Wednesday 23 May 2018
This summer the University of Northampton will relocate to its brand new Waterside Campus.
The move will see Park Campus close, and Avenue Campus partially close.
To mark the end of an era, we invited journalist, scriptwriter, radio presenter and author, Andrew Collins, to share his memories of studying at the forerunner of the University, Nene College.
Now and Nene by Andrew Collins
The first recorded mention of Nene in my childhood diaries is from 1977, when I was 12. As a keen junior cartoonist, besotted by comics including the Beano, Monster Fun, Buster, Cor!!, Battle, Warlord, Whizzer & Chips, Cracker, Cheeky Weekly, 2000AD, Action and Knockout (which was pretty much all of them), I had identified art as my subject. In 1977, Mum and Dad far-sightedly entered me for a course of free, Saturday-morning art classes at Nene on Park Avenue, then a technical college, known locally as “the tech”. These classes had apparently been running since the college was opened in 1924, or so I’ve read. Of 60 kids from a number of different Northampton schools who took the entrance exam – which consisted of producing a life drawing of what I described in my diary as “a load of old junk” – I was among the 15 or so who won a place. (Did I mention that it was free? It was free! Hold that thought.) Thus, from 1977 to 1980, I benefited from extra tuition courtesy of a course run by actual college tutors in crumpled jackets, all of it way beyond the training-wheels stuff we did in our weekly double-art lesson at Abington Vale Middle School, or after it Weston Favell Upper School – we explored light and shade, did colour experiments, were encouraged to paint outside the lines and think outside the box. We were also indulged our own personal projects. (I seem to remember I mainly did spoof versions of film posters.)
A couple of things: I didn’t really call it “Nene”, or “Avenue Campus”, I simply called it “art college”. Mum and Dad used to drop me off there in the car, on their way into town to do the week’s shopping, and pick me up again at lunchtime. I made friends there from the other end of town. The hallowed halls of what I didn’t think of as a campus (what was a campus to a 12-year-old?) felt so grown-up and arty. There were easels everywhere. The walls and floors were covered in decades of paint. Bereft of students at weekends, two rooms and a corridor were ours. I loved my time there.
It was too good to last. In 1980, due to education cuts, the classes were stopped. My Dad, a Conservative voter, was outraged enough to write a letter to the Chronicle & Echo, which was printed under a photo taken of a handful of us pretending to draw at desks, and found him banging the drum for state education and egalitarianism: the spectre of a fee-paying version of the classes inspired him to write, “This would be discrimination on the grounds of ability to pay.” I am more proud of him now for writing it than I was even then.
In January 1981, I attended my first ever gig, a momentous moment in any music fan’s life. It was U2 – supported by Altered Images – at the refectory over at Park Campus in Kingsthorpe. The band were touring their debut LP, Boy, which my friend Craig from Weston Favell and I were head over heels in love with. Over the years, my sheer proximity to Bono and the band from the mosh pit have become ever more precious. It was my first gig, so I had nothing to compare it to, thus, it was one of the greatest evenings of my life. It cost £2. And yes, my Dad picked us up in the car afterwards.
I returned to Nene in 1983, when I was accepted for a place on the one-year, pre-degree Foundation Art Course. I knew the corridors and drawing rooms well, of course, but this time, for five days a week, they were alive with laughter and what we didn’t at the time call banter, an explosion of hair dye, dungarees and CND badges. I loved my year at Nene, socially, artistically, sartorially, literarily, politically (I first discovered Billy Bragg through a girl called Alison on my course who said he was “lovely”) and just generally. Without this revelatory course, I would never have felt ready to apply to a college in scary old London. But with the support and encouragement of Nene’s tutors, I put together a portfolio and chose Chelsea School of Art as my first-choice, for the simple reason that it was the only college whose prospectus contained no photographs, which I thought was super-cool. That I got in was a tribute to the training and mind-expansion I had enjoyed at Nene at an age when your brain is still open to ideas.
I’ve maintained my links with Nene, regularly going back for talks, and looked on with pride when it won university status in 2005. (If it had offered a degree course in 1983, there’s a chance I might have stayed in Northampton, which would have ultimately annoyed my Mum, as she disapproved of the way I wore my hair and my clothes at the time.) The bulk of my family still live in Northampton, and it is always a treat to attend functions and private views at the University, which I have shamelessly used as a excuse to pop back and visit my folks. I was also invited to open the new Foundation course building and cut the ribbon with some giant scissors, which was a first for me. I also had the University’s first radio studio named after me. One assumes the move to the new site will make these buildings history, but being a part of the building’s infrastructural bones – even in ghostly form – will remain a lifelong honour.
My proudest post-Nene engagement was in 2012, when I was asked by my retiring head of Foundation, John Harper to do a joint lecture with Bill Drummond (whom I met when I interviewed him about his art and music for 6 Music during my tenure at the station.) It was titled, without a roadmap, ‘Art vs Art’, which I still rather like, and took the improvised form of a tag-team match: I played some records, Bill spoke about his greatest artistic hits, and it climaxed with me tipping my portfolio of artwork over the floor, and Bill, who revealed he’d always wanted to be a road sweeper, sweeping it up, wearing a high-vis jacket. I wish somebody had filmed it. The icing on the cake was being able to take my Dad along. He and Bill got on very well.
I made at least one lifelong friend during my Foundation at Nene, jazz musician Dave Keech from Kettering, who I went out for a drink with only the other night in London. We both gravitated away from Northants, in his case to Stoke and mine to the capital, which is where he also ended up, doing an MA at the Royal College. We wanted to be artists, aged 19, a life-changing decision made at, and encouraged by, Nene. We lost touch for a bit, as old friends do, but – to misquote Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca – we’ll always have Avenue Campus. And I’ll always have a boxful of photos taken at the time, and since, from the days before digital cameras.
If I had to pick a single memorable moment from the year on Foundation, 1983-84, it would be when Dave and I were asked by two girls on the fashion course if we’d model at their end-of-year catwalk show. Flattered, we said yes, and were shown into a walk-in cupboard to try on our outfits. That these outfits consisted of tights, hessian vests, jockstraps and ballet shoes was the only snag. We almost died laughing at each other in that cupboard and, like two customers in a clothes shop emerging from a fitting room, we emerged in our own clothes and handed the high-fashion garments back to the fashion girls.
God bless all outposts of what we used to call Nene College, past, present and future, and all who sail in them.
Andrew Collins, May 2018