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,

Sunday, 27 January 2008

Ph Dunces

A small group of brainy young Ph Ds sit in the heart of every bank developing its strategy. The size of their bonuses is dictated by the amount of money they make. One group decided to make money by lending money to poor Americans, canvassed by salesmen whose salary depended on how many clients they brought it. Although they must have known their clients would be unable to repay, they bundled up the worthless mortgages into bonds and sold them to Pension Funds and other banks. Another small group of brainy Ph Ds tucked them away without first examining them. Yet another brainy youth lost his bank billions without anyone noticing. That is the reason why the world is in recession.

Among the hardest hit are another group of brilliant young men who emerged forty or so years ago. They were called asset strippers. They bought flourishing companies and some that were less so, sold their assets, threw out their workers and closed down their factories. The financial community treated them with contempt.

They are still with us, but have become very respectable. Despite the fact that they buy up companies about which they know nothing, with money they haven’t got, and have to borrow from banks which now refuse to lend it because they do not trust each other. In a world where trust is an essential ingredient and cannot function without it.

I know so little about mathematics that, having spent all my life on a monthly income, I have been unable to work out how much I earn a week. Even so, given those facts, I think I might have worked out the result. It is not surprising that a mere recital of the causes of the credit crisis gave the satirists Bird and Fortune material for one of their funniest routines,

Perhaps that Incomparable Duo should look at another of the unreliable planks on which we walk unsteadily across the chasm of existence: Time.

Time is a majority verdict. If a thousand clocks said half past three, it would be a bold watch which insisted it was 4 pm. Different parts of our country used to have different times. It was the coming of the railway which united them. Stations are long gone from many communities, but the tyranny of time remains. At its most extreme, shops in Corwen, North Wales, close for lunch an hour early to accommodate the arrival of a train which no longer runs to a station eliminated by Dr Beeching.

Corwen is a town still obsessed with its railway, which now awaits the arrival of the private railway from Llangollen which is recovering the old track. In the graveyard is an epitaph to Owen Owen, a driver who died at 29. It reads:

“His life is over
Death has put on the brake,
His soul has been signalled
Its long journey to make.
When death sounds his whistle
The steam of life fails
And his mortal clay shunted
Till the Last Judgement calls.”

Time is a notional notation. If we travel aboard we quite often arrive before we have left Britain. Doesn’t bother us, but we suffer early darkness for the benefit of a minority of Highland crofters whose preference for light mornings rules us all.

One would have thought that with devolved government might go devolved time keeping. I passionately believe that Scotland should misrule itself in the way the Scots have misruled Britain in recent years and I am happy for them to start the morning in a blaze of sunlight.

My old man reckoned his greatest moment came during the siege of Erskine Street, in Manchester, where a desperate gang of IRA terrorists were trapped in a bedroom, armed with more guns than were passed round at the Alamo.

Whilst his inspector paused, wondering what to do without causing casualties, my old man charged up the stairs firing so wildly that his inspector called out, “Get that bloody gun off Skidmore before he kills us all.”

The IRA gang surrendered to a man, but not before my father was shot in his head. In later years he became convinced it was his inspector who shot him out of self interest.

The IRA men got life but, in the way things are, they were shortly afterwards paroled and went on to a life of luxury. When I came out of the army my old man took me to Eire, where there was no rationing, to buy me a suit of clothes.

In Mooney’s bar in Dublin he reminisced about Erskine Street and the man called Shaugnessy who shot him. He asked the barman what became of him. “As rich as Guinness himself,” the barman said. “He manages the dog track at Phoenix Park.”

At the park we asked for Mr Shaughnessy and the girl behind the office counter asked, “Who shall I say wants him?”

“Tell him it’s the man he shot in the head,“ said my old man.

Minutes later, a man the size of a Connemara Cliff burst into the office and grabbed my old man warmly by both hands. “There was nothing personal,” he said. “It was political and no offence meant.”

“And none taken,“ said my old man magnanimously. “Anyway, it was my inspector that did it.”

After a few moments of surreal conversation, Shaughnessy took my father’s race card and marked a dog in every race. I backed them all and they all obliged - until the one in the last race which went down spectacularly with my evening’s winnings.

My old man, who had not bet on a single dog, had a terrific evening being smug. As we trudged out of the stadium, he said, “I knew that would happen. The last time I met yon bastard he shot me in the heed.”




“Thieves stole a coffin at Kiberia Legio Maria Church last Saturdy while mourners were in the church praying.
The incident occurred at Kamera Labu Sama in Nairobi. Followers went berserk when they learned the coffin had been stolen as they prayed.
Pastor Peter Iama said the coffin, which had cost Shs 3,000, contained perfume worth Shs 1,700.

He said: ‘We decided to keep the coffin by the door while we all went in for special prayers. I sent one of our followers to get help in bringing the coffin in but it had already been stolen.’”