it’s unfashionable – even over here on the left – to celebrate may day as the day of the working people. nobody flies red flags, nobody even complains they aren’t allowed to celebrate it like st george’s day. it is rarely mentioned at all.
but on may day i like to think about where i came from; about my great grandfather Thomas Milburn, a cumbrian lead miner until the work dried up and he came east to the durham coalfield and became a durham pitman; about my grandad, who followed his father into the pit and never became a deputy despite passing his exams, because Thomas was the lodge chairman – no masonic lodge, this, but a trade union and the chairman was its shop steward – and lodge could never be management. coal cutters both; ‘hewers’ as they were both precisely described on my grandfather’s wedding certificate – as was his new father in law; men who worked for hours at a time with a pick, cutting the coal by hand as it was done until not so long ago. and my grandad worked the thin seam – 18 inches at its narrowest – he told me about it without drama, without making any of the obvious points about how easy i had it – an actor rehearsing a play about what he had lived – he did mention it was a wet seam, which meant you lay in the water to cut the coal. he survived a roof fall to be invalided out of the pit relatively unscathed – though he showed me how he couldn’t raise his arm above the horizontal; fortunately he wasn’t a great drinker.
he bought a shop from one of his wife’s family – if you see the picture of it, shop is much too grand a title – a cross between a phone box and an outside toilet – and sold cigarettes at the pithead as the men came out from shift – presumably just in case they weren’t dying fast enough from silicosis or pneumoconiosis; many of them his old pit marrers. in time he graduated to a real corner shop which he kept until a little before his death. i went past it the other day and there was a mercedes parked outside.
two great ironies – a great grandad who got on his bike and looked for work (or would have if he could afford a bloody bike) and a grandad who ran a corner shop like alderman roberts (never became an alderman – too much against the grain for that; still too much a lodge man). but neither of them ever would or did believe those two great tory lies, of tebbit and thatcher that combine in the myth that anyone can make it if they pull themselves up by their bootstraps. they lived and died socialists; men who were strong enough to fight for their rights and the rights of those around them, because they realised that humans are too big to be bought and sold and humanity too precious to be commodified. or more likely because they wanted their family to be able to eat. and because of their efforts, my mother became the first in her family to continue her education after school; i in turn ended up with an education deemed (rightly) to be among the most privileged. not because capitalism allows everyone a fair chance if they work hard – but because they organised and combined with others like them to claim their rights as human beings.
when people decide that my education and new place firmly among the middle classes make my socialism of the champagne variety (my best friends will laugh at that – they know i would always hold my hand up as a vintage port socialist), it has as much logic as the accusations leveled against some feminists of being ‘academic’. the implication is somehow that both socialists and feminists should eschew education, which might indeed find favour with those who wish both women and the working classes would know their place and keep to it. as the starving artist loses his magic when he graduates from his garret, so the feminist and the socialist should not avail themselves of education (or presumably a good meal).
the subject of feminism is pertinent because, while socialism may not always foster the feminist cause, i am certain that socialism, is a natural partner of feminism. and equally certain that conservatism, built on the commodification of the individual, has no place for feminism.
blair and new labour have been here for ten years and things are bad – but ten years earlier it was a different prime minister, a different party and the same bloody stupid war with even less excuse; a couple of years before that, she was fighting her war on working people in this country. to reclaim a popular phrase from those days: ‘if an etonian in a loud waistcoat is the answer, it must have been a bloody stupid question’.
i don’t imagine Thomas Milburn would have thought much of either of them, but he knew where he came from. i, in my turn, am pretty sure where i have come from – i live in a world a million miles from theirs, but built on their strength and courage, bought by their blood and the blood of those like them. i owe them. and i won’t forget it.