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.