All posts by Andrea Gibbons

Vaccination walk – Or A Beginning Typology of Ways in which Manchester Pedestrians are Screwed

About 6 weeks ago I got a text from my GP saying I could make THE appointment and I was surprised knowing it was early but so happy, not least because my GPs were administering the vaccine themselves ten minutes walk away. Brilliant. Within hours a number of other texts arrived from another number saying cancel that appointment immediately, there is no vaccine for you.

I’d just seen the news about vaccine shortages, the hold put on the roll out.

A real fall after something of a high. Of course I knew full well the vaccine roll out hadn’t even (hasn’t even) started in some other countries. Even disappointment carries its privilege. So many here means so few there. Things beyond my control but that I hold in my heart.

I finally did get to go get my vaccination last Thursday — freedom day. Of a limited kind still I know, but still. Sadly, the closest available location was Etihad stadium, home of Man City. I cannot afford to get there to see football of course, very sad indeed. Knowing it was a stadium I also knew the whole experience would be a little bit of a fuck you to pedestrians. My theory was the newer the stadium, the more of a fuck you. I was not wrong.

This is Type 1: the screwing of pedestrians by planners and architects of all such large sprawling complexes (Universities, stadiums, business parks and etc, but stadiums are the worst), with a secondary screwing by their management who could signpost a way through for people if they chose, as well as let you know which routes were generally left open so you could be reassured you wouldn’t wander in through an opening and 15-20 minutes later find the exit you needed blocked. A niche type of screwing, but one that exists in every major city.

As a planner myself I despise this — it is a massive area to completely or partially, but always arbitrarily, close off.

I also despise the giant roads that cut through neighbourhoods and made the surest walking route to reach Gate 2 absolutely the most awful (and most polluted) to walk down, even if it is named Alan Turing way. This is Type 2: the carving of such massive thoroughfares through a city’s fabric without thought to parallel routes for pedestrians or bicyclists.

I knew I was taking a chance taking an alternative route despite google maps swearing up and down I could cut through. So wrong. I had given myself plenty of extra time and needed all of it as I ended up walking around half the giant stadium and down the major thoroughfare breathing in exhaust the whole way.

I thus encountered the third fuck you to pedestrians, or Type 3: pavements closed off for massive construction works at Gate 2. No clear advance warning or signage that allow you to avoid or navigate it, so you’re in a maze of orange barriers (in this case too narrow for social distancing and full of construction workers, none of whom were wearing facemasks) facing the attempt to somehow cross the steady stream of cars pouring in full of people to be vaccinated, the construction having made it absurdly complicated for them as well.

This is the screwing over of pedestrians (and drivers) by development (as if that weren’t already screwing people over enough in this city), the poor practice of construction companies and the complete lack of caring/regulation from the city’s planning department. This is currently ubiquitous and everywhere, even where the hoardings loudly proclaim courtesy.

And of course, I’d already encountered the fourth, possibly most overwhelming kind of fuck you to pedestrians experienced by all residents of South Manchester during the whole of this lockdown–a combination of austerity impacting local authority abilities to pay people to clean parks or pick up bins every week or maintain public pathways combined with controls, fees and temporary closures of landfills leading to the rise of fly tipping. I walked through a landscape of rubbish, empty paths down the backs of houses strewn with bin bags, abandoned household goods and the wind-blown detritus of everyday life. On one of them someone appears to be drinking themselves to death (but on Malbec, not a bad way to go I guess).

These footpaths and little pieces of wild ground all feel hidden away, uncared for, and to be honest, as a woman unsafe. But how different this could be as a place to escape traffic and enjoy some limited experience of nature. These footpaths along the railway lines could be really beautiful, full of bees and birds. Instead Type 4: walks through the urban landfill.

The vaccination process itself was pretty easy, though involved an awful lot of walking/standing once on site (I passed several older people really struggling on canes, couldn’t they have been pulled out of the queue and helped first? I don’t think anyone would have minded). The two women who gave me my jab were funny and awesome and I love the NHS more than I can say.

I walked back home heading back into the centre and then out again, along the canal. That was beautiful, though sadly yet again hitting the Type 3 fuck you from developers. With no warning I twice encountered massive scaffolding with boards to shut down the canal path–no information, quite a long way to walk back to some alternate, much more unpleasant route. A few of the boards had been removed, still leaving a scramble. It was unclear who had removed the boards or if I was heading into danger. Turns out they were at some point renovating an old building further along the path, signs warned of things falling. There was no work taking place.

Did the older couple who passed me get their bikes through this ‘opening’? I doubt it. Which meant at least a mile of backtracking for them.

But I saw goslings! And I passed one place where public spaces are cared for — a lovely sign signalling Blakemore Walk and a row of blossoming trees. The canal is beautiful and calm and the sun was shining, the development of overpriced investment boxes hasn’t yet destroyed the character of the place and the entangled histories of labour, working class life and exploitation that these old bricks evoke. This final section of walk may have made up a little for being SO SICK, I even had chills. Hurt all over. Exhausted. But still, I am now team Astra Zeneca and it was so worth it and I look forward to my second jab immensely. But maybe not the walk.

free Spaces: Social Movement, space and The Practice of Democracy

Free Spaces was first published in 1986, second edition way back in 1992, yet the ways it thinks about space, conviviality, democracy, communities and societies that work…pretty timeless. Not everything, of course. But I love how it brings the ways in which people live in and occupy the physical spaces around them with the processes that contribute to political and social engagement, the ability to work across difference, the capacity to listen to others to build a better world. As they write:

Free Spaces asks an elemental but important question. What are the environments, the public spaces, in which ordinary people become participants in the complex, ambiguous, engaging conversation about democracy: participators in governance rather than spectators or complainers, victims or accomplices? What are the roots not simply of movements against oppression but also, more positively, of those democratic social movements which both enlarge the opportunities for participation and enhance people’s ability to participate in the public world? (viii)

It’s interesting also that they differentiate the positive kinds of neighbourhood activism and organising from the reactive through differences and a narrowed understanding of ‘public’, I think it would be really useful to bring this a little more into conversation with the renewed wave of thinking about populism (see for example Muller or Revelli).

The participatory, egalitarian, and open character of public life at the heart of democratic movements is qualitatively unlike protests with a defensive and parochial cast like the Ku Klux Klan, where “public” has a much thinner and more static meaning … And the very nature of public life in free spaces conveys older, richer meanings of the term “public,” pertaining to the community as a whole in its diversity, and notions of human dignity that modern thought neglects to its considerable impoverishment. Thus we hope the arguments that Free Spaces helps to generate will focus in part on the relevance of these underlying themes—the nature of public life, the importance of community, the substance and meaning of democratic values–and on the features of coventional wisdom that have rendered such themes largely invisible. (xxvi-xxvii)

Can I just say up front that my favourite part of this book was in many ways the footnotes…like this brilliant footnote from page 5 on citizenship. It’s something I’ve thought a little about, enough to be aware of some of these wider debates, but not dug into a lot. I have been thinking about the importance of face-to-face encounter for some time though, miss it terribly in this time of Covid which adds a strange nostalgia over the very possibility of such a thing:

Citizenship, in an active sense, emerges out of face-to-face encounter over time As Robert Bellah and his colleagues observe in Habits of the Heart*, this understanding of citizenship, in American folklore and practice, is grounded in community, associated with the widespread belief in “getting involved” and “making a contribution.” Thus, it can be contrasted with definitions of citizenship as a politics of interest-group bargaining, normally conducted by professionals; or a politics of the nation, expressing generalized visions of common purpose uniting disparate groups. In democratic movements, all three meanings of citizenship are held in tension and balance, but it is a central argument of this book that without rich opportunities for a “politics of community,” democracy becomes a hollow and ritualized formality. Others have made the point in more general terms. As G. D. H. Cole put it many decades ago, “Over the vast mechanism of modern politics the individual has no control, not because the state is too big, but because he is given no chance of learning the rudiments of self-government within a smaller unit.”

Quoting G.D.H. Cole! I certainly know a couple of people who would be terribly impressed. Another footnote with their definition of community, worthy of thinking about:

Throughout Free Spaces “community” is intended as a concept suggesting density and texture of a relationship. Thus, though community in this sense most often has a spatial dimension—a “neighborhood” implication—such a dimension is not part of the definition; rather, communal ties depend on a complex set of social relationships that overlap and reinforce each other. Craig Calhoun has characterized community in these terms as meaning a “greater ‘closeness’ of relations” than is true for society as a whole. “This closeness seems to imply, though not rigidly, face-to-face contact, commonality of purpose, familiarity and dependability.” Craig Calhoun, “Community: Toward a Variable Conceptualization for Comparative Research,” Social History 5 ( January 1980): 111.

This book maybe just possibly romanticises a little the predilection of the poor, in community, for democracy, but I lean that way myself. I like this flying of their colours.

The drama and passion in the histories which follow revolve, in no small measure, around the ways in which the dispossessed and powerless have again and again sought simultaneously to revive and remember older notions of democratic participation, on the one hand, and on the other given them new and deeper meanings and applications. Democracy, in these terms, then, means more than changing structures so as to make democracy possible. It means, also, schooling citizens in “citizenship”—that is, in the varied skills and values which are essential to sustaining effective participation. Democratic social movements, efforts whose goal is an enlarged democracy, are themselves vehicles for such schooling.

And thus…the need for free spaces.

To understand the inner life of democratic movements, one must rethink such traditional categories as “politics,” “private life,” “public activity,” “reaction,” and “progress.” Only then can we hope to fathom how people draw upon their past for strength, create out of traditions—which may seem on their face simply to reinforce the status quo—new visions of the future, gain out of the experiences of their daily lives new public skills and a broader sense of hope and possibility. The central argument of this book is that particular sorts of public places in the community, what we call free spaces, are the environments in which people are able to learn a new self-respect, a deeper and more assertive group identity, public skills, and values of cooperation and civic virtue. Put simply, free spaces are settings between private lives and large-scale institutions where ordinary citizens can act with dignity, independence, and vision. These are, in the main, voluntary forms of association with a relatively open and participatory character… (17)

So how more precisely do we characterise such free spaces?

For all their variations, free spaces have certain common features, observable in movements varying widely in time, aims, composition, and social environment. They are defined by their roots in community, the dense, rich networks of daily life; by their autonomy; and by their public or quasi-public character as participatory environments which nurture values associated with citizenship and a vision of the common good. In a full way, the spirit, dynamics, and character of free spaces can only be understood i the concreteness of particular stories, where people gain new skills, a new sense of possibility, and a broadened understanding of whom “the people” include. (20)

There are a number of movements that created such spaces and experiments with living democracy: the civil rights movement, the national Women’s Christian Temperence Union — providing space for white middle-class white women, but unable to overcome their prejudice and biases. Settlement houses. Suffragette movement, SDS, wome’s liberation movement and the ways they tried to move beyond the old hierarchical structures. An additional failure has been in the theorising of how this should happen.

The problem has not been with the attempt to analyze and understand the processes that dehumanize workers, but with the attempt to develop conceptions of action and theories of social change based upon the capitalist definition of working people. The notion of an abstract, universal cosmopolitanism as the end point of true class consciousness draws its theory of group formation and its language from the vast settings where people are organized by modern life. It assumes that a sundering of people from their historical and organic connections—from their “roots”—is the indispensable preliminary to free-dom. It proposes, in place of community weakened or lost, an organization based on abstract solidarity. Moreover, the idea that uprootedness is an indication of progress has maintained a compelling hold over much of modern scholarship—Marxist and non-Marxist alike—which sees traditional relations as reactionary obstacles. From such a stance, in turn, workers must abandon memories and ties to their communal past as an essential part of building modern movements like the trade unions.

Wrong! Ha! And back to a wonderful footnote on Marx and Engels.

There is a strong feeling for the concrete in the historical writings of Marx and Engels that confounds the the abstract universalism of their political theory. Yet the point is that the basic theory that saw revolutionary consciousness as a rootless cosmopolitanism has continued to hold sway over the dominant left approach. It appears in Lenin’s theory of revolutionary consciousness as the worldview of middle-class, radicalized intellectuals that must be introjected into the working class, and in Trotsky’s contention that the Bolshevik Party must be a “moral medium” of its own, guarding against ideological contamination and, implicitly, forming a socializing agent for its members in order to detach them from all prior loyalties. In our time, the leftist view of liberated consciousness as a process of radical separation lies behind Michael Harrington’s vision of a “rational, humanist moral code” to replace traditional moral values. It informs conventional criteria used to distinguish social movements. Thus, E. J. Hobsbawm contrasts “primitive” protests grounded in communal ties and “modern, secular” movements like the trade unions and socialist parties that supposedly have severed such connections. Similarly, the Tillys separate “reactive” communal movements from “proactive,” modern movements. Ralph Miliband means much the same thing when he argues that “the Marxist notion of a most radical rupture’ with traditional ideas signifies a break with all forms of tradition and must expect to encounter the latter not as friend but as foe.” And this view of social change and its agents is succinctly summarized by Stanley Aronowitz in his essay entitled, appropriately enough, “The Working Class: A Break with the Past.” According to Aronowitz, all particular identities—of “race and nationality and sex and skill and industry”—are obstacles to the development of homogenized class consciousness. As he puts it, “they constitute antagonisms which still act as a brake on the development of revolutionary consciousness.” (112-13)

Ah, take them all down! Because studies of actual movements show ‘that the life of communuties and not abstract notions of class have provided the main resources for oppostional movements among working people‘. (114)

So what does provide such resources?

Certainly the most innovative and successful examples of contemporary organizing show the same characteristics as their predecessors. None are marked by an abstracted “class consciousness,” but all manage to merge into the activity of the union the communal traditions central to people’s identities. This occurs in particular sorts of voluntary associations, free spaces that link communal life and workplace activity, where people can learn essential public skills and a powerful sense of their own rights and capacities. In the process of organizing, traditional identities and institutions furnish ideological re-sources even while themselves undergoing democratic trans-formation. Class as a lived and powerful reality, then, always has a populist cast. It is about peoplehood, multiple identities, and the places in the community that nurture democratic aspiration and capacity, as well as about relations to the means of production. (149)

And the question for Evans and Boyte, is how all of this can be brought to bear to nurture uprising and movement beyond that triggering point and the first mass wave of protest. I love this acknowledgement of how people grow and change through struggle, building their own networks and processes.

Our concern in Free Spaces has been to understand the ways in which the defensive and limited impulses which spark most social protests, especially in their early stages, can be trans-formed into democratic initiatives. What are the features of the environments in which people discover their capacities to over-come deferential patterns of behavior, outgrow parochialisms of class, race, or sex, and form a broader conception of the common good? How do people develop new visions in which elements of tradition become resources for democratic activity?

In the course of democratic movements, as a people move into action, they change. They discover in themselves and in their ways of life new democratic potentials. They find out new political facts about the world. They build networks and seek contacts with other groups of the powerless to forge a broader group identity. In turn, for such processes to occur requires more than local, communal roots. Such spaces must also be relatively autonomous, free from elite control.

Thus, the voluntary aspect of such community environments is an important element. Unstructured by the imperatives of large and bureaucratic organizations… (188)

And a story to illustrate, how lovely is this.

Casey Hayden, a young white southerner who spent years working in the civil rights movement, argued in 1965:

I think we’ve learned a few things about building and sustaining a radical movement: People need institutions that belong to them, that they can experiment with and shape. In that process it’s possible to develop new forms for activity which can provide new models for how people can work together so participants can think radically about how society could operate. People stay involved and working when they can see the actual results of their thought and work in the organization. . . .9 (190)

So how to ensure that social movements move us towards more justice, deeper democracy, wider participation, lasting change? And what is the role of place/space in this? The centre of the argument.

Thus, democratic action today, as in the past, also depends upon an open and Participatory public life that can bring together diverse communities and nourish the values of citizenship. The richness and vitality of public life in free spaces stands in marked contrast to the static and thin quality of “public” in reactionary protests. …

Democratic movements have always expressed this sensibility—in contrast to the conventional assumptions that “public” and “government” are virtually identical. They have seen government as properly the agency and instrument of the self-organized community, neither itself the problem (as conservative ideology tends to view it) nor the solution (the typical perspective of modern liberalism). Thus, for instance, as the nineteenth-century Knights of Labor engaged in electoral activity, they understood such involvement to be an expression of values and community life, not as an end in itself.’

For a well-developed consciousness of broader community and generalized, active citizenship to emerge requires ways for people to build direct, face-to-face and egalitarian relationships, beyond their immediate circles of friends and smaller com-munities. Thus, a prelude to democratic movement, visible in different times and settings, has been the emergence of avenues for wider sociability. (191-92)

The appropriation of democratic possibility depends on the collective experience we have identified with free social spaces. Simply, democratic ideas only make sense in the context of democratic experience. When people begin to see in themselves the capacity to end their own hurts, to take control of their lives, they gain the capacity to tap the democratic resources in their heritage. Thus, workers drew on biblical, artisanal, and republican traditions throughout the nineteenth century and on ethnic cultures shaped to the new r environments of urban, industrial America. The separation of home and work spaces made the existence of community institutions such as taverns, churches, reading rooms, clubs, and other groups all the more essential in order to create a vocabulary in opposition to the emerging industrial order… (193)

What happens when these spaces don’t exist? They speak of a new ‘rancorous, sour mood’ that shapes the country, a new polarization. Thirty years ago.

Politics of sound bites and special interests, politicians who define their positions by the latest poll, rhetoric that inflames symbolic divisions, all have convinced citizens that the political process has lost its capacity for the elemental function once noted by Arthur Schlesinger—the “question of remedy,” provisional solutions to basic public problems. Moreover, the dilemmas of politics have not simply been inflicted upon the citizenry. A rancorous, sour mood shapes most political discussions of the citizens themselves, from abortion to animal rights, affirmative action to America’s role in the world. Debates polarize around questions of who is righteous or who is morally bankrupt. Any sense of “the people” as responsible, creative participants in making decisions, shaping our nation’s affairs, or solving critical social problems is distant indeed. A version of this politics of blame, accusation, and self-righteousness has also roiled the nation’s intellectual life. Here, the main concerns of progressive intellectuals have continued to reflect a focus born in the Sixties, on patterns and structures of oppression and injustice along lies of race, gender, culture, sexuality, and class. In response conservatives have charged that a culture of “political correctness” stifles free inquiry and debate in academia. In this climate, every side tends toward a stance of political innocence that destroys the possibility for engagement with others of different persuasion. (Vii)

Thus it’s interesting to think about space in relation to a growing populism, as noted before:

Ties of place, gender, memory, kin-ship, work, ethnicity, value and religious belief, and many other bonds may in different contexts be sources of communal solidar-ity or of fragmentation. Communities can be open, evolving, and changing—or static, parochial, defensive, and rigid. They can encourage new roles for those traditionally marginalized or powerless within their midst, or they can reinforce patterns of exclusivity and parochialism. Without attention to the specific features and processes that democratize community life, any invocation of communal values is prey to telling criticisms of sentimentality and naiveté. (184)

And its connections to the right

From a democratic perspective, more is lost through the eclipse of community than a sense of belonging and secure identity. Citizenship itself disappears from view. And the very arenas where it is nourished and given meaning—communally grounded voluntary associations of the sort we have called, throughout this work, free spaces—are defined simply as bulwarks of order and the status quo. Such a perspective, for instance, characterizes much of contemporary conservatism. (185)

All that can go wrong, but mostly this book is about all that can go right. I quite loved it. I end with one last footnote — as I say, they are marvelous. Like this cornucopia of interesting references on precisely this polarisation. All of this buried away? Terrible.

In more theoretical terms, a focus on the free spaces at the heart of democratic movements aids in the resolution of polarities that have long and bitterly divided modern observers and critics—expressive individualism versus ties of community; modernity versus tradition; public and private values, and so forth—by highlighting the living environments where people draw upon both “oppositions” to create new experiments. See especially Chapters 3, 4, and 6 for a discussion of these issues. For earlier discussions of the concept of free space, see Harry C. Boyte, “The Textile Industry: Keel of Southern Industrialization,” Radical America (March-April 1972); Sara M. Evans, Personal Politics: The Roots of Women’s Liberation in the Civil Rights Movement and the New Left (New York: Knopf, 1979); Harry C. Boyte, “Populism and the Left,” democracy 1 (April 1981): 53-66. and Sara M. Evans and Harry C. Boyte, “Schools for Action: Radical Uses of Social Space,” democracy 2 (fall 1982): 55-65. Though we have developed the concept in our explorations of American social movements, it clearly has application to other cultural and social settings. For interesting applications of the idea to other societies, see, for instance, Craig Calhoun, “Class, Place and Industrial Revolution,” in N. Thrift and P. Williams, eds., The Making of Urban Society: Historical Essays on Class Formation and Place (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1985); Allen Isaacman et al., ” ‘Cotton Is the Mother of Poverty’: Peasant Resistance to Forced Cotton Production in Mozambique, 1938-1961,” The International Journal of African Historical Studies 13 (1980); Allen Isaacman and Barbara Isaacman, Mozambique: From Colonialism to Revolution, 1900-1982 (Hampshire, England: Gower, 1983); Ronald Aminzade, Class, Politics and Early Industrial Capitalism: A Study of Mid-Nineteenth-Century Toulouse, France (Albany: StateUniversity of New York Press, 1981).

We have used the terms “space” and “social space” to suggest the lived, daily character of those networks and relationships that form the primary base of social movements. The concept of social space grows from traditions of social geography, ethnology, and phenomenology. It suggests strongly an “objective”, physical dimension—the ways in which places are organized and connected, fragmented, and so forth; and a subjective dimension, space as understood, perceived, and lived—what seems customary, familiar, part of daily experience. For discussions of the “socially constructed” nature of physical reality, see for instance Edward Hall, The Hidden Dimension (New York: Doubleday, 1968) and Anne Buttimer, “Social Space in Interdisciplinary Perspective,” in John Gabree, ed., Surviving the City (New York: Ballantine Books, 1973). We stress, in addition to the communal nature of free space, the importance of voluntary organizational forms through which people can learn public skills and values and take sustained action over time. But it should be noted that informal, local relations themselves normally have an important element of independence from centers of power that can sustain brief forms of resistance. As Anthony Leeds put it, “The amorphousness, multiplicity and kaleidoscopic quality of the organization of localities…are virtually impossible to legislate for (or against) or to control by uniform sets of sanctions…In this independence and its social and ecological bases s found a locus of power for cooperation with–the supralocal institutions.” “Locality Power in Relation to Supralocal Institutions,” in Aidan Southall, ed. Urban Anthropology:Crosscultural Studies of Urbanization (1973) (18-19)

Evans, Sara M. and Harry C. Boyte ([1986] 1992 ) Free Spaces: The Sources of Democratic Change in America. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.

*Bellah et al., Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life

Steedman’s Landscape for a Good Woman (part 3)

A last few things beyond Burnley, getting more to where history, narrative, memory, theory mesh in Steedman’s Landscape for a Good Woman. Where she pulls off all that she promised in her opening and more. Where she cracks open the contradictions. This is rather more full of fragments I loved, most with their headings to give more a sense of the flow, than any sustained narrative. She does it so much better and you should just go read it immediately. But I still feel like sharing the fragments.

I open it a little out of order maybe, but with one of my favourite quote about the Labour Party, a biting quote, one to relish in this period when I feel that once more the betrayal stings fairly sharp and new.

I grew up in the 1950s, the place and time now located as the first scene of Labour’s failure to grasp the political consciousness of its constituency and its eschewal of socialism in favour of welfare philanthropism. But the left had failed with my mother long before the 1950s. (7-8)

Labour should read more I think.

The Weaver’s Daughter

I cry now over accounts of childhoods like this,

she writes

weeping furtively over the reports of nineteenth-century commissions of inquiry into child labour, abandoning myself to the luxuriance of grief in libraries, tears staining the pages where Mayhew’s little watercress girl tells her story. The lesson was, of course, that I must never, ever, cry for myself, for I was a lucky little girl: my tears should be for all the strong, brave women who gave me life. This story, which embodied fierce resentment against the unfairness of things, was carried through seventy years and three generations, and all of them, all the good women, dissolved into the figure of my mother, who was, as she told us, a good mother. (30)

The lesson redefined:

What was given to her, passed on to all of us, was a powerful and terrible endurance, the self-destructive defiance of those doing the best they can with what life hands out to them. (31)

But we can do better now, can’t we. Can cry and rage at the structures of assumptions surrounding class, men keeping women in their places even as they thought they were helping. Can acknowledge how many of those structures have changed, the new freedoms we have through the struggle of earlier generations. But there still remains so much stigma, though it might not be voiced so clearly as this:

I found a reference written by the local doctor for my mother who, about 1930, applied for a job as a ward-maid at the local asylum, confirming that she was clean, strong, honest and intelligent. I wept over that, of course, for a world where some people might doubt her – my – cleanliness. I didn’t care much about the honesty, and I knew I was strong; but there are people everywhere waiting for you to slip up, to show signs of dirtiness and stupidity, so that they can send you back where you belong. (34)

A Thin Man

On a father, and the shifting silhouette of men. I could not stop thinking about this paragraph when I first read it, still remember it and overlay a different vision of city streets sometimes when I am out walking.

When I look in the mirror, I see her face, but I know in fact
that I look more like him. A real Lancashire face. He was a
thin man. I knew his height, five foot ten, but he never
seemed tall; he shrank in later years to not much above my
height. The silhouette of men has changed completely since
the 1950s, and it is this above all else that has altered the
outlines of city streets; not the shape of the buildings nor the
absence of trams and the growing sleekness of cars, but the
fact that men no longer wear hats – broad-brimmed felt
hats, tipped slightly over one eye. (49)

The desire for things…

I love the respect this offers for lives of such hardship, leading to such constrained desires. Looking ahead this is surely again our future.

But here, on the other side of the Atlantic, there is no language of desire that can present what my mother wanted as anything but supremely trivial; indeed, there is no language that does not let the literal accents of class show, nor promote the tolerant yet edgy smile. (113)

And this brings us back to politcs, to the drives underlying who people listen to, and how they vote.

Women are the shadow within modern analyses of working-class Conservatism, and theories of deference have been wedded to ideas about women’s isolation from the workforce, and from those formative experiences that produce class-consciousness in men, in order to explain their position.37 Yet my mother was not ‘isolated from industrial culture’38 in her growing years; indeed, the argument here has been that it was a political and industrial culture that helped shape a sense of herself in relationship to others. The legacy of this culture may have been her later search, in the mid-twentieth century, for a public language that allowed her to want, and to express her resentment at being on the outside, without the material possessions enjoyed by those inside the gate. But within the framework of conventional political understanding, the desire for a New Look skirt cannot be seen as a political want, let alone a proper one. We have no better ways of understanding such manifestations of political culture than they did in Burnley in 1908, when they used to say dismissively that ‘a motor car or carriage would buy a woman’s vote … at any time’.39 (121)

And this most poetic distinction between her own reality and that of her mother due to the welfare state:

I think I would be a very different person now if orange juice and milk and dinners at school hadn’t told me, in a covert way, that I had a right to exist, was worth something. My inheritance from those years is the belief (maintained always with some difficulty) that I do have a right to the earth. (122)

Histories

The last section I loved centred around a story from Mayhew about a young girl selling watercress he meets and speaks to. In comparing Mayhew’s reporting of her narrative to Freud’s own storytelling, well, it says so well what the issues are with both:

Using these two accounts, we may suddenly see the nineteenth century peopled by middle-aged men who, propelled by the compulsions of scientific inquiry, demanded stories from young women and girls; and then expressed their dissatisfaction with the form of the narratives they obtained. (130)

Slam, right? But at least the form of Mayhew’s work allows something of people’s own voices to come through. We think. It feels so. In comparing these upper middle class Freudian stories with the little watercress girl’s, Steedman writes:

In the little watercress girl’s account, the baby was both a source of love and affection, a means of play and enjoyment (she spoke of the warmth of a small body in bed at night, the pleasurable weight of her baby sister on her hip, the smiles of infancy); and at the same time the baby was also a source of income and adult praise for earning that income. The baby represented economically what the watercress seller had been in her turn, when she was a baby, and what she was now to her mother: a worker, a good and helpful little girl, a source of income. In this situation her labour was not an attribute, nor a possession, but herself; that which she exchanged daily for the means of livelihood, for love, and food and protection. It was in the face of this integrity of being that Mayhew felt undone. (136)

From Mayhew:

The little watercress girl who gave me the following statement, although only eight years of age, had entirely lost all childish ways, and was, indeed, in thoughts and manner, a woman. There was something cruelly pathetic in hearing this infant, so young that her features had scarcely formed themselves, talking of the bitterest struggles of life, with the calm earnestness of one who had endured them all. I did not know how to talk with her. …

It will, honestly, bring you to tears this life. The question is how this can exist in the same world with all these other lives that have usually been at the centre.

In the narrative terms that Freud can be seen to have laid down in ‘Fragment of an Analysis’, the little watercress girl is a person in mental health, in possession of her story. But it is the story itself that does not fit: all its content and its imagery demonstrate its marginality to the central story, of the bourgeois household and the romances of the family and the fairy-tales that lie behind its closed doors: no different culture here, not a place where they have forty-three terms for the eagle and where a woman cannot be conceived of as a swan; but the arena outside the gate, the set of metaphors forged out of the necessary and contingent relationship between all the big houses and the Clerkenwell rooms in which the child grew up. The marginality of her story is what maintains the other’s centrality; there is no kind of narrative that can hold the two together (though perhaps history can): an outsider’s tale, held in oscillation by the relationships of class. (139)

and then this

She was free, and she was not free. Her father didn’t matter he didn’t represent any law: he was just a ‘father in law’. The law, the distant functioning world, was the gentleman who stopped her once in the street, not to pity her, but to ask why she was out so early, and who gave her nothing. It was the inexorable nature of the market, the old women wholesalers, some kind, some not. She was free; she was hungry, meat made her feel sick, she was so unused to it. She had integrity; and she was very poor. Her matted and dirty hair stood out wildly from her head, she shuffled along to keep the carpet slippers on her feet; her life slipped away into the darkness, as she turned into the entrance of her Clerkenwell court. (139)

You love this little girl, and she breaks your heart. Steedman reaches for something here and brushes it with her fingertips. I’m not sure quite what it is, but it feels so important and something that I too have reached for.

I know that the compulsions of narrative are almost irresistible: having found a psychology where once there was only the assumption of pathology or false consciousness to be seen, the tendency is to celebrate this psychology, to seek entry for it to a wider world of literary and cultural reference; and the enterprise of working-class autobiography was designed to make this at least a feasible project. But to do this is to miss the irreducible nature of all our lost childhoods: what has been made has been made out on the borderlands. I must make the final gesture of defiance, and refuse to let this be absorbed by the central story; must ask for a structure of political thought that will take all of this, all these secret and impossible stories, recognize what has been made out on the margins; and then, recognizing it, refuse to celebrate it; a politics that will, watching this past say ‘So what?’; and consign it to the dark. (144)

Steedman, Carolyn (1986) Landscape for a Good Woman: A Story of Two Lives. London: Virago.

Steedman’s Stories: On Weaving and Fashion and Burnley (Pt 2)

I loved the storytelling as much as the theory-making in Steedman’s Landscape for a Good Woman, and to tell the truth the two seem to effortlessly intertwine. I imagine the writing of it was far from effortless, of course, and as I said in part 1 on this wonderful book, this is a tour de force that few could accomplish so well. It is also a most moving glimpse into the past lives of the women who lived just a few miles from where I sit writing now. She writes:

My mother’s story was told to me early on, in bits and pieces throughout the fifties, and it wasn’t delivered to entertain, like my father’s much later stories were, but rather to teach me lessons. There was a child, an eleven-year-old from a farm seven miles south of Coventry, sent off to be a maid-of-all-work in a parsonage in Burnley. She had her tin trunk, and she cried, waiting on the platform with her family seeing her off, for the through train to Manchester. They’d sent her fare, the people in Burnley; ‘But think how she felt, such a little girl, she was only eleven, with nothing but her little tin box. Oh, she did cry.’ (30)

The eleven-year-old who cried on Coventry station hated being a servant. She got out as soon as she could and found work in the weaving sheds – ‘she was a good weaver; six looms under her by the time she was sixteen’ – married, produced nine children, eight of whom emigrated to the cotton mills of Massachusetts before the First World War, managed, ‘never went before the Guardians’. 2 It was much, much later that I learned from One Hand Tied Behind Us that four was the usual number of looms in Lancashire weaving towns. 3 Burnley weavers were badly organized over the question of loom supervision, and my great-grandmother had six not because she was a good weaver, but because she was exploited. (31)

Running through it is this sense of fabric, of fashion, of the cut and weave of things we wear and the pleasure we find in them. They are things we want, we feel good in as much as things that mark our place in life. So many parts of this reminded me of two dear friends who had been pattern makers and seamstresses in LA’s garment industry. Both exploited in very similar ways. Both would occassionally touch a sleeve and give it a price, run a finger along something with admiration.

From a cotton town, my mother had a heightened awareness of fabric and weave, and I can date events by the clothes I wore as a child, and the material they were made of. Post-War children had few clothes, because of rationing, but not only scarcity, rather names like barathea, worsted, gaberdine, twill, jersey, lawn … fix them in my mind. The dream of the New Look must have taken place during or after the summer of 1950, because in it I wore one of my two summer dresses, one of green, one of blue gingham …(31)

And a view into the factories still hard at work in the 1950s:

Sometime during 1950, I think before the summer, before the dresses were made, I was taken north to Burnley and into the sheds, where one afternoon my mother visited someone she used to know as a child, now working there. The woman smiled and nodded at me, through the noise that made a surrounding silence. Afterwards, my mother told me that they had to lip-read: they couldn’t hear each other speak for the noise of the looms. But I didn’t notice the noise. The woman wore high platform-soled black shoes that I still believe I heard click on the bright polished floor as she walked between her looms. Whenever I hear the word ‘tending’ I always think of that confident attentiveness to the needs of the machines, the control over work that was unceasing, with half a mind and hands engaged, but the looms always demanding attention. When I worked as a primary-school teacher I sometimes retrieved that feeling with a particular clarity, walking between the tables on the hard floor, all the little looms working, but needing my constant adjustment.

The woman wore a dress that seemed very short when I recalled the picture through the next few years: broad shoulders, a straight skirt patterned with black and red flowers that hung the way it did – I know now – because it had some rayon in it. The post-War years were full of women longing for a full skirt and unable to make it. I wanted to walk like that, a short skirt, high heels, bright red lipstick, in charge of all that machinery.

This was the first encounter with the landscape of my mother’s past. (32)

Who could not love such a view in the world of capable, beautiful women at work? But a world of complexity, limits and everyday cruelties as well. These religious divisions I find so hard to understand but more importantly I suppose, the role of women in speaking them.

At the back of the house, through the yard to the lane, the lavatory was perched over another stream; you could see the water running past if you looked down. In this back lane I played with another child, older than me, she was four: Maureen. She was a Catholic, my grandmother said, but I could play with her, she was a nice little girl, but they weren’t like us: you could tell them by their eyes. It was the women who told you about the public world, of work and politics, the details of social distinction. My grandmother’s lodger, the man who was to become her third husband when his wife died ten years later, stayed self-effacingly in the background as she explained these things. Anti-Catholicism propelled my mother’s placing of herself in a public sphere. A few years later she often repeated the story of Molly, her best friend at school, the priest beckoning to the Catholic child from over the road, furtively passing a betting slip; the strain of the penny collections at church with a dozen
mouths to feed at home. (33)

And I wonder how all of this fits with the older histories of Burnley and Pendle Hill, have been reading Ainsworth and cannot quite make it match.

She talked to me about witches, now and often before. The one book she carried from her childhood was Ainsworth’s Lancashire Witches, in an edition of the I 830s. She’d walked by Pendle Hill she said, to dances in the 1920s, by the place where Mistress Nutter met her fellow witches, and where the witches were later burned. I found the book in the house after her death, remembered my terrified reading of it at the age of ten, convinced that the mere opening of its pages brought the devil forward. (140)

Nor does it match my immense love of Lowry, and I resonated with this puzzling over what hs paintings meant to those tiny figures who hurried through streets to the mill.

As I went out, past the shrouded furniture in the front room (things made ready these ten years past for the move that never came), I saw hanging over the mantelpiece a Lowry reproduction that hadn’t been there on my last visit. Why did she go out and buy that obvious representation of a landscape she wanted to escape, the figures moving noiselessly under the shadow of the mill? ‘They know each other, recognise each other,’ says John Berger of these figures. ‘They are not, as is sometimes said, like lost souls in limbo; they are fellow travellers through a life which is impervious to most of their choices … ‘ Perhaps, as this commentary suggests, she did buy that picture because it is ‘concerned with loneliness’, with the ‘contemplation of time passing without meaning’,5 and moved then, hesitantly, momentarily, towards all the other lost travellers. … Where is the place that you move into the landscape and can
see yourself? (142)

That last line gives me shivers.

We come to a beautifully detailed history/political economy of Burnley — again a return to the landscape, the context, the material surroundings of town, home, work, income, the complexities of divisions between skilled and unskilled, I have put that at the end. It feels indulgent to have copied it so wholescale but I did. But first a short section drawing from this particular history of liberal Burnley that would make of it a seat for political radicalism — I didn’t know.

Political radicalism, defined as both ‘a vision and analysis of social and political evils’, developed in the period 1770-18 50. ‘It was,’ observes Gareth Stedman-Jones, ‘first and foremost a vocabulary of political exclusion whatever the social character of those excluded. ’29 Its rhetoric framed the demands of the Chartist movement, and as a tool of political analysis and a language of political expression, it became more and more the proJ’erty of working-class people as the century advanced. (118)

Radicalism asserted the rights of the individual in conflict with privilege, privilege being seen particularly as the twin-headed hydra of Church and aristocracy. Its notable feature as a means of analysis was that its rhetoric allowed the tracing of misery, evil and unfairness to a political source, that is to the manipulation by others of rights, privileges and money rather than attributing such perception to a shared conciousness of exploitation. It was a coherent device both for understanding the ordering of the world in a particular way, and for achieving that understandmg without direct experience of exploitation, or of a particular organization of labour, or of the viciscitudes of the labour market. This is by way of contrast with theories of classconsciousness which often do draw on such personal and direct experience, though not a lways explicitly. 32 (119)

she notes then, that for all of its place in radical history, there remains much untouched:

Burnley is a much-investigated town, and a great deal is known about political movements within it and the shaping of its political allegiances. However, two factors have been left out of the story so far. The first is any reckoning with the presence of so lage a number of women in workforce, except as adjuncts to the male story of trade unionism, or in terms of a developing suffraggette movement. The second mission factor is any discussion of how a political culture might affect children growing up within it. (120)

I end this second post with my typical self-indulgence, copying wholesale Steedman’s own short history of Burnley. One of my housing apprentices was from there, worked there. I went twice to meet with her in the glorious times before lockdown and quite loved it, though like Rochdale and Wigan it shows all the rough edges of austerity-driven desperation. I love this history of it, and the thought that I will carry it with me when I go back, especially the idea of Burnley as a ‘Radical hole’.

In the late nineteenth century, Burnley, by way of contrast with neighbouring Blackburn, still possessed a local landowning gentry which played a prominent and traditional part in local life. 15 The most important local family were the Roman Catholic Townleys (the bluebell wood with the little stream, where I remember her last day of happiness, was Townley land), but there were others too, and their social presence in the town prevented the rise of an industrial
middle class to gentry status.16 The social rulers of Burnley were then, the traditional ones, figures of the conventional class romance; and this conservative romance and its representatives were distanced from the culture and politics of daily life: Burnley was known as a “Radical Hole” a Liberal dominated mill-town where land and business kept their distance.’17

Cotton owners remained distinct from the town’s social elite, and this separation of trade from land provided a free arena for economic enterprise.18 The establishment of a weaving business was in any case a smaller and cheaper undertaking than the setting up of a spinning shop, and since the 1850s in Burnley it had always been feasible for a cotton worker with savings to set up on his or her own. A local economic practice, which was the easy availability of rooms to rent with power for machinery thrown in and the much-publicized facilities for saving in the town – for ‘getting on’ – made the possibility of rising part of its social and political landscape. 9

Beneath the traditional form of social government represented the separation of land and trade, a less rigid social structure pertained in Burnley when it is compared with other cotton towns. It is the argument of one historian of the town that this ‘fostered greater, not less discontent, as inter-group comparisons and a wider range of reference groups became adopted’. 20 Yet within this framework and within a social structure that allowed for individual
advancement and the telling of social fairy-tales about people making good, the Burnley working class at the turn of the century seems to have shown a greater division between skilled and unskilled workers than was usual in cotton towns. This separation showed itself in the low incidence of residential contact and marriage between the two groups. 21 Burnley, then, in the early decades of this century, presented the picture of a culture in which individual aspiration and success were allowed to express themselves within the broader setting of a traditional form of
local government.

The town expanded rapidly at the end of the nineteenth century, later than the other cotton towns, with the population more than doubling between 1871 and 1891.22 Any family established during those years and maintaining a household into the new century, as did my greatgrandmother, would have experienced a cycle of depression and boom. Many of my mother’s uncles and aunts left the town for Fall River, Massachusetts, between the two severe depressions of 1903/4 and 1908/9, and my grandmother,
age twenty-two and five-months pregnant with my mother, married my grandfather during the good year of 191 3. Burnley experienced a final period of boom at the end of the First World War, before entering catastrophic recession in 1921.23

Through all these fluctuations in the economy, Burnley women worked: in 1911, 56 per cent of females over ten years of age were at work, most of them in the weaving sheds.24 Work at weaving was understood as a source of pride for women, and Patrick Joyce has speculated of Burnley that ‘the principal threat to the [male] weaver was perhaps that to his family authority, in work and at home … ’25 Yet, as has already been indicated, there were many
ways in which gender divisions were maintained within the factory (particularly by the simple device of men tending a larger number of looms than women) and men received more money for work that was f ractically identical to that of their female fellow workers. 2

My mother’s experience of households largely supported and maintained by women was given dramatic emphasis by the death of her father at the Somme in 1916. The depression of 1921 and its aftermath changed the climate of expectation for working-class girls in the town: like many in her age group my mother did not do now, in the late 192Os, what she would have done ten years before, and go into the mill on leaving school. Her own mother stopped working in the sheds at this time because there was very little work to be had. (115-117)

Steedman, Carolyn (1986) Landscape for a Good Woman: A Story of Two Lives. London: Virago.


Steedman’s Landscape for a Good Woman (part 1)

This book, this Landscape for a Good Woman by Carolyn Steedman…I loved it with a love reserved for few other books really. For its lyricism and beauty, the sharp insights about mothers and daughters, about how we are classed and gendered, about how we just might break free of this yet never break free…the pain of all of it. The complexities of all of it, and the complexities of our own inner lives too often flattened by words like working-class, woman, mother. I loved this book for an ability to share a world with her briefly and watch her theorise so beautifully from there, there, this complex, working class landscape. This place usually only the object of theory, the ‘problem’ for theory.

She manages it so beautifully, you long to try but feel pretty certain this is a high wire act not to be emulated lightly or without years of training. She opens so:

Death of a Good Woman

She died like this. I didn’t witness it. My niece told me this. She’d moved everything down into the kitchen: a single bed, the television, the calor-gas heater. She said it was to save fuel. The rest of the house was dark and shrouded. Through the window was only the fence and the kitchen wall of the house next door. Her quilt was sewn into a piece of pink flannelette. Afterwards, there were bags and bags of washing to do. … She lived alone, she died alone: a working-class life, a working-class death. (1-2)

This conflicted moment of loss is the beginning. Not the lovely quote from John Berger which follows, describing how we carry our biographies with us.

The present tense of the verb to be refers only to the present: but nevertheless with the first person singular in front of it, it absorbs the past which is inseparable from it. ‘I am’ includes all that has made me so. It is more than a statement of immediate fact: it is already biographical.
(John Berger, About Looking)

She writes of the borderlands (not the margins):

This book is about lives lived out on the borderlands, lives for which the central interpretative devices of the culture don’t quite work. It has a childhood at its centre – my childhood, a personal past- and it is about the disruption of that fifties childhood by the one my mother had lived out before me, and the stories she told about it. Now, the narrative of both these childhoods can be elaborated by the marginal and secret stories that other working-class girls and women from a recent historical past have to tell.

This book, then, is about interpretations, about the places where we rework what has already happened to give current events meaning. It is about the stories we make for ourselves, and the social specificity of our understanding of those stories. The childhood dreams recounted in this book, the fantasies, the particular and remembered events of a South London fifties childhood do not, by themselves, constitute its point. We all return to memories and dreams like this, again and again; the story we tell of our own life is reshaped around them. But the point doesn’t lie there, back in the past, back in the lost time at which they happened; the only point lies in interpretation.

And this point, which somehow I have never heard before

The past is re-used through the agency of social information, and that interpretation of it can only be made with what people know of a social world and their place within it. It matters then, whether one reshapes past time, re-uses the ordinary exigencies and crises of all childhoods whilst looking down from the curtainless windows of a terraced house like my mother did, or sees at that moment the long view stretching away from the big house in some richer and more detailed landscape. (5)

Where are you now when you remember and tell your stories? How does this change how you make sense of them? Of the world?

My mother’s longing shaped my own childhood. From a Lancashire mill town and a working-class twenties childhood she came away wanting: fine clothes, glamour, money; to be what she wasn’t. However that longing was produced in her distant childhood, what she actually wanted were real things, real entities, things she materially lacked, things that a culture and a social system withheld from her. The story she told was about this wanting, and it remained a resolutely social story. When the world didn’t deliver the goods, she held the world to blame. In this way, the story she told was a form of political analysis, that allows a political interpretation to be made of her life.

Personal interpretations of past time – the stories that people tell themselves in order to explain how they got to the place they currently inhabit – are often in deep and ambiguous conflict with the official interpretative devices of a culture. This book is organized around a conflict like this… (6)

I have been thinking about this so much. Her mother’s story not just in conflict with the materiality of her life and the promises of the society she lived in, but with the understandings of what it has meant to be working class, to be a woman, to be a mother that have been constructed over time.

She goes on to describe a number of working-class biographies — so many! I have a list of them somewhere, we share the desire to read ALL OF THEM. But my desire is clearly more diluted, I have made little headway. She finds a sameness in them, she writes

When the sons of the working class, who have made their earlier escape from this landscape of psychological simplicity, put so much effort into accepting and celebrating it, into delineating a background of uniformity and passivity, in which pain, loss, love, anxiety and desire are washed over with a patina of stolid emotional sameness, then something important, and odd, and possibly promising of startling revelation, is actually going on. This refusal of a complicated psychology to those living in conditions of material distress is a central theme of this book… (12)

She relates these to her own experience at the University of Sussex in 1965, and how that itself would have been framed by her reading of these earlier works.

…should I have met a woman like me (there must have been some: we were all children of the Robbins generation), we could not have talked of escape except within a literary framework that we had learned from the working-class novels of the early sixties (some of which, like Room at the Top, were set books on certain courses); and that framework was itself ignorant of the material stepping-stones of our escape: clothes, shoes, make-up. We could not be heroines of the conventional narratives of escape. Women are, in the sense that Hoggart and Seabrook present in their pictures of transition, without class, because the cut and fall of a skirt and good leather shoes can take you across the river and to the other side: the fairy-tales tell you that goose-girls may marry kings. (15-16)

These markers of class have shifted such that I recognise them, but it all feels more complicated now. Still, it seems that we cannot know where we are until we know where we were, first seeing it in all of its plurality.

The first task is to particularize this profoundly a-historical landscape (and so this book details a mother who was a working woman and a single parent, and a father who wasn’t a patriarch). And once the landscape is detailed and historicized in this way, the urgent need becomes to find a way of theorizing the result of such difference and particularity, not in order to find a description that can be universally applied (the point is not to say that all working-class childhoods are the same, nor that experience of them produces unique psychic structures) but so that the people in exile, the inhabitants of the long streets, may start to use the autobiographical ‘I’, and tell the stories of their life. (16)

But then, of course, you must manage the results of this storytelling. She talks about how middle class women hear her stories and say it was like that for them too

What they cannot bear, I think, is that there exists a poverty an marginality of experience to which they have no access, structures of feeling that they have not lived within (and would not want to live within: for these are the structures of deprivation). They are caught then in a terrible exclusion, and exclusion from the experience of others that measures out their own central relationship to the culture. The myths tell their story…  (17)

This is so telling, so…familiar. So awful about the ‘we’ I hear thrown around so often, ‘we’ women, ‘we’ academics that does not acknowledge these differences. Like this one she gives as an aside — understanding patriarchy without actually having experienced it the way working-class hagiographies so often demand:

A father like mine dictated each day’s existence; our lives would have been quite different had he not been there. But he didn’t matter, and his singular unimportance needs explaining. His not mattering has an effect like this: I don’t quite believe in male power; somehow the iron of patriarchy didn’t enter into my soul. I accept the idea of male power intellectually, of course…(19)

So here we are working out how to bring together history:

…the processes of working-class autobiography, of people’s history and of the working-class novel cannot show a proper and valid culture existing in its own right, underneath the official forms, waiting for revelation. Accounts of working-class life are told by tension and ambiguity, out on the borderlands. The story-my mother’s story, a hundred thousand others – cannot be absorbed into the central one: it is both its disruption and its essential counterpoint: this is a drama of class. But visions change, once any story is told; ways of seeing are altered. The point of a story is to present itself momentarily as complete, so that it can be said: it does for now, it will do; it is an account that will last a while. Its point is briefly to make an audience connive in the telling, so that they might say: yes, that’s how it was; or, that’s how it could have been. (22)

In thinking history and class she weaves a tapestry of life of course. My time in Manchester already marks much of it as familiar, my soul that seeks to know everything about a place delighted so much in thick descriptions of Burnley, of lives lived there and its day to days so distant from anything I can ever experience now. This is part of what she does here.

What historically conscious readers may do with this book
is read it as a Lancashire story, see here evidence of a political culture of 1890-1930 carried from the Northwest, to shape another childhood in another place and time. They will perhaps read it as part of an existing history, seeing here a culture shaped by working women, and their consciousness of themselves as workers. They may see the indefatigable capacity for work that has been described in many other places, the terrifying ability to get by, to cope, against all odds. Some historically conscious readers may even find here the irony that this specific social and cultural experience imparted to its women: ‘No one gives you anything,’ said my mother, as if reading the part of ‘our mam’ handed to her by the tradition of working-class autobiography. ‘If you want things, you have to go out and work for them.’ But out of that tradition I can make the dislocation that the irony actually permits, and say: ‘If no one will write my story, then I shall have to go out and write it myself.’

The point of being a Lancashire weaver’s daughter, as my mother was, is that it is classy: what my mother knew was that if you were going to be working class, then you might as well be the best that’s going, and for women, Lancashire and weaving provided that elegance, that edge of difference and distinction. I’m sure that she told the titled women whose hands she did when she became a manicurist in the 1960s where it was she came from, proud, defiant: look at me. (Beatrix Campbell has made what I think is a similar point about the classiness of being a miner, for working-class men.)32 (22-23)

I love that Lancashire weavers were the ‘best that’s going’ for women, that mining may be similar for men. But how is it that women can see that, know it, claim it.

This book is intended to specify, in historical terms, some of the processes by which we come to step into the landscape, and see ourselves. (24)

More about all of that at some point.

Steedman, Carolyn (1986) Landscape for a Good Woman: A Story of Two Lives. London: Virago.

Wetheral Covid Christmas

We always go home to Arizona for Christmas, eat all the wonderful things my mother and I (but mostly my mother) bake, enjoy sun and home and Mexican food and friends and family. This year my brother Dan married the most lovely Jessica the day after Christmas. I have two nieces I have not met yet, nephews I no longer know, yet we could not see family of any kind, spend any time at all with friends or strangers. I feel so very lucky that the rules, as far as they can be understood, allowed us some time in self-catering accommodation in Cumbria, where we could actually go for lovely walks and see things and be outside. Alone, but outside. We cannot tell you anything of pubs or food. So strange. Yet I feel lucky we could afford to go, we had time from work, we could stay safe.

We ended up in Wetheral, which was beautiful. There is an extensive early description of it in The Stranger’s Grave, published anonymously in 1823 but finally attributed with some confidence to Thomas de Quincey. It seems fairly convincing he lived here briefly with his brother Richard de Quincey in 1814-5, if this is the correct de Quincy who bought Eden Croft and lived there for a few years. This very house just opposite the church:

The stranger stays at the Wheel, which must be based on what was the Fish Inn. You can see the building at the end of the road there. Closed in 1906 due to ‘ill conduct, drunkenness and bad situation concealed by the churchyard’, it was repurposed as a residence called the Ferry Hill House in 1907 (94). I read about a third of it. I rather loved the awkward framing of it as submitted manuscript, and this final paragraph of the ‘advertisement’ that tells of its sexegenarian author in particular:

…old age has at length damped his ardour for travelling, by depriving him of sufficient strength of body to endure its fatigues. But his mind is still active. If, therefore, the following specimen of his discoveries be favourably received by the public, he will not fail, provided life be spared to him, to lay others, from time to time, before it. If otherwise, his papers shall be committed to the flames and he and they shall perish together, leaving no trace behind them that they ever existed.
– London, Oct. 1823.

I think they were better off left to the flames. So long as the stranger remains mysterious it remains interesting, but I was reminded just how little I care for de Quincey once the annoying incestuous love affair between two horribly spoiled children really gets going. I stopped reading, a rare thing for me but almost 200 more pages of such nonsense seemed too great a sacrifice.

Still, there is a brilliant description of the village in the early 1800s, before the railway, the arrival of Carlisle’s industrial magnates and their large mansions, the building of Corby Castle’s grand folly down the hillside. I quote at length, unable to do much better.

THERE are few situations, even in the romantic county of Cumberland, more strikingly picturesque and beautiful than that in which the village of Wetheral stands. It is built along the side of a hill, from the summit of which a fine and extensive prospect of hill and valley, wood and water, meets the eye; but being itself somewhat beneath the ridge, he who looks forth from amidst its white-washed and unassuming cottages, finds his gaze is compressed within much narrower limits. At the base of this hill, along a channel which seems as if it had been formed by some sudden convulsion of nature, runs the river Eden; not smoothly and quietly like the rivers of the south, but chafing and roaring from pool to pool, or dashing over the broken ledges of rock, which at innumerable intervals arise to interrupt its progress. The bank upon which Wetheral hangs, is comparatively bare of foliage. Somewhat higher up the stream, indeed, the woods thicken on this side as well as on the other; but it is upon the opposite bank, overshadowed with the tall trees for which the grounds of Corby Castle are remarkable, that the eye of the spectator is irresistibly enchained.

The bank upon which Corby Castle stands, rises, like that of Wetheral, to a considerable height above the stream. Here art and nature seem to have done their · utmost to produce a scene of unrivalled beauty, and it must be confessed that they have not laboured in vain. The whole face of the hill is covered with the most luxuriant wood, through which are cut narrow winding footpaths,
intercepted ever and anon by some tall red rock, or ending in the. mouth of a cave hewn out in the side of the cliff…

Like other mountain streams, the river Eden is winding in its course. At this place the curve is such as to place the lowermost cottages of Wetheral within a perfect amphitheatre of hills; the high banks closing in both to the right and left, so rapidly as to reduce the whole compass of the prospect within the space of perhaps a mile in length, and little more than a bowshot in breadth. But to the real lover of nature, a scene like this can hardly be too confined.

We stayed at Geltsdale, from long after de Quincey’s time there. Originally called Wansdales, it was built for Christopher Ling, corn merchant and one-time mayor of Carlisle. The house was requisitioned by the RAF in WWII and briefly housed a duplicate communications centre for the delivery of aircraft from maintenance to operational units. Before the end of the war, this work was transferred elsewhere and the house became a hostel for the Women’s Land Army. There are some lovely pictures from this time, and how some lives remained intertwined with those in the village. After the war, it was briefly the County Council orphanage, then West Cumberland Farmers took over, and then private developers to return it to a private residence. We were left the local history of Wetheral and Great Corby by Perriam and Ramshaw — all page numbers here reference quotes from this. My favourite might just have been the one below:

‘The emininent architectural historian, Howard Colvin (later knighted) was on a visit to Wetheral about 1965 when he noticed amongst the rubble of the monuments cleared from the churchyard the sculptured arm of an early cross. Anglo-Saxon lettering was inscribed on the reverse of the stone. He realised the importance of the find but for some reason took it back to Oxford and did not make the find generally known. (5)

I think there are other words for taking things home with you without saying anything about it. I found a little more about the Roman history of the area but nothing much further about the Anglo-Saxon. There is a well here, St Cuthbert’s well, whose sign informs you that

According to legend, St Cuthbert’s Well was built long before Norman times when Wetheral Priory was founded. The exact date is not known, but St Cuthbert is thought to have visited Carlisle in 683 and 687.

The most extensive information comes from just after the Norman conquest, but I might add that to another post. The village, though, is lovely as is Great Corby across the viaduct, which is splendid. You can walk alongside it on a walkway that once required a toll.

With a splendid view along the Eden and down over the mill.

And a few more views from these frosty frosty days.

Salford in Robert Roberts ‘The Classic Slum’

I so enjoyed The Classic Slum, wish very much I could have met Robert Roberts. Funny that I remember buying this book in North Hollywood in my favourite used bookshop, the Iliad. Over a decade ago. I was curious about just how LA compared, those far away days now of tenant organising filled with rats and roaches and chinches and slumlords and lead poisoning and amazing amazing people still in my heart. Maybe I didn’t actually want to think more about slums just then. Never got around to reading it, never expected I might work in Salford, come to know it so well. Though it is not the Salford that Roberts described of course, not the Salford of the Lowry paintings I love so much. We have left that behind.

I left all my books behind there too, in LA, left almost everything. I only occasionally miss any of it, maybe simply because I have managed to collect new shelves upon shelves piles upon piles of books. I missed this though. Had to order it again, another copy of the Classic Slum, an orange binding rather than blue this time. He writes as his place of beginning:

This is a book made much from talk, the talk first of men and women, fifty or more years ago, of ideas and views repeated in family, street, factory and shop, and borne in mind with intent! The corner shop, my first home, was a perfect spot for young intelligence to eavesdrop on life. Here, back and forth across the counters, slide the comedy, tragedy, hopes, fears and fancies of a whole community: here was market place and village well combined… Then, and for long afterwards, I mixed with people, adult in Edwardian and Georgian days, who had lived out their time in ghettos spawned by the industrial revolution. Many among them, shrewd and thoughtful, could not only recapitulate experience, they knew how to assess its value in relation to their lives. Men discussed, argued, reminisced: I listened and remembered. To them all, many long gone now, I am indeed greatful for what they taught. (9)

I love this opening so much.

Roberts was born in Salford, grew up in these streets ‘behind a general shop in an area which, sixty years before, Frederick Engels had called the ‘classic slum’, I grew up in perhaps an ideal position for viewing the english proletarian caste system in its late flower’. (13)

I keep his chapters, so much thought goes into organising thoughts, ideas, memory. Yet I realise as a reader I often don’t even notice, I will do better. This is, as always, a hodge podge of what I found most interesting in excruciating detail. Part 1.

Class Structure

We start with class, and quoting Engels himself? From several decades before Roberts’ birth.

All Salford is built in courts or narrow lanes, so narrow, that they remind me of the narrowest I have ever seen, the little lanes of Genoa. The average construction of Salford is in this respect much worse than that of Manchester, and so, too, in respect to cleanliness. If, in Manchester, the police, from time to time, every six or ten years, makes a raid upon the working-people’s districts, closes the worst dwellings, and causes the filthiest spots in these Augean stables to be cleansed, in Salford it seems to have done absolutely nothing.

This is saying a lot if you’ve read all that he says about Manchester.

I am always fascinated by understandings of boundaries, communities, where a neighbourhood ends and another begins. Especially here in the UK and Europe where a weight of history sits so much more heavily on the urban form and how people understand their place within it and how that connects to the rest of the world. Roberts writes:

Every industrial city, of course, folds within itself a clutter of loosely defined overlapping ‘villages’. Those in the Great Britain of seventy years ago were almosy self-contained communities. Our own consisted of some thirty streets and alleys locked along the north and south by two railway systems a furlough apart. About twice that distance to the east lay another slum which turned on its farther side into a land of bonded warehouses and the city proper. West of us, well beyond teh tramlines, lay the middle classes, bay-windowed and begardened. We knew them not. (16)

And ah the details, the familiar environmental justice issues raised by the presence of industry and pollution, both industrial and animal.

Over one quarter of a mile industry stood represented by a dying brickworks and an iron foundry. Several gasholders on the south side polluted the air, sometimes for days together. Little would grow; even the valiant aspidistra pined.* We possessed besides two coal yards, a corn store, a cattle wharf and perhaps as closed an urban society as any in Europe.

In our community, as in every other of its kind, each street* had the usual social rating; one side or one end of that street might be classed higher than another. Weekly rents varied from 2s 6d for the back-to-back to 4s 6d for a ‘two up and two down’. End houses often had special status. Every family, too, had a tacit ranking, and even individual members within it… (17)

The footnotes, as they so often are, are brilliant. On aspidistras

*To encourage the Adam in us our local park sold ‘garden soil’ at a penny a bucket. At home, expending twopence, we once trried a window box ‘for flowers’ in the back yard. A few blooms struggled up then collapsed. ‘So!’ said my mother, loud in her husband’s hearing, ‘you can raise a child, it seems, on coal gas, but it does for geraniums!’

And footnote 2 on land ownership — curious to me though why ownership should be relegated to a footnote, surely it is part of the crux of the matter? And to all that happened later.

*The railway company which owned most of our streets kept its houses in a moderate state of disrepair. Two workmen haunted the properties, a crabby joiner and, trailing behind him with the handcart, his mate, a tall, frail, consumptive. This pair were known to the neighbourhood unkndly as ‘Scrooge’ and ‘Marley’s Ghost’. (17)

I love the workmen. I confess, though, I really struggle to understand the depths of self-imposed hierarchy that I have seen described elsewhere — Morrison in Tales of Mean Streets writing about East London most memorably, but that is not the only place. It is such an ugly head to rear up, and it saddens my heart.

The real social divide existed between those who, in earning daily bread, dirtied hands and face and those who did not. …

These division could be marked in many public houses, where workers other than craftsman would be frozen or flatly ordered out of those rooms in which journeymen foregathered. Each part of the tavern had its status rating; indeed, ‘he’s only a tap-room man’ stood as a common slur. (19)

I might start using ‘he’s only a tap-room man’ though, I rather like the phrase when mis-applied. These distinctions of skill, wage and dress were as present among women. Carolyn Steedman writes of fashion and class with such heart-breaking eloquence, but here it is in different form.

Many women and girls in the district worked in some branch of the textile industry. Of these, we accepted weavers as ‘top’ in their class, followed by winders and drawers-in. Then came spinners. They lacked standing on several counts: first, the trade contained a strong Irish Catholic element, and wages generally were lower than in other sections. Again, because of the heat and slippery floors, women worked barefoot, dressed in little more than calico shifts. These garments, the respectable believed, induced in female spinners a certain moral carelessness. … Clogs and shawls were, of course, standard wear for all. … So clearly, in fact, did headwear denote class that, in Glasgow, separate clubs existed for ‘hat’ girls and ‘shawl’ girls. (20)

Still from short film: Mitchell and Kenyon 20: Howarth’s Egerton Mill, Orsdall Lane, Salford, 1900
produced by Mitchell and Kenyon (London, England: British Film Institute, 1900

Along with my ubiquitous people at the bottom of every hierarchy. I suppose the move to America rather than Manchester allowed us to be hat girls. Another footnote returns us to Engels on the Irish question:

Engels pointed out how, in the 1840s, the million or more britalized Irish immigrants pouring into English slums were depressing native social and economical standards. Little integration, however, seems to have followed upon the influx. Even up to the outbreak of the first world war differences in race, religion, culture and status kept English and Irish apart. The Irish poor, already of course deeply deferential to the Church, remained, in sobriety, even more than their English counterparts, respectful to the point of obsequiousness to any they considered their social superiors. (23)

In sobriety might be the key phrase? Still, this saddens me of course, surely there was some smouldering rebellion? It will not be found in these pages, nor anywhere in these streets. At least not at this time he describes. There are some fantastic descriptions of Marxists though.

The class struggle, as manual wokers in general knew it, was apolitical and had place entirely within their own society. They looked upon it not in any way as a war against the employers but as a perpetual series of engagements in the battle of life itself. … Marxist ‘ranters’ from the Hall who paid fleeting visits to our streets and insisted that we, the proletariat, stood locked in titanic struggle with some wicked master class. We were battling, they told us (from a vinegar barrel borrowed from our corner shop), to cast off our chains and win a whole world. Most people passed by; a few stood to listen, but not for long; the problems of the ‘proletariat’, they felt, had little to do with them.

Before 1914 the great majority in the lower working classes were ignorant of Socialist doctrine in any form, whether ‘Christian’ or Marxist. (28)

There is sadly no footnote about the Hall from whence these ranters emerge. But there is a tragedy of a message of hope and fury not coming through.

Meanwhile, though the millenium for a socialist few might seem just around the corner, many gave up struggling. The suicide rate among us remained pretty high. (29)

Possessions

This chapter resonated so brilliantly with so much I have been reading — climate change, sustainability, the need for us (the Western, more wealthy us who have lots of stuff now) to give up a great deal of our things, our consumption and desire to possess. But also with the more abstract relationality of things, object oriented ontology and etc. My own childhood where possessions were so few and so precious.

The social standing of every person within the community was constantly affected by material pressures, some of the slightest, and the struggle for the acquisition and display of objects seened fiercer than any known in Britain now for cars, boats or similar prestige symbols. For many of the lowest group the spectre of destitution stood close; any new possession helped to stifle fear.

To stifle fear. What a shiver. I know that is part of the appeal of buying new things for me, even with destitution left far behind.

One scrimped and saved to get a new piece of oilcloth, a rag rug, the day at Southport, a pair of framed pictures — ‘Her First Singing Lesson’ perhaps, with ‘Her First Dancing Lesson’. Pictures, in a society far from wholly literate, were especially esteemed.(32)

A list of material possessions that seem, as he says even from his time of writing, ‘pathetically modest’. My grandparents had some of these pictures.

I sit in such comfort. Nothing like this, though the damp of this old Victorian row house gives me some inkling of how terrible and cold cold cold damp and cold it might have been.

In general slum life was far from being the jolly hive of communal activity that some romantics have claimed. They forget, perhaps, or never knew of the dirt that hung over all, of the rubbish that lay for months in the back alleys, of the ‘entries’ or ginnels with open middens where starving cats and dogs roamed or died and lay for weeks unmoved. They did not know those houses that stank so badly through an open doorway that one stepped off the pavement to pass them by. That people stayed scrupulously clean in such surroundings–and many did–only proves the tenacity of the human spirit. (49)

Governors, pastors and masters

Ah, the patriarchy.

Round parents the houshold revolved, and little could be done without their approval. Espoecially was paternal consent needed. In compensation, perhaps, for the slights of the outside world, a labourer often played king at home. (50)

Another kind of hierarchy, male from top to bottom.

He notes the preference of ‘vagrants’ (when did we shift terminology from vagrant to homeless?) for prison rather than the workhouse, and unsurprisingly that the numbers of those sent to prison were in proportion to those unemployed

The Common Scene

This then, forms the common scene of 1900-1910. It is so grim, from every angle. The ‘1906 Board of Trade figures showed half the women in industrial Britain earned under 10s for a week’s work of seldom less than fifty-four hours’ (76). A world of endless work and its reward only enough for bare life. Charity stepping insultingly into the void, and so ‘The Ladies’ Health Society’ goes along visiting women together with the ‘Sanitary Society’ to sell carbolic soap and powder. Women who often wrote and described all they saw like Margaret Harkness and Maud Pember Reeves, and they are valuable records I suppose, but leave a bad taste. They would not write this way.

So our neighbours, and many like them, in this ‘thrice happy first decade’ fought on grimly, certainly not to rise, but to stave off that dreaded descent into the social and economic depths. Under the common bustle crouched fear. In children — fear of parents, teachers, the Church, the police, and authority of any sort; in adults — fear of petty chargehands, foremen, managers and employers of labour. Men harboured a dread of sickness, debt, loss of status, above all, of losing a job, which could bring all other evils fast in train. (88)

And despite all of this workers still strike. To have strikes shattered by troops recently returned from fighting in Egypt and elsewhere. For Empire. How far removed this feels from Empire and yet it is at its heart.

Food, Drink and Physic

To return back to this role of Empire, yet another brilliant footnote

Some families who dealt with us had male members (all unskilled workers) who had soldiered in the outposts of empire during the late ninteenth century and after. Their experience seemed to have gained them litle beyond a contempt for lesser breeds, a love of family discipline and passion for hot pickles. (105)

Not much of physic though, and a very different attitude towards death.

Knocks, bruises, ailments one accepted stoically enough. Death, after all, called often. Children made a common habit of visiting a house wgere someone had just passed away to ask reverently to view the body, a request that was never refused. one friend of my youth boasted of having seen thirty-seven corpses over a wide area. (124)

So much unrelenting poverty. But all on the cusp of a change.

Roberts, Robert ([1971] 1990) The Classic Slum: Salford Life in the First Quarter of the Century. London: Penguin

Urban island futures: Aves In the Fiction of Buckell

I enjoyed Tobias Buckell’s Hurricane Fever. I’m coming to terms with the fact that in these pandemic days of ever growing workload, it’s fine that really I can only read fiction.

This is a solid thriller. I loved the glimpses of history of a part of the world I know too little about and the snarkiness about US dominance and white supremacy. Above all, though, I enjoyed its setting in the world almost certainly extisting in our very near future brought into being by global warming. The porous rock on which Miami is built having permitted its permament flooding — you can read something like Extreme Cities by Ashley Dawson for more about this certain future. The hurricanes coming faster and stronger, the swallowing of islands, the flooding of cities. All of those impacts easier to chart, the shifts in geopolitics more difficult to predict.

I quite loved the book’s description of a possible urban future lashed to the rock of La Isla de Aves. This is what the island looks like now:

Isla De Aves photo by Veronidae (CC License) https://thedominican.net/2016/08/claim-to-bird-island.html

There is a nice description of stumbling across the empty sandbar and the startling military installation while sailing in the St Kitts & Nevis Observer, along with some of its history. There is another web page titled: ‘Isla Avis: Don’t Run Into this Island!’ What I loved from Buckell was this imagining of a future city here in such an improbable place, born of a bid for independance from Venezuela, the uniting of the Caribbean and the development of a free trade zone.

A horizontal blotch of a city on stilts, surrounded by more sturdy platforms rising out of the sea on rusted, rotund legs. Some of them oil platforms, moved to create more open space where the sand no longer existed. But later, the floating piers and homes systems had been added to Aves that were commonly found in more and more coastal cities throughout the world.

No one on Aves ever planned to try and keep the roaring seas back. It was a futile gesture. Instead they used the tp of the island peeking up from its submarine mountain range as a base to bolt everything to.

Even the sand around Aves’s pylons was a fiction. The (155) original Aves Island had long since been swallowed by rising seas. The sand had been imported to continue the fiction that Aves Island was still a thing. A physical spit of something that people could continue to threaten a war over, countersue about in courts, and generally get upset about or use.

Twenty thousand people lived out here, naked to the ocean’s power, clinging on stilts to what lay beneath. (156)

Well imagined. Even without such a future, it is rather a fascinating place — a source of guano to the US, Danes hunting eggs, its geographies and very definitions fought over by Venezuela and Dominica, potentially involving the mobilization of pregnant women to bear Venezuelan citizens solidifying this claim to Venezuelan soil. Definitely a thesis in that. This is such a twist on how this past might shape an all-too-near future.

Buckell, Tobias (2014) Hurricane Fever. Del Rey.

Hurricane Fever by Tobias S. Buckell

.

Michelle Obama, Machine Politics and the Changing Face of a Neighborhood

I was back in Arizona for a while, starting the end of July. My mother coming home from the library stumbled in the road just at the corner of her apartment — and in dropping the books dropped this book, Michelle Obama’s Becoming. Somehow she thinks she tread on it awkwardly and turned her foot — breaking one of her bones in her left foot, and fell, breaking one of the bones in her left wrist and twisting badly her right knee. A very frail and elderly neighbour with Parkinsons found her sitting there in the road, and brought her a chair that she somehow, and god knows how, used to get herself inside. She finally managed to finally call my brother. Poor Dan. She ended up in hospital for a week and a rehab clinic for 2 at the height of Arizona’s Covid-19 emergency. For all facebook’s evils, its helped me reach ancient highschool and work networks to find out where was safe. She read this in the rehab clinic while I was quarantining in her apartment. She kept telling me I should read it.

I came home to take care of her. After much stressed back and forth with family. Made it safely – it felt quite alright, the traveling thing, except for Manchester aiport and the two European flights between Manchester and Munich. Everything about those was apalling. I couldn’t help myself, I was furious with hordes of people acting as if nothing were happening and their holidays — multigenerational families as much as young people off to party in Ibiza — were more important than lives. Putting at risk those of us who travelled for necessity and the loved ones we cared for. I stayed 6 weeks, starting days at 5 or 6 am to acomodate meetings and interviews in the UK. As if just getting through pandemic under the apalling demands of higher education for more work, more hours, more blood to keep student fees flowing weren’t quite enough.

I read it evenings, sitting out on the little porch with the sun setting. Skies often filled with ash from California fires. Temperatures still often above 100 because this was the hottest damn summer on record. My single glass of chilled white wine a small reward and and buffer against climate change and a multitude of disasters.

I really liked it. I wanted more of course, but I liked it for what it was, for the limited things it could do and did, for the way it hopefully opened doors to a multitude of people who may just go through them to learn more, get angrier and ever more critical. But two things I liked particularly, just because they resonated so much with things I’ve been thinking about for a while. The first, the power and nature of machine politics, its necessary closeness with the everyday concerns of people of colour, immigrants, the poor. Its ability to get small, but quite important, things done. Its larger costs. Cayton and Drake’s Black Metropolis on Chicago really got me started thinking about this, as did a book I read long ago on Tammany Hall and its ability to get 200 Irish immigrants made citizens a day, but it was fascinating to come across this aside on Fraser Robinson III’s role with the Democratic party:

He’d held the post for years, in part because loyal service to the party machine was more or less expected of city employees. Even if he’d been half forced into it, though, my dad loved the job, which baffled my mother given the amount of time it demanded. He paid weekend visits to a nearby neighborhood to check in on his constituents, often with me reluctantly in tow. We’d park the car and walk along streets of modest bungalows, landing on a door-step to find a hunched-over widow or a big-bellied factory worker with a can of Michelob peering through the screen door. Often, these people were delighted by the sight of my father smiling broadly on their porch, propped up by his cane.

“Well, Fraser!” they’d say. “What a surprise. Get on in here.”

For me, this was never good news. It meant we were going inside. It meant that my whole Saturday afternoon would now get sucked up as I got parked on a musty sofa or with a 7UP at a kitchen table while my dad fielded feedback—complaints, really—that he’d then pass on to the elected alderman who controlled the ward. When somebody had problems with garbage pickup or snow plowing or was irritated by a pothole, my dad was there to listen. His purpose was to help people feel cared for by the Democrats—and to vote accordingly when elections rolled around. To my dismay, he never rushed anyone along. Time, as far as my father was concerned, was a gift you gave to other people. He clucked approvingly at pictures of cute grandkids, patiently endured gossip and long litanies of health woes, and nodded knowingly at stories about how money was tight. He hugged the old ladies as we finally left their houses, assuring them he’d do his best to be useful—to get the fixable issues fixed. (33-34)

A second aside was just on the changing nature of her Chicago neighbourhood growing up and the impact of white flight. As someone who has written about this, it feels in a way that these school photographs show it more effectively than anything I’ve ever said.

Obama, Michelle (2018) Becoming. New York: Crown.

On Fatima, and Ideologically limited ideas of value and employment

Few things have given me such joy recently as the brilliant mockery of the latest Tory-led government campaign to push a very specific idea of job value. It centres around ‘Fatima’ and this ad (I’m including the retweet by choreographer Sir Matthew Bourne highlighted by the BBC story):

The backlash against it was so big and beautiful that government did immediately disown it. But it did just keep getting better and better. It came immediately as well.

The next day…

I do love this poem. More than I can say.

From Newsthump, a bit behind the times but not too much.

Ah, that’s some quality satire right there. From the real news? The BBC reports on ‘Fatima’:

One last one. Dated 13th November, 2020. A fairly celebratory day, even if Friday the 13th.