We had a work party last Friday evening. It was a fairly restrained affair, as festive season work parties go. We were a mixture of ages – but as the evening progressed, oldies began to dominate the music selection. At one stage, we found ourselves listening to “House of the Rising Sun “a big hit in 1964 for the British band, The Animals.
Well, would you believe it? It emerged that one of our number had gone to school with Eric Burdon! And that her gran and Alan Price’s gran had been friends, in Newcastle, way back when! For those too young to know, Burdon became synonymous with The Animals, but Price had been the original founder, later leaving to start another band, more conventionally, if less modestly, named The Alan Price Set.
My memory of the latter band was limited to a couple of strangely memorable tracks, “Simon Smith and the Amazing Dancing Bear”, and “The House that Jack Built”. Our Geordie friends, however, were insistent that, in their part of the world, Price is better known for his 1974 ballad, “The Jarrow Song” – so I had to check it out.
It’s not great music, I’m sorry to say – but its cheery tune contrasts somewhat incongruously with its subject: an event that took place in October 1936 during the Great Depression, when two hundred men from Jarrow in the north-east of England, marched 500 km to London to draw attention to the plight of their families and fellow citizens in a town where unemployment had reached 70%.
Ellen Wilkinson, the local MP, later wrote that Jarrow at that time was:
“… utterly stagnant. There was no work. No one had a job except a few railwaymen, officials, the workers in the co-operative stores, and a few workmen who went out of the town… the plain fact [is] that if people have to live and bear and bring up their children in bad houses on too little food, their resistance to disease is lowered and they die before they should.’” (The Town that was Murdered, 1939)
The Jarrow marchers, in a gesture remarkably peaceful given the circumstances, presented a petition to the British Parliament – who more or less ignored it, possibly demonstrating that peaceful protests rarely achieve much in the way of meaningful change. Perhaps more surprisingly, the British Labour Party at the time refused to support the march for fear of being branded as Communist-sympathisers. Clearly, attempting to bring about change by working through the system has its limitations too.
BBC History writes that, “In Jarrow, a ship-breaking yard and engineering works were established in 1938 and the Consett Iron Company started a steelworks in 1939. However, in areas such as Jarrow the depression continued until World War Two, when industry prospered as a result of the country’s need for rearmament.”
Which exemplifies an important but often overlooked benefit of war in a capitalist economy.
While doing a little background research on the Jarrow march, I came across a contemporaneous event: the Battle of Cable Street. Sir Oswald Mosley, a former Conservative MP in the British Parliament – later switching allegiance to the Labour Party – was an enthusiastic supporter of Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler, and apparently saw Fascism as the way forward for Britain. He founded and financially supported a para-military group, the Blackshirts, modelled on similar groups in Italy and Germany.
On October 4, 1936, he organised an event of his own, gathering 5,000 uniformed Blackshirts to march from the Tower of London to the poorer districts in the East End. Al-Jazeera writes that, “On the day of the march, the response was the mobilisation of the immigrant communities of the East End, together with British trade unionists and leftists, to stand against Mosley with barricades, bottles, bricks and fists.”
They were met by “thousands of policemen, including many on horseback, swinging batons as they charged the crowds” since Mosley “had official permission to stage his demonstration.”
Daniel Tilles, a historian and specialist on British fascism in the 1930s, has written that “On the day itself, it was a great victory for the anti-fascists, who greatly outnumbered the Blackshirts and stopped them from marching through the East End of London.
“But Mosley’s deliberate aim had been to provoke counter-violence to what was a lawful demonstration. In a way, he got exactly what he wanted. It allowed him to portray what happened as immigrants, aliens, violent communists stopping British citizens from exercising their lawful right to demonstrate.
“In the months after Cable Street, British Jews suffered far greater violence, intimidation and abuse than they had beforehand, So Cable Street unleashed this wave of anti-Jewish violence and abuse and gave the fascists a boost in popularity.”
A well-tried technique of those in power: provoke a violent incident, then use it as a reason for forcefully suppressing groups expressing dissenting views.
Similar occurrences took place in New Zealand during the 1930s, although the Labour Government there, elected in 1935, still retained some remnants of a commitment to relieving the suffering of the poor and unemployed.
Predominantly a farming economy in those days, New Zealand was badly hit by the Great Depression, and its effects perhaps struck sooner than in industrialised countries. There were major riots in the main cities in 1932, the worst happening in April “when a large crowd of unemployed relief workers joined Post and Telegraph Association members marching to a Town Hall meeting, swelling their numbers to around 15,000. Angry at being turned away from the overflowing hall, some demonstrators scuffled with the police barring the entrance. When a leader of the unemployed, Jim Edwards, rose to speak – apparently to urge calm – a policeman struck him down. The crowd erupted and surged down Queen St. Armed with fence palings and stones . . . they smashed hundreds of shop windows and looted jewellery, liquor, clothing and tobacco.“
Conventional reports of the incident tend to focus on the looting and window-smashing, while soft-pedalling on the poverty and misery caused by widespread unemployment; and implying that the felling of Jim Edwards may have been accidental. However, the presence of navy sailors and Territorial Army troops with rifles and bayonets, and a thousand mounted volunteer “special” constables” armed with clubs, suggest that the government was all-too-ready to meet protest with deterrent violence.
Several leading lights in New Zealand literature focused on the Depression and its attendant human suffering: among them, novelist John Mulgan, playwright Bruce Mason, and poets Denis Glover and ARD Fairburn. Glover’s poem, “The Magpies”, uses the call of the magpie to represent the heartlessness of an economic system that drives a hard-working couple to bankruptcy, insanity and death. Fairburn’s “Down on my Luck” pursues a similar theme of a man who loses job, woman and possessions as he struggles his way “to the end of his tether” and probably suicide.
Unfortunately, attempts to perpetuate the memory of those days have been gradually forgotten, assisted on the road to oblivion by the capitalist propaganda machine that distorts and discredits their true significance.
Bruce Mason’s dramatic monologue, “The End of the Golden Weather”, was adapted to an award-winning film in 1991 – unfortunately omitting the act that described the Night of the Riots in Central Auckland. The financial strategy of CH Douglas, expounding a middle road between communism and capitalism, was undermined by JM Keyes’s legitimisation of deficit budgeting, and the financial “stimulus” of the Second World War.
As Alan Price sang, back in 1974:
“Well I can hear them an’ I can feel them
An’ it’s as just as if they were here today
I can see them, I can feel them
An’ I’m thinking nothing’s changed much today.”