Richard Warren

20thc British art and poetry (mainly), plus bits of my own – "Clearly I tap to you clearly along the plumbing of the world" (W S Graham)

Creating a poor impression

It is possible to have one’s better judgement coshed into submission by an appeal to heroic recklessness. Recounting a doomed and penniless jaunt across Europe in the late 1940’s in the company of Brendan Behan, Anthony Cronin noted that at moments of crisis, Behan would propose a solution that, in any sane view, could only compound disaster, but then get his own way by casting himself as “man-of-action-thwarted-by-inadequate-lieutenant”. This brings to mind a far lesser expedition taken one shameful day in late 1977 by myself and my friend, the artist and experimental film maker Peter Hatton, on which my better judgement was left behind, wailing. At a distance of 35 years, confession begins to look something close to appropriate.

Memorably described by Philip Norman in the Sunday Times as “a bony, spasmodic boy, with hair like a mass of bubbles,” Pete was a charismatic, Rimbaud-ish mass of tics with a talent for unexpected and absolute enthusiasms; the fingers of his left hand were rigid from some teenage crisis where he had punched through the glass of a phone box. But his commitment to his art was absolute. Our artistic careers then being a tad in the doldrums, he had hit on the sudden strategy of an unannounced, in-person appeal to Impressions Gallery, the pioneering and well regarded photography venue in York. They had already very decently shown odd bits of our work (photograms, photocollages and so on) alongside Moholy Nagy and Dr Harold Edgerton, no less.  So they were, by Pete’s calculation, certain to be grateful for the opportunity to give us a headline two man show.

The virtue of this plan lay exclusively in its audacity. Since we had not thought to prepare the ground for our proposal in any way whatsoever, Pete judged that the required forceful spontaneity would be entirely to our advantage. Our naked vulnerability would be the guarantee of our authenticity, to the point where, as he explained, our benefactors would hardly consider wounding us by a refusal. I had some doubts, but sat on them, not wishing to appear the inadequate lieutenant or anything short of authentic.

Peter Hatton, collage, 1979, from the ‘Hostility’ series

The day, in my recollection, was flat and overcast. I have an image of rain, but maybe it wasn’t so. A car being well beyond our pockets, public transport was our only means, and so we set out on what should have been a relatively straightforward train journey from Wakefield to Leeds. Having lined our optimism with a stiff pre-expedition drink, we strode off for Kirkgate station.

In those days, most substantial railway platforms hosted a sturdy café that thoughtfully offered tins of beer to lighten the humdrum journey. Having welcomed this offer with open arms, we contrived to dash onto the wrong platform for our change of train at Leeds, realising much later that we were travelling at speed away from York, passing Batley and Dewsbury and heading rapidly for Huddersfield and Manchester.

Another Hatton collage

Confused back tracking followed, with hangings about after lost connections on wind scoured stations whose monotony was alleviated only by further supplies of beer. Once we were back on board, the grey, scratched, hard-done-by landscape of South Yorkshire limped painfully by. It was as if we had entered a metaphysical funnel where time snoozed. Emerging (some real hours later) under darkening clouds, we rolled unsteadily off the vast platform at York and, as directly as we could manage, headed for Colliergate.

With a degree of triumphant hurrahing, and imagining ourselves more sober than we really were, we finally burst through the doors of the gallery, to find ourselves, to our complete amazement, confronted by a crowd of unfamiliar people, largely in formal dress, most of whom who turned to stare at us in silence. After what seemed like (but may not have been) a very long pause, we must have said something lame and drunken about why we were there. We may even have asked to see Andrew Sproxton, the much respected founder and co-director of Impressions. After another awkward pause, someone explained quietly but very firmly that his funeral had taken place that afternoon and that we had interrupted his wake. With some sort of mumbled apology, we backed out.

Andrew had died at the age of 28. So rigorous had been our disdain of any form of reconnaissance that even this piece of tragedy had avoided our attention.

I don’t much recall the conversation on our return journey. I was probably too drunk by then to notice. I think we might have reassured ourselves with the notion that this comprehensive disaster had in some way sealed the purity of our approach, reckoning our refusal to compromise with reality as a kind of moral high ground. We were, after all, poètes maudits, and comprehensive disaster was our pride and our club badge. Though I dare say both of us, in the privacy of our own hearts, felt rather differently about what we had just done. On the rare occasions when I have since managed to bring myself to think about this incident, I have tried to construct a scenario in which we might have got things more comprehensively and tactlessly wrong, but have never succeeded.

We had other moments, but not quite up to that standard. Not the night when, after an epic bus journey across the West Riding on some futile art-related errand, we found ourselves marooned without taxi fare in a gay bar in Bradford. Nor the post-performance pub session at Butler’s Wharf in London where Pete simply disappeared overnight (later claiming to have been abducted by a predatory witch), leaving me with the suitcases. Not even the climactic occasion in the crypt of St Martin in the Fields when, with Robert Worby and Jez Welsh, fellow members of the Aerschot Performance Division, we delivered a piece of performance art of such heroic and alienating ferocity as to hack off every man jack and woman jill of the watching Arts Council panel authorised to offer us a generous grant. The performance was essentially unplanned; the sheer intolerable volume of electronic white noise rammed through our speakers brought clergy down to complain and sent Adrian Henri scurrying for the exit.

Pete went on to work with distinction at Fieldhead Special School in Wakefield, caring for children with severe learning difficulties and physical disabilities. The use of moving coloured lights as a sensory stimulation for children with special needs has now been mainstream for many years, but he had pioneered this in the late ‘seventies as a natural development of his art practice, and I believe he should be credited with the original idea. When he died in 1998, he was only in his mid-forties. Later that year, Wakefield Art Gallery gave him a posthumous show, his first and last real solo exhibition.

Following an earlier visit by Pete to my Sheffield bedroom (I’ll skip the details except to say that they involved a drop of what was alleged to be opium oil, considerable vomiting and some alarming auditory hallucinations), I had experienced for a short while the strange sense of being propelled forward a couple of decades, to live through some momentous, troubling but unidentifiable future event. Many years later it occurred to me that I had foreseen his death.

Perhaps, as Cronin observed, “it is almost impossible for sensitive, intelligent, over-imaginative people not to make a hames of their development.” Or had we just mistaken a reckless lifestyle for some rich vein of creativity? In the end, Pete remained loyal to his instinct for self-destruction. Whereas these days my Imp of the Perverse, God forgive him, can manage only a little wilful neglect of relationships or of necessary tasks; at one time, in the absence of any grander gesture, he would have contemplated rolling up everything and flinging it at the wall.

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