My Friend Welsh (1943 – 2013)
from The Forked River anthology
Welsh says to me, 'Augustus, you are too sensitive'.
'Sensitive', like 'sincere', is a word I do not like, precise only in a false sense. You say them about someone when you mean something else. There is a thinly veiled irritation in both, I think. Welsh is telling me to stop getting upset when a fool or a knave gets under my skin. Just pick it out with a pin and forget it. Nobody or nothing should disturb your beautiful temperament. Shut up and get on with your life.
But Welsh is really talking about himself. He's aggressively self-effacing, but too sensible in the Scottish sense to allow himself to be wholly serious: 'A shipyard worker who can read and write and a local painter' is what he calls himself. He says it with a self-satisfied air. Only that he is a painter is true, local in that he likes to paint what is around him. He sells himself short so disappointments cannot touch him, I think. This is not good for the soul, but it makes life easier. Not too easy though. He is a serious artist.
I hesitate to write about his art because only the pastels for tourists have a trick (he copies the woman or cat in the foreground from fashion and pet magazines and the white horses from Raoul Dufy). When he is working for himself, I, trick artist that I am, can't see one. Patience is his inspiration. He dabs a sketch and waits for weeks before retouching. This means he completes maybe half a dozen new paintings a year. Not enough for a solo exhibition, he thinks. And so he is satisfied just to sell. After thirty odd years in the business his pictures grace drawing-rooms all over the world.
He doesn’t keep a catalogue raisonné. There’s only a record of pictures sold in the bank. His body of work flutters away like butterflies and each season sees a new genus going the same way. Unknown in five continents, he says of himself. Why not say known? I think. Then I remember he needs to defend himself against possible occasions of disappointment. Why I don’t know. Insults would never get to him. I think he feels a deeper anger than mine, dormant under a hard plangent crimbly skin. Skinny as a seahorse, he has moonlighted as a barman and knows how to look after himself. The violence within protects him from the violence without. 'You know I never think about myself’, says Welsh. ‘I talk about myself all the time so others can think about me’.
Sometimes Welsh talks about himself unthinkingly. When I heard him say that he'd drink himself to death only he has his responsibilities, and mentions his five dogs and cats and his muse, the painter mate who died in a crash that he survived in his youth, I thought, he is not talking about these others really. They exist inside his head as figments of himself. Welsh's own idealised self is so deeply engrained that the latent anger rarely surfaces. However, when the pressure from without is too much for his imagination, it’s best to make yourself scarce. It’s not for nothing he left the nails of his forefingers uncut for twenty years. I see him dancing around beside himself, shaking fists with two talons as though his arms are a pitchfork. Reality had better watch out.
Welsh talks in stories honed to tell well without thinking and to himself, and so he does not bother to remember if you have heard them before. Around and around they go. Wait for the one about the bean in the river to turn up again. He dips into his store apparently at random. But there is a pattern.
Stories that idealise his past self. He tells them when his mood is sad. The hippie in the desert with nothing in his caftan pocket and it all works out, because the Bedouins arrive at the oasis with nothing either and they share their sweet nothings happily being young too. Even the story of his birth mother is more beautiful than tragic in his telling. He wrings a single tear.
Secondly, stories in which he is a bystander, often in a bar. They tend to come when he is off-colour. You can tell from the texture of his skin. It thickens into a pall when the mood is black (sadness gives it a transparent quality). The viciousness of the punch line is buffered by the picaresque telling. I sometimes think other people are not real to him, and so he does not have to confront their reality. In this state, he dispatches them impatiently, like Hemingway buying someone a drink to escape from boring company. For Welsh, it’s a way of turning a deaf ear. You laugh but don’t ask questions.
The third kind come when he is at peace with himself. You can tell from the luminosity of his skin, a canvas of many moods, his masterpiece, maybe. These are the yen stories. Not all are Buddhist. There could be a one-liner from the Goons spun into a bubble that bursts with éclat. These stories mean nothing except themselves. 'I am happy', Pippa's song, all's right with the world. I cherish these stories because I don't have to judge them, or Welsh, or myself. That is my ideal.
Welsh likes to present his life as de luxe. Only the best Pierre Champion plats cuisines. This is what he says. Welsh rarebit can only be with the best English cheddar. He is a closet man of property too. A chateau in the mountains that nobody has seen because, it’s rumoured, he has two wives. Not to mention the atelier he never pays rent on. The owner gave up asking years ago and became his friend instead. He charms bailiffs at the door, the wolf too, and borrows money from new friends to buy back paintings from old friends at half price to sell again to the new friends at full price. The work is worthy of this sleight of hand. He is a master of cold, calculated canvasses. Like his life, it has an inverted integrity. He breaks everything down to their components and puts them together with Cubist aplomb. Harvest festivals are chilly as funerals. Funerals have life and soul.
His hedonism is greatly exaggerated. It largely depends on gifts to supplement payments. For instance, when he makes glass plaques for the gendarmes, liqueurs confiscated at the border. I’ve never seen Welsh eat and I suspect he subsists on his own flesh, for he gets thinner and thinner. Wine tea and rollups are his stable diet. He sleeps in a bunk bed in the basement of his dust-laden atelier, and only returns to the mountains at weekends. It’s a hermit existence (with two bank accounts, one secret in Scotland. Creditors serve as an excuse to borrow money from new friends).
Enter his atelier and there he is, the jack in his box, in a different mood each day, the laughing boy or the sad old man, take your pick, but always the same stories, nth-told tales. Sometimes it’s like a casualty ward and Welsh is all the patients. I know then he’s thinking of his birth-mother. She died before he could remember her. He had a not very wicked stepmother, who did what she had to but without love, he says. Welsh's real mother comes to him in a recurrent dream. Her hand holds his warmly, and he feels it grow stiff and cold. ‘It’s the Little Nell in you’, I say.’Pathos is your citadel.’ But he prefers to see himself as the betrayed loner devouring Dickens in the jungle at the end of The Handful of Dust. I was right all along, he seems to say, resigned to be wronged.
I love Welsh though why I don't know. Maybe it is because he is someone I invented and didn't make a very good job of and feel responsible for. Or maybe it's the other way round. But, I know, whimsy apart, Welsh has adentelegus (Plautus) quality which has nothing to do with me. He is a man so hard that if his teeth were kicked out he would pick them up one by one and put them back in his mouth. Yet he borrowed my copy of Boetius and reads it compulsively, dubbing him the philosopher of ‘Wee Free’ optimism. ‘You can have free will in prison and God hold the keys.’
Of course Welsh is not the carefree hippie of his self-imaginings. He has a living to make and this requires mixing business with his talent. This does not always bring pleasure or the paintings he wants. The economic perils of being Welsh are as endless and repetitive as painting the Forth Bridge, round and round you go until you get dizzy and fall off. Sometimes he must feel that he is whipping up a wobbly old top. But when I see him curled up in his cot of an evening, junking down the yellow print of Boethius, I know he has a life of the imagination that makes the real one not only bearable, but necessary. He would disappear into the ether otherwise.
We are, I think, friends and that means when I drop in to see him I have no idea what to expect. I take him as he comes. And if my mood is ‘too sensitive’, I find, more often than not, my darkness lifts because there is something on his mind that puts my writerly chagrins in their place. He does everything on the spot. If I want him to read something I have written, it’s enough to hand it to him. Nobody reads like Welsh. He gurgles, guffaws, scoffs, groans and, all going well, concludes, 'That's magic, Augustus, you’re cooking with gas'. If he does not like it much, reader's lockjaw is mentioned. Even when he owes me some favour or other, usually money, the bullshit does not apply to my writing, as mine to his painting. We know what is not important is what matters. The privilege of being able to make art is a game and the rules are sacred. Cards are not to be hidden under the sleeve. We are playing not for money but to win self-esteem, perhaps. No point in fooling oneself.
When he finishes a painting in the small hours he phones me (two rings). And I come down to commiserate or celebrate.
By Christmas he has exhausted commissions for pastels of deceased relatives, pets and fancy cars, but his paintings of sail boats sell well when the tourist season begins. His moods rise and fall with the wind of sales, the wind in his sail is the sale in the wind, a sailor through life, depressed when becalmed and the sales slacken. Only bad artists do not have to struggle to make ends meet, or makes meet endings. He does what people want sometimes, but never the way they expect. It's a hard life, but interesting.
Nietzsche has the second last word. ‘We have art that we may not perish from the truth’. Art is the morsel of truth that we possess. A poor thing but our own. The happiest event we shared was when stuck for a subject I picked an orchid from a rich man’s garden, and he gave it back to me dead. The painting sold to the rich man. I keep the flower pressed in my copy of Boethius.
The last word is, ‘Nobody’s perfect and I’m nobody’, Welsh’s own epitaph.