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Posts Tagged ‘Pitmen Painters’

I read Patrick McCabe‘s ‘The holy city‘ (Faber, 2009) twice because it’s one of those books that skips about in time – basically small town Ireland, when narrator CJ McCool was born, twenty odd years later, and pretty much now – and it was good enough for me to want to see what I’d got right and what I’d missed first time around.  Because you have to tease what actually happens out, or, should I say … McCabe is a big tease.  But he’s an entertaining one, mind, for all that this is a deeply disturbing novel.  CJ has a deceptively light voice – ok, blarney – as he tells his tale (or gives hints thereof) and comments in passing on quite a lot.  Not least the two-edged liberating effect of the ’60s – a pop ’60s featuring Herman’s Hermits‘ ‘No milk today’ and Clodagh Rodgers as well as Ray Davies, all clothes, Green Shield Stamps and no drugs – and the facelessness and potentially harmful nobody-interferes-anymore privacy of the consumerism bread of those ’60s.  Then there’s religion,  and the difference between Irish Protestants (this is south of the border, so no, not so much Paisley as W.B.Yeats without the poetry or mysticism) and Catholics, who actually have a life.  What else? – psychiatry, self-delusion, outsiderdom.  All this in just over 200 pages with big nods to James Joyce‘s ‘Portrait of the artist as a young man’ and Robert Louis Stevenson’s ‘A child’s garden of verses’, which I might take a look at.  If another McCabe falls into my hands at the right time I’ll certainly give it a look.  Two clinchers for me: he uses James Joyce’s un-clumsy dash punctuation for speech, and there’s a page about the typeface – it’s a Garamond.

A different kind of artist to be considered with ‘Pitmen painters: the Ashington Group 1934-1984‘ (Ashington Group Trustees, 1988), presumably the book that was the inspiration for the play i raved about a couple of months ago.  William Feaver‘s book inevitably covers a lot more than Lee Hall does in the play, although the latter makes it breathe more.  What started as a Workers Educational Association class in art appreciation in a pit village developed into far more as the group discovered the meaning of art for themselves by doing art.  As a working class group they inevitably attracted the political attention of the left, but they distanced themselves from the socialist realist schools, and from the middle class do-gooders idea of the working man’s misery, portraying and recording the life of a community with its own satisfactions and pride.  Sad little coda of them dying one by one, only two left using the hut at the end, the post-war world moving on.

There are a lot more illustrations of what the Group produced in Feaver’s book than were projected on stage in the play, and to tell the truth a lot of the interest is in the social and cultural history aspects – with the exception of Oliver Kilbourn’s output – than the works as such, though that was not really what they got out of it as a group.  That could well be described as their ‘art practise’.  That’s a phrase often used to justify much modern art today.  I think I know what the Ashington Group would have thought of the latest ‘show’ at Milton Keynes Gallery.  I can’t be bothered to waste words other than, oh, words like scandalous, waste of space, public money.  Feaver concludes:

“Art, the Ashington group found, isn’t an exclusive cult, someone else’s possession, and love of art isn’t escapism or false religion.  It’s the ability to identify, the ability to see.”

I would like to hope that was still so.  Little evidence on show last week for me in MK, a bunch of scaffolding, a load of record players all playing at once on the upper deck with pile of classical vinyl LPs scored from charity shops, not forgetting the videos of the ‘artist’ supervising the scaffolding going up.  (For what it’s worth, Tate Modern is one of my favourite places in London, so that’s not Daily Mail speak).

Spurious link to ‘A necessary end‘ … there’s an artist (one who paints) in the hippy commune – Maggie’s Farm – at the centre of the third in Peter Robinson‘s Inspector Banks mysteries (1989), which sees him broadening his canvas to take in the, um, alternative society and the death of a cop in a demonstration.  Dialogue is not one of Robinson’s strengths, and the politicos in this ring somewhat hollow.  In an abrupt change Banks, now has blues music in his car cassette stereo – kicks off with ‘Broke down engine’, no less – but we still haven’t met his wife and kids, away in London and his boss is still playing with his dry-stone wall.  They send someone up from the Met to take charge; the basic signifier that he’s a rotten apple is he drinks the evil keg beer Double Diamond (did that still exist in 1989? – surely lager had taken over?).  The actual denouement is a sad little tale, a neat twist.  A long way from:

“Oh for a nice English village murder, Banks wished, just like the ones in books; a closed group of five or six suspects, a dodgy will, and no hurry to solve the puzzle.  No such luck.”

Ah, intertextuality; that’s not a bad description of his previous novel.  The landscapes of North Yorkshire are further explored, and there’s an awful lot of pints get downed; someone should do a count across the whole genre – who’s the biggest drinker?


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The Pitmen Painters

And so to the theatre on Tuesday to see Lee Hall‘s play about the Ashington Group of artists, ‘The Pitmen Painters‘.  Head, heart and funny bone engaged mightily, I came out nostalgic for a socialist vision of people advancing together as a community to improve their living conditions and escape from poverty.  How did they/we blow it so badly from 1948, the year – as it happens – I was born?  Rhetorical question, really, when one considers a society besotted with ‘X Factor’, Simon Cowell, millionaire footballers (not forgetting the cultural legacy of their wives), with the Lottery becoming an abiding metaphor of individual aspiration.  The Ashington Group of artists developed from a Workers Educational Association art appreciation class in a Durham mining village, their thirst for education.  Inspired by a left-wing middle class university educated tutor, the men made waves in the art world but stayed together as a group, the most talented individual eschewing offers of patronage and an entrance into the art establishment, while the academic career of the tutor benefited from the association.  Lee Hall‘s play plays with the contradictions and asks many questions about art and its possibilities – the whys, wherefores and what-fors, its validity – and its relation to class, against a background of individual work and collective endeavour.  The morally multi-layered notion of selling out, so familiar an accusation in my generation, is given full play.  The various tensions within the group – the communist, the rulebook adherent, the degrees of respectability shown when the tutor introduces a nude model into a class – make for a rich weave of boisterous as well as thoughtful humour.  The cast is tremendous; true to the ideals of the class they took a collective bow (well, several well deserved bows, actually).  I emerged lachrymose (how come we never sang The Miners’ Hymn at school?) and full of reflected pride.  And the aforementioned regrets too, for now.

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