My marra stands behind me
David John Douglass, coalminer, revolutionary, scrapper, lover and much else besides, chose the Mahabharata, the great Indian saga, a major text of Hinduism and the longest poem in the history of epic poetry, to extend the title of the second volume of his autobiography. It is immediately illustrative of a life of almost epic proportions, says Fiona Harrington.
At the time of writing, the first two volumes of the three-volume autobiography have been published to some acclaim, although they are not as widely available as they deserve to be. The first volume entitled Geordies – Wa Mental, tells of the boy Dave’s life, which began in the aftermath of the Second World War and takes us through to the end of the boisterous sixties, an era which coincided with his teenage years. A very heaven it must have been to be young in that dawn, especially if, despite all sorts of substances and strange experiences one can remember it, as Douglass fortunately can!
Dave or “Danny the Red” as he later became known to his friends and comrades, was born in Jarrow to an English (Northumbrian) Methodist father and an Irish Catholic mother. The family was poor, poverty was general in the town in those days, but there was work in the mines and in the shipyards and the men took pride in their work. It was a grim time in many ways and Dave does not put a gloss on it or look back on his youth through nostalgic, rose-tinted spectacles. For despite coming across as a passionate and at times emotional man, sentimental he is not!
To start with, a note on language. “Geordies Wa – Mental” or “Geordies, We’re Mental” is probably obvious enough, but the rich and earthy dialect of the North-East in general is another matter altogether, so there is a helpful glossary at the back of the book to aid the reader where words and phrases are not so easily comprehended. It is almost a whole other language really and a very vivid one at that, with the effect that ultimately one can actually grasp the meaning of words without having to refer to the glossary. The books are related in a mixture of both standard English and Geordie, sometimes even flipping from one to the other in mid-sentence. There is great verve and wit in the employment of language in this way – and occasional puzzlement!
The opening sentence of Geordies – Wa Mental draws us directly and almost brutally into his world to confront us with the hard and gritty reality of that environment:
Clouds of dull dirty steam hang over the street, an aura of a permanently impending thunderstorm, given credence by the periodic thumping of the colliery compressor forcing air down the shaft… Waggonway Street, a continuous line of cramped, damp pit cottages rammed one against the other.
Waggonway Street we are told ended only “fifty yards from the pit tip.” It was this shabby street and the pit itself that formed and shaped his character and set in motion the questing thoughts, feelings and political searching that became the catalyst for a life of almost perpetual motion. However to portray him as a man of action only would not do him justice, because all that dynamic activism was purposeful and was informed by an enormous amount of diligent study, voracious reading, far-reaching discussions and contact with a wide range of people from all sorts of backgrounds. There was also a great deal of travel not all of which was of the physical sort, but more on that later.
However, before life took hold of him in that particular way, we get a strong flavour of what his early years were like. His world was a harsh place pervaded by poverty and hardship; coalminer’s pay in those days was often insufficient to keep hunger and want at bay. As a young boy he ran around with his mates in ragged clothes, no socks and in the raw cold of winter their legs were often mud-splattered and frozen. Legs as he put it “chapped from piss-soaked trouser-leg bottoms, held up with braces.” The girls meanwhile were dressed in “muckrake coloured cotton dresses and wellies.” His many amorous encounters were still in the future, but even at this stage he was paying attention to girls with their cheeky expressions and “matted lovely hair.”
Their games were dangerous but thrilling as they played chicken with the coal wagons, ducking between the great iron wheels when the waggoners applied the brakes, the contest being to see who would be the last through before the brakes were eased off again and the wagons rolled on. “Scaren’ times, heart-thumpin’ times, darin’ times.” An exciting but potentially deadly playground!
Home life could be cosy. There are images of gas mantles bathing the cottages in a golden glow with blazing coal fires warming the kitchens. Fires which could never go out since it was in front of the flames that the tin bath-tubs full of hot water were placed where the exhausted men, back from the mines covered in coal-dust, washed. There was no place for modesty or inhibition; these kitchens were virtually communal spaces with neighbouring women frequently visiting each other and chatting as they worked, sometimes lending a helping hand to wash a man’s back and giving no more than a “bored look of indifference as he steps from it.”
These homes were also damp, humid places where cockroaches thrived, where women waged a never-ending battle against the black dust which found its way into every nook and cranny and where illnesses such as the dreaded tuberculosis took a dreadful toll. Dave himself at the tender age of four was diagnosed with both TB and pleurisy resulting in a lengthy spell in Gateshead Children’s Hospital. He thought he was being given away, not understanding why he was being taken from his family, thinking that he had done something wrong and was being punished. It was a terrible, frightening period, though softened and made bearable after he made friends with a little girl also being treated for TB. They became each other’s champion against the baffling grown-up world and the inhumane hospital regime.
Illness took another great toll on the family when Dave’s beloved older sister Marina, died of leukaemia. Her death left a life-long mark on him, an “uncontrollable wretched sense of loss.” Much later when he learned that leukaemia could be a side-effect of nuclear radiation, he joined the ranks of the ban-the-bomb movement and the youth wing of CND.
Between the time of one of his earliest memories, that of being tenderly sung to by his mother as she dandled him on her knee and then to the end of his teenage years, were hard times and joyful times and times of wild, drunken, drug-fuelled experimentation into new ways of living and loving, as he and his contemporaries worked out ways of life that would, as it seemed in that hopeful time, be radical and different and better.
Before all that though, he had to go to school. He did not like school, not one little bit!
He was sent to a Catholic primary where he and class-mates of his background – poor and working-class, were regarded as thick, feral children who had to be beaten into submission. Breaking youthful spirits and moulding them into an understanding that they would never amount to much except to become part of an obedient and useful underclass, seemed to be the mission of the teachers. The children in turn saw it as their role to make the lives of their teachers and tormentors as miserable as possible, a task in which they succeeded admirably!
He failed his 11-plus due to the terrible teaching, but then so did most of the kids, at least most of the “raggy” ones; the well-dressed children from better off families got through as they were expected to. He soon came to the realisation that he was involved in a “class war of sorts.” The brutality in the secondary school he later went to was awful and consequently the behaviour of the “stupid, illiterate, violent and stubborn” children as they were described, descended into outright confrontation and bedlam. Outside of school there were battles to be fought with gangs from other parts of town, fought with catapults and sticks and making use of all the tactics and strategies of guerrilla war.
Despite a genuine toughness of mind and body he was also a sensitive child who developed a keen empathy with animals, as many children do. He took it further however after realising that, as he put it, “meat was dead animals”, becoming at the age of seven a committed and as it turned out lifelong vegetarian, to the consternation of parents, teachers and in particular, dinner-ladies!
While still a school-boy he came to know the joys of sex. He lost, or more accurately eagerly gave up his virginity at the age of twelve to not one, but two enthusiastic fourteen-year-old girls! The explicit descriptions of precocious sexuality he and his friends indulged in, will have the gentler type of reader reaching for the smelling-salts! All I can say is keep the smelling-salts to hand when reading both books because our Dave is not shy when dealing with the more intimate aspects of life. In that as in much else it is a deeply and at times almost embarrassingly autobiographical.
He survived school as he survived “clouts” from his father. His father was a strict Methodist who disapproved of drinking and swearing and seems to have been a basically kind and decent man, but thought nothing of hitting his son on a fairly frequent basis. But that was the way and it was nothing unusual. His father was an instinctive socialist who regarded the promotion of tobacco and alcohol as an exploitative, capitalist plot to weaken and distract the working-class. Dave “inherited” the socialist streak but most certainly not the teetotal or moderate language one.
Visits to his mother’s people in Ireland on holidays were also formative for the young Dave. It was a completely different environment for him. His grandparents lived in the country and the quiet and stillness of Ireland, as it appeared to him and “nights as black as pitch” made a deep impression. The cottage smelled of turf-smoke and wood-smoke and home-made soda bread. All these aromas and impressions appearing strange and alien for the first few days of each visit until the awkwardness wore off and he could again reclaim that part of his heritage.
After he left school he joined the ranks of the unemployed as well as the Unemployed Workers League. But he had as well by this time made great advances in the development of his political consciousness through attending classes on Marxism put on by the Young Communist League (YCL). He had also somewhat surprisingly, joined the Sea Cadets with a view of possibly putting to sea with the Navy, the romance and adventure of the sea-faring life overcoming any doubts about serving the state in this way. He did the interviews and succeeded in gaining the post of boy bugler with the Royal Marines. Despite day dreams of “rolling oceans and mighty vessels ploughing the deep” he drew back, realising as his developing political ideas put his notions into context, that this career was not for him. It was a reluctant realisation for he loved the sea.
The discovery of Marx was a turning point which occurred very early on in his life. At a time when other children were struggling with reading, he was already becoming familiar with the classics of Marxism, beginning the hard way with Capital in the original German. He didn’t understand a word of German, which the snooty librarian at the local library knew perfectly well, but who nonetheless handed over the huge volume, the only edition the library possessed, to the little boy. Dave took it and solemnly turned the pages pretending to read under the disdainful gaze of said librarian! Far from turning him off, this experience set him up for a life-long quest for knowledge with a thirst matched only by his thirst for women, alcohol, drugs, adventure and an almost transcendent love for revolution and preparations for revolution.
His period of unemployment therefore was not spent idly; he became heavily involved with YCND and the YCL, attending the Communist League classes and summer camps, environments that not only added to his store of knowledge, but also provided opportunities to meet and interact with the opposite sex in a manner probably not intended by that organisation, opportunities which he and his comrades took full advantage of!
It was, after all, the beginning of the sixties. Bob Dylan and the Beatles were providing the musical backdrop, the Mods and the Teds were in town, there was revolution in the air and youthful rebellion in the streets and everywhere traditional mores and values were being challenged. Naturally his enthusiastic participation in all this caused tension and fury at home. His parents were not pleased at how their son was turning out and like parents up and down the land did their best to thwart him. His mother was always more conciliatory but his father, with his uncompromising Methodist values, clashed particularly seriously with him. It was a traumatic time domestically and Dave began to spend more and more time away from home, again not an uncommon thing for the fledglings of the era.
As he puts it: “The world was a maelstrom, swirling with philosophy, ways of living, testing all borders and barriers of reality.” This is his impression of the rapidly-changing times. Around this time the inner journeying began, as he came in contact with practitioners of Vedanta, Zen, Yoga, occultism and “gurus of the spirit.” It was a time when “matter and strict scientific materialism shattered” especially during lengthy periods of meditation, aided often by the ingestion of LSD and cannabis. For me it is refreshing to find this kind of synthesis in a work which is so political in nature, for nothing is left out. Marx and meditation, drugs and anarchy, religion, revolution and folk-music are all blended together holistically. Obviously many people fell tragically by the wayside as they dived impetuously into these wells of infinity, short-cuts to Nirvana as they probably thought, but too frequently ending up instead in some personal Hell. Dave himself was often not too wise but his basic sense of survival and his increasing participation in radical politics prevailed and he came through more or less intact. Still those visionary experiences were instructive and he managed to blend the spiritual and practical sides of life and combine them to create a kind of fruitful tension which enriched and nourished him.
But it was Newcastle Brown Ale, vast oceans of it that became his beverage of choice. In fact rather disturbingly, becoming legless “getting off wa heeds” on an almost daily basis was practically mandatory. Only those with iron constitutions, as fortunately he possessed, came through all the use and abuse of alcohol and drugs relatively unscathed.
His first planned foray into militancy came with the 1962 CND march to Aldermaston. He contracted the mumps however and for the second time in his life he ended up in hospital quite seriously ill. “Ah felt robbed of a place in history”, is his comment on that unfortunate and for him ignominious experience! He did successfully participate with CND in the Easter 1966 protest in London, however, and a couple of years later took part energetically in the massive anti-Vietnam War demonstration outside the American embassy there. These were defining moments as his inclination towards peace, love and the brotherhood of all humanity came up against his fury at the war. The “Geordie Congs’” the Tynesiders called themselves as they fought the police in Grosvenor Square in March 1968. “London was black with bodies and red with flags … banners … the Vietnam flag. This was not Aldermaston. We had not come in peaceful protest.”
Solidarity with the people of Vietnam and with the oppressed and downtrodden of the world and the fight against oppression by any and all means possible, battled with the urge towards reconciliation and pacifism. The hippy in him and the revolutionary in him tugged in opposing directions and he resolved the conflict by accepting both in brave and imaginative ways. “Was there a path between Buddhism and socialist revolution?” Was it the same process, he asked himself and the answer seems to have been yes. He was reluctant to leave anything behind; Douglass wanted to embrace everything and saw no contradiction between the inclination towards peaceful mysticism and violent confrontation. Was the “hand of Karma itself determined by the social conflict and contradiction endemic to class society?” The reply to that question was also affirmative. What others saw as desperate confusion, he found to be coherent.
In common with students and young people at the time, he was thrilled by the prospect of imminent revolution, or at least some great shake-up of society. He also became preoccupied with Northern Ireland after civil rights marches there came under attack and sparked off the “troubles”. His maternal Irish roots led him to support Sinn Fein and the emerging armed struggle of the IRA.
By the time the second book, The Wheel’s Still in Spin opens, Douglass has become an apprentice miner in the coalfields of Durham. His father, though himself a miner, tried to dissuade him from that dark and dangerous occupation: “Not the pit, David lad, it’s ney gud for ye, not for anyone. It’ll break ya back and the men will break ya heart.” But the appeal both of a strong union and the proletarian work of a miner, pulled him underground at last. He had already served time as a baker’s apprentice and discovered that he had a flair for bakery, even gaining a City and Guilds qualification in the trade. He might have carried on had not an unfortunate accident involving a tray of pies and a swimming-pool got him the sack! It’s interesting to speculate how different his life might have been had he remained in the bakery trade.
This book also opens in a very direct way, pulling us this time into the town of Hatfield, South Yorkshire, to where he had moved and where he worked for most of his mining life. By now he was married to the great love of his life, Maureen, whom he had met during a YCL summer-camp and who was to be his mainstay and companion in the tempestuous years ahead. He and Maureen were a mere 17 when they married but despite their abiding love for and commitment to each other, theirs was an open marriage. Perhaps their youth, combined with the spirit of the times made that an appropriate decision, whatever the case it seemed to work for them. Here again the opposing inclinations towards freedom and commitment were resolved in characteristic fashion by choosing both.
He was now an experienced miner and in this big book of 429 pages, excluding glossary and notes, there are lengthy passages describing the work. So detailed and technical are these sections that the reader with little practical knowledge of how coal is mined, may like myself be confused as to what is actually occurring. However for any veteran underground pit-worker who can visualise the activity they will I am sure be of tremendous interest. This book takes us through the many struggles, strikes, triumphs and defeats of the years between 1968 to 1979. It sees himself and Maureen set up home together and become generous hosts to a huge, shifting cast of bohemians, revolutionaries, party cadres, artists and musicians who wander by, some invited and many not but who nonetheless find a safe and congenial haven there.
The “party” in question was the Revolutionary Workers Party (not to be confused with the Workers Revolutionary Party) formed by the Argentinean Trotskyist Juan Posadas in 1962. It had its roots in the Revolutionary Socialist League and the Fourth International of Posadas. It seems like a pretty bizarre outfit and an odd political environment for such free spirits as Dave and Maureen, being doctrinaire in the extreme and demanding an iron discipline on the part of its members. Their duty was to express the opinion of the collective, opinion which more often than not was simply handed down by decree from the political bureau of the party, or directly from Posadas himself. Douglas and those like him were frequently berated for their “petit-bourgeois individualism” and lack of total commitment. Eventually he extricated himself, although I get the impression that membership was by no means a regretted waste of time, just part of the general grist to the mill of his political development.
His journey continues on at a rip-roaring pace, as he takes on an increasing load of responsibilities and commitments, including a return to formal education at both Ruskin College and later Strathclyde University from where he graduated in 1979. It is possible that Oxford especially has yet to recover from the shock he and some of his co-students administered to its august institutions with their plebeian partying, violent drunken brawling and wild carousing. He enjoyed both periods of scholarship immensely because, unlike the enforced education of his school years, it was relevant and enlightening.
He undertook a trip to the US to make contact with the International Workers Party and the Nationwide Unemployed League. The description of his experiences there again provides an interesting insight into the political landscape of America at that time. Prior to that he spent a three month stint in Cuba in 1973 as part of an international work brigade helping to reconstruct the country and “build the revolution.” It was a period of hard labour but Dave was used to the back-breaking of the mines and this did not daunt him. He was strong and young and fit and relished both the challenge of the work and the thrill of actually being in Cuba during such a formative period in its history, although he was not uncritical of some aspects of the revolution or of Castro.
As was now characteristic of him he did not neglect to do his bit to further international understanding and understanding between the sexes in the usual manner, the women he met in the work and study camps being greatly to his liking. Rum, cigars, music, partying and the company of lively young people made his stay in Cuba a memorable one. “A piece of my heart stayed in Cuba, perhaps a piece of my soul too,” he says. His one regret was that he had gone there full of “Posadist formulae rather than a clear vision.”
Northern Ireland claimed his attention again and several visits to Belfast and meetings with people on both sides of the political and religious divide convinced him of the necessity of the national liberation. He supported the Troops Out Movement, joined Sinn Fein and even set up a cumman (branch) of SF in Newcastle. A quibble I would have with him here is the almost uncritical support he gave to the IRA (Provisional) even when it became less principled and more ruthless as the seventies progressed and the situation deteriorated. Nonetheless his sympathies and his experiences offer a lot of insight into that period of Irish history.
His personal life sadly unravelled when he and Maureen underwent a crisis in their marriage, which was only partly to do with their pact of non-exclusivity. They patched things up for the sake of their daughter, but it caused a great deal of heartache and resentment for a time. This trouble came in the wake of a complete and catastrophic mental and physical break-down as a result of overwork. He recovered fully and with a new understanding that he was not unbreakable, which is a healthy realisation for someone with his seemingly boundless energy and toughness of character.
There are people who I suppose would criticise him for spreading himself too widely and for not staying with one political position. It is true that his politics come over as quite chaotic sometimes. But his is a temperament that can be satisfied only by the total embrace of all that life has to offer, including all the varieties of radical politics and revolutionary trade unionism. He’s not a man who, when he comes to the end of a hopefully long life, will be regretting all the things he has left undone, the drink un-drunk, or the women unloved!
He genuinely does believe in the possibility of a successful revolution. He also emphasises the necessity of military preparedness for it and to that end he recounts how he and others undertook to train themselves in the use of firearms and to undergo rigorous physical training among the hills and crags of Northumberland. Some of it is alarming and some of it like the rest of his narrative, is hilarious. In my opinion he romanticises the armed struggle although it may become necessary at least in some defensive way. In any case revolution of some kind he wholly gives himself over to; his revolution however, like Emma Goldman’s will most definitely be one to which he can dance!
It is unfortunate that a number of typographical errors have crept into the second book in particular and parts of the narrative in both books can leave the reader perplexed as to what is going on, the books therefore could have done with tighter editing and closer attention to detail in order to enhance readability. However these are technical quibbles and do not detract from the spirit of the work. I look forward eagerly to the third part of his autobiography Ghostdancers. We now have a confirmed launch date of 6 March in order to coincide with the end of the commemorative year of the miners’ strike of 1984-85.
I will leave the final words to him as they form a moving tribute to the life of the pits and in particular to his “marra” or workmate on whose attentiveness life itself can depend:
This is my culture, this hard rock, this living, breathing subterranean effort… My marra stands behind me. He is my eyes; he looks up and scans the rock above for the slightest sign of movement, his hand rests gently on my naked back. He will convey as quickly as he sees it himself: danger, serious injury or death. I do not need to look up, we are one person. I do not ask him to do this, I do not thank him that he does. We are miners.
22 February 2010