Tuesday, 12 June 2007


When I enrolled for the pre-diploma course at Falmouth School of Art I hadn’t realised that we were to be guinea pigs for a new, degree-equivalent qualification called the Diploma in Art and Design which was to replace the former National Diploma in Design. This meant that in addition to the wide range of subjects we would be tackling we were expected to devote some time to the study of those which were not connected with art and, as with other degree courses, we’d be required to produce a thesis in our final year. The most important aspect of every art student’s curriculum is life drawing. I had never before seen a naked person so when, on the occasion of my very first lesson, I walked into the studio and saw the unclothed model I couldn’t stop myself from blushing. However, as soon as I began to concentrate on drawing her I ceased to think of her as a body and saw instead a complex arrangement of shape, form, texture and perspective. After that, I was never again embarrassed by nudity.
As well as life drawing, we were given the opportunity to experiment with a number of different media. We learned how to do silk-screen printing and how to make etchings from metal plates and to print the finished work on Japanese paper; we studied typography and calligraphy and various aspects of design, including Paisley patterns and tartans; we did action painting, abstract painting and still life painting; we made use of the extensive and rather lovely grounds for the drawing of plants and trees; we studied sculpture and were given a project to produce an abstract sculpture using plaster of Paris but since, in Cornwall, the influence of Barbara Hepworth was so strong, it was difficult for us to come up with something original. We were also required to have a sound knowledge of the history of art and a good deal of our time was devoted to its study. Fashion design was optional but I’d always wanted to have the opportunity to find out more about it even though I didn’t intend to take it up as a career, unlike the other students in that particular class. I loved not only the drawing and design aspect but also the handling of different fabrics, the art of pattern making and, of course, the construction of garments. I was so keen that I even signed on for an evening course in tailoring, a skill which was to prove immensely useful in later life. When my designs were displayed in the cabinet outside the art school I felt very proud.
Because it was a brand new pre-diploma course there were frequent changes to the syllabus which caused some discontent among the tutors and the students. It was unsettling and we really did feel that we were being used as guinea pigs. Also, I had the impression that one or two of the tutors were more interested in pursuing their own work than in teaching us. On the other hand, our drawing tutor was a very accomplished and distinguished artist and the good grounding he gave us was to prove a great asset when I went on to Hornsey.
I made friends with two other students who came from St. Ives: Martin was a good-natured, easy-going boy who recklessy blued the whole of his grant money on the first day of every term but was so optimistic about everything that nothing ever seemed to worry him. Vicky was a clever girl who had a flair for design and typography. I always turned to her for advice because she was mature for her age and so much more worldly-wise than I was. I was pleased when, the following year, both Martin and Vicky joined me at Hornsey to do graphic design. Also in our group was the boy from the Saturday morning classes on whom I’d had the crush. I disliked him when I discovered how conceited he was and couldn’t imagine what I’d ever seen in him; he wasn’t even particularly nice looking. He was so self-assured that he behaved before the tutors as though he was their equal and I considered that this was very disrespectful. He annoyed me by telling me in front of all the other students:
‘You’re innocent from the top of your head to the tips of your toes!’
‘But not in between!’ retorted Vicky.

Falmouth, like Brixham, used to be a fascinating town with its old buildings, streets, quays, docks and harbour. Nowadays, many of its most interesting and appealing features have disappeared and most of my old haunts have either been lost or manicured beyond recognition. As art students, we found plenty of material for subjects to draw or paint and I used to spend hours sitting on Customs House Quay sketching the fishing boats which, when I was a girl, were the beautiful, old, wooden ones. I loved it best on summer evenings when it came alive; the local boys used to show off by making perilous dives from the jetty into the murky water far below; holidaymakers wondered about eating fish and chips; men tinkered with their boats. Sometimes, there was an old fairground organ on display which played favourite melodies to which one particular, eccentric, elderly woman regularly used to perform ballet exercises using the railings alongside the quay as a barre, to the bemusement of passers-by. As with all towns, Falmouth has expanded with the passing of the years and the high-banked lanes where I picked primroses as a child were flattened to provide land for housing estates. The avenue of elms through which I used to walk to Swanpool and where I was once attacked by a beligerent tawny owl is now bereft of trees due to Dutch elm disease. The High School closed with the advent of comprehensive education but the main building is still there and once, not long after I’d obtained my teaching qualifications, I returned there to give adult evening classes run by Cornwall County Council.

It’s often puzzled me why people refer to the sixties as the permissive years. When the fifties ended, public morals were as outraged by certain issues, such as illegitimacy, homosexuality and divorce as they always had been and these attitudes remained unchanged for some considerable time. During the entire five years of my career as a student I never knew a single person who used drugs and avoided the company of the rather unsavoury set, to whom my mother referred as ‘mumpers’, who were the pioneers of the drug culture. Sexual freedom didn’t exist until towards the latter half of the decade, when the contraceptive pill became available and, until then, fear of pregnancy was the most powerful deterrent. I think young people today would be incredulous if they knew of the stigma attatched to unmarried motherhood which existed in those ‘permissive’ times. If a girl became pregnant, more often than not she would be sent away to one of the grim institutions known as ‘mother and baby homes’. Most of these were run by the Church of England and inmates were required to do housework and attend chapel daily. Six weeks after birth, their babies would be taken away and offered for adoption. Their families would explain their absence by telling friends and neighbours that they’d gone away to work, to visit relations or to have medical treatment.
Although we were on the brink of a fashion revolution, meanwhile we still dressed as our parents did although, as art students, we were a little more adventurous than most young people. The Army and Navy stores in Falmouth once had a consignment of sweaters knitted from a coarse wool, stiff with lanolin, in horizontal stripes of black and red and because they were so long, we girls were able to wear them as dresses. With the addition of a wide belt and black stockings we were able to achieve our own version of the ‘beatnik’ look and thought we were being terribly outrageous when we strutted around Falmouth thus attired. My mother was as disparaging as ever and told me I looked like a demented wasp. A few years later, when the miniskirt made its appearance, the brevity of my dress was the talk of Falmouth when I returned home from London for the holidays.
I went to the cinema with some of the other students to see The Sandpiper, starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor; it was the first film with an adult theme that I’d seen and so I thought I was being terribly daring. We rather admired the arty set as they were portrayed in the film and I expect we would have liked to emulate their liberal, Bohemian way of life. For my part, I desperately wanted to look like Elizabeth Taylor and tried to copy her hairstyle and make-up because one or two people had told me that I resembled her.

In 1962, the very great concern of many people was the threat of nuclear war. In October of that year the threat almost became a reality when the ongoing Cold War between the United States and what was then called the Soviet Union came terrifyingly close to escalating into nuclear conflict owing to the Cuban Missile Crisis. It lasted for thirteen days and we students were so worried that one boy even tried to dig a fallout shelter in his parents’ front garden. I have a vivid recollection of sitting on a bench with Jenny discussing the situation. She told me that her parents were going to emigrate to Australia in the event of war and this shocked and depressed me more than anything. When the crisis was over, nuclear disarmament was the main topic of conversation and we were actually given a talk by the wife of Bertrand Russell, the famous pacifist, who exchanged telegrams with Nikita Khruschev, the Russian Premier, at the height of the crisis.
But even the threat of extermination couldn’t quell our youthful exuberance and determination to extract every shred of enjoyment out of our lives. We were aware that, as art students, we had a certain mystique and showed off accordingly. One day, when we were on the beach looking for interesting pieces of driftwood to draw, we got into conversation with a man who was intrigued by our activities. When we explained that we were students from Falmouth School of Art, he asked who paid for our education fees.
‘You do!’ we replied, cheerfully.
Student grants were very generous in the sixties and, since in Cornwall further education was the exception rather than the norm, there was plenty of money available. Even though I was living at home, the grant I received was handsome; unfortunately, I had to hand over most of it to my mother for my keep.
Eventually, the time came for us to make up our minds to which art colleges we intended to apply in order to continue our training. On the advice of our tutors, I chose the London College of Printing and Hornsey College of Art because they both had outstanding graphic design facilities and my interviews were arranged so that I had one in the morning and the other in the afternoon. I’d been a conscientious student so my portfolio was full; the importance of keeping a sketchbook had been stressed upon us but when I came to prepare for my interviews I found that most of my sketches had been done on loose pieces of paper which I hastily had to assemble and staple together at the last minute. It was at times like these that I realised just how untidy and disorganised I was.
When I’d applied to the colleges of my choice I felt confident that I’d get a place at least one of them; when I boarded the train at Truro on the day before my interviews were to take place, however, that confidence had waned considerably. What if I didn’t get in at either? It was a situation to ghastly to contemplate. But at Paddington, as I stepped off the train, I breathed in the familiar London smells, heard the distant roar of the city, felt the throb of life all around me and my confidence returned; I knew that nothing would come between me and London now. In a few months, I would be returning as a student.
Harry knew the streets of London as well as a cabbie and I marvelled at the ease with which he negotiated the busy, complicated traffic systems as he drove me to my first interview at the London College of Printing. I was in awe of the large building with its labyrinthine corridors full of hurrying people and it seemed a far cry from the intimate atmosphere of Falmouth School of Art. But the Principal saw that I was nervous and put me at my ease. After looking through my portfolio, he told me that he’d be pleased to offer me a place; however, he spoke disparagingly of the standard of teaching at Falmouth and said I would have to un-learn everything I’d been taught there. It would have been better, he said, if I could have done my pre-diploma year in London. These comments didn’t go down well when I reported them on my return home.
Hornsey College of Art was completely different. The main building, where the interviews were held, was situated in a rather pleasant, peaceful location with trees and green spaces and the atmosphere, as I stepped through the entrance, was friendly and more relaxed than that of the other college where everyone had seemed so busy and preoccupied. Here, the pace of life was more like that to which I was accustomed and the Principal, too, seemed very laid-back and friendly. He told me that he was satisfied with my portfolio and offered me a place in the graphic design department which, he said, was situated not in the main building but in another part of North London. There were also studios in nearby Alexandra Palace. Although I’d already decided that I preferred Hornsey, I consulted the Principal at Falmouth School of Art to ask his advice. He suggested that as my work was very illustrative I might consider specialising in that particular branch of graphic design at a later date, in which case Hornsey would be the better choice. So therefore, when the two letters arrived to confer the offers of the respective places, I declined one and accepted the other: Hornsey it was to be.
Now that the stress and uncertainty regarding my future was over, I settled down again to enjoy my last weeks at Falmouth. The fashion tutor said I had a real flair for the subject and that it was a pity that I hadn’t considered it as a career. I pondered over her words and began to worry that perhaps, after all, I’d made the wrong choice in opting for graphic design. She told me that it wasn’t too late to change my mind because there were still places at Ravensbourne College of Art, in Kent, which had a big fashion department. Feeling reckless, I applied for an interview; after all, it had been my tutors who’d advised me to specialise in graphic design. In my heart, secretly, I wanted to be a dress designer.
I awoke on the morning before I was to travel to Kent for my interview feeling very strange. My head throbbed, I felt nauseous and there was a persistent, stabbing pain in my side. As the morning wore on I became so ill that my mother had to telephone the doctor who examined me and called for an ambulance which took me to the City hospital in Truro. Later that day, I had an emergency operation to remove my appendix. By the time I was better, it was too late to apply for any other college place and so I had to accept the fact that I wasn’t, after all, destined to become a dress designer.
I suffered another mishap shortly after recovering from my operation. One morning, as I was with a group of students on the way from one studio to another, I stumbled on a step and the abrupt, awkward movement I made to grasp the handrail to stop myself from falling fractured a bone in my foot. The boy behind me asked me if I was all right but when I told him I’d broken my foot he laughed and said I couldn’t have because I hadn’t even fallen over. I hopped to the secretary’s office to ask her to telephone my father but when I explained my predicament she regarded me without sympathy.
‘What do you mean, you’ve broken your foot?’ she demanded. She was a bossy old thing who treated the students like children so that nobody liked her very much.
‘I stumbled on the steps outside.’
‘But you can’t break a foot just by stumbling. It’s probably just bruised. Go and sit down for a bit till it feels better,’ she said, dismissing me. I had to argue for some minutes before I could persuade her to summon my father. Later that afternoon, when my leg was encased in plaster from my foot to my knee, I made a point of parading it in front of her.
Throughout my childhood, I’d learned how to cope with all the fractures I’d suffered; since there was nothing to be done about it, I just had to get on with my life and it never occurred to me, until the schools’ doctor brought up the subject, that the condition which afflicted me might affect my career. After I’d been at Hornsey for a year or so, the college nominated me for an award which, if I was successful, would allow me to go to Paris to study art for a year. I couldn’t believe in my good fortune and went about in a daze. Paris! Could it really be happening to me? During the Easter holidays I returned to Falmouth and one afternoon, foolishly, I accepted my sister’s invitation to ride her pony. Disaster resulted and I fractured by back which meant that I wasn’t able to return to Hornsey for weeks by which time it was too late for my nomination to go forward. Had I not suffered from brittle bones what a different course my life might have taken!

My friend, Jean, dropped in one afternoon while I was at home. I hadn’t seen her since I’d left the High School so I was delighted. She told me that the main purpose of her visit was to ask my advice and I was astonished because she’d always been so self-assured that I couldn’t imagine her needing to seek advice from anyone, least of all me. She was thinking about getting engaged, she said, and she realised that although she was very young she thought herself mature for her age. This was indeed true: Jean had always behaved with far more maturity than the rest of us. Nevertheless, the thought of her, of all people, contemplating such a thing as marriage was quite shocking. She was an exceptionally clever girl with a brilliant career ahead of her and it was unthinkable that she should give it up for the sake of a mere man. I had no idea who he was but, at that moment, I felt a deep resentment for him. He couldn’t really love her or he wouldn’t expect her to make such a sacrifice. But I couldn’t tell Jean this, of course; besides, I think she’d come to me for reassurance, not advice. I never found out what happened regarding her romance because I lost touch with her when I went to London. However, it must have turned out all right in the end because she did go on to have a great career.

My last days at Falmouth School of Art were drawing to a close and my mother was nagging me again about getting a holiday job. Certainly, I needed the money: there were many things I had to buy for before going to London in the autumn and my clothes situation was desperate. I was very pleased, therefore, when a couple of girls from the art school asked me if I’d be interested in joining them by working as a waitress in a popular restaurant in the main street of Falmouth. I accepted, gratefully; I’d dreaded the thought of another washing up job and although waitressing was no doubt hard work, at least there’d be tips on top of the wages.The restaurant was owned and run by two men and when one of the girls asked me if I thought they were homosexuals, I didn’t know how to reply because my rudimentary sex education hadn’t included any other aspect of human sexuality other than the kind which existed in marriage and I had only the vaguest notion, like so many of my friends at that time, that such things happened.
A few weeks later, I went to Plymouth to buy fabrics so that I could run up a new wardrobe. I’d acquired some flair owing to the fashion classes I’d attended and I realised that the way I dressed was dull and unimaginative, largely due to the influence of my mother who’d always dictated what I should wear. As I climbed on to the train at Truro, I told myself that the next train I boarded would be the one taking me to London. London! Every time I thought of it, my stomach fluttered. My mother had insisted that I lodge with Ethel while I was at college and since the age of consent was, in those days, twenty-one, I had no choice but to agree; however, as soon as I came of age, I had every intention of seeking my own bedsit. There seemed to be no shortage of accommodation because when I’d attended my interview at Hornsey, I’d noticed all the advertisements for lodgings in the windows of newsagents and other shops and although most of them stipulated ‘no blacks’ or ‘no Irish’ I hadn’t seen many which said ‘no students.’ Meanwhile, I was fond of Ethel and grateful to her for agreeing to put me up.

September was drawing ever closer and because I’d been so eager to begin my new life in the Big World, I’d forgotten about the parting. The fact that I was leaving my family bothered me not the slightest: I’d miss our cats and our dog, Laddie, far more than I’d miss them. No, it was the thought of leaving my friends which saddened me most. I’d taken their presence in my life for granted but now that I was saying my farewells to them, I realised how much they meant to me. Then, of course, there was Falmouth, my home town. Although I’d never admitted it, I was deeply attatched to the place in which I’d done most of my growing up. I’d miss the beaches, the harbour, the town with all its funny, old-fashioned shops, the surrouding countryside and all my favourite haunts. Would I return, I wondered? Of course, I’d be coming home for the holidays but what would happen when my years at college were over and I had to pursue my career?
My last days at home were spent preparing myself for London. I had to sort through all my belongings to decide which of them I was going to take with me but there was nothing to which I had any particular sentimental attatchment. I was embarking upon a new life and therefore I wanted all my things to be new. The college had sent me a list of materials I’d need to purchase but since two of these - a drawing board and a portfolio - were very large I decided to get these in London. On my last day I went for a walk so that I could say goodbye to Falmouth and, to my astonishment, my mother asked if she could accompany me. During the walk she lectured me about the dangers of living in London and the inevitable temptations that would come my way, by which I assumed she meant boys. She was concerned that Kenneth, the indomitable, might attempt to pursue me there but I assured her that I had no intention of allowing him to interfere with my life. She insisted on coming with me to London to see me settled in at Ethel’s and to help me with my luggage; I was not overjoyed at the prospect but not even she could quell my excitement.
As the train slid out of Truro Station, I had my last glimpse of the cathedral; the sight of the three, tall spires as the train slid around the bend in the viaduct would be the first thing to greet me when I returned for the Christmas vacation. How distant that time seemed! Still, I felt no regret, no hint of impending homesickness. Between Exeter and Taunton our train suffered a derailment. It was nothing serious but it meant that we had to be bussed to the nearest station to wait for a replacement train to take us on to London. The accident had been no-one’s fault but my mother was determined to find someone to blame. After we’d waited on the station for some considerable time, a railway official informed the passengers that another train had been commissioned but we’d have to wait for it to be cleaned. A few moments later, to my acute embarrassment, my mother marched up to the harrassed official to inform him that she’d been nominated by the other passengers as their spokesperson and that they didn’t care about the train being dirty: they just wanted to get on with their journey.
We were very late by the time we reached Paddington, where Harry and Ethel had been waiting for us. The next day, my mother and Ethel came with me to help me with my purchases. How wonderful were the vast art suppliers in London after the poky shops of Falmouth! Such a bewildering array of papers, paints and other materials! I couldn’t help recalling those years, long ago, when I’d been so desperate for something to draw on that I’d torn the end papers out of books. My mother returned to Cornwall the following day and Ethel came with me to see her off. She kissed Ethel on the cheek and, for a moment, I thought she might do the same to me but, with no display of emotion at all, she told me to behave myself and boarded the train. Equally emotionless, I watched her wave to us as the train began to slide out of the station; at last, she disappeared from view.
‘Come on!’ said Ethel, ‘Let’s go home!’

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