The following is an extract from a Manchester based magazine of working class writers. The variety and the passion that comes out of the pages has struck a chord with me. I want to showcase just one story but please take a look yourself at www.mancvoices.co.uk
Yes – Voices was different; no doubt about that. And the search for a named slot for this stuff was a pointless distraction. We should have been celebrating its range and variety. Where else would you read a first hand account of the General Strike, a description of Communist Party activity in a wartime engineering plant, an extended, funny satire on the plight of Irish builders in London? Middle class explorers had occasionally visited this heart of darkness but even the best of them didn’t get it quite right. George Orwell’s Wigan Pier could just as well have been called My Day at the Zoo. Then suddenly the natives were piping up and telling it like it really was. This urge was always there. My analogy for prole lit is of an oil field – rich and vast but hidden – the middle class owns the rigs – they control the publishing houses, the magazines, the newspapers. If they decide not to drill we get nothing. Tap even gently, however, and you could get a gusher. Ben Ainley was one such prospector surprised at his luck. – Ken Clay 2007
RECOLLECTIONS OF THE GENERAL STRIKE
In another 4 years and a few months, 50 years will have passed since the General Strike of 1926.My memory is not the best in the World. In fact I have a struggle remembering what happened last week, yet some of the happenings that took place during and shortly after the General Strike are as clear to me as if they had happened yesterday. I was 16 years old at the time and worked for the L.M.S. Railway Company, and I was considered to be fortunate in having a job that brought in regular wages and holidays with pay. Very few people had holidays with pay in those days. The General Strike itself only lasted a few days, and during that time every town and City in the land had it’s march and demonstration. The march that took place in Manchester culminating in a huge meeting held in Platt Fields, seemed and still seems to me to be the greatest march ever held. Never have I had the feeling of excitement that I had that day. Maybe it was because I was very young and this was my first march and everything was very new to me.
I walked along with my young workmates and felt as proud as Punch. It seemed to me that all the world was marching that day. There were policemen everywhere, almost one policeman to each row of marchers and their normal duties such as traffic control etc. were taken over by the Special Constabulary. We saw many of these Specials on the march to Platt Fields and booed and cat-called every one of them with great enthusiasm. We, the young ones really enjoyed it all. Finally we reached Platt Fields, where platforms had been erected and speakers were already addressing the huge crowds round each platform. At the particular platform we arrived at the speaker was describing how God had made the world. Eventually he reached the point in his speech of the last and lowest form of life God had made – a jelly fish. He paused and then apologised to his audience, “I am sorry,” he said, “there was something he made that was lower than a jellyfish, he made a scab.” This got a great cheer from the crowd. and a man standing near where I and my workmates were standing, shouted in a loud but most beautiful Oxford accent, “Hear, hear, Oh hear, hear.” We had never heard this form of applause before, and we nearly died – it bowled us over completely. It was a huge source of fun to us on our walk home, each of us every few minutes would mimic the man in our best cut glass accents. That march was my first industrial and political commitment and it made a great and lasting impression upon me.
Bitter end to the strike
After the Strike was ended, partly because of the disorganisation to industry, and partly I think for punishment revenge not all the strikers were taken ‘back immediately. Each day a list of names was placed in the window of the lodge naming the men who had to start back the next day and I was out of work for 5 weeks before I started back. This long wait to start back was the cause of some concern to my mother, who badly missed my wages and was convinced that I would never start back again.
The hatred, anger and bitterness of the men after this Strike was really astounding to me. I have never encountered it in such a widespread manner since. You must remember that I was only 16 at the time and all this was new to me and I didn’t fully understand what was happening around me. It was impossible not to overhear the men talking and arguing and you couldn’t avoid this intense anger, it rubbed off on one. One man, who, it was said had been a warder at Strangeways sometime in his life and who had been a blackleg during the Strike, was given regular work, whilst many of the strikers still remained unemployed. Although this man had never worked on the railway before the strike, the men felt that this was another way of rubbing their noses in it, and were not prepared to stand it. It was with great difficulty that the Union Officials at the station prevented them from going out on strike again. They gave this man a terrible time, he was constantly in arguments and fights until one day he never came back. I don’t think the Management sacked him, I think he left of his own accord.
During the Strike our strike headquarters were in a room over a coal yard and to reach this room it was necessary to climb several steep wooden stairs which finished with small platform surrounded by a handrail. This led to the door of the room where the strike committee met every day and all day. It was the habit of the Chairman of the Union branch, who was also the Strike Committee Chairman, to come out of this room, stand on this platform and give us the news of the strike or read out a telegram to us, several times a day. One day when we were all standing about in the yard waiting for news of the progress of the strike, he came out of the room and stood on the platform, we all looked up expectantly and immediately it was obvious that he was drunk. He stood there for a couple of minutes swaying and then shouted down to us “Stand firm and solidarity”, and then fell from the top of the stairs to the bottom and lay there sleeping.
He was a big man this Chairman, and was popular and well liked by the men.
Some 12 months or so after the strike, he was offered a Foreman’s job by the Management and he took it. The anger and bitterness of the men hadn’t abated very much and they took this appointment very badly, he was a traitor and they did everything possible to make his life a misery. This attitude of his old comrades was too much for him. We watched him shrink visibly and after about 13 months as a Foreman, he died. “They” said it was with a broken heart, whatever that may mean.
For many years afterwards, you would hear the men talk about others who had played a bad role in the General Strike, with the same viciousness and contempt that Irishmen are able to put into their voices when they talk about the “Black & Tans”. Looking back I think that 1926 was the nearest thing to Revolution this country has been in my lifetime and I can’t help wondering how different the situation would have been if the Government hadn’t had the foresight to imprison some of the Left Wing leaders in 1925 and to keep them in prison during this confrontation of 1926. And so I could go on with many more memories of the 1926 Strike, but that would make a book and that is not what was asked for.
Many thanks to Ken Clay for permission to reproduce this article
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