A time-travel Black Mountain College “Extension Course”—a further brief piece of autobiography

In 1983 I was 18 and, as during that year I had not done at all well in my A-levels (getting only two “E” grades in English Literature and History) I was living at home without the chance of a place at any college or university and without a job. This state of affairs had obtained, not as the result of youthful indolence (though I occasionally displayed my fair share of that), but because of an enthusiastic awakening to literature, history and music. 

As far as literature goes, I had stumbled across Donald Hall’s Faber Introductory Anthology called “American Poetry” and then Donald Allen’s influential anthology called “The New American Poetry 1945–1960” which introduced me to a whole series of poets, especially those connected with Black Mountain College such as Robert Creeley and Charles Olson, and the San Francisco Beats such as Gary Snyder, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Lew Welch. I was bowled over by how and what they were writing and this passion for their work completely took my attention away from the English Literature A-level curriculum and so it was actually a miracle that I even managed to scrape an “E” grade in my exam.  

As far as history goes, I had become passionate not only about the Protestant Reformation, in particular its radical forms from out of which the Unitarian movement came, but also about the English Civil War, especially the history of the Diggers and the Ranters. Two figures from this latter period that then, as now, wholly captivated my imagination, were Gerrard Winstanley and Jacob Bauthumley. It was through reading Christopher Hill’s work about this period that I was also introduced to the kind Marxist influenced thinking which, to this day, continues to shape the way I understand the world. Anyway, in history as in literature, I was so bowled away by what I was discovering that, once again, it was a miracle I even managed to scrape an “E” grade in my History A-level exam.  

L. to R. Me, Russell and Mark in Little Clacton Village Hall in 1982

But my tricky situation connected with these two awakenings was closely tied to another awakening that had come about through music. Following an exchange visit to Germany in 1979 I had discovered the music of the Beatles and, on returning, I decided I wanted to be in a band. Fortunately, I had two friends who already played instruments, Mark Sainsbury (who played guitar) and Russell Bethany (who played drums), and I was persuaded by them to play the bass guitar. Somehow I managed to convince my parents to buy me one and, in July 1980, on my fifteenth birthday, excitedly I came downstairs to find a shiny, new bass guitar and amp. To my utter surprise my grandmother (who had a quiet love of classical music and harboured a hope I would develop one too) had found a playable double bass and so there it also lay, like a beached whale, on the sitting room floor.     

I didn’t want to disappoint my grandmother and so, even as I began with gusto to play rock and pop music on my electric bass with my friends, I also began to hunt out music that used the double bass and so quickly discovered jazz. Before long, in addition to musicians like Bill Evans, Dave Brubeck and Duke Ellington (a couple of whose records were in my parents’ small record collection), I soon came across Miles Davis’ jazz-rock masterpieces “In A Silent Way” and “Bitches Brew” and records by the English jazz-rock band “Soft Machine”, especially their album “Third.” By the time I was seventeen, and just starting my A levels, I knew I wanted to be a jazz bass player. 

Naturally, living where I did, in a remote, coastal village in Essex (Kirby-le-Soken), this dream appeared insane and it will come as little surprise that my very sensible parents and teachers took every opportunity to remind me of this insanity. I was not persuaded and by 1983 things had reached a point of crisis. I clearly wasn’t going to college or university and neither was I in a band that was getting any gigs and so something had to give. In short, I needed to get a job badly.

To this end, through an employment bureau in Clacton-on-Sea, my father arranged two interviews in London with an insurance brokers and a bank and, one late autumn Monday morning, I was taken by my father to the railway station at Thorpe-le-Soken and found myself sitting in a train in a cheap suit, with a few quid in my pocket, heading up to Liverpool Street. When I got there I simply knew I couldn’t go through with this and so I went straight to a telephone box in the station concourse and called the insurance brokers and the bank in turn to say sorry but the other firm had offered me a job and that, therefore, I wouldn’t be coming in for the interview that afternoon. Somewhat shaken by the reckless audacity of my actions I immediately took myself off to Shaftesbury Avenue and Ray’s Jazz Shop where, after calming down for half an hour or so by browsing through this heaven of vinyl, I bought a copy of Chick Corea’s “Return to Forever”. I truly love this record but, to this day, I find it quite hard to put it on because I am immediately reminded of the stress of that day! 

Somehow, though God knows how, on returning home in the evening I managed to concoct a plausible enough story about why I had not been offered either job but it was now clear I had to set about urgently finding some job I could do or I was in deep, deep trouble. 

A few days later, whilst in Clacton Town Library looking through the dispiriting job vacancies columns in the local papers, I saw an advert for a job in the poetry bookshop in the Colchester Arts Centre being offered up as part of the government’s Youth Opportunities Programme. I figured this was something I could do with a clean heart and even, perhaps, full belief (pathos), and so I applied. To my surprise, a few days later I was offered an interview and during the following week I duly presented myself at the bookshop.

John Row
I was greeted by a man who was to prove pivotal in what I now think of as my real education, John Row. John was (and still is) a poet who was very much part of the British counterculture movement in the 1960s. With his long white hair and general beatnik/hippy demeanour, he looked very much like the kind of person I thought it would be great to work with. My interview was simple and startling. There were a few of the usual introductory questions after which I told him about my love of jazz and poetry, especially that of Robert Creeley and the Beat poets in general. His reply was to lean over to one of the shelves, pull out a copy of Allen Ginsberg’s seminal poem “Howl” and begin to read. I was utterly captivated by hearing this famous poem performed out loud just for me. When he finished, he looked up and asked me what I thought? I replied “Fucking amazing!”. He beamed, and said, “OK, you've got the job.” 

Immediately picking up on the fact that I liked Creeley’s work, a few days after starting work in the bookshop, John lent me a book by Martin Dubermann called “Black Mountain: An Exploration in Community” (Dutton, 1972) about the extraordinary liberal arts school called Black Mountain College which operated in North Carolina between 1933 and 1957 where Creeley had been a member of its faculty. Here is not the place to explore the history and ethos of the college but, as the various YouTube links at the end of this piece will show you, it encouraged the kind of education that was extremely attractive to me and quite unlike anything I had experienced in my own life. 

At Black Mountain College students were encouraged to linger, creatively, over their subjects without the pressure of examinations and they could, and did, meet people across the entire artistic spectrum in both the classroom and in various social settings. I was thrilled and inspired by what I read and assiduously began to follow up the work of its various teachers in an attempt to experience, if only at second-hand, something of the education Black Mountain College had offered its students. 

In music I followed up the work of John Cage, Lou Harrison and Stefan Wolpe; in poetry I continued to read Robert Creeley and delved more deeply into Charles Olson, in architecture I looked into the extraordinary world of Buckminster Fuller, in the world of painting I sought out works by Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, Robert Rauschenberg, Josef Albers, and Ruth Asawa and, in dance, I discovered the work of Merce Cunningham. I lingered long over the work of them all and all of it continues to inform and enrich my life today.

Playing with Tal Farlow (guitar) in 1985

The three years I spent in John’s bookshop and at various alternative literary and arts festivals around the country were extraordinary. Not only was I able to read countless books of poetry and essays but, because the bookshop was attached to an Arts Centre, I also got to meet and hear dozens of contemporary poets and attend many jazz concerts. It was only natural that whilst there I finally began to write myself and also to pick up a few jazz gigs. I could barely believe my luck. Perhaps the musical high point of that period was getting the opportunity to play with the great jazz guitarist, Tal Farlow, who had played with Charlie Parker and one of my own bass heroes, Charlie Mingus.

But, John Row was also a performer himself, and so I did a great many jazz and poetry gigs with him at various arts and music festivals around East Anglia and even, on one memorable occasion, going on tour in 1990 to East Germany in that country’s final days of existence. His occasional band was called “John Row’s Sound Proposition,” so named because, in so many ways, it was far from being a sound proposition, especially if one viewed success in financial terms which, of course, we didn’t! 

Anyway, here, for your delectation are three photos taken whilst we were in East Berlin about to play at the famous Kunsthaus Tacheles. Alas, I’m not in the photos because I was taking them. John is clearly taking one of me (standing next to our VW Camper Van) but that photo is long lost . . .

Anyway, one night, driving back very, very late from some gig or other up in rural Lincolnshire John and I passed close by the village of Little Gidding which had inspired T. S. Eliot to write one of the poems in his Four Quartets. I persuaded John that it would be well worth stopping at the village church to see the dawn break over the small church. He agreed.

During our conversation, while we waited for the sun to rise, I told him that I deeply regretted not being able to have had a Black Mountain education myself. Very slowly he turned towards me and said, “And what do you think I’ve been giving you for the last three years?” So, that morning, just as the sun rose over Little Gidding, another kind of dawn broke in my head as I realised this was exactly what had happened and I still take that dawn to have been the graduation ceremony from my first real university course—a kind of time-travel Black Mountain College “Extension Course” which, had I not taken and completed, I would never have been able either to become a professional jazz musician or, much later, get into, and get so much from, Oxford University before making my way into the Unitarian ministry.

The spirit of Black Mountain has never left me and, from time to time, I still occasionally harbour hopes that the Unitarian community where I am minister might offer people something of the same inquiring, free-wheeling educational spirit. 

These days I don’t often openly talk about this hope but it continues to be expressed subliminally in the logo I designed for the church a few years ago (see below) which still appears in an obscure corner of the current church website.

A key symbol of the Universalist movement—which is, of course, a central element in the liberal religious tradition to which I belong—is the circle and, one day, as I was finalising a design for the Cambridge Unitarian Church in which I had placed the name of the church around a circle I suddenly realised I had unconsciously been channelling the logo of Black Mountain College. The connection between them seemed and still seems to me to be very important even though my own design never really caught on and never got widely used. Hey ho . . .


Black Mountain College – A School Like No Other | TateShots

Black Mountain College: A Thumbnail Sketch

Louis Menand on John Dewey and Black Mountain College

Black Mountain College, VISIONARIES episode

Leap Before You Look: Black Mountain College 1933–1957 | ICA/Boston