Monday, 30 July 2012

And did those feet...?

It is probably taking a step too far to see Danny Boyle’s inclusion of suffragettes, trade unions and the NHS in his Olympic opening ceremony as a left ‘claim-staking’ of cultural events in the UK. (Mind you wasn’t it great that so many right-wing politicians and media made fools of themselves berating the ‘lefty propaganda’?). However, the left has certainly, in recent years evinced an increasing interest and involvement in cultural and artistic events.
A number of items at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival point to this revival of socialist and working-class interest in, and use of, cultural and artistic activities to reach people and to raise their profile in general.
Tony Benn
At the Assembly Rooms, produced/programmed this year by Tommy Sheppard (himself no stranger to radical ideas), old skool left Labour ex-Parliamentarian, Tony Benn will be taking the stage to introduce a forthcoming filmed biography - Will and Testament. This has been over a year in the gestation and covers, among many struggles, Benn’s involvement in the 1971/2 Upper Clyde Shipbuilders work-in. This was a struggle he remembered last year as he took part in the Gala Concert staged to mark the 40th Anniversary in Glasgow’s Mitchell Theatre - many attendees will remember the film crew following Tony around.
Woody Guthrie
In addition a number of the other participants in that concert (and the subsequent Celtic Connections concert) are coming back together to mark another working-class anniversary - the centenary of the birth of Woody Guthrie, dust bowl poet and singer, communist and inspirer of many of today’s folk singers, most notably Bob Dylan. Arthur Johnstone, Alistair MacDonald, David Anderson and Sheena Wellington lead the line up paying homage to Guthrie.
While this might be seen as the product of successful concerts and the desire of a new producer/programmer to strike out in a new direction from his predecessor, in fact these events are the latest examples of might be seen as a resurgence of ‘socialist culture’ that seems to be taking hold.
Previous events included the UCS 40th Anniversary Concerts, and other highlights like the screening of Cinema Action’s films of the Work-in, but there are also the two years of cultural activity around Glasgow’s traditional MayDay march. Although low-key, these are increasingly being distinguished by the rise in the number of campaigning organisations staging events. Last year the programme featured Scottish Left Review, Cuba Solidarity, and the International Brigades Association as well as Glasgow’s Trades Union Council and the co-ordinating Glasgow Friends’s of MayDay.
Our Class, Our Culture
Also Scotland is seeing a series of increasingly respected Morning Star Our Class, Our Culture discussion sessions. These last have featured well-known artistic performers, writers and composers, such as Dave MacLennan, Alistair Findlay and William Sweeney, and have covered the contribution of different genres to working class struggle, and the impact of different artists - like Robert Tressell. 
Tressell also features at Edinburgh with a production of Stephen Lowe’s two-handed dramatisation of his Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, produced by Townsend Productions and Unite the union, and a South African Season also features, led by Athol Fugard’s Statements After an Arrest Under the Immorality Act and Woza Albert! from The Market Theatre in Johannesburg (at the (other) Assembly).
The awakening of trade unions to the profile-raising and appeal-broadening sides to this cultural activity is significant. The UCS and Tressell productions have been financed largely by Unite the union, and the other large player, UNISON has been running a number of interesting and innovative Mobilise sessions around Scotland - bringing singing, music, comedy and cartooning directly into the fight. 
A 'Golden Thread'
As someone who has long argued that the use of culture and the arts should be much more of a ‘natural’ element for trade unions, and the left in general, these developments are welcome. I don’t think I am alone, either, in seeing in the flashmob, and other theatrical stunts produced by UK Uncut and the Occupy movements, a practical application of this link. While it should not, (and cannot successfully) be separated from the need to have a clear political direction and a planned campaign, the use of music, drama, imaginative writing and all the entertainment of a well produced event needs to be increased. 
After all, as Boyle himself said his ceremony had  “a single golden thread of purpose - the idea of Jerusalem - of the better world, the world of real freedom and true equality…”. Maybe my original theory doesn’t sound a step too far after all! I suspect Woody Guthrie would have subscribed to Boyle's " ...belief that we can build Jerusalem. And that it will be for everyone”.

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