Monthly Archives: November 2016

Days of the counter-culture

 

Supplementing a recent BBC4 documentary, the Roundhouse website includes some great historical information about how the 160-year-old former railway shed evolved into one of London’s most active and vibrant arts venues.

The early days of the Roundhouse included performances of the new “psychedelic” pop/rock music, so it was not surprising on the documentary to hear some music by Jefferson Airplane.

Their song “White Rabbit” struck me as eerie and other-worldly when I first heard it several times without knowing its identity on a university union jukebox in 1974-1975,  with its snare drum, climbing guitar line, building crescendo and Lewis Carroll-influenced dreamscape lyrics. It still casts a decently strong eldritch spell today.

 

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San Francisco, from whence came Jefferson Airplane. Photographed in 2000.

 

The programme and web-site impressed on me that Arnold Wesker’s Centre 42 plan for the Roundhouse in 1964 must have been one of the first times anyone envisaged that a former industrial work space might be adapted to arts and cultural use. More recent high-profile examples in the UK have been the Tramway in Glasgow, the Tate Modern in London and the Baltic gallery in Gateshead.  

 

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The Baltic art gallery, constructed from a former flour mill on the banks of the river Tyne at Gateshead. Photographed in 2003.

 

 

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Our changing perspective of World War One

 

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Gravestones at a World War One battlefield, probably Verdun.

 

An earlier Leaf Collecting post recalled a speaker on a long-past edition of BBC’s Newsnight who suggested that a major reason why World War One was being still remembered after a century was the number of its soldier-poets who were still studied at school.

A more recent piece on the BBC website by poet and broadcaster Ian McMillan wondered whether our common view of the World War One experience as one of horror and disgust is actually false, and whether it has been skewed by one single poem, “Dulce et Decorum Est by Wilfred Owen.

Part of McMillan’s argument is that it was two poetry anthologies published independently in the 1960s, by Brian Gardner and Ian Parsons, which established and emphasised this bleak pessimistic view of the war. This was in line with the anti-war views shared at that time by many liberal writers, academics and broadcasters. This was an era of fear of nuclear war prompted by the Cuban Missile Crisis, the first wave of popularity of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and protests against the Vietnam War. The social and political climate also boosted the popularity of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem.

McMillan’s view is shared by Tim Kendall, who has edited a recent collection of World War One poetry. Kendall suggests that Brian Gardner actually provided false information about Owen, for example that the latter was prone to share “horror photographs” with contemporaries who had less combat experience. He adds that the Latin epithet which is part of Owen’s title was used 20 years earlier in a newspaper report by the rather more bellicose Winston Churchill and therefore its application here was not quite as “original” or “revolutionary” as Owen fans have suggested.

 My own collection of the poetry is a later one, The Penguin Book of First World War Poetry, in a revised edition from 1996. As well as the familiar names, it includes female poets and combatants from Austria, Germany, France and Italy. 

Whose poetic experience is the more authentic? When I was young, my impressions were in line with McMillan’s: it was Owen who was the orthodoxy, the accepted spokesperson, with Isaac Rosenberg acquiring some status as the only significant poet who was not an officer. Recently it appears that David Jones and In Parenthesis have been pushed further towards the top of the pantheon.

The one weakness in an argument that earlier readers of Owen inherited the flawed critical perspectives of the 1960s, in my opinion, is that many more of those readers had direct experience of war. Men and women alike might have served in the forces or in reserved occupations at home during World War Two, and others had done National Service. School-age readers had fathers or older relatives who had served – although admittedly, if they were like my Dad or David Hepworth’s, they never spoke about it.

I was really struck when I saw Mike Leigh’s 1950s-set film Vera Drake by that pub scene where men discuss briefly their different war experiences:  such moments must have been a powerful and intimate bond between many of those more introvert individuals.

The status of particular works of art keeps changing, because the ways audiences respond keep changing. Except for that one crucial fact, that far fewer readers or viewers of war stories today have had personal experience of the hardship and danger and sacrifice which are being described and presented to them.  

 

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A notice-board somewhere on the Western Front commemorates the vast numbers who died.

 

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The influence of Grunwick

 

Grunwick Changed Me was the title of a BBC Radio 4 documentary broadcast earlier this year. “Me” was Maya Amin-Smith, a young Asian-English woman who found out only recently that her family members had been participants in the strike at the Grunwick photo processing plant in London during 1976-1978.  

The title of the programme could have applied, in a lesser way, to me also. All of us are affected at different times in our life by particular national and international news events. Grunwick was certainly one of mine. At university in the mid-1970s I was acquiring a knowledge and interest in politics and current affairs, but my principles and loyalties were still not fully formed.

Trade unionism, while very visible, was often presented very negatively. Since nobody in my family were either trade union members or overt supporters, my own attitudes were heavily formed by fictional representation. In Elia Kazan’s film On the Waterfront , the leadership of a dockland union branch are a gang of criminals who terrorise the local community and incur the opposition of the local Catholic priest but who are eventually beaten by Terry Molloy’s single-handed violent resistance. In one episode of the post-World War One TV drama When the Boat Comes In, the sympathetic character Tom Seaton returns to work during a strike because of his family’s poverty and illness and is attacked by a group of fellow miners, and has to be helped by the resourcefulness of hero Jack Ford. In both cases individualism is presented as more noble and admirable, and more correct, than collectivism.

In the UK in the 1970s, trade unions had a large membership and were highly active in both workplace and civic space. This was due to, as expressed by Selina Todd in her brilliant political history The People, “the chasm between their high expectations of life in an affluent society, and the reality they experienced on the factory floor”. The employees of the Grunwick factory, mostly female immigrants from Asia, Africa and the West Indies, went on strike in protest about low wages, poor conditions and the right to join a trade union.

The Grunwick dispute was my first clear awareness of secondary picketing. What I remember were the TV pictures and reports of large crowds of aggressive trade unionists, not directly involved in the dispute, being held back by squads of policemen.  One useful nugget from Grunwick Changed Me was that it was the Grunwick strikers who contacted other unions and who were very gratified by the support they received.

In fact, that support from the leadership of the TUC and other unions in the summer of 1977 lasted a short time only. The Grunwick strike finally ended the following year. Contrary to the recommendation of the government-appointed Scarman Inquiry, the management did not agree to union representation and did not reinstate most sacked workers. 

The radio programme definitely came across as, primarily, a family history story, secondly, a story of female and ethnic empowerment, and only, as a distant third, the recollection of a significant event of trade union protest. In that second category, it certainly accorded appropriate prominence to the strike leader Jayaben Desai, who died in 2010 and who I don’t remember reading about at the time.

However, the programme completely omitted one aspect that was widely covered at the time: when three politically moderate Ministers from the Labour government, who were sponsored by the union APEX, were ridiculed for their public support of a violent dispute. The incident was often used against Shirley Williams when she was leaving the Labour party to co-found the Social Democratic Party. The Labour government led by Jim Callaghan was always nervous of supporting trade unions in any disputes with employers: the social changes which would lead to the 18 years of the Conservative government were already in process.

In Grunwick Changed Me, writer/activist Amrit Wilson said that young people now tend to be unaware of radical political history. In fact, said Maya Amin-Smith, people today are perhaps more likely to celebrate the achievements of individual entrepreneurs than of a group of low-paid workers, especially if the battle they fought had been lost. Around the time of the Grunwick strike I was certainly someone who had not yet learned the truth that every right possessed by men and women was one which had been fought for, often literally, from a previous powerful group. Or, if I understood this fact rationally, I certainly did not appreciate exactly what such struggles involved. By the time the miners’ strike came round about six years later, I was more informed and more attuned.

Selina Todd gives due status to the influence of the Grunwick episode in The People. “The Grunwick strikers challenged the assumption that married women, immigrants and young workers were naïve or apathetic… (It) was the first major dispute to involve Asian and white workers and men and women, working alongside each other on equal terms…It marked a radical and hopeful departure in the history of labour protest.”   

 

 Reference:  Todd, Selina (2015)    The People : The Rise and Fall of the Working Class    London: John Murray

 

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