I lost my best friend a few years ago. How very careless of you, some might think – and to be honest, it does sometimes feel like I was a bit remiss. Didn’t tell her everything that I wanted to, took her never-failing friendship for granted, didn’t make her enough of those endless cups of tea and didn’t suffer enough of those dratted ‘Buffy’ TV programmes alongside her. But hey. She’d give me a good old slap around the chops if she thought that I was whining about it all.
So instead, on her birthday, I like to do something nice – something positive, that she would have approved of. She and I met at university, whilst studying history. She went on to do a Masters in Heritage Management and her big loves were history and I guess, justice for people. So, where else to head to on her birthday, other than The Peoples History Museum in Manchester? Of course.
I decided to drag her god-daughter along and my other kid too. All in a day’s education, you see (although let’s face it, the entire experience could also be referred to as ‘half-term hell and what do we DO with the little swines?) Plus, their Grandad tagged along too, ‘cause he’s all about the workers (or rather he was, before Thatcher had a pretty good go at crucifying their livelihoods and crushing their sprits en masse … bit of politics for you there my friends, bit of politics.)
Now, the Peoples History Museum is officially one of the most family-friendly museums in the UK. But this, quite frankly, is one accolade which will never win me over. Because although *I* want to escape to a place that will put up with my little fruit loops, I don’t particularly want to encounter the ones that belong to other people. Especially when I’m reading up on something as important as Marxist Leninist cloth dyers in Tooting Bec in 1927. But I must give the museum maximum kudos here – it boasts a cunning design whereby you can almost avoid anything under the age of 14, if you so desire. In fact, the only time that my two were remotely noticeable was when they stumbled across enormous story-cubes in the wonderful Steve Bell Cartoon Exhibition. And consequently, started chucking their ‘story design’ at one another’s heads.
Along with this excellent political cartoon exhibition (where I practically had to drag my son away from ‘a real cartoonist’s desk’ and where my daughter was furiously producing images of Margaret Thatcher as ‘Wicked Witch of The South East’), there were lots of other bits and pieces to try your hand at and plenty of knick-knacks.
My lad spent ages with Grandad and the clocking-in machine, identical to that which Pops had used many years ago (“before they made me redundant. Best day of my life that was, actually”) and my lass enjoyed the suffragette displays, but less so the sweat-shop piece-work ‘have a go at making a cardboard box task’ (“Good Grief’, this is more boring than Radio Four”) with her brother commenting; “hey, this seems a bit sexist – why can’t they shove me down a mine and let me have a go at carrying coal? I’m exactly the right age for it!” Mucking about in ‘the co-op shop’ was a winner, as was the Jukebox; “hey, Mum – you’re from the 80’s. Come and show us how to do this. We’ve no idea if you swipe on it, or whatever.”
All in all, the kiddos were interested and were engaged. They *learned*. Which is no mean feat for a museum to be able to achieve. Especially when a lot of adults struggle with political and socio-economic issues. Now, you might be thinking that as someone who studied history herself (my dissertation was on popular radicalism in the 19th Century, I’ll have you know – none of that modern, 20th Century gubbins) – that my kids are really clued up on all-things political. Not at all. A bit like my approach to musical education; I reckon that you can really put a child off something if you force-feed them with your own preferences a bit too much.
Sure, I’m not saying that they *don’t* have political opinions (don’t mention Trump) but thanks also to a blinkered and narrow national curriculum for history, they remain blissfully ignorant of chronology and of the REAL champions of the people. And thanks also, to an unusual blend of socialism, Labour party activism, historic working-class Tory affiliation (our family were Tory Mayors – oh yes, indeed ‘we’ were…sheesh), Quaker involvement and anti-Islamophobia campaigning – my kids retain a healthy blend of utter ignorance dappled with startling insights every now and then. Much of this is the product of possessing every Horrible History publication in the world – and of a family starved of too much screen-watching. And I’d be lying if I said that it isn’t slightly comforting to have a 9-year-old trundle past an exhibit and say something like “oh – that’ll be because of the Corn Laws. They were bad. And that Poor Law fingy”. And “America thinks it won that Cold War, but I’m not so sure these days.”
And witness some more of the wonderful gems today of both the 9 and 13-year-old;
“So… is communism like sexism then? But they hate a whole community?”
“Peterloo. Er…. was that when the first toilets got built in Manchester and there was a really bad stampede for them and ordinary people got hurt?”
“Joe Stalin. What *is* it with evil men in black and white photos – and moustaches?”
“I don’t know why they didn’t just kill the bosses and the rich people and have done with it, rather than just moaning about them all of the time. The French are really good at some things, aren’t they?”
“One of the really nice things about this museum is that the prices for children’s things in the shop aren’t a rip-off. I didn’t even KNOW you could buy anything for 40p, in this day and age.”
So, all, in all it was a smashing little day out. And given that the kids still seemed perky enough – we decided to bribe them with a trip to ‘A sort of Hogwarts in the city centre – it’s called Cheetham’s.’ This didn’t convince my 13-year-old who just rolled her eyes and said “nah, everyone knows it’s where all the musical geniuses in England go to school.”
Even though my two adore libraries – indeed, I often get roped into libraries to give talks about our love for them and how they’ve helped us as a family – I did feel a bit of trepidation that they would find the oldest library in the UK (1653) to be bit, well. Dull.
But, no – there is something about Cheetham’s library. It truly is spell-binding. “So where are the books?” asked my 9-year-old. He was looking for the gaudy covers and displays and the big boxes containing Asterix and Tintin that he normally slobs about reading on the floor of our municipal buildings. Those enormous dun-coloured brick-things were completely invisible to them both. “Oh yeah,” they said when I pointed them out. And “they want to speak to Kirklees libraries, they do, ‘cause *they* chuck books out after they’ve only been a library for 5 years. Four hundred years is a bit much, innit?”
“We are here,” I announced. “So that you can sit at this very table that Marx and Engels sat at as they dreamed up socialism and lots of other important concepts.” The children duly sat. They looked at the books on the table – replicas of the exact same titles that M and E absorbed themselves in. “What now?” said my son. “Well,” I suggested. “Perhaps you can soak up the atmosphere of the …uh…table. And the chair. Have a look at the books that Marx and Engels read. And perhaps you can dream up some ideas of your own, that are better. Maybe. And that might change the world.”
That was my attempt at a smidgen of inspirational and creative education. And the kid was silent for once. But I could tell by the look in his eyes that he was either thinking of Roblox or Minecraft. Not of trying to liberate any oppressed masses. Anywhere. Unless they were made of LEGO.
Yes. Indeed, my attempts at subtle indoctrination were doomed to failure – when I saw later that someone ‘from Huddersfield’ had put in the visitor’s book; “Really interesting. But no idea what those books what Marx read were on about.” And an even smaller person had added, “Were (sic) are the Wimpy Kid Books???”
Back home, their father asked them if they had a fun day. First reply was – “yeah, it was really good – we made Grandad run for a train and he hasn’t run in 20 years. Luckily mum had loads of chocolate caramels in her handbag”. Second was; “yeah. I’ve decided that I’m definitely a Communist. And we went to see where Marks and Spencers sat when they decided to set up a load of shops across the world.”
Hey-ho. You can but try, can’t you?
And I can hear the echoes of laughter of a certain bessie. Happy Birthday, mate. x