Undying Archivists: Representations of Archives in Video Games

Video games can be a controversial topic; they are frequently condemned for their violence and accused of corrupting vulnerable young people. However as the variety and scope of games continue to expand, and online gamers create ever more complicated virtual communities, it becomes increasingly difficult to ignore or dismiss them. Computer games have become for focus of a lot of scholarly research, and there is even an entire journal dedicated to the topic, called Game Studies. I dabble in gaming myself, and of course my attention has been drawn to the variety of ways in which archives are represented in the myriad of virtual worlds brought to life through my computer screen.

One of my personal favourites, Fallout 3, is also the game which has one of the most realistic representations of an archive in gaming, in some respects anyway. Fallout 3 is a first person shooter/RPG (Role-Playing Game, for the uninitiated), set in a post apocalyptic world where civilisation has been destroyed by nuclear war. The action takes place in and around Washington D.C. in the year 2277, and many of the locations are based on real places, including the National Archives. Now obviously the building is looking a little the worse for wear after 250 years and a nuclear apocalypse, but it is much the same in the game as it is in real life, right down to those awkward microfiche machines that have dogged many an archival researcher. The player can embark on a quest to retrieve a copy of the Declaration of Independence from the archive’s basement, copies of which are held in the real National Archives.

The exterior of the National Archives in 'Fallout 3' and 'real life' (Sources: Fallout Wiki and Wikipedia).

The exterior of the National Archives in ‘Fallout 3’ and ‘real life’ (Sources: Fallout Wiki and Wikipedia).

A room in the National Archives from 'Fallout 3', complete with bookshelves and microfiche reader.

A room in the National Archives from ‘Fallout 3’, complete with bookshelves and microfiche reader.

The rotunda of the National archives in 'Fallout 3', looking a little rough around the edges compared to how it looks today.

The rotunda of the National archives in ‘Fallout 3’, looking a little rough around the edges compared to how it looks today.

Not all games are set in our world, however. Path of Exile and Diablo 3 are medieval dark fantasy action RPGs, set in worlds full of magic, swords and necromancy. They are both played in the axonometric projection, which is a posh way of saying that the player looks down on the action. And they also both have archives, although they are not ones that a modern day archival researcher would necessarily recognise. They are arguably more similar to the archives of the popular imagination, full of dark corners and scrolls. In Path of Exile, the player has to fight their way through hordes of zombie skeletons called ‘Undying Archivists’ to reach their objective, the Golden Pages. In Diablo 3, the archives are the domain of Zultan Kulle, an evil warlock who collected his archive as part of his unceasing quest for more power. In both cases, they are evil places, full of enemies and danger.

The archives in 'Path of Exile.' Here, aisle of catalogue drawers create a maze for the players to navigate. The feeling of confused frustration may be familiar to those of who to do research in archives.

The archives in ‘Path of Exile.’ Here, aisle of catalogue drawers create a maze for the players to navigate. The feeling of confused frustration may be familiar to those of who to do research in archives.

This screenshot shows another area of the archives from 'Path of Exile.

This screenshot shows another area of the archives from ‘Path of Exile.” Here, the walls are lined with books.

The archives in 'Diablo 3' are a bit sparse, but this is how most areas of the game are designed.

The archives in ‘Diablo 3’ are a bit sparse, but this is how most areas of the game are designed.

Dark Souls is another medieval dark fantasy action RPG, but it is played in the third person (the camera is behind the player, not above). Widely acknowledged as one of the hardest games of recent years, it has also been incredibly popular. And it also has an archive, also collected by a villain, and also not a particularly nice place to be. In this case the baddie is Seath the Scaleless, a giant dragon who betrayed his own kind and now hides out in his archives, desperately searching for the key to immortality because he has no scales to protect him.

Seath the Scaleless' archives in 'Dark Souls', which actually looks like the kind of old-fashioned library I would love, if it wasn't for all the enemies trying to kill you (Source: Daniel Dougherty)

Seath the Scaleless’ archives in ‘Dark Souls’, which actually looks like the kind of old-fashioned library I would love, if it wasn’t for all the enemies trying to kill you (Source: Daniel Dougherty).

Seath's archive contains a huge round tower with books from floor to ceiling (Source: Daniel Dougherty).

Seath’s archive contains a huge round tower with books from floor to ceiling (Source: Daniel Dougherty).

Archives also crop up in science fiction games. Destiny is a first person shooter set in a far-off future where the player is a guardian of the last safe city on earth. The player explores the ruins of human civilisation spread throughout the universe, but even in this era there are archives. In one quest, the player is sent to Venus to prevent the accumulated knowledge of the Golden Age being obtained by the Fallen, one of civilisation’s many enemies. In this case the archives are the domain of the goodies, not the bad guys, but it is still a risk, capable of doing great damage if it falls into the wrong hands. Knowledge, in many of these games, is dangerous.

The futuristic archive in 'Destiny', on the planet Venus (Source: Daniel Dougherty).

The futuristic archive in ‘Destiny’, on the planet Venus (Source: Daniel Dougherty).

The world of video games is vast, and games come in a huge range of shapes and sizes. Archives do seem to crop up relatively often though, and I’m sure I’ve only shown you a fraction of the examples here (please do let me know if the comments about games I’ve missed!) Perhaps it is just the nature of video games, but archives are frequently the domain of villains, bad people intent on getting what they want, whether it’s more power or more life. This bears little resemblance to real-life archives, which makes me wonder why this image appears so often. Where does it come from, and what impact does it have on popular understandings of the archive?

Special thanks for this post go to Daniel Dougherty, who provided some of the images, most of the information, and who introduced me to video games in the first place.

Sources and Further Reading

Anon. “National Archives and Records Association.” Wikipedia. Last modified 25th May 2015, accessed 4th June 2015.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Archives_and_Records_Administration

Anon. “The National Archives.” Fallout Wiki. No date, accessed 4th June 2015. http://fallout.wikia.com/wiki/National_Archives

Davies, Martin. “Gamers Don’t Want Any More Grief.” The Guardian. Last modified 15th June 2006, accessed 4th June 2015. http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2006/jun/15/games.guardianweeklytechnologysection2 

Stuart, Keith. “The Cliche of the Lone Male Gamer Needs to be Destroyed.” The Guardian. Last modified 11th May 2015, accessed 12th May 2015. http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2015/may/11/the-cliche-of-lone-male-gamer-needs-to-be-destroyed 

‘Still the Enemy Within:’ May Day Screening

‘Still the Enemy Within’ film poster.

Last Friday (May the 1st), I went to a showing of the documentary film Still the Enemy Within (2014), organised by Reel Islington and Radical Islington at London Metropolitan University. The film tells the story of the 1984-5 miner’s strike, from the perspective of those who took part. The film’s executive producer, Mike Simons, and Mike Jackson, the secretary of Lesbians and Gays Support the Miner’s (LGSM) were there for a Q&A after the screening. I have been meaning to see the film for a while, and it seemed like an appropriate thing to do with my May Day.

Still the Enemy Within reconstructs the narrative of the miner’s strike using archive footage and photos, interviews and dramatisations. It starts in 1979, when Margaret Thatcher was elected Prime Minister, and runs right through to the recent anti-austerity protests, although these only get a brief mention in the last few minutes. It is engaging and entertaining, and does a fantastic job of telling the story with a nice balance of poignancy and humour. With the 30th anniversary of the strike recently, and films such as Pride and Going through the Change!, I had an awareness of the miner’s strike and knowledge of specific parts, but Still the Enemy Within improved my general knowledge of the strike immeasurably. It goes through the major events of the strike in chronological order, including how the strike began, the reluctance of Nottinghamshire miners and other unions to join the strike, the death of David Jones at a picket, and the eventual defeat.

With the benefit of hindsight, it is easy to think of the miner’s strike as doomed to fail, but the interviews with strikers and their supporters tell a different story. Especially at the beginning of the year-long strike, the miners were confident in their ability to win, largely thanks to their victory over Conservative Prime Minister Edward Heath in 1974. The National Union of Mineworker’s (NUM) was one of the strongest in the country, and the miner’s had faith in the NUM’s president, Arthur Scargill. Hearing the story from the perspective of those who took part gives a sense of what it was like to live through the highs and lows, the joys of solidarity and strength and the bitterness of hunger, failed marriages and defeat.

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Mike Simon and Mike Jackson after the screening of ‘Still the Enemy Within’ (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

Those interviewed for the film also have a wonderful sense of humour, which brings me to my next point. I think the film really benefited from being seen with a large group of politically-minded people. Some of the jokes and stories that the strikers tell are laugh-out-loud funny, and I enjoyed the experience of everyone else in the crowded lecture theatre laughing along with me. A political audience also made for a lively, if brief, discussion after the film. It turned out there was a former Nottinghamshire miner in the audience, who was keen to share his experiences.

However, I would highly recommend watching the film even if you were on your own. It really is a wonderful resource, and would be fantastic for undergraduate teaching. The film-makers have a list of screenings on their website, from which you can also buy the film. I myself am now a proud owner of the DVD!

‘Going through the Change!’: The Story of the National Women Against Pit Closures

A banner from the National Women Against Pit Closures (Source: Pastpixels, n.d.)

A banner from the National Women Against Pit Closures (Source: Pastpixels, n.d.).

On Tuesday evening I went to the London premiere of the film Going through the Change! at the Bishopsgate Institute. Made by Anne-Marie Sweeney, it is a film about the 20th anniversary weekend of the National Women Against Pit Closures (NWAPC) in 2004. Anne-Marie Sweeney and Bridget Bell, Joint Secretary of the NWAPC, both spoke and led the discussion after the film. Because of the recent 30th anniversary, the 1984-5 miners’ strike has been the focus of renewed attention, most prominently in the form of the film Pride. Going through the Change! is a reflection on this commemorative process, as well as a celebration of the past, present, and future work of  working class female activists.

The NWAPC is a national organisation set up to coordinate the efforts of local Women Against Pits Closure groups that sprang up around the country almost as soon as the miners’ strike started. The film is made up almost entirely of footage from the weekend held to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the strike. It uses footage of the weekend’s speakers, many of whom were involved in entirely different campaigns from the miners’ strike, to show footage of other disputes, including dock strikes in Liverpool, action by the Fire Brigade’s Union and protests demanding improved treatment of asylum seekers. In this way the film really emphasises the importance of solidarity between campaigns and social movements, in terms of moral as well as financial and practical support.

A badge from the 20th anniversary of the NWAPC, with a stirring message (Source: Feminist Times, 2014).

A badge from the 20th anniversary of the NWAPC, with a stirring message (Source: Feminist Times, 2014).

One thing that the film and discussion made me think about was the way in which anniversaries such as the 30th anniversary of the miners’ strike are used. As I said, many of the speakers shown in the film were from campaigns that were nothing to do with the strike, many of them still ongoing at the time the footage was filmed in 2004. Then, as now, the NWAPC is using the anniversary not as an excuse for a nostalgia trip, but as a focus point for what is still yet to be achieved. In a similar way, the Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners group (LGSM) has received a boost from the publicity surrounding the anniversary and Pride (see @LGSMPride on Twitter). Unlike other historical events, the anniversary of the strike is being used as an opportunity to look forward as well as back.

Women grappling with police during the miners' strike (Source: Bristol, 2014).

Women grappling with police during the miners’ strike (Source: Bristol Radical History Group, 2014).

When the women of the NWAPC do look back, it seems to be mainly for the purpose of taking inspiration and lessons for future campaigns. Education is clearly an important part of campaigns such as this one. Many of the women involved in NWAPC had no experience of activism or politics before the strike began. The title of the film Going through the Change! initially invokes thoughts of the menopause, but is actually a quote from one the speakers. And the change she is referring too is that from housewife to political activist. All of the women featured seemed to have experienced this sense of empowerment, the realisation that actually they can make a difference and cause change. They were fierce and proud, and perfectly capable of articulating themselves in public, something several of them said they never dreamed they would be able to do before they were politicised. As campaigns continue and develop, more women will be empowered in this way, will learn how to use direct action and campaigning to fight for their goals. Women who have already gone through this transformation should be able to help based on their own experiences, which is another reason that solidarity and networks between different campaigns are so important.

Going through the Change! is an inspiring film, and it was a pleasure to be part of a discussion where so many of the women from the film were present. These are strong women who have had long, accomplished activism careers, and who continue to fight in times that they see as just as bad, if not worse, than the 1980s. Many of them are now fighting for the futures of the grandchildren rather than their children, but they remain as passionate and fierce as ever, and a lesson to us all.

The people involved in making Going through the Change! are keen for the film to be seen. If you would like to buy a copy, or arrange a screening, then get in touch via their Facebook group.


Sources

‘Going through the Change!’ Bristol Radical History Group. Last modified 6th February 2015, accessed 4th March 2015. http://www.brh.org.uk/site/events/going-change/

Graham, Sarah. ‘Women Against Pit Closures: memories from the miners’ strike, 30 years on.’ Feminist Times. Last modified 5th March 2014, accessed 4th March 2015.  http://www.feministtimes.com/women-against-pit-closures-memories-from-the-miners-strike-30-years-on/

‘Greetings card: The Banner of the National Women Against Pit Closures.’ Pastpixels. No date, accessed 4th march 2015. http://www.pastpixels.co.uk/en/product/greetings-card-banner-national-women-against-pit-closures

We are the Angry Mob: the Politics of the Kaiser Chiefs

The Kaiser Chiefs perfoming at the O2 arena in February 2014 (Photo by author).

The Kaiser Chiefs perfoming at the O2 arena in February 2014 (Photo by author).

Last week I saw the Kaiser Chiefs live at the O2. It was a fantastic concert, and nostalgic for me, because I last saw them live back in 2007 when I was a teenager in Brighton. But it also brought home to me the political nature of many of the Kaiser Chief lyrics.

The Kaiser Chiefs have been making music for over a decade now (Photo: Danny North)

The Kaiser Chiefs have been making music for over a decade now (Photo: Danny North)

For those of you who are unfamiliar with them, the Kaiser Chiefs are an indie rock band from Leeds that formed in 2003. They are named after a South African football club, the first club of an ex-Leeds United Captain. The band consists of Ricky Wilson, Andrew White, Nick Baines, Simon Rix, and Vijay Mistry, who replaced the previous drummer in 2012. The band has had a successful decade, releasing 5 studio albums, 2 of which reached number 1 in the UK. They have also done several memorable live performances, including opening the Live-8 festival in Philadelphia in 2005, and performing at the closing ceremony of the London 2012 Olympics. They have also been one of my favourite bands since I was 13.

We are the angry mob

We read the papers every day

We like who we like

We hate who we hate

But we’re all so easily swayed

The Angry Mob, 2007

The Kaiser Chiefs have always had critical lyrics in their songs, and they haven’t been very subtle about it. With songs such as I Predict a Riot from the 2005 album Employment and The Angry Mob and Everything is Average Nowadays from 2007’s Yours Truly, Angry Mob, a sense a resentment is obvious. It doesn’t seem obvious to me exactly who, or what, this anger is directed at though, except perhaps modern society in general.

They tell you day after day

To make your way through the factory gates

‘Til they can’t break your will anymore

You are contractually tied to death’s door

The Factory Gates, 2014

The Kaiser Chief's most recent album, 'Education, Education, Education and War.'

The Kaiser Chief’s most recent album, ‘Education, Education, Education and War.’

More recently however, their critique has become more directed. The title of their most recent album Education, Education, Education and War (2014) is a clear critique of Tony Blair, British Prime Minister between 1997 and 2007. It is well known that Blair’s priorities for his time in office were “education, education, education,” and he is blamed by many for the UK’s involvement in the Iraq war. The album also includes the poem The Occupation, written by Ricky Wilson and narrated by Bill Nighy. It is a modern anti-war poem inspired by the centenary of the first world war. It tells the story of an assault by a superpower on Hell, but could be applied to almost any recent conflict, and the result is a damning critique of war and imperial attitudes.

The Occupation

The occupation of Damnation Eternal

Decreed by Commander in Chief

Won by the infantry, led by the Colonel

Came at costs that would beggar belief

As they marched upon the inferno

And the infidels dropped to their knees

Millions of civilians crammed in pavilions

Came to watch it on big screen TVs

The population of Damnation Eternal

Went from millions to thousands to one

The survivor then wrote in his journal

“Why on Earth did it take them so long?”

Within weeks we constructed a pipeline

Within years we’ll have run the place dry

It’ll just about last us our lifetime

So it’s hip hip hoorays and high fives

On the factory floor there’s a whisper

We built cannons before it began

But the engines still pumping its piston

And the turbine still whirring its fan

The assembly line spits out the surplus

Into purpose built lead lined white vans

Rockets stockpile as ministry workers

Fill their pockets with all that they can

Secret meetings are held in the senate

What to do with this excess supply

There’s a plan to abandon the planet

One V.I.P at a time

So we get up each day and have breakfast

Read the news and the weather forecast

As we sit and we open our letters

And we pray that it won’t be our last.

Words by Ricky Wilson, narrated by Bill Nighy, 2014.

This is not the first time that I have written about the ability of music to make a political statement. Music, songs and chants have always been an important part of protest, and the popularity of modern musicians means they have quite a lot of power to publicise their point of view and influence people. The Kaiser Chiefs’ music has evolved over the last 10 years, but they have never been afraid to use it to express their opinions, which I think only adds to their appeal.

 

Sources and Further Reading

Adam Sherwin. ‘Kaiser Chiefs and Bill Nighy write modern day anti-war poem for the World War One centenary’ The Independent. Last modified 6th march 2014, accessed 16th February 2015.  http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/music/news/kaiser-chiefs-and-bill-nighy-write-modern-day-antiwar-poem-for-the-world-war-one-centenary-9174405.html

Pits and Perverts Revisited: ‘Pride’ the Movie and Politics Now

The Pits and Perverts Revisited panel.

The Pits and Perverts Revisited panel.

Last Friday, I went to an event at Birkbeck College called Pits and Perverts Revisited: ‘Pride’ the Movie and Politics Now. It is almost exactly 30 years since the Pits and Perverts fundraiser in Camden was organised for the striking miners by Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners, the group depicted in this year’s hit film, Pride. This event was a reflection on the film and LGSM itself, with Mike Jackson and Siân James speaking, upon whom characters in the film were based. It included a screening of the documentary All Out! Dancing in Dulais and a panel discussion also featuring Diarmaid Kelliher (a PhD student at the University of Glasgow working on solidarity groups for the miners in London), and Bev Skeggs (a professor of Sociology at Goldsmiths). All Out was made in 1986, and is about the work that LGSM did for the miners. It was a great evening full of passionate discussion, which raised a lot of interesting points.

The key thing that really came home to me during the course of the evening was the importance of solidarity to protest movements. The point was made in All Out that it is illogical to fight for the right of one oppressed group or minority but not others. Solidarity can take many forms, from a declaration of support to volunteers to help man the picket lines, but all types are important. There is a long tradition of solidarity amongst social movements in Britain, for example miners from across the country joined the Grunwick strike on the picket line in the 1970s. However there is also a tradition of groups not receiving the support they need, for example many of the big trade union’s attitudes to women workers. Solidarity between different protest movements is still not a given, but as Pride demonstrates, it can be an invaluable and incredibly beneficial experience.

The original Pits and Perverts publicity poster.

The original Pits and Perverts publicity poster.

Another important characteristic of social movements that was emphasised was networks. Exchanging solidarity with other groups involves making connections, sharing knowledge, resources and experience. Several of the speakers emphasised the importance of making connections with other movements and activists, particularly internationally as many of the issues campaigned on now have international causes and implications. Academic geographers frequently analyse social movements from the perspective of networks, and it was nice to know that this is a legitimate perspective to take.

The final thing that came out of the discussion that I think is really important to emphasise is the necessity of fundraising. The main things that LGSM did in support of the miners were collections and fundraisers. At the height of the strike the Neath, Dulais and Swansea Valleys Miners Support Group needed £5-8000 per week to feed 1000 mining families. These funds were essential for the strike to continue, and without it, the miners would have had no choice but to return to work. Fundraising is not glamorous or exciting, but no campaign will last for long without some form of income.

The audience for Pits and Perverts Revisited was more mixed than your average academic seminar, which I think contributed to the vigour and practical nature of the discussion. The evening gave me a lot to think about. Pride is a fantastic film, funny and heart-warming, but it is also inspiring activism and discussion, which I think is a truly wonderful achievement.

Scrolls, Vikings, and Dragons: Representations of the Archive in Children’s Television

'Riders of Berk' is a television spin off of the popular 2010 fil 'How to Train Your Dragon' (Source: Dreamworks Dragons: Riders of Berk, 2013)

‘Riders of Berk’ is a television spin off of the popular 2010 film ‘How to Train Your Dragon’ (Source: Dreamworks Dragons: Riders of Berk, 2013)

As long as you promise not to ask me how I know about this example, I wanted to discuss the portrayal of archives in children’s television. DreamWorks Dragons: Riders of Berk is a spin-off from the 2010 DreamWorks film How to Train Your Dragon. It may sounds surprising, but the show does contain archives, and the ways in which they are represented actually speaks well to the use of real-life archives.

'Bork's Archive' contains all the knowledge that the vikings of Berk have collected about dragons (Source: Dreamworks Dragons: Riders of Berk, 2013).

‘Bork’s Archive’ contains all the knowledge that the Vikings of Berk have collected about dragons (Source: ‘We Are Family Part 1’ Dreamworks Dragons: Riders of Berk, 2013).

Academics have argued that children’s films and TV shows are actually quite powerful cultural products, perhaps because they are dismissed by adults as insignificant and harmless. However they arguably play a significant role in shaping how children understand and interpret the world around them, so they are actually quite influential. Riders of Berk could very easily be a child’s only encounter with an archive, and is therefore worthy of consideration.

Berk is a village on a small island of the same name, populated by Vikings with names like Hiccup, Snotlout and Fishlegs, and dragons. At the beginning of the film, Vikings and dragons are mortal enemies, but with the aid of an injured dragon called Toothless, Hiccup manages to prove that both dragons and Vikings can profit from working together, and by the time the TV show begins, dragons are firmly integrated into the daily life of Berk. In Riders of Berk, a group of teenage Vikings, led by Hiccup, fly around on their dragons, having adventures and learning more about all the different types of dragons. However, all is not well in the land of the Vikings, and there are villains, set on destroying the peace between dragons and Vikings, or stealing the Hiccup’s dragon-training knowledge for their own dastardly aims.

Dragons and Vikings used to be enemies, but now live together in harmony (Source: 'We Are Family Part 1' Dreamwork's Dragons: Riders of Berk, 2013).

Dragons and Vikings used to be enemies, but now live together in harmony (Source: ‘We Are Family Part 1’ Dreamwork’s Dragons: Riders of Berk, 2013).

In the finale of the series, entitled “We Are Family,” Hiccup is entrusted with a chest containing Berk’s collected knowledge on dragons, know as “Bork’s Archive.” As the premier authority on dragons, Hiccup is given this “part of our [Berk’s] history” so that he can continue to develop their knowledge. From the way responsibility is passed on, and Hiccup’s reaction to the task, it is clearly a great honour. The knowledge is obviously valued by the community, and he is told to guard it carefully. Hiccup wastes no time in starting to search through this “amazing” archive, demonstrating how useful archives can be.

Hiccup feels honoured when he is given the job of 'archivist' (Source: Dreamworks Dragons: Riders of Berk).

Hiccup feels honoured when he is given the job of ‘archivist’ (Source: ‘We Are Family Part1’ Dreamworks Dragons: Riders of Berk).

Later in the episode, Hiccup learns the valuable lesson that not all sources in the archive can be trusted, simply because they come from the archive. Hiccup’s loyal companion Toothless is a rare type of dragon called a Night Fury. No other Night Furies are known to exist on Berk or the surrounding islands. In the archive, Hiccup finds a map to an island of Night Furies called “The Isle of Night,” and promptly sets off to find more of Toothless’ kind. The map turns out to be a fake however, planted in the archive to lure Hiccup into a trap by the evil Alvin the Treacherous. This highlights the importance of finding out as much as possible about where a source comes from, and why it was produced, in order to assess its reliability and possible biases.

The fake source that leads Hiccup into a trap (Source: Dreamworks Dragons: Riders of Berk, 2013)

The fake source that leads Hiccup into a trap (Source: ‘We Are Family Part 1’ Dreamworks Dragons: Riders of Berk, 2013)

So from this one episode of a children’s television show, a lot can be learnt about the value of archives, as well as the precautions that must be taken with them. Although Bork’s Archive is a lot smaller than most archives I have come across, I would argue that it is quite representative of archives as a whole. The people of Berk value Bork’s archive as a source of collected knowledge, and are aware of the archive’s ability to help contemporary knowledge progress further. However, Hiccup learns that just because something is in an archive, doesn’t mean that it is ‘true’ or authentic; the archive can be deceptive. This may seem like a bit of a silly post, but in all seriousness, I think it is important to talk about archives and the methodology of archival research as much as possible, and why shouldn’t we do that through the medium of children’s television? So, if you need a light-hearted teaching aid for archives, or just something fun for your next tea break, you could do worse than checking out Dreamworks Dragons: Riders of Berk.

Thoughts on ‘Pride’: What’s Left Out and Why Does it Matter?

This post was written by Diarmaid Kelliher, a PhD student at the University of Glasgow. His research is on solidarity in the miner’s strike in 1984-5, including Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners, who the recent film Pride is about. Follow him on Twitter at @Diarmaid84, or go to  http://www.gla.ac.uk/schools/ges/pgresearch/diarmaidkelliher/


One of Pride's promotional posters.

One of Pride‘s promotional posters.

The story of London Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners (LGSM) during the 1984-5 strike has circulated amongst lefties for a while but more broadly has been relatively unknown. This year, however, LGSM has featured in a play, a documentary, and the film Pride which is based entirely on the group. Pride has, rightly I think, received almost universally enthusiastic reviews. One exception is Brendan O’Neill’s ridiculous blog for the Telegraph which concludes that if the miners had been more ‘blokey and rough’ (the opposite of gay apparently) they might have won. Still, with the many positives covered so widely I want to focus on what’s missing.

The film, I think, gives an overly narrow portrayal of LGSM which, while perhaps understandable in narrative terms, somewhat cuts them off from broader political relationships, including with the larger solidarity movement for the miners. In the film, the group never grows beyond the handful of members drawn in early on. In fact, London LGSM at its peak attracted up to fifty people to its weekly meetings. There was eleven or so LGSM groups established outside London. This matters because it suggests that the politics of the group appealed to other lesbian and gay activists – and part of the point of LGSM was to engage and challenge lesbian and gay politics. As one member said at the time, they sought both to bring sexual politics into trade unionism, and to bring ‘socialism onto the agenda of sexual politics in the London lesbian and gay community’.

In the film, LGSM never grows much beyond the original members.

In the film, LGSM never grows much beyond the original members.

One effect of making the group so small is seen in the treatment of Lesbians Against Pit Closures – a group that separated from London LGSM. The split is largely played for laughs along classic leftist splintering lines. The extent to which women were outnumbered – even at the largest meetings of fifty there were never more than a few women – is not evident in the film’s small group. The idea that having a separate lesbian group was a bit silly is not easily distinguishable from the idea that LGSM itself was unnecessary – why not just work in the broader support campaigns? But how much fragmentation is too much, who decides and how?

One aspect of LGSM pushed a bit to the background in Pride is the political ideology. There is a glimpse of a hammer and sickle on the wall of founder Mark Ashton’s flat and someone calls him a commie – but you might not realise that he was a member of the Communist Party. Other activists in the group included members of left organisations such as the Labour Party and the Socialist Workers Party. The language of socialism so prominent at the time is largely absent from the film. This matters for the way in which we understand the construction of alliances: lesbian and gay support for the miners made sense not just because they were two groups of people under attack by the government, the police and the media. This was significant and possibly enough for some. But  it also relied on a broader left-wing politics which understood the different struggles in something like a totality.

Sheila Rowbotham’s recent reflections on the book Beyond the Fragments (1979) is, I think,  relevant here: ‘At the time, we had a credible word for what we wanted: “socialism” […] I still identity with the word “socialism”, but I realise that many others on the left no longer do so. To avoid unnecessary hair-splitting, I will say, then, that a vital component in “how” is imagining and articulating what else might be possible – what is beyond the beyond?’ Perhaps Pride avoids the language of socialism not as an attempt to appeal to an American market but as a reflection of the fact that ‘socialism’ doesn’t play this role any more. But part of the lesson in LGSM, for me, is the need for this alternative vision of ‘the beyond’ in building such alliances – and if that vision is not socialism, then what is it?

Diarmaid Kelliher, University of Glasgow.

Protest Songs at the Cambridge Folk Festival

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The Cambridge Folk Festival 2014 (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

This weekend, I went to the Cambridge Folk Festival for the first time. I had a thoroughly enjoyable weekend, but it also got me thinking. Due to my chronic inability to stop relating absolutely everything I do and see to the topic of my PhD, I started thinking about the role of music in protest and contentious politics. Obviously folk music has a long history, and is a time-honoured way of expressing  the whole range of human emotion, including anger, resentment and discontent.

Modern folk musicians play a key role in preserving traditional folk songs. Many bands and artists at the festival performed songs that have been around for a long time, and commemorated some of the more contentious periods in history. For example the Welsh band Calan performed a song about a fierce battle between the red dragon of Wales and the white dragon of England. The white dragon was soundly beaten, the song being a remnant of times when the relationship between the two countries was not quite as cordial.

Performers also used music to commemorate important figures in the history of protest. Ladysmith Black Mambazo, a South African choir, sung a song about the achievements of Nelson Mandela.  Music and song has been used for centuries to memorialise great people, acts, and events, and the tradition continues to this day.

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Pokey LaFarge at the Cambridge Folk Festival 2014 (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

However the festival was not entirely focused on the past. Musicians used original songs to voice critique about the current state of society. For example Pokey LaFarge, an American singer, performed a song decrying the state of the American healthcare system. Before performing the song, he said that it was important to him that his opinions on the issue were ‘on record’, and perhaps in several hundred years the song will still be remembered and performed by other musicians like him. This also brings to mind more popular artists like Bruce Springsteen and Morrissey, whose politics permeate their music.

The aural is a factor which is frequently overlooked in human geography, although there are some who are trying to address that imbalance (see for example the work of Anja Kanngieser (http://anjakanngieser.com/). I think the archives are particularly vulnerable to a silent perspective on life, as our ability to capture sound is a relatively recent phenomenon. In the hushed atmosphere of the archive, it is easy to forget the sounds and noises that would have accompanied the events you are reading about. It is important to bear in mind that protest, and life in general, does not take place in silence, far from it in fact. Music and sound play a key role in protest, be it in the form of chants, political song lyrics, or simply just loud, upbeat music to lift spirits and get a protest noticed. The Cambridge Folk Festival reminded me that life is loud and music is powerful, and that is a lesson I will try to hang on to.