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St. Martin’s – Part II

More notes from St. Martin’s College . . .


      Ross, the guy I work with in the mornings, has finally started selling his art. In his 50’s. I wonder how many of the bright young things who breeze past the front desk ever dream it will take until their 50’s to make it. Soon he will retire from the regular working world and move to New York with his girlfriend, who has landed a job in Manhattan and a flat in the East Village. Ross has worked on facilities at St. Martin’s for thirteen years and said a few years ago he almost gave up and resigned himself to a life without art.

   It’s true that after even a few weeks, working at the school begins to play with your mind. You start to feel self-conscious about your lack of success and wonder if you should even tell anyone you’re an artist – if you should even let on that you aspire to anything artistic. You begin to question your own legitimacy as the artist you claim to be – the most dangerous position for any artist in which to find themselves – since you are essentially a hall monitor to bight young things with their whole future ahead of them. Even if you know, that for most of them, their confidence won’t survive beyond college, you still feel intimidated by that confidence and sense of purpose.

   In the mornings, I make the rounds, stocking toilets. I don’t mind it in the mornings – but for a few African cleaners, I’m pretty much alone. The classrooms are in terrible shape – the whitewashed walls are scuffed and dirty, dust sits in layers on top of the lights and water stains pour out over the ceiling. The lift has a mind of it’s own, so you’re never sure which floor it will stop on, or if, indeed, it will even work.

   The theatre space is in the sub-basement, along with the set design tables where students have pinned up posters of a church by Le Courboisier, paintings by Piet Mondrian. Garish set designs, and writing in Japanese script. I like to pause in the theatre space when the sets are in place – the lights hanging from the ceiling, or chairs arranged around the stage with costumes and notes on the floor. It’s like a little pause where I can remember another part of my life hanging around the fringes of these kinds of spaces, recalling the idealism with which I approached books, art, artists. With Bach or Massive Attack or Siouxse and the Banshees playing on the headphones, I can almost feel my way back into Montreal in the 80’s, New York in the early 90’s – even London when I lived in Bloomsbury.


   Back in the day, Pablo – who works the evening shift because of chronic insomnia – was a DJ then a hairdresser, hanging out in the rave scene way back in 87 or 88 – the years he said later became famous as the summer of love (Funny that I missed the early rave years entirely – as far as I was concerned, rave didn’t start until the early 90’s, after I’d stopped doing drugs, and dropped out of the youth scene altogether). Pablo tells me about going out to some farmer’s field where 20,000 people would dance stoned on ‘E’, and how in those early days the police would come to shut them down and not be able to do anything because the people who organized the raves had made a deal with the farmers who owned the field. He tells me about the football hooligans who came to raves and dropped E and forgot about being hooligans – except when the police came and tried to shut everything down and they weren’t protected by some deal with a farmer and the hooligans organized the ravers and together they rushed police lines. He tells me about the E casualties who never came back (and how much of this island has left something behind? Sometimes I feel like Britain has become a society of the permanently damaged and dislocated) – a black dude who’d never done E before and dropped 1-2-3 tabs at a show and jumped onstage and peeled off his clothes until ‘he was dancing naked with his big dick flopping around – dancing like someone who’s lost his mind.’

   Pablo lives on the Clapham Common Estate where he grew up. “You won’t get your flat robbed but you do get tired of people knocking on your door asking for a tenner.” I wouldn’t have placed him as a south London boy at first – with his goatee and shaved, his slightly formal accent with the rounded vowels and polite turns of phrase, he seemed unplaceable. He says he had to get rid of his accent when he was hairdressing, “the bosses didn’t like me talking down, as they put it,” but on the weekends he gets pissed up with his brother and his mates down in Clapham. “We’ll stay out ‘til eight, nine, ten in the morning, get a turntable, do some coke . . . I don’t do coke too much anymore, but me mates will.”