A self-indulgent trip down memory lane to an article I wrote for The Times in 2004.

An art lesson

The Saatchi Gallery marks its first anniversary this month. Our correspondent explains why he won't be celebrating

From The Times

March 30, 2004

By Jonathan Gornall

LONDON, 1973: a black Rolls-Royce pulls up outside an art gallery. Out steps a man in tennis shorts. The gallery owner is about to shut up shop and, a little later, is glad that he didn’t. By the time the Rolls departs, the embryonic Saatchi collection is four paintings larger.

 

The same year, a riverside school in Suffolk: a motley collection of small boys are variously playing rugby, learning to sail and, when they err (which, being working-class, inner-city types, is often) enduring the tail-end of legal corporal punishment.

 

One 18-year-old is walking down the driveway, looking back over his shoulder for the last time at the beautiful Palladian Woolverstone Hall, built in 1766 for the Berners family on the south bank of the River Orwell. It has been his home for the past seven years. It isn’t a private school, and he and his schoolmates aren’t privileged children, but they, and 360 like them each year since 1954, have had the privilege of a first-class education.


But within 16 years the gates of Woolverstone will be closed for ever to the have-nots.


Woolverstone’s remit, as an experimental boarding school for disadvantaged Londoners, leavened with a sprinkling of military brats, was to discover potential within inner-city children and develop it to the advantage of the child and society as a whole. I was born in 1955, a year after the experiment began, to a single mother in Peckham, then still little more than a bombsite. My ticket to escape from deprivation and an uncertain future was my mother’s ambition, and, with private education beyond her purse, Woolverstone was the vehicle in which my incredible journey was to take place.


That journey began at County Hall. This was the home of the Inner London Education Authority (Ilea), and this is where, as a nervous ten-year-old, I stepped off the No 12 bus from Peckham for the aptitude test that would determine whether I was a suitable case for treatment. Now I see that it was an interview for one of only a few places in the lifeboat.


Every term began with a coach ride from outside the building, and ended 70 miles away in Suffolk, in a leafy lane leading to the school’s Lutyens-designed Corners House. For me, and for thousands of wide-eyed children before and after me, stepping into County Hall was stepping through the wardrobe into my own Narnia, but in 1989 that magic doorway was closed for ever. Now, where young lives were once given a second chance, live fish swim, Saatchi’s dead cows decompose and weary tourists wander, ignorant of the Utopia they have displaced.


The press, learning that each child at Woolverstone cost the taxpayer £8,000 a year, helpfully labelled it “the poor man’s Eton”, but what the journalists — and the Conservatives, equally irritated by such rash equality of opportunity — failed to take into account was the cost to society of not sending boys to Woolverstone.

 

The school produced its share of “famous” old boys — including three whose achievements pretty much sum up the educational ethos of the place: the writer Ian McEwan, the actor Neil Pearson and the rugby player Martin Offiah — but its success is measured better in terms of the hundreds of disadvantaged children it fed back into society each year as useful citizens.


In 1998 one indignant Telegraph reader, an old boy writing in defence of a school that had achieved “rarely surpassed academic and sporting success”, summed up Woolverstone’s recipe: “Founded on the concept that environment, not class, produced educational excellence, Woolverstone had socialist backing and funding, a conservative curriculum and liberal teaching”.


McEwan’s experience at Woolverstone, as related in the Times Educational Supplement in 2000, was typical. He left the year before I arrived, but both our lives were changed by the same English teacher. McEwan recalls that he was “mediocre” until the sixth form, when he fell under the spell of Neil Clayton. Ex-Cambridge, the young teacher was cynical about the world at large, enthusiastic about cricket in particular and infectiously excited about poetry and literature. He had “the ability, without a great deal of effort, to communicate a passion for reading widely. His classes were fun . . . He wasn’t afraid of difficulty and he knew we would be proud of undertaking something different.”


Armed with Blake, Conrad and Eliot, we advanced on the future with a creative grounding and a realistic world view that helped us to turn disadvantage to advantage.

 

Saatchi, on the other hand, didn’t require rescuing from deprivation. Born in Baghdad, he was four when his father, a textile merchant, emigrated to Britain. The family continued to prosper in their adopted country. Charles drifted into advertising, found that he had a talent for copywriting and, with his brother Maurice, built an aggressive, edgy agency that bestrode the 1970s.


In 1978 Saatchi & Saatchi bagged an entire political party as a client and moved seamlessly from selling products to selling policies, persuading consumers — sorry, voters — that Labour wasn’t working. The result was the ascent of Thatcherism and the slow, brutal strangulation of the Greater London Council and its attendant bodies. Starved of money, the Ilea tree began to wither and, in 1989, one of the last branches to fall dead was Woolverstone Hall.


Now, in place of the rugby posts stand the hockey goals of a private school for girls.


Is Saatchi morally responsible for (or even aware of?) the countless lives blighted by the absence of that educational Narnia? I’m not sure, although greater minds (such as Hobbes, Hume and Mill, more capable of pressing the case for the consequentialist conception of moral responsibility), might say so.

 

I’m not even sure of the worth or otherwise of the art that Saatchi has hoarded and vaingloriously housed in a temple dedicated to himself — a temple whose noble purpose he helped to sabotage.

 

What I do know is that the Saatchi Gallery, standing as it does as a celebration of Saatchi’s personal success, stands also, for me, as a sickening mockery of all those “lost” lives.


Saatchi’s gain was London’s loss, and sharing with us his pickled cows and rumpled beds doesn’t even begin to make up for it. I have not visited the Saatchi Gallery, and never will. To pass through those doors would be, somehow, to betray the forgotten thousands who were unable to follow me into the lifeboat.