Mythomaniacal, egotistical, and often unable to tell the truth or the difference between it and fiction, the character of Daniel Farson - photographer, writer, and drunk - is redeemed by at least one grace: that of self-awareness: "One of the more bizarre aspects of my life is the way it has veered from triumph to disaster without my seeming to notice the change."
Farson was the son of Negley Farson, a renowned American foreign correspondent, author of the Thirties bestseller The Way of a Transgressor and, like his son, an alcoholic. "My father's guilt made me guilty," wrote Farson, as much about his sexuality as his addiction to drink. He remained in thrall to his father's fame, even when his own exceeded it: while Francis Bacon taunted his friend by declaring Negley's books "second-rate", Farson was proud enough of them to send one as a calling card to the reclusive aesthete Stephen Tennant.
Farson's childhood was a peripatetic one: he was evacuated to Canada during the Second World War, and spent holidays in the United States. At 17 he became the youngest ever Parliamentary and Lobby Correspodent for "an ancient press agency where no one else was young enough to be mobile". He spent his National Service years in the American Army Air Corps, and at 21 relinquished his dual nationality in favour of Britain, while taking advantage of the GI Bill of Rights to go up to Cambridge.
There he started the magazine Panorama with Anthony West. An article satirising the Picture Post had Farson summoned to that magazine's offices, only to leave them with the post of staff photographer. He was soon photographing the likes of Noel Coward, who happily struck all manner of attitudes for the blond newcomer's lens.
But it was at the age of 23 that Farson was launched fatefully into the world of Soho Bohemia, a world of dives and drunks whose tentacles would never let him go. He had been innocent until then, unmoulded: "Soho cast me. All too quickly, I made up for lost time." It became his second home, "often my first", and introduced him to Francis Bacon: "I moved out of my father's shadow and into Bacon's." Farson admitted his role of hanger-on; and yet, as a photographer and writer of some talent, his value lies in observations of a world whose habituees were too busy drinking to document themselves. Conversely, he was unable to write a book without putting himself in it; an attempt to render himself as part of the Soho myth. Friends wondered how he remembered in-depth conversations from the night before. He probably didn't: he was already being barred from the French House for behaviour he could not recall.
From photo-journalism Farson moved via the Merchant Navy (crossing the Equator four times) and newspaper journalism (writing for the Evening Standard and the Daily Mail) to television, joining Associated-Rediffusion "in the exciting early days of TV when no boundaries were set and we were able to explore". Such a brief suited Farson, and explorations included having to cut off a drunken Caitlin Thomas in full flow, and an equally drunken interview with Bacon for The Art Game, filmed on 27 August 1958. During the long delays between changing film magazines, Bacon and Fargon consumed large quantities of oysters and champagne, and when the three hours of film was edited to 15 minutes, "the startling effect was an instant transformation, from two sober Jekylls into two alcoholic Hydes".
Farson went on to appear in a series of shows, from This Week to Living for Kicks, ending, as his fame declined, with an art game show called Gallery in which he called upon the talents of old friends such as Michael Wishart. It was bizarre to see such sacred monsters of Bohemia dragged out on afternoon television, Wishart answering banal questions in his catatonic drawl while a studo audience was ordered to applaud.
Television fame made Farson's half-handsome, prefect-fat face nationally recognisable. It also gave an added frisson to the encounters with rent boys; like Wilde and Coward, Farson was feasting with the panthers of the East End.
He discovered the charms of the sailors and barrow boys of Limehouse - an area which seemed to operate outside the law - and set up home at 92 Narrow Street, to be joined by Bacon and other figures such as the writer Andrew Sinclair and, later, the struggling doctor David Owen. Here not even the Kray Twins (with whom Farson was intimate) descended to "renting", i.e. homosexual blackmail. Like Wilde, Farson saw his East End boys as a race apart, describing them in a letter to Stephen Tennant as having "a real sense of chivalry . . . these young men looked and behaved like true aristocrats".
In 1962, using money left by his parents, Farson set up a "singing pub", The Waterman's Arms, on the Isle of Dogs; he was, as Colin MacInnes recognised, "realising his own dream". His celebrity summoned an extraordinary mixture of names to this muddy loop in the lower Thames. Bacon brought William Burroughs to join Jacques Tati, Shirley Bassey, Clint Eastwood, Judy Garland or Groucho Marx. "Finally, The Waterman's Arms was killed by its own success," wrote Sinclair, ". . . in a way, Farson was like [David] Owen, destroying the culture he loved by introducing into it the glamour and power of other parts of other cities".
By 1964 Farson had made his break with London, decamping to the Grey House, Braunton, North Devon, also a legacy of his parents'. There he wrote his books - 27 in total, rather belying his reputation of drunken ineptitude - on subjects ranging from Jack the Ripper and Bram Stoker (his great-uncle) to historical fiction and, well, historical fiction, as many regarded his own memoirs of life in Limehouse and Soho to be.
Perhaps his greatest achievement was his best-selling The Gilded Gutter Life of Francis Bacon (1993), originally commissioned in 1982 but delivered ten years later, after Bacon's death. Farson's subjective biography is full of Farson, his life blended with that of his subject: the effect is to render the author as an adjunct to the artist's self, rather than securing his - Farson's - place in art history. His 1991 book on Gilbert and George in Moscow had a similar agenda, whilst bringing Farson into the modern world of Sohoitis. From Devom he made roaring forays into Soho, lost weekends during which he would succeed in beguiling, and offending, a whole new generation of Sohoites.
Perhaps most extraordinary is a last, almost libellous portrait of Farson in Robert Tewdwr Moss's posthumously published travelogue, Cleopatra's Wedding Present (1997), in which the author encounters the apoplectically drunken Farson in a Syrian hotel and is accused of all kinds of calumny - most egregiously, seduction of the local youth, a misdemeanour of which Farson himself was much more likely to be guilty. Cornering Tewdwr Moss in a restaurant over a plate of roasted sparrow, a red-faced Farson splutters, " `And by Jove, sonny, if I see you again, I shall make it my job to destroy you and your career.' In between threats he was snatching up the bodies of the birds and stuffing them into his mouth - naked little ornithological corpses, sliding down into the maws of hell."
Somehow Dan Farson managed to escape the maws of hell by recycling his incontinent life in his books, making a living out of myth. He kept abreast with a sometimes cruel cast of solipsists whose only loyalty was to themselves and their kind; and then not always to be relied upon. What he leaves behind, in photographs and words - perhaps most notably in his book Soho in the Fifties (1987) - is a record of that world which, while doubtless wild, inaccurate and full of his own hyperbole, is probably as close to the truth as we will ever get. His autobiography, Never A Normal Man, was published early this year, shortly after his 70th birthday. It was a final, bloodshot eye-witness report from the edge before he tottered over it.Reuse content
Negley Farson was the grandson of an American civil war general who rode with Sherman as they burned Georgia from Atlanta to the sea. Perhaps that is what gave the young man his life-long thirst for adventure? Farson flew with the Royal Flying Corps during the First World War, took part in the Russian revolution, was present at the arrest of Gandhi, and went on to become one of the most celebrated international journalists of his day.
One of Farson’s adventures stands alone, his equestrian exploration of the Western Caucasus mountains. The intrepid reporter saddled up in the spring of 1929, accompanied by an aging, eccentric Englishman who lived in Moscow. With no prior equestrian travel experience between them, the two would-be explorers were soon discovering the harsh realities of life on the road. They were lashed by hailstorms, threatened by skeptical Soviet commissars, denied shelter by suspicious natives, and spent night after night in rain-soaked misery.
A personal chronicle of an already exciting life, “Caucasian Journey” tells how Farson also discovered the seldom-seen splendors of this mountainous region with its alpine snowfields painted gold by the sun, picturesque villages forgotten by the outer world, and magnificent horsemen who were practically born in the saddle.
A thrilling account and a poetic remembrance, “Caucasian Journey” is an amply illustrated adventure classic.
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