What is History, Discuss?
Thursday, 13 June 2024 04:02

What is History, Discuss?

Published in Poetry

What is History, Discuss?

“History is and was and so is that patch/ of pavement” begins 'What is History, Discuss?', the poem that opens Whatsname Street (Smokestack Books, 2021) by Anna Robinson. The collection provides an account of a Lambeth housing estate across the generations. It is a work that combines oral history, patient archival research, and deep sustained attention to the fleeting stuff of memory. In this poem, which I am sharing with you today, Robinson performs a gathering together of the fragmented and ephemeral “bits/ and bobs” from which we make a life. It is a history of remnants (“the loose change in my pocket”) and absences (“the fact that there is never any/ loose change in my pocket”). It is a working-class history.

By focussing on “that patch” of pavement, Robinson situates the reader within the poem. We see in real time what the speaker sees, the world, our world, mundane and material. This is the challenge implicit in Robinson's poem: we could occupy that patch of pavement; we could – and we do – occupy history. For working-class people this is a profound thought. History, as it has typically been taught and transmitted through neoliberal culture, positions poor and working people as a motiveless mass at the mercy of and subject to social and economic forces we can neither resist or comprehend. Robinson offers the poem as a place of retuned attention to the small and ordinary details of daily life. In doing so, the poem asks how we define history, and raises powerful questions about what – and who – is worthy of preservation.

The rich live on through their monuments, architectural and cultural. Buildings, statues, and street names all serve to capture the continuity of their lived experience, inscribing their memory onto public space; canonical art and literature archive and enshrine their histories and perspectives. They accumulate things, a legacy of silverware and fine china; leather-bound books and family portraits. These possessions come to constitute history: they're what museums are full of, just as literature is thick with their narratives, their ideas, their ideologies. How the rich lived and thought become naturalised as The Past.

Poor and working-class people have few enduring possessions, they have fewer opportunities to access art or literature and intervene in culture; they are excluded from the long posterity those things engender. How are their experiences to be stored or celebrated? This is where Robinson's poem is at its most radical; by evoking the perishable and the intangible (“a Brussels sprout”, “a bumble bee”, “a brown-tail moth”), the poem locates history elsewhere: vividly embodied, kept alive through word of mouth, through the sharing of our stories. The poem, like the Lambeth housing estate itself, is a layered, communal space. Unlike the mansions of the rich, history is not entombed there, it is created and negotiated. It is a continuing conversation.

'What is History, Discuss?' invites us to consider that what distinguishes working-class history from canonical history is its deep collective sensibility. Robinson's poetry does not create a monumental space, but a relational one. Perhaps there is no “History” as such, but a collection of vivid histories, plural, spun from the long threads of intergenerational memory.

Robinson's poem so struck me because history, and our place within it, has been much on my mind over the last few months. Participating in discussions at a number of working-class studies events, it has become clear to me that we are still grappling with what are frequently touted as these “unprecedented times”. I dislike that phrase intensely. Although our contemporary moment is chaotic and scary, it is hardly without precedent. It is, in fact, part of an endlessly repeating pattern. Our current crisis, reaching as it does across multiple axes of oppression – social, economic, ecological – does so in an acute causal relationship to capitalism. Where we are now is the logical conclusion to where we've been; it is the end result of prioritising money over the health of poor and working people, over our shared environment, our rights and our safety.

This is far from new: when a third of Europe's population was lost to the bubonic plague – itself spread through burgeoning channels of trade and military conquest – Europe's largest and wealthiest companies responded by concentrating their assets, allowing them to gain a greater share of the market and a deeper influence within governments. This historical situation has strong parallels to the mess we're in today: while struggling smaller businesses and individual persons in poverty must rely on the vanishingly scant support offered to them by the state and (more and more frequently) the charities that have all but replaced state assistance, large companies – mainly those involved in home delivery and contactless payment – are profiting greatly from the new trading conditions. It is the most vulnerable amongst us who suffer, whether in the Middle Ages or the twenty-first century.

Defusing challenges to the cultural status quo

What has also become clear to me is that there are few spaces within mainstream neoliberal discourse that openly discuss or acknowledge the recursive nature of working-class exploitation and suffering. Worse, there are precious few spaces that acknowledge the working classes at all. This is another of neoliberal culture's two-faced manoeuvres: the working class have no part in history, and yet we are routinely consigned to it. To be poor and working-class within neoliberal culture is to occupy the position of the absent subject. We are frequently told that the class system no longer exists, or our “credentials” as working-class people are continually questioned because we do not present as “typically” working-class according to tropes that others have invented about us.

Middle-class cultural elites filter class out of their world-view in ways that remove the experience of class-based oppression from black and minority ethnic people, while refusing to acknowledge the role racism plays in the perception and treatment of white working-class others. Through a representational model of cultural inclusion these same elites select their working-class ambassadors to comfortably confirm existing tropes: the older white male from the industrial north, for example. These tropes, as they appear in poetry, are often characterised by a nostalgia, a looking back that defuses potential threat (social or aesthetic), softens the language of experience, and makes safe what might otherwise be challenging to the cultural status quo.

Martin Hayes' poem 'where are the working class now' from his most recent collection Underneath (Smokestack Books, 2021), takes this blinkered representation of class to task. As with Robinson's poem it opens with a challenge: “imagine if all of the workers in this city were white”. The first twelve stanzas are a list of working-class trades practised by non-white persons, from “the Uber driving Somalian cabbie” to the “Ghanaian road sweeper”. These short stanzas have an incantatory quality; they serve not only to demonstrate the ethnic diversity of working-class experience, but to emphasise just how fundamental these workers are to the operation of the city, any city, and to society at large. Each short stanza ends on the single word: “white”, performing an almost uncomfortable act of erasure that reflects the way in which the classed experiences of these workers is erased from history and within culture, even at the moment it is enacted.

The repeated refrain “imagine if” is both an invitation and a provocation. It extends to Hayes’ worker-subjects the space and consideration seldom afforded them as citizens. It also forces the reader into a confrontation with their own unconscious assumptions. It requires an enlarging of our world-view, our solidarity, our empathetic reach. In the final six stanzas, Hayes repeats the lines “who would/ then/ be able to split us/ apart/ see?” The lines themselves are split apart into short, jagged syllabic units, serving to create a tremendous amount of emphatic force. Each word is given its own weight, articulated like a fist thumped into a palm. The language is blunt, but it needs to be: this is important. It is also simple. If it feels complex or difficult, then that is a measure of just how successfully we have been divided. Hayes' use of both “imagine” and “see” is the necessary balance between close attention to material conditions, and the vision and the courage to picture them otherwise.

The poem ends with the question: do we see “why/ they did that?”, evoking the age-old divide and conquer tactics of moneyed power elites. There is rage in these lines, but there is also hope and defiance: disunity is not inherent or natural. If it was, they wouldn't have to work so hard to create it. Change begins with a simple act of recognition, an expression of class solidarity. When we acknowledge the class-based oppression of non-white persons our sense of history also expands; our history is intimately and vividly local, but it is also wide, networked, and global; multiple and intersecting.

Struggle and the UCS work-in

'Struggle' by Jim Aitken, the final poem I want to share with you today, echoes the hope and defiance of Hayes' piece. The poem was originally written to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the U.C.S. (Upper Clyde Shipbuilders) work-in. On July 31st 1971, over 8000 shipyard workers took possession of the four biggest shipyards on the Upper Clyde, to stage not a strike, but a work-in, organising and working together to run the yards themselves. Heath's Conservative government planned to close the shipyards, making 6,000 of the 8,500 shipyard workers employed by U.C.S. instantly redundant, and causing untold misery for their families and communities. So workers fought back, supported by marches, concerts, public collections and other fundraising activities. A support fund of nearly £250,000 was raised, and reports of workers' meetings were broadcast around the world. The work in continued into February and March of 1972, when the government reversed its decision not to support UCS.

This was a pivotal moment in the story of working-class resistance, so it is hardly surprising that it remains spectacularly unattended by mainstream historical discourse, or absorbed into a broader narrative of repression, fragmentation and failure within the labour movement. And yet our history survives. Reading Aitken's poem I was reminded that as a child, before I ever knew what the U.C.S. was, I could give you the chorus of the Matt McGinn song, 'Yes, yes, U.C.S.': “Yes, Yes, U.C.S./ Tell them on the radio, tell them on the press/ Want my job and I want no less/ No more dole day doldrums.” It is often through such subaltern cultural forms: the chant, the folksong, the poem, that our history persists and is handed on.

What is immediately striking about Aitken's poem is its focus not on explaining or detailing the U.C.S. work-in but in attending to the subjective and collective experience of the work-in for those within the labour movement. This is important because it challenges the implied audience for poetry. It tells us something of the social life of the poem, how it is to be circulated and shared, and by whom it is to be received. 'Struggle' has been published in the anthology A Rose Loupt Oot, in celebration and commemoration of the work-in; by the Scottish Socialist Party, and in Community Education newsletters. In addition to which it has been read at various events. It has a lively, politically engaged public life. It is not merely a place of preservation, but a site of potential reactivation, affirming and invigorating shared political commitments.

The poem proceeds slowly, in self-contained three-lined stanzas, each one encapsulating a difficult thought, as the speaker weighs their reasons for participating in the work-in. The “struggle” is not only a class struggle, fought in the shipyards, it is a mental and emotional struggle, a raising of consciousness that must begin within the self. I believe it is this negotiation between inner and external struggle that makes Aitken's poem so interesting and important. The fourth stanza of 'Struggle' marks a shift, a pivotal realisation that it is not whether the action is won or lost, but how it changes those within it, and inspires those who come after that matters. This is a brave and difficult thought. Social and political change are often slow. Our sense of ourselves as part of history must account for this fact, must reckon with the idea that we will not be the ultimate beneficiaries of our efforts, but that we are links in a long chain. We do what we do not to secure a place in some dusty posterity for ourselves, but to make the living present better for future others.

In the fifth stanza Aitken uses simple but finely wrought organic imagery: “They awaken and grow/ like desert seeds/ receiving rain” which frames the experience of political solidarity as necessary, natural, and nourishing. What I find so affecting about this piece as a whole and this stanza in particular is its lack of clamour or aggression: “struggle” is understood first and foremost as an innate desire to live and to grow, and it happens in slow-time, across generations. It is as immediate and visceral as a strike or a work-in, but it is also the building up of movements over years, the seeding of ideas, the changing of minds. Again, the poem frames the actions and history of working-class people as part of a living and interconnected whole.

All of these poems complicate and extend our idea of what history might be, of what our history is. These poems show us that it is not a smooth progressive arc, but that it is entangled, recursive and complicated. It is also created by people within social contexts, not merely something we are subject to or excluded from. We are capable of making history as well as experiencing it. We are not only witnesses; we shape and tell our own stories. Although poor and working-class people have not typically been trusted to be the authors and archivists of our experiences, we carry within our communities and within ourselves an incredibly rich fund of memories and embodied knowledge. These memories and this knowledge surface within our poetry, which offers us an important place of infiltration into the historical record. Poetry also extends a space to others, offers a lens through which to apprehend the myriad networked connections between poor and exploited people globally.

A wise friend of mine recently told me that “history tells us the facts, poetry tells us how it feels”. If we are to understand our own history, we need testimony as much as we need evidence, and poetry combines these facets more than any other art form. In the last decade or so, working-class histories have increasingly become the objects of study, but through poetry and song they also have the potential to be the means of resistance, to strike a light for others.


What is History, Discuss?

by Anna Robinson

History is and was and so is that patch
of pavement where one tiny leaf shape
is never wet no matter how much rain.
It’s in the shards of clay pipes on the banks
of the Thames and the salt-glaze fragments.
It’s in the loose change in my pocket
and the fact that there is never any
loose change in my pocket. It’s in the bits
and bobs, the fairy on the rock cake,
at the foot of our stairs. It’s t’ick
as a coddle and mild as milk.
There’s a king and queen and offspring
and they’re effing and blinding or not –
‘cause that’s common! It’s in the darkness,
the rose moon, a clear deep navy sky
and a box of Price’s candles to light
the longest street market in London
where we ply, plight and sing a bit.
It’s in the pain of home and the urge
to command that pain with real true facts.
It is what it is, although that’s contentious.
It’s a bumble bee, a Brussels sprout,
and sometimes, even, a brown-tail moth.

Reprinted with kind permission of Smokestack Books


where are the working class now

by Martin Hayes

where are the working class now
by Martin Hayes
imagine if all of the workers in this city were white
imagine that
the Uber driving Somalian cabbie
the Filipino nanny
the Columbian cleaner
the Brazilian courier
imagine that
the Nigerian traffic warden
the Afghan phone repair stall owner
the Indian corner shop owner
the Thai manicurist
if all of the workers in this city were white
the Lebanese kebab seller
the Syrian car washer
the Ghanaian road sweeper
imagine if all of the workers in this city were white
who would
be able to split us
why they did that
made believe
that words
said often enough
could separate us
if the colour of our blood
and the stench of our sweat
was more important
than the colour of our skin
who would
be able to split us
they did that?

Reproduced with kind permission of Smokestack Books



by Jim Aitken

Not to certainly means
worsening conditions
inevitable defeat.
To engage in action
even if you lose
means dignity at least.
It also means
just could mean
that you actually win.
But it’s more than that
for in the process
people change.
They awaken and grow
like desert seeds
receiving rain.
And give to others
a sense of vision
and possible dreams.


Anna Robinson's publications include Songs from the flats (Hearing Eye, 2006), The Finders of London (Enitharmon, 2010) – shortlisted for the Seamus Heaney Poetry Centre Prize – Into the Woods (Enitharmon, 2014) and Night Library (Stonewood, 2015). She teaches at the University of East London.

Martin Hayes has lived in the Edgware Road area of London all of his life. He played schoolboy football for Arsenal and Orient, and cricket for Middlesex Colts. Asked to leave school when he was 15, he has worked as a leaflet distributor, accounts clerk, courier, telephonist, recruitment manager and a control room supervisor. His books include Letting Loose the Hounds (2001), When We Were Almost Like Men (2015), The Things Our Hands Once Stood For (2018), Where We Get Magic From (2021), Ox (2021), and most recently Underneath (2021)

Jim Aitken is a poet, dramatist and essayist. He also tutors in Scottish Cultural Studies in Edinburgh and works with the Council's Outlook programme for people with mental health issues. He has several literary and cultural essays on the Culture Matters website. In 2020 he edited A Kist of Thistles: radical poetry from Scotland and in 2021 edited a companion prose version called Ghosts of the Early Morning Shift. Both books are published and available here.

The Beatle, the Bankie and the Bouquet
Thursday, 13 June 2024 04:02

The Beatle, the Bankie and the Bouquet

Published in Music

Chris McGachy uncovers the full story behind Lennon’s donation to the workers as he transformed from affable moptop to militant activist following the breakup of The Beatles.

50 years ago – in the summer of 1971 – John Lennon was putting the final studio touches to his global anthem, Imagine. At the same time the Government announced the imminent collapse of Upper Clyde Shipbuilders. Within weeks defiant workers had seized control of the yards.

'Killed by capitalism': The UCS Work-in

The Upper Clyde Shipbuilders’ (UCS) stunning victory against Ted Heath’s Tory government in early 1972 has become the stuff of political legend. It was a time when ordinary workers and communities united in solidarity to demand the right and dignity to work.

With mass redundancies already on the cards, UCS shop stewards led by Jimmy Reid and Jimmy Airlie knew conventional strike action would not win this battle. Their ingenious idea was for the workforce to take control of the yards and continue to produce the ships for which the River Clyde yards had become world-famous.

On 30 July 1971, the famous work-in began with 8,000 men seizing control of four giant shipyards on the Clyde. Heath’s Tory government had come to power in 1970 refusing to prop up ‘lame ducks’. Cashflow issues at the Clyde yards early in 1971 had caused panic among creditors.

When Parliament heard on 29 July 1971 that liquidation was the only option, Clydebank was described as a town in mourning.

A devastated Jimmy Reid was haunted by memories of the 1930s, when three of his sisters died in infancy. It led to his scathing accusation they were ‘killed by capitalism’. That memory propelled Reid to life as a communist activist.

Perhaps the most famous supporters of the UCS were John Lennon and Yoko Ono, who sent red roses and a huge financial donation to support the workers struggling to keep Clyde shipbuilding – and their communities – alive.

From moptop to militant

On 25 November 1969, John Lennon visited his Aunt Mimi's bungalow in Bournemouth where he removed his MBE medal from her mantelpiece. Back in London, he dispatched his chauffeur with the medal to return it Buckingham Palace, in protest in Britain’s involvement in the Nigerian civil war and its support for the US in Vietnam.

It was one of many stunts Lennon and new wife Yoko devised as he stepped away from the lovable moptop Beatle and transformed himself into a celebrity activist with global appeal.

Lennon was liberated by the sudden death of stuffy, conformist manager Brian Epstein, and fired with radicalism through his burgeoning romance with Yoko Ono. He grabbed the chance to escape the claustrophobic rollercoaster of Beatlemania and touring.

John had a unique ability to compose global anthems, beginning with All You Need Is Love and then Give Peace a Chance. His songbook was adopted by peace campaigners and football fans alike.

Signs of a more political phase were also seen in his track, Revolution, and by publicity stunts such as a honeymoon ‘bed-in’ for peace reported by the world’s press to a global following. These successful publicity campaigns spurred John and Yoko to develop their radical agenda, assured of worldwide media coverage.

Lennon’s first solo album, including the track Working Class Hero, sealed the transformation. It was brutal and bleak, personal and political.

Power to the People

 Since Revolution and the creation of Apple, Lennon had been forced to defend himself against criticism from left-wing radicals who viewed him as a capitalist sell-out. In January 1971 he invited Red Mole editors Tariq Ali and Robin Blackburn to his mansion for an interview.

It was Red Mole’s coverage of the UCS dispute which sparked Lennon’s interest in the Clydeside workers.

The next morning Lennon went into the studio and recorded a new political anthem: Power to the People.

Donation fuels worldwide solidarity

 Lennon’s subsequent donation to the UCS fighting fund helped propel the local struggle to a sympathetic international audience.

Yard stewards – mainly Communists – tapped into widespread national support from workers, unions, suppliers, local traders, councillors, politicians, community and religious leaders – even creditors, and the liquidator himself.

A day after Lennon started work on his new album, Imagine, on 23 June 1971 around 100,000 Scottish workers downed their tools in solidarity with the UCS workers.

It was followed up the same week as the donation, with another half-day walk-out on 12 August by 200,000 workers – the largest Glasgow demo since the 1926 General Strike.

The joint stewards persuaded a mass meeting to reject a divisive government offer to save just two of the four yards. The workers held firm and completed a dozen ships before the government capitulated in February 1972.

Having originally refused a £6 million loan, Heath’s government agreed to invest £35 million to keep all four shipyards afloat, with only voluntary redundancies. Two continue to this day.

A spokesperson for revolution

It had generally been assumed that John and Yoko became aware of the dispute through television news reports.

But in his updated autobiography (Streetfighting Years), Lennon interviewer, Tariq Ali, revealed that it was his publication Red Mole which brought the UCS to the couple's attention.

UCS 2 it was red moles coverage

In his interview for the newspaper John explained that through his latest musical material he was trying to shake off the teeny-bopper image. The ex-Beatle confirmed he wanted to transform himself into a serious spokesperson for the revolutionary movement.

“I want to get through to the right people, and I want to make what I have to say very simple and direct,” he insisted to Red Mole. “I've always been politically minded…and against the status quo.”

Imagine a bunch of red, red roses

In the first week of July 1971 – as Lennon flew to New York to complete Imagine with producer Phil Spector – Red Mole published a special issue dedicated to the Clydeside dispute.

Recalling the events of the summer of 1971, Tariq Ali explained how the UCS story in Red Mole had caught Lennon’s attention: “Our cover was a reprint of a 19th century caricature of a fat, ugly, bloated capitalist confronting a strong, handsome and noble-looking worker. He loved that cover more than the convoluted articles on the inside and later showed it to Phil Spector and others at Tittenhurst.”

UCS 3 Recalling the events

Undoubtedly inspired by the Red Mole cover and workers seizing control of the yards, on the 9 August John and Yoko sent a bunch of red roses which were delivered to the gate of John Brown’s shipyard in Clydebank. At the same time a cheque for £1,000 (worth around 15,000 today) was sent to the unions’ fighting fund.

Underlining his solidarity with the workers and their tactics, the dedication card repeated the lyric from his recent hit: “POWER TO THE PEOPLE with love from JOHN AND YOKO, AUGUST 9th 1971.”

By the end of the August, John and Yoko had flown to New York to take up permanent residence, in order to secure custody of Yoko’s daughter. He would never again set foot in England.

The dedication card became a rare and valued souvenir from this world-famous event sent by the superstar couple. Jimmy Cloughley was an engineer who was on the co-ordinating committee of the work-in. For many years this collectors’ item lay boxed among Jimmy’s papers along with his audio recordings of meetings, photographs and press reports.

UCS 4 with many of those

With many of those involved either elderly or passed away, a 30th anniversary exhibition was hosted in 2002. Jimmy Cloughley donated his personal papers, including John and Yoko’s dedication card, to a special UCS archive curated by Glasgow Caledonian University, where it remains to this day.

Working-class heroes

Recalling his deep connection with Lennon, Tariq said: “He wanted to leave Britain because he and Yoko were repulsed by its provincialism and by the tenor of tabloid racism that was directed against her. I last spoke with him in 1979 when we discussed the likely impact of Thatcher's victory. He didn't sound too unradical in that conversation,” Tariq tellingly recalls.  

“Clearly, his views changed somewhat but I can't see him as a neo-con supporting the wars and occupations in Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan. The loss of his voice was a tragedy for millions.”

And in this world of war and global injustice, both men remain icons and rallying figures in the respective worlds of politics and music, working-class heroes whose lives have touched me and many millions of others – all the more today as our heroes are dead and our opponents are in power.

Read the full story and multimedia timeline at www.globetrotsky.com/lennon.

A Comedy of Ideas: The Cartoons of Bob Starrett
Thursday, 13 June 2024 04:02

A Comedy of Ideas: The Cartoons of Bob Starrett

Published in Visual Arts

David Betteridge introduces some of the cartoons of Bob Starrett, the official cartoonist of the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders Work-in of 1971-2.

When we look at Starrett’s cartoons, we may sometimes laugh Ha! ha! ha! in amusement at his portrayal of some silliness of human behaviour. We may sometimes laugh Ha! ha! in agreement with his satirical view of some political enemy. Most often, however, we laugh Ha! in delighted recognition of his skewering of some error, his highlighting of some truth, his scoring of some point. Such cartoons derive less from a comedy of manners, and rely less on caricature, than they express a comedy of ideas. To put it another way: in Starrett’s cartoons, we find less of the “good-tempered pencil” of a Fougasse, less of the personalised loathing of a Scarfe, and more of a focused analysis of the ways in which political wrongs operate. William Blake said that “a tear is an intellectual thing”. Starrett shows that a laugh can be an intellectual thing, too.


As well as attacking the functions and dysfunctions of Capital, Starrett also aims his fire at those aspects of everyday life that disfigure and divide the cause of Labour. Racism, sectarianism, and xenophobia are frequent targets of his. Like Brecht, Starrett “takes a bold sweep, never letting inessential detail or decoration distract from the statement, which is an artistic and intellectual one” (Brecht, Stage Design for the Epic Theatre, 1951); or, as Starrett himself once said, emphatically, in conversation, “No rococo.”

In the lines that Starrett draws, in the captions that he writes, and in the angles and points of view that he puts across, he is informed by a wide web of creative influences. Jimmy Airley, Jimmy Reid, Mick McGahey, Helen Crawfurd, Mary Barbour, Antonio Gramsci, Rosa Luxemburg, John Maclean, John Berger, Robert Burns, Dorothea Lange, Ben Shahn, Lindy Hemming, Mike Leigh, Ken Loach, Joan Littlewood, Bud Neill, Brendan Behan, Robert Noonan, Paul Robeson, Mahalia Jackson, and, most important of all, because they came first in Starrett’s education, Dunky Lamont and “all the guys in shipyards and on building sites who have given me ideas, themes and arguments” - they, and a long list of other thinkers, activists, artists, and writers stand behind him. Like them, and like the people for whom he draws his cartoons, Starrett looks with a sharp eye at the real world, engages with it, and shakes it until its contradictions rattle and its bubbles of absurdity go Pop!

083 1



Starrett learned the essentials of visualising and drawing by copying other people’s work, and by taking advice. He quickly progressed to producing work of his own, in a style of his own, readily identifiable as “Starrett”; but his individuality has always been a reflection of, and a reflection on, topics of popular and political concern, notably the class struggle of Labour against Capital. His cartoons have been gifts, freely given to that struggle, being grounded in it, usually drawn to order, under pressure of time. He was a founder member of the Glasgow Trade Union Centre Poster Group, a spin-off of the historic UCS Work-in of 1971-72.


















Films - watching them, and working in them, initially with Bill Forsyth - are an important part of Starrett’s life. A favourite screen experience of his is re-visiting Charlie Chaplin’s great legacy, going back to the early days of cinema. (He has a boxed set of Chaplin’s films at home.) It is not surprising, then, that a recurring character in Starrett’s cartoons, The Worker, has certain similarities to Chaplin’s The Tramp. Both are resilient, resourceful, humane, strong, and clever. Both are constantly up against Wealth, Power, and Injustice, never weakening in their struggle to survive, and if possible prevail. There is, however, a significant difference: The Tramp is a marginalised individual, whereas The Worker is a member of that class in history that is not only the most exploited, but also the most creative. It is interesting to note that, according to the composer Hanns Eisler, Chaplin was a great teacher of Brecht’s. So Starrett and Brecht have that in common, as much else.







As well as being a cartoonist, Starrett is an author. A collection of his writings, The Way I See It, was published in 2013, by Fair Pley. These writings combine memoir, joke, description, and short story, sometimes with a dash of comment. Especially where his setting is the shipyards, Starrett employs (and quotes) a clear and flexible kind of language that Brecht would have called “gestic”: that is to say, a kind of language that embodies both thought and attitude in the very shape of a sentence: a kind of language in which gist and gesture work as one, with “no messing”. (This clarity and flexibility informed the great debates of the UCS Work-in that Starrett’s cartoons helped to commemorate, and fed into the epoch-making oratory of its leaders.) There is an affinity between the punchlines that come thick and fast in Starrett’s writings and the outlines of his cartoons.

More of Bob Starrett's cartoons are here.