THE REGENCY GLIDE
The best bit at Art Schools for me as a teacher was giving a lecture.
From the age of five, I had been a show-off, having realised how much you could get, and get away with, thrusting yourself to the front and making the point. In the years of food rationing in post-war Britain (c1948), I had developed an act of going round neighbours doors telling them that Annikins (our local Liverpool fruiterers) had bananas. This they knew, but rewarded me with one for my cheek. Any attempt to address an audience of adults was resented by my father who would whisper, PTTG. I understood this acronym as “Playing to the Gallery”.
I felt these gifts awaken when giving seminars at University, determined to keep everybody awake. Rolling my own cigarettes (Rizla) had the same effect when I was not reading a paper. I found my true level at a New University’s Festival reading poetry to Jazz, amazed I was getting away with a performance by being the centre of attention. Writing and acting in the first University review gave me a glimpse of how good it could get, secretly admired across the Student Bar, endowed with mystical powers of becoming a Character. In The Pornographic Professor sketch I gave a stream of consciousness monologue alone on stage under one Spot, starting with an analysis of a medieval codex and slowly eliding into an erotic reverie, “She was a girl in whom the essences of youth flowed freely….” One member of the audience (called Richard) let out an audible shudder of revulsion. I knew I had found my metier and when Professor Peter Lasko who, unknown to me, had been in the audience, complimented me on my performance, I saw my future.
The review was called Muck off Our Cuffs, or at the Edinburgh Festival, The Mulch Horn Sounds. When I came to earning my living by lecturing, experiences of speaking from memory, or extemporising, came as second nature. Whether part of the curriculum, a key note speech at a conference or earning a tenner at the Thetford Pony Club, I would turn up at the venue with slides and sometimes curtains for the windows. I would distribute a handout to instil a certain confidence, and then, using what I had learned being alone on stage in the Revue, paused in the light from the lectern until complete silence had been achieved. Achieve silence, and then count to five, inducing the anxiety among the audience that you were about to have a seizure. A baleful glare usually worked, or, in extremis a mysterious gesture such as arms held out horizontally like a bird of prey.
In forty years this theatrical seizing of attention failed only once, lecturing on The Shining to a group of students in Teacher Training. They giggled, chewed, fondled, defying their tutors until I showed Jack Nicholson axing Scatman Carruthers. “Fucking Hell,” came from the audience, “Did you see that?” No because they had been chattering. Teachers Training ? Don’t you love them?
If attention was slackening I found it useful to advance into the audience and stand behind them, raising my voice as if to strike. The audience turned their heads, constricting their vocal chords and imposing silence. But this ruse was rarely used. As long as you maintained pace and kept a decent turnover of slides, it all proceeded successfully. Over the years I developed a keen awareness of the passage of time without consulting a timepiece. This very act of consulting the wrist watch induced in the audience a suspicion that the speaker was not in control. Better to plunge on working to a decisive coda. Talking from a giant pile of lecture notes distracted an audience if, after 45 minutes, the pile had hardly diminished.
It is pretentious to draw comparisons to the symphonic form, but the very act of lecturing had to establish a clear formal and temporal structure, irrespective of the unfolding of the argument, never that important for me. There has to be a signal that the performance has started beyond just turning off the house lights. The unique selling proposition has to be cautiously but deliberately approached in a sequence of what might be called ‘foreplay’. No member of the audience, it is said, had the ability to concentrate for more than 15 minutes. The rest is entertainment, flourish, gags and a soft landing.
Lecturing one weekend at the Open University in Cambridge to a large group of students on the Renaissance and Reformation Course, I encountered an impediment to my usual schtick. John Purkis ( Arts Staff Tutor,and distinguished Wordsworth scholar) had me listed as a Generalist and asked me to talk about Botticelli’s Mystic Nativity as evidence of the artist’s affiliation to the Apocalyptic teachings of Savonarola. In the front row of the audience were three students who were hard of hearing, served by a cheerful man in a tweed jacket who was to transcribe my deathless thoughts to the monitors in front of them.
If this sounds a trifle cynical, it is a survey of hundreds of lectures to all manner of audiences. At Art Schools there were students who liked the security of Book and other research lists. Students on my courses were required to make a folder in which they stored the handout, to include evidence of their own understanding with a particular emphasis on notation, making diagrams and sketches. These were assessed termly and certainly concentrated their minds. One student submitted a ring binder with no evidence of attendance, thought or research. "A Gerbil with a biro up its bum, could have achieved more." He complained but others backed my judgment.
Visualising concepts became increasingly meaningful for me, developing PhDs by Studio Practice.Recording your thoughts in text and image became central if the PhD was not to return to the conventional bound A4 format that virtually ignores the power of images.
It was great to see so many caricatures of me posturing within the folders, among the summaries and bullet points. Lecturing for the Cambridge Extra Mural Board at Madingley Hall, I encountered regularly Bob and Beryl Godfrey. Bob (Henry's Cat, IKB, Roobarb) claimed has included me in one of his animations, puffed up and florid in face, stamping up and down the shaking platform.
I am not the only lecturer who discovered what he/she really thought about a given painting during the performance, confounding the Hand Out. Over the years there were however several performances where I managed to conjure up an atmosphere conducive to entering into the spirit of a given image, adding to the understanding of the Narrative. These I will list in a separate section.
Bob Godfrey drawing