Down, down, deeper and Downton

TA129This week’s Telly Addict bids a merry, upbeat farewell to Series Four of Downton Abbey on ITV; measures the running time of two extra-length comedies, Fresh Meat on C4 and Ambassadors on BBC2; sings along without much gusto to The Choir on BBC2; squares up to Bouncers on C4; frets over the dog on Bates Motel on Universal; and wonders if Portrait Artist Of The Year on Sky Arts1 will draw a crowd.

The OK foundation

It can be told. Last Tuesday night, in the Main Hall of the Maidwell Building, at the Avenue Campus of the University of Northampton, the frankly legendary Bill Drummond and I gave a joint lecture to students and paying customers as part of the Articulation series of events, curated by Associate Fellow of the university John Harper, who taught Bill in 1971 when he did the one-year foundation art course on this very site, and who taught me in 1983 when I did the one-year foundation art course on this very site. The experience changed both our lives forever and set us on very different paths through art, music and the media, converging occasionally along the way. We both give thanks for that formative experience.

It was John, always a force of nature, who inspired us both, 12 years apart, and who had the momentary lapse of reason to suggest we join forces for one evening under what was a fairly hastily conceived umbrella: Art Vs Art. John’s first, insane optimstic email was sent to both of us at just after midday on May 14 this year. By 3pm that afternoon, we had both said yes, and a date was fixed – far enough into the future to seem conceivable. (For the record, although a long-standing fan of his various works, I had only met Bill on one occasion, although it was to interview him on 6 Music in 2008 for his terrific book 17, so we had, it seemed, bonded sufficiently.)

Over the ensuing months, the three of us pinged emails back and forth, in search of some kind of shape for this live event, which remained amorphous but hopeful even after the tickets had gone on sale. Bill and I had been photographed, for the 6 Music album, in 2008, and this unique shot was all we had for publicity, so out it went into the world.

In it, you can sense the disparity in height (I look up to him etc.), and in attitude. My grinning inanity compares unfavourably with Bill’s authoritative gravity. But there it was.

Over the ensuing five years – five years! – the parting in my hair would change sides, and I would stop wearing black t-shirts that were already frankly inappropriate for a man in his 40s; while Bill would remain pretty much the same. He’d already found his visual brand.

The passage of time turned out to be key to our lecture. (Was it a lecture? Or was it too men talking about themselves? Maybe it was both.) John Harper had caught us both at an impressionable young age, a decade apart, and, as Bill stated, the course at what was then a technical college and years away from attaining university status taught him “not just to look, but to see.” For me, it broadened my artistic palette, and gave me the freedom to express myself in new ways. I’ve always thanked art school – both Nene College, as it was in 1983, and Chelsea School of Art – for exposing my obsession with drawing cartoons for the commercial outlet it was, allowing the act of writing to take over as my creative impulse. I used to draw cartoon strips. But it was the writing in the bubbles and the captions that turned out to be my calling. (God, let’s hope so, as without practice, my drawing ability has withered.)

Now, photographs were taken. The big one above is a phone shot of the sign outside the building, which I intended to relegate and replace with one of me and Bill, when one was supplied. But one shall not be supplied, for the very sound reasons given at the bottom of this blog entry. In the event, and of the event, I only have photos of me and John. Thanks to Fiona Cordingley for supplying these. They’re very good.

Here though is a nice shot of John introducing us. He is hiding behind a photocopied shot of him as a younger man in the 70s; more passage of time. When I arrived at Nene, aged 18, he blew my mind, with his fine art sensibilities and empowering “schemes.” (“What’s the scheme?” he would inquire of his students – not always a question you could answer.)

The “scheme” turned out to be tag-lecturing. Bill (just out of shot, to the right) would tell a relevant anecdote. Then I would tell one. Thinking on our feet, we found hooks and references in each other’s ramblings to feed back into our own. It must, at times, have seemed to the excellent, attentive, wide-age-ranged, in-tune audience of a couple of hundred as if we had planned it all out. Here, you can see my slipping the first JAMs 12″, All You Need Is Love, onto the turntable we asked for. It was fun to be able to go and rummage through my bag-for-life while Bill held the audience’s attention and cue up a vinyl record. Music was our first love, after all. Before art.

I hadn’t warned Bill I was going to play one of his records. (I didn’t even know I still had it until I checked my single flight-case of 12″ vinyl before heading down up to Northampton, and really only played it to illustrate a later point about how much power the NME had over us in the 80s: I read about the record and bought it without having heard a note of it – something unheard of in the download age.) It was the one point in the evening where Bill seemed flustered. Not because he minded me playing it, but because he feared the audience might expect him to riff on his pop career, which he has no interest in doing. We got through it, don’t worry.

In the photo above, subliminally influenced by the guerilla art of Bill Drummond, I have emptied out onto the floor a folder full of my commercial illustration work from 1987-88, after I’d graduated, and during which “pay the rent” period my creative urges were satisfied not by my work, which was soulless and supplied by the yard, but by rustling up my own fanzine and writing and designing it, ready for Kall Kwik. So, indirectly, the soulless art pushed me in the direction of what would be the first rung on another career entirely, one that was driven by art, albeit soon subsumed by the imperatives of commerce. It is a career whose story has been told many times, so I won’t repeat it here.

Tuesday happened also to be my Dad’s birthday, and he came along to the talk, meeting Bill over a fruit plate and two doughnuts in a gallery space which became our de facto “green room.” The age difference between Bill and my Dad is about the same as the age difference between Bill and me, so we got on fine, the three of us. (Dad had rather sweetly looked Bill up on Wikipedia in the afternoon – research!) The combination of my – our – alma mater, the curatorial joie de vivre of the infinite John himself and the presence of my father made Tuesday a very special night indeed. I’m so glad we agreed to do it, against all odds. Perhaps this is how all visiting lecturers should be forced to operate, by being thrown together with another visiting lecture and making it work on the hoof. I sincerely hope that the audience felt they had not wasted their evening. I certainly hadn’t.

Bill’s climactic section involved him donning a high-viz tabard and a bespoke Homburg, and living out his fantasy of being a superhero street sweeper. This was a routine he’d clearly done before, and it was a fitting end to what turned into a two-hour talk, as he swept the stage with his broom. Much of the detritus that required sweeping was, as seen, a pile of my own work. Which was fitting. We couldn’t have planned it better if we’d planned it.

I hope to return to the University of Northampton soon, although, in the future, it will up sticks and easels and move to a new site, and will no longer sit hunkered around the old building into which both Bill and I tentatively stepped in 1971 and 1983, respectively. But it doesn’t do to be nostalgic. Bill and I were ancient, and justified, to varying degrees, and have both done varying degrees in big cities other than Northampton, but it was good to be back.

Postscript

Statement from Bill Drummond regarding the absence of photographic evidence of he and I at this event:

Now that we live in an era where we can all post an unlimited amount of information about ourselves I am interested in exploring how little information I can post and still function in the modern world. Part of this includes limiting the photographs taken of me in any one year to no more than ten. I have now reached my limit for 2012.

Day Four Pt2

Cheers. I look happy in this picture, too, don’t I? This never happens. I mean, it pretty much never happens. I am in a pub. On my own. At lunchtime. Here is my excuse: I left the coffee shop at St Pancras and headed over to Tottenham Court Road in Central London to where the studio is. The studio where we are recording the extra scene for Mr Blue Sky. When I got there, it turned out that, it being lunchtime, the producers and editor had gone for lunch. So, unwilling to give any more money to a coffee shop and having used up my Costa loyalty card privileges, I went to the nearest pub, and, using a special logic based on a combination of factors (it’s a nice day; I never do this; there were lots of spare tables; I felt a bit spare and lost; I need somewhere to wait for Michael Legge; it’s what Steve Lamacq would do and I am Steve Lamacq this week), I gave money instead to a pub for a pint of Staropramen, which I am hip enough to know is called “Star” when you ask for it, if you are an experienced drinker.

I am no longer an experienced drinker. I feel illicit. I know that I can drink a whole pint and still operate for the rest of the day without falling asleep, especially as I have many packed lunch elements still in my bag to help see me through my radio show, but it’s rare at my age to feel illicit. This is highlighted by the fact that I am clearly in a student pub. It’s near to the University of Central London, or UCL, which is huge, and if you ever hear students complaining about tuition fees again, tell them to stop ordering lunch from a pub, as all these students are. It’s seven or eight quid for a fish and chips or burger, and if they can afford to pay that when I can’t, they must be rolling in it. (Debt. They are rolling in debt. But they would be rolling in less debt if they made a packed lunch every day, like I do.)

Because I don’t go to pubs much, I like going to them. When I was at college, I used the canteen, where food was cheap and subsidised, and so were we, as we still got grants for being a student. Maybe UCL doesn’t have a canteen. I bet canteens are nicer now than they were then, too. Ours was like a school canteen. We loved it, but it was. I bet university canteens are all modern and healthy now, and I bet they have sandwich shops too. I do not deny students the right to go to the pub. But they shouldn’t eat in them.

(Ha ha, I accidentally pushed in front of three students at the very crowded bar because they were too busy talking, presumably about the cuts, to hear the barman say, “Next, please!” They were next. But I went next as I was alone and not talking to anybody. They should take pity on me. I have no friends.)

Well, here I am in the edit. This is where my Radio 4 sitcom, Mr Blue Sky, is currently being turned into an actual thing that they can play out on the radio by my producers Anna and John and editor Rich. I don’t think my presence there on a daily basis would help. Better to just turn up, as I did today, and listen to a completed edit. Also, we had Mark Benton and Michael Legge in to record my brand new scene, one which we didn’t realise we needed in Ep1 until it was lashed together. It’s an establishing scene which, when you hear it on May 16 on Radio 4 at 11.30am, you won’t notice, hopefully.

I had to leave for 6 Music before they’d finished, and it took a while for Mark and Michael to get back into character, after two weeks away from the show, but as I left, they were Harvey and Sean again, and in safe hands. (The studio requires a code tapped into a keypad to operate the lift, and another code to get into the actual studios from the corridor – that’s high security.)

The 6 Music show was dominated by Roundtable, which, neatly enough, was revived for what used to be the Teatime slot when that slot was mine, and is now Steve’s. But for this week, it is mine again. Not much has changed. Some records, reviewed by a trio of guests, either musical or comedic, or, in the case of Matt Berry, both, as his new LP is why he’s on the market. As ever, it’s a potentially sweat-inducing presenting job, as you have to keep on top of the tracks being played, jolly along the panellists, read out extracts from what used to be called the “chatroom” and time your way up to the news, and to the handover to Marc in Manchester at 7pm. Also, it’s your job not only to impart information about the records under the hammer, but to elicit meaningful comments from the guests.

Dave from Frankie & The Heartstrings – a lovely band from the North East, whose singer, Frankie, I have guested on Roundtable alongside – is a bone-dry individual, but very funny, if you can listen past his deadpan delivery. He’s the one who came up with the line, “Crosby, Stills and Gash,” to describe Fleet Foxes. A fine, upstanding individual, and drummer (finest member of any band), he drank a glass of white wine in the pub afterwards before heading back to Sunderland. (If it turns out to be Newcastle, I will be killed.) Matt Berry, so familiar from The Boosh and The IT Crowd and Darkplace and Snuffbox, was very technical about the production techniques on the records, and held back from being overtly funny, even though he is. (He orderd a “scotch and coke” in the pub.) Meanwhile, Legge (pint of Becks) whom I know too well to be dispassionate about, brought a welcome frenetic energy to proceedings. I would say this, but he’s very good on the radio, I think. (Paul Simon and Yuck drew in terms of points given, for the record.)

Only a quick “one drink” in the pub afterwards, as we all had gigs and homes to go to, or trains to catch, but it was nice to unwind for a blessed hour.

A full day, and an exhausting one. Another full and exhausting one tomorrow.

Any questions?

Nene

This is me at Nene College, Avenue Campus, Northampton, at the end of summer term, 1984. Yesterday, I was back, wandering the same corridors, this time not as a student, but as … a visiting lecturer. The “journey” from pupil to tutor has taken 24 years. It’s now the University Of Northampton, having been upgraded in 2005, and those who’ve been following the story, will know that I was proud to be made a Fellow of the university in August 2006 (an honour I share with Jo Whiley and Bob Harris). Since then, I have been back to cut the ribbon on the new Heyford building, where the Foundation art course is housed. When I attended Nene, you could only do a foundation; nowadays, you can do your degree there too. (Perhaps if this had been the case in 1984, I’d have stayed in Northampton. As it was, I left for London, and never looked back.)

My day as a lecturer was split into two parts. I was met at the entrance by John Harper, a legendary tutor who’s been there at least since 1983 when I first walked, wide-eyed, through its doors. It was he who invited me, and he who oversaw my first project as a proper art student, which was to build a tent in the main hall of the college, along with my 50 or so fellow foundationeers. The only specification was that we weren’t to make any holes in the floor. Come the end of the day, the hall looked like a pretentious refugee camp. I made mine by lashing together some of Mum’s old sheets and an Oxfam raincoat with brown tape and string. I then stuck a plastic shark above the door and strung a red light bulb from the inside, with some photos of Marlon Brando around the flaps. John then made us spend the day sitting in our tents, drawing the space. This is how I recorded that head-spinning event in my diary of the time:

DiaryNene2

It was strange to be back in that very hall – now kitted out with tiered seating and a big projection screen – lecturing about 100 students, some of them fine art, others graphics and illustration, mostly the same sort of age I was in the mid-80s, a few of them mature students, and with a sprinkling of tutors, many of them called John, and again, quite a few from my day. As a visiting lecturer, and first-timer, I was called upon to talk about myself, or what Strictly Come Dancing contestants would call my “journey” from Nene to whatever the fuck I am now. I made up a fat portfolio of work, which ranged from a cartoon of Top Cat and his gang that I drew when I was about five, via a still life of some wellies and a carrot I drew for my Art A-level and the very picture I made from inside my Oxfam tent, to the crowd-pleasing smears I created whilst at Chelsea School of Art, where my natural inclination towards doing cartoons was looked down upon and discouraged, meanwhile paving the way to actual employment on leaving college. The theme of my talk, which lasted over an hour and a half, was Art versus Commerce, something that I hoped would pique the interest of both fine artists, who make art for art’s sake, and the commercial artists, who do it to order (as I did). Because I began my higher education in that very hall, I hoped I would connect with the students from the off, and I kind of think I did. They certainly seemed attentive and responsive (ie. they laughed at my self-effacing jokes and carefully placed swears), and nobody slept.

However, once I’d got to the end of my “journey”, and soaked up the applause, I threw open the usual Q&A opportunity to the students. After all, I’d covered an awful lot of ground, from foundation to the NME, and I felt it was time to respond to individual questions. Not a single hand went up. Not a single student, in the prime of their life, currently engaged in mind-expanding creative education with a view to entering the world via the door marked “Art and Design”, wished to know anything further. I must admit, I was shocked.

For the afternoon session, I was to hold a more intimate seminar in a smaller room, and John asked for a show of hands from anybody interested in discussing the issues further. Four hands went up.

Not an auspicious showing, I mused, as I ate lunch with the Product Design faculty and listened to their stories over bread and salad and pork pie and red wine (a Thursday lunchtime tradition, so I discovered). I really like the staff at Nene – as I shall continue to call it, Opal Fruits/Hammersmith Odeon style – although even though I’m 42 I still felt a bit like a student when sat among them! Having seen a lot of the students’ work last summer, I know that they’re producing some fine stuff in design and fashion and fine art, and that the still-young degree courses are punching their weight in an unfashionable town. But when did students get so shy and unquestioning? I’m not flattering myself that I’m the most interesting person in the world, but I’m an ex-student and I’ve been in the real world for 20 years and I was only there for a day, and I still can’t believe that nobody had a question. I don’t take it personally – I think it says something far more general about the next generation: perhaps they really have been beaten into submission by SATs and New Labour’s literacy/numeracy hours, too worried about passing tests to ask supplementary questions. When Rob O’Connor, the record sleeve designer, came to Chelsea to talk to us, my friend Rob and I were all over him, asking him everything we could about working in record sleeve design. (It’s actually his handwriting on the cover of Siouxsie & The Banshees’ Kaleidoscope album for God’s sake!) We had a visiting photography tutor called Ronnie Randall, who’d also had a couple of reviews printed in Sounds – again, we wouldn’t let him go! Tell us everything!

Anyway, about 15 students came along to the afternoon seminar, and it really raised my spirits. They were a mixed bunch, and after doing some more talking about the problems of being creative to order, and the way autobiography can inform your work (it certainly did mine!), I asked them all to reveal an aspect of their life or personality that feeds into the work they do. Not one of them let me down, although some were more shy than others. There was a fantastic mature student in there called Dave, who’s 65, and had an incredible story to tell. I hope he inspired the others. I hope just by being there and getting them to talk, I inspired them just a little bit. I’ve spoken to lots of students over the past ten years, mainly through the NUS, and it can be extremely rewarding. I can see why teachers do it. (Not that I would compare doing a day here and a session there with actual lecturing or teaching – I know my limits. I have friends who are teachers and I take my mortar board off to them.)

Universityentrance

Anyway, I really loved going back to Nene for the day. It’s a terrific School of the Arts and I’d happily do it again. As a postscript, one of the students in the afternoon seminar emailed me and told me he’d been inspired by the day, so all was not lost.

Now, any questions?

No?

Nothing?