Coat tales. Art in Newcastle

Author’s Note: Caution – Some aspects of this post may not be suitable for younger children or those of a nervous disposition. It details actions of my former self which are neither big nor clever.

Long ago, back in the day when Dizzee Rascal was just a Rascal, I was an Art student in Newcastle Upon Tyne. Now I don’t know whether you’ve ever been to Newcastle in the winter, but it is, to use the correct meteorological term, bloody freezing. Therefore, it is essential to be in possession of a good coat to keep the bitter cold at bay. Unless of course you come from Newcastle; in which case it is essential to be in possession of a good vest or cap-sleeved T Shirt. For if you weren’t aware, Geordies are innoculated against feeling the cold at birth and that is why flimsy garments, summer dresses and bare feet are common sights on the town (or ‘Toon’ as it is more correctly known) in mid-winter.

I studied Fine Art at the University. The department, originally the King Edward VII School of Fine Art was housed in a building to the south east of the university quadrangle, once of the former Kings College, University of Durham. I say ‘housed’, in fact it was partly housed; namely The draughty Library, frosty gallery, chilly workshops and studios, in this imposing 1913 structure with its bronze statue of King Edward VII installed in the niche above the King’s Road entrance, wrought iron gates and tower with a double-arched gateway. The rest (cold offices and even nippier workshops and studios) were to be found in an icy Modernist white cube, tacked on to the original building.

Quadrangle

Fine Art Department (Modernist White Cube out of sight behind)

In the first year, we were ‘taught ‘(and I use the term loosely here) together in a large warehouse of a studio in the new block. We were a strange bunch: a disparate crew of potential artists-in-the-making, all at different stages in our understanding of Art, what it was, what it might be, and how we fit in to the ‘big picture’ (No pun intended) All issues I have to say, the Fine Art course of the time singularly failed to confront.

As a group, we didn’t gel. I used to look at other year groups and compare: they would meet up at breaktime, sit and have a coffee, chat, socialise – bask in the glow; the result of the heady mixture of wonderment, envy and hate with which other students saw us. We seemed to take it all too seriously, hid away and were ‘tortured’. I gave up with them about half way through the first term. The lasting friendships I made from that time were with people studying ‘sensible’ subjects like Law, History and English.

Until, that was, I discovered – almost too late in the day – ‘The Poly’ (Remember them? AKA Newcastle Polytechnic, now the University of Northumbria) Here, with partner in crime and Blood Brother, Skull Murphy I found that there was indeed life during, as well as after Fine Art. But that’s another story.

The tale I am about to recount is of a spell in my first year 1979-80. It was late November and it was cold. I used to wear a ‘Donkey Jacket’. For those of you who have never come across one, they were workmens’ jackets which became popular in the nineteenth century. Unlined and typically of black or dark blue wool, the ‘Donkey Jacket’ usually had two spacious hip pockets, occasionally an inside ‘poacher’s pocket’ (whatever that was) and a reinforcement panel across the shoulders. This panel may be plain black, grey or in recent years, fluorescent orange or yellow (sometimes with the company name stencilled across) in an effort to increase visibility. I never quite managed the dizzy heights of a fluorescent panel, mine was just plain black. As to the significance of the name? I think it is probably a reference to the wearer – the type of worker and the kind of job expected of him: in other words The ‘Donkey Work’.

Guess What?

Anyway, back to the tale. It was bloody cold, and the point was that – as you will know if you were paying attention – the Donkey Jacket: trusty, fine exemplar of British Working Class attire though it may have been, was an ‘unlined ‘garment. So, even when buttoned up, my Donkey Jacket let howling gales of icy cold Easterly wind which swept directly off the Siberian steppes straight through my coat into direct contact with my navel and midriff. I took to wearing it with a jacket underneath, but I was still cold.

Then one evening, I was in our studio, with one of my fellow artists, Anne, having a wander around the cavernous hole, looking at everyone’s work: sketchbooks, drawings, colour studies, paintings, as well as notes on paper, models and maquettes. It lay where they had left it at day’s end (with either a four-minute warning or a call to the pub by the looks of it) on desks, the floor and/or pinned to the wall or screens in their respective studio spaces.

If I can be serious for a minute, there really is something magical about looking at artists’ and designers’ workplaces. To be able to browse through the visual distillations of their thoughts and ideas as expressed in tentative first marks/sketches: wobbly-legged initial attempts at solving the visual problems they have been posed. Sketches, notes, books and art artefacts, some finished others not; complemented with doodles, reminders, visual references – a bus ticket, a bottle top, a scrap of a hotel menu and contextual relationships with a particular artist or artists’ work. Genuine treasure troves – and always so different to each other: from the obsessively tidy, to the manically unkempt, they are a reflection of their owners’ approach to the creative process. Looking at the visual traces of the development of an artist or designer’s ideas – no matter how insignificant they may be, is something I regard as a privilege:

And how generous and trusting: to leave one’s inner thoughts for all and sundry to see. I bet there weren’t many other departments in the university on that November evening which you could step into off the street and immediately get such an intimate snapshot of how a particular student or group of students were responding to a task set.

I think that now, but of course I didn’t think that then. Then it was more a case of ‘Howay, let’s get to the pub, I’m freezin’ Likewise, not everyone’s workspace was blessed with the kind of visual treats I have waxed lyrical about above. Take mine, for instance. As I recall, it had very little of anything to show. I don’t actually remember the project title, but it would have been something like ‘Object and Environment’ and was clearly an attempt to elicit responses from us to the likes of Marcel Duchamp’s ‘Ready Mades’ which aside from using materials in an innovative way – in a sense to represent themselves, had started to (and still do) ask all sorts of awkward questions of the received aesthetic script that was Modernism.

Now, in 1979, although familiar with Marcel Duchamp’s work (I had even seen some of it) had I been asked as my ‘Starter for ten’ to explain the above, I would have been found sadly lacking. In the event, I wound up by making a surprisingly elegant sculpture out of broken chairs from the refectory which took me all of 5 minutes to plan and execute and was as Modernist as you can get.

‘Fountain’ Marcel Duchamp 1917

I didn’t have a bloody clue.

The walk round the studio was punctuated by having to negotiate several large piles of rubbish, for the initial stages of the project seemed to induce in some people, (Yours Truly included) a kind of ’Skip Fever’ in which the contents of, apparently, every skip within a two-mile radius were brought back to the studio as potential source material. I had recreated part of a skip I had found behind the Playhouse.

Rubbish

‘Why?’ I can hear you ask: Why indeed. Anne called me over to look at Caligula’s work. That wasn’t his real name. In fact, I don’t recall why she called him that, unless it was because he looked like John Hurt, the actor who played the character in the ‘70s BBC dramatisation of Graves’ book ‘I Claudius’. Whatever, the case – if only for a brief period, the name stuck. Caligula it was.

‘Bloody Hell’ She says ‘Would you look at that’. She was pointing in the direction of Caligula’s workspace. ‘What a bloody mess. I don’t know how he works here!’ It was a tip. Literally. For it seems as though Caligula, cold sweat, heart racing, stricken, like me with ‘Skip Fever’ had done the same thing, but on a massive scale. Either that or together, the students in his area of the studio were doing some serious collecting, dumping their stuff near his table. The pile was now threatening to engulf his desk. Despite all this, Caligula appeared to be, if memory serves correct – and I think it does, making a small painting of an apple, the subject of which was hanging on a string suspended from the ceiling.

‘What do you think of the painting?’ Anne asked me.

Hmmm?… What?’ Something had caught my eye. In amongst all the clutter and debris was the obligatory shopping trolley. Hanging out over the back of the trolley was what looked like a donkey jacket. I had a closer peek. Well, it was slightly more than an ordinary donkey jacket. It was a much heavier fabric, slightly longer … and it was lined! The lining was torn on one side, admittedly, but there was definitely a lining. Before I knew it, I was trying it on. A perfect fit! (Not often words found in the same sentence when it applies to Yours Truly and clothes) … but more to the point it was warm!

Art – or is it the other way round? See how difficult it is?

‘What do you reckon?’ Do you think it looks like rubbish? I asked Anne. ‘Aye, it looks like bloody rubbish from where I’m standing’

‘No, what I mean is do you: 1) think it’s someone’s real jacket and that has been inadvertently left here? Do you: 2) think its ‘Art Rubbish’ that is part of a combination of real objects, intended to elicit responses about ‘What makes art Art and what makes rubbish Rubbish? Or do you: 3) think its real rubb……..’

‘I know what you mean, idiot. I think its real rubbish. Anyway, man, who’s going to care about a scavvy bit of material like that?’

True: and so, without another moment’s thought, I put it on, and immediately felt warm as toast. Done deal! And off we went.

Now it came to pass that some months later, around March the following year I guess, that I was in the University Student Union one night. We didn’t go there often, preferring to drink, go to nightclubs or see bands at other venues in the town such as The Strawberry, The Spital, Crown Posada, The Forth, The Bridge, Balmbras, The Bacchus,The Belle Grove, The Royal Bar, The Newcastle Arms, The Prince of Wales, The Leazes, Trent House, Red House, The Lonsdale, The Baltic, The Mill, The Percy and The Hotspur (but only if desperate) The Stage Door, Tiffany’s,The Poly, The Cooperage,The Buffs Club, The Bier Keller, The Mayfair etc. Not that we went out much…

However, on Friday nights, The Union did used to do a fairly decent disco. Anyway, whatever the reason, band or disco, I was in The Union and at one point, towards the end of the evening found myself in the Gents toilets – I have to admit, dear Reader, rather the worse for wear. Mind you, I was still a long way off the loss of control of bodily functions stage, and hadn’t yet started with the ’Bedroom Whirlies’, I could have got home unaided without stops to sleep in skips, bus shelters etc, but I would have had trouble ordering in the Stanhope St. Chippy or refusing another drink. I stood at the urinals, pondering the above, casually wondering where the evening would take me, when I became suddenly aware that I was not alone. At the other end of the urinal was a crooked, decidedly unkempt figure. He definitely had the ‘Whirlies’, for with cigarette hanging from the corner of his mouth, he reeled backwards and forwards trying to maintain his balance as he relieved himself.

Recognition. It dawned on me who it was: Caligula! Oh shit! And guess what I was wearing?

Probably conscious of my gaze, Caligula slowly turned and looked. He reeled backwards as he did so and in adjusting his position found he had turned his head too far. He made to bring it back. This time, he tipped forwards, regaining his balance just in time to prevent falling (still relieving himself, cigarette still hanging from the corner of his mouth):

‘Aaallrrrougtthhh?’ He said Trans: ‘Alright?’

I replied: ‘Alright?’ Which I felt to be the closest approximation. I still had no idea whether he even recognised me. Any further doubts on this score were firmly put to rest when he let go of himself with one hand and (thankfully, for I feared for the jacket he was wearing as the glowing cigarette tip was getting longer and more and more fragile) took a long pull on the ciggy, caught hold of himself again and looked at me once more. His eyes had narrowed to the tiniest slits, bothered as they were by the wisps of smoke as they sidled up the side of his face. His body swayed backwards and forwards as, unable to get a response from his eyes, he tried to focus on me ‘the long way round’

‘Ey! Thath’s my futthen coa…’ Trans: ‘Hey that’s my fucking coa…’

Without thinking I blurted out:

‘Yeah, and you know what? It’s a disgrace the lining’s all ripped on one side. I don’t know how much longer I’m going to be expected to wear it in this condition’

Still rocking and rolling:

‘S’my futhecoaaa..ey! Fyoouwannit yu cannavit. Y’heear me? Fyoouwannit yu cannavit. Annever licchtet anywaaaah, phut!’

Trans: ‘Its my fucking coat. If you want it you can have it. Do you hear me? If you want it you can have it. I never liked it anyway, phut!

And with that, he spat into the trough and I made my exit.

Which is where the story should have ended, except for the fact that the remainder of my relationship with the coat was to be short-lived; as in a wholly appropriate turn of events, someone nicked the coat from me a few weeks later at a party in Benwell.

And what of the coat’s original, and as it happens, rightful owner? Well, if you were to ‘Google’ The Fine Art Department, part of the School of Arts and Cultures, University of Newcastle Upon Tyne; there you would find details about its staff, and in particular, its current Professor, a renowned sculptor, whose work is a ‘response to the materiality of landscape.’

What it doesn’t say much about is that some years ago, he, himself was a student at the University’s Fine Art Department.

In fact, he was in my year.

Now, I’m saying nothing else on the subject, except to point out that a difference of opinion over the semantics of Rubbish meant that during the winter of 1979-80, I was a few degrees warmer than him.

© Andy Daly 2010

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7 thoughts on “Coat tales. Art in Newcastle

  1. Caligula” was actually coined by a fellow student – Fiona McKenzie. In profile, the student in question did indeed resemble that of the Roman emperor – something to do with the nose…….and the hair…..Cal had a few things hanging up on a washing line as I recall (carrots, apples, as you do….) The shopping trolley where Andy “found” the coat was installed underneath it. Cal came later to the course and was a bit on the exotic side (well, he was to us as, being from the styx of Cumbria and a council estate in Newcastle repectively).
    I remember the coat incident well and still think about/relate it for chuckle-value.

  2. “Caligula” also did a nice line in faux (that’s French, you know) Iron Age farm “hardware” which, to his credit, passed as sculpture. Got him a 1st, as I recall. Another 1st that year (the only two) went to a sculpture student who presented a section of the Hatton Gallery as “stripped wallpaper”.
    Said student ended up tracing outlines of Brighton Pier in marker pen on the windows of her accommodation. Long story. The Fine Art crew were indeed a disparate bunch who wouldn’t have known their arse from their elbow – it took me another 23 years to differentiate same. An MA in Glass sorted me out – no agrarian pretensions there. Still no better off, mind you.

  3. P.S: “We” had a social thing going – coffee (tea in your case) in the studios and stuff, being the only bona-fide Northerners. Think I was the only one with a kettle, sink and clean cups. Either that or safety in numbers. We went to see “The Life of Brian” one afternoon at the ABC Haymarket as I recall, and we saw Simple Minds in October, 1979 on Level 2. Nothing to brag about, I know. We knew how to live then. I went out with someone who “did” History in the 2nd year – you never liked him. You were deeply suspicious of his suede winklepickers and Paisley bandana. Not all History students were sterling individuals. I also knew a Law student (friend of Fiona’s). He was a total tosspot. Those were the days. I remember the green flying jacket, Levi’s and Doc Martens and how my old etching plates were recycled before re-purposing was fashionable. That Hydrocloric Acid couldn’t have been good for us and the screen-wash brought me out in “junky sores” aka Sericol Chic.
    How’re you doing these days?

  4. Well, there are a few memories here and no mistake!
    How are you?
    Yeah I sometimes wonder whether the Nitric Acid fumes and the Sericol were a factor in the Parkinson’s and whether I should issue a lawsuit against Newcastle University’s wilfull disregard for Health and Safety in the late ’70’s/early 80’s. But then I think there is not any point beating myself up over it. I’ve got it and there’s an end to it.
    Having said that, the novelty has well and truly worn off now and it’s case of grin and bear it, head down for the long haul.
    I recall ‘Life of Brian’ and Simple MInds, as well as the cups, kettle and sink.
    Why was I always so poor at University? I used to have to live off £15 a week all in. Materials included.
    I remember the ‘Crits’ in the first year with The Great White Chief squatting down in his brown elephant cords, fag held precisely in his two fingertips while droning on about something or other. (Need to go, more later)

    • (Back again.) Did you know that when Ralph Holland died he left a colledction of Renaissance drawings which sold for £1.8 million! I sometimes wonder where everyone is, and think about tracking them down: then I think ‘Naaa’ can’t be bothered.’ I see Ron Derham is still around – or was last time I Googled him. Believe it or not, I was looking at an MA1 flying jacket the other day, but decided that £275 was a bit too much to ask. I still wear my old ‘uniform’ though Levis and Docs (not the same ones of course)
      How are you doing? Still living in the Toon?

      • Hey, Andy! I don’t check your blog very often these days or I would’ve replied sooner. I’m back in Newcastle and working part-time at DCHS in Alnwick. I was doing two days technician work which suited me very nicely, thank you. However, I was coerced into doing two days teaching as well this year and, as usual, I should’ve known better. I hate teaching and I hate bloody kids!! I keep telling myself that the money’s good but it ain’t everything. Trouble is that I’m good at it. I feel like I’m in a Sartre play.

        Apart from that, did I tell you that I have an MA (Distinction) in Glass? Who’d have thought it, eh? Best year of my life. I missed my vocation/medium/mojo there and no mistake. I was always shit at painting and drawing. No feckin’ imagination whatsoever. Now I just can’t be arsed and still no imagination.
        None. Whatsoever.

        Those brown cords were something else, weren’t they? Crits made me howl with laughter. I can still see David Luff pushing his way through a wooden frame, which, as I recall was covered in black bin bags. It was his response to “Sculpture to Wear” and was supposed to represent birth. What? So he was wearing his mother’s birth canal? I’m far too embarrassed to say vagina, although I think he did. I can also remember those t-bags that you used to buy ‘cause you were so skint – “My Mum’s” from the corner shop in Fenham. Dust, Andy, dust. I’m surprised that Ron the Printer is still around. He was always blethering on about his angina and how he didn’t have long left for this world. Big bullshitter. Deserves to get a big chunk of moulded glass stotted off his hypochondriacal (no such word?) noggin.

        Yes, the H + S standards were not as they should’ve been. I’ve got chronic rhinitis from breathing in copious amounts of MDF and plaster dust (long story), but do we complain? No. We suffered for our Art (upper-case A) not like these lightweights today.

        Otherwise, everything’s fine and dandy. Email me (if you are so inclined) at am.glass@yahoo.co.uk. We will continue this diatribe.

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