A Visit to the Marx Memorial Library

On Friday 4 November I visited the Marx Memorial Library (MML) in Clerkenwell, London.  As a researcher embarking on a project about the political solidarities of newspaper compositors and printers, the experience promised to be an incredibly valuable one, providing an opportunity to peruse the printing collections MML had recently acquired from the print, paper and media section of UNITE.  

My learning experience started before even stepping a foot beyond the red doors of 37A Clerkenwell Green, a Georgian building that has served as home to radical artefacts and curiosities since 1933.  Clerkenwell Green, with its bohemian cafés, backyard boozers, renovated crypt and eighteenth-century church, is an enchanting place — a place to which the history of some of the earliest printing companies in London can be traced.

After taking in this local history — along with an espresso among chattering Corbynistas at the Grub on the Green — I wondered what Marx would make of the edgy and artisanal capitalism that thrives in the area and seems to provide it with a common identity.  I approached the imposing red doors of 37A, which seemed to stand like a portal to the socialist past.

Once buzzed in, I was greeted by Meirian Jump, an archivist with a special interest in the Spanish Civil War, and taken through to the seminar room.  The room was a sight to behold, adorned with embroidered banners and murals and bedecked with shelves of books and pamphlets pertaining to the workers’ struggle.  Ann Field, a former trade union official for the Society of Graphical and Allied Trades (SOGAT), popped her head around the corner and offered me a cup of tea.  The historical gravity of the room temporarily dissolved and quaint Englishness was restored.

As Ann’s period of office coincided with the upheaval of the printing industry in the 1980s, she has clear convictions and powerful memories.  ‘I’m interested in the political economy of the press’, I explained: ‘why market conditions have prevented mass publication of a people’s paper’.  ‘There is a people’s paper’, she replied: ‘the Morning Star’.  Meirian and I listened intently as Ann explained how printers had repeatedly employed their craft and labour power in the service of progressive causes.  Ultimately, the anti-trade union legislation of the Thatcher government was designed to break solidarities that printers were instrumental in forming, she explained.  In the same way that Chile and Argentina had a generation of ‘disappeared’, according to Ann, Britain had its own political casualties: the 6000 print workers sacked during the Wapping Dispute can also be seen as a ‘lost generation’.

A brochure providing an overview of the Printers’ Collection at MML can be ordered here.  While no comprehensive catalogue of the collections at MML has been created, they contain substantial runs of union journals, minute books and printed objects of dissent.  As part of the project Solidarities of Print, I will be working alongside Ann to catalogue the collections as I consult them.

It is no exaggeration to say that I learnt more about the labour history of printing in my two hours with Ann and Meirian than I did in an entire week reading articles and books about the subject.  After re-surfacing onto Clerkenwell Green through the red doors of 37A, I headed towards nearby Fleet Street in homage to the newspaper printers who worked there not so long ago.

Chris Hill