Gabriel Wynne, a Warwick undergraduate and recent volunteer, reflects on his time with the MRC.
Contemplating the Void
Entering the final year of a history degree poses a few challenges. There’s the increased academic workload: a dissertation to research and write, a larger pile of weekly reading, and the not-so-distant prospect of final exams. More daunting, however, is the rapidly encroaching void of graduation. What am I going to do with my life? What societal function can I fulfil now I’ve spent £40,000 on memorising the chronology of U.S. Presidents?
Into the Archive
One idea came to mind – working in an archive. I could use the skills and knowledge I’d gained from my degree whilst learning an essential, tactile vocation. But what does archival work involve? Images of long rows of shelving, dusty medieval censuses and indeterminable indexes might come to mind. I thought I’d try some volunteering with the MRC to gain a better understanding of the area.
I was given the task of writing a description of an interview with lawyer Geoff Shears about his involvement in the Grunwick industrial dispute of the 1970s. Shears was one of thirty people interviewed in 2007 by film-maker Chris Thomas for The Great Grunwick Strike, 1976-1978 – a history which he produced and directed on behalf of Brent Trades Union Council. Thomas deposited the unedited interviews (on DVCAM cassettes) at the MRC and they have since been digitised for accessibility and preservation, complementing the written Grunwick archive also held at the MRC.
In the summer of 1976, remembered by many as the hottest on record, workers in a London film processing factory walked out in protest against working conditions, beginning a struggle for trade union recognition by mostly South Asian women that would involve mass picketing, police violence and national labour mobilisation. Shears was a young trade union lawyer at the time and an avid supporter of the strikes who came to represent several strikers under prosecution.
A “right-wing conspiracy”
What is immediately striking from the interviews is the wider narrative within which Grunwick exists for Shears. He doesn’t come across as a contemporary giving his first-hand account, but as someone who wants to convey his sense of the events’ wider historical significance. Viewing Grunwick in the context of the industrial disputes of the 1980s, Shears sees a pernicious “right-wing conspiracy” at work in 1976. Describing the “militarised” nature of policing, he views Grunwick as a “testing ground” for “people within the authorities” who wanted to use the police to crush mass industrial action “in preparation for the days of the Thatcher government.”
A cultural barrier
One key insight is in the difficulties posed by the cultural barrier between the British trade union movement and legal system and the South Asian women on strike. Shears talks about the “struggle to find the language” to convince such women of the respectability of industrial action, showing frustration at the good witnesses who were unwilling to give evidence because of cultural differences. Viewed from the women’s perspective, this exemplifies the multifaceted nature of their disadvantage. Not only were they discriminated against in the work place, they faced difficulties in pursuing justice through a system unsuited to their needs.
A career in archives?
This speaks to what was most challenging and interesting about using these interviews as sources. Unlike written documents, Shears’ words offer only part of his meaning, with significant subtext evident in the unspoken. More so than I had imagined, interpretation and analysis form a vital part of working in an archive. I’m undecided about whether I’m going to pursue archival work further. Perhaps unsurprisingly, a brief voluntary stint has challenged my assumptions and given a little insight into the nuance involved.
[The image of Grunwick strikers at the top of the post is taken from an educational module on the dispute on the Striking women website].
Post script by Martin Sanders, Senior Assistant Archivist: I’d like to thank Gabriel for his excellent work. By creating descriptions which give researchers a clear idea of the content of this source he has contributed to one of our key tasks.