Knocking-up, Support and other things we were supposed to do

Character from 1930’s Sexton Blake card game

There are many different sorts of anarchy; Anarcho-syndicalism, Libertarianism, Social anarchism, Anarcha-feminism, Murray Bookchin’s Social Ecology, the Kurdish Democratic Confederalism, the cliched bomb throwing anarchist, the media fueled paranoia of the chaos of ‘anarchy on the streets’, and then there is what you might call domestic anarchy – the mild sort of messiness of most peoples lives and homes. This last sort of anarchy tends to get amplified in communal settings

We once had a visitor at People In Common,  a friend and member of Some People In Leicester. Barbara Hand, who decided that the 24 hour clock was a repressive tyranny arbitrarily imposed by a patriarchal society and that she no longer intended to obey it. Instead she announced that she would be living by her own 36 hour clock (Libertarianism in action!). She intended to have the same proportion of sleep to waking hours and would spread out her meals throughout her new extended day. This meant that not only was she often completely out of sync with day & night, but she was also out of sync with other people for most of the week. Getting up as others were going to bed, eating at odd times and you could forget trying to co-ordinate doing anything with her. She didn’t manage to keep it up for more than a couple of weeks before she returned to the ‘tyranny’ of normal time. And while it may be an extreme example it shows how difficult it can be trying to co-operate with some ‘anarchists’ in a communal setting.

When we started running the building co-op and doing jobs for other people, who expected you to work normal working hours, we decided we had better buck up our rather relaxed hippy timekeeping. So we reinvented a local Burnley tradition with a communal twist by instigating – the People In Common knocking up rota. A tradition which hadn’t gone out of fashion all that long ago.

Jim Still Knocks ’em up at 80

A sprightly pensioner, who took the job of “knocker-up” as a temporary one to help out his father-in-law, is still carrying it on, 40 years later. He is 80-year-old Mr. James Osborne, whose cosy terraced home at 60 Master Street, Burnley, is as bright as a new pin – he does all the housework for his invalid wife Sarah Elizabeth. “I have never let anybody down in all the years I have been knocking up” he said….. With more than a hint of nostalgia in his eyes Mr. Osborne says about his work, “The whole thing is getting to be a dying profession.”

Burnley Express 26 Jan 1968

The PIC knocking up rota worked like this. At the time we had a main communal house – Clarence Street – and half a dozen other terraced houses all just round the next corner from each other in Burnleywood. At 7am each weekday morning the person on the rota got up put on a pot of porridge in the communal kitchen and brewed up a big pot of tea, They then proceeded to walk the streets from house to house, letting themselves in with our big communal bunch of keys, knocked gently on your bedroom door and placed a cuppa by your bedside. All remarkably civilised. With the added bonus that you might find out who was sleeping with who that night. Result was that we would all be up, had breakfast and be away to work on a building site by 8 O’clock.

This was the period when we were really together as a group and pretty well organised. Setting up a Building Co-op was a big learning experience for all of us and we needed as much support as we could get. Some of that support came from friends and supporters who got us to renovate their houses. Other support came from other Building Co-ops around the country. Workers with skills that we were short of would come from other co-ops to give us a hand; Jason Toynbee² came from Coventry Builders to give us a hand with bricklaying and Tess joined us from the Leeds Building Collective. There was even an attempt to set up a Federation of Building Co-ops (An embryonic experiment in Anarcho-syndicalism?) and we attended a sort of co-operative builders conference – held appropriately on a building site at the half finished Beechwood Hall in Leeds.

The other ‘Support’ we got was from the way we organised our work, both money earning and at home.

Wages for Housework
The International Wages for Housework Campaign was a feminist global social movement, which grew out of the International Feminist Collective in Italy in 1972 and organized resistance and public debate on the social formations produced by gendered labor and reproductive labor, for example domestic work such as housework, childcare, gender discrimination, and the socially reinforced performance of gender roles, gendered desire, and leisure inequality. The Campaign’s platform included the women’s right to work outside of the home, unemployment benefits, parental leave, and equal pay.

From Wikipedia

We often had equal numbers of women and men working on site and In response to women in the group calling for us to treat domestic work as seriously as we were taking our paid work we renamed communal home based work; cooking, cleaning, shopping, childcare. Calling it simply ‘Support’.(Anarcha-feminism in action?) The expectation was that everyone would do two days a week Support and three days paid work each week. We had weekends off, a novel concept in many other communes at the time.

The ‘Support’ system lasted the best part of a decade (1979 – 88) in one form or another, certainly up until we moved into the Mill. We set up a creche in the front room in Clarence Street, which saw a whole bunch of kids through their pre-school years; David, Nicky, Toby, Finn, Jim, Alex. Plus the occasional kids of local friends; Ben & Ryan. It lasted through changes in membership, different work patterns; people working in jobs outside the Building Co-op. It could be hard work at times, but it was probably the bit of communal infrastructure that enabled us to achieve what we did in that period. Whether it amounted to ‘Wages for Housework’ is hard to say really – we never got a ‘wage’ as such for any of the hours we did either at work or on support – we pooled all our income and paid all our expenses from the pool and took an equal personal allowance each week.

So am I suggestion that People In Common was in some way an experiment in anarchist politics? Well, I don’t think many members at the time would have described themselves as anarchists, or have read much anarchist writing or theory. But having searched for some kind of political or philosophical tradition that we might have fitted into – anarchism is the one that comes closest. Perhaps you might say we were an early version of Social Ecology in action.

Social Ecology advocates a reconstructive and transformative outlook on social and environmental issues, and promotes a directly democratic, confederal politics. Social Ecology envisions a moral economy that moves beyond scarcity and hierarchy, toward a world that reharmonizes human communities with the natural world, while celebrating diversity, creativity and freedom.

Insittute for Social Ecology

If …., deciding where to live, using your home as a space of opposition and creativity, using your home as a showcase for inspiration… if these activities are considered to be political, then these political agents might be preconceived as active citizens, rather than slothful dropouts.

Lucy Sargisson.:Talking about UK intentional communities in – Utopian Bodies and the Politics of Transgression. 2000

Notes:

  1. Caesar Bombski picture: This was the first image of an anarchist that I came across as a child . My Grandparents had a set of the 1930’s playing cards made by Waddy Productions. Unfortunately the rules of the game were lost and no one could remember how to play it. Bombski was my favourite character from the pack.
  2. Jason Toynbee became lecturer in the Sociology Department at The Open University, specialising in cultural sociology and media studies.

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