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Nostalgia Slices from Life

Me and Mr Lowry’s Clown

Mike Smith’s nostalgia about artist Pat Cooke (1935-2000)

When I became a dealer in second-hand books in the mid nineteen eighties, I was briefly a member of the prestigious PBFA, which stands for the Provincial Booksellers Fairs Association, and not, as others have suggested for the alternative (which begins with Pretentious). That led to me standing a bookfair at Knutsford in Cheshire.

Into that fair one morning strolled Brian and Pat Cooke. They were interested in the Crimean War, and luckily, I had a few uncommon titles on that subject. I was a new boy on the block, but they were regular visitors to the fair. They made me welcome. They were, in fact, the sort of people who, even within a few minutes of first meeting, enrich your life. Brian was already working on what would be the first major study of the light railway built to supply the British Army outside Sebastopol during that war, which he went on to publish in two editions, the second benefitting from information flushed out by the first. You can still find copies of The Grand Crimean Central Railway online today.

The couple had joiede vivre that was infectious and heady. The world sprang into colour and movement and light when they were about, and especially Pat. But then, Pat was an artist.

The meeting led to a relationship that like many in the second-hand book trade was as much about friendship as it was about commerce. We sent Pat our regular catalogues, and she put in orders. It was always Pat that wrote, and the orders were neatly scribed in sharp black ink on small cards. They were illustrated with cartoons and sketches, with messages of goodwill to us and our daughter, often with the mention of a gift for the latter: ‘£5 to spend enclosed’.

The Cooke’s moved in elevated circles, compared to us! We were invited to a party at Tatton Hall. Bring some books to sell, I was told. It was a great party! And we sold more books, by value, in an hour than we would normally sell in a month. The toffs and celebs were at them before I could even unpack the boxes, like Whitby seagulls on a chip packet.

Pat Cooke was Mr Lowry’s Clown.

Mr Lowry, as I’m sure you know, was that painter of ‘matchstick men’ that status quo sang about in the nineteen sixties. He painted much more. I can remember walking into a room at the Abbot Hall Art Gallery in Kendal and being overwhelmed by one of his seascapes – the first I had ever seen. Massive and deceptively simple, the horizon line at my eye level it was as if I had been cast into that empty ocean. I didn’t even know it was a Lowry until I read the little card beside it, and when I did know it changed my whole perception of the man. I have a postcard of the painting and years later it still overwhelms and threatens me with extinction.

His friend from 1948 when she was 13 until Lowry’s death, Pat published in 1998 a small paperback of a mere 63 pages in which she recalled that friendship. The book is packed with photographs of Lowry, here and there, with Pat and her husband. It’s packed too with reminiscences of what they said and did together. Interesting by any measure, what strikes me, having recently watched the biopic, Mrs Lowry and Son, is the upbeat picture she paints of that often gloomily depicted artist.

L. S. Lowry(1887-1976) memorial, Greater Manchester. Courtesy: Creative Commons

Sketching or just looking, their jaunts together in the English countryside or at the coast, seem to have ended as often as not with a search for afternoon tea, or as Lowry is quoted: ‘poached eggs on toast, warm scones with strawberry jam… perhaps some sponge cake or brandy snaps…’

My favourite quote is one that could be applied equally to writers, I think, and it is Lowry’s advice to Pat, and other artists: ‘Find out what subjects you like to draw and paint, keep a limited palette, don’t be influenced to change your natural style and then work very hard for at least fifty years.’

The first third of the book gives us the history of Pat herself, and though Lowry is the more famous, I find this a bonus rather than a flaw. We might think she was lucky to have known him, but having met Pat and Brian, I know that he was lucky too.

I searched for the little book online while writing this. It comes up in large numbers, but all of them ‘sold’ or ‘out of stock’. We took a handful, which we passed on over the years to people we thought might like them. We kept the one with the note tucked in, ordering from our October ‘98 catalogue,the one mentioning that fiver. ‘Cheers from the zoo X X’, it’s signed. And on the front endpaper of the book itself, ‘To Freya and her team…Good luck and God bless always…Pat Cooke’.

I think I was blessed already.

Photo Courtesy: Mike Smith

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Mike Smith lives on the edge of England where he writes occasional plays, poetry, and essays, usually on the short story form in which he writes as Brindley Hallam Dennis. His writing has been published and performed. He blogs at www.Bhdandme.wordpress.com 

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

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