A couple of weeks back I learnt of the death of one of the signalmen I used to work with on the London Underground. Geoff Revell, who died of cancer at the age of seventy-three, had been active politically and in the union since the 1960s. The jungle telegraph of retired and still active underground workers ensured that nobody who had known Geoff was unaware of his passing or the subsequent funeral arrangements. I owed Geoff a lot, although I never really got the chance to tell him. I first came across him when I was a green kid just beginning on the job. I wrote an impatient snotty letter to my union branch secretary demanding to know why that year’s union diary had failed to show. Geoff wrote back a letter explaining patiently that the diaries had not been distributed because of the death of the branch secretary. He went on to list the various activities and priorities for the branch still mourning its leader, including dealing with hundreds of industrial injury claims and, in the nicest possible way, hinted that my diary could wait. At the end of the letter he suggested that I might want to become involved in the branch in order to lend a hand. I was there at the next branch meeting. Geoff’s response was perfectly pitched, offering a between-the-line rebuke to a stupid kid with the wrong priorities but worded positively enough to get him involved in something much bigger than himself.
By the early 1980s, Geoff was a full-time union representative on the Underground, where he was known affectionately as the ‘Perry Mason of the Disciplinary Board’ because he never lost a case! Stories about Geoff’s interactions with management were legion. One that stuck in my mind, although I suspect it’s at least an exaggeration, was that he once had the management representatives crying at a disciplinary hearing for a worker accused of stealing. The worker got off the charge. Geoff embodied working-class pride and confidence. He was quick witted, incredibly funny, and had a comic’s sense of timing when telling stories, as is clear in a video of him paying tribute to the late RMT leader Bob Crow.
While Geoff was gifted in many ways, he was not unique in the workplace culture from which he sprang. Contemporary accounts of working class identity, both in the UK and the USA, sometimes treat it as damaged, a position that any rational person should aim to leave as soon as they could. But Geoff and people like him made being working class attractive, something that many would want to be. It was a badge of achievement not shame. I know this was true for me. I spent just five short years on the Underground in the 1980s, but I grew up in those years in a rich and stimulating environment. For at least a few years, I was lucky enough to see and be part of a self-confident working-class culture, it had lots of faults, to be sure, but it was simultaneously enriching and empowering for those who enjoyed it.
We often hear that this positive reading of class in the thirty years after World War II is just nostalgia, a rose-tinted version of the past. But I think there is a lot more to it than that. It’s an era that we can look back on for clues for our future. As a sociologist I’ve spent three decades trying to figure out the culture I experienced, but I also ask if it is a culture we can still see. Was it dependent on stable jobs, near full employment, and strong trade unionism? With the erosion of those conditions, have we seen the last of that industrial atmosphere? Or, alternatively, is this type of working-class culture alive and well but hidden from view unless one carefully looks for it? My answer is that while all those factors are important we must not talk ourselves out of believing that change is possible, that individually and especially collectively, we can make a difference in the lives of others.
I was unable to get to Geoff’s funeral and wake, because – perhaps appropriately — I was working. Friends later told me about the way the police had closed streets to make way for the funeral cortège, how the union band had led the procession, and how union flags lined the route to the crematorium. They also described the wake afterwards, where they sang old union songs like The Ballad of Joe Hill and the Internationale and where family, friends and former colleagues shared moving reflections on Geoff’s life. One story described how, when Geoff had gone into hospital for the final time days before his death, the Junior Doctors were on strike and picketing the hospital gates. The doctor treating Geoff gleefully told him that he at least was not on strike and was able to treat him. Geoff motioned to the medic to come talk to him. After a whispered word in his ear, a visibly chastened doctor walked away, in some versions of the story in tears. So Geoff was reminding people of the importance of solidarity and class to the end.
We need more people like Geoff in the workplace and in our communities. They won’t be identical to him, and the context they work in will be very different, but as Geoff taught us, we can all make a difference whether by a word in an ear or in a note about a diary. Rest in peace, Geoff. For so many working-class people, you made a difference and will continue to do so.