Wednesday, February 23, 2022

Song of the Living Corpses - Japanese Textile Workers' Ballads

As Japan industrialised in the late 19th and early 20th century large numbers of young women were employed in textile mills, often living in tightly regulated dormitories under the control of their employers. Like people in many places they sang songs of despair and defiance.

Here's some extracts from a few textile workers' ballads, from an article by  E Patricia Tsurumi (Female Textile Workers and the Failure of Early Trade Unionism in Japan, History Workshop Journal, 18, Autumn 1984).

Song of the Living Corpses

My family was poor,
At the tender age of twelve,
I was sold to a factory.
Yet though I work for cheap wages,
My soul is not soiled.
Like the lotus flower in the midst of mud,
My heart too,
Will one day blossom forth.

Carried away by sweet-sounding words,
My money was stolen and thrown away.
Unaware of the hardships of the future,
I was duckweed in the wind.

Excited, I arrived at the age,
Where I bowed to the doorman,
I was taken immediately to the dormitory,
Where I bowed to the room supervisor.
I was taken immediately to the infirmary,
Where I risked my life having a medical examination.
I was taken immediately to the cafeteria,
Where I asked what was for dinner.
I was told it was low grade rice mixed with sand.
When I asked what the side dish was,
I was told there weren't even two slices of pickle to eat.

Then I was taken immediately to the factory,
Where I donned a blue skirt and blue shirt,
And put on hemp-straw sandals and blue socks.
When I asked where I was to work
I was told to fasten threads on the winder.
Because my parents were good-for-nothings,
Or, because my parents weren't good-for-nothings
But I was a good-for-nothing myself,
I was deceived by a fox without a tail.
Now I'm awakened at 4:30 in the morning;
First I fix my face, then go to the cafeteria;
Then it's off to the factory
Where the chief engineer scowls at me.

When I return to my room,
The supervisor finds all manner of fault with me,
And I-feel like I'll never get on in this world.
When next I'm paid
I'll trick the doorkeeper and slip off to the station,
Board the first train
For my dear parents' home.
Both will cry when I tell them
How fate made me learn warping,
Leaving nothing but skin and bone on my soul.

We friends are wretched,
Separated from our homes in a strange place,
Put in a miserable dormitory
Woken up at 4:30 in the morning,
Eating when 5 o'clock sounds,
Dressing at the third bell,
Glared at by the manager and section head,
Used by the inspector.
How wretched we are!

Though I am a factory maid,
My heart is a peony, a cherry in double blossom,
Though male workers make eyes at me,
I'm not the kind to respond.
Rather than remain in this factory,
I'll pluck up my courage,
And board the first train for Ogawa,
Maybe I'll even go to the far corners of Manchuria.

Prison Lament

Factory work is prison work,
All it lacks are metal chains.
More than a caged bird, more than a prison,
Dormitory life is hateful.
The factory is hell, the manager a demon,
The restless floorwalker a wheel of fire.
Like the money in my employment contract,
I remain sealed away.
If a male worker makes eyes at you,
You end up losing your shirt.
How I wish the dormitory would be washed away, 
the factory burn down,
And the gatekeeper die of cholera!
I want wings to escape from here,
To fly as far as those distant shores.

My Factory

At other companies there are Buddhas and Gods.
At mine only demons and serpents.
When I hear the manager talking,
His words say only 'money, money, and time

'They sang lovingly and longingly of their parents and siblings at home; they sang angrily and resentfully of the factories and sheds in which they toiled and of the owners and managers who supervised that toil' (Tsurumi)

Monday, February 21, 2022

Parallel Mothers: History refuses to shut its mouth

Lots to love in 'Parallel Mothers'/'Madres Paralelas' (2021), the latest Pedro Almodóvar film.

One plot thread concerns the uncovering of a mass grave for victims of Franco's fascist forces, very much a live issue in Spain where The Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory (which features in the film) has been leading the movement to uncover the stories, and physical remains, 'of thousands of civilians executed during the 1936-39 Civil War and the 1939-75 Franco regime. It is estimated that 200,000 men and women were killed in extrajudicial executions during the War, and another 20,000 Republicans murdered by the regime in the post-war years. Thousands more died as a result of bombings, and in prisons and concentration camps'.

The film finishes with a quote on screen from the Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano

'No history is mute. No matter how much they burn it, break it, and lie about it, human history refuses to shut its mouth'.

The quote in its wider context is as follows:

'Does history repeat itself? Or are the repetitions only penance for those who are incapable of listening to it? No history is mute. No matter how much they burn it, break it, and lie about it, human history refuses to shut its mouth. Despite deafness and ignorance, the time that was continues to tick inside the time that is. The right to remember does not figure among the human rights consecrated by the United Nations, but now more than ever we must insist on it and act on it. Not to repeat the past but to keep it from being repeated. Not to make us ventriloquists for the dead but to allow us to speak with voices that are not condemned to echo perpetually with stupidity and misfortune. When it is truly alive, memory doesn’t contemplate history, it invites us to make it' (Eduardo Galeano, Upside Down: A Primer for the Looking-glass World, New York: Picador, 1998, p. 210).

Monday, February 07, 2022

Stop Clause 28 - a queer (near) riot in London, 1988

'Section 28' of the Local Government Act 1988 was a piece of culture war-style legislation framed by Margaret Thatcher's Conservative government to ban 'the promotion of homosexuality' by local councils. It prompted a massive movement of opposition with probably the most militant LGBTQ+ demonstrations ever seen in the UK, including in early 1988 in Manchester (see previous post) and in London. The following is a report from the Pink Paper ('Britain's only national newspaper for lesbians and gay men') of the demo in London on 9th January 1988. The march went from the Embankment to Geraldine Mary Harmsworth Park by the Imperial War Museum in north Lambeth, with a breakaway en route to Downing Street. Although the movement failed at one level - the law was passed - it paved the way for the largely successful movement for equality that followed in the 1990s.  

Pink Paper front cover, 14 January 1988

'More than 12,000 lesbians and gay men and our supporters marched through London on Saturday to protest about Clause 27 (now 28) of the Local Government Bill, which bans "promotion" of homosexuality by local authorities - and 33 of them were arrested and charged with criminal offences.

The Rally attracted four times as many marchers as its sponsors, the Organisation for Lesbian and Gay Action, had expected. Police rapidly revised their own estimate of attenders from five to eight thousand as trouble flared at Whitehall, where part of the march broke away to besiege Downing Street and make their feelings known to the Prime Minister, who was hiding in Number Ten. The march ground to a halt as activists, scene queens and bar dykes all gathered round to shout their anger at the Goverment-backed attempt to turn homosexuals into second class citizens. There were several minor injuries as police forced the crowd away from the entrance to the Thatcher residence and about 20 people were arrested for obstruction or assault. Organisers appealed for calm as police threatened to bring in officers on horseback to disperse the crowd.

After almost three quarters of an hour the tension abated and people drifted back to the route. There were further arrests at Waterloo. People from as far apart as Pontypridd and Norwich, Brighton and Edinburgh, crowded into Harmsworth Park to hear Chris Smith, Linda Bellos and other speakers. The father of a lesbian spoke movingly about the pain of having rejected his daughter before learning to understand and love her. Robin Tyler, US entertainer and activist gave a hilarious account of her affair with Dame Jill Knight - "That bitch - she swore she'd get even" - and talked about Ronald Reagan being "Margaret Thatcher in drag". But her speech turned to anger as news came through that police were arresting and harassing people at the perimeter of the park, picking out young women and black people. "If they want to arrest all of us, they'll have to arrest millions" she shouted, "including MPs and members of the Royal Family".

Legal observers and organisers rushed to the trouble spot, where Kennington police had brought up 10 mounted police ready to charge and were arresting people carrying banner poles or kissing. Both marchers and locals were arrested for drinking after hours - about three minutes after hours in fact at a nearby pub. Arrests continued at Cannon Row Police Station, where a lesbian who had gone to enquire about her girlfriend was charged retrospectively with assault on a policeman earlier in the day at Downing Street. Later, the legal officer of City Anti-Apartheid Group, Anhil Bhatt, was arrested outside the station for obstruction while waiting for the last person to be released. "He was nicked just for being there and being black" said Jennie Wilson of OLGA who witnessed the arrest'


(note advert for Fallen Angel bar in Islington - I believe the Pink Paper had an office upstairs there at one point. Used to go there for lunch when working in Islington in early 1990s)

'There are 12,000 men and women after Saturday's march proud to say - "I was there". There on the day when the lesbian and gay movement of Britain came of age; there on the day when we put our differences aside striding step by step as one; there on the day when the gentle loving people became angry and we started fighting for our lives.

Even before the march left Temple in central London an uneasy sense of expectancy hung in the air. This was no Pride Carnival. There were no floats, bands or balloons. The drag queens were in their civvies and all the pink was tinged with grey. In only three weeks the organisers had attracted four times the numbers they expected as the ranks of the regular activists were swelled by representation from all sections of our communities. There was no gay or lesbian, no black or white. We were one. Strong and defiant.

All around people united. Fearful that our businesses will be closed, frightened that our jobs will be taken away, afraid that our books will burn. Our very existence is at stake and we are beginning to battle'.

List of banners on the demo

Appeal for witnesses from the January 9th Defence Campaign 'Were you on the OLGA/Stop Clause 27 Campaign March in London on Saturday January 9th? There were 33 arrests at Whitehall, Waterloo and Kennington. Charges brought against people include obstruction and assault'.

I was in Whitehall, lots of pushing and shoving at the entrance to Downing Street, not quite Stonewall 1969 or San Francisco 1979 but it was quite heavy. Here's a couple of photos of mine from Stop the Clause demos in London. I think the first one was from that day, the other one possibly from a later demo.

'the first breath of a chilling wind of intolerance'

My 'Council workers against Clause 28' badge. I recently donated this to the LGBTQ+ archive at the Bishopsgate Institute, as I realised that they had a set of a similar badges but not this one (including 'Librarians against Clause 28' and 'Defy the Clause' 

Report from Counter Information, February 1988 - referring to 'Jill's Bill' as it was proposed by Dame Jill Knight, a Conservative politician who had been a member of the far right Monday Club.

Wednesday, February 02, 2022

A Jewish Ball in London (1859)

'Yesterday evening a grand ball, attended by the leading members of the Hebrew persuasion in the city, took place at the London Tavern, in celebration of the removal of the Jewish disabilities and in aid of the funds of the Jews' General Literary and Scientific Institution.

The ball took place in the large room of the tavern, which has recently been entirely re-decorated in simple, but most graceful, style making it one of the handsomest as it has long been one of the finest in the city of London.  Dancing commenced about 10 o'clock - the band being led by Mr La Motte - and was continued with the utmost spirit till the lights began to 'pale their ineffectual fires'. Upwards of 200 of the leading members of Jewish firms were present' (Times 4th  February 1859).

The reference to 'the removal of the Jewish Disabilities' is to the passing of the Jews Relief Act 1858,  which removed previous barriers to Jewish people entering Parliament

The City of London Tavern was located in Bishopsgate during the 18th and 19th Century. While the word Tavern today implies a simple pub, this was a large building with a grand  hall for balls, public meetings and other events.

interior of the London Tavern, 1814

The balls that were held here sometimes went on very late, as mentioned above and also referred to in an account of another ball in aid of the Licensed Victuallers Asylum: 'About two hundred happy couples, mostly juveniles, joined in the mazy dance, evidently very much to their own mutual delight,.. After supper dancing was renewed, and kept up with untiring spirit to an early hour in the morning'. (Morning Advertiser, 10 January 1838). Yes it was possible to dance through the night in London even before electricity.