Shibboleth: My Revolting Life

Penny Rimbaud

Claiming that 'the weekend starts here', the Friday night TV rock programme 'Ready Steady Go' had become the voice of a generation tired of the class-ridden concepts of their parents.


In the late '50s, the films and books of the Angry Young Men had inspired a new, if romantic, perception of working-class values, and had laid the ground for social interaction between the classes. Living for the moment had never seemed such an attractive proposition, but what nice middle-class lad would have risked his neck in cafe full of Teddy Boys? It was the Beatles who finally managed to bring together the carious disillusioned parties under the single banner of the youth movement.


In 1963, to celebrate the Fab Four's conquest of America, 'Ready Steady Go' had staged a painting competition - 'send us a portrait of the lads, and the lucky winner gets to meet them in front of the cameras.'


Despite having by then lost interest in Pop Art I felt confident that I could call into pal my old skills. Having persuaded a fellow student to lend me his guitar, I sawed it down the middle and mounted watch had at the opposite ends of a board smothered in Bealtles' graffiti. On top of this backdrop I then painted portraits of the four lads, portraying them as street-wise desperadoes. The final touch was the arm from a plastic mannequin that I'd found on a rubbish dump. I mounted the arm so that the hand appeared to be reaching out of one half of the guitar. With the addition of the title 'I Want to Hold Your Hand', the Beatles' current single, the word was complete and I sent it off to 'Ready Steady Go', A week later I received a phone-call summoning me to the studios and to my audience with the 'Fab Four'.


"Ey up, Jerry lad," said Jogn, placing an arm around my shoulder, "whar'ave we here?"


"'Mingus' by Mingus and Shostakovich's first violin concerto," I replied snootily, holding up the two albums be'd just presented to me. I'd chosen the Mingus because I liked it, the Shostakovich because I thought it sounded clever. The real prize would come later when the the young girls were watching…


"By 'eke lad," John responded, breaking into my reverie, and making a show of reading the sleeve notes, "you must be one of them there rockers," turning to the camera and pulling the predictable face.


The camera then swing round to the adoring crowd, and John made a swift exit to the dressing-room.


"Out of the way, son," shouted the boom operator, unceremoniously pushing me aside.


My fifteen second's fame was over. Warhol had alleys been over-generous in his estimations.


"Bunch of jobs," my father had muttered on my return home, "they cant even speak properly."


A couple of years later, in 1965, the Beatles were awarded their MBEs.


"It's an outrage," spluttered my father, "I've a damned good mind to send back my CBE."


"But in the end he rationalized that as he has deserved his, he'd keep it 'regardless.'


"I worked hard for mine. Young people don't know what work is."


True, but I wasn't about to rune down the job I'd just been offered at the art school because of that.


"How much work have you done for the lads?" the Head of Department has asked during my interview.


"The lads?" I'd responded.


"The Beatles?"


"Oh, the Beatles. Oh, you know," I'd shrugged, hoping that my vagueness would pass for modesty, "a little but here, a little but there."


One brief television appearance two years ago and Id become the Beatles' personal portraitist for eternity, but who was I to argue?
My new job entailed teaching the rudimentary techniques of drawing to first-year students, and fighting off the less than rudimentary advances of the more mature students. It seed that most of the male staid had fallen prey to these adolescent predators, and huge amounts of time were spend tin the staff-room discussing their carious physical attributes.


"You see, rather than seeing form defined by line, or indeed line by form…"


Surprising myself as much as anyone else, I remained aloof, preferring to concentrate on what I thought I'd been employed to do.


Fresh from the confines of school, where they'd been funneled into art by inadequate teachers to find a solution for inadequate children, most of my students seemed disturbingly well behaved, while few showed even the least spark of creative talent.


"Sir, is this the way to do it?" They'd ask.


"Do what?" I'd respond.


"You know," they'd mumble, as if the very act of creativity was somehow taboo, "art, sir."


"There;s only way one to do it," I'd admonish, "and thats alone. as long as you're bound by any values but your own, you're not an artist. Now, for a start, how out calling me Jerry rather than sir?"


"Yes, sir."


My fellow members of staff, on the other hand, increasingly grew to resent my tacking techniques.


"Look here, Jerry," the Head of Department complained, "my students wont take a blind bit of notice of me, and its your fault. You're undermining our authority."


"Our authority?" I responded. "I've always thought of authority as a personal attribute rather than a shared contrivance."


And then, calling on all the authority he could muster, he informed me that I'd better think again. However, before we were able to get involved in a protracted philosophical debate, there was a knock on the door.


"Can I see you a moment, Lewis?" asked one of the more attractive third-year students.


"Sure," he replied, unable to hide the licentious grin that had spread across his face, "come in. I'll speak with you later, Jerry."


As I wandered off down the corridor, I cold hear them giggling.
In a bid to demonstrate the absurdity of the authority that Lewis and his staid seemed so resolutely to cling to, I informed one group of students that I could fly.


"An aeroplane?" asked one of them.


"No," I replied, "by flapping my arms."


"Oh," came the murmured resound, as if belief wasn't entirely suspended.


I repeated the claim every week for the best part of three months, but rather than dismissing me as a complete idiot, some of the group appeared almost to believe me. They started to question me about techniques. How did I steer? Did I use thermal currents? What was my longest flight?


I couldn't believe that they didn't simply laugh me out of the building. Were they really so gullible, or was it that in the vacuum of modern society they were desperate to believe anything? I knew no answers, but neither would they until they were freed from the getters of authority. I was becoming desperate.


Finally, I decided that the only way through the impasse was a practical demonstration of the impractical.


"Well?" I asked as, accompanied by my students, I reached the top of the steep, wooded hill that overlooked the art school. "Who's going to help launch me?"


At firs they were silent, then two of the larger lads stepped forward.


"All you have to do is hold my elbows and throw me off the edge," I instructed with as much confidence as I could muster.


"Are you sure?" one of them asked, looking down a the sizable drop.


"Either I can fly or I can't," I responded, hoping that they might yet offer me a reprive.


"Right," they said, taking me by the elbows, "one, two, three…"
I spend the next two months in hospital, recovering from an operation to remove a ruptured spleen, and wondering just how I would ever be able to dace my students again. But I needn't have worried, for when I returned to the art school they treated with even greater respect that they had before accident. By attempting to demonstrate the absurdity of authority, I had become an authority on absurdity, which, in the middled wold of art school thinking, was deemed an asset. It seemed that I just couldn't win.


For a further couple of years I woe my way through the political and sexual intrigues of the education system, attempting to imbue my students with some sense of their own authority.


"Art is like a doorway to the inner self," I repeated year after year with fazing enthusiasm, "I'm not here to tell you what the self is, but i can offer you a few keys that might open the door." Firstly you must have the tenacity to keep going against the odds. Secondly sufficient curiosity to leave no stone untrained. Then there is the spirit of adventure that leads us down unknown paths, that tempts us to travel the globe, that is an expression of the freedom that is essential if you are to become true artists."


"Yeah," muttered one of the sharper students,"well that rules you out, doesn't it?"


"Why's that?" I asked aggressively, hoping I might intimidate him into silence.


"Because you don't practice what you preach, thats why."


"So what should I do?"


"Start living in the real world. its all very well you going on about freedom when you've got a cushy job and a nice little house in the country, but most of us have to work when we leave this place."


"And that's precisely what I'm trying to help you to do."


"With all that arty party stuff about the unknown paths? You must be joking. I want a job, not a bleeding psychologist. I had two choices when I left school, the assembly line or further education. I came here because I wanted to make something of my life, and I don't need toffs like you preaching me a freedom that will see me on the dole queue."


I knew that he was right, but on the other hand, I also knew that he was wrong. In the end, however, having been denounced by the Head of Department as some kind of commie, black magician, I gave up.


"Don't leave, Jerry," one student implored, "we'll stand by you. We'll even go on strike if it would help."


"No," I responded, "its not worth it. Just use the place for what you can get out of it. Forget the politics."


It was the spring of 1968, and a month later, unemployed and at a loss as to what to do net, I learnt that in London, art schools and universities were in revolt, and that Paris was burning. Sergeant Pepper's army was on the move, but I'd just bought a one-way ticket to impotency. Some rebel I turned out to be.