‘So how did you do at college? Your results I mean.’ asks Alison the next time I see her. It’s raining out and we’re back in our little room again.
‘I did ok – a good 2.1. They said I was “technically very proficient and had a good eye.” I think that was their way of telling me I didn’t have much originality but there you go. Back then a lot of what was going on was about framing each other’s faeces, so no, I was just a bit too workman-like for them. One of them actually called me an artisan, as if that was a criticism. I didn’t care. It got me onto a post-grad project.’
‘Like a Phd?’
‘More like a master’s.’
‘How was that?’
‘Good. I learned a lot – there was a lot of history and anthropology involved – stuff I didn’t know about music and film and so on. Then after that there was an arts council funded project that took me on. I think at the time, despite the feint praise, I still had this idea that I might actually really make a name for myself, make a difference, all that stuff – be important, if you know what I mean.’ I feel defensive and self-conscious talking about it now, but she reassures me.
‘You genuinely felt your work could be successful.’
‘Well, like I say, I really liked what I was doing, and I just thought, well if I like it there’s a reasonable chance others will too.’
Mum and dad wouldn’t have seen it that way. They’d have assumed that if I liked something it was pretty much a given that nobody else would, but I was learning to ignore their opinions. At the time I was doing a lot of small pieces, some very small, as well as the larger panoramas. I painted back rooms in old houses, attics and basements, pantries and outside loos. I did deserted beach huts, garden sheds full of old tools and overgrown corners of gardens. Anywhere where there was a lot of broken, decaying, rusting and cobwebbed junk, or even just some bare dusty floorboards and some grimy windowpanes. I found some wonderful ready-made collages of bits of old newsprint, labels and advertisements in an off-licence that was due to be pulled down. A lot of my work was unashamedly nostalgic but I just thought – this is not some sanitised cosy image of our lives – this is our history. This is what we’re losing. Nostalgia literally means homesickness and that’s what it was about. I called the exhibition Nostalgia anyway, just to let them know I knew. I liked to think of it as post post-modern.
‘Did you sell anything?’
‘Not too bad. I didn’t lose money but it wasn’t really enough to live on so I had to do other things to make ends meet.’
‘Well, I got commissioned for this big council project – something for a health centre out on one of the estates.’
‘And that was good? Making a difference?’
‘You’d think so wouldn’t you? But it was all just so much bullshit – all the politics – grovelling about for funding, cutting corners, using cheap crappy materials to save on costs, having to stick to ridiculous deadlines, and constantly having to make changes because some dipshit who knows nothing about art has a friend on the committee. Anyway... when that didn’t pan out I applied for some other things – media jobs, galleries and so on... I don’t know if you’ve found this, all employers seem to expect everyone to be a people person, a team player or whatever... Doesn’t matter what else you might have to offer, you’ve got to be an extravert. It’s as if wanting to quietly just get on with your job is some sort of mental illness...’
‘It’s the triumph of ambition over talent’ she says wryly. ‘All too common these days I’m afraid.’ Clearly she knows exactly what I mean. The truth is there was a time when I believed, despite everything my family said, that I could be someone remarkable, someone exceptional, a person to be reckoned with. I don’t know where that came from, but in the end it didn’t matter all that much. It wasn’t worth the stress, the long hours and pretending to be someone I was not.
‘I just didn’t have the motivation I guess. I do my best work if I have time to wander about and think and work things out for myself. Anyway it’s their loss. I just got on with doing what I was good at.’
‘You could have put your prices up surely, to make enough money.’
‘I suppose so. I don’t know. I was told I could easily have charged six times what I did. I don’t know. I loved my work. I couldn’t really justify it. I mean, it’s only painting. It’s not life and death is it? It’s not like I was baking bread or delivering babies or something. I worked it out once, the hours I spent painting and including all my materials, rent and a generous dollop of other expenses and I would have been on twelve times what my dad earned, hour for hour, doing something I loved, whenever I felt like it.’
‘So how come you didn’t make more money?’ she asks. ‘You could have asked for, say, three times what he earned’
‘I did. I just couldn’t paint enough. I could never do it as a full-time job. If I tried to work too much all the inspiration went out the window. It just became plodding and dreary. I couldn’t really work more than about three full days a week and stay keen. I had to go and do other things, and get some proper rest too.’
‘So how did you make ends meet?’
‘I did a bit of teaching.’
‘What did you teach?’ she says brightly, consulting her notes.
‘Painting, drawing, life classes, at the tech. That was good. I liked teaching.’
It was handy too. I found I could teach the equivalent of three days a week and still earn enough to live in a manner considerably better than that to which I had become accustomed, and spend much of the rest of the week (and the long academic holidays) travelling and painting. The fact that I was not making a name for myself as the new Lucien Freud did not trouble me much. I’d found myself a place in Lewes – a room at the top of one of those very tall, very narrow Georgian town houses down one of the twittens. It was a wonderful pokey four-storey place, full of light and life and Mit, the owner was generally easy going. The rest of the house was crammed with her books and plants and miscellaneous bits and pieces and the kitchen, although tiny, had every possible spice, grain and pulse known to man, neatly labelled in jars on three of its walls. For the fourth wall there was an old lean-to greenhouse she’d filled with coriander, tomatoes, basil and cannabis plants making a thick herbal miasma to sit in of an evening. She rarely cooked but when she did the result was mountainous and we had to invite in teams of random friends to help us consume it. Mit was a real old hippy – doyenne of the festival circuit and purveyor of circus skills. Everybody knew her and although she could be very tetchy at times, she knew when to leave well alone so we got along fine. She’d been there a good ten years before I turned up but she was not controlling and she always apologised when she knew she’d been unreasonable. Anyway, it meant I could have the occasional freak out too without being taken for an escaped lunatic.
She was the one who introduced me to the festivals and everything that went with them. After the first one I went to I had my own djembe, a set of runes, a sacred basil plant and the phone number of a very sexy redhead called Andrea who’d given me a deep tissue massage and told me to lay off the coffee and eat more cabbage.