Saturday, 2 February 2008

A Brush with fame

When I told her that an Art Club wanted to paint me, the Head Ferret said “I hope you are not going to take your clothes off” and I said “It is not that sort of modelling. They are a very respectable group of portrait painters who meet every week and they think I have an interesting face.”

“It is not your face that worries me,” said the Ferret unkindly. “The secretary of the group is Lady President of my Golf Club. Not only that,” continued the Ferret, anxious to show me how serious she was, “she has recently lowered her handicap.
I do not want you lowering the tone by immodest display.”

For once the Ferret was worrying unnecessarily, though I do make a practice of not taking her seriously.

In most things in life I follow the example set by Dean Martin. Urged by Sinatra to be serious, he said he had tried being serious and all he could get was construction work. ”Do you want a hernia at $3.50 an hour?” he asked.

Although, like Martin, I avoid being serious, standing as we are in the deepening twilight of Armageddon, it is time to look at the cultural hysteria which pervades our society. Art Schools which despise drawing and painting; efforts to ban the teaching of history; self regarding authors who are much bought and little read; nations bound together by an indissoluble hysteria, the Diana syndrome.

It was not always so. During the Middle Ages and Renaissance artists were tradesmen who put in tenders and the only art permitted was representation of religious subjects. Any landscapes were purely incidental background. Painters ground or brewed their own paints. It was only very gradually that the landscapes grew until they covered the whole canvas.
Each generation learned from the last and added something to the body of knowledge. As the Welsh artist Sir Kyffin Williams said, they were building a mansion room by room. (Which gives me the opportunity to tell you can get the biography I have written about him “A Figure in a Welsh Landscape” on Amazon any time now.)

In time the notion that art was something special grew. Artists were classed with poets and musicians. The discovery of the spectrum in the porcelain industry, the camera, squeezable paint, the prints and watercolours of the East all added to this body of learning and skill.

Then along came Picasso, the worst thing that has happened to art. He was a genius who mastered art in all its forms and traditions and then threw them aside. He could, and indeed did, make a work of art out of a saddle and handlebars. Because it looked easy he had imitators.

The next enemy was a man called Coldstream. In the 40s and 50s he ruled the world of art in Britain. He was a prey to American culture and sent a very fine colourist Ray Howard Jones and her boyfriend, another Ray, to study methods in American Art schools.

Years later Ray Howard Jones told me they discovered that in America drawing was no longer taught, tradition was despised and free expression was the aim. That was imported by Coldstream and his cohorts and the destruction of representational art followed as their pupils became teachers and curators.

Advertising guru Charles Saatchi has continued the debasement. He picks unknown artists fresh from college, buys their work cheaply and in bulk, publicises them, arranges exhibitions, and then when their prices soar sells their work.

All this dyspeptic ranting was brought upon by reading a quote from Damien Hirst: “I remember a time, and it was not all that long ago, when I could not give my paintings away.”

The Good Old Days?

My great chum Masha (Lady Williams) was an obvious choice for interview in “Times Remembered”, the R4 series I was offered.

She was a genuine Russian Princess, the widow of a titled diplomat. Her family had been forced to flee Russia when the revolution broke out and landed up penniless in London. They used jam jars as cups and orange boxes as furniture.

Things were so bad that her mother ordered her father to get a job.
“A job?” he said. “But I cannot do anything.”

She said, “You could be a servant. We had four hundred serfs, you must have some idea what they did.” He said the only one he had come into contact with was his butler.

“Very well,” said Masha’s mother, and they looked down the adverts for a “butler wanted”.

Beautifully attired, the Prince presented himself at the house which had advertised its need. Naturally, he went to the front door, having no idea there were such things as side doors for tradesmen. The maid who opened the door thought he was a luncheon guest and showed him into the drawing room.

As other guests arrived, he assumed they were also after the job but he chatted amiably to them and was doubly courteous to his host and hostess.

“I do like your Russian friend,” the host told his wife.

“MY Russian friend?” she said. “He is not my friend. I thought he was yours. “

Unobtrusively the host drew the Prince on one side and questioned him. The Prince said he had come about the job as butler.

“Butler?” said the host. “I couldn’t employ you. I would be waiting on you.”

He did a great deal more. He gave the Prince an allowance and paid for the education of the young princesses.

Masha’s London house was on the edge of Hampstead Heath. We sat before a roaring log fire on an autumn afternoon in her L-shaped drawing room, with the producer and recording engineer out of sight in the angle of the L.

Masha had a lovely voice, lightly accented and musical. The room was very hot and I was resting in a winged armed chair, accompanied, as always, by a hangover. It all acted on me like Mogadon and I slept soundly during the entire interview. Not a question or a response of any kind. I woke in the silence at the end of the interview.

Masha hadn’t noticed; the producer had been so carried away she hadn’t noticed and engineers don’t notice anything as long as someone is talking.
So I resolved the keep stumm and wait for the wrath of the Radio 4 Mighty to break over my head. I thought it was the end of my broadcasting career. In the event, it was the best thing I ever did. The BBC was inundated with calls of congratulation from listeners for its brilliance in finding an interviewer who didn‘t interrupt.

I think of Masha every morning as I listen to “Today” and the poor souls who are being interviewed by James Naughtie Of The Interminable Question, trying desperately to get a word in.


In a story from the Derry Journal, I learned of a Northern Ireland bank official who decided on a spot check on a branch office in the Inishowen area. He found the door locked even though it was half an hour before closing time.
Letting himself in with a pass key, he spotted four members of staff playing cards in a back room and, determined to give them a shock, he rang the burglar alarm.
Immediately, the bar tender from across the street arrived with four bottles of Guinness,


dino martin peters said...

hey pallie skidmore, loves the Dinomention and Dinoquotation so much....and I try to emulate our Dino in all Dinothin's! Never was, never will be anyone as cool as our King of Cool. Oh, to return to the days when Dino walked the earth!

Rogue Spy 007 said...

I try to live my life like Dean Martin. There's never been a guy as cool and hip as Dino. He oozed more coolness in his little finger than most guys in their whole bodies. We would do well to emulate him. He showed us how to live life to the fullest. He was so easy-going, laid back, and carefree in all he did. Cheers!