Working Class Movement Library

A blog from the Working Class Movement Library in Salford

Archive for November, 2012

Book review – ‘A world between us’

Posted by wcmlibrary on November 27, 2012

A World Between Us by Lydia Syson

Hot Key Books ISBN 978-1-4714-0009-4

Taking part in the march on the 75th anniversary of  Cable Street in October 2011 made me  feel very proud of the history of working people’s opposition to fascism, whether on their streets in 1936 or in the protests against fascist groups such as the English Defence League.  As the economic system nationally and globally goes into decline there are some similarities with the 1930s in Britain. Unemployment is rising, we have a Conservative government that is cutting the benefits of the poor in its strategy to pay off a decifit caused by the monied class. Unlike the 30s we do not have a vibrant political organisation such as the Communist Party which provided working class people with not just a political way forward but, in its actions in areas such as the East End of London, took the class struggle to the street. It is in this context that Lydia Syson has set her new novel.

Book coverLydia Syson’s A World Between Us  explores some of the most important issues about  how and why people (and young people in particular) get involved in political activity. Her book is set in London in the 1930s, at a time of a worldwide economic crisis and the mirroring rise of fascism.  Her grandparents were involved in the Communist Party and were part of a movement that organised against the growing rise of fascism in this country and abroad, particularly in Spain.

I wanted to write about the Spanish Civil War and its effects in this country because my children didn’t know about it. It was important on many levels, not just in terms of people going to fight in Spain but in the whole political culture of that time.

Like many people in the 30s, and particularly in the East End of London, her grandparents took part in the large political demonstrations such as Cable Street:

I wanted to show in the book how people got swept up into the street politics and how different life was for them. Being a communist now is seen in a negative way and that is how my children see it. I wanted to show why people did become communists and that it was a response, a gut feeling, about the political and social situation they were in.

The novel begins with the Cable Street demonstration when the British Union of Fascists attempted to march through a largely Jewish and workingclass area of East London:

Missiles kept flying overhead – saucepans,bottles, rotten vegetables, god knows what. It was like a tide on the turn, with banners and placards dipping and rearing. There were all sorts here, not just East Enders. Even the side streets were packed with protestors.

It is at this march that the two main characters meet, trainee nurse Felix (Felicity) and young communist Nat. He is about to go to Spain,  and explains to her why he thinks being a communist is important:

It’s changed my life really. I can see everything clearly now. It gives you hope, doesn’t it? When you realise how things could be much better, so much fairer? And that you can do something about it.

One of the reasons Lydia chose to write about this era was to show young people now how the Spanish Civil War did motivate young people of that generation to not just become politically active, but to go and fight in Spain.

When I was writing the scene about Cable Street  I wondered if my audience, young teenagers, would understand what it meant to be on a demonstration and being threatened by police on horses. But at the same time I saw on the news the student demonstrations and it struck me that this will make sense to a different generation of young people.

One of the startling aspects of British people going to take part in the Spanish Civil War was their age. Like Nat and Felix in this book, many of them were teenagers when they made that decision. Lydia captures the horror of war,  and for me reading  Felix’s story as a nurse on the frontline gave it a potency that is quite different from reading about a battle:

Leaning on the doorjamb, Felix began to tremble. She couldn’t go any further anyway: a body lay at her feet,blocking the way. She had nearly stumbled onto it.  She bent to apologise, but as she put a hand on the man’s arm, she could feel that already beginning to stiffen….There were bodies everywhere.

In AWBU Lydia is writing fiction,  but her motivation in writing the novel was to remind her readers of the importance of the Spanish Civil War in the history of Europe in the 20th century.

I used the history of the war as a framework but I was committed to making the novel mainstream. I wanted it to work on different levels in terms of its romance and its politics. I hope the politics will seep into readers’ consciousness so that later on the significance of the SCW will be understood.

AWBU is published by Hot Key Books for young adults but I think it is a book that can be read and appreciated by people of all ages.  The love story between Felix and Nat is beautifully written and shows  how political activity can bring people together in loving relationships. The novel finishes in 1939 and one of the reasons why it is important to understand the politics of the War is that the defeat of republican Spain led onto the Second World War.  Lydia’s book is well researched and is a good beginning for further reading and studies in what is a crucial history of Britain and Spain in the 30s.

To buy it see News from Nowhere

See Lydia’s blog for links tothe Spanish Civil War – http://www.lydiasyson.com/read-more-about-the-background-to-a-world-between-us/

It is also published as a Multi-touch iBook2 from Apple iBook store with lots more info on the War.

Also see www.wcml.org.uk for more info on Spain

Bernadette Hyland

 

 

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Book review – ‘At the coalface: my life as a miner’s wife’

Posted by wcmlibrary on November 23, 2012

At the coalface: my life as a miner’s wife by Catherine Paton Black  ISBN 978 -0-7553-6325-4  Headline publishers.

Many books have been written about the Miners’ Strike 1984-85,  but few have been written by the wives of the miners. Catherine Paton Black’s book is important, not just because of her husband taking part in the strike but because she was one of the few women who were NUM members and became official pickets during the strike. It is also the story of why those mining communities had such a sense of solidarity during the strike: they realised that, without those jobs and their union, their lives would be one of poverty and instability. This is why they put up such a fight for their jobs and communities and why they were such an inspiration to people in Britain and across the world.  It was also the reason why they were dubbed “the enemy within” and why Thatcher was determined to destroy them.

Catherine was born in 1946 in Hamilton, near Glasgow. She came from a poor background.

 My father, George was a drunk gambler, always looking for a quick buck to pour down his throat, and my mum suffered a heart condition all her life and struggled to cope. Luckily my grandparents stepped into the breach and became my heroes.

At an early age she was aware of her future:

 From a young age us girls knew our fates. We’d grow up to be wives and mothers like our mums and maybe get a job in a factory if we had to. That was our lot in lives and we didn’t know any different.

Catherine left school at 15,  got a job in a factory and spoke out when she realised that they were earning very little in comparison to the profits the company was making:

 The strike never happened, but the seed had been planted. Even the lowliest paid worker had a voice if they wanted to use it.  Little did I know that was a principle I’d stick to much later in life.

Tradition in those small communities wasn’t just about what women did and what men did, it was also about who you married. Catherine meets Doug and when he comes to meet her granddad he asks Doug straight away “What colour are you?”,  referring to religion.   Catholics and Protestants did not mix,  so her granddad was relieved when he found out Doug was “blue” ie Protestant.

Through her relationship with Doug she gives the reader an insight into the horrors that his father and brothers experienced as miners:

Working conditions in the pits in the 40s and 50s were primitive. Before the modern machines arrived Doug’s father and brothers were at times quite literally going at parts of it with a pick axe…They were all injured at some point.

If young men didn’t want to go down the coalmines they had few other choices and for Doug that meant going in the Army.  In 1968, when she had their first child,  he left the Army and took the only other alternative, a job in a pit in Nottingham in England,  but as a surface worker. There were other advantages, as Catherine says,  after  living in a tenement in Glasgow they now were given

a smart new Coal Board house, with clean red bricks, it really did feel like a piece of heaven after where we had been living. The village, pronounced “Renoth” by locals, had been built especially for the pit and had some lovely rolling green fields, farmland and lake areas nearby.

Catherine was also now living near her Mum and sister,  who had moved south several years previously. Catherine and Doug had five children. His work on the surface did not pay enough to keep the family so she went  back to work.  Eventually Doug went down the mine to improve his wages while  Catherine joined  him in the colliery canteen (and joined the union).  Unfortunately he had an accident in the pit, injured his back and could not go back underground,  so the Coal Board found him another job at the pit:

 So Doug started a new role on the surface in an office alongside two poor fellas who’d lost their legs in terrible accidents.

During the Miners’ Strike of 84-85 the  Nottinghamshire coalfield  had many miners who did not support the strike and Catherine believes that this was because:

the mines in Notts employed lots of people from all parts of the country so fewer people felt a sense of loyalty to the area.

Controversially pickets from Yorkshire visited their area to try and get them to join the strike. Catherine did not support this:

As much as I supported the strike, I resented this. We didn’t want or need people from another county telling us what to do, but I did just wish more Nottingham communities were joining in.

Like many people from the coalfields she could see the government’s strategy of provoking the miners into striking at a time when they had been stockpiling coal at the powerstations. As she puts it:

It all seemed terribly cynical, like open war had been declared on miners. Yet they were decent, hard- working people who just wanted to protect their jobs and communities.

Many miners’ wives got involved with the strike,  but Catherine was different because she was an NUM member and she could officially join the picket line. Her husband didn’t want her to so  she went one  morning with her daughter:

after shinning down the drainpipe, we walked into the street, where we spotted other people coming down the road.

The other women commented:

We’re off to find a demonstration. We can’t just sit at home cooking and cleaning while all this is kicking off.

Catherine throws herself completely into political activity. She organises the soup kitchen and attends pickets and demos, travels around the country and comes across other people’s ways of life that she never knew existed. But she wasn’t interested in the bigger politics of the strike as she comments:

We had them all up here, including Scargill, but I never took time to listen. I wasn’t interested. …I was too busy to think or consider any further issues or the politics of it all.

For many miners’ wives (and miners) the strike showed them different ways of life and some of them took the opportunity to get an education and jobs and move away from the coal mining communities. Catherine was happy with the life she had,  and after the strike ended  she returned to her husband and family. And her feelings today about the strike?

Echoes of its legacy lives on. We’ll bear both the scars and the memories forever.

In 2012 with growing dissent about energy costs it is even clearer that the demise of the coal mining industry was not just a defeat for the NUM and its members,  but has left this country now hostage to large energy companies with a government that has no sympathy or concern  for poor families.

At the coalface is a reminder that communities and trade unions can work together to campaign for a better society and we need to remember those lessons now.

 

Bernadette Hyland

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There’s got to be a thesis in this for someone…

Posted by wcmlibrary on November 22, 2012

We are fortunate in having acquired, through the good offices of former UNISON NW Regional Secretary Frank Hont, a full set of the reports of the NALGO/UNISON National Delegate Conferences from 1989 to 2011, plus related papers.  The Conferences have a vibrant life and culture of their own. The various newsletters representing regional, factional and minority groups add to the sometimes carnival atmosphere.

Two items captured my attention:

  • A North West newsletter with a photograph of WCML’s current Treasurer Dennis Maginn on it, dating from 1993!
  • And a spoof report called Tiny Trot, which purports to be a report from a playgroup infiltrated by Trotskyite activists…

Alain Kahan

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Musings on Parliament Week and history…

Posted by wcmlibrary on November 20, 2012

Library volunteer Marjorie, with her musings as she has cleaned books in the Library’s Thomas Paine Room – comparing things she’s read about there with current events –  has inspired us to mark Parliament Week with an object of the month from that room.

The item is William Hone’s 1819 pamphlet ‘The political house that Jack built’.

From 19 to 25 November is Parliament Week, which aims to raise people’s awareness of and engagement with parliamentary democracy. Given that so much of the collection here at the WCML is given to charting the fight for recognition by parliament, the object of the month which we have chosen is a pamphlet from 1819 which satirises the lack of parliamentary democracy. The aim is to show that voting, now seen as a right, was not so long ago a distant dream for the majority of people.

The radical printer William Hone published The Political House that Jack Built in 1819, just after the Peterloo Massacre. The pamphlet is a combination of Hone’s pithy rhyming couplets and illustrations by George Cruikshank, who rose to fame on the back of working for Hone. The pamphlet attacks the power and corruption of privilege. For instance Cruikshank drew the then Prince Regent as a fat, bloated dullard, a cork-screw hanging from his pocket to point towards the volume of his majesty’s drinking. The lines Hone included with the image were some of the pamphlet’s most biting:

‘The Dandy of Sixty,
who bows with a grace,
and has taste in wigs, collars,
cuirasses and lace,
Who, to tricksters, and fools,
leaves the state and its treasure,
And, when Britain’s in tears,
sails about at his pleasure’.

Towards the end of the pamphlet there is an image of ‘The People all tattered and torn’. In the background of Cruikshank’s image of despair you can see yeomen attacking the people at Peterloo.

These were people described by Hone as
‘Who, peaceably Meeting
to ask for Reform,
Were sabred by Yeomanry Cavalry,
who,
Were thank’d by THE MAN,
all shaven and shorn’

Later still Cruikshank drew a banner with the slogan ‘Reform’ written upon it. Underneath Hone described this as ‘the watchword, the talisman word’, which during the period it was. Very few people had the vote, and the majority were denied access to their democratic rights. People fought and died for the right to vote. Hone suffered too. In 1817 he was tried for the inflammatory nature of his publications, although he was acquitted.

It was not until 1929 that universal adult suffrage arrived in Britain. With the recent expenses scandal and the apparent apathy of many towards voting, parliamentary democracy may not seem something with which many people are keen to engage. As Parliament Week seeks to celebrate democracy it is worth remembering, however, those who gave up their liberty, and in some cases their lives, to fight for it.

On the final page of The House that Jack Built is a remarkable drawing of a cap of liberty, from which rays emanate (the sun being a historic symbol for political rebirth). Underneath this image are words from William Cowper’s epic poem Task which are as relevant today as they were when he wrote them in 1785, or when Hone used them again in 1819.

‘Tis Liberty alone, that gives the flow’r
Of fleeting life its lustre and perfume;
And we are weeds without it’.

Chris Burgess, Collections Access Officer with the new Esmee Fairbairn Foundation-funded joint project betwen the Library and the People`s History Museum

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Invisible Histories Project Moving Forward

Posted by wcmlibrary on November 15, 2012

We have now held two oral history training days here at the library which were a great success. Our two trainers, Michelle Wilnslow and Ros Livshin, both from the Oral History Society delivered one full day session each which covered the skills needed when conducting oral history interviews. There was much to take on board and think about, the training will be of great benefit to the project.

Haworth’s Mill c.1950s
All Images Courtesy of Salford Local History Library

We are now in the process of  conducting interviews and creating the first recordings so it is an exciting time.  We have recruited 28 volunteer interviewees so far.  All the recordings will become a part of the permanent collection here at the Library and will contribute to a new oral history archive which will complement the existing audio material in the collection.  If you are interested in being interviewed then please get in touch with the Library.

Ward and Goldstone Ltd, Frederick Rd

Just to recap – the workplaces we are focusing on are Agecroft Colliery, Ward and Goldstone Ltd and Richard ‘Dickie’ Haworth’s Mill.

I recently met with a small group of former Ward and Goldstone employees who are now keen to come into the library and investigate our collection of Volex (Ward and Goldstone) documents.  Among other things they shed light on, an interesting snippet was that Ward and Goldstone were very economical with left over materials from the cable division.  Rather than discard unused materials, more often than not they would turn them into something else useful and marketable.  For example they produced clothes line made from left over cable plastic and also claim to have invented the Hula Hoop! (the toy not the snack).  A good customer of theirs was Woolworths which as we know has also sadly vanished from our high streets / working lives.

Aerial View of Agecroft Colliery

This is sadly my final week here at the Working Class Movement Library but it has been a real pleasure to work here and be a part of such a great project.  I intend to stay in touch but am handing over the role to Neil Dymond-Green who will be taking over immediately following my departure.  We have been working together over the past week to ensure a smooth transition.  I look forward to hearing the finished podcast next year and hope everyone involved has a great time working on the project!

Carrie

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Sometimes things happen at the WCML that are so delightful they make my day …

Posted by wcmlibrary on November 6, 2012

Sometimes things happen at the WCML that are so delightful they make my day – and last Thursday one such thing happened.

We had some drop in visitors who had come up from London and were looking roundImage the exhibitions on our ground floor.  One of them (Michael) made his way into the Reading Room, where, as usual, there was a pile of pamphlets waiting for our attention and one of them caught his eye.  It was The Wasted £30,000,000,000 by Frank Allaun. So far so ordinary.

But when he was getting ready to leave he called me into the Reading Room and showed me the inscription inside the pamphlet, which read ‘A small token to a great friendship!’ and was signed Michael (19) – and yes it was the same Michael who had given the pamphlet to Frank Allaun many years before (I’ll spare his blushes by not saying how many) and it had then been donated to us by Frank.

Now what are the chances that not only would we have the pamphlet, but that it would be hanging around in the library on the day Michael visited.

Like I said – how delightful! and thanks to Michael for telling us the story.

Jane
Librarian

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