Chrissie Tiller re-evaluates what we mean by offering people access to culture. This Creative People and Places case study is an attempt to contextualise the journeys being made by participants, artists, partners and teams on the CPP programme.
"Culture is ordinary: that is where we must start."- Raymond Williams
Five months ago my cousin Pauline died. She had smoked as long as I could remember. Smoking was something you did growing up in that part of Leeds in the ‘50s. And, unlike many of her middle class contemporaries, she had never stopped.
The last time I saw her was November 19th 2016. On the train up from London I was nervous. We’d been told she didn’t have long to live. She ‘didn’t want to know the ins and outs.’ When we got there her sister, Audrey, already had the kettle on the boil. Sliced bread, ham and cheese set out on the table. Fruit cake and biscuits. We were invited to help ourselves.
Standing in the kitchen, making our sandwiches, while Pauline and Audrey fought about who was best at mopping floors, the conversation somehow turned to the subject of death.
It began with Audrey describing the day great Aunt Lily died. How grandma had the body brought back to the tenement flat where they all lived, and then needing to ‘fetch some bits for the funeral tea’, had left Audrey, aged 5, in charge. Telling her firmly not to go into the bedroom because Aunt Lily ‘was resting there’. Naturally, as soon as the front door had closed, the bedroom was exactly where Audrey headed. On the bed was a large wooden box, with what looked like an oversized doll in it. Running over and lifting the veil that covered it, she was met by Aunt Lily’s white, staring face. Only in place of her eyes there were two copper pennies. Running screaming from the flat, she’d sat in tears on the front step until grandma had come home.
It reminded her daughter, Lynne, of the time ‘her Stan’ had gone to sort out paying for his father’s funeral. Arriving at the caretakers too early, he’d been shown into a back room by one of the lads. As he went to sit down he noticed two coffins propped against the wall. One was empty. The other contained Stan’s dad: with a big broomstick propped up his back. Just in case he tipped over and fell out.
The stories kept coming. We remembered the morbid lure of ‘Ethel’s Tomb’ at Lawnswood cemetery. Argued the price of coffins. Wondered why everyone always had family rows at funerals. And laughed until the tears rolled.
I tell this story because, as Raymond Williams reassures us, ‘culture is ordinary’. The irreverent, black humour that got Pauline, Audrey, and the rest of us, through that afternoon is part of the post-war, Yorkshire working class culture we all grew up in. It’s a use of language that goes with the dialect; a comic dourness that befits life in Northern industrial towns.
Williams, R. (2014) Raymond Williams on Culture and Society: Essential Writings. Ed. McGuigan, Sage Publications