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Ellen Wilkinson – the Newcastle connection! @appliedcomics @historyNCL

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One of my happiest literary discoveries this year has been the two novels of Labour MP Ellen Wilkinson. A pioneering woman and a moving force in the Jarrow March, she also turned out a couple of wonderful reads and they’ll definitely be up there in my books of the year. However, a chance tweet by @appliedcomics earlier in the month reminded me of something I had on the shelves with a Wilkinson connection which is in a format I don’t often read…

Last year, Newcastle-upon-Tyne launched the Freedom City 2017 programme of events; the city was not only celebrating the fact that it was 50 years since the University had awarded Dr. Martin Luther King an honorary degree, but also its rich heritage of activism. That activism, of course, included the region’s Jarrow March, and the tweet I mentioned reminded me that not only was it the anniversary of that event, but also that I had the item they were featuring – the Freedom City 2017 comic!

The comic was produced under the aegis of the university, and issued free of charge last year; and a contact in Newcastle sent it on to me as he thought I would be interested (which I was!). I read the comic whilst watching footage of the unveiling of a statue of Dr. King in the university (fascinating event), but I had forgotten that one of the events featured in pictorial fashion was the Jarrow March and Wilkinson’s part in it.

You can still read some parts of the comic online at the university website, and the Ellen Wilkinson chapter is up here:

https://research.ncl.ac.uk/fccomics/chapters/therighttowork.html

The city is obviously still rightly proud of its heritage, and the university laudably provides educational materials supporting the comic – ideal for any younger people you may have around you in the form of friends and family (or indeed if you work in an educational establishment!) The whole comic is interesting (if you can get hold of a copy) and a timely reminded of the agitation and activism of the past, how our freedoms are hard-won, and how we still need to fight to hold onto them.

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Penguin Modern 1 and 2 – Voices from the Sixties #mlk

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I have to confess that I was a little hesitant and nervous about opening the lovely box set of Penguin Modern books kindly gifted to me by the three Offspring for Mother’s Day; it’s so pretty and I wanted to keep it nice etc etc etc (silly, I know, because books are to be read). However, on 4th April, as well as being Youngest Child’s birthday, it was also the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jnr. I started the day watching a recording of the ceremony from last November at Newcastle University where a statue of Dr. King was unveiled; and realised that as book 1 of the Penguin Modern set was his “Letter from Birmingham Jail”, I’d better get the set open and read the book that day. Which I did, and it seemed totally appropriate to do so. Also fascinating to note that Newcastle University had awarded Dr. King an honorary degree back in 1967 – how forward-thinking of them!

Moderns 1 and 2 are both by authors who would be considered to be connected with the 1960s (although of course Allen Ginsberg had been writing for much longer; but he will forever be connected with the sixties counterculture, particularly in this country because of the Royal Albert Hall poetry reading). And in many ways these are disparate authors, although reading them alongside each other was actually quite thought-provoking. So, a few of my thoughts on the first two books in the box.

Penguin Modern 1 – Letter from Birmingham Jail by Martin Luther King, Jr.

That’s Birmingham, Alabama, of course, and not the one in our Midlands… King was arrested while protesting against the treatment of his people in Birmingham and wrote this letter in the margins of a newspaper whilst confined.

I’ve never read King before; but obviously I know him as a great and articulate orator, and this is carried over into his writing. He’s clear, concise, reasoned yet impassioned. The “Letter” takes to task fellow religious leaders who argued against taking direct action in the streets to end segregation; and King states quite clearly how the legal route has failed, how his people are sick of the racial prejudice and sick of being treated so badly. Frankly, it’s amazing that they had waited so long before taking direct action and I couldn’t help feeling anger at the so-called religious men who failed to take action.

… I am compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town.

King is an erudite commentator and it actually terrifies me to realise how recently this kind of racial segregation was in place, and also how easy it still is to stir up distrust amongst peoples of different race and creed. If we could all only take on board Dr. King’s messages, maybe the world would be a better place.

The book also comes with an extract from one of Dr. King’s sermons, “The Three Dimensions of a Complete Life”.

Penguin Modern 2 – Television Was a Baby Crawling Toward That Deathchamber by Allen Ginsberg

In what would seem like a complete contrast, Penguin Modern 2 is a book of poetry, taken from Allen Ginsberg’s collected works. Ginsberg was one of the original Beats – friend (and sometimes lover) of Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady – but he was the one who survived, continuing to write up until his death in 1997. I first discovered his work in the late 1970s when I began to explore the work of the Beats; in those days it was virtually impossible to buy copies of his books in provincial England, but my absolutely marvellous local library actually had a copy of his masterwork “Howl” so I was able to read him.

PM2 doesn’t contain “Howl” of course, but a selection of his well-know works features. The collection opens with “Pull My Daisy”, co-authored with Kerouac and Cassady, and from the film of that name (shhhh – have a little search online and you can find the film for a wonderful slice of Beat history.) Other well-known titles are “A Supermarket in California”, “America” and of course the title poem.

America why are your libraries full of tears?

On the surface, you might not connect King and Ginsberg. But both were fighting for freedoms – King on racial grounds, Ginsberg on sexual (and actually possibly any ground going, as he hated restrictions of any kind). Ginsberg was against prejudice of all sorts and in fact he and King actually met a couple of times.

Ginsberg’s verses are free-form, explorative, often profane, stimulating and it was a wonderful experience to re-encounter them after a looooong time. Nowadays, I find reading the Beats more problematic than I did in my youth; I’m less tolerant of the undercurrent of misogyny and feel more critical of their treatment of women. But when their prose and poetry soars I can forget that for a while and relish their words and their searches for freedom.

******

So Penguin Moderns 1 and 2 turn out to be an inspired pairing. These two voices from the past still have so much to say to us and I wouldn’t have necessarily chosen to pick up either of these authors at the moment without the prompting of the box – but I’m really glad I did. Looking through the names of the authors featured in the series, I think I’m going to have many joys to come – for which thanks! to the three Offspring! :))))

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