Mark Erickson

1979 was the pivotal year in the post World War 2 UK for employment and employment relations. Many commentators will cite 1979 as being the beginning of neoliberalism in the UK, with the new Conservative government bringing in ideologically-driven policies to reconfigure the relationship between state and society. We can still feel the effects of this today in the form of the legacy of public service privatizations (water, energy, telecoms, housing) and a shift in societal attitudes towards more individualist and consumerist positions. Yet these seismic shifts have been underpinned by changes in modes of employment, the labour market, and industrial relations.

We should note four key transformations whose emergence can be dated to 1979, all of which are presaged in the Sue Sharpe Working Mothers archive. Firstly, deindustrialization; the demise of the UK’s heavy industries had already started but now picked up pace as coal, steel, shipbuilding and large-scale car production all went to the wall. There was an attendant steep rise in unemployment to peak in 1984, which remained high (above 7%) until the late 1990s (https://www.statista.com/statistics/280236/unemployment-rate-by-gender-in-the-uk/). Secondly, trade union decline. Trade union membership reached its peak in 1979 (13.2 million) and then went into a steady, and ongoing, decline (Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy 2022: Trade Union Membership UK 1995-2021: statistical bulletin page 5). Thirdly, fragmentation of careers and an end to ‘jobs for life’ dramatically changed the experience of many workers in the UK, and saw the dismantling of historic occupational communities. Fourthly, the feminization of the workforce takes off in 1979 with women increasingly being drawn into full-time and part-time work, a trend that has increased year on year since 1979 (ONS 2019: 7). 

The long term changes to work and employment that started in 1979 are still at work today, and the consequences of these transformations are still not fully understood. Looking back to help us look forward is a vital task if we are to be better equipped for the coming changes that the UK labour market and workforce will face. 

Reanimating folk

Rachel Thomson

On a Sunday in October  I went to an amazing show – based on an oral history project called Sweet Thames lead by Sam Caroll and Zoe Bliss of Star Creative Heritage. The project was interested in capturing the still living history of the London folk scene rooted in skiffle clubs, that emerged in London in the 1950s and went through a revival in the 1970s when participants began to focus on documenting and embodying the songs of the British isles. This period of revival involved an intensive collecting, study and performance of this oral tradition as well as invention of new songs. For the Sweet Thames project interviews were conducted with 26 people involved in both the original and revival scenes. These testimonies were shared with performance artist Ewan Wardrop who saturated himself in the material, condensing and sculping it into a verbatim performance piece that involves moving fluidly between voice, song, dance and recorded material to share an account of this movement that is multi-vocal, funny and moving. 

The audience for the event at Lewes Con Club was made up of a range of people, but a predominance of older, greyer white folk who knew the words to the songs – members of folk clubs. And the first half of the event was by folk club rules, with individuals invited to take up floor spots and to introduce and sing a single song. Those that contributed each explained their role in the folk club movement and chose songs of significance to share – with the audience joining with the chorus. The first time I experienced this – when I first moved to Lewes 10 years ago and attended the weekly folk club at the Elephant and Castle I was genuinely unnerved – as those around me broke into soft song – knowing words and breaking the fourth wall of the stage. Now, more familiar with the proactice, I find it comforting and moving – a kind of call and response that captures the democratic ethos of the clubs and a sense of a living tradition that is collective and embodied.

After a break and a chance to look at the exhibition, Sam Caroll introduces Ewan and explains how she engaged him to be part of the project sitting one night around the fire at a music festival. She held back from telling us more, saying simply ‘it is really something’. Ewan began with a digital recorder, explaining how it contains hours of talking, voices. He pressed ‘play’ and shared a short audio collage of fragments from interviews. The stage was bare and well lit, with functional chairs stacked and a pint sat on a barrel – looking like any folk club. As Ewan begins we understand that his testimonies include members of the audience who we have recently listened to sing and reminisce. We recognise the cadence of their talk and their preoccupations. We find out more about how the skiffle movement began, how its roots in black American music were obscured and how folk in the 1950s forged a bridge with blues and calypso that could be crossed in both directions. Music was made on stage from a box, a broom and a string. Rhythms were danced on a wooden board taking us back to the clubs but also to the many times and places where popular song and dance were practised by ordinary people as a way of connecting with each other.

Women’s voices were also conjured, communicating a sense of the gender regime of the scene, as well as their passions for research, community and the emotional currents of song. We spent time reflecting on battles over ‘tradition’ and why certain clubs developed rules that encouraged a focus on material from the British Isles and a focus on songs rather than singers or performances. The practical rules of the club scene (from bans on eating on stage, through the layout of the room, to the selling of raffle tickets) were given due attention as part of a concern with the mundane and the unnoticed. We heard about how ‘starry’ American musicians were taken aback and delighted when performing at Cecil Sharpe house by the quality of the chorus when the room sang back to them with rich harmonies. And we the audience echoed the experience by singing back the chorus then and there. As Ewan’s performance came to its climax the focus settled on the capacity of song to connect us over history and place. The interlocutors reflected on the liveness of the scene, and the aging of the participants. Rarely had recordings been made, and now people were beginning to die. We listened and joined in with a recording of a 100 year old man who himself was joining in with singers stretching back into time. There was not a dry eye in the house. 

The event and the project did not describe itself as ‘reanimating data’ but I recognised it as such. And understood that our attempts to reanimate can be seen as part of a tradition of oral performance and song where joining in, adapting, and making the material alive again involves a practice and a community – a bridge across which material and people can flow. Unevenly, awkwardly. The use of recorded material, verbatim theatre and audience participation together worked brilliantly and enabled so much more to be communicated that was simply on the page.

This link takes you to Ewan Warthrop’s performance at Cecil Sharpe House