Monday, November 29, 2010

Hold on to our history!

THE PEOPLE'S STORY, Edinburgh,below, and right, the People's History Museum, in Manchester.

WHEN people are losing their jobs and homes, you may think it a bit of a diversion to be worried about our historical heritage. Only today they were talking on TV about local authorities that could possibly raise money by selling off paintings and objets d'art that some have stored in basements, away from the public gaze.

That's as it may be, though the objection was raised that some items were donated or left under covenant. I remember this was a problem for the Tate when it wanted to charge admission, that it would affect its Turner collection, paintings donated by the artist on condition that the public could freely see them.

Of course paintings kept out of sight, whether in town hall basements or bank vaults, are something else, in troubled times a form of limited issue currency. Mind you, if "we are all in this together", as ministers tell us, who has money for pictures? They could go abroad of course, though this is an international crisis. And if not particularly well-known pictures are released on the market, whatever their artistic merit, will they raise their value or be a bargain-basement?

What concerns me is a different kind of heritage, and more especial value. Students are on the streets or occupying their colleges to defend access to education. Well, museums are just as much part of education as schools and colleges and textbooks. And unless we see education as just training us to do as we are told and operate the bosses' machines, everyone is entitled to find out everything we can about our culture and our history.

One thing that reactionary rulers cannot easily take away, though they try, is our memory. For some years now, people have been waking to the fact that it is ordinary people, and not just 'great men', certainly not those who merely inherit position, that make history. We have started to appreciate the value of what we inherit from the struggles of past generations, and to store and cherish it, be it in books, pictures, sound recordings or whatever. Who knows, it may be part of what we need just now to inspire and strengthen our resolve to fight those taking us back to misery, and change society for future generations to enjoy a better life, as well saving the planet.

A few months ago, dodging out of the rain on Edinburgh's Canongate, I ducked into the People's Story museum and found myself alternately moved, amused and delighted by its scenes and relics of past life, and some not so far past from familiarity, of ordinary folk's lives, labour and leisure in the Scottish capital. It's only a wee museum, and the steps are steep between floors, but it's a friendly place and, amid all Edinburgh's tourist pageantry, I'd recommend it.

My own native ground, as befits its rich working class history, now boasts inter alia the Working Class Movement Library in Salford, largely the fruit of activist couple Ruth and Eddie Frow's vision; and the People's History Museum. This originated partly in the National Museum of Labour History, begun at Limehouse Town Hall in east London, before accepting Manchester council's hospitality and merging with another collection. In February this year the People's History Museum re-opened at the Left Bank on Spinningfields in central Manchester, after a £12.5 million redevelopment. With backing from national trade unions, and co-operatives, as well as Manchester City Council and the National Heritage Fund, the People's History Museum has also received state funding, amounting to 20 per cent of its budget.

But now the Department of Culture, Museums and Sport (DCMS) has announced it will no longer fund eight "museums that should be the responsibility of local communities". These "non-national" museums include the National Football Museum, in Preston, the National Coal Mining Museum for England, in Wakefield, the Horniman Museum in south-east London, whose anthropological collection is very popular with schoolkids (and me), and in Manchester, the Museum of Science and Industry and the People's History Museum (whose website says it is the only national museum in central Manchester, and gives directions for visitors from elsewhere). I can't help wondering whether this government's understanding of "non-national" means "not in the West End of London" or "not in South Kensington". And I can't help noticing that besides museums with a working class connection, the hit list includes the popular Horniman, historically linked with secular materialism. This museum, with its gardens part of a school nature trail, will lose more than £4 million a year, around 85 per cent of its budget.

Why should these institutions receive public money? Because it is our history, our enlightenment, our children's pleasure and education, and OUR money. Working class people pay a higher percentage of their income in tax, whereas some members of this government avoid paying any. We owe what rights we have to the generations whose struggle is reflected in the People's History Museum. And if this country can afford an expensive royal wedding for its living relics, it can afford a contribution to our places. An online petion is collecting signatures to demand that funding is restored to the People's History Museum and the other "non-national" museums.


Still on history, I recently drew on information in the booklet 150 Years of Union Struggle, published by the Greater London Association of Trade Union Councils (GLATUC) to commemorate the anniversary of its predecessor the London Trades Council. With articles on the trades' councils' origins, the famous Matchgirls' Strike, the Police Strikes and much more, it is a good read and well-illustrated, and costs £2 per copy. But if your trades union council wants to order 20 or more copies for members or for some event, you can order them at £1.50 per copy. Money with order to GLATUC Secretary, 16 Mansell Road, London W3 7QH.


Cities of London and Westminster Trades Union Council is advertising a video and presentation on the Freeing of the Pentonville Five, back in July1972, when widespread walk-outs and demonstrations by workers forced the government of the day to find remarkable means of freeing five dockers who had just been jailed over picketing in a struggle over jobs.

For more information contact Roger Sutton,

Going further back, I still remember the grins of recognition when I got out my library book at tea break on a building job in Sussex, fifty years ago. It was The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressell. "You're reading the Brickies' Bible!" , said one of the bricklayers from Brighton. The novel had been out of print for decades, and though republished (by Lawrence and Wishart, I think) in 1955 I hadn't realised it was that well known.

Tressell was Robert Noonan, a Dublin-born housepainter and decorator who worked in Hastings, and wrote with sad humour about his working life, his workmates, the fear they shared of the boss, and the workhouse, and the hero's attempts to persuade his colleagues that a socialist alternative was possible. Finishing his book in 1910, Noonan approached publisher after publisher, without success. He nearly burnt his manuscript in despair, but his daughter saved it. The painter-writer died of TB in 1911. His daughter managed to get the book published in 1914, and later editions were published abroad, but British publishers were inclined to cut the politics out. Many years later, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists was to be published in full and reach a much wider audience as a television play - still particularly appreciated by building workers, as I recall.

Hastings, meanwhile, is no longer quite the conservative 'Mugsborough' that Noonan-Tressell described, and next year trades unionists in the seaside town will mark the centenary of Robert Noonan's death with a celebration of his life and work. That's from noon to 8pm in the St.Leonard's Assembly Rooms, Hastings, on February 5, 2011. Make a date - details to follow.


More recent generations of building workers are being invited to tell their stories for a project on Constructing Post War Britain being run from the University of Westminster. They'd particularly like to hear from anyone who was employed on the Barbican, Stevenage New Town, the Shell Mex site, the South Bank Arts Complex, Sizewell A, or Fawley Power Station.
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Moving from the gorblimey to the ridiculous, some might say, I have just been adding my own modest contribution to working class history, by narrating my experiences working in Willesden in the 1960s.
It's not my fault that firms like AEI, Elliot Automation and Mulliner Park Ward all closed down, even Allnatts the builders appears to have gone, and the BT Telephone Managers Office on Shoot Up Hill is no more. Indeed I could argue that the last would have done better not to have disposed of my talents. I know I signed the Official Secrets Act before they gave me my cards, but it is all on tape now for the Britain At Work oral history project in which I've been taking part, at least it is if the guy recording me was not laughing too much to hold the recorder straight.

I might find out next week, when there is a meeting about the Britain at Work project, that's Thursday, December 9, 6.30pm at History Talk, Notting Hill Methodist Church, 240 Lancaster Rd., W11 (side entrance), near Ladbroke Grove tube. Refreshments available., but let them know if you're coming.

tel: 020 7792 2282

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