Dick French: On The Town – September 2020

Dick French
September/October 2020

It’s not true that King Juan Carlos is hiding out in Bradley’s Spanish Bar. He only used that cupboard under the stairs while waiting for one of those posh penthouses over the road to be readied for him. Although it is true that he was reluctant to leave after falling for the abundant charms of barmaid Mimi, who at the moment is playing hard to get. I don’t know what his mistress, La Wittgenstein, is going to make of it. Poor old Juan Carlos de Borbón, him with the gammy leg he got shooting African wildlife – elephants are thin on the ground in the West End.

The Sage writes from The Grotto: a cautionary tale for anyone thinking of deserting the city for country life with all its joys. Excessive rain caused his septic tank to overflow and back up into the house. He had to spend £200 hiring something called a “gulley sucker”. He also tells of a local pub landlord, an ex-farmer, who has erected an electric fence in front of his bar counter.

I’ve been reading

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Philip Ziegler’s book about the 14th century Black Death and its social consequences. There was an upsurge of class hatred and after a while a feeling of acceptance, followed by a compulsion to go out and have a good time. There was “a spirited battle between monks and townsmen in Hull, but such affrays in Hull were practically a local sport.” There aren’t so many monks around these days but the compulsion to go out and have a good time survives. When you take statins you don’t need a plague to be haunted by dream images of pestilence and death.

Nobody will ever know what really happened to Vincent van Gogh. He is supposed to have shot himself in the Champ de Blés after painting the cornfield with crows. But that picture was made ten 404 Not Found days before his death. It’s true that he was very worried about his brother Theo, his main source of income and materials, who was also beginning to show the familial traits of mental instability and had quarrelled with his gallery Boussod et Valadon. He was also syphilitic. He became increasingly berserk and died only a few months after Vincent. On the other hand, following his arrival in Auvers, Vincent was on a roll. He was producing a painting a day and he was mentally at peace and under the care of Dr Gachet, a queer fish and homeopath described by Vincent as “even crazier than I am”. But I think generally he was probably a good sort.

A book by Stephen Naifeh and Gregory White Smith which I’ve just read suggests that Vincent was shot accidentally by two teenage brothers who had been persecuting him for weeks. Many reviewers have pooh-poohed the idea but it strikes me as very interesting. They were both obsessed by Buffalo Bill whose Wild West Show had captivated Paris the previous year. One of them had a pistol thought to be a .38 revolver. The boys also had stage connections and knew some of the girls from the Moulin Rouge who would sometimes arrive in Auvers for a break. They would get these girls to flirt with Vincent, whom they regarded as just a smelly old clochard. One of them put it about that they had caught him tossing off in the woods.

If he had intended suicide why shoot himself in the stomach, a most disagreeable way to go? And if he shot himself in the Champ de Blés what happened to his easel and equipment, not to mention the painting? Emile Bernard said he dumped all his stuff in a haystack. But it’s possible that the shooting took place in a courtyard close to where he was staying. A woman claims she saw a courtyard full of smoke. It’s certain that the boys were tormenting him, not least because Vincent was unable for some reason to pronounce Buffalo Bill, which always came out as Puffalo Pill. They found this hilarious. One of them slipped a grass snake into his paint box and mucked about with his cadmium red, expensive stuff.

Lots of people saw him staggering back to the Café de la Mairie where he was lodging. When Theo arrived he found Vincent calmly sitting up in bed puffing on his pipe. The bullet hole was small and there wasn’t much blood. The bullet itself was never extracted, none of the doctors in attendance being qualified to attempt


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this. I hope they fed him painkillers. The bullet had been fired from some distance and at an odd angle. I’m sure that a 38 calibre bullet fired into the stomach would come out the other side. It may have been something smaller, like a .22 more suited to a teenager’s gun. There is a strong possibility that he was shot accidentally during horse play.

“N’accuse personne, c’est moi qui a voulu me suicider.” Why did Vincent say this? Gaston and René Secrétan, the brothers, went on to have successful careers, one in banking the other in film music. One wonders about the secrets of the confessional…

During Vincent’s stay, Auvers-sur-Oise was popular with amateur painters on account of the Barbizon ‘plein air’ style of painting. Other artists did not regard Vincent very highly. “Quel est le cochon qui a fait cela?” said one visitor about Vincent’s work.