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8: My Disciple

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« on: January 24, 2023, 04:51:17 am »

LETTERS that I receive from unknown correspondents requesting an interview (mostly to do with other peoples lives, not mine) I drop automatically in the waste-paper basket. Such letters are often those of a person who rates flattery very high among the stock baits—a person who fancies himself as a trapper. (An "eminent" man must be a vain man, otherwise—so obviously the unknown argues—he would never have sweated his way up to eminence.)

I have experience of what happens if one does not treat these letters as waste-paper. It does the correspondent no good to see him—it is just as humane therefore not to do so. Besides, I do not happen to be vain.

Mr. Walter Gartsides' communication lay before me, I looked down at it as I lighted a cigarette: and it was not a half-dozen lines before I reached "I have haunted the cocktail parties in the hope of meeting you". Of course at this point I prepared to get rid of it. As I gripped it to tear it in half I saw the word Rochdale. Mr. Gartsides (the sweet euphonious name—I could see it was hideous though the signature was only partly legible) was "taking up an appointment", I read, "as art-director". It was in connection with this that Rochdale came to be mentioned; that was where he was going.

Rochdale I had seen ten days before. In a railway train after puffing your way through the Pennines, gazing with indolent sadness at those hill-villages of chilly charm—for they force you to think of England before it began to dig in its black entrails and cover its pretty little face with soot—after the Pennine interlude you re-enter the bleak huddle of this mass-day, the factories of Rochdale. Would Mr. Gartsides' job take him up where it is still beautiful in the hills, or on towards the metropolis of soot, mighty Manchester? "A few miles from Rochdale," could mean either: but there can be no "colleges" in the Pennines....

To discuss with me the policy he proposed to pursue at this college, such was Mr. Gartsides' wish. At present he taught in Bermondsey: he picked ugly neighbourhoods, did this man with the ugly name. I pictured him as a big seedy earnest man. The letter was not badly written, was not embarrassing as some are, was unsmiling, was just cordial enough to be agreeable.

An aversion to humanity is not what makes me difficult of access, only an aversion to painters or poets. There are so many thousands of individuals wasting their time at the game of "self-expression"; brooding over some midget talent in some dirty little room, with some dirty little woman. After a great war they are found to have alarmingly multiplied. Were it the tinker or the tailor who wanted a conference, or the local builder, tobacconist, or publican, that would be different. I am uncommonly sociable. It was undoubtedly the fact that Mr. Gartsides lived in so underprivileged a neighbourhood as Bermondsey that decided me to write and ask him to come to tea the following week. Owing to great pressure of work I regretted that about an hour was all I should be able to spare. There is no pretentiousness, I may add here, in being particular about time, I am short of time. It is the government makes me short of time, or the penury of the country.

On the appointed day, and, with great precision, at the appointed hour, his knock was heard: loud—firm—short. Upon opening the door I had a surprise, which was apparently reciprocated. In such cases embarrassment is usual on the visitor's part, whereas the rules prescribe that the grantor of the interview should be bursting with self-importance—or if he is not bursting with it, is weary with the weight of it, or most "graciously" waives it—or perhaps moves circumspectly like a man with something sensational on his person—say a bomb. Mr. Gartsides, though for some reason surprised, was in no way embarrassed.

My visitor was a raw-boned man of thirty-nine, not to say forty, an age to which I do not think he had in fact attained. He carried a khaki raincoat over his arm, wore no hat, his reddish hair was rough but thinning; he was short, brisk, poker-faced, a man who had never been a great many feet above the gutter. I should expect to see him in a strike-picket, and his hard voice was like one coming out of a picket too.

Whatever it was had halted my visitor was effective for perhaps the one tick-tock of a clock: then his underdone pink face, rationed as regards expression, admitted what I assume was his party-look, and his harsh voice rasped quietly out my name. He marched straight in without much invitation. "Be seated, Mr. Gartsides," I said, and was glad the letter had been answered, and I had got something more primitive than I had asked for, and he sat down at once in my best and largest armchair, and gave my room and belongings a resolute look or two. It was not a stare for his aggressiveness was quiet and reserved. He sat up red and alert and silent. But his redness was not that he coloured, it was always there, and no one who lives in a class-room keeps such a face.

"I was not able to read your signature," I told him.

"No? I am sorry."

"But I am glad my letter reached you. In addressing the envelope as I could not make out the name I imitated the shapes, and put Esquire after them."

He smiled—probably he thought I was being superior about his handwriting.

"What is your name however!" I politely laughed. "Your handwriting is beautifully clear, but, like many people, when you write your name you become illegible!"

"Gartsides," he barked back, making the name sound even harsher than it is.

"An uncommon name," I said.

"Not in Durham where I come from."


"Yes, Gartsides is a name you often hear."

"I can see how that might be, it sounds as if it could have belonged to a collector of the Danegelt."

To put an end to these trivialities Mr. Gartsides announced, "I have read your books, Mr. Lewis, at least some books. I am very glad we could meet. I have haunted parties and shows in the hope of meeting you."

I gave him a reproachful look and hastily changed the subject.

"How do you come to live," I enquired, "in Bermondsey Mr. Gartsides. You teach, you said in your letter."

"Yes, that's right, in an Elementary School."

"You dispense elementary education to those whose parents were insufficiently acquisitive and so had not the cash to send their kids to more classy places."

"Yes. I went to one like that myself too. Elementary—that's all I got."

This was given out coldly, as an indifferent fact, but he was laying bare an injury that society had inflicted upon him. It had given him a clown's equipment, and a clown's tongue.

"Token instruction. It's disgusting!" I protested. "Does it not worry you; to help perpetuate this system?"

Mr. Gartsides looked politely blank. Sympathy, or "understanding", was a commodity the bona fides of which he doubted, and for which he had no use anyway.

"But it is art I teach," he explained. "Sometimes in art the elementary is the best."

"Sometimes!" I conceded with extreme dryness.

Tea arrived, and some of the lardless, sugarless, eggless cakes of Great Britain 1949. The tea had suddenly improved about Christmastime, before which it had no taste whatever, having deteriorated during months in the warehouse. As he drank he remarked. "Good tea. Darjeeling and China. I always bought that": he laughed—"when I could get it."

His laughter was the public enjoyment of a private joke, and I was impelled to ask him:

"Have you always taught art in elementary schools?"

He gave a short laugh at that. "Oh, no," he answered. "Only for a year. I was a soldier."

"During the war—but before that——"

"No, I was a regular. I was seventeen years in India."

India, with its mosques and temples, its solar topees, polo-ponies—seventeen years of it violently expelled the image of Bermondsey as the background for this little figure. It was with a new eye that I focused him. It was literally as if he had confessed to a prison sentence.

"What was your rank?" I asked.


"Quarter-bloke?" I suggested.

"No, just sergeant. I trained the boys for jungle-warfare. Blackett's boys."

I digested this.

"I'm an old man," he said harshly. "I know I have not much time. I have to be quick."

He spoke as a man with a mission. But I had not been prepared for a long-service sergeant—that was one of the half-dozen things for which I was totally unprepared.

It was not the ranker—my class-bar works in reverse: but this is a Briton who comes out of a mould manufactured at the same period as the footman. On retirement, if personable, old soldiers became Commissionaires, or such up to now has been the case: prison warders, police constables or what not. With domestics they traditionally have shared a necessary obliquity, unshakeable appetite for tips, a philosophy of sloth. Following the mass-training of citizens for the first world-war the type has suffered a change—but in such cases a type is apt to keep the worst of the old while incorporating the worst of the new. Finally, it is not a creative occupation, and cannot but be a servile one, so long as the old disciplines hold.

In "total war" the first regular sergeants had left no over-all pleasant impression upon me. On the other hand, there was this: I could not imagine any of them, by any stretch of the imagination, becoming art-teachers. So we stared at one another, at this point, blankly and bleakly—for no more than the interval decreed by punctuation by its colon sign—he, reddened by the sun that "never set" on the Empire that is no more, I paled by electricity, under which I labour nightly to distinguish myself and attract ex-sergeants: he who—in his sergeants' mess in Hindustan—so he was to tell me, would listen to some ex-service minstrel who, for a drink or two, would give the sergeants "The Road to Mandalay" (where the old flotilla lay)—a year or two before the English "hurled themselves"—to use an American columnist's phrase—"out of" Kipling's India—and I who—(to find a minstrel for myself) once listened to an American minstrel who read a lay of his own, which he had called "The Waste Land", while the ink was scarcely dry on it. That was after Western civilization had committed suicide in a blood bath. The second decade of this ill-starred century had just banged its way off the stage.

The sergeant revealed a brand-new set of state teeth—first fruits of the famous Health Act, falsely white and symbolically of a deadly uniformity. His smile advertised polite satisfaction at the effect produced by his words.

"Well all right, so you're a soldier," I began, with ostentatious finality.

"I was a soldier," he mildly corrected.

"How does it come about though that you teach art?"

He seemed surprised at the question. It appeared the most natural thing in the world that he should teach art.

"Oh, I see," I said.

But he proceeded to open my eyes still further—he relished the operation, it was quite plain. Upon leaving the army he had at first no idea what to do with himself. As regards the length of this blank interlude I know nothing, but it cannot have been long. Mentioning the problem one day to a chance-met man, he heard how soldiers were being turned into teachers (not of art—that came later). The idea appealed: he fancied himself as a teacher. Sergeants develop an appetite for the imparting of knowledge.

Of course in fact he had had a wide choice of callings. Upon demobilization he could have become almost anything from a Harley Street consultant to an Anglican clergyman, by means of a Government grant: to the mind of the politician, who is anti-craft, the notion that it takes a long time to become anything worth the being is repugnant. The politician, like the journalist, is a professional amateur. The only thing there was no grant for was to learn how to be a politician. The laziest of the ex-servicemen naturally chose the fine arts. The nation's money was drained off on oil-paints, palettes, mahlsticks, six-foot lay-figures, poppy-oil and sable-brushes—and of course studio rents. Sculpture was not so popular, it sounded too much like work.

Gartsides was sent to an emergency training centre. In one year he would have qualified as a teacher in an elementary school. Shortly, however, he discovered that there was no obstacle to his transferring, if he so desired, and training to be an art teacher. So he changed over (he probably found arithmetic a bit of a sweat): whether remaining in the same training centre or not I forget. On the completion of a brief period of art-training, he blossomed forth as art-teacher, was appointed to a slum-school. The other teachers there, of whatever kind, were "certificated"—which meant they had matriculated and spent some years in procuring their licence to teach. It seems he was not a popular figure, even before he showed what stuff he was made of. But it was no time at all before he did that. He quite literally painted the school red.

A thigh thrown over a desk, an arm akimbo, his utility shoe dangling, the children were addressed by Gartsides; and their fidgety little eyes popped out of their curly little heads. They were told that what was spontaneous was best. Spontaneous meaning what spurts up, free and uncontrolled, not fed out by a nasty tap. The freest expression—the most innocent release—of their personalities was what he was there to teach. They would get no direction from him, his role was that of a helpful looker-on. Ready to give a hand, that was all. (He conveyed a very vivid impersonation of these transactions I am obliged naturally to abridge). Art was doing what they liked. It was not doing what he liked. They must pay no attention to him or to anyone else—it did not matter a hoot what anyone thought. He waved a rebellious eye over towards the office of the superintendent. He could teach them nothing. What can one person teach another except to be himself, as if he lived on a little island all by himself? They all lived on little islands all by themselves. No, he was simply there in the capacity of a wet-nurse, to assist them to be their little selves, and to bring forth—to create—whatever was inside them!

The children—typical Giles-like gnomes from the neighbouring sooty alleys and crapulous crescents—were of course alarmed and excited. Then he appeared one morning with a number of tins of house-painters' colours and a couple of dozen suitable brushes (and he was very proud of introducing house-painters' colours into the teaching of art). He pointed dramatically to the walls of the class-room crying: "Here's paints and brushes and there's the old wall! Atta boy! Paint me some pitchers on it!"

His petrified class suddenly saw the light. With squeaks of rapture they went to work. Soon the walls, part of the ceiling, as well as the cupboards and doors and even some areas of the floor of the class-room were as rich with crude imagery as the walls of a public lavatory. Some of the children were smeared from head to foot with paint.

After this his popularity suffered a further decline among the teaching staff. Next the school-inspectors arrived one morning and "nearly threw a fit" when they saw his class-room. He played the simpleton. He grimaced with a wooden jaw, hanging open an idiot lip and goggled with his eyes, to show me how smart he could be. It seems that the inspectors were satisfied that he was practically imbecilic. Of course they recognised that this was the type of man called for to teach art. They bullied the children, however, a little, for obviously they should have had more sense.

After the paint he obtained some plasticine.

"What do you think they did with it?" he asked me.

I shook my head, to indicate my inability to guess what might supervene if their personalities were left alone with so malleable a substance as plasticine.

"Well, they all made the same sort of thing," he told me.

"Indeed. How curious."

"Yes," he agreed. "They stood their piece of plasticine up on end like this." And he stood a safety-match upright on the table. He smiled at me. "I asked them what it was," he said. "They told me a lighthouse."

"Ah, yes. That lighthouse rescue probably. It was in all the papers: I suppose it was that."

"No," he said, obviously disappointed in me. "It was—well a phallus. Phallic."

"I beg your pardon," I said. "I see, of course. How amusing. Their personalities vanished momentarily. They became one—the primeval child."

He looked at me with surprise.

"No," he objected. "Each did a different lighthouse."

I laughed at that. "I wonder," I asked him, "if you have read Herbert Read's Education of the Child?" For his goofy goings on, without looking any further, might be the response to some such stimulus.

"Oh, yes." In a slightly drawling tone of voice which dismissed my suggestion as irrelevant. "The book that has had most influence on me, Mr. Lewis"—and he bent his gaze upon me as if I were showing a little ingratitude—"is your Caliphs Design. I have got more from that book than any other and I was meaning to speak to you about it."

My consternation may easily be imagined. My amour propre reeled at the impact of such approbation. The Caliphs Design, with for sub-title Architects Where is Your Vortex? was my earliest pamphlet. It is to do with the fine arts, with especial reference to the case of the architect. The human shell, dwelling or public building, should be demolished, I protested, no city should be spared or time wasted, and our architects should construct upon the tabula rasa thus created, a novel, a brilliant city.

The teaching of this book is violently opposed, surely, to the emotional "personality"-world of Mr. Gartsides and his true master Mr. Read. I put pressure upon my memory to produce some passage, or perhaps chapter, which would give aid and comfort to my "admirer". But my memory of my own work is imperfect and I abandoned the attempt.

"The Caliphs Design?" I asked coldly.

"Yes. It's a book that ought to be reissued."

I blinked.

"Do you still think the same as you did when you wrote it?" he asked me.

"Just the same." But I began to understand. "That the out-dated dingy shells in which we live—indeed everything, you mean, should be razed to the ground and a national city replace it? Dazzlingly white in place of blackened brick and dirty stucco? That the sordid antiquated apology for a city in which we dwell disappear as if by sorcery, and a new city stand there suddenly where it was—of hard white logic?"

He nodded.

"Well, I want that now as I did then. The only difference is I know I shall not get it!"

"Why not?" he retorted, with a touch of what was for him almost heat. He became guarded at once. "It's worth trying for, anyway."

"Oh, yes. However, since you have expressed such interest in that...When writing The Caliphs Design I was superbly ignorant of the difficulties."

"Of course there are difficulties," he agreed airily.

"Firstly, the obstacles which stand in the way of pulling down, or of building, a single house, let alone a street—or a city."

"Property rights."

"That is so. But there are factors more fundamental." I got up and passed him to fetch a box of matches. Back again I said. "I was not a social-revolutionary."

"I know you were not." He was prompt and business-like. "You had the vision though. You saw what should be done to the outside—to house the new society."

"Very well—I had a vision, like my Caliph—but suppose for a moment that I had found a social-revolutionary, Mr. Gartsides, to act upon my vision. What would he have done with my vision? Naturally what Hollywood does with a literary masterpiece. He would have diluted, vulgarized, and betrayed it. It is no use going into partnership with a violent reformist philistine. Yet to realize your 'vision' you require capital: and in this case the capital required is action."

Gartsides jerked himself over from the right arm of the chair to the left. He stroked his raw face as if it hurt. "The man of action," he murmured lazily, "is not always a philistine though."

"Well, we won't have a parade of Men-of-Action! How I see it, and you came to me as to an oracle, is this. All the dilemmas of the creative mind seeking to function socially centre upon the nature of action; upon the necessity of crude action, of calling in the barbarian to build a civilization. The result is as disconcerting as what is unmasked at the basis of the structure of the human reason—I mean the antinomies."

That was my longest speech, in this access of volubility. I lay back and smoked. Then I said: "A penny for your thoughts, Mr. Gartsides!"

"My mind is a perfect blank!" He smiled the smile of the smart.

As a result of our conversation so far I understood, of course, that art was the last, not the first, thing that weighed with Mr. Gartsides, whose interests were political or sociological. Like most astute men of this type he had no time for private feelings, he did not take too seriously the non-political character of my mind—especially as I was not hostile but only had not trained myself to think of the human being as a power-unit.

But I think he felt this was becoming a stalemate, or we had drifted away from the fiery purpose that had brought him to see me. Sitting up, he again mounted his savage hobby-horse.

"So you still think like that—that's good, Mr. Lewis. I'm glad. That's how I think. It is why I came to see you. I can make people enthusiastic," he assured me brightly, "I can make them see what I see." This he repeated later several times. He regarded it as his raison d'être—to be an intoxicator of innocents, with big brash phoney phrases. "You remember what you said in your book about the artist and the engineer?"

"That they should co-operate?" I looked at the clock.

"That's right. That's what I am going to do up in the college—make the engineers art-conscious. They never think about art. I want to make them see they can use art in their work."

"I see." I looked at the clock: but I was unable to make him time-conscious. I had not his power to make people see what I saw—at least not when it was a timepiece.

"Why don't you go out, Mr. Lewis, and make people enthusiastic, make people see what you see?"

"My way of doing that is to paint pictures," I told him. "I paint pictures of a world that will never be seen anywhere except in pictures."

"You don't think so? But the day of the easel-picture is over."

"Then there will not even be that pale reflection of something more intelligent."

"No one sees what the artist does in his studio."

"You mean that like the Borough Group he should take his canvases into the Public Gardens so that the dormant responses of the common man may be stimulated? Or the way artists stick their things up in an alley near Washington Square, New York?"

"Why not?" he said. "The artist is wasting his time doing easel-pictures. What he puts into the easel-picture he should put into the world outside. Spread his vision around—in things that people can touch—eat out of—live in! Their houses, their clothes."

He was all-set evidently to intoxicate me. I resorted to the grin, which is all that it is necessary to do when people like Mr. Gartsides who cannot paint easel-pictures, and understand nothing about the art of painting, condemn the easel-picture: or the novel or indeed any of the other so-called individualist art-forms the destruction of which they are apt to predict if not to urge, basing the abolition upon some utilitarian moral.

"You could make people enthusiastic!" How right was the eighteenth century, I reflected as I listened, in its deep distaste for "enthusiasm".

But he proceeded to enlarge upon the novel functions involved in his job of "art-director", and explained the purpose of the new colleges invented by the socialist administration. (In the field of Education they are not seen at their best.) He had gone up to Rochdale and was accepted on the spot. The director had said: "You're the only one who took the trouble to come up and have a look. You shall have the job." What would his "art-direction" consist of, I wanted to know. Would he sit down the engineers-in-the-making this college had been created to train and make them copy plaster-casts? He laughed away all plaster-casts. Or the nude model? I enquired. He smiled away the nude.

He was not evasive. He made no difficulty about explaining that what he would do was just to inspire and enthuse.

"How do you mean," I persisted. "You will in the morning leave your quarters charged with enthusiasm. You will walk around the work benches or rooms where young men are bent over blue-prints, and spout art as one would spray some intoxicant into the air? Will you get these young men to paint the college walls and ceilings?"

"Certainly that is the form their enthusiasm might take," he answered. "I don't know what form it will take however. I am here to discuss that with you."

"There would be no work on pieces of paper or canvas—which might lead eventually to ... the easel-picture?"

"No, of course not that. What's the use of that?"

"What indeed. Do you paint yourself, Mr. Gartsides?"

At this he was convulsed a little.

"Oh, I shouldn't like you to see any of my pictures"—he gulped down a self-deriding laugh at the mere thought of the feebleness of his own "creative" efforts.

"Are they not good?" I asked.

"No, they're rotten," he assured me.

"Your activities are mainly destructive"—I assumed the air of one musing.

"No, I am creative. I can fill people with enthusiasm."

"For what?"

"For art."

It was six o'clock and I stood up. He had had his sixty minutes—and so had I.

But I rather liked Mr. Gartsides. I even secretly wished him luck. This remarkable sergeant naturally regarded art as an uproarious racket. In that, however, he was by no means alone. Many dignified gentlemen, who draw fat salaries as—directors just like Gartsides only on a far bigger scale, regard art in precisely the same way. The parasites that art attracts are legion. What I liked about Gartsides was the way he had jumped into it with military alacrity, out of the farmyard or the Barrack Square. He had taken Time by the forelock. He had swung himself up on to the tremendous bandwaggon. If we were going to live with nonsense, rather Gartsides and his "enthusiasm" than the higher-up impostors—the "stripe-pants" of the art-racket.

I took a fancy to Gartsides. From that day to this I have breathlessly followed his career. He has grown to be a somewhat different person: but he retains, to the full, his fine rough artlessness. If only he could learn to paint, he might do for the Army what Rousseau did for the Douane.

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