Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The lost tribesman, a fugitive from abstract expressionism, the senior Steptoe and the Hitler-loving cop

During the Troubles, it was always striking to me how many of the most strident voices belonged to clergy. My mother was very keen on the Sermon on the Mount, and I always took seriously such Christian invocations are "love thine enemy" and "blessed are the peacemakers". So, I found it bothersome that these elemental principles seemed to be lost on so many of the dog-collar-sporting leaders of Northern Ireland politics. Ian Paisley, of course, was the most prominent. But then there was Robert Bradford. He had briefly been a professional soccer player after which he studied for the ministry - as a methodist, not a presbyterian like most other protestant hardliners. (He was ultimately removed by the church from his position.) His political success depended on refusing any accommodation with the catholic minority and was generally out on the fringes of a wide range of issues. (The DIB does not repeat the apparently documented claim that on one occasion Bradford provided a written expression of solidarity to the UK neo-fascist party the National Front.) For a while he made, but subsequently trimmed, the claim that Ulster protestants were descended from the lost tribe of Israel. His crazy extremism was said to be expressed with a "mild, shy demeanour." The IRA assassinated him in 1981, triggering a horrible escalation of inter-communal violence: his seat in the British parliament was won by another clerical extremist, Martyn Smith. With apologies to my mother (and Christ), I'm afraid that Robert Bradford stretched all my efforts to love enemies to - and beyond - the limit.

For the first time so far in the DIB: someone I knew.  Charles Brady - Charlie to us - was an Irish-American painter who moved to Ireland in the 1950s and stayed. A New Yorker like my father, the two formed a real bond. I remember one night when I was about 17, and Charlie was over in London, visiting. It was a Sunday, and I was meant to be cooking dinner. The two of them became roaring drunk at the Chelsea Arts Club and got themselves into a scrape shinning up drainpipes, climbing ivy or some other form of vertical scaling to get into an upstairs window - the stairs being for some reason unavailable to them. They finally turned up giggling two or three hours late with the dinner cold: I began to see the world for the first time from my mother's point of view. Charlie, who became an honorary member of the Royal Hibernian Academy, was a very fine painter. He had studied in New York at the Art Students League and was the contemporary of Jackson Pollack, Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline, all of whom he knew. He told my father that one of the reasons he left New York was that he felt crowded by the ascendancy of abstract expressionism. Instead, he was interested in figuration, painting series of simple scenes, such as wire hangers in cupboards, envelopes leaning against walls, or balls of wool on the floor. However, as the DIB entry, by Rebecca Minch, shrewdly points out, the flat simplicity of Charlie's work owed more than a little to his abstract expressionist classmates. (I was a little severe on Minch's account of W.H. Bartlett: this entry, excellent, is of a different order.) He was an exotic figure to me: gaunt, redfaced, always smoking long American cigarettes. He was very kind, and gave my father three wonderful paintings which hang in the house in Greystones. I was told that he refused to price his work high, even when, late in life, there was serious collector interest in it, including from the politician Charles Haughey, whose utter corruption did not efface quite good taste in art. Charlie - Brady, not Haughey - preferred that people could afford his paintings and insisted that his dealer price them accordingly.

For years in my childhood, the funniest show on TV, at least in my household, was Steptoe & Son, a BBC comedy about a father and son running a rag and bone business. The father, Albert Steptoe, was an insanitary, grasping, manipulative monster, while Son, Harold, was a footloose, fantasizing co-dependent, dreaming of cutting family strings that would always remain uncut. They were a sublime double act, a delirious cross between Samuel Beckett, kitchen sink drama and the Ealing comedies. Living on the east coast of Ireland in the 1960s, we were able to pick up BBC transmissions from the UK and would rarely miss an episode; we kept it up once we moved to England. Families still gathered to watch television then, and Steptoe was a pleasure we always tried to take together. Albert Steptoe was played by Wilfrid Brambell, a Dublin actor who became successful in England in old man roles, even when he was quite young - he was only 50 when he began to play Albert, in 1962. (He was a memorable old man in Richard Lester's Beatles film, A Hard Day's Night.) Apparently, he was really impossible. He drank too much and hated his co-star, Harry H Corbett, who hated him back. He was so difficult, that serious thought was given to sacking him in 1965, despite the huge success of the series. A gay man at the time when homosexual practices were illegal, his Ortonesque lifestyle also carried risks of arrest and exposure that he did not often skirt well, although he found love later in life. (A 2008 BBC film, The Curse of Steptoe, dramatized the story.) We viewers, fortunately, knew none of this: we just laughed like drains at one of the funniest things we'd ever seen. Harold's absurd hipster pretensions, driving his horse and cart through Swinging London, constantly brought down by the malign machinations of his father, brilliantly captured the contradictions and pain of the age, and life.

"Lugs" Branigan. They don't make coppers like him any more, thank God. He took up boxing to fend off bullies, and became an international heavyweight, although not a particularly good one: during a fight in Germany in 1938, in the presence of Goebbels and Goering, he was knocked down nine times and got up after every flooring. I wonder if it was the good-natured applause of the crowd that endeared the nazi regime to him: the DIB reports that while "he disagreed with Hitler's anti-semitism he kept a scrapbook of his career and regarded him as 'a great man'".  The DIB's indulgence continues: "Rather than charging offenders, he admitted that he usually gave them 'a bit of a going over' and sent them on their way to avoid excessive paperwork". He hated the nickname "Lugs", an ear-related slur, and those who uttered it could expect "a few clips". (He preferred "Jim".) Upon his retirement, he received a gift of cutlery and Waterford crystal from Dublin prostitutes, many of whom, it says here, "regarded him as a father figure". In retirement, he bred budgerigars.

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