Primrose Hill Revisited – the complete book online - chapter sixteen

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chapter sixteen

Jake took another peek through one of the oval windows set at eye-level in the swinging doors. He had two worries. One, that they had come to make fun of him — take the mickey, as they would say — and two, that they would make a scene — create a row — be rowdy, break the crockery or refuse to pay the bill — and Giuliani would fire — sack — him because they were his friends.

They had been half-cut when they came in, and after a round of drinks and two bottles of Chianti they were rolling about. But Giuliani bustled about the table professionally — attentive, humble, obscure — flourishing a genial smile. They were, after all, the only diners that night. Jake’s second worry was displaced by a fresh one: if trade didn’t pick up not only would he strapped for cash — he was paid mostly in tips and free meals — he might lose his job altogether. Giuliani, as he was fond of saying with his enthusiastic but irregular grasp of the English idiom, would put him in the sack.

He was joined behind the swinging doors by his companions, Mario — short, tubby and maniacally cheery — and Luigi, Mario’s polar opposite. Jake pushed open the swinging doors and they pranced into the small dining area bearing their silver salvers and singing La donna è mobile at the top of their voices.

Belinda looked up with a scowl; her liver seemed to transmute alcohol into pure vitriol. Simon wore an expression of reserved amusement. As for Roy, booze seemed to transform the world into an amusement park. While Belinda glowered and Simon smirked, Roy was the perfect audience. He found the waiters’ performance hugely entertaining and literally fell about laughing and applauding wildly.

With practiced dexterity the three waiters served, made their bows and turned away. Belinda tugged at Jake’s long white apron.

“Sit, Rover” she commanded. Jake appealed to Giuliani, who opened the palms of his hands in genial benediction, and Jake sat down. Belinda talked loudly, slurring her words. “Jake is a turncoat. He marched up Bunker Hill — Primrose Hill — and joined the enemy.” She turned to Jake. “Roy has agreed to direct.”

Roy sent a camp wave and a wink across the table.

Jake’s antennae tingled a warning. ”And Simon? What’s his role?”

Simon answered with a tipsy smile. “I’ve got the credit card.”

“So the play’s going ahead?

“In the West End. With you as the male lead. As soon as you get into her pants, Jake.” She gave his wrist three deliberate slaps. “Must . . . try . . . harder.”

Roy found this, like everything else throughout the course of the rest of the evening, wildly amusing. When Simon’s card had passed through the machine and Jake’s friends had stumbled off into the night, Giuliani gave Jake an appreciative pat on the shoulder, though the frown of the struggling small businessman had replaced the welcoming smile of the gracious host.

 

She was keen to test him on art. Nothing divides the generations so fiercely as modern art. Lots of opportunity for involving younger readers with groovy illustrations. And for confirming hackle-raising prejudices amongst the older readers. The young will embrace anything, so long as it’s outrageous and involves cocking a snook at the establishment. Or at anyone over thirty.

Although she now found herself on the wrong side of that divide, her sympathies lay with the younger generation. The new art was frightfully exciting. It was not about pictures sitting passively in a frame for you to gaze at; it challenged you to a debate. Claudia loved its mocking, iconoclastic spirit. As an art student she had cut her teeth on the Whitechapel Art Gallery and the late fifties’ mantra of Richard Hamilton and Eduardo Paolozzi and she could pour all that into the article.

The new art is demotic. It’s accessible to everybody. That’s why they call it pop art. It’s not meant to hang patiently in august marble halls for connoisseurs to study over the centuries. It’s here and now, as transient and expendable as a comic strip. It’s cheap, easy and quick to make. It can even be mass-produced. It winks at you with wit and a knowing nudge. It’s sexy — full of tricks and surprises — as gimmicky and glamourous as a game show hostess. Above all it is young. It’s created by youth for youth, and you have to be young (at least in attitude) to dig it.

Like the rest of the older generation, politicians are so out of touch. While Harold Wilson and Wedgwood Benn and the odious George Brown focus on the future, prattling about building a New Jerusalem with their shining bright technology, youth has already turned away from high-rise tower blocks that spring leaks and fall down and rocket missiles that fizzle and is saying ‘never mind about tomorrow’.

“I love this,” he said. It was a picture of an artist’s studio. A very classy studio, somewhere in St. John’s Wood or Hampstead probably, with tall windows looking out onto a garden. Not unlike her own sitting room, and just about as disordered. The artist was painting a semi-dressed woman.

“Is it the woman you admire or the place she’s in?”

“Both. The jewel and its setting. Her surroundings tell me who she is. Her style. The milieu she moves in.”

“That’s not art appreciation. It’s class envy.”

Hope sat on the bench watching them, a dreamy expression on her face.

“I could fall in love with the woman in that room.”

“Sheer possessiveness. It’s an estate agent’s ad.”

“Maybe it’s because I don’t own anything myself.”

“You’ve got the best asset there is. Youth.”

He made a pose of scanning the painting over his thumb — an actor’s visual shorthand for painter. “I reckon the house would be worth a lot less without her in it.” He looked directly at her. “Looks a bit like your place, don’t you think.”

Claudia flushed. “How very American. Putting a price on everything.”

He flashed a mischievous grin. “She’s priceless.”

The clumsy pass stiffened her back. “Do you know anything about art?”

“Just enough to know I shouldn’t say I know what I like.”

“Let me guess. Frederic Remington. All those cowboys and Indians.”

“It’s the horses I like most.”

“Grant Wood. Those stoic farmers and their barns.”

“Yes.”

“Edward Hopper. Those lonely hotel rooms.”

“The boats are lonely, too.”

“I didn’t know he did boats.”

“Sailboats suspended in a timeless sea. The same empty mood.”

“Norman Rockwell. Those homely Saturday Evening Post covers.”

“I was wondering when you’d get to him. No. Not really. I like the sentiment, but he’s an illustrator. A marvellous, sentimental illustrator. Like N. C. Wyeth.”

“Who?”

“Newell Convers Wyeth. He illustrated Treasure Island, Robinson Crusoe, The Last of the Mohicans, Kidnapped, Robin Hood . . . all the books I read as a kid.”

“So, you like pictures that tell a story.”

“Yes, but an illustrator just depicts. An artist makes connections with other ideas. His son is an artist.”

“Who?”

“Andrew Wyeth. Snoopy’s favourite artist — after Van Gogh.”

“Snoopy?”

“The dog, Snoopy. In the Peanuts comic strip. He kept a Van Gogh in his doghouse, and when it was destroyed in a fire he replaced it with a Wyeth.”

“You’re losing me.”

“Wyeth does rural landscapes and portraits. Realistically detailed. Maybe not your thing. You’d probably like his son’s work better.”

“Whose son?”

“Andrew Wyeth’s son, Jamie. His style is a bit looser.”

“Three generations of painters?”

“There’s more. His sisters, Henrietta, Carolyn and Ann. And their children.”

“You’re having me on.”

“No. Really.”

“I’ve never heard of any of them.”

“It’s a different culture.”

“Bewildering.”

“So, now you know how I feel most of the time.”

He was a youth from another planet, totally out of touch with the art movement of his generation. “They’re all representational, I suppose, the Wyeth tribe?”

“Obsessively,” he acknowledged. “But with Andrew there’s a deep emotional pull, a subtle symbolism, and even a kind of undercurrent of abstraction.”

Well, he knew what he liked, all right. He was a brazen sentimentalist, unformed in his tastes, though not exactly ignorant of modern trends and so sure of himself it was unsettling.

Once again they seemed like two playmates. Hope sat cross-legged on the marble floor, bent over her sketchpad and laying down colours with serene detachment. Only the tip of her tongue poking out of a corner of her mouth showed the intensity of her concentration. From time to time she would raise her head and take a quick look at the painting she was copying, a chaotic assemblage of op-art —all jagged lines and fuzzy blobs of shrieking colours, a grenade attack in a sweet shop. Jake sat beside her, oblivious to the obstacle his long legs presented to passers-by, handing her the crayons she demanded and restoring those she discarded to their places in the box as professionally correct as a nurse producing instruments in an operating theatre. Apart from the excruciating fact that he was chewing gum. They probably don’t allow that in the Royal Academy, or if they ever thought anyone would be so crass as to do it, they certainly wouldn’t allow it.

Inevitably, of course, like anything that seizes the popular imagination, the new art had become Big Business. As Marcuse points out, the Establishment reacts to generational revolt by stealing its clothes — although what he probably said was something like ‘absorbing its signifiers’. She would have to get Jenny to find out what it was he actually had said. The new artists take the mickey out of the 1950s consumer society, the aspirations of the masses, the mass-market packaged goods and mass communications ephemera, and a fortnight later the admen and the designers and the media strike right back by appropriating the wit and the irony and the cynicism and turning it into tea-mugs and T-shirts and jokey TV commercials. Bridget Riley’s eye-battering designs were ripped off for clothing fashions and curtain fabrics. You could buy the wares of radical materialism right here in the gallery gift shop. They even displayed Campbell Soup cans containing real soup, manufactured to resemble Andy Warhol’s images of the Campbell Soup Company’s manufactured cans. Manufacture imitating Art imitating Manufacture. So the freshness of pop art is already beginning to wilt. It now seems cheesy and doubly derivative, like a joke heard too many times.

She had to admit that none of the pictures that hung on her own walls had been painted later than the turn of the century. Partly it was a matter of finance; she had inherited most of them, largely Victorian landscapes in heavy wood frames, from her parents. But also because, somehow the new art, though really interesting, just didn’t seem restful enough to form a part of one’s home. This was something she had felt somehow inadequate about — not living up to her intellectual convictions — but perhaps it was just as well. Because now the innovative works that had thrilled her a few years ago all seemed so forgettable.

Also troubling was the confusion between artistic ambition and publicity prank. To keep ahead of their capitalist imitators the avant-garde galloped on to indulge in ever more outrageous antics designed simply to shock — to self-advertise. Deconstructed self-expression could no longer be contained within picture frames. Now there were experiments, text interpretations, performance art, body art, solemn psychedelic light shows, and ‘happenings’ — vaguely theatrical events inspired by the random musings of the Dadaists and intended to make some sort of nihilist statement. Much of it seemed an exercise in boredom. Andy Warhol’s movie of the Empire State Building shot with a fixed camera might convey some meaning over eight seconds, or maybe even eight minutes. But eight hours?

The whole point about this ‘conceptual’ art was that you only had to hear it described to be outraged. You didn’t actually have to witness it. Like wheeling a nude woman around the convention hall in a wheelbarrow behind a kilted bagpiper at that writers’ conference a few years ago. Doubtless a jolly jape and it had achieved an effect — it got the writers banned from Edinburgh in perpetuity — but what was the artistic point, apart from self-promotion?

And none of this conceit was actually new. The rot started when Marcel Duchamp scrawled ‘mutt’ on a urinal and entered it into the famous New York Armoury Exhibition of 1913. He originated the philosophy: ‘Art is what I say it is.’ Dali embellished the movement with his playful sculptures, which had the virtue at least of being a bit more witty than a pencilled pisspot. At the Whitechapel, Anthony Caro had asserted that sculpture could be anything. And then took the hump when his pupils took him literally: showing heaps of found objects, digging holes, taking banal and badly focused photographs, even sloping off for a stroll and calling that sculpture, too.

But surely this line of thought had run into the buffers with the angry young Piedro Manzoni. If you could can ninety tins of your own shit, label it, and circulate it to the top museums in the world as an ironic gesture to expose the gullibility of the art market — and have it accepted — clearly some sort of limit had been reached. What next — an exhibit of Christine Keeler’s stained bed sheets after a night in the sack? Or was she just getting old, a hardening of the cultural arteries turning her into a Philistine?

She was all in favour of free creative expression. A political agenda, as imposed by Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia, could only stifle art. But what if the artist imposed his own political agenda? She had noted with disquiet that even Kitaj had taken to including words — polemical slogans — in his paintings. And, not much less obviously, almost all the new art seemed to be making a political statement. Art, she felt, should pose questions, not provide solutions. Art explores the mystery of human existence but withholds judgement. Once it starts to formulate a programme for the improvement of man (or woman), when it sets out to promulgate a system of belief or disbelief, it becomes something else: propaganda.

Was there anyway out of this cul de sac? Maybe Peter Blake was pointing a direction with his innocent, unthreatening and unashamedly English references to folk art and Victorian romanticism. His style teetered on the verge of kitsch, but his album cover for Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was amusing and enormously popular. Ken Tynan had called that album “a decisive moment in the history of Western Civilisation.” A trifle over the top perhaps, but both the music and the art might signal the beginning of a whole new national mood. A mood of whimsical nostalgia. An elegy for the British Empire. Mind you, that’s sort of giving up, isn’t it?

She had a sudden inspiration. Someone stood up from the bench in the centre of the hall and Claudia took the seat and pulled a pen and pad out of her bag to jot down the thought. Appreciating modern art was like religion. The old verities had been abandoned. There was no proof. You had to take it on faith. And you might be conned.

She looked up to watch Hope under the Op-Art painting, as intent on her task as she was on hers. Hope didn’t have any playmates. The girls her own age ignored her or made fun of her. Those of her own mental age were frightened of her size. The children in her special school lived too far away or were, frankly, strange. Claudia pulled out a tissue to dab at her eyes.

Jake was standing over her. “You’re crying.”

Someone else got up and Jake sat down beside her.

“I wanted to teach her. About art. About everything. But she’ll never be able to appreciate our world.”

He gave her his handkerchief. Large white polka dots on a red background, an Italian waiter’s handkerchief.

“We can learn to appreciate hers.” An amazingly mature observation. Claudia was shocked. Through her sniffles she stole a look at his profile. It was intelligent. If only he weren’t chewing gum.

Hope stood in front of them, a grave and apprehensive expression on her face, presenting her drawing. Not to her mother, but to Jake. He considered it, holding it first one way, then carefully turning it to view it upside down. Hope laughed. It was, in truth, as arresting, at least in spirit, as the original.

Jake stood up with the sketch book and wandered about the room, pretending to look for a suitable place to hang it, consulting with Hope as she trailed behind him, giggling. Occasionally she would dart a happy, conspiratorial glance back at her mother.

Claudia dried her eyes and folded the red spotted handkerchief into her handbag. An imperious voice rang out. “Please do not touch the exhibits.” Oh, God, now what had he done? But she had judged too hastily. The severe matronly guard was reprimanding a pair of hippies, probably because they were hippies.

Jake and Hope came up. Claudia had not congratulated her daughter on the drawing, so took the sketchpad and opened it. The drawing was gone. Hope had her hand over her mouth, her eyes wide with suppressed mirth.

Jake took Claudia’s elbow. “Shall we see what’s in the next room?” he muttered. He was no longer chewing gum. As they passed the sturdy female guard Hope could contain herself no longer and burst out laughing. She drew a scowl and a reproving “Shhh!”

After they had gained the next room, Jake guided Claudia back to the doorway and signaled with his eyes. Behind the cross-armed lady guard an information placard was mounted on the wall. And stuck on it was Hope’s drawing. A middle-aged couple stooped to examine it.

The pathetic clown. She felt her face flush, turned away and lowered her head like a suspect being led away by the police. As she followed, Hope tugged at her mother’s arm, dancing, her face full of pride and merriment and Jake shrugged and flashed his goofiest grin as if to say, ‘See? Anything goes.’

Claudia had to smile, in spite of herself. “That doesn’t prove anything, except that you’re a philistine.”

“Don’t you think there have to be some absolutes, some kind of artistic discipline?” Jake retorted.

“I believe art has to be liberated from convention. As a young artist yourself you must agree.”

“So you agree with Belinda.”

“Not very often. What about Belinda?”

“She hangs out with that crowd from Hornsey Art College. They’re having a sit-in to liberate themselves from conventions. Do you know the conventions they have in mind? Did you read their manifesto?”

Claudia shook her head. He was obviously working up a speech.

“No entry requirements for art school. Anyone should be able to walk in off the street. No graded assessments of any kind. Examinations are elitism, they say.”

“They have a point. Examinations apply the values of the past. They preserve the status quo.”

Jake snorted. “No report cards — that’s Nirvana for any lazy student. They want to choose what subjects to study, following their own whims, without any oversight from tutors. Basically, they want complete freedom to do whatever they want whenever they want. At the public expense.”

She was disappointed. Jake clearly did not reflect the opinions of his age group. She felt she had to defend his cohort against his prejudices. “I think flexibility is essential to art.”

“I’d call it playing hookey. And art school is the softest touch there is. There are more art colleges in London than any other city.”

“Are you sure of your facts?”

“And they attract all the layabouts. They can’t draw. But that doesn’t stop them spouting about art, or slashing a white canvas with a ballpoint pen and calling it art.”

“What do you know about art?”

“There’s one thing, though that they’re very good at. They don’t have to study and they don’t go to classes much, so they’ve got plenty of time for rehearsals. British art schools are producing some of the best music in the world.”

“You’re raving.”

“Not just pop, but rhythm and blues and now psychedelic rock.”

It was expedient to turn to motherhood. Claudia fussed with the bow in Hope’s hair and put her sketchbook and box of crayons into her handbag. “We’ll go home for tea now.”

“Is Jake coming for tea?”

“Jake has to go to his own home now.”

Claudia found Jake’s red spotted handkerchief in her bag and turned to him. “I can wash this for you.”

“Can Jake come and live with us?”

“No, I want it just the way it is.” He smiled that great cheese-eating grin and took the handkerchief and put it to his nose and sniffed it.

Hope would not shut up. “He could live in your room. Like Russell used to.”

Claudia strangled a gasp into a ladylike cough. Jake seemed not to have heard. Why did it matter? Why had she never told him about Russell? To show she was available? To tease him? Why? She busied herself stowing Hope’s crayons in her Paddington Bear satchel. She was dying to see his expression, but dared not meet his eyes for fear she would giggle.

Later Jenny reported that Britain had more art schools per head than any other country in the world. And reminded her that the Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd and John Lennon were all art school drop-outs. And yes, the fanciful Wyeth art clan did exist, and she really should have heard at least of Andrew.