Geordie Greig went to his first Freud show as a schoolboy in 1978 and saw in him a delinquent hero whom he extols in the language of sex, drugs and thrown punches. ‘Lucian seemed to me just as disruptive and alluring as the Sex Pistols,’ he explains. ‘Keith Richards crossed with Picasso: libidinous, risk-taking, bold and threatening. I was hooked.’ In 2002, Greig was finally granted an audience in Freud’s Holland Park studio. At seven in the morning the two men ate the wing of a congealed partridge, washed down by red wine and green tea. Thereafter, they met regularly for breakfast. Now Greig has produced a memoir of those breakfasts, mixed with a deft, riveting summary of his interviews with some of Freud’s lovers, children, contemporaries and enemies. His book is also a champion bout of metropolitan snobbery.
Breakfast with Lucian was typed on a BlackBerry, sometimes during meals, and it shows. It is full of slack repetitions, stylistics tics and lame, thoughtless sentences. The name-dropping is relentless. Greig’s breakfasts with Freud were held in Sally Clarke’s restaurant. Favoured by ‘Bryan Ferry, Salman Rushdie and Dame Maggie Smith’, and the venue for Aung San Suu Kyi’s birthday lunch and the Cambridges’ off-duty canoodles, ‘its superiority over almost every other restaurant in the area is evident’. The restaurant is on the east side of Kensington Church Street, on the slope where Campden Hill descends towards Kensington Palace Gardens; but Greig repeatedly locates it in ‘Notting Hill’, because the phrase has a meretricious media buzz which Campden Hill lacks. Similarly, Greig assures the gullible that the Wolseley – a converted bank hall – is ‘the most glamorous restaurant dining-room in London’. There are better restaurants within a bread roll’s throw of Sally Clarke’s, the Wolseley is yards from the immeasurably more glamorous Ritz, but Greig’s gimcrack smartness ignores them all.
Walk-on characters are similarly bigged up. Pauline Tennant, an actress in Ben Travers’s comedies whose short cinema career began with a film depicting Women’s Institute members preparing for an inspection by Eleanor Roosevelt, is presented as ‘one of the most glamorous actresses of her generation’ (she was, incidentally, two years older than Greig states). Heini Thyssen is exaggerated as ‘the richest man in the world’. A member of Wareham and Purbeck Rural District Council is described as ‘a left-wing politician’. No one is allowed to be ordinary or mundane in the magnified, histrionic universe that Greig creates for Freud.
Greig admires Freud as a capricious culprit who knew the rules and delighted in breaking them – as someone who could afford good things, but enjoyed spoiling them. In the first paragraph Freud is depicted in a cashmere overcoat from Issey Miyake, besmirched by flecks of paint, and in costly but crumpled shirts. Greig praises Freud’s ‘sartorial edginess’, claims to find ‘discernment’ in his ‘dishevelment’, and celebrates his ‘scruffy-chic’ for ‘breaking every sartorial rule, mixing aristocratic tweed with a shabby informality that redefined but also defied dandyism’. Freud was violent in protecting his privacy, yet was ostentatious with an insatiable need to be noticed. He was a renegade snob who wore a butcher’s costume splattered like an abattoir worker’s to drive his Bentley across London, and liked being the only man to lunch at White’s without a tie.
Freud was enthralled by possessing and dominating upper-class women. Caroline Blackwood, his second wife, was the daughter of a marquess. His enduring maîtresse en titre, Jane Willoughby, holds a Plantagenet barony in her own right. Other long-standing companions, including mothers of his children, were married to peers or sprang from the baronetage. He regarded contraception as ‘terribly squalid’ and had 14 acknowledged children. In addition to an affair with the teenage son of one mistress, he bedded a daughter of Blackwood’s second marriage shortly before she died of a drug overdose aged 17. Many of the lovers, and some of their children, have spoken candidly to Greig, while others have kept a noble protective silence. It is hugely to his credit that he treats them all with generosity and consideration, while avoiding prurient malice in recounting the giddying swirls of Freud’s all-important sex life.
The sartorial defiance and rackety sex were integral to a man who believed that everything that he said or did was truthful, but that everyone else was a vulgar, conniving crook. We hear much from Greig of Freud’s ‘bovver-boy toughness’: how he punched a chatty gay waiter at Bibendum, insulted two scented Jewish women at the River Café (‘they should invent a perfume called cunt’), disrupted other diners with his imitation of a whale masturbating and squared up to fight a man in the Wolseley. All this was permissible, Greig suggests, because his friend was a ‘global art-star’.
In extenuation, Freud worked with formidable dedication. ‘My object in painting pictures is to try and move the senses by giving an intensification of reality,’ he declared in 1954. ‘Whether this can be achieved depends on how intensely the painter understands and feels for the person or object of his choice.’ Ruthlessness was a duty and vocation: ‘A painter must think of everything he sees as being there entirely for his own use and pleasure.’ His concentration on his subjects was ferocious, because he hoped that ‘the intensity of scrutiny alone would force life into the pictures’.
Breakfast with Lucian bursts with un-pleasant assumptions, unpleasant behaviour and unpleasant people – but it arouses an almost pornographic excitement. Freud’s heroic vitality, his intelligence and glee, his love of badinage and limericks and vituperation, make it hard to stop talking about the book while reading it, and to stop thinking about it after finishing. The last words belong to Lucinda Lambton, whose mother’s affair with Freud lasted a quarter of a century. ‘He was as magical as he was malign, a totally bewitching, terrifyingly clever figure who like a silver thread through a pound note had an undoubted streak of evil. I worshipped every inch of him.’