Tuesday, 4 October 2011

A long weekend on the left

In the last posting, about the big Cable Street day on Sunday, I mentioned some of the groups on the demonstration. I should also have mentioned the Clarion cyclists. That particular group had cycled hundreds of miles to attend - I think I heard one say he had cycled 741 miles. They had a point, public transport in London that weekend was awful, with the DLR not running and various other lines or part lines having the weekend off. The Clarion people had arrived on Saturday to mark the 75th anniversary of the Spanish Civil War. The International Brigades Memorial Trust and Philosophy Football were not to know it would be the hottest day of the year, which meant the evening gig in a packed hall was rather sweaty. The only person who looked cool was Victoria Hislop. I had my doubts about her, though I'd read and enjoyed her book The Return, but she won me over explaining her general and specific Daily Telegraph background and lifestyle and how things changed when she started writing the novel that the book became. She immersed herself in Spanish Civil War stories and what she found shocked her, being a woman whose family had happily holidayed in Spain under Franco. This resulted in a rather unhappy two years of deep immersion in the civil war and its aftermath as she wrote the book. The IBMT is of course an organisation of fairly longstanding and knowledgable left-wingers so I was impressed that she wanted to be on a panel at the event. She in turn was quite impressed to be called, for the first time in her life, "comrade" by one of the trade union speakers.

I was a little surprised by one of the other speakers (and I don't mean our Andy Croft) who wondered whether there would have been so much interest had it been the "Norwegian Civil War" because of the romantic nature of Spain and the Spanish people. Would 2,500 British people have travelled to fight in Norway? Yes, actually, had the situation and times been the same. Anti-fascism is not determined by the number of fjords a country has.

International Brigade... Cable Street... There are a number of good reports and photos on line. A good place to start is http://stevesilver.org.uk/blog/battle-of-cable-street-75-anniversary/. And then back home in time to pack for a Leicester Trades Council event celebrating the Dirty Thirty, with David Bell speaking to the Five Leaves' book of the same name and Alan Parry singing, including the song he has written about the group. Eight or so of the Dirty Thirty were present including Malcolm Pinnegar and Darren Moore who spoke, and Johnny Gamble, who got his own special cheer for being the only man in his pit to have gone on strike. Jane Bruton, a nurse, who used to be involved in the women's support group also spoke, reading out old minutes and letters from back in the day. This was the second evening in a row that ended with the Internationale - though in this case not the Billy Bragg version, but the full strength original version, standing, with clenched fists aloft.

Finally, today I attended a meeting of local UNISON members who were taking up the Six Book Challenge as part of their Union Learning. It became a Seven Book Challenge as they were presented with copies of the Five Leaves' Nottingham anthology Sunday Night and Monday Morning. A printer we had dealings with found 400 copies of the book in their warehouse which we had not accounted for and we have been steadily finding ways of giving them away to good homes. Why is reading so important to trade unionists? Apart from its intrinsic value, and the value of building a reading culture in the workplace, as the number of veterans of the Spanish Civil War and Cable Street - and even the 84/85 NUM pass on - we can find out what they thought at the time, what they believed in, find their stories, their tall tales, and find what they can teach us through books. Reading allows us to meet remarkable people doing remarkable things. UNISON is doing a great job working with the Reading Agency to promote reading in the workplace.

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