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.
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.