Remembering Charles Parker, Pete Yates and Renate Viesel

I remember both Pete and Renate as comrades, colleagues and essential co-workers in Corby and Birmingham. Pete’s genius as a musician, writer and interviewer remain with me. Renate was an essential co-worker on the recording work and the processing of the recordings. Charlie was a transformative influence on my practice and a political inspiration, as he was for all of us. I miss them.

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The Corby Project: 1979-1981
by Frances Rifkin

INTERVIEWING STEELWORKERS

Spring 1982 and I’m in Sheffield at the request of a friend, Keith Jones, a local organiser in the Steel Union, the ISTC. He wants material out of which to write songs about the Industry for a tape he’s making, and has asked me to conduct and tape a series of interviews with his members and their families. My friendship with him dates from the Steel strike of 1979-80 and its aftermath when he offered to work with me to set up a tour of Banner Theatre’s show ‘Steel!’ in the steelmaking areas of South Yorkshire. This was in recognition of the work we had done in entertaining the Yorkshire pickets in Birmingham during the strike itself.

I fall easily into the work of interviewing the steelworkers. My knowledge of the industry has been built up over a period of three years and I’m happy to be back with it again. I also find myself facing the usual problems. Keith wants me to interview the men about the hardships and heroism of the industry – the heat, the dirt, the hours, the skill and strength demanded, the comradeship, the crack – all compelling stuff.

After some time doing this, I start to throw in questions about food. What do you eat in a Steelworks? A counterpoint to the images of sweat and effort starts to emerge. It involves elaborate descriptions: toasting bread in the blast furnace; using a series of frying pans to fry eggs, bacon and sausages on successive white-hot steel billets as they pass the control hut on the conveyor on the way to the Stocksbridge rolling mills, (it only takes a couple of seconds per item and fits neatly into the speed at which the billets pass); and heating cans of beans on ledges on the blast furnace. All accompanied by strong comments on the fate of anyone who eats anyone else’s snap being so heated.

Keith isn’t too happy about this line of questioning and keeps reverting to the original topic. I move onto talking to the women who are present but excluded from that work experience and ask them to talk about their lives as wives and daughters of steelworking men. Many come from old steel families and have a rich history of their own. I know by this time that the compellingly dramatic nature of the work, which is largely expressed through the experience of the male production workers on the flowline, tends to take over the whole discourse about the industry. As a result, not only is the experience of the women obscured but also the varying experiences of the men in production. I have also noticed in previous recordings in Corby that where women have taken over the men’s jobs as they did in large numbers during the war, the same fascination with the process of production sets in with similar effect, though in the case of the women this is accompanied by a theme of liberation and revelling in the sense of power they experienced. The set of recordings is interwoven with this not unfriendly conflict about what should be the nature of the process of collecting such material and further, over how it should be used both at the points of collection and of cultural production.

Keith is a union organiser passionately concerned with the fate of the steel industry and fighting what now appears as its inevitable decline, a decline that will take with it the communities and the culture embodied in the workers, whose unacknowledged skills and courage have truly created the industry. I share his fight as a cultural worker – we’re both working with people whose values we share and admire in a situation where all our lives are being, swept up in massive changes in the industrial base of British capital. For both of us the situation carries symbolic meanings some of which correlate and some of which are a matter for debate and struggle between us.

This happened at a stage when, working for some time with Banner Theatre, Birmingham, I had been involved in cultural process and production with Steelworkers and others, using actuality recording within the labour and trades union movement and its associated communities. This situation is one of many which highlight the question of what role a cultural worker and activist, with her particular skills and insights, may be able to play in situations of struggle in the working class. These may be situations where the skills and knowledge of the trades unionists or members of the community with whom she is working are equal to or greater than, but different from, hers.

I had nothing against the recording of men’s accounts of work at all and indeed had made many hours of recording. By this very token I had come to realise the possibility of being captured and confined by these accounts – had been, in fact – and had understood – that not to in some way challenge or deflect the narrowly masculinist position was to perpetuate negative and regressive cultural practices and forms per se, quite apart from the immediate effects on the women and men (both interviewers and interviewees) taking part in that recording session. I was also able to deal with what arose resourcefully and even wittily, in practice, in the knowledge that changing these forms and practices is a long project that maybe can start, or find continuity through, the presence of the skilled cultural worker rather than through immediate recourse to propaganda or open conflicts.

Learning about these things had begun seriously for me with my work for Banner Theatre, Birmingham, from l979. Banner is a theatre and song company founded in 1973, the work of which is based on the tape-recorded ‘actuality’ accounts of the lives, work and struggles of working class people. This material is regarded as a basic cultural and political resource.

In August 1979, two workers were sent to the steel town of Corby in Northamptonshire by Banner – myself as a new worker and Pete Yates, a worker of six months’ standing. We had a couple of tape recorders and instructions to produce an actuality play in support of the Steelworkers’ struggle against the closure of Corby works, by Christmas.

In this article, I shall present scenes from the research process that followed Banner’s decision. The aim will be to try to show through what unexpected channels the work with Keith and the Sheffield steelworkers became possible: how the business of producing an art work enabled those involved to use cultural processes in the course of living and working through an industrial struggle. How the theatre workers became empowered to play an integral role in the struggle, which is still remembered as part of its fabric. How this developed the methodology of democratic cultural practice.

The physical products of the research were numerous and valuable. I do not have space to write extensively of them. For the record, there are over 150 tapes of oral accounts with transcripts, plus sounds from picket lines, meetings, and celebrations. There are quantities of documents including poems, songs and written accounts by steelworkers and files of historical research. There are hundreds of colour slides. The theatre productions were: a piece of agit-prop street theatre, ‘The Great Corbini’, performed in Corby and a full-length theatre piece, ‘Steel!’, which used projected visuals, live music, new songs and drama. This took sixteen months to produce from the start of the project and was toured nationally to many steel communities, and Labour movement organisations. It came close to attracting a writ for libel from the reactionary leadership of the main steel union, the Iron and Steel Trades Confederation, many of whose branches, enraged at the union’s failure to fight closures, had organised performances and offered us support. The performances in Corby were of a particular and ritual significance and power.

I had up to that time directed a lot of plays, the most recent ones being anti-fascist and anti-racist pieces for trade union, community and young people’s audiences. They were authored by playwrights and managed by my small-scale touring company, Recreation Ground[1], with total control (pace the ACGB) over its work. I was preoccupied by the question of who should control and how, Cultural work intended to be of service to the working class, given the possession by professionals of cultural skills and morbid sensitivities. This was my first exposure to a situation in which control over my work conditions was largely out of my hands and, located as we were on working class territory, physically and culturally removed from what I had always considered to be my base. I suppose that, thinking back, Pete and I were both awe-struck by the task that confronted us. Aware that the bourgeois artist would tend to see her work as the centre of the universe, we were determined to approach things with modesty and restraint, knowing that displays of arrogance (of which, had we been capable, we would have been too terrified to display any) would get us nowhere. We were aware that we knew nothing about the Steel Industry and had to make decisions about how our research should be conducted. As it turned out, we under- rather than over-estimated the effects of our being there on those conducting the campaign and did not at all anticipate how powerful the process of recording and researching for a play under those conditions could be.

Quite a lot is known about the validating and historicising effect of tape-recording individuals and groups. Less is known about applying this process in collaboration with people in struggle in a politically turbulent situation as part of a movement. We were not detached historians, anthropologists or sociologists. We had been invited in as partisan cultural workers whose interests generally speaking coincided with those of the people in struggle.

Though our work was perceived as potentially useful as an element of the public relations for the campaign, we knew that it was a very small off-centre element in a situation where the lives and livings of a whole town were in jeopardy.

THE FLAT

In Corby, we lived in a council flat on the Lincoln Estate. We had a rooftop patio covered in moss from which we could see the Steelworks like a great ocean liner in the distance. It gave off throbbing noises and emitted red dust, which coated everything in Corby. It was an object of fantasy and speculation for us and it dominated all our waking and sleeping moments. I was aware from the moment that I saw the view that I was going to layer it with all sorts of symbolic significances that the people of Corby might well dismiss as romantic rubbish. As our stay lengthened over the winter of l979-80, and as we accumulated the histories of people living in the town, many of whom became our friends and as we gathered more and more of the history of Corby itself, and lived its final months as a steel town, the works did indeed become a living presence packed with meaning as if, in collecting in a short space of time what had actually taken years to live, we were privileged to experience very intensely the relations between the different elements in the town. When the works closed during the national Steel Strike and you no longer heard the nightly roarings and clangings and the sound of feet as the early shift went to work, it was as if a death had taken place, a precursor of the total silence that would follow the now inevitable final closure of the works.

The flat was on a square in the decaying but brand new Lincoln Estate built on the pattern of a French Provencal village, in solid concrete. Across the square was Corby Community Arts, run by Bryan Blumer and Mary Allen with whom we had stayed on our first few visits. The flat was given us free by the Council because we were supporting the struggle against closure. Like everywhere in Corby, the place could have been very nice but was suffering from inner city blight. It was like being dropped by parachute into a new country.

I used to go out onto the balcony and stare out across the rooftops and feel transported into utterly new territory with new rules of operation. This was as much a reflection on my own way of life as on the extreme urgency of the situation in Corby. At that time, it felt as if the whole weight of the state was descending upon the heads of the people there, as the full force of the new Tory government’s determination to smash the unions and reduce the steel industry was felt. It was hard to explain this to people outside – in London for example – where there did not seem to be a whisper of the destruction being meted out in the Northamptonshire countryside.

THE CAMPAIGN

We are introduced to the Corby situation and the campaign group, ROSAC, by Bryan Blumer[2], the community artist who runs Corby Community Arts with Mary Allen. We are to work closely with both of them. Corby Community Arts is doing all the designs and printing for the campaign as well as acting as one of the organisational centres. It’s one of the places that everybody goes to at some point whether for advice on the layout of a poster or leaflet, for a meeting or to use equipment. It becomes our base. Bryan introduces us to Jim McDonald[3] the secretary of ROSAC (Retention of Steelmaking at Corby) who gives us our first briefing.

It’s my first ever major briefing. Jim talks to us for a long time laying out the history of the industry since nationalisation, the ten-year plan, the closures and struggles at Shotton, Consett, Ebbw vale, the economics of steel, the situation and previous history of Corby, the hopes and the fears. Pete and I are both struggling with new material and ideas. We know nothing about the steel industry and are somewhat anxious about this. Jim is used to dealing with PR and briefing outsiders. When we listen to the tapes afterwards and come to use the information in them, we realise that he has given us the basis of what we need to know.

This is the beginning of a major friendship and working relationship involving briefings, trips to interview people as various as the incumbent of Rockingham Castle and striking Glasgow steelmen, debates, arguments, late night drunken discussions, advice, occasional threats (from him to us). He becomes our guide, mentor and critic. A periodically uneasy, always stimulating, sometimes terrifying relationship. From him we learn how to navigate the choppy waters of the town and we ignore his advice at our peril. He introduces us to dozens of contacts for recording, both supporters and opponents of the campaign, and generally validates our presence. He does this in the process of rigorously assessing our reliability and motives and of checking continually to ensure that our presence and way of operating does not of itself cause trouble.

He probably realises very quickly that we are not going to gossip or relay information to interviewees about the content of other interviews. We are increasingly aware of the complexities of conducting such a campaign within a small community and exercise total confidentiality over the material even now up to the present day. Jim is entirely dedicated to the success of the campaign, which is why he takes the trouble with us. We are a potentially useful propaganda medium and, given that we are reliable, it is worth making sure we are fully and accurately briefed. He is receptive to our need to investigate and draw our own conclusions, sceptical of us, conscientious in his education of us. His support and interest are the basis of our work though many others also offer close and continuous interest in the course of time and when we come to start writing the play we are able to call on a group of over thirty people to develop a consensus on the brief.

Jim is a Shop Steward in the strip mills and represents the multi-faceted nature of the struggle in the town – to persuade the Tube Mill workers that if the heavy end of the works goes, then their jobs will go too; to persuade the community to support the struggle against closure on the basis that there will be a wasteland for all if it takes place; to pull in the support of the Blastfurnacemen who, though the oldest and most traditional trade unionists there, are not prepared to support the struggle; to get the support of the outside world for the struggle; to get the support of the unions for a community based struggle. Jim works continental shifts at the works, plays a leading role in running ROSAC and still has time for a social life. He tells us that steelworkers don’t sleep much due to the disruptive effect of the shift system and because their life expectancy is shortened by their work and they have a lot of living to do. For us he becomes an emblem of the Corby struggle as a person who lives it out in practice and brings all his intelligence and foresight to bear on it. When we come to write ‘Steel!’, he provides us with written accounts of his own which form the basis of some of the scenes – some dramatised directly from his material which is uniquely first hand.

We were also close to other people and received a lot of support from them. There are many who were deeply involved in the running and planning of ROSAC who formed part of that multi-layered resourceful and brilliant organisation, who for lack of space I cannot mention. However, the friendship with Jim involved a level of political and cultural exchange which was central to carrying out the project. It was Jim’s conscious guidance that made the project at all viable in the form in which it developed. It’s been our experience since, that it’s important to find people who want and can cope with, this kind of relationship, and to be able, ourselves to stand the test of their scrutiny. It was Jim who told us in the spring of 1980, after the Steel Strike, that our work in recording and supporting ROSAC played a crucial part in helping of keep the organisation together at a difficult time. It seems that we provided people with the space to think and talk about their work to supportive discreet and observant outsiders at just the point when internal contradictions were beginning to have the effect of tearing them apart as a group.

JIM AND MAUREEEN STANLEY

Jim is a Deseamer at the works. He and Maureen and their children live in one of the old Stewarts and Lloyds’ houses. We become great friends and spend a lot of time there chatting until late into the night. Jim takes a great fancy to Pete, probably because they both tend to be silent. However, where Pete is anxious to talk as little as possible Jim is always fighting to speak and what he says emerges in explosive pauses punctuated by bursts of speech. The transcripts of his interviews are full of dots for pauses. Listening to the tapes is bewildering if you haven’t met him or read the transcripts, but talking to him and being part of the interaction between him and Maureen, is wonderful. Going over there with a tape recorder we end with everything but interviews and could as easily end up recording, almost by accident, a family row with Maureen denouncing Jim for drinking too much or getting him to confess his fears about having to switch to mechanical factory work if he becomes redundant, or an intensive interrogation of one of us. The evenings can become hilarious, intimate, sad – whatever – not exactly research, really, more ordinary life. We didn’t directly use the material from those evenings, yet neither of us ever forgot them.

The Christmas after the strike when the Heavy End had been closed for some months, Banner is invited to perform songs at a Christmas party in Corby. The atmosphere is tense and sad, terrible. Gordon McClennan, the guest speaker tells us that the revolution has been indefinitely delayed. At the end, a group clutches each other to sing and as usual, forget the words of the Internationale. “ ’Tis the final combat…”. At the other end of the hall as I look someone floors someone with a right hook. In the lobby, I meet Jim he looks at us and tears pour down his face and pauses emerge from his mouth.

THE LABOUR CLUB

Sitting in the Labour Club not long after our arrival in Corby, with a large group several of whom we’ve already interviewed. The group is composed mainly of members of the ROSAC committee who together comprise the main activists in the town. They are drawn largely from the works on this particular evening, though the committee has on it other people like school teachers, shopkeepers and the bank manager. People start to question us. What’s our background? Parents? Brothers and sisters? Parents occupations? Our ages? Married, engaged, single? Politics? Are we members of the Labour Party? What’s our interest in the situation in Corby? What exactly is Banner Theatre? Is what we are doing what we do? What do we do when we are working? We have to answer – up to now all the questions have come from us. Pete says afterwards that he felt like a tin with someone trying to prise the lid off. The atmosphere is simultaneously friendly and suspicious. We have probably passed the exam for the time being but – we’re being watched. This is the beginning of a rigorous sussing out of our personalities and motives. It goes hand in hand with what seems to be a campaign to educate us. Firstly, we are to be responsible for representing the struggle and the town to the world and on the other hand we are isolated from the experience of the people of Corby and specifically from the steelworkers by our class and our position as cultural workers. And, indeed, we are woefully ignorant of the most banal details of Corby life. The process of making inroads into our ignorance develops a life of its own. Our ignorance is a boon to us and to the people we work with.

To us, all information is new and boundlessly interesting – this probably makes us look rather silly and a bit loveable. We can be told things ad infinitum. People say ‘This is something you ought to know…’ and simply and continuously inform us. A new social role? Certainly, a very rich and rewarding one as it developed. I say that people educated us for the good of the cause but it also appeared that once a decision to do so had been taken by the group that the commitment also came from other sources. Our willingness to listen also developed aspects not merely related to the job in hand. We developed the role of witnesses or story hearers, as if the differences between us as outsiders, and the group became a creative stimulus to exchange and became a necessity given that we were around. The decisive moment in the growth of this relationship came after the closure struggle had ended. We went to Corby specially for a New Year’s party at someone’s house. This was intended, by us, to be understood as a commitment to stay with the town until the promised script was finished, however long it took. It was so understood and attitudes to us became noticeably warmer and less reserved – a revelation to us as we had already experienced the relationships as good. This role is still remembered and talked about.

MAKING THE STEEL SHOW

We are in the flat with the distant view of the steelworks. It’s a freezing day in the middle of the steel strike. We’re trying to write the Corby play in Corby. It keeps evading us. One reason is that we are in a rapidly changing situation where it is impossible to find the point in time from which to write – by the time we’ve expanded our research to the industry as a whole and to the strike picket lines from Birmingham and Corby to Yorkshire and Scotland. The other reason is that the friends and colleagues we have in Corby won’t leave us alone for long enough to write it. We’ve become indispensible witnesses to events and people and we are on call like doctors for the purpose. The doorbell rings. It’s Duncan wanting us to go out and see the Trades Council parcel distribution to families in need. Ever willing to be distracted, to Pete’s undisguised disgust, I go off to drive around the deep frozen, deserted town delivering parcels. We give one to a man with a huge dog and he tells us he cycles twenty miles every day to a butcher who gives him free offal to feed it with. We end up having a drink and a long talk at the house of one of the works union officials and then returning, hours later it seems to the Labour Club.

The Labour Club is packed, as it is every afternoon during the strike. People sit and talk and drink in half light waiting it seems for the end of the strike. For the Heavy End, the Steelworkers there is nothing to the gained by striking. The Steelworks will close after the return to work. The tube workers will benefit from any success. But no-one goes back. The town is filled with a bitter determination to yield nothing to management, a sour and disenchanted integrity. The mood in the Club is reflective; people talk a lot about their work and their lives. That afternoon Jim Stanley and Tony come over for a talk. I haven’t got a tape recorder but they talk as if I’m invisibly wired for sound as people often do now. They tell me about the job of deseaming the bars of steel as they move down the flowline to the strip mills. The work reflects the changes in the speed of the flowline as the production process enters different phases night and day so that sometimes it’s busy and sometimes not. They describe it to me, as witness, in loving detail and as they speak a whole way, of work and relationships, is revealed. The vivid description of a job they are to lose irretrievably merges with the atmosphere in the Club to create an unforgettable poignancy and poetry. Something they would probably not have said just to each other a shared knowledge and experience revealed to an outsider and I didn’t even get it on tape!

In fact, we had to write the play in Birmingham. We started seriously on it in June 1980, having been working since August. It had proved impossible to write anything until the sequence of events culminated in the Steel Strike, its conclusion and the closure at Corby. A lot of discussion took place with the ROSAC members and supporters as to the line the play should take – through informal chats and formal consultative sessions. We had been around for such a long period by that time and had met and talked to so many people both visitors and natives, that it had become abundantly clear what the consensus between everyone was. There was also discussion as to whether or not the show should be performed by people from Corby. However, we were let know that it would be politically difficult if this should happen and we dropped the idea.

Eventually, we retired to Birmingham where we could get a bit of peace to perform what was obviously considered by the Steelworkers to be our part of the job. We had ensured that the fullest consultation had taken place and they had made very clear to us what was and was not acceptable. Our power over the material as we processed it was more than balanced by their power over us. Had we behaved in such a way as to lose ROSAC’s validation the consequences would have been far reaching. Our work as entertainers and in researching during the Steel Strike had brought us recognition in both Yorkshire and Scotland. We were well known to the progressives in the industry and were working as part of the movement to protect steelmaking in Britain. The contract was a tight one entered into willingly by us. The trust in us was considerable as we had enough material on tape to cause at least embarrassment, as everyone knew.

CORBY

Corby’s history as a town is rooted in the life-stories of first the Scottish and then the many other groups of immigrant workers from all parts of the British Isles and postwar Europe. For many of them, Corby represented the rebirth of hope in lives blighted by poverty, unemployment, and redundancy. In 1932, Stewart’s and Lloyds, the Scottish steelmakers had decided on a rationalisation plan and shut up shop in Glasgow. They issued their workers with an offer they couldn’t refuse – come down to Corby for a job and a house or stay and be unemployed in Glasgow. Many men went down on foot, sleeping in the hedges, in great hardship, to what which resembled a frontier town in the Wild West. They eventually brought their wives and families and settled down.

THE DREAM

Willy tells us about his dream. He’s an old Corby activist. We often go round to his house for drinks and talks. The dream involves riding through Corby triumphant, in the turret of a tank with a gun in one hand and a bottle of Whisky in the other. He sees me standing by the roadside – stops the tank – ‘Come up here flower’. The dream provides me with the opportunity for some particularly crass reflections on the class-conscious fighters of Corby even having revolutionary dreams. I fall into the lefty tendency to offer them my approval for being so right-on and to indulge in revolutionary fantasies. This keeps on happening when reality is a novelty but it is nice to be dreamt about.

STREET THEATRE

Early December. We’ve decided that the project of writing an actuality show in two months under such turbulent conditions is not on, and we have produced a piece of agit-prop street theatre. We intend to write ‘Steel!’ over a more realistic timescale. Accordingly, I sit down and dramatise the academics’ document “The Case for Corby” by Stan Brignell and Rob Bryers, as a street escapology act called THE GREAT CORBINI. During the action, The Great Corbini escapes from the chains laid upon him by Harry Fraud, (Harry Ford) The Bloody Butcher, (Director) of Corby Works and saves the town from disaster. Fraud ends up in the Dustbin of History along with the chains. Geddit?

It’s a freezing cold day and we perform at least three times in the shopping precinct on a stage improvised from some large raised flowerbeds. A lot of discussion and even violent argument breaks out in the crowd many of whom are from steelworking families. The struggle is at a crucial and, it turns out, terminal stage. Support from the Steel Unions is quite uncertain though not yet finally so and the town is being subjected to dirty propaganda about men taking their sleeping bags in to sleep on the job and about the alleged uneconomic nature of the works. All familiar tactics. After the performances, I find Jim McDonald outside the Town Hall. He is very depressed and uncertain of the outcome. He doesn’t think the play can do much good. He’s right, of course. The game is nearly over. Still exhilarated from performing, I grab his hands and say that it’s all worth it and try to enthuse him. His hands are warm, mine are freezing, we’re in different moments. A few days later, TUCSSIC refuses to support the struggle and within a few days it’s all over.

It was a paradox that one of our more publicly obvious achievements, came just before the greatest possible disaster for Corby, and that the major achievement of writing ‘Steel!’ took place regardless of the defeat of the anti-closure struggle. At that stage, we had probably been more useful as ‘researchers’ than as cultural producers and had regularly questioned the imperative to produce a play at all – but it was on that basis that we were there and the sharing of that objective was important.

ROMANTIC BIT

On the Corby picketline during the strike. It’s very cold and snowy. We’re standing freezing and chatting during a quiet patch. Eddie Murry is talking to me about Italian Opera and his love of it. How much he admires the Italian voice, how much he’d like to be able to sing like that and about various Operas. Lorries are passing us throwing up great splashes of slush. Looking down the road my eyes caught by a small shape some way away just out from the kerb. I walk down to look and find a Song Thrush half drowned in the spray from the traffic, covered in slush and about to die. I pick it up in my sheepskin gloves and take it back to the picket. It is so exhausted it is completely still. We all look at it, sharing with it the cold and brutal surroundings and the fleeting warmth. Shortly after, I carry it back in the car to Lincoln Estate and as we get out the thrush gently flies out of my hands and away across the grass.

GOING UNDERGROUND

At the end of an evening in the Labour Club, Pete offers Joe a lift to work. We are feeling cheerful and as we approach the works, ‘Come in’, says Joe and so we drive through the gates. This is odd because we’ve never been through before without the most elaborate arrangements having been made. We go and view Joe’s area of work, the compressors, and have a cup of tea. Then Joe dresses Renate as a boy in a flameproof jacket and helmet and takes her in to see the Plugmill, which I’ve already seen. Then comes the problem of leaving as it’s now well after midnight. It’s not so much being there that’s the problem; the lads could easily be workers and would not be noticed. It’s being a woman that’s difficult. There are few women production workers, none at night. Renate and I will not pass muster. In the end, we lie down in the back of the car covered by banners and escape just like during the war. It’s all rather like being smuggled into the Reform Club for the evening but more exciting.

Trips to Steelworks, Ravenscraig for example, official or unofficial, always had the clandestine atmosphere of a trip into occupied territory – occupied by management. The security surrounding steel is enormous, or is supposed to be. And in fact, all our trips were only semi-official – a nod and a wink had gone on and the trip was supposed to be limited to only selected areas. In practice the person taking you round would, as a matter of principle, transgress the boundaries. Usually we were in under the protection of the top union officials. Most of the time it boiled down to the Union getting you into the works because you were on their side. As a result, you were passed from area to area with your guide, hidden from foremen and management and given access to the internal communications system of the steelworkers. You also shared in the dangers of the place as you were not covered by any insurance and were as vulnerable as anyone to a cobble in the rolling mills or an explosion at the furnaces.

In Ravenscraig, stunned by the sheer size of the place, we were led through what seemed like obscure and narrow concrete corridors in the walls as through some vast castle, to meet the Steelworkers in their restrooms and canteens. We felt we could have stayed there for days and never been seen by management, living like cultural cockroaches in the interstices of the place.

In Corby, we are shown round by a stripmill worker who we know well. Everything is vast – gigantic pincers pluck white hot billets out of the soaking pits and place them on huge conveyors which transport them through great rollers and snipping sheers. Enormous ladles of white-hot iron tip into the egg of the boss furnace, which throws out sparks like meteors. The furnacemen yawn elaborately as we duck. Bars rolled into strip for tubes cobble suddenly and scribble white-hot arcs all over the place with people running for cover. We’re told the joke about the father and son working together when the son falls into a ladle of molten steel. The father pushes the son under when he comes up for air. In the middle of all this we come upon a neatly laid out meal for a cat in a sheltered corner – clean dish of milk and bowl of cat food on a piece of newspaper. Original cartoons and drawings everywhere. In one place, someone with a spare moment has welded a joke into a floorplate. Among the grafitti everywhere is one repeated like a knell ‘Not long now’, over and over again – a sign of internal dissent over the closure issue.

Frances Rifkin
1989

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Afterthoughts

I began this piece by describing how I found myself in a situation of turning the questioning in a recording session towards the women, present but silent. The above account contains little about the women of Corby. This reflects the nature of the research process by which we were, at that time, not entirely unwillingly captured. Few women were involved in leading the struggle. Of those who were, none had a fully public role, however instrumental people like Jean McConnachie or Karen Locker were crucial activists. The remembering and narrating was largely done by the men; most of the women were at home and led a very different social life; they were ‘community’. The situation was compounded by the overwhelmingly male composition of the workforce and the inexperience of the researchers, who were 50% female.

Less tangibly, three researcher/workers were profoundly marked by their experiences, had become part of their own research material by finding a role as cultural activists. This arose as a necessity from the politics of the research, the actuality process, a process of exchange. It opened up for us a sense of identity and belonging where under other conditions, difference might have been.

Returning in 1983 after a long gap, sure by now, even fearing, that we’d made the whole thing up, I checked with various friends and contacts some of the points made in this article. Had we really become part of the struggle, as we had believed, as cultural workers? ‘Oh yes’, they said casually, ‘it’s because you all got stuck in’ and then they turned to more interesting topics.

What is striking about this and what was striking at the time was that Corby people thought that what we were doing was if not normal at least normalisable. Culture, creativity, class politics all entangled. It changed me for ever. It’s now 2017 and the process of Corby still affects the way I work and think.

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Production notes

The recording process and photography were carried out by Frances Rifkin, Peter Yates and Renate Viesel.

The work of writing and compiling the actuality for the play was done by Peter Yates and Graham Lucas of Recreation Ground Theatre in collaboration with Frances Rifkin.

The songs and music were written by Dave Rogers.

Both Dave and Charles Parker advised and assisted with the visuals and the formation of the work. Charles died before it was performed.

Frances Rifkin
September 2017

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[1] http://www.unfinishedhistories.com/history/companies/recreation-ground

[2] Public Sculpture of Staffordshire and the Black Country by George Thomas Noszlopy, Fiona Waterhouse

[3] A Process of Struggle: The Campaign for Corby Steelmaking in 1979, ‪A. R. Maunders

© Frances Rifkin

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