I lived directly south from the town centre in Sunderland, on Springwell Estate. Alan Price lived directly east, in Grangetown, with his father and brother Bob and his wife Pat. I lived with my father and his new wife Isabel and my brother George (and at some point, baby Jackson). We met during my short spell as a Graphic Design student at Sunderland Art College. The only tuition I took to then was cutting lino, but I became impatient with the necessity to register different pieces of lino in order to print different colours. I moved on to study sculpture – more carving than cutting – yet I am forever grateful for that introduction as I still make linocuts and still only in a single colour.
Alan and I would meet downtown on Saturday or Sunday evenings and have an under-age half of beer at a pub that offered free pickled onions from a dish on the bar. We hung around the bus stops, talking endlessly, behaving more like old men than young ones. We developed a love of cinema, particularly the French, Italian and Swedish films that were showing in the Picture Palaces around the corner from the mainstream cinemas, such as the Theatre Royal in Sunderland. My love of cinema has persisted, cinema as a visual art, not a literal one, I remain entranced by images from the world beyond these shores, particularly across the channel.
This was the mid-50s, other countries seemed to have more sexual freedom than Britain. In the dark we would ache for screen goddesses, like Bridgitte Bardot in And God Created Woman, and Sylvana Mangano in Riso Amaro. We were possessed by screen sex and sex. We devised innumerable plans and schemes as to how we were to have sex and with whom. Pipedreams!
Alan and I worked hard at College and we were both interviewed at the Royal College. Alan would not have applied had I not persuaded him that he was good enough. We were accepted and began our first term in Mrs H’s flat in Hamlet Gardens, Hammersmith. I slept on the floor of a bedroom occupied by Ron Ward, the actual tenant of the flat. Ron was then second year Graphics at the RCA, he was from Sunderland too, from Roker. We stayed there for a term, going to the local pubs, the cinema at Notting Hill and every Saturday lunchtime having a mixed grill at Jimmy’s, a Cypriot café near Hammersmith Broadway. It was in Hamlet Gardens that I celebrated my 21st birthday. The book L’Erotisme au Cinema, lavishly illustrated, was a very appropriate present from my flatmates, that it was written in French and I could not read it, seemed only to add spice to the subject matter.
The second term we split up; I wanted a place of my own, I needed to sleep in a bed. I rented a room in Upper Richmond Road, Alan was not far away in Putney. In the third term I moved into a flat in Kensington Gore, asking Alan to share it with me and taking in Norman Foster. Norman was a painting student, also from Sunderland Art College, studying at the Royal Academy Schools. He came to stay for a few nights, desperate for a place to park his sleeping bag and stayed for weeks that stretched into months. Our flat had a kitchen, living room and a two part bedroom. My bed was up three stairs against a window, overlooking the stables in Jay Mews and occasionally, Frankie Howerd on a horse. We bought two green Rexine armchairs and a second-hand television in Portobello Road. We considered the TV a necessity, a study aid for Alan, who had by then joined the newly formed Television School at the RCA.
Alan was a connoisseur of the Horror genre, it was the subject of his Thesis. On Saturdays, early evenings, the flat was full of our neighbours, crammed around the little Black and White set, to watch the BBC series Quatermass and the Pit. Another weekend Alan, Norman and I each sat reading a John Wyndham novel, three Penguin paperbacks; The Day of the Triffids, The Kraken Wakes and The Chrysalids.
The RCA had bought Kensington Gore, a terrace of 19th century houses, (converted into flats), stretching from Queensgate to the Albert Hall. While plans for a new Royal College on that site were being finalised, these flats – overlooking Hyde Park – were rented to students. I was there for two years, so was John Clinch, Ray Arnatt, George Whitebread, John Furnival, Ray Exworth, John Mills and John Wragg (among dozens of others).
Our main room had French windows that opened onto a wrought iron balcony, looking across the road to the Park, to the right was the Albert Memorial. One rumour had it that John Cleland wrote Fanny Hill in our house. Another story was that Jack the Ripper had lived there.
At night Alan and I were mesmerized by the group of prostitutes that stood under the lamplight directly opposite us. We would monitor their comings and goings until the early hours. One blonde woman appeared, from our windows, to be very beautiful. She was the most popular, the most frequently used. Cars would slow down, stop, she would get in and the car moved off, then return in such a very short time, it would happen again and again. What did she do in those fifteen minutes? It took us a little while to learn the particulars.
One very cold night we warmed some tomato soup and took bowls of it across the road. They drank it, first asking what was in it. One woman said “Are you the boys from across the road? We’ve been watching you”. Close to, the ‘girls’ were not at all attractive, even my favourite blonde was older and harder beneath her make up; the reality was a bit of a shock, I drew back from the deception.
My friend Alan was good at all pub games, especially darts and snooker and Norman was good at snooker. We played regularly at The Greyhound, off Kensington High Street, where Jimmy Edwards sometimes drank at the bar, and one night Joe Davis watched me mis-cue the black. But it was at darts that Alan and I, together, were supreme. Usually occupying the board for 301 we would take on other darts’ enthusiasts at Doubles – best of three – and win every game. Alan and I were the scourge of The Hoop and Toy, the pub around the corner from the RCA Common Room on Cromwell Road, and The Queens off Queensgate – the favourite pub for musicians from the Albert Hall. We played in three or four places and, much to the exasperation of the regulars, we managed to stay on the board all evening, mainly thanks to Alan. He was pretty good on double or treble 20 but he was lethal on 19. On the rare occasions he failed to finish, I could manage double 6 or 10. We formed a darts team at College, captained by Cephas Howard, with Alan Cooper and other members of the Temperance Seven plus Alan and me. We had games against South Kensington residents, (their captain was Margot Fonteyn’s chauffeur). I have always claimed these team appearances as a College Blue, although I am less willing to admit that my own performances were unremarkable.
During the first year at the RCA, all new students had a weekly lecture in the Lecture Theatre of the Science Museum on Exhibition Road: all given by distinguished speakers, although I remember only Basil Taylor by name. We learned about Architecture, Cosmos and Chaos, and the Fibonacchi Series. Then, as now, it was not possible to attain a Masters’ Degree in a single subject. These lectures were a compulsory Complementary Study, for me a second subject added to Sculpture. The Course concluded with a written exam. I attended most of the lectures, sat the exam and passed. Alan avoided most of the lectures, decided to go to the movies rather than take the exam and he also passed.
A major ingredient of this Complementary Study that year was, coincidentally, the Georgian architecture of Bath. We were given our rail fare and modest expenses for a study visit – to look and learn. Thus my first visit to Bath was in 1958. We were broke at that particular point in the term and determined not to use the little money that remained from our grants for this obligatory trip, that neither of us wanted to go on. We saw it as an unwelcome diversion from our main endeavour, and an interruption to our drinking and playing darts. Like resentful children we hitched the 100 miles or so along the A4, the old coaching road from London to Bath.
The yellow Bath stone was black in those days. The buildings had a presence then rather than the cleaned elegance of today. The Circus, the Royal Crescent and wide Pulteney Street were stunning, as was Bath Abbey (The Roman Baths Museum was beyond our budget). The fine Georgian buildings were an eye-opener for me and a foretaste of the many marvels around the world that I was yet to discover. We visited all the notable highlights, during our two days in the city, walking around Bath in the rain and sheltering in the cinema when it became too wet. We stayed overnight in a dormitory at the Salvation Army Hostel, but we were unable to sleep under the rough blankets, kept awake by old men coughing and crying out in the night. Breakfast was tinned tomatoes on thick bread and a opportunity to see our fellow guests. They gave us no reason to linger. After more sightseeing, we left Bath that afternoon, walking along the London Road with our thumbs extended. But not for long. By the time we reached Lambridge we were picked up and driven all the way back to Hammersmith, congratulating ourselves that we had not spent above our allowance. I had at some point lost a new-fangled pipe, it was a recently acquired habit. Dying for a smoke, Alan had liquorice cigarette papers but no tobacco, and I had pipe tobacco but no pipe. The consequential rollups upset our driver and our hybrid fags had to go out of the window. Arriving back in Hammersmith just before the pubs shut, we borrowed money to buy a pint and enjoy proper cigarettes. Mission accomplished!
Alan and I were both married at about the same time and we were divorced at the same time too. Alan married Joan – his sweetheart from Sunderland – and went to live in Wood Green. I stayed on in Kensington Gore with my new wife, before moving to Castletown Road.
The Sculpture Course was four years, not three like the other courses, so when I left College to go to Rome, Alan had already spent a year as a Designer working for Granada TV in Manchester. As a Production Designer he had many notable successes such as Gossip from the Forest (1979) and The Return of Sherlock Holmes, (1989). Alan was exceptional, a perfectionist, blessed with the knowledge and skill to make or build remarkable real or pretend constructions. But his work was curtailed (too soon), by redundancy and early retirement. He was perhaps frustrated by his unfulfilled aspirations to be a Director, caught in thrall of those two denizens of the film world, Ridley and Tony Scott – brothers from the North East – from Art Schools and the RCA.
Our friendship was based on mutual respect. I admired and was in awe, of Alan’s ‘glamorous’ work. I envied his rubbing shoulders with stars of small screen and big screen and earning a good salary. Some of this he spent buying my work. He appreciated my perverse persistance in making sculpture, that did not sell, my part time employment and the consequential financial deprivation.
Among my treasures is a postcard sent by Alan. This was the only piece of writing, not a letter, nor a note, that I ever had from him. The ink has faded and it is almost illegible, it reads as an apology. Alan wrote that he had cancer and only a short time to live. He said, “Sorry to dump this on you in such an abrupt way…” A heart-breaking message, written as if he had let me down. I felt that it was I who had neglected Alan, my long time friend. I wanted to go to Manchester immediately to see him but was told that he was too unwell to have visitors and that I should wait a few days for some improvement. But Alan died before then.