As 1969 began, I wondered what the year would bring. Having checked out our neighbourhood, it was clear that our house straddled the class divide. On the opposite side of our street, mothers drove their smartly uniformed children to private primary schools. Our backyard gave on to a terrace of small houses, in which working class folk lived. The children opposite said the children at the back were the ‘Gasworks Gang’, and being ‘rough’, were to be avoided.
One summer evening, as I was standing outside our house, the privileged kids lured me along a lane and, grabbing my limbs, shoved me into a row of nettle bushes. Avoiding the front that summer, however, I retreated into our backyard, where I reflected on my heroines, Angela Davis
and Bernadette Devlin. When one day my younger next-door neighbour told me her Northern Irish mother called Bernadette “a devil” I was shocked: this was the first time I had encountered white-on-white prejudice.
I was a relief, then, to spend two weeks at a friend’s flat in North London. Highlights were regular and adventure playgrounds (with high slide that as soon as I slid put paid to the labour-saving paper knickers I wore that holiday); and bright yellow lemon ice-cream from an Italian café in the market. It felt good to see the smiling friendly faces of David and his partner, arm-in-arm, as we all strolled under a sun-lit avenue of plane trees in the local park. Darkness fell, however, when one evening (with my parents) I watched a programme about the Nazis’ camps. From that night on, sketches of the gas chambers and images of gas sprinklers pressed in on me.
At the start of the school year my teacher asked about our summer holidays. My class-mate, Denise (who also wore NHS glasses and so counted as a kindred spirit) said she had been to visit family in Ulster. Mrs Clark mentioned the deployment of troops and asked Denise if the trouble in Derry had been scary – it had.
Unsettling on another level was Edie’s departure that term for Hillcroft College, near London, where she took a second chance at education – in a women-only setting. From there she slipped into the first national women’s conference, at Ruskin College in 1970. Meanwhile, kind women members of the IS baby-sat while my father attended meetings. My confidence had returned: when I ventured out front I was struck by Conservative Party General Election posters – sported by the children opposite atop their tricycles.
A month or so later that 1970 summer of 1970 after Edie’s return to York, in summer 1970, she told me that we would soon move to New York, for a year. I wondered what arrangements would be made for the 11+ exam on my return. Although New York City was exciting – Edie took me to Judo, as “every girl should know how to defend herself”, and my father taught us ‘Wobblies’* songs – I fretted about the exam. In September 1971, my father and I returned to York (Edie saw Liverpool family) so that I could sit the Eleven Plus. While I worried that the school year had begun by then, he coached me for the exam.
That October I was admitted to a girls’ grammar school. The contrast with American beliefs in freedom and equality was so stark that my cultural dislocation was complete. I felt injustice – on behalf of other children, including Denise, who had failed the exam and gone to the secondary modern. That autumn I happened upon a small book on our mantelpiece:
At my school the banned book was a sensation: at dinner-time it was passed along the queue, or pored over behind raised desks, by girls in navy uniform.
Finding my voice, when our class teacher asked what we would like to discuss – and aware that Edie had been to a feminist meeting at my Queens elementary school, where she had befriended Lola, a Black American from the Deep South – I suggested Feminism. I was crestfallen when my classmates expressed no interest in it.
The new year saw further emotional disruption: Edie threw my father out of the house. I attempted to connect with him, through politics, during a febrile time. Although it was made clear that I could not take part in the protest against Bloody Sunday, soon afterwards, in February 1972, I was permitted to attend a rally of striking miners. Inside the Knottingley miners’ club, amidst massed masculine expression of resistance to the Heath government, I was bemused to find that, fluorescently illumined bar staff aside, I was the only female.
Perhaps sensing my dislocation, my father suggested I attend a meeting of Rebel, the IS youth group. As soon as I arrived I felt it was not the place for me: either bearded or clean-shaven youths, the latter disillusioned Army recruits, took the floor. My father took me to a talk on Free Schools, as well as days away from school to Oxford, London and Edinburgh – where he was to speak about the Left, and R.D. Laing, whose arch-critic he had become.
The following year I began to harangue my father about the male dominance of the IS. By the end of 1973, however, I had decided to give them a second chance. So I agreed to go to the IS conference at the Belle Vue Stadium in Manchester. There was much excited discussion of capitalism in crisis. After alighting the coach, I told my father that I had overheard the young daughter of the esteemed worker in the seat behind tell of his battering of her Mum. Edie had by now cited Simone De Beauvoir’s The Second Sex. ” One is not born a woman” resonated throughout my teenage years.
The beginning of 1974 saw the conjunction of the Oil Crisis and miners’ industrial action, which resulted in the so-called Three-Day Week, whereby electricity was in short supply. Not only were heat and light rationed – so schools and offices closed two days per week – but public transport and private car usage were curtailed and long queues formed at petrol stations. Eventually these restrictions were lifted, but the damage to the Heath government was done: Labour came to power later that year.
Early one summer evening in 1975 my father voted in the EEC** referendum. When asked why he had voted to leave, he told me that the EEC was a capitalist market, where international workers’ solidarity was ruled out.
* The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), international labour union founded in the early years of the 20th Century.
** European Economic Community, now European Union.