When I spoke at the awards last November I talked about the amazing and precious heritage of the WEA and the way the WEA today “stands on the shoulders of giants”. I was reminded of this when I was invited to a production of the Pitmen Painters at the Curve Theatre in Leicester with the first cohort of WEA Ambassadors. It was a moving and inspirational occasion and I am very grateful for the team who organised it and to John Swinfield-Wells whose idea it was to have a WEA event at this venue.
The whole story of the Pitmen Painters is as relevant today as it was in 1936 when the play was set. The backdrop was a working class mining community in Ashington, County Durham. The main characters were deeply rooted in their community and had an impressive dignity laced with a strong sense of humour. Lee Hall, the playwright and author of Billy Elliot, shows the epic struggle of ordinary working men and women, to make sense of their lives and rise above the day to day drudgery and to express themselves in art.
At the same time it is a glorious mix of humour and pathos describing the way the WEA teaching and learning activity works as well as the rules and restrictions of the WEA movement at the time. The tutor is on a massive learning curve as he has to adapt his approach to the group’s learning needs without patronising them. What shines through is the spirit of the men, their talent, and determination to make something of themselves. Some of that spirit is in danger of being crushed as we struggle to build a civilised and inclusive society in 2013.
Lee Hall has managed to capture the spirit of the times and the essence of the WEA in an amusing and serious way. The audience was enthralled – and so were our ambassadors. It could not have been a better advertisement for our movement. For everyone who has not seen the Pitmen Painters it is a must see! This is a play that has travelled from London to Broadway and is currently on tour in the UK.
On a completely different note, but with the same theme last week was also a very sad one for many of in the WEA who remember Eddie Conway. He sadly died on Thursday following a relatively short illness.
Eddie worked for the WEA in the North Western District in his early career and subsequently became a lifelong supporter and stalwart of the Association. He served in many capacities holding representative and officer positions in the Cheshire, Merseyside, and West Lancashire District, in the North West Region, in the National Association and internationally in IFWEA. Latterly he served as the Association’s Vice President before returning to serve a final term on the North West Regional committee. He stood down from that position at the last AGM.
Eddie was a lovely, genuine man with a strong social conscience and a warm, self-deprecating sense of humour. He embodied the WEA’s core values. We will indeed miss him and send sincere sympathy to his family.
Greg Coyne attended the funeral for the WEA, and Colin Barnes our President was able to visit him while he was ill. Our fond remembrances of Eddie will outlast him and our thanks for the part he played in the WEA.
As we develop our strategy and plans going forward we are constantly reminded of the historic significance of the WEA, our roots and values and our most committed friends and supporters. They are the WEA.