Big River, Jimmy Nail.

This song became the anthem of the Women of the Waterfront. I have listened to it on repeat all day and, whilst it’s not about the Mersey, it may as well be! It’s a good job historians went all postmodern as I am very emotionally invested in my project. Don’t worry, I know I need to acknowledge my subjectivity and I will do so in my dissertation. However, right now it is 8:30pm on a rainy July evening and I want to revel in it. The lyrics are great, the song is great, the Women of the Waterfront were (still are) great.

Walking on cobbled stones
Little bits of skin and bone
Jumping on a tram car for a ride

I can remember then
‘Cause I was a just a boy of ten
Hanging around the old Quayside

Now all the capstans and the cargo boats
And Stevedores are gone
To where all the old ships go
But memories, just like the sea live on

‘Cause that was when coal was King
The river was a living thing
And I was just a boy but it was mine
The coal Tyne

For this was a big river
I want you all to know
That I was proud

This was a big river
But that was long ago
That’s not now
That’s not now

My father was a working man
He earned our living with his hands
He had to cross the river every day

He picked up a Union card
Out of the Neptune yard
Mouths to feed and bills to pay

There came a time for him to sail
Across the sea and far away
And finally when that war was won
You brought him home and home he stayed

And when his days were done
Under a golden sun
You took him back to where he longed to be
Back to the sea

For this was a big river
I want you all to know
That I was proud

This was a big river
But that was long ago
That’s not now
That’s not now

That’s not now

The Neptune was the last to go
I heard it on my radio
And then they played
The latest number one

But what do they do all day
And what are they supposed to say
What does a father tell his son?

If you believe that there’s a bond
Between our future and our past
Try to hold on to what we have
We build them strong, we built to last

‘Cause this is a mighty town
Build upon a solid ground
And everything they’ve tried so hard to kill
We will rebuild

For this is a big river
I want you all to know
I’m so very proud

This is a big river
But that was long ago
That’s not now

And this is a big, big river
And in my heart I know
It will rise again
The river will rise again

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My First Interviews

In the last two weeks I have carried out my first ever interviews as a historian. I have read many books on oral history theory but no amount of reading could have prepared me for how I felt when I sat face-to-face with the people who had trusted me to write the history of their life.

As I am researching the 1995-98 dock dispute in Liverpool, my interviews took place in the CASA- it was only right. Prior to meeting my first interviewee, I had carefully chosen what to wear to ensure I looked professional enough to convince people that I had some sort of right to be involved in a project like this. My fears melted away as I greeted a lovely gentleman who had already got a pot of tea ready for me. I know he could tell I was terrified and I had already told him on the phone that he would be my first ever interviewee. After a little small talk, I shakily took my Dictaphone out of my bag and asked if it was okay if I started recording. This caused some unease as it really is a reminder that this is not just a chat for both parties involved. Anyway, after a couple of minutes the Dictaphone faded into the background- unfortunately the sound of seagulls did not- and I was thrown into a world full of amazing characters, story lines and life mottos.

Sometimes- and by sometimes, I mean often- I question myself and why I’m going into academia. Who am I to try to write the past? But, sitting in the CASA surrounded by such a rich history, talking to lovely, patient and extremely impressive people reminded me that they are the reason I want to do this. How can we let life pass us by without recording the importance of daily life?

Besides learning a lot about my general interviewing technique and Dictaphones, I have five key reflections I want to outline from these early experiences:

  1. Constantly considering what I want to ask about next whilst having a conservation was exhausting.
  2. Being in awe of the interviewee and listening to their achievements through their humble viewpoint made me feel wholly inadequate.
  3. Asking what seemed like an obvious or stupid question provoked some of the best answers. If you don’t ask, you don’t get.
  4. People are kind. When I showed an interest, nodded my head and let them try to work out/recall/finish their story, they appreciated it and told me more.
  5. Post-interview elation is a thing. As my interviewees said their goodbyes and walked away. I had to sit for a while and think about the gold mine I now had stored in my Dictaphone.

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

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.

 

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.