My Review of The Unwomanly Face of War by Svetlana Alexievich

the unwomanly

 

It is only recently that women in the UK have been able to take up frontline roles in the armed forces but in liberation struggles across the world from Northern Ireland to present day Northern Iraq there are plenty of women who have taken up guns to defend their country.

 

YPG 2

YPG women in N.Iraq

In this newly published book, it came out in the Soviet Union in 1985 but was heavily censored,  The Unwomanly Face of War, we learn about the motivations of women during the Great Patriotic War  ( aka Second World War)  who decided that they wanted to fight for their country and way of life.

The author, Svetlana Alexievich, has  a track record in producing books that challenge the orthodoxy of the Soviet Union and present day Russia. In previous books she has covered the war in Afghanistan and the disaster of Chernobyl.

But her books are not just exposes of state criminality but they start from the point of view of the individuals concerned. They are oral histories of how women, men and children felt about the circumstances of their times. She was born into the Soviet Union in 1948 and much of her analysis is about the massive changes that have taken place in the post Soviet Union era and how it has affected  individuals.

This is a deeply personal book. Svetlana is not one for objectivity nor laboured intellectual analysis. The book begins with her challenging herself about the times she grew up in and the way in which the Soviet involvement in the Great Patriotic War (1941-45) was a constant theme of her childhood and youth.

“The war was remembered all the time: at school and at home, at weddings and christenings, at celebrations and wakes.”  Not surprising when you consider that half of the country was occupied by the Nazis and 20 million people died over 4 years. As she says; “We were the children of Victory.”

Challenging this orthodoxy, particularly the role of Soviet women, was not easy and in this new edition she includes the conversations she had with the Soviet censor. When Svetlana exposes the barbarism of war, the fear of the women, she is told; “Who will go to fight after such books? You humiliate women with a primitive naturalism.  Heroic women. You dethrone them.”

woman and rifle

 

The power of this book is the testimonies of the 200 individual women and the way in which they lay bare their joy, fear, hatred and despair in their individual stories- told only in a way that women do expose their lives to other women. “We’ll eat pies. I’ve been fussing about since morning….  the hostess greets me cheerfully on the threshold. “We can talk later. And weep our fill…”

For Svetlana her research took over her life. “With it began a search that went on for seven years, seven extraordinary and tormenting years, during which I was to discover for myself the world of war, a world the meaning of which we cannot fully fathom.”

A million women took part in the Great Patriotic War. From doctors and engineers to snipers and partisans. Many of them were very young; some as young as fourteen.  One young woman commented that her preparations to go to the front included packing a suitcase full of candy and her class picture.

Many of them went with a determination to defend their motherland and that is a constant theme in their stories. Even children of political prisoners and victims of Stalin,  wanted to go to war. One young woman said; “The grown-ups wept, but we weren’t afraid; we assured each other that within a month we’d “beat the fascists’ brains out.”

soviet women snipers

Women snipers

For some women the war came to them as the Nazis occupied their villages. Women joined the underground, one had a small baby.  “I used to go on missions with her. The commissar would send me off, and weep himself.”

women partisans in Ukraine

women partisans in the Ukraine

Running alongside all these harrowing stories is Svetlana’s personal response to them and how the women’s stories did not fit in with the story of victory that the government had promoted. She did not want the story of what happens in a war but she did want to know; “What happened to human beings? What did human beings see and understand there? About life and death in general? About themselves?…. I am writing a history of the soul…the history of small human beings, thrown out of ordinary life into the epic depths of an enormous event. Into great History.”

This is not just a great history book but is a template for future oral histories of women and working class lives. War has not gone away and the experiences of women in this book can be mirrored in many conflicts across the world today.

 

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Posted in book review, Communism, education, feminism, labour history, political women, Socialism, Socialist Feminism, Uncategorized, women, working class history, young people | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Political Women: Sandy Rose, Socialist, Feminist, Trade Unionist

 

In this occasional series I ask the question; why do some women become political activists?  Sandy Rose was part of the post war generation that lived at a time of great hope, this is her story………..

sandy

“I was born in 1945 and my parents were very conservative and narrow minded”. Sandy left school at 17  and then worked in a library for a year before going to university at 18.

In order to do a degree she had to  overcome both her parent’s objections and their refusal to make the parental contribution to her state grant. In order to support herself she worked in various jobs,  including  one at the London Zoo.

In 1967  Sandy went to the London School of Economics to do a postgraduate diploma in social administration.  LSE was then  a hotbed of radicalism,  and it was there that Sandy met her future husband, Brian Rose.  “He was the first dustbin man from Kent to go into higher education and was involved in the big sit-in at LSE in 1968.”She also met her best friend Celia and her then huband, Brian.  Unlike Sandy; “They were all very left wing whereas I had no interest in politics up to then. I gradually became drawn into their way of thinking and went on all the anti-Vietnam war demos.”

She took part in the Grosvenor Square demonstration in 1968 with her new friends. “Celia and I were very scared as thousands of people were in the Square and were pushing towards the American Embassy. Suddenly a row of enormous police horses was galloping at full pelt towards us. We all turned and ran as fast as possible over the low chain link fence in any direction. We got away without trouble. After that we all joined the International Socialists and that was the start of my political life.”,   I.S. was   a small Trotskyist organisation  founded in 1950 whose leading figure was Tony Cliff.  In 1977 it became the Socialist Workers Party.

Sandy joined IS because “I was convinced that parliamentary reformism would not change anything. And after the LSE sit in  and anti-war demonstrations all over the world that revolution on the streets was the only way forward”.

She was not alone and her friends also decided to join, inspired by the leadership of  I.S. Looking back she acknowledges, “I was also rebelling against my parents.”

In the 1960s students  in Britain were inspired by events in places as diverse as the student protests in Paris at the Sorbonne in May 1968, the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa and the protests in the USA against war in Vietnam. Occupying the LSE was part of the ideology of revolution that worked its way through the universities of the UK. The chant was  “London, Paris, Rome, Berlin, we shall fight and we shall win!” Sandy says;  “It was exciting, it was positive, and we just knew we were going to change the world”.

 

LSE 2

But 1968 for Sandy meant a job as a social worker in Hackney. Home life meant that she worked as Brian completed his teacher training course and,  like a  good wife,  she made sure that he had breakfast each morning! Outside  work both she and Brian  were  members of Fulham IS and active in anti-Vietnam protests.

Surprisingly perhaps, they got  married in 1969. “We were living together,  but we did it to please my Mum,  who was religious. It was what people did in those days”, admits Sandy.

Life within IS was not radical for women,  even though the Women’s Liberation Movement was questioning women’s role in society. “The view of the party was that it was class that was the unifying factor and that feminism would divide the sexes.”

IS did have a women’s magazine Women’s Voice but,  but the editorial  team was seen as too middle class.

 

womens voice

Sandy began to question the role of social work in society and  became a founding member of a revolutionary social work organisation called “Case Con” with friends Celia and Bob Deacon which started in 1970. Jeremy Weinstein, another founding member, commented; “We were, then, part of an explicitly anti-capitalist movement that rejected traditional authority and struggled to find instead new ways of living and relating, both personally and professionally.”

Sandy says,  “We campaigned for fundamental change in social work from challenging the concept of case work to recognising poverty as the main cause for families with problems”. Later she became the northern correspondent of the organisation’s journal, which also called Case Con. One of the campaigns she was involved called on Manchester City Council to remove the source of methane gas on an estate which caused a man to nearly get killed when his cigarette blew up just outside his house. The estate was built on an old tip.

Case-con 1977

In the early 1970s Sandy and Brian moved up to the north-west. They set up an IS branch in Salford and it became their social grouping. Sandy worked at the local college,  and as a medical social worker in a children’s hospital.

Sandy was an active member of her union Nalgo, and says  she enjoyed recruiting workers both  to the union  – and  to IS. But it was when NUPE nursing auxillaries went on strike at the hospital she became active in the campaign. “I helped produce leaflets and supported them. Their shop steward was right wing and did little to help the women”. The strike failed,  and Sandy was reprimanded for supporting the strikers by her management. She says; “Nalgo did not approve of my role in supporting the strike. I used to attend the Nalgo  National Conference because the other union officers were not interested”.

NUPE 2

In 1974 she was pregnant with her first child, Danny, and gave up work. “It was the norm for women in those days, and I do believe that children are better off with their mothers at that early age”.  Sandy’s life in IS continued though. “I was District secretary of the District and we had premises on Deansgate in Manchester,  so I used to work for the party”.

Manchester in the 1970s was still  a city with many factories and engineering workshops and  a radical tradition of sit ins and strikes. IS members were active during this industrial activity. Sandy and Brian were the only couple with children in their IS Branch,  but other members were supportive. “We had a babysitting rota  and the male members were very good”. But IS was a very macho organisation,  and Sandy says; “I felt I was not taken seriously because I could not do the early morning paper sales (of the IS paper Socialist Worker) or  go on the picket lines”.

She went back to work in 1976,  and her son Danny went to the college nursery. ”I worked about 20 hours a week in two jobs. Brian’s involvement in childcare was nil”.

By the early 80s she had drifted out of  the SWP. Her marriage had broken up,  and she was now a single parent with two sons aged  6  and 11. “I did not feel that the SWP were child friendly, and they got even less so, and I thought my kids were getting neglected”.

Sandy  worked for the Citizens Advice Bureau part-time,  but was then diagnosed with ME. This meant she was off work for long periods and felt vulnerable about her job. “I spoke to my trade union, ASTMS, but they said they could not do anything”. Luckily she had a supportive manager,  and being a highly skilled worker , she was valued for her work as a trainer and doing benefit appeals.

Politically  Sandy’s activity changed and , like many parents, she now  focussed on a local level. “I attended my union meetings,  and went on demos with the kids. I was a school governor,  and got involved with an anti-bullying campaign”.

Sandy  still sees herself as a feminist but  says, “I have not found any women’s group that is worth joining”.

Neither of  her  sons have been involved with political parties but, according to Sandy,   “Joe comments on politics through his anti-capitalist blog and,  since Jeremy Corbyn  became leader of the Labour Party,  my older son has joined. Both of them voted Labour in the General Election”.

Sandy still believes that society needs a radical change. “I voted Labour,  but it is not an anti-capitalist party. We need a united front of progressive people”.

Although now  in her early 70’s Sandy still sees being in a trade union as crucial. “I could not not  be in a union. I am still in Unite and try to get to meetings. I support the work of groups such as Tameside against the Cuts and wish I could help out with their work on benefits. I enjoy going to meetings and support the Mary Quaile Club”.

And her advice to young people……..”Don’t join the SWP because it is no longer democratic.  Campaign for a united left organisation through union work”

Posted in anti-cuts, biography, Communism, education, feminism, human rights, labour history, Manchester, NHS, political women, Salford, Socialism, Socialist Feminism, trade unions, Uncategorized, women, working class history, young people | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

My review of “Struggle or Starve, Working Class Unity in Belfast’s 1932 Outdoor Relief Riots” by Sean Mitchell

s or s

“Struggle or Starve” could be an epithet for  UK in 2017  as the government pursues its policy of persecuting the poor. In this new book Sean Mitchell, socialist and founder of Ireland’s People before Profit Party,   reminds us  of an important part of Belfast history when Protestants and Catholics united to oppose a draconian Poor Law. It’s more than just a history book,  as  Sean shows  us that the conditions of the poor in Belfast in the 1930s had a direct relationship with the creation of the  Northern Ireland state in 1920,  and its continued existence today.

Northern Ireland was created as a one party state to enshrine  Protestant hegemony. But as the economic depression took hold after 1929 the position of both Catholics and Protestant workers reached a catastrophic condition of  poverty and hunger. Unlike in  Britain and over the border in the south of Ireland,  the 1834 Poor Law was never repealed in Northern Ireland. Unemployment reached 40% in 1932:  tens of thousands faced starvation. The Poor Law system failed to address the scale of the crisis, while  the Protestant government did not care.

Out of this crisis a small group of communists called the Revolutionary Communist Group seized the moment. Mitchell vividly brings to life this fantastic story of how individuals such as Tommy Geehan led a campaign of mass demonstrations, sit-ins in workhouse,  and strikes,  culminating in two days of rioting in 1932. The motto of the campaign was; “No surrender to poverty, misery and destitution.”

out-door-relief-2 march

Outdoor Relief Workers March

Geehan and his comrades had also to combat  prejudice between Protestant and Catholic workers. But he was able to  show  that these workers had more in common with each other than the Protestant upper classes who ran the statelet.

After two days of rioting the government gave in and doubled the rate of poor relief and modified the Means Test. The lessons of 1932 went o nto to influence other workers such as railway workers, mainly Protestant,  who sought solidarity with their southern Catholic  comrades in a strike in 1933.

Struggle or Starve is not just a book about a very important struggle of 1932. Mitchell demonstrates  how the rottenness of the Northern Ireland state dominates workers’ lives and futures on the island of Ireland in 2017. This well-written and captivating history of 1932 is an important step in showing people that people in Northern Ireland have more to gain from a united class struggle than sectarianism.

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Posted in anti-cuts, book review, Communism, human rights, Ireland, labour history, North of Ireland, Uncategorized, working class history | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

My review of “A Manual for Cleaning Women” by Lucia Berlin

lucia berlin 1

I love this novel for lots of reasons,  but primarily because it is written about the people who rarely get any publicity but who  are the people who  make a bigger contribution to creating a good society than anyone else. It’s about cleaners, nursing auxillaries and clerks while its settings are the unglamorous parts  of the USA, Chile and Mexico. It’s  about laundromats and public buses, it’s about  drinking,  racism and  abortions. In short it’s  about real life.

The writer, Lucia Berlin, is worth a whole book written just about her life. She was  American, the daughter of a mining engineer, who spent her life as a child and adult travelling across the USA. She was married several times,  had four sons and existed on low paid jobs until near the end of her life  when she got work at a college teaching creative writing.

lucia berlin 2

Lucia Berlin

Lucia was an alcoholic and  died comparatively young, at   just 68, and  sadly her writing only became famous after she died. I came across this book after moaning on Twitter about the lack of books by and about working class life. Lucky for me I could find one of her books in my local library in  East Manchester.

In A Manual for Cleaning Women we get an insight into  Lucia’s life and that of countless anonymous working class women who work in the low waged and low value labour market.

Underlying many of the stories is  alcoholism, something that Lucia struggled with most of her life. One of the most tragic stories is Unmanageable. An unnamed woman wakes up with the DT’s. She needs a drink and to stop herself shaking she sits on the floor and starts to read the titles of books in her bookcase. “Concentrate, read them out loud. Edward Abbey, Chinua Achebe, Sherwood Anderson, Jane Austen, Paul Auster, don’t skip, slow down. By the time she had read the whole wall of books she was better.” Later on we find out her children are asleep in the room next door and have taken her wallet and keys to  try to stop her going for drink. It doesn’t work.

In the story A Manual for Cleaning Women we get the lowdown on a cleaner’s life. “Try to work for Jews or blacks. You get lunch. But mostly Jewish and black women respect work, the work you do, and also they are not at all ashamed of spending the entire day doing absolutely nothing. They are paying you, right?”

Waiting is what you do in hospitals and I have often spent my time watching the behaviour of the staff. In Temps Perdu the story begins. “I’ve worked in hospitals for years now and if there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s that the sicker the patients are the less noise they make.”

Many of the stories are grim, small little tragedies of normal everyday life. But I laughed out loud reading. Electric Car, El Paso.  An elderly woman drives an electric car  at 15mph down the freeway.  The writer and her grandmother join her.“So slow we went that I saw things in a way I never had before. Through time, like watching someone sleep, all night.” The two elderly women end every sentence with a quote from the Bible.  There is a hilarious encounter with a policeman who “stomped around and got into the patrol car, gunned his engine and roared off, sirens wailing right through a red light, crash into the tan end of an Oldsmobile and then crash again, into the front end of a pickup truck.”  Brilliant.

At the heart of Lucia’s stories is a kindness towards the people she writes about. They are not all heroes- many of them dissolute and harsh- but she portrays them as real people with complex characters and struggling to get by in life. The stories include references – many of them literary but also to one of my heroes Tom Paine – as well as stories about Communism and the influence of left wing politics.

It is a life that many people lead,  one that gets little publicity in the mainstream media.  We need more stories like these,  but most of all we need to get more writers like Lucia Berlin.

If you cannot borrow it from your local library, you can buy it here

Posted in book review, Communism, drama, feminism, Uncategorized, women, working class history | Tagged , | 2 Comments

My review of “Winter Hill” by Timberlake Wertenbaker at Bolton Octagon

Winter Hill, towering over Bolton, is an iconic landmark to people in the northwest: one that in 1896   pushed  thousands of activists to march to it to demand the right to roam. In a new play called Winter Hill, playwright Timberlake Wertenbaker, uses the landmark to explore modern day themes about women’s political activity and to what ends should people go to to  defend their community.

1896 mass roam

In 2017 the numbers of older women involved in politics is notable. The play touches on an important theme: how do you feel if you have been politically active over many decades but now feel, in the face of rampant capitalism – in this case the selling off of land on Winter Hill for a luxury hotel that will be the preserve of the rich -a sense of hopelessness about how you can  ever change anything.

As five women of a book club descend on Winter Hill,  two of them decide that change is only going to come if they threaten violent actions. Dolly, played superbly by Denise Black, outlines the arguments for abandoning their lifelong belief in non-violent direct action, while  Vivien, a refugee from a war zone  played by  Souad Faress,  has the technology at her fingertips, although she does not get to say much. The other women are not so sure and Beth, played with passion  by Louise Jameson, challenges Dolly,  throwing back at her their lifelong adherence to democracy and their sense of loyalty to each other.

denise black

Denise Black

For Irene, played by Cathy Tyson, it is her commitment to 30 years of being a councillor and making small improvements that is most important, even though she recognises that the Council has been deceived by the  international property developers over the new hotel.

cathy tyson

Cathy Tyson

At the heart of the play is a big gap: we know what the women are against including everything from nuclear weapons to the closure of local services,  but what is not made clear is any idea of what the women are for. Maybe it is a dilemma faced by many women and men today. People are looking for hope for the future; this can be seen in the flashmob nature of people turning out at women’s marches and rallies for Jeremy Corbyn. But beyond a reflex about not wanting what we are being offered by the powerful,  there is little real debate about how we are going to  achieve real change . And whilst these issues are touched on in the play, none of the women seem desperate enough or unhappy enough to threaten to use a bomb to blow up a symbol of everything they oppose.

winter hill 4

Winter Hill  puts at the heart of current  political debate the views of women and their choices and, combined with a clever script and some brilliant acting,  makes this an engaging and prescient play.

Book to see Winter Hill at Bolton Octagon until 3 June see

Read more about women activists in Northern ReSisters Conversations with Radical Women see

Posted in anti-cuts, drama, feminism, labour history, NHS, Northern ReSisters Conversations with Radical Women, political women, Socialist Feminism, Uncategorized, women, working class history | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Remembering Eddie Frow: Communist, Trade Union Activist, Historian…

eddie and book

Today it is twenty years since Eddie Frow died.  In his long life Eddie embodied the way in which Communism shaped the life of a man who was an activist in his trade union, a historian, a writer, a rambler, an opera lover… and so much more.

I met Eddie and Ruth  for the first time in 1981. At first  they  seemed to come from a completely different era. My political education was  built on my parents’ mix of socialism, Catholicism  and Irish Republicanism,   combined with my own experience of being at University in the late 1970s and with  being a shop steward in local government in  Thatcher’s  Britain. We should not have got on but we did, and I had many conversations with Eddie about being a shop steward, discussing  the problems I faced with my own union. His view was that as a trade union activist you often  spend most of your time fighting the people supposedly on your side.

Ruth and Eddie never seemed “old” to me. They were happy to come with my partner and me to watch foreign films at the Cornerhouse art cinema and were always interested in the dynamics of present day politics. They were generous with their time, knowledge and always ready to listen.  In her 70s Ruth took on getting a computer and grappling with new technology which gave her a new window into life.

Eddie was from a rural background, born on 6  June  1906 on a farm in Lincolnshire. His father had a chequered career,  finally settling the family in a mining village in Wakefield whilst he worked in the local mining office. Eddie went to the village school and was one of the top students. But for the First World War, he probably would have gone to the grammar school,  but instead he went to a technical school for boys where he was prepared for  entering  an apprenticeship at 16.

At home Eddie and his sister  Millicent played the violin and piano and sang  hymns with family and  neighbours. At the age of 13 his father bought him H.G.Wells’ Short History of the World, which  began his life-long  love of reading and laid the foundations for his own exploration of ideas and philosophy about the world.

His worklife started  when at 16  he started his apprenticehip at an engineering firm in Wakefield. He  joined the Communist Party in Leeds , recalling “There was a fantastic feeling that yes, there was going to be a revolution in Britain and it was going to be tomorrow.”

Through the CP  his political education began as he was guided by a comrade, Lou Davies, and introduced to Frederick Engels’ Socialism, Utopian and Scientific, Daniel de Leon’s Two Pages from Roman History,  and Bogdanov’s Short Course in Economic Science.

Eddie lived at a time of great hope for working class people with the rise of socialism and the Russian Revolution of 1917. It was also a time of great misery,  including mass unemployment and an economic worldwide crisis started in  1929 by the Wall Street Crash.

Unemployment for Eddie was a constant theme throughout his life:  he worked in 21 engineering factories and he was blacklisted, victimised and sacked for his militant actions.

He was a lifelong member of the Amalgamated Engineering Union and active in the Minority Movement in the trade unions. This had been formed in 1922 by Harry Politt and other Communists in the engineering trade as part of the Red International of Trade Unions. Their aim was  the speedy overthrow of capitalism and establishment of workers’ states.

eddie and aeu

In 1930 he went to Moscow as a delegate of the British Commission of the Communist International which was  investigating the role of the British Communist Party. At this time the CP’s membership had declined  as had  its influence in the wider labour movement, because it was attacking the Labour Party as a capitalist party no different to the Tories.

But the CP played a major role in setting up the National Union of Unemployed Workers which fought for the rights of the unemployed. In 1931  the unemployed, including Eddie, numbered  well over two million. Eddie  became one of the leaders of the Salford Unemployed Workers’ Movement.  Opposition to further cuts in benefits led to the notorious Battle of Bexley Square where the SUWM march to the Town hall  was attacked by  the police and Eddie was  sentenced to five months in prison.

nuuw

From 1934 onwards Eddie was back in work, involved  again with trade union activity as well as taking on the big issues of that era , including the rise of Fascism, the threat of war and support for  the Spanish Republic.

In 1939 the CP were not supportive of the Second World War, because of  Stalin’s  pact with Hitler,  and suffered a loss of membership an d credibility,  but after June 1941 when  the Soviet Union  was invaded  by Nazi Germany  and  joined in the “People’s War” against Fascism,  membership of the CP trebled.  But this harmonious relationship between the victors in  1945 did not lead to a better world. As Eddie commented; “There was this hope of a new world. There was this hope that when the war was over, when fascism was defeated, there would be a new set-up, not only politically but industrially. But it was just an illusion really.”

Post-war Eddie became more involved in his union and the CP. This led to the end of his marriage by which time his son, Eric,  was 16 years old. In May 1953 Eddie  went to a CP school on labour history and met Ruth Engels. She said; “From that moment Eddie’s life and mine became inextricably mixed.” After the summer school Eddie went for a meal at Ruth’s digs, noted that her books were complementary to his,  and they made plans for her to move to Manchester to live with him. The rest, as they say, is history.

Eddie and Ruth did not have any children, you could say the Working Class Movement Library  was their child. It started in 1957 when Jack Klugman,  a CP tutor and historian, came to their house and commented on the amount of wall space they had,  and how it could be filled with books  as in  his house. He advised them to study labour history and start collecting material related to it. And Ruth says; “The Library began on its unstoppable expansion from that day.”

kings road

Kings Road

Their life now became an exploration of bookshops across the country,  spending their weekends and holidays collecting valuable and rare additions to the stock. They also used the material they collected producing articles for journals, pamphlets  and  books.

At the same time Ruth and Eddie were still working full-time, visiting their family and continuing their CP branch activities with  Daily Worker (now Morning Star) sales and leafleting.

In 1987 the WCML,  which was  bursting  out of their house in King’s Road, Old  Trafford, entered a new phase when Salford Labour Council offered them premises on the Crescent opposite Salford University. The offer, which they accepted, included a librarian, two library assistants and a caretaker. Ruth and Eddie settled into the flat within the building.

wcml building

WCML

Over the years through the WCML Ruth and Eddie made the history of the trade union and labour movement available to anyone who walked through the door. They were enthusiasts,  and their own experience of activism made the history come alive to individuals and groups who came through the always open front  door. To this day, people mention not just their in-depth knowledge of labour history,   but their compassion and humility that they shared with all visitors.

Eddie Frow died in 1997. He was a Communist until the day he died; he never gave up on the idea of creating a society that would put people first and stop the exploitation of the working classes. Tom Paine was his hero, and the library has a unique collection of his work, but it was Paine’s view of the world that summed up both Ruth and Eddie’s.  “The World is my country. All men are my brothers. And to do good is my religion.”

Find out more about Ruth and Eddie in this brilliant film

Writer Mike Crowley wrote a brilliant poem about Eddie.

Eddie Frow:  Previous Generation.

 

Carried the past inside him

Tucked it up sleeves and baggy clothes

inside tins at the back of wardrobes,

In rooms gone spare, in a decade gone cold.

They must be feeling it, those

who gave their all for the world we know,

(or thought we did a while ago).

Held up a vision in rain and snow.

on street corners and shop floors,

from the front of hope filled halls,

going from door to door, peddling a conscience.

For all this and more before the War.

Before all this, a point in spotting trains

caps and hands tossed in the air, rifles in Spain,

and there, behind the barricades

man again, with freedom to sacrifice.

Few remember them now, the old times.

in the rush to clear out,

grab our things and flee the council house,

something dear was left behind.

Precious those who sweep up after us

filtering the dust for gems

that belong to us. Keeping in touch

with those before us.

Edmund Frow filled a house and more,

with facts and stories from roof to floor.

Left them there, for those who want to ask.

He knew how precious we are, about the past.

Posted in Communism, education, human rights, labour history, Manchester, political women, Socialism, trade unions, Uncategorized, working class history, young people | Tagged , | 3 Comments

Political Women; Lisa Turnbull: Single Mum, Durham Teaching Assistant, campaigner

lisa 2

Lisa Turnbull did not want to be a political campaigner but in 2015  her employer Labour-controlled Durham County Council told her and  2,700 of her fellow  Teaching Assistants  that their highly skilled work  would be downgraded  and  their  pay  cut by 23%.

It’s only women’s work….

She says, “I just had to do something. I was so angry, and still am, but I have to stand up for what I believe in.“  95% of the TAs are women, who work with children and, like many other groups of women workers –  such as care workers, cleaners and catering staff – face managements who  label their work as women’s work that is not skilled or valued. But over the last few years those women are fighting back in campaigns for cleaners, care workers and TAs.

durham march 3

 Northern radical roots….

Lisa comes from a part of the country that had a dyed in the wool radical tradition  born out of the mining union  and its  close connection with the Labour Party. Forty years on and all has changed. There is little industry, unemployment is rife,  and disillusionment with the Labour Party and trade unions has hollowed out that radical tradition.

Her background is like that of many working class families in areas such as Durham. “My Dad has always been a Labour man until now:  he will no longer vote Labour.” Her father had a tradition of being in a union. “When he worked in factories he was a shop steward and when he had an accident the union supported him. He always encouraged me to be in a union.” In 1990, when she got her job, she joined  Unison and regularly paid her dues but otherwise  had no involvement in the union.

But in 2015 her employer, a Labour Council, threatened her job and her livelihood when  57 Labour party councillors voted to sack them on New Year’s Eve and reinstate them on New Year’s Day on inferior contracts.

Women, doing it for themselves….

Her union Unison were slow at defending the largely women workforce.  Lisa  says; “In the beginning we had to fight the union and I found that hard.” But the women did what women are good at,  organising themselves. They set up their own  campaign  Durham Teaching Assistants Value Us Campaign and   used social media to bring together  a workforce of 2700 Teaching Assistants who  are scattered across the county and often isolated in schools. Their first banner was made up from  broomsticks bought from Home Bargains.

durham ta logo

As well as challenging the local council they  have taken their campaign across the country – from the Durham Miners Gala to trade union meetings and conferences . Last month they had their own rally in the town centre which attracted trade unions and supporters locally and nationally from  Alan Cummings (Secretary of Durham Miners Association), Unison, ATL, NUT to the FBU London and Bolton Unison.Lisa says; “Before I would have spent my Saturday shopping instead I stood on a concrete bollard addressing 1000 people.”

But their focus is on the betrayal they feel by the local Labour Council. Lisa is categorical,   “They are Labour cuts.” And the Durham TAs  are using the local elections to name and shame the 57 councillors who voted for the cuts to their jobs. Lisa feels that through their campaign they have hit a nerve in Durham generally about the Labour council. “It is a Labour stronghold but there is a lot of unrest. People are asking questions because of the stand we have made.”

list of shame

Passing it onto the next generation….

For all political activists there is a personal cost, particularly if you are a single parent like Lisa. “My daughter is 17, over the last two years I have been out campaigning, sometimes until 9pm at night. But I believe that you have to stand up for what you believe in and I am passing that onto her.”

And it’s not just her own daughter that Lisa is talking to. When Lisa and the Durham TAs  went on strike she spoke to her class about why she did it. “Its really important to explain to children that if you do not believe in something that you have to stand up and say “no” emphasises Lisa,  “And it is important to educate the next generation about our campaign.”

strike 2

Making history…..

suffragette dora thewlis

16 year old suffragette Dora Thewlis

Knowing your own history of radicalism is key to people feeling confident in challenging unfair and unjust treatment.  The Durham T.A.’s are part of a radical history of women workers fighting for their rights.  They are documenting their struggle by keeping a record of all their blog posts, tweets, fliers and posters, teeshirts and letters received. Lisa has a book in which she is recording her speeches and  the poems she has written during the last  two years.

Nearly two years on Lisa says her main feeling about the campaign is “Anger”. Like many people who make that decision to challenge authority it is the personal cost that really take its toll. She says; “I am not going to be the same ever again.But I am fighting for something better. I have to do this, I have to be able to look myself and my daughter in the eye.”

Come and listen to Lisa speak at the launch of the Manchester and Salford Women’s TUC on Saturday 29th  April at 2. 15pm in the Mary Quaile room at the Manchester Mechanics Institute , 103 Princess Street.

Read about the Durham Teaching Assistants campaign here

Posted in anti-cuts, education, feminism, human rights, labour history, political women, Socialist Feminism, trade unions, Uncategorized, women, working class history, young people | Tagged , | 2 Comments