The students exhibit work in the city of Tours, France. (section of Memoirs)
We were always looking for opportunities to make and exhibit work outside the school and in 1989 a notice came across my desk about an international exhibition, entitled ‘Creacite’, to be held in Tours, France in October 1990. The title itself, literally ‘creativity in the city’, was enough to make me very interested. The theme was ‘Water and Europe’ ( ‘Quand les arts se jettent a l’eau’ ) organised by the Association for the Promotion of the Arts and the Environment in France and curated by its president, Regine Charvet-Pello. Glasgow had been invited, by virtue of being designated the European City of Culture in 1990, along with other major European cities to select artists, architects and designers to make work for ‘Creacite’. Architects as distinguished as Jean Nouvel and Jorn Utzon were showing work along with other well-known artists and designers. It looked like there was a possibility that student work could be selected. I took it up and ran with it.
The whole project turned out to be one of the most successful projects in the ‘professional’ world with which the department was involved. I managed to raise funding from the school and from Glasgow City Council. The organisation in Tours covered shipping, setting up and insurance costs while we had to find our own accommodation and buy our own food for the duration of the trip. I decided that 3rd Year students should take up the challenge as I felt it would be a good starting point for their final year. There were two strands to our contribution. Each student would make a work for exhibition on the theme of water and also develop ideas and make preparations for a work in relation to the River Loire to be installed on the banks of the river near the city centre. It was a massive undertaking and involved all of us working throughout the summer vacation to meet the end of September deadline. We planned to drive to Tours in the school mini-bus which fortunately had a large roof rack running the whole length of the vehicle. Stan Bonnar and would share the driving.
I had originally planned an overnight in London but when I announced that that plan was changed and that, to save time, we would have to go straight to Newhaven and the overnight ferry, it was greeted with boos. However I immediately, and maybe rashly, responded by saying that in place of London, ‘I’ll give you dawn in Chartres Cathedral.’ I seem to recall that this offer in no way seemed an equitable bargain and I wonder if any of the students quite realised the significance of Chartres. After four wretched hours on the ship lying stretched out on the floor trying to grab a little sleep I moved the mini-bus gently off the ferry at 2-00 in the morning, wove my way through Dieppe and set out into the flat, dark, mist-covered plain of Normandy. We had already been travelling for 15 hours but it is amazing how the adrenalin kicks in and I was feeling wide awake as I drove along the country roads in the dark while everyone else dosed off. As the first glimmer of light began to appear there in the far distance were the spires of Chartres. We were feeling the effects of the travelling but fortune and French tradition were with us. I parked outside the railway station and saw across the street that a bakery and café was just opening up. It was 6-00 on a Sunday morning. I shouted, ‘Fresh coffee and croissants on the budget!’ There are many sweet moments in life but I must say that that café offered one of the sweetest. Suitably refreshed we drove up the hill to the cathedral. I was disappointed – the doors were closed and so, though the overcast sky made for very little light, I settled for an instructive tour around the exterior pointing out significant features. Then someone discovered a small unlocked door. We went in. The place was empty and lit only by single candles around the walls. As we wandered around in the gloom, walking the maze and taking in the wonders of the place the sun broke through the windows and the great, medieval stained glass of Chartres bathed us in a multi-coloured dapple of light, just as it has for other fortunates for over 700 years. What can one say about a moment like that? I am susceptible to epiphanous, spiritual experiences and so for me it was one of the very special moments of my life. What others made of it I do not know but it seemed to me that we travelled the rest of the way to Tours on some kind of high. Then we were brought back down to earth.
In order to make the trip financially possible I had had to prevail upon a friend, Herve Bechy, who owned a small section of the Chatenay farm buildings on the outskirts of Tours above the village of Saint Radegond. It had been his father’s farm and Herve had bought some of the buildings and had spent years making part of it habitable. I had spent one or two holidays there. Herve lived for the most part in Paris and was not there, as we had arranged, when we arrived. It was raining and we were shattered after the journey. I managed to get the house open and the females got out their sleeping bags and slept on the floor. The males set up the tents we had brought as a back up. When later in the day Herve did appear we had to empty a storeroom with a concrete floor to accommodate the males. This was rough living. A dispute with his ex-wife meant that we could only use one toilet and one large room in the house as the female quarters. Cooking had to be done on a two- ring calor gas stove in the storeroom and all washing at an outside standpipe. There were thirteen of us but we made the most of it and in retrospect it was not too difficult. I don’t sleep too well or too long and so most mornings I would get up, put a large pan of water on the stove and then drive down to the village for a good supply of fresh bread and butter. In the evenings it would be dark when we got back to Chatenay after the day’s work. Then we would have to set about preparing a meal. Herve’s ‘camp fire’ encircled by log benches meant that most evening meals took on the atmosphere of being a barbecue on a camping holiday; stories were told and songs were sung.
We had been assigned a large exhibition space in a new school building still being built but nearing completion. Though not ideal (south facing windows lined one wall) it offered sufficient opportunity for the works to be well-displayed. We all worked very hard over long days. We had to set up the exhibition as quickly as possible so that we could use the rest of the time to work on the site works by the Loire. It was a hassle with little or none of the promised assistance from the organisers compounded by language problems and not knowing the best places to get things. But as is usual in these kinds of situations it all seems to work out in the end. The exhibition looked very good. Then it was off to the Loire. The Director of the local Ecole de Beaux Arts provided a workshop base. Even now, 14 years later, I am astonished at what the students achieved on such a tight schedule. The works, in terms of scale, breadth and visual impact, stood up well to the grandeur of the river. I still use several images of the works from the exhibition and the Loire in my lectures when I’m describing the Environmental Art course. Stan and I collaborated on a work high up on the huge stone floodwall which protects the city. Working outside in the public domain always has a special quality as it inevitably provokes interaction with passers by. One such was a Breton bagpiper who, after discovering where we were from, turned up on several days to accompany us on his bagpipes. We also used the opportunity to promote our exhibition.
At both the main ‘Creacite’ opening and reception, and our own opening, the works in the exhibition and by the Loire were singled out for high praise. We were the only students showing in Tours and the only representatives from Scotland. Did I hear Charvet Pello say that the Glasgow work was the most challenging of all the exhibitions; that the work asked questions? I did indeed. She took us out for a wonderful dinner. In fact we had two other dinner invitations. A teacher at the Ecole de Beaux Arts entertained us, as did an unusual character, Allan Law, a Scot and the local commercial representative for Scottish commerce and trade. Married to Catherine, a French woman, they lived in a grand, early 19th century mansion outside Tours. They were generous and delightful hosts and Allan and I discovered that we were both acquainted with the Dalrymple family of East Lothian (see below). We only had one free day at the end which we used to visit Chinon, one of the great castles for which the Loire is so famous. The French artist, Francois Morellet, was exhibiting light works in the rooms as part of ‘Creacite’. Quantities of the great, red Chinon wine were bought.
I decided that if we left early on the day of our return journey, with a midnight sailing from Dieppe, we could manage a few hours in Paris. This decision almost caused a disaster. I don’t know why but the male and female students went off to do/see different things in Paris and the latter were an hour late for our agreed departure time to make it safely and in good time to catch the ferry. This meant driving in the dark at high speed through towns, through red lights and on unknown country roads. We boarded with minutes to spare. Most of us soon fell asleep and in no time we were driving off the ferry looking forward to making an early start on the long drive back to Glasgow. No chance. The customs were waiting for us. Everything was emptied from the bus and the well-secured roof rack. Every bag, case, box, tent opened. Every one of us searched. Dogs and detectors went over, inside and under the bus. One student had paint colour syringes which were deemed to be highly suspicious. I was ordered up to explain them. This was actually helpful, as I had been given a locked, leather briefcase by a woman from the Glasgow Development Agency who had attended the Tours events and had been very helpful to us. We had all been asked to come forward with our own personal belongings. I wondered how I was going to explain the locked briefcase as I had no idea what it contained and we had all declared that we were only carrying our own personal belongings. In making the customs officer seem so foolish as to find the paint syringes as suspicious I was cleared through and was not required to reveal the briefcase. It was probably packed with drugs!
One abiding memory and, subsequently, a relic of the whole adventure was a song. A variety of cassette tapes were played throughout the journey. Though I had probably heard it before, one song took a hold of me and I repeatedly asked for it to be played. ‘Wichita Lineman’ became the signature of the journey. It seemed to suit my mood and it never failed to raise my spirits as I drove the mini-bus. Later the students gave Stan and I presents as a ‘thank you’ for making the whole thing possible. I still have my vinyl LP, ‘Glen Campbell’s Greatest Hits’, signed on the back by all the students. The other day I came on a programme on Radio Scotland celebrating the song and Jimmy Webb who wrote the music and lyrics. Webb described how, driving on a long, flat, desert road in the US, he became fascinated by the lonely figure of a lineman high up on a power pylon. The rest, as they say, is history and the song remains one of the most popular ever written. It certainly still has the power to move me and remind me of a very rewarding experience shared with a group of great students and very good people – Jacqueline Byrne, Fiona Brown, Jacqueline Donachie, Malcolm Jamieson, Jonathan Monk, Michelle Reid, Rachel Mimiec, Stephen Russell, David Shrigley, Karen Vaughan, Martin Young and, of course, my colleague, mate and good friend, Stan Bonnar
The late Jock Dalrymple was a priest in Edinburgh distinguished by his selfless work for the poor and the excluded and as a powerful speaker. His nephews Jock and William Dalrymple are, parish priest and writer respectively.