Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Alternative voices

The memories weekend at Verdant Works saw many millworkers turning up to share their stories and talk about some the materials they had taken. One of the most interesting things in the weekend was the number of men turning up to tell about their role in the jute industry post war. They shed an interesting light on the storyline envisaged for the community music work.

In choosing an angle, one necessarily favours one storyline at the cost of possible others. For the storyline of the community music project Warp and Weft I chose a theme that stood out for me in the exhibition at Verdant Works: that of the unusual relationships between men and women in Dundee in the 1930s. This is the story about the jute industry that is popularly remembered. In fact, it is also the story remembered in Sharman Macdonald’s play She Town that will be on at the Dundee Rep in September.

Realising that we tend to remember one particular story of the jute industry opened my eyes for alternative stories. One of the things that stood out in the memories weekend was the number of men who wanted to tell their story. They had been spinners, technicians, or worked in the office. As a group they are less easy to capture than what one participant remembered as ‘the vast army of millgirls’. The work they were involved in was more disparate. Their experiences were significantly different from that of the women who worked in the jute industry.

The popular understanding of millgirls is based on the idea of strong women who were breadwinners for their family, an image derived from the period between the late 19th century and the 1930s. This image was not endorsed by the men I spoke to. The division of work in the jute industry tended to be segregated on gender lines. What the men emphasised was how their work enabled women to do their job. When a loom broke down, they were the ones called upon for repairs. Women and men also felt differently about trade unions and strikes. Women often said that they did not go on strike. Their income was that low that they had to save for even a pair of stockings and going on strike would be unaffordable. Though some men said they just got on with their job, many eagerly spoke about the strikes in which they had participated.

If one thing came out of the memories weekend it is the contrast between the stories of women and men about work in the jute industry. The story remembered popularly is that of the millgirls in the 1930s. That will also be the context within which this community music project will be based. The story of men who worked in the jute industry should, however, not be forgotten.

The music that I'll compose for this community music project will be uploaded on this blog around the middle of October.

For more information about the project you can contact Dundee Heritage Trust’s Education and Community Outreach Officer Brian Kelly at education@dundeeheritage.co.uk, or myself, community musician Petra Vergunst, at petravergunst@hotmail.com.

Copyright text and images Petra Vergunst