As a piece of art, it has been called ‘an idea of immense simplicity and great potency’.
Last week, Steve McQueen, the Turner Prize-winning artist and Oscar-winning director of 12 Years A Slave, filled London’s Tate Britain gallery with more than 3,000 classroom photographs of Year 3 pupils from the capital’s schools, in what he calls ‘a portrait of citizenship’.
Almost 80,000 children aged seven and eight from more than 3,000 schools — nearly 70 per cent of London’s total — are featured in the vast installation, which will run until next May.
Curator Clarrie Wallis said McQueen hopes to ‘instil a mindset’ in children that they can achieve anything — much like McQueen himself. Born in a working-class home in West London, he became the first black director to win a Best Picture Oscar.
Here, leading writers remember that special time in their lives.
Glee at Saturday TV, terror of tests
HARRY WALLOP, journalist and broadcaster
My youngest, Arthur, seven, didn’t want to go to Tate Britain. We bribed him with a burger.
His is one of the schools in the exhibition and to see his glee at spotting his school — though he was just too young to take part — was fantastic. I sensed he realises he is part of a vast, global city in a way I don’t think I did at his age.
I, too, grew up in London and was dragged to museums. But it was a sheltered childhood, of a nanny, crumpets for tea and Asterix comics. I’m not sure I was aware of a world beyond my street.
On the way to the Tate, Arthur lost a glove. Tears ensued. I was transported back to his age in 1981 — when life was magically exciting or stomach-churningly awful.
I would jump up and down with glee if allowed to watch Swap Shop in my pyjamas on a Saturday morning. But swimming lessons and spelling tests induced fear. A blissful time in many ways, but a lot of it was spent fretting. Have I passed that on, or are all seven-year-olds like that?
Harry Wallop, journalist and broadcaster: I, too, grew up in London and was dragged to museums. But it was a sheltered childhood, of a nanny, crumpets for tea and Asterix comics. I’m not sure I was aware of a world beyond my street
Running wild in the Aussie bush
KATHY LETTE, novelist
I grew up on a beach in Sydney, surrounded by the Australian bush. I was seven in 1965 and finally allowed to be with the older kids.
We’d run wild, rock-climbing, swinging off the mangrove trees, swimming, catching possums, lizards, snakes and the occasional echidna. As the sun set, we’d hear a parental ‘cooee’ call echoing across the bay, which meant it was time for a hot bath and an episode of Skippy on the black-and-white TV.
I dreamed of being a teacher and told stories to my dolls for hours. A blissful, adventurous childhood.
Couldn’t my mum and dad have at least tried to make me miserable occasionally, so that I’d now have something to write about?
Kathy Lette, novelist: I grew up on a beach in Sydney, surrounded by the Australian bush. I was seven in 1965 and finally allowed to be with the older kids
A trophy that changed my life
PETRONELLA WYATT, journalist and author
I was the introverted child of an extrovert father, Woodrow Wyatt, a writer, ex-politician and chairman of the Tote bookmaker. My glamorous mother presented the prizes at race meetings. At Newmarket in 1975, when I was seven, she pleaded a headache.
A loudspeaker announced that the trophy would be presented instead by ‘Miss Petronella Wyatt’. I climbed on to the platform like someone going to the scaffold.
A man in a raincoat, owner of the winner, took a silver object from me. As he shook my hand I saw on his face heartfelt appreciation, as if I were not a toothy, talentless child, but a swan among swans.
Next day, my photo was in The Sporting Life. The see-saw upended: I found confidence. I do not recall the winning owner’s name, but I would dearly like to thank him, or his family, for what he did for the seven-year-old me.
Petronella Wyatt, journalist and author: I was the introverted child of an extrovert father, Woodrow Wyatt, a writer, ex-politician and chairman of the Tote bookmaker
A rent increase . . . but we loved it
BEL MOONEY, novelist and Daily Mail advice columnist
Primary school remains vivid: crowded classrooms with narrow aisles between double desks, china inkwells, blackboard chalk thrown at naughty boys, crates of milk in the playground, bare knees mottled red and blue by long, snowy winters.
I was happy aged seven in 1953. The flirting and bullying of ten-year-olds hadn’t started; it wasn’t a crime to be top of the class.
Northway Primary was one of the best in Liverpool and my parents applied for a council house transfer so my brother and I would be in the catchment area.
It meant a large rent rise on the new-build flat, but Dad did overtime and Mum sewed all my clothes. I consider myself privileged beyond words to have had that childhood.
Bel Mooney, novelist and Daily Mail advice columnist: I was happy aged seven in 1953. The flirting and bullying of ten-year-olds hadn’t started; it wasn’t a crime to be top of the class
I longed to be a coach driver
JUSTIN WEBB, co-presenter of BBC Radio 4’s Today programme
In 1968, I was an utterly miserable seven-year-old. I lived in a broken home: Mum sad and anxious, a stepfather ill and distant.
The photo here is the only one from my childhood. You can see what fun it wasn’t: dressed formally on a visit to a lovely old lady we knew who lived near Yeovil.
I was relatively happy in this shot because we will have just eaten cake. But now a long journey home to Bath in a silent car. I remember sitting in the kitchen afterwards eating bread and crying. But on the best days, life was OK. Mum was enormously loving: my happiest memory was the coach trips we would take in the summer with a company called Roman City Coaches. I wanted more than anything to be a coach driver.
It never happened, though I did get to drive Kate Adie in an armoured truck in Bosnia when I worked as a war correspondent, so I guess it’s a dream half-fulfilled.
Justin Webb, co-presenter of BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: In 1968, I was an utterly miserable seven-year-old. I lived in a broken home: Mum sad and anxious, a stepfather ill and distant
Clarion call of distant war
MICHAEL COLE, former TV royal correspondent
Mr Sargeant was the only man in our close who owned a TV, but he did allow the children from the other 11 semis to crowd into his front room on Sunday afternoons to watch Muffin The Mule.
I wasn’t interested in Muffin: even in 1950 when I was a seven-year-old I wanted to see Television Newsreel, which came on after.
The Korean War broke out the same year; I was fascinated by names like Seoul and Busan and something called the 38th Parallel. I knew then that I wanted to be a TV reporter.
My mother voted Tory, my father Labour. My primary school asked us to draw a picture of life at home. I drew a cartoon of my parents talking round the kitchen table with a joint caption that had them saying: ‘If the Liberals get in, we’ve had it.’ It was displayed in the classroom. My parents laughed when they saw it.
Michael Cole, former TV royal correspondent: I wasn’t interested in Muffin: even in 1950 when I was a seven-year-old I wanted to see Television Newsreel, which came on after
Treacle pudding for school dinner
LIBBY PURVES, broadcaster and novelist
Walberswick village school had 50 pupils in two classes: the Little Ones with Mrs Brown and the Big Ones with Mrs Hargreaves (the first woman I ever saw with dyed hair: dark roots fascinated us).
Arriving in 1957 aged seven, I was with kind Mrs Brown, whose favourite exclamation was: ‘Goodness! Frogs on toast!’ We had school dinners cooked by Mrs List: her treacle pudding restored you after a session of BBC Music and Movement on the classroom radio.
I had started school in Bangkok where Dad was a diplomat, so this was quite a change. I could walk down the lane to school, make friends (Janet, Julie and Rita especially) and dodge rough boys. We did penny-for-the-guy and carols at Christmas.
One weekend I cut my knee and Mrs Brown popped out of her house and bandaged it. It was a cosy world.
Libby Purves, broadcaster and novelist: One weekend I cut my knee and Mrs Brown popped out of her house and bandaged it. It was a cosy world
Cricket, music and egyptology
DOUGLAS MURRAY, bestselling author
Here I am, aged seven in 1986, taking a ferry to France, leading the battle against flying years before Greta Thunberg stole the idea. Everything was exciting: a boat trip, a visit to a new place.
Looking at photos my wonderful mother has dug up I am reminded I was planning simultaneously on being a cricketer, an inventor, an Egyptologist, a musician and more. As well as opportunities, the world was filled with trepidation. Am I squinting because of the sunlight on the Channel or self-conscious at being photographed? I don’t know.
Seeing this picture for the first time in more than a quarter of a century reminds me of that strange sense we all get: it’s the same person, and someone utterly different.
Douglas Murray, bestselling author: Here I am, aged seven in 1986, taking a ferry to France, leading the battle against flying years before Greta Thunberg stole the idea
The mundane was magnificent
FLORA GILL, writer and freelance journalist
I recall big events from when I was younger (scraping knees and moving home), but in Year 3 — I was seven in 1997 — I remember the mundane. The joy of a new Groovy Chick pencil case. Running home to play the Sims computer game. It was the year you could accidentally call the teacher ‘Mum’ and get ridiculed mercilessly; when there was no better feeling than peeling PVA glue off your hands.
At seven, you want everyone to like you but you’ve yet to discover some never will. You start to play-act like the bigger girls. You’ve yet to understand it never gets better than the parachute game in PE.
Flora Gill, writer and freelance journalist: I recall big events from when I was younger (scraping knees and moving home) — I was seven in 1997
Farewell to unbridled bliss
A.N. WILSON, novelist and historian
I WAS seven when I went to boarding school in 1958. My mother was ill, mentally and physically, but not so debilitated that it made a relationship with her impossible.
My brilliant, sunny father was at the top of his game as a designer, artist and businessman. The dogs were well and happy. That was the world I left, to be carted off to the English equivalent of the gulag — a hateful place, run by two sexual perverts, vile food, appalling cruelties that still give me nightmares.
All the things I loved came to an end for six years when I entered that hell-hole. It has taken a lifetime to recover them. It seems I can remember every hour, every day of the blessed year before the nightmare began. After that, there are only garish flashbacks of horror, and a generalised sense of gloom.
A.N. Wilson: I was seven when I went to boarding school in 1958. My mother was ill, mentally and physically, but not so debilitated that it made a relationship with her impossible
Horses — and a donkey I still miss
ROGER LEWIS, Daily Mail book reviewer
I’m dressed as Andy Pandy in a fancy-dress competition at Machen Agricultural Show in industrial South Wales in 1967, aged seven.
My mother and Aunty Eileen made the outfit. You’d have expected me to become a flamboyant TV personality like Graham Norton or Larry Grayson; instead I became bookish and reclusive, sitting in the dark every afternoon watching Talking Pictures TV.
I was always showing off, filled with rage. Recently someone asked my mother, ‘What was Roger like growing up?’ and she said: ‘He was terrible then, and he’s worse now.’
I grew up with horses and dogs, and had a donkey called Emily. I still miss Emily. When she was demised, the Master of the Tredegar Farmers’ Hunt fed her to his foxhounds. My father owned the slaughterhouse in Bedwas, so it was perfectly normal.
Roger Lewis, Daily Mail book reviewer: I’m dressed as Andy Pandy in a fancy-dress competition at Machen Agricultural Show in industrial South Wales in 1967, aged seven (left)
I wanted to marry a farmer
CHRISTINE HAMILTON, media personality and author
I thought my life was mapped out when I was seven in 1956. We lived in the glorious New Forest, where my father was a GP. Passionate about horse-riding, I knew I would marry a farmer, have lots of children and even more animals. What could possibly go wrong?
I married my student sweetheart Neil Hamilton, who became a Tory MP, and spent a lifetime in politics with no children and no animals.
Life was carefree and devoid of health-and-safety rules. We fought the boys, I fell out of a tree and have a scar on my arm from a jagged and rusty iron bar. I was the hula-hoop champion and captain of rounders.
My best friend was Molly Rogers, a pretty girl with a bouncy pony tail who lived in a caravan with her single mother. I remember my mother was furious that, for this picture, no one had thought to straighten my collar.
Christine Hamilton, media personality and author: I thought my life was mapped out when I was seven in 1956