Sunday, November 29, 2015

Francis Bacon and how we met

I was going through a box of old documents to find details of my early flying experiences and found an envelope addressed to me at my London bank from Francis Bacon, to whom I had just sold a studio house in the country. The roughly torn envelope contained two letters from him.
In 1958 I sold where I lived beside Chelsea Football Ground in London and was about to set off on a round-the-world voyage of discovery and drawing, when I thought I should still have some sort of root in England as a place to which I could return. So I bought (I think for £425) a tumbledown wreck of a cottage on the Berkshire Downs at the end of an overgrown lane that led from the village of Chieveley, north of Andover.
I bought it from the cottagers next door, a Mr and Mrs Rampling. He was still surviving from being gassed in the First World War, and she looked after him and cultivated a most beautiful cottage garden that looked like a colourful Victorian watercolour.
They had no plumbing, so the contents of the bucket in a small garden shed went into a trench to feed the following year’s runner beans.
Mrs Ramp and I made friends immediately. And, in her only gardening book (a Victorian one that recommended Cannabis for London gardens), she found an engraving of my rosarian grandfather, looking up at tall, spiky, eremurus flowers, on which he had written a chapter. So we established our mutual love of gardens and country lore. She was to keep an eye on my wreck of a house when I was away, and put a man’s hat in a window to deter intruders.
A year later I was back, had drawn up plans, and when Mrs Ramp and I had decided that conditions were safe, I telephoned the Newbury Fire Brigade and told them that there would be a blaze at Chieveley and not bother to attend to it. I put a match to the downwind corner of the mangy straw thatch and was glad to see the last of the verminous place reduced to smouldering rubble.
The house I built in its place, with a Polish builder, would have a gull winged roofline, but I could only afford half of the wing – but anyhow laid foundations for the complete building.
The end result was an innovated structure, there being just one large, glass-walled studio room with a floor of marble washstand tops, saved by me over years for such a project, one internal balcony, and only one bedroom with a bathroom, WC and bidet. Downstairs was a cosy living room with open fire, a separate WC and an under-floor heated kitchen. No plumbing pipes of any sort were visible as they were all concealed within a central column. Air was ducted in beneath the floor to feed the fire, and a parallel chimney ducted in fresh air, which was heated by the main chimney alongside to supply warmth to the bedroom. The structure was of lovely, red, handmade bricks, and internal surfaces were of the unevenly coloured pink plaster that was applied initially. Provision was made for a conservatory, but never implemented. That was the house.
Outside was an ancient well, hand cut through chalk. It was so deep that a pebble dropped into it took some tome to splash into the water below. And so cold was its almost transparent water that we would haul some up in a bucket to keep the beer cool during house construction.
It was a lovely house, isolated, quiet except for the noises of nature, and where birds would even roost in my bedroom.
I grew fat. I struggled to get back into the swing of painting after a year’s worth of drawing around the world. I tried paint, then moved on to collage. At least the latter did help, and although I was not all that pleased with the results, some have now been sold at Christie’s saleroom and been bought by private collectors.
I felt that I was vegetating too much and becoming too introspective. It was time to move on – and to London.
I spoke to local estate agents. They were in accord. No one would buy a one-bedroom house. So I advertised in The Daily Telegraph.
One reply to this advertisement was from a Francis Bacon. I enquired if he happened to be the painter. He was. The year was 1964.
Francis arrived alone. He took to the place immediately, as the internal walls were much like the paint surfaces in his work, and a soft platform surrounding the living room ideal for himself and his subjects. Negotiations took place, with me trying to get a painting as part of the deal. The Marlborough Gallery would not allow it. The sale was completed with, if I remember correctly, the gallery paying.
I must have sent him some seeds, so his first letter was to thank me and invite me back to the country for a day or a weekend. I went for a day.
I remember walking into the bare studio to see a small table on which sat champagne and raw kipper fillets and onion for lunch. The scene was an austere but colourful still life. We got on very well, deciding that “chance” was one of the most important aspects in the creation of a painting.
He spoke of how people thought homosexuals lived in a twilight world. “What absolute nonsense,” he said. “We certainly do not.” 
As we talked, George Dyer, his companion at the time, draped himself on the said platform in a languid, greased-hair pose. He hardly spoke. I occasionally see a Bacon painting of George, which was obviously done when he reclined in the corner of that room. 
I had left a little art there in the form of door paintings. For a Japanese guest I had painted one with cherry blossom. Francis did not like it. On the other door I had painted, very freely with my previous theatre-painting skills, bookshelves with books. This he loved. We parted great friends.
The other letter he sent me was to discover how often the septic tank should be emptied. He was about to sell the house (March 1966) and the new owner wanted to know. This was strange, as I had heard that an inebriated Francis gave the house to George Dyer and that George had put it up for sale almost immediately. Anyhow, George committed suicide not long afterwards – perhaps richer for the sale.
I was never one of Francis’s coterie, but whenever he saw me on the street he would come to talk.
I did go to one of his parties in Reece Mews, South Kensington, where the American author, James Baldwin, was a guest among other notables. I had expected to see a rather Bohemian crowd in his scruffy studio place, and was surprised to find so many smart young men in city suits as fellow guests.
So that’s all I know about the great painter, other than information from countless books and catalogues.

I consider myself very lucky to have met and been friends with so nice a man.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Danger in the Air

There have been recently several nasty air accidents. Danger has returned to flying.
To me it has always been dangerous, although I was often unaware of it.
Through my uncle, who flew in a record-breaking Christmas airmail flight from Sydney, Australia, to London in 1932, Kingsford Smith, the pioneer Australian pilot, was going to land in a field next to our house to take us up. We laid out a T in white sheets to indicate wind direction but, being somewhat unreliable, he never turned up.
However, he was to fly us children (I was 7 years old) from Croydon Aerodrome in April 1932, but the tail skid on his aeroplane had broken. All was not lost. A friend of his flew us over London in a Klemm Bat, an early, low cantilever winged German aircraft. I wore my cap back to front to stop it being blown away by the slipstream, and held on for grim death, there being a rough seat and nothing to stop the passenger from rattling around or falling out.
Flying like that was never thought to be dangerous as we took off and landed on Croydon’s very wet and muddy grass surface. Parked nearby were those lovely Handly Page biplane airliners with four engines with their four bladed propellers strung between the wings. They flew from Croydon to Paris, landing in any large field for repair if anything went wrong. Flying was very much in vogue, very modern, but by today’s standards very primitive.
I loved aircraft, flying, and First World War tales of bravery in the air, and all that went with this new dimension to my life.
Allen Cobham’s Flying Circus had come to Rye. I was taken to the field by my father. A short flip over the sea was 5/-, and with a loop included, 7/6 pence. I had the 7/6 pence worth. It was in an Avro Tutor biplane. And then I flew in a Gypsy Moth from Christchurch.
The 1939-1945 war came. I went to the USA as a refugee until old enough, in 1942, to return by convoy across the Atlantic to join the RAF.
Until there were training facilities available for my pilot training, I took a job first as a farm labourer and then as a prop-swinger at RAF Theale, near Reading.
The latter job was ideal for me. It consisted of starting Tiger Moth (DH 82) biplane engines by swinging the propeller.
I placed chocks in front of the wheels (Tigers had no brakes) and shouted “switches off, petrol on, throttle closed ”. Then the prop was spun around a couple of times to fill the cylinders with a petrol mix and I would shout “contact”, spin the propeller, and jump backwards as the engine started. The switches were positioned outside the fuselage so that prop-swingers could see them and know that they would be safe from being sliced up by the propeller when the switches “off”. The chocks, on rope, would then be pulled clear and the aircraft would taxi to the take-off point. 
There was no meteorology then, so an instructor would fly a Tiger up wind for a while to see what kind of weather was approaching the airfield and be safe for learners. As the second cockpit was usually empty, I was often taken along and given instruction on how to fly the aeroplane. Soon I was doing all the flying. It came naturally to me.
Sometimes other aeroplanes would land at Theale. So I was able to fly in other types of aircraft – like an Oxford, Anson (devils to start their two engines), Dominie and Auster.
The Auster was a small AOP (Air Observation Post), high wing spotter aircraft, flown by my brother-in-law. He was in the Army and flew Generals around battlefields.
For that kind of flying there were no rules like the ones we were being taught. So, by taking off cross-wind or in any direction he felt like, made him somewhat unpopular with those in charge of the airfield.
The slow Tiger Moth biplanes were safe. Even when I flew my first solo flight from a farmer’s field at RAF Shellingford, no one seemed to crash and kill themselves.
As a trainee (U/T) pilot I was posted to Coastal Command’s RAF Davidstow Moor in Cornwall, where 281 Squadron flew twin-engined Warwick aircraft. They had a specially moulded lifeboat slung beneath the fuselage.
For operational experience I was taken along on sorties over the Bay of Biscay to search for baled-out aircrew. Had we ever found any we would have dropped them the lifeboat beneath its six parachutes. Our chances of seeing anyone in the Bay of Biscay were pretty slim, despite our square method of search.
My job aboard, while others were looking down toward the waves, was to look out for German Focke-Wulf Condor aircraft. These flew from Brittany to attack convoys. They were massively armed with depth charges and cannon, and no match for our collection of Browning 303 machine guns. I did see one Condor before any of its aircrew saw us, so we escaped. I suppose that flying like that must be rated as being extremely dangerous, but one never thought of it at the time.
I probably flew there with my present picture framer’s grandfather. But his logbook at the time we were together at Davidstow recorded student pilots like me as “passenger”, and not by name. I suppose that had we been brought down by the Germans and lost our lives I would have been traced.
My 20 hours flying from Davidstow was, in fact, the only operational flying I did in the war. When I was awarded my wings in Oklahoma, the war in Europe was at an end.
But learning to fly in America was quite a different matter as far as air crashes and danger were concerned. I wrote off a lovely PT19 Cornell (not my fault I must add) and quite a few of our number crashed AT6 Harvards and were killed.
Those were pre-radar days of dead reckoning navigation when low cloud and fog were regular killers.
At that time I could not envisage civil airlines being successful. Wartime crashes and deaths had become commonplace. So, why would people willingly risk their lives to travel by air?
Then, post-war, such progress was made in the reliability of aircraft, engines and navigation, that flying became very much safer.
And now, once again, through circumstances that seem to be almost out of our control, flying can occasionally be very dangerous indeed.