I suppose most people know the lines:

When I was but thirteen or so

I went a golden land

Chimborazo, Cotopaxi

Took me by the hand

For me romance was as absolute, but engendered differently. An exchange was organised for some of us at school, at the end of the 1940’s (probably via Doris Gare, our French teacher). I was put on a train in London, and met at the Gare du Nord by a man called Monsieur Nash, who took me back to the XIV Arondisement for the night: the next morning he put me on the train to Rochefort-sur-mer. Monsieur N , dressed in navy workers’ jacket and trousers, was an Englishman who had moved to France when young, had lived through the German Occupation unharmed, and now worked as a concierge: he had completely forgotten English: I asked him what words he remembered, and he replied “Plum Pudd-ing?”

At Rochefort I was met by Madame Masson and her son Paul, who was my exchange partner. They lived with M. Masson, le patron, proprietor of the Cafe du Medoc, avenue Camille Pelleton. (I have done a Google-walk, but I can’t see the cafe there now; in the evening the mosquitos used to float in from these plane trees outside, in clouds).

§ Cafe du Medoc   oil on canvas  c. 1951

Cafe du Medoc oil on canvas c. 1951

M.Masson was entirely devoted to his Cafe: he worked seven days a week, from dawn to dusk, and never took a holiday. The Cafe did not have a bathroom: it was a bowl and jug in the room. The cabinet (loo) adjoined the Cafe and was reached from the yard. It was the usual ceramic hole in the ground. with two islands for the feet; on the wall was a wire hook with neatly torn up pages from l’Equipe, the cycle racing paper. If you needed a crap you lowered yourself over the hole by holding onto a bar on the door, which also served to keep the door shut (there was no lock). If someone came and tried to get in while you were on the job it was a bit hard on the stomach muscles. If we needed a bath, there was the Municipal Bath-house, where piping hot yellow water poured into the large bath, straight from the river Charente, silt and all.

Madame Masson was plain but sweet-natured, totally committed to her son, her husband, and to the household. I owe her a lot. I often went along with her early to the morning market, where she would check the whole line, asking “Ils sont a combien les oeufs, Madame?” and so on, finally returning to the best offer. M. Masson, as I said, never left the Cafe, but in the early evening in season he would carefully write the latest placements of the Tour de France on the mirror behind the bar, using a stick dipped in some kind of whitewash,. Those were the grand days of riders like Fausto Coppi and Robic, and I was taken a couple of times for a long wait by the roadside to watch the race swish past in moments.

Mme. Masson took Paul and I to the sea-side – Fouras. Perhaps we all cycled there, and took the Teleferique across the Charente, or maybe we went by bus – like my family, the Massons did not have a car. The Teleferique was a platform which swished across the river suspended on long cables – now preserved as an ancient monument. On the coast we prized oysters off the rocks. We went to a casse-croute cafe with outside tables: you took your own food and just bought drink. Madameproduced a long French loaf and butter to eat with the oysters, and we ordered a bottle of white wine: it was one of the great meals of my life. I must have gone many times to Fouras, sculling a boat there, or swimming in warm water among vast jelly-fish. And of course I drew. and painted all the time, cycling out into the country. Madame Masson reproached me, in the nicest way, for not speaking enough French, but I made pictures relentlessly.

Fort Boyard from the Ile D'aix ?  oil on board c 1951

Fort Boyard from the Ile D’aix ? oil on board c 1951

Paul Masson was an only child, and in those days there didn’t seem to be any mixing of boys with girls in Rochefort: at any rate, though I would have been susceptible to their charms, I never actually got to know any young woman during my exchanges.

The only friendship I made outside the family was with a postman who frequented the cafe. He had a wooden leg, as so many did in those post-war days, but was a vigorous cyclist all the same, with one leg out before him like a prow. He suggested that I should join him fishing for eels -“S’il mouille, on y va pas,” he said. I think it did rain a bit, but we cycled off on a grey day and spent some hours looking at the water, occasionally lifting the cantilevered net, like Puvis de Chavannes’ Pauvre Pecheur, but catching nothing. The wags in the cafe were delighted, and a tall glass duly appeared on the bar, with a dead frog floating in it, and the legend “Specimen of Fishing at XXX.”

I realised, around then, that I was at home in France: I could speak French; sometimes I could even think in French, and I could connect with the past and the present. Later on in my life I spent time in other parts of Europe, and lived in Germany and Greece. I am a European by custom and conviction, a townsman and a countryman.

Yes, it is true that the present governance of this homeland of ours is muddled and inadequate, (partly because the pragmatic British have spent so long with one toe in the water, unwilling to commit). But after so many wars, this is a place within which we have ruled out fighting as a political tool, where we are free to enjoy wonderful lands, a magnificent history and culture. Let nobody try to take my European citizenship away. Have teeth. Will bite.

Over the years I have done a number of paintings which I have called Homages. I define this personal label, in a rather restrictive way, for paintings, interpreted and developed from black and white photographs of painters I admire. The use of news-photos as a basis for paintings is something Sickert freely used, aware that one can’t be there to see what a news-photographer sees, but that the content is immensely tempting: I have done some of that as well. Somehow trying to paint a picture of a painter you admire, in his environment, seems an affirmation and you hope some of it rubs off on you.

I have been making Homages for a long time: the earliest is a painting of Douanier Rousseau in his studio, holding his violin as if it was a palette, and his bow as if it was a rather long brush..

Douanier Rousseau in his studio acrylic

Douanier Rousseau in his studio 1961  acrylic on duck   68 x 46 cm

The image resonates for me with the description of the celebration banquet for the Douanier, described in that entrancing book The Banquet Years by Roger Shattuck, at which, after tributes, Rousseau gave the company a waltz on his fiddle. I painted the picture in 1961, when I was living in Galatas, Greece, on the mainland opposite the island of Poros. (There is another, more personal, resonance here: I much later learned that Patrick Leigh-Fermor had lived down the road, at Lemonodassos in 1935. and that John Craxton and Lucien Freud had lived on Poros for a while in 1945). There is a bizarre surreality about the Douanier photograph, which the painting hoped to accentuate. Greek houses at that time tended to have framed photographs on their walls displaying family patriarchs and matriarchs: these were really artworks, because the portraits had been retouched and remodelled on the plate before printing, sometimes so much that the image was more drawing than photograph. This feature of Greece also suggested a possible direction.

What the Homages seek to do is to take an image of the admired (iconic) person – hero, if you like – and to re-interpret it so as to catch something more general about the artist and his view of the world and artistic vision (so far all the subjects have been men), while at the same expressing my own feeling about that  conceptual package. If that sounds pompous I apologise. So, anyway, it is not about making a pastiche, ‘in the style of’, and cannot depart too far from the framework of a photographic image or, as a portrait, from the recognisable features of the subject. These constraints, it seems to me, take the enterprise out to what Browning called ‘the dangerous edge of things’, to contradictions, with the danger of not satisfying any of the implied criteria because of exigencies created by the others.

GEORGES BRAQUE AT VARENGEVILLE FINAL.20.06.15

Georges Braque at Varengeville oil on canvas 2015 100 x 60 cm

The latest picture in this series is called Georges Braque at Varengeville and comes from the b/w photograph at the beginning of Edwin Mullins’ 1968 book on Braque, the first modern master I learned from. Unlike my contemporaries who went to art school, I chose that master before I had fully sharpened my life drawing (honed at the Ruskin School while I was studying English at the University of Oxford). A sort of reverse development from conceptual to perceptual. This picture does not, as I proposed before, try to develop the image via a Braqueian idiom – though when Braque died I had painted a broadly cubist memorial picture: Flowers for George, 1964.

Flowers for George copy

Flowers for George oil on canvas 1964 53 x 40.5 cm

The recent picture accentuates the wonderful seed fronds of grasses which blaze across his silhouetted jacket, like braid on a military uniform: shapes which Braque himself might have wanted to allow to develop into individual entities. Like my old mentor, Tony Oldfield, Braque would not have approved of spatial indicators leading potentially to holes in the picture surface (though I think that the lane does all the same remain more or less vertical like a step-ladder, rather than sliding backwards into depth): he would have tidied and organised the wild growth along the walls of the little canyon which the lane forms. But I wanted Braque set in some confusion and profusion which was not reducible to an organisation of clusters of rational shapes. I saw the silhouette of the painter as an epitome of his elderly self, but the picture widened, tugging at old me, into a statement about age itself. Well, that’s my reaction as the painter, but look and judge for yourself.

The Homages differ from one another, obviously, because they are a response to different personalities and circumstances.

Monet by the Lilly-Pond 2 copy 2

Monet by the Lilly-pond oil on canvas 2007 91.5 x 91.5 cm

Obviously in this one I’ve called Monet by the Lilly-Pond there is a joke about the figure: Monet is so self-consciously posing for the photographer, lying back and holding still, though his right leg wants to pop up as if pulled by the strings on a puppet, and the broad hat prevents one seeing much of the face, just the tip of a nose and a large beard – as often happens in photographs of him outdoors. For me it is all admiration, but irresistably funny – I can’t look at this picture without laughing. Cupped in the curves of the bench, lines of shadow anchor Monet to the ground: behind him there is the lilly-pond back-drop, in a sense his masterpiece. For me a chance to paint a scene, so powerful in Monet’s own pictures that it is almost interdicted as subject-matter for us who come so soon after, was a wonderful experience.

Geoges Braque at Varengeville will be on show in The Forum, Norwich, from July 13 – 17th

I read a piece in the Guardian on 26 May, which said that Fire Songs, by David Harsent, who won the 2014 T S Eliot prize for poetry “the pre-eminent prize for poetry” had so far only sold 151 copies. Wow, I thought; I knew that poets were at the bottom of the ladder economically, the plankton of the arts, who mostly expect to be consumed for free, and could not make a living from selling poems even if they were fairly paid for what they produce. But to win a major prize, and then to sell only 151 copies. Wow.

But it wasn’t quite true. The Guardian then ran a correction: the 151 copies were of the new paperback edition, which had only come out in March; the collection had in fact sold more than 2.000 copies, they said. Oh well, that’s all right then. However, that left a difficulty: The Guardian is on-line, as well as in print. Therefore you can still read the article (about Simon Armitage), but you won’t now find the sentence about Fire Songs in it. I think that’s called redacting.

Mind you, 151 copies sold might be quite good for those of us who haven’t won a literary prize; might at least pay for the printing. The remainder go into the cardboard box labelled “To Be Opened Posthumously If I Suddenly Become Famous.” But why pay for poetry? It’s free, most of it, if you have a computer, which is nice for people like me who like reading poems. But bad for poets, or Makers, if you think that people who make things should be paid a proper price for what they make. At the moment ‘creatives’ seems to be the only word commonly used to cover all those who make things which are without a strictly utilitarian purpose, though I prefer the word Makers (cf William Dunbar’s Lament for the Makirs).

We can’t have a just system of exchange unless there is a system for charging users for the use of intellectual property and paying the Makers a just return. Sorting this out should be somebody’s job, and, lo and behold, there is a British Government Minister for Intellectual Property (bet you didn’t know that). I emailed her before the election; she appears to be in place still, and I have emailed again. When she replies (or if she doesn’t) I will let you know. In the mean time, Makers of the World, Unite!

Think about it.

P1030297

Reflections from Reykjavik

1 Dark into Light (for Jane)

The airbus funnels dumbly through the grey

grey snow, grey sky, the pewter coloured sea

occasional black outcrops of the land

next day is brilliant, and the wind is keen

father and daughter trudging round the streets

as if the gap of years had never been

and houses which were hidden in the murk

flash out like petticoats from inbetween

in red and peppermint and olive green

The landscape doesn’t seek to praise or blame

but all the same

reminds me that some thirty years ago

I said come out, come out into the sun

and out you came

IMG_0354

2   Runes for Leaving (for Boo)

The night before we left the snow did fall

Drifting on roofs and smoothing out the ground

a hazy brightness dancing in the air

utterly still: we saw no-one around.

The houses all stood back to watch us go:

our wheels leaving meander tracks behind,

we crunched down Fjólnisvegur in the snow.

A bend disclosed a family below

Mum, Dad, two kids, the small one on a sledge.

The parents bent, the young boy pulling too,

made runner tracks, and footprints up the hill

which met ours coming down. Briefly, we knew,

these runes would stand, so land could tell the sky

where we had been, where they were going to

Loo card grab

It’s as easy to wreck a small town as it is to wreck a small planet, and in both cases it is done bit by bit.

I live in a small village on the edge of Harleston, one of a string of small market towns along the Suffolk/Norfolk border, industrious, fun to live in centres for the hinterland they serve, and in parts quite beautiful. These towns have had their share of pressure, from the economy, but also from unsympathetic expansion, bad planning, and administrative cock-ups. But they have in the past fought back. For instance, an attempt to impose parking charges on Harleston, which would have had a dire effect on trade, was repulsed by the townspeople.

But Harleston has been caught out by the latest insult, the closure of the town’s only public toilets, and their replacement by new automated loos you have to pay for, as on a railway terminus The former loos (locked up) are in a small redbrick, pantiled building next to the large redbrick, pantiled Budgens supermarket, in a square above the Thoroughfare used for parking. They are a bit rustic, but perfectly serviceable, (when open) as far as I can see, though they are unfortunately rather too distant from the market and the main street. The population is ageing, and none of our bladders are getting more expansive, so what was needed was more available loos in more places, not an inferior replacement of what we already have. But wait a minute; there was some years ago another set of loos next to the Cornhall, excellently placed for the Market wasn’t there? Yes BUT, through some form of benign neglect, these were allowed to dwindle and be converted to a dwelling. Meantime Harleston is growing. There isn’t a dwindling need for loos.

P1030279

New loos could have been placed in the town’s other car park where they would in principle have been useful, and where they would at least not have clashed with other buildings. In fact the new block not only looks temporary, it looks silly. Anyone with one eye could have told the planners that it was going to look silly, but apparently there was a shortage of one-eyed people at the time. The block has been carefully oriented to make an alley-way between its front and the old toilet block, so that those who might wish to vandalize it are carefully screened from view – we know from past experience that things placed there are likely to be vandalized
P1030362

Adding injury to insult, this new block requires us to pay, though it is sited in middle of the free parking area which the town fought for. Didn’t anybody think that was a contradiction? What we now have is a bit of bad French basic design, in a metal box, dumped alongside the vernacular red brick. It doesn’t even sit happily on the tarmac. The only consolation is that as its complicated systems break down they will provide employment for the town’s plumbers, electricians and engineers.

The joy of using them will not add to the pleasure of the Harleston experience.

The worst part of it all is that the new loo-block must have been studied by a mort of people – planners, architects, councillors, and so on in the planning stages. Put your hand up if you voted for it. And what horrors are you planning next?

DP & Boo in Reykjavik

DP & Boo in Reykjavik

A Private View in Reykjavik

My daughter Boo said “Let’s take a trip to Iceland to celebrate your birthday”. So we did. The first time we went down town to visit the Art Museum we found it hard to find, in a very cold wind that took away one’s concentration. So by the time we arrived it was shut. There’s not a lot of day in Iceland at this time of year: it gets light around 10am and dark by 5pm, so we were surprised it closed so early. However, the next day we got there in good time.

“I can’t sell you a ticket”, said the lady behind the desk, “because the galleries are closed for an Opening.” And indeed, people were wandering about the middle of the ground floor with glasses in their hands. So we crept upstairs, in this clean, functional and rather fine building, and across to a picture window looking out onto the harbour, at the other side. It was very large, with a disconcerting crack at the bottom right hand corner of the glass, as if someone had hurled themselves at the window in a frenzied attempt to get out.

A friendly elderly curator came over to us, and we three chatted for a while, looking out of the window – about the weather, the population of Iceland, and so on. Then he said to Boo “Why don’t you put your rucksack in one of the lockers downstairs: then you can join in.” The lockers were facing the public and free: you just put the key back in when you had retrieved your things. No ‘Security’, as in airports: just informal friendliness.

The Opening now began. We were all welcomed in English. “But now,” said the
speaker, “I must say a few words in Icelandic-” which of course left some of us floundering. Icelandic is apparently (it says here) a fully inflected language, and because it has, with rather more success than the Academie Francaise, resisted absorbing foreign words, there is little for an incomer to latch on to. So the sound of Icelandic rippled on for a while, like the sound of a stream rippling over pebbles, not that you could see the bottom, however. At the end people applauded: I failed to do this, through some vague mimsy fear that I might be endorsing some improbable view or demand, which made me feel mean and discourteous. But at that point the galleries were opened, and we all traipsed upstairs.

The main exhibition seemed to be three or four rooms given over to a young American with an improbable name. One room contained groups of two vertical objects, somewhat modified, leaning in pairs on each of the walls. There was a ski, for instance, a vacuum cleaner, and a skateboard with the face of Bart Simpson on it. In the next room there were vertical video screens each containing a still figure in the upper half, while the lower half contained a moving reflection in water of what was above, quivering and shimmering as you looked at it. Another room held a large video screen playing a loud repeating loop: a basket ball player, seen from behind, bouncing a ball, and then throwing it, jump cut to a frontal view of the player, and then back to the bouncing again

I said to Boo “This seems to be an artist with lots of technical skill and no imagination.” “Hush,” she said, ” He may be just behind you.” I don’t have any objection to conceptual art, but how often does it really grab me? It’s been around a long time now – the R Mutt “Fountain” Man Ray’s |”Gift,” and Meret Oppenheim’s fur-lined tea-cup were early twentieth century, and the business of Art shocking people, or even provoking them, is worn, apart from being extremely difficult nowadays – Goya’s Desastros seem no more than a note on reality.

In another gallery were some very large paintings by Erro, whose work I didn’t know before. I was rather distracted from the pictures themselves by their sheer size.- they went on for yards. Having recently struggled to get two 6 x 4 foot canvasses into the back of my estate car in such a way that I could drive without looking (and feeling) like Houdini doing an escape, I wondered how you could transport them without doing damage. Anyhow, they were blown up versions of smaller collages, also on show, They were homages to particular painters, or groups of painters. The format was constructed of meandering paralell lines, with paintings or bits of paintings in the collages stuck down between these lines, the whole thing then blown up large-size and painted throughout. There was a Miro panel, a Matisse panel and a German Expressionist panel. I share the attraction of making a copy of a painting you particularly like, partly to see how it is done, partly to get to know the work better. Of course it also relieves you of worry, as the outcome is already a fine solution. I did enjoy the panache of these pictures and the manic energy it took to produce so many of them.

When we went downstairs we found that there were no post-cards of these, presumably current, works. The old story with lack of post-cards. I also couldn’t find a postcard of work by Louisa Matthiasdottir, another painter I hadn’t know before, but whose work I had seen in a large heavy monograph in a shop at the National Theatre. There was also a largish painter of hers there, donated by the family, hanging in the gloom of the atrium. To my mind it was the wrong picture: one of her over-simplified Icelandic horse pictures, not one of the intense self-portraits. A few more of her pictures would have brightened the place up.

The post-card problem returned when we got back to London. We went to the British Museum. There used to be a large collection of post-cards as you went in, down a corridor to the left. Now it seemed there was only a very shrunken selection of PCs in part of the rotunda. The PC was and is the foundation of the poor man’s, or stdent’s, art gallery, as well as a little celebration of companionship – as when a gaggle of Italian girls out on a spree would all sign a card to someone – it was cheap, celebratory and joyful.

Here is a suggestion to the Post Office: bring back the cheap rate for post-cards. They are the perfect vehicle for short communication. My old tutor, who could get more words on a card than most, used to say that it was a perfect way of not having to settle down to a serious letter. And the picture is a bonus. There is nothing, in this era of the insubstantial screen image, like a real physical object, delivered by hand. Bring back the cheap PC rate, and see the traffic increase.

But I keep forgetting: the Post Office isn’t ours now. It’s Private.

Morning at the Cross copy

Syleham Morning Looking North; Brian at his workshop oil on canvas 4 x 6 feet

Back in the ‘seventies, when I lived part & then full-time in a cottage at the Cross, Syleham, Suffolk, I decided to paint these 6 x 4 foot pictures of the view from the cottage upstairs windows, looking North in the morning, down to the Waveney & Brockdish village, and South in the evening at the humpback hills and the road leading up to Wingfield. At that time Brian lived next door (there was a kind of flying freehold). Queenie Harper lived a bit further along, in the lodge of Monk’s Hall, with her husband, the Estate gamekeeper at that time. Queenie had known the urban life, having been a barmaid at the Maid’s Head hotel in Norwich in her time.

Her husband had served in the war: he told me that after a fierce battle to establish the army in Italy his detachment were called out by the commanding officer, who said: “Now you men. You all come from a farming background, and as you can see, there are no able-bodied men hereabouts, and it’s harvest time. So you are going to get the harvest in.” They were fallen out, into this country of women, children and old men. And when the harvest was duly gathered, they were fallen in again, and continued fighting their way up Italy. There’s a film-script in that.

Looking South the road up the hill on the right led I believe to the house where Margo Mellis had lived with Frances Davidson. (Earlier Margo had lived in Cornwall, and befriended Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth when they fled London & came to an unknown St Ives). That was before my time, but the area obviously attracted artists.

The Old King’s Head in Brockdish is being reopened by Vicky Townley (a member of the Harleston & Waveney Art Trail) and her husband. Great news for the village, which used to have two pubs, a post office/shop and a restaurant. Good news for artists too, as paintings etc will be on show in the new Old King’s Head.

The opening is on Thursday the 19th Feb at twelve o’clock. All welcome.

Evening at the Cross

Syleham Evening Looking South; Queenie Harper Riding By. oil on canvas 4 x 6 feet

Somewhere in the corner of the room there has been a lot of discussion about the Arts in the last few days. The Guardian carried an interview with Julie Walters (Sat 24 Jan) in which she said that she, and working class kids like her, probably wouldn’t get into drama school today. This came in the context of a spat about a supposed dominance of silver-spoon singers and actors initiated by the Labour shadow culture minister Chris Bryant. There is an argument to be has as to whether ‘working-class’ is an adequate label any longer, but we know what Julie Walters means.

I would like to start the next paragraph “The fact is…” but we are desperately short of facts. Very little serious research is done into ‘cultural’ education. As a surmise there are probably fewer working class students studying and training on Arts courses these days, for two reasons. Firstly because this education is no longer easily available to the poorest potential students. The Education Ministry over decades pursued a relentless policy of pushing up entrance requirements. As I’ve pointed out before, this was a civil service policy, because until Gove, the average life of a Minister was about two years, which would not have given them the time to take on board and modify existing policy. Back in the ’60s Art and Design course were a conduit into higher education for working-class students; it was fairly easy in those days to get a place on a course.

Secondly this education is no longer free. Presumably the prospect of being lumbered with a £40,000 debt by the time you start work will put off students proportionately the poorer their background.

So far as raising the entry bar goes, in the late ‘sixties we were able to show that having five O levels or two A levels or no qualifications at all had very little influence on outcomes. Most Art & Design students in those days obtained employment related to their study within three months of leaving college. (Ritchie Dight Frost and Dight : The Employment of Art College Leavers HMSO 1972) This put paid to the myth that thousands of long-haired art school leavers were swelling the dole queues, so the report was sneaked out in the Summer recess. in the hope that no-one would notice it. The Ministry, faced with an actual concrete fact, continued nonetheless to push up the entrance qualifications in some drive for uniformity. But every rise in the bar meant denying access to a cohort of working class students. There is no good reason for these requirements: they should be dropped.

The second obstacle, affordability, requires a radical solution. Of course there is a problem of cost to the State when it expands education. Leaving aside the increase in cost itself, the proposition that it should be left to the Colleges to set the fees was crazy. The colleges immediately pitched their fees at the top end of possible charge, to show that they were not inferior to anyone else. Students meanwhile became lumbered with debt. It all was done in bad faith too, because the (non-silver-spoon) MPs who voted for these charges had mostly themselves been the beneficiaries of a free education.

A graduate tax system, which I read is to be advocated by Peter Hain in his new book The Future of Socialism, implies that the community (The State) accepts responsibility for enabling its citizens to undertake education or training to they level they require, while beneficiaries repay the community by paying somewhat higher tax over their lifetime, rather than carrying a mesmerizing individual loan debt at the beginning of their career. I associate this (I’m afraid wrongly) with “Here come I, Little Jack/ With my wife and family on my back!” To which you can add “my student loan and my mortgage”

So far I have talked about access to the Arts via education.
; there needs also to be much discussion about accessibility of the Arts, and the conditions of work and remuneration of the Arts makers. Here are some notes for that discussion:

1 The Arts are not a frill. They are a major industry in which (because of past investment) this country excels. It is in the natonal interest to sustain it.

2 If you want a peak of excellence, you have to maintain a broad base

3 A healthy arts ecology depends on artists of all varieties (writers, actors, musicians, painters, potters, designers etc) receiving a fair percentage of the profits made from their work. The Government can ensure a fair market-place, but does not.

I have given up on Sayid Javid. He doesn’t seem to have done anything as Culture Minister (please explain otherwise if you are listening). In any case the election is coming and he won’t be in post much longer. What I think anyone who cares about this area should do just now is to write to the political parties and ask them for their Arts policies. If, in the memorable words of someone interviwed by the BBC in a Grays Working Men’s Club the other day, “UKIP are Tories in Drag”, maybe they have a good line on drama?

I’ve always enjoyed an event in those early comedy films (was that the Marx Brothers?) where a banknote is given to someone and then artfully retrieved from the distracted recipient by a piece of string attached to it. Something like that has recently happened to a painting of mine which used to sit in a flat belonging to an old friend in the rue Baubourg in Paris. This enabled me to say that, although I didn’t have a painting in the Tate or the Pompidou, in both cases I did have one next door. Well, very sadly our old friend has died, and the painting has returned to England, to live on the wall of a London sitting room, so my dining-out sentence no longer works.

 

The painting is one of those which sits in a particular period of work, of which you say that you couldn’t do that now. Not entirely true, but an approximation: the technical ability may still be there, who knows, but the drive to produce this particular work, of this kind of work, has gone elsewhere. The conviction would be missing.

I couldn’t do that now!

 

Sayid Javid, (the new Minister for the Arts), was interviewed in The Guardian on Friday 6th June. What he said was hardly a manifesto, but we might as well start there. He said:  “I’ve made it clear that I didn’t grow up in the kind of family that went to the Donmar Warehouse [in London] or even the Bristol Old Vic. To be frank, it was a treat to get to the cinema to see a movie.”   Mark Lawson, interviewing him, continues: ” ..both the nature and variety of his childhood cultural experiences have informed his call that culture must be genuinely “for all,” drawing in those who have felt excluded by lack of money, education, or, most worryingly, by race or class. Javid is concerned with statistics showing that people from “black and minority ethnic” and “lower socio-economic” groups are much less likely to engage with the arts or to apply for jobs and grants in the sector. Why is that so?”  “Well, I’m asking the question. I’m not going to sit here without any research and come up with the answer.   I’m going to talk to people, maybe feed in my own experiences, and see what can be done to increase accessibility and diversity” This seems to mean that Javid believes in evidence-based policy. Let’s hope it does.

 

The one really weighty piece of research into Art and Design in our time, which flashes like a beacon, was Ritchie, Dight and Frost’s The Employment of Art School Leavers (HMSO 1972), research which was undertaken under the aegis of Margaret Thatcher  (who, the article tells us, is Javid’s ‘democratic hero’). The Ministry of Education, however, was intent on slimming down Art and Design, and so the intention, as justification, was to show an overproduction of students receiving a final qualification, who thus swelled the ranks of the unemployed. But the Report showed, contrariwise, that nearly three quarters of qualified students obtained an employment related to their studies within three months of completing their course, a better result than achieved by graduates from many other courses at that time. As this was definitely not the message the Ministry wanted, the Report was sneaked out in the Summer Recess, so as not to be noticed. I was on holiday like everyone else: in fact I was in the bath in St Ives when Richard Bourne, then Education Correspondent for The Guardian, rang to ask if I would like to review it. It became clear that the authors of the Report had not been properly briefed, that is to say, had not been made aware that there was a vigorous debate going on in the Art and Design sector about relevant entrance qualifications, Fortunately we were able, with the help of a friendly peer, to get some of the statistics re-run, to show that, in terms of outcome, there was no difference between those who had entered with 5 “O” levels and 1-2 “A” levels, and only a marginal difference between those with no “O” levels or 1-2 “O” levels. That is to say you didn’t do better because you started off with more academic qualifications.. This was obvious to those of us in the sector, but it was nice to have it officially stated. In fact the information was already available in the shape of Royal College of Art statistics. but there are none so blind as those who don’t wish to see.

 

The Schools of Art and Design since the war had been an admirable mix: women made up a large proportion of the intake, and working-class students learnt comfortably beside middle and upper class students. Within the melting-pot of Art and Design, students were equal, and it was what you created that mattered, not where you came from. That’s not to say that class didn’t impinge. One of my second year students, part of our interviewing panel, advised firmly that we should not accept the applicant we had just interviewed. “Why not?” I asked. “Because you can’t make a sow’s ear out of a silk purse!” But the central point is that Art and Design courses were a conduit into creative employment for working-class students; academic qualifications were broadly irrelevant to the skills needed and acquired. And each time the entrance qualification barrier was raised (because of some specious need to achieve uniformity across the system), another cohort of working-class people was denied access to this particular path into skill and employment. Furthermore, it is not enough to make the Arts available to all, though that is a worthy aim: they must also be made by all. And it follows that gifted individuals must be enabled to enter the system, whatever stratum of society they originally come from.

 

What was true in the early seventies is sadly still true now. Potential students from certain groups, as we are all ceaselessly reminded, are unlikely to have the (irrelevant) entrance qualifications required of them. So if Javid wants to increase access for “black and minority ethnic” and “lower socio-economic” groups, he should seek to get entrance qualification barriers lowered. I’ll say that again: it makes sense to reduce the entry requirements. Now that Gove has been forced out, there may be people in the Education Ministry who will listen to reason On the 6th of June 1968 Sir John Summerson, addressing the assembled members of Hornsey College of Art, Crouch End Hill, said that there were loop-holes in the entrance requirements for his new qualification: “It’s a doorway – but you think it should be a triumphal arch.”  Well, yes! That’s what we thought then, and it’s what we think now.

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