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Book Review Our Mary remains an inspiration

JOHN GREEN recommends an excellent biography of the late Mary Turner, an outstanding trade unionist

Our Mary: The life of Mary Turner, 1938-2017
by John Callow
Lawrence and Wishart, £20

IT’S  rare to find biographies of trade unionists, let alone female ones, so this life of school dinner lady, activist and former GMB president Mary Turner is particularly welcome.

The book’s  title might lead one  to expect a sycophantic tract, but that impression is soon disabused. Its author John Callow not only provides a moving and eloquent portrait of a towering labour movement figure but places her firmly in the context of the turbulent battles and political developments of the period Turner was born into.

From a poor working-class Irish background, she came with her family to join the Irish diaspora in Kilburn, north-west  London, in 1949. After leaving school at 15, she began work as a trainee bookkeeper before becoming a dinner lady at a local school.

Her father taught her about the importance of the labour movement and she immediately joined the union on starting work. She was soon representing her fellow workers.

Her warm personality, integrity and feisty spirit propelled her inexorably into union work and Labour Party activism. She became a leading spirit and stalwart supporter of most of the landmark struggles of the period – Grunwick, the miners’ strike, the People’s March for Jobs, the Wapping dispute – and was also an avid internationalist. She travelled to Cuba and other countries, lending her support to workers around the world.

It is impossible to mention the totality of her many activities and roles, but Callow succeeds in painting a vivid picture of the times and combines biographical detail with a clear and informative political narrative, providing an encyclopedia of labour-movement information for those unfamiliar with the period.

He also depicts the struggles Turner faced in a trade-union movement dominated by older white men who viewed women at most as decoration or as irritants. She battled discrimination and harassment in her climb, as a lay member, to the top of her union, the GMB, and Callow does not shy away from depicting the internal battles between the old, entrenched right wing and left, progressive trade unionists such as her.

Well-designed, lavishly illustrated and highly informative, this is a wonderful book. If at times its unblemished portrayal of Turner  verges on the hagiographic, that in no way detracts from the fact that she was a phenomenal, widely loved and admired front-line champion of workers’ rights, socialism and justice.  

She deserves this accolade.

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