If we could burn, brightly,
with all-consuming fire,
If all we had was here and now, would we need another hour?
The three days of his weekend proved extremely entertaining. Having the freedom to sit back and relax and watch the world happening around him was a rare experience for Pete Astor. He was the sort of person who usually has something to do all of the time. Normally, getting the sack would have meant a brief period of pseudo-leisure while he lined up some session work – an unpaid investment of time and effort before he got back to the grind. His lottery win meant that there was no more grind. The likes of James Faucumberg, Mrs. Billington and Caroline were handling the grind for him now.
Astor had sketched out a route to cover as much as possible of the more interesting parts of Surrey, Kent and East and West Sussex. He had no sort of schedule and he was in no hurry. Caroline seemed quite comfortable with being a night-person. She started to yawn a bit at two o'clock in the morning but she gave the impression of being as alert as ever at the wheel.
By Sunday, Astor had spotted two potential recruits for the Kiron recording label. Pandaemonium was a five-piece band of students from the Maidstone area. Belfry, based in Hastings but performing in Canterbury on Saturday night, did a very entertaining send-up of the whole Black Magic Rock scene. Neither band had an agent. Pandaemonium was managed by the drummer's uncle, who ran a social club in Maidstone. Belfry's crew were all in their thirties and they had been around long enough to know how to fix up their own bookings.
There would be no insoluble problems if he did so, but Astor's natural business caution made him reluctant to rush into anything. He had sounded out the bands – both were eager for a recording deal – but he had left his card with them along with an open-ended commitment to speak to them again after he had seen another of their gigs.
Pete Astor was free to put out any old rubbish on his recording label if he had no suit-and-tie accountants lurking in the background, demanding a profit. But he had a certain reputation for quality in the business and he had no intention of abandoning it.
The first half of the next week was wet. Astor stayed at home, sorting out material for his personal album. James Faucumberg called on him toward the end of the Tuesday morning with details of his plans for the Astoria site. Astor played with a 3D floor plan on a laptop computer connected to his new 21-inch monitor as James guided him through a model showing the improved dressing room, storage and office areas, the café and the side halls that could be let out for meetings. Astor decided that one of the side halls would also make a useful rehearsals room whenever he needed one. James was also planning a shop to sell recordings and the usual spin-off merchandise, which sounded an excellent idea.
"Looks great," said Astor at the end of the grand tour.
"But?" said James.
"But what?" Astor asked with a frown.
"What fifty-seven things would you like to change?"
"Oh, right, you mean I should give you a hard time and tell you all your plans are rubbish?" laughed Astor.
"That's how it usually works out."
"Except it looks okay to me. And it's a bit late in the day to be making major changes to an almost completed plan. I assume you're happy about running it as per this plan?"
"Yes, I think it looks well integrated. But, as I said, I usually find the next tier of management has other ideas. Or personal ideas that they want to see worked in."
"As I said at the start of all this, I'm not going to be looking over your shoulder, telling you what to do, James. I just want somewhere to bring the bands on the KS label to expose them to a disbelieving public. I don't want all the hassle of keeping the place going in between times. I'm quite happy about leaving it with you because you know what you're doing."
"And so do you, Pete. You were doing my job twenty years ago."
"Not on the same scale."
"Which is just a matter of the amount of detail involved."
"Even so, I'm strictly the music side of things now, and if you think I'm interfering in your job, feel free to tell me to bugger off."
"You mean that?"
"You can have it in writing, if you want," said Astor.
"I think I'm going to enjoy working with you again, Pete," laughed James.
James transferred a copy of the plan for the theatre to Astor's PC. Astor returned to his musical sorting-out with occasional excursions to his virtual theatre complex. His one trip to the site had involved wearing a hard hat and feeling in danger of being crushed by falling objects for most of the time. The electronic version was much more visitor-friendly.
The sun looked out again on Thursday. With it came inspiration for something else to do. Astor went up to the first-floor annex and knocked on Wendy's door, interrupting her plans to get some proper colour leaflets printed to give one of her campaigns real credibility.
"Yo, Wendy!" Astor said as a routine greeting.
"Yo, yourself," Wendy replied. "If you want to borrow some money, I've spent it all."
"I hope you bought me something good."
"Ha! Did you give your sister anything? Your dad's daughter, I mean, not your half-sister by your mother's second husband."
"What's her name? Julie? No, I've not seen her for ... I don't know. Years and years and years. I suppose the old man will bung her a few bob if he knows where she is. But I think the bust-up he had with Julie's mum was pretty final and Julie's never been much good at keeping in touch."
"Like her brother and her dad?"
"What d'you mean?" Astor said indignantly. "My main problem is getting out of touch with people."
"Like your mother?" laughed Wendy.
"To name but one."
"By the way, I had an unofficial call from someone involved in handing out cash from the lottery today."
"What have they turned you down for? And did you tell them to get stuffed?"
"It was you they're going to turn down, actually."
"How's that?" frowned Astor.
"I've had so many vague promises that came to nothing and outright brush-offs that I thought I'd see what happened if I applied for grants for the Astoria project. Which is going to be an asset to everyone in the area when it's finished."
"Except I didn't get anywhere. The town council says it can't afford to do anything. The Arts Council said no. The lottery board can't consider an application for months, but I was told today the answer will probably be no anyway."
"Bastards! In that case, I think we'll have a strict no freebies policy for anyone connected with outfits that brushed you off."
"I'll give you a list," Wendy told him with an evil smile.
"So anyway, what are you doing today, anyway?" Astor and perched on a handy chair, blocking her view of a chat show on the television while fixing Wendy with a relentless gaze.
"How do you fancy going over to France for the day and bringing back a load of cheap booze and fags?"
"Why does a bloke with twenty-five million quid need to go to France for cheap booze and fags?"
"On a point of information, Sister, I think it's only about twenty million now. Or even less if James has been paying off contractors. And it's our duty to show the cheapskate bastard government that if they keep taxes higher here than on the mainland of Europe, we'll do our shopping elsewhere."
"Oh, well, if you put it like that ...," Wendy put on one of her sceptical smiles. "When are we going?"
"We can get a ferry over to Calais this lunchtime and come back this evening."
"What the hell. Why not? Are you taking Carly as your driver?"
"I thought you'd volunteer. Isn't Cazzer working on a Thursday?"
"No, her firm's on short time at the moment. Lack of orders due to a temporary downturn in the world economy. The workforce decided to go onto a three-day week instead of making some people redundant. Which is why she was willing to put up with you for three evenings last weekend if you were paying her."
"And you expect me to pay her for driving us in France?"
"You can afford it."
"That's going to be your answer to everything now, isn't it?"
"Could be." Wendy nodded with a smile.
"In that case, I know you can afford to go halves."
"You bastard!" Wendy said indignantly.
"Takes one to know one," grinned Astor. "Hey, we might run into your old man over there."
"Yeah, right, he's sure to be in the bit of France we visit."
Astor had taken the precaution of ringing ahead to book a place on a hovercraft. He had enough financial crunch now just to turn up and buy a place off some other motorist if the ferry was full, but throwing money at people who didn't really deserve it was not in his nature. Caroline was eager to earn herself another tax-free £100 for doing a bit of driving, some of it on the wrong side of the road. The prices in the French supermarket encouraged her to add her own modest case of white wine to the vanload, despite Astor's mock-serious complaints about overloading the van.
When the trio landed in Dover again, they found that the Customs and Excise Department was staging a protest of sorts. The customs officials were trying to give a hard time to anyone with a vanload of cigarettes and smoking materials. It was part of a campaign by the Chancellor of the Exchequer to persuade people to pay the full British duty by making them think that their indiscretion had been noted and could land them in deep trouble.
"You realize you're only allowed to bring in these items for personal consumption, sir," a customs official remarked to Astor as he gazed into the well-laden van.
"Sounds good to me," said Astor.
"And it's an offence to sell wine and tobacco on."
Astor smiled at him, wondering if he was expected to break down and confess that he was acting as front man for a syndicate, or that he expected to be selling his wine and cigarettes to the general public from the back of Wendy's van.
"There does seem to be rather a lot here, sir."
"We're all big drinkers," said Astor. "Well, not the lady who's driving us, obviously. And I'm having a launch party for a new business. A bloody big one."
"Most people say it's for a wedding," said the customs man sceptically.
"We," Astor told him with dignity, "are not most people."
The customs official seemed to be toying with the idea of a full search of the vehicle in case it was carrying concealed contraband, such as drugs. Something in Astor's relentless air of confidence persuaded him to go and bother someone else; which spared him Astor's plan for revenge against an awkward customs officer.
Pete Astor knew one or two Hell's Angels who would be only too glad to be paid to make some deserving person's life a misery by applying a steel-toed boot to a car's headlights and indicators, for instance, on several separate occasions over a period of months.
During the hour-and-a-half drive home, sitting in the back with the cartons of wine while Wendy and Caroline chatted in front, Astor began to think about ways to upset deserving people. What he wanted to do, he decided, was hit back at the posturing classes, who try to ram their lack of taste down the public throat.
Dynamiting the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden sprang to mind, but Astor was reluctant to put fellow musicians out of work. A midnight assault with a cutting torch on some huge and talentless work of monumental metal sculpture seemed a good idea. It was a gesture guaranteed to win public sympathy but, like dynamiting an opera house, it was strictly a negative act of cultural vandalism.
What he needed to do was something positive. Casting around for inspiration, he remembered vaguely the antics of a band called the K Group, or something similar, which had made its fortune in the fickle music market and then upset delicate flowers in the world of sculpture by awarding twice the cash value to a winner of the Turner Prize as a lack-of-talent prize. The K Group had self-destructed after allegedly burning one million pounds in notes on a beach somewhere.
What he needed to do, Astor decided, was imitate the K Group's philosophy, but in a more positive and more enduring fashion.
"Pardon the interruption, ladies," he remarked to Wendy, "but what's the name of that art critic? The one who wanted to start his own Serious Art Movement. Dominik something, wasn't it?"
"Wekling," said Wendy. "Why?"
"I was just thinking he needs a bit of encouragement."
"Do you want his phone number?"
"Why, do you know him?"
"Jeff knows him slightly."
"What does he actually do for a living these days? Dominik?"
"He's scraping by on a bit of journalism; you know, columns in a couple of magazines and very occasional spots on radio and TV. He's not really in fashion at the moment."
"Isn't he the one who was saying pickling dead sheep and bits of cows isn't all that artistic?" said Caroline.
"Can you relate to that, Carly?" said Astor. "It doesn't upset you, someone putting limitations on what art can be?"
"It doesn't upset me if someone says rubbish is rubbish," said Caroline.
"Is this somebody we know turning into a proper little trouble-maker?" laughed Wendy.
"Not so much turning as taking the opportunity to develop an existing talent," said Astor. "Where are we, now?"
"Coming to the end of the motorway," said Caroline.
"Anyone fancy a pizza?" Astor took out his new mobile phone.
"You're going to have a pizza delivered to the van?" said Wendy incredulously. "Get some kid on a motorbike to frisbee it through the window? You yuppie bastard!"
"No," said Astor patiently, "I'm going to phone the Italian place in the village and get them to have a couple standing by when we drive past. Are you up for some pizza, Caroline?"
"Sounds good to me," she approved.
"What about Jeff, do you reckon he'd be interested?" Astor added.
"Free wine and pizza? You'd have to nail his feet to the floor to keep him away from that!" said Wendy.
"Okay, you can ring him when I've phoned the Italian. And tell him he has to give us the story on his mate Dominik before he gets blasted on your free wine."
Pete Astor had always found that the sight of the white suede jacket that he often wore on stage made people think that he was a person of consequence. If he was carrying a guitar case, he was a successful musician. If he was going into a club or a rock gig, he was an A&R man for a big record label. All that he had to remember was that wearing jeans with the jacket spoiled the image, but a pair of black or dark green cords added a vital extra amount of credibility.
When he joined Astor in the bar at the Meridan Hotel in Croydon, Dominik Wekling was wearing the trousers of one dark suit and the slightly lighter jacket of another. Like Astor, he never wore a tie, favouring a dark-green cotton roll-neck jumper instead. Pete Astor's jumpers were made of pure European silk now.
Astor had called Dominik Wekling to make the lunch appointment at nine o'clock the previous evening, conveying a hint, if Dominik was to look deep enough, of someone obeying late-afternoon instructions from an office in the United States of America. Dominik's ability to accept the appointment at such short notice had told Astor that he was not doing much and open to an offer.
According to Jeff, Dom Wekling had been reduced to parodying his former, more influential self to survive while he waited for the fashion circle to turn again. By Friday, he had completed his article for a small weekly arts and what's-on magazine, published by the Greenwich Arts Federation, and he was at a loose end until the following week unless he had a local radio spot lined up on Saturday.
Astor dropped Jeff Hopper's familiar name as bought a gin and tonic for a man of about his own age. Dominik sipped it in the manner of someone who was used to making drinks last. According to Jeff, he was a classically trained artist, who had not been able to earn a living as a painter in his own right.
Dominik had made some money from working as a restorer before hitting the media on the rising crest of an up-turn of interest in ‘real' art; work that involved genuine creative effort on the part of a talented artist, and which could not be reproduced by the average person given the materials – such as a dead sheep and a tank of formaldehyde or a job lot of fire-bricks. Public outrage at such things had run its course for the moment.
A waiter approached Astor to tell him that his table was ready as he was confirming that he was, indeed, the musician who was notorious for drug busts and getting fired off tours for writing dangerous and highly bootleggable music. The two men took their drinks into the restaurant and ordered food and wine.
"Cheers," said Dominik, rediscovering his drink. "That was a very intriguing phone call last night. I've been wondering what inspired it."
Astor finished his own drink to clear the decks for wine. "I gather you're famous for saying if you were ever invited on Desert Island Discs, you'd choose Picasso's Guernica and a box of matches as your luxury. Do you still think that?"
"Well, yes. I think Picasso started off as a very talented artist. Especially what he was doing before the First World War. But he seemed to get lost. And he ended up churning out, well, they would have been called talentless daubs if done by anyone else."
"Except no genius can ever be accused of talentless daubing?"
"Not by anyone wanting to keep in with the Arts Mafia."
"What about someone who doesn't have to keep in with them?"
"Chance would be a fine thing," sighed Dominik.
"You see, what we're interested in doing is sponsoring something along the lines of your Real Art Movement. Art that requires education, application and ability, to throw your own definition back at you. Not something the average person in the street could reproduce given a pot of paint and a big brush. Or a good throwing arm. Or a heap of old iron and a welding torch."
"And how would something like a Jackson Pollock drip-painting fit into your scheme of things? Or one of Rothko's huge field-paintings? Or one of Mondrian's sets of coloured squares in a black grid?"
"If something can be seen to have intelligence, a sense of purpose, originality and genuine workmanship about it, it would fit in. If it's just paint thrown at a canvas or a heap of junk, it wouldn't. I think Mondrian had a point. And I like Jackson Pollock's notorious stuff because it's got visual complexity to throw another of your favourite phrases at you. Okay, the drip paintings may make you think about Hancock riding his bike about on a canvas in that film, but they're not something you can take in at a single glance. Yeah, right, seen it, what's next? kind of thing. There's a lot to see and you can keep coming back to it in Pollock's stuff. But as for Rothko, his field paintings don't do all that bloody much for me."
"People do make interesting sculptures out of, quote a heap of junk, unquote." Dominik played the Devil's Advocate, just to be awkward. "Without too much visual complexity."
"And lots of people make new heaps of junk out of old heaps of junk. But I don't think the sponsorship is ever going to involve making agonizing, borderline choices. I think there are too many good but unrecognized artists around. It's always going to be a choice between good and better rather than bad and marginal. And it's a pretty broad field the talent spotter would be looking at."
"Do you want my lecture on the perils of dilution and loss of focus?"
"Not at the moment," said Astor.
One waiter delivered their seafood starters. Another opened a bottle of prime Australian white wine and filled their glasses.
"Still talking about dilution," Astor resumed, "I don't think we should exclude things like TV and advertising. Did you ever see that TV series All Quiet On The Preston Front, or Preston Front as it became?"
"I might have," Dominik said cautiously.
"Things like the combination of the opening title graphics and the theme song for programmes like that ought to qualify for a special excellence award. And that commercial where they did a whole series of reverse zooms and right-angle turns. I've can't remember for the life of me what they were advertising, but it struck me as a very clever visual idea."
"Yes, I remember that. The concept if not the product. But they do have awards for TV programmes and advertising, Pete. Is that what we're talking about?"
"Not really. Not awards made by a committee. More setting up a talent spotter to find us up to five artists worthy of receiving twenty thousand pounds to sponsor their work for a year. Or more, if they can make the money last."
"Nice slice of dosh! I must say the food here is very good. And they give you a reasonable amount, too."
"Tough times have forced them to give value for money. And our hand-outs of money would include occasional one-off awards. Say, the odd thousand for the originator of a good idea along the lines of the ones I mentioned."
"Appreciation rather than living expenses," nodded Dominik, "because these people tend to have a proper job. And what does the talent spotter get out of all this?"
"We were thinking of a five-year contract initially. Paying fifty grand per year plus a hundred kay available for expenses. Does that sound like something you'd be interested in?"
Dominik stared across the table at him. Astor expected to see Wendy's trade-mark open-mouthed stare. "Why do I get the feeling this is the point where some sadistic bastard appears with a camcorder and asks me how I feel about being the victim of a cruel practical joke?" Dominik said at last.
"Because, in the real world, people who deserve them don't get offered jobs like that?" laughed Astor.
A waiter arrived with their main courses. Both had opted for a rather exotic mixed grill. The side dishes of optional vegetables and chipped and roast potatoes filled the table up nicely.
"Mind you, this meal more than makes up for any sick joke." Dominik picked up his refilled glass. "Cheers!"
"Cheers! And long live corporate lunches," Astor added with a grin. "But, to be straight with you, what I'm looking for is someone like yourself with a talent for making trouble."
"And they picked you as an expert judge in that area?" Dominik remarked with a matching grin.
"Modesty forbids ... Anyway, your brief, if you choose to accept the mission, is to foster the cult of real art, get right up the noses of the Arts Mafia and generally stick up for any artists you think show skill, application and talent while ridiculing those whose work could be done by a chimpanzee with a spot of elbow room. So what do you reckon?"
"Where do I sign? And do you want the signature in blood?"
"If you want the job, I'll get a contract drawn up and you can start next week."
"Sounds great! Do I get a company car?"
"Yes. Out of your expenses," said Astor.
His last question told Astor that Dominik Wekling was the right man for the job. Clearly, he was not hypnotized by his salary if he could ask for more in the form of a company car. Astor wondered if he would be disappointed when he found that he was being employed as a self-employed consultant and that his pension arrangements and national insurance were his own responsibility and would have to be paid out of his rather generous salary.
A first-class letter, which had been travelling for two days, arrived on Astor's doormat the next morning. Buckinghamshire Constabulary had written to tell him that there would be no charges arising from his arrest on Thursday, 21st July. Ever suspicious, Astor got the number from directory inquiries, phoned the police station at Milton Keynes and got the number of the solicitor who represented him. Brian Radlett was at work on a Saturday morning and able to speak to him.
"Pete Astor, you represented me at Milton Keynes on a drug bust," Astor said.
"Oh, yes, the notorious musician," said Radlett.
"I've just had a letter from them to say they're not going to charge me with anything."
"That's good news."
"And that set me wondering if anyone's paid you."
"Well, no, not yet. It's probably due to something to do with payment cycles. I've probably just missed one and I'll have to wait for the next."
"If the sods are going to pay you at all. Tell you what, give me your address and I'll put a cheque in the post."
"Well, I should think your record company are going to pay me eventually, you know."
"Okay, if you get paid twice, that's your good luck. But I don't see why you should have to wait any longer on the pleasure of some idle Jap lackey."
"Oh, well, in that case, all contributions gratefully received," said Radlett. "And I wish I had a few more clients as conscientious as you."
"I think you're in the wrong business for that," laughed Astor. "Having to deal with evil and vicious criminals most of the time."
"Yes, it's quite a pleasant change to have a client who gets away with it," Radlett told him ambiguously.
No trees were consumed by Farrago & Farrago and Henry T. Smith Productions, 10/12 SK6 4EG, UK in creating this material for Jon A. Gored. Sole © Jon A. Gored, 2001.