Ken Livingstone, eh? You can’t live with him, and you certainly can live without him.
There’s an apocryphal tale told about his first period as Mayor of London which, I suspect, has grown with the telling.
On coming into office, as an indication of his Internationalist credentials he instructed a Labour sidekick to arrange an exhibition of the work of Nigerian rural artists.
When none could be found in London, he sent a team to Nigeria to round up the best of them and bring them back to display their work.
Unfortunately, Ken’s emissaries were told, at the highest level, that there was no such thing as country artists in Nigeria. Appalled, the new Mayor ordered his people to bring back a dozen Nigerian actors to play the parts.
“What about the pictures?” he was asked by his incredulous sherpa. “We’ll think of something,” replied the optimistic Livingstone.
Eventually, a group of actors, accountants and farm labourers duly arrived at Heathrow, fitted out in smart, dark suits. “Suits,” yelled the Mayor, “they’re supposed to be rural artists from Africa! Get them down to the theatrical outfitters in Monmouth Street.”
When the hapless underling presented them to the costumiers, he was in luck … or so he thought. “We’ve got just the thing,” said the attendant. “The D’Oyly Carte has just finished a production of The Mikado and all the costumes have been returned to us.” A white-faced emissary reluctantly agreed to take them.
Meanwhile, the Mayor had arranged a smart black-tie reception, including the pick of the London arts establishment as well as top broadsheet art journalists. It was intended to be a glittering occasion to launch his mayoralty with a bang.
“What are we going to do for art?” demanded his despondent aide de camp. “I’m sure you can find something in the junk shops,” says his nibs, “Or just give them some oil paints and make them daub stuff on big canvases. If schoolkids can do it, I’m sure a bunch of accountants and farmers can.”
The day of the reception at City Hall arrived. The great and the good were shepherded into the grand hall where a remarkable sight awaited them. Splodges of paint splashed all over the walls were running down onto the sprung parqued floor. “I’m afraid they got drunk,” said the aide, “I couldn’t stop them. They just went beserk.”
“Well, they are country artists,” says Ken to the startled art critics. “And here they come!”
Into the hall, in single file, staggered ten drunken Nigerians dressed as characters from The Mikado.
Now I’m sure that story has been embroidered mightily, but Reader, I suggest it’s too bizarre to be made up.