Teenagers, and the Will to Paint Stained Glass

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The Real Glass Painting Podcast: Episode #2

It was just the other day that yours truly, one of the two stained glass painters at Stanton Lacy, got mightily annoyed when an email arrived from someone who really should know better.

Yes, my correspondent tried to sell me something – which I don’t mind at all.

But what I did mind was: his fear-inducing line of argument … which was I had to buy what he was selling because the politicians and bankers have messed up our economy.

Well, he might be right the politicians and the bankers have messed things up for us.

He might be right … or … he might be wrong: I – do – not – know. The economy is far too big a question for that obsessive, tracing-oriented brain of mine.

All I really know are specific things like I’ve finally scheduled time to get to grips with that manual on stained glass painting which I’m writing.

And also that, whatever madness might be going on elsewhere, our studio order book is nearly full this year, with some work also starting to come in for next.

Now, certainly, any – or all – of this might change.

So maybe my time will in fact be taken up with other tasks than writing.

And maybe some or all of our orders will be cancelled.

But, based on the specific facts I have before me, whilst life is harder work than ideally I would like – it is … looking fine.

And – what is more – I also know I’m proud of the young people I meet … Yes, the young ones coming through from school to work.

Which makes me cheerful, despite everything the news would have me think.

And the reason I mention this is adults often say the young can’t draw, the young can’t paint, the young can’t even concentrate like we could when we were their age.

But, for me, and based on my experience in our studio at Stanton Lacy, that’s just not true.

So … what would you rather hear about today?

Shall I just recycle the old terrifying stories that the politicians and the bankers have wrecked our world and made it impossible for the glass painter to succeed?

Or would you rather hear a true, specific story about three 16 year-olds who decided stained glass painting was so important to them, they wouldn’t be troubled by the stupid obstacles which grown-ups tried to put in from of them?

For myself, I hope you decide you have every right to hear some good news for a change.

A quarrelsome lunch with friends and other people

OK, you remember how the current financial crisis hit us big-time in the fourth quarter of 2008?

And to start with today, I’m talking about a time maybe six or seven months into it.

So this was roundabout April 2009. And what was happening then was, sure, unemployment – unemployment was going up. But worse than that was, a particular kind of unemployment was going up. I mean: unemployment amongst school-leavers.

And it seems awful, does’t it, that young folk, through no fault of their own, but just because it’s their inheritance, might, through lack of opportunity, get disillusioned to the point where they no longer imagine life can be really, really good?

Now one Sunday in April 2009, there I was out at lunch with some friends – some old friends whose house it was, and some new folks I was meeting for the first time.

And I was in full flow.

We were talking about jobs, and I said:

“It’s OK for the adults – they can take care of themselves. But something must be done about the young – it’s the young who need our help. I know, I’ll go round schools, I’ll talk to teenagers about working for themselves. I’ll show these kids they don’t have to fit into other people’s ‘pigeon-holes’: they don’t have to sit around waiting for work to find them: they can make their own opportunities and set up their own businesses …”

Then someone I hadn’t met before spoke up:

“You know, the local council will give you a grant to do that. Yes, you can get paid to do that by the local government … “

And … I … exploded.

What I said is … unrepeatable.

You see, I hate grants.

I loathe them.

The reason is, I’ve seen many friends lose their way with grants. I’ve seen grants corrupt so many artists’ vision. Don’t call me cynical. This is simply what I’ve seen. It represents the sum of my experience: grants – wreck – lives. Grants – wreck – work.

So I guess it’s pretty clear to you I don’t like them …

And of course it turned out this person who told me this, they … worked for local government. In fact, it was their department which administered these grants.


Their job depended on it, on finding people like me – or so they hoped – to fill in endless forms and sell their soul to grants: their job depended on it, their pensioned job, their cushy 35-hour a week plus benefits job: they needed people like me to come forward, so they could show their pen-wielding, pensioned, job-sharing boss how busy they were.

Well, I didn’t take their suggestion forward.

You see, if I’m going to do something I believe in, sure as Hell is red and fiery, I am not going to bleed my fellow tax-payers to fund my chosen means to soothe my conscience.

No way. I’ll pay for it myself.

I also didn’t linger over Sunday lunch because my dear and anxious wife quickly pushed me towards the door before the pudding could be served, which otherwise I might have thrown.

But I didn’t stop thinking about this problem either, this problem of the young and unemployment, and what it was that I – a stained glass painter – might do.

Pity is: it took me so long to find the answer.

But I got there: I got there in the end.

And no grants either.

Do you know the most important thing? It was … teenage common sense and teenage stubbornness, which would not let the adults make another mess of things.

The electrician’s tale

Now the first step was, I realised how my first idea was … rubbish.

I mean, honestly, I’m nearly 55: I have less fashion sense than Walter Matthau: I’ve no idea how teenagers think – or feel.

So what sheer madness possessed my soul and made me imagine I might just walk into a classroom – even if the school allowed me – and ‘inspire’ young people with the pleasures of thrift, self-determination and hard work?

Oh my dear paws, you must think me mad!

Absolutely mad.

And you’d be right.

But that’s always the first step, isn’t it? Once you’ve had your big idea and got excited, you have to settle down and kick it into shape.

So, a few months later, our kiln broke down, and David rang our electrician and got him to call round to fix it. And we were all talking about work, when George – the electrician – said it was that time of year when he took children from the local school and gave them … work-experience.

You will understand how my ears pricked up.



Here where we are, and maybe it’s the same where you are, an employer is allowed to take on teenagers for a couple of days and … give them an experience of the work they do,

So I thought: maybe that’s what I could do?

And I said:

“George, what’s it like?”

“Oh,” said George, “It’s awful. I just do it because, you know, I want to do something …”

“Awful?” I said. “What do you mean, it’s awful?”

And George explained.

So he’s a brilliant electrician, runs his own small business, employs six staff, offers a wonderful service across the county.

But when it comes to work-experience, his hands are tied.

Yes, when the children come on work-experience, the school’s instructions are, the kids are absolutely not to do anything, they must just stand around and watch all week.

Just stand and watch.

Now I understand how electricity is dangerous.

But George is a professional.

He’s fully qualified.

He even has children of his own, so he knows precisely what the score is.

But all the same, despite all this, George the professional, hard-working, child-rearing electrician – George is not allowed to ask his school-assistants even to hand him a roll of electric tape.


His school-assistants can only stand and watch.

Stand and watch.

Stand and watch all week.

And that, my dear friend, that is the experience of his work – his fine, professional work – which George is permitted by the school to give.

Now I don’t know about you but that would drive me crazy, being watched all day. And what – I ask you – would it do to the poor, restless, eager children? How could I do this to them?

Remember that the prime directive of any busy studio is: join in, don’t stand around, find out ways to help and make a difference. Even if it’s just sweeping up. Just never ever stand around.

Yet here’s the system and the school and the State insisting that these kids’ first experience of real work is: unreal, pampered, indulgent, undemanding … safe.

Nice in name, ridiculous in content: you’ll not be surprised when I tell you, work-experience was decidedly not for me because I didn’t have it in my heart to inflict such boredom on a child …

My brilliant idea

And then it came to me.

A flash of inspiration.

A brilliant idea.

A certain, sure-fire way to help.

Though the schools would certainly withhold permission for their students to engage in real, actual work, being schools themselves, they could scarcely object to my teaching them to paint.

Yes, that’s what I’d do.

I’d teach the kids.

After all, people travel from all over the world to learn glass painting with me and David here at Stanton Lacy.

So certainly it’s something we can do.

Something unique and valuable.

course – a hard-working, full-time, intensive training course with us. That’s what I’d give. And now I was really pleased with myself. I mean: really pleased. I’d had – I was convinced – a fool-proof idea of pure and utter genius.

My first step was, I contacted a school, spoke to the art teacher who was very, very keen, and he spoke to his students who were absolutely thrilled, and …

And then … time came to get permission.

Yes, permission from the authorities which control our children’s attendance at our schools.

And they said …

“Yes, but …”

“But what?” I asked.

“Yes, but you’ll need to be inspected by ‘the Healthy & Safety’.”

“You must be joking,” I said.

“No,” they said. “If you’re not inspected and corrected, the school could lose its funding.”

“What?” I exploded.

Now you can imagine how I was almost back to the colourful language of that Sunday lunch.

And you can see why, can’t you?

It’s because you know the inspection would find something … lead, the palette knives, the steps upstairs … Of course they would. It’s their job. Their paid job.

Are you strong enough to hold a fire extinguisher?

Now maybe you think I was being unduly bitter here, but have I told you about the fire inspection the studio is obliged to have each year?


OK, so each February, a fireman calls round – a real, dressed up fireman: very smart he is. And he checks our two fire extinguishers, which is fine: makes sure the pressure’s right and the pins are working: also fine.

But each year he qualifies his sign-off. Five years he’s come, and five years we’ve never got a clean bill of health.

Want to know why?

In the fireman’s view, our extinguishers pose a risk.

Want to know why?

It’s because both extinguishers are on the ground and someone might hurt his back by bending down and picking them up.

OK, yes, there’s a fire, a real fire, and the fireman is worrying about the outside possibility me or David might do ourselves a mischief bending down?

Ummm … you do know, we’re fairly fit? Like, we lift lead-boxes and climb scaffolding, move around all day. And you’re really worried about us picking up a fire extinguisher?


Anyway, like I say, this is a busy, working stained glass studio, so if the fireman won’t sign us off, then certainly the Health & Safety would find an enormous list of things.

Or … maybe they wouldn’t …

Now have I ever told you this?

This is just amazing so do come closer and listen carefully …

The health & safety expert does their worst …

You see, some years back, the studio was inspected. That’s right. Eight years ago, the government sent its Health & Safety forces in and did their best to bring us to a standstill.

They spent two hours going round the studio. Two hours when neither of us could get on with any real work because we had to be on hand to answer questions. And then we had a meeting for another hour. So a whole morning. A whole morning for inspection. Plus the letters afterwards … the Inspector had a great time.

After all, we have a lovely studio.

But, all for the good, eh?

Because they didn’t find a thing.

Not a thing.

OK .. that’s a lie.

Sorry: I told you a lie.

Of course they found something.

Can you guess what it was they found?

It was … our Accident Book which caused the problem.

Yes, our Accident Book.

By law you have to have an Accident Book in which you write down dates and details about any accidents you have, and what you’ve done to make things better.

Well, our Accident Book was … on a shelf.

Yes, on a shelf.

This meant it wasn’t locked away.

This meant it wasn’t private.

This meant – a serious offence – our privacy was infringed.

Our privacy.

So David would know about the accidents I had. And I would know if he ever cut his finger.

And this was a full-scale Health & Safety check.

 “Would we please take steps to lock it up, this public Book of Accidents, and make it private?”

Like hell we would!

And now do you see why the school’s insistence on a Health & Safety check was never – ever – ever – going to come to anything?

What a waste of public money that would have been.

No way could I allow it.

After all: not just the fireman but also the Health & Safety expert had already done their worst. No way would I give away more time of my time to another clipboard-wielding clerk who would probably warn against the use of glass paint on account of the fact it’s made from dust. You see, I know our place is safe as it can reasonably be (except for fire extinguishers and the accident book, of course).

All the same, the school authority would not give way.

The teenagers were forbidden leave to come.


And so it was that the poor students – young, keen and desperately in want of decent work-experience (not just standing round and looking for goodness’ sake) – were caught between squabbling adults who really should have chosen to set a good example …

A happy ending

But do you know what?

May I tell you what?

The children said:

“Hang the regulation! hang the prohibition! we’ll come all the same – we’ll come in our holidays so the school is out of it.”

This was their decision. Unprompted. Freely taken.

And that’s exactly what they did.

Yes, these three teenagers came in their own time. Outside of school. They worked hard. They learned a lot. They paid attention. Not a single yawn or text message or Tweet or Facebook status update from start to finish. They painted some lovely pieces. They were exhausted at the end of it.

These three teenagers did themselves proud. They also proved to me and David how they could draw and paint and work as hard as any obsessive-compulsive glass painter could wish …

So, as always, it comes down to you, dear listener.

Who would you rather believe?

The ill-informed pundit who listens to the media and endlessly repeats how the world is coming to an end?

Or the fanatical, over-worked, mad-eyed glass painter who will not go one minute without mixing his paint, who is delighted – surprised … but delighted – when he encounters three young people who have the good manners and capacity for attention to do the same?

Your choice.

Unlike the fool I mentioned at the start, the one who wrote to me to say the bankers and politicians have messed things up completely, yes, unlike him, I hope you believe in the goodness of the future and the talent of our youth. It certainly makes it easier to work more peacefully if you do.

Truth is, the world contains too many souls who don’t like the work they do. But you don’t have to be like that yourself. You – you can count your blessings and take quiet, focused pleasure in all your lines and shadows.

Until next time!

Go well!

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