Albert Irvin 1922 – 2015

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It’s a testimony to my own ignorance that I hadn’t heard of Bert Irvin until, some dozen or more years ago, already in the later years of his life, he was a guest on Michael Berkeley’s Private Passions on Radio 3. What struck me immediately was the generous and cant-free way in which he talked about art, his unforced and clearly genuine enthusiasm for both painting and music, Shostakovich and Thelonious Monk as much an inspiration as Pollock and deKooning.

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It so happened that not long after hearing the programme I mentioned Irvin to the writer and sometime artist Trevor Preston, who, it turned out, not only knew him quite well but could furnish me with an address. I duly contacted Irvin, and, as a result, was invited to the opening of an exhibition of new work at his London gallery, Gimpel Fils, where we met and talked. Thereafter, we remained in touch, largely by virtue of an exchange of cards at Christmas – his, each year, a stunning print in his recognisably vibrant style.

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Trained at Northampton School of Art and at Goldsmiths in south-east London, where he was later to teach, Irvin was an RAF navigator during WW2, the experience of flying one he shared with the Cornish artist Peter Lanyon. to whose work he felt close,  and which may well have influenced – as it did Lanyon – the form and shape of his earlier abstract paintings.

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Although he had his first solo exhibitions in 1960, it wasn’t until the 1980s that Irvin’s work began to be more widely known and displayed, corresponding with a move from painting in oils to acrylics and the bolder and more vibrant use of colour that distinguished his later style; this period also saw the beginning of his relationship as a screenprinter with the Advanced Graphics studio in London which endured in the most positive manner until his death. A true formidable artist and a lovely man, it it was an honour for me to have known him to the small degree that I did.

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Writing No End

I took the early morning train up to Nottingham last week for a session with students on the University’s Creative Writing MA programme taught by Matthew Welton. As I had at Goldsmiths a couple of weeks before, I talked about the whys and wherefores of earning a living as a writer over a period of some 40 years, the ducking and diving necessary, the fun, the compromise – the semi-colons; Matthew had chosen two of my poems for us to read together – “Saturday” & “Mutton” – and suggested the students look at the 11th of the Resnick novels, Cold in Hand.

All was going well: the students seemed interested, the book jackets – the old pulp ones especially – looked good on the screen, and who doesn’t like the chance to rabbit on about their own writing?

Then came the question. “How do you know,” the student asked, “when something is finished?”

I fumbled, stumbled, mumbled something about getting to the end of the story you’d set out to tell, finally suggested that only once my editor had read the manuscript and I’d made the revisions asked for, did I consider the job was done.

Towards the end of the session I read the chapter from Cold in Hand in which Resnick goes to the funeral of Lynn Kellogg, his long-time colleague and latterly his lover. After the funeral Resnick returns to the empty house they’d shared, and the chapter ends thus …

The house struck cold when he entered; the sound, as the door closed behind him, unnaturally loud. There was perhaps a third remaining of the Springbank Millington had brought, and Resnick poured himself a healthy shot then carried both bottle and glass into the front room, set them down and crossed to the stereo.
“What Shall I Say?”: Teddy Wilson and His Orchestra with vocal refrain by Billie Holiday. He had fought shy of playing this before, but now thought he could.
The song starts with a flourish of saxophone, after which a muted trumpet plays the tune, Roy Eldridge at his most restrained; tenor saxophone takes the middle eight, and then it’s Eldridge again, Teddy Wilson’s piano bridging the space jauntily before Billie’s entry, her voice slightly piping, resigned, full of false bravado. The ordinariness, the banality of the words only serving to increase the hurt. The clarinet noodling prettily, emptily behind.
As the music ended, tears stinging his eyes, Resnick hurled his whisky glass against the facing wall, threw back his head and  howled her name.

I’d read the passage through on the train and now, reading it again, aloud, I realised there was something about I was less than happy with – the final sentence. It struck me as over-dramatic and, given what I knew of Resnick’s character, unikely. “Howled”, especially. What was I thinking of? “Howled”. Did I think I was rewriting Lear? (Perhaps I did.)

How much better, I suggested, to have closed the chapter with the description of that song, that piece of music – the detailed, pedestrian description itself, of course, serving to hold the emotion at bay; the idea that words are insufficient, inadequate to explain the depth of the hurt Resnick, at that moment, is feeling. Better than the following sentence in which I try, and now, to my eyes, fail.

Some of the students agreed; others demurred, considered it fine as it was. And I’d be interested to know what others think.

One thing, though, is certain, to me at least – the answer to the student’s question should have been, probably never.

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Serving Two Masters

I was back at Goldsmiths College in New Cross on Wednesday evening, there to talk some of the students enrolled on the current Creative Writing MA programme, taught by Maura Dooley and Blake Morrison. Under the banner, My Life as a Jobbing Writer, I glossed through my forty years as a professional author, from my chancy beginnings as Thom Ryder, fictional chronicler of Britain’s Hells Angels, through almost 50 westerns and on, via some classy dramatic adaptations for radio and television, to my latter life as crime writer and sometime poet. It was fun to do – I think, of interest – and I tell you what – doesn’t that old pulp artwork look good blown up on the big screen!

A number of the questions revolved around the twin poles of artistic integrity and commercial imperatives, and I only wish I’d had the following, from Colm Toibin’s essay on Henry James, The Lessons of the Master, on hand to help with my answer.

All of his life as a writer James worried about both the purity of his work and the making of money. It was as though he himself were a married couple. One part of him cared for the fullness of art and the other part for the fullness of the cupboard.