When I was eleven years old, I failed the 11 plus exam.
Which, in my part of London, meant going to a bad school.
I had the class record at school for getting caned: 20 times in one year.
Not for anything violent or rude or aggressive.
Just for not obeying rules.
Playing about, or making jokes, or talking too much.
Normally at my school you left at 15 with no qualifications.
Boys studied woodwork or metalwork.
Girls did typing or cooking.
I wanted to do ‘O’ levels, which meant staying an extra year.
My teacher told my mum, “It’s a waste of money, you’d be better off spending it on a new car.”
So, eventually, like everyone else I got a job in a factory.
The constant routine drove me crazy.
I persuaded my dad to let me go back to school to do ‘A’ levels.
The grammar school took me because my sister had done so well there.
But I don’t think they thought much of me.
I used to park my motorbike by the bicycle sheds.
The only subjects I enjoyed were English and Art.
But I got turned down by seven art colleges.
Eventually, my sister helped me get a scholarship to study art in New York.
And my world changed.
Everything I’d been getting in trouble for was exactly what they wanted.
They didn’t want you to fit in, they wanted you to stand out.
They didn’t want you to obey rules, they wanted you to question them.
They didn’t want you to be quiet, they wanted you to have fun.
They didn’t want you to be the same, they wanted you to be different.
They didn’t want you to be predictable, they wanted you to surprise them.
The first time I found this was in illustration class.
They gave us two weeks to do an illustration about ourselves.
I wasn’t very good at drawing.
So I decided to put my name up in lights instead.
I got a large sheet of tin and two packs of cheap, plain-white, Christmas-tree lights.
I bent the tin into a large open-back box.
Then I drilled 100 holes spelling my name, and put a bulb in each.
Then I drilled 100 holes round the outside for the other 100 bulbs.
Then I put a cheap flasher-unit on each set of bulbs.
I left all the masses of wire hanging out the back because it looked more complicated and impressive.
After a week, I bumped into the teacher in the canteen.
He said, everyone had showed him their WIP sketches, except me.
He said, “What’s your idea?”
I said, “My name up in lights.”
He said, “Yeah right. Be honest, you haven’t done anything have you?”
I said, “Yeah, it’s finished.”
He said, “I bet.”
I said, “I bet you a bottle of whiskey it is.”
And I went back to my room, got the project, and plugged it in.
It lit up and started flashing.
Suddenly, everyone in the canteen went “Wow.”
Some even applauded.
I’d never had that before.
The teacher shook my hand and bought me a bottle of whiskey.
I’d never had that before.
I hadn’t followed the rules, and I’d been rewarded for it.
Gradually it dawned on me.
It was okay to break the rules, as long as what you did was better.
This was like a door opening to a brighter world.
As Orson Wells said, “Don’t give them what they want. Give them something they never dreamed of.”
In England the rules had been the ceiling.
Here the rules were just the safety net.
You could use your brains to out think the rules.
America was started by mavericks, people who wouldn’t obey the rules.
For once, someone wanted what I was good at.
Not doing what I was told.
“Don’t work hard, work smart.”
I know it’s a cliché, but I learned that again and again over the next few years.
The final proof for me was at graduation.
For Illustration class we were told to do a body painting.
Then we were each to be given a section of wall, about 10′ long by 8′ high.
To hang a photographic exhibition of our finished work.
I wasn’t very good at illustration, so I knew my work would look poor by comparison with everyone else’s.
I’d have to find a way to make it stand out.
Plus, I was trying to put my advertising portfolio together.
So I didn’t have a lot of time to spend painting an entire body.
I’d have to think how to get the maximum effect from the minimum work.
So I painted a small Union Jack on my body.
In a place you wouldn’t normally expect to find one.
Then I photographed it from different angles.
Then I took the roll of film to be developed.
Then I went back a couple of days later to pick up the pictures.
But they gave me a letter instead.
I opened it, and it was on very official Government letter-headed paper.
“This is to notify you concerning the film you left to be developed.
Under the statutes of the State of New York, these images are considered licentious and pornographic in nature.
This material is unfit for public viewing and will not be returned to you.
It will be destroyed under the relevant section of the law.”
So now I’m really stuck.
I don’t have any work to put up for the Illustration show.
If I don’t get a pass mark, I won’t graduate.
And, if I don’t graduate, I won’t get an extension to my visa to stay in New York.
So I did exactly what you shouldn’t do in London.
And exactly what I’d been trained to do in New York.
Think different, stand out.
This could actually be an opportunity.
It makes my work sound much more dangerous and exciting than it was.
So I had the letter laminated, and mounted on a white card, and framed with a nice border.
Just like a piece of artwork.
Then I mounted it in the middle of the wall-space I’d been given.
Then I watched while the lecturers came in and inspected everyone’s work.
Everyone else had about a dozen colour photos: carefully painted, tasteful designs.
Then they came to my blank wall with nothing except a framed letter in the middle.
The type was so small they had to line up and read it one at a time.
Sometimes you’d hear one of them give a little gasp.
In America, freedom of speech is sacrosanct.
And what the authorities had done was censor someone’s freedom of expression.
The judges spent far longer in front of my exhibit, discussing it, than anyone else’s.
They kept looking across at me.
They were trying to work out what I could have done that was so outrageous the New York authorities would ban it.
I figured whatever was in their heads was better than any explanation.
So I just raised my eyebrows and shrugged.
The judges were embarrassed at the authorities’ censorship.
More than anything they were outraged on my behalf.
After all the effort I’d obviously made, the least they could do was try to make up for the government destroying my work.
So they gave me great mark, and I graduated with honours.
Maybe I didn’t learn much about illustration in that class.
But I learned a hell of a lot about advertising.