Having been advised to bring along a photo of someone I ‘love, admire or cherish’ and wear clothes I ‘don’t mind getting messy’, I’ve turned up for my mystery course at City Lit in Covent Garden somewhat anxious, a bit scruffy – and incredibly curious. ‘Can anyone guess what we’ll be doing?’ asks our host David Monteith – one of City Lit’s drama teachers – as we hover by the wine and nibbles. ‘Painting?’ someone offers up, followed by a prediction of pottery. It’s neither, we discover, as we’re led up a staircase and down a corridor to the school’s sculpture studio.
Set up in 1919, City Lit is now the largest adult learning centre in Europe. And, unlike colleges such as The School of Life (which specialises in lessons in dealing with the challenges of contemporary life), or The Idler Academy (whose courses promote arcane skills and near forgotten trades), City Lit has built up and multiplied its subjects to an astonishing choice of 4,000. One of which is the subject of each Curious Course – an hour-long, one-off introduction to anything from creative writing to sign language or interior gardening. It’s surprisingly fun to throw yourself blindly into something, ready to really get your hands dirty. Quite literally in this case. As I tie on an apron and consider the hefty block of clay slumped on the workbench in front of me, our tutor Alex Harley talks us through ‘relief sculpture’, a sort of raised picture, examples of which (such as ‘The Battle of Copenhagen’ at the base of Nelson’s Column) are found all over London. I’m not aiming for anything that elaborate, but I roll out my clay and start tracing an outline of my mother and dog with a pin. Next to me, someone is also sculpting a dog, but hers resembles a Rottweiler, while mine’s more like a lumpy, waxed mole.
Amateur attempts aside, the atmosphere is light and people are clearly having fun. Plus, the ticket fee goes towards City Lit’s bursary fund for low-income students and we’ve all been introduced to a skill we’d never considered before. For the next course, the cryptic instructions are to keep your fingernails short, remember your glasses and take a camera or cameraphone if you want to share your new found skill with your friends. My ambiguous clay blobs probably don’t justify a career change, but now my curiosity has been roused, I’m hungry for more.
The next Curious Course takes place on February 18 at City Lit, 1-10 Keeley St, WC2B 4BA. £8 (booking essential). For info, see citylit.ac.uk.