‘WEA? It stands for Workers Educational Association,’ I reply.

There is a moment of thought, and then Jackie says, ‘Does that mean you’re socialists?’

I smile and shake my head.  ‘We’re not a political organisation.  “Workers” were who the organisation was originally set up for, in 1903, so that they could access higher levels of education, and have the chance to improve their opportunities,’ I say.  ‘The title’s historical.’

Jackie wonders how she’s never heard about WEA before, if it’s been around so long.

‘It always surprises me how many people haven’t,’ I agree.

‘So what is it about now?’ says Jackie.

‘It’s still about improving lives,’ I tell her, ‘but that doesn’t necessarily mean economically.  It’s also about health and well-being, about keeping our minds active and enquiring, and getting us involved with our communities.’

I think about all the different sorts of classes I’ve been involved with since I started tutoring for the WEA over a decade ago.  As well as the Open Access Programme anyone can sign up for, there have been community groups set up for students with chaotic lifestyles, and disadvantaged backgrounds, where creative writing activities have provided a safe outlet for self-expression, and for some, has provided a first step  into employment or back onto the education ladder.

‘People come to classes because they want to learn, not because they have to,’ I say.  ‘That creates a real buzz in the room.’

‘So your students are still workers in the sense that they’re working at their education?’

‘I like that,’ I say.  ‘I might steal it.’

‘Help yourself,’ says Jackie.  ‘Can I keep this brochure?’

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Public Poetry

Here’s an interesting line of thought about the state of modern poetry. Something that might make us think about what we’re buying and what we’re reading.

Like This Press

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Robert Montgomery, installation at Bexhill-on-Sea, lit by recycled sunlight

When Oxford University Press decided, in 1998, to sell off its poetry backlist, begun in the 1960s, and to close its doors to new collections of contemporary poetry, a vigil outside the press’s offices was called by the Poetry Society and the MSF trade union branch. A louder and more direct response came from Alan Howarth, then junior minister in the department of culture, media, and sport. Howarth labelled the financial grounds of the decision ‘barbaric’ and argued that the dropping of the poetry list equated to an ‘erosion of standards’. ‘Has OUP not noticed,’ Howarth asked, ‘that in this day and age we have moved on from the heresy that everything should be susceptible to market forces, that everything should be for sale?’ It is hard to imagine such a statement coming from a government minister today.

At the time…

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You want to write? Dare to dream.

creating-charactersSitting on the decking at our Dartmoor holiday cottage, overlooking a verdant village, on a balmy September afternoon, I chatted across the fence with our temporary neighbour, Janet.  ‘You’ve got to enjoy your work,’ she said.  ‘I loved being a care assistant.  Going home at night knowing that you’d made at least one person smile that day.’

Janet’s a doer.  She’s just finished redecorating her hall, and is about to mow her lawn.  The garden is immaculate, and colourfully planted.  She’s always busy.  Tonight is quiz night, it’s, ‘a bit of a laugh, I go with my sister, she lives in the next village, so I pick her up.  She can’t get about much, with her hips.’

Janet’s a fiction, a character I’m putting together as I write.  She has a story I want to tell, but I don’t know it yet.  The things I do know are accumulating.  Some of them contradict what I thought I knew, and so I’m adapting my ideas.  For instance, her hair has fluffed out from short to long, from neat to artfully dyed and sculpted. Perhaps you think it doesn’t matter about something so superficial, and maybe I won’t be including that information in the final version of the story I write.  But I need to know it.

Janet is not a figment of my imagination, I’m dreaming her into existence.  I care about her, and the things that she cares about, and if I do this well, when I’m finished she may make you smile too.  This evening, when she comes out of the back door, in her black lace blouse, sharp black trousers and her neatly painted face, you will glance up from the Devon Life magazine you’ve been flicking through as you wait for your tea to barbecue, and wave.  ‘Good luck,’ you will call.

Janet will give a cheek-lifting smile, and hurry across the firm dry lawn to ask what’s cooking.  ‘Smell’s good,’ she’ll say, rising on tiptoes to look over the fence. ‘What are you planning for tomorrow?  Weather’s looking kind.’

She’s taking her granddaughter into Exeter in the morning, for a hearing test.  ‘But I expect I’ll see you in the evening.  Don’t get lost on the moor, or go shaking hands with any ghosts.’  Then she’ll adjust her hot pink pashmina around her shoulders and hurry down the garden to her honeysuckle covered car-port.  Her white blonde hair glows in the dusky shadows as she moves round to the drivers door.

From the decking we watch her drive out of the cul-de-sac and onto the narrow lane.

 

 

 

 

Our WEA heritage

wea-heritage-projectThursday evening I went along to Blackfriars Priory, where the latest exhibition of the South West WEA Heritage Project was being launched as part of the Gloucester History Festival.   What a lovely event.

blackfriars-gloucesterThe priory is a beautiful building, and the weather was perfect.  Sunlight slanted across the ancient stonework, and those heavy walls kept the air comfortably cool.

The Heritage project has raised some fascinating stories.  Essays, minutes of meetings, branch brochures and newspaper accounts and photographs have been tracked down in attics, cupboards and archives; memories have been jogged and research skills honed and practiced.  A map of the way the WEA has developed, expanded and adapted to suit the changes of the last one-hundred and thirteen years is building.

The stories have circulated.  Last week, for instance, I was told about classes being held in a railway carriage, during the home-going journeys of commuters.   Imagine that…

During the 1930s, the Gloucester WEA Branch had a separate Dramatic Section.  The one surviving Programme I’ve seen, for Four One-Act Plays to be performed on two nights in February 1937 had a cast of 26, 14 front-of-house and back-stage staff, plus an orchestra, under the direction of Arthur S. Morrell.  The background notes about the WEA Players says that in seven years they staged ’60 plays of varied types.’  That’s quite an achievement for a small city.

Those were different days.  To get back to that kind of commitment we don’t just need to remember times when there was no social media, we have to think about no tvs, and the majority of us relying on public transport, bikes and shanks pony.

A Minute book that survives for this group makes interesting reading, not just for the level of commitment the Players had, but also for the incidental references to events in the local area and occasionally, the wider world.

At the end of a meeting on March 8th 1939, Mrs Sparrow read a letter from Mrs Edwards, thanking the Players for their efforts on behalf of the food ship for Spain.

The thing I like about research is the way it invariably widens my horizons.  I’ve had to revise my cosy assumptions about The WEA Players, and think about what their engagement with world events suggests about the learning that was taking place.  In the programme notes for the Four One Act Plays the Players say:

To promote and develop a love for the Drama seems to be, in these days, not only worth-while, but very necessary.

The Study and performance of these plays also gives much satisfaction to the players, who are glad to think that they afford their friends an evening of pleasure and entertainment.

We would also bring to the notice of our audience the opportunities existing in the Worker’s Educational Association for the study of a wide range of subjects.  If you are interested…please leave your name and address with one of the stewards.

I think The Players would have ticked the six points of WEAs ‘mission’ today:

  • Raising educational aspirations
  • Bringing great teaching and learning to local communities
  • Ensuring there is always an opportunity for adults to return to learning
  • Developing educational opportunities for the most disadvantaged
  • Involving students and supporters as members to build an education movement for social purpose
  • Inspiring students, teachers and members to become active citizens

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Flax Golden Tales

Dermot Hayes, on Postcard from a Pigeon, invited me to join a story challenge this week.  Check out his blog for the story behind his project, and to see the flash-fictions it has inspired others to write.

book cover

Below is mine:

Maxine tests for the freedom of the road.

Maxi is at the locked side-gate of Cherry Close, a private housing complex. She’s been there ten minutes in the hot sunshine, with a parcel for S Jenkins, number eight.  The gateman, seated on the other side of an open window, has checked his computer, and Jenkins is in, but he’s not answering his buzzer.

‘Come back in an hour,’ the gateman suggests.

‘Then I’ll be late finishing. It’s my first day, and this is the last drop. Can’t you just take the parcel?’  Maxi smiles, trying to feel friendly towards this lump in a crisp blue shirt who’s leaning back on a swivel chair, basking in the breeze of a large fan. ‘I really need this job.’

The gateman shakes his head and looks Maxi up and down. ‘Show us some ID.’

The Courier badge she hands him is plastic, and has the company logo, and her name. He glances at it and waves it away.  ‘How do I know this is you?’

It’s a fair point, she doesn’t have a high-vis jacket, or a van with a logo, just a pushbike. She’s wearing the tidiest clothes she owns, but it’s hot, even without cycling four miles in the last two hours, through heavy traffic. Her black tee-shirt is sticking to her back, and her trainers are scuffed.  Maxi pushes her fingers through her shorn scalp.  The feather-cut was supposed to look cool and efficient, but the sun is burning the back of her neck, and her reflection in the side window shows flattened helmet hair.

‘Look,’ she says to the gateman, lifting up the brown paper parcel that feels like a small book. ‘There’s his name, and that’s the address. Could you just sign and give it him later?’

The gateman shakes his head. ‘Can’t do that,’ he says.  ‘It’s not legal, accepting someone else’s post.’

Course it is. ‘What’s not legal is opening it.’

The gateman sucks in a deep breath. ‘What company is it you say you work for?’ he says.  ‘I’ll ring them and check you out.’

‘I’m supposed to be proving I can do this,’ says Maxi. ‘Give us a break, can’t you?’ She looks through the bars at the semi-circle of identical doorways across the paved courtyard. Andy had said don’t bring anything back on the first day.  Leave it with a neighbour, even if there’s no instructions.  Get it delivered.

Fine, but she can’t even get to the neighbours. What’s she supposed to do, climb over the gate?  Get in.

She points at a door. ‘Is that eight?  I can run across and ring the bell.’

He snorts. ‘More than my job’s worth.’

‘I won’t even be out of sight.’

The gateman creaks sideways on his chair, he’s reaching for the window. ‘My job is to keep people like you out,’ he says as he slides the glass window across, then he gets up and walks away, through a door into the back.

Maxi’s head is starting to throb. People like her?

She turns the parcel over. What if she just stuffed it through the gate and left, what would he do, the moronic gateman?  Surely he’d have to take it then.  But what if he returned it to the office?  He would, she could tell he was that kind of bloke.  Her hand clenches round the parcel.  She’d like to fling it right through his bloody window, except it isn’t heavy enough to hurt.  If only there were something else lying about.

She rams the parcel into her backpack, and hears paper creasing, tearing. Tough, serves the stupid git right if it’s damaged.  The houses are small, how could S Jenkins not have heard the buzzer?  He was ignoring it.  That was it, he was sitting behind those blinds, too bloody idle and selfish to think about what his indifference meant.

Because Maxi is stuffed. Whether she takes a parcel back or she’s late, she’s failed.  Andy can’t help any further than this.  He got her the trial.  ‘Don’t blow it Maxi.’  Well she hasn’t bloody Jenkins has.  A book, a soddin’ book, she’s sure that’s what it is.

She sits on the curb by her bike and tips the bag up. Shakes it.  The parcel and her receipt list board fall into the gutter.  It’s a clean gutter.  No dust, or litter.  Not even leaves from the trees on the other side of the street.

There’s a small rip along one corner of the brown parcel. It is a book.  There’s a cartoon of two kids and a dog.  She tears the paper off: poems.  It’s not even important.  Not something to lose a job over.  She’s put weeks into getting this trial, saving for the bike, fixing it up,  learning the A-Z, taking her test, talking Andy into putting her name on the list.  Everything was going right.  Everything was good.

This is not fair.  She rams the book back into her backpack, gathers up the wrapper, and her receipt board.

The list is crumpled now. All the care she’d taken to keep it neat, noting the time, writing each surname carefully.  She smooths the paper.  The signatures are just squiggles.  Not even pretending to look right.  Most didn’t even hold the pen properly.  Anyone could have written them, anyone.

It’s a position of trust, that’s what Andy said.