How miners inspired the digging of a cultural seam
How the 1984-5 miners’ strike for jobs inspired film, art, music and literature, is explored in a series of essays in a new book. Photographer Peter Arkell, who wrote about how journalists and photographers can shape opinions, reviews Digging the Seam
The memory of the miners’ strike of 1984-5 continues to haunt the collective consciousness, nearly 30 years on. It becomes more, not less important, as time passes, because it is the biggest challenge to date in Britain to capitalist globalisation and the triumph of the market place.
The miners could and should have stopped the Thatcher government in its tracks, but were isolated and abandoned. They were forced to end the strike only because of the feebleness of the TUC and the Labour leaders. They never had any intention of grasping the political opportunities offered by the strike to force a showdown with the government over the policies of mass unemployment and the destruction of industry.
Digging the Seam: Popular Cultures of the 1984/5 Miners Strike takes a look at the way in which the strike was reflected in the literature, film, music, photography and art of the time and of the years since the end of the strike. It addresses the question of how the strike will be remembered, how this memory is formulated and articulated, and why it is important.
The book arises from a conference with the same title held at Leeds University in 2010, which explored the role of cultural workers during the strike as well as their role in creating the memory and legacy of it since. It is a multi-sided analysis, with essays by the contributors at the conference, in much the same form as Shafted by Granville Williams which examined the role of the media during the strike, and after.
None of the essays accepts the tired accepted wisdom of the Tory press pundits that the strike was the final act of a doomed era of class confrontation. What they do reveal is the extent to which the strike reverberated in the minds of artists and writers. They are not pessimistic essays. One of them even sees the strike as the first blow in a new era –“one of the first steps towards a new order” – characterised by the creativity of the miners and the way in which their spirit and energy challenged the old forms of existence.
The miners themselves and the women of the coalfield were galvanised by the strike to write pamphlets and poetry, in an attempt to convey the transformational nature of their experiences. And as Simon Popple, one of the editors of the book, points out in the introduction, many outside the mining communities “found cultural engagement a means of joining the cause and offering support”.
The extent that popular musicians supported the strike, writing new songs, giving benefit gigs, even joining picket lines, and taking the message of the strike to the country at large to challenge the suffocating propaganda of the coal board, the government and the Tory press – is not well known.
It’s all documented in an essay by Jeremy Tranmer, a university lecturer. “Never before,” he writes, “had musicians supported an industrial dispute in such large numbers...” Many famous groups and artists had produced songs critical of the social consequences of the government’s policies before the start of the strike. This hotted up during the strike with groups such as the Redskins, the Flying Pickets, the Enemy Within, the Housemartins, RAR, Red Wedge, all joining the fray in one way or another.
Re-enforcing this essay is one by artist and musician (and professor) John Hyatt who was singing in the band The Three Johns at the time of the strike. Even though the band was gaining recognition, Hyatt writes, the three chose to play miners’ benefits.
“We played many nights throughout the strike from Milan to Aberdeen,” he writes, “travelling in a rented van, being mistaken for flying pickets on the night-time motorways with the police-barricaded exits”. And later he adds: “Thatcherism promoted greed above love, and for a while greed has won. We have stolen money from our children in our greed, borrowing from the future.”
The famous humour of the miners – as a form of resistance – is hilariously illustrated by Paul Winter, a miner from Barnsley, in his essay, Stories from the Front Line. One of his anecdotes is of a conversation between a group of pickets and about 6 policemen very early in the strike:
“Hey up,’ said the picket to one of the Bobbies, “would I get locked up if I called thee a bastard?”
“Yes, you know you would,” replied the copper to bemused looks from his mates.
“But I couldn’t get locked up if I were just thinking thar a bastard, could I?” the picket went on.
“No, I suppose not,” said the copper, now looking decidedly uncomfortable.
“Well, in that case I think thar a bastard,” said the picket to roars of laughter from both us and the police.
The heart of the book is concerned with the literature that arose from the strike. There was a tremendous outpouring of poetry from within the mining communities, and from without, some of which is printed and discussed in several of the essays. And there are revealing reviews of two of the most famous novels that were inspired by it, GB84 by David Peace and Kingdom of Fife, by Irvine Welsh.
Peace, who was at the original conference in Leeds, wrote the introduction to the book. There is also an interview with him under the heading “Unfinished Business”, as well as a review of his novel by Rhona Gordon. His dark, “occult” novel, with the day-to-day struggles of two miners counter-pointed to the sinister, secret and arbitrary forces behind the scenes, has rightly won praise from many.
Peace says in the interview that he felt “the full horror and violence of what had happened to the mining communities and the NUM had not been properly articulated, nor did people acknowledge the range and weight of the vast and sinister forces that had been brought down upon the communities and the union.” The form of the novel enables Peace, in a new and original way, not only to let some light onto the violent nature of the state under threat, but also onto the corruption and heartlessness of those at the centre of the conspiracy.
There is a further essay in the book, by academic Sue Owen, who questions the extent to which GB84, with its “resistance of direct narrative strategies, or conventional character and plot” speaks for the working class. She argues that few working class people would want to read it because of its bleakness and because the novel portrays the workers as “deluded” and as “tragic victims”.
And she compares the hopelessness of the novel with a poem by Jean Gittins, from Women Against Pit Closures and one of the finest poets of the strike. “There is a difference in tone, a humour, resilience and toughness in Gittins insider perspective,” she writes, and she quotes from one of the poems:
So ah’ll wait for me dream ‘ome till later,
Give ‘im all the support that ah can,
‘Cause when this lot’s ower, ah’m glad ah can say
Well, leastways ah married a man.
And at the end of her essay (which also has some interesting things to say about the famous strike films Brassed Off, The Full Monty and Billy Elliott), she writes: “As time goes on, there seems to be an increasing discrepancy between the angry and humorous subversive voices of the strikers and women themselves, and those writing about the strike twenty-five years on and praised by the literary establishment.”
An echo of the famous proletcult debate in the early years of the Soviet Union? Perhaps, but there is no doubting the emotional power of the poetry written by the “insiders”, mostly the women of the coalfields.
Comparing the Chartist mass strike of 1842 to the 84-85 miners’ strike, Mike Sanders, also an academic, draws attention to one of the common characteristics of both events – the mass production of poetry. “Poetry and politics are linked,” he writes, “by their transformative potential” and goes on to quote a simple, but beautiful poem called Kim by Jean Gittins, written in 1985.
I can’t understand what has happened to Kim
There’s been such a terrible change
When I think of how that girl acted before
I can’t understand such a change
A beautiful hand with the pastry she had
Her sponge cakes were lovely and light
But, now it’s all muesli, and yoghurt, and nuts
While she’s out at meetings at night
We could have gone on, for the rest of our lives
Never knowing, just what she was like
And she’d have been trapped in our image of her
If it hadn’t have been for the strike.
The book brings together a number of writings that contribute together to a new way of looking at the strike, a positive, even uplifting way. “What we seek,” writes Ian W Macdonald, one of the editors, is “new angles, something that informs us anew... Over time new work tells new stories – not history being re-written by the victors, so much as history being re-focused on that which concerns the survivors.”
For the next time, perhaps.
Apart from the writings on the literature, music and film there is an essay by Julian Petley on the Miners Campaign Video Tapes, the production of which drew on old traditions of alternative workers’ films. There is a classic quote here from the president of the BBFC (the film censors) who told the Exhibitors Association in 1937: “We may take pride in observing that there is not a single film in London which deals with any of the burning issues of the day”.
Author Bryan Lewis writes on the art (or craft) of publishing pamphlets and booklets, even books, on a shoe-string budget to a ridiculously tight dead-line. With the co-operation, enthusiasm and knowledge from within the community, miracles can be wrought.
There is an essay on mining museums, another on mining memorials in the North-East, one on the re-enactment of the Battle of Orgreave, one on film documentaries produced by the NCB after nationalisation and an afterword by the Barnsley poet Ian McMillan. The 20 essays make up a valuable all-sided analysis of the art and literature inspired by the extraordinary year-long miners’ strike for jobs, which set down the marker for others to follow in today’s struggles against austerity and global capitalist recession.
8 July 2013