Robin Ashenden

What my strange old friends taught me

As a young man, I sought out the company of Bohemians

  • From Spectator Life
Dean Street, Soho in 1955 (Getty Images)

As a young man I sought out the company of much older people in the arts, feeling they had some secret to life, often the same one in different guises, which I wanted, needed to discover. In the let-it-all-hang-out youth culture of the 1990s I felt awash, and the elderly (which to a 20-year-old meant anyone over 60) were also kinder, less threatening, more generous with their time. Two people who influenced me most were Daniel Farson – roistering Soho writer and broadcaster, a kind of modern-day Toby Belch – and Karin Jonzen, a septuagenarian Swedish sculptress with a studio off the King’s Road.

It was all pure gold, a kind of heightened life you swore you’d always strive for

Dan I met by design. I’d read his Soho in the Fifties, a marvellous memoir full of nostalgia about post-war Bohemia. A fan letter led to an ongoing correspondence (this kind of thing happened back then) which in turn became a full-blown friendship. Dan had led a fascinating life – as Picture Post photographer, pioneering 1950s TV star and writer – and was flattered to be asked to reminisce. In his sixties he was still full of bounce, a squat, stocky man with a huge personality and a distinctive appearance: floppy, butter-coloured hair (dyed or a wig?), a tattooed hand from time in the Merchant Navy, a great tub of a stomach which went before him and plummy, growling voice. In Appledore, North Devon, he’d produce a book a year, bashing his words out on an old typewriter, sat before a window overlooking the mudflats and seabirds of the Taw and Torridge estuary. But regularly he’d come to London on a Paddington train, christened by his friends the ‘Farson Express’, to raise hell (the word is apt) on three-day benders, roaring and cannoning from one Soho pub to another. Finally, beaten up by a rent boy or arrested, he’d return to Devon to dab his cuts with iodine, nourish the braincells and prepare himself for the next foray.

His books, to a young reader, were manna. Exuberant and unpretentious – Dan, rarely among writers, claimed to love the activity itself, and you could tell – they were full of black and white photos and stories of a life boldly, even greedily lived. He had known everyone – his book Sacred Monsters recounted meetings with director Joan Littlewood, playwrights John Osborne and Brendan Behan, Salvador Dali and the painter Francis Bacon (Farson was his lifelong sidekick and Boswell). Escapades told of his travels in places like Tasmania, Turkey and postwar Germany, and Limehouse Days of his doomed attempt to run an East End Pub. For a boy like me from Suffolk, this was heady stuff, showing how vast life could be if you only made the effort and were blessed with luck. Of course, there was the drunkenness too, a kind of warning. The kindest of men when sober, Dan was ferocious in his cups, flailing about until he found your weak spots. After one rampaging binge I asked him if he ever felt remorse. ‘Are you joking?’ he roared. ‘One lives in it… But like a lady’s name,’ he added jauntily, ‘it’s never to be mentioned at the bar.’ It’s impossible to imagine a character so contradictory thriving in 2024, which likes its heroes and villains clearly demarcated – a childish banality and the current age’s loss.

Karin Jonzen, a Chelsea bohemian – more docile than the Soho variety – I met through friends, and we got on immediately. Karin was elderly, slowed down by emphysema, going a little deaf, yet in private she’d speak compellingly about a past lived entirely to her own moral code. She’d had numerous lovers, and been, by her own admission, a negligent parent, but still in her seventies had a lust for excitement. Each summer, if her health held up, she’d ride a moped over the Alps to the sound of Mozart’s Requiem: it made her feel, she said, like she was flying between heaven and earth (one friend called her, accurately, a ‘pocket Valkyrie on a Vespa’).

To get the full effect of Karin you’d have to see her in her sculptor’s studio. It was a great high-ceilinged hall on Gunter Grove she’d bought from Julie Christie, a spiral staircase leading to a bedroom upstairs. The studio, painted a shade of flaking kingfisher blue, was stuffed with her sculptures of the human face or body. Set on platforms, lingering in the half light, they seemed almost to float around you and the effect was haunting.

What she gave me was a second education. Karin was steeped in literature and philosophy – Schopenhauer was the favourite and her two volumes of The World as Will and Representation, blue and burgundy respectively, had spines grooved by over-reading and covers spattered in clay. I never read them, but just the look of them together with Karin’s enthusiasm sowed a kind of madness in me. She was also a Russophile, convinced she’d lived there in a previous life. Volumes of Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and Chekhov cluttered the place – all in those faintly religious-looking black Penguin covers which both forbade and tantalised, and when she talked about these writers, with a novice’s freshness, I felt I was being inducted into a priesthood. A Swede, she also introduced me to films like Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander and The Seventh Seal, whose leading actor, Max Von Sydow, had sat for her in her studio, and whose long, ascetic face – that of a friendly mystic – stared benignly down on us in bronze. What was key about Karin – perhaps the life lesson she passed on – was that she’d stuck with depicting the human face and form when other artists were modishly abandoning it. This fidelity had dragged her through periods of terrible poverty and even attempted suicide. Yet she’d ended up back in fashion once more, with clients and money in the bank, surrounded by friends.

The food at her studio was nearly always inedible (‘I’m not domesticated’, she would say), but the vodka flowed freely, there were interesting guests (musicians, painters, Ibsen and Strindberg specialists), and all would be set off by candles, a great row of them in an austere Swedish candelabra, which she would light at the table even over lunch. At parties in December there would be more of them, crackling away Victorian-style on a Christmas tree. They’d vaporise the pine-needles, filling the room with scents as Karin and her old fellow-students from the Slade – they’d known each other five or six decades – sat in the alcove beneath her bedroom, making each other roar with laughter. It was all pure gold, a kind of heightened life you swore you’d always strive for, and heaven knows what or who I would have become had we never met.

Both of them are gone now, and their world with them. What gave me the chutzpah at the age of 20 to befriend such vivid people, older than either of my parents, and badger them with my questions? Deep down I must have agreed instinctively with Dan’s favourite maxim, quoted at the end of one of his books and whose sentiment now, as I get older, I have to force myself to recall: ‘Life is an adventure, waiting to be gained.’

Written by
Robin Ashenden
Robin Ashenden is founder and ex-editor of the Central and Eastern European London Review. He is currently writing a novel about Solzhenitsyn, Khrushchev’s Thaw and the Hungarian Uprising.

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