We were invited to host a public sewing at the Working Class Movement Library (WCML) in Salford, by Lynette Cawthra, as part of the Manchester Weekender, a buzzy weekend celebrating arts, crafts, and activism. Serendipitously, this meant that our sewing coincided with the opening of Jeremy Deller’s new show: All That Is Solid Melts Into Air, on the Friday evening. So, Jeremy and two of his collaborators, the banner maker Ed Hall and the photographer Ben Roberts, were in Manchester. Both Ed and Ben came to the sewing in Salford after Ed’s talk at Manchester Art Gallery on the Saturday morning.
Manchester and Salford are stimulating and thought-provoking places to visit. The hotbeds of industrial capitalism and of the writings of Marx and Engels, they have each been visibly battered by the boom-and-bust late phases of capitalism’s decline. There are strong and proud communities here who feel utterly betrayed; frequently drained and exhausted by successive assaults on their incomes and dignity. The future has no shape and is suspended. Anger and determination are palpable in the fights against fracking, zero-hours contracts, the bedroom tax and the privatisation of the NHS. Victories are inspiring: the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union at the Hovis plant in Wigan entered into dispute with Premier Foods over use of zero hours contracts and agency staff. After two walkouts the employers agreed to all their demands – including parity pay for agency workers.
The people I met were very conscious of their place in the continuum of struggle. During the Deller exhibition and throughout the public sewing, people shared thoughts on histories of cotton: of the impact of the mills on social change, family life and health in Lancashire, India and Egypt – as well as of the beauty of the fabrics which were made. As we sewed, two Antifascist actions were taking place nearby, in Bradford and in Liverpool, in response to the EDL’s stated intention of inciting race war in Bradford, and their repeated attacks on Unite union meetings in Liverpool. This context gave a clear focus to the sewing process.
The public sewing had received much publicity prior to the event, thanks to an article by Bernadette Hyland in the previous Wednesday’s Morning Star, and to hard work by Lynette at WCML, and also by Alex from Creative Tourist, who included our event on the publicity for the Ed Hall talk. Thank you, to all of you, as well as to Suzanne Hindle, who led an historical walking tour, bringing seventeen participants with her, from the People’s History Museum in Manchester to the WCML in Salford. The Library railings had been hung with pompoms and knitted flags by the Craftivism Yarn Trail, in time for the arrival of the banner.
Ed Hall arrived as I was setting out the banner, and he stayed and chatted about the process and the purpose. He was interested in the collaborative process and he explained that when his banners are commissioned he always travels to meet the people who commission them, as the inspiration can only come from face to face meetings. He was also interested in the idea that our banner is made to be carried in the hands of perhaps twelve people walking side by side, rather than suspended from poles and harnesses like most trades union banners. Ed’s banners are commissioned by campaign groups and by union branches. They are meticulously crafted and beautiful. They cheer people up, empower them and inspire resistance. This much was triumphantly clear during the five-hour long procession of trades union banners, most of them made by Ed, in Manchester three weeks ago, for the NHS protest during the Tory Conference.
The sewing was really well attended – over sixty people came. Molly Garner, a student at Manchester Metropolitain University’s art school, was wonderfully generous and dedicated in response to my suggestion that she document the event while she was there. Molly took some lovely pictures which will be uploaded here shortly. It was fantastic to be among so many people committed to collective activities, with lively political awareness, as well as impressive sewing skills. Blanket stitch was child’s play to this lot, whether male or female, old or young – as was tea-making on a lavish scale, in proper tea pots and proper cups! The tea, biscuits and parkin so generously shared by Lynette and the volunteers made for a cheerful convivial atmosphere throughout the day. Heartfelt thanks to all for this, as I’d come on my own for this event and it couldn’t have happened without everyone who came sharing it and owning it.
I wish I’d been able to get round and chat to everyone! However, those with whom I did have a chance to talk and listen were most memorable. Firstly, Stuart Walsh from the Clarion Cycling Club, who is also a volunteer at WCML, and who was about to set off with his club on a ride from Bilbao to Barcelona, read out an exceptionally moving letter to us from the Gernika Gogoratuz Peace Research Centre, which says:
“in times where wars are being fought and others about to be fought in too many places around the world…as direct consequences of the economic war and structural violence which are at the root of most of the conflicts taking place on a global level and which put our very survival as humanity at stake…we understand and want to support your symbolic action linking art, memory and engagement for a peaceful world based on social justice and human dignity.”
Stuart also read out a letter of solidarity from Ciclista Gernikesa, in which the Club President, its Secretary and its liaison cycling guide sent greetings:
“to all the participants in this important work of co-operative art, that so powerfully affirms the fellowships of peace and solidarity among peoples of different cultures, and especially the message of non-violence and respect for others, that such endeavours send to our younger generation. In this way we can all do our part to ensure that the horrors that are portrayed in Picasso’s great painting of the bombing of our peaceful town cannot happen again.”
These words, read out as people sewed, were a powerful accompaniment. Stuart then presented me with a neckerchief embroidered with Gernika Cycling Club’s insignia, the Oak Tree, which survived the bombardment, and two badges enameled with the same emblem of resistance. Thank you to Stuart for his dedicated commitment to the project and thank you to the cyclists and to the people at the Peace Research Centre. Hope the trip to Gernika went well with many great memories to follow.
Next I met Adrine and Lance Middleton, who have been in love and together for seven decades. Lance described for me a very old cardboard jigsaw of Guernica which he has somewhere at home. He worked in Burma for signals during the second world war, and claims to have spent most of his time using the surplus paper at his disposal to write passionate letters to Adrine. She, meanwhile, had joined the Young Communist League in Manchester, as a direct consequence of Franco’s appalling attacks on the Spanish, Catalan and Basque peoples. Adrine’s friend Vera had a brother who was shot dead in Spain, and the impact of this upon the whole family and their entire friendship group has never left Adrine; it was evident in her intonation of every word as she recounted it to me almost eighty years later.
Adrine also described to me her memories of a visit to the top floor of Lewis’s department store on Piccadilly Corner in Manchester sometime in 1939. This Lewis’s has absolutely no connection with today’s John Lewis, by the way. It was, by Adrine’s account, an amazing place, where people could go and be entertained for their entire shopping experience: it had a basement which was flooded for swimming spectaculars and the top floor was a kind of ballroom, with a stage at one end, where dancing classes were held. In this top floor, according to Adrine, Picasso’s Guernica was hung during its visit to Manchester, and used for fundraising for the Manchester foodships to Spain. It was extraordinary to feel history being brought to life, as Adrine explained to me how vast the painting was, and how it was attached to three walls of the room, so that you could walk along beside it and take it all in. In this way, you could not help but engage with the agony and suffering of the people it depicted and the brutal destruction it conveyed. When I asked Adrine if she could recall any of her thoughts upon seeing it, she said, “Not really, because it was very tear-making.”
Although I’ve heard the story of Guernica’s visit to a car showroom in Manchester, which was reported in the Manchester Evening News at that time, I hadn’t heard that it might also have spent time in Lewis’s, and Suzanne and other participants in the sewing were soon buzzing with ideas about the archives into which they could delve in order to find confirmation or find out more. It will be fascinating to see the developing history of Adrine’s memories. Certainly I felt honoured to be in her company and to listen to her sharing them, so that we can pass them on.
The library is a place where this lively curiosity for history, and for the people who make history, is in the very fabric and air of the building. It was founded by Ruth and Eddie Frow, a Communist couple who, in the nineteen fifties, used to drive around the country buying up books that nobody else wanted: books on labour history from the nineteenth century and earlier. Their dedication to the idea that activists should collect their own histories, in order to pass them on to those who come after, led them to fit out their home as a library and archive, and, when it was bursting at the seams, they entered into a deal with Salford Council, renting a former nurses’ home as the home of their archive, which has now become the Working Class Movement Library.
The library receives no funding, apart from a grant – soon to reach its end – from Salford Council, and donations from trades unions and friends. It needs £80,000 a year to survive, and every year this becomes harder to find. Thankfully they don’t have to pay for the maintenance of the building, or for the energy bills needed to keep the air at the consistent temperature and humidity essential for the conservation of the precious books, papers, artefacts and textiles, because Salford Council, as freeholder, pays for this at present. However, the future is uncertain. I really hope it can continue. Like so many people, I’ve had some fantastic hours there, freely browsing the eclectic collections, in room after room where even the wallpapers are historical documents! Lynette and Sam and their team of volunteers, and Michael Herbert, trustee and friend of the founders, bring to the whole building the kind of passion, commitment and loving attention to detail which one rarely sees anywhere anymore. They welcome all who wish to use the archives. It was inspiring to spend time with them in this special place.
The sewing event itself was great. People were silenced by the beauty of the banner when they first saw it, and they really looked at it, walking around it, examining it and discussing it in detail , before picking up their needles and choosing where to sew. Loads of people said they were thinking about organizing a banner-making for their group and even for the WCML itself; people were enthralled by the story of how we went about making the banner: projecting Picasso’s great work onto a wall, choosing the shapes; climbing around one another to cut the stencils, discussing how we would interpret them and how we would select the fabric. Celia’s friend Bec brought her son Sam, who had wanted to join a sewing club at his primary school, but didn’t get a place as it was so oversubscribed. It was so nice that he came and took the trouble to learn blanket stitch, and very nice to see how he persevered quietly and patiently until he got it and sewed a beautiful edge. Everyone wanted to know when the banner would be finished, which I was unable to answer, as the process is what has been so captivating, rather than the aiming for a product. Towards the end of the afternoon, Ben Roberts and his friend Francheska came and hung out and chatted about galleries and art and global economic practices, and drank tea while Ben took photographs of people engrossed in their sewing. There was a lovely interplay of voices as people chatted and shared stories. It was a really nice day. So, the life of the banner continues strongly, drawing in people, places and histories as it goes, within the contexts of art, activism, conviviality and resistance.