Not having any visible means of support means not having to have an alarm clock. I wake up on my own. Until the past four months, from 18 to 46, I lived with people: 11 years with Rennie, 11 years with Molly, three years with Susanne, and three years with Christiane – all wild and wonderful and sad. In a raw little wooden bed, with two drawers that slide across the carpet, one with shirts and vests in, one with socks and underpants. On a thin three-layer futon with red sheets and pillowcases. The woman in the shop asked me what I was going to do with it, and when I said ‘sleep on it’ she was surprised. I asked why she sold them then? She said everyone bought two to sleep on, or one six-layer one. I must say the slats of the bed do poke through the mattress a bit. I drape the purple curtains Phil gave me on the six-inch nails and, in my pyjamas, make a pot of tea and have a pee in the sink at the end of the bed. I choose from my two pairs of trousers and three pairs of shoes. I don’t have any breakfast. When I am ready I go downstairs and through the gap in the wall I made, the Caledonian Gap, into my studio. It took me many years to be able to call the room I worked in a studio: the word seemed so pretentious for what was designed as the first-floor front bedroom. I do my post – about four letters a day – and phone calls, one every day to my confidant Martin Fuller, and start work. At lunchtime I have a bowl of All-Bran. All day I have cups of decaffeinated coffee. At twenty to seven I go swimming.
It takes me five minutes to walk to the pool, five minutes to change. I like to get into the water at ten to seven because they stop the swimming at twenty-five past and I always swim for half an hour and like to have an unhurried shower. I know how to stick my locker key in the shower button to keep the water flowing. Showering has changed in this mixed neighbourhood: two years ago a girlfriend of mine was told off by an attendant for being nude – now it’s OK. A rare virtue of being short-sighted is that you cannot see people disapproving of your nudity. I don’t like to go swimming first thing in the morning: it reminds me of swimming lessons at school when we had to go to an open-air pool first thing on a Monday morning, with girls. I had those bee-stung nipples that adolescent boys sometimes have: it took some round shoulders to hide those. At the end of the day, the pool gradually clears. Some people say how lovely it was today, there was almost no one there: actually, it is better when there are lots of people in, it takes from the boredom of it. This is a daily baptism. I used to count how many laps I did, but since I always swam for half an hour someone pointed out that I did not need to, and it was a great relief not to have to remember the numbers. It is a plus when one goes into the water if the minute-hand is on one of the hour numbers rather than in between – it’s easier to remember when to get out. I have got prescription goggles and earplugs. There is a new kind of municipal changing-room – which they’ve got at Norwich and Fulham – which is unisex. This means you change in a claustrophobic closet, you have to bundle all your clothes into a perhaps distant locker, and you have to shower with your costume on, covering just the bits you hope we will all wash. I think this is because they do not want us to have all-male and all-female changing rooms where we might get off with each other. I do non-stop crawl with tumble turns and I breathe on alternate sides (Carina Bodle taught me to do that). In 1985 my record was 52 lengths in the half-hour – that is, 1300 metres; this year it was 56 lengths. It’s my ambition to be able to do a kilometre in half an hour, but I didn’t learn to swim until I was 33, so I am not very fast.
I have got lots of French books because I am an artist who loves Surrealism, which flourished in France. Mostly I look at the pictures, though I have read quite a few in translation. Imagine my shock when I read in the 20 March issue of the London Review, in Edmund Leach’s review of Lévi-Strauss’s latest, The View from Afar, that ‘the essay on Max Ernst contains an analysis of that artist’s celebrated construction of a sewing-machine and an umbrella on a dissection table.’ It does not. I have been to the British Library and looked at The View from Afar. The essay in question refers, and presumes some knowledge of French culture when it does, to a definition of 1934 by Max Ernst: ‘It therefore appears significant that Max Ernst chose to illustrate his precept with the famous “chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on a dissecting table”.’ Famous perhaps to Lèvi-Strauss and me, but not to Leach, who here displays his ignorance not only of the oeuvre of Max Ernst, which contains no such construction, but, more importantly, of the work of Isidore Ducasse, pen-name Comte de Lautréamont, the most important of Surrealism’s precursors. Lautréamont famously wrote, in his Les Chants de Maldoror: ‘Beautiful as the fleshy wattle – conical in shape, furrowed by deep transverse lines – which rises up at the base of the turkey’s upper beak ... beautiful as a corvette armed with gun-turrets ... beautiful as the chance meeting on an operating-table of a sewing-machine and an umbrella!’ (1869). There have been three English translations.
Another artist who loves Surrealism is my friend Ian Breakwell, whose Diary 1964-1985 has just been published in paperback by Pluto Press.Tom Stoppard wrote a play called After Magritte which was a leaden travesty of Magritte’s philosophy of art, which set up a fantastically silly tableau and then explained it. Magritte loathed explanations and meanings. When I meet Ian I fight with him over the way in which he presents as mysterious events which are not mysterious: it is just that he has not bothered to find out why people are doing these things, or he does not tell us salient facts – one can often guess what is really happening. For instance: ‘17.11.1972. Travelling in a taxi past London Zoo. Over the wall is a big cage, in the centre of which is a tree without leaves. Two men in boiler suits are crawling towards each other on their stomachs along the branches on either side of the tree.’ I did see, round here recently, a blind man who is also a midget and pulls a little cart. He was looking very closely at his white stick.
Though I have found it very hard to convince Carmen Callil – who believes that, since she occasionally sees me out in the evening, I am out in the evening all day – I am actually on my own all day every day. And since I am single, this would mean all night as well if I did not go out. What do artists do? What I used to do was to sit on a typist’s chair at a white table in a white room with a small sketchbook and a black biro and try to work out what to paint. I would wonder my way through many slight variations until I thought I had worked it out. This took perhaps three weeks. Then I would actually paint or make it, taking perhaps one week. So I might have at the most 24 pictures every two years, which I would then show. But then I had an exhibition of them, my eighth at the Angela Flowers Gallery, and I didn’t sell one painting. This gave me pause.
Last year I started to paint watercolour menus for special suppers – all moons, all hearts, all packages. I had also been designing some Valentine cards which were rejected by Camden Graphics. So I have a little pile of pieces of paper with ‘ideas’ roughly drawn on them: a cross with a pirate flag, a ghost caught on barbed wire, an egg on a tightrope, a cage in prison. Next to me I have a tea trolley with paints and water on it. I draw the picture in pen and ink, colour it in: if it works, I frame it. I can do about three a day at my best. In December I made my studio into a gallery and my bedroom into a bar and exhibited 102 of them and sold 66. I am so pleased to have found a way of getting ideas out quickly, as compared with the tunnelling I was doing. And it is a return to the way I worked as a student.
Fine-art editions of prints are a way of artificially limiting the printing of a picture so that an overall good price can be got for the complete edition. To maintain this practice there is an elaborate justification of print-making among artists, art schools and connoisseurs. The most successful limited-edition print in the real world is an engraving, signed and numbered, called The Ten Pound Note. Oh, you prefer the Twenty, do you? Anyway, I am just embarking on a set of eight prints in an edition of a hundred. The other night I showed 40 slides to Brad Faine, printer and publisher, and Angela and Matthew Flowers, publishers. We soon agreed on a fried egg in the sky, a ghost on the line, a cock jigsaw puzzle, a telephone at the door, a cobweb on the stars, a heart in a bikini on the beach, a pile of keyholes, and a cross as a signpost. Now I’ll redesign these pictures as to format, size and screen-printability: they’ll be printed beautifully and I’ll sign them all. They’ll be put into portfolios and be sold.
John Loker and I got drunk in Ireland last summer and he and I and Nicky Watts decided to bicycle from Land’s End to John O’Groats this summer. I had not ridden a bike since I was a schoolboy, but they were pretty fit. So I borrowed a bike, then I bought a bike, and went on a cycling and reading holiday to St Ives over the new year. Then Dudley Winter-bottom, Secretary of the Chelsea Arts Club, Tim Hilton, biographer of Ruskin, and Ian Tyson, artist, joined us, and the Artists’ Cycling Club was formed at a Little Chef somewhere in Surrey. Now we have club jerseys in navy and cerise with a logo, subscriptions, regular meetings and rides out on Sundays at 10.30 from Whipps Cross Roundabout in the East, Archway Tavern in the North, the Robin Hood Gate of Richmond Park in the West, and the Catford Odeon in the South. Eight of us are going to ride from John O’Groats to Land’s End: that way, because it is downhill, though into the wind, and easier to get back from, but most of all because we will fall among friends. Rose Hilton is giving us a grand reception at her cottage at Botallack, a few miles from the finish, on Saturday 13 September. I have set my heart on a banner stretched above her lane.
Six months ago I stopped drinking. I never did drink during the day, or drink spirits; I drank spritzers. I could easily drink two bottles of wine an evening. There were small physical things: I had some numbness in my ankles for three years – the doctors could not find any reason. I wondered if my erections were as strong as they were. I didn’t like having to get up in the night to pee. Sometimes one could not remember the names of minor film stars late in the evening. I felt guilty about drinking and driving (unlike the toad Waugh). I stole some bricks one night, fell over, and ended up, a week later, in hospital for a night with a septic cut on my hand. I felt I might be using it to cover up unhappiness.
Life is not much different. I still go to the Chelsea Arts Club most nights. I had begun to feel that I would always get the blues about five o’clock, that that was when my blood sugar was low, but it no longer happens. Some of my friends were less than helpful – they’re no longer my friends. One of the worse things is how, as the evening progresses, almost everyone wants to give up – I try to dissuade them.
I’m working on my fourth book about visual and verbal rhetoric, and it concerns chiasmus, metathesis and the spoonerism. So I read a book about Spooner, published by W.H. Allen in 1977, by Sir William Hayter, Warden of New College, Oxford 1958-1976. Throughout the book he describes the spoonerism as ‘metaphasis’, a word which is not in the OED. The correct word is ‘metathesis’. He must have misheard it at High Table. This error is repeated in The Oxford Book of Word Games by Tony Augarde: doesn’t anyone read their dictionary in Oxford?
They must be called dust-jackets because they collect the dust. I throw them away. I do not like the way the book slips out of your hand, and their loudness. It is much more sexy to discover delights inside a book if it has a sober cover. Perhaps the books with their jackets off remind me of how they used to be in the public libraries before they put those horrible soft plastic wrappers on them. I remember when I was reading Havelock Ellis in Hull library you went to where the book was supposed to be and there was this wooden dummy, with a leather spine and embossed classification, that you had to take to the desk to exchange for the real rude thing. Compendium bookshop even have covers for the covers. Every once in a while a reviewer will complain about the price of books – isn’t it Philistine? Recently Anthony Burgess whined about his own prices. If he had done the sums he would have learnt they have only risen with inflation. He should think, not how much, they cost, but how much they are worth. £ 13.95 I think it was.
I haven’t had time to write about living in an unlicensed squat with my middle son James – and being thrown out; about trying to buy a garage from an envelope broker; about going to see these impossibly pretentious and boomingly empty exhibitions; about my meetings with a concrete-poetry-writing Benedictine monk in a bank in Bristol; about playing chess, buying jazz, and lots of friends. And so to my little red bed.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.