‘Hey, this kid can’t half draw!’
The shout came from Alan, a ginger-haired 13 year old, wearing a Fairisle pullover on top of his pyjamas.
We were fellow patients in the Pendlebury Children’s Hospital. I was seven, awaiting the operation to remove my tonsils and I was in awe of this impossibly older boy who had already assumed the role of ‘cock-of-the-ward’. Hunched over the large sketch pad that my parents had left for me, I had been absorbed in creating fanciful, adventure landscapes, but soon, a small group of pyjama-clad children gathered around me, attracted by Alan’s call and jostling to look over our shoulders.
As an only child, drawing had always been a hobby and an escape, so whenever there was the need to occupy me, my parents would ensure I was supplied with plenty of drawing paper, pencils or paints. They had decided it would be a useful distraction for a small boy away from home for the first time, facing the fears and uncertainty of enforced hospitalisation.
Basking in the approval of the ward’s self-appointed leader, I may have experienced the first inkling that the visual arts might have a positive social advantage beyond being an enjoyable pastime.
A talent for drawing seemed a trivial accomplishment. It was linked in my mind to loafing, and throughout school it occupied much of the time I should have been devoting to regular lessons. I filled pages of exercise books intended for maths and history with drawings of cars, ships, aircraft… anything other than school work. Often I would be found waiting in the corridor outside the Head’s office, grasping a defaced exercise book to display and receive the inevitable punishment. Any possibility of art as a career, however, was never on the horizon. My father never overtly directed me towards trades and skills of an artisan, but that was his world, while my grammar school teachers would try to groom me for a science degree at some red-brick university. Careers in art were not the expected ambitions of a working class boy from Salford. The only suggested outlet for somebody with skill with a pencil was as a draughtsman in a local engineering firm.
Despite the best endeavours of teachers and parents, drawing had led me, via a circuitous route, to where I found myself, a little over ten years later. Feeling conspicuous in my sixth-form suit and painfully short hair, I was standing, mesmerized by the hubbub of the first day of term at the local art college. I watched as established students, hurried back and forth, shouting and greeting each other. The sense of being an outsider was churning my stomach as much as the excitement.
The college of art and design was housed in an Edwardian, red brick and terracotta building, purpose-built with high-windowed studios with plenty of ‘north light’ on the upper floors – though at that time such niceties were lost on me. The entrance hall was echoingly spacious with wide corridors extending in three directions and a broad, wrought-iron staircase carrying up three floors above. This cavernous space amplified the raucous din, emphasising my smallness in the great establishment.
In 1964, the vogue for art students was denim jeans, leather coats and desert boots for males, with miniskirts, long coats and excessive eye makeup for the girls. There was long hair, straggly beards, large burgundy portfolios, sunglasses and cigarettes… cigarettes everywhere. Having just escaped from grammar school where smoking was the most commonly punished misdemeanour, the ubiquity of the cigarette was overpowering and seductively adult. Grateful for finding something to do with my hands (rather than search for another pocket in which to stuff them), I pulled a crushed pack of Rothmans from my jacket and lit up nervously and self-consciously – trying to look cool.
‘Give me one of those.’ Kevin sidled up to me from nowhere. I smiled with relief at the familiar face and pulled out the pack once more, passing him a cigarette and flipping open my prized Zippo lighter. With a wick like a pyjama cord it burst into flame, forcing him to lean his head on one side to avoid losing his eyebrows as he lit up.
We had both come from the same school – though never friends before, we now welcomed the support of familiarity in our strange environment. Kevin was bright and talented, but had come to the school following 11-plus success with a bit of a reputation as a ‘bad lad’. This notoriety accompanied him throughout his school career and I felt sure it had dogged his progress. Perhaps without this baggage his new career at college might free his undoubted potential. Though we had only been nodding acquaintances, I had been familiar with his creative talent through the numerous examples of his work selected by our art teacher for display on the school walls.
As we exchanged nervous small-talk, a tall, shambling figure in an ex-army greatcoat stopped in front of us, apparently arrested by our conspicuous suits and ties. Otherwise undifferentiated, he was slightly older than most of the throng: I considered he might possibly be a staff member.
‘Freshers?’ he asked, taking a drag on a skinny rollup.
We nodded – was it so obvious? Yes, it probably was.
‘Have you registered?’ he asked
We shook our heads.
‘D4.’ He indicated the wrought iron staircase with a nod of his head before replacing the cigarette between his lips nodding again and disappearing back into the milling crowd. Kevin and I exchanged glances, shrugged shoulders and moved up the stairs in the direction indicated and soon came across handwritten signs with arrows pointing the way to, ‘D4 – Registration and Enrolment.’