Tuesday, 5 May 2015

Bast and Bertie's

'I like your name. Love Sx'

That was the first of many emails I would receive from Bast over the following two years.

I only met him a handful of times but he was quite the gentleman of letters.
I had been helping Richard on an opera he was writing about the life of Anna Nicole Smith when my cousin called and invited me to an exhibition of Bast's paintings in Soho.
'There'll be lashings of Absinthe!' I'd never heard of him but she had me at 'lashings.'
I enjoyed the exhibition and I really enjoyed the steam punk contraption dribbling green liquor through strategically placed sugar cubes in to small glasses. But the real piece of art was Bast himself who arrived to much fanfare wearing a red sequinned suit, black hair spiked up, tall and very handsome. A crowd of people cocooned him and I watched at a distance as he made his way through the room acknowledging everyone individually with kindness and charm.
'He's a Dandy,' my cousin said.
'I didn't think they existed anymore.'
I never approached and after we left my cousin told me he had written an autobiography which had been recently published.
'I think you two would get along,' she said.
I bought a copy the following day and saw that it had been signed by the author:
'I'm good between the pages of this book but I'm even better between the sheets.'
Apparently if you can find a copy he hasn't signed it'll be worth an absolute fortune.
I devoured it in one sitting. It was hilarious and disturbing in equal parts. His world compared to mine was fearless and nihilistic. He painted, wrote, wore only the finest bespoke clothing, spent an absolute fortune on prostitutes, had an on off love affair with drugs and lived his life philosophically as a Dandy.
I wrote to my cousin: 'His life is fit for an opera.'
She forwarded him the email without my knowing and an hour or so later I received the first of many brilliant letters from him. He was excited about the idea of being an opera.
“The opera,” he wrote, “is when someone gets stabbed in the back and instead of bleeding, he sings.”
And he liked my name. I learned over time that he held a lot of stock in names. He was very fond of his own and always addressed me without abbreviation.
After a week or so he invited me to his home in Soho for tea. Ostensibly to talk about the opera.
“I live on Meard Street. Yes, Shit Street. Black bell. There's a sign on the door but don't believe everything you read.”
I knew from the book that he loved sunflowers and Quentin Crisp. I owned a first edition of Crisp's How To Become A Virgin and wrapped it in brown paper, bought a bunch of sunflowers and made my way over at the appointed time.
Once I was actually stood on his doorstep I was suddenly gripped with unease. His emails had never been less than utterly charming but the contents of his life made him appear like a wolf, someone dangerous to be alone with. I rang the bell. A moment later a head appeared through an upstairs window wearing a gigantic black top hat.
'Do come up!' The buzzer rang.
I walked in to find him resplendent in a three piece suit. Behind him a wall of shelves lined with human skulls, the floor beneath him covered neatly with newspaper reviews of his book and other sundries.
'What lovely flowers!'
'They're for you.' He had the grace to look pleasantly surprised, as though it wasn't screamingly obvious. I handed him the book.
'I thought you'd like this.'
He unwrapped it and looked suddenly very moved.
'How absolutely wonderful of you! You must sign it for me.'
That was the thing about Bast. He was clearly and always the brightest thing in the room and yet he made you feel as though it was you that provided the colour. You could judge him by the contents of his book but he did himself a disservice really. I think it was impossible to meet him in person and not love him. There are a million people I'm sure who were closer to him, knew him far better than I but we all knew what it was like to bask in his kindness. He was one of the few people I've met who really listened to you.
The flat was tiny but exquisitely decorated.
'Would you like a tour?'
I nodded toward the skulls.
'What's going on there then?'
'I collect them. Only ones with holes in – gun shot, trepanning, that sort of thing.'
He took the flowers in to his tiny kitchenette which looked as though it had never once been used. The idea of him stirring a pan was ridiculous.
His bedroom contained a tiny antique looking double bed that was too short for his tall figure.
'I sleep at an angle.'
On the bedside there was a small revolver.
'Is that loaded?'
'Yes. I keep it there because I'm a firm believer in safe sex.'
He goes on to tell me an hilarious anecdote in which he accidentally got shot with the damn thing.
'Pop it in a drawer would you, its making me nervous.'
He smiles and hides it.
'Shall we go out?' He asks.
We step out in to the sunny streets of soho and walk along to Madam Bertie's, a tea shop he frequents. Tourists stare but everyone else seems to know him and greet him affectionately. It's wonderful walking down the street with Bast and I'm relieved I had the presence of mind to wear my reddest lipstick.
As we sit ourselves down outside Bertie's to wait for our tea I notice two American tourists (fanny bags and sports caps) staring at him open mouthed from across the street. He seems oblivious but they're irritating me. Eventually they approach.
'Hey, why you dressed like that?'
Another thing about Bast. The moment you meet him you feel oddly protective of him. I want to tell them to fuck off but Bast, much lovelier than me, smiles and says 'Well, why ever not?'
They wander off looking confused and our tea arrives.
We talk about the opera. In August of 2000 he was preparing to do a series of paintings about the crucifixion. He traveled to the Philippines where an annual religious event took place in which you could be crucified yourself. You can watch Bast being crucified on youtube. I can't. As soon as I see them hammer the first nail through his hand I have to switch it off. I tell him that I have this image of the opera starting with him on the cross saying to the audience: 'You may well ask.' This makes him roar with laughter. We're getting on so well he suggests we pop to his favourite haunt, The Colony Rooms. It's one of those old parts of soho that now sadly no longer exists. Tiny, hedonistic and deeply eccentric. I drink red wine and he drinks nothing. He tells me that Tim Fountain is writing a play of his book, Stephen Fry wants the film rights and I can have the rights to the opera. Just like that. No business savvy at all.  He once wrote to me saying:
“Kindness is the only thing you can give without having.”
After about three glasses of red in which we talk about everything under the sun I state, in that tipsy declaratory way, that I believe he is the kind of man that separates women in to two categories: Sex and Mother Figures.
I say this because he asks me lots of questions. He looks uncertain and wants to know if I think he's right or wrong. I feel like a mother around him and I'm drunk. He lets my statement sit between us for a moment and then he leans over very slowly, sticks his nose in my neck and smells me.
'You're wearing Chanel,' he breathes. 'Delicious.' He leans back stares at me intently and says 'And what kind of man am I now, Alethea?'
A wolfish one, I think. And then it's gone. And the gentle, sweet, vulnerable Bast is back.
We part ways and I head home full of ideas for the opera. Richard asks to borrow my copy of his book. I say no.
'Don't be ridiculous I'll return it!'
'You'll lose it. You know what you're like.'
'I won't! Lend me the fucking book.'
I lend him the book. He loses it. At an airport.
The next time I speak to Bast I tell him and when we meet again he gives me another copy, this time inscribed personally.
He called me one evening whilst I was in a supermarket.
'Where are you, Alethea? I'm having a crisis of confidence.'
'I'm in Asda.'
'Oh my god, are you okay?'
Another few weeks pass and the three of us meet to discuss the opera at Bertie's and he and Richard hit it off fabulously. He wrote to me that night:
It didn’t surprise me that Richard and I got on. There are chains of beauty aren’t there? Me, You, Tim, Richard, David Johnson, Mr Fry … we are linked together like mountaineers heading for the summit of beauty. If you like someone I will like them and if I like someone you will like them. Aren’t we clever! I wish we could sleep with ourselves.”
Over the next two years we wrote frequently, saw each other rarely and he occasionally signed his letters off with:
'Where's my fucking opera you cunt? Lots of useless love, S x'
His book was being published in America and he flew out there with painted nails only to be held in customs for several hours before being put back on a plane to England on grounds of 'Moral Terpitude'. They'd googled him. “There is nothing worse, Alethea, than being rejected by a country you wouldn't be caught dead in.”
The play was opening in Soho and life became a whirl of activity but he always found the time to write and offer advice, kind words, hilarious anecdotes and great ideas.
On the night before the opening of the play he sent me a missive:
Darling. Bad news. I have got you a ticket for the show tomorrow. Will you come? Definitely. Sx”
I wrote back that I couldn't wait but that I was sure the actor wouldn't have an ounce of his beauty.
He responded: “That was the right thing to say. Flattery has to be pretty thick before I object.”
I saw him after the show and he put his hand on the small of my back, he always did that, and led me to Stephen Fry and made introductions because he remembered me saying how much I liked him. So thoughtful always.
Twenty four hours later he was dead and a horrible gaping wound was ripped into the fabric of life. Two weeks after that I sat and listened to Stephen Fry's eulogy. His funeral was packed. He had so many friends and he was so loved. I knew almost none of them, I was by no means a big part of his life. Soho felt abandoned and all those whose lives he'd poured colour and light into knew that it couldn't be replaced. Sometimes lovely things are just lost and there's nothing to be done.