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December 02 2010

John Harris introduces an exhibition gathered from the long history of leftwing Christmas cards

Forget nativity scenes – John Harris introduces an exhibition gathered from the long history of leftwing Christmas cards

As far as the consumerist mainstream goes, the imagery of Christmas cards seems to have endured for aeons: snow-caked Dickensian townscapes; soft-focus scenes from the nativity; domestic pets cruelly forced to wear Santa hats. But thankfully, there is another tradition, with a lot more oomph: that of leftwing Christmas cards, which have been sent and received for longer than you might think. For sure, the idea of dispensing seasonal greetings from a radical perspective reached a peak in the bleak 1980s, when cards featuring missiles, pickets and Margaret Thatcher were being produced by the sackload – but long before, the idea of emphasising the struggle in a yuletide kind of way had been established by early socialists, Suffragettes, and many more.

This overlooked bit of our history is the subject of an exhibition put together by Llew Smith, 66, one-time MP for the Welsh Labour heartland of Blaenau Gwent, and his late wife Pam. "It all came about by accident," he says. "For 25 years, we'd get Christmas cards from comrades, and after a while, we decided to keep them, and file them away.

"Then, towards the end of my time in parliament, we began to research the whole idea of political Christmas cards. Think about people's political lives: banners, protest songs, poems, leaflets and posters have been documented, but there's a gap when it comes to Christmas cards. We wanted to rectify that."

The result is an amazing representation of the left's history, focused on more than 500 cards, many of them sourced from museums, university archives and eBay. They go from the 19th century right up to the Con-Dem era. "One of the early designers of Christmas cards described them as 'unconsidered trifles'," says Smith. "I'd rather they actually had a message."

Politics, Protest and the Christmas Card is at the People's History Museum, Manchester, from December 4 to January 6.


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May 05 2010

Shame on those who defamed the NUM's Peter Heathfield | Peter Lazenby

The death of former miners' leader Peter Heathfield reminds us of a disgraceful episode in the media's history

With the death of the former miners' leader Peter Heathfield the labour and trade union movement has lost one of its most courageous leaders.

For those who knew him, the loss will be a source of both sadness and anger.

The anger will be directed at sections of the media who conducted a reckless, irresponsible, politically motivated, groundless and downright venomous campaign against Heathfield, and against Arthur Scargill, as leaders of the National Union of Mineworkers. They were wrongly accused of misappropriating union funds for their personal use.

The campaign's effects remained with Heathfield for the rest of his life.

He was elected national secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers in 1984, just weeks before the start of the miners' strike against pit closures. He joined Scargill and Mick McGahey, president and vice-president of the NUM, to make up the triumvirate at the head of the union during that bitter dispute.

In 1990 the Daily Mirror launched a campaign of denigration against Scargill and Heathfield. The accusations of dishonesty were ludicrous, yet they were taken up almost unquestioningly by wide sections of the media. The Cook Report sailed into battle with its own "revelations".

The allegations were eventually and inevitably disproved. Years later the editor of the Mirror at that time, Roy Greenslade, apologised, through the columns of the Guardian.

In Heathfield's case the damage was already done. Anyone who knew him could see the hurt he felt, the mental stress. He aged visibly, before his time.

The last time I saw Peter was in March last year at the annual lecture delivered in memory of David Jones and Joe Green, two Yorkshire miners who were killed on the picket line during the 1984-85 strike. David's father was one of the speakers.

Peter was greeted by friends and comrades he had worked with for decades, and though he smiled and shook hands, he seemed to have little memory of them. I felt he was going through the motions. He was frail, feeble, dependent on loved ones to support him.

Peter Heathfield had been a formidable speaker, a disciplined activist, yet someone who always had time for a laugh, a joke and a pint.

I doubt if those behind the campaign against him knew or cared about the effect their actions were having on a man who put enormous value on integrity.

Shame on them.


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March 07 2010

Power to the people

In 1909, the Labour party – then still in its infancy – had a fantastic election poster. The image had as its background a dusty silhouette of the Palace of Westminster, giving way to a horizontal wilderness of factory chimneys, whose smoke spilled into the tan air. In the foreground, a crew of beefy working men, all cloth caps and rolled sleeves and dark tunics, were smashing through the doors of the Lords with battering rams. "Labour clears the way," ran the slogan.

Nowadays, the only reason Labour would be barging into the upper house would be to check the Pugin wallpaper and to claim their attendance allowances. But this was back when the Lords were blocking Lloyd George's redistributive budget, and Labour was still young, in spirit and in fact.

By chance, the rumblings of this year's election runup have coincided with the People's History Museum in Manchester reopening after a two-year revamp. Its archive of posters and banners, including Labour Clears the Way, offers an interesting counterpoint. The archive is full of beautiful, intriguing things: a Tory poster showing a glum art deco Britannia presiding serenely over crates of colonial goods being unpacked on the docks; a vorticist-style Ban the Bomb poster with squadrons of red planes dropping exclamation marks; and an ad for the Co-op's self-raising flour that would give the socialist realism of Stalin's Russia a run for its money.

The thing is, many of these posters have an appeal as pieces of art, over and above their value as propaganda. The political posters of today seem a poor, sterile thing by comparison. You might put one in your window facing outwards, but you wouldn't want to hang one on your wall facing inwards. In part, of course, old posters have an element of kitsch in their appeal; they're a window to a lost world. But mostly, today's political posters are just ugly. There are three reasons why.

The first is an evacuation of ideology – or, at least, a move away from it. Few posters now aim to symbolise an abstract idea, be it striking the chains from the workers' wrists, or the glorious bounties of empire.

The second thing is the move towards negative campaigning. My objection to this is not the traditional one: that it debases politics. It's that it makes the posters crass and forgettable. If your poster is a picture of the other guy, you don't want to make it memorable or beautiful. You don't want your enemy looking iconic. Hence, perhaps, the failure of the Tories' 1997 posters. Given a choice between Demon Eyes and Four Eyes, people voted demon.

The third thing is the shift from screenprinting to (digitally altered) photographs. Political posters are not now about trying to establish an icon, a created image; they're about fakey verite and larky deprecation. Is Thatcher hair on William Hague the most we can aspire to aesthetically?

There are exceptions. Take Shepard Fairey's posters of Barack Obama: the line of the future president's shoulders swell upwards from left to right, like his poll ratings. He's staring up and over the viewer's shoulder, above the horizon, towards what we can only presume is the future. The colour scheme is red, white and blue. The left side of the face is red, the middle pale, the right blue. There's an implication – derived from the sunrise campaign logo he's wearing on his lapel – that the rosy side of Obama's face is bathed with the dawn towards which he's looking.

But you could interpret the colour scheme more simply. This is America. I'm going to win the red states with this half of my face, the blue ones with this half, and the swing states with the end of my nose. Just watch me. What made this such a great modern political poster, though, was the fact that it was not really modern and not really a political poster. It wasn't commissioned by the Obama campaign – although they got behind it when it went viral. It was the work of an artist, not an ad-man.

It was also a notably retro thing: a screenprint with a social-realist flavour. That chin-raised 1,000-yard stare has been a favourite with headscarved, broom-waving women and beefy-armed men ever since the first communist picked up a paintbrush.

Fairey's example points the way forward: ie, back. So how about, this election, the three main political parties raise their game? Each could show its commitment to the arts by allowing an actual artist to design its posters: no fiddling around with Photoshop, no attack posters, just something with oomph and originality. That would get my vote.


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