As historians and trade unionists of varying stripes, very early on in 2020 we were acutely aware how the narrative of the public health emergency was already serving the interests of businesses and politicians, all the while obscuring the suffering and trauma experienced by working class people all over the country. Our intention had been to complicate and contest any monopolisation and weaponization of the story of the COVID crisis, by collecting the story of the pandemic, in the first-person, from below. We endeavored to facilitate a space in which working-class people could talk about what happened to them, using whatever means they felt most comfortable. We would then share these stories with other workers. In this way we could as a class build our own narratives through our own cultural forms. We could use this understanding to identify the common moments of struggle and triumph, of grief and joy and as such, move from individual states of radical loneliness and isolation into a common solidarity.
Our event at GalGael in Govan translated power of building this history into an experience of community. We created a space where the stories of our archive could be viewed, read and heard collectively. On a cold and dark night in November 2021 amid the festival atmosphere of COP26, the many stories we collected over the course of a year and a half from the beginning of the first lockdown were shared for the first time, not on a digital screen but in an embodied public forum. While politicians and industrialists had occupied the city and its venues, the most important sense of recognition and consensus being approached the week of the climate conference was taking place outside COP26 itself. Striking GMB cleansing workers and tenants’ unions on picket lines around Glasgow had brought workers’ struggle to the attention of young climate activists, while working-class Glaswegians shared commutes on public transport with conference delegates from the Global South. At the end of 2021, a tangible sense of a dying old world and a fighting appetite for something new could be felt across Glasgow for the first time in at least two years.
To witness workers recounting to a room of other workers, in their own words and their own voice what the last 18 months had meant for them was deeply emotional and intimate experience which felt like a collective processing of the trauma of what has happened.Strength and power could be felt in the stuttering voices and trembling hands as poetry, prose, essays and diaries were read to the room. In reading the written text of ‘Work Ethic for a Hostile Environment’ by social care assistant Tommy Lusk, one cannot help but smile . Hearing the text in the voice of Tommy himself however, we get a much greater sense of his personality and extremely funny, dry sense of humour.
Atop the workbenches and machinery of the GalGael workshop, drawings, poetry and photographs sent to us by workers were also displayed. Film, absurdity and theatre were brought together powerfully in the story of one frontline worker’s struggle against racist policing and destructive landlordism in Marjorie’s Story, a film by the tenant’s union Living Rent, narrated by Marjorie herself.
Helen McGill – a staff nurse – reflected on the relationship between her work in palliative care and the image accompanying her deeply moving poem ‘NHS Prayer.’ She reassured the audience that her painting – which is a skilful and delicate painting of a pair of gloved hands held in prayer – was something she was able to do through practice and resilience not, through divine gift.
While many workers developed their stories alone, over the course of the project we also worked with creative workers (Megan Park and Stella Rooney) and the Workers’ Educational Association (Joey Simons and Katy Hastie) to build the skills and more crucially – the confidence of workers interested in submitting to the project.
The pandemic has brought into blinding relief the wilful destruction which has been accelerating since the financial crash, of the ways we have available to us as a class to organise ourselves and come together collectively to give expression to our way of life.
To invent spaces to create and share the things we have made is also to reject the narrative of culture war central to media policy of conservative war on working-class people, within which working-class people are barred from art, performance, poetry and literature – from creativity, expression and invention for its own sake. As the Welsh socialist Raymond Williams wrote – “culture is ordinary, in every society and in every mind” – it is not just a rarefied sphere that only the privileged, trained and educated have permission to access. To limit our access to art and writing is to limit the ways we have to speak to each other and to give voice to our sufferings, our dreams and our demands. Creativity, imagination and craft are not separate from our domestic or working lives but part of them. Having spaces and places where we can collectively and freely share skills, try new things, be open to curiosity and use our imaginations without fear of failure or shame is to reject the corrosive values of individualism, competition and elitism. This is a way to build power and community. If we are to reject oppressive limits on how we move, live and work, then we must also refuse to accept prohibitions on how we think, speak and create.
On that night in GalGael we invited comments and responses from everyone who attended, and the importance of coming together to listen to the inventive and emotional stories of others was explicit in many of the written comments we received. For one night, we were able to gather together to share food, laughter and tears with our comrades, colleagues, friends and families and strangers .Together we witnessed something special – a miraculous moment of commemoration, celebration and collective commitment to keep going.