Tuesday 12 November 2019


Here is a link to my blogpost published a couple of weeks ago: Floreat Dartfordia - Part One. 

Press here to open.

I enjoyed researching and writing this account of how the culture of the Sixties was shaping my development as a History Boy at Dartford Grammar School. Now in Part Two I can take the story on a year to 1967, using both my words as a poet and my pictures as an A-level art student - and then finally display the last two paintings I created. One, I painted in my room in Catz as an Oxford undergraduate in 1968; the other I painted in the house in Acomb, just outside York, which my first wife, Glynis, and I rented as we followed our postgraduate teachers' training course at St John's College, York from 1970-71.

First, though, here's my urban landscape image that appeared in the 1966 edition of the school magazine, The Dartfordian. I mentioned it in Part One.

Untitled - Rob Donovan (1966)

My art teacher, Alan Carter, made the choice as to which piece of my art work should appear in the magazine. I remember asking him why this one and he muttered something along the lines that it works - it flows. I liked Alan and owe him a great debt. He and David Patterson, my history teacher whose invaluable contribution to my life story I acknowledged in Part One, were the magisterial influences shaping my explosion into some kind of adulthood. Alan fed the emotional side; David the intellectual - although not quite that simply. Here is a flower drawing of mine that emerged from art lessons at the time I was awaiting my Oxford entrance examination results.

Flower - Rob Donovan (1966) 
The signature of REK comes from my nickname at DGS - gifted me by my parents who had me christened as Robert Eric Kanwal Donovan (Kanwal being the name of my father's Indian batman).  

And here's a still-life from DGS that has accompanied me through so many moves across the country - Welling to Oxford to York to Slough to Windsor to Oxford to Walpole to Reydon to St Ives; Kent to Oxford to Berkshire to Oxford to East Anglia and now to Cornwall.

Still-life - Rob Donovan (1966)

And then, in 1967, there was more poetry. This poem appears to be untitled; it won the Bees Award - my second successful bid for the £5 prize gifted by an alumnus living in Australia.


This poem won the 1967 Bees Prize. The subject for this year's competition is 'Colour'.

Were I a child again,
yet retaining the wisdom of experience,
then would my life be Liberty incarnate.

Holy alliance! The uneasy joy of reason
embracing youth's unthinking pleasure.

But it cannot be.

My elders censure
such release from social bonds.
Instead, false hope! the Liberty of Manhood comes
and is revealed a fraud, a nasty childish lord
of hopes to be dashed, and loves to be crushed, 
and softly wondering voices to be hushed,

"It is not so," I hear my elders cry, alarmed.
"No dreams of youth are thus enharmed.
The Liberty of Manhood is such
as yields each man his common due in wealth and status.
In social structure, we've no hiatus.
There's freedom to do what e'er we please
provided it doesn't infringe the 'freeze'.
What happier vision of mankind
could ever human wisdom find?"

Impetuous child, that I am, 
('tis folly to be wise)
I start to answer …….
But what is this , what vision thus assaults my cynic mind
with silent stare unknowing; 
the face so deeply lined?

'Tis I in ten year's time
A member of the system.
Sad break - to leave one's dreamy innocence behind, 
to compromise; to be oneself maligned
A member of the system. 

 R.E.K. Donovan, UVIArts

And here's my attempt at depicting the human face.

Untitled - Rob Donovan (1966)

There are plenty of better examples of A-level art than these - I do appreciate that fact! But these are my works of creation and I am so pleased that I took Art as a fourth A-level to complement my standard package of History, English Literature and Geography. The school allowed me this privilege on the understanding I would sit the Art A-level exam early, in January 1967, to allow me to concentrate later on the three 'real' subjects in the summer exam period. So I took the Art exam in January and passed with the lowest grade: E. I was still high on gaining my Oxford history scholarship to Catz the previous month which meant I only needed to obtain two A-levels at grade E or above to confirm my Oxford award. Already, I had the first of them!

Copy of an early modern painting - Rob Donovan (1967)
I did this for my mum at home and it remained on the wall of our house in Welling, Kent until my parents moved to Leyland, Lancashire where it was again exhibited even when I was persona non grata for a decade and more. Smoke from my father's pipe has darkened the surface. 

Alan Carter, my art teacher, and his wife, June, lived in Erith and I used to cycle around five miles from home to reach their flat, a round-trip of ten miles. There were a few of us, chosen ones, who were granted the wonder of a new way of thinking and talking about life for an evening every so often. Alan played the guitar; Bob Dylan and other folk artists provided the gramophone background; we talked; challenge was in the air. In 1969, when I married my Oxford contemporary, Glynis Richards, I invited Alan to be my best man and he travelled all the way to south Wales for the ceremony. Later that wedding day, he took me aside and tried to open my eyes to stuff I was being blind to, not least the way I was treating friends. I can't remember what he said precisely but I remember feeling puzzled and awkward and defensive. He was of course quite right. Sorry, Alan, wherever you are, for my being a bit of an unknowing prick.  

Time for the other poem of mine that was published - and evidence of a lighter touch as I explore the meaning of life, the universe and everything:


O little worm of earthly mound
How strange to see thee squirm
In little bits.

You, who were once so firm and round,
Sliced, chopped down by grey-silver
In your prime.
You did not ask to die
before your time.
Many months of soft, oozing joy
lay before you, pleasure that can never cloy.

But you died.

Cut down in your prime with a sudden vengeance
from him you sometimes heard
moving above.
Him you feared secretly since your prophets
(they who have seen the shadow he casts) 
have told of that sun-blocking force
leaving the ground barren, 
leaving you damp and exposed.

But perhaps you did not hear
or even stop to fear
that awful tramp above your roof - 
Could it be?

Don't you, like him, need others
to see oneself exist;
to gain a sense of being; 
to sense a purpose in seeing 

O little worm, are you, in fact,
just YOU!
Because if you are
How strange it is to see
thee squirm in little bits - 
Cut down in your prime
by that grey-silver fork of mine.

R.E.K. Donovan  UVI Arts

As for that halcyon period between receiving news of the scholarship award and the sitting and passing of the three A-levels in the summer of 1967, much remains a blur. I enjoyed a passionate although never fully consummated affair with a sixth-former from the girls' grammar school in Dartford that involved a lot of cycle rides and blind-eye turning from my parents who really couldn't cope with me, their adolescent cuckoo who had just earned a free pass to escape the family prison in suburbia. I hope Judy, wherever she is, pardons my faults; I am so grateful that she gifted me a collection of the poetry of Sidney Keyes (1922-43) after we parted. More on Keyes, a former DGS student, another time - a blogpost is around the corner, I promise.

I did eventually start revising and working for the A-level exams but beginning a couple of weeks before the exams start is cutting it too fine. When I got my results a month and a half before beginning my Oxford adventure, I was disappointed but hardly surprised -  a Distinction in the History special paper but only a B for History, a C for English Literature and an E for Geography. But heck! I only needed another E.

I promised two final images of my art work - first the oil painting created in my Catz room (4:12) in 1968. Watching a short film documentary on Jeanette Winterson, the novelist, which included a section on her as an English student at Catz, my mouth fell open when a view from her college room was featured. I swear that was my room too! For a link to a Wikipedia article on this remarkable writer, press here.

Untitled - Rob Donovan (1968)

My Oxford tutors did pass a gentle word of admonition on the matter of A-level grades. But they were always too soft with me. I really needed a well-placed kick up the backside.    

Then, after Oxford, came York and the training to qualify as a teacher. It was not the happiest of years but the classroom provided some comfort. This painting below was painted in the spare room of the Acomb flat and speaks to me still of the anguish I was struggling to overcome.

Untitled - Rob Donovan (1971)

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