“John, my father, went down the Annesley Pit and became involved in the 1911 strike and was blacklisted”
One of the characteristics of Norah Elliott’s memoir is her own, and her ancestors’, involvement in politics. From strikes, to unions, to poetry, she appears to be particularly interested in politics and the class system. Regenia Gagnier states that, ‘like the novel the political autobiography is dedicated to one hero, one odyssey, and one battle.’ (Gagnier, 1987, 351), and for Norah this battle is the one of class. Whilst her autobiography wouldn’t be considered completely political, it has a strong political charge as Norah’s life, and the life of her ancestors were highly affected by political change, attempts at political change and the stagnant class system.
One of the strikes Norah’s grandfather took part in was successful and she reveals that it ‘increased earnings from 5s for an 8 hour shift to 5s 3d a shift’, (‘s’ meaning shillings and ‘d’ meaning pennies) However, most, if not all, of the other strikes Norah mentions failed, and in 1911 her father John became involved in a strike and was blacklisted. It seems that this runs in the Pilch blood as Norah tells us that ‘history repeated itself when [John’s] eldest surviving son… was blacklisted after the 1926 strike.’
Norah’s father was not simply a partaker in the odd strike. He became the Secretary of his local Labour Party. Norah reveals that their house ‘became a meeting place’ and she once ‘went downstairs in [her] nightgown to find a room full of men and tobacco smoke and men sitting crowded on the sofa and chairs. Shortly after there was a colliery strike’. Someone approached Norah years after her father’s death and told her that her dad ‘was a grand man’ and ‘he would have made parliament if he had lived’.
Norah herself was also greatly influenced by politics. Norah retells a story about her fellow students at Reading College. As they attempted to quell the General Strike in May 1926, Norah admits that her ‘sympathies were with the strikers’. It is highly likely that her differing beliefs were due to her differing class background. Many of the students she was surrounded by at college would have come from a middle-class background, and therefore would not have sympathised with the struggles of the protesters, people like Norah’s grandfather, father and brother.
Whilst teaching, Norah joined the N.U.W.T (Nation Union of Women Teachers) ‘who advocated equal pay for men and women and also strove to give equality of rights to married women’. It is sadly ironic that women today are striking for these same rights as Norah did in the 1930s. The union’s were involved in other causes as well, ‘including the interwar peace movement; the education of girls; the impact of cinema on children; the nationality of marries women issue; and women’s suffrage.’
Not only does Norah show her interest in politics through her involvement in unions and family history. Her poems are completely consumed with the issue of social histories and poverty. Below is one of her poems on Social Histories. Note its political passion.
Social History – 2/12/71
Time is the warp
Lives are the weft:
Riches, comfort, security
Want, hunger, poverty
Provide the colours,
Bright and gay, dull and gray.
Patterns are woven by Kings,
Courtiers, rich men, poor men,
Beggar men, thieves.
I would weave with words
The pictures of men
Bowed workers of the earth,
Miners, hidden from the light,
Builders and other such
Whose dull lives provide the backcloth
To the jewelled purple, plumes,
Silks and furs, that shine more bright
Against their darkened days.
Yet these gay pictures can only be made
By the grinding labours of the poor.
But still the rich complain!
Their wealth grows less
This cannot be borne!
The poor are used to poverty,
Let them have less, what matter,
So they still can work.
Some time, soon, the day will come
When we shall question.
How many children could be given
One third of a pint of milk
Five days a week for one million pounds?
What more imports?
Splendid pageantry or children’s health?
Will insight never be received,
Will the rich always claim by right
Vast wealth they have never earned?
So with nations!
Shall we always strive
Only to enrich ourselves
Nor stop to think
Of those who die, wanting food?
We are all distraught
Our careful plans come to naught
Because our thought is given
Only to outward things
We have not learned that wealth,
Cannot heal the breaking heart
Not bring health or quiet mind.
Elliott, Norah. ‘Untitled’. The Autobiography of the Working Class: An Annotated, Critical Bibliography. Ed. John Burnett, David Vincent and David Mayall. Brighton: Harvester, 1984, 1987, 1989 (3 Vols) Nb. 2:242. Available at http://bura.brunel.ac.uk/handle/2438/10895
Gagnier, Regenia. ‘Social Atoms: Working-Class Autobiography, Subjectivity, and Gender’. Victorian Studies. Vol 30.3. (Spring 1897) 335-363.
‘Norah Elliott’ in John Burnett, David Vincent and David Mayall (eds) The Autobiography of the Working Class: An Annotated, Critical Bibliography 1790-1945, 3 vols. (Brighton: Harvester, 1984, 1987, 1989): 2:242