Where the Bodies are Buried – the complete book online - Sunday, 12th June

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Sunday, 12th June

It took up a full page in the heaviest of the Sunday newspapers. The headline ran: ‘Through the Keyhole: an Eternal Vision,’ and a colour photograph framed by a keyhole shape filled the top half of the broadsheet. In a corner of the black frame around the keyhole appeared a monochrome photograph of Bartholomew taken twenty years ago at the tiller of a Westowe smack. The same photograph hung at this moment just above my head on the wall of the sailing club. The by-line was that of the formidable Jennifer Lillicrap, the doyenne of London’s art critics.


Bartholomew Streb sailed out to sea one balmy August morning and was not heard from again for a lengthy interval. Then one day a few weeks ago in the West Country village where he was born his body surfaced. In the way of the world, his posthumous re­appearance has provoked paeans of praise for Westowe’s prodigal son.

A similar narrative would describe the corpus of his work. He was a gadfly who buzzed about on the fringes of every new art movement since the Second World War, from hard-edged abstract to op art to pop. Two decades ago, after his first and only London exhibition, a teasing fractious visual charivari which was generally rejected (though not by this critic) as lightweight and derivative, he quietly spun off the scene. His brief popularity and his prices had been buoyed up by the post-Warhol tide of enthusiasm for novelty, and when market demand ebbed for large paintings by the camp-followers of post-war Modern British Art, his reputation submerged gently into obscurity. According to his artistic executor, Malcolm Goodfellow, who is Christeby’s West Country representative, Bartholomew Streb in his mid-forties simply seemed to run out of ideas. The view from London was that, harking to the Zeitgeist, he stopped the world and got off. In fact, far from drifting in conceptual doldrums, he had embarked on a lonely, obsessive journey that lasted the rest of his life. It must now be acknowledged, on the basis of the posthumous unveiling yesterday of a single great work, that Bartholomew Streb was one of this century’s greatest conceptual innovators. The artistic tragedy is that, apart from this masterpiece, which will never be exhibited outside of Westowe, his other paintings of the past twenty years (and we are told there were many experimental forays), like the artist himself, no longer exist. Only this remains: it is his highly personal vanishing point.

Embittered by the critical reception of his London exhibition he told no one of the secret of his last work, except his widow, his dark muse Angela, who tends his flame in the sprawling Victorian house which broods over Westowe harbour, and also in the work itself. For she is its central conception, an eternal vision of the Madonna and Child, in a metaphysical world, glimpsed from our terrestrial plane — through a keyhole.

The work resonates with the fabulous keyhole construction of Marcel Duchamp’s old age, ‘Given 1) The Waterfall, 2) The Illuminating Gas’ and Schreilter’s ‘Merzbau’ series, those tedious environmental constructions of three-dimensional walk-in closets, but, anachronistically, it anticipates them both. Whereas Duchamp’s inner glimpse seems haphazard and quaintly decorative, and Schreilter’s rustic conceptions are bleak, anonymous cupboards into which you are meant to project your own meaning, Bartholomew Streb commands your eye to see his world as he does.

It is an intensely personal experience, because his creation is strictly one-to-one. It can be viewed by only one person at a time, through a peephole in an old wooden door. An environmental installation fills a stone dungeon in an 18th century fort hewn out of the rock hovering on the very lip of the Westowe estuary. It is so realistic it makes you gasp. The centre is commanded by a life-size plaster cast of a naked woman, covered in iridescent sequins like fish scales, legs immodestly arranged to draw the eye to her genitalia, which are fringed with seaweed. She reclines on a bed of polished pebbles against a tromp-l’oeil seascape of grim cliffs, threatening wind-whipped waves of white spume and clouds bruised purple by a throbbing red and yellow-streaked sunset descending into a swirling collage of dead leaves, which the eye eventually deciphers as news-cuttings and photographic images of the past quarter-century.

According to Mr Goodfellow, the nude’s lower body is almost certainly that of his frequent model and former mistress, Gwendolyn Smythe, but above the waist, the bared flesh of breasts and shoulders, shimmering through the gloom in eerie green chatoyance, is that of his widow, Angela. She sits in the traditional melancholic attitude of ‘The Pieta’, both arms hanging down at the same angle as the dangling hair. Yet the body she holds is not her grown son. The tragedy is pre-figured. She is suckling a sickly child whose skin is fashioned from parchment. We catch only a glimpse of its face, and it wears the hideously realistic shrivelled old man’s look of the just-born infant, but — and here’s the twist — a strategically placed wisp of seaweed signals that this Jesu is female. In dismay a fat pink cherubim with a pig’s flat snout and pointed ears flaps in the wrong direction, away from the Madonna, casting an appalled glance over his shoulder. In Bartholomew Streb’s world pigs do fly, but this plaster heavyweight, laden with shame, will surely soon crash to earth. The stuffed owl perched on Madonna’s shoulder is more steadfast. It is real, as is the large stuffed hound, traditional symbol of cuckoldry, which sits baying at the Virgin’s feet. The child cradled in her elbow is echoed above by the rising full moon caught in an arm of driftwood above Madonna’s head. It surmounts her like a halo and her face is the inevitable, final focus of the work — because it alone is not three-dimensional. Mounted on those bare alabaster shoulders in an ornate oval gilt frame, is a breathtakingly rendered conventional oil portrait of a dark-haired woman. She looks straight at you (don’t forget you and she are alone here) serene and confident, out of that terrible chaos, and her clear-eyed gaze is spell-binding. But she is reassuringly ordinary; you could meet her on Saturday in any Sainsbury’s, and this calms you.

This is Angela. You have seen her already. A stately, almost mystic presence presiding at the private view exhibition in her long black dress, she is extremely reluctant to speak about her late husband’s work, and it seemed unkind to press her. However, the prospectus says that Bartholomew Streb created ‘Angel Child’, as he named this work, over a period of many years. Though he experimented with many other styles, he threw all his later pictures away (into the sea conveniently nearby) but would return to this work again and again, fussing with it endlessly. Angela helped him gather the pebbles and bits of fish-net, shells and rust-encrusted old iron which adorn it, from the rock pools and beaches of Westowe.

Even today’s viewers subdued to nonchalance by the sight of various cuts of animals’ bodies preserved in formaldehyde and plastic will be shocked by ‘Angel Child,’ surely the weirdest work of art on display anywhere west of Boundary Road, St John’s Wood. And of all places it is permanently enshrined in Westowe, South Devon. Indelible, enigmatic, at once obscene and ennobling, this hagioscopic invention is Bartholomew Streb’s last laugh at the art world, and his triumph. When the new wave of post-Impressionism swept aside the realistic, controlled draughtsmanship of Augustus John in the wake of the 1910 London show, (and Duchamp’s manufactured works of the same period, where beauty resides in the eye of the beholder, so long as he’s wearing M. Duchamp’s spectacles) John made a flippant prediction about artistic tastes degenerating some day to the approbation (and deconstruction — he anticipated that, too) of a “gilded turd in a glass case.” Conceptual art has made this absurdity manifest, often discarding the gilt. Bartholomew Streb, like Augustus John in his day a leader of the avant-garde, found himself overtaken by the barbarians he had aroused. John’s post-Impressionists were Streb’s postmod­ernists. John fathered uncounted children, Streb none but ‘Angel Child’. Conceived (in an almost literal sense) a quarter-century before art school students started reading auguries from the arrangement of their stools or queuing at the local butcher’s or morgue for inspiration, this agonising work anticipates their anx­ieties, and moreover resolves them with a concept the conceptualists have forgotten: The Meaning of Artistic Passion.


A related feature occupied the bottom half of the broadsheet. ‘Call of the Sea: The Anguished Artist, the Cashiered Colonel and the Lascivious Lord set out for Davy Jones Locker.’ It was illustrated by a large photograph of a woman with good legs peering over the brink of The Devil’s Frying-pan and a smaller reproduction of the pub sign which hangs outside The Sailor’s Return — an anxious, buxom wench pushing a moustachioed gent in his shirt-tails into a cupboard as her honest sailor man strides up the garden path with his sailbag on his shoulder and a twinkle in his eye. There was also a photograph of the reporter, a sulky teenager called Dee Dee Twist. She had been given the computer password to the cuttings library and ransacked it. The narrative was padded out with a garbled version of recent local events and larded with misconstrued nautical expressions. It added little to the history except that the colonel had left behind an angry pack of swindled investors, that Lord Nick, also heavily indebted, in his youth had been arraigned on drug charges in Australia, and the observation that Bartholomew’s impoverished widow now stood to reap riches from the stunning success of her late husband’s posthumous exhibition.

There was nothing else to read in the paper except fevered musings about politicians and knickers-and-nappies-wringing accounts of the personal lives of female columnists. Apart from the piece on Bartholomew it could have been the same issue I had read the last time I opened this Sunday newspaper, on the train down to Westowe seven months ago. This morning I had showered in the club and I sat now in one of the worn armchairs in the clubhouse bar. A draft stole around the windows and the wooden sash frames rattled from time to time. Outdoors the sky wept into the estuary. Grey clouds sweeping in from the sea had lowered the ceiling over Westowe, lopping off Grise Head and obliterating the horizon beyond. At the estuary moorings, which had been empty all winter, boats now rocked side-by-side in trots of three and four. Rain slanted through the green leaves and rippled in floods down the grey slate tiles of the houses. It was gone twelve but the grille over the club bar was still locked. The housekeeper, Mrs Dolally-Whatsit, had opened the club, but only Charlie and his employees could unlock the bar. I hadn’t seen a soul that morning except for the white-haired old dear who worked in the newsagent on Sunday mornings. She might have been the same one who was there when I was a boy. People lived a long time in Westowe. Apart from the ones who disappeared. Perhaps. I reached down into my kit bag, pulled out my blue Guernsey and wrestled it over my head.

“Where is he?” Through the weave of the Guernsey against the ceiling light I saw an inflated yellow Mr Blobby. When I pulled the jumper down under my chin I saw it was Superbloke in his yellow oilies. His boots were yellow, too, streaked with engine grease and he was puddling the carpet.

“Congratulations,” I said. He looked at me as if I were mad. I pointed at the newspaper. “Your exhibition.”

“Wouldn’t you know?”

“Wouldn’t I know what?”

He gave a mad stare that reminded me of someone. Colonel Meeker. “Some people always seem to win out.”

“You mean Angie?”

“Angie. Bartholomew.”

“Angie deserves a break. Bartholomew may be dead.”

“Dead or not, they just always win out in the end. Luck of the draw. People like you.”

“What have I got to do with it?”

He heaved his shoulders in a kind of bitter laugh, like Ted Heath suppressing an orgasm. “You and Angie can start your little bistro in the castle now. Where’s Charlie?”

“Disappeared into a black hole, I reckon.” Superbloke looked shocked. I babbled on. “Entropy, I put it down to. There was a time this bar would have been heaving at five past twelve on a Sunday afternoon. Now, they haven’t even set the twiglets and cheese cubes out yet. It’s all going to hell in a handbasket. So I reckon Charlie’s gone with it.”

While I was saying this Superbloke looked about, not listening. “I want a word with him.”

“You could always send him an E-mail.” Superbloke looked puzzled so I went fishing. “That’s how he conducts his property business, isn’t it? By E-mail.”

Superbloke surprised me. He sat down in one of the chairs and laid his chin on his fist and muttered, “Of course. E-mail. That’s the answer.”

As head of the Housekeeping Committee, Superbloke had introduced the one pound fine for wearing oilies in the carpeted rooms. “You won’t fetch a decent price for the club if the chairs are damp,” I said.

“The club’s not going to be sold,” he said.

“The EGM is next week. And I heard Spider’s power of attorney is pretty dubious.”

He looked at me for the first time. “Where did you hear that?”

“Charlie, I suppose,” I lied.

“Charlie talks too much. Anyway, you can scrub the EGM. The Gladwell consortium won’t be interested now.”

The use of the future tense was interesting, I thought. Or was it the future conditional? “Why not?”

“They aren’t, that’s all.”

“How do you know?”

Now Superbloke noticed the puddle at his feet for the first time. “I shouldn’t be wearing these in here.” He started taking his boots off.

I cast another line. “Is it because Nickers was backing Crowview?” Superbloke dropped his boot on the floor. His jaw followed it part way. “I’ve checked up on Crowview,” I said. “Two directors. You and Nickers. Of course his finances were not very liquid. But he was comfortable with money. That buys a lot of credit in the City.”

“Did Charlie tell you that, too?” Superbloke hopped on one foot, struggling out of his oilies. He didn’t see Charlie was standing in the doorway behind him, along with a sulky kid who looked like Simon with a bigger set of ears and a bad case of acne.

“Did I tell him what?” asked Charlie.

“There’s no such thing as a free lunch,” I said. “I’m sure it was you.”

Superbloke stepped up to Charlie with his oilies gathered in his arms. “I’d like a word with you.”

“This is Paul,” said Charlie. “Simon’s kid brother. He’s going to take over for Simon.”

“Hi, Paul,” I said. “Got a joint?

“That’s not funny,” said Charlie. But the kid smirked.

“Where is everybody today?” I asked Charlie.

“Everybody in the village is busy trying to open a wine bar in their lounge or a car park in their front garden. With all this publicity about Angie’s exhibition, the grockles will be swarming here rain or shine.”

“So, let’s open the membership rolls,” I said. “And the bar.”

“I’d like a word with you now, Charlie.” Superbloke was still holding his wet oilies like an offering.

Charlie nodded. He fumbled with his keys and dropped them twice on the floor before the bar grille raised with a cheering clatter. He and Superbloke went out to the club office while I taught Paul how to pull beer.

I went for a pee and strolled past the closed office door. On my first pass I heard Charlie’s raised voice: “So that’s what you’re up to, you son of a bitch.”

On my second slow trawl a few minutes later I heard Superbloke bellow: “So that’s what you’re up to, you bastard.” Match drawn. They lowered their voices.

People started to drift into the bar and soon it was busy. Charlie didn’t resurface, so I gave Paul a hand behind the bar. He was grateful. “If you want to score,” he said, “stay away from my brother.”

“I’m not likely to go visit him in the slammer.”

Paul laughed at me. “He’s not going to the slammer.”

“Why not?”

“He’s a grass, innhee.”

Later Spider pitched up. I had had a few by that time, so in a corner isolated by the wall of noise around us I told him about my recurrent dream. I am scuba-diving in The Devil’s Frying-pan. A shimmer of white light leaks down from the surface, as through a cathedral window. And the bodies start to float up: Meekers, Bartholomew, Nickers, Maire and various other people, including my father. He grasps my hand and drags me down into the mouth of an undersea cave.

Spider snorted. “And then you woke up, and it was Rabbit pulling you down under the bedclothes.”

“What do you know about Rabbit?”

“All the village knows. Except Eddy Starr. And he’s the one you don’t want to know. He’s sort of sweet on her. Asks her to marry him at least once a year.”

“Is that why Eddy’s been on my case?”

“Apart from the odd outboard motor theft we don’t get a lot of crime down here. Eddy’s got too much time to think.” Spider yawned and rubbed his eyes. “I read somewhere that the key to interpreting a dream is how you felt emotionally about what was happening.”

“I felt very alone. Wanting to help, but unable to. Things were just happening and there was nothing I could do to change them. But I felt it was my fault.”

Spider grimaced. “That’s no dream. That’s life.”

“So what do you make of it?”

“I think it’s a pretty good theory.”

“What theory?”

“About where the bodies are.”

“You think Colonel Meeker and Nickers are dead?”

“Neither of them has sent me a postcard.”

“There’s a couple of things I’ve been meaning to ask you.”

The untroubled blue eyes looked straight at me over his pint. “Try me.”

“Why were Pixie and Poxy so interested in you?”

“Who?”

“Those two black hats.”

“Mutt and Jeff with the ponytails?”

“They wanted me to keep an eye on you.”

“I reckon they’re Customs & Excise. They’ve been on my back ever since I went to Corsica. Of course I couldn’t tell them why I went there.”

“I had a watching brief from Angie as well.”

Spider cast his eyes down, then looked up with a wry smile. “Angie always likes to know what her menfolk are up to. Haven’t you noticed?”

“Her menfolk?”

“You. Me. All the fellas who sit around under her skirts.”

“Haven’t seen you there lately.”

“Nor I you. Still, she knows we’ll come when she whistles.”

“Remember what you told me the night Nickers went missing?”

“I don’t remember much about that night. Until the Coast Guard bleep went off.”

“You seemed to have recovered quickly.”

“Was that your question?”

“You told me Matty was Angie’s daughter. And I was the father.”

“Could have been,” Spider answered.

“Well I’m not.”

“Apparently not,” said Spider.

“Only I found out too late. Did Angie put you up to that? To steer me off Matty?”

Spider grinned. “Life’s not fair, is it? Still, maybe it was for the best for you, Matty going off like that.”

“With that male sex object?”

“Lothar? I hadn’t noticed,” said Spider. “But even if you’re not her father, there’s nothing to prove she wasn’t Angie’s daughter. You don’t want to go soiling her doorstep, do you?”

“Angie never had a child.”

“I have me sources, I do.” said Spider. When Spider slipped into simple fisher-folk mode it was like a dogfish blowing up and erecting its spines. It drew my blood.

“What about the letter then?”

“What letter?”

“The one I saw you drop in the letter box the day Colonel Meeker went missing.”

“Mam’s allowed me to post letters by myself for a long time now.”

“I didn’t know folk who spoke like you could write.”

Spider’s eyes flashed and he stopped rolling his Rs. “So what’s so important about this bloody letter?”

“It was his Last Will and Testament.”

Spider frowned. “Thick business letter with a yellow stamp on it. Picture of a jug?”

“That’s it.”

“I picked it up from Charlie’s office. I stop by there generally when I’m going by. Rabbit sometimes asks me to pop something in the post.”

“So she gave it to you?”

“No. Charlie did. It was addressed to a firm somewhere in the Home Counties.”

“A legal firm? Nailem, Stickit and Whatsit? Something like that?”

“Who?”

I pulled out my pocket diary and checked. “Naylor, Strickman and Plummer.”

“Could be.”

“Colonel Meeker’s solicitors. They sent the letter of complaint about your Britannia nonsense.”

“Right. That came out in the enquiry.”

“You knew before that.”

“Never.”

“Didn’t Charlie show you their letter?”

“Charlie likes to play things pretty close to his chest.” Spider squinted at me. “So, do I pass the inquisition?”

“I’d still like to know how you can be drunk as a skunk before nine p.m. and playing action man hero a couple of hours later.”

“Two glasses of water and fall straight into bed. Wake up clear as a bell every time.”

“So you didn’t go for a cruise with Dinny after you left the pub that night?”

“Dinny tell you that?”

“You know Dinny always says exactly what you tell him to say.”

“Well I didn’t tell him to say that.”

“I saw him going out that night, heading west towards The Devil’s Frying-pan.”

“Well, you didn’t see me with him.”

“No, I didn’t know you were on board until the next day.”

Spider shot me a probing look and then smiled. “You’re fishing. Still it ties in with your theory.”

“How do you figure that? Lord Nick and Colonel Meeker were both lost east of the Devil’s Coat-tails. They wouldn’t likely wash into the Frying-pan, unless there was a strong westerly spring tide. And wind behind it.”

“It was top of the springs when they both disappeared,” said Spider.

“Westerly tides?”

“No, going east. And the wind was out of the west when Colonel Meeker disappeared, southerly when Grace of God ran into the bar.”

“You made a point of checking all that out?”

“It’s my job to know these things.”

“It’s impossible then.”

“Aye. Exactly what somebody would want you to think. So you’d never look there.”

“You think they were killed?”

Spider pulled on his beard. “I’m thinking consciously what your brain has been teasing subconsciously. Namely, it’s damned strange their bodies haven’t turned up.”

“And what about Bartholomew’s body?”

“Aye. There’s a thing.”

“You don’t believe it was Bartholomew?”

“Bartholomew’s the cipher.”

“Even if it wasn’t his corpse, he could still be dead.”

Spider looked me straight in the eye. “Maybe we’d find out if we took a dip in the Frying-pan.”

“You can’t dive in the Frying-pan.”

“Aye. At slack water. If there’s not too much swell.”

“You’ve done it?”

“Just the once. And you’re right about one thing. There is a cave down there. Down deep. If you weighted a body, when it inflated and rose it would just bump against the ceiling.” Spider drained his pint.

“Fancy another?” I asked.

“Fancy a dive some dark night? That is, if you trust me as your buddy.” He gave me a crooked smile and held out his empty glass.