The Pitmen Painters and a brief dawn by Dennis Hamley

Two weeks ago we went to the Oxford Playhouse to see a touring production of The Pitmen Painters by Lee Hall.  It was brilliant.  It blew us away and I've been thinking about it ever since.   You'll know the situation.  In 1935 a group of working men in Ashington had been attending a WEA class on Evolution but weren't satisfied with it so turned to Art Appreciation instead.  A tutor arrived from Newcastle, Robert Lyon.  He started by showing slides of Old Masters, which didn't please his audience so, out of desperation, he suggested they should produce their own art, starting with lino-cuts and then moving on from there. Which they did, magnificently. Below are three of their paintings

  1. As their fame grew they were variously patronised 
    and encouraged by the art establishment, who 
    tempted some of them with money and fame.  But 
    members of the group stayed true to themselves, 
    painted what they saw in their lives round them and 
    stayed together as a dedicated,united  group.  And 
    Robert Lyon stayed with them.

There was so much in the play that was memorable.  But for me, perhaps the most inspiring speech was Lyon's at the end.  He had long since ceased teaching them: he was more part of them, a mentor from afar.  But he made a wonderful statement about their achievement; that creativity and aspiration was for everybody and not the prerogative of the few, that it was liberating, expanded the soul and was everyone's birthright.

Among so much else, two things in particular stood out for me. First, that Lyon's speech was made after the end of the Second World War, that brief time (which I remember well and could in some way recognise its significance, though I was only ten) when it really seemed as though society could be whole, inclusive, united, sharing its best values equally.  Second, a note in Lee Hall's comparison with Billy Elliot, which he also wrote -  in 1945 a group of working-class men had found the liberation that art and culture can give and saw that the whole of society might be able to share it. Yet in 1984 Billy's aspirations to engage with that culture at a high level were rejected by the next generation of the very people from whom  the Pitmen Painters sprang, who were being defeated in the most divisive and damaging dispute of the post-war years which set the seal on the very different society we seem to be living in now. Lee Hall wondered where the vision of the Pitmen Painters had gone. What happened to our society in those forty short years?

There's a phrase which I heard very often when I was a boy: 'That's not for the likes of us.'  I believed it when I first heard it; it seemed obvious because that's how the world was.  The older I grew, the more it repelled me because though that's how the world now seems to be once again, I see no reason why it should.  Its present state has been willed by people who don't want to have a fair society.  'The likes of us.'  I still hear that deadening phrase and it still makes me intensely depressed.  

Well, I'm not a politician.  Only once have I belonged to a political party and that's only because I donated some money to the Labour campaign in 1997 and was given a year's free membership as a reward.  I didn't renew it when my year was up: I'd cottoned on early that this wasn't the Labour Party I remembered from my youth.   And not being tied to any one set of plans and prejudices, I can take an independently critical view of the society we live in and attempt to understand its implications.

I tried to do this in my novel Out of the Mouths of Babes.  You'll find this as a freeby in the Goody Bag Cally is offering as part of the Edinburgh Independent Ebook Festival and when that's over I shall be publishing it on Kindle.

On the back cover of the first printed edition (Scholastic 1997) I wrote: 'Some things in society I don't like.  This story is my attempt to understand them.'

The cover of the original edition.  Not bad, but wait till you see the new one by Anastasia Sichkarenko

Well, I did have a real go at understanding them.  I'm not going to talk at any length about the book because that's all dealt with as part of its launch on the Efest,  It's enough to say that this story of three people born on the same day, one a rich boy born to money and position, another born to poverty and deprivation and a girl born to aspiration whose lives meet and mesh in unforeseen ways taught me a lot about people and how much there is that is good in them - all three.   But what I found out about our society and the way it works was depressing indeed.

This was meant to be a healing story.  About half-way through, I realised that it couldn't possibly be.  Sixteen years ago, the original ending seemed to be right.  When I came to look at it again, I realised it was anything but.  It was a nothing, a non-event. As it stood, the book was obsolete.  There were going to be consequences, long term effects carrying the story all the way through to the present day which I had to explore.  So I wrote three completely new chapters which trace these possible consequences, something which only reissuing old books yourself can enable. Does it come to a conclusion about our society?  Of course it doesn't.  It simply tries to do the only thing which any of us can do; plough our own little furrow and make our own statements.

Which is exactly what the Pitmen Painters did.  And they will never be forgotten.



Lydia Bennet said…
Dennis, great post as ever. Loved your 'ghost post' too! Re Pitmen Painters, this is in my neck of the woods - for anyone interested to know more about the Ashington group, William Feaver's Pitmen Painters (carcanet I think) is the definitive book, still possibly available. There were other groups in the area- eg Spennymoor: for a living Pitman Painter, look up Norman Cornish, now over ninety, still painting or was when I interviewed him in 2010 for my book Changing Age Changing Minds (publ. Ncl univ). There are lots of books about him and examples of his long career as an artist who spent 30 years down the pit.
Kathleen Jones said…
Your post almost made me weep Dennis, because you've put your finger on one of the turning points of post-war society - a downward turn that will have terrible consequences for all of us. The Pitmen Painters are very fresh in my mind because I'm writing about one of their patrons, Helen Sutherland - a P&O heiress who patronised lots of artists, both elite and working class - Winifred and Ben Nicholson, David Jones, Kathleen Raine, Percy Kelly etc as well as the subject of my new biography Norman Nicholson. Took me into the territory of the Quaker Settlement Projects which were an attempt to provide education and aspiration for industrial wastelands and their disadvantaged inhabitants. What happened to it all?
Dan Holloway said…
Wonderful post. "Things like that don't happen to people like me" sometimes feels like it's written indelibly through my bones, and when that's the case it's so so hard to see how the world could ever be any different
CallyPhillips said…
Just caught this a bit late - been a bit busy lately! Interesting to see what Lee Hall's up to (I know what you're up to of course Dennis!!) I still think his Spoonface Steinberg is one of the finest things written EVER. As radio, on stage or even on TV. Or indeed as a script. The message transcends the medium if the writing is good enough methinks.
Dennis Hamley said…
Val, that's fascinating. I've made a note to look for the William Feaver book: it must at least be around on Amazon Marketplace. And I shall also buy yours. It sounds brilliant. Kathleen, the situation we have now makes me want to weep as well. Helen Sutherland was portrayed very sympathetically in the play and her offer to Oliver was a fair one. She wouldn't understand his struggles in not knowing what to do about it. Ben Nicholson at first appears as an upper-class fop - until you listen to what he's saying about art. There's a conclusion to be drawn there too. By the way, did I tell you that we visited Katherine Mansfield's memorial in Menton?
Dennis Hamley said…
Thanks, Dan. That's how I feel most of the time. I'm so lucky to have been given my chance before the concrete set.
Lydia Bennet said…
I shall send you a copy of the book Dennis. it's about older people , challenging stereotypes of ageing, with masses of great stories from older people of all types of states of health and independence. Norman, famous artist at 91 as he was at publication, is such an achiever. his story about his first day down the pit as a boy is amazing.
fb msg me your address dennis.
Bill Kirton said…
Wonderful post, Dennis. Thanks for recalling and restating those post-war values that held so much promise - and not just as a reaction to what we'd just been through but as a promise that things would get better. Well, yes, in many ways they have, but we've lost an awful lot too. It's good to see that, for plenty of us, they're still remembered and hope hasn't been totally crushed.
julia jones said…
Actually, speaking as someone who worked almost 10 years for the WEA I KNOW that education does still offer people the opportunity to change their lives. Of course the years immediately post WW2 could be seen as the WEA's finest hour (can't remember the stats of members of the Atlee govt who had WEA connections but they're impressive). Pitmen Painters - magnificent achievement BUT the point is they were exceptional as a group. Most successes are small and individual but still real and worthwhile.
Dennis Hamley said…
Yes, Julia, the WEA was one of the most significant movements of the 20th century and is still going strong. I was always very interested in concepts like Coleridge's Clerisy, Matthew Arnold's Aliens and even Leavis's Discriminating Elite because I felt that paradoxically the concepts behind them - even Leavis's - influenced its setting up. I have just one slight cavil about the Pitmen being exceptional as a group. Yes, they were, but they were indiduals too. It's amazing to me that so many huge talents from a small town could gather one evening in a draughty hall in Ashington, especially when they had no idea that they WERE talented. It says so much to me about individual fulfilment and the discovery of what lies inside each one of us. Perhaps the group was simply the stimulus they needed for the self-discovery. Or the inspired teacher like Robert Lyon. I think that's why the way he was presented in the play attracted me so much. I felt he was the sort of teacher I aspired to be, helping to bring the talent out rather than pushing the information in.
Bill Kirton said…
A friend of mine, Nigel Deacon, runs an eclectic website which includes a comprehensive overview of radio drama. He wrote to say how much he enjoyed the post and sent links to the notes of Lee Hall's radio version of the play and to another play on the subject, Walpamur and Plywood by Alex Ferguson.
Dennis Hamley said…
Thanks Bill. I will follow these through. And thank Nigel for me please.

Popular posts

A Few Discreet Words About Caesar's Penis--Reb MacRath

A writer's guide to Christmas newsletters - Roz Morris

Irresistably Drawn to the Faustian Pact: Griselda Heppel Channels her Inner Witch for World Book Day 2024.

Author Newsletters by Allison Symes

Margery Allingham and ... knitting? Casting on a summer’s mystery -- by Julia Jones