“…the point is to change it”: Remembering Ruth and Eddie Frow and the WCML

frows 11 nov

 

Last Saturday’s event commemorated the lives of the  Frows,  showing  how their belief in communism was about grassroots activity which included the creation of the Working Class Movement Library in the 1950s. They wanted  to encourage  future generations to understand  the importance of  working class history to political activity.

Mike Luft, communist and anti-fascist organiser, opened the event with a reminder of the importance of communism at a time when celebrations of the 1917 revolution were being airbrushed, obscuring  its inspiring message of hope for making the world a more just and equitable place.  He said the Frows were part of that history and had, with many other people, committed their life to communism and political activity.

mike luft 1

Actor, Joan McGee then read Bertolt Brecht’s poem Questions From a Worker Who Reads (1935),  a reminder that it is the people at the bottom who really make history.

joan mcgee

Radical historian Michael Herbert spoke  of Eddie Frow’s involvement in the National Union of Unemployed Workers and how that  had spurred him on to commit his lifetime to communist politics.

mike herbert 1

Charlotte Hughes   of Tameside against the Cuts made the link with today and how life for poor people had deteriorated under the weight of austerity and the  attacks on benefits. But she talked about the work that she was doing  in Ashton-under-Lyne and the campaign against Universal Credit.

charlotte 11 nov

Dorothy Winard spoke about the life of Ruth Frow who had shaken free from her stultifying background of middle class propriety  by joining the WRAF in 1939, becoming a communist in 1945, and  entering into  50 years of partnership with Eddie.

dorothy 11 nov

Hilary Jones of the IBMT then read the Leon Rosselson song  “The Song of the Old Communist”  a eulogy to the thousands of people who took part in communist politics in this country over the years – a message even more important in 2017.

hilary 1

Contributions from the floor included  Royston Futter, a library Trustee, who spoke about how the WCML was brought to Salford in 1987 and Maggie Cohen, chair of the Trustees,  who was friend and comrade with Ruth and Eddie for  over sixty years. I spoke about the generosity of Ruth and Eddie to Irish political prisoner John O’Dowd and a message was read from Alex Ritman about the kindness of Ruth to him when he had to wait for his parents when they were at Communist party meetings.

maggie

Mike Luft spoke about how young people in a largely Jewish area of Manchester, Cheetham Hill,  joined  the Young Communist League and played a crucial role in local and national politics.  Not just in local street politics opposing Mosley’s Blackshirts but in organisations that today have been cleansed of that communist background ie. Benny Rothman  leading role in  the Mass Trespass at Kinder Scout in 1932.

In 2017 one of the organisations which is encouraging young peoples’ activity is the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union and Lauren McCourt explained about how she had  became involved in trade union activity at work. Lauren gave an inspiring speech about how the recent first ever strike at McDonalds in the UK had encouraged many young workers to join the union. She said it was about organising workers including migrants and  supporting people across the world to take on exploitative employers. Her speech showed how the message of communism; about how liberating one person can lead to the liberation of everyone is as relevant today as in the 1930s.

lauren 2

 

Balladress Jennifer Reid and actor Joan McGee ended the day with a series of songs and poems that reflected the lives of the Frows and their many comrades locally, nationally and internationally.  This included a poem called “Freedom” written by author and anti-fascist activist Ethel Carnie  and  “Parkside Occupation” a song about the Miners’ Wives in the 1984-5 Miners Strike.

jennifer

 

Thanks for  photos by Steve Speed contact him at slspeed@hotmail.co.uk

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Posted in anti-cuts, Communism, drama, education, feminism, human rights, labour history, music, political women, Salford, Socialism, trade unions, Uncategorized, women, working class history, young people | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Political Women; Lauren, Trade Union Activist and Revolutionary Socialist

Lauren

Lauren, aged 22 years, represents a new generation of young workers who are following in the footsteps of past activists such as  Mary Quaile,  who never wavered in her belief that trade unions were the key to women and men achieving proper pay and decent conditions.

Unlike Mary who left school at 12, Lauren went to Manchester Metropolitan University and gained a degree in accounting and finance. It was at university she became interested in politics,  taking part in the Feminist Society. Lauren says she  is a feminist because: “We live in a patriarchal society and we have to get rid of it if we want to be free as women.”

Lauren joined Stand up to Racism and has taken part in a number of demonstrations and meetings. She is now on the steering committee of LGBT against Islamaphobia in Manchester. Lauren also became involved with refugee campaigns because of the way in which she felt that the media demonised refugees,   and  went down to Calais as part of activities to support them.

Like many young people today Jeremy Corbyn has inspired her but “I am not a member of the Labour Party because I believe we need an uprising of the working class if we are to change society.”

After leaving university Lauren got a job in the fast food industry, and after working there for six months  joined the Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union. She says: “They are the only effective union working with fast food workers. They are serious about supporting workers in McDonalds and the recent strike showed that.”

fast-food-rights-glasgow-140315

BFAWU is the largest independent trade union in the food sector in the UK. They  have spearheaded the ‘Fast Food Rights’ campaign which has brought many young people, like Lauren, into its trade union.

The union has joined up with fast food workers across the world fighting for fairness at work for some of the poorest paid workers. In the USA, McDonalds has come under significant pressure as part of the “Fight for $15” campaign – supported by the Service Employee’s International Union (SEIU). As a result of this campaign, more than 10 million workers in America are on a path to $15 an hour, and 20 million workers in  total have won wage increases since 2012.

In August 2017 BFAWU balloted its members in McDonalds for strike action.  Ian Hodson, National President of the BFAWU, summed up the mood of the union;
“We, at the BFAWU, fully support the historic decision by these brave McDonald’s workers to stand up and fight back against McDonald’s – a company that has let them down one too many times…McDonald’s has had countless opportunities to resolve grievances by offering workers a fair wage and acceptable working conditions. Instead, they have chosen to ignore their workers by tightening their purse strings – filling their CEO’s pockets, at the expense of workers here in the UK and across the world.”

The result, 95.7% of workers balloted voted in favour of the first strike by McDonalds workers in UK history which took place on 4 September. Although only two branches of McDonalds came out on strike Lauren says the effect was much more widespread. “Before,  there were 3 of us in my workplace who were in the union and now there are 13. And people from across the country are contacting the union about joining.”    After the strike fellow workers were approaching Lauren about joining the union.  “The strike inspired other people to believe that together in a union we could challenge the wages and conditions at work.” In the long term  Lauren would like to become  a union representative.

McDonald strike

McDonalds workers walking out on strike

Lauren has spoken at events across the country. “I do not need to tell people that it is not great to work at McDonalds,  we deserve better as workers.” And her message to young workers; “Join a union and get involved.”

Lauren is speaking this week at the WCML on 11 November at “…the point is to change it” -celebrating Ruth and Eddie Frow”. Its now sold out but you can join the reserve list at trustees@wcml.org.uk

Join BFAWU here

 

Posted in anti-cuts, feminism, human rights, labour history, Manchester, political women, Salford, Socialist Feminism, trade unions, Uncategorized, women | Tagged , | 2 Comments

My review of “Workers’ Playtime”, edited by Doug Nicholls

workers playtime

In this new book Workers’ Play Time  seven scripts written about the struggle for workers and trade union rights are published.  The editor Doug Nicholls reminds us of the importance of culture to the struggle for trade union freedom. “Cultural work is central to and an essential part of our struggle; if you ignore it, you blunt your campaign, deaden your organisation, dull your education programme.”

Reading the plays is a history lesson in itself. From Neil Duffield’s play, Bolton Rising, set in 1812 during  the Luddite rising to Jane McNulty’s Dare to Be Free,  which links the  early C20th  and the struggle for cafe workers rights  to the C21st  and fast food workers.

Unlike most of mainstream theatre,  the plays remind us  of the importance of the ordinary person’s desire for justice, and how this really fuels political activity and change in society.

One of the most interesting chapters is Neil Gore’s explanation of how he researched We Will Be Free! about the Tolpuddle Martyrs. He drew on poems,  songs, historical documents and previous productions. It is fascinating,  and revealing about the creative process.

we will be free

James Kenworth’s play A Splotch of Red shows how major historical figures such as Keir Hardie,  and less well known activist Will Thorne,  can bring to life local politics and remind people about their important radical history.

Eileen Murphy’s play  Hannah about north west suffragette and socialist Hannah Mitchell is one of my favourite dramas. Through the use of a monologue Eileen captures the highs and lows of being a working class activist,  as well as mother and wife.

Hannah mitchell

Workers’ Play Time reminds us of a  golden era in playwriting and producing,  as shown  in the introduction to Out! on the Costa del Trico. In the 1970s the Women’s Theatre group worked as a collective  with the women sharing the acting and directorial role. They  concentrated  on taking their work out to the excluded,   including girls in youth clubs, schools and working class women factory workers.  But this production about  a six month strike by women for equal pay at a US-owned factory Trico in 1976 was not without controversy,  particularly using white women actors to portray Asian workers and the criticism of the theatre company by some women union members.

del trico

Our play, Dare to Be Free,  was a much more limited production. As a small group of volunteers we had to raise funding from individuals and trade unions and were lucky to get a playwright, Jane McNulty,  and director,  Bill Hopkinson,  who took us through the whole process of getting a play out into the world.

MQ play

Our aim was not just to remember Mary, a tremendous fighter for equality for women at work, but also to link  it up her activity  with fast food workers today.  The play took the audience from 1908 to 2016.  This led to important links with trade unions including Mary’s own union Unite, as well as the Hotel Workers Unite in London, and the GFTU – for whom Mary also worked – and the BFAWU locally.

Worker’s Play Time showcases  some powerful productions,  but also  reminds us that the issues  highlighted in the plays have  not gone away,  including justice and equality at work. The Chambermaids, which was written in 1987,  could be set today in the hotels across the country,  and shows how the bread and butter issues of working conditions are still to be fought for by unions such as Unite Hotel  Workers branch.

The GFTU and Doug Nicholls are to be applauded for getting this anthology out into the public arena. It is  a reminder of the power of political theatre and how we are all diminished by its scarcity in 2017. Jim Allen, one of my favourite writers said about drama that it should make you angry, angry enough to want to go and do something. I hope this collection will inspire and stir up workers out there…

Buy it here

Posted in book review, Communism, drama, education, feminism, human rights, labour history, political women, Socialism, Socialist Feminism, trade unions, Uncategorized, women | Tagged , | 2 Comments

My review of “Hanna Sheehy Skeffington: Suffragette and Sinn Feiner” by Margaret Ward

hanna

In the 1980s massive changes were taking place in this country. One event was the arrival of 40,000 Irish people each year looking for work. It was not a new occurrence, but the latest in a series  of waves of emigration  underpinned by Britain’s occupation of part of the island of Ireland and the underdevelopment of the south.

At the same time people like me, second generation Irish,  joined progressive organisations such as the Irish in Britain Representation  Group  as I sought a  way to reflect my Irish identity and become part of an Irish community that had a respectable and respected history of struggle to achieve independence for Ireland.

Young women, such as myself,  searched the histories handed over – either orally or in books our parents had in their homes  such as Speeches from the Dock –  for the stories of Irish women who had been active in the republican movement. Apart from seeing Bernadette Devlin on television there were few other women that we could look up to.

So when historian Margaret Ward produced Unmanageable Revolutionaries in 1983 it was a revolutionary act in itself. It showed how Irish women had always played a crucial role in the struggle for Irish independence; from the Ladies Land League to Inghinidhe na hEireann and Cumann na mBan.

unmanageable revolut

It was a trailblazer as  the renaissance of the Irish community in Britain in the 1980s  saw many fiction and non-fiction books that put Irish women at the forefront of history, literature and culture.

Hanna Sheehy Skeffington is Margaret’s latest book. It tells the story of one of the most dynamic and influential of activists in the struggle for votes for women and liberation of Ireland. What makes this a fascinating account of her life is the inclusion of Hannah’s memoirs; we hear her voice and  get to walk alongside her as she recounts her experiences in campaigning for the vote, her imprisonment, the murder of her husband Frank  by the British army in 1916,  and her continuous political activity until her death in 1946.

Hanna was born into a middle class political family. The Land War of the 1880s shaped her father and uncle’s political activity and Fenianism remained in  the background of Hannah’s life as she carved out her own political path. She lived through some of the most turbulent times in Irish history – and never failed to be part of that history.

Like many activists she struggled to write her memoirs, always seeing activity as more important. “‘I have lived too long’ I said to myself as I stirred up the dust: It is later than I thought.’ Many of my comrades have gone, some have fallen out, much of the toil and passion of the years will never be told, or will be lost in old newspapers or dusty museums….But at least it’s up to me to leave a personal record of a life that has been chequered, but which had had moments.”

For me Hanna is an influential figure because she saw the crucial importance of political activity and joined the dots between equality for women and the freedom of Ireland. Hanna was prepared to pay the price and was  imprisoned on several occasions. Although what is missing is how she  and Frank managed  this as parents. There is one interesting insight when her house gets raided again,  but this time,  instead of taking Hanna,  they take her maid. We do not get to know the name of this woman.

Next year will be the 100th anniversary of the legislation that gave some women the vote, which was and will be again a contentious subject for all feminists. Hanna was clear about her views (we have to remember at this time all of Ireland was a colony of Britain).  On 30 March 1918 she wrote; “We Irish women are proud of the fact that the Irish Republic proclaimed in Easter Week 1916, just two years ago, was the first in the world’s history to lay down from its inception the principle of equal suffrage for both sexes.” It is a viewpoint that will not go down well in 2018 in the UK even today!

Hannah was politically astute about the comrades she worked alongside,  particularly her comments about Michael Collins and Eamonn De Valera and their innate conservatism. The murder of her husband and her  comrades,  including James Connolly,  by the British State did not destroy Hanna.  Instead she says; “Sometimes it is harder to live for a cause than die for it. It would be a poor tribute to my husband if grief were to break my spirit. It shall not do so. “

In these memoirs and writings are revealed the true cost for individuals, and particularly for women,  of being part of a revolutionary movement. What is shocking, even today, is the sheer terror perpetuated by the British government from 1916 to 1922 in its attempts to  hold onto the island of Ireland. Heroic is an overused word,  but it seems totally appropriate when you read of the life of Hanna, her husband,  as well as the thousands of unnamed women and men who were prepared to give everything for the freedom of their country.

In 2017 Ireland’s unresolved political relationship with the UK is centre stage with the crisis called Brexit.  This makes the life of Hannah and her history relevant to any debate about the future of the island of Ireland. I hope this book does not got lost in the cosy cul-de-sac of   history conferences for academics. Hanna’s life as a political activist is inspiring for me , and I hope for all those today who want to change society either here or in Ireland.

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Posted in Bernadette McAliskey, biography, book review, feminism, human rights, Ireland, Irish second generation, labour history, North of Ireland, political women, Socialist Feminism, trade unions, Uncategorized | Tagged , | 2 Comments

My review of Women Who Blow on Knots by Ece Temelkuran

women who blow

 

Ece Temelkuran is a Turkish journalist and writer. Her books and writings have taken up issues at the heart of the state of Turkey,  exposing human rights abuses against Kurdish people, the Armenian dispute and, closer to home, the Gezi uprising in 2013.  The atmosphere in Turkey is now toxic for journalists like Ece and, after being fired from her job in 2012,  she moved to Tunisia to write this novel; Women who Blow on Knots.

The title is from the Koran; “The verse begins with a decree..’Keep away from the inauspicious women who blow on knots’. Keep away from the inauspicious enchantresses..For God knows just what we are capable of.”

I have to say I do prefer the  title used in other countries; “What good is a revolution if I cannot dance to it,” referencing anarchist and writer Emma Goldman who believed in the absolute importance of the individual whilst promoting collectivity in action.

This novel starts out as a road trip,  but it’s no Thelma and Louise. Three young women set out on a journey with the mysterious Madam Lilla across Tunisia to the Lebanon against the backdrop of the Arab Spring. One of them is a Turkish journalist who is wary of returning home,  fearful of the mass arrests going on and that she will be picked up. The other women are Amira, a Tunisian woman,  and Maryam from Egypt.

Through their stories we learn more about the lives of women in these countries, the impact of the Arab Spring,  and the continuing debate about what kind of future can exist in the region.

Layering their discussions are many references to Arabic music, history, and religion,  but central to it is the story of the women. “We were three women fated to take refuge in a story, looking out for each other as we moved forwards, three women soon to become four.”

Unlike many western novels this is a highly literate and intellectual story,  laced with the myth of Dido and numerous references to Arabic culture and religion. It is totally understandable that it has sold over 120,000 copies in Turkey. It speaks to those women and addresses not just the politics going on,  but bigger themes about the links between women, about sisterhood and the complex and difficult lives that many women in the region face.

It is also a funny book,  picking up on the way that women rib each other and puncture  selfishness and pomposity. For me, as a western woman,  it gives me an insight into the lives of women in countries as diverse as Tunisia and Egypt. It gets beyond the usual stereotypes of women in these countries and challenges western views of their lives and hopes for the future.

 

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Posted in book review, Communism, feminism, human rights, Middle East, novels, political women, Socialism, Socialist Feminism, Uncategorized, women | Tagged , | 2 Comments

Letter from Another America……

 

Jane Latour is a freelance writer and author of Sisters in the Brotherhoods Working Women Organizing for Equality in New York City. I asked her to give an activist’s view, both personal and political, on the impact of the election of Donald Trump. Jane quoted Tom Paine These are the times that try men’s souls and I think that that sums up how many activists both in the UK and USA feel.

jane in NY

Jane and trade union comrades

Seven months into the new administration, progressives in the United States are still reeling from the election of Donald J. Trump on November 8th, 2016.  “President Trump” still sounds like an oxymoron. However, Progressives, and women in particular, responded with alacrity–organizing the historically huge women’s marches on January 21st, the day after the inauguration.

Women's_March_on_Washington_(32593123745) 2

Others have followed. Personally, it took me, a Leftist and a feminist, longer to recover.  One fact alone:that 51 percent of women without a college degree voted for Trump – despite all of the revelations about his degrading behavior toward women – sidelined me and sent me into a “why bother” mode.

After spending several months moving through four of the seven stages of grief (shock and denial; pain and guilt; anger and bargaining; depression, loneliness and reflection), slowly, acceptance and hope returned. I started to write again about issues that matter to me.

But fundamental questions remain: How did we get here? And how do we work our way out? The United Kingdom has also experienced eye-opening events that raise the same profoundly fundamental questions–with the Brexit vote, and the fire at Grenfell. They bring to the foreground all of the contradictions of capitalism and of our current “Gilded Age.”

The Guardian perfectly described the fire in the Grenfell Tower as “austerity in ruins,”  writing that   “Symbolism is everything in politics and nothing better signifies the May-Cameron-Osborne era that stripped bare the state and its social and physical protection of citizens.”

The split in my own deeply divided country goes way back. Trump played it perfectly, built his campaign on it, and brought it out of the shadows. But for decades, politicians, both Democrats and Republicans, have “stripped bare’ our communities, exported jobs, enacted so-called “Welfare Reform” and  policies that led to the mass incarceration of African-Americans and people of color; ignored our cities and the ever-escalating problems of poverty.

broken economy 2

America’s broken economy

 

As a trade unionist, I have watched our labor movement become preoccupied with reacting to the wretchedness of these policies and the attacks on workers and the middle-class. The war on workers has been on-going in the extreme since the 1970s. The unions long ago adopted a protective, reactive stance. Now, only 10 percent of working people still enjoy the protections and benefits of union membership. And the trade unions are facing significant challenges as the conservative-led U.S. Supreme Court gets ready to rule on various upcoming arguments which pose existential threats to their ability to function.

Now we are faced with a deeply entrenched political establishment that favors policies extremely detrimental to the populace (aside from the top ten percent), to the environment, and to the future of Planet Earth.

The new people ensconced in power are perfectly epitomized by Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, a fabulously wealthy banker otherwise known as the “Foreclosure King.” During the recession that started in 2008, with the global economy in freefall, millions of foreclosures took place.

But the bank that Mnuchin and his partners purchased and renamed as OneWest, was the most egregious actor. ProPublica released a report shortly after Mnuchin was nominated by Trump to lead the Treasury, documenting the misconduct of this bank, and the aggressive and illegal tactics to foreclose on homeowners. “OneWest was responsible for 39 percent of all foreclosures nationwide, from 2009 through 2014, even though it only serviced about 17 percent of the loans.” As Senator Elizabeth Warren, a banking expert and former Harvard professor described it, “OneWest was notorious for its belligerance and for its cruelty.”

This is but one example of the many rapacious billionaires who are now in place in the U.S. government, implementing policies that further their corporate agenda. Trump and his supporters are fond of the saying, “Drain the Swamp” but this administration has filled the Washington, D.C. swamp with a whole new cast of greedy, self-interested co-conspirators.

Meanwhile, the problems facing ordinary citizens continue to escalate: an  opioid and drug-addiction epidemic that  is now a public health crisis, while homelessness is now a problem in cities and small towns across America eg in New York City the official tally puts the number of homeless people in municipal shelters at 60,717, and the city is planning to set up 90 new shelters.

Stagnant wages; the shredding of environmental protections; the dismissal of scientific, fact-based evidence in the face of a global climate change crisis; the enduring phenomena of segregated housing and schools; the attacks on immigrants across the country; the rising levels of white supremacy and surfacing of neo-Nazis; all of these scourges and more are afflicting our cities and towns, our urban and rural areas. And no help is on the way.

So, the second fundamental question is: how do we work our way out? We are the ones we must depend on. To quote the author Naomi Klein, it’s not enough to say “No.” We have to be the “Yes.”

Labor has to move in a new direction. The same goes for our political organizing. We need new voices; new strategies; and a new vision. It is time to realize that we are in a crisis mode.  How to turn this giant ship-of-state around is the question we need to address. It can be done.

 

In 1964, the Republicans went down to defeat in the national election,when Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater lost in a landslide to  President Lyndon Baines Johnson. Rick Perlstein, the premier historian of the American conservative movement, has documented in voluminous detail (in a highly readable trilogy), how the Right began to organize and has continued to do so over the decades since. They succeeded in convincing a large portion of the country that, “We don’t need no stinkin’ unions.” “We don’t need no stinkin’ government.” “We don’t need no stinkin’ taxes.”  The dismaying, horrifying results are all around us.

Now, we, the Left, Progressives, need to do the difficult, painstaking work of organizing, educating, and agitating. Patiently, we need to connect to our fellow citizens; stop speaking only to ourselves, and work on creating a world where everyone is ensured access to the basics of life: enough food; good health care; a good education; a job with livable wages; shelter. This, and more,  is what is missing from the lives of millions of our fellow citizens, but should be the floor under everyone’s feet.  The preservation of the planet,  peace, and a nuclear-free world, must be part of our agenda.

Trump is an embarrassment, dangerous, vile–a predator, a bully, a miscreant. No list of adjectives will change this reality. But he is also a representative of a system. Now is the time to look to ourselves for solutions:  to organize locally; to challenge the status quo; to speak up and speak out. To connect. And to hope. As the great Irish poet Seamus Heaney wrote:

                                                             History says, Don’t hope

on this side of the grave.

But then, once in a lifetime

the longed-for tidal wave

of justice can rise up

And hope and history rhyme.

And a parody parodying Trump watch

 

Posted in anti-cuts, education, human rights, labour history, political women, Socialism, trade unions, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

My review of Lovers & Strangers An Immigrant History of Post-War Britain Clair Wills

lovers and strangers

 

 

 

Clair Wills has written a fascinating and insightful book  about the role of immigrants in Britain between 1940s and 1960s. Popular history and culture frames post war migration  around the images of the West Indian community and the “Windrush generation,” but this is far from the complete story as  Clair reminds us that Poles, Latvians, Lithuanians, Ukranians, Italians, Maltese, Cypriots, Indians, Pakistanis and the Irish made up this multi-cultural group. And for me, the daughter of Irish migrants, the book’s  recognition  that the Irish were the biggest group – 40,000 per year in the 1950s- is an important addition to the  history of  immigrants in this country.

She dispels the myth that Britain welcomed them for unselfish reasons. “…in the end, however, the needs of the refugees were neither here nor there besides the needs of the countries offering refuge.”  The newcomers provided the labour needed to rebuild the post war economy; jobs that were often  low paid, unskilled and  manual.

One key fact was that,  until  the passing  of the Commonwealth Immigration Act in 1962,  over a quarter of the population of the planet – reflecting the reach of  British Empire – had the right to come and  live in Britain as citizens.

Jamaican immigrants are welcomed off empire windrush

Jamaican migrants welcomed on Windrush

Lovers and Strangers is quite different from most mainstream histories of post war Britain because, as  Clair  says; “I have tried to narrate the the history of migrants’ and refugees encounters with Britain through the experience of migrants themselves, and through contemporary accounts of that experience: contemporary interviews, articles and letters in the local and community press;manifestos; short stories;autobiographies;political essays; as well as oral poetry and folk songs ranging from Irish ballads to Trinadadian calypso, Punjabi qisse and bhangra lyrics.” Or not just how the newcomers looked  to the British but how  the British looked to them.

For West Indians coming to Britain, unlike other migrants, they believed they were coming to the Mother Country. Clair quotes writer and Trinidadian George Lamming. “England lay before us, not as a place or a people , but as a promise and an expectation.”

One group that has been largely forgotten in the history of post war immigration is  the displaced people who were victims of the  post war carve up of Europe between the allies.  Over 85,000 came to Britain.  the British, like most of the Allies, were not particularly principled in their dealings with traumatised groups,  including  Ukranians, Yugoslavs, and  Baltic people, allowing in those that they thought would be useful, rather than those in most need of help. . As Clair points out, ”It is uncomfortable to dwell on the assumptions about class and breeding which lay behind the processes by which they were chosen – so Baltic women, ‘of the same racial background to us’ were taken in preference to Jews.” Again it was a story of solving Britain’s labour shortage,  rather than alleviating the refugee problem.

One of the great strengths of the book is this looking in at British society,  but for me one of its big failings, particularly when documenting the lives of the Irish in Britain, is the absence of an anti-imperialist viewpoint.

You cannot talk about the Irish in Britain without talking about the British in Ireland and the fact that Ireland was Britain’s first colony.  For centuries the Irish moved in and out of Britain,  not just to work but to take part in the struggle for the independence of Ireland.

Missing is any reference to the work done by groups such as the Connolly Association, a group of Irish born and second generation people who had  links to the Communist Party.  During this period from the 1940s-60s the Connolly Association almost singlehandedly raised the issue of the discrimination faced by Catholics in the North of Ireland,  as well as that faced by Irish workers in Britain.

irish democrat 1

Though Clair  does mention  the Connolly Association  newspaper The Irish Democrat and  its interviews with Irish nurses and discrimination, she fails to include  the  role  played  by the CA in consistently raising political issues and fostering the Campaign  for Democacy in Ulster in which Manchester MP Paul Rose played a leading role.   Instead of acknowledging this,  Clair  makes reference to activists such as Eamonn McCann and  fringe groups such  Irish Communist Group and Irish Workers Group, who had minimal influence in Britain.  She mentions Brendan and Dominic Behan as playwrights and singers,  but not  their brother Brian’s activity in  leading one of the biggest building workers strike in the 1960s.

Irish writer Donall McAmhlaigh, whom she quotes extensively from his novels and writings about his life as a manual worker, was a member of the Connolly Association and wrote for The Irish Democrat.  I think he would be upset to know that the political nature of his writings had been reduced to social history.

donall

Donall

Clair weaves in her own history into the narrative,  and this makes for powerful story telling. In 1948 Clair’s  mother made the journey from Cork to join her older sister to work in a psychiatric hospital.  Irish women have a key role in the story of emigration which I feel  Clair fails to  fully acknowledge. In Across the Water,  Irish Women’s Lives in Britain” (1988) the authors Mary Lennon, Marie McAdam and Joanne O’Brien documented the fact that at various times over the last century  more Irish women than Irish men have come to live in Britain and that their experiences have been largely ignored.  They firmly locate the Irish and women in a political context,  and specifically  giving space to women who were activists in their trade union and political organisations.

across the water

 Lovers and Strangers is a well written and accessible social  history  book. We get an insider’s view of what living in Britain was like for a very diverse group of newcomers. Post war British society was changed by the new immigrants,   and continues to change in ways that for many of us in 2017  we do not even notice.  And whilst Clair does ensure that her community, the Irish, are given a significant role in the story, it is one that  I feel is not fully given its true historical context.

Brexit is the latest challenge to the notion of what it means to be British. Nowadays it is the thousands of EU citizens who have lived in this country for many years who are having to decide whether to stay or go. And once again the Irish and their descendants are caught up in the real politics of Britain’s  role in the North of Ireland. For many  Irish descendants who never thought about themselves as  Irish are now rushing to get Irish passports to stop themselves being locked out of the EU,  rather than as an assertion of Irish identity.

Unfortunately Lovers & Strangers costs £25. If you can buy it here

Posted in book review, education, feminism, human rights, Ireland, Irish second generation, labour history, Manchester, NHS, North of Ireland, political women, trade unions, Uncategorized, women | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments