Theatre in Wales

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Clynes, Bevan, Skates: 100 Years of Labour & Culture

Theatre History

Politicians & the Arts , Wales and England , November 20, 2020
Theatre History by Politicians & the Arts The article of June 20th made mention that politicians were once also philosophers. If the likes of Burke, Balfour and Haldane are no longer in the position to campaign for office, Members of Parliament are still regular fiction-writers, Chris Mullin, Douglas Hurd and Cardiff-born Maurice Edelman in the lead. Culture is deep. It is not done now for leaders to be too expansive about culture in the way of the past. Remarkably the most candid and fulsome admission of enthusiasm for the arts in recent years has come from a public figure in Wales.

Many among the first generation of Labour's Members were steeped in literature. William Johnson (1849 -1919) was a former miner who was in the House of Commons from 1906 to 1918. “Knowledge is power”, he declared, “This wide range of study and reading broadened my mind and gave me that capacity for looking at both sides of a question, which is invaluable to a man in public life.”

Charles Duncan (1865-1933) sat for Barrow-in-Furness 1906 to 1918 and for Clay Cross 1922 to 1933. He urged his working-class companions to read the classics. “The unread man has a narrow outlook, and easily goes astray”, he said. “He is the sport of political tricksters and the tool for all knaves.”

J R Clynes (1869-1949) was Labour's sixth leader and a member of three Cabinets. As a child a trio of old men who were blind paid him threepence a week to read the newspapers to them. “Reading aloud was a new joy to me” Clynes recalled. “Then I began to feel the power of words; that strange magic which can excite multitudes to glory, sacrifice or shame. As blindly as my blind hearers, I began to conceive that these words that I loved were more than pretty playthings: they were mighty levers whereby the power of the whole world could be more evenly and fairly distributed for the benefit of my kind.”

Clynes started work in the local cotton mill at the age of ten. His foreman nearly sacked him, he said, for sneaking a look at “Paradise Lost” during a work break. John Ruskin was crucial for his generation. Clynes discovered Ruskin at the age of eighteen, reading and re-reading “the Seven Lamps of Architecture.” William Crooks (1852 -1921), Labour's fourth MP, cited Ruskin in support of the first legislation for pensions.

Ernest Bevin, who started work at eleven, said of his fellow Minister George Tomlinson (1890-1952), when he took on responsibility for museums and galleries: “Art has no greater friend than the Minister of Works. Because he began as a Lancashire cotton worker, he knows what it is to have a childhood without art.” Tomlinson used to study “Hamlet” over the looms.

Aneurin Bevan's mother lost the ability to read over the course of having ten children. His passion for books meant he could quote Nietzsche and discuss F H Bradley. He knew Kant's Categorical Imperative well enough to impress an Oxford scholar. His engagement with the arts extended to life. The Library he served had a budget of £300 a year in the 1920. “Nearly all the successes at the secondary school are children who use our library.”

His friends in London were diverse: Jacob Epstein, Matthew Smith, Constance Cummings, Will Dyson. As for the moving within culture it had a purpose. “The first weapon in the worker's armoury must be a strongly developed bump of irreverence”

And so to Wales in the current era. Ken Skates was in conversation with Cerith Matthias for Wales Arts Review in 2015. The degree of candour is remarkable.

“It’s probably worth me talking from a personal perspective on my view of the benefits of both arts and sport to give you an indication of where I’m coming from. I was the first person in my family to do A Levels, never mind about go to university, but when I got to university it was a completely different environment to that which I was used to. It’s a difficult transition age as it is, 18 to 21, you’re going from dependence to independence from effectively childhood to adulthood and within the context and pressures of going to university it led me to very quickly struggle in that environment and I struggled badly.

“I wasn’t diagnosed for years, it was basically a form of generalised anxiety disorder which physiologically is very similar to clinical depression. So, at university the problem that I found was that I didn’t know what it was that I had, all I knew is that I was constantly on edge and anxious and living in fear – not of anything in particular but of everything. It reached the point where I was really fearful that the only way to end whatever it was that was causing me to struggle so much was to effectively end life.

“But I never reached that point. What helped me through university, particularly in the first two years was drama. I auditioned for loads of productions and I was in at least 2 productions every term. Part of the problem was my identity and my belief in my competence was shattered and it was only through drama that I was able to maintain a belief that I was competent in something. It was through drama that I was able to get a sense of belonging and camaraderie with like-minded people.

“I think it was Oscar Wilde who said ‘Give a man a mask and you’ll find the true person’, and certainly I found that when I was rehearsing for a play or reading lines for a play or performing in a play I was at my most comfortable. To a great extent drama carried me through the first 2 years.

“ ... In the third year, because of the demands of being in the final year I didn’t perform in as many productions but what I did was take on more art and design, so I was constantly writing and constantly drawing and painting. Again it was only through being able to express what’s going on in your head either through the written word, or in my case it was often drawing, that I was able to really just relax and find an identity. During that most difficult time, that transition period, which is always tough for young people, drama and drawing largely sustained me.

“The arts can provide an invaluable mechanism for people to break out of isolation and for people to express their inner feelings. The arts provides a critical way of being able to get out whatever you’re feeling and to make good of it...

"I still draw. I design a lot...I also still write a bit. Actually, at university I wrote two and a half children’s books....not as a view to get published but as an outlet. Back then we didn’t really have many opportunities to get together with other writers of fiction, which is why I spent my time with other people participating in dramas.”

Sources: various, including Jonathan Rose “the Intellectual Life of the Working Class”, Michael Foot “Aneurin Bevan”. Clynes "Memoirs"

Illustration: J R Clynes

Ken Skates in interview on arts and culture April 2015

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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