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:
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.)
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?