Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Northern Radical History Network meeting:

Saturday, 31 March 2012, 11.00 to 16.30 at Town Hall Tavern, Tib Lane, Manchester
Chaired by Barry Woodling, there were ten people in attendance including latecomers, most from the general Manchester area. After introductions, Chris Draper from Llandudno, led the first session.
1100-1230 Chris Draper covered two topics (1) the idea of a Northern Radical History Network and (2) aspects of producing inexpensive, good quality publications.
He analysed the phrase 'Northern Radical History Network'. It should be 'northern' in order to set itself apart from southern and midland regional interests (for example), on the basis that localism represents the strongest basis for internationalism while providing roots and personality to set against the alienation of homogenised culture. It should be 'radical' in terms of its subject matter and in looking at the ordinary in a different way. In terms of 'history' it should emphasise the idea of stories, making the politics implicit to avoid 'turn-off' effect. It should be a 'network' because this is a non-hierarchical, libertarian form of association, loose in form, offering mutual help and 'fellowship'.
With regard to publications, using a variety of examples, some from his own production stable, he stressed the importance of good quality, good stories, local interest, offering something new in terms of research, having a light and humourous touch, and, above all, uncovering the previously forgotten or unrecognised.
Discussion followed, focussing mostly on the first part of the talk. There was general consensus on the value of history as an activity in the terms suggested, and on the idea of a loose network as the appropriate form of organisation. There was debate as to whether or not the formation of NRHN might be premature, when the only existing local groups in the north known to those present were in York, Nottingham and Newcastle, of which the two former were quite recent, while the other was a long-standing group in the 'Labour History' tradition. It was suggested that Manchester needed to get its own group organised before trying to launch a regional grouping, which, it was acknowledged, covered a potentially huge area within which there were already strong alternative regional identities (e.g. 'North-East', 'Yorkshire', 'Lancashire', 'Cumbria', 'North Midlands'). However it was also acknowledged that there were other individuals who could not make it to the meeting who could have added value from some of these localities and it was agreed that by strating such a network a deepening of activity in other localities could be stimulated. Meanwhile, there was value in co-operation around joint projects such as the Luddite Bicentenary.
Actions agreed: Martin to set up a blog on Wordpress and an email circulation list using Aktivix. Lynn to set up a Facebook identity that could be added as a link to the blog site. Provisionally a date of Saturday 30 June 2012 was set for a follow-up meeting, probably also in Manchester.
No actions or resolutions were made in terms of publishing at this stage.
1330-1430 Richard Holland on the comparative significance of the Luddites and Peterloo.
Richard noted that his efforts to set up a Luddite Bicentenary project had met a lukewarm reception outside of Yorkshire, despite its relevance to Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire, Cheshire and Lancashire and that this seemed to be matched in 'official' circles. He outlined the very specific nature of Luddism in a short period from 1811-1816, though there were examples of machine breaking outside of this period that did not make reference to the mythical 'General Ned Ludd'. One of its key features was that, despite popular presentation (falsification) it was not an anti-technology movement. It originated in 1811 in the hosiery framework knitting industry of Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire and Leicestershire where enterpises were on a relatively small scale and activity focussed on opposition to the 'wide stocking frame' which created a poor quality substitute to those produced by the skilled workers. It spread among cotton weavers and related workers in the Cheshire and Lancashire area, where large scale enterprises were being set up using steam looms and allowing the employment of unskilled machine minders. There were strong links in terms of ideas and activities through immigrant Irish workers to the political events in Ireland since the 1798 rebellion. There was a major outbreak in a short period from February to April 1812 in the West Riding of Yorkshire (with outbreaks on the Lancashire side of the Pennines) among the 'croppers' and 'shearmen' (cloth finishers), a well paid and often well educated group of skilled workers holding a key position in the clothing industry. The main period of wrecking activity was over by the end of April 1812, though there continued to be mass meetings, arms raids and other 'subversive' activities for some time afterwards and clear links were built up with political radical elements among Jacobin groups. The authorities creacked down with military intervention, 'special commissions' that were essentially show trials, and the administration of an oath of allegiance to draw people away from the Luddite oath-taking.
The presence of political radicalism creates a link to the events of 'Peterloo' in Manchester 1819, which was essentially a single meeting. While Luddism has been rarely celebrated, sometimes actively shunned, by the left and by official 'public history', there was been a contrary heavy focus on Peterloo. There are specific reasons. It fits in with the dominant narrative of an evolution towards mass parliamentary democracy; it fits the agenda of those who see the working-classes as victims rather than makers of history; it supports the importance of 'leadership' (in this case Henry Hunt), where Luddism had no leadership; while 'radical' in its time it was certainly not associated with any revolutionary or insurrectionary intent.
Richard outlined, in conclusion, his group's intervention at the People's History Museum to 'insert' on the museum timeline the missing like to the Luddites, both as a 'stunt' and in the form of correspondence. The action demonstrates how radical history can become a radical activity in itself.
Debate was generally supportive of Richard's thesis, with some attempt to point out that there was more lying behind Peterloo in terms of movement activity than the event itself, though it was acknowledged that much of this was lost in the way it was publicly presented and officially interpreted.
1430-1630 Roger Ball on the Bristol Radical History Group
BRHG has been in existence for over six years. It emerged from a radical sports group with a core of between 2 and 5 people.
Key inspirations:
1. The South London Radical History Group 'Past Tense'. These were not historians as such and therefore not hidebound by any preconceptions, they did not follow the usual local history group format and were keen on history as activity. They intervened in a Blake Exhibition against its corporate sponsorship; they organised very successful history walks drawing on the underbelly of South London.
2. The book 'The Many-Headed Hydra: The hidden history of the Revolutionary Atlantic' by Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker - because it broke from the dominant historical narrative of the growth of the nation state, while placing at the heart of the story the activity of slaves, sailors and others in creating a new world which happened to have Bristol very much in its centre. It thus helped Bristolians see themselves in a different way. This idea of shining a new light on hidden corners was transferred to the BRHG's first event: the recreation of the forgotten Quaker James Naylor, his dramatic entry into Bristol during the 17th C Commonwealth and his subsequent torture.
3. Being fed up with the dominant narrative locally, dominated by the Merchant Venturers purely because they had loads of money and no opposition. BRHG wanted to intervene against this distorted vision of the past from a standpoint that understood the importance of Capital and Class. Amongst such developments was demonstrating that sailors had been key to the abolitionist movement against slavery, demolishing the idea of a native racism.
Key learning points:
When constructing events, draw in the local people, don’t worry about being too professional, care more about the spirit, ideas and culture of the event than some 'accuracy' fetish.
At meetings, discussions etc, don’t be afraid to make academics work for you (be persistent until they say 'no') and put them on the same stage as well-informed locals with their own knowledge and insights.
Good events are: public talks, discussions, bands and gigs (especially for publicity and fundraising), choral evenings, publishing (see pamphlets); regular events such as a Radical History Week.
Money is raised through a bookstall, bars and coffee events and donations - avoid grants like the plague and try to avoid charging entry fees.
Aims: to uncover hidden histories by drawing closer to primary sources in time; attacking distorted official history and false popular memory that relies on the dominant establishment narrative; also critique so-called 'radical history' and how it is presented; critically learn from past successes as well as failures, going away from the idea of victimhood; make links to contemporary issues such as 'the struggle for the global commons'; use elections as a vehicle to question the dominant presentation of 'democracy'; pick on items such as blacklisting
1. Lots of people are interested in history: break out of the political ghetto to reach them
2. Make activities central and accessible to newcomers, reaching out beyond the usual activists
3. Do something different
4. Use 'blagging' as a technique to get support: BRHG had no status to begin with but did things anyhow, used pester power and built up contacts through contacts
5. Division of labour within the group on a project by project basis (i.e. no formal structure) - not without its problems at times, but generally more flexible and sustainable
6. When you get popular do not get drawn into the attention zone of officialdom - do what you want to do not what they want you to free of charge when they are getting paid!
7. Grants are a nightmare, absorb too much energy, cause delays and problems - they are a dead end. Stick to self-reliance - in general time is more of an issue than cash
8. Don't be too pedantic about getting things exactly right, especially with 're-enactment'
9. Don't dismiss crazy ideas - history needs to become political
10. Use imagination - ideas are more important than facts: but record your meetings well so that ideas are preserved for future use
11. Avoid being labelled: even the term 'Radical' while vague can be generally scary to some - make sure you are difficult to categorize [this tends to be also the biggest internal problem for arguments over what is a valid activity]
Numbers involved: 2 to 5 at the beginning, but operated through building a network around this and actively involving others
Publications: use a local small printer who produces good quality results, usually an initial run of 300 but some run into thousands over time; distribution through local outlets, radical bookshops and distributors and book stalls
Use specialists: example of 'Just Seeds' [ ] an artists co-operative in America - did 'counter-recreation' intervening in a public Victoriana event with an 1890s steelworkers demo complete with police crackdown; on a radical preacher, they made a blow-up church which they put on the original site, now a car park
Build up credibility and links over a period; network with other local publishers; include events for children; develop resources: don’t be afraid of challenging subjects: e.g. gangs, riots: meanwhile 'labour' and 'worker' can be words that turn people off.

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