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.

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.

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]