A CONVERSATION WITH PAUL OLIVER - 2 June 2004
by Professor Bob Garratt
Before World War 2 we were living in Pinner. I went to Longfield School in Rayners Lane and came out well in the class; as the top ten went to Harrow County Boys or Girls, that's how it happened. In 1938 it was that simple. The odd thing in those days was that entry to HCS was in the second year. There was no first year, the idea being that HCS prided itself on getting people through their Matric a year quicker than any other school. God knows what benefit they got from it! It was a bit of a cramming course, quite exciting in its way. Just to confuse things even more, because of lack of accommodation and it being wartime, in the fourth year we had to use the Fourth Form Room of Harrow School, which meant trudging up the hill. It was quite nice, amusing but exhausting as we kept to the same HCS timetable despite the walk.
The Headmaster was Randall Williams who lived fairly close to me in Pinner. My parents knew him. He was a good head, sympathetic to the boys. But in one sense he used to drop on me almost to demonstrate that he was not showing any special partiality. Indeed, he seemed to go the other way so that he would haul me up in morning Assembly for some minor infringement, which was at first embarrassing and upsetting but later became something of a joke.
My artistic tendencies developed from the age of four or five. I look at the drawings I did then, indeed I have one dated by my father at 3 years and eight months and the perspective is so good I cannot believe it. I seemed to have good spatial perception very early on, although I did not particularly build on it. I was later very disappointed with Art at HCS which was taught by George Neal. He was very restrictive - you always had to draw or paint something in a six inch, or four inch, square. This was a cramped way of thinking and hindered someone like myself who wanted to do complex compositions. I wanted to create images with loads of people and loads of action. He was very dismissive of this. It did had a certain benefit which I did not realise immediately in that it focused me on fine detail. Plant drawing was something at which he was good at teaching and I found that I could get a lot of detail in if I drew finely. So when it came to School Certificate I did extremely well as I found the plant drawing very easy to do. When I left he (Neal) had a slight change of heart. Perhaps he got a bit embarrassed but, unexpectedly, when I went on to Harrow Art School he asked me to see his books and he said to take any one I wanted. My eye caught on Amedee Ozenfant's Foundations of Modern Art and I took it. I still have it - the English first edition.
I left HCS in 1942 aged 16 and went to Harrow Art School which had a good reputation. Sadly it has disappeared now. It had some interesting people there as students; among them Norman Adams, later Keeper at the Royal Academy ( whose exhibition I went to recently); his wife Anna Butt was also an art student with us. I had a very enjoyable time there. But my developing interest in Afro-American music nearly got me expelled. The head blew his mind when he heard me playing it and told me to "get that filthy muck out of the place or otherwise I was". He was shouting down the staircase at me in this big building. He felt that the music was obscene and demanded that I stop running my sessions of alternative music. But despite that they were good times - made better as this is where Val and I met and stayed together for the rest of her life.
I left Harrow and went to Goldsmith's College to do my Art Teacher's Diploma Course. I hadn't worked out a career as I was too involved in Art. The other students all had jobs early. Eventually I did apply to the London County Council who sent me to a school Art department in Edmonton. But this was not a happy period. The previous Art teacher had controlled the class by painting in front of them all the time. The students thought that this was how Art was. Eventually I was able to start a drawing on the blackboard and then get them to suggest additions to it until I was able to bring the whole thing into a composition which left them gasping. It was an awful way of teaching but it did get some sort of exchange going. Then I shared with other members of staff that I was fed up and they said "everyone says that but they all stay". Only a day or two later there was an advert for the Art department of Harrow County. I could not believe it! This was in 1949.
I applied, but thought that I would have no chance. The whole occasion was odd, really. I was asked to attend an interview but at the headmaster's (A R Simpson) house in Hampstead. It was a complicated journey from Edmonton at that time so I left early and got there by 0900 hours, 30 minutes early. The door was opened by his wife in her slip. I apologised and said that I would come back later, but she insisted that I came in and I was ushered to the kitchen fire where long combinations and all sorts of things were hanging out to dry. At 0930 Simpson appeared and said "sorry Mr Oliver, but we are very domesticated here". So from the start I had this extraordinary image of the man, which was different from most others. I then wrong-footed him in another way. When you applied for an Art post you would take along a portfolio of your work, which I did. He wasn't used to this and said that I didn't have to do it. But he wanted to know what they were anyway, so I showed him my life drawings, mainly nudes. He shrank back alarmed and said "they look very saucy to me!" I thought "well, that's done it". But much to my surprise I was appointed.
It worked out despite my age. It was extraordinary in that the HCS Headboy, named Waite, was older than I was! George Neal had retired and I simply took over on my own. I think that in a kind of way George was fairly pleased, but he behaved oddly. We put on exhibitions and he would come but if he realised that I was present he would go away. I don't know if I shook him up a bit as he never talked about it.
Bob Garratt (BG): I remember our early meetings in 1954 as you were my First Form Master in 1D - the least academic stream. You thrilled us all by wearing a shoestring tie! We all wondered if you had to smuggle it past "Square" each morning? And you taught me to cook dampers and twists with the 4th Harrow Merrymen at Chalfont St Giles. You took a fairly active part in Scouting at that time.
Paul Oliver (PO): Well you had to take these things on. It was partly a left over from the War as you were expected to help with civic duties in what was still a very battered society. We were young and it was good experience, especially working alongside people like Harry Mees.
At that time the Art department was seen as a bit off-line from the rest of the school. It seemed to be a focus for a different generation of masters who had a different way of thinking. Masters like Norman Anderson, Don Kincaid, Gerald Halls and Jim Golland were different. But there were some interesting links back to the older generation. In particular, George Yelland and Harry Webb were very helpful in easing the generational split. But if you think about it, there would be differences as we had a pretty large staff; we were teaching around 1,000 boys.
I worked on my own, except for the occasional probationary teacher, until Norman Anderson joined me in 1954. But when Simpson was commissioning the new building he was very keen to help me. There were many positive things about him. He asked me what sort of Art Department I wanted. I said I wanted an Arts and Crafts Department and he pushed me to tell him my ideal, to decide whether this was one big room, or two. I chose the two and a large storeroom. I also asked for a pottery kiln although admitting that I could not teach this. He was very supportive despite his reputation for being only interested in the academic elite, Oxbridge awards and fighting academically at the Headmaster's Conference. In a way he had to do that to secure the reputation of HCS.
The other thing is that we had a remarkable Staff Common Room, mainly bound together in opposition to Simpson. But I have often thought since that he was quite aware of this and exploited it to bind the staff together. He was a cleverer person than many gave him credit for and in some respects more broad-minded than many realised, as his approach to the Art department showed. He had other ambitions than just Oxbridge. But there were the occasional problems. The HCS folklore is true in that when I approached him to form a Jazz Club, he rejected the idea immediately. He said "we just can't". There was already a Music Club, and a Writer's Club with Jim Golland very active with it. I gave it a month and went back with the idea of an Afro-American Music Society and he did not demur at all but he said that I would have to work out my own programme. At the time I felt that I had scored over him but I am now sure that he was more subtle than that. On the other hand I wondered often how to handle delicately the Society announcements in morning assembly. If it was Pat Hawes coming to play the piano, I could just announce it. But if I wanted to do a programme on Jelly Roll Morton, then I knew there would be trouble. So I would then announce the piano playing of "the New Orleans musician Ferdinand Le Menthe", which was his actual name, knowing that those in the know would come, and others would be intrigued to find out who this was. I encouraged members of the Society to bring their own records to play and discuss. I saw it as an educational process in the broadest terms as well as a pleasure. There was very little writing on the Blues at this time, it was mainly on Jazz.
Part of the HCS folklore is wrong. I had people like Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee, and Big Bill Broonzy to my home but not to HCS. Somehow we crammed them into Val and my tiny flat in Greenford. I could not take them to HCS mainly because of the problems they would have with their agents and their professional engagements. Although I did have one or two there in the end, like Rambling Jack Elliott. However, it was true that Brother John Sellers and a friend did start knocking on doors very early one morning looking for me as they had lost my address. And, yes, this did not endear me to the neighbours!
BG: I remember that there were some strict musical divisions in the Society and around HCS. There were the traditional jazz folk who went mainly to the South Harrow Jazz Club; the Modern Jazz group swooning over the MJQ; The Blues aficionados; and the early stirrings of English Rhythm and Blues and Rock and Roll. There were great debates amongst the boys.
PO: there were indeed. And lots of enthusiasm for this "new" music. I organised with Bruce Stiles a Harrow Jazz Society. There had been George Webb and his Dixielanders and, I think, an Australian band led by Graeme Bell who had been playing at a big concert in London. So we thought this would be a good time to announce what we were doing in Harrow. The chairman was very stuffy about it but asked what kind of jazz interested us, Miff Mole or what? I said not particularly that, and he immediately said that I was a "jazz purist". So we announced that the Harrow Jazz Purist Society had been formed! There was a lot of laughter in the audience but it imprinted its name on many. We ran it for several years and the Fourth Harrow Rover Crew very generously lent us their HQ building, The Stables in Blaiwith Road, for our meetings. They were very decent and let me have it rent free. It had just the right kind of atmosphere.
A lot of people who had taught me were still on the staff when I came back. People like "Swanny" Amos, Harry Webb, Billie Duke, Sammy Watson, the Kings etc., and George Thorne (with whom I did not get on well, an odd man). "Spargo" Rawnsley was there and, I think, related to Colonel Boothman of the Schneider Trophy fame. "Twink" Bradley was still there and full of his fanciful stories!
In the Forties Arthur Askey was a very popular comedian and one of his catch-phrases was "Arty Lar'er" (hearty laughter). We started an informal HCS magazine with the same name - me, Bill Johnson and a chap named Graham Grant Murray-Miles. It went for several editions. I did the drawings and a story or two. But I also did cartoons which I was warned were " a bit too near the edge". Twink Bradley was an terrible generator of stories about himself and I made a collection of these but did not put any name to the subject, I just drew a pair of twinkling glasses beside "a total age of 120 years". Randall Williams blew his top and the magazine was stopped. But it was popular! I remember once when a teacher, Ken Connolly, who had been injured in the leg in the war, was sitting in the Staff Common Room when Bradley came rushing in. Ken looked up and said "Oh, I suppose that the Communists are after you again?". Twink was leaning on his stick and said that he "had ways of keeping them off". He then took his stick and produced a sword from inside. But swordsticks were hardly the order of the day in the HCS Staff Common Room of the early Fifties.
I enjoyed other activities at HCS. We used to do these stage set productions with me designing and painting and Harry Mees doing the construction with his "apprentices". ( BG: I was one, and was awarded my certificate, and another when a twelve foot flat fell on me!). One of the productions I remember particularly was Thornton Wilder's Our Town. I designed it with the bridge coming out into the audience. Harry and I worked on the construction and it was great fun. I did a very abstract set and costumes for A Midsummer Night's Dream. The student playing Bottom brilliantly was Anthony Smith. I still remember his performance and we are still in touch.
My days at HCS were good days. I know that some folk felt that I cut myself off completely when I went to the Architectural Association School. There were two reasons. First, I was then part-time and had to earn most of my living by reviewing - for Arts Review etc. - doing radio programmes and writing for Jazz Journal, Jazz Monthly and Jazz News. None paid very much but together they augmented my income. They did take up quite a lot of time. When the ten-inch LP records came in I also designed record sleeves. The money was ridiculous at £ 15 per sleeve, but that doubled my weekly salary! I could see that I was disengaging myself from HCS and the post at the AA School came up. It was a part-time post as Drawing Master. Norman Anderson had been around for five years and knew the ropes. So the HCS Art department was well-managed and my move gave both of us a new direction.
I left HCS in 1960. A number of things had happened. In 1955 I had won a scholarship to the Salzburg Seminar in American Studies and Simpson was unhappy about that as I would be missing during term time. But Norman Anderson said that it wouldn't be a problem for him and he would cover. Then over the next few years a couple of other things came up. In 1959 Blues Fell This Morning was meant to come out but there was of all things a printer's strike which lasted, amazingly, for six months. So the book came out in 1960. The American Embassy got very excited about it and said that there were grants for Leaders and Specialists and that they would back me if I applied. There was a great scramble to get my application in, and then the problem that we were coming up to the summer term. So Simpson was not happy again. He was stroppy about it, but recognised that it had US Embassy backing so he agreed to my applying. I was awarded the grant. Again the HCS folklore is wrong. Many people think that I did the field studies recording the Blues for the Library of Congress. This is not correct, they did remarkably little recording of Blues.
My main work was for the BBC. Two days before I left for the States to do the field recording I was given a short course on the use of the field recorder. To my astonishment the producer was Anthony Smith! He had risen very fast in the BBC (and later became the youngest producer of Panorama and much later Master of Magdalene College, Oxford). I had this very heavy field recorder which was a piece of Army surplus because the BBC did not even have their own field equipment. Remember also that the US South was segregated at this time and things were very tense there, but that's another story. I was to make the series which used the recordings to tell their own narrative - just like the later CD which went with the book Conversations with The Blues.
BG: you dropped me in it in the US in 1961! It was the first time I had come across such blatant segregation. I had won the RAF International Travel Scholarship and my host state was Ohio. Most of my time was spent travelling, mainly flying. But on a day off in Cincinnati my very WASP hosts asked me what I would like to do. You had given me three local names and some questions for each. So I dug out the addresses and presented them to my host, who went pale. Top of the list was Stovepipe Jackson. With great foreboding he drove me to "the tracks" but would not cross them. I did, but Jackson was away and the locals denied all knowledge of the others! I do not think that my host ever recovered.
PO: That reminds me of Sam Price, a very good Texan pianist who eventually moved to New York and became a politician. Anthony Smith became very interested in US politics and when he went to New York Sammy showed him Harlem.
I stayed in touch with some Old Gaytonians. Bill Johnson, who taught at Pinner County Grammar for many years, had been my best man when Val and I were married. and we are still very much in touch. He now lives in Wales. From the former staff I kept in touch with Don Kincaid, Norman Anderson, Hugh Skillen, Gerald Halls, and Bernard Marchant.
Gerald, Don and I are looking forward to 4 September and the "50 Years On" reunion of the class of '54.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Paul later became Principal Lecturer in Art History at the AA School, then Head of AA Graduate School. For several years he was Director of Art and Design at Dartington College of Arts. For ten years he was Associate Head of the Architecture School of Brookes University, Oxford, where he continues as Visiting Professor today. He was made an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects in 1999. He still travels globally collecting Blues music and studying his other great passion, Vernacular Architecture.
The Story of the Blues is available as a CD from Sony Records.
Amongst his many other architectural publications are:
The massive life work of Encyclopaedia of Vernacular Architecture of the World (three volumes), Cambridge University Press 1997
Shelter and Society, Barrie and Jenkins 1969
Shelter Sign and Symbol, Barrie & Cresset, 1975
Dwellings: The Vernacular House World-Wide ( new edition), Phaidon, 2003
And amongst the Blues books and CDs are:
Blues Fell This Morning: the Meaning of the Blues ( 1960 and 1990), Cassel & Co, London
Conversations With The Blues, 1965, Cassel & Co, London; and with CD from Cambridge University Press, 1995.
The Story of the Blues, 1969 and 1990, Barrie & Rockcliffe, London
Savannah Syncopators; African Retentions in the Blues, 1970 and 2001, Studio Vista, London
Songsters and Saints; Vocal Traditions on Race Records, 1984, Cambridge University Press
Blues off the Record: Thirty Years of Blues Commentary, 1984 and 1988 Baton Press, Kent.
return to main staff page