Monday, 10 May 2010

Farewell to Creative Writing at the Art College 6

It is interesting to append here a list of the writers who came to read at the art school in my time. They came for basic rates, by personal request, some staying overnight, some having to hurry home. They usually came in two's, read for half an hour each, answered questions and had a drink. The list (and I will link them all) comprises:

Fleur Adcock
Moniza Alvi
Kevin Crossley-Holland
Michael Donaghy
Ian Duhig
Geoff Dyer
Ruth Fainlight
Lavinia Greenlaw
Jane Griffiths
Steve Heller
Tobias Hill
Michael Hofmann
Sue Hubbard
Lotte Kramer
John Mole
Michael Murphy
Don Paterson
Peter Porter
Deryn Rees-Jones
Christopher Reid
Michèle Roberts
Lawrence Sail
Eva Salzman
Will Self
Jo Shapcott
Helen Simpson
Matt Simpson
Anne Stevenson
Anthony Thwaite
Barbara Trapido
Rose Tremain
Hugo Williams
Kit Wright

That is without listing those whom I've already mentioned: Peter Scupham, Elspeth Barker, Patricia Debney, etc.

It is a rather extraordinary list. In fact it is literary history. I may have forgotten one or two writers. I am going by memory but am 99.99% sure of those names and have checked through editions of Birdsuit.

The readings were free, mostly in the lecture theatre. Was the lecture theatre full? No, it wasn't. Did all the students from our degree attend? No, they didn't. There wasn't a group email system. I made the posters, photocopied them, then ran round the various buildings putting them up with blue-tack or drawing pin or sticky tape. The class looked at a poem or two by whoever was coming, the week before they came. People take these things for granted. Then a new generation of students appear and don't know the things ever existed.

As for the art school, it barely took notice of them. It allowed us six poets a year for a few years, then four, then eventually none. It was slow strangulation. It wasn't the fees. The fees never rose. The writers generally gave us a piece or two for the annual book anthology, Birdsuit (various copies of which can sometimes be found for sale on the net). They charged us nothing for it.

I'm not sure now at what point the visiting writers were stopped. But everything was working to that end: the budget, the numbers, the advertising (they eventually stopped listing the names of the tutors on the website for fear of falling foul of the data protection act, so, by a brilliant stroke, no one applying for the course knew anything about its record or who was teaching on it), and the sheer indifference and neglect.


One year in the early 2000's I persuaded the Research Committee to fund a resident writer. Amazingly, they produced £5,000 for the purpose. The well-known poet, editor, and ex-external examiner, Christopher Reid, was appointed. But the college neglected to provide a room, a desk, a computer terminal, heating, decoration, in fact anything. Eventually we found a store-room and an old computer. Chris provided his own coat. He did a reading, he attended classes, he saw individual students, he edited Birdsuit and brought in work from people like August Kleinzahler and Alfred Brendel. He was there one day a week. C. and I offered him weekly accommodation. He reciprocated by good conversation and cooking a splendid meal. The principal of the college didn't come to any event he attended or organised. As a matter of courtesy I tried to arrange a meeting between the principal and Chris. The principal was not available.

The following term, when Chris finished, a fund-raising manager took the room over. It was immediately carpeted, painted, supplied with brand new furniture and the best computer possible. He stayed there a term, then, because the room was a transit room to another smaller store (a detail they somehow failed to consider) he asked to move. He was then given my room.

What was my fate? I was moved into the room that had been his, the carpeted, curtained, painted suite that he had occupied, and which had been the scrappy old store-room that had accommodated the college's one and only resident writer. I didn't get the computer of course. I did however get the hint.


Ms Baroque said...

That's so depressing. And it's an amazing list of writers. What a lot of work everyone does...

I just spent the evening on the web in a gloomy project of trying to see if any of my books are worth trying to sell, and they aren't. I've come to the conclusion that they depreciate worse than cars.

The Plump said...

I have been following this series with a sense of depressing familiarity. The dismal tale of stripping out important frivolity in favour of useless utilitarianism is the story of education in our times. As is the warped priorities of a management who cannot see beyond their own self-importance.

Stephen F said...

All the good guys went to end up being replaced by David Milliband.

Hold on, is the right thread...

James said...

Let me get this straight: the principal of an arts college did not want to meet Christopher Reid?

Oh, and the Data Protection Act has been a daily part of my life for years. Putting tutors' names on a website doesn't contravene it. I know you know that, but thought it worth flagging anyway.

On a cheerier note, congratulations on becoming grandad to a beautiful little girl, and I am going to tell Jane G that you are saying she's "history." How dare you compare her to Michael Owen.

Diane said...

Marlie Florence -- exquisite name. There is nothing quite like falling in love with your grandchild, is there?

Diane said...

The evolving story of the growth and then demise of the literary arts at the Art School very interestingly follows the entry of you, George, and then your transfer to the Univ of East Anglia.

And, well, the story of the broom cupboard, the principal, and the poet could be a metaphor for the changing values and priorities of higher education -- as management focus has shifted toward financial gain and fame and away from cultural production. Terrible loss.

George S said...

It's bound to follow my time there, Diane, because it is what I know. I've no desire to magnify my role, especially since the course continued for four years after I left it under the very good care of Andrea Holland in poetry, helped primarily by Helen Ivory, as will become clear in episode 7.

I think I sailed in on a fortunate institutional tide; that I was a lucky piece of flotsam. It was just that the tide - the institutional tide, that is - began to ebb within a few years of my arrival. On the other hand, as episode 7 will reveal, the students came particularly to flourish in the ebbing years. There was a serious flowering there as their achievements will show.

The students are the chief glory of the course. That is what I am leading up to.

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