Before leaving school, I sought work for myself. The village gamekeeper (Jack Plaice) arranged for me to be ‘taken under the wing’ of John King on the Snettisham estates. However, my parents intervened – ‘he’s bright’ they said. ‘he needs to go to college’. Meaning the best, they took me to Harley Street for psychometric tests. It was like doing the eleven plus all over again. I recall coming out of plush offices and sitting in Regents Park on a hot day. It should have been nice, but I had a thumping headache (probably due to stress and dehydration) and didn’t feel good about the whole business.
Later I was given a consultation along with a blue folder, a bound report on my character and career potential. At the time I didn’t even know what the word ‘career’ meant. Something esoteric and definitely middle class. Apparently I’d make a brilliant doctor – having 99% aptitudinal suitability for the medical profession, however ‘unsupported by maths’ (to quote them literally), it was ‘inadvisable’ for me to pursue such a course.
Essentially, an Art school career was prescribed – which at the time seemed something to get excited about. But in hindsight, the entire business is patently stupid. Handing any potential ambition to a bunch of ‘experts on yourself’ isn’t a good idea. It renders the subject passive and results in a straitjacket of identity; not always a true reflection of a person’s intrinsic motivation in life.
GCE ‘A’ levels
Thus I found myself embarking on a two year GCE ‘A’ level course at the Norfolk College of Arts and Technology (NORCAT), now referred to as ‘the College of West Anglia’ (as if East Anglia is a separate place). I took three subjects – the selection of which seemed a bit random. Art (obviously), Biology (because I like it) and History of Art (because Ronald Gent, our history teacher said: ‘Well, you’re good at Art and History – so it follows you should study Art History!) Of course! Logical! Makes sense.
NORCAT was big compared to our school. There were thousands enrolled there including part-timers. It seemed a privilege to become a student. The Blairite trend to refer to a person of any age doing any sort of study, as a ‘student’ seems inappropriate and ridiculous. Becoming a student implies a certain amount of autonomy. You get to choose what you study, when, how and where. Pupils in state education have little or no such choice. There is a responsibility in becoming a student, for example – if Art History ‘lectures’ are just too boring for words, you can always slip off to the Wenn’s for an extended liquid lunch (Abbot Ale). Can pupils in state education do such a thing? No! The attendance Gestapo would be on their backs within seconds (and the police).
Students at NORCAT
The common room at NORCAT was large and teenage wildlife there, extensive. I soon realised ‘A’ level students were an elite, compared to the ‘gumbies’ (males learning a trade at affiliate college, Bircham Newton). Gumbies wore wellies. Amongst the ‘A’ level lot were an assortment of ex-public school ‘articles’. Jamie Carstairs, with his cherubic complexion, curly locks and camp deportment (fresh out of Gresham’s), Benny Lane from Eton and his consort Sophie and … Minto Lahore with his ‘Mott-the-Hoople’ Beetle. The juke box was forever playing ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ or ’20th Century Schizoid Man’. Mark Aldiss would stride about in a Stetson with a slew of cameras round his neck and Ian Derry (in his Barbour jacket) always correcting people about his surname ‘it’s Bromley-Derry!’
Perhaps most notable (in hindsight) was Stephen Fry, who would flounce past the common room in his ex-army great-coat, often winking at me. I was a nice, innocent boy at the time. No doubt Stephen might have engaged in some ‘Dwile-flonking’ – not a sex act, but a drinking game which involved having long hair, wearing a great-coat and shuffling round in a circle going ‘flonk, flonk, flonk’ …….
The featured photo shows NORCAT students at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts: John Baxter, Beverly Waters, Hilary et al
Staff at NORCAT
The Art department had the usual air of ‘sanctuary’ about it. Anne Roberts started my long engagement with the British tradition in drawing. An alumni of the Royal Academy Schools during the ‘Spats era’. Tony Keeler (studied at Leeds poly during the 60s) ascended neatly to the role of departmental head, upon the retirement of Keith Corrigan. Don Harding (between prayer meetings) presided over screen-printing.
John Willcox taught us Biology and we were lucky to have him as our tutor. He took a doctorate at Cambridge and was in his serpentine way, really on top of his subject. He once asked if we knew of his sister, Toyah – but alas, her ‘hits’ were out-gunned by the Stones and King Crimson.
For electives I chose English and Drama under the auspices of Bob Pols and Ed Tonkin. I liked the ethos of the subject and performed in Arthur Miller’s ‘the Crucible’ along with Karen Taylor, Stephen Tilson, Monica Cooke, Marcus Elwes, ‘Biggles’ et al. In another production by Bob Pols, I played the part of a young Englishman in ‘The Last of the Spode’ alongside Delissa Needham. Ed Tonkin subverted the mast-head of the local rag ‘The Lynn News and Advertiser’ to ‘The Lynn Newts Adviser’ – which summed it all up really.
Why take ‘A’ levels?
I had no concept of the significance of ‘A’ levels; didn’t realise I might have done an academic degree. I stubbornly adhered to the route planned in Harley Street and had no clue as to the choices available. I did well for a kid from state education but such ‘careers advice’ as I received was patchy, limiting and myopic. ‘A’ levels can be useful if a person goes on to academic study. In my own case they are just middle class gongs, unnecessary.
On one occasion I was awarded an extra fifty pence an hour because of them for teaching work, – demonstrating their true vocational worth. Knowing the minutiae of Kreb’s cycle has never been of any relevance in my life, except for the sake of passing an exam. However, having an understanding of Art History does help in the process of teaching people about Art and a genuine interest in Biology assists me with garden design. From NORCAT I went on to Great Yarmouth College of Art and Design (GYCAD).
If you were an A level student at NORCAT, or simply enjoyed your time there during a happier decade in British social history (1970s), don’t feel free to leave a message on the contact form below the social media buttons on this post.