My review of exhibition “Return to Manchester” Martin Parr

parr return to mcr


In  the 1980s the Left wing Labour council in Manchester flew a banner over the Town Hall proclaiming their determination to defend jobs and  services against the Tory government . In 2018 it is the cranes of property developers that haunt the skyscape while  streets  are  filled with the well heeled with  their  posh flats, expensive restaurants and  exclusive shops. Many Mancunians no longer feel the city is theirs.

Rock Around the Square

Manchester City Council event 1980s

Martin Parr came to Manchester   from leafy Surrey in the 1970s to study photography and  in this new retrospective of his work “Return to Manchester “ he, more than anyone,  has documented the rise and fall of the working class in the city.

Parr began photographing the city and its surrounding areas in black and white which captured a proud if poor community walking the city streets. The black and white community of Moss Side dominates in photographs of streets and pubs and festivals.  He also photographed  the old fashioned and  now extinct Yates Wine Lodges which had their own clientele of older men and women sipping their blobs of hot water, sugar and wine.

Parr was given access to Prestwich Mental Hospital, which probably would not be allowed today.  Over three months he captured the day-to-day life of the hospital. It is the patients’ faces that draw me in,  as they watch Parr and he watches them.

In the 1990s his photos broke into colour: he never  returned to black and white. Bright and vivid colours reflect a changing landscape,  including a  Salford in all its glory of hypermarkets and hairdressers. Reel forward to 2018 and we see the decline of the St.Patrick’s Day procession and the rise of the Pride parade.  Football, the many faces of the Muslim community and the celebration of a Royal Wedding show northerners in their best clothes and with a smile on their faces. One of the few overtly political pictures is of a student holding a copy of the Militant newspaper to the camera in Salford’s Working Class Movement Library.

Parr’s city is in colour; devoid of the everyday homeless who dominate the city’s streets and of the protests against austerity. Maybe colour would not cope with the reality of life in Manchester today; maybe Manchester in 2018  should be in black and white.

Martin Parr: Return to Manchester

Manchester Art Gallery

Friday 16 November 2018–Monday 22 April 2019

Posted in art exhibition, Ireland, Manchester, Salford, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

My review of”Why Women have better sex under Socialism” Kristen R. Ghodsee



In 1925 Mary Quaile, Manchester Irish trade unionist and one of the first women to be elected onto the  Trades Union Congress, led a women-only delegation to the Soviet Union to investigate the lives of women and children in the new socialist state.

Mary left school at 12, like most working class girls of that era:  her real education took place in the sweated labour of cafes and on the streets as she took part in organising a  new Cafe Workers Union and became an organiser for the Manchester and Salford Women’s Trades Council.

When Mary  went to the Soviet Union in 1925 all Soviet women had had  the vote for 8 years, while most British working class women were still waiting. In  their journey around the Soviet Union, Mary and her sisters saw much to envy,  including women having equal pay, free workplace nurseries, paid maternity leave, communal canteens, as well as  access to abortion, contraception and divorce.

In this new book, written by American academic Kristen R. Ghodsee, the author’s message is blunt. “Unregulated capitalism is bad for women, and if we adopt some ideas from socialism, women will have better lives.” Kristen is living in Trumpland, but has worked and travelled across Europe and has studied the effects of the end of state socialism in Eastern Europe and the  transition to capitalism.

Kristen blasts her way through the history of state socialism showing the influence of well-known (and less well known) communist women such as Alexandra Kollontai who  pushed through policies that promoted equality for women in all aspects of life. She is not an apologist for the authoritarian regimes:  she shows how  State socialist regimes needed women to work but they were often  carrying the double burden of work and childcare.

Her own research,  including the interviews she recounts with women who grew up in the Soviet era, really bring the book alive for me. It is fascinating to read  Kristen’s interview with octogenarian Elena Lagadinova, the president of Bulgaria’s national women’s organisation. Bulgaria and across the Soviet Union used quotas to get more women in parliament and they did have higher percentages of women in political office than most of the Western democracies during the Cold War. Elena believed it was a combination of a patriarchal culture, and an authoritarian state that discouraged women in pursuing  high office.

But the Soviet tradition of encouraging women into job sectors such as science and engineering has  left a legacy for today. Kristen quotes the Financial Times in 2018  that eight out of the ten European countries with the highest rates of women in the tech sector were in Eastern Europe.

When it comes to the discussion about socialism and sexual satisfaction Kristen uses some fascinating research from Germany about what was dubbed “The Great Orgasm War.”East German researchers, prior to unification, produced evidence that people did have better sex under socialism and that this was because, unlike the West, sex was not commodified in the same way. The researchers Staker and Friedrich claimed that this  was because of women’s “sense of social security, equal educational and professional responsibilities, equal rights and possibilities for participating in and determining the life of society.”

Kristen’s message is that we need to take the best of what came out of the state socialist era and adapt it to creating a better world for women and men. But she is an academic, and not an activist,  and that is one of the failings in the book. Her own life is quite privileged and frankly not very interesting  like those of her friends that she uses to dramatise modern life in American society.

This may be why there is a big gap in her analysis as there is no mention of trade unions in the book, even though they have played a significant role,  even in the Soviet Union. Neither   does she not mention them in her discussion of American politics, even  one of the most dynamic areas of American life at present is  trade unions  who  are the vanguard of the fight for better pay and conditions in female dominated industries such as fast food.

Also the UK experience has shown that, whilst you can elect socialist governments, including the feted 1945 Labour Government who brought in the Welfare State,  it is organisations such as trade unions which will really  promote the needs and desires of working class people.

Like Mary Quaile during her era, in the 1980s it was my experience as a trade union representative that showed how we could and did  improve the lives of women inside and outside work. Women then played a major role in trade unions, ensuring that issues such as job sharing, maternity leave, equal pay and abortion were high on the union agenda.

The so-called austerity has woken up a lot of people as to the increasing inequality and unhappiness that dominates present day life in the UK, as well  as across the world. Unfortunately it has not led to a growth of radical grassroots organisations  who question the nature of society; of relationships between women and men;  and between workers and the state. Kirsten’s book is an important part of that discussion because it reveals a hidden history that is hardly known in the USA and has been forgotten or marginalised in Europe.

Buy it here at £12.99

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

IBRG Archive at the WCML. Out of Ireland. Six Irish Film Festivals 1988-93


Out of Ireland was the name given to six Irish Film Festivals that were initiated by the Manchester branch of the Irish in Britain Representation Group  and organised  from 1988 to 1993 with the Irish in Manchester History Group and in collaboration with  the  Cornerhouse Film Centre.

Bernadette Hyland, secretary of Manchester IBRG, explained that “The aim of the Festival was to explore the image and experiences of the Irish through film and video and to look at the way in which Irish groups themselves can control this medium.” An important aspect of the Festivals was exploring contemporary social and political issues through the uses of day schools and speakers.

The Festivals were groundbreaking in raising issues that no other Irish group in Manchester were prepared to raise at this time. This included identity, the experiences of Irish women and second generation Irish young people, the conflict in Ireland and media censorship.

Irish Film Festival photo.jpg

In the first Film Festival one of the most controversial documentaries, at this time, about the conflict in Ireland “The Cause of Ireland” was shown.  This was followed by a screening of Pat Murphy’s “Maeve” exploring issues about feminism and Irish identity.

Two day schools took place exploring the history of the Irish in Manchester with socialist  historian Michael  Herbert and Pat Reynolds, IBRG National P.R.O. who explained his involvement in the use of video to document the lives of the Irish in Britain.  Videos by the Irish Video Project were shown.

Manchester IBRG were keen to promote the specific experiences of Irish women at events and the Irish Film Festival was no different. An Irish Women’s Day took place which included speakers Marie McAdam and Joanne O’Brien authors of the classic history of Irish women’s experiences in Britain “Across the Water.” Afternoon screenings concentrated on women in the North of Ireland and included films on subjects such as poverty and strip searching.

Not unusual for this period of history a free crèche was made available to women taking part. Tickets prices for the films and dayschools  were kept low at £4/2.

Censorship of events relating to the North of Ireland which included indirectly affecting groups such as IBRG who wanted an open debate on the British government’s involvement was a prevailing theme in the Festivals. In 1990, at the third Festival, a session called “Ireland As Not Seen On T.V.” included films that had never been broadcast on British television and which under the Broadcasting Ban, which existed 1988-94, could not be screened under the legislation.


Filmmaker Philip  Donnellan took part showing his iconic “The Irishmen” which celebrated the contribution that the Irish had made to building the UK and became part of an important discussion in the Irish community and the politics of emigration. Philip and his wife Jill went onto play an important role in the miscarriage of justice case of Kate Magee from Derby in 1994. They stood bail for this single parent Irish woman and  Jill produced a beautiful banner which was displayed outside the court during Kate’s trial.

The Irishman

The Festivals gave the opportunity to explore issues of Protestant identity which were often ignored in the mainstream Irish community. In the Fourth IFF writer Christine Reid and journalist Cherry Smthe discussed what it meant to be from Irish protestant backgrounds. The film “Ascendancy” was also shown.

1993 was the sixth and final IFF which marked the 25 anniversary of the Civil Rights Movement in the North of Ireland  with a speaker from Derry, community activist Mary Neilis.

The IFF also showed many not so controversial films including  “The Commitments”,  hosted a tribute to Irish actor Brenda Fricker, films by acclaimed Irish film maker Thaddeus O’Sullivan, and new adaptations of iconic plays including Brian Desmond Hurst’s take on “Playboy of the Western World.”

Strong support from Sandra Hebron, Screenings Officer, at Cornerhouse,  ensured that the IFF were a success. The Festivals were financially supported by local arts organisations, Manchester City Council, local media and national newspaper “The Irish Post”.

The IBRG archive includes the programmes for the IFF, as well as posters, press cuttings. Some of the videos shown are included in the archive.

Philip Donnellan’s “The Irishmen” is being shown at Home on 27 November.

Posted in Catholicism, drama, education, feminism, films, human rights, Ireland, Irish second generation, labour history, Manchester, North of Ireland, political women, trade unions, TV drama, Uncategorized, women, working class history, young people | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

My review of “Wages for Housework A History of an International Feminist Movement 1972-77” by Louise Toupin (2018)


In this new and fascinating book about the Wages for Housework campaign we are looking back to a period of history when  radical women were redefining  the nature of women’s work and   challenging the role of women in  society.

The author, Louise Toupin, has produced an international history of the Wages for Housework movement which takes us from  Canada to Italy, Germany, Switzerland, USA and  England.

Wages for Housework challenged the overriding view at that time which said that  calling for women’s work in the home to be paid was reactionary and would chain women to the home. Instead they proclaimed that the personal was political,  and in 1972 in the founding manifesto of the International Feminist Collective they  advanced a new definition of class. “This new definition is based on the subordination of the wageless worker to the waged worker behind which is hidden the productivity ie. the exploitation  of the labour of women in the home and the cause of their more intense exploitation out of it.”

Rejecting the traditional definition of Marxism that class equalled productive work,  they reached out to people from the unemployed to peasants, to those caught up in slavery to colonised people.  It was an internationalist approach that challenged the division of labour with the central figure in the analysis being the  houseworker. It brought to the fore issues of domestic violence and  the criminalisation of prostitution and lesbians.  Classic texts such as Sex, Race and Class,  written by Selma James, co-founder of the IFC and Wages for Housework group in London were  circulated and remain popular today.

Through the International Feminist Collective (1972-77) this political analysis was taken forward by a network of groups, mainly Italian, English, American and Canadian women. Innovative for its time,  it was a feminist “International.” Toupin says,   “it was a body for coordination and encounters, for exchanges of information on mobilizations underway in the network, for reflections and discussions on situations of the moment, and for concerted actions.”  

Fascinating is how the movement took part in actions:  either   initiated by a Wages for Housework group,  or  initiated by other women’s groups and supported by Wages for Housework groups. Their campaigns involved mobilising around women’s invisible work, both  inside and outside the home.

Women's army protest in Tameside

Tameside Wages for Housework protest against Govt spending on war.

Activities varied,  depending on the different countries involved. In Italy work was done on issues around women’s health,  including abortion, pregnancy and hospital services.  In Britain it focused on defending universal family allowances which the Conservative government wanted to replace with tax credits.

One of the interesting stories about campaigns around invisible work outside the home was the struggle by waitresses in Canada to end differentiated minimum wage rates in the tourism and restaurant industries   which discriminated against women; women who were often not in a union,  who were often the sole breadwinner and unskilled immigrants.

The Toronto Wages for Housework included women who were waitresses and formed the Waitresses Action Committee.  This was an important struggle which one of them summed up; “Waitressing is the work of serving and satisfying other people, only on a public instead of a private scale. That’s why I call it housework. All women are taught to do this from the day we were born. In fact our very identities are tightly bound up in this work, whether we are secretaries, mothers, nurses, waitresses or full-time housewives.”

The Wages for Housework was a key movement in second wave feminism. It was totally original in its philosophy and  threw light on the unrecognised and invisible forms of labour that are performed mainly  by women. It is  summed up in this comment by Claudia von Werlhof:  “Once we have understood housework, we will understand the economy”.

Wages for Housework is published by Pluto Press and costs £19.99 Buy it here

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

My review of “A Massacre in Mexico” Anabel Hernandez

a massacre

On  26 September 2014 43 male students from the Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers College went missing in Igula, Guerrero, Mexico. The cries of their parents and supporters reached  out across the world   – even to urban Manchester- as local students protested and called on activists to support their demands for truth about the disappearance of the students.

A Massacre in Mexico  by journalist Anabel Hernandez is a gripping and gruesome insight into the events before and after the student’s disappearance,  but is also a revelation about the corruption of the Mexican state. As Anabel says “This is an investigation conducted not only by a journalist, but by a citizen who was forced out of her country by violence and impunity, and who then returned to Mexico because of the violence and impunity meted out to others.”

The students were travelling to Mexico City to commemorate the Tlateloclo Massacre of 2 October  1968 when Mexican soldiers and police murdered hundreds of innocent protestors.  The  security forces hunted down the unarmed students, killed six  people, injured dozens and then “disappeared” the 43 students.

The students were from a rural training school based on a Marxist-Leninist ideology  on a model of “student governance” with the objective of training teachers who speak Spanish without having to give up their native indigenous languages and could teach in their own communities.  Most of the students come from campesino families and becoming a teacher is the only way of obtaining a professional job.

Politics is at the centre of the school which is  a community. “Along with training in agriculture, the students are training politically and ideologically, reinforcing their attachment to their surroundings, as well as their contentment with what they have,” writes Anabel.

In  her  reconstruction of the event of September 2014 we can see the complicity of the State’s involvement in the disappearance of the 43 students.  Anabel   gets access to government internal documents; she sees video surveillance that the government tried to hide and destroy.  Her bravery in undermining the government’s official version is astounding:  this book  is a superb case study of investigative journalism. As she says, faced with state violence, “The only thing I could do to protect myself was to keep investigating.”

The government’s attempts to create a false story  or,  as they put it,  the “historic truth” about the disappearance of the 43 students is incredible. Anabel proves that the  government were quite prepared,  not just to fabricate a fake case with fake evidence,  but also to  arrest dozens of “suspects” whom they tortured to provide fake confessions that would back up the government’s version.

Apart from Anabel there are many heroes and heroines in the story. Not just the 43 students and their determination to go to the Tlateloclo  Massacre,  but their families and supporters who refused to accept the government’s story of the events of September 2014. The Mexicans who protested on the streets of the country shouting; “jFue el Estado!” “It was the state!” and  those ordinary people  who “during those dark hours of fear and desolation, as the Mexican state hounded, murdered and disappeared young students, …opened their doors to save the lives of a least sixty other students, enabling them to tell the tale of that night.”

The 43 students are still  “disappeared “and the Mexican government can still not provide any credible story as to  what happened to them. Anabel  believes that any Mexican person could find themselves in the same position:  arrested, tortured and  “disappeared”. Her story  interweaves  with that of the students and all Mexicans. “This is not merely a question of justice for the families who continue to search for their loved ones. It also means giving the example of justice to a country that needs to pull itself out of an abyss of corruption, impunity and violence.”


Buy it here


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My review of “Nightmarch Among India’s Revolutionary Guerrillas” Alpa Shah




Alpa Shah is from an East African Gujerati background. Her family moved to England when she was 15 years and she followed the usual  liberal middle class journey to Cambridge,  and  on to jobs ranging from international development organisations to the World Bank, and then  back to Cambridge and a PHD.

Aged 23 , she decided to undertake her research in the field: going to India but not to her relatives, instead  going  to the remote forests and hills of Jharkhand, living with the Munda Adivasi  tribal people in a village of mud houses with no electricity or running water.  “A good base from which to understand, from the grassroots, the virtues and limits of the various attempts at addressing poverty and inequality –whether it was by international development agencies or by grassroots social movements.”

Alpa dons her fatigues and  joins communist guerrillas, the Naxalites,  on a 250 mile trek through the hills and forests of eastern India. Her timing was not brilliant as the Indian government in 2008 launched its counter insurgency policy  “Operation Green Hunt,” putting  thousands of troops into the area surrounding the Adivasi hills.

Journalists and human rights activists were jailed if they tried to get into the guerrilla areas or report on the government’s human rights abuses. Alpa was now going to be one of the few outsiders and the only woman who was going to take part in this night march. “Hunted ruthlessly by the state, we had to march in the safety of the darkness –all under cover of night and without the light of a torch to avoid drawing attention to ourselves.”

For decades the Naxalites have been engaged in a long struggle against the Indian state. It is a movement made up of middleclass, well educated revolutionaries and poor people outraged by the discrimination and inequality they experience who  have decided to take on the highly militarised might of the Indian state.

Alpa’s discussions and analysis of the movement and its role amongst a rural community is fascinating,  as well at the same time reflecting her own lack of political experience.  Her own views about political violence were tested when she was confronted by the guerrillas making bombs.  And,  whilst she could draw the links between their use of political violence in response to that  of the Indian state towards the poor,  she was less sure about the Naxalites use of violence when it came to its own comrades. “What about those who were co-opted by or turned to the other side? Or those whom the Naxalites shot dead as police informers, betrayers or traitors?”

One of the most interesting parts of the book is when Alpa meets up with female comrades.   “Despite the existence of women’s organisations of the Maoists, the number of women to take up guns was small and their participation was  often fleeting.” And,  not unlike many male comrades in the West,  when it came to women becoming mothers the same conservative attitudes came to the fore: Naxalite women would then return to the villages. “They became important, providers of food, trusted messengers and couriers and much needed guarantors of safe houses and security.” As Alpa comments; “Perhaps involving fathers in childbearing might help resolve the issue of women leaving.”

Nightmarch is a fascinating insight into a war going on in one of the world’s largest democracies. A war that is largely unreported in the west, maybe because the revolutionary nature of the communist guerrillas is too challenging to the politicians and parties that dominate in the UK and Europe. Unlike the UK where post war ideas about the Welfare State seem revolutionary the Naxalites fighting in the forests and jungles of eastern India,  as Alpa comments. “…strive for a utopian human community, devoting their lives to fight together, when the circumstances were so set clearly against them.”


It costs £20 if you can buy it here

Posted in book review, Communism, feminism, human rights, political women, Uncategorized, women, young people | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

My review of “Staging Life The Story of the Manchester Playwrights” by John Harding

staging life


Manchester used to  have its own municipal theatre, the Library Theatre based in Central Library and its southern sister at the Forum in Wythenshawe. In those days going to the theatre was more democratic. For many Mancunian school children like myself, it was where we were introduced to theatre through its annual Xmas play.  It was a theatre that was unpretentious and attracted a working class audience searching out for ideas and escapism through drama.

The  days of the municipal funded  theatre  have long gone,  alongside the history of Annie Horniman and the Manchester Gaiety Theatre which spawned the life of repertory theatre locally and nationally.

gaiety 2

Gaiety Theatre

John Harding’s new and very well-researched book, Staging Life,   on the Gaiety Theatre in Manchester is much more than the story of one northern theatre company over ten years. It highlights Manchester’s significant role in the history  of repertory theatre in Britain.

In 1907 Annie Horniman (AH), inheritor of a tea fortune, decided to site her new repertory company in Manchester with the aim of promoting  drama written by and about local women and men who lived and worked in the city.


Annie Horniman


Annie was the driving force. With no training in the theatre she was a great enthusiast for the new avant garde European drama of writers such as Ibsen.  She  had  bankrolled her friend W.B.Yeats in setting up the Irish National Theatre,  but politics  –  both national and personal  – drove her out of Dublin and on to Manchester to set up a new kind of theatre.

Her cast included theatre manager  Iden Payne,  who  was  idealistic and ambitious to create  a permanent theatre company, produce new plays, stage foreign plays, and most importantly, have a  change of play two or three times a week.

Iden was the power behind the throne of the Gaiety. “ He was by instinct a teacher and he set about creating a style of performance that would help to transform the way drama in Britain would henceforth be presented.”

Key to this new drama was the one-act play. In the first three seasons of the Gaiety  some fifty-one plays would be staged:  most of them by new Manchester-based playwrights. They were mainly  by men, middle class and professional, who had been to the “best” local schools such as  Manchester Grammar or  to university.

But for once local plays written by local people were getting a venue to be performed in. And creating a body of work that would be a key feature of the legacy of the Gaiety Theatre.

Manchester in 1908, when the Gaiety opened,  was going through hard times. There was a slump and in response to a proposed pay cut of 5% workers went on strike. Many of the actors were socialists and they wanted to appeal to the working classes and “spent much of their free time campaigning and proselytising, while the Gaiety itself would become a focus for left-wing-leaning individuals.”

A.H.  was a suffragist and recognised the barriers facing women playwrights. Gertrude Robins, another  local suffragist, was one of the more successful women  playwrights at the Gaiety. Her play Makeshifts appeared on the fourth Gaiety bill in October 1908 and as Annie Horniman said it “was one of the best one-act plays…performed at my theatre.”

gertrude robin 1

Gertrude Robins

The Gaiety was attracting left wing writers including Harry Richardson, a journalist, who was  involved in setting up the National Union of Journalists in 1907. Angry and bitter at the state of the world he poured it into drama. In his first play The Few and the Many he castigated employers for paying their women workers low wages which forced them into prostitution.


Harry Richardson

But it was  playwrights such as  Harold Brighouse, Stanley Houghton and Allan Monkhouse  that   gave Manchester some of its best loved plays,  including  Hindle Wakes, Hobson’s Choice and the now  forgotten The Conquering Hero.

Over ten years the Gaiety attracted an audience of working class socialists, including factory worker Alice Foley, who were looking for drama that would speak to their lives and experiences.  “As a member of a group of socialists I hoarded my scanty pocket money…so I could afford with them the luxury of a monthly matinee.”  Harding would have liked to included more about the way in which the Gaiety brought in mill girls such as Alice,  but she was unique in writing up her memoirs.

Alice Foley, 16

Alice Foley

Staging Life   not only commemorates the legacy of Horniman and the Gaiety Theatre in Manchester,  but as John   Harding reminds us, “It was a pioneering institution that would have far-reaching effects for drama in the United Kingdom.”


Buy  it  here

John Harding and Tim Gopsill of the NUJ will be speaking in Manchester on November 10 at 3MTheatre. Further information contact

Posted in book review, drama, education, feminism, Manchester, Socialism, Uncategorized, women, working class history | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments