The sad news has belatedly reached me that the artist Sue Barnes, my friend and onetime flatmate, died five years ago. I think I last saw her in 2004, but we hadn’t seen that much of each other since the 1980s. Sue was never one for for email or social media (which is how I’ve kept in touch with the other old friends I’m still in touch with – and I’m not blaming her, obviously, as we all know social media are a taint on civilisation and are best avoided if you want to stay sane) and I’ve been gadding about, moving house from London to Cambridge to London to Paris to Brussels, meeting new people and losing track of others, like a flibbertigibbet.
I first met Sue when we were both Graphic Design students at Central School of Art and Design, in London. She was one year ahead of me so I didn’t meet her straightaway, but gradually we connected and started to hang out. The first artwork of hers I remember were lots of drawings she did of the shark in Jaws. She also turned out to be very game at posing for photographs, not to mention photogenic, so she was naturally one of the poor sods I was always dragging into the studio at college and plastering with makeup; some of the colour photos I took of her in the 1970s are at the foot of this page.
In 1975 (I think) she got into the Royal College of Art, doing printmaking; one year later, I was turned down by the photography department there, but it only made me want to hang out with her even more, and also loiter around the RCA bar (to be fair, they did book some great bands during this era – The Clash, The Jam, Wayne County etc) and sleep with a few unsuitable men who were students there. To her credit, I don’t think she minded me tagging along with her and her new friends, though they probably thought I was needy and desperate. (I was still in my early twenties, and if I couldn’t carry on being an art student, I had no idea what I was going to do with my life. It was a weird time.)
One year, I went with Sue and her mother to Paris, which was my first trip there apart from one overnight stay on my way to Chamonix with a French exchange family. We took the night ferry and checked into pretty much the first hotel we found, near the Gare du Nord. For some reason we never took the Métro but walked everywhere, and once we’d visited Les Invalides together I tended to wander off on my own because I’m a fast walker (I’ve been told too fast) and wanted to look at the cemeteries and la maison de Balzac, which were all miles apart, whereas Sue and her mum preferred stopping off at cafés, which in retrospect was probably a much better way of seeing Paris anyway.
There was another trip to Paris in December of 1978, when Sue and I went to spend Christmas there with Laura Knight, a printmaker friend who was staying in the RCA studio in the Quai de la Rapée in the 12th arrondissement of Paris, just down the road from the Gare de Lyon. We all read French Elle and bought brightly coloured berets and posed in them for photos, and smoked unfiltered Boyards maïs (subsequently banned as too unhealthy even for French lungs) and went to see Pasolini’s Saló (which had been banned in London) and took the Métro (my first time) to see Public Image Ltd at Le Stadium in the 13th arrondissement. The Parisian audience was still stuck in punk mode, and John Lydon got very pissed off when they kept spitting at the stage.
At the start of February 1979, I went to live in Tokyo for a year. (I was about to get turfed out of my Clapham flat anyway.) I’d accumulated a roomful of stuff, so before I went, I deposited cartons of books and other possessions with various friends, for safekeeping. According to the list in my diary, Sue took in “assorted records, bed, carpet, tripod, stereo, and two sets of Dexion [industrial metal shelving]”.
In 1980, when I came back from Tokyo, I had nowhere to live except my parents’ house in Croydon, so Sue very generously invited me to stay in a spare room in her recently acquired three bedroom flat on a housing estate in Kennington Oval, London, just around the corner from the cricket ground. I outstayed my welcome and ended up squatting there for five years, until I finally cobbled together enough money to take out a mortgage on a flat in Notting Hill and pay back all the rent I owed.
So, for the first half of the 1980s, we lived together. Sue was doing odd design jobs (one for Event listings magazine, which was where I wrote my first film reviews) and, if I remember correctly, frequently forgetting to invoice for them. We both worked on a comp card for a would-be male model, who never paid us. In the meantime, since I wasn’t getting much work, I took a lot of photographs, including many of Sue, who was a brilliant model – not just beautiful but totally without vanity, and endlessly patient. I set up a darkroom in her other spare bedroom – which she used as well, so I wasn’t just commandeering her space.
We smoked a lot of Embassy Extra Mild, drank a lot of Red Stripe, went to a lot of gigs and parties, played records all day and all night (Joy Division, Elvis Costello, David Bowie, 2-Tone, The Only Ones, Alec Chilton, The Cramps, Gang of Four are just some of the ones I remember). She turned me on to country music, which I’d never really liked before, and I forced her to listen to opera. I think the flat (ex-council) must have very solidly built as I don’t recall hearing any neighbour noise. On the other hand, we were often up all night, smoking and playing music, so maybe we were the neighbour noise.
We also went to see a lot of movies together; it was Sue who, in the 1970s, first introduced me to the joys of sitting in the front row, right up next to the screen. Films I remember include Southern Comfort and Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid at the Odeon Elephant & Castle, just up the road from Kennington, and the two Godfathers, screened back to back at the NFT.
Sue had a very old, very small TV, with an indoor aerial you had to keep playing around with in order to get a reasonable image. Among the things I remember watching on it was The Wicker Man. I also remember trying to watch Winter Kills while we had people round, and I kept getting annoyed about them making too much noise and laughing at the film in all the wrong places.
We also saw David Pirie’s excellent TV movie Rainy Day Women. Also, we watched a lot of the 1982 World Cup in Spain; we both fell for the Brazil side (especially Socrates, a two packs-a-day man) and cried when they were knocked out. We both vowed we weren’t going to watch the Royal Wedding (Charles and Diana) but I think Sue caved in. I was paranoid about London being flooded (this was before the Thames Barrier went up) and tried to stockpile tins of tuna, but Sue kept eating them.
I might add to this post if I remember more details, or if I get a moment to dig out my old diaries for use as an aide-memoire. (They’re not the Dear Diary type of diary, alas, just the jotting-down-appointments kind.)
Here are some of the colour photographs I took of Sue in the 1970s. I think they were all shot in the studio at Central School of Art and Design.