Graham Stevenson reports on the recent Real Jessie Eden event in Birmingham, including Dave Puller's new poem on Jessie.
Over 60 people crowded into the upstairs room at Cherry Reds café and bar in central Birmingham throughout the course of the Real Jessie Eden event, jointly organised by Culture Matters and the city’s Morning Star Readers’ & Supporters Group in early January 2018.
The event opened with a round table on the interplay between the TV series, Peaky Blinders, and the character of Jessie Eden and her reality. This involved Paul Long, Professor of Media and Cultural History at the Birmingham School of Media, Dave Puller, a professional poet, who has written for the stage, radio, film, and television and has featured in these media regularly as a contributor, actor, and performer, and Graham Stevenson, a former senior union official and now a historian.
Kicking off was Paul Long, the author of Class, Place and History in the Imaginative Landscapes of Peaky Blinders, an essay in D Forrest and B Johnson (eds) Social Class and Television Drama in Contemporary Britain, published by Palgrave Macmillan, London.
Paul felt that the drama series Peaky Blinders was largely successful in terms of its representation of interesting working-class protagonists and of industrial Birmingham in the inter-war period:
'The Midlands had been poorly served by the creative process in television. It was a backcloth noticeably missing from dramatic representation in quality British television. It’s genesis in the ambition and mission of the series’ creator and author Stephen Knight, whose background was rooted in the milieu. Characters were often imbued with sympathy and complexity in the way they try to cope with the aftermath of the Great War and the limitations of their environment. The creative process could be based on fact without being history, especially when it gave access to a period normally beyond the comprehension of the uninitiated.'
Women delegates to the 1944 CPGB conference
Steven Knight, the creator of the series, is the screenplay writer of the films Closed Circuit, Dirty Pretty Things and Eastern Promises, and one of three creators of the game show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?
Dave Puller spoke about Peaky Blinders being stylised and exciting television, but he also recalled how he had listened to a BBC radio programme about the series, which
'highlighted the change in hairstyles, footwear, clothing, headwear and footwear that the producers felt necessary to make the series entertaining. It also mentioned the concentration on a romance that Jessie didn't have, rather than on her achievements as a radical communist and trade union organiser. She is, sadly a much-ignored historical figure.'
He was also concerned that it was extremely violent, depicted the working classes in a negative fashion and left the story of Jessie Eden completely unfinished:
'Instead of concentrating on the political and campaigning nature of Jessie, a totally false romantic interlude was introduced. As television Peaky Blinders might be a good watch, but as history it is bunkum.'
Graham Stevenson, who knew Jessie and has been working with her extended family on her biography, said that it was
'slightly annoying to read Peaky Blinder’s creative team and mainstream media say that there’s not a lot of information about her and then going on for a thousand words in print, ignoring the 25,000 words I’ve written about her that is freely available online – much of which has been purloined and distorted to serve interests that would not have been to Jessie’s taste.’
He was quite certain that the real Jessie would never have allowed herself to be
‘seduced by a crook, boos, or a Labour politician, quite apart from any notion of failing to support the workers of Birmingham in anything.’
The way the programme had left Jessie’s character was nothing short of disgraceful, despite belated attempts to put distance between the real Jessie and the TV character.
For him, there was a sense that misogyny informed the series. Strong women characters had been created for the lead to be attracted to but, inevitably, they had to fail since the robustness of Tommy Shelby’s masculinity would otherwise be at stake. If some turn in the plot revealed as different story, he would be pleasantly surprised, but he doubted it as the screenplay had committed itself now. Another concern was that, while the BBC maintained strict protocols for the maintenance of absolute accuracy in its Tudor dramas, even down to the precision of food or needle-ware, it seemed that all aspects of 20th century working class life were fair game for anachronistic representation.
Modern, rather than contemporary music told one story but, in another example, young women today in music venues might think it a lark to nip into the gents. But, no woman in the inter-war period would have been seen dead in a male toilet save for an emergency worse than death, as Jessie was shown doing, in painting a picture of her cussedness. Extending and making up detail, or repositioning decades, say in a series based on characters in a novel, as with the Father Brown series, or Lark Rise to Candleford, was one thing. But just making up things about people who were still remembered by people alive today was for him a whole new level of cynicism.
It wasn’t the 'wandering accents that bothered. All of the actors carried off their tasks superbly, it was the script that was lacking- and the motivation, which seemed more middle class than anything.'
Knowledge of gangs and street violence was not unknown in modern day Small Heath, where the series is set, or Handsworth where he lived. 'Most working-class people aimed to diminish, not revel in, violence.' Whilst the misrepresentation of the only evidence on the internet for Communist support for the IRA in the war of independence had been taken from his research but the programme had layered 1970s sensibilities on to a quite different epoch, which in the context of the Birmingham pub bombings was quite irresponsible'.
Graham’s own research has been expanding all the time, but the cynical abuse of his freely available material meant that he has curtailed that in favour of preparing a full-length book on Jessie’s life and times.
In the cultural section of the event, chaired by Andy Chaffer, Dave Puller has said how much he enjoyed his performance spot. He read poems entitled Local Hero,
'about the heroes that all children have, some political nursery rhymes, a poem about neoliberalism, an army recruitment poem called, aptly Join The Army. I also read a poem about Eton College being given £34 million pound of taxpayers’ money, so they could build a rowing lake for the 2012 Olympics. They did not have to pay the money back.'
Billy Spakemon, otherwise known as Dr Brian Dakin, Visiting Research Fellow at Aston University, pleasantly startled the audience into immediate and awed silence with his dramatic rendition of Strong 'Onds and Warm 'Eart. A song which attempts to convey the character of the Black Country working man through references to chain-making boatmen and his own father who worked in the steel industry.
We asked Billy to tell us about himself:
'Briefly, I've lived in the Black Country all my life (bar 4 years playing footy for Swindon Town). I am a writer, singer, storyteller, public speaker and I work on various community projects that are linked to history identity and language. About 20 years ago, I decided to discover who I was - a Black Country mon - through performance and acknowledged my own Oldbury roots by performing in the language (accent or dialect) of my birth and in a tradition of unaccompanied singing and storytelling.'
The other songs Billy performed, Oldbury Mon, opens with part of a narrative taken from his cousin Geoff's song about Great Grandad Sailskin Jones. Billy takes up the story again:
'Geoff was a major influence in my journey, listening to him when a bab. The song section is linked to Geoff’s words and narrates the picture I built up about Great Grandada Jones from conversations with family.'
Billy is hosting or performing at many events throughout the year and hosts a radio show for Black Country Radio, the Omma ‘n’ Chain Show, which has chosen the Parkinson’s as its declared charity to support this year. March 24 will see him and others at the Pump House, Engine Street, Langley from 7pm, with a night of music storytelling and song. It’s a free event – though there will be donation buckets – and places can be booked via above e mail. Billy tells us: “It is limited so you need to be quick!”
Nellie Cole, an increasingly important poet on the performance scene in the Midlands rendered a number of poems from her collection about the Worcestershire murder mystery 'Who Put Bella in the Wych Elm'. In 1943, the remains of a young woman were found inside a hollow wych hazel tree in Hagley Wood, but investigations into who she was, who killed her, or why, provided no answers.
Nellie’s poem 'Bluebells' gives a snapshot into the early hours of the investigation, as volunteers comb through Hagley Wood in search for evidence. The poem 'Bella's Shoes Lead Nowhere' was written in response to a news story which followed an unsuccessful attempt to identify Bella from her shoes. 'Only They Say Flahrs' sees Bella in life, falling in love and becoming pregnant. This was inspired by the fact that, from her pelvic bones, forensic scientists could determine that Bella had given birth during her life. 'Theory #2: Gypsy' looks at one of the five possible identities of Bella, and follows her through her pregnancy, ending in the miscarriage of her child.
Nellie will be reading at the 'Who Put Bella in the Wych Elm' event at the Gunmakers Arms in Birmingham, on Saturday 24 February, so if you are roughly local, and missed the Real Jessie event, you can catch her there. She has also recently been featured on Brum Radio Poets, reading some of her Bella poems. You can hear it on catch-up by following this link: https://www.brumradio.com/shows/poets/
Perhaps the most exciting developments arising from the CM/MS Real Jessie event has been the interest in recreating even a tiny part of the dynamic that had once been Birmingham’s Star Club. An initiative that brought hard-nosed trades unionists right up against culture, then mainly in the form of a weekly Folk Club and a weekly Reggae Club, with an occasional Cinema Club.
The Star Club also became a major punk venue and was featured in the BBC John Peel Arena show, featuring a set by the Nightingales. This post-punk/alternative rock band was formed in 1979 in Birmingham by four members of The Prefects who had been part of The Clash's 'White Riot Tour'. Years after splitting up, they had a retrospective CD released by New York in the Acute Records label. The historic venue was above the Communist Party’s bookshop in Essex Street right in the city centre. Could a new development feature some similarly oppositional cultural formats? See: http://www.birminghammusicarchive.com/the-star-club/
But this is speculation in relation to the major concrete development – Dave Puller’s new poem about Jessie, which raises the idea of a Jessie Eden Day – on her birthday, the 24th February. More to come on this, perhaps more likely for 2019? Or even Jessie’s 120th Birthday in 2022? There's talk of a Jessie Eden Award, for heroism in promoting women’s trades unionism has been abroad in the region. All food for thought!
Although copyright of the Jessie poem is owned by Dave Puller, Culture Matters has been given the special privilege of airing his homage to a brilliant heroine of the working class. Of course, it goes without saying that a live performance is by far the best way to appreciate this work! And Dave reports that others, inspired by Jessie, are on the way:
by Dave Puller
Monuments should bear her name
History book should note her fame
On her birthdate
We should celebrate
Jessie Eden Day
Jessie was a hero
Proud and working class
Wherever she saw injustice
She wouldn't let it pass
From Birmingham to Moscow
Jessie's legend grew
Whatever cause she championed
She would always see it through
The bosses or the unions
She'd make them stop and hear
Stand and make her case to them
She'd face up to police and soldiers
Knowing she was right
That the people were behind her
If she had to fight
Blacklisted by the establishment
Jessie did not despair
Became the tenants champion
Affordable and fair
She led the biggest rent strike
In Britain's history
To make life better
For her community
Jessie never stopped giving
Her commitment shining bright
A true and lasting example
An everlasting light
Jessie was a hero
Birmingham should be proud
To sing her praise
To say her name
To shout it very loud
Monuments should bear her name
History books should note her fame
On her birthdate
We should celebrate
Jessie Eden Day.