If you picked up Michael Peppiatt’s book looking for a biography of Bacon, you’re going to be disappointed. Yes, there are plenty of facts here. But no, Bacon-biog isn’t the point. This is a book about Peppiatt, himself. Actually, it’s more of a Venn diagram about how the writer’s life intersects with Bacon, though I must admit I am picturing such a diagram being loosely sketched on canvas by Francis himself, using the bin lid he kept for such circumference-related purposes.
To be fair, this book isn’t sold as an artist biography. Peppiatt has already written one of those, the well-received Francis Bacon: Anatomy of an Enigma. This is his own story, which is intriguing enough, given that aside from his Bacon connection (inescapable as may be), the author is a writer of note in the art world, having run Art International for a number of years, and managed to piss off MOMA with a bad review to such an extent that legal action seemed terrifyingly likely. (As someone who’s been involved in similar things, I must say the feeling of pants-shitting dread is exceptionally well captured here.)
But before all this, there’s just a young bloke, seeking an interview with an artist, for a student publication. And that young bloke is taken under the Bacon wing for the next thirty years, and made privy to the artist’s thoughts and works in progress, with the aid of frankly terrifying amounts of alcohol and oysters.
(Seriously, the reason this book will never inspire a drinking game is because it would kill you. Yes, even you Withnail & I survivors. )
What happens in the work is that we’re given a Bacon freed from the strictures of biography. There’s dates, sure, because without chronology the story would collapse into a morass of boozy recollection. But it’s a more impressionistic version of events. It’s almost like the smears, the distortions on the artists’s work. We see Bacon as a player in the life of another, instead of the star of his own tale, as one would find in Daniel Farson’s book, say, or in David Sylvester’s book of interviews. There’s a candid feeling to the work here, and while I knew nothing much of Peppiatt before I began to read, I followed his journeys between London and Paris (let’s face it, who’s not a sucker for the Marais?) and his shoulder-rubbings with his heroes with interest.
This book exist as Peppiatt took to writing down Bacon’s words after nights out. Helpfully, when in his cups, the artist frequently restated himself, thus searing his gilded gutter pronouncements into the author’s brain, eventually providing enough typed pages for a book, decades later, that was first approved and then sunk by Bacon, for fear of offending the living. But it’s the way the Soho inhabitants and Bacon hangers-on live in these pages that make the work so appealing: Bacon’s rough trade lover George is adroitly captured with East End patois. And here, more than anywhere else I’ve read, is the tongue of Muriel Belcher, mistress of the Colony Room, given wonderful attention.
From her corner stool, Muriel leans over and taps Francis sharply on the arm.
‘You’re not a superstar,’ she says rapidly. ‘You’re just a cunt, dear.’
‘Well I suppose I am,’ Francis concedes, almost gratefully. ‘If you say so.’
‘Who’s a cunt now?’ queries an adjacent drinker, swinging his grey face up from a long brood and pushing back a lank of lifeless hair.
‘The big one’s been calling him a superstar, dear,’ Muriel explains kindly ‘so I said he’s not a superstar he’s just a cunt. You didn’t think I was talking about you you silly old ballock, did you, dear?’
There’s been hints in other Bacon books, but the full flight Muriel has only been captured here, I feel. Also interesting was the way Sonia Orwell was portrayed – terminally unhappy, yet grudgingly accepting of Peppiatt, given time. Indeed, the description of Orwell lambasting Bacon after George’s suicide was brilliant – an anger I’d never heard voiced in other texts. Between Belcher and Orwell, there’s more depth given to the high and low times of Bacon’s life, even if he’s not, technically, the subject of the work.
There’s a certain element of self-aggrandisement at work here. Peppiatt refers to himself as Bacon’s Boswell at times, and I must admit I cringed. I think he’s more on the money when he discusses the difference between the father-figure of Francis and his own, bipolar father. There’s very much a sense of a man looking for a father, and this clearly comes across in the interactions between the two, though it does seem strange considering Bacon as paternal rather than wildly avuncular.
I found there was a bit of weird musing over homosexuality in the work, and Peppiatt seems kind of appalled at times by the prospect, which seems odd given that he moved in the world of Polari and gay men, closeted or otherwise. It’s not judgemental, for the most part, and seems to have been edited to below the surface, but I did find pretty weak the author’s belief that Francis was pissed at him for having a child because it took him into some kind of hetrosexual zone the artist couldn’t enter. Fuh?
Regardless of these qualms, this is a book any fancier of Bacon should read. It’s a handy adjunct to Peppiatt’s proper biography of the artist, and is filthier and more rough-and-ready. (You’ll probably learn more about Bacon and creampies than you ever needed to.) But it’s loving, and does not seem to be disrespectful or cheap mining of memory: this is a tribute to a friend, a pugnacious father and a heroic piss-artist, and it’s good fun.