Coales' Notes: Hitting bottom: A week in the art of Gordon Coales

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The Independent Culture
TUESDAY: This is definitely interesting, though best not to have any feelings in advance.

I have at last (this evening) heard from Alan's contact, Mr Richard Silver of Ars Longa Ltd, speaking from his car on a wireless telephone. The line was poor, but in short: this man appears to run some sort of computing outfit in Herefordshire, but in addition he has a kind of 'multi-media, multi- project' arts agency in London ('fringes of Islington' he said). He proposed a meeting on Friday: 'I emphasise that - this is a meeting, not an interview.' He insisted it should be on 'neutral territory', not at the London offices. He gave a restaurant in Soho. I wanted to ask some questions, but at this point he entered a tunnel, and we had to leave it there.

So. Ars Longa Limited. It has a good Latin name at any rate. But I must stop anticipating.

WEDNESDAY: A phone call from Alan. 'Thought you might like a bit of a briefing.' But he wasn't much use. He explained, which I had guessed, that he was now an artist on the books of Ars Longa. The previous man in charge of the agency left a couple of months ago, and he had thought of me. I asked why he had left. Alan said: 'A chemical thing I gather.' I asked what sort of person Silver was looking for. He said 'Well, someone like you basically.' Very vague.

Naturally, it strikes me, one must doubt the good sense of any organisation that would put its confidence in Alan and his works - an unworthy thought, I realise, as it is Alan who has arranged this entree.

THURSDAY: A great state of nerves, trying on various suits. This is the first proper interview I have had for over 20 years, since in fact I applied for Directorship of the Wormwood Centre. Of course it is not an interview. The best thing is to play it entirely by ear.

FRIDAY: I took the train to London, and the Tube to Leicester Square. I had some difficulty in spotting the restaurant, because it was disguised as a beauty salon. Silver was already at a table. Otherwise fairly empty. He is a man at least 10 years younger than me, and I was going to say he had a beard, but now I don't feel so sure.

We began, of course, by talking about Alan, and his show at the Centre. Silver was full of his praises, said he understood he was 'a kind of genius', and I tried to agree, though it stuck in the craw rather.

Then he said: 'So, I gather your Arts Centre's collapsed. Why's that?' I told him (avoiding details) that it was the old story, a funding crisis, withdrawal of support from local authority etc.

He said: 'Yes, well, the dinosaurs are finally dying out, aren't they?' This seemed a little below the belt, so I asked him what it was precisely that had involved him in the arts. He said it was the plague of anyone with a successful business, endless requests for sponsorship. 'We did this for a bit. Then frankly I got a bit sick of these people queuing up with their begging bowls. So I thought to myself 'Why fund it, when I can run it myself?' Makes sense?'

I said, 'Quite'.

We ate for a bit, then (with his mouth full) he said to me: 'So Gordon. Have you any idea who I mean by Ludwig II of Bavaria?'

I replied, certainly - the builder of Neu Schwanstein, patron of Wagner, reputed mad.

He said: 'Right, right, you know who I mean.'

I smiled. There was a pause.

Then: 'Now what about Lorenzo the Magnificent de Medici, does that name mean anything to you?' I thought I understood the game. I replied something about Florence, Michelangelo and the Renaissance - another great motivator of the arts. He said: 'Fine, fine, you know the name.'

Then he turned to me very earnestly and said: 'So tell me. Do you have any idea of what I mean by bottom?'

I spluttered, and answered that I wasn't quite sure, no.

He continued: 'I'll tell you, in confidence, that I have a team at Ars Longa who are talented people and creative people, highly so. But I sense there's a lack of something - call it taste, call it culture, call it whatever you like - but I call it bottom. They lack it. And that's what I'm looking for. Bottom.'

It seemed the moment to ask about his last manager. He said: 'Oh that. Chemical problems, if you know what I mean.' I got the distinct impression that he meant drugs.

We were now on coffee. He said: 'OK. Good. Now one final question, Gordon. It's this. What is art? It's quite profound if you think about it.' I told him I thought even a philosopher would need a very long lunch for a question like that.'

He smiled: 'No, I like that. A long philosophical lunch. I like that very much.' He paid.

It seemed to have gone fairly well. But outside the restaurant, he gave me a kind of appraising look, and said: 'I mean, frankly - this guy Alan. You would tell me if he was a load of shit, wouldn't you?'

I replied that in the circumstances it would be pretty ungenerous of me. He went on: 'Because that's what I'm talking about. We don't carry passengers.' It was a slightly chilling moment.

Then he winked, handed me an Ars Longa brochure, and made off. I meant to read it on the train, but fell asleep.

I feel it would be possible to work with this man. After all he is presiding over a going concern, which is more than I can say for myself. I do have a nagging suspicion that he is mad - but this might not matter. But I must stop thinking ahead.

Would it require a move to London, though?