Thursday, 1 June 2017

My life as a Tapestry - 8 (welcome to the permissive society)


The years 1968-72 were turbulent both globally and personally.  I spent them at a teacher-training college in Cheshire, where I bought a 1953 Ford Poplar from another student for £10. I serviced it myself, fixed it when it broke down, ran it for 2 years, and then sold it to another student for £10. Getting that car the 200 miles from Purley to Alsager (South Circular road, North Circular road, M1, A45, M6, A500) was, for me, an equivalent feat to the moon landing (and took nearly as long).


There were so many other significant national and world events and developments during this period that I’ve had to think hard about which ones to depict here. In the end I went for the ones that seemed at the time to signal that a new order was a-coming (I’m still waiting for it). The Paris student ‘revolution’ and the Vietnam war on TV sparked a mood of rebellion and the search for an ideology with which to counter the brutality of imperialism and the paternalism of the College Principal. I also wanted to stand out from the various conventional student tribes and be myself. I realise now that everyone else probably wanted exactly the same, but at 21 I still thought most other people were sheep.

The rugby crowd made lots of noise, got drunk and broke things. I played classical guitar in my room with the window open, while they raged up and down the corridors. The rock climbers were hairy, got drunk and punished some bloke they didn’t like by dismantling his whole study bedroom one evening while he was out and reassembling it on the roof of the gym. I bought them drinks. The drama and dance students wore black stretch slacks and black rollneck sweaters and spoke with exaggerated intonation. I went with them to see ‘Hair’ at the Shaftesbury Theatre and took my shirt off during ‘Let the Sun Shine in’.

My new best friend Steve and I read ‘Waiting for Godot’ in English Lit. and then sat in the bar every evening reproducing the script in Pete & Dud voices.

The ‘good girls’ (who seemed to be the majority) wore miniskirts, washed togs for the rugby club, and generally did what they were told. I tried not to fancy them and focused my attention on quirky girls. My best lover was Lynne, a long-haired, chunky-sweatered and be-jeaned intellectual who shocked me and everyone else by turning up at one of the college dances wearing an outrageously décolleté full length evening dress. (I’ve depicted her here as John Singer Sargent’s ‘Madame X’).

I backed Britain by spending my newly decimalised grant money on double diamond, and beans on toast. I supported the fledgling illegal drugs trade through the occasional £1 deal. One day in 1971 Lynne and I dropped acid together – it was very colourful and intense and it went on far too long, but I’ve never forgotten it. It somehow helped to synergise all the absurdist theatre, logical positivism, radical politics, child psychology and underground comix that I’d absorbed, into a coherent set of exam answers that got me a B.Ed honours. As the Latin title proclaims (I hope) ‘Here the mind expands’.

I was ridiculously proud of that academic success (though I never let on). I’d written hundreds of words, all in longhand with a fountain pen, in the first such test since my meagre O levels, and got ‘A’s for nearly everything. I wrote a dissertation on Alfred Jarry and a pastiche of Ubu Roi lampooning just about everybody. I wrote a ‘Theatre of Cruelty’ piece inspired by Antonin Artaud which the Drama Department said I could put on (it never happened). I got an interview with the Theatre in Education group at the Bolton Octogon and it seemed that my future was assured.

Except I failed the interview, and had to go back to London and be a teacher.

Friday, 21 October 2016

My life as a tapestry - 7 (summer of lavatories)


This panel, which depicts events from my 20th year, seems busier than the others. It may be that the pace of life speeds up as one approaches adulthood, but I think the clutter is quite a good metaphor for my summer of 1967.


It was the first time I’d lived away from home for a significant period, staying in Mick’s student flat in Leytonstone with a shifting population of his university mates, foreign visitors, old school friends etc. I worked in a series of casual jobs around Newham – although luckily not in the Tate & Lyle factory in Silvertown shown here, a dark satanic mill if ever I saw one.

Dark and satanic were my own feelings too, in that summer of love. I had failed to get into several Art Colleges to do a degree – blew the interview every time. And my relationships with friends and girlfriends were all going wrong. As the Greek junta goose-stepped into Athens and BP’s chartered tanker Torrey Canyon dumped millions of barrels of crude into the sea off Cornwall, I hit the rocks with Wendy, my lover of the past two years, two very attractive Swedish friends in London for the summer, and my good friends Paul and Bev whose holiday I nearly wrecked by pulling out of the arrangement at the last moment.

Throughout the emotional turmoil I still got an odd sense of satisfaction from learning how to carry stacks of 12ft 6-by-2 deal planks around a timber yard, paint railings and nail down bitumen roof-coverings for the Council, and unblock school toilets without gagging. 

(I notice this is the 2nd time a toilet has figured in this tapestry – clearly a theme is developing here. I guess the toilet is also quite a good metaphor for a set of emotional problems that took root around this time and continued to unsettle me for most of my adult life).

The cod Latin rendering of ‘All you need is love’ is therefore more than a little ironic. As, for different reasons, is the image of Charles De Gaulle, whose firm ‘non’ scuppered the Wilson government’s efforts to take Britain into the then Common Market, for the second time in four years.


But ‘swinging London’ and the hippy revolution went on anyway, without me. My only consolation for a pretty miserable summer was the Beatles singing their sixties anthem with all their celebrity friends on television – the first global, live, TV broadcast ever, and a cracking pop song.