The Banner Maker
“What do you mean you don’t want the job?”
He glared up at me, his stubbled chin jutting forward, his paint-stained fists firmly clenched. This was way back in 1974, but it feels like yesterday. It was, after all, the last time I saw my brother.
“But you’ve got to do it, Geoff,” I pleaded. “It’s what you do – you’re the bannermaker.”
Still silence. A tightening of the jaw. A hardening of the stare. A flush rising up his cheeks, his forehead, until it seemed to reach even the grey flecks in his hair.
It had always been like this with me and Geoff. Even though he was three years older, it was me who looked out for him, me who found him work, me who stopped him starving to death. As I said to him: you can’t eat art, can you?
I’d got him his first job. It was 1947. He was 19, and I was 16. The union in our village needed someone to make a banner, so I said our Geoff would do it. He’d always been good at making things, and I thought he might be pleased of the work. I should have known better. He’d not been pleased with much in Barnsthorpe since he’d come back from art college in Leeds earlier that year.
“You want me to make what?” he asked.
“A banner, Geoff. For our union. For the rally up in Sheffield. You’ve got to do it.”
“I don’t think so.”
“Why not? You’re making nowt from your paintings. And I’ve already told Jock you’d do it.”
“Why’d you go and do that, you idiot? Why do you think I want to make a ruddy banner?”
“You’re an artist aren’t you?”
“Yes. I’m an artist. This is what an artist does.”
He thrust a book in front of my face. On the cover was a picture of a half naked young woman.
“Is this that Gaugin lad?” I asked, reluctantly putting the book under a cushion. I was worried that mum would catch us looking at it.
Geoff hadn’t stopped talking about this Gaugin fellow for months. Dad said it was London that had turned his head. He’d been there with the union band the year before and they’d been to visit the National Gallery. He’d seen an exhibition and that had been it – Gaugin this, Gaugin that. Dad had banned him from saying the name in the house.
“Yes that is ‘my’ Gaugin,” he replied with a sneer. “That’s what I paint. Not sodding union banners. I don’t even know why you need a banner, why you need a rally. Why can’t you just go down pit like every normal day?”
That’s what he said, but the next day he came to his senses and agreed to do it. Partly he needed the money, and partly he knew that once you’d told Jock you’d do something it was best if you did it.
I remember that rally vividly. There must have been a hundred thousand men there and it was so loud I could barely hear Dad telling me to stick close to him and not do anything daft. We weaved through the crowd past a red-faced man blowing into his gleaming brass tuba, his tune competing with yapping dogs, a foreman bellowing instructions through a mass of beard and moustache, a boy no older than seven sauntering past selling pasties on a wooden tray, a clutch of men around a beer barrel singing union songs, clinking glasses between each verse.
And everywhere I looked there were banners, so many banners: a glittering red and gold one from Doncaster, a faded one from Cleckheaton showing a miner hard at toil, a forty foot long one from Smethwick emblazoned with the words “Unity, Equality, Fraternity”, hundreds of banners fluttering in the breeze and glinting in the sunlight of that April morning so many years ago.
I’ll never forget it, and I’ll never forget the moment Dad and I unveiled Geoff’s banner. All the Barnsthorpe miners clapped and roared, even Jock stood arms folded nodding his approval, and everywhere we took it people told us it was the best banner they’d seen all day.
So that was how Geoff got started. It turned out that they needed a new banner in Wakefield, so he did that one, then another, and before he knew it he had become known as the lad who did the banners. He was made for life, and in 1950s South Yorkshire there were few folk who could say that.
Obviously I got a bit of stick for it down pit. But I didn’t mind. I was proud of my big brother. I didn’t see much of him over the years – he was always off somewhere else in Yorkshire, or in South Wales, or even the North East – but whenever I went to a rally – and I went to as many as I could – I looked at all the banners and swelled with pride to think it was my brother who’d made them.
So, when in 1974 I heard he’d been commissioned to redo the Barnsthorpe banner in time for the strike I was excited. I hadn’t seen him in many years, not since Mum had passed away. Without her and Dad there wasn’t really much to keep us in touch. He’d never shown much interest in either of my two lads, and never had any of his own. So, I was looking forward to seeing him, as well as to showing off my brother, the famous banner-maker.
He arrived late for Sunday dinner, and he smelt of alcohol. He had lost a lot of weight since I last saw him and his hair had more grey in it. He looked older than his 46 years.
We’d roasted a chicken, but he barely ate any, and he spoke even less. Before we’d all finished he stood up and went out the back. I found him sat on a coal bag, shoulders slumped forward, sucking slowly on a cigarette.
“Why don’t we take a walk up hill?”
He knew the hill I meant. It was the one we’d walked up every Sunday afternoon with Dad. He shrugged and followed me out the gate, rolling another cigarette.
“When did you start smoking?” I asked.
“A while back.”
We trudged in silence.
“Do you remember how Dad used to carry us both up here? Right up until you were nine.”
I cast about for something to say. I could think of nothing, so we walked in silence until we reached the top where there was a bench. We sat while he smoked.
“When do you start work on the banner?” I asked eventually.
That was when the argument started. I thought he’d forgotten all about this Gaugin business and his ideas of being an artist. So when he told me he wasn’t going to start work on it, that he was through with making banners, I told him he couldn’t do that, that he should be proud of his work.
“Proud?” He spoke in a low, strained voice. “What’s there to be proud of? They’re just pieces of cloth.”
“That’s nonsense, Geoff. You should come on a march and see them. They come from all over – Rotherham, Swansea, Pontyridd, Durham, Sunderland – and they’ve all got banners. They’re all proud of those pieces of cloth as you call them, and these days with what the Government’s doing to us, we need summat to be proud of. And you made them, every single one of those banners.”
He interrupted me by throwing his still lit cigarette to the ground. “Don’t I know it,” he growled.
“I think they’re beautiful. I think they’re works of art.”
“Art?” he shouted. For a moment I thought he was going to hit me. “They’re not art, you bloody idiot. Let me tell you what art is. When I was 18 I went to London, and I visited the National Gallery. There I stood in front of paintings by Gaugin. Do you even know who that is?”
“Yes,” I began. “He paints those naked…”
“Gaugin was a stockbroker living a comfortable life with a wife and children. Then one day he realised he had to paint. He left his comfortable life. He left his wife and children, and he got on a boat to Tahiti. He lived the rest of his life there in poverty, racked by illness, painting the people, painting the trees and mountains and beaches. The work he produced there – that’s art. These banners – they’re nothing. They’re less than nothing.”
“Why do you do it then?”
“What else am I going to do?” he cried, jumping up from the bench. “I need to live just like everyone else does. So to make money I make banners. Every morning I go into my studio. I deliberately ignore the unfinished canvas on the easel, and I work on some ruddy cloth banner for some half-witted miners to carry around on their tedious marches. Every minute I spend on it I feel sick to the stomach. But I have no choice. It’s what I am – I’m the bannermaker.”
I didn’t know what to say to Geoff. There was nothing we could say. We walked down that hill and went our separate ways.
It was the last time I saw my brother. A week later a policeman arrived at our front door, telling me my brother had suffered a heart attack and died.
I was his only surviving relative so it fell to me to make all the arrangements. The funeral was just me, the wife, and two union representatives who had recently hired him. And in the small studio in Leeds which he called home there were so few possessions it took me just under an hour to clear them all.
There were though a dozen huge folders of his paintings. They were of people and places he had been to visit in his work. I recognised some of the towns in South Yorkshire. I didn’t know what to do with them and didn’t want to throw them away so I took them to an art auctioneer to be valued.
The short fat man glanced at me over the rim of his spectacles, and quickly rifled through my brother’s life work.
“Worthless,” he said, handing me the folder, and returning to his polishing of a wooden table.
It surprises me how much it still hurts, 30 years later, to remember that simple one-word dismissal of Geoff’s dreams. That auctioneer had no idea how much effort, how much hope, went into those paintings.
I don’t know if they were any good or not – I spent 25 years down a pit, then 25 years mopping supermarket floors, so I’m the wrong person to ask about art – but I know they were worth more than that cruel dismissal. I know Geoff was worth more than that.
And finally today it will be recognised. Today, I’m in London, for the opening of an exhibition of his life’s work at the National Gallery. When I first heard about it I thought they were having me on. Geoff’s work in the National Gallery? It was what he dreamed of all his life.
It’s the first time I’ve been to London, and I don’t like it. I’m an old man now and I don’t like all the people, all the cars, all the flashing lights and blaring music everywhere you turn. But it will be worth it today.
So, I straighten my tie in the mirror and head for the door of my hotel room, remembering to pick up the invitation from the dresser and place it carefully in my jacket pocket. I glance at it as I do so and smile, reading it again. “Geoff Waites and the Trades Union Banner :1947-1974”.