Friday, 12 October 2012


One of the joys of  living in Wales was the pleasure I got from being rude on radio and in my columns  about the Welsh Arts Establishment or, as I christened it, The Teflon Tafia. It was  never slow to”take to the mattress  in retaliation. Over 25 years its Capo di Fruti refused me  research grants on all but one of my thirty books, hymns of glory to Wales and Welsh heroes. It did promise me a grant to research the  first book I wrote on my neighbour and friend, the painter Sir Kyffin Williams RA,  but that was twenty years ago and I am still waiting for their cheque. I could write another book listing the blows they rained. Sufficient to say they were eager signatories to the Celtic ‘Hypocritic’ oath.
It was our mutual loathing of the Teflon Tafia which cemented my friendship with Kyffin, to whom they behaved disgracefully over his whole career. He was the best painter Wales has produced and now has a gallery named after him. They called him “a disgrace to Wales” and refused his proferred gifts of  paintings. Now he is dead they praise him to the skies.
Kyffin was the kindliest of men. It was he and our landlord the Marquess of Anglesey who won me the only recognition I have ever  had: a pension marking my contribution to Welsh culture awarded by the English Royal Literary Fund, an honour I share with  Dr Johnson, the Dictionary man.
Although extremely rich – he once went out to buy a paper and came back with a new Volvo which he bought because he was attracted to its  KW licence  plate – Kyffin dressed like a tramp and had the woebegone air of a bulimic walrus. In desperation his dealer bought him new suits which by some magic immediately became old when he put them on. When he opened his mouth he could have charmed the stone statues on Easter Island.  He was a legendary story-teller. I treasure the tapes we made whilst I was writing his first book, which was not otherwise a happy experience. The result was so badly produced I wrote a second memoir when Seren, the publisher, failed to keep their promise after admitting the faults were theirs.
I was delighted when Gomer sent me “Obsessed”, written, if that is the phrase I want, by an art gallery curator John Smith and David Meredith, a former PR man for HTV. It would be kinder not to criticise the narrative which largely consists of  names, which if they all buy the book will ensure its entry into a Bestseller List. Indeed it reads like Beachcomber’s famous list of Huntingdonshire Cabmen. Unhappily it fails to bring out the lovable, witty and amusing creature that was Kyffin.
That is not sour grapes. The reproductions of his paintings and drawings are quite simply the finest I have ever seen. If Kyffin is a shadowy figure in the text, in the plates he springs gloriously to life.
I called my second memoir “The Man Who Painted in Welsh”. Kyffin was famous for his landscapes but for me it is his portraits that were his greatest achievements.  He never took longer than a morning to paint one, but they don’t just appear on his canvasses, they live and breathe. This book contains some of the best. You need not read it; the illustrations are his life and like the man himself bring joy to the heart.
I am not named but I do make a guest appearance on page 154:
“From time to time, friends would call at Pwllfanogl to find Kyffin in a worried state. On one occasion, an author whom he regarded as a friend had written about Kyffin’s family in a disparaging manner, producing a manuscript full of inaccuracies and falsehoods. Kyffin banned the publication only to find himself being pestered by the author for money, a lot of money, the final figure turning out to be even more than the sum Kyffin had originally mentioned. Friends advised Kyffin to ignore the journalist, some going as far as to advise Kyffin to tell him to jump in the lake. But Kyffin always had to put things right. Against better advice, the man was paid – but Kyffin had kept his dignity. To their credit, the publishers did not proceed with publication at the time, but to the disgust of many it appeared after Kyffin’s death.”
Not only is this monstrous and untrue. The authors knew it was. I sent Smith a copy of my second biography of Kyffin in which all my dealings with him were told as evidence of his generosity. It was Kyffin who invited me to write the book, who gave me a list of people to contact and ate many dinners as my guest after which he tape-recorded the story of his life. Any reference to his family came directly from Kyffin’s own book “Across the Straits” and our tape-recorded interviews with him and his friends whom I interviewed at length. On the strength of the first three pages that I showed him he decided he did not want the  book published. I couldn’t break my contract but I did agree that he should write to the publisher and offer to repay his costs to kill the book. The publisher refused (I still have the correspondence).
The reason the book was delayed was that I would not allow it to be published during his lifetime. He said I could do what I liked with it when he was dead. I certainly did not bother him for money. In fact I lost several thousand pounds in royalties, grants, advances and two years’ unpaid work researching and writing. It was Kyffin who raised the question of money. I have his letter offering to buy back a painting he had given me for £7,500 (it is now worth twice that). The letter can be read in my second Kyffin memoir “The Man Who painted in Welsh”.
He also saw and approved the final mss  and made corrections which I still have in my files, alterations which I gladly made but Seren, the publisher, ignored.
The implication of the words in” Obsessed” was that Kyffin was upset with me. This is rubbish. Long after the book was published he gave me, lovingly inscribed, a book of his drawings. Shortly before his death when he was unable to write I had a letter from him dictated to a friend, recalling our friendship. I also have a cartoon of the two of us dancing hand in hand which he drew to send to friends who knew the book was postponed as proof we were still friends.