Felt Trips: “Nature Project” by Blue-John Benjamin

The artwork of the school project is perhaps the most neglected and forsaken of all our childhood treasures. With our felt-tip depictions of Armstrong’s giant leap, with our wax crayon Pharoahs and the pastel-shaded pencil lines of our wonky Roman invasions, we toiled in pursuit of appreciative red ticks or stick-on golden stars. And then? The fruits of our labours lay neglected in plastic trays or staff room cupboards; often even thrown away at the end of term, forgotten completely in the giddy rush of summer holiday excitement. This was artwork never afforded the same doe-eyed romance as the pictures we drew for our own entertainment: the skew-whiff Daleks and lopsided Darth Vaders that we treasured into adulthood, preserving them through the decades in lofts and spare room cupboards.

Except in the case of Whitby-based singer-songwriter Blue-John Benjamin, who – in characteristically contrary fashion – owns none of his “off duty” childhood artwork, but instead stands guard over an evocative treasure trove of his 1980s school projects. It’s a body of work that forms a beautiful, and genuinely touching, time capsule. The perfect evocation of childhood spent in rural Lincolnshire; and a period where his obsession with the minutiae (and, indeed, the macabre side) of the natural world was occasionally overshadowed by the darker concerns of the decade.

Over to you, Blue-John…

“I no longer have any childhood artwork created purely for pleasure. ‘Trailing palm leaves behind me’ (as Vashti Bunyan sings), I removed all traces. What remains are school projects foxed with age, kept by my parents. I did very little work on them in the classroom: they were completed in a secretive way at home.

As part of the police project of the mid-80s, I remember officers visiting us at the village junior school. One had a briefcase – a salmagundi of narcotics. I also remember looking at a truncheon, dented and pockmarked. Out on the playing field, a display was abandoned: writhing on its leash, the Alsatian concerned went, for whatever reason, berserk. A poem in my project begins with ‘A is for the Anti-Bomb-Squad that acts on demand’, which is perhaps redolent of the times. At that age, ‘Police and Pickets’ was a game that I enjoyed. Being a picket was best: you got to hurl abuse, lob muck, and frenetically resist arrest.

I was already living with what is now termed OCD, and wondering how to tell Mum that I was mad. I spent the Easter holiday of 1986 on my nature project; there was going to be a prize for the best one. ‘Pellets coughed up by a kestrel’ (still at the back, perfectly preserved by Dad) swung the decision in my favour. I knew it was illegal to take a young kestrel from the nest, but, I regret to report, had a magpie named Fagin. He was what we called a ‘wreckling’ – the weakest of the brood.

Radio Lincolnshire gave me a prize for my picture of Prince Andrew and Fergie (imagined at the altar, prior to their wedding), which was essentially a selection of unwanted vinyl, and included The Pretty Things. Quite what a boy of eleven is supposed to do with lyrics such as ‘blind sparrows carry me’, I don’t know, but my brother Rich rediscovered that disc beneath the bunk beds years later, and we would play it on Sunday mornings.

When I arrived at big school – where the older girls looked like Rita and Sue and, if you were lucky, would mother you, and give you a snog at Christmas – I met up with Miss Frost, who lived up to her name and had survived the Brighton hotel bombing, although she was alright when she got to know you. I did a falconry project for her in those pre-Ofsted days, when, in one history lesson, we ended up sitting in the library and watching an episode of Miss Marple, with Joan Hickson. In the Easter holiday of 1987, my parents found me literally working on that project in my sleep. Even at a young age, I was aching for a time that I had never lived through.

The last piece of artwork from my childhood is a poster that I designed for the Horncastle Town & Country Fayre in 1988 – an annual event that is now a thing of the past.”

Thanks so much to Blue-John Benjamin… please investigate his rather wonderful music here:

http://bluejohnbenjamin.com/

Felt Trips is a collaborative effort. If anyone wants to contribute their own childhood drawings from the era, I would be utterly delighted – please drop me a line using the “Contact” link at the top of the page. A good quality scan would be perfect, but – if not – then a clear photo of your artwork, lying flat, is fine. And maybe a few words of explanation, too: when the drawings were done, how old you were, what inspired you to tackle those particular subjects? Thanks so much.

2 thoughts on “Felt Trips: “Nature Project” by Blue-John Benjamin

  1. Nick June 5, 2020 / 8:41 am

    I loved school projects because, at my middle school at least, they were essentially busy work – as long as you were doing something, they didn’t care what. I used this to my advantage by repeatedly undertaking projects on Dr. Who, and filling the blue exercise books with episode lists and synopses, technical drawings, Target paperback audits, companion overviews and so on and so forth.

    This eventually backfired during a session in the small school library, where the deputy head asked to see another boy’s project book. I forget the details, but it became very clear he’d put no effort in, and was sent off to get a new book and start over.

    I, on the other hand, had put an enormous amount of effort into my current Dr. Who project, being halfway through my second volume at the time. But nobody had ever given them more than a quick check to make sure they were full of writing and not obscene doodles, so I went over and asked the deputy head if he’d like to see my project.

    To my great surprise, he was not a huge Dr. Who fan and was not impressed by the considerable amount of time I’d lavished on the subject. My Who project was suspended indefinitely and the deputy head, a noted vegetarian, assigned me a new project on the spot: how sausages are made.

    I was determined to make this backfire on him, so I found a couple of books and spent a lot of time and spite tracing a mildly unpleasant photo of pigs about to be stunned by a worker in blue overalls and yellow boots (I remember carefully matching the colours), but of course he never asked to see the project again.

    I kept a low profile for a few months, but once the next school year started and we got a new form teacher, I started another Dr Who project.

    I can date this to 1983, because I remember the project at the time included photos of model Daleks from outside the Who festival at Longleat (the queue was too long and we never got in, another sad story).

    Like

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