James Edgar – The passing of a presence

When I first went to Blackpool alone, in the mid to late 1950s, there was a character around the town by the name of Jack The Ghost. He was mysterious. He was once described to me as ‘A Jewish cat’ who everyone swore had been in two card games at the same time during a ‘blackout’ in the Second World War. A succession of dogs were named after him at Blackpool greyhound track. I met him a couple of times. He was lean and elegant, but he was somehow shady. An attractive, shadowy figure, and a folk hero.

I’ve been deeply saddened by the loss of my old friend James Edgar this last week or two. He was such a big presence in my life. He was in turns funny, on the edge, assertive, reticent, cryptic, humble, and effing annoying. A character with a host of varying qualities, his major saving grace was always the flash of genius he could enlighten a moment with. Like me, he had glaring faults, but above all, he was perhaps the greatest lost human I ever knew.

I first met him in 1960. He was fresh from Northern Ireland, and he was a rugged-looking young man who was obviously carrying a great inner conflict. He was nervous and very shy at first, but over the years he gradually learned how to hide as much as he could of that. There were stories about why and how he’d left Northern Ireland, but he was always reticent about delving into the details of his childhood. All I really knew was that there’d been a violent episode, and he’d been in a coma for a while and emerged with a steel plate in his head.

He and I were part of a loose collection of a dozen heads that included flat-mate-landlord Jimmy Peglar, jazz base ace Tony Febland and the unforgettable Fred Yates, who knocked around Blackpool at the time. Edgar had the habit of changing his name periodically. It seemed that he was compelled to give life to the several personas he had, and used to wear them like you would a suit of clothes, just to change your appearance for the night-week-month-year. The names ranged between Jimi, ‘Irish’, which was Fred’s name for him, James, Irish Jimmy, James Edgar, which he took from Edgar Allen Poe, to James Edgar Schwartz, the Schwartz being taken from Tony Curtis, whose real name was Bernard Schwartz, and who was at the height of his fame in 1960.

He was also a big Johnny Mathis fan in 1960, and used to hang around the stage door of the old Hippodrome Cinema/theater on Church Street during Johnny’s seasons there to get the word from his hero. In the early 60s, many of us used to populate The Golden Nugget, a coffee bar on Cookson Street run by John Malkin, which was only yards from the Hippodrome.

Occasionally, he became Edgar Schmaltz, but only when he needed a ‘sub’. He usually got a ‘sub’ for a painting or for delivering info from the great outside. I thought about the desecrated encyclopedias he’d ripped sketches out of to present to me on one occasion. They were of gathered tribal humanity in big team fashion; like the whole of the tribes of North America had been gathered in a team photo and sketched. They were on four levels, ascending from those lying/sitting on the floor, to those seated, to those standing, to those standing on a bench behind. They were dressed in colourful tribal regalia. Then there was was a page of Europeans, a page of Africans and etc. I wondered where he’d taken them from, but I gave him the ‘sub’ anyway. For the longest time, I guess, he became Schwartz. Which is German for ‘Black’, of course!

There were also combinations of all the above pseudonyms. He was using Jimi Schwartz at one time. It may even have been me who separated the Edgar from the Jimmy and first called him Edgar. Anyway, he became Edgar in about 1965, and after that Edgar was my name for him. He always told you though, subtly, who he was at any time, and I’m sure he used to use his personas as demarcation points, almost like saying that he was now different than the last time you saw him. To subliminally try to lever you in one direction or another. Alter your mind about him. I once knew his actual family name, but I intentionally forgot it. It would have been insulting of me to have remembered it.

Edgar was one of the fixtures of my life. All my female companions often had to endure this character with megatons of pent-up emotion, hanging around for days on end with seemingly nothing to do except get in their hair. I can hear you laughing now, those of you who knew him. But he’d have wild conversations with me, sketch me while intensely informing me of a new way he’d discovered of making art more efficiently, and then occupy a sofa for the night. And then another night…

Some of them regarded him as a limpet, but he was a great if bizarre sounding board, and a conversation with Edgar took some unexpected twists that only he and I ever had a chance of following. If you were in the room with us it mightn’t have been for long, because we probably didn’t sound as though we were making much sense.

The fact that the space between the speech was loaded with all sorts of emotional information could sometimes lead to excluding some of the party. Speech where coded human feelings were being aired, stamped on, waded into, cried over, and swept under the mat of the next moment. We got stupid, we got deep, we got unimaginably ripped, embarrassed, withdrawn, reticent and then back into fellowship again.

Sometimes it would alternate between jest, childishness, deep rant, love of life and painful humility in the same sentence. It was hard to take for some of the less forgiving brethren. It was hard to take for us too. We’d often become too aware of each others foibles to want to share another moment with each other. And we didn’t, for a hour, or two, or a year or three; but then we did again: and it was the same again; all the way from exhilarating to disagreeable and back. We deserved each other…

He was a peaceful but wild animal who was forced to live outside of society by his restless inability to settle, either mentally or physically. He perhaps saw something of himself in the people he chose to paint. As though he was painting his momentarily desired alter ego all his life.

For me, his most memorable interruption occurred when he handed me a copy of a collage he’d made that featured a portrait of Geronimo with an 18th century pastoral English scene in the background. This background was a copy of a typical etching from a Victorian encyclopedia. He’d tinted it red, and added the same tones of paint to the Geronimo figure. The two together were incongruous, and yet the effect of the combination was to include each other, and to give me a visual account of plans I was already hatching.

How was I going to try to include and combine the whole of human emotion, character, endeavour, and way of life into one song? It was obviously going to be influenced by my own view of history and psychology, but how much of that influence could I honestly attribute to that of being a truly impartial witness? Could anyone ever be an impartial witness to life on Earth? How was I going to try to paint the biggest possible picture of humanity on any kind of a finite canvas? But there it was, on a piece of A4 card in front of me. There was the first step.. The resultant song was something I called ‘The Lords Prayer’. I was being provocative, but I was also humbled by it. And Edgar had been the catalyst.

I quickly saw that the face of Geronimo had two halves. One was full of animal cunning, the other was full of wisdom. Eventually, I had the sleeve designed to shed light on that, to expose a very natural human face. I split the front cover of the LP down the middle, splitting the life mask of myself in half. When the two halves were opened, it was easy to see that you could fold them round the back of the LP so that Geronimo’s face would join to reveal the picture that Edgar had given me together with the vision of how I saw it and the effect it had on me. (see pic of original ‘Lifemask’ LP sleeve in the gallery on the Jimmy Schwartz web page).

In the early twentieth century, when this photo of Geronimo was taken, that kind of revelation would not particularly have been of note, but sixty years later it was exactly the sort of thing that modern social scientists and people watchers were looking for. The character exposed. The thought often occurs to me that Edgar never.. but then again always.. knew what he was doing. Invariably he was actually lighting the blue touch paper just by throwing something onto the scales.

He used to call me ‘Master’, but in the end I wasn’t worthy of that, because as I got older and moved 500 miles away, I lost touch. More fixed in my own selfish headlong dash into the next thing that I’ve got to think about – – the next problem on the agenda. More fool me. I should be treating my oldest friends with the respect and time they deserve, in the way that they deserve it. (In any case, in the moment he believes he is, the master is automatically reduced to servitude).

I read the messages of condolence for a fallen hero on the web page his friends have built, only to discover that in his last years he went back to his Catholic Club. We never discussed religion. My critical views were obvious, and he understood. I had no reason to examine his. The eggshells of shattered adolescence were now powdered and on distant paths grown over. There was no need to walk over them again to test each other. We’d grown up in our separate ways and we both carried that silently in each others’ company. He was a very free spirit, and there was absolutely no need. On occasion, I’d make a joke about it, but the actual archeology remained in place. Not a critical stone was ever turned.

Apparently, in the last couple of years, he’d managed to find his birth certificate, and so, for the first time in his life he had some support in terms of benefit. What no one knew, apparently, was that he’d developed a heart condition, which isn’t a wonder, in view of the hardship of his life. The story goes that at the beginning of July 2012, he was in such pain one day with gout he’d developed as a result of a toe injury that his landlord persuaded him to get an ambulance to hospital. He went, but he’d mislaid the pills he was using for his heart condition that day.

I know what it’s like to arrive unannounced at a hospital. There are no records of you. No one knows what to do, and all the staff take care of business conservatively. He might have known what the pills were, but he was unlikely to have been given them without some sort of executive decision having to be made. They’d probably have taken blood, given him some paracetamol and waited till the morning. They were probably rushed off their feet, as usual. He died that night, at about 1:00 am., slipping quietly off the mortal coil almost unnoticed.

There was no one there for him. No one he knew. Not a friend to bid him farewell. Death comes quickly; especially for those who’ve put it off till the last minute. If I’d have known, I’d have travelled the 500 miles just to speak with him again. I was filming in West Cork with some journalist friends. I had no idea. None of his friends did really. Like one of them said to me, “On reflection, I find some peace in the knowledge that his passing has been rather in keeping with the way he chose to live his life”.

It’s some consolation for me to know that he found some solace towards the end of his days. The means are irrelevant. It’s maybe best that no one knew where he was in those last few days. At a time when all the world might cease to make any of the sense it previously had for some of us, it might not have done for him. We might have been out of place. After all, my memory of him is one of profound vitality. He was the best example of a philosopher-vagrant I ever personally knew.

Some kind of an aesthete of the west, and of the north. His type of presence can be seen as an ancient undercurrent in humanity that regular society ridicules and ignores, but it’s real enough. It’ll always be there to posit the thought of an alternative way of addressing life. Of living without a particularly resource invasive high tech culture, or the present need for the world to be chasing $£€ market fluctuations to bleed spreadsheet skim into offshore wells of habitat impoverishment.

The life of the itinerant artist/creator questions society, questions the mores of accepted normality. Is he/she forced into the margins of society by an innate mentality that was at one time considered a more useful mentality? Going well back into pre-history: before rows of nuclear family hutches were thrown up to house local wage-slave work forces. As far back as ancient Egypt and beyond, high society was always powered by virtual or actual slave labour. Few artists were really funded after Rome until the Renaissance; the real shaman was never ‘paid’.

Mental health is paramount, but still a taboo subject in X-Factor red-top world. Who’s mentally healthy? All of us? None of us? What criteria could we possibly use in order to judge mental health? How many who’ve fought in the front line of a bloody war can be regarded as temperamentally stable? Can a line between compos mentis and non compos mentis ever be precisely drawn? No, not in my opinion.

Edgar fought in a long series of battles to keep himself this side of pure fright. In the end, he won. He was too determined and proud not to. He somehow managed to remain functional in a dislocated world. When younger he was irritatingly needy, but always incredibly generous and strangely dignified by living below the bottom rung all his life. I’m perhaps a more organized version of what Edgar was, a sophisticated beggar.

Edgar will always have a very special place in my heart. His own place, where he and I will remain together for the rest of time. My own place, where he and I can occasionally wander around our own spontaneous folly, our own mystical coherence, at eternal leisure; uninterrupted by a superficial world we always battled with.

His last name for himself was Jimmy The Ghost. It was his last message to all of us who knew him, and a poignant one for me when I discovered that. In that elusive way, he was related to an earlier incarnation we both knew. What an edge he had. At once comedic, uncomfortable and beguiling. I’ll miss him, for all and ever. Well done Edgar. What a life!

James Irish Jimi Edgar Schwartz-Schmaltz, Jimmy The Ghost, artist-shaman, 1939-2012.