Saturday 13 July 2013

Malala, Antigone and the Match Girls

Joined-up Thinker

Even the ancient Greeks knew that teenage girls can sometimes be right. Although officially believing that all females (and males under 30) were incapable of rational thought, they loved the tragedian Sophocles for his Antigone. They cheered when his pubescent princess told her tyrannical uncle where he could stick his arbitrary violations of basic human rights. 

I was inevitably reminded of Antigone yesterday as I watched Malala Yousafzai, on her 16th birthday, deliver that poised speech to the UN in her perfect English. But I had been thinking of Antigone all week during the 125th anniversary of the striking London match girls at the Bryant & May factory in London in 1888. Many of them teenagers, and imported labour from Ireland, they achieved the first really successful industrial action in British labour history. 

Founding Mothers of Workers' Rights
The 1500 courageous strikers were protesting against risible pay, fourteen-hour days, a punitive fine system, and working with phosphorus, which led to bone cancer. The strike, sparked by the dismissal of one worker in early July, produced public outrage at their plight. This put their boss Wilberforce Bryant, who had extracted an enormous fortune from their labour, on the defensive. He had inherited the business in 1874, and massively increased its profit margins by cynical policies.  His father  had been a gentler businessman and a committed Quaker, but Wilberforce, a hard-nosed capitalist, kept his wealth to himself.

Stoke Park, bought with profits from the Match Girls' labour
Stoke Park near Slough had been on the market for years when Bryant purchased it shortly before the strike from its previous owner (a coal-mine owner). It was so expensive that few potential buyers existed anywhere.  With a landscape by Capability Brown, and neoclassical architecture by James Wyatt, Bryant’s lavish property was unctuously described in the Illustrated London News as  ‘“classic”, with Grecian colonnades… It stands out in the bright sun, dazzlingly white as the marble palaces of ancient Athens.’

Plutocrat Bryant of Bryant & May Matches
The match girls won. But the big money today remains in the hands of the few. Stoke Park is now an exclusive ‘Luxury Hotel, Spa, Golf and Country Club’, only to be joined by private membership: The Bryant & May brand still exists, owned by Swedish Match. The Bryant & May factory is today Bow Quarter, a pricey gated community of luxury apartments and penthouses inhabited by celebrities. 

Based on Sophocles' daughter?
But for me the question that remains unanswered is this: what exactly was Sophocles' parental ‘learning experience’, presumably taking place in his central Athenian home, at the hands of one of his daughters? 

Had she illicitly sneaked into the theatre, watched some patriarchal drama (perhaps his own Ajax, where the testosterone-ignited hero keeps yelling at his concubine to shut up) and told her dad that she objected to its sexism? I like to think so, anyway.

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