Book Review; Rebel Crossings New Women,Free Lovers and Radicals in Britain and the United States by Sheila Rowbotham

rebel-crossings

 

For Sheila Rowbotham history is both personal and political. In her latest book, Rebel Crossings, she links the lives of the six main characters – and their quest for a better world  – with her own history of political activism across five decades. In the introduction  Sheila explains  that for her,  as  a socialist feminist historian,   “a continuing preoccupation has been how to comprehend the elusive interaction of inner feelings and the external expression of resistance.” Unlike many historians who live in an academic world, speak only to other academics and spend their time promoting each other’s  books, Sheila produces books that are relevant to the lives we are leading in 2016, and are written in an engaging and accessible way.

Sheila  is like the Miss Marple of the history world: I love her comment, “Being a nosy person, committed to digging about in bits of the past buried in layers of obscurity, on I went.” And the story of how she went about her research for Rebel Crossings is as fascinating as the history she has uncovered.

Rebel Crossings  started for Sheila way back in the 1970s when she came across a book  in the British Library “Whitman’s Ideal Democracy and other writings by Helena Born with a biography by The Editor, Helen Tufts”. But it was only in 2008 that Sheila began following the trail of not just Helena and Helen but four other characters in this story  of people trying  not only  to change society, but themselves as well.

Like Sheila I am fascinated as to how and why individuals become political activists,  and this is a thread running through the book. Helena Born, who is one of the gang of six moved to Bristol in 1876 with her family, which was a catalyst for change in her life. Lucky for Sheila, Helena kept a scrapbook in which she charted how she went from being  a devout young woman to a supporter of radical local and international campaigns through organisations such as the Bristol Women’s Liberal Association. It was through the BWLA that Helena met  her lifetime friend Miriam Daniell, a friendship that catapulted her physically and emotionally into a new way of living – and a journey across the world.

Miriam’s story then leads us to the next protagonist,  Robert Allan Nicol, a Scottish man, who  was living in a country which was alive with rebellious movements from nationalism to campaigns around birth control. He followed Miriam to Bristol and became secretary of the militant  Gas Workers and General Labourers Union.

Unlike Helena, Miriam and Robert, William Bailie came from a Belfast working class background who pursued  his dreams of revolution onto the streets of Manchester whilst  linking up with anarchists and secularists. An early marriage at 18 meant that he had a wife and children to support whilst trying to educate himself. But it was when he exchanged Manchester for Boston in the USA that William managed to break free from the basket trade and  went to work for a radical newspaper, meeting  people who would open up his life to new  and fulfilling relationships.

Boston in the late 1890s becomes the axis for William, Helena and Helen Tufts to meet up and cement life long relationships. Helen Tufts was the only American amongst the rebels,  and the only one that  came from a revolutionary background.  She started writing a journal when she was twelve, which Sheila was able to access, commenting that; “the journal chronicles her metamorphosis from a Massachusetts Unitarian girlhood into a Boston new woman.”

Gertrude Dix came from Bristol and a conservative High Anglican family, but she moved to London and became part of its  literary scene which was  more broadminded in those days including socialists in groups as such  as the Independent Labour Party through  to anarchists. Her dreams of a freer life led her in 1902 to abandon this bohemian lifestyle and  join Robert in an old mining town in California.

All of the six were living at a momentous time with not just a progressive political culture but one that included cultural icons as diverse as socialist and free thinker Edward Carpenter, American poet Walt Whitman, William Blake’s poetry and the progressive plays of Ibsen. They lived in a time of great inequality and injustice but this led to the birth and growth of ideologies such as anarchism and socialism, vibrant  political movements that challenged the staus quo.

Weaving through the book is not just the politics of the six but their drive for personal self fulfilment. Today it is hard to imagine how constricting life was for women, even ones with education and self-confidence, in this period. But as we get to know Helena, Helen, Miriam and Gertrude we see and feel their pain, joy, anger and disappointment in striving for a sense of self,  as well as a better society to live in.

Sheila first discovered the six rebels when she was involved in radical politics believing, as you do, that society was going to be turned upside down. And for her, like many activists, our dreams have not been realised:  she comments; “Like many in my generation, I accept this reality rationally, but emotionally find it ineffably baffling.” In 2016 we need stories of hope and Rebel Crossings for me is inspiring and prescient. Can these stories get beyond the usual exclusive academic world? Will both new and experienced activists get to meet the six rebels and so be inspired to start and keep fighting inequality and injustice? The book costs £25 so maybe you can borrow it from the local library or if you can afford it (maybe together with some mates) buy it from

Posted in book review, Communism, education, feminism, labour history, Manchester, political women, Socialism, Socialist Feminism, trade unions, Uncategorized, women, working class history, young people | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Read my weekly roundup of radical arts and politics…I Daniel Blake,Birdsong; Stories From Pripyat,Off Beat:Jeff Nuttall and the International Underground, Scapegallows

Stop look listen

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Watch

i-daniel-blake

I, Daniel Blake for free next Sunday, 25 September, through this link.  Like many of Ken Loach’s films it’s a polemic about the state of society in the UK today. For people who are living the lives of modern day Daniels and their supporters  it’s nothing new, but for those unaware of the descent of ordinary working class people into the austerity state it will be shocking. The film will not change the government’s policy, nor shame Labour councils across the northwest who are just “following orders”, but it is a call-out to everyone else to support all the Daniels (and Danielle’s) at their local Job Centre such as  Ashton-u-Lyne each Thursday morning see.

Remember

birdsong-stories-from-pripyat

Chernobyl, and celebrate its links with the north west. In the late 80s I remember going on a coach trip across the Peak District that Manchester TUC had organised for Belarus trade unionists; we wanted to show them the beautiful countryside but they wanted to buy frying pans and black plastic bags! We made sure they did both. In this new film Birdsong; Stories From Pripyat, a town only 3 miles from Chernobyl, there is new archive film footage from the Ukraine, as well as a new live music score that incorporates the oral testimonies of the residents of Pripyat and the people who came to the north west to escape the devastation that Chernobyl caused in the region. Find out more here  See it at Home on 30 September details

 Look

jeff-nuttall

Off Beat: Jeff Nuttall and the International Underground. The  1950s and ’60s were a strange time when people really were frightened of a nuclear war breaking out and organisations such as CND were born. It was a time when a new underground counterculture began and Jeff Nuttall played a key role in promoting  experimentation in all things, challenging censorship and opposing the commercialisation in society. He was part of a group of, largely men, who were bohemians – creating their own world in art, music, books and poetry. At this exhibition you can get a flavour of what they believed in and how they expressed their views of the world in a selection of letters, books and magazines. Jeff was the British link , and in his seminal work Bomb Culture  (1968)  he explained his philosophy which was driven by living in the H-bomb world. He wrote 40 books, designing many of the front covers,  as well as being a sculptor, actor and musician. It is a fascinating exhibition in many ways,  but needs a good introduction to explain why the international underground counterculture started and was so influential. See it here

Read

scapgallows

Scapegallows  by Carol Birch. She wrote it in 2007, and lucky for me I have a great local library from which I borrowed it. It’s the fascinating, fictional account, of the life of a real working class woman Margaret Catchpole who was born in Suffolk in the late 1700s. Margaret became notorious because she escaped the gallows twice and was transported to Australia. Carol used original sources, including a book written by the son of Margaret’s employer, and the letters that Margaret wrote to his mother. Through these she was able to reveal the real Margaret – a very modern woman for her age. Although a servant she was a strong and self-determined woman who had love affairs, was an excellent horsewoman, and went onto to produce some of the best descriptions of colony life in Australia. Scapegallows is extremely well-written and is a fascinating story so it’s definitely one to search for in your local library if you have one or through

 

Posted in anti-cuts, book review, drama, education, feminism, films, human rights, labour history, Manchester, Socialism, Uncategorized, women, working class history | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Writing up Women’s Trade Union History: The Transcription Project for the Manchester and Salford Women’s Trade Union Council 1895-1919

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1895

In this post I am going to talk about a unique organisation, which from the start encouraged working class women to join trade unions and support unions that already exist; collected  information about the conditions of women’s work;  and also  lobbied  for legislation to improve women’s lives at work.

The Manchester and Salford Women’s Trade Union Council  began in Manchester on   February  5 1895 and survived until 1919. Its minutes were written up by hand  in two volumes which  Manchester trade union activist Mary Quaile, who worked for the Council  from 1911 to 1919, took away with her when she retired. At that time no-one saw the relevance of trade union history, but luckily for us, the volumes are in very good condition,  and they were passed onto the Mary Quaile Club last year.

This year the Mary Quaile Club have created the MSWTUC Minutes Transcription Project. Our aim is to transcribe the two  volumes, create a website to publicise the Minutes so that everyone can gain access, and hand over the volumes to the WCML.

We want people to gain hope and inspiration from the story of the MSWTUC Minutes. Through this monthly post I am going to tell the story of this unique organisation. I have spent my life working in trade unions and other progressive groups, and reading the history of the MSWTUC is inspiring about how we can work together to change our lives, our community and the history of this country.

First of all, the Minutes are beautifully written up in copperplate handwriting. See this page.

mswtuc-page

The first meeting was held on Tuesday February 5 1895 at the Town Hall in Manchester. For those of us active in trade union politics it is an unusual group of people who have got together to campaign on behalf of poor women.

They include the editor of the Guardian;C.P. Scott , who goes on to take the minutes for the first two meetings. His wife Mrs. C.P.Scott also attends . And the use by women of their husband’s first and surname really dates the document. One of Elizabeth Gaskell’s daughters, Miss J B Gaskell also joins the inaugural meeting. At this time there are other groups representing women workers and a representative of one of them, Mrs Walton is from the Federation of Women Workers. Other worthies include councillors,  M.Ps and two vicars.

Names that pop up in the minutes are women who are also involved with local politics and  the campaign for the vote,  including Mrs.Rose Hyland (no relation) and Margaret Ashton, later the first woman councillor in Manchester.

It is a well organised and funded group. They spend time creating a constitution, discussing committees and sub-committees, raise funds,  and rent premises at  9 Albert Square in Manchester.

Working class women start to appear when the Council agree, at the beginning, to employ an Organising Secretary on £90 per annum. They advertise the post through local trade unions and set up a committee to deal with the recruitment process.  In the event  two women were appointed; Miss Frances  Ashwell and Miss  Sara Welsh.

By June 1895 they are already investigating the lives of women workers in the umbrella-covering, shirt-making and corset-making trades. It is interesting to note that they don’t want to run these unions,  but instead are offering practical support in organising meetings and to help  the women to “manage their affairs in a business-like way.”

There is an interesting account in September when one of the organisers, Miss Welsh, explains how they helped form the Umbrella Coverers Trade Union. It started out well with a public meeting and 80 members joining,  but the numbers declined after  “pressure had been brought to bear by the foreman.”

Stories of poor pay and  women being used as cheap labour are revealed in the investigations that the MSWTUC do into shop work and the tailoring trade. Decisions are made to concentrate on the tailoresses who are doing the same work as the tailors, but only receiving 50% of their pay –  and shop workers,  who are barely being paid enough to live on. By December 1895 the MSWTUC were joining forces with the Womens Cooperative Guild to investigate the pay and conditions of shop girls, launderesses, tailoresses and milliners.

In 1895 the MSWTUC only had 8 meetings but laid the foundations of an organisation that could do groundbreaking work in investigating the lives of women at work,  and helping them to organise to gain better pay and conditions.

Next month I will be looking at 1896 and the way in which the MSWTUC started making alliances with other groups in order to do more investigations into the lives of girls and women at work and help organise them into trade unions.

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MSWTUC Report 1912

 

This project is ongoing and if you would like to donate to it please send a cheque to “Mary Quaile Club” c/o 6 Andrew St.Mossley Lancs OL5 0DN.

 

 

 

Posted in education, feminism, human rights, labour history, Manchester, political women, Salford, Socialism, Socialist Feminism, trade unions, Uncategorized, women, working class history | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Read my weekly roundup of radical arts and politics…Hull’s Angel,Guantanamo Boy, Rights not Games Day of Action, Victoria Baths

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Watch

hull's angels

Hull’s Angel (2002)  In post Brexit UK, apparently, there has been an increase in hate crime and racist attacks – not too sure about that – is it the losers of the referendum trying to paint all leavers as racists and that this is essentially a racist country? Not if you know the real history of anti-racism in the UK, which shows all people from different communities opposing racist attacks. This documentary shows one white woman, Tina, in Hull, challenging the stereotype of the  white working class being  racist. She lost her job as a hostel for asylum seekers because she wouldn’t toe the line over the draconian Home Office rules. This did not put off Tina, even though she then ended up in a low paid job and was attacked for her support for asylum seekers by people in her community. I know many white people who have stood up for refugee and asylum seekers – either in individual incidents or by working in Destitution projects -they are part of a wonderful history of anti-racism in this country; one that should be promoted to encourage more people to do the same.  Maybe its time to re-show Hull’s Angel to show that there is nothing intrinsically racist about the UK . Could be a future screening for the Mary Quaile Club.

 

 Read

g boy

Guantanamo Boy by Anna Perera (Puffin Books). Written in 2009 by a teacher, this frightening book  reveals the reality of the West’s war against terror in which  teenage boys can be sold to the Americans and end up in the modern day Gulag called Guantanamo Bay. Khalid is your average teenager, he  loves his family but his own life of friends, school and girls is just opening up to him. He lives in Rochdale, a poor north west town and his family are Pakistani who are making do: his father works shifts in a local curry house while  his mum works in the local school. Like many children of immigrants, he is aware and proud of his background, but it makes little impression on his life until he goes on a visit to Pakistan with his family. That is where the nightmare begins, and from what I know about similar cases ie Moazem Begg and Shaker Ahmed, Anna describes a very realistic view of the experiences of detainees, although I was totally unaware that they imprisoned children. Buy it here

Support

rights not games

Rights Not Games National Day of Action Tuesday 6 September. It does seem ironic that millions of pounds have been spent by this government to train and send paralympians to Rio to represent their country, whilst the same government has destroyed the lives of many disabled people by cutting their income, abolishing education support and the benefits that allow people live an independent life.

Next week there are a series of protests and demos across the country to highlight government policy and to show that disabled people will not accept these attacks on their rights. Join them on a local protest see

Visit

victoria baths

Victoria Baths on the 110th anniversary of the official opening of Manchester’s Water Palace from 7-11 September. Hathersage Baths, as I knew it in the 70s when I went to a local school, was the place where we were taken for swimming lessons. Longsight then was still a massively Irish area; poor but packed with several generations of immigrants and their descendants.  Bath were still places that people like my Dad used to use for his weekly dip because, like many families,  we lived in a house that did not have a bathroom.

It was a time when local councils saw themselves as having a role in providing local services to local people, particularly the poor. You can read, for instance, in Hannah Mitchell’s biography, The Hard Way Up, about her endeavours as a Manchester Labour Councillor in the 1920s to get a local washouse.

The baths are long gone  and today Victoria Baths, while still owned by Manchester City Council,  is now run by a trust and is a heritage visitor attraction. Next week there are several events to mark the birthday of the Baths (and raise money) including a guided tour, music and entertainment.  On the Saturday there is a free history talk by Sylvia Koelling about the early days of baths and washouses in Manchester. 1840-76. The Evils of Dirt and the Value of Cleanliness.  A sad reminder of why so few people today feel that local councils and democracy itself has little relevance to their lives. Further details see

 

 

 

 

Posted in anti-cuts, book review, disabled people's campaigns, education, feminism, films, human rights, labour history, political women, Salford, Uncategorized, women, working class history | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Read my weekly roundup of radical arts and politics…julieta, Right to Remain Gathering, Salford and Cheetham Hill in Focus Exhibition and Voices across Borders

Stop look listen

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Watch

julieta 

julieta the latest film from Pedro Almodovar. I love his films because they take on real issues, and also have actors that look like real people both in size and age. julieta, based on a story by Canadian author Alice Munro, takes on the tortuous issue of the relationship between mothers and daughters. The main character, Julieta, is in her 50s and about to leave Madrid and go with her partner to live in Portugal, but a chance encounter with one of her daughter’s friends makes her change her plans. Through a series of flashbacks we find out why Julieta hasn’t seen her daughter for twelve years and learn more about her difficult relationship with her  own  father. It’s a serious subject, but dealt with by Almodovar’s  trademark of  beautiful scenery, the women are fabulously dressed and it’s a classy film.

Go

right to remain

to the Right to Remain Gathering 2016 on Saturday 3rd September, 11am to 5pm, in Central Manchester. It’s an opportunity for activists and would-be activists to get together,  and discuss and learn about how to challenge some of the big issues of our time. Sessions include ones on challenging detention, the position of international students in this country, and linking up with groups involved with Calais.

The organisers say;“The gathering is an opportunity to meet, share with and learn from activists and groups from across the UK who are working for migration justice. … With the political situation in such flux, we’re particularly keen to focus on the power of people and communities to create the change we want to see.”

This is a FREE event, but registration is required. Further info see

Find

salford and cheetham hill

Out about local communities through this photographic project at Salford Museum and Art Gallery, Salford and Cheetham Hill in Focus; Iconic Photographs from the 1950s and 60s by Retracing Salford. There are literally thousands of photographs, walls full of them, of individual people, their families, life at school, work and community events including the Whit Walks. It shows the diverse nature of the community in these area; a vibrant mix of Jewish, East European, Irish and indigenous locals.  The project team, also worked with some present day Pakistani women who live in Cheetham Hill, and produced a wall hanging linking up some of the pictures in the exhibition and their home country of Pakistan.

Life is tough for the people of Salford,  and they need places to go to that remind them of the importance and strength of community and their art gallery and museum not only puts on exhibitions that reflects their lives  but also has a brilliant cafe. For more info on the exhibition see

Listen

voices across borders

To the voices of Latin American people in the northwest of England in a community radio programme called  “Voices Across Borders (Voces Cruzando Fronteras)” broadcast every Friday  12-1pm on ALL FM 96.9. The organisers say; “The programme seeks to share Latin American music and relevant news. So far we have broadcast programmes on a range of thematics from pre-Hispanic Mexican contemporary musicians and Latin American women singers to the roots of the New Latin American Song”. The programme is aimed at the Spanish speaking audience,   but the music is fantastic! Maybe a good way of learning the language. If you do not live in  Ardwick, Longsight or Levenshulme you can till  listen online on Mixcloud see

 

Posted in art exhibition, drama, feminism, films, human rights, labour history, Manchester, music, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Read my weekly roundup of radical arts and politics…Cuba es mi Marca, Four Pound Film Club, History of Radical Women, The Flight of the Black Necked Swans

Stop look listen

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Watch

cuba is my

Some Cuban films presented by Burjesta Theatre in Liverpool from Wednesday  31 August –Saturday 3 September at The Casa. ‘Cuba es mi marca’ (Cuba is my Brand) is a mini festival of three films,  plus a photographic exhibition. The films are being toured by Cuban film critic and poet Fernando Leon Jacomino and photographer Sonia Amalguer. Entrance is only £3 or £5 if you can afford it. Further info see info@burjesta-theatre.co.uk Also at the other end of the M62 the NUJ Manchester and Salford branch  are showing Page One; Inside the New York Times, the latest screening at the Four Pound Film Club on Sunday,  28 August, 7.30pm at Three Minute Theatre, Affleck’s Palace, Oldham Street, Manchester. The post screening discussion will be led by Dave Toomer, an  NUJ activist,  lecturer on journalism , and editor of the Wythenshawe Reporter. Further details see

Learn

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women shop stewards at Ford’s

About  the history of radical women. Socialist historian Michael Herbert will be teaching  courses on the History of Radical Women 1790 – 1980 this autumn;  one in the evening and one during the day. The evening class starts on   Monday 12 September, 6.30pm to 8.30pm at Aquinas College, Nangreave Road, Stockport, Cheshire, SK2 6TH. The day class begins on  Tuesday 27th September, 11am to 1pm at the Working Class Movement Library, 51 The Crescent, Salford, M5 4WX.

The course will explore the history of radical women in Britain, highlighting their struggle for civil, political and legal rights over two centuries. It begins  with Mary Wollstonecraft’s book Vindication of the Rights of Women (1791) and then go on to the  radical movement of the 1790s, the risings of the Luddites, the Peterloo Massacre of 1819, the Owenite Feminists, Chartism, Socialism, trade unions and the long campaign for Votes for Women which started in 1866 and ended in 1918.  For more information about the course and how to book, please contact Michael Herbert: redflagwalks@gmail.com

Read

the flight of

The Flight of the Black Necked Swans by retired  Tameside Hospital surgeon Milton Pena Vasquez. Milton was a leftwing  activist who fled fascist Chile in the 70s. In 2005 he went public about the dangerous levels of nurse staffing levels at Tameside Hospital.  In this fascinating biography he uses his insider knowledge of the NHS to show how and why Tameside Hospital is a dangerous place to be a patient – whilst acknowledging the tireless work of all staff to try and work in a hospital that has been failed by its management and local Labour politicians.

Milton has now retired,  but a recent report published in July this year by Professor Bruce Keogh, once again showed that Tameside Hospital is one of the worst in England for high mortality rates. To read a review of the book by Derek Pattison see

Watch this spoof news item with Jonathon Pie about the media’s obsession with terrorism, and not with the real issues such as mental health see

 

Posted in anti-cuts, biography, book review, education, feminism, films, human rights, labour history, Tameside, Uncategorized, working class history | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Finnish by design: my trip around Finland

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There are three things I love about Finland: the music of Jean Sibelius, the writings and art of Tove Jansson, and the architecture of Alva Aalto. Sadly, all dead, but in their lives they embody much of  the history of a country that few people from the UK  know much about, or ever visit. This summer I travelled around just a small part of this unique and fascinating country.

Finland is a big country with a small population; just 5.5 m people scattered across a terrain bigger than the UK. It has a traumatic history of occupation and war, reflecting its position between Sweden and Russia, and on the edge of Europe. Finns speaks a language that even some of its citizens find hard to penetrate,  but luckily for us tourists they also speak brilliant English.

Travelling around the country is made simple by a transportation system that works, is easy to navigate, and is also pretty cheap.I  travelled about 1000 miles on the train and the total cost was about £53.  In the towns and cities I visited it was easy to get around because of the way in which they are laid out, made accessible by foot or cycle. Also I  love the way that as you approach a pedestrian crossing the cars actually  stop for you…You would be dead if you tried this in England!

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Much of the country  only gets about 4 months of daylight a year,  so it’s best to visit from  June to September. You can then experience very long days when it seems there is no dark at all,  and you can understand why Finns love to be outside during the summer and enjoy fantastic facilities in parks, lakes – and even just outside their flats.

Finland is a very beautiful country. Its landscape is dominated by nature with  wonderful forests and lakes which have not be destroyed by commercialism or industrialisation. And, although Finish composer Jean Sibelius lived in a very different time, looking at the landscape and listening to his music,  you can understand his love for his country.  Listen to one of his most popular compositions here.

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Travelling around just a small part of the country I was struck by towns which have a mixture of architectural styles; reflecting the history of the country with the influence of Sweden, France and Russia. There seems to be a determination by the planners to ensure that commercial premises are kept out of residential areas, and that goes for advertising of all kinds. Maybe this reflects their long relationship with the Soviet Union, and  cities such as Tampere remind me of travelling around the USSR in the mid-80s.Many people live in flats, but they are made enjoyable places to live by the way in which they are designed with plenty of trees surrounding them, wide streets that people can use to cycle around, and lots of outdoor facilities for children.

Jyväskylä

My trip began in the  the area called the Lake District, so-named because  its landscape is dominated by lakes and forest areas . I started my travels in a small town north of Helsinki called Jyväskylä which  has a population of 137,000. It is considered the home town of Finnish architect  Alvar Aalto.

One of the things I like about him is that he was not just a creative person,  but  he was an activist  taking part in the war against the occupation of Finland. But he made his reputation as an architect,  and his philosophy mirrors the words of British socialist and artist  William Morris:  Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.

Alvar was not just an architect, he was also a sculptor, designer and painter. Known for his modernist design of houses and buildings :he wasn’t just interested in the design of the building but with his wife, Aino Aalto,  was concerned with the  total look of the house, designing everything from lamps to glassware. In  Jyväskylä I visited the Alvar Aalto Museum and also his Experimental House which he lived in during the summer.  The house is made of wood,  but he  mixed in local brick and marble giving it a very contemporary  look. He also designed his own, and essential Finish smoke sauna, and a boat to transport him and his family across the lake to the house each summer.

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Experimental House

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Sauna in the woods

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you can sit on an Aalto seat

Alvar designed many different buildings across Finland and Europe but I really liked  the  Workers Centre in   Jyväskylä  which   the local Communist Party commissioned him to build.

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Workers Centre-ironically now next door to a bar called Revolution!

Tampere

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Today Finland  is a member of the EU,  but during  the last hundred years they had a very close relationship with the former USSR. My next stop was Tampere, the second largest city in Finland, where II visited the Lenin Museum which was set up in 1946, and which celebrates the bonds between the two countries. Lenin lived in Tampere in the early 1900s, and from there he plotted the revolution in Russia and he was supported by the Finnish Communist Party so it’s not surprising that there is a whole museum devoted to him. Because of  this relationship he ensured that Finland became an independent country in 1920,  and over the years the two countries established close economic ties until the fall of the USSR in 1991.

In Tampere you can also visit the Amurin Museum of Workers’ Housing. Amurin was one of the first workers housing districts in the city,  created to provide housing for the workers in the new industries springing up from the 1880s. People lived there until the 1970s. Made of wood, the houses show the very poor living conditions of workers, and you can find out about the history of their attempts through the trade unions to improve their lives. Apart from the dwellings you can also see recreations of a cobblers’ shop from 1906,  a  1930s cooperative store and a haberdashery from the 1940s. Being Finland there is also  an excellent cafe.

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Amurin  Museum

Helsinki

My last stop on my Finish journey was to its capital city, Helsinki or as the Tourist Board call it “Hel Yeah”. It looks like the centre of the country, it has lots more people around, including tourists, lots more cars and  lots of shops and restaurants. But the architecture is fabulous,  with the  churches and cathedrals which dominate the centre. But they have also kept many  of their older buildings and now use them as housing, retail and commercial premises.

There are lots of interesting galleries in Helsinki,  but walking around  is  like living in an art gallery because everywhere you go in their buildings and public spaces you can see the history of the country in  beautiful sculptures in parks and public buildings. Here are some of the ones I came across as I wandered around the city.

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These 1930s murals were on the outside walls of a care home in Helsinki

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Workers statue

Tove Jansson is one of my favourite artists. Not just an artist but also a novelist, painter, and illustrator,   she is best  known for  producing the wonderful Moomin books   Tove created the Moomins at a time of real crisis for Finland in 1944 when they were doing dodgy deals with Nazi Germany and they sum up her attitude to life: joy and the importance of togetherness for humankind. In Tampere you can  visit the Moomin collection which exhibits Jannson’s art work from the books as well as actual models,  including the Moomin house which she created with her partner, Tuulikki Pietila.

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Before visiting this exhibition I really thought the Moomins were a creation for children, but I learnt that it is the work of an incredible artist who was trying to say something important to the world. In Helsinki at the Helsinki Art Museum , you can see some of her other artwork including two beautiful murals she created for a workers cafe in Helsinki in the 1940s.

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Travelling around Finland it is hard to distinguish  a big difference between social classes. Helena, a retired trade unionist officer, gave me a tour of places that she said showed the real Helsinki. We left the city centre and in her car drove to a large shopping mall in east Helsinki. It was just like many you get in the UK, with chain stores of everything from mobile phones to clothes and household items. I noticed several Somali women in traditional dress,  and Helena  explained  that there was local social housing that refugees lived in and there was a foodbank nearby which the queues were sometimes  a kilometre long. It was funded by groups such as trade unionists and anyone, including poorer Finns,  could use it.

In the shopping mall we headed for the food section for lunch and I noticed that the menu reflected the ethnicity of Finland:  Predominantly Finish but also  in Swedish (the largest minority),  Russian and English. Helena said that many people from the EU were now living in Finland including people from their neighbour, Estonia. The Estonians (like the Poles in the UK) had come to work in the construction industry and had been used by employers to undercut local workers. There were lots of parallels with the UK: I saw groups of young Arabic and African men sitting in parks and  some  Roumanian women begging in the larger cities.

Finland has its own problems with  10% unemployment and,  like the UK,  a lack of jobs for many of its young people. But over there, and even with a right wing government, there is a social consensus about the funding of public services and  people pay a higher percentage of income tax, 30%. But what you don’t see is many  people begging on the streets or the physical breakdown in public services that is evident in the UK by just walking around the cities and towns of this country. Several Finns I spoke to were concerned about the UK’s exit from the EU, for them it’s a no-no to leave, not surprising given their history, but for the UK it is not just   disengaging from the EU but  a wider disengagement from our political system that we need to worry about.

Posted in anti-cuts, art exhibition, Communism, education, feminism, labour history, music, trade unions, Uncategorized, working class history | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment