Put your ear to the stones of Clerkenwell and the first thing you hear is the temporal echo of its dead clockmakers. Beyond the tick-tock precision you can also catch the calls of Chartists, massing on the grassless Green to break the bonds of capital. Yet this crowded patch of London has so much spilt printers ink in its timeline, scuff its earth and it bleeds greasy black, scabs with hot metal.
The stone under my feet is part of the Marx Memorial Library. I am here for a guided tour of the Wapping Dispute 25th Anniversary Exhibition. It feels like eerie site perpetuation, a morphic field of local historical information shaping the present, causing the event to be held here. Too much ink, too much rightful anger for it to be anywhere else.
The Wapping Dispute was one of the most important labour movement disputes in England in the second half of the 20th century. Rupert Murdoch’s sacking of 6,000 men led to a conspiracy between state and a private company to aggressively break the print unions. It became a nexus point in the Thatcher government’s attack on the principles of collective bargaining and the right to strike.
Wapping changed the fate of the labour movement. Wapping was the strike that helped make the modern media landscape. It changed thousands of lives. It changed me.
Now, 25 years on, I am standing looking at banners I once saw carried proud hanging on walls. Watching images roll across screens. Things I saw with my eyes now labelled history. Black and white captures, corrupted copies of my own colour memory. For every detail the pictures have – the Night Machine Chapel’s caravan, the way the sodium white of security light reflects off the polished black curve of hundreds riot police helmets – they often miss the stories I remember.
A shot of the old ambulance my uncle David arranged to serve as a tea wagon does not begin to tell the guile behind its acquisition and stocking. The local residents talking to the pickets from Times Revisers and Copyreading Chapel can only hint at the some of stories of solidarity of those living in Wapping and those on strike. A waterfall of blood on the cracked face of a legal observer; the beaten hands and smashed camera of a press photographer. These flashbulb moments can only hint at the brutality of the police charges at Wellclose Square, at Pennington Street.
I remember how the downdraft of police helicopters was used to pin protesters as police on horses charged into us like medieval knights. I remember the sound of baton breaking bone, smashing teeth. How my Aunt Barbara was flattened down by shield and stick because she had a camera trying to capture the police rioting.
I remember seeing my first CCTV camera watching everything from behind a snarl of barbed wire. Knowing instinctively it was a sign of the future. Knowing that it would have been conveniently switched off if it ever was interrogated about those baton swings. The camera for me became emblematic of what a Murdoch victory would mean. An artificial eye seeing only what its owner wanted. A press seeing only what its owner wanted, what the state wanted.
Wapping politicised me. I could never fit into the dominant Thatcherite paradigm of the eighties after it. Seeing your members of your family sacked. Seeing members of your family beaten by the police. Seeing a state conspiracy against the collective. It reshaped me. Staring up at the cameras, the razor wire and speared spikes – I knew what side of the fence I was on.
Standing amidst old posters proclaiming ‘Rupert Couldn’t Give a XXXX for the Truth’ and ‘Reclaim the Streets From Murdoch’s Bootboys’ for a moment I am 15 again. I know things were and are much more complex than my teenage self could comprehend. More complex than he would want them to be. The truth has so many sharp sides that it is never comfortable to hold.
The years since have taught me journalistic balance. However, they have also gifted me the knowledge that despite what certain labour movement historians say, some of the stories of the Wapping Dispute record victory. The moments when people’s generosity to the strikers gave some respite to them and their families, gave smiles. When commonality from other unions, from the public, raised hope, breathed life and fight back into people being beaten down.
Wapping was an education. It taught me that despite the entwined forces of state and global business being ranged against you, the collective, dissenting voice can still be heard. Taught me that standing up for what you believe, trying to get the truth out, is never a wasted effort if it inspires others to fight.
The Highway, Glamis Road, Pennington Street and Fortress Murdoch are part of my political DNA. Put your ears to their tarmac and you will hear the temporal echo of my feet marching alongside thousands of others. It is a sound that will always be louder than the thunderclap of charging horses’ hooves. It is the sound of faith in people working together being so much stronger than fear.