Mad dealers #3

In the late 70s and early 80's I was dealing in cats, the visual images of cats funky or serious and also upmarket ceramic objects from Paris. I would sell to the eccentric Swedish dealer Erica Bruce who had her booth at the entrance of Greys antique market off Bond Street in the West End of London. Like me, Erica was a 'mad' cat lady and we worked well together at the top end of the market. I was one of her suppliers bring over beautiful cat objects from Paris.

Further down the line was another interesting cat lady who knew what she wanted in life, Spanish Sylvia Duran. Sylvia was a voluptuous lively 40ish enthusiastic artist of wild cats. She painted large canvases of panthers, leopards and tigers and exhibited in Dubai where her sister lived. The arabs liked her work and so she found success out there but did not want to live there. No Sylvia was very Spanish. She had lived most of her adult life in England here and there but originally came from the Costa Brava region.

I first met her on my weekly Wednesday rounds at Camden Passage market in one of the oldest arcades up on the first floor where she had a tiny stall full of cheap cat objects next to my colleague, the eccentric theatrical Drene Brennan, originally from Blackpool, who sold egg cups, ephemera and postcards. Drene was an authority on vintage postcards and even collected 'moderns' including Disney character postcards. She would make frequent trips to Hollywood where one of her sons was a hairdresser to the Stars. She also wrote a worldwide postcard newsletter and rana collectors postcard club. Over time I became friendly with her good friend Sylvia next door, a far cry from upmarket Erica Bruce but more fun!

Sylvia had just set up home with her partner Alan and I had just got married to Martin in 1983 so from time to time the four of us met up for drinks and got on like a house on fire. One summer she and Alan went to the Costa Brava on holiday and ended up in Calafell. Walking around one day Sylvia saw her dream house with a small garden with orange trees and birds twittering. She got so carried away that she pushed open the garden gate, walked up the forbidden path and knocked on the door. The elderly lady was surprised when Sylvia announced,  without even stepping inside, that she wanted to buy the house which was not, of course, for sale! However Sylvia was a persuasive woman who knew what she wanted in life and left her contact details, never taking no for an answer. So it was no surprise when sometime later, she was offered her dream haven.

One evening I invited them round for drinks at Hamston House, Kensington. I suddenly realised that apart from talking about cats, wild cars, her art work et al, I knew nothing about her background. I decided to ask Sylvia how come she had come to live in England. She told me she had come as an au pair when she was 19 and lived with a family in Manchester that had exploited her giving her little time off for her English lessons.   Alan butted in saying it was because the family was Jewish! I glanced at Martin and he understood my look. In my eyes Alan had made an antisemitic remark. I was shocked not having come across anyone who had made such a comment in my home or anywhere for that matter. I wanted him to leave. Fortunately they only came for drinks and nibbles and not dinner. I made an excuse I didn't feel well. Too much wine and all that jazz. Had it been today, I would have confronted him and told him to leave but my personality was not as strong then as it is today so I silently broke contact. When Sylvia rang to see how I was and why had I not been to see her at the market, I mumbled some excuses like I was in Paris not telling her how I felt about Alan. Eventually she stopped ringing.

Then she moved out of that arcade and opened a shop right in the Passage itself with an Egyptian name above the door. I would hear all about her business from Drene who was a constant guest at their house in Calafel. They had created a separate flat in the basement a sort of 'granny' flat probably for Drene who was considered to be their extended family. Sylvia never mentioned her own family and I knew nothing about Alan, in fact not even his surname. 

Another year went by and I still went hunting for stock on Wednesdays. After all it was my routine. Monday was the Covent Garden flea market and afterwards Greys to see my colleague Stuart Cropper, the toy dealer, Tuesdays I went to Alfie's, Wednesdays it was Camden Passage, Thursdays nowhere special, Fridays it was the exhausting early morning dealers market in Bermondsey and Saturdays I had my stand at Portobello. Finally on Sundays there was always a fair to go to or once a month I would exhibit at the Ephemera Society Fair. That was my London routine, then I had a Paris one too. I was totally a workaholic 24/7 between London, Paris and eventually New York without any competition. I had found my niche market.

One Wednesday I was strolling down the Passage when I saw Sylvia standing outside her shop door. I had never 'fallen out' with her and she was so pleased to see me. She insisted I came inside to see her shop which was full of her paintings and cats. Gone of course were the cheap pussies she, like Erica, had gone upmarket. I could not refuse her invitation as she was very persuasive and so in I went.  No Alan in sight because he had slipped out to get their morning takeaway coffees. I sat down on a comfortable chair knowing I would have to confront him. I could feel the tension when he came back surprised to see me. He immediately offered me his cafe and sat down looking at me in the eye.

     'I expect you are waiting to hear why I broke off contact with you.'

They both nodded in unison. Sylvia saying there had thought of several reasons but never come up with an answer. They were baffled.

    'You made an antisemitic remark in my home.' I blurted out.

     'I don't think you know my surname.' Alan laughed, 'Jacobs, you can't get more Jewish than that.'

We both stood up and hugged each other. Of course Jewish people can make derogatory jokes or comments! I thought of the wasted years we could have enjoyed each other's company but too late because they were moving permanently to Spain and had planned to open a movie poster shop in Sitges. I was immediately invited to visit them anytime in Spain anytime. Sylvia gave me their Spanish landline. We didn't have mobiles in those days. I would hear about their success with the new shop via Drene, their constant 'granny' visitor.

One August I felt like a holiday in Spain and spontaneously called Sylvia. How stupid of me to invite myself at peak holiday time. I did not have the maturity and understanding that I would have today. The call went badly when she told me they had been descended on too many times and were fed up with guests. I felt so rejected that I never ever got in touch again. All I had was the phone number and a postbox number and no email.

Then decades later we moved to Brighton. Martin had published Drene's son's book on how to be a pop star and we had heard how Alan had got into buying and selling Spanish movie posters to Hollywood collectors but nothing about Sylvia.  Then Drene died and there was no more news.

Out of the blue around the breakup of my marriage in 2006, my oldest best friend Helga rang from Jerusalem to say she missed me and could we meet in Europe at a 'Jewish' destination. She gave me a choice. Rome, where we had first met in 1967, Barcelona or Berlin. I chose Barcelona thinking about the Jewish link with nearby Gerona with its Ghetto.

Off we went and stayed a short while in the Juderia of Gerona before moving on to Gaudi's Barcelona. I thought of Sylvia and Alan. I searched the net for the artist Sylvia Duran, nada. I rang the old phone number, nada and finally looked in the white pages of the Costa Brava. There I saw the name Alan Jacobs. Surely there could only be one man with that name. A gruff man answered in Spanish but when I tried to speak English, stupidly instead of Spanish, he aggressively in Spanish, said it was the wrong number. Was it Alan gone 'mad?'

I will never know if the lovely Sylvia Duran died and Alan perhaps became a recluse. I would have loved to see both of them again and catch up on their life in Spain together but not to be. C'est la vie!

Written on 27/2/17 my last day in Nerja at the delightful Hotel Plaza Cavana, Nerja, Spain.