Yesterday, ahead of my retracing of the Jarrow March starting this Wed, I went along to the Jarrow Crusade 80th Anniversary Fun Day at Monkton Stadium in the town. Some people have baulked at the notion of a ‘fun day’ in commemoration of a hunger march but that’s a bit pedantic if you ask me. It was a chance for the community – many of whom had relatives on the original march – to share memories and a sense of community
I met some lovely and interesting local people (like Jo Hacksmith) many of whom wished me well and offered help and encouragement. I finally met up with Matt Perry of Newcastle University whose brilliant socio-historical study of the march is proving a real inspiration to me. I grabbed a few words with him and will I hope find time for more before the project is over. He’s giving a talk on the March at Newcastle’s Lit and Phil tomorrow (Mon 3rd Oct) if you’re in the ‘toon.
With all due respect to all attendees though, most eyes were on the star of the show, one Jeremy Corbyn. He gave a speech that went down well with the people there, as you’d expect, although it’s not them he has to convince of course. But he did engage with a northern working class community, which is very much not his own crowd, and he gave much credit to ‘Red’ Ellen Wilkinson, the Jarrow MP who looms large in the story. There were also variously entertaining cameos from the local Tory, Green and LibDem candidates plus the head of Unison. And I had a doughnut.
Two days to go
More of all this when it becomes the prologue to the book. But in the meantime, here’s what I wrote for the New Statesman online about the day
JC UN ROCK STAR
As wags across social media clamoured to point out when I mentioned the event, the very notion of a ‘Jarrow Crusade 80th Anniversary Fun Day’ is rich in irony. “Relive those heady days of the Means Test and rickets with a go on the bouncy castle and a jumbo hot dog” and so on and so on. For myself, I was at the ‘fun day’ on Sat Oct 1st at the Northumbrian town’s neat Monkton Stadium primarily for research purposes, although naturally I was hoping for some fun, or at least that hot dog.
80 years ago this week, two hundred or so men (and one woman) marched from Jarrow to London in an act of desperation and protest that has become one of the most romanticized, lionized, misunderstood and contentious events in british social history and a key moment in the iconography of the left. The closure of the Palmers Shipyard laid waste the economy and community of a town already suffering like most northern industrial centres in the 1930s. It was decided to mount a ‘Crusade’ to London to deliver a petition asking for help from parliament. The religious connotations of crusade were quiet deliberate by the way. Hunger Marches of varying degrees of militancy had been a fixture of British life since the 1920s; the Jarrow marchers – and organizers – were keen to be seen as orderly, decent and Christian
Neverthelss the British establishment reacted with horror tinged with more than a little fear. Bishops and leader writers denounced them. The TUC and the Labour party cravenly refused to support them worried that communists might be involved or at least that the Tory press would claim they were. Indeed the only unqualified support that the Marchers received was from towns and villages along the route, from Tory Harrogate who welcomed them with open arms to the cobblers of Leicetser who worked all night unpaid to mend their ravaged boots.
Today’s Labour ruling executive, unlike that of 1936, are positively gung-ho to get with the Jarrow programme. In fact, they’ve sent their top man from London. Jeremy Bernard Corbyn appeared at the Fun Day in what was his first public appearance after being re-elected Labour leader with an increased majority a week earlier. When I arrive at the gate to pick up my wristband from councilor Audrey, I am told, a little breathlessly, that ‘he’ is already here; “We gave him a dinner at the Lakeside pub last night”
Many of those who’d been aware of him in the 80s and beyond as a quotidian Spartist of the metropolitan left have been baffled by Corbyn’s rise to Guevara style Icon. (JC Un Rock Star if you will, as Bill Wyman’s grisly 80s hit nearly had it) I confess I have been amongst them. So as part of the preamble to my retracing of the Jarrow march for my next book (info at maconiejarrow.wordpress.com) I decided I needed to see the phenomenon at first hand up close; very close actually, from about a lane of running track from the ad hoc stage. The town’s current MP Stephen Hepburn gives a doughty speech which is as much about JC (Jeremy Corbyn) as JC (Jarrow Crusade) “Had he been at the side of road when those marchers passed by, Jeremy would have shared his sandwiches with them”, the faintly Christlike tone of this eulogy a little creepy. But soon after the man himself takes the mike it become clear to me that JC is not so much that other JC (Jesus Christ) as JP (John Peel). They have much in common; both bearded, softly spoken, mildly drony, educated at private school in Shrewsbury and attaining greatest affection and fame in middle age. Both have appeared principled mavericks and saintly rebels despite long, comfortable careers in two of the coziest berths in the British Establishment, the BBC and the Labour Party, all the time nurturing a monumental disdain for the shallower, slicker elements of their chosen worlds; in Corbyn’s case Blair and Campbell, in Peel’s the Bates/Edmonds axis at ‘wonderful Radio One’. They are ‘National Treasures’ for the kind of liberal leftist who hates the notion of national treasures.
After JC, (who gave a genuinely fine tribute to the one female Jarrow Marcher, local MP ‘Red’ Ellen Wilkinson) there were a few other ‘acts’; a Unison chief straight from central casting circa 1984 (“and let us be clear that we say as a movement to THIS Tory Government..”), a smooth LibDem, a nice lady from the Greens whose lengthy, factual re-telling of the March smacked of “This term we have been studying the Jarrow Crusade which took place in October 1936…” Funniest was the nonagenarian Conservative candidate who sat on a folding chair beaming and said “I am from Jarrow and I live in Jarrow and naturally I haven’t agreed with a thing I’ve heard here today….” But clearly Jeremy was the big deal, he and the Marchers themselves whom I’m glad to say were celebrated with cards bearing the name of a marcher being borne proudly by relatives.
Corbyn’s share of the Labour members vote grew to 68 per cent last week and a huge influx of new members have made Labour the biggest political party in Western Europe. All this proves to some that he us our next Prime Minister. As many have pointed out however, this is rather akin to saying that Liverpool will win the Premier League because the Kop want them to. We will know whether one of them does win, depending on Teresa May’s electoral strategists and pollsters, by next Summer when my book on the legacy of Jarrow will be published. But as I set off for my three hundred mile trek to London, Downing Street seemed a long way off for me and JC.