This one’s about 4 years old but still good…From Kelly’s Eye to Top of the Shop: Ghostly Chorasters and Social Songs
From Kelly’s Eye to Top of the Shop: Ghostly Chorasters and Social Songs
Rebekka Kill, Leeds Metropolitan University
Both elite men and working men have had their clubs, parliaments, unions, lodges, guilds, congregations and the like, which may havebeen more or less inclusive, but the one category that was traditionally excluded from most, if not all of them, was that ofwomen. 1
The types of social activities women were involved in have varied.
One commonality is that they often integrated practical activities with a social space like in sewing circles, book clubs and craft activities. These were all activities that ‘can be done in the bits of time left over from doing other things, or that can be easily interrupted if necessary’2.
I looked through lists of women’s associations, clubs, unions and societies and I began to notice a few things about the kinds of organisations that were included. In the early 20th century many women’s organisations combined a creative and a political focus with the social. For example the Artists Suffrage League and the Suffrage Atelier produced propaganda cartoons, postcards, posters and banners for the women’s suffrage movement. Until the 1960s most clubs included a substantial social element combined with political or creative aims. Many of the clubs listed in the dictionary of British Womens’ Organisations were run by titled women (with independent income), but who else would have the time to do it?
So, what about ordinary women? What were they doing? Was it really all church and sewing circles? Prior to the Second World War, many of the activities that formed traditional (male) notions of a social club would have been deemed improper for women. Due to increased contact with the opposite sex, dancing was often deemed “risqué” and ‘the pub remained largely a male domain.’3 However, activity associated with the church, charity and religion often provided an opportunity for women to create a social space outside the home.
During the later 1960’s bingo had a huge cultural impact on the social lives of many working-class women. According to many sociologists bingo is the only activity that working-class women do outside the home, in any great numbers. 4 Bingo is clearly a social environment, as players often arrive two hours before the game starts to enjoy a meal or chat with friends. Dancing and drinking also became more socially acceptable for women. Now, women’s social lives included a broad range of contexts and activities both sanctioned and unsanctioned, organised and organic, based in the home and outside. However, there are some observations that we can make about women’s social activities. Firstly, these activities almost always (with the possible exception of bingo) seemed to require another activity to validate the social aspect: political, religious, creative, educational. Secondly, that notions of acceptable social activities for women underwent dramatic, and numerous, changes during the lives of participants, buildings and organisations.
At this stage I felt I needed some first hand research. So, I asked Brenda, who will be seventy this year, about her own social experiences.
She described her childhood and how, “most of our socials and gettogether’s stemmed from the church”. Brenda told me that, “every town had a ballroom and a Saturday night dance”, “also the pictures was a really big thing”. Brenda got married in 1961, and prior to this she described going to dances, and being involved in church social events.
What’s more, she said “a lot of girls used to go to football, I went with my brother”, and “greyhound racing was very popular, it was a big social thing, you went as a group, there were bars and food”. She added that “it was anything that exposed you to the opposite sex”. Brenda said, “no clubs were open to women”, and “I could never go to a pub on my own, that was completely taboo”. Some pubs had a “ladies bar, but it was very segregated for women”. After she was married in the 1960s she tried out the Women’s Institute for a bit, but she said, “it was different then, it was all old people, it wasn’t really social enough, it was a bit stuffy”. However, she talked about the importance of coffee mornings, describing it as “a huge network” and she said, “the other thing was the Tupperware party”, this she said, “just meant that you could get out”.
There has been a great deal of activity recently in the art community in ex social clubs. In London Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club is now described as a ‘“living canvas” and one of the most creative and accessible venues in town’ 5. They offer educational classes, club nights, art events, cabaret, burlesque and of course bingo.
Patrick Studios, in Leeds, is an excellent example of one of these resurrected spaces. In 2003-4 East Street Arts (ESA) commissioned a residency, and a publication, that explored the social history of this building. According to Michael Paraskos, at one point in the history of the old St Patrick’s Community Centre, there was a local priest on the door who made sure no one came in who ‘wasn’t Irish, Catholic and able to say a hail Mary’6 This clearly changed in later years and Pippa Hale describes this as a space that provided ‘a sense of community for Catholics,
Protestants, Irish, Polish and Italians alike: a place that welcomed families, a place that women felt safe.’7 So, the community centre was originally constructed as a church endorsed space and this church locus sanctioned this space as appropriate for women. Martin McQuillan characterises the social club as having ‘very masculine past times’ (snooker and the bar, I guess, but looking at the photos in the ESA publication it seems that this space was mainly populated by women) and he describes the artists moving in as a transgendered operation; a shift from ‘Patrick to Patricia’. I would propose that this sex change occurred much earlier in the building’s history. This space, originally opened in 1906, when the area was a slum, and was, I have no doubt, a predominantly male space. However, this space lives on in the memory of locals as a family space, a space for children, a place for religious celebration, a picture house and a dance hall.
In her book Leisure and Feminist Theory, Betsy Wearing contrasts the male gaze of the flaneur, the wandering voyeur or observer and draws on feminist theory exploring the concept of ‘chora’ as a safe space for social interaction in ‘which women as well as men enjoy and which enhances rather than diminishes a sense of self and identity.’8She describes how the figure of the flaneur underpins ‘male urban planning’ and calls for a shift towards urban spaces that ‘incorporate social value instead of passing image’.
Rather than being the object of the stroller’s gaze, the concept of chora suggests a space to be occupied and given meaning by the people who make use of the space.9
The urban social club or community centre often began life as a distinctly male space but often these spaces (in their most recent incarnations before they were occupied by artists) became female friendly, partly because they had to in order to survive and partly because the needs, values and concerns of the communities changed. The St Patrick’s Community Centre was one of these spaces. The centre ended its life populated by women: it was a chora.
These two notions, of flaneur and chora, can also be mapped against two art contexts. Firstly, the flaneurish white cube gallery, where art is the object of the stroller’s gaze. And, secondly, the art event, or art social, that has a much more choral character. Here it is the audience, the artists and the people who use the space who give it meaning. In these spaces people are free to explore notions of identity and social value, as chorasters. When the artists occupy the spaces that have been chora, like Patrick Studios, the ghosts, of both men and women that existed in this space during the last 100 years continue to move around them. They continue as ghostly chorasters; they watch films, educate themselves, dance, drink beer, play snooker, talk and of course play bingo.
These shadowy figures, constitute Patrick studios’ choral echo and this echo extends beyond the walls of the building. These ghostly chorasters extended their social network all over Leeds. They met, talked, had coffee mornings and Tupperware parties, they went to dog racing and football, they knitted and sewed, and read. The chora is generative; it is a beginning, a catalyst, a starting point. By resurrecting, reviving and repopulating the chora, these social songs can be heard once again resounding in homes and communities across Leeds.
1 Gordon, P (2001) Dictionary of British women’s organisations, 1825-1960, Woburn, London p1
2 Ibid p84
3 Ibid p47
4 Dixey, R and Talbot, M, (1982) Women Leisure and Bingo, TASC, Leeds, pii Also it should be noted
that relatively recent research (2004) indicates that more people attend bingo than football matches.
6 ESA (2004) The Story of An Artist in Residence Patrick Studios 2003-2004, ESA, Leeds p14
7 Ibid p30
8 Wearing, B (1998) Leisure and Feminist Theory, Sage, London p131
9 Ibid p132