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Francis Bacon walks the streets of World War II London, employed as a warden for the ARP to keep watch for activities that might tip off the Axis powers. Before the war, Bacon had travelled to Berlin and Paris picking up snatches of culture from a...
Francis Bacon walks the streets of World War II London, employed as a warden for the ARP to keep watch for activities that might tip off the Axis powers. Before the war, Bacon had travelled to Berlin and Paris picking up snatches of culture from a succession of middle-aged men charmed by his young face. Known for his flamboyant personal life and expensive taste, Bacon has returned home to live with his former nanny—who’s also his biggest collector—in a cramped bohemian apartment.
But one night, death intrudes on his after-hours paradise. When a young man is found dead in the park, his head smashed in, Bacon and the rest of London’s demimonde realize that they have much more to fear than the faraway scream of war.
"Got a light?" I asked the bulky man silhouetted against the gray night sky and the faint glimmer of the Serpentine. His hand in his pocket, scritch of a match, then blue light fractured and illuminated blunt features, small dark eyes, a heavy brow ridge, and a certain brutality of expression that sent my heart pumping with the frisson of danger: better than I'd hoped. "Thanks." Darkness again. I took a quick drag of the cigarette, risking my asthmatic lungs for courtesy. "Nice night."
"Hard to see where you're bloody going. You need eyes like a cat."
"I'm surprised you don't carry a torch." Really I wasn't. Darkness was the attraction; the blackout with all its dangers and inconveniences had opened possibilities for night fliers like yours truly and this stranger.
"Well, there are always folk about, aren't there? Lights enough if you keep your eyes open."
Something I always do. The dark shape of him, losing detail but distinct against the sky, would be hard to capture but infinitely suggestive. "These warm nights one wants to be out nonetheless."
"Nonetheless," came his echo. So we were in harmony. Playing with what chords was the only question. "It's been a perfect summer."
"Perfect." Glorious weather on the edge of invasion, poison-gas attacks, and who knew what other terrors and disasters? An atmosphere I found exhilarating. "We might walk?"
He was agreeable. The splendid park trees loomed only yards away, and I smiled at the simplicity of it, not even the price of a drink between us. I smelled raw earth from the lawns and flower beds, potholed now for gun emplacements and trenches, trampled by military boots; the strong tobacco scent of my companion, who had something vaguely northern in his speech, a geography confirmed by a hint of coarse wool as the moist night dampened his tweed jacket. His voice was hoarse with pleasure and my body alive to everything and anything, the blood pounding in my ears, the tree bark rough against my hands, our frantic bodies.
I stood up, a moment to get a breath, then straightened my clothes. I started to say "We might meet again" when something stopped me. I like the rush of violence and frenzy, I do, but I've also developed a sense of self-preservation. Something whispered in my inner ear, Don't talk to him. Leave.
He was a dark and silent shape against the sky. When I moved to step away, he grabbed me by the throat.
"You'll say nothing," he said, and slammed my head back against the tree, once, twice, before leaning close to me. I could feel his breath and saliva on my face and sensed the darkness in his eyes—all exciting but unwise. "You never saw me, you don't know me. This never happened, you little bugger."
I put my hand on his wrist. "Suit yourself, mate." Voice calm; it never does to betray fear.
A beat, a hesitation, then he drew back, the hysterical anger replaced by something else, a sort of stupor. He did not move as I stepped away, and when, well down the path, I turned and looked, he was still a motionless darkness under the trees.
Afterward, I stopped by a pub, pushing through the blackout curtains to the yellow light, the bluish smoke, the possibility of some nightcap adventure. Excess is sometimes just my ticket, but I'd chosen poorly: A few fellows in uniform and several pale-faced boys on the lookout for trade—too young for me and doubtless with neither the cash nor the taste for Champagne.
So I ordered up solitude and consoled myself with weak beer, since my nan and I were on our uppers. I was enslaved to the switchboard of a third-rate London club, the habitat of dedicated swimmers who didn't pay enough to keep me in paints, never mind Champagne or Nan's chocs or the oysters we both enjoyed. Bangers and mash or baked beans had become our entrées of necessity, and Nan had pinched the last recognizable meat that graced our table. That's how she phrased it: graced our table. Her former profession required a genteel turn of phrase that can conceal her realism, a quality I've appreciated since infancy. Oh, I was lucky in my nanny, for as long as my manners did her credit, she was willing to prepare me for the world as it is rather than as it should be—a circumstance that has saved me more than once and that shortly improved our finances.
It happened that I was having a rare evening in; to tell the truth it was pouring with rain. I was preparing to read out the crime news and the royal calendar my nan enjoys so much when I happened to run my eye down the personals column and laughed.
"I hope you're not laughing at HRH's visit to the shipyards," she said. "He's far better—far better, stutter and all—than the duke with that trollop Wallis Simpson."
"Duchess of Windsor now," I said, just to get a rise out of her.
"Duchess of Windsor my foot. I live to see her head off." My dear nan regards capital punishment with almost indecent relish.
"I don't think they're going to bring back the headsman, Nan."
"Country'd be a damn sight better off. Her with the fancy airs and graces and American on top of everything."
"Though we wouldn't have George the Sixth, if it hadn't been for her."
"You're set to be naughty," said Nan. "I can tell, whenever you turn logical. What's up your sleeve this time?"
"I better have something," I said. "Every butcher in the neighborhood's going to be wise to you."
She made a queer little sneezing "humph." "I'm half blind. If I don't see the counter, I sometimes find myself at the door. It'd be scandalous to send me to Holloway."
"I don't care to risk that. Listen, what do you think of this: 'Gentleman's companion, complete discretion assured.'"
"Ha," said Nan. "I should think so."
"Sort of a valet, you think?"
"Sort of a bum boy, if you ask me."
"Nanny, you do surprise me."
"I had a life before I was put to raising you, you know."
I couldn't help laughing.
"But he's advertising in the Times."
"For the aura of respectability. The Times lends a certain air, doesn't it?"
"That's true. But Nanny, what do you think? Will he get any responses?"
"Is there only the one advert?"
"No, it seems to be a going thing. I'd never noticed."
"Gentlemanly gentleman's companion," said Nan straightaway. "That's what you put in. You're a cultured man; a painter and decorator who speaks French like a Frog. Not that you want any truck with foreigners."
I reminded her that I had pretty much learned "the way of the world," as she liked to phrase it, as a boy on my own in Berlin and Paris.
"That was abroad," said Nan. "This is England, dear boy. Certain standards apply. See you read me all the responses. Strictly Mayfair and the City is what you want. We might stretch as far as Chelsea, but nothing suburban. Remember that. You look for gentlemen from Mayfair. Nicer manners and apt to pay up better."
You can see why I adore her. My old nanny can cut to the heart of a problem and find a practical solution. We composed an advert and within the week my career as a "gentleman's companion" was launched with a small blizzard of letters. While my nan selected the most promising, I shined my shoes, whitened my teeth, painted up just enough—"skillful as any girl," Nan always said—and set out to make our fortune. Luckily, given my tastes, the gentlemen in question weren't always such gentlemen, but thanks to Nan's insight, they all had cash. I even attracted an art lover, a real find, and with his support we managed a certain level of comfort—Chablis if not Champagne—and recognizable meat and boxes of chocolates for Nan and decent canvas and paints for me. Soon we were set, despite the blackout, the Phony War, rationing, and the ever-present possibility of arrest and prosecution to survive very nicely. Such felicity was too good to last. "Call no man fortunate until he is dead," said the Greeks. They knew the score.
That's the reason I read the Greeks, especially Aeschylus. I'd like to paint à la Grec, too—not classical faces and beaux arts torsos, but the fatalism, violence, and endurance of the ancients. Have I mentioned I'm ambitious? Oh, yes. Picasso showed the way with the distortion of his Dinard paintings, those figures writhing under the pressure of their own desires—and don't I know about that! Nothing but distortion can convey the mad absurdity of contemporary life, an absurdity that was soon to be unmistakably confirmed for me. But at that precise moment, living with Nan and supported by Arnold—he's the art lover, crazy about me and about my paintings, too—I was personally as content as I'm likely to be.
For one thing, I'd acquired a new passion—no, not Arnold, though I was fond of him, very fond, and Nan found him congenial, and we both liked his company. He was comfortable, reassuring, and solvent, but for passion, I need a touch of risk and torment such as painting provides and which, thanks to Arnold, I discovered roulette does too.
Soon he had me conversant with le rouge and le noir, with placing bets en plein or choosing to take a flutter with carré, cheval, or traversale. I took to the wheel wholeheartedly, and it was to keep in gambling funds that we embarked on a little roulette operation of our own. Strictly illegal, naturellement, with the possibility of disgrace, imprisonment, and other disasters adding a fillip to the excitement.
Arnold acquired a wheel, and I constructed a table with a painted surface where the punters could place their bets. We ordered cases of Champagne and brushed our suits. Arnold spread the word discretely and hired a few wide boys of our acquaintance to serve as lookouts. We kitted them up as housepainters and set them along the block. Soon the streets around the studio were crawling with limousines. Even the big studio I was renting was barely large enough for the crush, while my dear nan debuted as hat-check girl, keeper of the WC key, and collector of tips.
Oh, we had fine times, and the house made a tidy profit. We'd end our sessions with dawn coming, the three of us sitting on the studio's moth-eaten velvet armchairs, drinking the last of the Champagne amid the litter of dirty glasses and cigarette butts, the piles of money and chips. Danger, chance, Champagne—all the necessities of life satisfactorily supplied!
And artistically? How was I doing there? Middling, dear heart. Wild ambition, mad joy, and bitter despair accompanied by the sound of tearing canvas. If something's really bad, there's nothing for it but to slice it up. If there's the faintest possibility of development, of happy accidents and sudden inspiration, scrape and paint over, but a truly unsatisfactory image will seep through to deaden any new work. Besides, destruction is the twin of creation. Rip, slash, "Off with her head," as Nanny says. I want to paint blood and flesh. I want to wake people up—even sleepy, alcoholic clubmen—and make them look.
At what? There's the chief thing: finding the right image. Something was coming; I could feel an idea in the back of my mind, growing but not quite full blown, so I was looking at everything and searching to find a design that would create the right effect. I was painting a lot of mouths with shiny white teeth, like the screaming woman in Poussin's Massacre of the Innocents, last seen when I was a boy in Paris. I wanted to paint a scream and I needed a carcass for the mouth.
I tried painting the nurse in The Battleship Potemkin. Have you seen that tremendous Russian film? The pure genius of Eisenstein's Odessa Steps sequence? The crowd fired upon, the nurse hit, her baby's carriage rocketing off down the steps? Emblematic of my own fate, I suspect, if not for my nan, who kept a firm hand on my young life and protected me from my mother's indifference and my father's violence.
Still, that scream moves me, and I have to find the right image for the cry of creation and destruction, of pain and pleasure, because I believe in nothing else. I'm a connoisseur of extremity, of excess emotion and extraordinary sensation, and that spring was as good a time as there ever was to indulge, what with the dodgy show in France and the suspicion that this time the Channel might not be wide enough.
I'd better tell you about one night in particular—not nearly as intense as some, but important in the larger picture. That's often the way: a little patch of color, a single line, the toning up or down of a hue can affect the whole image, so an incident that seems peripheral at the time turns out to alter your life. I was out on my own because Arnold was back for an evening with the family that he was shortly to abandon for me, for disgrace and ecstasy. It's not vanity if I say I understood his choice. Arnold was drawn to extremes, but, being respectable, personal disaster was a good deal easier and quicker to come by for him than for me.
Anyway, on the night in question—another favorite, quasi-official phrase of my nan's—I was doing my rounds, tin hat on, gas mask shouldered—I haven't mentioned yet that I was on His Majesty's Service in a modest way as an ARP warden. A certain irony in my being equipped with a badge and authority, but, as the catch phrase went, there was a war on. To my considerable relief, the military rejected asthmatics, the fire service too, so I was in Air Raid Precautions, a certified busybody who went around to check that window blinds were down and never a light showing; that car lights were off or properly shielded, torches ditto; and that pubs hid all merriment with lightproof curtains and that everyone was equipped with a gas mask.
I was laboring on the preparedness front line though there was still nary a plane in the sky or a puff of gas on the breeze. While awaiting Herr Hitler's shock troops and paratroopers, we wardens practiced for catastrophe on poor smashed pedestrians and cyclists caught broadside by darkened cars and invisible lorries, and on hellish motor accidents that began with the sudden roar of metals simultaneously meeting and ripping apart and continued in the flare of burning petrol as mangled bodies were lifted onto the sidewalk. A rehearsal, that, for horrors to come, though we didn't know it then.
My post was near the two rooms plus studio that Nan and I rented. Every evening, I checked my blocks of houses, looked in at the pubs, and reported to HQ. If all was quiet and good when my shift ended, I was free to saunter down to one of the drinking clubs that catered to gentlemen too impatient to respond to adverts or to other types who never pick up the Times. Not being a domestic animal, I needed a night out now and again.
When, truly, the world could be beautiful. Streets empty, sky like discolored pewter, lightening toward the Thames. A monochrome world of sound, not color. Listen for the wind, for the hum of tires on pavement, the whirr of a coasting bicycle, for footsteps, a voice. On certain narrow streets, dark as closets, I listened to my own footsteps, one hand out for pillar boxes and lampposts, or to brace my fall if a high curb surprised me. But if the moon rose out of the clouds, it was lovely, the dross and awkwardness, the architectural errors and compromises all submerged in a close harmony of silvers, blacks, and grays, and I could have walked all night but for want of a drink.
And hark, music sliding from behind thick blackout curtains issued an invitation. A half block away, down a set of basement steps, I entered a little private club favored by "resting" actors, bent coppers, and middle-aged steamers, with a side room where painted boys danced together, tangos by preference. It was a dusty, squalid place, one of a number I know, but I like contrasts; they get the blood going and I can't live without them. I like the cold, pure city of moonlight and the smoky fug of basement rooms. I like luxury and a few grand relatives, and I like squalor and hungry boys and rough trade.
I made my way into the club that night and put my tin hat on the bar to a good deal of joshing and whistling—they're all mad for uniforms—until I pulled up my pant leg to flash my fishnet stockings. This promoted such laugher that the barman, red-faced with curly black hair and a drinker's discolored nose, offered a glass of champers gratis for "cheering them up."
"Such a moaning tonight," he said. "You wouldn't believe."
"Bad night? Darlings, a warm, moonlit night in the blackout?"
"You hadn't heard, then?" A little pause. I shook my head. "Damien's bought it."
Excerpted from Fires of London by Janice Law. Copyright © 2012 Janice Law. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted November 11, 2012
This storyline is set in 1939 during The Blitz, as an ARP warden Francis Bacon is an artist during the day and patrols the streets at night when all the air raid and bombings take place. During this time someone is murdering young gay men and unfortunately for Francis he ends up being the only suspect.
This is a very predictable mystery but it is a great tribute to the historical mystery genre. Congratulations Ms. Law on a interesting and attention grabbing read.
Thanks to Net Galley and Open Road.
Posted September 4, 2012
Wot's a nice, straight all-American dude reading about the London gay scene some seventy years ago? I just finished Fires of London, Janice Law's novel about the mid-1900s English/Irish artist, Francis Bacon.
Let's get one issue immediately out of the way: Yes, the star of Fires of London is flaming. I confess inquisitiveness, wondering how the author might handle Bacon's homosexuality and penchant for BDSM, especially given the number of exploitative erotic romances written by– and for the titillation of– straight women. I congratulate Janice on making Bacon's sex life integral, immersive, and tasteful, even sensitively done. Androphilia is beyond my ken, but the author makes the window of understanding accessible. Not only has the author handled Bacon's sexuality better than other authors, Janice's research, art background, and careful craftsmanship set this story apart from other historicals.
Fires of London draws upon art, poetry, history, mythology, and the classics. The author is a literary architect. She builds meticulously, syllabically brick by brick, painting the backdrop, sketching the characters, scene by scene, so the reader sees the novelistic theme park, not the girders underpinning it. The reader feels the protagonist's asthma, fear, bravery, and reluctant persistence to learn who's committing murders in the midst of the gay community.
The author is not one to flaunt her intelligence and knowledge, giving the story a natural feel. Nor does she belabor drollery. The humor is sly and understated, including makeup advice to Francis to "keep your powder dry." When Francis needs to ditch evidence, his Nan picks his pocket and says "Dear boy, leave everything to me." Francis comments about boys in the rough trade, "I'm not one to leave hard feelings behind."
London town is real, palpable. The description of the Blitz is riveting. What I know about the gay scene you could fit in a teacup, but it feels true. You may think this isn't the kind of world you'd inhabit, but it's impossible not to connect.
In the latter chapters, the emotional roller coaster moves from angst, to spookiness, terror, anger, vindication, sadness for one of the characters who made Francis' life miserable, and finally a feeling of satisfaction.
Who could ask for more?