A life, surely?

Jenny Diski

  • The Ossie Clark Diaries edited by Henrietta Rous
    Bloomsbury, 402 pp, £20.00, October 1998, ISBN 0 7475 3901 4

Ossie Clark, for those who never hankered after his confections in the late Sixties and early Seventies, was a dress designer. His designs are in museums of fashion quite as legitimately as a gold necklace from ancient Egypt is displayed in the British Museum, or the uniform of the Light Brigade is illustrated in the Imperial War Museum. Each item tells us something about its time and place, certainly not everything, but something. Nevertheless, they become a good deal more vivid and more informative when we are given a living context for the artefacts. The most exquisitely chipped stone arrowhead is better appreciated if we know something of the life of its maker.

The always perceptive reader of the London Review of Books will have detected desperation in the preceding attempt to justify this review of a spoilt, petulant anti-semite whose main claims to fame were, in his own words, ‘to dress frilly people in colours that confuse the eye’, and appearing as a peevish young icon slouched on a chair with a moody, come-hither expression, a pure white cat on his lap and his bare feet submerged in the pile of a white rug in Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy, the portrait by David Hockney that aspired to Gainsborough as a take on the aristocracy of London, c.1971, but owed more to Harpers & Queen. The fashion bubble of Sixties London was not quite the fourth dynasty or the historical watershed of the Crimean War. What was of interest at that time cannot be deduced from Ossie’s frocks any more than the Eighties can be captured by the design and effect of the first dress Ossie Clark made for the editor and annotator of his diaries, Lady Henrietta Rous.

Ossie made a skirt, knee-length, with 84 panels, like a wonderful balletic creation, with a purple fitted corseted top and romantic puffed sleeves. The colours were yellow, turquoise, red, green, pink and mauve ... This dress was later photographed in Los Angeles and I wore it in Monte Carlo to Craigie Aitchison’s exhibition ... I immediately acquired a new admirer: Prince Rainier’s chamberlain, no less. He rang the gallery and asked, ‘Qui est cette fille délicieuse?’ and described the dress.

Alors.

Gradually, however, I found that, for myself at least, there was some point in puzzling over the diaries of Ossie Clark. When I run out of very big things to worry about – should there be fiscal harmonisation in Europe; are we just a cocktail of amino-acids shaken but not stirred; how much longer before I die – I fall to brooding about that devastating term of abuse of our times, the Peter Pan crow of complacency: Get a life. I am impressed and rather envious of those who use the phrase: that they can be so certain that they know what a life is, and so convinced that they have one. From the note of disdain with which the phrase is spoken, it seems that having a life is a matter for self-congratulation, and therefore the result of an individual’s character rather than merely the fact of existence and the effect of a series of random circumstances. Some lives are ‘life’ and some are not, but the precise nature of ‘a life’ is never defined. I suspect that the existence described by Ossie Clark during the Sixties and early Seventies might qualify. I’m not, however, at all clear about it. The Ossie who partied every night, snorted coke with Mick, Marianne and Brian Jones, made frocks for Faye Dunaway, Elizabeth Taylor, Sharon Tate, Brigitte Bardot and Liza Minnelli, slept with Celia Birtwell, David Hockney, Patrick Prockter, Wayne Sleep and assorted tall, thin models: was he the one who had a life? But the later fallen, paranoid speed-freak Ossie, who fished in the wishing-well in Holland Park for the price of a packet of ten cigarettes, and cruised Hampstead Heath in the early hours for anonymous sex without bothering to mention that he had crabs, who stole fivers from the handbags of his few remaining friends and reckoned they deserved it: did he no longer have a life? That might be one way to understand it. But though the fall of Ossie Clark from a state of fashionable grace might look like the transition from having a life to losing it, it’s a trajectory I am not entirely convinced by. It might be quite the other way around. It depends on who is doing the telling and who is being told.

Ossie Clark expressed the wish that Lady Henrietta Rous should edit his diaries for publication. Lady Henrietta, after being educated at Cheltenham Ladies’ College and Camberwell School of Arts and Crafts, worked, we are told, as a bookseller, florist and decorative painter before becoming a journalist and writing for Harpers & Queen and the Evening Standard diary. In 1979 and 1983 she stood as a Parliamentary candidate for the Wessex Regional Party. She met Ossie Clark in 1982 after he was acrimoniously divorced from the fabric designer, Celia Birtwell, and when he was masochistically devoted to the love of his life, the inconstant Nick. Lady Henrietta was ‘besotted’, and ‘devoted the whole summer to him. We went to parties together.’ Their affair was brief, just six months long, before Ossie ‘french-kissed a girlfriend of mine. I slapped both their faces. Ossie whacked mine back on both sides, quite hard. It was salutary.’ After not speaking to him for a further six months, they were reconciled in ‘a close, bonded friendship and mutual care, concern and compassion for 12 years’. All of this, of course, constitutes life, his, hers and theirs, but it doesn’t sound much like the life you would want to get if you didn’t have one.

In Ossie’s heyday, Lady H. tells us, ‘wearing Ossie meant being part of it all.’ So back then, at least in retrospect, it was easy enough to judge if you had a life or not. But when fashions change, how does anyone, including the maker of the frocks that once constituted being part of it all, know if they have a life or only seem to have one? Ossie Clark began in a working-class family in Warrington in 1942. He had a natural talent for cutting and making clothes which was developed first at home by his mother, and then at Manchester Art College (where he met Celia Birtwell, with whom he had two children), and the Royal College of Art in London (where he fell in with David Hockney). His success was immediate and Ossie rose like froth to superstar dressmaker status in the Sixties London stylocracy. Ossie’s set, Lady H. explains

included some of the most fascinating people of the era. Cecil Beaton entertained Ossie and Mick Jagger at his house ... Jagger invited Ossie to stay at Villefranche in the south of France. Ossie famously visited Tony Richardson’s La Garde Fresnais, where he behaved outrageously and threw a gaggle of ducks into the heated swimming-pool. In 1969 he and Celia holidayed in Marbella with John Aspinall’s half-sister, Jennifer ... In London he spent every night in clubs like the Aretusa, the Speakeasy, Tramps and Yours or Mine ... He holidayed in Marrakech with Paul Getty’s wife, Tahlita, Christopher Gibb (close friend and mentor of Mick Jagger and the society antiquaire) ... He fraternised with the Andy Warhol group and experimented with drugs, drag queens, alcohol.

Surely, this is what is meant by ‘having a life’? And yet, Lady H. detects a hint of trouble even at such a pinnacle of living. The drugs, drag queens and alcohol ‘and his temperament sometimes got the better of him. In New York he preferred to lie in bed in a duplex decked in Lichtensteins than see an important buyer.’ Certainly this was worrying for business, but with all that entertainment, visiting, clubbing, holidaying and fraternising with the famous and their friends and relations, who can really blame the man for wanting a bit of a lie-in?

Ossie’s diaries record all these events and the names attached to them religiously, in bright colours and swirling paragraphs, but with no detail at all. On 14 April 1975 it was: ‘dinner at the house of gallery-owner Claude Bernard with George Lawson (drunk) and Mick Jagger – excellent food but boring really.’ In vain you look for an account of the conversation that made the evening so tedious, or even a soupçon of insight into what made the food so good. Nothing. Not here, not anywhere. Evenings out are judged boring or interesting, but seem to have no actual content. There are no conversations, only events and names, even the dresses he designs and cuts so exquisitely are barely described. Even so, all this glamorous toing and froing must constitute the sort of life that those who don’t have one should get. In 1973, when teachers’ salaries had just received a hefty hike to a decent £1000 a year, he was designing for Radley, with Alice Pollock, and earning a salary of £23,000 a year from the business. A life, surely? And when, in the middle of this year, he complains that he is £10,000 overdrawn at the bank, this is only further confirmation of a life being lived to the full.

But the business, his control over his drug use and his marriage all fell apart more or less simultaneously. The glamour slipped away so breathtakingly fast, leaving behind just speed, Valium, alcohol and depression, that it might cause those of us who suspect we may be without a life to wonder if we want one after all. Celia Birtwell divorced him for incontinence with both sex (both sexes) and drugs, and when he beat her up she took out an injunction against him. He mourned the loss of access to his sons and the effects of the uppers and downers he juggled meant that he failed repeatedly to get out of bed and make clothes. Soon his house was repossessed for nonpayment of his mortgage and he began living in a succession of rooms and flats belonging to his friends, each of whom turfed him out when he failed to pay them any rent or trashed the place. He was made bankrupt, and spent his last years anxiously dependent on the arrival of his DHSS giro for his food, drink and drugs.

The diary entries chart his plummeting lifestyle with an awe-inspiring lack of insight. After the marriage split, Ossie Clark frequently returns to the house in Linden Gardens where Celia and the children, Albert and George, live.

I got drunk ... went back to Linden Gardens where I gave way to my temper and smashed a window after I had fallen asleep on Albert’s bed. I can see now I was too heavy, perhaps ... they [Adrian George, the painter, and David Hockney] have poisoned Celia completely against me to such an extent that she really believes I will beat her to death. Well, I refused to move, indirectly threatening to destroy the flat, saying I didn’t realise (which is true) that matters had gone so far that I might lose her, and I would do anything ...

The following day Celia tries to get the children, toddlers still, out of the house after Ossie has kept her up arguing until six in the morning. ‘I snatched her handbag and almost broke down in tears saying to Albert, who was hysterical, that Mummy was trying to take him away from me.’ Two days later he is back. ‘I confiscated her keys and was too heavy again, but it worked – I’m afraid I can’t trust her.’ Three weeks later, he collects Albert from school and is breathalysed for drunk driving. Celia is not pleased and takes legal action to limit his access to the children. ‘So I split to Linden Gardens and was so furious I beat her and kicked her and her nose was a bloody mess – then I forced her to speak to her lawyer lady and it was she who sent the police round.’ (The gentility of that ‘it was she’ would be a masterstroke in a piece of fiction.)

When he does take the children out, the diary entries record ‘To Portobello on angel dust after being up all night ... the children were a joy to be with ... More angel dust, cocaine and lots of old friends – accidentally burnt George’s eye. The children really enjoyed themselves – played the drums.’ ‘I drank a Guinness and the children ate an ice-cream each and unfortunately Jimmy, Ronnie, Mo and Mick turned up – bit rowdy. Poor Albert banged his head.’ ‘On the way back stopped for a drink – the children very excited. George fell over – bloody lip.’ ‘I had a conversation with Albert and asked him, if it came to it, who he would choose and without hesitation he said: “I’d choose you.” How I love him.’ On a trip to Hong Kong, he moans

There’s nothing to go back for except that big empty house and maybe a real suicide. I don’t really want to die – but I can’t see any point in living without her and just seeing my beautiful Albert and George occasionally. Listening to the radio, almost every song reflecting my feelings for Celia, wondering, dare I phone her up? Or could I write her a letter to express my feelings in a way she would understand? But then you’re not Marcel Proust, Os, so take your Valium and go to sleep.

An intermittent boyfriend, Peter, walked out on Clark for good one night, but stopped at Ossie’s request to explain why:

He said I looked battered. It was all so untidy and depressing, cigarette butts in the sink. I seem to represent a side of him he prefers to forget – it was my charm and big dick which brought him, his words ... It took me quite aback – ‘I know I asked you what’s wrong but I didn’t expect the answer to be so heavy.’ ‘It’s all so tacky,’ he said ... ‘But we fuck so well,’ I protested. ‘Makes no difference. I’m not seeing you again’ ... Eccentric is what I am. Sex-mad eccentric? Or worse, as Peter thinks, tacky, battered and charming.

But he was not too charming. ‘Got collared by Peter Stringfellow – do I want to help in “Fashion Aid” ... a charity to help the starving Ethiopians? ... I told [him] I don’t really give a fuck about the starving in Ethiopia – I thought it part of the world’s natural safety mechanism.’ He finds a swim with Nick in Highgate Pond refreshing, ‘Nobody there except a few hideously hairy and very grotesque Jews and their equally overweight sons. [Nick] dropped me off at Bella Freud’s. Her toiles are looking OK, just about.’ And he allows himself to be interviewed for a retrospective article in Elle magazine by a male journalist and ‘a typical Jewess with bad skin and I suspect halitosis (though I never got close enough) ... They asked specifically about 1967 – I told them I thought the period the last great flowering of the individual.’

Clark’s decline, according to the fashion guru, Suzy Menkes, is ‘such a sad story, but the temperaments of artists mean that often they do suffer’. David Hockney, rather less romantically, dismissed Ossie’s insistence that he was to be excused his business and social failures because he was an artist: he couldn’t be, Hockney said, because all the artists he’d ever known worked very hard. But temperament, if not necessarily artistic, does seem to be at the root of Clark’s meteoric decline. Though he whines, steals and scrounges, there is not a moment when he expresses real surprise at his changed fortunes. ‘Spoke to Janet Street-Porter. She will pay my phone bill. “One tries so desperately HARD.” “What’s happened to you? – I’ve heard you’ve fallen.” “Yes, I fell long ago.” ’ The satisfaction is palpable. The man is so in love with the maudlin, with his own misery and degradation that his fleeting, flashy success begins to look like a cunning way of achieving and enhancing his later, more enduring humiliation. The relish with which he describes his squalor, the pleasure he takes in describing unprotected sex with strangers on the Heath while recording the deaths of his friends from Aids, the lip-smacking accounts of gathering stubs from the pavement of Holland Park Avenue to satisfy his last lover Diego’s demands for a cigarette, make it apparent that Ossie Clark’s real life began with his failure, not his success. Standing conspicuously in the Tate Gallery in front of Hockney’s painting, he records with grim satisfaction that nobody recognises him. It is as if this is the real peak of his achievement.

Whether the first or the second part of Ossie Clark’s existence was the valued ‘life’, it was a life from which he could draw no conclusions, develop no insights into himself or the rest of the world. The emptiness of mind spanned good times and bad. His circumstances changed, but whether barefooted because he liked the feel of the luxury pile rug under his feet or because he couldn’t afford shoes, Ossie plodded on, seeming to know exactly where he was going without ever stopping to wonder why.

Clark’s nemesis was the homeless and psychotic Diego, described by Lady Henrietta as being ‘considered good-looking by some; to others he had the look of the devil,’ and having ‘repulsive manners’. Ossie explained to her what he saw in Diego: ‘I like the peasant quality – Caravaggio, Henri.’ Diego finally performed what you can’t help thinking was required of him and murdered the 54-year-old Ossie Clark, in a fit of madness, mistaking one or other of them for Satan.