Wednesday, 13 January 2010


Over 40 years ago, I left school aged about fifteen and three-quarters, and as soon as I had turned sixteen, I left home and started a foundation course at Guildford School of Art. The year was 1968.

The induction into student life was a real shock for me. Suddenly, I was calling teachers by their first name, and naked women were put in front of me for hours at a stretch, presumably so I could draw them. Various celebrities would arrive to chat to us - Yoko Ono, David Hockney, Peter Blake, Bruce Lacey (I wonder what became of him?) etc. Trips to exciting and previously unheard of galleries in London were made. Artists' work such as Roy Lichtenstein and Rene Magritte were seen in the flesh for the first time. The soundtrack for the next four years was to be the Beatles, beginning with 'Fool on the Hill', going on to 'Revolution' and ending with 'Maxwell's Silver Hammer'.

The college refectory smelt perpetually of baked beans, chips and cheap pies, but within a couple of months, another atmosphere began to pervade it, as whiffs of the troubles at the Sorbonne in Paris began to arrive on the wind. Shortly, we heard that some students and teachers of the London School of Economics had taken over the building and baracaded themselves in, and we began to suspect that the spirit of youthful rebellion might be world-wide, or at least European, as news from the USA was slow to reach Britain in those days, and was usually brought over by drop-outs and draft-dodgers who were either too paranoid or too stoned to be trusted. In any event, Britain wasn't directly embroiled in the Vietnam war, and it was to be a few months until the Grosvenor Square demonstration against it, when so many heads were cracked by police truncheons on the orders of the government.

Posters began to appear on walls and trees around the college, calling for meetings in the refectory in order to discuss the situation, and the first few of these were largely ignored by me and my fellows, on the grounds that they would disrupt our student life before it had hardly begun - we were, after all, there to learn about art, not politics.

Then, some of our younger teachers began drifting over to the student refectory to attend one of the meetings, so I thought I would go along to see what they were all about. That was where my real education began. The topics were almost abstract to begin with, but soon became more focussed, as hostile letters were sent from the govenors via the Principal, one of which ordered us to vacate the refectory immediately, or face having it closed down. It was obvious from that point that - like me - the Principal did not realise the the refectory was the sole property of the student's union, and was entirely funded by the students themselves, including the staff who were chosen by the college authorities.

This innocuous meeting was interrupted within about 20 minutes by the Principal and his deputy storming in and pathetically demanding loyalty and allegiance from his teachers by shouting that those who were with him could follow him out immediately, and those that were against him could stay. We all looked at him dumbfounded, and tried to explain to him that it had nothing to do with conflict or personalities, but he turned around and left, alone but for the smarmy and - as it turned out - untrustworthy Vice-Principal.

The next day, he issued a memorandum to all the teachers, saying that any of them seen talking to 'trouble-making' students would be summarily dismissed, though how he expected them to teach without talking was unclear. That same afternoon, the Vice Principal wandered around the campus with a small note book, actually jotting down the names of any teachers he saw talking to any students in the open air, and the following day, seven of them (I think) received their notice by hand. They were being sacked on the grounds of misconduct - a charge more usually associated with sexual activity with minors or the vulnerable. Once a teacher has been sacked for misconduct, they will never teach again, and it is true to say that none of them ever did. One was spotted - about a year later - selling newspapers at a London Underground station.

This was the sole reason that we took over the college and brought it to a halt - we were campaigning for the reinstatement of the sacked teachers, and nothing else. Using student and teacher's union funds, we employed teams of solicitors to fight the teacher's case, and received daily updates by telegram from London as to how the case was going, along with messages of support from some of the more liberal fraternity of the Great and the Good. We also received anonymous death-threats and warnings of imminent and violent eviction, but in the end, it all came to nought and the teachers remained sacked.

We took the death-threats seriously after someone took pot-shots at us from the darkness of the nearby park with an air-rifle, and one student was seriously beaten up one night when he left the building alone. We took to going out in pairs or more, and did not spend any time standing in front of the windows at night, as the sniper returned a few more times to put holes through the glass panes.

We had daily visits from supporters who attended our meetings and gave talks on any subject you could imagine. Some of these people were quite famous at the time, and most did not leave without giving some money to our fighting fund, which was used to supply food and hot drinks to the 40 or so students who were occupying the building 24 hours a day. I particularly remember a visit form the renowned nutter, Tammo De Jong, who gave a brilliant but completely incomprehensible lecture on his own theory of Cosmology, during which he could hardly be heard for laughter. I was so impressed by his performance, that I booked him for another lecture a couple of years later, but the old magic did not happen.

So for the next three months or so, there was not a moment when a meeting was not taking place in the building, as they would carry on through the night with varying attendance, hardly punctuated by the daily routine of breakfast at around 10.00 am. There was nothing that was not talked about, and by the end, my education concerning social life in general was vast for a 16 year old.

In the beginning, we allowed a couple of elderly, private security men to maintain a presence in the college, in order to 'protect the building', and we got on well with them. They soon warned us that they were going to be replaced with a couple of hard nuts, whose job it would be to make our lives miserable. One day, I was having a laugh with the two old ones, as one of them had accidently locked themself inside the telephone exchange room, a small booth which could only be unlocked from the outside, for some reason. I stood next to his colleague, and pretended to squirt gas from a cigarette lighter through the keyhole, and we both laughed before letting him out a few seconds later. The next day, the front-page headline on the Daily Mail read: 'GAS ATTACK ON SIT-IN COLLEGE GUARD'. That was my first lesson into the workings of the British newspaper industry. When the replacement guards arrived a few days later, they spent the first night walking down the corridors, kicking all the students in their sleeping bags, so we evicted them the next day.

Of course, we could not maintain this level of commitment and energy for ever, and after a couple of months into the summer, numbers began dropping off as people fell ill with exhaustion and stress. The level of paranoia began to run high too, and was fueled by the extreme left-wing Marxist tendencies of what remained of the core of the occupying students, who were convinced that Britain was on the brink of an armed revolution. They were becoming mad, and so was I.

There was a party held in London, in aid of the sacked teachers, and the luminaries that attended included Kasmin, John Lennon and Yoko Ono. My friend was in charge of the drinks, so I got extremely pissed on Thunderbird wine (it was not a high-class affair), but the whole thing fizzled out, and I don't know what benefit was achieved for the teachers. My friend threw herself out of a taxi on the way home - deliberately - and I walked back to find her laughing whilst lying in the middle of a busy street, happy to have had the experience. She was mad too.

In the end, I was the third last to leave, having fallen ill with the same mystery, stress-related malady that the others had, and the other two left about a week after me, giving the building back to the college authorities. I spent the remainder of the summer recuperating, and then went to Farnham School of Art with three other Guildford students, where we were treated with extreme suspicion as trouble-makers.

Every attempt was made to force us to leave, and two did. Both became union officials in London. Despite being pushed into a corner by half of the teachers at Farnham, who refused to make any allowance for my youth or background, I somehow survived intact, despite being a pain in the arse to most of my fellows, and left without the meaningless qualification that they had to offer at the time - the Surrey Diploma. The Principal of Guildford was denounced by his own son and divorced by his wife, and the Vice-Principal became Principal of Farnham, which goes some way to explain why we Guildford students were persecuted. Before I left, the old Principal of Guildford engineered the sacking of the Farnham Principal on the grounds of misconduct. They well and truly stabbed each other in the back.

I don't know what became of the sacked teachers.


  1. Compared to my schooldays Cro, they certainly were, especially since I had nothing else to compare them to at the time!