Trumpets: Drawing Billy from Memory by Ray Bentley (FreeSpace #2)

19 Nov

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Falling Asleep Reading

Falling Asleep Reading

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Trumpets: Drawing Billy 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 two 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.

 

I owe everything in my adult life to the suffering of Billy. If he hadn’t been severely beaten as a child, and if he hadn’t been bullied by religious zealots, things could have been much less interesting for both of us.

Billy made the first of many attempts to escape from his parents at just seven, when he was found at the local railway station trying to buy a ticket to London. He didn’t succeed then, but that taste of release was enough to make him clock-watch for the next eight years until he finally broke free.

He was raised in a Salvation Army family, and he hated everything about it. There was no dancing, no theatre, no pictures, no radio, no music worth listening to and definitely no drinking, just trumpet lessons and prayer meetings and endless, perfunctory traipsings in stupid, ill-fitting uniforms. There was nothing to do in fact, but save, plan and daydream for his big getaway, which turned everything, including school, into an unnecessary distraction. Although he was never a naughty child his indifference was generally taken as insubordination, and his frequent chastisements eventually culminated in a beating with a board ruler that was so severe that it fractured his wrist bones; he was just thirteen.

He lived with the pain for a few days afterwards, and it was only once he fainted on the way home from school that a botched attempt was made to reset the bones. This marked the beginning of a series of costly to-ings and fro-ings to hospital which eventually led to a sepsis in his arm. His doctor recommended amputation, but Billy insisted otherwise, and he found another physician that was able to save the arm – at a cost.

The resultant damage made it near impossible for him to comfortably hold his Salvation Army band trumpet while it was still healing, which seemed to make little difference to his insistent parents. Just shy of his fifteenth birthday and the end of his tenure at school, he decided he’d had enough. He gathered what he’d been able to save and made the journey from Teesside to Tilbury docks, where he attempted to board passage on a merchant vessel.

 

Bathtime Learning

Bathtime Learning

 

It was fortunate for Billy that the first man he met knew where his best interests lay. He fed him and persuaded him to return home, and to come back when he didn’t have to lie about his age. He gave him all the money he had, which was just enough to get him as far as Doncaster, leaving him shy of home by eighty miles. It took him three days of walking and hitching on mostly empty roads to reach his sister’s house in Thirsk, where they had to cut him out of his boots.

This adventure, the first of many, and probably the best, gave him the quiet invincibility he would need to make the rest of his life just as exciting. To be fair to his parents, it did shock them into cutting him enough slack to stopping him running again, and he held on until he was finally rescued by the outbreak of war.

He went to enlist with his local battalion, The Green Howards, but quickly changed his mind when he was told that it was, at that time, standard policy to remove the teeth of new recruits. He decided to cross The Pennines and join The East Lancashire Regiment instead, which allowed him to keep more than his teeth; all but eight of his fellow recruits from the Green Howards were killed shortly after they went into active service.

The battalion recognised his physical limitations and gave him an administrative role, and his life blossomed as he was sent first to South Africa and then Egypt. He was captivated by the colour, the levity and the sensuality of these countries, and he developed a taste for life at its fullest: food, culture, travel, diversity and of course, sex, all experienced anew at a time when his life could be taken at any moment. Having lost his virginity – as most of his comrades did – in the brothels of their nearest postings, Billy then had his first gay relationship with a British Officer in Cairo, a self-discovery which would only enrich his life further, and which lent him an attitude to sexuality and fidelity which was completely unfettered by the domestic mores of the time.

After what was for him a very enjoyable war he returned to London, where he secured a job as a warehouseman at Derry & Toms, a department store in Kensington. It was while working his way through the ranks that he met Leslie, who became his first long term partner. Leslie worked for Odham’s Press, a publishing house in London, and he did as much to broaden Billy’s perspectives as the conflicts of his formative years.

They took a flat together at the wrong end of Chelsea at a time when furniture was “on coupon”, so they had little choice but to appoint their flat with cheap antiquities. Their home became something of a meeting point for West London’s smart, gay demi-monde, and Billy was given a masterclass in polite bitchery and sharp-tonguedness that was as gruelling as anything his military training had thrown at him.

They separated amicably in 1955, when Leslie went to Venezuela with his new partner, leaving Billy to hold fort both in Chelsea and at Odhams, where he inherited Leslie’s professional duties. It was a year later that I first came into his life after we were match-made by Mark, who I told you about last week. I was still seventeen, and I’d been in London just a few weeks. Billy was thirty eight, and together we started a personal and business adventure that would last for another 30 years.

Despite the age difference we flourished because we were in the early stages of the same journey. Billy was learning more about fine art at the same time that I was doing my diploma at St Martin’s, and it was this shared appetite, combined with our own separate adversities which led us to open a shop together four years later. I’ll tell you more about my own journey next time.

He left from Odhams shortly after we’d met to join a new company that organised international trade fairs for publishers, but the plug was pulled in 1960 when it was discovered that the fairs were being used as cover for British spies who were operating in Eastern Europe. With the money he’d saved and the income I contributed, we opened a shop together on Pimlico Road selling early English watercolours, prints and old master drawings.

When we started there was nothing but a baker, a dry cleaner, a haberdashers, a few empty shops and a bomb site on our part of the street, and the time we spent building our customer base and travelling England’s B-roads in our rickety Morris in search of stock was probably the happiest time of our lives.

Despite his burgeoning tastes and passions Billy lived free of any middle class affection, and it was very much the case that his brusqueness, his fearlessness, his knowledge, and his complete lack of concern for the fripperies of bourgeois life endeared him to our upper class customers.

Lost at Sea

Lost at Sea

 

In less than six years – through no effort on our part – our patch of London had become the heart of a revitalised city that was, for a short while, the centre of the world, but it made us too busy to notice the finer details of this mini-renaissance, much to our regret.

We finally moved from London to Bedfordshire in the late 1960’s, but our decision to join the commuting classes and inveigle ourselves in the pettinesses of suburbia never sat well with Billy, whose main contribution to the cultural life of our new home was the ease with which he could sleep his way through the erring husbands and wives of the town.

 The business was so successful that it effectively ran itself, but Billy lost his appetite for it as the sixties came to a close. We kept going – even though I now feel we should have got out earlier – until he fell ill in 1984. The fire-haired, pale-skinned Billy had been burned by the sun during his military training in Egypt, which returned as the melanoma that took his life in 1986. As his end grew closer, he never lost his passion for life, he never became embittered, and he never allowed himself to fall into the trap of wanting more; the deaths of young colleagues had become commonplace when he was a soldier, and he knew he’d already had more than his fair share. Like the first Peter Pan before him, he considered death to be the next great adventure.

I arranged all of the civil details for Billy’s funeral, but at their insistence I allowed the service to be arranged by his sisters. They passed it to a Salvation Army Officer who had never met him, and who delivered a memorial which made no mention of his military service, nor any of his life after he left home. My own bouquet was removed from his coffin, and I was duly handed the bill for everything; he would have been disgusted that the religious jobsworths who had driven him from his home had returned to bring him back for good.

He left a legacy which is still celebrated by those of us who knew him. He was tough, disdainful of weakness, contemptous of self-pity, opportune, impulsive, and frequently errant, but he was also extraordinarily kind, thoroughly honest and in all other respects tireless reliable in all of his dealings.

The drawings included, I did of him at various times of his life. I tried to paint him afresh for this, as I had done with Mark, but unfortunately I no longer hold a strong enough picture of his face in my head for me to be able to do so. The watercolour, which I painted on holiday in Greece, gives a sense of how he relished every opportunity to immerse himself in the heat and colour of the world without any fear; this is how life should be.

 

Biography:

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 3rd December

 If you missed Ray’s first FreeSpace (Drawing Mark from Memory) you can find it here.

 

 

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.

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