A Poem of Solidarity

I have officially entered dissertation mode. (Reminder: my research is focused upon producing an emotional history of the lockout on Liverpool’s docks 1995-1998.) I am scrolling through ‘The Dockers Archive’ – an amazing example of why historians should pay more attention to preserving websites- to try to create a timeline of events before I delve into interviews.

Women of the Waterfront (WoW) formed as a support group in November 1995 not long after the dispute itself began. In May 1997, WoW toured the United States to gain support for the sacked dock workers of Liverpool. I have just found a poem written by Nellie Wong especially for the International Labor Solidarity Rally at New College in San Francisco. The poem not only highlights the importance of focusing on women’s roles, actions and emotions within workers’ disputes, but also how brilliant WoW were.

Today is May Day, International Workers Holiday
We celebrate the struggles of workers
over 100 years ago
when the eight-hour work day was won

Today is May Day, International Workers Holiday
We salute you, striking Liverpool dockers
We salute you, Women on the Waterfront
Your names are Collette Melia and Susan Mitchell
Your other names we don’t know
Your other names could be Mary, Jean, Nancy
Barbara, Josie, Maude, Leila, Elizabeth,
but hear us sing our praise for you
our brothers and sisters across the waters
we working women and men in these United States

Where it’s supposed to be a land of the free
where immigrant workers are being hounded and harassed
where women and men workers fought back
the bosses of Rubberstampede in Oakland
where women and men workers are still fighting back
on the Lafayette Hotel picket lines
celebrating workers’ militancy for union wages
paid health and childcare
bright lights and lounges
where women and men workers are still fighting back
today at the California Pacific Medical Center
the Visiting Nurses and Hospice Workers
protesting management’s anti-union tactics
in the bright sun while hamburgers sizzle
on the grill and workers, black, white,
yello, brown, gay and straight,
young and old, declare their unity
to beat back the bosses who scare them
not one whit

We hold hand across the waters
you grace our land
as you’ve stood up tall
against Mersey Docks & Harbour Company
You’ve demonstrated, you’ve visited scab houses,
Director’s houses, the Christmas party
just anything you can do to gain
attention and publicity
You’ve written all the shareholders
explained what was going on
and asked them to take it up at meetings.

You, the wonderful Women on the Waterfront
are very important to the men
You’ve boosted their morale
You’ve shown your militancy,
your guts, your strong and mighty voices

You stood proud as you closed the gates
on your own, you meet once a week,
between 50 and a 100 sisters
You don’t sit home, you get involved
You discover your strengths
as you walk the line
as you talk to each other
as you teach how strikes can be won

Now you are here
in these United States
You show us what it means
to fight back
You shut down dock gates
in half a foot of snow
and never thought two years ago
that your bodies would be
on the front lines

Mersey Docks & Harbour Company,
take warning, you are dealing with
the Women on the Waterfront
you are dealing with women
who organize with flair and love
who halt their social lives
who rise before the sun
and work ’til twilight and beyond
who protect their families
infusing in the men and children
just how mighty
Women of the Waterfront are
fighting for jobs that belong
to the workers, building,
illuminating the working-class movement
across the waters

Now when I hear clanging of a gate shutting
now when I see a half foot of snow
I see you, the Women of the Waterfront
holding placards up high
as you circle the docks
as you make a stand for justice
and give meaning to
An Injury to One is An Injury to All
as you shout from the top of your lungs
letting the bosses now that the fury
of women will be heard across the waters
all across this earth, your fists clenched
for the battles you so valiantly take on

Keep on, Women on the Waterfront,
clang those gates shut
open up the battlefield
where your sunlit faces radiate
where one fine day
women and men workers
will run this world

Poem taken from http://www.labournet.net/docks2/9705/WONG.HTM

Oral History Workshop

I recently attended an oral history workshop at the University of Liverpool. I have read all the theory and practice books available and, to be honest, I thought my attendance was largely to tick a box on the numerous applications I have had to make in order to carry out my own interviews in my research. This was not the case.

Although I have planned out my dissertation research strategy, I realised I have not given much thought to what my interviewees will actually say. When I sit down in front of men and women and ask them how the 1995-98 lockout on the docks made them feel and how they relate to others who went through the same struggle they will not give me answers in pre-packaged, academic form. During this workshop, I really considered the extent to which my transcripts will include stumbles, pauses and slang terms and how I would really cope hearing upsetting stories. This last concern has worried me as if I do get upset during the interviews, I may look unprofessional or even rude- how could I, an MA student from Nottinghamshire, truly understand how they were feeling? Perhaps, if this does happen, my interviewees will alter what they are saying so they do not upset me. I am hoping a day or two composing myself prior to the interview will help prevent an outburst on my part at least.

A PhD student helping to run the workshop, Dan, showed us an example transcript and explained that he had been lucky to have a ‘natural story-teller’ interviewee. I really hoped for somebody like this as he was describing their interviews but I realised quickly this may not always be the easiest type of interview to guide. I have planned for a 1-2 hour interview with 4 people. How can somebody really tell their story in a 2 hour slot?

The day made me question my well-structured plan in a way that really brought oral history back to its roots. In my bid to understand what memory studies and narrative theories have to say about the interview process I had lost sight of the true value of oral history- the human side. I can read all the books I want but I am certain now that none of my 4 interviews will go the way I expect them to. Whilst this is quite a terrifying thought, I am also very excited. Plus, I finally got the hang of my Dictaphone this week.

History and Microhistory

Ever since reading Andrew Popp’s ‘The Broken Cotton Speculator’ I have been keen to use the approach of microhistory and I recently got my chance.[1] I took the moment Robbie Fowler lifted his Liverpool top to reveal a t-shirt with a message of support for 500 sacked dock workers in a European Cup Winners Cup match on the 20th March 1997 as my focal point. I wanted to move this between multiple contexts to demonstrate that the moment had a number of meanings to different groups in society. Although I understood what went into the top and its meanings, structuring this essay was extremely difficult.

The problems with structure arose as soon as I situated the top as a reaction to the forces of neoliberalism, deindustrialisation and globalisation (three powerful processes with masses of theory and debate attached to them).[2] Not only did I have to delve into this but I had to look into local structures of masculinity and class amongst dock workers and football fans. The former were fighting for their jobs in the face of deindustrialisation, the latter were in crisis as the corporatisation of football clubs turned fans into consumers in order to boost profits. The final ingredient was the nature of Liverpool itself and a notion of exceptionalism discussed by authors such as John Belchem and Brian Marren.[3] At the centre of the explosion was just one t-shirt, everything overlapped and untangling the webs was not an easy task- I am still not convinced that I did it justice.

I settled on dividing my analysis in two. The first half began with a brief discussion of the political and economic structure in the 1990s, then I looked into class, masculinity and football and the final section discussed a notion of Liverpool exceptionalism. This clearly outlined the main normative systems governing the meaning of the t-shirt before I moved on to the second half of the analysis which moved the t-shirt between these to demonstrate the interaction between agency and structure in creating meaning. I found myself reading about Calvin Klein in the 1990s (the dockers t-shirt borrowed the ‘CK’ logo), how all-seated stadiums undermined a traditional sense of masculinity at football matches and the influence Irish immigrants had on Liverpool’s culture.

Throughout this piece of research I truly realised the importance of the historian’s choices in writing history. I could have used the t-shirt to discuss fashion trends and ‘culture jamming’, I could have slotted it into the history of football regulation and I could have used it to demonstrate how Liverpool developed a unique sense of separateness from the rest of mainland Britain.[4] Discovering meaning in history depends just as much on the historian’s context as it does the historical context. The reason I struggled to write this essay was because I was focusing on uncovering as many different contexts as possible to produce a piece of microhistory. This differed to my usual approach to research in which I have already narrowed down the historian’s context to class, gender and emotions at work.

I must remember to always approach sources with an open mind, ready to accept that all social action is the result of ‘constant negotiation, manipulation, choices and decisions in the face of a normative reality which, though pervasive, nevertheless offers many possibilities for personal interpretations and freedoms’.[5] I also must also remember not to choose such a large topic for a 3000 word assignment.

[1] A. Popp, ‘The Broken Cotton Speculator’, History Workshop Journal, 78 (2014), pp. 133-156.
[2] I had to tackle the agency/structure debate in terms of Marxist and Foucauldian perspectives whilst outlining what each process entailed. For theoretical discussions see: P. Anderson, ‘Origins of the Present Crisis’, New Left Review, 1.23 (1964), pp. 33-50; E. P. Thompson, ‘The Peculiarities of the English’ (1965). Available from: https://www.marxists.org/archive/thompson-ep/1965/english.htm [accessed: 11th December 2016]; M. Foucault, The History of Sexuality I: The Will to Knowledge, trans R. Hurley (London: Penguin Books, 1978), pp. 92-102 and R. Gagnier, Subjectivities: A History of Self-Representation in Britain 1832-1920 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), pp. 8-14. For definitions of the three processes see: J. Tomlinson, ‘De-industrialisation not Decline: A New Meta-narrative for Post-war British History’, Twentieth Century British History, 27.1 (2016), pp. 76-99; C. Fuchs, ‘Neoliberalism in Britain: From Thatcherism to Cameronism’, Triple C, 14.1 (2016), pp. 163-188 and R. Hine and P. Wright, ‘Trade With Low Wage Economies: Employment and Productivity in UK Manufacturing’, Economic Journal, 108 (1998), pp. 1500-1510.
[3] J. Belchem, Merseypride: Essays in Liverpool Exceptionalism (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2006) and B. Marren, We Shall Not Be Moved: How Liverpool’s Working Class Fought Redundancies, Closures and Cuts in the Age of Thatcher (Manchester: Manchester University press, 2016)
[4] ‘Culture jamming’ is covered brilliantly in N. Klein, No Logo: No Space, No Choice, No Jobs, 10th anniversary ed. (London: Fourth Estate, 2010), p. 281.
[5] G. Levi, ‘On Microhistory’, in P. Burke (ed.), New Perspectives on Historical Writing (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1991), p. 94.

 

“Dr. Kearney or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Impostor Syndrome”

I read this blog post back in February and still like to reread it now when I haven’t picked up a book for a while, when I write words in an essay that don’t seem to make sense or generally just feel a little blue.

Everyone should learn to be a little more impressed with themselves.

womenareboring

by Eve Kearney

belle

I was at a family gathering recently, when as I was stuffing my face with free, home cooked food, an aunt approached me and said the words that all research students dread: “How’s being back at school going?” Apart from making it sound like I’m back wearing a uniform and taking my Junior Cert again, that question makes me stifle a sigh of despair.  I only started my PhD in English in September, and am still struggling to define what my actual research project will be on, so condensing it to a party-friendly sound bite is definitely not on my radar at the moment, nor is answering the follow up question that always comes: “And what are you going to do with that?”  In short, Aunt Jen, I don’t know how my research is going, and I sure don’t know what I’m going to do in four…

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That T-Shirt

Taken from Echo 20 years on Article
Photograph taken from the Liverpool Echo.

I am currently working towards an assignment which examines historical texts and contexts. I have chosen to look at the moment Robbie Fowler pulled his football shirt up to show a ‘Dockers’ t-shirt which supported the workers involved in the 1995-1998 lockout on Liverpool’s docks. This was done on live TV during the European Winners’ Cup quarter-final match against SK Brann on the 20th March 1997. I am using Andrew Popp’s article ‘The Broken Cotton Speculator’ as a model in order to unravel the meaning of this moment. This has involved plenty of reading on the arrival of the digital age in the 1990s, the rise of Calvin Klein following the introduction of their famous boxers in the 1980s and the birth of Liverpool’s two football teams.

I have moved this text through the contexts of the mass media and internet in the 1990s, the phase of ‘culture jamming’, the working-class roots of football in Liverpool, Robbie Fowler himself and, of course, the dock dispute. The dispute had been receiving very little national news coverage and this moment was key to informing those outside of Liverpool about the struggle of the workers and their families involved.

This is one of my favourite historical photographs of all time and I will post more on this topic within the next few weeks as I write up my findings. I just wanted to post this quickly as I find the image so fascinating. For now, here is a brilliant video of William Barret and Marty Size discussing what this moment meant to them.

Reflections on how I became classy.

I hope the cheesy pun is excused because anyone that knows me well will know that ‘classy’ is not a word which is often associated with myself. I have always had a passion for studying class in society and I wanted to take some time to ponder why that is.

  • First of all, I grew up in an old coal mining town in Nottinghamshire. I think the fact that everyone had stories to tell of their relatives going ‘dahn the pit’ subconsciously influenced my interests in class. My home town used to centre around this industry and, despite the pits being closed, the legacies linger on in the town’s physicality and culture.
  • My family has a peculiar demographic. My grandparents were a mix of factory workers and a bank manager, so my parents, uncles and aunts all have memories of times being hard but also ones when they weren’t so bad. I think that my family’s own experience over the last 50 years, and their often contradictory stories of it, have meant that I have spent more time considering the relationship between economics and life experience.
  • I owe an awful lot to my A Level Sociology teacher. He is the man who first taught me about Karl Marx (he actually had a poster of him on his classroom wall) and he is an active trade unionist. I remember sitting in his lessons discussing education reform, unemployment and privatisation in the 1980s and for the first time feeling like I had a voice and a right to be passionate about my own thoughts. I have always had a lot to say for myself, but prior to these classes I did not really think that my opinions would be able to bring about any sort of change. He brought his lessons to life in the most biased way possible and I thank him for that. Being taught post-war British politics by a staunch Conservative in my History lessons at the same time also helped to give me the space to consolidate my own ideas. The chasm between these two brilliant teachers is where I would pinpoint the beginning of my obsession with studying class.
  • Aged 18 I moved to Liverpool to study for a BA in History and Politics. With the first three points securely embedded in my psyche at this point, the fact that the focus of my studies always drifted towards class related issues was inevitable. Particularly as Liverpool’s past offers a plethora of topics to study in this department.

The Affective Historian

History and emotions have been awkward bedfellows for too long.

I have just finished the first year of my part-time MA in Cultural History at the University of Liverpool, so for me the last 12 months have consisted of a long struggle to understand the purpose and meaning of history. This has been especially difficult as the dark cloud of postmodernism constantly looms ready to strike at any conclusion that I come to. Can we really know anything about how our historical subjects experienced the past? My answer to that question is yes and that this relies on a basic understanding of emotions. History is emotional and always has been.

My final assignment this year asked me to discuss whether history is impossible without the historian’s imagination. Constructing my argument sent me round in circles trying to explain how historians approach sources, I always returned to the point that ultimately all interpretations are created by the historian rethinking a source in their own mind. When trying to access the meaning or lived experience of the past, this clearly does not entail looking at mere ‘facts’ in remnants of the past and piecing them together. An emotional identification is crucial. Rosenwein describes emotions as being the result of our values and our assessments. She also highlights that these values and assessments are created and perpetuated by culture, or ‘emotional communities’ as she terms it.

To illustrate why this is relevant I’ll use an example from Kate Brown’s Plutopia (a brilliant book that I would recommend to everyone and not just because of its short chapters).  In Plutopia, Brown uses official documents and oral testimony to pave the way for a deeper understanding of how and why two very dangerous plutonium plants on different sides of the globe created communities contented with their time there, despite terrible working conditions. As early as the 1940s researchers were aware of the dangers of plutonium production but little was done to alter the poor systems in place to protect workers due to the demands of the imminently approaching Cold War.  As Brown terms so poignantly, ‘public relations gradually overtook public health’ (2013: 68). Different ranks of people possessed varying degrees of knowledge and accidents were normalised in a high-risk nuclear environment. The lack of knowledge of the majority of the workers in these situations clearly altered the meaning of their daily lives. The inhabitants of these isolated plants were able to enjoy the benefits of quality housing, good schools and other pay-offs because of the ways in which the plutonium plants at Hanford and Ozersk constructed the nature of the work they were carrying out. Brown herself states that the breaking stories about radioactive contamination in the 1980s and 1990s dropped ‘like a curtain, cutting their lives into separate acts’; the first half involved unrelated illnesses and fertility problems and the second was consumed by the ‘fear that all one’s problems were due to contamination’ (2013: 199).  This demonstrates that only culture can tell us what threats are, we will have emotions based on what we know to be a threat and consequently, a lack of knowledge among the workers helped shape their understandings and emotional reactions to their time working in Hanford and Ozersk. The control of knowledge is power and in this case this power impacted how people felt towards their lives and invested meaning in it. Brown could only have got to this conclusion by considering how the different value systems in place at the time would have impacted emotion.

Understanding emotion in the past is only one side of the coin. The historian’s own emotions are the other. The construction of Plutopia was clearly informed by Brown’s own feelings towards nuclear weapons and their impact on the environment. In an interview, Brown stated that her motives for the book were founded upon a desire to expose the high levels of radioactive contamination emanating from both plants due to their design and why this topic has been cloaked in silence. Previous historiography on nuclear culture has charted politics, official decisions and largely focused on the view from above. Thus, her decision to focus on twinned ‘plutopias’ in both the United States and the Soviet Union seeks to position the dangers and contradictions of nuclear weapons above ideological distinctions, if these transcend the boundaries of the Cold War then nuclear weapons appear disreputable. Both plants created ‘plutopias’ in order to sustain workers and consequently paid off their workers with good houses, schools and leisure activities. They both monitored their workers carefully to ensure illnesses remained at a certain level ensuring production did not suffer and took shortcuts which resulted in disastrous contamination of human bodies and the environment. Linking together official documents and oral testimony was very deliberate and research on this topic could have taken an alternative route. For instance, focusing on the construction of the sites or using oral testimony alone to chart the increasing awareness of health problems and environmental contamination. However, Brown creates a history which champions the perspectives of those who have suffered and condemns those in power for letting it happen. This was the result of her feelings towards the dangers of creating nuclear bombs shaping the ways in which she decided to piece together history in her own mind.

I am using this blog to write out my ideas as often formulating essays and research projects can seem like I’m trying to untangle hundreds of threads which have been impossibly meshed together. Writing these entries will help me focus, reflect and conjure new ideas. Additionally, as I believe that writing history requires the use of the historian’s emotions, I think it is only fair that mine can be accessed. Transparency in the writing process is key in light of heavy criticisms that subjectivity renders history worthless. I hope that as I write I can also demonstrate that subjectivity actually serves to expand the boundaries of history if historian’s are willing to embrace it.

See:

Brown, K., Interview with TalkingStickTV (2014). Available from: <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O6Ys8ii6r_M&gt; [Accessed: 19th May 2016]

Brown, K., Plutopia: Nuclear Families, Atomic Cities, and the Great Soviet and American Plutonium Disasters. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

Hughes, J., ‘Deconstructing the Bomb: Recent Perspectives on Nuclear History’, British Journal For The History of Science, 37.4 (2004), pp. 455-464 <http://www.jstor.org.liverpool.idm.oclc.org/stable/4028643>[Accessed: 31st March 2016].

Rosenwein, B., ‘Problems and Methods in the History of Emotions’, Passions in Context: Journal of the History and Philosophy of the Emotions (2010), pp. 1-32. Available from: <http://www.passionsincontext.de/>[Accessed: 4th May 2016]