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Two Rivers, Two Women

As this year began, I found myself wondering, after the General Election, what had become of class consciousness. Although my social class was determined by father’s membership of the academy, Edie’s mantra was “I’m from the working class.” ( And arguably, after kicking out my father she resumed that class position. ) 

On the far left, Edie aged about 14, holding her younger sister, Sheila, at a street party – probably during the Festival of Britain, 1951 (to celebrate the end of austerity, & British science, industry and arts)

Family lore of my Liverpool-Irish family was that Edie’s maternal grandmother had been such a prominent activist during Liverpudlian unrest before WWI – when Churchill’s warships were poised in the Mersey – that her comrades thronged her funeral procession, to pay her tribute. 

Before we left Liverpool in 1963, Edie was an anti-nuclear activist. And as I indicated ( in my post, On the Perils of Looking West ) in Queens, New York, Edie found a more congenial mix of class and race in the American feminist milieu than that she had known in England.

On our return to York, as the activist Seventies got into gear, Edie joined a community theatre group of former York students – working with kids on the council estates on the city perimeter, and in adventure playgrounds. ( So great was the appeal to Edie of this new-found freedom, that she was later persuaded to see the Grateful Dead at the Bickershaw festival – I recall her return, in mud-splattered cords .)

Meanwhile, like my father, Edie succumbed to the charms of the Old Etonian – in this case one of his former students, and an IS* acolyte. After Christmas, Edie invited him, the son of a junior minister in the Heath government, to stay with her parents in Liverpool. On the brink of separation, my parents stayed elsewhere, while I stayed with my grandparents in their two-up, two-down house. 

It was midwinter, the gas-fire warming the living-room, when our guest, towering over my Grandad, produced his (now rather tatty) Eton top hat. I couldn’t see the rationale for this, but it struck me as belittling; my face reddened. After the Old Etonian left the room, my Grandad turned to me, visibly choked with anger and hurt, and asked:” What’s she [Edie] doing bringing a toff here?” – a question I, just turned 12, didn’t know how to answer. 

A pristine top hat

That was not the first time in my childhood that I felt acute embarrassment in my grandparents’ house. In the late Sixties, my Nana, whilst telling me of her first job, as a waitress in the city centre, said she had been uncomfortable when she had to serve a “Darkie” in the restaurant. I was mortified that she should express such a sentiment, and use such a word. ( Shortly thereafter, feeling that ‘Coloured’ also wasn’t right, I asked my father what people of colour preferred to be called. His clear answer: ‘Black’, which was also a political statement, has since echoed in my ears. ) 

A couple of years after my father’s death, Edie and I spent a weekend in Liverpool. At the Pier Head (at which, my father had told me, mass demonstrations had assembled) Edie, noting the water-side monument to workers’ struggle and asked me: “Where’s the memorial to the slaves?” Again, I had no answer.

That same trip, Edie wanted to return to the remains of the street in which she had grown up. ( My Grandad bought the house which I knew with a trade -union-won settlement from an industrial injury. ) All we found was a new road. Edie’s loss was palpable: the absence of any vestige of her former home, the dispersal of the vital community in which she was raised. That evening, on visiting her aunt in hospital, we met Edie’s cousins, Pearlie and Bernie. Along with most of the residents of inner-city Liverpool, on ‘slum clearance’, they had been re-located to new estates. Pearlie now had a flat in the Netherley mega-estate, her adult sons, both unemployed, lived with. We spoke of their hopelessness at finding any work. 

A Covent Garden doorway

Latterly, that time of mass unemployment has founded a foreboding. In the week before lockdown, I went to Covent Garden. After wandering deserted streets, I popped in to a Swedish bakery. I sensed that, given the imminent economic impact of the pandemic on consumer demand, the shop would close and this would be my last visit.

A lane, Covent Garden

In my last post, I wrote of the death of an aunt, an in-law who caught Covid-19 from a patient in the opposite hospital bed. In the months since, I’ve been trying to fathom how she, an open-minded Londoner – like my Grandad from the banks of the Thames – came to be an ardent Brexiter. Until I returned to her empty house in Bexleyheath I had assumed her stance was due to ignorance of the complexity of our links to the EU. 

Joan in her late teens, during WWII – following her return to London from Devon, where she was evacuated on 1 September 1939

It was only when I searched Joan’s study for paper to wrap her modern ceramics that I found evidence. Stapled together were newspaper cuttings: articles ranging from the challenges to the prorogation of Parliament to the expected Tory victory in the General Election. This, Dominic Lawson anticipated, would be down to the Labour Party’s late conversion to a People’s Vote: rather than sticking with Corbyn’s avowedly anti-EU stance – on the basis of sovereignty – the Labour Party had lost its way.

Here was proof that we’d been inhabiting parallel worlds. Whilst I was reading the judgment in Cherry, Joan was wondering whether the Queen would be called to give evidence when the appeal went to the Supreme Court. As I flew in from Hamburg, Joan was bemoaning her incapacity – only that prevented her from marching for Brexit. After the coverage of the court hearing in Miller No.2 that I had seen in Germany, my feelings were much more mixed ( see my post, On Being Silenced ).  Useful in sloganeering, by the General Election, ‘the People’ had morphed from the “Will of the People” to the ‘People’s Government’ –  though it’s too early to tell whether a new strain of popular Tory politics, or Volkskonservatismus, had indeed been cultivated.

In addition to the cuttings, a pile of books showed that Joan and her husband had pondered identity and belonging. Intrigued, I took ‘The Likes of Us’.  Although, elements of the book resonated – wholesale destruction of working-class communities, erection of massive estates, and ‘flight’ to cities’ fringes, such as Bexleyheath – I was appalled. 

Here’s why. First, echoing a family friend from the Liverpool Left, the author’s citation of texts that enslaved people in the Caribbean were better fed than English workers offended me: however ill-fed my forebears were, they retained certain civil rights – the most banal being to marry and to found a home and family. Second, the author’s seemingly uncritical endorsement of the anti-immigrant trope of the too large family attributed to migrants from Ireland and the Indian Sub-continent struck me as encoded racism, akin to the New Right’s cultural xenophobia propounded since the mid-Eighties in England and France. Third, the accrual to the racist perpetrator of psychological and physical power wasn’t explored, in my view.

Fourth, the book’s inwardness of focus on Southwark troubled me. From my days at UNISON, when, following her uncovering of dodgy deals, I was able to support a member in her claim against Southwark council, and from my knowledge of Liverpool, I knew that insular cultures can engender tolerance of law-breaking. 

Finally, the odd reference to ‘toffs’ aside, I was amazed at the apparent lack of cognisance of class consciousness. Finishing the book, I concluded that Joan, unlike my family with their fighting spirit, must have felt powerless to effect change through collective action. Perhaps, feeling let down by politicians, drawn by the appeal of the ‘free-born Englishman’, she focused on national identity – and, ultimately, fell for the charm of an Old Etonian. 

Tate Modern, Bankside – the Peabody Buildings, where Joan spent her pre-evacuation childhood, set back a few blocks from Bankside, aren’t visible

*IS, International Socialists (of which my father was a founder member) predecessor to the Socialist Workers Party.

The Likes of Us, Collins, Michael, Granta, 2004

Food and the legacy of slavery, The Food Programme, Radio 4

Freedom: the Overthrow of the Slave Empires, Walvin, James, Hachette, 2019

Cherry v Lord Advocate of Scotland; Miller v. the Prime Minister

Boris Johnson, Jan

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