Working class facts and artefacts

Paul Maunder, a writer and a working class man who has contributed hugely to the development of the Blackball working class history project, recently sent me a draft of an article about working class heritage. I found it very helpful and will post details just as soon as I hear that it has been published (paper or web). Two things stuck with me in particular.

Maunder discusses the development of heritage parks as a commodified version of history. We've all been to a few, taken the kids and spent a fortune on expensive lunches and admiring scrupulously clean and well maintained artefacts of wealthy colonial life. Our local one, Shantytown, is mostly free to locals, but eye-wateringly expensive to anyone else. If you climb up the back of the 'village', you can see a rough pub and a prostitute's hut. There is also an old hut (an original actually used a long time ago I think) hidden up another track where visitors scarcely ever go. But few visitors see these - much better to stick to the village on the flat where everything is so quaint and comfortable. The train stops at a place where you can go gold panning which is also kind of clean, with all the equipment at a level where you don't hurt your back as you hadn over more dosh and have a go at panning for gold.

Maunder observes that working class people work for wages. They don't have artefacts of their labour. Too true. At the last Mayday at Blackball, someone floated the very good idea of a wall to commoemorate the men and women who die in workplaces and workplace accidents each year. I like this idea a lot. But it would be nice if working people could be celebrated in life and not just honoured in coffins.

What about the lives of working people outside the work place? Maunder also mentions the survival of two banners made by the wives of miners during a bitter dispute: 'Solidarity Forever' and 'United We Stand'. What treasures. What effort (and good fortune) to make something to survive beyond basic utility. It is clear to me that working class men and women endlessly made things in the past. Wood shelters, tools to shoot and skin rabbits, structures to get veges to grow in marginal places, shelves for the house and toys for children. Knitted jerseys and socks and baby blankets. Sewn clothes and peg holders and curtains. But this effort is used up in daily living. These things are used until they are worn through.

There is a lot to do yet as we work on our working class history project, based in Blackball. But today I want to talk about working people, skills and the loss of government funding for adult and community education. Here in our town, the high school night classes face closure at the end of this year after the last budget in which ACE funding was cut by 80%. Together with the announcement that no further funding will be given by the government for polytech places, despite the expected surge in interest due to the lack of jobs, it is clear that the government has little interest in non-wealthy people acquiring life skills. They get a shot at it while they are at primary and high school and if they aren't ready then, well tough. Maybe they will learn some construction skills in prison when they build their own cells.

Do we need to go back to a Workers' Education Association? The current WEA website does not mention anythign about it's history, but I think there is a book about the person who started it


aha! James Shelley. Could we have a person like this again? This article on him from the NZ Dictionary of Biography sheds light on a name we never here these days.

Then there is truly grass roots stuff. I'm a huge fan of Paulo Friere, the Brazilian writer and teacher who empowered most of Brazil to read and write. I see the Transition Towns project as the most significant grass roots educational initiative on our landscape at the moment. We haven't got one in our twon and I'll admit to feeling a bit jaded on the history of environmentally active organisations where we live. We live in an economy based on extractive enterprises here. Some would say the systematic rape of the land and sea puts food on the tables of much of the West Coast.

I haven't got answers but I am looking for them. There are a few groups around here, gardening and crafting groups where skills can be shared. I haven't checked yet whether the funding for basic adult literacy has survived. But we need to know more than how to sign our name and write our address on the bottom of the hire purchase document which said no deposit, no interest until next May but turned out to have a number of conditions in very fine print. We need to know how to take control of our lives outside of a consumer paradigm.


Sharonnz said…
Lots of interesting threads here, Sandra. I've been fascinated with the handiwork that Rosemary McLeod collects (& has written about in Thrift to Fantasy) as remaining "artifacts" of women's work. As for the whole shipping container debacle...what to say!! Check out - it's a bit out of date but they are currently commenting on this bizarre notion. Seems to me that at every turn someone's rights are being systematically eroded.
Hi Sharon. I loved Thrift to Fantasy also. I guess you live close enough to have seen her actual exhibition? I bought it for Mum for last Christmas. Thanks for the link to the rethinking site - I didn't know of it and am pleased to see it. I totally agree with your last sentence. Scary.

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