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"Part of me still wonders where I'm going to sleep"

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"There was no house. There was no home. I lay on the mattress at the squat in Warren Street. It suddenly began to dawn on me that without sleeping with someone the chances were I wouldn’t have a bed for the night. Sleeping with someone didn’t always mean sex but often it did and on a few occasions I’d have to fight my way out.

I was hungry. The others in the house had cooked a giant pot of stew. I asked what was in it. They told me it was ‘dog stew’. I knew it wasn’t but I still couldn’t eat it. Now I wish I had. I lay on the mattress waiting for Barry to come back. Barry was different from the others. He was from Essex. He didn’t go to art school. But all the others did. They did painting or fashion, went to Saint Martins or the Royal College of Art. I liked them but they made me nervous. I liked Barry a lot. He had a very sexy voice, a massive penis and pink hair and a pet rat. I don’t think there was anyone I knew at the time that wasn’t sleeping with Barry. The year was 1980. I was 16.

It was 1983. I’d got myself on to a degree to do fine art. They were the happiest three years of my life.

A year later – another mattress, another floor. I was listening to the radio. The Clash were playing London Calling. I just spent six months living in a DHSS [Department of Health and Social Security] bed and breakfast, a room 10 foot by 7 foot with a small wash basin in the corner, a bowl on the floor to stand up and wash in and an electric kettle for my pot noodle. I couldn’t take it anymore. And now I was back to sleeping wherever I could. Joe Strummer was on the radio talking about art schools. Sir John Cass School of Art in Whitechapel – the unqualified and the poor could go for £1 a year. Just take your portfolio and queue. I did. I got in. And a year later I had my first interview for a degree course at Saint Martins. My hair was done, fingernails painted bright red. I stood there with four men in front of me. They said, ‘Before the interview starts we have to tell you, you are the only person we are interviewing without the proper qualifications. We are only interviewing you because your references were so good and we have a further 200 people to interview after you with the correct qualifications. Please take a seat.’

I didn’t. I just stood there. Stood there throughout the entire 15 minutes totally monosyllabic. I’d already gone round the studios and I didn’t feel I had much in common with the giant purple abstracts on the third floor and everyone seemed very posh. Needless to say, I didn’t get in. A week later I had another interview at Maidstone College of Art for painting. I stayed up all night re-jigging my portfolio and making a new dress out of a pair of Fifties curtains. I wanted to look my best. I backcombed my hair into a beehive and repainted my nails red and finished the look off with a pair of lime green giant bobble earrings. A guy in my house gave me a lift to the college. It was 7.30am when I arrived. My interview was at 9.30am. I sat on the college gate chain smoking. After a while some women approached me. They asked what I was doing. They told me I was at the wrong entrance but as I was so early I could come to the canteen with them and have a cup of tea. They were the college dinner ladies. As I walked through the college grounds I could see the squirrels running up and down the trees. Men played early morning cricket. The sun was shining and the buttercups and daisies reminded me of school. And the dinner ladies, Christine and Wendy, were so kind.

Part of me is still little Tracey wondering where I’m going to sleep and washing in public toilets

Even before my interview I knew this was the place I wanted to be. I went to the reception with my forms only to find that my interview was actually the day before. I’d missed it. My heart sank. But within moments the interview was rearranged. I was sitting in the painting school having a full-blown conversation with the painting tutors about Egon Schiele and Edvard Munch. I was nervous and happy and all the time I kept saying to myself if I don’t get in I’m going to reapply here next year. At the end of the interview the tutors asked me if I preferred print-making to painting. I said yes, print-making, because there was a magic. I didn’t know the word alchemy existed then. The only two things I remember about my print-making interview which followed immediately were the comments about my fingernails and whether I’d actually ever really made a print and what did I think of feminism. I said, ‘I didn’t.’ They said, ‘You don’t what?’ I said, ‘I don’t think about feminism.’

It was 1983. I’d got myself on to a degree to do fine art. They were the happiest three years of my life. All I wanted to do was learn. Almost everything at Maidstone College of Art was taught through a Marxist doctrine from the Golden Section to the women [’s peace camp] at Greenham Common. Even though the class system was there it was violently expelled. It was not acknowledged at Maidstone College of Art. I became social secretary of the student union for my last two years, organising a number of different events, from poetry readings to the Ideologically Unsound Talent Show and standing on the canteen table giving motivation speeches. Maidstone College of Art let me use my voice. But most of all it started me off on the road to education. I left with a first-class degree. I went on to do an MA in painting at the Royal College of Art and the rest is history.

But part of me is still little Tracey wondering where I’m going to sleep and washing in public toilets and using my last 2p to make a desperate phone call, lying on a mattress in Warren Street, listening to Barry’s rat in the corner shredding newspaper and wondering what makes the others in the house so different from us.”

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