Guest blog by Matt Hill (singer-songwriter Quiet Loner)
As a songwriter I’m always looking for ideas and inspiration. A hard felt emotion, an overheard conversation, a spectacular location, even a turn of the weather can be a catalyst that sparks the creative process. And so can museums.
In 2012 I was a few weeks away from recording my third album Greedy Magicians but was missing a song. This album was exploring the ways political issues can shape our lives. But I needed a song that could pull all these threads together.
I needed something like ‘For the people’, a poem by Tony Walsh that had knocked me sideways when I’d first heard it. A trade union had asked Tony to write a poem about cuts to public services. But in talking about cuts to libraries or home care services Tony reminded us of our history, of the battles that were fought to lift people out of lives that were barely an existence.
Tony’s poem moved me deeply. And it inspired me. I decided I would take the baton and run, I would try and write a song that explored those same ideas. But I didn’t pick up my guitar, instead I headed to the People’s History Museum.
This remarkable building in Manchester is full of beautiful objects. If you need inspiring, look no further. These objects once held ideas that were so powerful they changed the world. As I walked the collections I saw the desk where Thomas Paine wrote a book called The Rights of Man. On that desk ideas were born that would cause a global revolution. I saw posters and pamphlets, banners and badges that were full of ideas, passions, dramas, aspirations and dreams.
The People’s History Museum is special to me because it tells the stories of people. Not the tiny 1% of royals and aristocrats who keep their wealth across centuries and want to maintain the status quo, but the rest of us. The people who make things happen, who make things change. The people who build things, invent things, and whose radical ideas propel the human race forward.
This is a museum full of dreams that were dreamt in secret. A collection of quiet objects that once spoke loudly of dangerous ideas like equality and democracy. Ideas that were firmly spoken but met with violent oppression from the ruling classes. Ideas that became the things we now take for granted. Things like a walk on the moors at the weekends, turning on a tap to get clean running water, a visit to doctors for a prescription when you’re poorly, paid holidays from work and the right to vote come polling day.
What I saw in the museum was also the story of my own family. My Great-Grandparents who lived in the slums and poverty of Narrow Marsh in Nottingham, my Grandparents who moved into the brave new world of council houses and indoor toilets, my Parents who grew up on those estates and then became homeowners and me and my sister who were the first in our family to go to University. In the space of 150 years our lives were transformed by the political battles of the day.
I went away and wrote a song called We will not forget. It’s a song inspired by the story told in the People’s History Museum. About places like Tolpuddle and Peterloo , about ideas like suffrage and sewers, and about people like Paine and Pankhurst, Bevan and Benn. But it’s also a very personal song and mentions events, writers, places that have been important in my life and I even give a name check to my granddad.
Remembering is important but it’s not just about looking back, it’s about looking ahead. Many of the freedoms and rights we take for granted, hard won over many years, are being taken away. The People’s History Museum is important because we must understand our past if we are to build a better future.