The friend of 30 years with a brilliant eye for absurdity

Monday 10 January 2011 01:00

I first met Tom Lubbock at university – dispatched to his rooms, as novice on the student newspaper, to pick up a piece of artwork for the next edition. Arriving outside his door in Corpus I found a large knife embedded in the woodwork, pinning up a hand-written note which read "Lubbock – you will die".

It struck me as being a rather sinister thing to find on one's threshold but when I hesitantly pointed it out to him (he appeared not to have noticed it) he simply shrugged.

I never did find out whether he'd aroused a real enmity (his cartoons could be brilliantly scathing) or whether this was just part of a reciprocal joke. And now I never will because – 30 years later, but far too early – that most banal of all predictions has finally come true.

There was, of course, a glamour to such a first encounter which was consistent with his reputation then – as a talent who always trailed a little chaos in his wake – and which turned out to be consistent with the friend I eventually got to know much better.

Enormously civilised in one sense (his knowledge of books and music was deep and broad and eccentric in the best way) there always remained something a little untamed about him, an aura of unnerving but fruitful disorder.

To visit the studio in which he created the collages he produced for this newspaper was to enter a maelstrom of glue and off-cuts that seemed utterly incompatible with the clarity and clean lines of the finished product. To share a house with Tom – as I did for a time – involved surrendering all conventional notions of domestic method. If you couldn't find a cooking utensil, the most logical place to look was usually under his bed.

His work, by contrast, was always wonderfully uncluttered and disciplined – often by a self-imposed regulation. In the marvellous series of essays he wrote for this paper, taking one individual art-work as his subject, he determined from the very beginning that his opening paragraph would never be about the work in question but approach obliquely from a general observation about composition or narrative or – in some cases – from the dissection of a received opinion.

He was very funny too – and funniest when confronted with the prejudices and pieties of cultural life. When I was arts editor for this paper he wrote a fictional weekly column purporting to be the private diary of the administrator of a regional arts centre, a device which allowed him (to his chuckling pleasure) to puncture the absurdities of a range of art forms – and to knit that together with a novelistic creation of character and comic incident.

I will miss a great deal now that he's gone – the brilliance and argumentative engagement of his art criticism, the startling short cuts he would sometimes show you to a new way of thinking about paintings and artists, and the fun of his conversation and his company. But I think I'll most miss his ability to detect the bogus whenever it appeared – and the relish with which he would point it out.

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