Cider, cigarettes and Letraset… confessions of a 70s art student
By Harry Mottram: One pint of cider for 30p and you began to slur your words. Three pints and it was oblivion – for less than a one pound note. Such were the joys of student life in the 1970s.
The author of the 1953 novel The Go Between L. P. Hartley said the ‘past is a different country’ and he was right. In the 1970s we thought of the 1920s and the build up to war as being ancient history – but now looking back some four or so decades we reach the 1970s – as alien to today’s Generation Rent as we were to the the Jazz era and the General Strike.
The politicians of that era had been in parliament since the 1940s while our school teachers could recall the Hungry thirties and the Jarrow March. Today’s students listen to our stories of telephone box queues and only three TV channels with looks of those who have just met a Neanderthal. Yes, the past is another country.
How I came to go to art college perhaps says more about my chaotic life at the time than anything else. I’d left school in 1975 with the vague ambition of becoming a American Indian having read Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. My parents had split up and my mother had moved to Somerset taking me with her to an area where I had no friends. After flopping my A-levels I took a job on a farm, then in a warehouse and then as a volunteer with the British Council for Archaeology, first in Staffordshire and then at Threave Castle in Dumfrieshire – cycling to Scotland to take part.
With little idea of what to do with my future I got talking to one of the archaeologists whilst scraping away in a trench with a trowel. “Students are boring,” he said, “we get loads volunteering and they are dull. The only interesting ones are art students.”
This casual and inaccurate aside got me thinking. Instead of seeking evidence of medieval Galloway in the mud and cold – why not create the ancient artefacts of the future by making pottery or painting at art college? Drawing was one of the few things I could do. So within weeks I had applied and been accepted to attend Somerset College of Arts and Technology in Taunton beginning that September of 1976 – the summer of the drought.
Art college was liberal in contrast to the strict rules and conservative attitudes of Colyton Grammar School, in Devon, where I had left the year before. Although lectures and classes were technically compulsory their enforcement was minimal so slipping off down the town or generally staying in bed and getting in late didn’t get you into trouble. After one Thursday half afternoon I hitch hiked to Scotland with a friend – returning the middle of the following week with no questions asked by the staff.
The staff or lecturers were also rather laid back with time keeping with two hour lunch breaks at the Full Moon pub a daily occurrence for some. One poplar drink was the brown split – half a pint of bitter and half a pint of brown ale. Another was barley wine while a third was lager a lime. My chosen tipple was an orange juice and vodka – which I topped up secretly with a small bottle of vodka in my pocket.
It was my first year or Foundation year which gave students the chance to try different aspects of art – sculpture, painting, graphic design and photography – while in other departments there was 3D design, fashion design and textile design.
Back to the 30p pint of cider. The real joys of art college life were the same for most students anywhere and at any college – basically you are free. Free to smoke, to drink, to stay in bed, and free to bum around. Studying for me only became serious as the final year approached and the prospect of finding a job became important.
Until then life for yours truly consisted of eeking out a grant by skimping on food and clothes but spending on booze and cigarettes. Socialising was top of the agenda for me as I had lost my base of friends in my childhood town after the move to Somerset – and the perfect position fell to me as the Social Secretary for the Student Union.
This gave me access to booking bands, organising discos and generally being at the centre of things socially. There were down sides like when the bouncers didn’t turn up for a rock gig in the college canteen and I had to pretend to be a hard nut and stand on the door looking mean – thankfully there was no trouble since the band played mellow folk type music for a fee of £30.
After another successful night this time at the Westerner pub (later the Three Tuns) the landlord was so happy I had free drinks all night. Not so when a concert at the County Hotel descended into violence with my friend Yan getting punched in the face.
Getting by on very little led to some unusual savings. My flat mate Frank used TCP as an aftershave and swore by it – and it certainly worked for him judging by the sounds from the his bedroom. Then there were Pot Noodles, extra cheese rolls acquired from the canteen and roll ups in place of ten number six cigarettes.
Like many students in the 1970s hygiene wasn’t a priority with perhaps one bath a week and as for changing bed linen – well once a term was plenty. As for socks, pants, shirts and jeans, well by only changing once or twice a week you saved on going to the launderette.
I’m not saying everyone smoked but it seemed like it. Even at school some teachers used to smoke between lessons, and as a child the family doctor had a cigarette on the go in the surgery. Cigarette adverts adorned bill boards like the famous Silk Cut and Benson and Hedges posters – and were seen as being cool. And yes, I even smoked in bed with an ashtray on the bedside table filled with dog ends.
Art school parties were notorious for decorations and themes – but mainly for their carnal effects and for collateral damage such as broken windows and vomit. Well, some things never change. But seeing couples fornicating on the stairs was perhaps a step too far once the Watney’s Party Seven had taken effect – but it happened.
Towards the end of my penultimate year I was taken aside by the head of department and told I had one week to produce the work that should have been completed that term or I’d be kicked out of college. I spent the next few days feverishly producing the work I should have been doing instead of being a complete bum and wishing I had worked harder as fellow students began to win design competitions and were offered jobs at advertising agencies and graphic design studios.
Having sampled pottery, photography illustration and 3D design I settled on graphics as it seemed to suggest the best chance of a job after college. In an age before desktop publishing and Apple Macs the main skills to master were Magic marker visuals, to layout the designs having sketched them in pencils first and to then create artwork with Letraset, Rotring pens and casting off type – all of which had to be glued together using Cow Gum.
There was no computer generated type setting back then instead everything was printed onto paper using hot metal or even more old fashioned by letterpress – a form of printing that dated back to the 15th century – but a craft worth learning.
Eventually I left college with a diploma membership of the Society of Art and Design but with no job to go to I hitch-hiked up to London in search of employment – but that’s another story.
For details for the work of the journalist Harry Mottram visit www.harrymottram.co.uk and follow him on FaceBook, Twitter as @HarryThe Spiv, Instagram, YouTube and God knows where else!