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How We Met: John Keane & Alexei Sayle


John Keane, 57

Keane was appointed the Imperial War Museum's official artist during the Gulf War in 1990 and his work continues to address contemporary global conflicts. His portraits of figures include Kofi Annan and Mo Mowlam. His paintings are held in numerous private collections, including those of the BBC, the UN and the National Portrait Gallery. He lives in north London.

It was at a Sunday lunchtime party in about 1984 that I first "met" Alexei. We didn't actually speak; I was quite in awe of him – he was almost legendary, even at that stage. A year or two later a big crowd of us spent New Year's Eve in Barcelona and it was then that I got to know him – though I was still slightly in awe. He had impeccable left-wing credentials and, despite my left-leaning views, I was an ex-public schoolboy. His public persona was rather scathing, but actually he is very mild-mannered. Cuddly. I knew him as being abusive about the middle classes, but he's equally funny and belittling of his own Communist background.

I remember we were in a bar and I was talking to him about politics, as that's what I thought he'd be interested in, but he wanted to talk about cars and military guns, which I found a bit confusing.

Alexei's quite shy in a sense; if he doesn't know you, he doesn't open up immediately. He enjoys chatting, but he's not needy. He can go for ages without a word, then you'll get a hilarious anecdote out of him. But he does enjoy the trappings of his success. He'd be the first to admit he has a big ego and likes it that people recognise and appreciate his work.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s we holidayed together fairly regularly as a friendship group. I remember staying in a hotel in Wales, just after I was appointed official artist in the first Gulf War. I was slightly tense, waiting to find out when I was going to be sent over, and I sensed he was perhaps a little envious. For me, it levelled the awe I'd felt, as I felt I had also achieved something in a public role.

Nowadays he'll come round of a Friday evening and we'll get an Indian takeaway. The great thing about Alexei is that there is never any fear that there'll be leftovers. He's fiercely intelligent, but there's lots of gossip and small talk. I'm vegetarian and for periods he'd pretend to be veggie too, until I'd catch him ordering a meat dish – but I did appreciate the attempt.

Alexei Sayle, 59

As compère at London's Comedy Store in the 1980s, Sayle became a central figure in the alternative comedy scene. He has since had a successful career on TV and radio, as comedian, actor and presenter, and recently established himself as an author with a string of novels and short-story collections. He lives in north London.

I think I get on John's nerves a bit. I remember having dinner with him a while ago and I kept insisting he'd once worked as a waiter at My Old Dutch, the pancake restaurant. He hadn't, of course, but I kept insisting on it and it drove him mad. He has a degree of reserve, whereas I'm very much the opposite, shouting and carrying on, no manners.

My first memory of him isn't well-defined; there was a big gang of us and John just seemed to be around. I knew he was an artist, the only one in that crowd, and gradually we got to know each other. We'd go to his shows in Hackney and there'd be parties and dinners after.

What was most apparent when I first knew him was that he'd been to Wellington College, so he's got lovely manners. He's very courtly. I remember staying at a hotel in Wales with him and him telling us about how, at Wellington, if you wanted the butter passed up the table you'd say, "Butter up!" but if you wanted it passed down you just said, "Can you pass the butter, please?" I remember us making great play of that sort of thing.

You always got a sense, from his work and personal life, of this very steely personal and political morality. Being a war artist, going on all those trips to various hellholes that I wouldn't go near – you feel he has this very strong moral core and his work and life are of a single piece.

He's matured since I've known him. He wasn't a playboy, but he was single and going out with a series of women when I first knew him. Now he's married and has lovely kids, so that's solidified things.

We make a point of going to dinner regularly. I pretended to be a vegetarian for about three weeks and that drove him mad because it was so insincere.

John has an inner toughness that I don't have. And I admire his discipline – he goes to his studio and gets on with it. I'm more chaotic in my creative process. I like his portraits best – like the one of Mo Mowlam in the National Portrait Gallery. They're immensely powerful. He's great at observing and absorbing things.

Alexei Sayle is compèring a series of Tuesday-night shows from 17 January to 7 February at Soho Theatre, London W1 (sohotheatre.com). John Keane's new solo show, Scratching the Surface. Joining the Dots, will run from 12 January to 4 February at Flowers, 21 Cork Street, London W1 (flowersgalleries.com)