was all speed, heroin and poppers. For Dylan it was bogey weed and acid. Both sides were totally drug-addled. Edie Sedgwick went backwards and forwards between the two camps. “Napoleon in rags” was Dylan’s phrase for Warhol and he wrote Like a Rolling Stone about Edie Sedgwick. “How does it feel? How does it feel?” Well I suppose it was pretty numb most of the time.

I enjoyed this book. It’s full of fascinating details and the author evokes the period very well. Warhol had dreadful rectal problems, anal warts and a fissure.

When he was bleeding to death in the back of the ambulance after being shot by Valerie Solanas, the driver turned round and said “For an extra 15 dollars I can turn the siren on.” Solanas only got three years and was bailed after one. The first thing she did on release was to phone the studio and ask to come around. Morrissey dissuaded her. She wanted to bring round her manifesto for The Society for Cutting up Men, or SCUM.

Warhol was said to have become religious towards the end. I think it was more the camp religious iconography that appealed to him.