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Cafe du Medoc, Avenue Camille Pelatan. Rochefort-Sur-Mer, oil on canvas

A revised version of an earlier blog

This story has to begin at school,. That is to say, Southend High School for Boys. A custom-built, well-designed school on a large patch of land, in an anonymous style, neither ancient nor modern. it was run on the premise that it was a ‘Grammar School’ (which of course it wasn’t), and Cyril Sheldrake, the senior English master, who looked remarkably like the official portrait of Shakespeare (a resemblance that he did not reject) said that it should have just concentrated on being a good school without flummery. The designation”Grammar School’ had been purloined by the 1944 Eduation Act for the top ‘academic’ layer of schools The residue were taught in schools called Secondary Modern: there was supposed to be a third tier of ‘Secondary Technical’ schools, but they hardly got off the gtound. However, there it was: our masters wore black gowns, and full University fig on public occasions, leaving the Wood-work teacher in a manual brown jacket, and the Gymn-Master in nothing specific to cover his muscles.The school, with about 600 boys was predominately staffed by men; broadly speaking half left over from the 14/18 war, and half from men who had seen action in ’39/45.

There were three women-teachers as I remember it, Miss Bamford, Miss Gare and Mrs Alexander leading to  a song which started “Some talk of Alexander, and some of Mother Gare`’… but I don’t know how it went on. All I remember of Miss Bamford (who taught Geography) was that she once said to me “The trouble with you, Page, is that you think you know too much.’ I comsidered questioning the logic of this statement, ie ok in New Guinea Pidgin, but not in English) but didn’t. Mrs Alexander must have taught German: I only knew her as an RE teacher constantly talking about the Oberammergau passion play. Doris Gare, however, taught French in the lower classes, and was young enough that an occasional boy would pretend to have dropped a pen from his desk to look up her skirt while retieving it -vor trying to, anyhow. It must have been Doris who got the school involved in a French exchange scheme. 

My parents accepted that an exchange would be a good thing, so we signed up for it. I had of course experience of being put on a train to destination unknown, but that was in 1940, with the rest of Earls Hall Infants, carrying a large teddy-bear, and only for foreign parts as far away as Whaley Bridge in Lancashire, tho’ that felt foreign enough at five years old. This time foreign parts meant France. I don’t recall being apprehensive, or worrying about not being understood. In fact the effect of the experience was that I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know French. I’m not saying my French is good, you understand – just that it is somehow ingrained, I was met at the Gare du Nord, by Monsieur Nash, a concierge who managed a warehouse in the Quatorzieme Arrondisment: I suppose he must have waved a placard with my name on it. I stayed the night at his place, and the next day he put me on the train to Rochefort-Sur-Mer. 

Oddly M. Nash was in fact English , but had lived in Paris since his youth. I don’t know how he managed through the German Occupation but in his blue cotton jacket  trousers and beret he looked like any other French working man. He had pretty well forgotten English: we spoke French and sign-language). I asked him what English words he remembered and he replied,with great relish. “PLUM-PUDDING?,”

When I arrived at Rochefort I would have been met at the station by Madame Masson and her son Paul, my exchange partner. A short walk up the road, and left into the Avenue Camille Pelaton took you to the Cafe du Medoc, a two storey building, red-tile-roofed, with small plane trees at intervals along the pavement. M. Masson would have been in the Cafe, in his role as Patron: it was open all week, early morning to late evening. and he hardly ever left it. I was given my own room upstairs in the house, so there I was in France.

Someone had matched our two families: I wonder who, and how they did it; I suppose you could say that we were at equivalent levels in society – and both walking distance from the Railway Station! However, my father travelled up to the City, every day, to work as a salaried Insurance Clerk whereas M. Masson rarely travelled anywhere, and ran his own business. Both families were aspirational for their son: perhaps that was the link.

At our sub-Arts & Crafts Revival semi detatched house in Prittlewell, we had bed-rooms, living-room, kitchen and bathroom, and a garden The Cafe ground-floor had a kitchen behind, with the public area also serving as a living-room. There was no bathroom, and the loo was outside the side entrance to the cafe, consisting of the usual continental hole in the ground with two foot positions, and a bar on the door to hold onto when squatting. It could be hard on the stomach muscles if someone outside was trying to pull the door open to take a pee, which, as this was a cafe, was often. The loo paper was quartered sheets from l’Equipe (the French cycle-racing paper) on a wire Baths were taken at the local Bath-house where you could luxuriate in an individual bath cubicle with unlimited, very hot, bright yellow water from the river Charente. silt and all. Otherwise washing was in the sink downstairs, or jug and bowl upstaires.

Cycle racing was important to the Cafe; as I was there in the summer holiday, it was the height of the Tour de France. M. Masson would stand on a stool each day to write the day’s final placings, with a stick dipped in white distember, on the large mirror behind the bar – cleaned off at the end of each dayready for the next set of results. He did leave the bar just twice that I can remember, and I was taken along to see the Tour pass – hours of commercial vehicles before and after, with a very brief flash of contenders. Those were the glory days of riders like Fausto Coppi. One rider who appealed to me was Robic, a fiery little man, who, when someone stepped in front of him, causing him to fall, picked up his bike and bashed the offender with it, before mounting and pedalling on. Paul and I had bicycles and rode around the town and country: later I often rode out of Rochefort by myself, sketching in the countryside. Something different was that the bikes, unlike English ones, had a police registration number. However, cycling was elevated by my experience in France: I rode (my longest expedition) from Southend to Coniston (where I learned that I had got into Oxford) and back again, and then regularly rode to work from Isllington to Walthamstow or Plaistow.

Life in France seemed easy-going, but depressed. The country, after all, had lost two major warson its own territory, whereas the Brits, who had not been invaded, could pretend that they had won. I was not particularly aware of politics at the time, except that my second exchange visit to France coincided with the Korean war. As the Americans pushed up the west coast, and were then pushed back again by the Chinese I discovered from the French Papers that National Service was to be extended from one and a half to two years: not a prospect I liked the look of. My brief time in the Sea-Scouts was enough of militarism. I can’t remember whether I dropped out or was expelled for not knowing my knots.

Madame Masson was a sweet-natured woman, 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, ech time asking “Ils sont a combien les oeufs, Madame?” and so on, finally returning to the best offer.

Fort Boyard from L’Isle d’Aix, oil on board

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 a not-quite ancient monument. On the coast one day we prized oysters off the rocks. Then we went to a casse-croute cafe with outside tables: you took your own food and just bought drink. Madame had brought a long French loaf and butter to eat with the oysters and we ordered a bottle of local white wine, drunk slightly wam in the sunlight: it was one of the great meals of my life. I must have gone many times to Fouras, sculling a dingy we were given access to, 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; nobody seemed to notice, or think that was odd.

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 probably 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.”

Paul was smaller than me, with a fine voice. He loved singing. Some of the time, during the holidays, he had to do written exercises for some coaching-by-mail organisation, apparently common in France at the time. In between times, when we weren’t doing anything else, we played ping-pong on a table in the yard, and chess. He was a bit highly strung and kicked me if I took his queen; being bigger, I bullied him (sorry. Paul). At any rate it didn’t become a long-term friendship, and I don’t know what happened to him thereafter.

haystacks, Charente Maritime. pastel on paper

However, I realised, sometime 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 education and conviction, both townsman and countryman, and a human being on this (for the time being) unique planet.

The wasps take slivers from the shed

to make a paper home to raise their grubs.

Our forebears managed much the same for us:

My study’s paper; floor to ceiling books 

and files: this black one here for instance

holds the illicit letters you wrote me

(I hope you hoarded mine away as well),

Brown envelopes like fallen leaves – inside,

your calm Italic clarity describes

day to day news, but always ends with love

So urgent, and so strong.

Now we’re together, always, we don’t say

the things you say in letters:

more a diminuendo than a pause

from holding breath to hear the postman call,

or catch the post in time. And after all

The paper age is over: all that’s done. The Finns 

don’t even teach their kids to write;

the paperless perform

their offices in transit on their phones.

The paper age is over: bring back trees!


What’s left to us are these

last letters of our loves, our generations

that maybe‘d make some sort of sense hereafter

at least to wasps, or bees.


My mother was an industrious person. My father was a marine insurance clerk in the City, and consequently spent most of his life away in London during the week. This was when a man’s income was enough for the mortgage, a wife, and two children. My mother never did paid work after my sister was born (in September 1939 – so she was pushing a pram when others were doing war-work). But she went to the Municipal College, Southend-on-Sea, where she did pottery and glove-making classes – these are the ones I remember, but she probably did others – and after my father died, (because he had been in charge of wood) she also did cabinet-making. The afternoon classes at the Municipal College were known as ‘The Mum’s Classes’: they were generally driven out of the Art Colleges thereafter on the grounds that they were low-level and therefore tending to decrease the perceived tone of the institutions. Oh the stupidity of prestige-inflation! Anyhow, that is where she met Norah Oldfield, who taught the vocational painting class, and so Norah’s husband Tony, who was Deputy Head of the Art School. 

The Oldfields opened a different world for me, in which Art was not a secondary activity, and Art could be Life. Probably prompted by them I signed up for a Life Drawing Class. I was 18, about to go to Oxford. I had drawn and painted seriously since my mid-teens, but never in a formal environment.

I suppose, given the enormous expansion of our visual world, that most people now know what a Life Class is like: a circle of people with easels, desks or note-books, and a naked person, or occasionally two, in the middle, holding a pose for so many minutes (quick pose, long-pose), sitting, standing or lying down, while the onlookers try to draw what they see.

Initially,  when drawing Quentin Crisp, (and being unused to the Life Drawing event) I was slightly fazed by the blue-tinted hair, blue toe and finger-nails, and the somewhat grey (powdered?) skin.  But that disappeared when we were faced with the five-minute poses, which are standard in life drawing classes, and are meant to liberate the drawing (and/or those drawing), from a cramped concentration on accuracy, getting them instead to use fast expressive lines and smudges. At this point Quentin prided himself on extraordinary feats. For instance, holding the stretchers of an ordinary wooden chair he would pose, upside-down, his bum on the edge of the chair seat and his legs stiffly extended resting on the chair-back and up into the air. This was an athletic feat in itself, let alone holding the pose for five minutes; a sort of model’s Olympic Medal performance, the pole vault in, not slow, but no- motion. Magnificent.

I’m not sure on how many occasions I drew him. At any rate, for a long while I kept one of those drawings, but it seems to have disappeared, as these flimsy items do. Because so many of us drew him them, it seems to me that there should be a site stuffed with life drawings of him as model somewhere on the web, as a tribute to him and, by extension to all who have posed.

As I can’t do this homage, here is another drawing instead.  Robin Hughes and I used to go to the John Cass College for an evening’s relaxed drawing after a day of teaching. On this particular occasion, for some reason, there was a real dead swan suspended behind the model. Sometimes the surround, and the other people drawing, became more important than the model.

The joy was when a drawing you were doing took off, like a large bird.

Bits of My Life: “Too Good for Working People”

When I was at Corpus Christi College Oxford, studying for a degree in English Literature, the MP for Southend West, where my parents lived & I grew up, was Henry ‘Chips’ Channon, who memorably said in his diaries that it was difficult to go out without spending £100. At that time my father, a Marine Insurance clerk in the City of London, to and from which he commuted every weekday by train, was earning less than £20 a week. It was in my second year at Corpus Christi College, Oxford that Henry’s son Paul came to Christ Church College, dubbed ‘The House,’ next door. He had been in the Army before that. Well, before he had time to finish his degree his father Henry died. Lord and Lady Iveagh, of the Guiness family were patrons of Southend West Conservative Association, Henry having married Lady Honor, their daughter. So it was decided that Paul should succeed his father, the seat being a safe Conservative one. Apparently there were 129 applicants for the candidature, and a campaign was run against the nomination, by the Daily Express, on the grounds that it looked liked nepotism. But Paul was the chosen candidate. His grandmother, the former MP but one, congratulated voters for: “backing a colt when you know the stable he was trained in.”

In due course I was living in Islington and teaching at South Grove, Tottenham, an outpost, one of many, of Hornsey College of Art. I used each weekday to cycle past a plot of land in Tottenham which was due to be developed. At some point a sign went up on the site, bearing a message which went something like this: “ Your Council wishes to build homes on this site, but the Ministry thinks they are too good for working people, signed, David Page”. It was intriguing to have a namesake on Haringey Council: it gave me some satisfaction to ride past it every day, and I could see possibilities in this conjuncture. I wrote to my namesake and told him that if he wanted to be more explicit I would be happy to oblige, for instance with a letter to the press which would have the advantage of deniability – “Not my words” he could have said, “But those of another fellow of the same name.” Quite properly he didn’t reply.

Later I got to know an architect who had worked on the design for the site. To make the best of it they had come up with an innovative ziggurat design, with mono-pitch roofs. It might have looked very impressive, but the Minister, Paul Channon, turned the plans down because the houses were just over the Ministry cost-yard-stick for local authority housing. So the Architect’s Department had to start design, planning, etc, all over again, to come up with properly working-class-looking housing, not exceeding the yard-stick. But of course, if you counted expenditure already made, well above it. The on-costs were presumably not an issue for the Ministry, nor was the delay in providing the accommodation. But then, as Kurt Vonnegut would say, so it goes.

If anyone wants to know about my Alma Mater, I had two: one was the University of Oxford. The other was Ethel.

It came about this way: I was in some lunch-tume eatery in Oxford when I bumped into Jonathan Wordsworth (whom I knew vaguely at that time), and told him I was looking for a room. “In that case” he said “you had better come round to my place – I think my land-lady has a room spare. She does a good breakfast, and you could stay alive on that and her Sunday lunch.” The breakfast was indeed very good – fruit-juice, corn-flakes, an egg, bacon or the like, toast and marmelade, and tea or coffee. Sunday lunch was as good as my mother made, a full-scale meal. It was an optional extra, and cost as I remember seven shillings and sixpence. Jonathan had his own reason for introducing me: reinforcements, because we two were studying in the English School, and at that time the other students there – all of us post-graduate- were scientists. Breakfast and Sunday lunch took place in the lower ground level, strictly speaking this was Ethel and Wilf’s dining room; there was a long table, and I think, normally six of us sitting round it, with Ethel’s kitchen off the side. After breakfast Ethel would have to do the rooms, with a cleaning lady who came in for two hours, and do the shopping. But she was always available if you wanted to talk to her.

3 St. John Street was at the beginning of a long street of terrace houses, just round the corner from the Ashmolean Museum, and stretching up to Wellington Square; basically they comprised three floors, basement and mansard, and many, maybe most of them then, were landlady-run student houses or B&Bs. You went up steps to the door of No 3; on the wall, inside to the left was, or had been, a notice from the past which read ‘Dogs and bicycles not allowed in the Gentlemen’s rooms,’

There was another small kitchen at the end of the entrance corridor, a  few steps down, with a cooker, a sink and a fridge, for use by residents. I must have complained to Ethel about the poor quality of food available in town: she replied “Get yourself some pans and I’ll teach you to cook.” So I did, and she did teach me – how to make a roux, fricassee of veal, and so on. To all our benefits, she was taking a course in Cordon Bleu Cookery at the time, with a particularly ferocious Chef. “He said ‘When I say fry these onions golden-brown, I DON’T MEAN GOLDEN-BLACK!’ ”

This was at the time when the first non-stick pans came onto the market: Ethel came home giggling from a public demonstration by Philip Harben of the new wonder non-stick pan, where the omelette had inevitably stuck (though I went on using Harben’s Penguin cookery book, one of the early no-nonsense cook-books, without losing faith). What you should do, Ethel said, was never wash your frying-pan, but always wipe it clean with salt & newspaper, reaching a fine patina, and never sticking your omelette. My usual objective was to make a stew large enough to portion out during the week, alarming Spon, a biologist, because of the rate of reproduction of bacteria. (He came home from a lecture one day, delighted to have discovered that the fungi which preyed on timber were officially designated White Rotters and Brown Rotters).

The household met for breakfast, and then we went of to our rooms, our work, and to our individual circles of people in the University. On Sundays, however, we would often go to the pub (usually the Walton Arms), together with Wilfred to drink bitter & play darts before lunch. Wilfred was Ethel’s husband, a commercial travellor for Chunky Marmelade at that time. Occasionally, and that must have meant as passengers in Wilfred’s car, we went for a walk in Bagley Woods with Arnold, who was Forestry, or to the Bear and Ragged Staff at Cumnor. We were allowed to be both a community and very distinct individuals.

The house had a garden behind, with a small one-story flat, at the end of it. A large garden door gave onto the lane behind. Ethel and Wilfred had lived in the flat post-war when accommodation was hard to find. Wilf’s father had been Manciple of St John’s so the house was a college servant’s tenancy, the student rooms let out by his wife. The alley itself was a convenient tryst-place for three tarts who operated in the centre of Oxford, known as Freeman, Hardy and Willis after the shop they paraded in front of. Wilf said: “The door would go rattle rattle rattle, and you’d hear her say “You’ll have to hurry up – i’ve got another gentleman coming in ten minutes.”

Ethel had at one time been a dental nurse. I think (she mentioned parties at which laughing gas was sniffed). During the war she had worked for the Civilian Repair Organisation in a team based in Magdalen College, to recover parts from crashed aircraft, which were quickly used to bring other planes up to scratch (79,000 aircraft were restored to the flight-line by the time it was wound up in 1945). Parts in transit were leaned against college buildings. It must have been a sight worthy of Paul Nash (who was a War Artist, and did once have a small private exhibition in 3 St John’s St.) The elderly dons who were left behind in college, younger dons having gone off to the War, grumbled about this desecration: “There they sat” said Ethel “Eating their strawberries and cream, as if there wasn’t any rationing!” But in the War one did what one could, of course. One of Ethels close friends then, she related, was very good-looking, and traded on her looks to get coupon-less meals in restaurants and so on. One of her admirers pestered her to the point that she eventually said “Oh all right then” and took him back to her bedroom. But then , when he got it out, “Ethel”, she said, “I’ve never been so insulted in all my life! It was just like a little white propelling pencil! I told him to leave on the spot.” As to Ethel’s war-time work with aircraft, it was rumoured in the house that she had been offered a gong , but had turned it down. Ethel and Wilf were living in the flat at the end of the garden when Wilf’s mother announced that she was giving it up, so Ethel decided to take it on – she had her son’s education to think about.

Apart from dogs and bicycles, there didn’t seem to be any formal rules; everything was on trust. It was informally understood that women were to be out of the house by an elastic 10 pm. I was standing in the hall talking to Ethel when one girl danced past and out. “She looks like the cat that got the cream,” Ethel said. There was a serious temporary blip in Jonathan’s love-life when he caught the mumps – clearly also a threat to the whole house. We teetered at his scarcely open door and shouted “How do you feel?” He shouted back “Like half a superman!” Ethel was dispatched to buy an outsize jock-strap and a roll of cotton-wool. As things returned to normal Jonathan asked the Doctor about his condition “How will I know if I’m still fertile? ‘The Doctor shrugged; “Trial and error” Jonathan said “I’ll take care of the trials if you take care of the errors.”

When there were celebrations in the house, everyone joined in. I remember one party of mine when Derek, a welcomed visiting friend, and I, drew large murals on brown wrapping paper to decorate the walls: among other dishes Paul Banham brought a large bowl of Chile con Carne which I had not eaten before, and we all drank and made merry, Ethel and Wilf included. In the years after we left, former students, and their friends, and former girl-friends were regular visitors to 3 St John’s St.

I suppose that we were lucky to be at the apogee of 3 St John Street. Though Etherl and Wilf were told their tenancy would not be withdrawn, at the same time the Burser of St John’s gradually increased the rent until it was no longer possible to continue, because normal students in turn could not afford the rents. No doubt a combination of forces would have put paid to the Oxford landlady/digs system, but it was pushed on its way by the unthinking greed of St Johns – a classic case of the part acting against the interest of the whole. Landladies skimped, dipped into their savings, and gave up parts of their own accomodation to make ends meet, but eventually couldn’t and so a whole ecology in parts of Oxford became unviable. Worse than that, the job was no longer enjoyable – there was no fun left. Ethel and Wilf gave up the tenancy in 1963.

The following years were very hectic ones for me: somehow or other I lost touch with Ethel. When I sent her a copy of a children’s book of mine which had been published, hoping she would have enjoyed it, I got no reply. Probably there was no forwarding address and it never reached her.

She’s on that lengthening list of people I loved. who would have understood, and are no longer around.


 
blog, more pix & poems at:
davidpageartist.wordpress.com

When I was young

I’d go into a field and draw

small boys would come to twitch and say ‘Are you a real

artist Mister?’ – if I knew I’d tell

I’d pull my bike

out of the hedge, re-pack my box,

& dawdle to the edge of town

past oak and dancing counterpoint of elm

the natural language of that place and time.

My student and my wander years behind

back in the city, on my bike again

I ride to Greengate House from Hanley Road

through Stratford’s acrid air, return

over the railway bump,

past the Precision Screw

Co Ltd and then

the Balls Pond Road to swing into Green Lanes

riding the traffic with a boatman’s skill

and wondering if ugliness can kill.

There’s pride in action; I am not aware

that trees are dying as I ride

the city gapes, a concrete trap

with me inside

while in some country lanes I once knew well

trees wither, get cut down, or fall

the country dwellers pick their sockets clean

there is no way to tell where they have been

– nobody sets a tombstone for a tree.

And was it you who forced me to discover

a tree-shaped absence in my mind?

to tell the truth, I really don’t recall

how the elms looked at all.

Why did it take me so long to remember

what I had so efficiently forgot?

It took me till I hit my head to know

the elms had gone.

I did not see them go

Hornsey Please Avoid copy

The basic story is this: students held a teach-in at Hornsey College of Art, and once everyone got talking about Art Education, rather than their subjects, they found the whole set-up profoundly unsatisfactory, so they refused to leave (and stayed in place for six weeks), reviewing the situation and issuing discussion documents. Staff who agreed with the students joined them; Guildford College came out too, after which there was action at most of the English Schools of Art & Design. The intellectual and creative worlds were sympathetic or enthusiastic; delegations were sent out; a book was written and published by Penguin Education; Pat Holland made a film.

Most of the people whose hands were allegedly on the levers of power said we should address the next lever above, or alongside; the Local Authority (whose Councillors had just been elected in an unexpected Conservative landslide) had no idea what to do; the Education Minister, Shirley Williams, said that the Government had just received a black eye for intervening in an educational dispute, so there was nothing she could do, tho’ she did give us a cup of tea and a biscuit. In this power vacuum the creative debate flourished. Even those, Sir William Coldstream and Sir John Summerson, who had set up the new system in Art & Design Education, the new Diploma in Art and Design, (supposed to be, but not actually, degree-level – ie if you went out & got a job as a teacher you weren’t paid the same rate as a graduate -) joined the debate in a friendly way. This was an intellectual revolution, not street-fighting: the only violent act was the sending-in of Alsation dogs and dog-handlers by the local Aldermen to keep students out, quickly neutralised by student dog-lovers (biscuits again). As in Paris, where students were usurping the role of the working class, (according to Revolution Pundits), the Hornsey mob were not making things, drawing, photographing, designing: they were usurping the role of the universities by using their brains rather than their manual skills.

Horn,pow..crush copy 2

Students and staff at Hornsey were doing what William Morris would have wished them to do: that is, they were examining their role in society, and examining the sort of society they might wish to have a role in. Their specific concerns, at a practical level, were summarized as follows by P-BD in The Hornsey Affair: The Educational Debate:

“.first of all, the conditions of entry into our sphere of higher education; secondly, the problem of beginning studies (and by implication, of art education in schools); thirdly, the question of specialisation(the old structure was largely ruled by rigid specialisation); fourth, the out-dated distinction between ‘diploma’ and ‘vocational’ courses in art education; and fifth, the concept of an ‘open-ended’ type of education, with more freedom and flexibility built into it than the old one we were rejecting.”

Honsey Overthrow copy

The Hornsey Affair, p.106

To repeat a most important point, the Hornsey Sit-In debates and documents are simultaneously about the nature of the State and our part in it, about some issues which were current at the time, and some existing structures which needed to be examined and reformed. We did not fight with the Police in the streets as they did in Paris, because here the State was not directly repressive: the local Police were happy to come in and use the canteen, which had been taken over and successfully run by the students.

Some idea of the feeling of the time can be experienced in the Hornsey Film:

 http://player.bfi.org.uk/film/watch-the-hornsey-film-1970

The Hornsey Affair, Penguin Education Special, 1969 was written by many of those who took part in the Sit-In, but has been out of print for some decades. More recently, using material which later became available, Hornsey 1968 by Lisa Tickner, Frances Lincoln, 2008 is a substantial account. And then of course there is the Student Unrest ’68 show at the Tate to look forward to.

Hornsey Parasites copy

 

TO Litho Vine Ladder copyHere are some pictures by Edwin (Tony) Oldfield. To put them in a context I should say that I have been reading the recent Eric Ravilious biography*, which in turn sent me to Tirzah Garwood’s autobiography* I very much enjoyed this last – sometimes a bit naïve, but perceptive, warm and brave, always a real person speaking. Tirzah was married to Eric Ravilious, who had studied at the Royal College of Art under Paul Nash, along with Edward Bawden, Enid Marx and others.The RCA seems to have dwindled into a rather fusty fine art college so William Rothenstein was sent in 1920 to revitalise it, especially in traniing designers. But William Morris’ generous concept of a community of makers was abandoned for a hierarchy in which ‘design’ was distinctly inferior to fine art. It is worth here quoting Morris’ rousing advocacy of a continuum of art and design

Now as to the scope and nature of these Arts I have to say, that though when I come more into the details of my subject, I shall not meddle much with the great art of Architecture, and less still with the great arts commonly called Painting and Sculpture, yet I cannot in my own mind quite sever them from those lesser so-called Decorative Arts, which I have to speak about. It is only in latter times,and under the most intricate conditions of life that they have fallen apart from one another; and I hold that, when they are so parted, it is ill for the Arts altogether:the lesser ones become trivial, mechanical, unintelligent, incapable of resisting the changes pressed on them by fashion or dishonesty; while the greater, however they may be practiced for a while by men of great minds and wonder-working-hands, unhelped by the lesser, unhelped by each other, are sure to lose their dignity of popular arts, and become nothing but dull adjuncts to unmeaning pomp, or ingenious toys for a few rich and idle men.

William Morris: The Lesser Arts, 1877

Back at the RCA, in 1922. Enid Marx, who was a very gifted student, was ‘denied her painting diploma by teachers who disapproved of her “Fauvist inclinations”’ [ Friend p.57]. Her work was said to be ‘vulgar’ (Wikipedia). She left the RCA in 1925 and became a very successful fabric designer thereafter. Tirzah writes that after the RCA ‘Eric had an inferiority complex because he was a designer, and it took years to get rid of this feeling.’ [Ullmann p.167], and later, more bitterly ‘Eric aimed modestly at being a good second rate painter and engraver’. [Ullmann p.168].

In a later generation of RCA students, Tony Oldfield was failed at the end of his course (1932) by Rothenstein, for being ‘artistically insincere and too much influenced by the French,’ (which might easily have been said about Rothenstein himself in the ’90s). Fortunately his local authority (the West Riding of Yorkshire) paid for him to do another year, after which, having produced his quota of fake Rothensteins, he was given his Diploma. ‘They made me a liar!’ he said.

He emerged from the RCA in the deepest trough of the recession: his wife, Nora, said that she married him to cheer him up, and they used a curtain-ring at the wedding. Tony never really recovered his self confidence (or alternatively, did not have a very great ego anyway), though his critical eye was sharp, and sharpened as he aged.

 

 

 

Tony Oldfield was a fine, but little known, artist, an impressive draughtsman and a great teacher. He also designed and built furniture and made ceramic pieces. As far as I can see there is at present only one image of his work available on the Internet, which is a shame, so here are four more for anyone who might be interested.

*Ravilious and Co, the Pattern of Friendship, Andy Friend, Thames and Hudson, 2017

*Long Live Great Bardfield, the Autobiography of Tirzah Garwood. ed Anne Ullmann, Persephone Books, London, 2016

 

P1000700

The Studio

Clearing out is the beginning of Open  Studios. Necessary, and useful because you have mentally to audit all that stuff, materials, tools, odds and bits, you have accumulated, So I move things around in circles and hop from one part of the floor to the next clear area, repainting with a lighter grey floor paint.  Result: cleaner, clearer, with more light. (The floor is chipboard, on top of polystyrene insulation, on top of the original plank floor of this off-the-peg shed). At the same time I put round a skirting, against the vertical lining boards. I do this mainly to inhibit mouse activity, but I must say the result looks very neat.

Mice are a permanent problem. They get into drawers and chew up my drawings; a mouse has even chewed away the fibres on the back of a canvas in one place, leaving small holes showing in the front paint surface which I will have to repair.  Why would they do that?  Aha, a visitor says: in the basement of the RA Schools they stored linseed, which turned out to be a food store for rats and mice. The little bastards have also chewed the spines off some of my books, for the starch glue. They chew off the best bits of drawings to make a nest in the drawer. Could be worse: I reused an ancient stretcher, and a wood-worm ate its way through the wood making marginal holes in my canvas. Thank God woodworm aren’t as nippy as mice.

Anyway, once the walls are toshed out white again the whole studio converted to an amazingly clear, clean place ( it’s never like that when I am actually working)  So it is actually a fraud on the public – like the Iraq war or Brexit. Never mind.  It’s the illusion which counts.  It reminds me of the time we used to pop round to have coffee in Terry Frost’s studio – pictures everywhere at all stages, hanging, leaning against the wall, ready for ‘the old one-two’; paint, brushes, stand oil, confusion, stove, warm Nescafe and chat in a creative clutter. Years later I saw his paintings hanging on the sterilised walls of Tate St Ives, & thought how changed they were as chaste icons. Should the product be exhibited quite clear of the warmth of its generation? Or contrariwise, why do we want to know how Hokusai produced his works: isn’t it enough to have the prints and drawings?

 

P1000709

Living Room

Visitors are generally very friendly. I feel an absurd need to chat them up.  Not to try for sales, but because my chatter seems to be required as part of the entertainment. As if I am the product, not the work. I know that most of them won’t buy anything – many can’t – and they know that I know, and so ad infinitum.  Some people don’t like what they see: too ‘trad’ or too ‘modern’. I am always one of Tom Lehrer’s children, as I go sliding down the razor-blade of life.  One woman complains that these aren’t textiles – she has been misled by a road-sign. Actually, Madam, they are textiles – but I know what you mean.

It’s an odd business, coming up with an answer to nobody’s question, and then putting it up for sale. Of course, the opposite has its drawbacks – I mean producing something commissioned, to someone else’s criteria, with all the frustrations of not quite fulfilling he brief, regrets the client etc. Though at least then you can hate the client, and not exclusively yourself,  sole composer and performer of inadequate tunes for an empty street.

Was it worth it? Yes. I cleaned out the studio.  The talk was good; the visitors were warm. I sold a print and three pictures to good friends. Does that count? I reminded my good friends that I am still here doing whatever ‘it’ is And two cards. – enough to buy the next batch of materials; my pictures cheered me up/my pictures depressed me. Shall I do it again?  I don’t think so.  Shut, Sesame!

Dear John Humphries,

I heard you recently belabouring a spokesperson for the Labour Party with Jeremy Corbyn’s response to the Falklands War. Well, that was thirty-five years ago, and we might have modified our views or our language in the meantime. But I was also opposed to the Falklands War at that time – as was Tam Dalyell, so it was hardly a lefty knee-jerk reaction. or one which ought to be used to score sound-bite points out of context.

An immediate cause of that war was the decision by the British Government to withdraw the Royal Naval Ice Patrol Vessel ‘Endurance’ – our only naval presence in those waters at that time. The Argentinians took that as a further signal that the British were not overly concerned with the future of the Falklands. Margaret Thatcher made a small saving in Defence to lose the Falklands, and made a war and paid a fortune to retrieve them. But once you start a war you start killing and injuring people: the financial cost was less important than the human cost, and the effect on the world.

In that Falklands War 907 people were killed (649 Argentinian, 255 British and three Falklanders). Of course many were also injured. The population of the Falkland Islands at that time was 2932. Dalyell’s objection (also mine) was that the official Opposition immediately endorsed whatever warlike action the Government might take. With a great deal of hindsight we now know that the then Argentinian rulers were unwilling to negotiate, and too stupid to see what might happen next (in spite of warnings from the Americans), though this does not justify our inadequate pressure for a negotiated settlement. The crucial factor was generous support for Britain from the US, without which the British strike might well have failed.

Thatcher was determined to have a military solution. Sir John Nott (who was then Defence Secretary) said he would have preferred a diplomatic solution, but added “Mrs Thatcher was of the view, which in retrospect proved correct, that unless we actually landed on the Falkland Islands and defeated the Argentinians, that the national humiliation which we ‘d suffered would not be retrieved.” (see report in the Independent, 21 April 1989). Thatcher does not seem to have considered the national humiliation which would have occurred if we had failed, and presumably took the projected loss of lives as a given.

By her action she backed big-nation power over principle and international law, and war war over jaw jaw. The principle which needed, and still needs, to be reinforced (often ignored in the past) was that sovereignty always rightly belongs to the people who live there. This is the only point on which I disagree with Tam Dalyell. Australia was not terra nullius, nobody’s land, and Palestine was not Balfour’s to give away. By once again discounting this principle rather than insisting on it, Thatcher made the world less safe. Furthermore, we took on a moral obligation to the US which did not stand us (or them) in good stead later on.

It may be that Corbyn’s reaction thirty-five years ago was a bit strident, in yer face Dave Spart-speak. But basically it was right. And now we would be safer, not less safe, with someone for whom war is not a solution until the last resort, and who does not believe in a first strike, or a last strike, ensured destruction of people and poisoning of the planet.

The greatest political step in my life-time has been the creation of the European Union. Through the foresight and good faith of the likes of Adenauer and Monet, and for the first time in centuries, the tribes of Europe inside this new entity have stopped killing one another: this greatest of achievements went almost unmentioned during our silly Referendum. But the biblical adage remains true, “They that live by the sword shall perish by the sword.”

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