It is with good reason that the collective noun for a group of artists is ‘a brawl.’ Yet as individuals, no more peaceable people could be found anywhere. Well perhaps I exaggerate a little for dramatic effect, but still, we’re quiet enough if left alone. Yet more than that, patrons rely on us to ensure that their various events run smoothly and don’t degenerate into ill-tempered affairs that lead to feuds and bitter quarrels.
Each of us deals with the quarrelsome in different ways. I tend to disarm the quarrellers with self deprecating humour and flashes of wit. Dobart Strun, a sculptor of my acquaintance achieves the same effect by picking the two bickering individuals up, one in each hand, and banging their heads together. It’s a technique, admittedly, but I’m not entirely convinced he should use it on ladies. After all, it can wreak havoc with their hair.
But I am reminded of an occasion some years ago when it was felt by some that we needed a club or meeting place for the city’s artistic fraternity. At the time I wasn’t convinced, the Misanthropes seemed to serve us well enough and it was always neutral ground with staff to act as mediators in any dispute.
But a committee was formed and they looked at premises and investigated suppliers. Eventually we were all invited to the ‘Tranquillity Rooms.’ The purpose was for us to look them over and decide whether they were for us.
Now I wasn’t immediately impressed, the ‘Tranquillity Rooms’ were the ground floor of a building, upstairs was a not particularly prestigious bordello. I talked to some of the girls waiting on the stair as I entered and they shared my misgivings. In their case they felt that having an artists’ club downstairs might well bring the tone of the area down.
Still once inside the place it didn’t look too bad. I think the factor that decided us all was the information that the committee had been able to acquire wine by the barrel at a third of the price we would have to pay at the Misanthropes. I suppose that settled the matter.
For the first few weeks matters proceeded well enough. Members were getting to know each other and still treated each other with the courteous reserve normally used for heavily armed strangers. But given the price of the wine, artists stopped drinking elsewhere and so we were spending far more time in each others’ company. This, it appears, was not an entirely good thing.
One omen of how things were going to turn out was when Seldor Baggit, a painter of allegedly erotic watercolours called Dobart Strun a “bedswerver and fopdoodle.” That didn’t end as badly as I thought it might, as Strun just tossed him casually out through the window. The trouble started when the committee tried to recoup the cost of replacing the window from Strun. He pointed out, not unreasonably, that it wasn’t he who had broken the window, and anyway if the window needed fixing, they should just stick one of Baggit’s paintings in the gap as it was all they were fit for.
The committee then summoned Baggit. According to witness reports, the conversation went something like this.
“Baggit old chap, you broke the window, so we’d like you to pay for it.”
This was met by stunned silence from Baggit, so one of the committee members said, “Or perhaps you could let us have one of your pictures?”
“To sell to pay for the damage?”
“No, just to block the hole.”
Baggit pulled himself to his full height (which was impressive, but he was especially thin.) “I don’t think I’ve ever been so insulted.”
“Listen you hedge-born long streak of misery, it’s probably because nobody ever thought you were worth the effort. Just stick a picture in the hole to keep the draught out and stop moaning.”
Baggit turned on his heel and stormed out without a word. But even as he slammed the door on them, a phrase must have occurred to him and he opened the door again and shouted, “In future I’ll just go upstairs, the ladies there show a higher appreciation of art than you bed-weasels and are far less prone to robbing people.”
With that he slammed the door again and left.
After that we were back on our best behaviour for a while, probably for three or four days, but slowly we relaxed. If asked I would have put money on the various groups of musicians coming to blows first. After all those who consider themselves ‘serious’ musicians regard those who write popular ballads as of no account, whilst the balladeers consider the ‘serious‘ musicians to be fusty and insanely jealous on account of their penury ‘because nobody listens to that sort of music any more.’ Or perhaps the various schools of painters would come to fisticuffs. After all it is my experience that those who paint the saleable but twee are regarded with contempt by those who paint the ‘bold’ and futuristic.
But no, it was, sadly, the poets who caused the final rupture. I would like to put forward a number of mitigating circumstances. Firstly the committee, to recoup the cost of fixing the window, had put up the price of wine. But they had not merely increased the price of wine when you purchased a bottle, they increased the price of the wine that you’d already purchased and added to your slate. This hit the poets particularly hard.
Secondly there were rumours of a poetry festival in the offing, with the promise of a cash prize but no other details. As is the way with these things, everybody assumed that other poets were involved in some sort of sordid partnership with the organisers to ensure they cornered the prize money. This engendered a mood of mutual suspicion.
Finally the committee had discovered that one of their barrels of wine was inferior. First they added ground mustard, then sugar, and finally in desperation added pure spirit mixed with a little milk. None of this seemed to work so they cut their losses and sold it by the tankard for the same money as they charged for a glass of something decent. Needless to say, times were hard, patrons aloof and money was short. We drank it by the tankard but somehow it didn’t cheer us but just left us gloomy and morose.
Tillop Willbeam was talking a lot of nonsense about the development of free verse and how it was necessary when writing works of true mysticism, and I put my tankard down and suggested, tentatively, that he might be mistake.
Julatine Sypent looked up from his scribbling. “He’s not mistaken. He’s just an idiot.”
Tillop was not happy with this. “And you’re a spurting pustule on the buttocks of a three dreg whore, but I still manage to ignore your pathetic body or work.”
“At least my work is my own, yours is purely derivative.”
“Derivative?” Tillop’s voice had dropped to a featureless monotone. I quietly moved so I was no longer between them.
“Of course it’s derivative Tillop. Your last piece reminded me of a laundry list of my mother’s.” Now Lancet Foredeck had joined in.
“That’s a lie for a start,” Tillop answered, with some heat. “Your mother never had made a laundry list in her life. Ask her clients.”
Did I mention that there is no love lost between Tillop and Lancet?”
Chel looked up from his seat by the fire. “Don’t worry Tillop, Lancet’s still trying to get over the fact that Carlina threw him over when she caught him trying to rhyme circus with mucus.”
For some reason this annoyed Lancet and in his anger he hurled his tankard at Chel. Unusually for Lancet because he has a good eye, he missed and it hit Strun on the back of the head. Strun merely grabbed Chel and hurled him back at Lancet. Lancet ducked and Chel collided with me, knocking me into Tillop who struck me. Feeling affronted by this I struck him back.
After that the whole episode is something of a blur, I remember being hauled off Tillop by two wacker-nannys from upstairs whilst some of the other girls tried to separate the remaining combatants.
We gave up the tenancy, the madam of the brothel upstairs had complained to the landlord that we were lowering the tone of the neighbourhood and that she was losing clients who didn’t want their friends to see them entering a building full of confrontational poets.
Given the season it seemed appropriate to send you away with some small token of my appreciation. Thus and so it has been arranged that you can download ‘A Nice Devotion’ as a pdf, absolutely free from here