May 05, 2014

Frank Spragg remembered, Artwork for Charity

Frank Spragg was an artful speaker: he nailed bon mots for breakfast, coined witty tourneurs des phrases before lunch, told hilarious stories at dinner. People wanted to hear him speak again and again. He was an artist too in his spare time and in the gallery of his work you can see his roving eye at play.

Interval Drinks: Frank Spragg
One might say he was very Frank. Being Frank was his nature. Yet he really disclosed very little about himself.  He was more of an entertainer, the  centre of attention in any room. He was contradictory, and totally irascible. There never was a sharper tongue, or a haughtier look down the nose through glasses in the teachers’ room. The effect was either stitches or tears. Nor was there one more capable of getting already super fluent diplomat's daughters happily through their Proficiency English tests, giving them the impression that they’d learned something new and vital. 

He was a good mimic, so could accurately satirise anyone’s walk, pet phrase or accent so his Indian landlady came in for a drubbing, with hilarious consequences. But she took that well. He had a series of Spraggianisms for which he became famous. One he'd say was ‘Abbysinia, instead of 'I'll be seeing you'- as he left you at the station, and his listing of Italian girls names "Pamela, Carlotta, Maria, Laura, Federica, Giulia...Cinderella,"  in a class provoked mirth. It was just the way he did it with a kindly, but waspish edge. His aim was to entertain people, so he loved nothing
Lady in Mauve: Frank Spragg
more than to have those who listened attentively - and did not interrupt - around him, to delight them with crackpot anecdotes. These were drawn from scrapes he’d been in, with bosses and colleagues, or meetings with locals, of his adventures and travels across in Iran - he was there during the coup - in Saudi Arabia, the UAE and in Libya and all over Europe.

He devoured books but only toyed with food which he dribbled across the plate like a footballer in training. He loathed onions, green peppers, and could eat only bland foods, like omelettes, and poached eggs, but was overly fond of tea and cake, and Italian ice cream. He read shelf loads of biographies, novels, histories, but had a special fondness for Stendhal. He adored glamourous femme fatales from the 30s and 40s Hollywood period and had even written a biography of Barbara Stanwyck, whom he said was the greatest noir vamp. He could remember every line from every film she made: "I need him like the axe needs a turkey" from 'The Lady Eve' (1941). Stanwyck was most likely his obsession, possibly even his alter ego, but the manuscript was lost in all his moonlight flits from flat to flat. 

Strolling Along: Frank Spragg
He loved classical music, especially Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven. But he was not good on modern authors, loathed TV, nor was he good on computers, or technical gadgetry, even a mobile phone befuddled him. He lived frugally, without a carpet, or minimal luxuries in a tiny flat in Clerkenwell and although if he liked you, he was kind but he was always expect you to pay your way and never offered to pay for anything. Perhaps he was fearful of being exploited. That made going on holiday with him a tad difficult but in a good mood, his greatest talent was for anecdote.

While others struggled to express themselves, Frank had already taken the prize and wandered off with the money. That was the sense of humour that, unless you laughed hard, you could be on the wrong side of. He was a prolific letter writer and artist. After he died I realised I still had the letters he’d sent to me rammed to the margins with  illustrations. I’m not very good at throwing things away. The artworks were distributed among friends, but I was given some of them.

Frank had only one exhibition in a small hotel in Paris. The manageress had invited him to display his work. I don't think he sold any but it marked a new height in his confidence. He used crayons a lot, and while the drawings are simple and direct, his powers of observation are sharp, often getting the character through people’s gestures. He would sit in the park and draw whoever happened to be lounging around or picnicking. Only occasionally, he asked people to pose for portraits, so a lot of them are faceless, as he just wanted to capture the fleeting glance, and observation casually from a distance suited him best. He would work up the drawings later using ink, more intense colours, including a characteristic black outline. There is a series of elegant legs in shoes which owes something to Andy Warhol’s though I’m sure he would have feigned never having seen the Warhol shoe series from the 1950s. Completed mostly in the eighties and nineties, these drawings and sketches bring back Frank to me as if he were still here. They have a unique flourish that is Frank's.
Bearded Man: Frank Spragg

Once I remember his saying that he wanted something of his, to a charity in Africa. Giving money to charity should come with all the usual warnings, since there have been scams. Charity also brings up the question of whether it does not substitute for real justice, it just deals with symptoms and not causes, and that it serves to keep people helpless and codependent, and the whole system is riddles with scams, but the story of the boy with the starfish should settle this score:

Once upon a time, a man walking along a beach saw a boy picking up starfish and throwing them into the sea.

He asked the boy why he was throwing starfish into the sea.

The boy replied, "The tide is going out. If I don't throw them in, they'll dry up and die."

The man smiled patronisingly and said, "But, there are miles of beach and thousands of starfish on every mile. You can't possibly make a difference!"

The boy smiled, bent down, picked up another starfish, and threw it into the sea.

"Well," he said, "I made a difference for that one."

These are just some suggestions of where you might send money should the spirit move you:

Get water to African Villages: The Water Project

Sponsor a child or orphan:   Sponsor a Child

Provide basic literacy in places where it is not common:  Room to Read  at

Sponsor children (site is German) African Angel

And of course - why not - Tom Daley's charity efforts Just Giving Page. I feel sure Frank would have approved of Tom Daley.

So little is known about Frank that it might have to be made up, something that would make him smile as long as it was flattering. So what can I make up? He managed to convince everyone that he was 20 years younger than he was even without ever dying his hair- to discover his age when he died was a shock- but he died young at heart, but no one would believe that.

It may seem odd that I'm doing this little homage now ten years after his death, but that's the thing about people who leave this life. They are still around somehow. I get visitations from Frank in dreams and in thoughts since everyday I pass where he used to lived. The flashbacks appear and it will make me laugh out loud again, how irascible was Frank, I
chuckle. He always had the last word and it does not have to be a bad one. The voices of friends who've passed on stay with us, alarmingly to some, but not so alarmingly when you consider that they are part of consciousness, so their wishes are still somehow intimately connected with our own and for this to manifest now only shows that it can take a long time, but it still may bear some fruit. 

© Kieron Devlin, 2014
all rights reserved

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