Appearing on a panel with Richard Dyer and Rosalind Galt was a moment of real pride for me

On Pride

So in keeping with the more recent tone of NTWICH I’m going to start this post with a confession.  I avoided seeing the film Pride for nearly 16 months and only eventually watched it because I had to.

In the end I watched it because Catherine Grant very kindly invited me to speak at an event that she organised with Diarmaid Kelliher, on Pride and its Precursors and I was too honoured, and too embarrassed, to say no. When the film first came out I ducked and dived out of numerous press requests to comment on it. I had toyed with the idea of presenting at the symposium without actually having watched the film, maybe as a sort of thought experiment.   I’d floated the idea over drinks with the talented historian Ben Jones from UEA but lost my confidence after he described some of the scenes I might have missed out on  (the alien invasion and massive shoot out at the end).

Pride tells the story of a group of London lesbian and gay activists who offer their support to the striking miners in Dulais, South Wales. I love an inspiring weepy film.  I love films about the 80s. I love Lesbian and Gay Men Support the Miners.  I love Bill Nighy and I’d developed a researcher’s crush on LGSM activist Mark Ashton during my research.

 

The symbol of bread and roses means so much to me personally that I have them tattooed on my hand. So why hadn’t I wanted to watch the film?

In a massive act of generosity Catherine Grant encouraged me to use my resistance as the starting point to my contribution to the symposium.

My reticence about watching the film was a response to the difficulties around rediscovering ‘lost stories’.  When Pride came out it was heralded as an inspiring lost story perfect for our troubled times.  Unlike the Left’s response at the time, different strands of the Left vied with each other to be inspired by LGSM in the here and now.

Anti UKIP activists , Left Unity ( who can claim the inheritance of LGSM as three of the group are now associated with Left Unity), Solidarity in Australia, Socialist Review and The Morning Star all found Pride ‘inspiring’. The Morning Star can rightly claim Mark Ashton as one of their own.  He was the secretary of the Young Communist League. The Morning Star can also rightly bemoan the forgetting of that particular fact by the film.  It has been noted that we might be allowed to have out gay heroes now, but not self-proclaimed communists)

My first thoughts about the importance, and perhaps my resistance, to the inspiring power of Pride were around the importance of understanding not just how some stories get remembered, but how they get wilfully forgotten too. I’ve got no interest in whether the film is accurate or not, but I am interested in how it wields its stories, and its sense of authenticity.  I wrote about LGSM and the intersections between gay activism, trade union solidarity, popular culture and the organised Left in my Phd and then in my first book Gay Men and the Left.  I suppose it isn’t surprising then that I was resistant to the idea of LGSM as a forgotten story to be rediscovered in a moving inspiring film.  Of course overly wordy analysis in an academic book doesn’t constitute a central role in popular historical memory.  It did rather rub my nose in the moat around the ivory tower that something I had spent months of my life researching, writing and talking about was seen as hitherto unacknowledged.  Take that Impact Agenda – I wrote a book and no-one noticed.

But this isn’t sour grapes.  It is the point.  Whilst we might be driven to colonise unchartered territory in our academic work in the name of originality, there is something much more interesting going on when a story is designated forgotten, and then re-designated as remembered.

Obviously I was not the only person to remember LGSM.  My reading list for the topic is a decent size.  The events were recorded, and digitally shared in two short documentaries available on YouTube All Out:  Dancing in Dulais, and a video about the Hacienda gig on the ‘Pits and Perverts’ tour.

 

LGSM is discussed at some length in books about gay history and politics, particularly those that emphasise the importance of personal testimony,  Radical Records edited by Cant and Hemmings for example.  Gay Left analysed LGSM at the time and Simon Watney had written about LGSM in two edited collections since. Ray Goodspeed, LGSM activist, wrote a long article about LGSM in 1989. Participant and activist Nicola Field documented LGSM in her book Over the Rainbow: Money, Class and Homophobia in 1995 ( and is currently crowd sourcing to fund a very timely republication of her book)  In fact in 2008 LGSM was described as ‘the most famous’ example of unity between gay activism and workplace organisation.    Diarmaid Kelliher situates Pride  alongside Micheál Karrigan’s play Pits and Perverts which was produced in Derry in 2013 and Owen Gower’s documentary Still the Enemy Within from 2014.

The film has heralded a new set of work looking not just at LGSM and its history, but at the processes of its representation in Pride too.  Both  Kelliher and Daryl Leeworthy have produced impressive articles in the wake of the film.  Both of whom move far beyond an account of ‘what happened’ to think about why it matters instead. Having always felt I’d done a bit of a half arsed job of researching LGSM in its own terms, rather than for the overall argument of my book, I was delighted to read the new and exciting work around LGSM.  I had been an unfunded Phd student, single parent of two and breastfeeding.  The journey deep into the archives to really learn from the experiences of LGSM, had been beyond me.  Scholars like Kelliher and Leeworthy have been able to do what the LSGM activists themselves did, get on the ground and connect with the stories, and think about the most fabulous ways to get the message out there.

Why then was it so important that Pride was seen as remembering the lost story of LGSM? Rediscovering lost stories from the past is a political act, a way of redressing an imbalance in the present, utilising ghosts from the past to enact justice today.  There is a long history of writing our own cannon, replacing stories and heroes with our own. When we uncover our heroes and heroines from the past we also uncover the process through which they have been forgotten, or silenced.  We get to make a double move, we get to prove that ‘we’ have been oppressed, marginalised, silenced, forgotten in the past.  And we also get to show that we can do something about it in the present and use these heroes to imagine a better future. The importance of rediscovering lost, silenced and marginalised heroes and heroines is a tactic that has deep roots in both the women’s and the gay liberation movements. Historians like Jeffrey Weeks and Sheila Rowbotham understood that their role in uncovering the past and documenting contemporaneous struggles were important forms of activism. The stories from the past inspire us and allow us to imagine ourselves into a new collective community tied together by the stories we share.  Their forgetting demonstrates our oppression, the remembering unpicks the processes through which we were oppressed.

This use of the past to cohere a collective present always throws up tensions though. Think of Dale Spender and all those lost Victorian women novelists she found,  but they didn’t just have a room of their own, they had nannies, servants, wealth rooted in the slave trade etc. They weren’t really ‘just like us’ at all. The commonality between the past heroes we choose and the present we want to haunt with them is always contradictory

All this work that had gone into in forgetting LGSM made me think about the idea of perpetual novelty. The need for claims of originality when pitching a film, or evaluating research, encourage us to market ourselves as the discoverer of a lost or uncovered story (for both film producers and historians).  For me the issue of the lost story is not that some parts of history have been forgotten, but that when they are remembered, when they do come into the light it is always as if for the first time.  LGSM and the striking miners are an ‘unlikely alliance’ to both the Left and in the celebrity driven media coverage of the film Gay men and women are woven through our histories of struggle, in and beyond the workplace. Yet every time they are noticed it is as if they have never been there before

Although as Leeworthy points out there has been much more focus on women’s involvement in support work for the Miners Strike,  LGSM has left its traces throughout gay archives and accounts of the 80s. As I had worked through the minutes of leftist organisations, gay organisations, the hall carpenter archive, mountains of pre digitalised newspapers and the secondary literature it became clear to me that LGSM was an important story for gay history.  LGSM had helped connect gay politics to the tools of production.  The miners have a special significance, after all Thatcher didn’t pick on them for no reason.  They produced the fuel for the engines of industrialisation, so valued that their work was understood as war work.  They bring with them fantasies of masculinity. Their labour marked on their bodies risking industrial martyrdom to keep the nation moving.  What better proof could there be that the third stage of gay liberation was still possible (GLF slogan: come out, come together, change the world)?

But LGSM was hardly present at all in the histories of the Left and hardly covered in the left wing press and newsletters of the time.  Why had it mattered so much to  gay histories when it hadn’t mattered to Leftist histories? And why did it matter now? What does the Left get out of LGSM now?

This is a film for intersectionality.  It sets up personal experience against an abstract solidarity.  The inspiring story for today’s activists is one of a shared sense of individual oppression.  In Pride, Gay men’s experiences of legal defence and police procedure, for example, is set up against a trade union structure that seemingly can’t offer its striking members adequate legal advice

In Pride Mark Ashton needs to go to the Welsh hills to be told what socialism is.  And the version of socialism he is given, a motif throughout the film, is of two hands shaking.  An act that has particular resonance in the light of AIDS where Princess Diana’s handshake with patients living with AIDS was front page news.  But the touching of hands is an act of mutual acknowledgment, it is not a shared analysis, let alone an understanding of a shared solution. It is a passing moment of connection. That is not the same as solidarity.  It is not even the same as shared interests.

So having forgetfully previously worked on LGSM, at the symposium I thought I’d talk a little bit about what is like to have written my own story about LGSM and Mark Ashton.  In many ways Mark Ashton was at the heart of my Phd and I have often used him as the explanation as to how I ended up working on gay men and the left.

Two particular objects come to mind when I think about why LGSM mattered to me, and why it might be a fitting story to be remembered today.

The first is the album Red by the Communards.  On the album the song ‘For a Friend’ is written for Mark Ashton and members of the band had performed at the Pits and Perverts at the Camden Electric Ballroom gig re-enacted in Pride. The album’s proceeds were donated to the AIDS charity set up in Mark Ashton’s memory.  Reading the sleeve notes fused the political connections in my life, and taught me a life long lesson to take popular culture very very seriously and love it very very passionately.

The second  is one of the two squares in remembrance of Mark Ashton in the AIDS memorial quilt.  The square combines a ruby slipper from the Wizard of Oz and a hammer and sickle from the Communist Party of Great Britain.  The slipper brings with it the possibilities of escape, an unlikely family of choice, the squashing and melting of enemies and Judy Garland herself as the tragic icon whose funeral connected memorialisation and loss with physical resistance and self defence at the Stonewall Riots.  The hammer and sickle, reminds us that Mark Ashton was not a spontaneous accidental activist, he was an established activist and took his struggle in both the Party and beyond it seriously.  The two images embrace the politics of pleasure alongside the politics of formal political organisation.  They are the bread and the roses.

Both of these objects make sense of my own political inheritance, and probably explain why I found it so difficult to make myself watch the film. We need some stories to inspire us, we are facing the biggest blow to Trade Unions rights since the miners’ strike and yet in Pride the story we have chosen to inspire us is ultimately one that sets up identity politics ‘against’ class politics.  Billy got to dance, the women of Dulais got a dildo and the miners lost (or were beaten).  A cultural memory, gender and sexual politics, the pleasure of the ruby slipper, are set up as the consolation.  We are left with bread and circuses, rather than bread and roses, to fill the gap left by the loss of working class organisation.

When the film was being released my father was dying.  My family on my Dad’s side were miners at Grimethorpe Pit.  Post-war social mobility meant that by the time I was born my father was a labour Economist who had played a role in the Miners’ success in the 1974 strike.  He brought up his children in a very different sort of world than the Barnsley miners’ street where he grew up and we went to on our summer holidays.  Meanwhile I was a proper little madam, emerging into a world of identity politics, Greenham and subcultural identification.  What I realised when I didn’t want to watch the film, was that LGSM mattered too much me because it made so much sense to me. I know that my politics and choices of research topic were a challenge to my Dad, but I know that when he read my book, he was proud. LGSM offered the possibility of more than a brief handshake of recognition between our identity and class politics, between the ruby slipper and the hammer and sickle, between the bread and the roses.  Although unfulfilled, Pride reminded me that solidarity and pride are more than symbols.

 

Want to put your money where your mouth is? You can donate to Mark Ashton’s memorial fund  and contribute to the republication of Over The Rainbow

 

 

 

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