Of all the submissions to the Workers’ Stories archive, the one I have thought about the most is not, in fact, about Covid-19. It is Denise Christie’s ‘For Sarah…for all of them’, published on the website on March 31st, 2021.
She tells us how, for the first time, she sat down to write a personal account of her experience as a trade unionist and FBU official during Covid-19, in contrast to the mainly political writing she had done for the movement previously. But then her priorities changed as an outpouring of grief, anger and activism emerged in response to the murder of Sarah Everard:
It stopped me in my tracks to see such an overwhelming expression of anger that united so many women from all walks of life. Very personal stories that had never seen the light of day before were now all over my social media pages and in my phone messages as women found the strength and courage to share their experience of misogyny and sexism. It felt like a pressure cooker was about to explode with an eruption of emotions and I thought, we need to organise the hell out of that…
She uses her platform on Workers’ Stories to share ‘the accounts and activism of sisters in our movement’ that have been shared with her; and the everyday stories of violence, survival and resistance that she commits to the page – in the direct form of testimony – come together in an unforgettable rallying cry for an end to oppression. The submission is not a piece of passive reflection, but the very occasion for these stories to come together; it creates its own community of listeners. But this coming together is achieved not by submerging each individual voice within a generalised shout; each one fully retains its individuality: ‘I asked a sister whose experience is quoted below to write the title of this article. Her control and agreement of the content was important.’ The message also has a specific target: ‘those in positions of power and influence, whether it’s political, in the trade union movement, or in the workplace.’
“…We talk about turning points in the movement – this needs to be one of them.” …That final statement has to be the strong message that our movement must grasp. A rallying call that this cannot and must not be withered away like a dying flower or plume of smoke.
For me, this submission sums up the power of the Workers’ Stories project as a whole, and what makes it different both from the endless stream of information that has accompanied the pandemic, and from other projects that aim to ‘capture’ the experience of Covid-19.
Firstly, everyone who has submitted to the archive has done so within a shared political context. Not the narrow one of party politics, but the shared commitment to recording workers’ experiences in a class-divided society. There is a sense in which it can be said ‘we’ have established the archive, ‘we’ have contributed to it, and ‘we’ are the ones who the stories are for. Writing about photographs taken on the Russian front in WWII, John Berger ascribed their ‘extraordinary and tragic quality’ to the fact that they were not taken to boost morale, please generals, or shock the world press. Rather, they ‘were images addressed to those suffering what they depict.’ Because of this integrity ‘towards and with their subject matter,’ they became a memorial for the millions of Russians killed in the war. Even in less extreme circumstances, he noted, photographers could work with a similar attitude. I think, in a way, this integrity is a crucial part of what the Workers’ Stories project has achieved. It is also why I don’t quite agree that the submissions are ‘the first draft of history,’ as an early article from Workers’ Stories described the project. We are not writing first and foremost with posterity in mind, but the present; not for others, but ourselves.
Secondly, the archive is evolving and public. The submissions are not collated individually by archivists over time, each one invisible to the other, before being presented as a finished, massified object. Anyone who wants to submit their story can view what others have done already. There is, either consciously or unconsciously, an ongoing dialogue of experiences, forms, voices, styles and mediums that act on and change on another, in a living process. Each submission – whether oral testimony, poetry, video, reflection, prose or dance – is placed within a context of social experience and social memory which it also helps to create. In this way, the archive as a whole ‘respects the laws of memory.’ The experience of the pandemic is not approached ‘in a straight line’, but ‘radially.’ Because submissions are published in the order they are submitted, rather than organised chronologically at the moment the pandemic ‘ends’, we can read back and forth across time, and this time runs back far further than a single year, as well as pointing far into the future. What Berger said of photography can, I think, again be applied to the Workers’ Stories project:
There is never a single approach to something remembered. The remembered is not like a terminus at the end a line. Numerous approaches or stimuli converge upon it and lead to it. Words, comparisons, signs need to create a context for a printed photograph in a comparable way; that is to say, they must mark and leave open diverse approaches. A radial system has to be constructed around the photograph so that it may be seen in terms which are simultaneously personal, political, economic, dramatic, everyday and historic.
Thirdly, everyone who submits to the archive does so in their own time and space, and in the form they want. Denise mentions in her piece that she had planned to submit to the project from its inception; it was only after twelve months that she did so, and in a completely different way than she had initially intended. You can spend as much or as little time on your submission as you wish, without the constraints of an external recorder or institution. The digital nature of the archive also gives participants more control, and therefore more freedom: submissions can be anonymous or named; you can quickly see how your submission looks on the website; it is easy to make changes, request something is removed, or submit again further down the line. This establishes agency over how we decide to process, share, and present our experiences as workers, against those who would decide this for us. It also creates the potential to reflect upon and change those experiences themselves, or question why we cannot.
The workshops run for the project have also been crucial in demystifying the alienating process how history, in its narrower sense, is made. Our stories do not need to take the form of some direct, unmediated individual ‘experience’, to be preserved untainted for future historians to take out of a glass cabinet with gloves. This, anyway, is impossible. In writing classes, participants have created submissions for Workers’ Stories collectively; in other workshops, we have learned how to conduct oral history interviews, edit film footage and photographs, create collages or make posters, and also how the workers’ movement has used and developed these tools across the decades. We are then ready to record not only our own stories, but those of our comrades, friends, family members and neighbours, who can themselves learn in turn.
What Denise’s piece also did was to pause and take stock of the supposedly cataclysmic nature of the Covid-19 pandemic, and try to establish what was truly unique about the current crisis. One of the voices she quotes: “As a woman I’ve lived for 12 months under the fear of Covid. I’ve lived for 33 years under the fear of male violence & harassment. Out of the two it’s the male violence pandemic that is the bigger threat to my life – and there’s no vaccine for it.” The totalising narrative of the pandemic, the constant proclamation of its unique and unprecedented nature, has obscured the real nature of the crisis; namely, the way in which it has exposed the wounds already present across society. That it didn’t have to be like this. And despite everything, just as remarkable as what has changed, is what hasn’t. The nature of work has been profoundly altered; but in an even more profound sense it has stayed the same: ‘My daily routine is getting up, go to work, come home, go to bed…repeat. The sad thing is that this routine is what my life was like before all this started.’ (‘Normal For Nurses’, published January 18, 2021)
And that disjunction between the sense of living through a great crisis, and the sense that it is constantly slipping from memory, is the final thing the Workers’ Stories project might help us to understand.
Referring to the late 20th century, the historian Eric Hobsbawm spoke of the ‘destruction of history’ as being one of the most characteristic and eerie phenomena of the era: young people in particular were growing up in ‘a sort of permanent present lacking any organic relation to the public past of the time they live in.’ This made the work of historians – remembering what others forget – more vital than ever before. The governments of 1989, he said, would have benefited from a seminar on the peace settlements after the two world wars, ‘which most of them had apparently forgotten.’
This sense has been intensified to an almost terrifying degree in the course of Covid-19. As we stream once more unto the bars, dear friends, once more / or close the wall up with our English dead, we seem to lack any connection to the public past of even six or twelve months ago. Governments have committed catastrophic errors not three times in a century, but three times in a single year. And been returned with increased majorities, both sides of the border.
One possible reason is that, as Neil Smillie writes in his Workers’ Stories submission, ‘People die on spreadsheets. No Don McCullin or Paul Nash. No Roger Fenton, No Dulce et Decorum est. No Rupert Brooke.’ What images of the Scottish care home crisis do we have to match those of overflowing hospitals and broken healthcare workers in Italy in the early weeks of 2020? Where are the poets of the second wave? John Berger once asked why it was that newspapers like the Sunday Times could publish McCullin’s shocking photographs of the wars in Vietnam or Northern Ireland, whilst politically supporting the policies responsible for the violence. He concluded that in these ‘moments of agony’, the issue ‘of the war which has caused that moment is effectively depoliticised. The picture becomes evidence of the general human condition. It accuses nobody and everybody.’
This is perhaps why BBC Radio 4’s Today programme could, just two weeks ago, broadcast a fawning interview with a fanatical opponent of lockdown measures like Hugh Osmond, and immediately follow it with a piece on whether, ‘as we drift towards normality, it is perhaps time to think about the lasting legacy of Covid.’ How best to remember the 128,000 lives lost to the disease, the presenter asked? Not by a reckoning with venture capitalist Tory-donors like Osmond, but by raising money for a permanent memorial at St. Paul’s Cathedral. One is today’s news, the other’s yesterday’s. There is no lesson to be drawn, no story to be told.
And so instead of such stories and images, we are left with a relentless, ever-shifting mass of information. Rather than provide a chronicle of the times, or a guide to memory, it moves at lightning speed and obliterates from our minds the very public events it claims to record. ‘Information is valuable only for the moment in which it is new,’ wrote Walter Benjamin. ‘It lives only in that moment. It must be completely subject to it and explain itself immediately without losing time.’ In a final blaze of light, statistics on vaccinations replace those on hospitalisations, and the dead and mourning recede from view. It’s like Malcolm Tucker and Jamie in The Thick Of It: ‘The story is not the story! Try to fuck up the numbers! Overcomplicate! Stats, percentages, international comparisons, information! Emails them wads of information!’ Greed and capitalism, triumphant before the crisis, have delivered us from it. ‘Thus there was history, but there is no more.’
This is where the Workers’ Stories project comes into its own: as a reassertion of our capacity still to tell stories. For Benjamin, a story is fundamentally different to information. It doesn’t aim to transmit ‘the pure, intrinsic nature of the thing’ like a report, but rather ‘plunges the thing into the life of the teller and draws it out again.’ Deeply connected to the ancient worlds of manual labour, its fundamental source is experience ‘passed from one mouth to the next.’
And of all who have written down their stories, the greatest are those whose writing differs the least from the speech of the many anonymous storytellers.
Every real story also serves a useful function, in one way or another: imparting a moral, offering practical advice, providing a proverb or maxim. In some sense, the story’s narrator is always ‘good counsel’. Stories are to be remembered, and nothing helps to commit a story to memory more than ‘brevity which precludes psychological analysis.’
The more naturally the storyteller avoids all psychological shading, the greater will be the story’s claim to space in the listener’s memory, and the more thoroughly a story is integrated into the listener’s experience, the more likely they will be to recount it and pass it on sooner or later.
Unlike information, stories do not come permeated with explanations; they leave the listener freedom to interpret the situation as he or she understands it, and ‘the story thus acquires a breadth that information lacks.’ It is in that sense that a story doesn’t use itself up like information, but ‘preserves its inherent power, which it can then deploy after a long period of time.’
Reflect on the diverse situations of a single family presented in ‘Pandemic 2020’.
Read ‘Yer Da’s Diary’ and be let in on a secret.
Hear the stories of the anonymous storytellers in ‘For Sarah…for all of them.’ Remember them, add to them and pass them on.
The Workers’ Stories project is all these stories and a single story. It is within our power to determine its telling.
Walter Benjamin, ‘The Storyteller’ , The Storyteller Essays (NYRB, 2019)
John Berger, ‘Photographs of Agony’ & ‘Uses of Photography, About Looking (Bloomsbury, 1980)