No Redemption – the story of Easington pit
A collaboration by photographer Keith Pattison and author David Peace tells the story of Easington village during the miners' strike of 1984-1985. Phil Sharpe admires a book which shows the evolution of the struggle.
The early pictures show the determination of the miners who are on picket duty, but there is already an indication of the hardship of the strike with a vivid photo of the food parcels in the miners’ welfare hall.
In one image, Harold Wilson stares down from the walls – the implicit message is that the heroes of the past have become an anachronism in relation to the challenges of the present and future.
Keith Pattison, who was commissioned by the Sunderland Artists Agency to document the strike for one month, captures the seriousness of the miners while collecting funds and their efforts to maintain their children’s morale with a party at the miners’ welfare hall. However, this is still the quiet before the storm. The first indication of the scale of the strike is the scale of the picketing and the opposition of the police – not yet in paramilitary outfits. The soup kitchens show the spirit, defiance and ingenuity of the mining community. This strike is different to others as the community establishes its own forms of social conduct and self-empowerment.
The police attempt to dominate the local mining community: one image captures two local women trying to have a normal conversation whilst being watched by ranks of intrusive policemen. Even those not on the picket line are subject to arrest. By August 1984 the book tells the story of a community under siege by the state.
An immense body of police in full riot gear in Ascot Street hovers – with no miners present. But behind and above them from a bedroom window, unseen by the police, behind lace curtains is a woman – observing this bizarre and slightly comic spectacle. The miners are now outnumbered on the picket line by the ranks of the police, and armoured-type vehicles have become a regular part of the local scenery. Despite this intimidation, morale not broken, and the miners organise inspiring local marches. Support for Arthur Scargill is indicated by enthusiastic applause at a meeting. But, despite the intransigence, the first signs of weakness are captured with the pictures of coaches carrying small groups of miners back to work.
There follows a welcome respite with pictures of merriment at the local Christmas party, followed by a shock back into reality with a picture of a fragile old lady trying to cross the road behind massed ranks of police. The desperation of the miners is indicated as they collect coal from the beach to use as fuel.
Possibly the most moving photographs are of an elderly bewildered miner being arrested as his wife objects in powerful and dignified protest. The local community looks on in impotent rage. A child plays with a policeman’s helmet and toy gun.
The hope of the first pictures, however, has been dashed, and instead there is a bitter realisation that an end to the strike is inevitable. The final dramatic image shows the local vote to return to work, which is not unanimous.
David Peace, the distinguished writer of GB84 and the Red Riding Quartet, and more recently The Damned Utd, Tokyo Year Zero and Occupied City, interviews some of the participants at the beginning of the book. The tactics of the strike are discussed, and it is agreed that the increased policing of the community was a turning point in the conflict. The strike did not resolve the major issues and tensions continued until the pit was closed in 1993. The result has been the destruction of a community, as shown by record levels of unemployment, poverty and crime.
One of those interviewed, Marilyn, concludes that one of the most important results of the strike was to undermine the culture of militancy and socialism. About young people, she says: “They don’t know what democracy is. They don’t know what socialism is. They don’t know anything.” The suggestion is that socialist culture has to be renewed and re-developed by successive generations. Despite the bitterness of the defeat of the strike, however, the participants do not regret their involvement: “But I’d still do it again. And we are all agreed. Because we had a purpose. We believed in what we were doing.”
This beautifully designed book is a valuable record of an important and historic event. It indicates that the actions taken in order to defend jobs and communities resulted in intense class struggle. The miners were not defeated by public opinion, but by the immense coercive power at the disposal of the state. The defiance and bravery of the local community on their own could not defeat the actions of the state, despite their clear sense of self-empowerment in terms of the formation of the soup kitchens, the actions of the miners’ wives, the pickets and the determination to ensure that the local children got Christmas presents.
Participation in the strike was a liberating and inspirational activity, regardless of the outcome. The attempt to defeat the Conservative government, can never be historically erased. The memory can only be a bittersweet one, given the destruction of communities that followed. Pattison has succeeded in capturing an honest, moving record of unposed pictures of all the aspects of the miners’ strike, ranging from the exhilaration of militant action to regression into a struggle for survival. This story may not have a happy ending, but it is profoundly memorable.
An important lesson of the book is that without struggle we are just cogs in the wheel of capital. However, if we struggle against what seems to be our fate we can start to create a destiny for the future, and establish a better world. The miners may or may not have supported the perspective of a socialist alternative, but their struggle was one that was about refusing the imperatives of the domination of capital. It was a struggle for a better society, and this was expressed in their daily actions such as the establishment of the soup kitchens. This book is a moving and important record of this struggle for jobs, dignity and the aspirations of local communities. The lessons of the miners’ strike will be important for the struggle that will develop against the actions of the Coalition government.
10 August 2010