I suppose art was always my thing. At the age of nine or ten, before I passed my eleven plus exam anyway, I made a series of pencil drawings whilst sitting at the back of the class* depicting some buckskin clad hero fighting Indians or brawling in saloon bars. He wore a fringed jacket, I recall. I had developed a taste for rudimentary Mantegna style foreshortening, which I guess I must have picked up from comics. I can still remember details from these drawings that I did sixty years ago. These drawings were objects of desire for classmates, I think.
I was a clever boy and was thus placed at the back. There were 44 boys in four rows, if I remember right, in the last class I was in at Paisley Street School before passing my scholarship, as they used to call it. The cleverest at back left and the most dull witted (Howard Tarbottom*) at front right. My place at back left had its drawbacks. When our teacher, Jock Burns, left the classroom I would be instructed to sit on my desk lid, as a kind of snout, and keep an eye out for malefactors: I have no memory of denouncing anyone. Who knows? Memory is a self serving engine.
This is false, probably, though we did have a Howard Tarbottom in the class. Maybe it was Albo Birch or Gord Bryce.
Things started well at the Grammar School and at the end of the first year I was wafted into a kind of hothouse class whose members took public exams a year early. Something went wrong soon after, well something changed anyway, I’m not sure what. I seemed to spend a lot of time in the park playing football with the people I had known at Paisley Street, or kissing Janet Drewery. I played table tennis and billiards at the youth club and began to smoke cigarettes. I had a job at a local grocery cum wines and spirits shop, delivering booze and groceries on a bike with a deep basket at the front. C.W. Pretty and Son it said on the panel that was incorporated into the bike frame. It had a stand too, this bike.
At some point I was allowed to drop German and do Art. I worked at the back of Terry- Satterford’s art classes. I liked him, a bluff military type with a handlebar moustache and a fund of poor jokes. He had a Christian name too, though I don’t think I ever knew what it was. Terry-Satterford was his surname.
I worked at home too, complex battle scenes done with coloured pencils were my boyish staple until I moved on to oil paint: views from my bedroom window, groups of wine bottles with dinky highlights. I remember a self portrait too, of me at eighteen, sitting in the ratty flat I shared with Richard (Welton) after I abandoned school and left home. A portrait of David Hargreaves, whom I had met when he came to the Grammar School as a teacher. I used to make bits of sculpture too, out of scrap wood and plaster.
My memory is that I was never without a job of some sort after that first job at the Wines and Spirits shop. Whilst I was still at school I worked as a window cleaner at weekends, at the racetrack at Wetherby, on building sites in the Summer holidays, at a rather sniffy department store on Saturdays (then called Hammonds)
After leaving school, I worked variously, and often briefly, in a library: a drawing office, a gas works, a foundry, more building sites and then, for a while I worked in the engine room of a salvage tug. We spent time pulling oil rigs about in the north Sea. This was in the early days of gas exploration. One January we escorted an old Mersey dredger bound for India across the Bay of Biscay. On another occasion we took an old liberty boat in tow, the Mersinidi, it having blown a boiler a few hundred miles off Cuba, and pulled it across the south Atlantic for several weeks to Funchal in Madeira. The tug had been held up in the Bay of Biscay by days of bad weather, and by the time we arrived at the disabled freighter, the crew were already eating lifeboat rations. Our dour Norwegian skipper refused to give them anything at all, and so we pulled these half starving Greeks for some weeks to Madeira. My shipmates thought it very droll to sit on the after tray of the tug and eat their meals, in full view of the Greeks, a few hundred yards back. The Portuguese dock police posted armed guards on both vessels when we arrived in Funchal.
When I was twenty and Sam was a five month old baby, we moved to Liverpool to do what used to be called the Pre-diploma course at the Art School annexe in Hope Terrace (Place?) A good year, well, a full year. Before college each day, I worked as a driver for a Jewish bakery (Chalkin and Pod) and then later in a Yate’s Wine Lodge.
At the college, we had life drawing classes several times a week with Sam Walsh who instructed us in the arcane discipline of measuring with a pencil, after the fashion of William Coldstream, Euan Uglow et al. I produced hundreds of drawings that year: gritty uncompromising stuff, often done with a rubber through graphite scribble, to avoid the taint of making a mark, on occasion working entirely through the drawing paper and having to patch it from the back. This seemed very authentic to me at the time.
There was a system then, as I remember, of art colleges employing practicing artists as tutors on the pre-diploma courses. Decades later we met Stas Paraskos, the Cypriot naïf painter who presided over the ramshackle hutments of Cyprus Art College in the village of Lempa. As a young man he had been a tutor at, I think it was Bradford Art College.
In Liverpool they were a picturesque bunch, the part time tutors: Adrian Henri, a painter/poet, who sometimes affected an Ubu Roi style white smock around the place: Roger McGough and Brian Patten, poets both, taught ‘liberal studies’, whatever that was. Does anyone remember Pete Brown and the Battered Ornaments? They arrived one liberal studies session.
Along with other poets, our tutors published a book of Liverpool poetry that year, arch stuff mostly. Each week, in the big basement bar of the Everyman Theatre there was a music/poetry evening which attracted the city’s bohemian fringe.
Hope Street, where the Art college buildings were situated, ran along the edge of Liverpool 8, a district of big, going-to-seed, nineteenth century houses spreading away from the great red Anglican cathedral. Students and other immigrants had colonised the area. Allen Ginsberg, the American poet, and a recent visitor to the city, declared the place to be the centre of the cultural universe, something like that.