NORWICH SCHOOL OF ART
The part-time lecturer was well placed to attract outside gigs, where small coins changed hands and a new audience arrived, ready to be wooed. It was “Horses in Art” for the Pony Club of Thetford, “Artists cross the Border” for the Norwich Welsh Society, and decorative ironwork for National Decorative and Fine Art Societies (the best paymasters of all).
The meeting continued after Edie and I left, piling into the car with what was left of the slides after their projector gutted them. Edie noticed we had forgotten the extension lead and returning to the car park we noticed that vandals had thrown rubbish all over the tarmac, lit dramatically by the glare from the Village Hall. Edie collected the extension lead, and I suddenly noticed that in among the rubbish were dainty little roundels of gingham cloth. In leaving I had rested the box of jam on the roof of the car while packing my apparatus away.
We scarpered quickly before the members got into their cars to go home, having pushed the sticky mess of the gooseberry jam into the shadow of a skip. Edie immediately saw the gloomy interpretation, that I had tasted the jam and jettisoned it before departure.
The next morning Joan rang apologising for the jam. It had been made by Mrs.Collinge who had poor eyesight, and was unaware of a thick crust of waving mould on the surface. My fee was replaced within the week but we never discussed whether the breakages had been found. Joan was a veteran of Bletchley Hall and could keep her mouth shut.
I did a follow-up to the Hingham gig but to the entire membership of the WI of Cambridge. Unfortunately it was during the school holidays, and Oriole was away visiting her parents at Bath. So Jack(8), Sam (5) and I were met at Cambridge Station and taken to one of the Colleges where the Lecture Theatre was bigger than anything I had used before. We were lavishly feted in advance of “Pre-Raphaelitism and After”. Jack and Sam were restricted at home in their access to fizzy drinks. Here there was no limit and they gorged, and gorged, sandwiches, Coke and Fanta. The audience were well over 400, and being the Women’s Institute delighted to see a Lecturer with such a firm sense of Family that his brood accompanied him on even the most inauspicious of presentations.
I had got as far the dispersal of the Brotherhood in 1854 when Sam, who had told where the Loos were, stood up and made his shameless way up the stairs to the back of the auditorium. This occasioned much laughter on his return. Jack may have felt out of it because he took the grand climb five minutes after. This running joke generated a louder gale of laughter and a few bursts of clapping. Before Jack could return, Sam repeated the walk. Their return together down the long course of steps had them rolling in the aisles in the way that a description of Millais’ Nazarene roots hadn't. When asked why he was the only member of the family not to go to University, Sam said he’d been to his Father’s lectures and that was quite enough.
The best gigs of the eighties were the Cultural Weekends at Madingley Hall for the Cambridge Extra Mural Board. The sessions were shamelessly Art Appreciation, but set in the Jacobean house with its “Draughtsman’s Contract” Garden. I did three a year, and then I think the subsidy ran out. Through gigs for the Open University, I had been identified as somebody who felt comfortable with about twenty fee paying guests who wanted to balance culture with walks and drinking.
The routine was attractive. Arrive Friday afternoon at Cambridge Station, taxi out of the city to Madingley, roll up the gravel drive, and emptied out at the Reception, eager to see which of the Luxurious Chambers I would be allotted. The best room was something called the Prince’s Room with a secret passage for visiting ladies. Every house of standing in Norfolk had one.
Friday evening would be the first session followed by extensive dinner followed by drinks. I had been doing it for so long, and attracted the same bunch of people, so it was actually a reunion with beer. One weekend I met Frank Gadbois, then Librarian at Lakenheath Airbase. There was a delightful American couple from Frankfurt who taught at the American School there , and a woman who organised secretarial services at the House of Commons (“Crooks the lot of them…”).
The clientele was different anything else I had encountered, sensible, thoughtful and appreciative. In my second year, I came across Beryl and Bob. The latter sat in the audience drawing frantically, occasionally pausing to laugh maniacally and swear fruitily.
Saturday’s programme started with a long breakfast helping yourself. Kippers, toast and coffee. An early session followed, say "Cotman and the Japanese Print", which would take us to lunch after which we dispersed into town either singly or in groups. The evening session might be a little tougher, "The Abstract Landscape say". It was generally agreed that the session only went up to 9.30pm when I would be escorted into the Bar and everybody bought me drinks, before Match of the Day.
One evening Beryl and Bob piled the table with crisps `and my pint glass. Beryl warned me about Bob’s drawing. She said she had dragged him along to get him away from the studio, and he enjoyed these outings watching me. Bob was Bob Godfrey the animator (IKB and Roobarb and Custard), and somewhere in his oeuvre. he told me. there was a portly gesticulating pontificator striding the platform and making a prat of himself.
On my last visit to Madingley I fell in with the sort of Taxi Driver from Hell, last seen in "After Hours", wild eyed and opinionated. Even before we had left the city he was extolling the virtues of Adolf Hitler in dealing with inflation. By the time we were rolling up the gravel drive, he was talking about a sex change operation where the penis was cut into two. I hurried to get out, and disturbingly, he refused to accept payment because I had been such a sympathetic listener. As he drove away, I felt a sense of relief that was instantly curtailed when I saw against the skyline a dozen soldiers with Armalite rifles at their hips. They looked at me balefully and motioned me into reception.
“It’s our mystery guest…” said my usual, “the Prince’s Room and a bottle of whisky at the bedside.”
I unpacked a bag with pyjamas, carousels of Surrealism/Dada, and I was assured my credentials had not been challenged so far. My regulars were agog. During the first session, one of them was given the job of looking though the door at all movements. A dozen men in uniform made their way unsteadily into the next teaching room. With my gracious permission, several of the young MOTAs pressed their ears to the walls, agreeing whoever they were the soldiers were pretty sozzled the lot of them. About ten o'clock , just as my pints were being lined up in the Bar, a solitary figure could be heard walking down the corridor, to tremendous applause from the Sozzled.
At breakfast, the secret was out. Enoch Powell, then a Unionist member for a Northern Ireland constituency, had come to address the War Lords on the subject of Ulster and the suppression of the Foe. I breakfasted with a group of army officers interested in what I was doing, and keen to foulmouth “the Cousins” who had just screwed up in the Lebanon. To them, Enoch was a wise old uncle. Several of the more enterprising of my lot crept into their teaching room and managed to nick a placement which was sent (for cash) to "Private Eye".
If I have given the impression of pride in achievement, I feel at this stage I must balance it with failures that live with me to this day. Hundreds of lectures have failed to connect, and I have died the death of Max Miller’s act at the Glasgow Theatre Royal. I have taken a group of American students round Ham House without knowing a single fact about it. I have lost slides and blown bulbs. At Madingley I realised that Goya’s "The Blind Man" appeared the wrong Way round. Rather than correct it in the machine, I tried to bluff my way onwards, despite a gentleman in the front row insisting it was back to front. “I’ve seen it Chris, and it is the wrong way round.” Still I dugdeeper the hole. “Ah, but this is the little known companion piece…” which seemed to satisfy the rest of the group. “Then why does it say AYOG?.....” My default was then to say. like Captain Mannering, “I was wondering which one of you would have spotted that!”
In the village of Higham the audience for the Workers’ Education were workers in name only, the village being a favourite retirement spot for retired bankers, diplomats and show biz folk (Alan Breeze of the Billy Cotton Band show). When we got to the Impressionists, we held the session in Ray;s front room in front of his wall of Pissarro’s. One of the MOTAs was a Squadron Leader whose son was a member of the Red Arrows. He had found art late in life, and bristled with wonderment at Carpaccio and Ruysdael. I played a sly game at the Caravaggio session, in front of the Lute Player. Teasing out any possible homophobia, I asked for responses. The Squadron Leader gazed lustfully at the main figure. “Corrrr,” he said, “I could really go for that.” Others in group more familiar with the artist’s fondness for beautiful catamites, giggled. “Why you lot laughing?”
“Peter, it’s … it’s… a Boy!”
“Well?” he said, “So what? I rather fancy a grapple with that.” Brave man, he faced us down. And him an Airman. What would my Father, the Baby of the Squadron have said?
Through friends made at Madingley I got onto the American Schools circuit, properly resourced and superbly organised Conferences held in European Cities. Brussels, Frankfurt. Montreux. Fly in. Name Badge. Honorarium on the side table and your own technician. Marvelous. I had generated a number of teaching sessions based on the American magazines I had bought one Saturday morning in Wymondham, Bob Hope as Celebrity Endorser, The Iconography of the Cold War, The Kiss in the Ads.
Other lecturers addressed aspects of the Curriculum whereas I was included in the Innovations sections, like those radio controlled footwarmers and Cat Scarers. Dealing with American popular imagery, revived for an American audience was always revealing. A twenty minute session on kissing is always a winner.I was on in the big hall at Frankfurt after the Man from the State Department. He asked us all to write on a piece of paer he collected up at the end, what we considered our favourite Short Term Reward. Everybody I asked afterwards had listed "masturbation", and we all speculated how this would affect Foreign Policy flowing from Foggy Bottom.
I had reached the Remington Shaver ad, "Some Guys have all the Luck", a soldier getting his Christmas present and a kiss from his girl which causes one of the woman's legs to rise at the back. A woman in the audience fell about, not having seen this piece of iconography since her childhood. Until it was anatomically disproved, she believed until the age of ten that all women had a dedicated muscle in the leg that tightened when kissed. Many experiments in kissing had proved she lacked that automatic response.
More darkly I did twenty minutes on the iconography of fear in American Cold War Advertising. The session was extended dramatically as one by one, my audience revealed their own terror at Duck and Cover. Steve in the front row said that when the klaxon sounded, each member of the family ran to a designated shelter in the house. He cowered under the house's hot water tank where there was also a nest of snakes, giving Civil Defence an extra dimension of horror.
In connection with the exhibition of work by the artist Nigel Henderson held in the Norwich School of Art Gallery for which I had written the catalogue, Nigel and I, supported by Arts Council funding, hit the road in the Henderson Road Show. My role was a familiar one, the jovial Anthony Quinton style Chairman.Like Jewell and Warris we performed for a curious public in Colchester, Sheffield and eventually the Serpentine Gallery. Audiences varied in number and capacity. We were paid well, and the Norwich Gallery's outreach profile benefitted enormously. At Southampton a member of the audience asked Nigel why his Self Portraits were green. The colour represented dead flesh of a person who, like his first wife Judith, had had a massive stroke. He reminisced about working under Helmut Ruhemann at the National Gallery, restoring Baroque Portraits, where the underpainting was the complementary colour to the full flush of pink. I could have done with that infornmation for the catalogue, says I. I only just remembered it, says he.
At the Serpentine in 1983, I'd done a warm up show the previous week projecting the sort of images I knew Nigel favoured in a montage on screen. The following Saturday was to be our joint performance to coincide with an enhanced version of the Norwich show. Nigel was banking on public understanding of his art and some recognition. Meet the Artist started well. Oriole's sister Emma and a number of her colleagues from the Early Music Consort had come along. Nigel moved into his generous and articulate patter when the double doors at the back flew open and in walked Paolozzi with whom Nigel had been feuding on and off for several years. Paolozzi was accompanied by a gangly youth with bottle lensed specs. The later handed Eduardo a large Tube map which he unfurled, disappearing behind it.
Nigel at that moment went rigid, gritted his teeth and audibly swore in the general direction. To my every question, he replied with a curt, dismissive, monosyllabic response. There were still forty minutes to go. I still remember the uncomfortable flow of sweat down my flanks as I tried to reignite Nigel, dropping into jocular and indicative anecdotes about Life, Landscape and the estuary landscape. I did a Gig with the artist with Bert Irvin for the sixth- formers of Ipswich. Feeling that my half an hour should now allow me to pass the baton, I asked Bert a question about the manipulation of paint and the artist's intent. "Dunno," says Bert, "I just tosh it on." Well that didn't help me much, but I assumed Bert was happy being inert and didn't carry a concealed weapon.
Back to the Serpentine, both Nigel and Eduardo however both carried flick knives, and, as the minutes sluggishly passed, I was aware of Nigel's growing frustration and his hand moving slowly towards his jacket pocket. I had the vision of the flower of the British Art School fighting it out like a couple of apaches in a low Parisian dive. Could I be held responsible? I thought not. Would I interpose my body? Certainly not.
The Presentation ended peacefully as Paolozzi slipped out before my peroration. Within two years, Nigel was to provide me with the ultimate Gig, presiding over his Funeral. In 1985 Linda Checketts rang that, after a hearty breakfast, Nigel had dropped dead under unexplained circumstances. The police enquiry delayed the funeral which was held eventually at the Ipswich Crematorium. Steve had built the coffin, verses were to be read out loud as well as a letter of Nigel's found after his death. The Norwich contingency of Mel Clark, Derrick Greaves, and Linda with Chris drove to the Crem. Stepping out of the car, I was aware of the waiting crowds parting to let the Undertaker a direct route to our car, and then, to me. "Dr. Mullen," he spoke gravely," Janet is in no frame of mind to discharge the funeral service..." She waved across the crowd to me, brandishing a large joint."And she would be grateful if you would be Master of Ceremonies."
Secretly flattered to be offered the challenge, to be the focus of attention, I walked ahead into the Chapel where the Undertaker showed me the mechanics of the passage of the coffin into the furnace, a red button on the Lectern constructed way above the congregation. "Don't for God's sake press that one." His finger pointed to a blue button. "Just tell a few stories, bring in the family, one by one, and get them all out in 30 minutes flat. You are to say, Ladies and Gentlemen, thank you all for coming. Please leave through the doors to the left of the curtain and floral tributes can be viewed on the lawn."
The rubric I recall to this day, and shaking hands by the exit door, I was gratified the next gang would indeed enter on time. Driving home, my pals kindly praised my performance as I silently shook in the back of the car. My state of mind was not improved when a motor cycle and side car roared past us on the way to Norwich. The sidecar was exactly the size and wood of Nigel's coffin. Derrick said the crafty bastard was getting back to the pub in Norwich before us.
No phenomenon this. My reputation preceded me and I was EmCee for the funeral of my PhD student Grahame White, and for my dear pal, the cinematographer David Watkin. Several members of David's mourners, from the British film industry praised my performance and sought to book me for their equivalents. I looked pious, hoping they werre only being polite. All three funerals were Gigs and required the same combination of anecdotes, audience interaction and closure with a gag to dissipate tension. At Watkin's I did try and sell copies of his memoirs to the throng.
The cultivation of Gigs in my case moved steadily in the direction of Academic Consultancy and attendance at University Workshops. There was less opportunity to show off, but it got me out of the house as a visiting celebrity. The money was better too. In the end I was paid to listen and not perform.