This documentary, made by Critical Mass contributor Ray Barron-Woolford, asks the question: why is it that some parts of our history are entirely ignored? The answer, not surprisingly, can be found in the old saying that history is written by the victors. And working class people, especially if they are female or gay or both, are rarely the victors.
But this raises the question of whether we can trust our history at all. Barron-Woolford has single-handedly restored the reputation of one great figure from the past: Kath Duncan. This documentary film follows on from the successful stage play of the same name and the book “The Last Queen of Scotland” by the same author. It is an amazing story and one well worth spending 40 minutes to watch.
I enjoyed this documentary immensely and would certainly recommend it. Kath Duncan is a character who was unbeknown to me, a fiery redhead from Argyllshire who went from primary school teacher in Kirkcaldy to communist organiser in Hackney. She was close friends with Clementine Hozier who became better known as Baroness Spencer-Churchill, the wife of Conservative Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill.
Duncan’s relationship with the Churchills is, according to Barron-Woolford’s account, what prevented her from being hung for sedition when her long-time collaborator Fred Copeman, who lived in her house, was leader of the Invergordon Mutiny of 1931. This mutiny involved 15,000 sailors in the Atlantic Fleet. Barron-Woolford rather cleverly compares the treatment of that mutiny, which most people know nothing of, with the famous Mutiny on the Bounty which has been the subject of three Hollywood films.
The difference is that the mutineers on the Bounty were tracked down and hung as a lesson for others, whilst the mutineers in the Invergordon Mutiny were entirely successful. In one instance we need to be told that disobeying orders is wrong and will result in death. In the other, we need to be told nothing, because the one thing the ruling class do not need is to be undermined by workers solidarity. It’s a point well made.
The documentary is not a linear exposition of the life of Kath Duncan, although she is clearly the star. Instead, Barron-Woolford uses the experiences of Duncan to highlight how little has changed. Whilst Duncan grew up in a time when loving somebody of the same sex was sufficient to get you in jail, the gains made have to be tempered with the fact that, for all our talk of equality, women and gay women in particular still struggle for recognition.
Liberty reminds us that over 4,000 people died from infected blood in what became known as the Haemophilia Holocaust in the 70s and 80s. Whilst drug manufacturers in France were prosecuted, in the UK an inquiry was held and that was that. Some lives simply do not matter.
For gay people the struggle continues. Talking to Lady Phyl from Reclaim Pride, as they argued for Pride to be decommercialised, Barron-Woolford asks what got her off the sofa. Her explanation was simple: “I was born black, I was born a girl.” And that is the telling point. British society is predicated upon a belief that everybody is born equal (they are not), that everybody has equal opportunities (they do not) and that where you end in life is a consequence of the effort you put in mixed with your talent (it is not).
Kath Duncan needs restoring to our consciousness not because, as John White a contemporary of hers recalls, “She had a marvellous voice” and was a striking person to look at, but because she fought for justice for working class people throughout her life. She fought on the same streets that saw the New Cross Road massacre in 1974, she was jailed in Holloway (catching TB which eventually killed her) for her communist beliefs.
She was not a single issue campaigner. She organised volunteers for the International Brigade during the Spanish War, she supported the republicans in Ireland, she fought for women’s equality in a still male-dominated union movement. If she were alive today, she would undoubtedly be supporting the Palestinians, be active in the union movement championing equal rights for women and would have given enthusiastic endorsement of Jeremy Corbyn. It is highly unlikely that she would regard the current Labour Party as worth saving.
Barron-Woolford asks why the Labour movement celebrates Tolpuddle with an annual festival, but not the hunger marches which took place between 1928 and 1931, all of them huge, all of them organised by the Communist Party. In schools we are told about the Jarrow marchers, but what we are not told is that the Jarrow Crusade was tightly controlled by the Labour Party and TUC. They went to London not to demand change but to beg. And they came away empty-handed, having walked all the way there, they then turned around and walked all the way back. The Communist-inspired hunger marchers went to London, besieged Whitehall, refused to leave and in so doing won major concessions which led to the modern welfare state. But we don’t celebrate those struggles or the women and men who gave so much to them. Instead we celebrate Tolpuddle and Jarrow which, if not defeats, were certainly not victories.
Ray Barron-Woolford has made an engaging, thought-provoking film where th central character he says “was an extraordinary woman who deserved recognition”. Ray is himself an extraordinary character who is already getting recognition, having won awards in a dozen film festivals including in New York, Tokyo, Liverpool and Cairo, where it won Best Human Rights Film 2023. Short films, especially documentaries, often go overlooked. My advice is not to overlook this one.
Socialist of many years. Former Labour member. Currently presenter of The Socialist Hour.