Meet 'The Real Liam Gallagher', the 79-Year-Old Irish Artist Tackling Ageism in the Art World
His exhibition, "No Need to Shout", is the result of eight months of collaboration with his artist grandson, Scottee.
Like a number of artists, The Real Liam Gallagher is a recovering alcoholic. Unlike most artists, he's a working class Irish grandfather who's only just learned how to write. At 79 years old, he's also one of 2015's most exciting new voices.
Liam's grandson Scottee meets me outside his house, explaining that his grandfather is frail today. One step over the threshold and I'm hit by a three-generational flurry of voices. "Ooooo, I love your top," says one. "Isn't she pretty, Grandad?" offers another. "Do you want cake or a sandwich?" asks the last.
There's Scottee, a 28-year-old artist, fat activist and writer; his mum, Sarah; and his grandma, Mary. Sarah and Mary are readying themselves for a trip to Brent Cross to buy a bread bin. Then there's granddad Liam, who's working on his first art exhibition. The show is the result of the past eight months, in which Scottee has been teaching Liam how to become an artist in an attempt to help him tackle ageism, both in the art world and in wider society.
Liam, Scottee and I sit in the kitchen with cups of tea and a platter of M&S biscuits. Liam has a gravelly Gaelic ascent, which Scottee is going to help translate. I ask him what we can expect from his show.
"You want to know?"
"A lot of dirty pictures."
Scottee asks him what he's been drawing. "Sheep. A lot of sheep." Liam looked after sheep as a child in Donegal, Ireland. At 5AM he would be hiding behind a bush, keeping an eye on the mother. If she was in trouble, he'd help her.
"My mother died in childbirth. Four of us were taken away," he says, explaining that his adoptive family were local dignitaries with money. "[The adoptive dad] gave nothing to the poor people. He wouldn't give a bale of hay to the next-door neighbour for a cow." So Liam stole the hay and gave it to them, but was caught. "He knocked the shit out of me. He'd say to his wife, 'Annie, I'm sorry that he wasn't put in the coffin with his own mother.'"
At 15, Liam ran away. He'd gone to the local dance, but because they considered him of a lower class he wasn't allowed in. The adoptive dad and local priest were acting as doormen, with a big basket of entrance money. After they'd stopped him from entering, Liam flipped, pushed them over, took the money and ran. He walked nine miles to Derry with the money from the dance and got the boat over to Glasgow.
"The next-door neighbour told me: 'There's nothing here for you. All you'll be doing is milking cows all your life, for nothing,'" says Liam. "So I took off for Scotland."
The people on the boat knew his real father, a man called "The Giant".
"No surrender!" shouts Liam, with a fist pump. It turns out The Giant was a member of the original IRA.
In Scotland, Liam was a tunnel digger on hydroelectric schemes. "Good fun, that was. I was a strong boy for 15, 'cause I sucked the eggs."
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Scottee explains that Liam's adoptive family wouldn't feed him in the same way they fed their own children. So he would make a small hole in the eggs and suck the egg through raw, meaning he accidentally put himself on this high protein diet. "Do you want to tell Deborah what they did when they caught you?" asks Scottee.
"I still feel guilty for that. It wasn't to do with the dog." Liam's voice cracks. "They drowned him, and if they'd caught me I would have been with him, down the river." His hands do the motion of a flowing river. At this point, Mary walks into the kitchen to take the cake away in case it melts. Scottee looks at me, rolling his eyes: "Cake melts in this house!"
Liam met Mary in Glasgow, even though they had grown up just miles from each other. She was from a slightly more well-to-do area. Scottee explains they were all poor, but Mary was the " Keeping Up Appearances to Liam's Royle Family". In the 1950s, people were leaving Ireland in their droves because there was no money. Eventually the pair moved to London.
"I lived with this black man – nice man," he says. "I loved the black people. I told them, 'cause I worked with them, 'You're good people.'" One of Liam's pieces of work is the recreation of a sign he saw when he moved to London: "No Blacks, No Irish."
I ask him if he ever talked to any of the men he worked with about these signs. "No, never – the black man nor me. I don't think we had the education to do that. The funny thing about that – who had them up? The Irish themselves!" The Irish who had come the generation before.
While Liam and his friends in the 50s didn't analyse their oppression in quite the same way we would now, that doesn't mean they didn't take action. "When you were paid on a Friday in them days, we used to show one another our payslips," he says. I'm shocked. Today, talking pay is taboo. "Oh aye, no messing about, and if I was short the black man would get the timekeeper by the throat: 'Where's Liam's money?' And if they were short we'd get the timekeeper and be, 'Where's the black man's money?'"
I ask Liam if he's still a Catholic. "Oh aye, aye."
Scottee interrupts. "Granddad, we've had conversations where you've told me you don't really believe in it any more. When me and James got married, we couldn't in the Catholic church because they consider us to be sinners. How does that make you feel?"
"I'd cut their head off. Fucking simple as that."
In contrast to her husband, Mary would light candles when Scottee was growing up, praying that he wouldn't be gay. "I was very particular about how I dressed, which gave the game away," says Scottee. "My mum was going to the Black Cat before I was born, so she was quite queer-aware. I think she was preparing for quite a frosty reception. But we're OK."
He turns to Liam. "When I told you I was gay you couldn't care less."
"No. Jesus, no."
"We have a special bond me and granddad; we're not just grandfather and grandson, we're best friends."
Scottee and his husband are carers for Liam, and it was while caring for him that Scottee had the inspiration for this project. He noticed a shift on the 24 bus. "It's a bus we've always got. It takes them to hospital, it takes them to their favourite place, Camden Town. Throughout my childhood, granddad joked and talked to people [on there], and they would talk back and joke with him. Then I started to notice that the older he got, the more he became invisible."
Scottee saw people push past Liam: "They would ignore him."
Scottee continues: "My nan definitely noticed it, but because he's such an endless optimist, he was like, 'Oh well, some people talk to you, some people don't.' I wanted to find a way of giving him a voice, making him the most un-ignorable character. And also for him to see what it's like to be an older person."
Scottee knows this sounds odd. To show an old person what it's like to be old, to burst his granddad's optimistic bubble. "I just want him to be fully aware of the world around him," he says. "Our relationship has always been based on truth. He's got so many great stories, and people identify with him as an immigrant. I want to give a him a voice, and the only way I know how to do that is through art.
"I'm aware of how ageist the art world is, always looking for the new young [star]. Where does that leave older voices? So one day I just said to him, 'Do you want to learn how to be an artist?' He said, 'Yeah, alright!'"
What did you think, Liam? Of becoming an artist?
"I thought it was great."
Scottee laughs. "Dont lie."
Liam looks at us both. "What is an artist anyway?"
"Exactly," nods Scottee.
As they open up the sketch books and Scottee asks Liam what he wants to write or draw, death comes up: "Once a man, twice a boy."
Liam tells me about the "Pampers" he has to wear. He loves the NHS. It saved his life when he needed a heart operation. These days, he's in and out now he's frailer. We turn the pages of the notebook. "THE NHS ARE KEEPING ME ALIVE," says one page.
"Oh aye," says Liam. "Oh aye."
" Liam Gallagher: No Need to Shout" opens to the public tomorrow at Grandad's Gallery, 25 Cheriton, Queens Crescent, NW5 4EZ. The show is open until the 30th of May, from noon until 7PM each day.
Original framed artwork, prints and merchandise are on sale, so bring some cash, because there are no card machines.
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