I met Fairnie somewhere round the back of Richard Nicholson (or was it Rupert Loydell?) sometime in the very early 90’s. Everyone I knew, even his wife Bev, called him Fairnie, his surname, never by his first name Steve. By the time I met him he was into his second, ‘quieter’ career as a teacher of art at a local college. I knew nothing of his first, except that he had been in twenty-six bands and had had a minor hit in the 80’s with a cover of Marlene Dietrich’s Falling in Love Again. I learned later that one of these bands had been called Famous Names. The Fairnie I knew was resolutely not a household name, though I think in his own circle he believed he was famous to everybody. He once quipped that the only thing he didn’t like about himself was his inability to make money. But, as our mutual friend Martin Wroe wrote after his funeral, he was a millionaire in the currency of friendship.
Picture a more pointy Chaplin and you have him. He used this likeness to good effect in the children’s TV programme The Kid, where his talent for wordless suggestion, and not-quite-goofy mime, like Chaplin’s, came to the fore. I have a moustache and I am going to use it, he seemed to say, whether in company or in front of the camera. I remember him sighing at the dinner table, a forest of bottles in front of him, and lifting one eyebrow. The effect of which silenced then reduced us to giggles. Those twin impulses -mournfulness sprinkled with mirth (definitely not the other way round)- characterised everything he did: his gestural way, like a Noh play, of making coffee; doing magic tricks for his kids; the way he planted his feet at 45º precisely when standing to talk to someone. When he died -one day after his forty-second birthday, of an asthma attack- they said he owned one good pair of shoes.
For someone I knew so briefly, two and a half years at the most, I have a lot to thank him for. Taking me to one side at a party, it was he who first suggested I sent my poems to Rupert at Stride: ‘I like you being a poet,’ he said. ‘Much more interesting than being in a band.’ ‘But I want to do both,’ I said. ‘Do one thing,’ he said, waving his hand. I took this to mean the discussion was over -which it was, he was already air-kissing someone else- but also some kind of divine providence entering my life, like those old National Lottery ads with the finger of God breaking through the clouds and blessing you with unearned riches. Years later I wondered about the implications of his statement in terms of his own life, as though he regarded being in a band as somehow obvious, entry level. Perhaps he meant it as admonishment. Perhaps he didn’t. As with so much of his talk, it lived on the edge of seriousness, a merging of the aphoristic, the pop-cultural, and the completely left field. It occurs to me now he might have been directing it at himself: ‘Do one thing.’
It is good not to go through life with regrets, but thinking about Fairnie puts this severely to the test. I would have loved for him so see us become parents. On one level this is entirely selfish: when he died my wife was three months pregnant with our first child, a girl. Had she been a boy (Fairnie warned us he was ‘better with boys’) we had pencilled him in to be godfather. It is for this reason our son carries Fairnie among his middle names. But more, I wanted to catch him from the corner of my eye wincing, one hand stroking his chin like a Bond-villain, his free arm across his chest like a slip fielder, while I struggled to change a nappy. Or did a bedtime story. And I would love to know what what he would have made of the internet. He seemed the most modern person I have ever known, as at home discussing the rejection of the Cartesian dialectic in the work of La La La Human Steps as he was pulling cracker jokes from his suit at children’s parties. He once told me in complete seriousness that Songs of Praise was his desert island programme -he liked the tradition of it, he said- before beginning a riff on how it needed to be more right brain. And from there an even longer riff on his theory of lost socks, which he believed collected in a layer just below the earth’s crust. He was a deeply serious man, but his gift was never to lace it with solemnity.
Hidden in plain view, Fairnie was also an extraordinary artist. Letting us into his basement studio-cave was the only time I saw him lost for words, as though the seriousness of his enterprise in there -remarkable dark abstracts that were like looking into the void and seeing the void winking back at you (one, based on a family joke, had ‘God=Ken’ scrawled on it)- suddenly confronted him as he witnessed us entering its force field for the first time. We knew nothing, except that this was the real thing. ‘How long did these take, Steve?’ we asked. ‘My whole life,’ he said. Reddening, he coughed, waved his hand at our gushing, and shuffled out, leaving us with his canvases, again the only time I saw him prepared to let someone else do the talking.
I take perverse pleasure in the way that, for such a visual person, he mostly lives on in my language. In my son’s name; but also in his jokes. Not having seen him for a while you would begin with the usual ‘How are you?’ only for the enquiry to be thrust back at you with interest. ‘As well as can be expected under a Conservative government.’ I also loved his habit of signalling disapproval by merging dates with place names. Not for him the catch-all inaccuracy of ‘So 1980’s’ or, worse, ‘So last century!’: ‘It’s a little bit Camden Market 1983, luvvie.’ Knowing that he knew what he was talking about, he expected you to, too.
In the book of condolences that we signed at his graveside I wrote: ‘You taught me not to be cynical’. While I think that still holds true, I would now add: ‘You taught me to notice’. Into which category I would put everything: pollution, politicians, music, art, photography, theology, dance, and neuroscience. I think about him most weeks. And yet for someone who made such an impact on my life (everyone he knew would say the same), I knew him well enough to know that we were not close. I think only Bev and his children, and perhaps a clutch of musicians, really knew him well. (Perhaps not even those musicians.) Like the freezing air at one of his back door cigarettes, he sucked in myths. Was he really the unofficial world record holder for hypnotising chickens? Did he really have a stand-up comedy alter ego called Cliff Richard’s Love Child? He told us he did, but again, I can’t be sure.
Steve Fairnie, 21 February 1951-22 February 1993
THIS IS NOT A REHEARSAL: A celebratory retrospective of the artwork of Steve Fairnie
Friday 29th April (7pm-10pm)
Saturday 30th April (10am-4pm)
Sunday 1st May (10am-4pm)
37 Coate Street, London E2 9AG
(Nearest tube stations: Cambridge Heath, Bethnal Green, Hoxton and Shoreditch High Street)