New Internationalist

The Fire Still Burns

Issue 144

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ART [image, unknown] Working-class culture

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The fire still burns
There’s more to working-class culture than beer and strippers. Britain’s industrial North East has a century-old tradition of community festivals, and even today unemployment inspires pictures on walls and poetry in pubs. Chris Johnson investigates the battle to keep culture alive in the mining villages.

Clearing the tracks for a community arts project's mural in Swindon, UK.
Photo: John Drysdale / Camera Press

My grandfather died his home town’s reigning one-legged cycle champion. His cup stood fifty years on the mantelpiece -temporary home for pipe cleaners, pruning shears and cycle clip. So many returned from the First World War missing ‘a peg’ that winning had been no pushover. But interest waned by ‘22 50 Albert kept the cup.

Albert spent his working life a cobbler for the Co-op. They felt a duty to employ cripples. Synthetic throwaway shoes and advancing years made him and his craft obsolete. But he refused to be cast adrift by retirement. His first act - to rip up his front room floorboards and install an old vacuum cleaner engine to generate the ‘puff for the redundant chapel organ he’d picked up cheap. He loved his music - anything from boogie-woogie to Bach. Albert may have been missing a leg but no one would have thought to say he was not a whole man.

There’s a fashionable view that Britain is a cultural desert north of Watford. This in turn inspires a sense of mission among enlightened souls to bring culture to the masses. I simplify. But I want to show up the wrong-headedness. There’s no vacuum to be filled. An enduring culture sustained my grandfather - but it is under constant attack.

‘Oh don’t go down the Seghill Mine:
Across the mainway’s hung a line
To catch the throat and break the spine
Of the dirty blackleg miner.’

That 1844 ballad is being heard again. Grimethorpe in Yorkshire. scene of recent pitched battles between police and pickets, is most famous for its colliery band. Ashington, here in the North East, boasts a whole school of pitmen painters. They paint out the grim realities of pit life - and are labelled ‘primitives’ for their trouble.

Each year Durham City plays host to what was the greatest working-class festival in Britain - the Miners’ Gala. At nationalisation in 1947 there were a quarter of a million pitmen in the region - now it’s down to 23,000 and four more pits to go. Yet still the gala gives off shades of the Notting Hill Carnival and Rio’s Mardi Gras. Each village, men, women and bairns, marching proudly behind the colliery band and the pit’s union lodge banner. A sea of colour topped with sails of silk-painted hope. The banner’s watchwords preserved for each generation:

‘Unity is Strength’. A service in the cathedral, a fun fair, top Labour politicians up from London, dancing in the streets and the pubs open all day - a grand occasion.

‘Think what power lives within you,
For what triumphs you are formed;
Think, but not alone of giving
Health for self and soul for pay.'
Local poet William Brown at the first gala in 1871.

Historian Eric Hobsbawm speaks of an emotional charge of tremendous force’ released by the Industrial Revolution. What wonders were performed in adversity. They built a network of friendly societies, co-operative shops, mechanics’ institutes, trade unions, workingmen’s clubs, libraries, choral societies, the Workers’ Educational Association, and eventually the Labour party to give political expression to this vision of a better world.

Now that tradition is in retreat. Young women who sang in the Coop Women’s guild choirs and campaigned for a pure water supply to workers’ homes are grannies now, alone in their high rise flats, baffled by the collapse of the world they understood. Two world wars, mass production and the destruction of craft skills, schools permeated with middle-class values, slum clearance, television consumerism and an impersonal, means-tested welfare state have combined with cruel irony to smash their culture. There is little emotional capital left with which to face the new mass unemployment.

There’s no library at the club now - just beer and strippers. The party meetings are awash with small town self-interest and Polytechnic polysyllables. Kids sniff glue. The National Front recruit at the football ground. Graffiti the only art form.

‘No arts; no letters; no society; the life of
man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.’
Thomas Hobbes 'leviathan'.

Trapped on a jerry-built estate a £2 bus ride from nowhere people become passive. The muzak soothes. They’re stimulated only to buy. The betting shop and the pub the only ‘life’. For popular art has been hijacked by the salesmen. Your top fifty singles, your drink and cigarettes, your clothes and after-shave, the pulp paperback and latest cinematic blockbuster - they all have built-in obsolescence. They have to be bought and bought and bought again. You consume and are consumed.

‘All hopes are gathered together, made homogeneous, simplified,
so that they become the intense yet vague, magical yet repeatable
promise offered in every purchase. No other kind of hope or satisfaction
or pleasure can any longer be envisaged within the culture of capitalism.’
John Berger ‘Ways of Seeing’.

The only solution is to re-establish contact with that tradition which sustained my grandfather. And that’s just what’s been going on at a recent conference here in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne - the first systematic attempt anywhere in Britain to examine the challenge to the arts laid down by unemployment. Films, videos and photographs put together mainly by those out of work are documenting the experience of the 80’s and being set beside the artistic record of the depression experienced by fathers and grandfathers fifty years ago.

Day two of the conference looked at the explosion in the arts actually provoked by mass unemployment. Ironically, the unemployed - too poor to be effective consumers - are leading the way towards a rediscovery of popular self-made art. They are mobilising to break the strangehold of the culture of consumption.

More people are now learning to make films and videos, take photographs, write plays and poetry, perform them to their peers, to be critical, and spread the word round pubs, clubs and schools. They’re forming music collectives, painting vast murals in the inner cities and out on the estates, confronting racism and the conspiracy of silence over Northern Ireland, telling the truth about our exploitation of the Third World, drawing lessons from the experiences of ordinary people in Central America, and digging into their own past.

This surge of artistic energy is being officially backed by Northern Arts, the county and city councils and dozens of voluntary and community groups. These bodies are the regions only growth industry. Of course they wish to control things. The gays, feminists and left upset them. But when it’s unemployed school leavers doing the business - they’re nobody’s tame poodles for long. It’s not easy - this is cottage industry against the big combines. But it was always so.

Projects backed include a centre for the unemployed to the south of the region in Cleveland - ‘a dead-end drop-in’ for redundant steelworkers and school-leavers. Funding there enabled an enterprise involving sixty people actively working on a ninety-minute film. Astonishing skills were revealed. Confidence developed as well as management, organisational and artistic abilities. Life for those at the centre was revitalised. Many found they were able to get jobs or create their own work, aided by their newly-recovered self-esteem. All stemming from an artistic experience rather than the more narrow vocational schemes insisted upon by many government agencies working with the unemployed.

Another exciting and successful venture backed by Northern Arts is ‘Village Focus’. Depressed former mining villages - stripped of their economic heart - have been mobilised to put on their own festivals. A local legend. myth or piece of folklore is taken - something that is all ready part of the local consciousness - and worked upon for several weeks. Large- scale touring companies, such as Welfare State International, help in the preparation. A weekend 15 set up: it will involve drama, procession, fireworks, animation, puppets. and anything contributed by the locals around the theme.

The aim is to touch those things deep within all communities - the sense of festival, religious rite, ritual. It’s all part of the attempt to bring art out of the concert ball and gallery onto the streets and back into everyday life, to shrug off the general anaesthesia induced by technology, to actively create our culture rather than passively receiving it. Albert would have approved.

Chris Johnson, formerly a BBC Radio producer, lives in Newcastle-Upon-Tvne.


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