Monday, 13 February 2012

Country Boy Moves to the City

Excerpts from Chapter Three:  
Country boy moves to the city.

Ah, the distinctive smell of Worcestershire sauce! Wafting from the original factory - just down the road from the prestigious and ancient Worcester Royal Grammar School, to which I won a scholarship at the age of eleven. For boys only, the school was founded as a monastic school in 685 and given a royal charter by Queen Elizabeth I in 1561.  The cathedral city of Worcester on the River Severn is also known for its luxurious Worcester Royal Porcelain.

School was now ten miles from our little home in the country, so I had to cycle to catch an early bus into town. But very soon, my father got a managerial job in the city, so we all moved into a town house. We found relaxation in surrounding countryside, like the nearby Malvern Hills, where Edward Elgar cycled and composed, drawing his inspiration from nature. His music never fails to recall the memories of sharing his home ground. I couldn’t imagine that, fifty-two years later, these memories would help to inspire my large watercolour painting Elgar’s Dream for Birmingham’s Symphony Hall (see illustration below). Then in 2012 a sequence of kinetic visuals, painted live in concert with the Rotterdam Philharmonic and inspired by Elgar’s Enigma Variations.

You were required to wear a school uniform (blue, green and silver, black tie) at the Worcester Royal Grammar School and there was a constant check to see whether you wore your cap and wore it straight! I had nightmares about this cap rule for years.  Stiff Eton-style collars with a black tie were a standard requirement until the early forties.  All the masters wore black capes that streamed out behind them (shades of Harry Potter) as they strode through the long tiled corridors, instilling fear into small boys. This was serious education and there were rules, rules and more rules. Caning was still practiced as a punishment, although somehow I managed to avoid this. You can imagine that, after our little village schoolroom in the country, my new school was rather grand and quite intimidating. In a rare display of compassion, a schoolmaster stopped me once in the playground and smoothed out the deep frown on my forehead. In fact, I was worried most of the time, trying to keep up.

We were required to play a lot of rugby and cricket. I would do well in defensive positions as I could catch and was dependable. I could also run well, especially over long distances. My parents couldn’t afford running shoes for athletics, so I had to run in my heavy school shoes. This was totally embarrassing and I would always come in second or third. One day a boy loaned me his spiked running shoes.  Imagine my amazement - I streaked to the finish as though on wings!

Every Friday afternoon, there was another activity, somewhat puzzling for a boy coming from a religious family, with a father who was a conscientious objector to all things military. It was the school Military Cadet Corps, where you learned to shoot, march with a rifle and parade with a brass band, supposedly in preparation for a possible military career. I secretly quite liked the band music, stirring us to nobler achievements, but there was no way my father would allow this sort of thing. So I joined a bunch of other non-conformists who were given the alternative of weeding the school flowerbeds. No problem - weeding the garden had always been a regular activity in our country home. Only later did I reflect on the irony of having pupils kneel in the dirt, for being different.  As we shall see, I was different in other ways too.

This splendid school would ideally prepare you for Oxford University, but I was not strong academically. After four years of poor results in Latin with Mr. Wormald (who, when provoked, would bang boys’ heads together), I was thrown out to do extra Art. In those days, Art was not given high priority. My memories of Mr. R.T. Shaw’s (“Arty” Shaw) lessons are that he would set an assignment (“Right, draw a burning haystack!”), disappear, then come back at the end of the period to hand out grades. Inevitably, the class was usually a total shambles. I would sit alone for my extra art lessons, trying to be inspired by the boring assignment to draw a cup and saucer.
Still, I passed the interim Oxford School Certificate in seven subjects, with a Distinction in Art and with no doubts about my future course of study. So I left school in 1949 at the tender age of sixteen, with a sense of escape, yet with mixed feelings. I had found the challenges and discipline tough going, but I was proud to have been part of this extraordinary school. Yet I was a non-conformist: not of course destined for Oxford, but for the excellent Birmingham College of Art and Crafts.
Elgar’s Dream, watercolour triptych, 203 x 158cm. 1996. Inspired by The Dream of Gerontius, composed by Edward Elgar in the Malvern Hills (left) and performed in Worcester Cathedral (right) in 1902. Birmingham Symphony Hall Collection.

Lord Yehudi Menuhin unveiling "Elgar's Dream" in 1996 in Symphony Hall Birmingham. Speaking of his own memories of Edward Elgar, he said: “There isn’t a note in this painting that contradicts Elgar’s music and what I remember of Sir Edward”.


Next Monday: The Thrills of Art College.


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