By Andrew Maben
Memory is still a misted night journey: soft, unshaped forms loom and fade, with occasional bright oases of light. The first week: a time of excitement, a time of uncertainly finding our bearings, tentative friendships. Names do remain, almost but not necessarily in their order of appearance. First, certainly, were Barbara and Margaretta. Barbara a slim red-head, ethereal and earthy and Margaretta her friend a voluptuous blonde with a slight resemblance to Dusty Springfield – a resemblance that cost me some embarrassment the day I shouted, “Good morning, Dusty!” Everyone in earshot heard “busty”, which she most assuredly was, but I would never have had the temerity, nor the ill-manners, to have launched such an epithet at a dear friend so publicly… I do remember that Barbara and Margaretta invited me to join them to see John Mayall at the Hastings Pier on the Friday evening of that first week, but don’t ask me how we got there, or anything about the show, still less how we got home. I suppose someone had a car.
I was also befriended early by Bob, a rather scruffy, almost furtive figure who seemd to always wear a long overcoat and a french beret, giving him a distinctly beatnik air, that contrasted with the mostly fashionable looks of the rest of us. Rave magazine had decreed that summer that the nation’s art schools had become the latest forefront of youthful fashions. I think it was a role that we were all conscious of in an amused kind of way, but as budding artists we were, surely, much more concerned with establishing each our own unique individuality, to be projected primarily in our art for sure, but also through our projected personas. None would have admitted that our carefully assembled wardrobes were as much masks to hide ourselves behind as they were costumes to express our true natures, but surely it was so.
There were also others I remember fondly. Peter, red-haired, sweet natured and a dedicated fan of Bob Dylan, he suffered from a wretched stammer, and his girlfriend Lillian, a soft-spoken, ethereal beauty who might have stepped from a Rossetti painting, who was soon to be surprised to discover that not everybody constantly heard voices in their heads. Jenny, a beatnik chick, with long black hair, dark eye makeup and pale lipstick, she dressed always in black and drove a hearse. Meredith, known as Pip, who lived with her mother in a cottage in the woods outside Brighton, and her friend Linda from Hastings. Grenville with his ancient Austin Seven, and air of an eccentric curate. Chris from Uckfield, whose friends’ band often played at our dances. Tina and Sally the Mods. Annie, who I nicknamed “Noggin”. Judith. Beautiful bespectacled Helene, breaking free of the restraints of a Catholic upbringing. Stella, troubled daughter of a conservative Methodist minister. There were many others whose faces have become blurred and whose names are now lost to me…
The two year pre-diploma curriculum for which we had all enrolled had at its center Basic Design, a Bauhaus derived course that covered exactly what the name implied, and also included life drawing, principles of color and form, painting, sculpture, ceramics, printing. We were also granted a discretionary class or two. for reasons that seem more than a bit obscure to me now I chose fashion drawing. In an odd way it would prove to be one of the most fateful decisions I have ever made, as it was in this class that I first came to know Tina and Sally. Tina was a devastatingly attractive honey blonde, the very personification of the swinging sixties in her minis and Biba blouses. Sally fell in her shadow, a far more hesitant mod, shy, almost mousy. They would whisper to each other as we sat across the wide drafting table, whisper and cast sudden glances my way. As a little time went by, Sally’s whispers became loud enough for me to make out, after numerous hearings, an unintelligible incantation: “Ay guy lay guv ay gan dray goo!” While my desires were firmly directed at Tina, I think I have had some small suspicion that Sally’s glances were prompted by something more than a curiosity naturally aroused by the fact that I was the only boy in the class, something more than simple amusement. But I was far too naive and far too shy to take any serious notice. And besides: Tina… What a fool.
We first year students were more than a little in awe of the second year, who in turn regarded us with a certain condescension. It was the fine artists, I remember in particular Paul, an accomplished painter, and the sculptor brothers Hamish and Phelan, who owned the greatest cachet, though there was a graphic designer who went by Binky who also had a measure of cool. Impressionable young fool that I was, I allowed myself to fall under the thrall of the fine art mystique – we’ll hear more about that later…
As I suppose is the way of people everywhere thrown together by circumstance, we formed into small groups whose membership was not by any means rigidly fixed. After my years of isolation and solitude it was a liberation to be accepted, even warmly welcomed by my new peers. I’ve already mentioned Barbara and Margaretta, and Bob. Tina and Sally were inseparable and only peripherally a part of our little band, which also included Peter and Lillian. Also often with us were Annie, Helene and Judith, who soon became Bob’s girlfriend, Stella, Noggin, Jenny.
At lunch time virtually the entire school would walk down the hill into town, as there was no cafeteria at the school. It was on one of these lunch-time walks that I passed Tina and Sally and a couple of other girls.
“Andrew!” I stopped and joined them.
“Say ‘prune’,” said Sally.
“Prune,” I said. They all laughed.
“Not at all,” someone said.
“Not at all what?”
Nobody answered, though again they giggled
“Prune,” said Tina, her lips forming a delectable moue.
“See,” said Sally. But I didn’t.
I grinned, but I was embarrassed and hurried to catch up with Barbara and Margaretta.
It was only later that Sally explained, “You can tell how sensuous someone is by their lips when they say ‘prune’.” I added lip-pursing to my little repertoire of facial exercises, that already consisted of pushing up the right side of my upper lip to try to achieve an Elvis sneer, and alternately holding one eye closed to learn to wink.
The most popular lunch destinations were a little caff outside the station that served cheap food and strong tea, or ffinch’s coffee bar. ffinch’s was also frequented by the girls from the cookery school, who tended to be the very attractive flowers of the English middle class (although, in retrospect, they may not have been the brightest, or perhaps their mothers simply deemed cookery a better bet than university in terms of “marriageability”), so naturally it was a big draw for the boys.
At the end of the day a group of us would usually end up at ffinch’s, which had a jukebox and dance floor in the basement, or the Continental, which was cheaper and popular with the town’s Mods. As it was favored by Tina and Sally, I’d often be there, too.
Then there were Friday nights. A mob of us would converge on a pub and drink determinedly until closing time. My usual approach would be to start the evening with a vodka in a pint of bitter, which would usually wipe out my funds, I’d drink for the rest of the evening by winning pint-downing bets – I could pour a pint of beer down my throat in no time flat. When the pubs closed a group would convene in someone’s flat for hours of conversation and argument, fixing the world’s problems and looking at politics, philosophy, and of course art.
As it happened I missed what was the only Friday night seminar that has stuck in my memory. That is probably exactly because I was not there, and hence heard of the proceedings whilst sober. It appears that on that particular evening the subject had turned to the question of what might be the point of existence. After vigorous debate it was concluded that there is no earthly point to anything. So if there’s no point in anything, there is no point in doing anything. At which point it was agreed that nothing would be exactly what they would do. For long moments the group sat in motionless silence. Until, muttering “I have to take a piss”, one of them got up and left to take care of his pressing need… This has always struck me as the most, perhaps the only, cogent answer to the question of life’s meaning. Take that as you will.
Spirituality and mysticism were another area that we discussed at length. There was a teaching assistant, Geoff, who introduced me to Ouspensky and Gurdjieff. I dutifully read In Search of the Miraculous, but honestly could not find much substance to it, beyond a remark by Gurdjieff to a group of seekers that a peasant toiling in his field was closer to enlightenment than any of them could ever hope to be.
All these questions were very real and important to me then, and still are today. I was still utterly disillusioned by the hypocrisy of the church and people who called themselves “Christians”, my quest for some kind of salvation or redemption had turned naturally enough to the realm of politics. My slide to the left continued. My initial attraction to the Labour Party, based as it was on my brief reading of Marx, began to turn towards communism. But who could ignore the realities of Soviet Russia? Aside from the fact that they were pointing missiles at the UK that might arrive on any given day with a mere four minutes’ warning, there was the whole problem of authoritarianism and the subjection of the individual to the state, a subjection or even subjugation that after close to fifty years showed no sign of relaxing its grip. So much for the state “withering away”. But I was still in love with the leftist vision of a world based on brotherhood and cooperation, as contrasted with the vicious dog-eat-dog competition of rampant capitalism. Extending the principle that had set me on this path in the first place, and in spite of the destructive antics of the anarchists on the CND march, I decided that as Anarchism was universally reviled at every point on the political spectrum, and by now I was repulsed by every point on that spectrum, it started to look like the most humane political philosophy. It caused a bit of a scene at the dinner table one night when the parents brought it up. They were of course appalled at the direction my thoughts were taking me. For my part, I was simply outraged that they seemed to believe they had the right to read my notebook. It was probably during this discussion that I was faced with the ludicrous question, “You’re so intelligent, why are you so stupid?”
As you can see perhaps, what was concerning me was the relation of the individual to society, the establishment of some kind of societal structure that could be built on cooperation, promote brotherhood, while simultaneously protecting the autonomy and freedom of the individual. No one, I think, has, no one, I think, can provide a fully satisfactory answer to the dilemmas of this question, but I did think then, and still do, that thinkers like Proudhon, Bakunin and Kropotkin were closest to the right direction. Violent revolution, though, as far as I can see, is always guaranteed to fail to bring about any kind of change for the better – how can anyone possibly imagine that violence can be used to end violence, that killing will introduce universal brotherhood? “Thou shalt not kill” is surely the wisest commandment of all, and I dreamed, and continue to dream, of a world in which each human being might have taken that commandment fully to heart. Surely this is the only basis from which to build any society worth living in, any political philosophy worth living by?
The school arranged a trip to London to see a major Marcel Duchamp retrospective at the Tate. You may imagine that one result of the intersection of my aesthetic and political views was a strong appreciation for the Dada movement. In anticipation of the visit I conceived the idea of pissing into the Fountain. Alas, in the end I didn’t have the courage to actually follow through on my planned Dadaist gesture, once in the gallery I lost my nerve, intimidated by the sacrosanct air of the place. Perhaps my plan was not an entirely original idea, nevertheless it was not until 1993 that Pierre Pinoncelli urinated into the piece while it was on display in Nimes, or 2000 that Yuan Chai and Jian Jun Xi urinated on the Fountain at the Tate Modern. Perhaps I will enlarge more on my thoughts on Dada and Conceptual Art later in my story.
One evening in November, as Bob and I were walking to a pub, he pulled out a joint and once again offered it to me. Well, actually “offered” is something of an understatement. It had been in the second week of term when he first suggested I might like to try smoking hash. I had recoiled in horror.
“But it leads straight to heroin!”
“No, not at all,” laughing.
“Still. I don’t think so… But do you know where to ged LSD?”
Over the ensuing weeks he had kept up a steady low-key urging, and to my eyes he certainly didn’t seem to be suffering any ill effects from his vice. His work was strong, he was a fine draughtsman and he certainly showed no signs of sliding into heroin addiction. Indeed there was a guy in the town who hung around the fringes of the art school crowd who was known as Junkie John, and Bob evinced considerable disdain at John’s taste in drugs, which ranged from heroin, on the rare occasions when he could obtain it, to bizarre procedures involving Vick’s Inhalers.
My first encounter with Junky John had been one afternoon on the High Street. I was walking home from the Cont when I heard footsteps running up behind me. A scruffy and disheveled figure overtook me and turned to face me. Wild eyes, long, dirty and uncombed hair, a green sweater with many holes and loose strands of wool, a nondescript corduroy jacket and jeans.
“Hey, man. Do you want to be the singer in my band?”
“Um. No, I don’t think so. For one thing I can’t sing.”
“That doesn’t matter, man. You look so cool. You’d be great!”
“No, really. Thanks. No.”
Eventually he gave up and wandered off. While it’s clear to me that no enterprise featuring Junky John as a prominent member had, as they say, a snowball’s chance, I do sometimes wonder when I look back what turns my life might have taken had I chosen to take up his offer…
But backward-looking “what if”s” are a particularly fatuous waste of mental energy. The past is unchanging and unchangeable. Our memories of that past may be mutable, we may even have profound differences of recollection, but the past remains past and whatever coincidence of memory we may negotiate a semblance of agreement on is history. And god knows, holding on to history and, more to the point, dealing with its consequences? I don’t know about you, but that’s work enough for me, even though I did promise myself – or is it because I promised myself? – that I would make my own decisions and accept the consequences and the responsibility without regret. I’d like to think that I have, on the whole, managed to live up to that promise. As the story unfolds, please, feel free to judge for yourself. But keep your condemnations to yourself. Some of those decisions have been spectacularly ill-judged, and some of those consequences have been equally spectacularly painful. Sometimes the painful consequence has been utterly out of proportion to that action from which it proceeded, sometimes it may have seemed to be poetic justice. In either case I have tried to accept both the pain and the responsibility to live with it, so I really don’t need you, or anyone else, climbing onto some high horse and sneering, thank you. And anyway, the worst pains, the deepest unhappinesses that I have found myself living through have not been, as best I’m able to judge, a direct consequence of any decision of mine. I’ll try to remember to come back to this point from time to time as we proceed.
But for now: Bob had just offered me a joint…
“Oh, OK,” I said and took it.
“You don’t smoke cigarettes, so inhale gently or you’ll be coughing.”
So I inhaled gently. But deeply. As I breathed out, a mild warm euphoria enveloped me.
“Do you feel anything?”
“Oh yes!” I laughed softly, not the clichéd hilarity that no doubt you may have been expecting, simply an easy expression of well-being.
So. A pot-smoker. Like so many other lost children of the sixties, looking for ways to change the world. Subjectively this seemed to be as interesting a direction to try as any other. There was an idea going around that somehow, as if by magic, we could change the world simply through sheer force of imagination. To be honest, I still hold to that notion, I just don’t think we had the numbers. It was easy to be seduced by the idea that we were an unstoppable force. We children were the subject of unending discussions, articles, television reports, so that there was a suggestion that we who imagined ourselves at the forefront of a new movement were far more numerous and far more engaged, far more committed than was in fact the case. There would be some rude awakenings to come but for now the world seemed suffused with a haze of hope, a haze strongly scented with marijuana and hashish smoke…
I don’t remember anything else of that evening, but the darkness of the alley, a fire escape and basement railings are still crystal clear.
Not to short-change the school’s academic offerings, but the social activities are what remain in memory – and they are certainly more interesting to recall. Somehow I ended up on the committee for the Christmas dance, along with Margaretta and a couple of others. At the first planning meeting Mr. Finch, the principal, suggested as the theme “Pre-Raphaelite Vapidity”, it didn’t seem particularly inspiring to me, nor I think to the others on the committee, but as he seemed to be so caught up in the idea we all agreed, with at least a polite pretense of enthusiasm. It was not so much any antipathy for the Pre-Raphaelite aesthetic, which was in fact, along with Art Nouveau, the Arts and Crafts movement, Arthur Rackham, and Blake, very much in vogue at the time. No it was “vapidity” that rankled. I think we all saw it as a barb aimed far more at us than at Rossetti and company. Nevertheless, “Pre-Raphaelite Vapidity” it was to be.
For me the most pressing problem was to find a companion for the evening. My yen for Tina was going absolutely nowhere. I was reluctant, rightly as it would turn out later, to jeopardize my friendship with Margaretta and Barbara by approaching Barbara. I was, in a word, completely clueless where girls were concerned. Looking back, I have the impression that several girls at the school were “interested” in me, but I certainly failed at the time to notice any signs. Permit me a small sigh for little Noggin…
One afternoon at ffinch’s there was a lovely blonde sitting with a cookery cohort a few tables away. Naturally I was far too shy to approach her in the coffee bar, but somehow when she left on her own I found myself running after her. I caught up with her on the other side of Gildredge Road.
She turned and smiled. “Yes?”
“Um.” Long pause. Her quizzical smile. Then in a rush, “I was wondering if you’d like to go to the Art School dance with me?”
“I’d love to!”
I was thunderstruck at her easy acquiescence, that she actually seemed flattered. Her name was Leonie, Leo for short. So she gave me her number, apologized for having to rush off and left me standing there with an idiot grin on my face.
The dance turned out to be a big success. Music was provided by Chris from Uckfield’s friends. The girls almost all had embraced the theme and wore flowing, diaphanous dresses, the boys all as dandified as they could manage. I wore a white raw cotton Nehru jacket, purchased on a special trip to Carnaby Street, with a pair of cricket trousers retailored as bell-bottoms, a white shirt and a tasseled white silk scarf filched from Mum’s drawer. Margaretta won first prize in the costume contest for her fabulous Queen of the May outfit. her prize was a bit of a disappointment, though: The Troggs LP, not a band that carried much cachet in this crowd.
Leo and I spent some time together over the next few weeks. She had a car, a Triumph Herald, so we would meet in the afternoon after school at ffinch’s and then we’d head out on the Brighton Road to Beachy Head. Walking close to the cliff’s edge, she’d invariably want to show me the latest judo throw she’d learned.
“No, really. Attack me!”
So I’d lunge at her. Yes, really, after the first occasion finding myself airborne, glimpsing the distant rocks and lighthouse between my legs, before landing ignominiously at her feet, all the breath knocked out of my lungs, yes, really, I would launch myself at her in a fury that was only partly feigned. I never laid a finger on her. I think it was looking up, flat on my back, that I first noticed her feline smile, sharing a secret with herself. Then she reached down with a full smile, inviting now, and helped me to my feet before turning away to light a cigarette, which I soon learned was her prelude to a kiss. And I learned too that the only corrective to the ashtray taste of a smoker’s tongue is to take a drag on the cigarette. Thus began, I suppose, a forty year nicotine habit. Weak? Oh yes, I’ll plead to that.
God knows what the hell exactly I thought might come of this relationship, such as it was. I’m sure I hoped to have sex with Leonie, but she was apparently intent on being a good girl, with me at least, so that never got past some very tentative breast fondling. And of course we were teenagers so, inevitably, come springtime she was ready for a change…
There was a party in Hastings. She told me she would see me there. I arrived early and found myself a beer. It was not long before Leo showed up. She was not alone. She was with an airy Donovan wannabe named Noel. When they noticed me they very deliberately stopped to embrace. I am inclined to believe that moments like that are the reasons humankind persists in warfare. I was angry, shamed, insulted, affronted. You get the picture. I suppose we all deal with this, well or badly, once or often. Not a good feeling. I left the room, found an almost full bottle of gin. In another, empty, room I sat down in the corner on the floor. I set about draining the bottle.
I was doing yeoman work, and had consumed more than half the bottle when Pip’s friend, Linda, found me. If I had not been so completely gin-addled I would have been surprised at the gentle concern in her voice.
“Are you alright, Andrew?” Manifestly I was far from alright, but it was nice of her to ask. I mumbled some kind of unintelligible reply.
“Come on,” she said, “let’s go for a walk.” She took my hand, helped me to my feet. I stood unsteadily and leaned on Linda’s shoulder as she led me into the back garden, down the garden path to a gate that led into a wooded park. Shortly the path crossed a small bridge over a trickle of water that may perhaps have been called a brook. As I sat down on the railing, Linda knelt before me. She gently, with her finger tips, stroked the inside of my thigh in little circles. Music from the party reached us through the woods. Slowly her circles grew wider, and on the upward stroke her fingers grew ever closer to my groin. Inexperienced, you may perhaps say foolish, even stupid, as her hand brushed, oh so softly, up the fly of my Levi’s, I pulled her to her feet and held her against me and we kissed. As we clasped each other in this, to me astonishing and unanticipated, embrace, I heard a noise, voices. I opened my eyes and looking over Linda’s shoulder saw two policemen coming down the path towards us. I broke off the kiss as they reached us.
“Have you seen anyone on the path?”
“No. But we have not been here long.”
Something about a runaway child.
“You two should run along now. Go back inside.”
But no sooner were we back at the party than there came a knocking at the door. More coppers. Perhaps they were looking for the missing child, perhaps they had been called because of the noise, whatever their reasons for being there, they made short work of shutting it down.
Most of us adjourned to a club to resume the revelry. Drunk, as they say, as a lord, my recollections of that part of the evening are all but lost in the fog, though I do recall dancing with Linda to the Spencer Davis Group’s Gimme Some Lovin’ – yes she seemed to have set her sights unwaveringly and soon enough she would…
The bar closed. Honestly I do not know how this managed to happen but somehow there I was getting out of a car with an eager Linda clinging to my arm, a key in my hand. Someone, heaven knows who, or still less why, had apparently lent us a flat for the night. Rain had begun to fall. We ran up the outside stairs of a wooden building, a converted barn or stable, and I managed to fumble the key into the lock to open the door.
We found ourselves in a lovely tapestry-hung and dimly-lit room beside a double bed covered with a huge fur rug. Once inside Linda wrapped me in her arms and kissed me, long and deep. We fumbled with each other’s clothes and crawled together under the bedcovers, embracing, touching, kissing, caressing… Outside, the storm grew more intense. Clumsy and inexperienced as I was, and drunk as we both were, it’s astonishing that our passion was successfully consummated. Nevertheless somehow, between instinct and Linda’s subtle guidance, we managed. I don’t know, maybe you won’t believe this, but if you think about it you may realize that it’s just too ridiculously biblical for me to have dared invent it: as I was engulfed in the ecstasy and exultation of orgasm, a blinding white light pierced my closed eyes, a deafening crash followed almost simultaneously and the building shook. I fell back beside Linda, awed, amazed, grateful… perhaps a little embarrassed… to fall asleep with my hand on her breast…
(I have recently been informed that I’m very lucky, and as I think back on that night I’m forced to admit that it is so – no doubt you will have the same thought at many junctures as my story unfolds).
Now, by some measures, I was at last a man… What a crass, callow, insensitive oaf I have been, so many too many times… On Monday morning at school I was talking before class with a few of my friends – apparently I’m so ashamed that I have forgotten who exactly – about the weekend. I told them about losing Leo.
“But then Linda seduced me!” I said, with what I suppose was meant to be a sophisticated chuckle, but more likely came out as a prurient snigger. One of my friends shifted his glance to look over my shoulder. I turned to follow his gaze. Linda was standing two feet behind me. I met her eyes as what an instant earlier had been an eager smile crumpled into shame and disappointment and she turned and fled. In all my life I do believe I have never set out to hurt a lover, this was simply the first of far too many times when I have managed to do so anyway, from stupidity, ignorance, insensitivity, embarrassment… “Insensitivity”! Hah! This from someone who has already confessed to having been labeled “too sensitive”. For the rest of my time at Eastbourne, Linda and I avoided each other. To my shame, I never made any attempt to talk to her, to apologize, to explain…
Oh well. I was actually going to classes, though an alarming trend of teachers refusing to allow me into their classrooms began with ceramics. As well as catering to real students, as we liked to think of ourselves, the school also offered vocational courses that found eager enrollees from Eastbourne’s vast population of elderly people, whose artistic efforts we were pleased to regard with snotty cynical sneers – the arrogance of youth, untempered by experience… One night late in the winter term a kiln firing was lost; ashtrays, mugs, crude figures of gnomes and woodland creatures painstakingly squeezed into shape by geriatric fingers shattered. The suspicion arose that a hollow clay ball, perhaps several, had been placed in the kiln by a person or persons unknown. We had been warned at the first lesson that the presence of air bubbles in the clay could have disastrous results, the expansion of the air at the high temperatures within the kiln causing devastating explosions. For some reason the accusatory finger was pointed at my chest and I found myself with a few extra hours of free study time each week. Next I somehow managed to offend the sensibilities of the sculpture teacher. There was metal sculpture, there was wood, and there was clay and plaster. I had no feel at all for clay, and my efforts at making a bust from life were, let us say, disappointing. At best. But it was a wooden piece that first provoked outrage.
Unsurprisingly, given the heavy emphasis on Bauhaus principles, I was deeply impressed by the work of Arp and Brancusi, so when we were given the task of creating a wooden sculpture based on our clay busts that was the road I tried to follow. Enthralled by the elegance of a model’s neck I attempted an abstraction: a central form, curving upwards wing-like and tapering to a point, from which projected two other alar forms, yoke shaped and curving backwards. My intent was to suggest, subtly, the proud tilt of a chin. There was an unfortunate gulf between the imagined work, smooth and finished, and the crudely cut and poorly finished actuality.
In front of the whole class my work was lambasted, not only for the crude craftsmanship but also for daring to attempt such an abstract form – something far more figurative was required, it seems. My offered explanation of what I had wanted to achieve fell on deaf ears. I was offended in my turn. Perhaps my defense became a little vehement. However it may be, I was asked never to return.
Metal-working was something different, though my efforts here were equally fruitless. We were asked to create, over the Easter holiday, something on the theme of “Spring”. Whatever form it might take, a recent incident had convinced me that it should not involve welding. There was a second year student whose vocation was sculpture. He was both talented and skilled. He had beautiful glossy black hair that hung almost to his waist. As he bent over to make an awkward weld his hair must have fallen into the jet of flame, for suddenly the class was interrupted by a terrible shout. I looked up to see his head engulfed in a halo of bright yellow-orange flame that lasted only brief seconds, but when the flames went out all his beautiful hair was gone. Alright, no welding for me, I was assiduously growing my own hair, and had no interest at all in losing it. So: “Spring”…
I took three lengths of steel rod and bent each into a spiral. Each spiral had a different inclination, based on some arcane formula that is lost to me now, while they all curved around the same imaginary cylinder. I set the three spirals in a square concrete base, then painted them fluorescent green. Once again there was an inconvenient gap between intent and achievement, and once again my effort was met with withering scorn. My protestations that it was intended as serious work, that the formulae I had used to calculate the spirals had deep meaning, that the spirals were intended to hint at the DNA helix, that their upward sweep symbolized growth, that green is the color of Spring’s rejuvenating trees and grass, that the spirals were a visual pun on the prescribed theme, all this fell on deaf ears. Apparently what I had done was a personal affront to the teacher and demonstrated an inexcusable attack on the institution itself. Ouch. And I thought it was kind of cool. More free study time…
Not all my endeavors were quite so ill-received. I managed rather well in Basic Design and my skills as a draughtsman were developing, albeit slowly. Nor was I a complete failure at lettering, where the teacher’s idol, perhaps even obsession, was Ben Shahn (who was also, I suspect, an influence on whoever created the logo for the Yardbirds). The encouragement to allow ourselves to escape the rigidities of formal typography was liberating.
And of course, fashion drawing. I made certain to maintain standards high enough to remain in the class, if for no other reason than to continue to moon over Tina. And so, one Monday morning I was witness to an extraordinary, wonderful, almost alchemical transformation. When I had seen Sally walking to her bus the previous Friday she had been her usual self, far from unattractive certainly, but a little drab, a bit nondescript. But when she walked into the classroom that Monday she was radiant, her eyes shone, her skin seemed to glow, where her posture had been hesitant, closed-off, now she stood tall and confident, a beauty, the duckling become a swan. I was transfixed. I think perhaps at that moment I fell in love, though the realization grew only slowly over the course of the summer. And fool that I am, I was distracted by Tina, and also held back for fear of rejection.
I was not the only one to have noticed the change. Girls whispered, boys stared. It emerged that she had gone to a party on Saturday with Roger, a local boy, a bit of a lad and a prominent face on the local scene. They had left together and by all accounts had spent the night together, too. Of course now all those chants of “Ay guy lay guv ay gan dray goo!” returned to haunt me. How had Roger seen this beauty, brought it forth? How had I not? So began a strange, disjointed pavane that twined through the next several years.
As well as my doomed sculptural project, I had spent a good deal of time during the Easter holiday sketching the old folk in their deck-chairs and on the benches of the promenade. By now I had completely abandoned the compromise of industrial design, having fallen completely under the spell of Fine Art’s prestige and mystique. I had rather looked forward to the silkscreen class that took place in the summer term, and was pleased with my sketches for the print I planned to make. The design was a satirical pastiche of British travel posters of an earlier age: at the top and the bottom were to be friezes based on my sketches of old fogies, beneath the top frieze “COME TO EASTBOURNE”, then a stylization of Eastbourne’s skyline looking out over the Channel which I intended to be echoed by a similar view of the town’s large cemetery, followed by “AND DIE IN THE SUN”. For some reason this provoked still another teacher’s ire.
“You can’t do this”, she told me. “You’re imitating Paul.” Paul being second year painter whose work admired, and who may have influenced my design in some subtle way, but “imitating”? I didn’t think so, and said as much. So now we came to the true cause of her anger.
“It will offend people. The trustees will be outraged.” This seemed to me, if anything, an excellent reason to proceed with the project, and I was outraged myself at this censorship.
“You’re not here to tell me what to print,” I told her, “but how to print.”
That, as you may imagine, did not go over well.
“If you are going to take that attitude, you can leave the class. Now. And don’t come back.”
Hey ho, more free study hours…