Arthur Dooley

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He was my first gaffer of note. A rough and ready sculptor, that I first heard on the radio.

Interviewer: “So Arthur, tell me, do you not find any conflict between being a Roman Catholic convert and being a card carrying member of the Communist Party?”

“None whatsoever” replied Arthur.  “people think of Jesus as some character out of Christopher Robin. He wasn’t, he was a revolutionary”

He was going though a wave of media attention at the time … early 70’s; even on This Is Your Life while I was there … during which he looked ill at ease. He said to a reporter the Liverpool Echo sent round to his after it aired. “It’s a con … they line up all yer old mates, and it wouldn’t be fair to upset ’em”. 

That might have been the occasion when the reporter asked him about his Catholicism, and if he practised chastity etc. “of course” he said. The reporter, reckoning he had Arthur in a trap, said “well what about these secretaries that seem to be living here?”  Arthur, genuinely affronted;  “Jus’ ‘cos I do it doesn’t make it right”

Despite being big and ugly, he was a gent when it came down to it; would never interrupt, and always offer a tea if he thought you looked peaky. He brewed up on the cooker, boil up the water, tea, milk and sugar all at once. And then look fondly on as you struggled to drink it.

I’d got his address from Uncle Ewan, an architect with a practise in Liverpool. “Yes you look the very part” said Uncle Ewan, approving of my natty big tie and double breasted jacket (it was the late 60’s). Of course, when I turned up unannounced on Arthur’s doorstep, he took one look and said “nuthin’  for you … I only take the workers and the children of the workers”  Fortunately the phone went just then, and he was in a slightly better mood when he came back to the front door. “you better come in then … cup o’ tea?”

So I’d get the No 73 into Woolton, and walk by the old quarry to his place, a recently shut down pub called the Black Horse. I can still smell the leaves of that autumn. After laying the fire in the basement where he worked, I’d prepare materials for the bronze maquettes he’d make (£s to live on), and occasionally take them down to the foundry for sand-casting. He had a good eye and hands though would never admit it. I once asked him if he believed in drawing. The only drawing I ever saw were a couple of squares roughed out on the wall above the fireplace (a bull). He said, “never done a drawin’ in me life … if yer goin’ to do your sculpture, then do it. That’s what Socrates said. “if yer going t’ play yer harp, then bloody play it”  (… no he didn’t, that I know of at any rate).  As well as the maquettes, he would have one or two big commissions on the go. I remember a gruesome crucifixion that he worked on … steel, fibreglass and barbed wire .. Daccau, he called it … “got the hang o’ them now; could do one a fortnight I reckon”

I went round to see him some years later. I was married by then. Veronica was doing a course in Archive Administration at the Uni, and I’d found a job welding at Harbens in Gateshead. I’d go round to Arthur’s of an evening, occasionally on a weekend. He wasn’t in a good state then; with Linda by whom he fathered young Paul. He was meant to be doing a large sculpture for the Glasgow Communist Party, of La Passionara … but couldn’t get behind it. I stayed up one night while he did a foot for her … a big uncompromising figure in gray, rough as you like. In the morning he turned the wee welder up to full and cut it all off “ ‘sno right” … he eventually produced a piece with sweeping lines … not half as good, I reckon. ‘It is better to die on your feet than live forever on your knees‘ … I doubt he even kept my lettering.

The media had dropped him; not sure whose fault that was, but there weren’t people around like there used to be. I remember him hurling a big glass ash tray at the telly one night. A news item had just come on, about 11 ladies who had been burnt alive in a clothing factory in Manchester “Bastards!!” …not that bothered by blowing up the tv, but upset over the loss of life and the failure of management to put in fire escapes. He was an angry man. He had ‘slapped a writ on Charlie Curran’ over dinner with the then Director General of the BBC … he reckoned the Charter was the nearest the UK had to a constitution, and was especially incensed with the Corporation’s fawning over Jimmy Saville …. this was well before Saville had been outed as a paedofile

“Don’t you worry, Jim’ll fuckin’ Fix It” he’d say. Then got a taxi down to our bedsit in Liverpool 8 with his “dossier on the BBC” for Veronica to arrange. I doubt she ever did; he was a bit erratic by then. But I remember thinking as we left Liverpool to go back to Yorkshire, that I couldn’t see any way out of the furious cul-de-sac he was in, but if anyone could it would be himself. A few years later they made a ‘One Pair of Eyes’ about him. He referred to that time of his life, in a black funk, not finishing work or anything. Then one morning, he decided to give every day over to St Joseph the Worker  … and did so! I also found out more about his history than I ever learned from him. He’d become converted to catholicism through the influence of a chaplin when in the army. He had served in Egypt  … as a sergeant he’d led the pipe band down an underpass; served time for shipping arms to the Palestinians (before they were outlawed as a terrorist organisation, otherwise they’d have no doubt thrown away the key). When discharged he actually attended St Martins College of Art (he’d let it be known that he’d just had a cleaning job there)

So there was a bit of mythology about him at the time. When I eventually relented and went to art college myself, I remember the head of Painting at Manchester saying “ I believe you were with Dooley for a while; don’t worry we’ll soon knock that out of you”   … ‘No you won’t’,  I said to myself.

So  what was it about him that appealed so much? He was certainly a character, and no doubt the media were delighted to find someone like him at the time. Articulate, and packed with belief that suited the zeitgeist of the late 60’s and early 70’s. … but might have also been why they dropped him … he actually believed what he said! … no bull shit. And he was good, as a sculptor. He wasn’t interested in the aesthetic adventure that Art had become, so would rail against the art colleges as centres of middle class expression. “That’s something the aristocracy and the working  class share … we both hate the middle classes” he said once. And chuckled. He was also a decent man. The ‘Worker Artist Association’ … they would share exhibition space at the Black Horse with him. The walls of what had been the public bar were covered in paintings that his mates had done. I think he was arranging a show by the Association in the Houses of Parliament when accosted by Eamon Andrews … “I bet you don’t know why I’m here Arthur” … “Do I fuck” he replied. I was proud to be working for him, and would name drop him whenever I could … he was a name back then. 

The last time I saw him was in Kirby, a sprawling industrial estate just outside Liverpool … that was all I knew, that he was in a studio there. After going bust, and surviving a fire at his next studio, it seems the Council had set him up with a place on the Estate …. ‘Metalmorphosis’ … I reckoned that must be him. I’d come down from Scotland, with a friend. Arthur looked fine, if older. We passed a bit of time; Jimmy had to go out and walk off the cup of tea.

The next I heard was about 10 years later; a friend told me of an obituary in the Guardian. So I went down to Liverpool, having missed the funeral. But his studio in ?? St, was made into a shrine. Touching actually. The lady who looked after it, from the hoover repair shop in the same building, when I asked her what had happened, adjusted her neck brace and said “they said it was the cigarettes that did for him; but I blame the nicorettes … he was plastered in them”.  She sighed, and looked away.

I believe Paul was sharing the studio with him at the end. I wish him well, though he’ll not remember me; his dad was a great man.