Digging where I stand

Rachel Thomson

The term digging where you stand was introduced in 1978 by Swedish oral history activist Sven Lindqvis who called upon factory workers to investigate their own workplaces as a form of self-organisation. I know this because Andrew Flinn provided a compelling overview of community history making and archiving at the Sussex Humanities Lab. Andrew has used the slogan ‘Dig where you stand’ to describe and organise community heritage work – inviting people to research their own communities, and localities. Sometimes this means literally digging where they stand.

Last time I was in Manchester I went to the Whitworth Art Gallery to see an exhibition about the Reno night club, demolished in 1990 and dug up in 2016. Lead by community activist and playright Linda Brogan and funded by the HLF, archaeologists at Salford University literally dug at the site of the Reno, with community members joining in to reveal treasures including the original dance floor, old library cards and a thirty year old bag of weed! The Reno had been a haven for a generation of young people who identified as ‘half-caste’, the children of white Mancunian mothers and African or west Indian fathers. On the back of the excavation an oral history and community memory project has been undertaken that documents how groups of friends installed themselves within the club, had their own spaces of standing, watching and dancing – how the Reno was part of a network of community spaces in Liverpool, Nottingham and Cardiff . The Whitworth Art Gallery has given a large space over to the project and includes vitrines displaying objects, screens for listening to A/V recordings of interviews, collections of memorabilia, an in-memorium wall marking the faces of the many players in the story who are now dead, long before their time. The project and the website that accompanies has the feeling of a community endeavour. Interviews are full of laughter, reminiscence, shyness and pride. Taking over the museum is a political intervention as is the task of maintaining control over the character and methods of the project.

I found out about the Reno revival on one of my trips to Manchester for The Reanimating Data Project. I lived in Manchester between 1985-90, for a time just over the road from the Reno. Between 1988-90 I was research assistant on a project documenting young women’s sexual cultures. My job was to interview young women in Manchester and I found them in lots of different ways: through youth clubs, through colleges, through workplaces, trade unions and universities. The reanimating data project takes me back to Manchester thirty years later to find out about whether there are still traces of these places and people and whether there is meaning or purpose in bringing this body of research back to the place in which it was generated so long ago. It would be so much easier if I could dig where I stand, but I stand two hundred miles away in the south coast of England, not far from where I started before I left for Manchester in the autumn of 1985. So I have instead to try and work out how to dig where I stood.

In 1988 when the WRAP project went about recruiting young women into the project it was able to collaborate with a vibrant network of youth clubs across the city, where feminist youth workers were intervening in creative ways. Our project talked to young women at Ardwick and Moston Youth Clubs – encouraged by youth workers such as Nora Davies and Cath Lambert to capture young women’s views and experiences of what was often a tough life for young women but which produced wit, insight and ambition. The YWait project was a jewel in the crown of Manchester youth work, a peer education project promoting sexual health for and by young women. With the help of Pam Muttram we made contact with a young mothers group in Higher Blakeley who were self-organising and speaking at schools just as teenage pregnancy was beginning to be articulated as a problem in a new way.

An article in Manchester based magazine City Life in 1988 called ‘Pregnant Thoughts’ by Penny Anderson reports how ‘high teenage pregnancy rates have shocked local welfare workers …according to new Government figures Greater Manchester has more teenage mothers than any other English county’. The piece comments that there is ‘no real stigma to illegitimacy any more’ with early and unmarried pregnancy operating as an intergenerational phenomena ‘if Mum gets caught the daughter is likely to get caught out as well’.

Fast forward thirty years and Ardwick youth cub has been demolished, targets to address teenage pregnancy have been met (partly by the widespread use of long lasting contraceptive implants) and the last strand of support for teenage pregnancy city wide disappeared two year earlier when pregnant school girl units were disbanded and FNP was not replaced. ‘Once we hit the target non-one was bothered’ explains Maggie Flint, who has worked with young women include the 1980s, a time she remembers fondly as a golden era, where ‘everything was possible’. Tracking around the new and shiny academies and youth hubs that have replaced the post-industrial landscape we notice that teenage sexuality and public health are no longer on the agenda. At the Academy we hear lots about early intervention, about tracking progress and intervening to address obstacles to progress. The intervention is more likely to be time-limited speech therapy for a parent in order to facilitate educational progress in a child than a service built around notions of equality or collective empowerment. The whole area was ‘swept clean’ for the Commonwealth Games explains Maggie. Local slums and local services where rationalised into strategic plans for the whole city – a multi-agency approach lead by a common assessment framework. The end of bottom up services. Activists become contract managers, freelance trainers, retire. How do we dig in this landscape? Where do we stand?

At the 2016 Tory Party conference Theresa May declared ‘if you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere.’ She counterposed elitist cosmopolitan drifters with ‘the people down the road, the people they employ, the people they pass in the street’. This phrase has come to my mind several times during this project as our team searches for traction with communities in present day Manchester – finding ways of connecting an extraordinary set of interviews generated in the city thirty years ago with the city today. An obvious problem is that the team is not based in Manchester, we come as visitors, attempting to drum up interest in a past that is complicated. I find a similar ambivalence to the past in the archive where I read a Jim Reeve review from 1989 of and exhibition of Shirley Baker photographs that suggests that in the 1980s this past was too close – Reeve comments on how in these images ‘the 60s can be seen creeping up on a timeless people, tower blocks looming up over back-to-backs, bee-hives and mini-skirts against a background of outside toilets. If you close one eye you could imagine a scene from the 30s. Its alarming to think that the fairly momentous 20 years covered by the pictures still saw flabby arms folded around wrap-around pinnies, men with trilbies and spectacles covered with Elastoplast, which is why anyone over 30 should steel themselves before perusing these pictures. They are a grainy reminder that you are becoming part of history…. The book left me with a dull feeling. That is not to say that it is a dull book’.

I am very aware that I left Manchester in 1990 and the city I return to now is a different place. Skyscrapers are sprouting up in the centre of the city, rumoured to be funded by Chinese capital. Trams connect neighbourhoods in new ways and the University expresses a new-found confidence and ownership of the civic space. We convene a reunion of the old sociology department where the study was born, attempting to retrace the lines of town and gown that characterised the city in the late 1980s. We discover fellow travellers who also passed through Manchester University during this era and appreciate their nostalgic connections to the project. Yet for those still living in Manchester, still working in the department, it is an unconnected history – perhaps producing dull feelings. Our various gambits to capture interest are productive but not always successful as our agendas slide away from each other. Drama students in 2019 appear more interested in the stories of working class girls that revisiting the dubious sexual cultures of middle class drama training culture of the 1980s. Our hottest connection is with the Proud Trust, still meeting in the Sydney Street building that is a living connection with the Manchester of the past, celebrating the city’s history of activism around section 28, of radical feminism and activism in the area of young women’s sexual health.  Workers and clients see themselves in a local feminist activist tradition that includes our study. As an organisation the proud Trust move easily across the lines of academia/ local government, the voluntary sector and corporate fund raising. They have not been swept away or built over, in fact they are key players in building the new Manchester as they begin a major building project of their own.

I like the idea of digging where I stand. If I had stayed in Manchester I would be able to align the geographical, biographical and historical – but working peripatetically in this way alerts me to Manchester’s place in a history of cosmopolitanism, of exporting and drawing in talent, of reinventing itself and of looking forward rather than backwards. The metaphor of digging where you stand is powerful and compelling. I want to be able to do this and to claim the dubious authority of a living local. Instead I seem to be burrowing, making channels below and along the ground, sometimes my personal worm holes trap me alone in an auto-biographical past, but increasingly these become connected spaces where I bump into others following their own leads.

Taking you back to 1989

By Rachel Thomson

Let me take you back to 1989 . Think Neneh Cherry’s ‘Buffalo Stance’, Madonna’s  ‘Like a Prayer’, the B52s ‘Love Shack’ and A Guy called Gerald’s ‘Voodoo Ray’. Let me also take you to Manchester. It is the time of Clause 28 and the galvanising of a generation of queer-as-fuck activism that linked feminism, gay liberation, post miners strike political activism, dancing and DMs. In Manchester this took the form of marches through St Peters Square, dancing at the Number One club and Flesh at the Hacienda.

Manchester in the late 1980s was a complicated but cosmopolitan space. The music scene looked to New York and Detroit with its back turned firmly away from London. The once futuristic housing estate of Hulme became a rent-free republic for the unemployed: revolutionaries, students, villains all artist of various kinds. North and South Manchester were different worlds, the south shaped by the presence of Universities and the north by the relics of what were, until the early 1980s, thriving engineering and chemical industries that provided men and fathers with a family wage. Further afield in the cotton towns of greater Manchester a different gender regime held sway, where fast-talking funny women earned their own wages and refused to suffer fools gladly.

It was into this landscape, with a new Sony Walkman in hand, that I emerged as a 23 year old social researcher, recruiting young women to talk with me about sex. I was pushing at an open door. Hairdressers, school girls, beauty therapists, shop girls, shop stewards, trainee nurses, beauty therapists, telecom workers and a sound recorder at Granada Studios all responded to an invitation to speak out about sex. We were in a new moment made public by official alarm about the HIV virus which could only lead to AIDS and untimely death. Two years previously every house in the country had received a government warning not ‘to die of ignorance’ and now films featuring young heterosexuals dancing in discos showed at the cinema warnings viewers: ‘There is still no cure for AIDS. And its on the increase.’

The testimonies that we collected capture worlds in turmoil and transition. Young women are questioning the grim advice of mothers, making sense of the collapse of the industrial working class family, and troubling the boundaries between respectable and unrespectable femininity. This was a moment of popular feminism – a  no-going-back kind of feminism, emerging from the ruins of deindustrialisation and divorce where young women understood that they needed to forge their own way in the world as best they could. In retrospect we can see them as having invisible resources: unmentioned housing benefit and ‘free’ education. But they also had to contend with violence, with shame and with being shamed.

It is this set of interviews that forms the heart of the Reanimating data project, offering opportunities to revisit this moment in time and think again about what was happening. The project promises to conduct experiments with people, places and archives. Our first step is to secure the interviews. For thirty years the interviews have been stored privately by one of the original research team. Our task is now is to digitise and archive them in a form that means they are safe for the future. We then will work with our collaborators in Manchester to generate as much contextual material as we can about the time that they capture. We will revisit the places and some of the people involved in the research exploring what has and has not changed and what it means to bring data back to the people and places it emerged from. Working in partnership with community archive project Feminist Webs we will find ways of bringing this material back to life and into conversation with young women living in the city today.

This is the first blog post for the project and marks the moment when we open our work to a wider group of fellow travellers – people who might be interested in our experiments and their outcomes. The project is a collaboration from the beginning. A collaboration between the original research team that conducted the Women Risk And Aids project and who are the custodians of the material (Janet Holland, Caroline Ramazanoglu, Sue Sharpe and myself Rachel Thomson) and a team of new generation sexuality researchers including Ester McGeeney who will be working on the project; a collaboration between Universities (Edinburgh where Co-I Niamh Moore is based and Sussex where Sharon Webb and I are based) and community organisations including Feminist Webs (represented ion our team by Alison Ronan) and the Manchester people’s History Museum; a collaboration between sociologists and historians as well as between generations of feminists.

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On December 7th 2018 we held a kick-off workshop through which we launched the project. The workshop enabled us to convene a group of critical friends who are helping us imagine and deliver this project and over they day they provided us with expert input on the key concepts and methods that underpin our work:

Key concepts: The teenager (Pam Thurschwell); feminist time travel (Caroline Basssett); collaborative history (Lucy Robinson); sexualisation (Sara Bragg) and collective biography (Janet Batsleer)

Key methodologies: the archive as boundary object (Niamh Moore); critical digital pedagogies (DM Withers), reanimating data (Ester McGeeney), preservation and access (Sharon Webb)

Over the next few weeks we will publish these contributions as blog posts, opening the conversation to a wider community. Right now we can share a short film made by Susi Arnott that captures some of our excitement about the original WRAP project and the opportunity to revisit it now.

The Reanimating Data project is in 2018 funded by the ESRC under its Transforming Social Science programme. The original Women, Risk and AIDS project was funded by the ESRC in 1988 as one of a series of social science projects responding to the AIDS crisis.