A colossus in houndstooth tweed
He’s rubbing his knob on the desk said Carol to Wendy. It was a furtive stage whisper to tickle her friend during their shared boredom with transoms, cruck houses and mullions. It was a Wednesday, which meant a stultifying afternoon of Vernacular Architecture in the sixth form art room.
The classroom was in an upstairs corner of a sixties glass and steel construction that, to my part-tutored eyes, smacked encouragingly of the Bauhaus. Less is more, form follows function etc. It was bright and airy, overlooking a small green hill at the back of the school.
Our ‘A’ level art teacher was the mighty, impressive, Mr Bryn Samways (we named our youngest after him although my wife says it was for the more famous opera singer, Bryn Terfel). Mr Samways had a mad, grey, Don King style haircut, although his complexion was more russet than black. Like John Major, you could never remember whether he had a moustache or just a grey upper lip. He taught us Art, Calligraphy and Architecture from his raised platform in front of the class which he bestrode like a colossus in houndstooth tweed.
Always impeccably dressed, and often sporting a white lab coat, he’d occasionally pop into the room, cover his tie with his hand and ask For those who think they’re observant, what colour is my tie?
We were a small group of keen young artists and designers. Drawing, graphics, fashion, photography, painting, even architecture excited us. It was 1980 and the world was becoming ours. Just passed our driving tests, just decided what course to do, what college to apply for. We were a privileged few that had entry to the sixth form enclave — a packed little room that smelled of sweat and chalk dust and powder paint. ‘We’ included myself, Rod, Blews, Huw, Hilary, John, Carol and two Wendys.
We loved being in the little room and put in many more hours than were proscribed. The work varied from paintings in gouache or acrylics, and from careful calligraphy to ceramics and graphic design. We also studied architecture as the academic part of the course.
Mr Samways occasionally took us to see local ruins of castles and abbeys as the whim took him. Some had their own car so we’d either go with one of them, or take it in turns to cram into the teacher’s enormous maroon Jag. We’d trundle up to Carreg Cennen or Talley Abbey for a leisurely stroll around as he pointed out lime kilns, corbels and garderobe (a stone toilet outlet). He told us of how a wily archer had once crept up to the besiged castle walls and waited below the garderobe until he saw the light go out up above. He loosed his arrow and killed the Duke in mid squat, luckily, as Blews pointed out, before the Duke shot first.
With his gentle lisp he once treated us to a cautionary tale of underage drinking. As a teen he’d gone into a pub and asked for a pint. When the barman asked him which he’d like, not realising there was a choice from the unmarked pumps, he said - A pint of STRONG, please. The barman, recognising the inexperience of callow youth, threw him out. Which goes to show children, he added sagely, that you should always be sure of what you want.
After an hour or so of wandering around he would amble back down to his Jag for a snooze and leave us to explore on our own. On one of these occasions we decided to visit the dungeon despite it still being closed for the winter, an iron gate firmly padlocked in place.
We single-filed down the greasy narrow steps. The boys gallantly hoisted the girls (in their skirts) one by one to the narrow opening between the top of the gate and the irregular stone of the dungeon ceiling. They got through easily before Blews and then John squeezed through. I hoisted myself up in my Donkey Jacket, shoved head shoulders and arms through the gap and got firmly stuck, my buttons caught on the metal. I panicked and tried to go back but the coat rode up and wedged me firmer still. The others were also now stuck in the dungeon as I was plugging the exit. After five minutes of fruitless struggling John and Blews jumped up, grabbed an arm each and pulled me through by sheer force.
We carried on to the bottom of the long tunnel down through the rock to the dank, dripping dungeon before climbing gingerly back up to the gate. I made sure to take my coat off before going back through. My skinny torso was black and blue for a fortnight.
We had it easy, but worked hard, due to the excellent tuition and guidance we were receiving. Mr Samways gave us a cast iron belief in our own abilities. Like all good teachers he managed this by gentle encouragement, clearly communicated ideas and with a rigid but flexible discipline that gained our respect. He made us realise that following a career in the creative arts would demand determination, hard work and the ability to trust, control and direct our instincts.
He’s rubbing his knob on the desk whispered Carol to Wendy. As they snickered together Mr Samways slowly loomed over from his platform and boomed emphatically No, I’m not!