Book Review: Old Baggage by Lissa Evans

Old Baggage Front Cover

Old Baggage by Lissa Evans.

Lissa Evans. Old Baggage. London: Transworld, 2018. RRP £8.99 paperback

I love reading fiction, but I have an unfortunate tendency of reading books in one sitting, so I try to avoid it during the week because otherwise I end up a sleep-deprived mess. A few weeks ago, I dedicated my Friday evening to Old Baggage by Lissa Evans, a novel about Mattie Simkin, a former Suffragette who is struggling to deal with her past and come to terms with her present. I must admit to picking this book up because of my interest in protest history, but Old Baggage is a wonderful book that will charm and engross you whether or not you are a history nerd like me.

Old Baggage is set in 1928, ten years after the right to vote was won for women over the age of 30 who owned property. Mattie Simkins is living in on Hampstead Heath with her devoted friend and former comrade Flea. Although her militant suffragette days are behind her, Mattie is still a vibrant character, quick to anger at injustice, slow to compromise, and fiercely loyal to her ideals. When Mattie realises that young women have little interest in, or knowledge of, politics, she sets out to change that by starting a group that combines physical fitness, intellectual debate, and female empowerment. The group is a resounding success, but Mattie’s single-mindedness causes conflict with the people she cares about the most, and she has to swallow her pride in order to put things right.

Some of you may know Mattie from Lissa’s first novel, Crooked Heart (2015), set during the London Blitz. I had no idea that Mattie wasn’t a new character when I read Old Baggage, and as it is a prequel you don’t need to read the older novel in order to understand this one (although I have heard that it is very good!). Old Baggage strikes a delicate balance between poignancy and humour (there were some sections that made me laugh out loud), and the fictional characters fit well into the historical events and context. It is not often that you come across a book where the two main characters are middle-aged women, and Mattie and Flea’s fierce, if a little dysfunctional, friendship is the wonderful heart of the book.

We don’t often think about what happens to activists after the cause has been won, or after they decide to stop fighting. Many of the women involved in the campaign for women’s suffrage put their energies into other causes; for example, Dora Montefiore was elected to the provisional council of the Communist Party of Great Britain in 1920 at the age of 69. Some, such as Adela Pankhurst and Flora Drummond, became active in right wing politics. Others settled down to ‘normal’ lives; Jessie Kenney, younger sister of the more famous Annie, became a steward on cruise liners, and Rosa May Billinghurst retired from activism. Most of these outcomes are represented in the characters of Old Baggage (including the suffragette-turned-fascist), so as well as being an enjoyable read, it is also a thoughtful reflection on what happens next. When you have dedicated your life to a cause that was dangerous and all-consuming but also thrilling and empowering, what do you do when it ends? Old Baggage asks questions about moving on and making sense of a different life that don’t have easy answers. But it’s the books that make you think that tend to be the ones you remember.

Violence, Landscape, and Gender in Woman at War

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An English-language poster for Woman at War (2018).

I recently got the chance to see Woman at War, an Icelandic film that’s been receiving excellent reviews. Directed by Benedikt Erlingsson and staring Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir, it tells the story of Halla, a choirmaster who leads a double life as The Mountain Woman, waging a one-woman war against the expansion of heavy industry threatening the climate and Iceland’s natural environment. She’s very good at it too, until she is offered the chance of fulfilling her life-long dream of becoming a mother, and suddenly has to make some difficult decisions. The film is fantastic, and it draws on some really interesting debates and issues related to the geographies of protest.

Halla’s tactics are the cause of much controversy amongst the Icelandic media and politicians in Woman at War. She only ever commits violence against electricity pylons, never animals or people, but she is criticised for this nonetheless. When deciding on their tactics, activists must walk a fine line between doing something that will get attention and alienating people by going ‘too far’. Most of us consider violence against people and animals unacceptable whatever the cause, but people tend to be more tolerant of violence against objects. Despite this, Halla’s opponents use her tactics to undermine her argument. Her critics also accuse her of bypassing the democratic system and making unilateral decisions about Iceland’s future that she has no right to make, as she is not an elected official. In this way, Woman at War raises interesting questions about whether or not protest is democratic. It is widely understood that dissent and protest is an essential part of a healthy democracy, but how much pressure can we put on elected officials before it becomes unethical? Generally speaking, protest marches, rallies, petitions, and lobbying are considered acceptable, but violence, blackmail, or bribery is not. But does this lines shift if politicians refuse to engage, or if the future of the human race is as stake (as many people believe it is because of climate change)? This is not a debate with an easy answer.

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Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir as Halla in Woman at War.

Halla wages her one-woman war by sabotaging electricity pylons that supply an aluminium smelting plant. Sabotaging machinery and equipment is nothing new for the more militant wing of the environmental movement, but Woman at War was released during a surge of non-violent direct action on behalf of the environment by groups such as Extinction Rebellion and Fridays for Future (also known as the school strike for climate movement, kick started by Grea Thunberg). Although these groups argue that non-violence is the most effective approach, they share a sense of urgency with Halla about the need to do something quickly. They are not alone; for example, The Guardian has recently announced a change in the language it will use, favouring “climate emergency/crisis/breakdown” over “climate change,” and “global heating” over “global warming.” Woman at War is not preachy, but it does convey a sense that drastic changes are needed very quickly.

Landscape is another prominent theme in Woman at War. Large portions of the film take place in Iceland’s rural highlands, and Halla has a strong connection to the natural world around her. It is her intimate knowledge of the landscape that enables her to evade capture, using crevices and streams to hide from helicopters and throw dogs off her scent. As well as the world as a whole, it is this landscape she is seeking to protect through her activism, and in return it protects her. When the film’s action shifts to Ukraine, the contrast with the Icelandic landscape is stark; the large cooling towers and desolate factories a warning against exactly the kind of economic development that Halla is trying to prevent in Iceland.

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Halla takes refuge in a hot spring in Woman at War.

The final theme that jumped out when I watched Woman at War is gender. When the chance to adopt a little girl from Ukraine is presented to her, Halla realises she must choose between being and activist and a mother. She takes her role as eco-warrior very seriously, but she has dreamed of becoming a mother, and it is obvious that she would devote just as much attention to this new role. Perhaps the choice between her passion and her dream of motherhood is more literal than that which most women face, but I’m sure that many can identify with Halla’s dilemma, and it was painful to watch her agonise over it. However, it is also Halla’s concern for future generations that drives her to her activism, she is trying to protect the world on their behalf. So perhaps without her motherly instincts, she would not have embarked on her one-woman crusade. Activists often sacrifice a great deal in their fight for what they believe in. Woman at War confronts the emotional toll of these sacrifices, as well as examining the forces that drive women to take action.

Woman at War is an excellent film. Despite it’s topical storyline about the future of humanity, it manages to be very funny at times, and retains a note of hope. It is both entertaining and thought-provoking, a difficult balance to strike. It hasn’t had a big cinematic release in the UK, but if you get the opportunity to see it, then I thoroughly recommend that you do. Who knows, perhaps Halla will inspire you to go out and save the world.

Turning the Tide: The 1968 Trawler Tragedy and the Wives’ Campaign for Safety

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A mural celebrating the achievements of the Headscarf Revolutionaries off Anlaby Road in central Hull (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

As part of the University of Hull’s series of events to mark International Women’s Day in 2019, there was a special performance of Turning the Tide: The 1968 Trawler Tragedy and the Wives’ Campaign for Safety, a multimedia production about some of Hull’s most inspirational women. Since moving to Hull at the end of 2018 I have seen, heard, and read, quite a lot about the Triple Trawler Tragedy and the women who fought for better safety conditions on the trawlers (frequently known as the Headscarf Revolutionaries). It is a story I will never get tired of hearing, and Turning the Tide was a fantastic way of telling it.

Using a combination of storytelling, recorded interviews, film, images, and folk songs, Turning the Tide paints an evocative picture of the close-knit Hessle Road fishing community in the late 1960s, the dangerous conditions in which the fishermen worked, the restrictive gender roles forced upon women, the loss of the three trawlers, and the women’s campaign to improve safety standards and prevent further tragedy. Turning the Tide, devised and directed by Rupert Creed, is the result of the efforts of several groups, including the Hull Truck Theatre and the Centre for Contemporary Storytelling. The storytellers were Joan Venus-Evans, Mike Emberton and Rupert Creed, with songs performed by Hissyfit (a.k.a. Linda Kelly and Hazel Richings). I think that performances such as this are an excellent way of communicating history, they strike an excellent balance of entertaining and informative (I reviewed a similar performance by folk band the Young’uns recently, which you can see here). The performance was followed by a panel discussion featuring Jean Shakesby (a Hessle Roader who lost her father at sea, and who took part in the safety campaign), Lorna Denness (daughter of campaigner Mary Denness), Natalie Taylor (campaigner and member of the Strong Women of Hessle Road group) and Emma Hardy MP.

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The Turning the Tide panel. Left to right: Jean Shakesby, Lorna Denness, Emma Hardy MP, Natalie Taylor and Rupert Creed (Photo: Jason Addison).

The performance and the panel discussion really brought to life several key issues related to International Women’s Day for me. The first is the strikingly sharp gender roles that were an unquestioned feature of the Hessle Road fishing community before 1968. Women were involved in the industry, many of them worked cleaning and processing the fish, and they kept their families going whilst the men were away for three weeks at a time. However, women were completely segregated from the fishing itself, to the extent that it was considered bad luck for a woman to go down to the docks to wave a ship off. Many of the women involved in the safety campaign faced verbal abuse, harassment, death threats, and even physical violence for daring to interfere in the men’s business.

Turning the Tide also highlighted the opportunity that protest campaigns and similar events can be for women to dramatically alter their life path. The women who took part in the safety campaign were not hardened activists, they were housewives and working mothers, many of whom had never spoken in public before. Through the campaign, they developed new skills, and learnt that their lives could be very different. After the campaign, Mary Denness got divorced and became a school nurse, going on to become a matron at Eton College. Christine Jensen [neé Gay and formerly Smallbone] continued to campaign, serving on the committee of the British Fishermen’s Association and founding a fishing heritage organisation called Stand. She was awarded an MBE in 2000. There are multiple examples like this in recent history, where women rejected a situation which they could no longer accept, and gained a new awareness of their potential in the process. Activism can empower women far beyond the initial protest or campaign they took part in.

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The performers of Turning the Tide take a bow (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

Moments like International Women’s Day are an opportunity to use to past to reflect on the present. In many ways women’s rights have come a long way since the days of the Headscarf Revolutionaries. For centuries, women have been taking opportunities like the Trawler Safety Campaign to broaden their horizons, develop their skills and demonstrate their abilities. The rigid gender roles of the Hessle Road fishing community in the late 1960s are not nearly as common in the UK as they used to be. But in other ways, there is still a long way to go. Wonderful stories like the the Trawler Safety Campaign have the power to make you feel inspired and confident about the struggles that are still to be won. Events like Turning the Tide celebrate these stories and ensure they don’t get forgotten.

The Ballad of Johnny Longstaff by The Young’uns

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The Ballad of Johnny Longstaff by The Young’uns.

The Ballad of Johnny Longstaff is the latest album by folk trio The Young’uns. The album tells the story of Johnny, a poor working-class man from Stockton who went to London on a hunger march when he was just 15. He took part in many of the protests and campaigns in the mid-1930s, including the Battle of Cable Street, and at the age of just 17 volunteered to fight in the Spanish Civil War. But The Ballad of Johnny Longstaff is much more than just an album. When performed live, it is a powerful combination of songs, oral history, and archival sources such as photos and newspapers. I went to see the performance on the first night of the tour, at Middleton Hall in Hull, East Yorkshire.

Folk fans know The Young’uns for their beautiful harmonies and political lyrics that don’t pull any punches. Some of their songs are hopeful, uplifting stories that restore faith in humanity. Others are angry, tragic, or defiant, but all of them are thoughtful. Like The Young’uns’ previous albums, the Ballad of Johnny Longstaff contains a mix of such songs. ‘The Great Tomorrow’ is a stirring tribute to international solidarity, ‘Paella’ is a comic song about Johnny encountering Spanish food for the first time, and ‘Ay Carmella’ is a poignant account of conditions in Spain during the Civil War. Interspersed with the songs are clips of Johnny himself talking about his life, and photos, newspaper articles, and other historical sources projected onto the back of the stage.

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The Young’uns performing The Ballad of Johnny Longstaff. The performance makes use of a range of historical sources, like this photo of Johnny and his friends before he left London to fight in the Spanish Civil War (Photo: Mike Ainscoe).

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Imperial War Museum recorded oral history interviews with many of those who had traveled from the UK to Spain as volunteers for the Spanish Republic. The interviews are all available online for anyone to listen to; I used some of them whilst researching the Battle of Cable Street during my PhD. Johnny Longstaff was one of the men who was interviewed. The Young’uns’ Sean Cooney became captivated by Johnny’s story after his son, Duncan, told them about his father at a gig in 2015. The Ballad of Johnny Longstaff was written with the aid of that interview, Johnny’s unpublished memoirs, his annotated collection of Spanish War literature, his personal collection of photos, and the memories and anecdotes of his family. It is an excellent example of the captivating stories that can be uncovered with meticulous archival and historical research, as well as the range of sources that can be used for this kind of biographical research.

As a historical geographer of protest, I already knew quite a bit about the events Johnny took part in, but I often wonder how much ‘ordinary’ people know. Leaving the auditorium, I listened to other audience members talking about the show. I heard several people saying things like “Well I knew about x, but I didn’t know y.” It was great to hear that people got so much out of it. I recently reviewed Mike Leigh’s 2018 film Peterloo, about the 1819 Peterloo massacre when soldiers in Manchester killed and injured dozens of peaceful protesters. The film is educational, but it is not very entertaining. The Ballad of Johnny Longstaff is both. It isn’t just a wonderful performance, it also educates people about the anti-fascist history of the second half of the 1930s. It is a great example of how creative methods can be used to make history accessible. The Ballad of Johnny Longstaff will undoubtedly reach more people than my PhD thesis ever will (having said that, I am more than happy to share my 400+ page beast if you would like to read it), and what is the point of doing such research if you can’t find a way to communicate the results with people? As far right groups gain popularity across the world, it seems more important than ever that we don’t forget this crucial period of European history.

To me, The Ballad of Johnny Longstaff is everything that good art should be. It is engaging, it teaches you something, and it makes you think. I don’t know if The Young’uns have any more performances planned, but I really hope so. It is a show that deserves to be seen.

Film Review: Peterloo

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The film poster for the 2018 film Peterloo, directed my Mike Leigh (Source: Thin Man Films).

2019 will mark the 200th anniversary of the Peterloo Massacre, arguably one of the key turning points in the history of British radicalism. In anticipation of this anniversary, Peterloo, directed by Mike Leigh, was released on the 2nd November 2018. I recently went to see the film, and whilst I think it is a very well-made film that will make an excellent teaching resource, I don’t think it has much popular appeal, and I wonder what it is actually trying to achieve.

On the 16th of August 1819, between 60,000 and 80,000 protesters gathered in St. Peter’s Fields in Manchester to call for more men to be given the vote. The local magistrates panicked and ordered local soldiers and special constables to disperse the crowds. Mounted soldiers charged into the crowd with their sabres drawn. Unable to leave the area, hundreds of people received injuries from the sabres or were trampled by horses. It is estimated that 18 people died, although more may have died later from their injuries. The horrific events became known as the Peterloo Massacre, a play on the Battle of Waterloo, a triumphant victory for the British and Prussians over Napoleon’s French forces in 1815.

The massacre was an important moment in the history of British radicalism. It started a period of repression of dissent by the British government, but it also served to crystalise the goals and determination of radicals, leading to significant victories in the mid-nineteenth century. Much like the centenary of the Representation of the People Act in 2018 (for more information, see the Vote100 page of this blog), the bicentennial of the Peterloo Massacre in 2019 looks set to be marked with a wide range of events, exhibitions, and cultural outputs. Peterloo is sure to be the first of many.

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The famous orator Henry Hunt (played by Rory Kinnear) greets the crowds in St. Peter’s Fields (Source: BFI).

It took me a while to work out what I actually think about Peterloo. It is undoubtedly a well-made film, with historically accurate costumes, sets, and dialogue. The representation of the massacre itself is wonderful; well, when I say wonderful I mean shocking and violent and awful, but that is because it was made so well. The acting is very good; Maxine Peake is wonderful as always, and Rory Kinnear does an excellent job of portraying the charismatic but pompous Henry Hunt. At 2 hours and 34 minutes it is a long film, but it doesn’t drag at any point. It also takes care to make sure that the viewer understands the context of Peterloo; the political and social conditions that allowed such an event to take place. For some, this may also be one of the film’s biggest weaknesses. It has a very ‘educational’ feel about it–I think it will make an excellent teaching resource, but how many people go to the cinema or choose something on Netflix because they want to learn something?

For me, this issue gets at the biggest problem with Peterloo; it isn’t clear who it is trying to appeal to. It is quite different from other recent films about historical British protest. Pride (2014) is a light-hearted comedy about overcoming difference to develop mutual respect and solidarity. It appeals to anyone who enjoys light-hearted comedies with a happy ending. Suffragette (2015) is a character driven story about Maud Watts, a fictional woman who grows as a person through her participation in the women’s suffrage movement. It appeals to anyone who likes character driven stories. I don’t really know what kind of film-goer Peterloo would appeal to, beyond people who like historical protest, which I am willing to admit is a relatively niche group.

Both Pride and Suffragette have been criticised for leaving out individuals and groups in order to simplify the stories and politics (for example, see Diarmaid Kelliher’s post on this blog: Thoughts on Pride: What’s Left out and Why does it Matter?). This can be very frustrating for historians, but perhaps it is worth editing the story a bit in order to make it more approachable for the general public. A historically accurate film is all well and good, but is there any point being historically accurate if nobody watches it? Peterloo has what feels like hundreds of characters, many of whom we meet only briefly. In most films, all the characters have a purpose; they learn a lesson, develop as a person, or do something to drive the story along. Peterloo has multiple characters that seem to do nothing but make the film more difficult to follow. It lacks the neatness of fictional stories or those adapted to better suit the silver screen, like Pride and Suffragette.

Peterloo is not a bad film, but I’m just not sure what it’s trying to achieve. If Mike Leigh wanted to make an accurate portrayal of a significant event in British history, then I think he has done a good job. If he was trying to bring the story of the Peterloo Massacre to a new audience, then I’m not convinced the film will be effective.

The Book of Erebus: Archives in Blade

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There is an anecdote in my family that my parents once tried to rent Blade Runner (1982). Instead of Ridley Scott’s epic visual masterpiece they ended up with Blade (1998), an over-the-top vampire film starring Wesley Snipes. Also a good film, but very different. We will probably never know if the mistake was my parents’ or Blockbusters’, but my Mum still thinks Blade Runner is about a leather-clad vampire hunter.

I recently rewatched Blade, and apart from being shocked by the dodgy CGI, I was interested by the film’s representation of archives. Archives, libraries, and other repositories of knowledge are often used in films as a method of exposition, or of revealing some information that moves the plot along, and Blade is no different. Blade and his plucky but naive companion Dr. Karen Jenson fight their way through a club to find a vampire archive, the entrance to which is hidden in an industrial fridge.

Inside, they find futuristic data banks and a grossly overweight and flatulent archivist, who reveals to Blade and Dr. Jensen the plans of the film’s baddie, evil vampire Deacon Frost. Frost has been using the archive to translate the the Book of Erebus, the vampire bible whose meaning had been long since forgotten. Frost was trying to enact a prophecy he found in the Bible, which would give him enough power to take over the world and bring an end to humans. Blade the sets out to try and stop Frost. The archive is the means through which the good guy finds out what the bad guy is up to, thus progressing the story.

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The archivist in Blade is not a particularly flattering depiction of researchers (Blade, 1998).

I would say that there are two main stereotypes of archives in popular culture. The first is old, dusty stacks of books and scrolls, stacked floor to ceiling in a dark, dingy room. The other is much more modern, even futuristic, with high-tech data banks, in large, sparse rooms. The archive in Blade falls into the latter category, as the images below demonstrate (the Empire’s archives on Scarif in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016) are another example of this type). I think the archives are a reflection of the vampire community in Blade as a whole; they are very old, but they have changed and developed to keep up with the times, blending in with human society. So much so, that the ability to translate the Book of Erebus has been lost, as has much of the vampires’ history and lore.

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The archives in Blade are stored on large, white data banks in otherwise empty rooms (Blade, 1998).

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The Book of Erebus, the vampire’s bible, is hidden within the vampire archive. Even though the pages themselves are old and yellowed, the way they are stored is modern (Blade, 1998).

Archives and libraries are represented frequently in popular culture, often as a source of exposition or plot progression. These representations shape the way that non-researchers understand and perceive of archives, and as such I think it is important for academics to spend time analysing them, and thinking about what impact they might have. The archive is Blade is modern and hi-tech, much more so than any real archive currently is. The archivist is also much more unpleasant than any archivist I’ve ever met!

We Are Many Review

Rise, like lions after slumber

In unvanquishable number!

Shake your chains to earth like dew

Which in sleep had fallen on you:

Ye are many—they are few!”

The Masque of Anarchy, Percy Shelly, 1819.

We Are Many Landscape

Many of you who has ever been to a protest will be familiar with at least part of the above quote, the final stanza of a poem written by Percy Shelley after the Peterloo massacre. We Are Many, a documentary film that tells the story of the Stop the War protests on the 15th February 2003, takes it’s name from the final line of this evocative poem. The film is not unjustified in borrowing such powerful words; it is a forceful and effecting documentary.

Directed by Amir Amirani, and first released at Sheffield Doc/Fest in 2014, We Are Many tells the story of the global protests against the imminent Iraq War on the 15th of February 2003. Up to 30 million people in nearly 800 cities took part, many of whom had never been to a protest before. The film uses news footage, interviews with participants, experts, and journalists, footage of protests, and clips of political speeches to tell the narrative of the protests themselves, as well as the events that led up to them, and the political movements they helped to inspire (you can see the trailer here).

Starting with 9/11 and the beginning of the War on Terror; the documentary traces the foundation of the Stop the War coalition; the growing opposition to military intervention in Iraq; the protests themselves; further attempts to prevent Western intervention in Iraq; the war itself; and the Tahir Square protests in Egypt. It ends with the vote by British Parliament in 2013 in which they decided against military intervention in Syria, an indication that, although the Iraq War was not prevented, the protest was not necessarily a waste of time. It is a comprehensive account, and I think it could have benefited from doing less, the last half and hour or so does drag somewhat.

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The Stop the War march on the 15th March 2003 was one of the biggest marches London has seen in decades (Source: Channel 4).

Overall, however, I thought it was a brilliant documentary. The interviews were particularly effective: a US air force veteran who came to oppose the war and US government officials admitting the war was wrong make for convincing viewing. The documentary also featured footage of the interviewees speechless. When the narrative arrives at the 19th of March when the war started, many of the interviewees were lost for words, even after a decade. That was pretty powerful.

When a protest doesn’t result in direct changes, it can be difficult to assess its impact. We Are Many admits that the Stop the War protests failed in their primary objective, and left many so demoralised that they withdrew from political engagement. The documentary does, however, make the argument that the 2003 demonstrations had long-term, positive impacts. It argues that the democracy movement in Egypt in 2011 was the product of the global anti-war movement, and highlights that when Britain faced the choice to invade Syria in 2013, MPs made a different decision than the government made a decade before. It is an interesting attempt to assess the impacts that a protest can have.

We Are Many is a comprehensive and emotive account of the events of the 15th February 2003. The global day of protest is thoroughly contextualised in both the events leading up to it, and the possible impacts it may have had. I would recommend this film as a teaching resource about both dissent and the Iraq War, or for those who are just curious about one of the biggest globally coordinated protests the world has ever seen.

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.

 

The American Dream and Global Citizenship: Politics through Music at Wembley Stadium

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Opened in 2007, the current Wembley Stadium is visually impressive (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

This month, I have been lucky enough to see two concerts at Wembley Stadium in the space of two weeks. On the 5th of June, I saw Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, and on the 16th, I saw the second of Coldplay’s 4-day run. They are two very different artists, with two very different performance styles.  However, both used the opportunity  of 70,000(ish) strong audiences to promote political viewpoints, although the two viewpoints, and the way they were were presented, were also very different.

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Wembley Stadium has a capacity of 90,000, but this is reduced to about 70000 for concerts. This is the stage set up for Bruce Springsteen’s concert on the 5th June 2016 (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

Bruce Springsteen has always been known for his vocal political stance. A liberal, he has campaigned against nuclear power and on behalf of Amnesty International, supported labour unions and gay rights and gay marriage, and endorsed two Democrat presidential candidates, John Kerry and Barack Obama. He also uses his music to explore political ideas, particularly class relations and the impact of economic recession on American towns and cities. Songs such as Born in the USA (1984), The Ghost of Tom Joad (1995), and Death to my Hometown (2012) are powerful criticisms of some of the biggest faults in American society. Springsteen’s live performances are legendary; he has been known to perform for four hours straight. The staging is simple, he does not use elaborate lighting or pyrotechnics, he allows the music to speak for itself. He is a consummate showman; he performs every song with the energy of a finale, and his skill and passion are obvious.

For me, one of the things that makes Springsteen’s political songs so powerful is the way that they continue to resonate with current events, sometimes even decades after they were first recorded. Towards the end of the concert, Springsteen performed American Skin (41 Shots). First performed at Madison Square Gardens at the end of a 1999-2000 world tour, the song was written about Amadou Diallo, a 22-year-old who was shot dead outside of his apartment block in the Bronx by four New York City police officers. They fired 41 bullets at the unarmed man. In 2012, Springsteen dedicated a performance of the song to Trayvon Martin, who was killed by police in Florida that year. With the recent deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner and others, it is painfully apparent that the song’s lyric “you can get killed just for living in your American skin” is just as true now as it ever was.

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Springsteen does not use elaborate staging at his live concerts, allowing his music and performance do the talking (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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Coldplay use elaborate visual effects in their live performances (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

To say Coldplay’s style of performance is not as understated as Springsteen’s is putting it mildly. The show was visually spectacular, including pyrotechnics, videos, and light-up wristbands which are given to every member of the audience creating a beautiful effect throughout the stadium. Their performance may be more dramatic than Springsteen’s but their politics is not as obvious. Their lyrics are not overtly political, and the band members are not as clear about their personal politics as Springsteen.

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Love buttons, which were handed out at Coldplay’s concerts. The band is a supporter of the Love Button Movement (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

You could find politics at Coldplay’s concert however, if you looked closely. As you entered the stadium, you were offered the wristbands and some button badges with the word ‘love’ on them. On closer inspection, the buttons turned out to have 3 web addresses on the rim; www.coldplay.com, www.globalcitizen.org, and www.lovebutton.org. The Coldplay address is fairly self-explanatory, but the other two I had to follow up. Global Citizen is a website that encourages people to take action to fight extreme poverty and inequality; safe, legal, actions like sharing videos, signing petitions and donating money. The Love Button Movement is a kind of ‘pay it forward’ campaign- it encourages participants to give strangers love buttons and overcome the “fears that keep us from seeing what we have in common.” This upbeat attitude fits in with Coldplay’s performance style and the buoyant tone of the band’s last 2 albums. It would be easy to sneer at them for this approach, this kind of politics can be seen as naive and overly optimistic. However, I am inclined to agree with journalist Richard Bradley when he says “We have plenty of bands singing about why George Bush is a crummy president, and that’s fine. Let Coldplay sing about love. Isn’t that political enough?” Let Coldplay promote global citizenship and love, sometimes a little positivity is exactly what I need.

Both Global Citizen and the Love Button Movement take a positive approach to alternative politics which is very different to Springsteen’s scathing critique of the American dream- the campaigns provide small, manageable actions that people can take to make the world a better place, whilst Springsteen’s lyrics can sometimes leave me feeling a little hopeless. I am not going to say I prefer one approach over the other- I think both Bruce Springsteen and Coldplay are fantastic musicians and performers, and I admire the fact that they both use their influential position as incredibly popular acts to try and make a difference. There is more than one way to skin a cat, as the old, if a little distasteful, saying goes.

Sources and Further Reading

Bradley, Richard. “The Politics of Coldplay.” The Huffington Post. Last modified 25th May 2011, accessed 21st June 2016. Available at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/richard-bradley/the-politics-of-coldplay_b_2671.html

Kershaw, Tom. “The Religion and Political Views of Bruce Springsteen.” The Hollowverse. Last modified 15th May 2012, accessed 20th June 2016. Available at  http://hollowverse.com/bruce-springsteen/

Kershaw, Tom. “The Religion and Political Views of Chris Martin.” The Hollowverse. Last modified 15th May 2012, accessed 20th June 2016. Available at http://hollowverse.com/chris-martin/ 

Pearlman, Mischa. “The 11 Best Political Songs by Bruce Springsteen.” TeamRock. Last modified 31st August 2015, accessed 20th June 2016. Available at http://teamrock.com/feature/2015-08-31/the-11-best-political-songs-by-bruce-springsteen

 

Turbulent London on Film: Save Our Heritage

Winstan Whitter. Save Our Heritage, uploaded 2011, available at  https://vimeo.com/32541973

Winstan Whitter was a film-maker in the right place at the right time. A local boy, he filmed throughout the campaign to save the historic Four Aces Club and surrounding buildings in Dalston, Hackney from demolition and redevelopment. Save Our Heritage tells the story from start to finish, from when the the demolition signs first appeared, to the end of the campaign. The documentary is a compelling example of a single-issue social movement, and showcases a mixture of resistance tactics, some official, others less so. The film is particularly pertinent now, as people feel increasingly marginalised in London, thanks to gentrification and rising house prices. Save Our Heritage tells a story that feels very familiar; it is a detailed snapshot of a process that is going on all over the capital.

The narrative is strung together by interviews with Bill Parry-Davies, a founding member of OPEN Dalston (Organisation for Promotion of Environmental Needs), a “community-based company” of local residents and businesses which started campaigning in early 2005 for the improvement of the local area. Mr Parry-Davies is perhaps not what you would expect in a prominent member of a social movement; he is a well-dressed, well-spoken solicitor, and he brings a certain degree of respectability to the film which may surprise some.

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Bill Parry-Davies, solicitor and founding member of OPEN Dalston, features prominently in Save Our Heritage (Source: Save Our Heritage).

The film focuses on the campaign to save 4-12 Dalston Lane, which at the beginning of the film is threatened with demolition, largely because it had been neglected by its owners, Hackney Borough Council. The buildings included 2 listed Georgian houses and a circus built in 1886, which has since served as a theatre, cinema, and nightclub. As the Four Aces Club, it was a became a well-known centre for black music in London. The roof was removed in the 1990s, presumably with the full knowledge of Hackney Council, and never replaced. The interiors deteriorated, but the building remained structurally sound. In 2005, the Council began their attempts to demolish the buildings.

The film documents the entire campaign to save the buildings, including a public consultation campaign, alternative proposals, high court injunctions, an occupation (which began to restore the buildings and acted as a form of community centre),  a demonstration outside a Hackney council meeting (in which 5 minutes were allocated for ALL those wishing to oppose the development plans). The council’s chosen plans did not provide any facilities which OPEN claimed the community needed, such as affordable housing, cultural facilities, and open green space. To add insult to injury, it emerged that TFL needed  income from the site to plug a £19 million funding gap from their station development on an adjacent site, which meant that Hackney taxpayers were footing the bill for even more upmarket housing.

Dalston Occupation

A sign attached to the roof of the theatre building by the occupiers (Source: Save Our Heritage).

This is a one-sided account of the story; there is no one representing Hackney Council, TFL, or the developers to tell the other side of the story. Nonetheless, I think it is a well made and informative film, that tells this David and Goliath story in an interesting way. Save Our Heritage is well worth 37 minutes of your time, particularly if you are interested in gentrification and the transformation which London has been through in recent years. It would also make an excellent teaching resource; it is a fantastic record of a diverse and enthusiastic campaign.