Sometimes I marvel at how far I’ve come. The young lad who’d never eaten out in a restaurant (though he’d done 16-hour shifts in a seaside café) before coming to London at the age of 19, and who thought that a sit-down kebab in Turnpike Lane was a mark of sophisticated living, now thinks nothing of going to the theatre a couple of times in a week, has membership to both the Barbican and the Tate, and can talk conceptual art with the best of them (though maybe not with his old schoolmates). Dammit, I even write about it all.
My mum and dad always understood how education matters; my mum even managed to pull off the feat of training to be a teacher and bringing up three kids (when we were old enough to do at least a few things for ourselves) simultaneously. But it was always more in the sense of it giving you some kind of economic security in life – an opportunity of ending that dependence on ‘pits, pots and steel’ for employment that limited (and when those industries closed, blighted) so many lives in my hometown of Stoke-on-Trent. Like most people from ordinary sorts of backgrounds, I grew up in a cultural desert. The very idea of art and culture was something that belonged to them – the upper classes, nobs, southerners, snobs, all of whom were conflated in our resolutely proletarian provincial eyes.
You internalise a disdain for that which you have been denied. The object of potential desire is transmuted into an object of contempt. And so it is with ‘high’ art and culture.
That’s something that Lee Hall, who wrote Billy Elliot and whose Pitmen Painters is currently showing at the National Theatre, understands both intellectually and emotionally. Pitmen Painters, which premiered at the Live Theatre in Newcastle in September 2007, is the story of the Ashington Group of (mainly) miner-painters, who started off by hiring a Newcastle University lecturer to deliver a Workers’ Education Association class on art appreciation and finished up painting their own working-class niche in art history.
The group became famous not only for its art – vibrant, non-nonsense representations of ordinary working-class life by ordinary working men (no women in the WEA in those days) whose harsh lives encompassed two world wars and a seamless cycle of six-day weeks at the colliery – but also for the fact that they remained avowedly ‘non-professional’. They continued with their jobs at the pit, or in one case as a ‘dental mechanic’, even when one of their number was offered a stipend (‘What the bloody hell’s a stipend?’) to give up work and paint full time. They operated as a collective, and any money they made from the sale of their paintings was paid into the group’s funds to cover the cost of materials and other expenses.
These were men who were not unknowledgeable about their subject, for all that Lee Hall’s play enjoys some laughs at the expense of their lack of learning. (‘Let’s see – Titian.’ ‘Bless you.’ ‘Leonardo is perhaps the acme of the entire Renaissance.’ ‘I thought you said he was a painter.’) ‘We’re not thick, you know – well apart from Jimmy,’ says one of the pitmen painters, George Brown. ‘We’ve just done evolutionary biology.’ ‘Most of wi left school when we were eleven, so there’s a lot of things we divvint knaa,’ says Oliver Kilbourn, who was to become one of the best known members of the group and was the one who turned down the stipend from the art collecting aristocrat Helen Sutherland. ‘But that’s why we come here – to find oot about the world.’ In later years, as Hall comments in his programme notes, they were to write knowledgably about Cézanne and Picasso and were ardent devotees of Turner, Ruskin and Blake.
‘Quite clearly, the working classes of the early part of the last century were aspirational about high art,’ writes Hall. ‘They not only felt entitled, but felt a duty to take part in the best that life has to offer in terms of art and culture. That 50 years later I could write Billy Elliot, a story about the incomprehension of a mining community towards a similar aspirant to high culture, seems to me some sort of index of a political and cultural failure.’
Hall says that the fact that the Ashington Group achieved so much unaided and unabetted ‘should remind us that dumbing down is not a prerequisite of culture being more accessible. That is a lie perpetuated by those who want to sell us shit.’ I think it’s more than that. It is a reflection of that poverty of aspirations that does as much, if not more, to keep ordinary working people down as any material poverty. And it is a denial of the opportunity for all of us to achieve something transformative in our lives, whoever we are and in whatever circumstances we find ourselves, and to experience the numinance of art (a word, incidentally, that Hall uses in Pitmen Painters but appears as a noun in few dictionaries and gets only 47 mentions on Google) – basically its spiritual essence, the thing that moves us, that transcends the everyday and the ordinary.
There is a hugely uplifting conclusion to the first act of Pitmen Painters in which the actors deliver a shared crescendo of lines, each speaking a quick phrase or sentence in turn, starting with their experience of a visit to the Tate Gallery; taking in the notion of art not being about money or ownership but about something shared, something cherished; capturing the idea of the force, the energy, the spirituality, the creativity, the inspiration of art; and concluding with the sense of art as something that you do rather than something you consume. ‘You can take one set of things – some board, some paint, whatever. You can take this one set of things – and you can make them something else. Whatever your circumstances – rich or poor … And that is what is important about art. You take one thing – and you make one thing into another – and you transform – who you are.’
It doesn’t have to be painting. It can be poetry, music, film, theatre, dance, football (why not?) or any number of other outlets for the creativity, inspiration and artistic accomplishment and appreciation that lies within us all. Pitmen Painters should be performed at every underachieving working-class comprehensive in the country as an inspiration to those who might need a nudge to appreciate the existence of a world beyond that of Big Brother and celebrity culture; and to every single one of the shabby heirs to the labour movement that gave us the Ashington Group as a reminder not just of what has been mislaid along the cultural way but of how much might be achieved if only we put our minds to it.
Paintings by the Ashington Group were sold at exhibitions to raise funds for materials and running the hut in which the painters worked, but those that were regarded as the best were kept for the ‘permanent collection’. Most of the 86 paintings in this collection can now be viewed in a specially designed gallery at Woodhorn Colliery Museum, Queen Elizabeth II Country Park, Ashington, Northumberland NE63 9YF (Tel: 01670 528080)