Scrolling around social media this morning, tea in hand, I came across more posts and articles that blame the “uneducated” for electing Trump, labelling them as bigoted into the bargain. This saddened, infuriated, depressed and inspired me all in the same instance. It immediately spurred me to sit down and write this blog. Not something of a natural response for me, as you will find out.
When I can force myself to write, I try to keep it relevant to my work as an artist and blacksmith and this made me hesitate as it’s nothing to do with my work. But conversely, I have realised that this is everything to do with my work.
I’m one of the uneducated people who the media always seems to mention in conjunction with anything negative these days. I left school at 15 with no qualification to my name and nothing has changed since. Not only that but I was not even close to literate when I left school. I found it hard to read even simple information in shops and could not even write a whole sentence. Being dyslexic in 70s/80s Britain, along with being working class, was not a recipe for a successful school career. I believed I was thick, as was the term back then, or remedial as my teachers liked to class it. So I didn’t question my lack of opportunity when leaving school, I accepted it. Looking back now it appears to me that my school just gave up on the likes of me. Maybe I’m looking at it with a certain amount of prejudice and that could be very true. But 30 years later I still feel I was considered educational collateral damage.
With hindsight I can see that from educational point of view, and as an artist, this was one of the key moments in my education. In fact, my education only started at this point. My only options when leaving school were manual jobs with no hope of training. I worked all manner of jobs, finding out that I was easily hired and fired. Eventually I found a steady job in the building trade, for a while at least, and met a steady stream of colourful, intelligent and funny people. I always put this down to my boss, Johnny (the lip). Johnny was not the stereotypical builder by any means. I don’t think there were many openly gay builders in late 80s Britain (although I hope I’m wrong about this).
Anyway, Johnny was an old grammar school boy and tended to take people under his wing. I think that’s how I got the job, that and the fact I was incredibly good-looking, of course. Johnny was one of the first people who treated me as an equal, and when it surfaced that I couldn’t read or write to any great degree, his response astounded me. “But you’re so fucking intelligent, Mike. How can you not have learnt to read?” This stopped me in my tracks. I’d never thought of myself as intelligent, it shocked me to my core. I guess this and his tendency to ask my opinion, along with his way of explaining his ideas, began a fundamental change in the way I viewed the world.
As I said, Johnny collected colourful people around him and oddly enough a lot of them were called Bob. There was Bob the plumber, a hard drinking fella, from Galway originally. Bob was a bare knuckle fighter in his younger days. He would always send me home, with a cuff around the head, when I’d had enough to drink: “You don’t want to end up like me, you little prick!”, would be his parting comment. Then there was Bob the bricky. He was on his 5th wife and had served his apprenticeship in London’s Soho in the 1960s and was now working through his doctorate in English lit. I could literally listen to him for days. Also, there was Bob the painter. I think he was on his 6th wife at the time. “My problem is: I’m irresistible to women and I find women irresistible” was his response when I asked him why he had been married so often.
Apart from the Bobs, I was lucky to spend time with a mix of punks, anarchists, Marxists, capitalists, world war two veterans, human rights activists and down on their luck adventurers. Now, you could say I was lucky or unlucky depending on your view, but my further misadventures at the bottom of the working world suggest to me that the uneducated sector of the western world is a lot more diverse, open, and understanding than the mainstream cares to recognise. History, or in this case media columns, really are written by the victors.
I was twenty before I tackled my lack of literacy and it wasn’t for the idea of bettering myself that forced me into it. I met someone. Only problem was she lived on the other side of the country and neither of us had a phone. (Hard to imagine twenty-five years later) “Don’t worry. We’ll just write to each other” she suggested. You can imagine … the blood drained from me so quickly I’m surprised I didn’t faint. I was presented with a problem, lose this wonderful woman or admit my lack of literacy skills. Passion won out, not surprisingly. Again I found I wasn’t being judged or written off. I was met with understanding and with her help over the next year or so, I developed a love of reading and of books. I even found I could eke out a few single page letters, which Lisa would lovingly help me correct whenever we travelled to see one another. It was an odd courtship I guess but it was fun and exciting. Love, passion, books and new ideas, what wasn’t to enjoy? Although the relationship did not last, it left a lasting positive impression on me. I still have dreadful grammar and spelling, which people love to point out on social media; I just don’t give a shit. I have my wonderful proofreader Sandra, who kindly works in exchange for forged dinner bells and door handles. So I really don’t care, and why it should make a difference to anyone reading this blog?
As I moved through the lower rungs of the working world I did come across closed minds but they were the exception rather than the norm. Most people were open and accepting of others. It didn’t seem to really register with most people where you were from or what you were into. As one of my work colleagues put it when one of our number came out: “That’s your fucking problem. What has it got to do with moving this bloody pallet?”
‘Live and let live’ always seemed to be the order of business. Of course, I’m not suggesting this was the case for everyone and I’m sure lots of people have had bad experiences. I can only speak of mine and they were largely indifferent or good.
I didn’t have to deal with any major discrimination until I started developing my sculptural work. Since then it has been a hard slog. It is perfectly acceptable in the art world to only exhibit graduate work. Or to only give bursaries to artists who fit a certain criteria. One of the usual ones being: must have an art degree. We learn to deal with rejection as artists, and someone just not being enthused by my work is fine. But here are some of the other reasons which I have never appreciated.
“We don’t exhibit Ironmongers”.
“We can’t take your work seriously if you don’t have an art degree”.
“We only exhibit Irish artists”.
“We only exhibit British artists”.
“We only exhibit commercial artists”.
“We only exhibit non-commercial artists”.
“Your work is not visually interesting”.
“Your work is too well-crafted”.
“Your work is not well-crafted enough”.
The list goes on and on and even bores me, so I’ll stop there. I didn’t really understand what discrimination was until I tried to make it in the art world. What’s more it’s fully accepted. Not seen as a problem anywhere. Most of the people I meet are very well educated in that they went to college or university. But very few seem to be bothered by this discrimination. Blatant, unabashed discrimination. It’s not even remotely hidden. Yet the educated masses don’t appear to be able or willing to identify it.
So, it comes as less of a surprise and more of a sad fact when I see what appears to be the entire intelligentsia label the “uneducated” as bigoted and uninformed. The reverse feels more of a fit for me. Bigotry exists in all sections of society. No-one has the monopoly on it. But neither do any of us have a monopoly on understanding, and from what I’ve read since the Brexit vote it’s in short supply in all areas of the media.
Education is a great thing and I would always encourage others to seek it out. But there are many paths to education and knowledge. It is multi-strand and diverse, and we need it to be. The sure way to stunt growth is through a lack of diversity; and any barrier to debate, sharing of knowledge and understanding will stunt us all.
What I’m feeling now is everything to do with my work.
It will channel through my work.
It is my work.
The work of an uneducated blacksmith.