Pretty much every other Sunday afternoon I would drive from Hammersmith where I lived to East Putney where he had his studio. We would drink tea made with water which he would heat in an ancient saucepan. I like a good sergeant-major’s brew, he would say with some self-satisfaction. In fact it was always extremely weak, partly because he didn’t allow the saucepan to approach anywhere near boiling point.
Sometimes we would have fairy cakes which I would buy from the filling station around the corner.
We would talk about this and that and then I would drive him home to Wandsworth, where we would drink enormous whiskies with Helen, his wife, sometimes accompanied by curried eggs. These looked virulent but in the long term turned out not to be life-threatening. Then I would drive home for my Sunday evening tea. Standards as regards drinking and driving were different in those days.
Carel never drove. I tried when I was in the Army, he said, but I always found something better to look at than the road. Left to himself he took the bus, and the locations depicted in his paintings are often determined by bus routes around and between his home and his studio.
One Sunday afternoon when I arrived, he had his overcoat and hat on. We’re going to see Mick Rooney, he said, and we’ll have tea there.
Mick was a very good friend of Carel’s and is a painter for whom Carel had huge respect; as do I. He then lived in Mortlake, two or three miles up the river from Putney.
I drove to Mortlake with quiet competence.
What’s the address, Carel?
I have no idea.
Do you have a phone number?
Is Mick expecting us?
Do you remember were the house is?
He gave me a look.
Don’t worry, he said. I think it used to be a post office. Everyone in Mortlake will know where Mick Rooney lives.
Mick himself has written about how outings with Carel turned into adventures of exploration. For example, he would spot the dingiest of junk shops across the road.
We’ll go in there. They’re bound to have a Rembrandt.
There never was a Rembrandt, but there were all sorts of other finds, including an El Greco that he once bought in the Shepherd’s Bush Road for 7/6d. He beat the man down from 10/-. Lord Clark of Civilisation, who was a good friend of Carel and of Helen and the Director of the National Gallery at the time, got it authenticated and it hung in their living room next to the fire.
On this occasion however I was not in a mood for an adventure. Leaving me in the car Carel fixed on a house in an adjacent terrace, marched up the path and was about to knock when an old lady came out, already dressed for the street. They spoke together for a minute and then came down the path together like old friends.
Well, she said to me, I never thought to hear anyone mention the old sorting office from before the War. I must be the only person left in Mortlake who remembers it.
She directed us and a couple of minutes later we were there. Mick and his then wife had bought this former sorting office and were converting it. They were surprised but quite pleased to see us. They showed us the extravagant and wonderful work that they were doing on the house (now lost, or at any rate lost to them) and some of Mick’s recent paintings.
He’d recently had a show featuring paintings of refugees standing on station platforms with all their belongings in cardboard suitcases. People liked them but didn’t want to hang them in their living rooms. I’m going back to my mad children, Mick said. Carel agreed that that was wise.
I now have a small painting by Mick Rooney of mad children. It used to sit on the desk at my office. I am extremely fond of it.
The tea was strong and hot and I’m pretty certain that the fancy cakes did not come from a filling station. They may even have been made.