Category: History

A pessimist is never disappointed

Having been wrong about the Brexit vote, and then wrong about Trump, I went into last week’s election with a sense of optimism that I knew full well verged on the perverse. I’m now trying to sort out what I based that optimism on, so here are some disjointed thoughts. Continue reading

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One of the interesting moments – I wouldn’t call it a highlight – of Wednesday’s debate was when Nuttall threw the “taking us back to the Seventies” canard at Corbyn and a large part of the audience responded with immediate vocal contempt. I don’t know if it was simply a recognition of that line as part of lazy and condescending scaremongering – see also “magic money tree” and Amber Rudd’s bizarre idea of what a game of Monopoly entails – or if it means the recent questioning and debunking of several myths of “the Seventies” are gaining traction, or if the audience was just young enough that the Seventies mean little to them, or if we’re at a point where the changes in geopolitical context since “the Seventies” are so glaring as to render such a reference to them absurd.

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Occupy the Tollgates: the Rebecca riots as myth, meme and movement

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Originally written for Wales Arts Review 13.11.15

Part of the pleasure of studying history is its ability to throw as much light on the present as the past. Long-term perspectives can make the short-term easier to understand. For me, having an interest in history was a function of growing up in a place which often seemed to consist, as the poet observed, of nothing but the past. History in Wales is not so much submerged as sedimentary, with much of it seeming to commemorate only struggle, failure, loss, and things which might have been. In school and out of it, I learnt about the Valleys’ radical tradition: the Scotch Cattle’s nascent trade union agitation, the raising of a red flag in the 1831 Merthyr Rising, and Welsh Chartism’s mass drive for popular democracy and parliamentary reform. Intrinsically tied to the progress of industrial capitalism, the grand narrative of the south Welsh coalfield presented instance after instance of the clash between workers trying to improve their conditions and local employers and authorities. In this context, things like the 1984-5 Miners’ Strike, which still casts its shadow over post-industrial parts of the country, slotted more comprehensibly into place. The history of my part of Wales, it seemed, was full of conflict, resistance, opposition – and, apparently, inevitable defeat. While this knowledge helped me to make historical and political sense of myself and my surroundings, it became at the same time a source of fatalism and of pique. However inspiring and heroic figures like the Merthyr Rising’s Lewsyn yr Heliwr or the Chartist leader John Frost seemed to me, they were also undeniably tragedies, martyrs, their stories bleak and their endings unhappy.

When I looked at the gloomy chronicles of Welsh protest, its single bright spot seemed to originate further afield, not from my own bleak and militant south-east coal and iron belt but from the country’s apparently placid south-west muzzle of Carmarthenshire, Cardiganshire and Pembrokeshire. The 1840s agricultural unrest known as the Rebecca riots is remembered as having been an unqualified success and, most famously, as having been carried out on horseback at night by men dressed, for some reason, like our grandmothers. The Rebecca riots capture the retrospective imagination, much as they did at the time, by their colourful and spectacular qualities – not least the fantastical images of stout Welsh farmers sporting bonnets and petticoats – and by their appearing to be a textbook example of righteous community uprising against unfair financial penalties, a bit like a nineteenth-century incarnation of the Poll Tax Riots. I spent a chunk of my postgraduate years examining how true this impression was, and discovered a complex but still inspiring picture. Having maintained my interest in the Rebecca movement through years of incremental independent study. I now find myself in the vaguely surreal position of bringing out my own book on it.

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Rebeccaism, then: what happened, and why? For south-west Wales, the early 1840s were years of population growth, increasing poverty and unemployment, and deepening social and economic division between landowning gentry and their tenant-farmers and labourers. The latter group, facing a fall in income due to bad harvests and low prices for their produce, saw no such fall in the money they had to spend, as church tithes and poor rates remained constant or increased and landlords refused to lower their rents. This material pressure intersected with a developing sense of cultural conflict between largely Welsh-speaking, chapel-going tenants and Anglicised, Church-going landowners. Additionally, the effects of the 1834 New Poor Law were also restricting the support that poverty-stricken individuals could expect from their local authorities. Those asking for help risked being committed to one of the multiplying number of workhouses, in which families were separated and conditions frequently made deliberately harsh in order to discourage applicants from seeking further relief. In 1843, the Welshman newspaper described the region’s rising sense of economic and social crisis: Continue reading

On Enemies Within: growing up with the Miners’ Strike in memory, myth and history

Faced with possible Parliamentary destruction of all that is good and compassionate in our society, extra-parliamentary action will be the only course open to the working class and the Labour movement.”

– Arthur Scargill, 1983

“We’re secure in the knowledge that we already lost a long time ago.”

– Richey James, 1992

I knew the death of Margaret Thatcher wasn’t likely to usher in a Truth and Reconciliation Commission on the Eighties, but it’s been good to see the thirtieth anniversary of the Miners’ Strike pass this year and last with due commemoration, and with little attempt to present what happened as a good thing.*

A few months ago I went to a screening of Still The Enemy Within.** This documentary does a fine job of detailing the strike’s background and bringing the experience of the strike to life. Generally I avoid (resist?) revisiting the strike in quite such unflinching detail, because – and apologies if this sounds hyperbolic; it isn’t – I find doing so almost debilitating, as though nothing else matters outside of emphasising how permanently shattering its results have been for a huge part of this country. The depth of feeling can be such that you want to back away from the edge. At this stage, at this distance, all one can do is bear witness. All one can do is testify.

(Every time I try to write about the Miners’ Strike and its aftermath, the exercise turns out to be merely a scraping at the surface, an unsuccessful attempt to uncover the heart of the matter. It’s a gradual stripping away of layers, on my part, of bravado and defensiveness and fatalism. This post won’t be definitive either. I want to do the thing justice, to give it adequate weight, and I know I can’t, so this will have to do. For the purposes of this piece, in any case, the strike is less of a conclusion and more of a jumping-off point.)

In its uncompromising commitment to telling a bleak and unrelenting story, Still The Enemy Within is a necessary supplement to something like Pride. The strike deserves to be remembered in the latter’s upbeat and uplifting terms of solidarity, sure, but equally what deserves remembering is that there were no happy endings, nothing of what we learned in the Nineties to call emotional closure. (Hoho, the only things that got closure in the Nineties were more of the pits.) There are wider questions here about what counts as history, and whether history must be necessarily cool-headed and objective, not relieved by colour or comedy or complicated by messy, judgement-clouding emotion. But the tangle of story and history surrounding the strike suggests that the event and what it stood for are not “just” history yet. Like Hillsborough in 1989, Brixton in 1985, Toxteth in 1981, the Miners’ Strike is a flashpoint that unforgivingly illuminates its era. That Eighties hot war of government against people still hasn’t cooled.

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You may imagine how exceptionally bored I was as a post-industrial Nineties teenager. (I mean, I couldn’t even join a brass band.) Growing up, before I ever knew I wanted to be a historian, I wanted to understand history – both its grand outlines and its bathetic, personal confines in which I knew my community to be stuck. How did we get here, and why? Growing up I felt stymied and stifled by history, and had the consequent compulsion to dig beneath the surface for the story. What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow, out of this stony rubbish? Continue reading

“Pride”, identity and intersectionality

An extended version of what I wrote for the New Welsh Review.

From a certain angle of rose-tinted retrospect, Britain in the 1980s is a storyteller’s dream. In the past few decades, British films like Billy Elliott, Brassed Off and The Full Monty have presented the era as one of struggle and defeat for the British working class, with Margaret Thatcher as a grotesque presiding nightmare. Counter-accounts of Thatcher’s rise — notably 2012’s The Iron Lady — have revolved around the victory of the country’s first female Prime Minister over a male-chauvinist political establishment and the macho thuggery of Britain’s trade unions. There has been less cultural coverage of the stories that unfolded in the margins of this grand narrative. Matthew Warchus’s film Pride is distinctive initially for its focus on those at the frequently forgotten intersection of 1980s conflict.

For audiences outside the UK, and even some within it, the details of the Miners’ Strike of 1984-85 are unknown or hazy at best. The ideological clash between the Thatcher government and the National Union of Mineworkers became a titanic struggle for the survival of the British coal industry, played out in mining communities up and down the country in a year long strike. Against the NUM, the Thatcher government deployed an unprecedented degree of police violence, media bias and state surveillance, the extent of which is only recently coming to light. Popular support for the strikers, meanwhile, was generated both by instinctive anti-Tory sentiment and an awareness that the miners were the front line of resistance to a right-wing assault on the economic, political and social fabric of Britain. If the miners were beaten, then sooner or later little of the postwar welfare settlement would be left intact. That they were beaten, and that NUM leader Arthur Scargill’s jeremiads on the triumph of neoliberalism have indeed come to pass, is part of why the strike retains its peculiar status as a cultural and political touchstone in Britain, and why it still has the ability to provoke powerful and frequently bitter reactions both for and against.

If considered purely in terms of popular resistance to neoliberalism’s shock-troops, Pride could be dismissed for pulling its punches, since it shows little of the high political stakes invested in the outcome of the strike or the police occupation, brutality, and harassment to which mining communities were subject. But this is not quite the task it sets for itself. Directed by Matthew Warchus and scripted by Steven Beresford, Pride tells the story of the London-based activist group Lesbians and Gay Men Support the Miners, and their encounters with a group of striking miners from the Welsh coalfield. It’s a true story, though you’d be forgiven for remaining unaware of this until the closing credits, and, like many depictions of the 80s, its dramatic narrative seems almost too good to be true. The strike itself becomes a backdrop to the staple fare of feel-good film: gently comical culture-clashes, personal journeys and gently triumphant coming together in the face of adversity. Where Pride manages to be more than the sum of its parts, however, and where it becomes a particularly useful intervention into contemporary debates, is in its unabashedly political edge.

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From Olympia to the Valleys: What Riot Grrrl Did and Didn’t Do for Me

[This essay first published in the Wales Arts Review, with artwork by the tremendous Dean Lewis.]

 

With riot grrrl now approaching the status of a heritage industry, not to mention Courtney Love’s current incarnation as the post-grunge Norma Desmond, it can be hard to recall that both of them helped me find my feminist footing on the slippery rocks of a ’90s girlhood. This is a roundabout remembrance of how it happened.

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  The arts have long been a space for radical expression by women, even if the extent of that radicalism has often gone under-acknowledged. In 1915, the author and journalist Dorothy Richardson produced Pointed Roofs, credited as the first English stream of consciousness novel, using an innovative prose style which she saw as necessary for the expression of female experience. Virginia Woolf observed that Richardson ‘has invented, or, if she has not invented, developed and applied to her own uses, a sentence which we might call the psychological sentence of the feminine gender’. If Richardson’s challenge to linguistic convention in her writing has musical counterparts, one of them is the ‘new, raw and female’ sound made possible by post-punk. Punk removed barriers of precedent and technical expertise to engagement in music, enabling trips into less-charted musical and lyrical territory. But it was in the subsequent voyage of discovery that was post-punk that punk’s revolutionary potential really bore fruit, and the untried, experimental nature of post-punk music was particularly suited to women.

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