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Tuesday, 16 October 2012

My One Night Stand with the Ghost of Bill Farrell

Whitenigahs

If a ghost is a manifestation of a restless spirit then I’d bet my last sonnet that Spennymoor Settlement is haunted by the ghost of Bill Farrell.

Toynbee Hall, earliest and most famous establishment of the Settlement Movement was inaugurated in 1883. The idea was simply that forward thinking men and women of talent, altruism and education should,
“…share themselves with their neighbours”
                                                Cannon Samuel Barnett 1883

As parts of the North East fell into the mire of mass unemployment, exacerbated by the 1926 general strike, a very special man found his way to S.W. Durham. That man was to do much more than share himself – he gave over the vast proportion of his energy, creativity, intellect and working life to a small industrial area called Spennymoor. William Farrell established a Settlement in April 1931 that exists today primarily in the guise of a modest amateur theatre but which gave birth to much of the artistic and creative brilliance which is recognised internationally as emanating from that era and area vis-à-vis the Pitman Painters.

With what we in poetry circles refer to as an ‘intimate’ audience, I found myself performing in that history-weighted venue wondering a little nervously what Mr Farrell might have made  of a mixed race woman entertaining with comedy performance poetry. Ever the innovator, broad minded and egalitarian, I can only surmise his welcome would have been warm and encouraging.

Certainly my father, had there been a Settlement to attend and a figure like Bill Farrell to encourage him, might have fared better in a world of rigid strata which was the post war, pre flower power England. Fourth son of a foundry man who suffered debilitating workplace injuries, my father was in many respects the epitome of a Whitenigah. Viewing him posthumously and with adult eyes, I no longer find it strange that a white working class boy, who may never have spoken to a black person, should fall for my mother – a black immigrant from the colonies – different from him in every conceivable way – even down to class and education. My mother was educated at a colonial girls’ school where only the King’s English was spoken. I suspect it may partly have been her otherness that drew him. If you feel rejected or an outsider in what is supposed to be your own community, isn’t it easier to be a genuine outsider in someone else’s? Though he had a couple of very close friends from his boyhood, my father was never happier than in the company of my step-grandfather who was from St Kits. He was completely content and at ease with my grandmother’s large social circle from Guyana, Trinidad, Tobago and Jamaica. He danced to Reggae, drank rum and ate black eye peas ‘n rice with fried chicken as if he too was a descendant of slaves.  At his request, his ashes were scattered over Kaieteur Falls.

Pivotal in his life was something which happened at a tender age. Despite passing the infamous 11+ exam with flying colours, he failed the nastier and less official social test. Having been denied a place at grammar school by his social betters, his natural intellect was forever frustrated. If only my father had met a Bill Farrell – someone who would have looked beyond his background and the state of his shoes.

Although from the intelligentsia, Bill Farrell motivated the Whitenigahs of S.W Durham and I was fortunate enough for one night to have my mug shot on a poster with Arnold Hadwin’s Settlement motif depicting the masks carved by the artist and sculptor Tisa Hess.

In its heyday, Spennymoor Settlement provided an educational and creative outlet for adults, developmental play for children and hope for the future. Looking through my local Adult Education leaflet recently, I noted that even if there had been a course I fancied there were none I could afford; depressingly there was also an obvious grammatical error on the first page.

I find it hard to believe if my father were alive today that he wouldn’t have benefited from a Settlement setup. Much that culture has to offer now seems derivative to the point of dizzying nausea and the most enduring thing the current education system is giving many youngsters is debt.

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