History of an Unremarkable Socialist in 10 Objects (Part Two)

    COAL NOT DOLE  Back at the Chicken Shack 

So what things in your life stand out as being important? Or have you more useful things to do than consider such matters? Seems, that I haven’t. Inspired by the excellent The History of the World in 100 Objects by Neil MacGregor, I will continue to look, for no good reason whatsoever, at ten objects which hold importance in my life. At the end of first one (don’t panic there are only two) I had left school and was facing the big bad world.


A small slip of paper held the key to opening so many doors – my first wage slip. I had left school to become an apprentice and getting my first wage was a momentous occasion. Isn’t it for most people? The promise of freedom just before the shackles of tiredness and paying the bills removes it.  The problem wasn’t just that the money was crap but was the fact that I had pretty much taken an apprenticeship because my dad had, but unlike him, my aptitude to working machinery was akin to a fish driving a truck. Working machinery is a skill and an art. I had neither.  Still, I discovered what burning metal smelt like.


So I left, grandly announcing that I was to write a book. Then got a job for a book wholesaler. Well, almost. I would write that book, but that would be years later  (Click the blue link for more info of a socialist thriller, set in a revolutionary Britain)

Opening dozens of boxes did give me two things: access to an Aladdin’s cave of literature; because, there, behind tottering mountains of them, I met Sartre, Camus, Baldwin and the Brontes for the first time. School had embedded a love of reading and here I indulged. The other was the experience of talking politics to people in a workplace when we unionised it. Eventually, all, the predominately female staff, would belong to SOGAT, showing the very green me, that it wasn’t just post-punk guitarists who were strong women.


I left, and finally was granted my wish, and moved to north London to study at North London Polytechnic. These were the days when grants allowed study in higher education without incurring a debt the size of the GDP of a small to medium country. For me, it promised fun and after the seriousness of trade union work, I considered that was fair enough. Hmm. But at the same time, an organizer of the Nazi National Front had decided also to attend the same Poly. Then, Thatcher decided to take on the National Union of Miners.

Miner's safety lamp

Thus, pure hedonism didn’t last long. I jumped into the campaigns against both; finding them exhilarating, inspiring and an honour. The miner’s lamp for me is ‘not only’ a symbol of workers fighting back but also the development of my politics. I became a Marxist.  Of course, the miners lost, but they could so have easily won but for the cowardice of the other trade union leaders.  And what if they had? Forget about my little life, how would Britain have been different?

One further rub of the lamp is that the pit village, which the Poly was twinned with for the dispute, is right next to the very one my partner, Jane, grew up in, who years later I was to meet.


No, not more politics, the red shirt is the one organist Jimmy Smith is wearing on his album, Back at Chicken Shack. Having played to death all the post-punk stuff in the shop, I saw this and thought, he looked cool. So despite not being familiar with jazz, I played it. Bam! His Hammond B3 organ grabbed me, and my love of jazz began from there. It also happens to be one of those albums which are not only musically magnificent, but has cover which bowls you over. Every centimetre of it glories in being an album. Listen to it, look at it, feel it– it’s a work of art. Talking of which.


To clarify, this is not on further memories of work; I did not start catering to a trapeze artists (as it happens, my later CV is school teacher via librarianship) but an art installation.  Several years ago and all was not well on the good ship me, so my friend Steve decided to take it upon himself to introduce me contemporary art. I’d always enjoyed visiting galleries but it was now that I really began to love them. When I saw Cornelia Parker’s exhibition at the Serpentine in 1998, I sat down (rather to his embarrassment) and just gazed in wonder. This will sound pretentious crap I know, but looking at her work, calmed me, cheered me, and cleansed me. This is how the best art makes me feel, even when the emotional pull of the art is power or excitement, I feel that the everyday hassles are lost. Like I said, pretentious. But it is true.  Sadly, just as we began with bemoaning Government attacks on literature, we end with attacks on art, and I hope that attempts to cut and privatise galleries will stop. Art can be amazing- leave it for all.


And so we after we started with C.J Lewis using an everyday object (a wardrobe) as a gateway to another world and we end (for now) with everyday objects suspended in mid-air, creating magic. All in a normal and unremarkable life.

Have fun making your list.

(For more, see my interview on youtube)


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