Friday, 31 January 2014

The George Garrett Archive Project.

Module Four. 

The Subterranean Theatre 1918-1955. 

The Writer as Historian. 1945 – 1955

Tony opened tonight’s session by referring to an interview we filmed with George’s two remaining sons, Roy and Derek (for future broadcast in the short film we are making about George Garrett). Towards the end of the interview I asked them if they ever felt, or got the impression, that George was disappointed by life. Their response was emphatically ‘No’. They said he always had a song, he had his faith and he had his family. But what, Tony asked, did they mean by this?

Alan O’Toole, in his as yet unpublished monograph on George, makes the point that more space should be given to that form of libertarian socialist, the anarcho – collective endeavour, and the pursuit of justice by individual radicals. He argues that this strand of left-wing radicals, this way of thinking, which applies to George Garrett, has been washed over by the tendency to look at radical history through the lens of the Communist Party and organised Labour generally.

All too often activists who fell out, for example, with the CP, became bitter, or even reactionary. Jack Carney, a radical from Widnes, who like George sailed to America and became an activist, became so jaundiced with the communism that he ended up working with the CIA, campaigning for ‘free’ trades unions. Jack Braddock, who in his early days as a Communist was what we may now term ‘ultra-left’, went over to the right at a pace of knots after WW2.

But George doesn’t succumb to these moods of reaction, bitterness or despair. He takes on what Camus says – In order to be a rebel you have to keep on turning. And turn he does, but George turns to different activities, be they creative, organised protest, or advocacy, to express himself, maintaining a principled position with syndicalism at its core to hold him steady. In his political activity he maintains a measured pace throughout his life. He never falls out with the Braddock’s although he despises their politics. His ‘faith’ is a humanist one, but he is held in great respect by many who are religious, including Canon Raven, who refers to him as one of the most Christian like men he has ever known. His sons remember him remarking, when asked why he didn’t go to church, that not all Christians were to be found there. He is in demand for his services with The Reconciliation Movement, active on Netherfield Road calming tensions between the Orange and the Green. He’s an everyman, yet he is his own man, and certainly nobody’s fool.

Reflecting back on the earlier workshops, Tony returned to the economic cycles of Kondatriev that chart the rise and fall, boom and bust of the economic cycle, and pointed out that the different stages of George’s life appear to mirror Kondatriev’s 25 year cycles: 1895 – 1920, George from Birth through war to the end of his first period in the United States; 1920 – 1945, from the unemployed marchers, through the Spanish Civil War, and WW2; 1945 – 1970, last years with The Unity Theatre and final activism and writings.

George’s friend and leading light of The Unity Theatre, Jerry Dawson, remarked after the war and into the late 1940’s, that time had appeared to pass George by. He was no longer seen as much at the theatre, and that the 1950’s was really no place for him. While New Writing and Left Review editor, John Lehmann, was asking in his 1955 autobiography where George Garrett had disappeared to, George was at peace, content to work on the TexMex Tanker tha he took up and down the Manchester Ship Canal.

George’s drama was his own life. He’d done it all by then, the marchers, protests, arrests, the crusades. In 1949 Jerry Dawson was writing to him from Italy about the possibility of a future ‘Unity’ school there, but there’s little evidence of George’s involvement from this point onwards. But the case and the cause of the seafarers remained with him all his life. He remains active around the Seamen’s Reform Movement. In 1947 he applies to become an Unestablished Seaman. This is a political act that ties him again to the casual, the dissidents, the transients, who are now being segregated by union and Government alike.

It is to George that the leading activists among the seamen go to when the younger members are being threatened with mutiny and jail; he has the intelligence to understand the danger they are putting themselves in, and the authority to talk them round and spur them for future action. And it is to the seaman that George returns in the last year of his life, when he is invited to speak at a rally during the Strike of 1966 – the first official strike since 1911, which, when he witnessed the 1911 mass rally on what became known as Bloody Sunday, was also George’s first taste of the power of the union movement, and, when his nose was broken by the police who attacked the demonstration, the brutality of the state.

George and Grace had been together since 1918. They’d raised five sons. George had his family around him. He also had his song. His sons say that his favourite was ‘Big Strong Man’, aka ‘My Brudda Sylvest’. Big Strong man is a song written in the middle of the 20th century that very much dates itself with references to the Lusitania, Jack Dempsey, and Mae West. It starts with a Jewish immigrant writer, for the Italian penny operas. It is supposedly set for the Spanish American war of 1901. It was sung by American Servicemen in 1917. It was popularised again by Canadian Seafarers and Airforce men in the Second World War. George would have known it from his earliest American days in New York. Since then it is popularly known as an Irish folk song, popularised by the Wolf Tones. The song, which George apparently took great pride in knowing word for word, seems, in its mix of international references, could well have been written for George.

In 1966 he spoke at several meetings in support of the seaman’s strike. At the last one he attended he threw his bus fare into the collection and walked home. He died in 1966 of throat cancer. After a life well lived, given over to creativity, art and struggle, he went out the way he had lived, supporting the underdog, the restless and the poor.

Tonight’s session was the last of our 4 module, 16 week taught course. The course has been a tremendous success; Tony Wailey’s inspirational teaching combined with the consistently high attendance (16 per week on average) and the commitment and enthusiasm of all the participants have ensured that the weeks have flown by. The feedback from participants (see below) says more than I ever could about the value of the course in generating knowledge and awareness of George Garrett’s life and work, but also in developing interest in Liverpool’s history and heritage generally. The course has provided a solid foundation for the rest of our work on the project and as a result of the enthusiasm of those who attended, we have agreed that from Monday 10th February we will continue meeting and will now begin a research-based course, with participants working to conserve and catalogue the archive and prepare it for the exhibition and celebration events in May. On Monday 10th May we will meet at Liverpool’s central Library, 6pm, with Senior Archivist Helena Smart, for a session to explore how the archive will be curated for the celebrations in May, and how the Library catalogue their collections. New participants are more than welcome to join us.

In reaching this major milestone for the project, I’d again like to acknowledge the incredible support we have had from Val Stevenson, Head of Academic Services, Library Services, at Liverpool John Moores University, and all of her team, including Anne Foulkes and Emily Parsons. Their support has been a key factor in the smooth running and overall success of the course and the project to date.

Blog created and written by Mike Morris & Tony Wailey, based upon a series of introductions by Tony Wailey to the George Garrett Archive course.

The George Garrett Archive project workshops are free and open to all. We meet every Monday, 6-8pm. For our next session on Monday 10th February we will be meeting at Liverpool’s Central Library, William Brown Street. All welcome.

Course Feedback from Participants

"I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the course, in its entirety. Brilliant. Fantastic subject matter, (George Garrett). The unveiling of the archive display at the Central Library in May, is a fitting tribute to a true working class warrior. The George Garrett story needs to be continued, through its reproduction of his plays, short stories and other available material."
"I enjoyed the course very much, the content was stimulating, wide-ranging and thought-provoking. The atmosphere was friendly and encouraging and the knowledge and enthusiasm of the two tutors was impressive and engaging." 
"Congratulations to the teaching staff who taught and organised the course.
Develop as a local history element of all Merseyside school as an integral part of history teaching."
"Very good contact with people. Classes were a good laugh, a good mix between formal and informal."
"Very enjoyable, loved it."
"I found it exceeded my expectations, very illuminating. My congratulations to Mike and Tony for their enthusiasm and knowledge of the subject."
"Totally new to George Garrett, extremely interesting person. Overwhelmed with all the information. I need to take time to read his short stories and plays to appreciate all he has written etc. Congratulations to the tutors on an excellent course."
"A wonderful course which only leaves you wanting to expand even further on the different facts of George Garrett’s life."
"I feel I have learnt a great deal, not just about George but about history generally during the early – mid 1900’s." 
"I have enjoyed and benefited from every aspect of the course."
"The course provided a fascinating insight into the life of George Garrett. It would be great if he could receive some worthy recognition from the city. I would like to see it included into curriculum of Liverpool schools, possibly developing a teaching path."
"Just fascinating, the entire course has been a privilege to attend. It has truly felt very special to learn about and get to know about, the life and times of a most significant figure of our social history and beyond. The format of the course was excellent, with Tony’s introductions being always utterly absorbing and inspirational. Thank you to all involved."

Big Strong Man 

MY BRUDDA SYLVEST. Words by Jesse Lasky. Music by Fred Fischer; Fred Fischer Music Pub. Co., 1431-33 Broadway, New York,. "Sylvest" was first published in 1908 as "MY BRUDDA SYLVEST, a stage-Italian dialect number that referred to the Spanish-American War"
Brooklyn, New York.

Oh, you heard about the greata stronga man,
Oh, the greata biga Johna Sullivan.
Oh, you heard about the Jeffriesa fight.
He'sa strong, all right.
He whipa fifty men in onea night.
But I got a brudda got the buncha beat.
Got a chesta measure forty sev'na feet.
Got a peanut stand on Mulberry Street.
He's a tough man to beat.

CHORUS: My great big brudda Sylvest
Takea greata biga ship on the chest.
Killa fifty thousand Indians out west.
He no takea no rest.
He gota one stronga grip.
Witha onea puncha sinka da ship.
Oh, it take a wholea army to whip
My brudda Sylvest.

Upa town there was a firea lasta week.
P'licea mana calla firea engine quick.
Firea engine makea root-tootie-toot 
The fire out to put 
A ev'rybody tried, nobody could.
Oh, Sylvesta he then came along and shout,
"I will show you justa how to go about."
Oh, he swell his chesta big an'a stout
And he blow the fire out.

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