Blog

Blog

Posted by Alex Vernon on

Ten tales of courage, solidarity and badass women from #TUC150

When Catherine from Mile 91 asked me to help her produce 150 stories for the TUC’s 150th anniversary, I was excited by the scale of the project but, I’m embarrassed to admit, fairly indifferent to the subject matter. I didn’t know much about trade unions and – I’m cringing as I type – I thought the stories would be pretty dry compared to stuff I’d written in the past.

But how wrong I was!

#TUC150 proved to be one of the most fascinating projects I’ve ever worked on. By its end I’d produced over 40 stories spanning from 1788 (when Chartist leader William Cuffay was born in Kent) to 2017 (when Gladys Branche from Sierra Leone spoke up for the world’s least-respected women workers). It was an education – I felt like I’d done an A Level in the union movement. And I’d had a huge career highlight:  interviewing a union hero whose story made it to the big screen in one of my all-time favourite films.

Here are my top ten #TUC150 stories…

10. The brilliant Betty Tebbs 

Betty’s mum always told her that ‘girls were best’. So in 1932, when 14-year-old Betty turned up for her first day at the paper mill and discovered that boys got 13 shillings while girls barely made nine, she was furious. What did she do? She joined a union and she made sure her voice was heard. When she left the mill 18 years later, she and her female colleagues were the best-paid paper mill women in Britain. Here’s Betty’s story.

9. The WW2 recruits posted to the pits

Called Up, Sent Down book by Tom Hickman
Called Up, Sent Down by Tom Hickman – my Dad bought me this for my birthday (bless him) after listening to me rabbiting on about the Bevin Boys.

In 1943, union heavyweight Ernest Bevin was leading Britain’s war effort on the home front. A coal crisis loomed, so Ernest launched a controversial scheme: instead of being posted to the frontline, one in ten recruits were sent down the mines instead. Their names were literally pulled from a hat. Just imagine – one minute you’re all puffed with pride at the prospect of fighting for your country and the next, you’re fumbling around a pitch-black coal mine 5000 feet below Yorkshire. There was a lot of resentment among the Bevin Boys, but at least most survived to tell the tale, unlike so many of their generation. Read more about Ernest Bevin’s achievements here.

8. “We were a beacon of hope.”

After weeks of writing about long-gone union heroes via secondary sources, it was a treat to hear stories straight from the horse’s mouth. The horse in question was an 80-year-old former GCHQ linguist called Mike Grindley and by the end of our interview, I was a huge fan. When Margaret Thatcher banned union membership at GCHQ in 1984, Mike was one of 14 employees who refused to rip up their union cards – and were eventually sacked. Their passionately-fought campaign against the ban was the second longest dispute in British union history. Speaking of which…

7. When oh when will someone make a film about the 1914 Burston School Strike?

This story has it all! The setting: the big skies and bleak fields of Norfolk. Our heroes: Kitty and Tom Higdon, husband-and-wife super-teachers who want to educate and nourish the children of poor farm workers. Our villains: the rich landowners who want the poor to stay that way and feel threatened by the Higdons, so try to drive them away. The cinematic climax: the skinny yet spirited school children coming out on strike in support of their teachers – the longest strike in history, it turned out (pipping Mike G to the post). Sounds like a BAFTA winner to me.

6. Long before #MeToo…

…Liverpudlian clothes store manager Audrey White was speaking up about sexual harassment. In 1983, a senior manager behaved inappropriately towards four women in Audrey’s team. She complained – and got the sack. But Audrey was a union member and she was going to fight. Her campaign put sexual harassment at work in the spotlight and ultimately led to a change in employment law in 2005. Audrey tells her story here.

5. Bristolians boycott the buses

It’s April 1963. No people of colour work on Bristol’s buses because the bus company won’t hire them. Inspired by Rosa Parks and what she sparked in Montgomery, Alabama, brave local activists organise a bus boycott. It works. In August – just hours before Martin Luther King tells Washington that he has a dream – the Transport and General Workers’ Union votes for integration on the buses. Find out more about this big moment in Bristol’s history here.

4. “We are those lions, Mr Manager.”

Thank you #TUC150 for introducing me to Jayaben Desai, the factory worker who in 1976 led a high-profile strike against her employer, Grunwick photo processing. The 4’10 Jayaben is said to have told her 6ft manager: “What you are running here is not a factory, it is a zoo. In a zoo, there are many types of animals. Some are monkeys who dance on your fingertips, others are lions who can bite your head off. We are those lions, Mr Manager.” Sadly the lions lost their strike, but Jayaben’s roar made it into the history books.

3. The match women rock their hats

Striking a Light book by Louise Raw
Louise Raw’s Striking a Light – required reading for all Bryant and May match-women fans

The story of the Bryant and May match women is well known, and justifiably so. Their working conditions were dire, they bravely downed their tools and went out on strike and they won. But here’s a lesser known, rather more frivolous, but still pertinent little detail about the match women. According to historian Louise Raw, they had their own distinctive sense of style – all thanks to their ‘feathers club’. They’d chip in to a kitty, buy the most extravagant hats they could find and then share them around. So if you had a date on a Friday night, you’d get a hat. Then you’d pass it on to the next girl for Saturday night. With all that resourcefulness and spark and sense of community, it’s no wonder the match women made such a success of their strike. Here’s more on the match women.

2. “I’ve nothing but pride in that film.”

I LOVED Pride when I saw it in 2014. So I nearly fell off my chair when I found out I’d be interviewing one of its main characters – the real-life version – for #TUC150. In the film, Dai Donovan is the warm, good-humoured Welsh miner, the founder of the surprising friendship between the striking mining families in his village and the members of the London-based group ‘Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners’.  The real Dai is equally warm and good-humoured and interviewing him really was nearly-falling-off-my-chair-worthy. The interview transcript came in at 3642 words, and I had to write a 500-word story. Aaagh. You can read it here.

1. Eleanor Marx, I salute you.

Eleanor Marx tea towel
Coolest birthday present ever (though I do wonder what Ms M would think about having her face emblazoned on a tea towel, with all its connotations of domestic drudgery!)

Bloody Brilliant Women. Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls. Stylist magazine’s Visible Women campaign. I’m delighted that amazing women from history are finally getting the recognition they deserve, but why isn’t Eleanor Marx in any of the above? I totally hero-worship her (some would call it a girl crush). Yes, she was Karl Marx’s daughter. But she should also be known in her own right as a fiercely intelligent, influential and inspirational woman – a superb organiser, a devoted teacher and a wildly popular orator who, among her many other achievements, campaigned tirelessly for the eight-hour day. If my intro to Eleanor piques your interest, you should definitely get your hands on Rachel Holmes’ excellent biography of this ‘bloody brilliant’ woman.

I regularly write for story-gathering agency Mile 91 and this post originally appeared on their blog.

Posted by Alex Vernon on

How to get your gleaming detail – and make your good story great

In my last post I wrote about the power of the gleaming detail: that vivid image or moment in a story that makes it unforgettable. Or, as gleaming detail expert Bobette Buster puts it, the image ‘that elevates a story from good…to great’.

If you work in a charity and you’re writing a story that needs to inspire your supporters, ‘great’ is where you’ll want that story to be. So today I’d like to share some tips for unearthing that gleaming detail. (By the way, I’m assuming your story is based on an interview with someone your charity has supported – so that’s the angle I’m writing from).

Before the interview

  • Get the right interviewee. When you’re briefing the person who’s finding your interviewee for you – probably a front-line colleague – ask for someone who’s chatty, warm to your charity and has a good story to tell about the impact your charity has had on their lives. That way you’ll avoid the worst-case scenario of monosyllabic answers and the interview fizzling out after five frustrating minutes. Such interviews rarely feature a gleaming detail!
  • Prepare your interviewee. Set a date and a time to speak and, if it’s a phone interview, get the best number to call them on (a landline is ideal as they’re more likely to sit down and focus on the call). Manage their expectations: tell them the conversation will last at least 30 minutes. You don’t want them to be racing through the interview because they’ve got somewhere else to be. If they’re relaxed, they’re more likely to open up and give you the gleaming detail you’re waiting for.
  • Get your kit ready. Don’t rely on hastily scribbled notes! A good recorder is essential if you want to nail that gleaming detail when it pops up. Have a set of questions ready as a prompt.

    My trusty old recorder helps me capture my interviewee’s authentic voice (and yes, it’s held together by tape. But it still works beautifully!)

During the interview

  • Dig, dig, dig for that gleaming detail. Don’t be afraid to elaborate on your prepared questions and give your interviewee that extra nudge. For example: ‘What are your favourite memories of your son?’ ‘Oooh, I’d say reading to him at bedtime is one of my favourite memories.’ ‘Can you paint a picture of that for me? What kind of books did you read?’ ‘We’d cuddle up on his bed and he’d listen attentively while I read him Noddy books.’ Reading at bedtime is nice, but generic. A little boy snuggled up to his Dad, enraptured by Noddy, is a gleaming detail. You’ll know instinctively when your gleaming detail comes along. If it’s really shiny, you may even find your heart beating a little faster.

    Ok, I know it’s a bit tenuous…but there’s definitely some gleaming going on in this shot of my Rosie in the Dorset sea.

After your interview

  • Transcribe your call. Make sure you get the best bits as close to word-for-word as you can so that when you write the story, you’ll capture your interviewee’s real voice.
  • Leave your transcript for a day or two. If you’ve had a very honest and emotional interview, you’re in dangerous territory: you’ll be attached to your transcript and you’ll think every detail is a gleaming detail. But chances are your word count is limited, so you’ll need to be ruthless. Editing – or ‘killing your darlings’ – will be much easier if you’ve had a chance to distance yourself from your transcript.
  • Write up the story. You might like to feature your gleaming detail in the title or in a pull-quote. Ask a trusted colleague to read/proof the story and ask them if they were struck by anything (and hopefully they’ll quote your gleaming detail back at you as they blink back the tears!)
  • Email the story to your interviewee. Make any edits they request and check they’re happy with the final version. (While you’re at it, encourage them to send you a nice pic of themselves to go with the story – as long as they don’t want to be anonymous of course. And if your charity doesn’t have one, here’s CharityComms’ handy new consent form template).
  • Send the story out into the world and watch it sparkle!

 

Posted by Alex Vernon on

Why every story needs a ‘gleaming detail’

7th March 2018 – I’m dedicating this post to my dear friend Adam Jacques, a brilliant writer and all-round legend (and definitely one of my life’s gleaming details).

My job involves lots of phone interviews, mostly with people sharing their stories about how they’ve been helped by a charity. Occasionally I come off the phone feeling a bit flat – I’ve got all the answers I need, but something’s missing. Other times I hang up the phone feeling moved, energised, excited about listening back to the interview and writing up the story. Why? I’ve unearthed a ‘gleaming detail’ – and it’s going to make the story sparkle. 

Image from The Do Book Co.

I first read about the gleaming detail in  ‘Do Story – how to tell your story so the world listens’ by the brilliantly named Bobette Buster. And I’ve been looking for gleaming details in stories, films and even songs ever since.

Here’s Bobette on the gleaming detail:

“To make a story unforgettable, you need to find that one image that connects with the audience, that ‘Aha!’ moment. This singular image, well positioned, can elevate a story from good… to great. We call this the ‘gleaming detail’ – a term originally derived from that great nation of storytellers, the Irish – for the element that makes a story stand out.”

For me, the gleaming detail is a vivid, emotive mental snapshot that stays with me long after I’ve hung up the phone or walked out of the cinema. Speaking of which, here’s a gleaming detail I found in a film recently…

A bendy straw in a glass of juice

If you see the film Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri, look out for the orange juice scene. A badly beaten-up hospital patient (I don’t want to give anything away, so let’s call him Arthur) is unaware that his new room-mate is his attacker (Biff). A separate incident has left Biff covered in bandages and unrecognisable. Arthur offers Biff a glass of orange juice. But then Biff confesses his identity. Arthur is shocked and angry. But moments later he gently places a glass of juice on Biff’s bedside table and even carefully positions the bendy straw so that it’s easier for the incapacitated Biff to reach for.

Arthur’s delicate positioning of the straw is my gleaming detail – the bit I gushed about to my family as we left the cinema. In a brutal film with several high-drama set pieces, it’s a tiny but loaded moment that represents two of the story’s themes: compassion and forgiveness.

Here are a couple of gleaming details from my work:

A missing boy’s bedtime story

Last year I interviewed Peter for the charity Missing People. In September 1988, Peter’s 15-year-old son Lee went missing after going out to watch a football match. Devastatingly, Lee has never been found.

When I asked Peter about his favourite memories of Lee, he described Lee ‘listening attentively’ while he read him Noddy books at bedtime. There was my gleaming detail – a little boy, warm and safe in bed, his father cosied up next to him reading aloud from a picture book. It’s a scene played out in millions of kids’ bedrooms around the world every night. But what happened to Lee and Peter later makes this ordinary scene extraordinary – and heartbreakingly poignant. (And speaking of poignant, here’s Peter performing with the Missing People Choir on Britain’s Got Talent.)

“Oh, I’ve been out at my groups!”

A while ago I interviewed 12 lovely Victim Support volunteers about helping victims of crime. Unsurprisingly, the same themes kept coming up – the importance of active listening and being non-judgemental, how volunteering was an eye-opener. All good, valid stuff, but I was waiting for what Bobette describes as that ‘Aha!’ moment. And then Sarah provided it.

Sarah told me about Jean, an elderly victim of burglary. Jean was very lonely so Sarah suggested she get involved with charities like Age UK. As Jean was too nervous to call the charities herself, they phoned them together. That was a turning point: Jean started going to events like tea parties and bingo and soon Sarah struggled to get hold of her. “I’d call Jean and the phone would ring and ring,” said Sarah. “When I’d finally get hold of her she’d say, ‘Oh, I’ve been out at my groups!’ She told me, ‘Thank you so much Sarah – it’s all down to you.’ That really brought a tear to my eye.” It bought one to mine, too.

Now I’m working extra hard to find gleaming details in all my interviews. Sometimes just a gentle nudge for elaboration on an earlier answer is all it takes to draw out something dazzling. It’s the difference between hanging up the phone feeling a bit indifferent and hanging up the phone feeling utterly inspired – and raring to write the story.