Friday, 4 May 2012


It is High Noon in the Land of the Dying and the word I use most is goodbye. The death of my old chum Sydney Wignall, the founder of marine archaeology as a science, diver, mountaineer, adventurer, author, spy and assassin, hurt most. If ever a man was totally unsuited to dying it was Syd. He not only lived every waking moment: he lived in a perpetual tomorrow. And his tomorrows always came. Many years ago he told me of his theory that the Spanish Armada would have lost even if the weather had not been against them. Unscrupulous arms dealer had sold it cannon balls that were made from inferior material. To prove his point, he dived searching for lost Armada wrecks. I treasure six pieces of Armada round shot he gave me when he proved his theory by discovering the wreck of the flagship Santa Maria de la Rosa on the bed of Bantry Bay. He went on to find and reclaim Drake’s coffin from the Caribbean. He later wrote a book about it which is as good a read as “Treasure Island”. But his masterpiece was “Spy on the Roof of the World”. It is an account of his adventure as a spy for the Indian army in the Himalayas in Tibet. The Indian army generals could not persuade their Government that the Chinese were about to invade Tibet. Hearing that Wignall was going to climb there, they recruited him as a spy. He found ample evidence of Chinese penetration but was captured by them and imprisoned in remote Takalot, high in the Himalayas. On Christmas Eve he was suddenly freed and told to walk back to India across the roof of the world and, with supernatural help, he succeeded. Climbing down a cliff face, knowing he was about to lose his grip, he felt arms holding him, guiding him to safety. Back home in Wales he looked for an occupation as far away from mountaineering as it was possible to get and chose diving. Unfortunately adventuring is an expensive business. When I met him he was living in a lovely villa, called Takalot, in the mountains overlooking the sea at Colwyn Bay in North Wales. He was planning a new adventure, a hunt by microlite plane for the monster of Loch Ness. It proved too costly and when we next met the villa had gone and he was living in a tiny cottage at Deganwy. Wherever he is now I expect he is keeping a beady eye on Loch Ness. I met some extraordinary people in North Wales. I found this in my files: People think it odd that Norman Barnes, a 90 year old ex- teacher and a brilliant painter, has never exhibited his work. Mr Barnes, sitting in his remote cottage in the mountains above Bettws y Coed, North Wales, surrounded by those of his 20,000 stunning paintings he hasn’t given away, thinks that the oddity is thinking it odd. “I paint for pleasure,” he explains. “I have never felt it necessary to exhibit. I am not sure I am doing the right thing in exhibiting now. I am a quietist and I was very happy working on my own.” Nevertheless - and thanks to two formidable women - the admiring art public will have the first chance to see that work at the Cramdam Gallery in Meniai Bridge, Anglesey. His wife Kay, another teacher who would walk away with the role of Miss Chips if anyone wrote it, says: “I am delighted. I want his work to be recognised. I think it absurd it should not be. He is a marvellous painter. He is not so pleased because he is a very retiring man.” Mr Barnes would have continued his retiring if Joan Smith of Llangaffo, Anglesey, had not gone to his cottage to repair a grandfather clock. She said: “I couldn’t believe my eyes. The walls were covered with the most marvellous paintings which had never been seen by outsiders. “I thought, this is nonsense, and I took an armful round the galleries. Both Oriel Mon and the Tegfryn galleries were booked for two years. Then I heard of a couple of young artists who had opened a small gallery. They took one look and booked an exhibition on the spot.” The young couple are Marc Heaton and Madeleine O’Brien, Fine Arts graduates of St Martin’s College of Art. Mark said: “We couldn’t believe it when Mrs Smith brought the paintings in. It is inconceivable that Mr Barnes has been turning out such accomplished paintings for so long and remained unknown.” Said Madeleine: “He clearly hasn’t been influenced by anyone. The quickness and the quality of the line, the freshness of his vision are simply staggering. He captures a moment and through it shows his enjoyment of the landscape. “ Veteran artist David Chambers was in the gallery when Mrs Smith brought in the paintings. “They moved me to tears,” he confessed. “I think he is a fine draughtsman. His cats rival Tunnicliffe. Here is a chap who has painted about 20,000 pictures and remained unrecognised.” Until 1969 when he retired to a mountain cottage in North Wales, Barnes was a senior lecturer in Modern Languages at Salford Royal Technical College. Because of his teaching commitments he could only attend art school at night and even that was restricted as he had three 0f his own night classes to take. As a child money was short in his family and an art career seemed perilous. So he became a teacher. During the war he served with the Intelligence Corps all over Europe, painting all the time. He became a code breaker at Bletchley Park. Mr Barnes said: “I did do a term of evening classes at the Manchester College of Art but I wasn’t impressed by the teacher so I gave them up. I have learned from books, from copying the great painters and from nature.” Until he was eighty that meant skipping up and down the mountains around his home. Alas a stroke has paralysed the left side of his body. He still paints, though skipping up and down is out of the question. Happily there are windows on three sides of his studio, each one framing ever changing mountain views. “I just move round the table now and paint what I see. Real artists frown on me because I do not use an easel or wear a floppy bow. But what does it matter? I am happy.” I have never known a house where happiness is so palpable, its inhabitants so obviously devoted and their conversation so stimulating. We talked about the bad behaviour of pupils - in the 1920s, would you believe? About the reason there are no shadows in Renaissance paintings, why Bletchley Park, the centre of our intelligence war, had no Air Raid wardens and how a film about Mr Barnes’ colleague, Alan Turing, who invented the computer, was incorrect. It showed windows protected against bomb blast. Mr Barnes notices these things and his visual memory is photographic.

When his grandson Jacob asked reader Ken Ashton how old he was, he teasingly replied, "I'm not sure." "Look in your underpants, Taid," Jacob advised. "Mine says I'm 7 to 8." ARAB SPRING? Egypt's new Islamist-dominated parliament is preparing to introduce a controversial law that would allow husbands to have sex with their deceased wives up to six hours after death. Known as the "Farewell Intercourse" law, the measure is being championed as part of a raft of reforms introduced by the parliament that will also see the minimum age of marriage lowered to 14 for girls.
At last I am in a majority. I was spared having to vote but i my heart I was with the three-quarters of the population who did not vote on Wednesday. The politicians condemned it as apathy. We knew it was disgust.