Sunday, November 16, 2008
I read The Three of Us this weekend, Julia Blackburn's newly published memoir. She was the only child of a poet-father and painter-mother in 1950s London. I have admired several of Blackburn's earlier books very much, but this one was almost too painful to read. I kept wishing that Julia could somehow escape from the violence and selfishness of the two Bohemian crazies who had produced her, just as I often wished that I myself could escape from the book. But her calm professional voice seemed to hold me down and force me to finish the thing.
And one of the rewards of persisting was an absolutely fresh story about the painter Francis Bacon, which I was able to add to my large collection of Francis Bacon stories. It seems that Julia's father (an omnivorous womanizer and not otherwise inclined toward homosexuality) still did manage to have a brief sexual affair with Bacon. Here is how the daughter describes their final meeting:
Years later, when I saw Francis again, his flat wide face and his thin voice were suddenly deeply familiar from long ago. I was in my early twenties and living in London, and my father phoned to say they had arranged to have a drink at the Colony Room in Soho and would I come too.
During the previous few weeks I had been working for the Ceylonese poet and editor Tambimuttu. I told him of the planned meeting and he was keen to come too, so at the end of the day we set off together. Tambimuttu was wearing one of his exquisite Ceylonese silk jackets and in those days he had a big tight belly on him like an eighth-month pregnancy. We met my father on the corner of Frith Street and went through the open door and up the narrow stairs that led to the Colony Room. Muriel Belcher, who ran the place and called everyone Cunty, was not there and the room was almost empty. A man played soft jazz tunes on the piano.
My father went to the bar and ordered a bottle of rum. He kept rubbing his hands together in the glee of anticipation. He told me that the first time he came here with Francis, Muriel Belcher had pointed a pudgy finger at his reefer jacket and said, "Take that thing off, Cunty! It looks so vulgar!"
Then Francis entered the room, four or five young men dancing attendance, like a flurry of courtiers around their king. He stared at my father and wavered a moment in uncertainty before lunging towards him. He grasped him by the shoulders, almost bringing their two faces into contact. "My God, Tony!" he said, "you look awful! You used to be so beautiful!"
"You look pretty horrible yourself," said my father hopefully, bobbing up and down like a courting bird, his head bent slightly forward and his mouth pulled into a tight grin.
Francis was dressed in a black leather biker's jacket and black leather trousers, while my father had put on his best white linen suit, which was by now far too tight for him so that his arms, his chest and his legs seemed to be trying to burst out from the confines of the cloth.
"Champagne!" said Francis. "Champagne to celebrate the death of love!"
"You know Tambi, of course you do, and this is my daughter Julia," said my father, still bobbing. "You must remember her from Warwick Road."
"I'm not interested in your daughter or in anyone else. It's you I am interested in, Tony. Only you! Drink up your champagne, there's a dear, and let's dance!"
They curled into each other's arms, the man in white and the man in black, and they began a slow waltz, each holding an almost empty glass of champagne over the other's shoulder. They were ironic in their manner, yet they were also tender.
Tambi was sitting next to me on a sofa. Watching the two dancers was rather like being at the cinema. "You must write this down as soon as you get home," he said.