The Fower Quarters: 10 - Nothing Personal
Author(s): Sheena Blackhall
Copyright holder(s): Sheena Blackhall
This document contains language which some may find offensive
Awkward yet excited, the class members had made perfunctory introductions to one another before the senior lecturer, Daniel Vaughan, strode into the studio, tall, rather gaunt and brisk in his manner, the one eccentric note a sprig of violets in his lapel. Otherwise, he could have passed easily for a city civil servant. Yet for years he had been something of a living legend amongst the student population and his credentials were whispered again as the youngsters pegged up cartridge paper or selected the right pencils for their very first life-drawing session.
"He was on first-name terms with Miro, you know ...
Very influential on the Continent, they say ...
Refused to be an RSA - said it would label him a conformist ...
Heard he had ten mistresses. ..Twenty, more like ..."
Simon had just begun to sharpen his pencil when his neighbour, the fisherman's son, gave a sharp intake of breath.
"Fit on earth are we meant tae dae wi her?" the young lad blurted out. It was a stupid but perfectly innocent remark, a youngster's gut reaction to the shock of seeing his first nude. The model had slipped off her green silk robe, and it had slithered to the floor like a spill of oil. She sat, naked as nature intended, her flesh sallow, almost olive, dusky shadows defining the hollows of her collar bones: an angular yet elegant middle-aged woman, with long greying hair tied in a bun.
Unfortunately, Simon Chisholm had not been the only one to overhear the remark. Daniel Vaughan crossed the room like a gliding crane, bent down and spoke in a stage whisper, mimicking precisely his student's North-East dialect: "Dae wi her? Fit are we meant tae dae wi her?"
The class tittered nervously, dutifully acknowledging their lecturer's sense of humour.
"Why, dear boy, should we not turn her upside down, eh? Would that be better? Why don't we persuade her to part her legs and use her as a human catapult? Why not dae that wi her, eh? Or let me see. Maybe we could baste her in lard, deep-fry her and serve her wi chips!"
Vaughan began to warm to his theme, deriving accustomed pleasure from playing to an impressionable young audience. He also had the satisfaction of seeing the boy's blushing discomfiture. Walking towards the statue-still model and pacing around her like some predatory carnivore, he suddenly turned to address the class as a whole.
"Why don't we just clean our brushes on her?" he suggested, with a histrionic sweep of his arms. "Use her as a hat stand perhaps? She could even lie down and plug that draught from the corridor," he continued, swooping low with a mischievous, poisonous pleasantry over one young giggling female student. Then, like a cat who has played with a mouse and suddenly tires of the game, he dropped the subject and instructed the class to begin work. For the next half hour, nothing was heard but the scuff of lead as thirty pencils measured and shaded, poised and drew, paused and restarted.
Simon had been totally engrossed. Drawing sucked him into a separate world where other things ceased to exist and nothing mattered but the image he was creating. Working at such intensity was draining though. He laid his pencil down, leant back, narrowed his eyes, and heaved a satisfied sigh. Yes, he had made his statement; the drawing could not be improved on; it was as perfect as he could personally make it.
Daniel Vaughan circled the easel for a moment like a male ballet dancer. Then he stopped in mid-twirl and turned up his lapel to sniff the tiny heads of the violet nosegay. He stood behind the boy, looking over his shoulder.
"Finished, Mr Chisholm? And who might this ravishing creature be? Do introduce us. I've never had the pleasure of meeting this lady. She's certainly not the one seated before us all on the dais. Might she be the Aphrodite of Tillydrone? Or have you been commissioned by 'War on Want' to depict Third World deprivation in all its horrors?"
Simon glowered at his tormentor. Mr Vaughan's guns were not to be spiked so easily, however.
"Ah, I see from your expression that I'm well wide of the mark. Do enlighten us," purred the lecturer suavely. Simon noticed that he had a gold filling on his front tooth, and that his breath smelt of garlic. Childishly but compulsively, he fantasised his teacher's CV:
"Daniel Vaughan (1929- ).
Artist, iconoclast, lecturer and polymath;
Born of a leopard out of a hyena;
Educated at the University College of Dog-eat-dog;
Lycanthropic at full moon.
Mid-way through Simon's ruminations, the lecturer clapped his hands and literally gave a nimble skip of delight.
"Eureka! I have it! She's a creature of your own fertile and somewhat bizarre imagination. You have incarnated her, like a unicorn, for our collective delectation. But it won't do, Mr Chisholm, it simply won't do, will it? It's not from life, you see. Is it? The woman whom you see before you is the subject, the clay whereon you work your mimetic art. That woman is a collection of colours and tones, of textures and tinctures, rhythms and patterns. She is your challenge, dear boy, as much as that doorknob would be a challenge to you. If I asked you to draw a doorknob, I'd expect to see a doorknob. If I asked you to draw that easel, I would hardly expect to see an easy chair, would I?
Vaughan suddenly broke off and turned to the young fisher lad: "And as for you, Mr Duthie," he snapped, "if that woman were lying on an operating table, naked as she is now, and you were standing, scalpel in hand, I trust you would not say, 'Fit are we meant tae dae wi her noo?' If you were a surgeon, you'd treat that woman as a patient. And if you ever hope to become a professional artist, that woman there should be as personally interesting as a lump of dough. The fact that she may be someone's mother or sister or lover or friend or enemy is wholly irrelevant to your task."
For the first time, 'Simon felt some respect for that odd, sarcastic man. For some time now, he had come to regard Art itself as mother, sister, lover, friend and enemy. Total commitment had meant just that degree of intimacy. And he had been wholly wrong! He must learn cold detachment. Intimacy was a messy, dangerous business.
For all that moment of revelation, Simon Chisholm's subsequent artistic career had been less than spectacular. After graduating, he had gone to work in the graphics department of an oil company, creating images on a whirring, whining, whingeing computer screen.
"I'd have thought you'd have liked the job - Sci-fi art, art of the future," a colleague said to him once. "Clean, pure lines. No mess."
"It's rather like taking a bath with your socks on," Simon had answered after a pause. "It's like having sex with an inflatable doll. A pursuit for weirdoes: artificial and unsatisfying; clean but nasty. It's artistic telephone sex - you don't get to touch, not directly. There's no magic in it. It's calculated, mechanical, flat. But it pays the bloody bills, doesn't it?"
He had been surprised at the bitterness of his outburst. But then, there had always been the consolation of words. Over the years, people had told him that he had some small talent for writing. It wasn't proper writing in the sense that most people consider it. Word pictures rather, concrete poems, language sketches, silhouettes in sound rather than paint. Because people could readily see his word pictures in their minds, they had proved modestly popular. As Mr Vaughan had counselled him to do when he was a student, he pencilled in all his characters straight from life.
In fact, one of his best compositions had been drawn from that very Art Gallery coffee shop. He had dropped in one day after visiting an exhibition, had been sitting reading a newspaper and savouring his drink (they made exceptionally fine coffee there) when a woman staggered in from the street, very dirty and very drunk - much in the style of the 'Absinthe Drinker' by Degas that he'd so much admired as a student.
Her eyes were intensely black, Indian-ink black. Her mouth was a vivid purple slash - tricky to make such a colour on the palette. In words, it was easier. Beetroot. Yes, that was it, the colour of beetroot. And of course, it was impossible to convey the stench of her flesh on the canvas; it took words to describe that. The smell from the variegated contents of a rubbish bin were the closest approximation to the odour that clung to the woman like a leper's weeds. In a Berlin gallery, they could have described her, at a pinch, as a happening. But here -?
Seemingly oblivious to her surroundings, the woman lurched from table to table pleading for money. She was so drunk as to be quite incoherent, but there was no mistaking the desperation behind the ragged clutch. It was the universal misery of beggardom. Douce, sober citizens, who had come into the coffee shop to talk quietly with friends or simply to sit alone, like Simon, in pleasant, aesthetically uplifting surroundings, were appalled and shooed the beggar away self-importantly.
"Is nowhere safe nowadays?" one woman muttered. "Really, you'd expect that sort of unpleasantness in the back streets of Cairo, but not in the Gallery of all places! God, she stinks like a brewery!"
Intrigued, Simon had sat back and watched, as the gallery staff had quickly and efficiently summoned assistance.
"Come awa noo, lass. Nae nonsense! Got ye go," a burly male attendant muttered, as he fixed the woman resolutely beneath one arm and steered her into the street to muttered expressions of disapproval from the customers, angry at having had their privacy ruffled. The object of their anger went quietly enough at the end, like an oil-slicked albatross that had emerged on a shore filled with indignant walruses, who bellowed angrily but refrained from actually resorting to violence.
The incident had inspired an excellent poem. And the analogy with Degas' 'Absinthe Drinker' was a gift, so striking it had been. In some art galleries people actually paid money to admire Hogarth's 'Gin Lane' or to study innumerable depictions of death, violence, rape, murder and drunkenness, displayed behind glass with perfect decorum. People liked to view such scenes taken from life but not to witness them in real life. For Simon, real life was the canvas, and he was the observer, the one who watched; who took the suffering and angst and despair from the living body and wove it into words - professionally, just as Daniel Vaughan's words had taught him. He had read that very poem at a small literary gathering two weeks last Thursday. One tall, red-haired man at the back of the hall had lifted up an arm at one point, as if about to interject a comment, but had remained silent.
Simon stretched out his hand to take the empire biscuit from the plate, then stopped. It reminded him too vividly of the model's breasts those long years ago. He hunted in his jacket pocket for loose change, paid the girl at the till and sat down, nursing the coffee in his hands. The rich aroma curled into his nostrils. The first sip was bitter but enjoyable. The next customer at the counter crossed the floor and joined his table. To his surprise, it was the tall, red-haired man who had been at the poetry reading. Presumably, the man wanted to compliment him on the reading. People occasionally did.
"That poem you read, the one about the drunk woman. It happened in this coffee shop, didn't it?"
There was something about the man's tone, something flat and hard and damaged, that alerted Simon Chisholm to the fact that he might not be about to receive a compliment after all.
"I suppose you think you're bloody clever, Mr Big-Shot Writer? I suppose you thought, 'Stupid, drunken bitch, I can write what I like about her. She's too far gone to know'."
Simon Chisholm shifted uncomfortably in his seat. He loathed scenes. He was going to have to get up and leave - and after he'd paid for his coffee too. However, his unwelcome companion had not much more to add.
"That stupid, drunken bitch you wrote about was once the matron of a hospital, in charge of ten wards. I can't tell you how many people she helped in the course of her life. Who have you ever helped, you snotty little supercilious bastard? What good have you ever done? Scribbling away like a vulture, picking over the bones of peoples' misery. She wasn't always like that, you know. Her father died. Then her younger son was killed in a car smash." Abruptly, the man stood up, conscious that heads were turning and that people were furtively looking at him from behind their newspapers.
Simon Chisholm looked coolly at the woman's elder son, for such he took him to be. "Nothing personal," he said. "Art isn't personal, dear sir. It transcends all that. It's above vulgar emotion."
As he returned to his coffee, he mulled over how best to utilise the varied material that had presented itself to him during that brief but lively encounter. That tall, red-haired man had quite an interesting face, curious features, unusual colouring - a very good model, in fact. A very good model indeed!
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The Fower Quarters: 10 - Nothing Personal. 2021. In The Scottish Corpus of Texts & Speech. Glasgow: University of Glasgow. Retrieved January 2021, from http://www.scottishcorpus.ac.uk/document/?documentid=555.
"The Fower Quarters: 10 - Nothing Personal." The Scottish Corpus of Texts & Speech. Glasgow: University of Glasgow, 2021. Web. January 2021. http://www.scottishcorpus.ac.uk/document/?documentid=555.
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