Eileen McHugh - a life remade

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We shared photographs of the trio’s life in Muswell Hill. The end of the nineteen-sixties was an era when photography was an expensive hobby, so there were very few, no more than twenty, pictures of their shared social life. What did still exist, however, was a folio of work Linda did in her second year, when she enrolled on a photography elective as part of her degree. She shot three rolls of film with Eileen as her subject in poses that ranged from fashion magazine to pornography.

The contrast between the Linda in the photographs and the Linda of the present, some thirty-five years later, could not be greater. She was already retired, taking an early option at sixty, having completed thirty years as an art teacher in six schools. She looked both tired and worn, her face heavily lined, contrasting fundamentally with the almost carefree, unruffled blandness of the student that Eileen knew. The full female figure had disappeared into a rotund, amorphous, almost anonymous collection of flesh that randomly adhered to a bone structure that was no longer evident. The house was conventional to the extent of cliché and frankly displayed little evidence of the art she had continued to produce. She had stopped smoking in her forties and gained weight she never lost. Her breathing still offered a slight wheeze and she coughed enough to convince me of her COPD. Let’s hear Linda’s own recollections.

When the three of us moved into that flat we were all naive. I was older, but, if anything, I was less confident, less assertive... I was already with Alan, of course, so we were a bit like the parents with a couple of teenagers in tow. But we were never really conscious of that at the time; it’s only later that you realize these things. Eileen was the one with the energy, Charlotte forever the mystic, which meant she often slept in. The fact we were so different made us closer, less likely to compete. And when the others went frankly quite weird, I simply retreated into the relationship with Alan, who always kept my feet on the ground. We were together for ten years and had two kids. We didn’t get married. That perhaps was my own rather pathetic act of revolt. All I wanted was to get one over on my mum and dad, whom I considered at the time to be so boringly conventional that I had to achieve something defiant. It was a mistake.

The others, it seemed to me, were always trying to be artists, trying too hard to be artists - at least to conform with some idealized version of what an artist should be, something that had coalesced from all the images and satires they had explored. The two of them used to sit up late at night in their room, drinking, smoking and talking about what it must be to be an artist, what an artist’s experience ought to be, how an artist ought to relate to the world... and all that crap. It was a problem for us, Alan and me, because we were in the next room trying to go to sleep. It was often quite ironic, because there we were in bed on one side of the wall trying to get to sleep, arguing with one another about exactly whose turn it was to get up and tell them to be quiet, whilst what filtered through to us was Eileen and Charlotte’s conversation about what we might be doing in bed. Irony...

And Alan was working, of course. He had to be up at seven, breakfasted and dressed before eight and on the bus by half past. His office didn’t open until nine-thirty, but he was the manager and had to be there to let the rest of them in. He couldn’t be late, because he had the keys to the shop. So, when Eileen and Charlotte were getting merrier by the minute at midnight - as was often the case, especially in those early months - one of us simply had to go in and ask them to be quiet. The two of them started to call us mummy and daddy at one point and Alan went ballistic to make sure that it didn’t become a habit. Later, of course, it went quieter earlier next door, but sometimes still got louder later on, if you see what I mean. By then, we were definitely not going to go in and tell them to be quiet!

I really never understood Eileen’s work. She seemed to be able to talk about it for as long as she had breath. Every item she assembled had a significance that could be identified, described, illustrated and justified. It often took her an hour to explain just the context of what she had done. And after the hour, you weren’t any the wiser. But then when she showed you the object, it was something that was barely worth a glance - and she would often change it on the spot, despite having spent the last couple of hours defending its form. It was quite strange... And she was defensive about her work. She did not want to hear criticism, unless it came from herself.

As for Charlotte’s work, the less said the better... At the start of the course, she spent her time copying the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists. She seemed to be trying to impersonate Cezanne. Then she changed, consciously changed. It was all fad, pop culture, fashion and cult. Anything that was being talked about she did, she reproduced. When David Bowie was in, it was coloured lightning flashes and Ziggy Stardust. When she went to see the Rothkos in the Tate, she was into colour field. After a trip to the National she would go Renaissance for a week. She was all over the place. She had no style at all, artistically or personally. I never understood what Eileen saw in her, but they became very close.

They did share the jazz clubs, of course. I could never understand what they saw in it. I went with them a couple of times, but for me it was just noisy, pretentious claptrap. But in some ways, it was like Eileen’s work, bits and pieces of junk, thrown away and reassembled so people could talk about it.

Frankly, if you are looking for information on whereabouts or things personal, I can’t tell you much about either of them. After the first few weeks in our flat, we lived our separate lives. Yes, we went to the same college and shared a flat for a year and a half. But in college, we were generally working at our own individual projects, and after college I spent all my time with Alan and a group of friends we already had before I started the course. They were a few years older, like me, mid to late twenties. It’s amazing, looking back, how different we were from the younger set. And Eileen and Charlotte became the complete couple, even aggressively so. They became inseparable, impenetrable, even closed. They had their own world, which was jazz. They visited galleries together, much more than the rest of us and even took to visiting one another’s parents. No… wait… Eileen did go to see Charlotte’s parents a couple of times, because I met them myself when they came to see the flat, but I don’t think Charlotte ever went to Yorkshire, certainly not during the year and a half when we were sharing.

Anyway, they did their own thing, became increasingly separated, certainly from the two of us, but also from other students on the course. They seemed to regard themselves as a cut above the rest of us, something special, even precious.

It was during the second year when they decided to do their summer trip. I don’t know where they got the money from. Because they smoked and drank, paid entrance fees at their jazz clubs, and still had enough to go on holiday. Maybe they were selling dope as well as using it… I don’t know.

It seemed that planning their trip became their sole activity. They started talking about it soon after Christmas. By the end of that term they had some clearer ideas and it seemed to occupy both of them full-time throughout the third term to get things finalised. Which is why, of course, they both had problems in college. It is so obvious now, from this distance, but at the time all three of us were shocked, for some reason. Charlotte did scrape through in the end.

Alan and I were utterly pissed off by then. We were living in one room and the two of them had the big room across the front of the building. Originally, they had it subdivided, so they could each have their own space. But after only a few weeks, they had completely rearranged it so that they effectively had their own little sitting room. And they didn’t usually invite the two of us to share it. We had to ask!

I suppose we couldn’t have predicted when we moved in that the two of them would get along so well. But what they had organised in their space was selfish. Alan got angry and he used to take it out on me. So it would have been at the end of the second term in our second year, March or April, seventy-two, that we had our heart-to-heart. Alan did most of the talking, I recall. He told them that we were not renewing the lease, that from July we would be living in our own place.

We were giving them a good three months’ notice, so they could easily have advertised in college to find a third person to share the rent, but they did nothing other than complain about us. Eileen was pretty abrupt but said very little. Charlotte talked for ages but didn’t seem to accept that things had to change.

We did move out in the June. The other two had not yet found anyone to move in. I think they hadn’t even mentioned it to anyone, let alone advertised. I recall Charlotte saying they had decided to think things through over the summer while they were travelling. They basically had three options. One was to keep the flat and find a third person, by whatever means they chose. They were worried about advertising in case they got someone who didn’t fit in with their lifestyle. But both of them thought that it would be easier to find someone in the September, after the new intake had arrived. Eileen was convinced there would be others like herself who had taken a room with a landlady and who would want something different.

Their second option was to keep the flat just for the two of them. This was their preferred option, because then they could use the big room at the front just as a living room and have our smaller room for sleeping, or whatever they did when they were in bed. The third option was to find somewhere new, just for the two of them.

Unfortunately, options two and three involved paying extra rent. Obviously, our place was fifteen quid a week, so they would have had to find an extra two-fifty each. But places for two people were marginally more expensive per person, because when couples are involved, it’s a different market from the larger shares. They looked at a couple of places, but the only one they found at less than fifteen quid a week was itself twelve quid, and by all accounts it was poky in the extreme, not much more than a bedsit, less than half the size of what we already had.

They spent a lot of time doing their sums. I suggested they cancel their trip to save money, but they would have none of it. They were going to need an extra hundred and thirty quid or so to renew the lease for another year. In London, you had to take the full year, because the landlords didn’t want the places empty over the summer during the break and they could always call the shots because there were so few suitable places available. Now that was a lot of money to find. A year’s grant was only four hundred quid in those days, and that had to cover all costs out of college, including books. We never bought books, by the way.

I did ask them what they planned to do, because Alan and I wanted to start moving things out by the time we got to the start of June. I can remember it well, because I had clearly hit a raw nerve. And we ended up having a real slanging match. We never got on well after that day. There was always a friction.

Charlotte said they were going to explore staying put, but they would have to clear it with their parents, who would have to cough up the extra money. They had already been to Charlotte’s parents in Pinner and had the OK from them. Eileen did not plan to visit the north until the end of term, just before they were due to go on holiday. She said nothing about her having to stay in college, about her not having enough time because she was still trying to finish the work for her assessment. So Alan and I had already moved out before their plans were finalised.

Of course, I saw neither of them until the new term started at the end of the following September. I met Charlotte, almost in passing, on the first day of that new term and said hello. Her reaction made it clear that something had gone badly wrong. All she would say was that their trip had proved ultimately disappointing, that she was thinking of taking a year off, that Eileen had failed the course and would not be coming back to college. Charlotte did take that year off and that was the last I saw or heard of either of them.

I think Charlotte did go back and finish the course, but by that time I have already completed my third year, so I cannot be sure.

Linda drew a line under our contact. She said she had moved on, and that she could add no more. I offered to travel to Milton Keynes to meet her, but she declined, repeating that she had nothing else she could add.

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