London’s Protest Stickers: Health and the NHS

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Stickers of all kinds are a significant part of London’s urban fabric (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Waterloo Bridge, 15/12/16).

The conflict over Junior Doctors’ contracts was arguably one of the biggest news stories of 2016 with the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, imposing new working and pay conditions. The NHS more generally is one of the biggest battlegrounds of modern British politics, with constant debates about funding, privatisation, and the quality of the services provided. Like other key issues and events in politics (such as the EU Referendum, immigration, and housing), the conflict over the NHS has manifested itself in London’s protest stickers. Some stickers refer to other health-related issues, such as the legalisation of drugs and mental health.

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Stickers that were designed to be worn by people often end up being worn by the city, like this sticker produced by the British Medical Association (BMA) in support of the Junior Doctors. Stickers like these caused some controversy amongst Junior Doctors, when the BMA sent out stickers for Junior Doctors to wear at work as an alternative method of protest to striking (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Grafton Way, 03/05/16).

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One of the main arguments against the new contracts was that the changes would risk the health of patients. As such, it is not just Junior Doctors who should take an interest in the dispute (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Lewisham Way, 20/03/16).

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Unison is a union for people who work in public services, including employees of the NHS. This sticker is also making the argument that the users of the NHS should be just as involved in the fight for to save the NHS as those who work in it (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Great Russell Street, 16/06/15).

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The NHS is an important political issue. The funding and running of the NHS often becomes a topic of debate during elections. The Conservative Party, for example, are frequently accused of trying to underfund and privatise the NHS. (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Borough High Street, 19/08/15).

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The National Health Action Party is a group that campaigns to halt and reverse the privatisation of the NHS. I found this sticker on the Euston Road, outside the University College London hospital. Sometimes, the location of protest stickers can contribute to their meaning (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Euston Road, 16/06/15).

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Keep Our NHS Public is another group that campaigns for the preservation of the NHS. Le Turnip produces protest stickers that take a lighthearted and sarcastic view on a whole range of issues (Photo: Hannah Awcock, High Holborn, 09/08/15).

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The NHS is not the only health-related issue to inspire the production of protest stickers. Feed the Birds is a campaign run by the London Cannabis Club. The campaign aims to destigmatise cannabis and call for its legalisation by feeding hemp seeds to birds (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Prince Consort Road, 09/07/15).

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The Feed the Birds campaign makes some bold claims about the powers of cannabis (Photo: Hannah Awcock, High Holborn, 09/08/15).

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This sticker was produced by the Psychadelic Society, which advocates for the legalisation of psychadelic drugs (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Upper Street, Islington, 14/04/15).

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Mental health is also a topic which gets people talking. This sticker is objecting to the way in which mental health terms are used in everyday language, which can belittle mental health problems (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Euston Road, 03/08/16).

To see where I found all these protest stickers, check out the Turbulent London Map.

Book Review: The Leveller Revolution- Radical Political Organisation in England, 1640-1650

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The Leveller Revolution by John Rees.

John Rees. The Reveller Revolution: Radical Political Organisation in England, 1640-1650. London: Verso, 2016. £25.

John Rees co-authored one of my favourite books, A People’s History of London. As such, I was really looking forward to the publication of The Leveller Revolution: Radical Political Organisation in England, 1640-1650, and I had high expectations. Whilst it doesn’t quite live up to A People’s History of London, it is a very good book.

The Leveller Revolution is derived from Rees’ doctoral research. As such it is thoroughly researched, as evidenced by the detailed content and and considered analysis. The book is not just a narrative of the rise and fall of the Levellers as a political force, it is also an intervention in the scholarly debate on the nature and significance of the Levellers. Rees argues that whilst other groups used similar organisational and campaigning tactics, no one else used them as consistently and to such effect as the Levellers. He also argues that the Levellers were the only group to focus on popular politics and mobilisation, as opposed to social and political elites.

I have tried to…examine the Levellers as a political movement integrating activists from different constituencies, and creating still broader alliances with other political currents, for the joint pursuance of revolutionary ends.

(Rees, The Leveller Revolution, p. xx)

The Leveller Revolution has multiple strengths. Rees’ arguments are persuasive; he makes a strong case that the Leveller organisation emerged out of pre-existing radical networks consisting of individuals who already had extensive experience of activism. Rees argues that London was significant to the development of the Levellers, but the book is not London-centric; many of the examples Rees uses to demonstrate his arguments come from elsewhere in the country. In addition, whenever there is historical doubt (e.g. over the authorship of a pamphlet, or exactly who was present at a particular event), Rees is open about that uncertainty, then justifies his own opinion. I always appreciate it when authors who are willing to acknowledge these kind of metholodogical subtleties.

Unfortunately, I often struggled to keep track of the book’s narrative, and I think there are 2 reasons for this. The first is that there were a large number of individuals involved in the radical networks around the time of the English Civil Wars, many of whom had quite similar names. As such, I found it difficult to remember who was who. Whilst there is little Rees could have done about the number of individuals involved and their names, a dramatis personae might have been helpful. The second reason for my confusion is, I think, that Rees assumes that the reader has a confident knowledge of the chronology of the Civil Wars. The book refers to events or battles by name only, making it hard to follow the narrative if you do not know when they took place or what happened. I did study the period as part of an A-level in Early Modern History, but that was almost a decade ago, and my knowledge is a bit rusty. If you are not familiar with the period, then I suggest reading The Leveller Revolution in conjunction with another book that details the key events of that time (I would recommend A Brief History of The English Civil Wars: Roundheads, Cavaliers and the Execution of the King by John Miller).

The Leveller Revolution is a thoroughly-researched, well-argued book. Whilst I found it less approachable than A People’s History of London, I would definitely recommend it to anyone who has a interest in the English Civil Wars, or the history of protest and dissent.

On This Day: The Mud March, 9th February 1907

At the start of the twentieth century, the campaign for women’s suffrage was gathering momentum. The National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) organised the first large march for the cause on the 9th of February 1907. The women planned to march from Hyde Park to Exeter Hall, a large meeting hall on the north side of the Strand. Unfortunately the weather was not on the marchers’ side, and heavy rain made the streets of London very muddy, hence the name of the march. Despite this, the march was considered a great success.

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A flyer advertising the event which became known as the Mud March (Source: Woman and her Sphere).

Unlike the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), the NUWSS refused to use militant or violent tactics in its attempt to win the vote for women. They were known as suffragists, which differentiated them from the suffragettes in the WSPU. However, they understood the need to have a visible presence in society; this march was their first attempt at using protest marches to attract attention.

Around 3000 women took part, from a range of social classes and occupations, and representing over 40 suffrage organisations. The march was organised by Phillipa Strachey, daughter of Lady Strachey. The march was considered so successful that she went on to organise all the NUWSS’s large marches. The march was led by Millicent Fawcett, leader of the NUWSS, and Lady Strachey, Lady Frances Balfour, and Keir Hardie, also prominent suffragists. The Artist’s Suffrage League designed posters and postcards advertising the march, and designed and made around 80 embroidered banners for the march itself.

Despite the wet weather, thousands of people turned out to watched the march. The sight of thousands of women from across social divides marching together was enough of a novelty to persuade people to brave the rain. Press from across Europe and America were fascinated by the diversity of women involved. At the time, it was perceived that women were reluctant to make displays of themselves in public. As such, the participants in the march were considered to be even more dedicated to the suffrage because they were willing to put themselves through such an experience. Kate Frye was on the march, and she obviously relished taking part, writing in her diary that she “felt like a martyr of old and walked proudly along.”

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The NUWSS used protest marches and rallies often after the success of the Mud March. This photo was taken in Hyde Park in 1913 (Source: Topical Press Agency/Getty Images).

The suffragists marched from Hyde Park to Exeter Hall in the Strand, where the Strand Palace Hotel stands today. The Hall was opened in 1831 as an organisational and meeting space for evangelical groups. The Great Hall could hold 4000 people, and lots of causes held meetings there, including anti-Slavery and temperance. In 1880 Exeter Hall was taken over by the YMCA, but the Great Hall could still be used for meetings. The suffragists’ rally must have been one of the last meetings to take place there, as the building was sold and demolished in 1907. It required expensive alterations that the YMCA were unwilling to pay for. The suffragist’s rally featured music from an all-female orchestra, and speakers such as Keir Hardy, Israel Zangwill, Millicent Fawcett, and Lady Strachey.

The success of the Mud March, despite the foul weather, established the large-scale organised procession as a key tactic for the campaign for women’s suffrage in Britain. It has also been argued that the march gave the women’s suffrage movement a sense of respectability that the militant tactics of the WSPU did not.

Sources and Further Reading

Cowie, Leonard W. “Exeter Hall.” History Today 18, no. 6 (1968): 390-397.

Crawford, Elizabeth. “Kate Frye’s Suffrage Diary: The Mud March, 9 February 1907.” Woman and her Sphere. Last  updated 21 November 2012, accessed 24 December 2016. Available at https://womanandhersphere.com/2012/11/21/kate-fryes-suffrage-diary-the-mud-march-9-february-1907/

The Armchair Anglophile. “The Mud March.” Last updated 7 February 2012, accessed 24 December 2016. Available at http://www.armchairanglophile.com/the-mud-march/

Wikipedia. “Mud March (Suffragists)” Last updated 17 December 2016, accessed 21 December 2016. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mud_March_(Suffragists)

The Wicked Witch of the West: Terrorist or Freedom Fighter?

Spoiler Warning: This post contains spoilers about the musical Wicked.

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The successful musical Wicked has been running in London since 2006 (Photo: Wicked).

A few weeks ago, I went to see Wicked: The Untold Story of the Witches of Oz at the Apollo Victoria theatre in London. Based on the 1995 novel Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West by Gregory Maguire, the musical retells the story of The Wizard of Oz, focusing on Elphaba, otherwise known as the Wicked Witch of the West.  Wicked turns the well-known narrative on it’s head, portraying Elphaba as a misunderstood rebel instead of an evil villain. As well as being a brilliant musical, the play is an ideal example of the idea that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter, and demonstrates the importance of representation and perspective when it comes to dissent.

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Rachel Tucker as Elphaba (Photo: Matt Crockett/Wicked).

Wicked begins long before Dorothy and Toto arrive in Oz. Elphaba is an isolated young woman, hated by her father and shunned by her classmates because she was born with green skin and strange magical abilities. At university, she becomes concerned with the plight of animals, who are being demonised and suppressed in Oz to the extent that they are losing their ability to talk. The final straw comes when Elphaba’s history teacher, Doctor Dillamond, is fired because he’s a goat, and she uses her magic to rescue a caged lion cub.

Elphaba travels to the Emerald City to meet the Wonderful Wizard of Oz in the hope that he will stop the ill-treatment of animals when he learns of their fate. She is distraught when she realises that the Wizard is in fact responsible for the anti-animal feeling, scapegoating them in order to unite the majority of ‘Ozians’. Refusing to participate in this Machiavellian form of government, Elphaba runs away and becomes what we might call an animal rights activist. Determined to prevent her speaking out, the Wizard vilifies Elphaba, transforming her in the public eye into the Wicked Witch of the West. She is only able to escape the persecution by faking her death at the hands of Dorothy, and leaving Oz forever.

Towards the end of Act 2, Elphaba confronts the Wizard, demanding to know how he can be comfortable lying to the people of Oz. He responds with the song ‘Wonderful’, which contains a brilliant explanation of the importance of perspective when it comes to how actions are perceived:

{spoken}: Elphaba, where I come from, we believe all sorts of things that aren’t true. We call it history.
{Sung}:
A man’s called a traitor
or liberator. A rich man’s a thief
or philanthropist. Is one a crusader
or ruthless invader? It’s all in which label
is able to persist.
There are precious few at ease
with moral ambiguities, so we act as though they don’t exist.

Wicked – Wonderful Lyrics | MetroLyrics

Scapegoating a minority group by blaming them for all of society’s ills is a tactic which unfortunately feels very familiar at the moment. Elphaba’s treatment for refusing to go along with it also has contemporary parallels; Attorney General Sally Yates being branded a ‘traitor’ by Donald Trump for speaking out against his Muslim Ban springs to mind. Others have praised Yates for speaking out- the way her actions are perceived is a matter of perspective. Another real-life example is Guy Fawkes, who’s position as terrorist/freedom fighter I have written about before.

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The London cast of Wicked performing the well-known song ‘Defying Gravity’ (Photo: Matt Crockett/Wicked).

Elphaba is a fictional character, but fiction can make us think about real life in ways that we haven’t before. Wicked is a hugely popular musical; it has been seen by millions of people around the world, and even those who haven’t seen it have heard it’s soundtrack (‘Defying Gravity’ used to be as popular as Frozen’s ‘Let it Go’). This popularity makes it influential. Wicked contains messages of friendship, acceptance, and tolerance, urging audiences to stand up for what they believe in, and not to blindly accept what they are told by those in power-lessons that are just as important now as they ever were.