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.

The thing is that I’ve always known

These February days when sky

Loses its lustre like a fish’s eye.


These days! I can still see

My mother white-faced in a chair

Carried through white snow to the doctor’s car…


What I first saw was grey

Or mezzotint, perhaps, but you

Set off with colours, green and red and blue


Out in the garden under trees

Loose clothes aflutter in the breeze:  

An August baby greets the world at ease


And that is why the sun shines through

Your optimistic take on who,

and what on earth the world is coming to –


And sometimes why you need to use

A smudge of February haze

To mitigate the keenness of your gaze.

Some of the paintings in my current show at the Fisher Theatre Gallery Upstairs.  There is also a video interview under my name at YouTube – do have a look  The show is on until the 16th April

92. The Beck Riverine through Low Meadow 07 18 40x60 copy

The Beck Riverine through Low Meadow . oil on canvas

90 Lovers knot Fieldmark copy

Lovers Knot Fieldmark . oil on canvas

91 V Marks on a Mauve Field lite copy

Fieldmarks on Mauve Field oil on canvas

95. Autumn Wedge copy

Autumn Wedge oil on canvas

96 Perfrming Tree, Redenhall 12 78 copy

Little Performing Tree at Redenhall . oil on canvas

97 Frosty Field Corner

Frosty Field Corner . oil on canvas

Shadows on Rapefield88 copy 2

House Shadow on Rapefield . oil on canvas

Embrowned Rapefield 87

Embrowned Rapefield . oil on canvas

Leaving the town I see.

absurd, a singing tree

in Rorshach symmetry –

brow, bray, and tray,

and a bird on every spur

coos and clucks in a shower of sound

like leaves that fall on the ground

Fifty birds as I near

fly to the paddock beyond,

and back before I’m gone,

and their chuckling, soothing song,

slides all the way to the bridge,

where the melody’s finally drowned.

So I climb Dicky Hill again

as I’ve so often done before

past each Violet Plantation fir

that strains to catch the sky

and solitary satisfied oaks

stretch into the space they occupy

and I wonder how long it will be

before all my friends have died

or how they will feel to remain

if I’m first to leave them behind

but there isn’t any tree

that will remember me.

I walk home with that in my mind,

Like a flint caught in my shoe

back to our gnarl-branched sloe

where the finches and tits that speed to and fro

cross-hatch incessantly

as long as the seeds and the nuts remain

their flight-paths fade in the blink of an eye –

constant, immediate, gone.

It’s quiet now I’m home

and the window’s inbetween

I leave them there to thrive

out in the freezing air

like the ending of a prayer:

world without end,

amen.

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

I should have asked him: he’d have known

she says, years after I am dead

he’d so much stuff there, crammed inside his head

but all that’s left of memory is bone

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

He Sees Her Break Her Arm

Again I see you trip, again your fall
freezes into a still –
there must have been a sound –
I can’t recall.

Spun from the wall,
there you are lying on the ground

“My arm is broken”
that is what you cry,
I know the words, but I
can’t bring your voice alive

Somebody holds your hand
the pavement’s hard
the ambulance has thirty miles to ride
your face is white with pain.

And now, though I retain
these fragments, which would make a moving picture
I could assemble, if I wanted to,
yet all these memories are stills –

it’s only later that I’m moved by you.

 

 

Together in the Shower

The shower turns me on, and yes
I never felt a hand cupping my breast
or felt a nipple tugged by what I held.
What do I know then? only this
that growing-up gives way to growing-down.

An intimacy we had not expected
binds us together in the cubicle.
What I’d have given, thirty years ago,
to slide myself against you, flesh to flesh!
now it’s because you need to wash you hair
and I must be your naked canephore

Dressing again, you say “I can’t quite reach,”
a wounded arm folded like card behind
“Can you do up my bra?” Hold hard,
The trick was meant to be
(when I was young) a sly
flick of the fingers on a silken back
no fuss, and cornucopia unleashed

But on this day I hold your bra-straps taut,
and slip the hook firmly into its eye
in memory of what I could not reach
and never may.

 

 

Little Priapic Ode

Stop these nocturnal visits, please
at inconvenient hours. It’s some dark corner of the night
when through the gate of horn,
your lewd mosquito trumpets in my ear,
calls action stations,

and soon as I’m awakening you play
your boring mime ‘Haephastos and His Limp’
and fade to grey.
Not funny, and no way
to earn libations.

This isn’t how you were when I was young:
nose stuck in my affairs,
you’d stick around all afternoon:
my flesh would crawl with honey and with bees,
my brain would freeze,

when I was young you had me on my knees.
It’s such a fall,
a mighty tyrant dwindling to a tease.

So summon up your ichor, little god,
and if you please,
either come hot and strong
or not at all

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