She was just eighteen when London claimed her. The town itself was older, but to the naïve teenager arriving at art college in mid-September, it felt younger, like a tabula rasa she could mould in her own infinite image. For Eileen, as for most of us, the city’s power to absorb without changing counterbalanced Eileen’s exuberance, cancelled it out to leave a plain, self-preoccupied normal. She would never have claimed that at the time, of course, since her opinions would have then been constrained by the insecurity that almost inevitably steers youth away from individuality, mingled with the narcissism that denies anything existed before the self. Her youth convinced her she was unique, but London had seen it all before. This painful realisation would come later, and gradually.
Her art college started two weeks earlier than the university places that just one or two of her higher achieving former friends had proudly secured, a fact of which they never seemed to tire of reminding her in those months that followed their individual decisions about their no-longer collective future. She had little to do with them after leaving school, but they were still there, just down the hill from home and still seen on most days. But at least she was here, or there, ready to start her pursuit of the one thing she had convinced herself she wanted. Of course, there were other things that attracted her, but she had yet to believe that they were truly for her. Art college, and thus the status of the artist, the visionary, the one anointed with the ability to see and communicate, that status was for her and at the time she was determined to claim it.
It was a mock-classical Victorian brick pile that welcomed its new intake. Eileen, like most of her fellow students, had little knowledge of the origins of their college, but detailed awareness of what had unfolded there just a couple of years before. The fact that the institution had been changed by student action was immediately conceded to all those newcomers who heard the head of school’s address. He stressed the proletarian and therefore respectable and noble origins of the institution. He also acknowledged how minimally the building had been converted on becoming an august modern institute of higher learning - a lick of paint here or there, all neutral, functional, boring, and an occasional opening up of the classroom spaces to transform them collectively into a salon-studio. It was definitely not perfect, but change was on the way, he said. The assembled new intake accepted his apologies, but they were thus prepared for the relative deprivation of their coming experience, but not yet aware of how they would react.
This meant that the three storey, wooden sash-windowed, green copper-topped, porticoed pile atop a rise near a famous north London hill welcomed Eileen McHugh into its intellectual care, but simultaneously warned that the experience may indeed be limited. It would take less than a term for the positive to be hollowed out, but she, along with her fellow students, mostly female but all called fresh men, still managed to pursue their increasingly individual paths while they enjoyed a collective, if competitive, friendship.
They were almost all teenagers, overwhelmingly female and all, in their collective analysis, attractive. The few blokes were gay, but the word would never have been used, because it had yet to be redefined. In that era, they preferred ‘queer’, labellers and recipients alike. It did not go unnoticed amongst the new recruits that years two and three both matched the same profile.
It was the end of London’s swinging decade, just after the year of student protests, sit-ins, lockouts, marches and wilting flower power. It was the era of mods, rockers, hippies, anti-war movements, emerging awareness of the planet’s resource limits and nascent anti-consumerism in a generation that would go on to out-consume all that went before. It was an era where being left-wing was cool, but an era where they would have preferred the word ‘fashionable’. The fact that fashions can change is evidenced by this same generation’s election and re-election of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan less than ten years on.
And Eileen McHugh was deeply into all of it. On some days she saw herself as a mod, adopted a crew cut and wore braces and boots. On other days, it was sandals and a long, loose, ankle-length skirt with tee shirt above, thin enough to advertise she wore no bra. There was a jacket for colder days, an embroidered Indian fake, with little mirrors stitched into the patterns. She had bought it on the secondhand stalls in Wakefield market on one of her ritual Tuesday morning rummages about a year before. She hadn’t grown much in that year in any direction, because the jacket still fit her, or fit her as badly as it always did. It had probably been discarded by someone who had acquired it as an act of worship after hearing Sergeant Pepper’s, and then got married. Having no ideological preference, she could be mod one day and hippie the next, at whim.
Before she arrived in higher education, she played Progressive Rock and Ravi Shankar in equal measure. Her tastes were catholic, matching her religion save the case of its initial letter, though the music was not lapsed. She worshipped Yes and Chicago, retained a soft spot for Fifth Dimension, and regularly played Richard Harris singing - for want of a better word - songs by Jim Webb before an orchestra of kitchen sinks. Where the hell was MacArthur Park anyway? And did it matter? Iron Butterfly was something to dance to, especially if she was drunk enough not to know what she was doing. But already for a year or so new sounds had begun to stir her imagination. They were largely American, as were all the others, but not exclusively so. These new sounds fit no marketed mould. They were raucous and poetic, individual and collective at the same time, random and yet forcefully structural.
She had first heard jazz on BBC2 and had concluded it was played by old men who smiled at the camera. But then she heard Tubby Hayes and Mike Westbrook and was enthralled. She soon progressed to BBC Radio Three’s jazz, late at night, in bed, under the covers with a trannie and earphones. It was far from the dance music of the bands, even a long way from the celebrated self-promotion of bebop; no, this was different. This was the flamboyant introspection of Coltrane, Coleman, Davis (already passé), Ayler, Shepp, Taylor. Already she had absorbed the British scene. Skidmore had just been awarded his prize in Montreux. Osborne was to become her manic hero and Surman was always there, except when she tried to get to one of his gigs. But more of that later…
It was a new world, a synthesis of fragmentation, an unpredictable, never to be repeated dose of individualized sound, which coincided with the ideological route her art had already taken. The experience convinced her that she had been right all along, and sure enough London’s fringes drew her into free jazz. She arrived looking up to pineapple and cheese on sticks washed down with Hirondelle at parties, and continued the fashion, because food was just not something you thought about. Where she came from, male friends considered an evening with a Watney’s Party Seven to be just about the coolest thing on the planet, despite the beer being warm because the giant can would not fit in a sixties fridge. But her tastes began to change, and the total freedom of the music symbolised, even idealised that change. Increasingly, she saw cultures, like religions, as she had been repeatedly told during her Catholic upbringing, as stained-glass windows, grey and flat on the outside, yet coloured, inspiring and magnificent inside. But the London Eileen still saw only from the outside still seemed multi-coloured, surprising and exciting. Its glass shone from every angle. And its jazz she would see coloured from the inside.
We can be sure about the details, by the way, from the previously mislaid archive of Eileen’s notes that were rediscovered in her mother’s stowed-away box. At least in those early months, Eileen was a very conscientious communicator. She had promised her parents she would keep in touch and wrote home regularly, at least in her first year. And the letters were not mere summaries, and often contained verbatim accounts of what she had done at college, rewrites of material she offered her tutors during the day. For an artist who trusted to the moment, she displayed a surprising need to perfect and refine, as if each raw statement needed redefining and reworking. Let’s let Eileen describe herself. It was the first task of her induction week and preserved in the sketchbooks she kept so conscientiously and carefully under instruction at the start of her course.
Task 1 Describe yourself and your education to a stranger
My name is Eileen McHugh. I am eighteen years old. I come from Wakefield, halfway to Pontefract, to be accurate. It’s called Crofton. It’s quite a big town now. Before it was just a mining village, with terraced houses on streets that had numbers, not names. Before that there were farms. But then, about ten years ago, they started building estates, but not council houses. They were new houses with all mod cons, like gardens, built-on garages, driveways, bathrooms and indoor toilets. We even had central heating installed a few years later, and a telephone. We moved to a semi near a new pub called The Weavers Green on Slack Lane. That really is its name. I’m not lying. I never do. We have a Cock Lane as well. There’s a Grime Lane in Sharlston, another village a mile away.
I went to secondary school in Crofton. I didn’t pass my scholarship. I went to a school called Browns. It was a private school in Crofton. It’s one of the reasons my parents decided to move to Crofton from Wakefield, so I could go to that school. My parents knew I wouldn’t pass to go to Grammar School. I was in a junior where they had two streams in each year. It was the other class that was preparing for the eleven-plus. We got the same work, but nobody actually did it. We were being told all the time about sheep and goats needing to be separated. I can’t remember which one I was. The other reason we moved was that the area where we lived before, near the rugby ground, had lots of immigrants and we didn’t feel safe.
My parents did not want me to go to a Secondary Modern. They thought it was not right for me, but I think that it was more likely not right for them. Most of my friends went to the Secondary Modern, but not the one in Crofton. We moved just as I finished junior school, so they went to a school close to where we used to live. I had to make a new set of friends when I started at Browns.
We had to wear a uniform, just like in Grammar School. Except our uniform was green, and striped. There wasn’t another school that wore green. We stuck out like sore thumbs. It was the only cheap private school in the area. There were other private schools in Wakefield, but only for rich people. We used to be laughed at by the Grammar School kids, who called us dumbos and also by the Secondary Moderns, who called us stuck-up dumbos. Perhaps they were both right. And also wrong at the same time. For most of the kids in Browns, it was the parents who decided they should be there.
The school was in Crofton New Hall. In fact, it was an old house behind stone walls at the bottom of Cock Lane. It had a little stream, the beck, we called it, running across the back. The school wasn’t up to much. We had no equipment. The science labs were just benches with sinks and gas taps. Every floorboard creaked, and the plaster was cracking off. It wasn’t a big place, but everywhere had an echo. And most of the teachers couldn’t care less. Except for art, which I loved. The art teacher was Miss Wallace and she cared about what you did and talked about it. She didn’t just put a tick and a mark out of ten at the bottom. I didn’t like school.
At least, I didn’t like it during the day. But I enjoyed it in the evenings. One of my best friends was Martin. His father was the caretaker at Browns. They lived on-site but he went to the Grammar School. And so did all of his friends. Apart from me.
But because his dad was the caretaker, he and his friends used to meet at Browns in the evenings, usually around six o’clock, and play football in the school playground. It wasn’t very big, but enough for five-a-side. The advantage for the boys was that the school was being cleaned in the evenings and because they couldn’t afford to employ enough women to do the job, Martin’s mother and father did most of the work and they hardly ever finished before ten o’clock. And, while the school was being cleaned, they kept all the classroom lights on, so the playground was lit up and the lads could play all year round. The boys played football and the girls - there were four of five of us - used to sit at the side. The boys thought we were watching them, but we were chatting. And because I was in the school during the day, I knew my way around the buildings, so sometimes we went inside if it was raining. Martin’s dad didn’t like that, but we didn’t do anything wrong, so he usually tuned a blind eye. I used to enjoy the wet nights inside, which forced the boys to talk. And we used to look at my work, which was always on display. And then we would talk about it.
Like all school students whose projected grade average is below A, Eileen was self-deprecating. She would always get the excuse in first, well before the criticism had been aired. It’s about knowing your place and then not aspiring to a status beyond your station. In her case, like everyone else’s, it was never a conscious trait, but a conditioned response, brought on by a repeated perception of being belittled. She had friends she valued, that she thought she could not live without, and it was they who, collectively though implicitly, ruled out of order any attempt to step outside their assumed norm. It may have been an age of freedom, individuality, self-expression and of letting it all hang out, but woe betide anyone who challenged social norms or threatened convention. So things just never change, at least at home…
But for Eileen McHugh, going to college meant leaving home and London was about to change everything. It was big. It was anonymous. Anything went. At college she met new people, who all arrived in the group with individual but apparently no collective social baggage. She felt she could become the person she wanted to be but remained unclear as to who that person might be. The anticipated change did emerge, but neither immediately nor swiftly, and eventually it took her to many places she never imagined she might go.
It had been her parents, her father in particular who had insisted on her tenancy of a single room in a family house north of the college. In those days they were called digs, possibly because they were both archaeological and grave-like. A college-backed list of officially registered, and therefore trusted accommodation had arrived in an information pack alongside her college acceptance letter. It was a few stapled sheets onto which addresses and telephone numbers had been listed. It had been typed onto a spirit duplicator master, with corrections still evident, and then run off, as the teachers said at school, to multiple, vaguely blurred copies. Eileen saw it as a school worksheet, that excuse for not having textbooks, that she had seen every day of her school life and she prejudged it accordingly. Names of proprietors were included where relevant and Eileen’s father, Thomas, had ringed a half a dozen places they might try. All were private addresses, offering one room, where the proprietor was listed as a Mrs Something-or-Other. After all, misters could not be landladies and that was the heading above the column of names. If Tom McHugh’s daughter was going to London, then he was going to make sure she would be looked after like she was still at home.
They had made the phone call in August, a month before she was due to start college and had paid rent from the date of the call. “It being hard to say no to someone else willing to pay the extra…” said the apologetic but emphatic voice at the other end. Eileen was worried from that point, and her fears proved justified. Mrs Duke would probably be large, maternal, judgmental, stern and intolerant. The assessment proved nothing less than accurate.
That suspicious, bigoted landlady came with a poky space attached, and it soon began to grate with a young woman who had suffered visions of liberation. Away from home for the first time, Eileen wanted to stay out late, invite an occasional friend around, possibly even someone who wasn’t female, but the short dark, almost cubist lady who owned the place had an explicit, written condition of tenancy that stated, ‘No visitors’. She double locked and chained the front door at ten o’clock and clarified from day one she would not get up to admit any latecomer, even a tenant. And any tenant that did arrive home after ten would be a tenant no longer. If awakenings could be rude at the end of the nineteen-sixties, then this one was near-pornographic. Let’s say that Eileen suffered the destruction of multiple preconceptions, the blocking of imagined opportunities and the complete restriction of a freedom she had imagined but had yet to claim. The experience of London, adulthood she had yet to approach, independence she had only imagined, all these simply disappeared before a landlady with house rules and a door chain.
She was also under pressure. For the first time in her life, her tutors made demands on her that she was expected to fulfil. No more the promise, no more the excuse. Students were handed project briefs describing assignments that would last six weeks, sometimes longer. And these were project briefs whose distribution came with completion dates attached and an expectation that each individual would deliver on time and in full. She took time to get used to such demands, to realize they were as nebulous as what had gone before. Initially, she took them all at their word and did her utmost to deliver.
The first three months were a quiet time, perhaps the quietest of her life, since as a teenager in Crofton she had been given much of the freedom she asked for, though never more than would trouble her conservative parents. It was a freedom with strict but unwritten limits that were publicly respected implicitly by both sides. Paradoxically, London, which she imagined as the great liberator from these invisible boundaries, initially reigned her in, dictated a work and no play cloistered monasticism she had never before experienced, and it was a shock of sufficient severity to provoke reaction.
And so she spent an isolated term, during which she almost religiously consulted each day’s listings in the almost biblical, fortnightly edition of Timeout to scan the events. It was of course the jazz section that interested her the most, even more than the gallery listings. From the distance of West Yorkshire, she had notions of going to Ronnie Scott’s once a week, of rubbing shoulders with some of those American names that she knew only from album covers and radio. That was before she knew how much it cost to get in. And if that surprised her, then eventually so did the price of a drink inside. But with all that wisdom still in the future, she read in each issue that there existed a special student rate for anyone arriving before nine thirty and buying a drink. And the frustration of her confinement started to mount. Eventually, it would be the other venues that would attract more, but in that first term, the 100 Club, Peanuts, Bedford College and the Jazz Centre Society were just names, but names that amplified the frustration of not getting to Frith Street.
It was December before Eileen, Linda and Charlotte finally agreed to pool their respective grants and move in together. They found a little flat above a shop in Muswell Hill, right on the Broadway. It had a large lounge that could be divided with furniture so that two of them could share, while Linda, an older, late-vocation artist could have the single room, because she also had an established boyfriend, who conveniently had nowhere permanent of his own. There was a shared bathroom and a kitchen of sorts, a kitchen that also boasted the flat’s main entrance, which was at the top of the external fire escape at the back of the property. It was going to work and the three of them agreed to make it happen.
It was probably only later that Eileen realized that it was this break with the past that most contributed to the change in her outlook. Until then it had been family, school, dependable, trusted encounters with people who were always there. All of a sudden, she realised she had remained blind to the fact that her entire life, and not just the last term, had been confined, defined by others, lived to external demands placed on her. Suddenly she felt she was alone, paradoxically in control of everything, but sensing a powerlessness, an inability to decide or to act. Art college, at least in the first month, felt like it might occupy the same ground as her adolescence, imposing its own rules and limits. But she soon learned that a landlady was not a mother and a college tutor was anything but in loco parentis. Moving in with her two flat mates opened her eyes to changes that had already happened but had gone unnoticed. She was now on her own, together with Linda and Charlotte, but separated by their individual needs and competitive setting. She was suddenly responsible for herself, queen of her self-image, but a mere pawn in the space that the chess moves of their selfish sharing created.
Initially, Eileen found Linda a challenge, because she was different and fit none of the models that life had thus far convinced her existed. Linda was older, from Eileen’s perspective an almost incredible eight years older. She was almost old enough to be Eileen’s mother. She had left school at fifteen and taken no public exams. But that was where the similarity of their experience ended. Linda had done a secretarial course before taking a job to do what the training had taught her, that she should commit to paper and ink permanence what the creativity of the male mind dictated. It is hard for contemporary experience to comprehend that less than fifty years ago documents were produced on typewriters, on sheets of paper with carbon copies, by women, always women. Men thought up the words, but none of them was able to type, because typing was not considered a skill. It was menial, repetitive, not worthy of brains trained to think. Neither was shorthand a skill, despite it having to be learned in detail and at much cost of time. But a secretary’s lot was nice work if you could get it and paid the mortgage if you could stick it. Linda couldn’t. By twenty-four, the fifteen-year-old’s ambition of a semi in Harlow, husband, kids and two incomes no longer appealed in the way that the teenager’s previously conventional mind had imagined. She was bored. She was bored shitless, especially in Harlow. It was a time when the term ‘far out’ was cool, and the Essex dormitory suburbs were just too far. She felt she was on the wrong side of the river, her bridges burnt, but in fact, as far as the geography was concerned, she was on the right side of the river and didn’t even need a bridge.
She had taken up painting as a pastime, had followed Kenneth Clarke’s every civilizing word, had taken a holiday to Florence on the back of the enthusiasm his presentations generated and then decided to chuck in the salary and study art. A foundation course at a local college began the transformation and now here she was at Art College on a Fine Art degree course at twenty-six.
The boyfriend from Harlow had to go as well, of course. He had been long-standing - four years they had been together - but his unquestioned assumptions matched what she was trying to reject. It became an ideological separation and nothing the predictable lad from Epping could do or say was of any consequence for a woman whose mind was made up. He worked in a bank and spent most of his time weighing bags of coins that local shop keepers produced from their bulging holdalls. His name was Rod and he was pretty straight, so straight that his ambition was to occupy one of the desks behind the bank’s glass screens, where daily totals of the coin-haul were logged by people a few years older than himself. Rod’s heaven, forever to be imagined, was that semi on a new estate, a Cortina outside and Linda with their two children inside. Though he worked with money, he had no head for figures and had yet to realise the financial impossibility of this imagined paradise. This, however, was definitely not for Linda, and the day she broke the news to him, she broke him as well as their assumed engagement. She was not proud of what she did, for she still loved him, but she had to learn to love herself more, and so he had to go. They had lost contact soon after the break, which was over a year before Linda arrived on her Fine Arts degree. She did, however, often speak to the others of her time with him.
The new boyfriend was Alan, a betting office manager from Aberystwyth, a name none of the girls in the flat could spell without a map. He worked in a place whose name none of them could be bothered to remember in the eternal daylight world of the suburbs between Essex and London, a place that would forever identify with both, but be part of neither. It became clear just a couple of weeks into their tenancy that he would be a permanent fourth resident of their flat share for three. What a coincidence it was that the lease on his previous place, a bedsit in Stamford Hill had expired the same month the three of them planned to move in. The journey would be a pain, much further and involving more than one change, but thank goodness for British Rail. A measure of the distance that separated their camaraderie was the inability of either Charlotte or Eileen even once to confront Linda with the suggestion that she might even have planned things that way. Each of the women continued to pay a third of the rent and Alan was living for free, despite being the only one of them who actually earned a wage. He did buy occasional goodies, however, goodies that gradually became more important contributions to their collective happiness.
For Eileen, Alan was something of a problem. He was the first real foreigner she had ever met. He was not only not English, but he was fiercely Welsh, even supporting the Welsh rugby team when it played England, not that she knew anything about rugby, except knowing that the ball was not round. This is perhaps a measure of how introverted, presumptive and parochial had been her upbringing, her education and social experience to the age of eighteen. Despite assumptions of enlightenment superior to anything that had gone before, assumptions adopted by children of the sixties as if by right, she still found herself thinking that there was something wrong with not being English. London was to change all that, and Alan’s singing Welsh twang, though not quite the first time she had been confronted with a foreign accent, since there had been a girl at school from Newcastle whom everyone called “Jock”, it was the sheer persistence of Alan’s Welsh, every word of which initially needed translating, that introduced her to the concept of ‘foreign’. It was rather a shock. For some weeks, she regularly told him he should change, though into what she generally left open.
And then there was Charlotte. She was very much the middle-class hippie, the epitome of ‘Peace, Brother’ whilst holding an anemone. She was so gentle, apparently, she could hardly be heard to breathe. She wore floppy hats, flowery, flouncy dresses, bangles on her ankles, listened to ragas and didn’t even wear sandals, preferring unshod dirty feet, at least around the flat. She ate lentils, smoked pot, which she soon learned to call dope, endlessly plaited and unplaited her hair, believed in free love, world peace, ban the bomb and Janice Joplin, and would vote Conservative for Heath against Wilson, when the opportunity arose in nineteen-seventy. Independence, it seems, rarely gets beyond the confines of one’s parental prejudices, no matter how different it might look.
Charlotte’s art was a cross between William Morris, Aubrey Beardsley and Claude Monet, artists whose styles she consciously amalgamated through direct quotation, nay copying, of motifs, all of which could be identified from the pages of From Giotto To Cezanne. She had been brought up and schooled in a place called Pinner which, as far as Eileen thought, might still be trying to enter the twentieth century. From Charlotte’s point of view, and in the interest of balance, Eileen’s origins simply did not exist since they were probably north of Watford. It was some months after meeting Charlotte that Eileen learned Pinner was just six miles south of Watford.
Charlotte oozed middle-classness, like a mint prints money. Its mustiness oozed through the loose weave of her Indian cheesecloth blouse, enabling her to leave the scent of her opinion on whatever she encountered without ever breathing a word. She was designed, it seemed, for respectability, family, professional job, moderate status via financial solvency of a husband, eventual Tory party membership and a blue rinse in the suburbs. The problem, however, was that home did not quite match up to the mould, and she was in the process, apparently, of doing everything in her power to reject what it stood for, deny its reality and be seen to opt for an alternative to what she perceived as its stifling duplicity. Her parents were saddled with mortgage debt, her mother drank a bottle of gin a day and there were constantly perceived threats of domestic violence whenever the long-established arguments turned to shouting matches. At least that is how she herself described her experience of domestic bliss. She exaggerated.
To say Charlotte hated her parents would have been an overstatement, but only just. She did trust them and occasionally relied on them, but she always wanted limits placed on how near to her they should approach, at least that is what she said. She seemed determined not to become infected with anything associated with their way of life, but without realising she was already duplicating it via her attitudes. Her father, who clearly worshipped his only daughter, did come to college to visit her, but her mother stayed away. It was just too far, Darling.
Charlotte, it seemed, was offered and accepted the blame for not going to university, a reality her mother had not been able to live down from the day her daughter started secondary school and failed to get in the stream destined for an academic curriculum. Charlotte did get a couple of O-levels, but what good was Art, for heaven’s sake? In a fit of pique, her father, citing what he deemed under-achievement as potential evidence, at one point suggested his wife may have been pregnant by someone other than himself. Her mother shouted abuse at her husband, but never opined on the substantive issue. The parents always maintained their decorum in front of Charlotte, of course, but also never missed an opportunity to talk about the other partner when alone with her. And so the three very different women set about sharing their flat, Linda in the private room and Eileen and Charlotte either side of their wardrobe divide.
It was Linda who presented Eileen with what she felt was a challenge, though she never perceived it as such at the time. As her flat mate, especially in those meandering months that summed to form her first year in college, she unwittingly began to see Linda as a surrogate mother. For a start, she was those years older. The difference was only eight years, but when you have only yet lived eighteen, then the other has spent almost fifty per cent longer coming to terms with the emerging reality of life. It is a status to be first respected, later explored. Alan added to the illusion, perceived almost as a surrogate father. He was at least two years older than Linda and could even have been completely ancient, maybe over thirty. He never admitted he had been married before he met Linda, but somehow his presumption of an almost family life suggested he had.
It was much later that Eileen realized how powerful an influence Linda had been. At the time, she was not even conscious of how she deferred to her elder, rarely contradicted her, even more rarely questioned her, and always unconsciously allowed her to lead. Perhaps it was not obvious because Linda, herself, was so personally insecure, so socially unassertive. Like an assumed mother, however, she always seemed to be there. She also disappeared each night into her own room with her boyfriend, emerging the next morning displaying neither guilt, embarrassment nor achievement. It was a normality that for Eileen was both recognisable and addictive, a state to be publicly dismissed, yearned for in private.
It was Linda’s obvious physical maturity that also dominated their relationship. Linda’s body was that of a woman. She wasn’t fat, but certainly wasn’t slim. She wasn’t tall or short. She wasn’t pretty, but she was very attractive, a fact that Eileen grew ever more surprised she should notice. Linda’s hair was not long, but then it wasn’t short, either. It was shoulder length, naturally curving in towards the neck, not out like the girls in adverts. Her breasts were large, but always covered by the loose round-necked tee shirts she invariably wore above her perfectly fitting jeans that seemed to have been specially made for the detail of her body. The protruding bust and loose tee shirt always suggested a void below, a void that might soon be filled with a planned pregnancy that would hide itself for a number of months. She also smoked, and, for Eileen, this only enhanced her similarity to ‘mother’.
If that particular association grew stronger, then Alan, after that initial sense of his being a ‘dad’, grew less and less like a ‘father’. He was showing signs of overhanging at the waist, thus forcing the top of his trousers increasingly out of sight. As the manager of a betting office, he was obliged to wear a suit and tie to work, despite traveling there by bus and train, along with all the other working males who did the same at the same time. He was a chain smoker, changed into jeans and denim shirt when he came home and drank two cans of Worthington E before settling down to the meal Linda always cooked for him. Increasingly, Eileen found him uninteresting, even boring. He expressed few opinions, was interested in very little other than sport - a preference that led him habitually to consume newspapers with increasing speed from back to front - and lifted not a finger around the flat, even to the extent that it was Linda who lugged his washing to and from the launderette, and struggled to iron out the creases the ultra-drying centrifuge inserted. Linda’s relationship with Alan, at least in Eileen’s younger eyes, was that of an established, taken-for-granted marriage.
Linda’s work was not what might be called ‘inspired’. She was a competent artisan, representationally accurate, faithful to the appearance of her subjects. But she displayed little intellectual involvement with her art and even less interpretive rigour. This, of course, meant that she was diametrically opposed to Eileen’s own approach, which rejected the need to represent anything other than the objects she assembled and focused on the viewer’s intellectual interpretation of its possible meaning. In Linda’s work, a finished object presented the onlooker with a final statement, whereas Eileen aimed at highlighting a concept which would form no more than a starting point for extrapolation. For Linda, the Pre-Raphaelites were close to gods. Stylistically, she kept them as her idols, whilst immersing herself in later models. She would drool over the print of Waterhouse’s Lady of Shalott above her bed, spend hours on a flower painting in the colours of Holman Hunt and without thought render figures in the contours of Burne-Jones.
As artistic opposites, however, they attracted. Linda’s opinion of Eileen’s work was as detached and uninterested as the reciprocal relationship. Because they were so different, they could communicate across the known gap that separated them and, because there was no obvious commonality, there was thus no competition. Their aesthetic difference was accentuated by their complete physical contrast. Where Linda’s shape was full, Eileen’s was slender. Linda’s womanhood was the opposite of Eileen’s boy-like shape. In character also, they were diametrically opposed. Linda’s apparent submission without opinion to Alan’s needs was quite unlike Eileen’s assertive, even domineering presence, a quality she herself would not have recognised. Basically, after a few weeks, Eileen could no longer stand the sight of Alan and Linda knew it. The subject of relationships was thus a taboo and remained an unspoken-of waste of time that hid behind most other opinions they exchanged.
They shared their flat in Muswell Hill for almost two years, until the end of their second year, when events forced each of them into different paths. By that time, Linda had decided to train as a teacher, a profession she would not take up before the age of thirty. Eileen, of course, pursued a different path, and they never met again after the end of that second year, by which time Linda had already moved out of the flat to set up independently with Alan in Palmer’s Green. So it was with interest that I approached my interview with Linda, having tracked her down via Facebook to a housing estate in Milton Keynes.