Coales' Notes: Yesterday's man: 25 years on from 25 years ago, Gordon Coales goes down Memory Lane

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The Independent Culture
TUESDAY: An interesting thought struck me this morning, and I put it to Rory, did he realise it was now exactly 25 years since May 1968?

He considered this for a long time, then said: 'Well, that's true Gordon, isn't it. So what?'

I turned to Di. I said, wasn't it quite amazing how these things were simply forgotten. She agreed. (Rory protested he had only just been born then.) And I said that, however foolish and doomed to failure it might all seem in retrospect, there was at least a sense of hope then, and idealism and the possibility of changing things which was surely worth remembering. But those things seemed to mean nothing to people growing up today.

Di said: 'Well, I know. I was only about 13, but I do remember it.' Rory asked what.

Di said: 'Oh really, Rory] I'm Backing Britain, of course] And I've still got my badge somewhere.' I think it's the total lack of any historical sense that's the saddening thing.

WEDNESDAY: Di remarked this afternoon: 'Gordon, apropos of the 1960s - you know who I mean by Derek Kirby?'

I agreed it certainly rang a bell of sorts. She said: 'Doesn't it] I met him at a do the other day. He's going to be 70 apparently, and very keen for a comeback. And I kind of took pity on him, because I gathered he had no one else acting for him, and I promised we'd try and do something.' I said, I found it hard to think what.

She went on: 'Just put a little package together, saying, you know, he may have fallen by the wayside a bit, but let's not forget this guy, he was a significant figure at the time. I'm sure there'd be interest.'

I asked, if she could just remind me - what was it precisely Kirby was known for?

Di replied: 'Well, this is the thing. I'm not quite sure. You have heard of him, though, haven't you?'

Rory suggested simply asking him in person. But Di said it was impossible. 'He's terribly sensitive about all that - quite sad, you know, quite bitter. When I said, 'And who are you?', he said 'Oh, I was Derek Kirby.' And naturally I said, 'Oh, right]' I can't ring him back now and say 'Sorry, who?' - can I?'

She asked us to ask around. Really, though, I ought to be able to remember by myself.

THURSDAY: This morning I had a brain-wave and rang up Archie Ogg and put the name of Derek Kirby to him. He said: 'Kirby? Surely, a kind of an action painter. Member of the Contraflow Group, used to set fire to his pictures at the end of every show. Painted in highly inflammable media. I believe two of them went up spontaneously at the ICA in around 1963, and after that he found it more difficult to get exhibitions.' He added that he doubted whether there would be much of an 'oeuvre extant'. I thanked him for the use of his astonishing memory.

Di came in. I was about to give her my news, but she said: 'Right, the search is off. It's what I suspected. Derrick Kirby - that's double r, i, c, k - pioneer TV documentary film-maker, including the highly influential Wild Children and Manchester Saturday and others - all of which were wiped in about 1970, which is rather unfortunate.'

I asked where she got that from, but then Rory arrived and announced: 'OK. Deryck - with a y, c, k - Kirby. Photographer. Specialised in portraits of prominent East End characters. Shortly before opening of retrospective in 1966, all prints and negatives went missing from his studio, suspected stolen, never traced.'

As we were pooling our information and sources, Archie rang me back to say he'd had second thoughts and had been ringing round himself, and the new consensus emerging was that Kirby was a controversial dramatist, whose first and only play was entirely rewritten by the Lord Chamberlain, and then - the final indignity - was staged in this revised version with considerable success. Of course, he went on, it was never fully appreciated what a very gifted man the Lord Chamberlain was. I asked him how the first name was spelt. He said, 'Oh, plain e k'

Di said: 'Well. Weird.' Then her phone rang. She picked it up, said: 'Oh, hi there.' Then she mouthed: 'It's him.' Rory said: 'Find out how it's spelt.'

Di was saying: 'No, on the contrary, you're fondly remembered, in all sorts of ways . . . That's right, your name lives, definitely . . . But there's just one detail we need to check - what's the way you prefer to spell it, because I believe there are several ways . . ?'

She nodded: 'Right. D. E' Then her face fell. 'Ah. I see.' Rory said: 'What, as in Eric?' Di waved him to be quiet.

She went on: 'No, I see. D. E. Double N. I. S . . . yes, no, quite, the usual way . . . Well, very soon, I would think, very soon . . . OK, lovely.' She put the phone down. She said: 'Actually I'm sure he said Derek.'

I said I was absolutely certain I had never heared of any Dennis Kirby. And on reflection I'm pretty sure I've never heard of any Derek either, but it's a terribly long time ago.