a project by Ruth Ewan
‘Twenty–Nine Thousand Nights: A Communist Life is an unusual chronicle of the personal journey of Nan Berger through her writings, intelligence reports and visual images. From a wealthy middle class Northern family, Berger was drawn to the Communist Party in the 1930s because of her horror of fascism. Shocked by the tactics of the British police at an anti- fascist meeting, she became a lifelong campaigner for Civil Liberties. World War Two brought her into the civil service and she was awarded an OBE in 1948 for her work in the Ministry of Fuel. Nevertheless in the changed post-war world she found herself regarded as lacking qualifications. Through the Communist Party and the National Assembly of Women, Nan Berger became an early critic of gender inequality, writing Woman Fancy or Free? with Joan Maizels. This intriguing exploration of documents from one woman’s life conveys the many unexpected byways of left political commitment in the Twentieth Century, bringing to the surface a wider social history.’ – Sheila Rowbotham
‘Nan Berger is no Rosa Luxemburg or La Pasionaria but a conventional Englishwoman with not much in her head, from a respectable Tory home in Southport. Joining the Communist Party emancipates and educates her, opening her eyes to the world’s suffering and inequalities. With its collage of documents, MI5 surveillance reports and contemporary photographs, this is a vivid account of the transforming power of progressive politics in one woman’s life.’ – Alison Light
Commissioned for Beyond Words, Ruth Ewan has unearthed an unpublished manuscript of Nan Berger (1914–1998) – international activist, writer and editor, and lifelong member of the Communist Party. Now a forgotten figure she gained brief public recognition for her work in the Ministry of Transport, resolving the coal crisis in the winter of 1947–48 for which she was awarded an OBE.
Her autobiography is unfinished, consisting of contemporary notes alongside more detailed accounts of parts of her life: the anti-fascist struggles of the 1930s, pre-war USA, post-war life in Poland, China and her activities with the National Council of Civil Liberties and the anti-apartheid struggle. The gaps are filled by Ruth Ewan with archival material that ranges from MI5 surveillance files, family photographs, archived journals and publications, that presents evidence of an extraordinary life of radical politics and compassion for others.
Ruth Ewan is an artist based in Glasgow, and is known for creating context specific artworks. She works with found material, history, collaborators and participants to realise her projects, which are often grounded in focused research into hidden social and political histories.