External Examiner’s Report

The evening of the European Champions League Final in Rome, May 27th 2009, (Barcelona 2, Manchester United 0) was spent in the ‘Doggy Basket’ (or some such preposterous name), a scruffy student boozer on the edge of an ancient English town, whilst surrounded by a bunch of drunken, belligerent adolescents in their red shirts shouting and shambling about in the usual disarray that comes of an evening kick-off. I wonder why I was so pleased that Barcelona got the better of the contest. Is it really because my long-dead, ill-tempered, brutish, nasty, vicious father supported United? That seems too mean spirited, too bitter; and too steeped in an unhealthy hatred of the poor man – whose life made no sense to him at all. And isn’t spite an ugly sentiment – to be resisted? There is no dignity in being spiteful; no decency. Note to self: MUST DO BETTER!.. Same note to Sir Alex and his Red Devils, ha-ha! I left the premises with a grin on my face.

I am an external examiner of the BA Fine Art degree at a new university. My fellow external examiner is a decent sort in his late fifties – a big, handsome, lugubrious man with the rheumy eyes of his long quiet sufferance. You know:

             A great hope fell
             You heard no sound
             The ruin was inside 

            He spoke slowly, quietly and thoughtfully over the examiners’ Moroccan dinner – responding to the inanities of conversation only when gaps appeared which propriety demands to be filled. We numbered four. The Head of Fine Art and his Subject Leader, on behalf of the university, had invited the two of us to eat. The topics of exchange ranged over shrewd investments in property, pensions, achievements by offspring; and hopes and plans for hard-earned retirement. I can’t remember if they spoke of cars or boats or foreign trips or other expensive trinkets and prizes by which one might find consolation. One chap, with whom I had studied at the Slade some thirty odd years ago, advised against buying property in Folkstone. He had recently visited the place with a view to invest. He had personally witnessed people drinking during the afternoon – in particular two drunks squabbling. Incomes from investments, property prices, cars and boats and trains; and fitted kitchens and blocked up drains: my attention wandered easily enough to the waitresses – young, willowy, beautiful creatures. I imagined them in their pokey student flats smoking cannabis and drinking vodka whilst their shiftless gipsy boyfriends strummed, rhythmically if haltingly, manfully if tunelessly, on their nylon-stringed guitars. I wonder what Kingsley Amis would have made of the examiners’ dinner. It was beautifully awful; wonderfully cheerless.

            Next day I was up at the crack of dawn and at breakfast on my own in the hotel dining room – a well lit space sitting up to fifty guests at places laid with starched linen. An order of two boiled eggs is enough to startle the young girl who serves table. She is more used to a call for, ‘eggs, bacon, sausage, black pudding, tomatoes, mushrooms, hash-brown, baked beans, fried slice and toast and marmalade’. This is the standard order as breakfast is always included in the price of accommodation.

The early start permitted a walk around the small city to get the feel of the scruffy streets and to imagine again the waitresses from the Moroccan joint as they stirred in their dishevelled beds, giving exaggerated groans as they try to focus on the small travel alarm clocks beside un-emptied ash-trays – a carelessly discarded Bakelite plectrum falling from the tangle of sheets as the noisy clock is fumbled into stilled silence. My thoughts were driven by the romance of studying at a university in such a delightfully dilapidated backwater, with its shabby little pubs; and of the unreturned love a young man might feel for a waitress struggling to write her MA dissertation on Lorca and Surrealism; or on some aspect of installation and performance in contemporary art theory. And the modesty of the hotel breakfast left space enough for an egg and bacon sandwich (yolk runny) and a mug of coffee in Puccini’s café-restaurant, a short stroll up the lane from the ‘Soggy Biscuit’. The large room had two other solitary eaters, three tables apart, who stared silently in front of them as the egg dripped down my chin. The images in the heads of these other breakfasters were of remote places and barely remembered erotic defeats and other occasional romantic encounters from dim and distant days. The Formica-topped tables and the over-lit, false ceiling were together enough to put Tom Waits songs on my mental juke-box,

 ‘How you gonna like ’em? 
 Over, medium or scrambled?’
 I said, ‘Anyway’s the only way.’
 An’ she’s careful not to gamble
 On a guy with a suitcase
 And a ticket geddin’ oudahere…
  
 …something, something something…
 
  And an old pair of shoes
  An’ it’s just an invitation
  To the blues. 

            Later – at lunch (I forwent the sandwiches on plastic trays with limp garnish, having greedily eaten two breakfasts) – matey from years ago at the Slade (ponderously, almost nonchalant):

‘So, Ed, where you are teaching at the minute… Is that mainly ‘A’ level work?’

That delivery was a little short on length – so I stepped up, called upon to do so by honour:

‘West Dean College. No, we are a small independent institution. It’s mainly postgraduate work. We do a little undergraduate stuff. I have two students working for a graduate dipoma. That award was validated by the University of Sussex at what was level H, now re-classified by the wretched QAA as level 6’ – long pause – ‘the equivalent of third year BA on your full-time programme.’ Another pause. ‘In truth we are really dealing with the grad dip as postgraduate preparation. Otherwise we don’t bother with undergraduates. Our main recruitment is for the University of Sussex MA in Visual Arts and its MFA in fine art.’

            Students and colleagues at West Dean should not be slighted and so I was pressed into their defence. I hoped that might quieten him but he had another little nibble at the Moroccan dinner. I had made some disparaging remark about the execrable Tracy Emin. On he waffled about what an important artist she is – about her representing the very best in contemporary British art and so on and so on. Then he let slip,

            ‘She was a student of mine.’

            ‘Was she?’ I asked without interest – demanding no reply.

Nevertheless,

‘Yes, she was an undergraduate at Maidstone. I think her work really developed there. We concentrated on her drawing. I think her drawing is like no-one else at the moment.’

My lugubrious colleague spoke up,

‘You mustn’t blame yourself.’

            How splendidly silly my ex-Slade friend is. Not as amusingly silly as two drunks squabbling – using their fists to establish their arguments; but splendidly silly. What a pumped-up, pompous, preposterous, little pin-prick of a man – just as he was at the Slade. I hadn’t spotted it then. I had found him a little humourless, that’s all. But this… He wore the tarted-up premises of the new university Fine Art Department like a cheap suit. I suppose he fits perfectly the portentousness required by the new universities’ examination procedures. I’m not sure that I’m up to it. I do my best. But it’s so hard to take this wasteland seriously.

            Still… Our own board is upon us in five or six days. I suppose I’d better get cracking if we’re to pass muster.

            Yours, with great affection,

            Ed

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