- As their fame grew they were variously patronised
and encouraged by the art establishment, whotempted 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.
OH, AND BY THE WAY. I SHALL BE LIVE AT THE EDEBOOKFEST ON THE FACEBOOK PAGE AT 8PM TONIGHT. BE THERE.