The history of life as we know it

Brian Lewis set up the Yorkshire Art Circus to help locals tell their story

Chris Arnot
Friday 07 August 1998 23:02

FROM WOODEN floor to corniced ceiling, one high wall of Brian Lewis's front room in Pontefract is covered with books. The other walls are covered with pictures so that hardly a square inch of wallpaper is visible. He has, at various times, been a painter and a poet as well as a teacher and an arts administrator.

But Lewis now spends much of his time in homes where full bookcases are as rare as wine racks. Indeed, he recently went into a back-to-back house in Leeds and found one slim volume on the mantelpiece, propped up between two candlesticks. He recognised it immediately as one of his own. Not his own words, but his edited collections of the memories, wry observations and random thoughts of the people who live in this street and the ones around it.

"There are thousands of oral history projects," he says. "It's a cottage industry to give PhDs to academics. But nobody transcribes the tapes. If you give people a book, they've got something to keep and be proud of. You've got to believe that people have something to say, and they bloody well do. Every day I'm surprised by the things they come out with."

In Castleford he asked an interviewee about local-boy-made-good Henry Moore. "He came to unveil one of his works once," the man told him, "and a dog came out of the crowd and cocked his leg up it."

"What did Henry Moore do?" asked Lewis.

"He laughed."

In Boreham Wood a re-housed Cockney told him: "If you think I'm sharp, you should have seen my granddad. He once sold a three-legged dog to a bloke in a pub on the basis that it was a rare species."

One of his favourite stories is recorded in Crossed Lines, named after the washing lines which criss-cross the street between the back-to-back houses of Burley Lodge in Leeds. A woman recounts how a neighbour put out a hanging basket and encouraged her to do the same.

"I said that the flowers wouldn't last in our streets, that the kids would rip them out like they did the plants they put in concrete bowls down Burley Lodge Road. Those lasted less than 24 hours but out of respect for her I said that I would give it a go. She and her next-door neighbour then put pots out round the door and window boxes. A new woman who had moved in brought a planted tray from her old house. Pots of plants appeared on the window sills of another house. She had a deal: 'Let me use your sill and I'll water.' The top end of the street is a picture."

Lewis has produced his oral history books in the former miners' terraces of Castleford and on former council estates in Hull and Boreham Wood, Hertfordshire. Housing Associations and Housing Action Trusts employ him to tease out and transcribe tenants' stories in an effort to boost community spirit.

Each tenant receives a free copy produced to the standard of a paperback they could buy in WH Smith's. "Better that they can read about themselves and their neighbours than receive some brochure with no substance, produced by a PR company in London," says Lewis.

He has produced four of these books in housing renewal areas of Leeds where back-to-back houses were built as late as the Thirties and consequently qualify for restoration rather than demolition. "One old lass told me they were ideal for people to shove a lot of leaflets through doors in a short space of time," he says. "Every so often she'd get one suggesting she extended her home with a conservatory."

He rocks with laughter at the absurdity, his great white beard shovelling up and down. At 61, he is still a bundle of enthusiastic energy. Ideas and anecdotes tumble out, with just a trace of an accent from his native Birmingham. He was born in inner-city Ladywood and worked in a foundry and a brewery before training to teach. After National Service, he married and moved to his beloved West Yorkshire where, in 1980, he set up the Yorkshire Art Circus under the slogan: "Everyone has a story to tell. We find ways of helping them tell it."

He built up a team of writers capable of working at speed. On the Saturday after Michael Heseltine announced wholesale pit closures in 1992, they moved into the school hall at Grimethorpe and began taking down the thoughts of local residents. "People talk freely when they're angry," he says. "We had 34,000 words by 4pm when we went back to start proof-reading. By 10.45 that night we were printing and by one o'clock the first copies were in the hands of union leaders to take on the march to London."

Lewis it was who launched the professional career of the "miner" artist Harry Malkin, formerly of Fryston Colliery, near Castleford. "The first exhibition I got him was between the till and the toilets at an Italian restaurant in Pontefract. The next was at the Royal Festival Hall."

Showing alongside Malkin's powerful charcoal sketches of life underground were stunning photographs by a former Fryston colliery blacksmith and barber, Jack Hulme, who was in his eighties when Lewis discovered his work. "I'm world famous round here," Hulme told him and proceeded to show him a Leica camera which had cost him pounds 92 in 1943. "I once interviewed the great Bert Hardy, a big-time photographer, and he could only just afford a Leica," muses Lewis.

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