Our Working Lives

In the end I decided to don my denim tunic + toolbelt and turban for the launch of The Way We Worked at Poole Museum. It was a very jolly occasion and the exhibition areas on two floors were beautifully styled to reflect the 1940s/50s world recalled by the interviewees in the Our Working Lives project.

Going into the show, we were encouraged to “clock in” in keeping with one of the exhibition’s general world-of-work theming, and in keeping with the fun/participatory approach taken by Poole Museum in the way they have organised the display.

A promotional film for The Max Factor factory in Wallisdown in 1959 was projected on the wall which I watched several times, marvelling at the stylish turbans of the workers and the precise efficiency and repetitive movements required in order for make-up to be assembled on a production line.

Next to this large projection were a set of overalls and a mirror for trying them on. I was already wearing knitted turban + denim tunic and toolbelt (a most enabling/empowering outfit!) so I just looked but I think it’s great that there are so many things to touch and try in this exhibition.

There were listening stations all around the exhibition where you could hear people recalling their working lives. My favourite interview was with a woman talking about how she walked out of a job because she wanted one Saturday off which the shop wouldn’t allow. I enjoyed her indignance at the shop’s refusal to grant her this modest request, and the fact that she stuck to her guns and found work elsewhere. Many other things struck me about the interviews; especially how much harder it was to be a working* mum in the 1940s/50s.

*ETA: I should point out here that I mean working in paid employment; women who left their jobs when they got married still had to work, but housework and the work of being a mother was totally different from paid employment.

There was still a very strong idea that really children should be raised by their mother, and huge pressure socially – from other women, partners, and employers – to stop working in your paid job when you got married. This is something I already knew from my research into domestic space and the politics of housework, but reading books in social history and feminism is very different for listening to people telling their own stories, in their own words, from their own discrete positions. Somehow personal accounts can bring home the politics of the past in a very acute way. Oral histories are not a replacement for books, texts, papers or academic study, but they enrich those resources immeasurably. I think the archive of oral histories being collected for Our Working Lives is going to prove invaluable over time as a very accessible route into the way life was in the past. Something about the human voice, inflections in tone, the expressive way that words are spoken etc. for me is very powerful. I remember reading earlier this week about the power of story on Joanna Dobson’s blog, and in particular, this phrase (bold sections are my emphasis):

In an interview at the end of the book, Levy describes how her research into the history of slavery revealed very few surviving documents where black slaves speak of and for themselves. ‘Little writing or testimony has emerged that was not filtered at the time through a white understanding or serving a white narrative – whether it be the apologists for slavery and the West Indian planter classes, or their opponents, the abolitionists,’ she writes.

For Levy, fiction can provide an answer. ‘Writing fiction is a way of putting back the voices that were left out,’ she says. ‘I wanted to put back in the voices of everyday life for black Jamaicans that are so silent in the record.

Obviously Dobson is writing about the particular politics of The Long Song by Andrea Levy – which concerns the history of black slavery and especially the voicelessness of black slaves in the official records dealing with slavery. However the process of giving voice to any community in order to give that community the power of story is applicable anywhere. I loved the care with which Joe described the interviews at the launch of The Way We Worked, and how the stories collected for the project have been edited simply with no background music, and with dialogues, biases and opinions in tact. One of the big impulses behind making The Missability Radio Show back in 2007 was that I wanted to share the private conversations me and my friends were having about disability, because I felt – and still feel – that it is always more powerful to speak with your own voice than to be spoken for. Although Our Working Lives is less overtly political than either The Long Song or The Missability Radio Show, it is wonderful to hear all these people speaking by and for themselves, and the politics of economics, personal freedom, labour, and family life are all nonetheless there, in this rich archive of memories.

It was quite crowded and busy at the exhibition launch so I shall be downloading all the interviews I can from the project website in order to listen at leisure at home. To my delight there is one interview with a woman who remembers being in The Women’s Land Army! I have been reading many books about the WLA in the past few months, and it is wonderful to hear a woman from Battersea talking about her living memories of working the land during WWII.

The downstairs section was all about how shiny golden dollarines could be spent, once earned. And I confess that I spent some time browsing and trying on all the 1950s hats and gloves, wondering how my shop-girl wage at the time could have covered the cost of these marvellous goods.

I was also impressed by the 1950s food made by the Poole Museum workers to nourish folks in attendance at the exhibition launch. This plate was rather decimated by the time I got around to photographing it, but hopefully you get the idea. Devilled eggs are – in my opinion – rather overrated.

However, they were definitely tastier than these fossilised old chocolate biscuits in the main Museum exhibit would have been, had we been able to taste them!

After seeing the show, myself, Joe and his friend Paul went for a wander around Poole taking in the new bridge that is being built;

the old wool hall which is now the social history centre;

and some industrial textures.

We talked about this book, how one can make a living as an artist (still no certain conclusions there) and about the sonic bus-tour of Poole which Joe is planning for later in the Summer.

I can’t wait!

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