Swimming Against the Tide

350-police-500-demonstrators-1By Jim Monaghan

In 2001, when Glasgow City Council made the decision to close the public baths in Calder Street, Govanhill, in Glasgow’s Southside, they probably expected local opposition. Across the country, New Labour’s Private Finance Initiative (PFI) was wreaking havoc on much-loved community assets. PFI allowed councils to take capital building projects off the balance sheet making it “more affordable” to build new schools, hospitals and other buildings than to maintain older ones. “Save our School”, “Save our Hospital”, “Save our Library” campaigns sprung up across the UK. They organised petitions and lobbies, fought hard and long, but ultimately failed to stop the closures in the face of opposition from vested interests, bankers and big capital aided by politicians keen to display shiny new buildings in their photo-ops.

What they didn’t expect was the intensity and anger that they met in Govanhill. The campaign there took direct action, occupying the building from the night of its ‘closure’ for the next 5 months and more, supported by dozens of people on a 24 hour picket line. Even when the council took extreme measures to end the occupation, sending in over 200 Police officers, 30 of them on horseback, accompanied by a helicopter, they met a wall of resistance. It took them 18 hours in a straight toe-to-toe scrap with hundreds of local residents to end that occupation, but still the fight wasn’t over. The protesters returned the next morning to clean the streets following the riot and then reorganised, reassessed, and continued the campaign. Eventually in February 2012, Govanhill Baths Community Trust (GBCT), a community-owned company formed from what had been initially “Southside Against Closures” and then the “Save Our Pool” campaign, took the keys and marched triumphantly back into the building to begin the repairs and refurbishment to establish a ‘Well-Being Centre’.

This remarkable story of a community’s fight to save and own its own local assets has been captured beautifully in a new film, United We Will Swim… Again produced and directed by Fran Higson. Using original footage of the 2001 protest and the personal testimonies of those involved, then and now, Higson brings to life one of Glasgow’s great stories of resistance.

“I wanted to tell the story of the people of Govanhill, why this place was so important to them, and how they managed to win through resilience and self-organisation” said Higson, one of the founders of the camcorder guerrillas, who have recorded in film a decade of Scotland’s protest and resistance movements.

Her film focuses on a handful of individuals, from a teenager who joined the picket line for “the buzz” and ended by being painted by police and press as a criminal mastermind; to experienced political activists; and those who used the baths every day and who hadn’t been involved in any protest before.

It’s a story that’s not just about this organisation, or the victory they fought so hard for, but also of community assets being sold off and, with it, the heart being ripped out of communities. Nicola Fisher, a local teacher who was one of the key organisers of the campaign in 2001, reminds the politicians in a poignant moment in the film:

“They forget that they are just caretakers for the people, they’re just looking after our stuff – for us”. 

It’s a film that celebrates direct action, Fatima Uygun, a Turkish immigrant who lived in Govanhill at the time, occupied the building, and is still heavily involved in GBCT says early on:

“If there’s one thing I would recommend to anyone, is occupy a building. It’s one of the most exhilarating things, and you don’t realise how powerful you are, a handful of people saying no we’re not going to go just paralyses institutions”.

United We Will Swim… Again will be premiered at Edinburgh Film Festival on the 20th June and screened at a range of festivals and events over the next few months. Higson herself will embark on a tour around the UK focussing on similar campaigns:

“The cuts and privatisation are ongoing, people are fighting to save pools all over the UK. As well as going to film festivals, we will be joining community activists and similar campaigns in Belfast, Oxford and other places, sharing the experience of Govanhill. I hope the film inspires people.”

On Friday 10th July she will be in Oxford with the campaign to save Temple Cowley Pool, closed and planned to be privatised by the local council. Legendary folk singer Peggy Seeger will be joining her on the night to perform protest songs. Seeger has written a campaign song for the Temple Cowley protest in a coincidence that resonates back in Govanhill. The Save Our Pool campaign in 2001 had a song book of famous protest songs re-written for Govanhill by the late Alistair Hulett. Peggy Seeger was a friend of Hulett’s and is Patron of the Alistair Hulett Memorial Trust.

Fran is hoping to screen the film to self-organised community groups from across Scotland:

“I want to hear from anyone who is fighting a campaign or is organising in their local community. We want to bring the film to them, we want it to start conversations. In these ‘austerity’ years it is easy for people to feel despair, to give up on fights, to think that it’s impossible for them to take on the powers that be. I hope the people of Govanhill can inspire others and that my film does justice to their story and will encourage others to fight back and take what is rightfully theirs.”

UNITED WE WILL SWIM… AGAIN is a Camcorder Guerrillas film, Produced and Directed by Fran Higson. Jim Monaghan is a writer and activist based in Govanhill.


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Comments (10)

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  1. Martin McKane says:

    Wow that took me back to my childhood. I grew up on Cathcart Rd (70s 80s) and was a member of Kingston Swimming Club which was based at Govanhill baths on Tues & Fri nights. Fond memories of my time both as a swimmer and later on as a teacher/coach spending time in all three pools.

    1. Jim Monaghan says:

      Kingston Club still exist Martin, they swim at Castlemilk now. Would be brilliant to see them back at the baths some day

      1. Martin McKane says:

        It would indeed Jim

  2. Scott McNaughton says:

    I love the fact people power can win but people just do not know how powerful they are.
    Temple Cowley rings bells for me from my town and gown days there.
    Amazing place Oxford. Superficially if one watches Morse the 80% outside education are almost unworthy of a mention.

  3. Les Wilson says:

    Well, I do not live in Glasgow, but I am nevertheless proud of these folks in Govanhill.

    What is contemplated with this film should rightly be shown across the UK as a template of
    what people power can do. As but just one, but excellent exhibit of what people can do when motivated.

    The stuff governments shudder with. Brilliant, keep going forward whenever the interests of the public are pushed aside, in the interest of government self interests.

    Will the film be put on youtube? if so please alert all readers when that happens. Great stuff.

  4. sandy ritchie says:

    I’m looking forward to viewing this film at the Edinburgh film festival. It has a resonance of “Made in Dagenham”..different topic but ordinary citizens taking on the powers that be. Its also a reminder that similar events are being perpetrated by councils in England..they don’t stop at the border. Assisting the resistance in England and Northern Ireland to keep local facilities open by those in Govsnhill is welcome news…a good example of we’re better together…lol

  5. Drew Campbell says:

    I lived in Calder Street in the 80s where the baths – and one of the last old “steamie” wash-houses round the back – were central to the community life. I remember being saddened by the news of the closure then heartened by the amazing coming together of the neighbourhood to fight the order.

    The City Fathers were not happy and, of course, in their eyes it became first a power struggle – how dare the hoi polloi question us! – then a face-saving exercise.

    Some people look back on “Old Labour” through rose-tinted spectacles. I’m not one of them, but I’m gladdened by this article and its timely reminder of what can happen when a party is given too much power and too much trust for too long.

    1. ColinD says:

      Well said, Drew.

  6. colin young says:

    I lived in calder street born 1952 by five years of age all the kids used the baths as there was no baths in the tenements or barely a toilet in each close, so calder st baths were crucial to the area.

  7. Gordon McShean says:

    In 1946 I was 9 years old, and I remember the feelings of joy we all experienced as we joined the neighbours gathered at the intersection of Govanhill Street and Aitkenhead Roadto to take part in the burning of huge piles of wooden scaffolding which had supported our tenements during the war. We helped tear down the brick baffle walls that had protected our tenement ‘closes’ from the effects of bombing on the ‘Dubbsies’ armaments factory (where my dad worked) across the road. After the festivities we rolled up a towel and a wee treat – a “chittery bite” – and trooped off to the Calder Street baths to wash away the smoke and grime. Ten years later I would leave my family in these awful tenements and escape to Germany (of all places!), wearing my kilt and hitching lifts, in order to avoid arrest for my involvement in the independence movement (I wrote about that in my memoir RETIRED TERRORIST, recently published by Trafford in America). From my exile I can’t help thinking that my ideals of freedom were influenced by these events and the Calder Street Baths – it is so inspiring to learn that the institution still exists and generates new aspirations in my people!

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