Saturday, 15 September 2007

Having your portrait painted is being interviewed in Technicolor. So when the Beaumaris, Anglesey, artist Ishbel McWhirter sought to paint mine, I hovered between being flattered and being frightened. I had spent a lifetime constructing a caricature behind which to hide. Bit late now to break cover.
Nothing, however, succeeds like flattery. So I went to her superb glass-walled studio overlooking the Menai Straits at Glyn Garth. In less time than it took to tell my life story she painted not one, but four, two of which I bought. Not out of conceit but because the portraits were such perceptive interviews I did not want them falling into the hands of strangers. Like the African tribesmen who will not be photographed because they fear the camera will capture their soul.
The first surprise was how quickly McWhirter works. At the end of the two-hour sitting I was already there, trapped on the canvas, spinnaker belly and all. She was attracted to me, she said, because of the flowing silk handkerchief I wear in my top pocket. Not the noble brow, the classic profile. Clearly the lady has much to learn about flattery though nothing about painting.
She was taught by the best. She was the favourite pupil of the Austrian painter Oskar Kokoschka, a founder of the Expressionist movement and in post-war Europe a name as revered as Picasso and Matisse. Kokoschka's talent as a portrait painter was frightening. In his day he was said to have manipulated a psychological tin opener to prize out the recesses of the soul.
So well did he teach McWhirter that after his death in 1980 she was the only one of his pupils to be invited to exhibit in a retrospective of his work at the archive museum at his birthplace Pöchlarn, outside Vienna.
But I paint in the background too early. The outline first. McWhirter was born in Prestatyn in 1927 and Kokoschka was the second genius she met. Her first was the pioneering educationalist A.S. Neill who founded the controversial Summerhill School where she was educated. He thought so highly of her he used the portrait she painted of him as the cover for his autobiography.
I think of myself as one of God’s more obvious jokes, a sort of walking Baboushka doll, with a face not so much lived in as trampled upon by time and deep self indulgence. The only time I have ever been complimented on my figure was by a lady in our Welsh village, Brynsiencyn. “Never mind Mr Skidmore,” she consoled me one day, “you are very thin, from the back.”
Perhaps that is why I have fourteen caricatures and two pot statuettes of myself. The pencil and the potter’s wheel plainly find me irresistible.


In 1950 Roly Watkins, the news editor of the Daily Mirror and a close friend, described me as unemployable. I have fulfilled that early promise by having been sacked from trade magazines, news agencies, weekly and evening newspapers, provincial and national dailies, a rival blog, TV and the BBC.

Will it never end? At 78 I have been sacked yet again. This time by my doctor from his “Fitness for the Future” Clinic. Well, not so much sacked. I failed the entrance examination on grounds of lack of motivation. When he put my name down I wrote to him to say I would be very glad when the future is over and what I was looking for was parole not an extension to my life sentence.

The first time I was out of work it was Christmas time. I met Bob Ashton, then doing the gossip diary for the Manchester Evening News. He said, "Do not suppose you will be having much of a Christmas?"

I said, "If I wanted a mince pie I would have to buy it on H.P. We will be out on Xmas Day because it is warmer out than it is in the house and I have promised the kids we will go to Curry’s to watch the Queen's Speech through the window. Then we are going to a park to mug robins for their breadcrumbs."

"Not having a bird on The Day then?"

"Not unless I can grab one of the robins as we steal their breadcrumbs."

He said, "Why don't you nip down to the poultry market at Shudehill just before it closes on Xmas Eve? They practically give birds away.

"Then," he said, "come to the Press Party at the Continental Cinema on Market Street. I will wait for you in the foyer and smuggle you in.”

So I did.

I picked up a chicken with my last half crown and went to the party, where I set up a record for drinking free scotch and eating vol-au-vents unbroken for many years.

Then this guest said, "Let's play rugby."

Another guest said, "We haven't got a ball."

A third guest said, "Yes, we have," and grabbed the parcel of chicken from where it had been roosting under my arm. Everyone but me applauded the skill with which the next guest, a rather showy chap, executed a back pass with my parcel between his legs.

I was less pleased than anyone when the next guest followed through with a drop kick.

It was powerful, I will say that.

It sent the parcel soaring across the foyer, out into Market Street, over the heads of the passers-by, to drop, perfectly positioned, under the tyre of a passing bus.

They were all very apologetic. The manager of the cinema particularly. He said he hoped the parcel hadn't contained anything important. I said, no, it was just a chicken I got for tea on Boxing Night.

For the rest of the party I was a bit thoughtful, though I did manage to clock up a further freeloader's record of eight scotch and a round dozen vol-au-vents.

At the death, the manager came up and gave me a parcel. "I hope you will accept this replacement with our apologies," he said.

It was a twelve pound turkey.

Which would have been nice... but we didn't have an oven at the time, just a gas grill. So we had to cook it a leg at a time.



Asha Stephen said...

Dear Goodness!!! I just found out that you are famous! I don't think anyone famous has ever deigned to comment on my blog before. It's quite a mercy that I am typing this... were I to speak, I'd probably be blabbering!

Asha Stephen said...

Oops... I meant to thank you too for your comment and the time you took to read my blog.