Arthur the Lighthouse Keeper
A Guiding Light
Arthur the Lighthouse Keeper once told me a story, supposedly from his childhood.
He said he arrived at the front door of his auntie’s house having been invited over for dinner. After pressing the bell and waiting for longer than usual, the door was opened by his aunt who had tears streaming down her face. ‘What on earth is the matter?’ Arthur inquired. His Aunt replied, that during the meal preparation she’d sent his uncle down the garden path to pick some runner beans. She said he got halfway down the path and suddenly dropped dead. ‘Oh, my God!’ Arthur said ‘what are you going to do?’. ‘Well, I guess I’m going to have to open a can of peas’, was her reply.
This was so typical of any interaction with Arthur. There would always be a punchline. He was hilarious, but would also sow chaos at any given opportunity. He was what I would call a real wind-up merchant. I’ve witnessed this on many occasions, for instance, a quick stroll down the road and he bumps into old Mrs Lewis. ‘Morning Arthur, where are you off to’ she says. ‘Just heading to the butcher to get a nice bit of tongue; I really fancy some red meat for dinner’. ‘Ooooh’, she replies, ‘I couldn’t eat anything from an animal’s mouth’. Arthur’s response. ‘Do you like eggs?’.
By all accounts this wicked sense of humour began in early childhood. He told me that as a child his mother would often invite a couple of wealthy, posh and rather obnoxious women over for dinner. On one of these particular occasions Arthur’s pet dog kept pawing at one of the guest’s chair legs. ‘This wretched dog keeps pestering me’, the woman said, angrily. Much to his mother’s annoyance, Arthur replied. ‘I’m not surprised, you’ve got his plate!’.
Arthur was head keeper for Trinity House and in the early days spent two months on the light and came ashore off-duty for one month at a time. Latterly this became one month on and one month off, before lighthouses became fully automated in 1998. He always told us that sleeping in a lighthouse was uncomfortable because the beds followed the curve of the structure and you’d wake up like a banana. He told us many stupid things when I think about it, but we all loved him as Uncle Arthur. Whenever he came to visit our cul-de-sac in Carshalton, all the kids would come running out, ‘it’s Uncle Arthur, it’s Uncle Arthur!’. He was like the pied piper but in a Lighthouse Keeper’s uniform.
My brother, my cousins and I would all bundle into his car and he’d take us to Woolworth where he’d buy us mountains of sweets from their pic ‘n’ mix section (I should be typing candies as I’m in America, but you get my drift). He always used the same trick in the car, making it lurch back ‘n’ forth using the clutch, and tell us that it was full of kangaroo petrol, then we’d all get home with our haul and divvy them out amongst the four of us. He was an enigma who smelled of Brut aftershave and cigarettes, and he joked and laughed incessantly.
We all wondered how he became such an integral part of the family, because we weren’t related in any way, so we began to assume he’d adopted us. One day in the pub, after we’d become drinking age, we asked him why he’d chosen such a solitary vocation, and if he’d ever considered marriage. He replied that he could never decide whether it was better to go through life wanting something he couldn’t have, or having something he didn’t want! My cousin Robert then asked him if he was immortal. Arthur laughed his hearty laugh and asked why we would think that. ‘Well’, said Robert, ‘You were originally friends with our great grandfather. You then befriended his daughter and her husband (our grandparents), then you started hanging out and drinking with our own parents, and now you’re in a pub drinking with us! That’s not exactly usual is it?’
While I’m on the subject of Arthur and pubs, somewhere he spent a good few hours per day when ashore, he told us of an occasion when he was sitting at the bar enjoying a quiet pint, and the door was flung open by a rather unpleasant local. The man strolled in, went straight over to Arthur and slapped him on his bald head. He said in a rather loud voice ‘wa-haaay!!!… y’know, your head feels just like my wife’s arse!’. The place fell deadly silent, and Arthur very calmly reached up and put his own hand on his head and fumbled around a bit, then said, ‘yeah it does, doesn’t it!’. The whole place roared with laughter and made the loathsome guy look like a right plonker.
When I was in my teens, Arthur had invited my mum, dad, brother and I to stay in his caravan, located on-site in an orchard at the back of a pub in a little village called Oundle. Pubs are obviously a recurring theme here… anyway, I remember vividly the moment we arrived after a very long journey on a stormy, rain drenched night, and ventured into the pub to find Arthur. He had the keys to the caravan, and after welcoming us, led us by torchlight through the orchard in the pouring rain, to arrive at a ridiculously tiny caravan big enough for one small person and handed us the keys. After my mum fumbled around with the lock he burst out laughing… another complete wind-up! Then led us to the real thing, a six berth caravan which was thankfully big enough for us all.
Arthur would always regale us with stories from his rather eventful life. The time a visitor to the lighthouse decided to commit suicide and fling herself onto the rocks below. How he’d had to pull shipwrecked bodies out of the ocean as his fingers sank through their sodden flesh like jelly. The time he’d rescued a young woman from a sacrificial altar during a bizarre ceremony in the forest, and as he drove her back into town, realized that the woman in the passenger seat was actually stark naked. How he’d mistakenly taken a sip of coffee meant for his friend, later realizing that it had been spiked with LSD, as his curtains turned to serpents, and he watched the blood rushing through the veins in his hands.
As I got older, I would go and stay at his keepers cottage in Devon for short breaks, and he’d welcome me to bring my pals and girlfriends over the years, which I did. He’d take us out fishing and teach me how to gut a fish, he’d also show us around the lighthouse which was not far from his cottage. There were always stories about living offshore and how one of his crew had lost the end of his finger in the machinery that turns the light. By all accounts, as the man’s severed finger dropped to the floor, he reached down to get it in the hope of having it re-attached, but the lighthouse cat suddenly appeared and ran off with it in its mouth. He never did retrieve it, and whenever anyone asked him how he’d lost his finger he’d say, ‘The bloody cat had it!’.
On one particular visit, my traveling companion decided to smoke a joint on the coach journey there and arrived pretty stoned. One of the first questions she asked Arthur was if he’d ever caught people trying to smuggle drugs in a kind of ‘coastguard’ kind of way. He replied that he wouldn’t know what they were even if he saw them. She then said, ‘Oh, would you like to see some?’ and pulled out a huge bag of sensimilla. I’m like, FFS!!! no, no, no, no, not my uncle Arthur, but he just gave it a look and said ‘Go on then, roll one up!’ I think he was bluffing.
There was a bit of a mystical quality to Arthur. He’d always impart wisdom and tell me how to take heed of intuition. He’d say there was a little man inside you that you need to take notice of when he tells you things. He related to me that one day, he and the crew were finally preparing to come ashore after being delayed by terrible storms. They were all on the rocks waiting impatiently for the boat to arrive, and he suddenly had a warning, by what he called ‘this little man’. He immediately told everyone to get back inside the lighthouse. The reluctant crew members started complaining that they just wanted to go home, but with his orders, they finally did so only seconds before a massive wave hit the rocks. This would certainly have killed them all. They never questioned him after that.
Another time he climbed into his car to find the seatbelt laying across the drivers seat. He never used a belt, in those days it wasn’t a law, but he said the voice told him to give it a try. This he did, and was involved in a terrible accident, but thankfully saved by the belt.
I’m forever grateful for the advice Arthur gave me at the age of ten. I’d just been released back home after a longish stay in a children’s hospital ward for mental illness, something called severe obsessional neurosis. I know people don’t like to admit to this kind of thing, but I don’t really see it as a stigma, because I got better and I learned a lot, thanks to an amazing child psychiatrist called Doctor Winifred Kroke. I might write about it at some point because the whole experience was incredibly strange but enlightening, a kind of juvenile version of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Anyway, part of the deal for me to be allowed back home was that my mother was to dispose of all of my American comics. This was probably down to the influence of the book, Seduction of the Innocent by Fredric Wertham, a supposedly scientific investigation into the effects that comic books have on the minds and behavior of children who come into contact with them. Arthur took me aside and said ‘What’s all this about comics then?’ So I opened my comics cupboard and showed him a copy of Conan the Barbarian. He asked me why I liked them so much, and I told him that one day I wanted to work in comics. He flicked through it and a few of the others, and said, ‘Well I don’t see anything wrong with them. If that’s what you want to do, you go ahead and do it. Don’t listen to them.’ In retrospect, the fact that an adult, and someone I respected immensely told me this, gave me license to do just that, and the fact I’ve now been working in the comics business for forty years is testament to that piece of canny advice and encouragement from Arthur the Lighthouse Keeper.
The last time I saw Arthur was when he visited me and my bedsit in Bayswater, London, just down the road from where I worked at Marvel UK. It was the height of summer and after we’d had a decent lunch in one of the local restaurants with some of my work pals, we were sitting watching a VHS video that I’d recorded off the tv. I can’t remember what exactly it was, but I had to nip out for a half hour to pick something up from a neighborhood friend. I left Arthur there in front of the telly, and he subsequently dozed off. As I climbed the stairs on my return, I could hear his familiar laugh coming from my room. Wondering what had set him off I entered the room, and he told me that he’d woken in shock to a weather forecast for imminent snow. It was only after he’d looked out of the window that he realized it was a tape recording, and not live television. That was the last time I saw him.
I had planned to go and visit Arthur, after he’d invited me back to Devon in one of his regular letters, but life and work got in the way and I didn’t get around to it; then one dreadful day I received a phone call to tell me he’d been found dead in his car halfway up the cliff from his lighthouse. I felt absolutely floored, as did my entire family, and we all took the trip to Devon for his funeral. Despite the solemn occasion, he definitely had the last laugh, because people were trying to stifle their giggles as the pall bearers struggled to carry his rather large coffin through the much smaller doorway of the church, reminiscent of some bizarre comedy sketch.
Months later and completely unrelated, my friend and Marvel Comics colleague John Tomlinson and I thought we’d go and visit a medium called Margaret Pearson at the famous Spiritualist Association in Belgrave Square. By all accounts she was very good, so out of curiosity we both booked separate readings and went along. She was a lovely old lady, very serious with an incredibly strong northern accent. In 1986 the internet didn’t exist, so there’s no way someone could ‘google’ a client, but at the beginning of my reading she said ‘I see you working in magazines young man,’ which was pretty darned accurate, because at the time I was art editor of Marvel’s Doctor Who magazine. She also said ‘Do you take photographs young man?, because I see you surrounded by press photographers.’ This didn’t seem so accurate until it came to mind six months later, during a location visit for Doctor Who. As I raised my trusty Nikon FM to photograph Colin Baker and Nicola Bryant, I realized I was indeed surrounded by a dozen or so press photographers. She had been right about that after all, and in the months that followed it became even more evident, as I attended many other press calls for the show.
Anyway, back to the bit that really freaked me out… she said ‘Oh, I sense a presence young man; a rather large fellow, with a bit of a belly, wearing what looks like a naval uniform. He’s laughing, and I can tell that he’s a bit of a bohemian, does that make any sense?’ Of course it made sense, but I continued with my skepticism until she started talking about drugs, which I was really not expecting from this nice old Northern lady. ‘He says to tell you it’s alright to smoke, but don’t inject young man, do you understand?’ I understood perfectly. Arthur had always stressed that very thing. To him, smoking a joint was acceptable in a ‘God made grass, who do you trust?’ kind of way. This was the guy who gave me a copy of the Furry Freak Brothers comic when I was eleven, and always had a bag of home grown whenever I visited with friends, but what really shocked me was her next question, which came completely out of the blue.
‘Do you take photographs of naked ladies, young man? …because he tells me you do.’
I was horrified! and so embarrassed to be asked such a question by her. I thought to myself ‘you bloody wind-up merchant!’ It has to be Arthur, this is just typical of the sort of thing he’d do. After my bright red face had returned to its normal pallor, she told me that in the future there would be an event that involved a lightbulb, and when that situation occurred, he’d be there.
A few years later in life, I had a mortgage and an apartment in an old converted church in London’s East End. I’d arrived home after celebrating the publication of some photographs in a rather nice coffee table book. I walked into my office, flicked the light switch and the bulb dropped out of the ceiling lamp and bounced across the floor. With the medium’s words suddenly springing to mind, I found myself standing there in complete darkness staring at the corner of the room. Out of character for me, I immediately felt incredibly calm, because I really don’t like the dark, but I either imagined it, or I felt the presence of Arthur the Lighthouse Keeper. I started laughing, and I felt in that moment that all was right with the world.
My next photographic art project was to be shown at a gallery just off London’s Tottenham Court Road. I called it Alternity, and I dedicated it to Arthur the Lighthouse Keeper, Time Traveler and Mentor. The photo I used was one of him as a cheeky looking boy. The reason it’s in two pieces is because Arthur tore it in half and threw it in the bin after showing me many years ago. I asked why he’d done that and he said, ‘What do I need that old photo for?’ Anyway, I rescued it, and here it is.
Arthur always signed his letters with ‘To the mild and bitter end’. We all miss him, and I guess he wasn’t immortal, but I’m pretty sure I hear his infectious laughter every now and again.
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I LOVE your Uncle Arthur stories...how blessed you were to have him in your life! Thank you for sharing him with us!
Excellent post Steve. Sad to say I never met Arthur, but I now feel as if I have!