The Blue Lady The Blue Lady: painting by Roger Birchall

Roger Birchall

My education after the age of eleven was designed for many things, just not for later success at an art school. My non-suitability for conventional school took six years to develop and fifty years to understand. It was nobody's fault, only my bad luck. When I look back at the grammar school ethos I experienced, I am surprised I managed to express anything of my personality and amazed that I made my little bit of talent stretch as far as I did. If I had worked harder at my academic studies, as the school was often suggesting, I suppose I would have gone to university to read Zoology, or something like that..

Perhaps my aversion to committing to memory yet another complicated list (e.g. the ten cranial nerves of the dogfish or the twelve French verbs taking être in the perfect tense) was a form of natural selection. It looks as though crucial parts of my personality rebelled against this hard slog of learning, albeit in a polite but underhand way. The school was left believing I had not realised my true potential. In this they were correct but we never discussed whether we shared the same idea about what that potential might be. Unfortunately, I was left with a lifelong belief that I was not capable of working hard in a way the cleverest minority found easy.

My school was the Queen Elizabeth Grammar School for Boys, Barnet. It produced solicitors, accountants, doctors, dentists, teachers, scientists, policemen, heads of television channels, government press officers, bankers, surveyors, and at least one drug runner, but no well-known artists. Boys like me were supposed to shuffle along as best we could. There was no effort to force me into anything, it was simply assumed that I, like everybody else, would follow one of the well-trodden paths. The school's experience was that boys like me usually got to an art school somehow or other. There was no need to make any special arrangements for such a small pool of talent.

BlubludBlublud: painting by Roger Birchall

And anyway, art? That was a dangerous area for the British academic. The common prejudice acknowledged that Art was inevitably recognised as one of 'the' arts, but it did not have the same status as the others. Literature, obviously, was the most important art and music came a close second, but 'art' art was a different thing altogether. It had gone horribly wrong in the previous fifty years and there were some very dodgy types involved in it. Best not to get involved or show any interest in something like that; it was a social minefield. And so it was just my bad luck that I had skills that placed me outside the scope of my school.


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