Saltley Gas - a community newspaper.
Dr Electra Soady, one of Saltley's pioneering social activisits from the 1970's shares her memories of Saltley Gas.
Electra seen here in the Saltley Action Centre 1975.
Back in the early 1970s, as Bob Dylan’s “The times are changing” was sung, the wind of change was also blowing in Birmingham where a group of people had decided to set up a free school – although a very different one to those of the Tory party of the early 21st century, being about empowering both students and teachers to learn in a co-operative environment). They began with planning meetings at the Peace Centre, where a number of grass roots, alternative magazines were on sale.
My husband Ian and I were part of that group, which went on to live in Saltley, and, joined by local people, took over a derelict building, Norton Hall, renovated it and developed an adventure playground in the grounds; set up Saltley Community Association (SCA); and later, Saltley Action Centre – the latter funded by CDP, a Home Office Community Development Project.
Saltley Gas was born in December 1972, in the shadows of the Gas works nearby. It was conceived by four people: Mary Murray and Jim Randall, who were local, Ian and me.
Mary, at 17 was the youngest, and I was the oldest at 28. Both Mary and Jim were very intelligent but neither were academically qualified, while I had a Nursery Nurse diploma (from Greece) and a couple of other Education diplomas. We all lacked confidence and were not articulate at all, tongued tied in front of people with authority.
But we were children of the times, and we wanted to change the world and our lives. We believed that change is possible if you take action. Our activism was both personal and political. We were saying things like, “We want more control over our lives”, “we want to change the way we live”. We believed that “knowledge is power”, and producing Saltley Gas was our way of sharing power with other people in the community who wanted better lives.
Management Committe Members of Saltley Community Association meeting at George Arthur Road
(Front Row L-R) Nick Woolf, Electra Soady, and Greg White.
(Back Row L_R) Two MC Members, Mary White, Mary Murray, MC Member
Mary gave up her job as an office clerk, and Ian and I were on Social Security (benefits) so we could devote our time to action in the community, but I don’t remember what Jim did at the time.
We started producing Saltley Gas, publishing it under the banner of SCA, the group which was renovating Norton Hall. That was because the newspaper was made possible thanks to a wider network of community activism: many people, both local and others who had moved into the area contributed in many ways: writing articles, providing information, drawing sketches, photographs, help with layout, typing, distributing, getting advertisements, or simply advertising. The CDP team were also regular contributors.
Nick Woolf, Anita Halliday and Carolyn, Liz, Mike and Vivian, Greg and Mary White were early contributors. As I was writing this, choosing randomly an issue, I find Irish names, Murphy, O’Connor; Mr Codrington from St Kitts; Mrs Cullen; Mr Vincent; Mr Lamb; a young lad, Chris Cronin. Generally, children’s names are mainly English, with a girl giving her 3 Urdu names and her nickname, “Minie”; another has an English first name and an Urdu surname. Names of contributors to other issues, also reflect the ethnic mix of the area: Mrs Noor, Hashmi. And there are also a couple of articles in Urdu and Hindi (though we managed to print the Hindi article about the Nechells Library upside down!).
Contents included regular topics: Letters, Local groups, useful Information (e.g. comparing food prices in different local shops); “The good Old Days”, Kids’ Page, later called “The Young Ones”; “Daughters of Eve” (women's issues, e.g. “Women’s right to legal abortions threatened”).
A comparative of supermarket prices from edition No 15 September 1975
There were articles by and about organisations: the Community Health Council, Workers’ Education Association…; articles on current topics, politics: Child Benefit, the Cuts campaign (by a COHSE Nurse), Scapegoating (black people), Job creation schemes, Homeworking…
We covered issues ranging from the local (e.g. public toilets), to national (the cuts and Northern Ireland) to European (the Common Market referendum).
Residents’ contributions included providing information, poems, articles, memories, photographs and much more. Children, many from Norton Hall playground, also helped a lot, not only with content but also selling the paper.
We tried hard to encourage local people: “If you have something to say, please don’t be put off writing, by thinking you are not good at it. If you could only see our own first attempts….”; we invited people to talk to us is they would prefer talking to writing. And people responded. Before the age of computers, getting the copy
together was almost easier than putting it all together.
As time went, the bulk of the work was done by Mary and me, producing and editing, with Ian taking it to Worcester on his bike for it to be printed, and later, printing it on the Action Centre printing press.
Producing Saltley Gas took a lot of work. Once the content was gathered and written, we used an old manual typewriter for the stories, and then with a small bit of paper (Tippex) we overtyped and covered with white powder any mistakes. For the titles, we used Lettraset: we rubbed each letter needed to make up a word, letter by letter; and if we wanted something more fancy, such as the letters spelling “Kids’ Page” we had to draw them ourselves. We then used scissors and glue to place everything on the paste-up of each page. It was a laborious task that took days.
2,000-2,500 copies were printed and sold either at local newsagents, or by local children, first at 2p and then 5p each copy. We never got a grant, and we had to rely on advertising (“Private half a penny per word, business one penny), and our own pockets.
Partly because of lack of finance, but also because of being involved in other community action in Saltley, production was not regular. In all, 17 issues were produced in the 3 years of its existence; with the final copy in January 1977.
In an 1974 editorial, Mary and I had written: “We are just two women who have had no experience of journalism but wanted to prove that you don’t necessarily need to be an expert to do something considered “important”… we believe that people can change things. It isn’t easy and it takes time and fighting spirit. But when people get together and fight for something important to them things get done”.
Saltley Gas did not spring from nowhere, neither did activism stop after Saltley Gas. What was happening in Saltley was part of a wider movement of political optimism: the Saltley Gates witnessed two large demonstrations during the Miners’ strikes in 1972 and 1984. Many local activists were involved, not just with those two events, but also opening their homes for the unemployed on the People’s March for Jobs to stay the night on their way to London. Awareness of racism and allied issues was reflected in SCARF (Saltley Community Against Racism and Fascism); a number of local women were involved in Women’s Liberation consciousness raising groups. We would get coaches to London and Birmingham events and demonstrations for Peace, the Mass Picket at Grunwick, “Women’s Right to Work” rally, “Reclaim the Night” marches…
As women activists we were experiencing contradictions in attitudes simultaneously held by men. Ian remembers Roy Jenkins, local MP at the time, being followed by a black man as he was walking into the Labour Club on Wright Rd. And when Roy walked in, the doorman stopped the black man, and Roy turned round and said, “If he’s not coming in, I’m not coming in”.
And yet, it was the same Roy Jenkins who, when Mary and I approached him at one of the Saltley Festivals, talked to him about Saltley Gas and asked him to send us something, he said he would and then, he turned to Ian standing nearby without taking any part in the conversation and he asked him:”… and what name and address?”
There was the beginning of understanding the links between different kinds of oppressions, but we did not have the language to describe them. We did not use words like outcome or strategy; we viewed with suspicion people who did. Our vision was that of a better world, a fairer, more equal society, where control of what was important would be in the hands of people in their area, in their lives. And we believed that you need collective action in order to achieve this.
Like others in Saltley, not only did we not have the words to describe a theory of our action, we did not we have the confidence to engage with, or challenge authority directly, either. Sometimes, we could not even speak. I will always remember the time in the CDP office, when a councillor asked me a question and I opened my mouth and I could not speak (so hard to describe the feeling, I later called the experience “the power of powerlessness”: how powerfully you feel that you cannot, you’ve been conditioned to shut up, you just cannot ...)
Our powerlessness was not imagined: one day, at the Action Centre, a Tory councillor turned to a CDP worker and asked, referring to us in a dismissive tone: “And who are those people? What are their qualifications?” And I thought, “Bloody hell, it’s come to that, and what matters is not your self and what you have achieved, its experts and qualifications”. And I decided: I will bloody well show you” and that’s when I went to get my PhD to understand what had been happening - why, for example, the Action Centre was being taken over at the time by middle class, professional, white men.
Producing Saltley Gas took place at a time when imagining and striving for real change was much stronger than today. During the decades following the 1970s, some of the action we took did result in changes we now take for granted (just watch an old film or TV programme to see the racism or sexism accepted at the time, in order to appreciate how far we have come). And yet, at the same time, a lot has been lost, with individualism replacing collectivism and idealism to a very large extent.
There were times , even as we began to gain power, when we did not always have the words. But without realising it, in the process of taking action we did find them, and even later, after Saltley Gas, both Mary and I articulated the theory. Mary went on to study and get a doctorate and move abroad. And she was not alone: being involved with Saltley Gas and Saltley in general, changed the lives of a number of other people, some of them working class, going on to higher education and even getting degrees.
As for me, I feel lucky to have lived through that time, to be involved with Saltley Gas, to do, and to learn so much. And above all, to finally understand that in order to create an equal society, you cannot give power, you cannot empower anyone. You can only withhold any power you may have over others, so that they can take the power themselves in order to create equal relationships in both the feelings of our internal world and the structures outside; and if you have access to any help/ resources which they may need to achieve that, you provide them freely. And you carry on working together for a better, more equal and just world.
Dr Electra Soady's full interview about her life and involvement with Saltley in the 1970's is available both in audio and transcript form at The Wolfson Centre for Archival Research in the Library of Birmingham.
A collection of extracts from various issues of Saltley Gas.
Cover of the very first issue of Saltley Gas 1972
Adverts from issue No 4, 1973.
Memories of Saltley's older residents Issue no 4.
1973 including a photo of the old "Saltley Picture House".
A young user of Norton Hall expressing his views, issue no 5. 1974
Very last issue of Saltley Gas, 1977