To kick off their festival, Writing on the Wall celebrate International Worker’s Day by heralding the life and work of George Garret with a May Day political march
Monday May 1st marked not just the arrival of a fresh new month, but also the first day of Liverpool’s Writing on the Wall festival, 2017. And what a way to kick off a festival!To celebrate the publication by the University of Liverpool Press of the new edition of the revolutionary ‘Ten Years on the Parish’, ‘Writing on the Wall’ decided to reignite the old tradition of the Mayday political rally for Liverpool.
But this was no normal rally. It was organised to commemorate the life of the book’s writer, George Garret so (naturally) was led by a 5 metre model of the local activist.
At 1:30 pm on the cloudy May Day afternoon hundreds of people took to the streets, united in their cries for anti-austerity. Armed with billboards and banners, emblazoned with brightly splashed slogans, the marchers shouted to have their voices heard over the hustle and bustle of the urban highstreets. In this political climate of uncertainty and fear there were many different organisations united in their concern for our future.
The NHS were there concerned about privatisation, the Women’s Hospital concerned about its proposed closure, the Anti-Fascists concerned about racial intolerance in the aftermath of Brexit, Sefton library concerned about its cutbacks, teachers concerned about the education system, guards concerned about their removal from the trains. The passion and energy swelled and pulsated through the crowd and all the separate chants bled into one united voice of protest and discontent.
Of course, it is well established that Mayday is also International Workers Day, in memory of the Haymarket Martyrs.
The Haymarket Martyrs were a group of labour organisers who were executed in Chicago due to their involvement in the Eight Hour Day Movement of the 30s. This movement was a force to reduce the basic working day to eight hours without any reduction in pay.
The campaign spread across countries all around the globe, including Japan, Iran and Australia, as well as many countries in North and South America and Europe, uniting the world in a supportive community of protesters.
The government retaliated with much violence and many arrests, but the fighters persisted and eventually the basic eight-hour day was granted to all those countries who involved themselves in the fight.
Fast forward many years and the streets of Liverpool this May Day appeared to me to be a microcosm of this unity of different agendas and organisations all in the aid of a common cause. Of course the anger and the desperation today is nowhere near as acute as it was in the thirties because of those advantages and privileges that we do have, but to stand up and protect those privileges is the only way to determine that they remain in place. The threat of what life could be like without them (without the NHS, without libraries) was what seemed to engage people’s passion and energy. The spirit of rebellion and support for each other was strong, but the march had no atmosphere of aggression or negativity.
A steel drum band and a troupe of dancers joined the march, halfway through, reminding us that this was after all, a festival and festivals are about celebration and of course, festivity. But the music and movement didn’t distract from the general message. In fact, it reiterated the idea of unity.
It created an infectious joviality that encapsulated the explosive beauty and excitement of multiculturalism in the UK. As elegant women, swathed in rich multicolour, twirled across the cobbles of Bold Street, it truly exposed how limited Britian would be without the enriching contribution of other cultures to our society.
And the defence of a multicultural society seems to be a message consistent with Garret’s principles. He was known to be a ‘militant advocate of tolerance’, as expressed in the speech that the great Mr Garret himself delivered at the march’s end at William Brown Street… or at least the 5 metre recreation of Garret.
A recording of an extract from Garret’s autobiography read by his Grandson, Sean Garret, was played to the crowd so that the model himself appeared to speak and what it delivered was a message of acceptance and tolerance that is still desperately needed so many years later.
Garret achieved much in his life – it was a colourful life of rebellion and passion and he made himself and his important messages heard- but a lot of what he had to say still needs to be recalled now, especially in these times of ever growing austerity and fractured society.
Garret was an activist, protester, writer, playwright, documenter, merchant seaman and was the founder of the Unity Theatre, then called the Merseyside Left Theatre. He was born in Seacombe in 1896, but spent most of his childhood amongst the ‘slum docklands areas of Park Road’, near Toxteth.
‘Ten Years on the Parish’ was born out of a decade of unemployment where he and his wife suffered to such a degree that they had to sell their children’s bedding to survive and there were often ‘crazy thoughts of murder and suicide’.
But what is remarkable about Garret’s story is that through all those years of starvation and turmoil he remained productive and motivated, documenting his situation and that of others around him, in short story form, some of which were published alongside those of W.H Auden. He was also acting, writing plays and founding the theatre during this time and he remained politically active, as throughout all his life.
It was actually the advice of George Orwell to write an autobiography. Garret was known to have met Orwell and to have offered some help with Orwell’s research for ‘The Road to Wigan Pier.’
‘I was greatly impressed by Garret,’ he said. ‘Had I known before that it was he who writes under the pseudonym of Matt Low in the Adelphi, and one or two other places, I would have taken further steps to have met him earlier.’
All in all, this was a day not to be forgotten, as it was a day to ensure that Garret’s legacy is not forgotten, as it was additionally a day for Liverpool’s people to show that they won’t let their causes, voices and their well-being be forgotten about. There were performances from LIPA, speeches from the Worker’s Union and much more. One moment that really struck me was Yasmin Nawhali’s eloquent speech, highlighting the trouble in Syria and politely asking us to spare just one thought for Syria when voting.
This day opened my eyes and inspired me, giving me a recharge in energy in a time when I’d almost begun to lose hope. I hope others can find the power and the strength to be energised and not allow themselves to be dispirited, because action right now is the only way to make positive (or prevent negative) change.