The Divine Mr M: Drawing Mark from Memory
Last year Nicky allowed me to share the story of the first, and, indeed, the last surviving of my London friends. Over the next three weeks I’m going to be writing more about that time, but I’m going to start by retelling the story his life, and about how I tried to draw him from memory nearly half a century after my first sketch of Mark.
When I moved to London from Stoke-on-Trent, Mark was one of the first people I met, and within minutes he delivered the first – and perhaps the most useful – of the many stark bon mots he would offer me over the years:
“Raymond, darling” he said, with a swish of his dinner-plate hands, “if you are ill, simply disappear and don’t come back until you’re sparkling again, aaand if you ever have any problems, don’t even think for a moment of sharing them with anyone, because they won’t want to know, dear, and neither will I frankly: OK?”
I was seventeen, fresh from the provinces and thirsty for everything London had on show. Mark, on the other hand, was already past the pinnacle of his remarkable career, and he’d begun the slow elegant decline that was as compelling as anything I’d missed; He was just twenty five.
His advice was horribly well-founded. When he first came to London he had been abused, ignored, disregarded, criminalised, beaten, stepped over and tossed from any number of establishments simply for living out his own peculiar truth, meaning that when he was still a boy he’d reached a plateau of defiance, acceptance and resilience so liberating that the only thing he ever feared from then on was the loss of his precious hair. He presented himself with an almost pathological breeziness, and he refused to tolerate even a hint of self-pity from me or anyone else.
What I liked about Mark immediately was the way that this ineffable mask concealed not only his weaknesses, but his most remarkable achievements; he made every part of his life look effortless. I only found out from a friend years later, for example, that while peers, dignitaries and heads of state were forced to walk from the cordons to Westminster Abbey on the day of Queen Elizabeth’s Coronation, Mark had been one of a small team of stylists that were limousined from palace to palace to spray the hair and fix the coronets of the world’s aristocracy. Not-yet twenty-one, and under the soubriquet of Mr M (or “Lil” to his closest customers), he’d become the best-placed commoner at the last hurrah of the greatest empire without even breaking into a sweat.
As far as I know he’d left his native Cardiff as a teenage hairdresser to move to Manchester after catching the eye of Helena Rubenstein, but within weeks he was sent down to her London Salon; six months after that, he was in Paris.
So: in the absence of any palpable hunger or guile, what was it that led a working class boy from South Wales to these heights so quickly? I think it was the combination of his impeccable, unforced manners, his beguiling confidence and his looks that taxied him into polite society, blessed as he was with the pompadour, the quixotic flounce, the traffic-stopping nose, and the towering, ambiguous physique that would, by turns, disarm, mesmerise and reassure everyone who met him.
Predictably, however, this insouciance became as much a hindrance as it was a help. Had he been more career-minded I feel sure, for example, that he would have found it in himself not to throw a chair at one of his royal clients following her late arrival to an appointment. His inevitable dismissal curtailed his trajectory, but after retreating to Cardiff to let the dust settle he was quickly lured to London afresh by an up-and-coming salon which – with his efforts – quickly overshadowed even Rubenstein’s.
So: less than two years after his expulsion he was preening the elite again, just as his sins were slipping from polite memory. As soon as he was back in Town he was bored, though, and he wanted something new.
Wigs had slipped out of fashion in the 1920’s, but with the advent of new technology, greater prosperity, and some fledgling interest on the continent, Mark decided that he would bring the perruque back to London, and he successfully re-introduced the capital to a passion for hairpieces that would last well into the sixties; Dusty, he claimed, never went anywhere else.
This was another of his unique qualities: his adaptability was such that he could learn his way into a position of unparalleled expertise on whatever appealed to him at any given time: wigs, clocks, antiques, quadrophonic sound systems, chimpanzees, Borzoi breeding, handsome Guardsmen, and, more than anything else, Lord Byron, whose style and swagger he comprehensively appropriated. Such was his authority that he was called upon by Peter Hall – director of the West End production of “Camino Real” – to ensure that the hair of the young Robert Hardy was exactly the right shade of Byronic auburn.
His passions weren’t always so durable, however. He returned his chimp to Harrods just hours after he bought it when it became clear that the constant screeching and poo-throwing would play havoc with his hosting prowess.
He was also blessed with a selective practicality which, to all but Mark, appeared utterly extraordinary: for example, he thought it perfectly natural that everyone should have at least one overgrown fingernail for those times when there wasn’t a screwdriver to hand. He also thought it was the obvious career move, when, aged just twenty, he received a series of injections from a doctor boyfriend which successfully protected him from hereditary baldness, even if it meant that he’d be forced to live with a pair of perfectly formed but enormous boobs for the next thirty years.
I can’t say exactly what it was that made him finally leave hairdressing for good, but he made a well-timed exit just before the kid-next-door renaissance of the swinging sixties turned Mark’s brand of exoticism into a quaint impediment..
His first attempt at reinvention shrewdly mirrored the entrepreneurial hipness of that age, and he utilised his contacts within the music industry to try and repackage himself as The Mystery Singer. His plan was to release a beat version of “Come Into The Garden, Maude”, which would be sang from behind a screen upon which a back light would silhouette Mark’s unmistakable profile and trademark cigarette holder. Although he couldn’t sing a note he considered this wholly unimportant, as he was well aware that they could “do marvellous things in the studio” to rectify this. Unsurprisingly this project never came to fruition in the way he’d hoped, although the concept remains strangely compelling.
It’s from about here onwards that I start to lose my grip on the chronology of Mark’s life a bit, because when he disappeared (as her warned me he would) he limited contact to sporadic and increasingly glib telephone calls if things were going either extremely well or extremely poorly. Given that I hardly ever saw him, this will give you some idea of what lay ahead.
His father – who’d diligently tithed Mark’s earnings for over a decade to ensure he didn’t fritter everything away – felt compelled to move down from Cardiff in the sixties, and together they relied on Mark’s knowledge of clocks and his father’s engineering prowess to make a comfortable living – until he chased the old man back to Wales, that is.
It was then that he also embarked his longest, but most unsuccessful career, as an inventor. His confidence remained as formidable ever, but for the first time the world resisted Mark in ways he couldn’t negotiate. The financial pressure of retaining patents on his ideas, coupled with his unerring taste for the good life meant that his capital was eaten away, and he could do nothing as his better innovations were picked off one by one as the rights expired.
To an inventor, determination is as combustible as oxygen, and the drive that allows you to knock unflinchingly on a multitude of doors eventually blinds you to the limitations of the products you believe in – and invest in – the most.
In Mark’s case he came unstuck because of his unwavering belief that disposable, self-adhesive glove-pads for caterers and car mechanics were the future, and he spend everything on research and development in a vain attempt to make a satisfactory hand glue.
A substantial windfall and the generous return from the sub-letting of a sitting tenancy in the West End kept things ticking over financially for a decade or so, during which time he continued to make some very important friends despite a lack of any tangible success. Consequently, he was invited onto “Clive Anderson Talks Back” in the mid-80s to talk about his inventions, and he proved so popular that he was hurried back for a repeat performance on a later episode.
This flurry of interest in both his ebullient charm and his unlikely devices coincided with the removal of his breasts, which had become so large by then that he had to bind them to himself before leaving the house. Instead of freeing him to enjoy this eminence, however, it precipitated a deterioration which made it almost impossible for him to fully enjoy the rest of his life. He clung on to his demeanour as best as he could and remained as dashing, imposing and infectious as ever, even if he could no longer walk without a stick.
The last time I saw him was about twelve years ago. Even though the money was all but gone he was living in a grace and favour house in Herefordshire that was nothing less than palatial, and which was staffed with a housekeeper to tend the needs of Mark, his equally unreliable partner, his ever-decreasing circle of friends, and his two lanky Borzois. He talked about how he’d recently appeared on Esther Rantzen’s new daytime show, but was somewhat discomfited by the way in which he and his fellow inventors were presented as eccentrics worthy of nothing but ridicule.
For the next two years I spoke to Mark only sporadically. His telephone calls again became short, charming and infuriating, and, as before, were never long enough to betray the new realities of his life.
When I went to his sparsely attended funeral I found out that both the house and the housekeeper had been gone for some time, and that he, his partner and his super-sized dogs had been forced by penury into a one-bedroomed council flat. A handful of people – all of whom were local – paid their respects at his service, but there was only me there that knew the truths about Mark that were hidden even from his partner.
The fifty year sunset on his own private empire was finally over, and with it, another un-Google-able life had been lost to history. For all I’ve gone on, you still don’t even know the half of what he got up to.
Given the colour and unthinking vitality of Mark’s life I could only see tragedy in his quiet end at first, but As I’ve got older myself I now only see the triumph, given that almost every life, eventful or otherwise, ends with the same unseemly bathos.
Mark lived “to the max”, and I feel sure now that were he presented with the circumstances of his late penury, death and quiet exit exit fifty years earlier, he would gladly have taken it in return for the splendid chaos he made for himself.
I’ve attached the three drawings I completed for this tribute: the first was a pencil sketch I did as a refresher; the second was a profile based on that and further recollections, and the third was a much more impressionistic rendering I did after this article had been written; none of them, it has to be said, do him justice, particularly when compared to the first sketch I did of him when I was at art school.
That one is lost, sadly. If, on your travels, however, you chance upon a pen/ink sketch of a tall, reclining naked man with a foot-long cigarette holder, a cottage loaf pompadour, gigantic breasts and an equally gigantic member, then you’ll have completed the set, and you’ll have a much better visual analogue for what it was that made Mark so delightfully shocking.
Ray Bentley is an award-winning painter from Stoke-on-Trent whose still lifes and figurative paintings have been exhibited throughout the UK. He now lives and works near Redcar with his partner and dog, where he spends his days eating biscuits, napping, not doing the housework, tweeting about his favourite things, reading thrillers and – occasionally – painting. You can learn more about him at www.raymondbentley.com or follow him via https://twitter.com/bentleyteesside
Watch out for the second instalment of Ray’s FreeSpace on Wednesday 19th November.
FreeSpace is a creative opportunity that offers 3 posts on ArtiPeeps to an individual or group for showcasing or a project. The slots can be taken in a cluster or spread over a period of months. Do get in touch via the contact form on the What’s On page or via comments if you’d like to take up this opportunity.