Sunday, 8 November 2015

Stephen Spender: Father & Son

Matthew sighs. “Living dangerously. I didn’t want to get involved in that side of Dad’s life, but I didn’t disapprove of it.”

“I think your form of rebellion was to become straight,” says Maro, addressing her husband before turning back to me. “He was longing for Matthew to be gay, so if I hadn’t come along…”

“He did try and bring me into that world,” agrees Matthew, talking of Stephen’s circle, from Lucian Freud to Francis Bacon.

“Stephen wanted Matthew to be David Hockney and would always hold him up as an example.”

A long pause fills the kitchen. “Yes, it’s true,” says Matthew. “That was so irritating.”

The campaign continued well into Matthew’s 40s. He recounts his father’s “nicest and last attempt to make me successful” by getting Francis Bacon to buy one of his sculptures. The pair took a bemused Matthew to the infamous Colony Room, the Soho members’ club. It is not an experience he looks back upon fondly. “As we were going in, these two queens shouted at us: ‘Oh here comes Spender. You know why he’s called Spender, because he hasn’t got the bottoms of his pockets,’” Matthew recalls. “I suppose the illusion is so he can keep masturbating the whole time.”

He stops, looking like he’s changed his mind about telling the anecdote, that he may reveal too much, but then shrugs and continues. “Yes, well, all of a sudden here I was on the fringe of a world that I had totally avoided for all these years. And all I could think was: what am I doing here? Francis went over to the bar, shouted for a large bottle of ‘Tattinger ’52 please’. And as I sat there for about half an hour, the chaos just got worse and worse. There was this huge stuffed bird hanging over the Colony Room with a cage over it, and I remember staring at this thing and feeling like I was stuck in a Francis Bacon painting.

“In the end I just said: ‘Francis, this has been the most happy day of my life, you buying my sculpture, but I think I’m going to lie down’ and left. Afterwards Dad was very disappointed and said: ‘Finally I’d set you up with this whole world.’ And all I could reply was: ‘Dad, thank you very much but – and I know you find this hard to believe – I’m happily married, with two children. This is your world, not mine.’” Matthew pauses. “I don’t think he ever really came to terms with it.” ...

From a fascinating interview in The Observer.

A House In St John's Wood: In Search Of My Parents by Matthew Spender is published by HarperCollins.

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