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First loves:1969 and Doug Binder

28th June 2018

My first days as an art student at Portsmouth in late ‘68 were marked by a sit-down strike by all pupils and young staff in an effort to shake things up a bit. I don’t think it lasted very long: a couple of days, maybe.
There was quite a bit of shouting, friendly and not so friendly barracking; students were elected to various posts and the politically-charged echoes of the Hornsey sit-in (big news at the time) subsided and vanished completely.

The tear gas had long drifted from the Left Bank; the world was becoming quiet again, even Cream were giving up the ghost, but the New Yardbirds (later Led Zeppelin) came to Kimbell’s Ballroom. They were louder – no songs about rainbows or the colours of your mind – but essentially the still-molten power-trio template (plus proto-metal voice) being hammered into an emblematic and durable business.

But what the fuck did I know? I loved Portsmouth and Southsea; lived there during my formative years, with the glorious distractions of the harbour, the liners and the cool boy stuff, not to mention the post-war mess that made play so adventurous and dangerous (you’re not really going to go in for crazy shit like para-snowboarding or bungee-jumping if you’ve grown up with the constant threat of a really scruffy, premature death in some forgotten air-raid shelter).

Also I’d seen art students at the bus stops when I was much younger; they looked like refugees from the Beaulieu Jazz Festival. They were too old for Beatle music and they used words like ‘invariable’ and probably ‘conceptual’. They had goatees and wore lilac cords and slip-on shoes over stripey socks… They moved their hands as if to convey ideas and the shape of their cool sculptures. Every time I saw art students, I just wanted to be one. It was invariable.

I often say that the Foundation Course was the happiest year of my life; not so, but it was certainly by far the most productive and fruitful academic year I ever had. By a belting margin. The man responsible for this state of virtual bliss was a quiet dapper geezer called Doug Binder.

I’m sitting on a donkey (a stool you sat astride with a drawing board at one end) doing a paint exercise in oils on paper for Joe Faraday, the princely head of Foundation (who told the obnoxious and arsey Terry Setch – he was a gallery star – to fuck off when he decided to give us all a post-lunch bollocking, for not drawing well enough) and in walks this quiet, smiling late twenties-ish chap in very smart clothes, rolling an Old Holborn and telling us we were going to make installations tomorrow.

(He’d already established himself as a successful and fashionable painter of pianos for Paul McCartney cool American cars for the glitteratti. But he kept that quiet)

So there I was doing a sketch the next day of what I thought my piece would look like. It was going to be wrapped, like a Christo building; my drawing was done quickly to look like a wrapped chair. I loved it because I’d never thought of anything so nice before… When the construction was suspended and lit by some raking spotlights he came up behind and said “What a fantastic shape. Doesn’t it have power? Isn’t it amazing?”. I had to look at him to check he wasn’t being sarcastic. After our wretched Setch experience we were all a bit wary, but no… he was like our David Hockney (a quiet Bradford lad), a positive man born to encourage. To be fair, he praised everybody’s; it was such a great thing to do and the wrapping-up effected quite beautiful transformations.

I can’t really remember being so pleased with anything I’d done, ever, because I was impractical to the point of absurdity and the idea of producing a drawing (no problem), then a construction based on same, was a bit of a stretch frankly. But I did it. We had to photograph our pieces, then regretfully take then down and dismantle them. I just wish I’d checked my negatives before… But it’s a luminous memory.

All through that year, a beautiful smorgasbord of delights: drawing, photography, printmaking, sculpture, and for me, probably slightly too enjoyable because at the end I had no idea where my talents lay. Still don’t if I were honest. But the idea of going into graphic design seemed the more realistic option, not one I had a burning desire for. What I really wanted was three more years of watching Doug Binder drifting in and out of his teenage charges trailing Old Holborn smoke, chatting, smiling, nodding, even adding a mark or two if he felt tempted. He was so friendly, so constructive – always, always constructive – that he perfectly suited that time.

Now, we’re different; it’s as though the DNA has been changed. We go to college or poly or uni in order to pay back the fees for 3 or 4 years’ hard graft. You gotta work, bitch. It’s a hard art now, you sometimes think. And you also feel here’s no love for the students; they’re there to be ripped off by shitty expensive bars and by scandalously mean deposit-stealing landlords. I’ll leave the next few thousand predictable words out; you get the drift. But against the bright techno wallop of conspicuous disciplined achievement, there’s got to be a battered 12-string being tuned and a counter current stirring of an inclusive, kinder and more sensible, creative world. Somewhere, in some place or other, maybe in Bradford, Sheffield or Brighton, there’s somebody with a burning mission to get children to discover and celebrate their talents without actually caring too much about their chances of making it big in the mad swirl of greed and insanity that we take for granted, where they can use all this adventure and failure as a reservoir for later life.

Well. I hope there is.

I still think of Doug Binder and his words of encouragement after forty years and more. I still want to do stuff that pleases him and the people like him. I still want to be creative. It’s invariable.