I wrote a blog a couple of weeks ago which started with my confessing that I had ‘done something strange’. It was about me re-registering as a psychologist at a time when I had given up being a psychologist, 18 months ago. Why did I do such a perverse thing? I suppose the answer was something about being afraid to let go of a past life. Well, I have done something strange again and it is to do with a past life but it’s certainly not about being afraid to let go of this version of a past life. Let me explain. I have written in previous blogs about my life as an art student. This based on the fact that from 1967 to 1970 I was a student at Leeds College of Art. These were tough times for me and, at 18 and of a sensitive nature, the sink or swim, do what you want and call it art, approach didn’t suit me at all. I was lost and those three years and I don’t think I’m being too dramatic here, killed off any thoughts I had of being an artist. Probably no bad thing. I wasn’t in any particular way a talented student although who’s to say because one thing that Leeds College of Art studiously avoided was any definition of what was good or bad art, so hard to say. But, I suppose when you receive feedback from your tutors along the lines of – you’re wet lad (Yorkshire version, at that time, of being described as naïve or immature), you’re bound to draw certain conclusions about your talents. So after three damaging years I took the usual route after art college – I trained to be a teacher and left behind the bohemian world of art and artists.
On the rare occasions when I have looked back on those times and been determined to put a positive slant on my experiences, I have decided that there was good in it for me and my development as a person. Simply put it was that I have always valued the creative side of my life. When I retrained and became an educational psychologist I found a ‘discipline’ that suited me perfectly. Psychology had some rules, some structure, some notion of how to go about helping children do better in school but, and for me this was the blessing, it left much unwritten. This meant I was in a position, where and when the orthodox didn’t work, that I could / must create other possible solutions. This is not the place to write about this aspect of my work in any detail, suffice it to say that this synergy of the known and the yet to be created, suited me well. In other creative areas, writing books and articles, writing sitcoms, taking photos (more of which at a later date), making furniture, the creativity that Leeds C of A, and I nearly said nurtured but that would be far too kind, left intact might be closer, was valued by me, at least, as a part of my life.
OK, so by now you’re wondering why the heck I’m telling you all this or, at least, why now? The answer is quite simple. Last week I went to a book launch, a rare thing for me to do. The book in question was one about Leeds College of Art and more specifically, the fine art department in the years 1963 to 1973. It was entitled Creative Licence : From Leeds College of Art to Leeds Polytechnic, 1963 – 1973. See above for cover image. As I said, this included the time I was there. I will not attempt to short cut the message of the book but, one part of this message was that Leeds College of Art, at that time, was a rare and marvellous institution. The author of the book James Charnley writes that Leeds blazed a trail for all the originality of British art that was to follow – the Damien Hirsts, Tracey Ermins, the YBAs as a whole. It also, as a bonus, changed the face of art education in America as at least one tutor from Leeds found his way stateside.
As, no doubt has been said before, blimey if I’d known it was that good I would have paid more attention. You may have guessed it didn’t feel that way to me at the time or since. It felt that it was an institution that, in its determination to reinvent art education (and a good thing too I reckon), many students were sacrificed on the altar of its ambitions. If you could cope, even thrive, in the anarchy of the time, great, but it had no differentiated strategy for those of us who were struggling. Many students dropped out, one or two ended up in psychiatric institutions, others sought refuge in drugs and probably more commonly drink. I just can’t help feeling that it should have been possible for the tutors to protect their charges a little or a lot better than they did. But the fact of the matter was that this is all very much water under the bridge. It was what it was, but now this book has brought it all back to me and I thought I should write about it.
You might also be wondering what actually has this got to do with a blog about retirement. Well, simply that one of the things that retired people seem to do, inevitably I suppose, is look back rather than forward. Nothing wrong with valuing the past particularly if it gives a clue as to a brighter future. As a part of this looking back, retired people seem increasingly prone to attending reunions and, in part, this was the reason I stepped out of my pre-retirement character (I have always avoided reunions like the plague) and went to this one. Should have stayed at home. There wasn’t a single person there that I knew and as far as I could determine, there wasn’t a single person who had actually attended the fine art department in the time the book covers. The whole thing was weird and a bit unsatisfactory.
The event was in Costa coffee in Blackwells bookshop, it had actual slides – remember those – projected onto the wall (and, disconcertingly, the speaker), of Leeds in the 70s but which had nothing to do with Leeds College of Art. The young man from Blackwells, who had provided the slides, not the author, explained that they were there to set the mood. Hmm, what they did was make noise from the projector and, along with the noise from the air-conditioning, obscure much of what the speaker, who had a very quiet voice anyway, was saying. So it may have been a blessing that, although the talk was scheduled to last from 6.30 until 8, it actually lasted from 6.40 to 7.05 and then he said, any questions. Only one other person made any comment so I thought, well, as I appear to be the only person here who actually went to the college during the period in question, I better say something. So I said roughly what I said above. You know, the kind of thing – that’s all very well but… When I read through the book next day, the damaging side of Leeds was acknowledged (not least on the author himself)but I didn’t know that at the time. One of the tutors I disliked most for his insensitivity said something like we did a good job for a lot of students but I don’t know how many we fucked up along the way. Answer, quite a few, yours truly included.
I’ll stop right there, this blog is already too long, not to mention unfocussed but then if you can’t write a rambling, self-pitying blog when you’re retired and you own the site, then what can you do? So The Summerhouse Years (aka retirement) move along always full of stuff, which gives me plenty to write about and this is why I’m publishing this blog this week before it gets lost in the growing mountain of retirement experiences.