Child support: a march in Northumberland at the end of the miners's strike, 1985. Photo: Rex Features
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Writing the strike: poetry from the 1980s miners’ picket lines

Writing was fundamental to the protest, yet the poems and songs have been largely lost from popular memory.

In early March, the 30th anniversary of the 1984-85 miners’ strike will be marked with three performances of The Miners’ Hymns – a 50-minute sound/film project by the American director Bill Morrison and the Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, which premiered at Durham Cathedral in 2010. Footage from the BFI and various regional archives is set to a score of the industry’s trademark brass bands. Morrison and Jóhannsson unite musical and visual discord to offer new perspectives on a lost industrial culture. From David Peace’s novel GB84 and Jeremy Deller’s artwork The Battle of Orgreave to musicals and tele­vision programmes such as Billy Elliot and Our Friends in the North, the cultural history of the miners’ strike is one of contestation, claim and counterclaim.

Writing was a fundamental part of the protest itself, yet the strikers’ own poems and songs have been largely lost from popular memory. Jotted on scraps of paper and in school textbooks, on till receipts and on the back of cereal packets, the poems are consigned to the archives of specialist institutions, from the National Coal Mining Museum in Wakefield to the Working Class Movement Library in Salford.

There was printed material, too. As a result of the increased writing from pit communities, regional printing presses were forced to respond to a new demand for published works. Some small publishers such as Canary Press published books at cost price to show their support; larger community publishers such as Yorkshire Art Circus, Artisan and Bannerworks produced their own strike literature and helped to distribute material at rallies.

The writing raised funds for the Miners’ Solidarity Fund and, after the return to work, the Miners’ Victimisation Fund. The comparative ease with which strikers were able to get their writing published during 1984-85 was unusual, especially for working-class people who were writing for the first time. As the prolific strike poet Jean Gittins recalls: “We were definitely flavour of the month!”

The poetry is often instructional and inspirational, demanding both action and solidarity. One anonymous song from the Ledston Luck picket asserts:

 

As the strike grows longer

Our resolve grows stronger

Maggie thought she’d starve us back

But she couldn’t be wronger.

Many women turned to writing to make their voices heard. A central concern for female poets was the change in roles brought about by the strike. In Jean Gittins’s “Kim”, home life and working-class culture are placed in direct competition with an active, participatory social life and new “trendy” health foods – a process of transition that the poet seems to suggest was speeded up by the strike.

 

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 each night . . .

Strikers’ children also wrote poetry. The political discussions that became a feature of family life rubbed off on young minds: children’s strike-writings commonly illus­trate an appreciation of critical issues such as their parents’ “right to work”, but tales of plight and need are also common. In “Winter 1984” a little girl (she signs “Ellie”) recounts daily humiliation at the hands of her headmaster. Because her parents were both on strike, they could not afford the black leather lace-ups required for her school uniform. Instead, she wore plimsolls throughout the winter months. Every day during assembly she was forced to stand up and tell the whole school why her parents were making her wear these shoes. Eventually, to her “delight”, she found an old pair of men’s black lace-ups, several sizes too large, at a local jumble sale.

Children’s writings are a reminder of formative experiences during the conflict that would shape social and political beliefs for years to come. As the strike recedes further into the past, projects such as The Miners’ Hymns make a significant step towards reclaiming a people’s history. But 30 years on, the strikers’ own poetry is more significant than ever – illuminating literature’s potential to interact with other representations of the social, economic and political state of the nation during a conflict. In many ways, mining culture, in the words of the Thurcroft National Union of Mineworkers banner inscription, is moving “From Obscurity to Respect”. 

“The Miners’ Hymns” comes to Gateshead, Easington and the Barbican in London from 5-9 March. Katy Shaw will lead the poetry event “Mining the Meaning” at the Latitude Festival, 20 July

This article first appeared in the 26 February 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Scotland: a special issue

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Beware of tea: the cuppa has started wars and ruined lives

. . . and it once led F Scott Fitzgerald to humiliate himself.

A drink sustains me – one that steams companionably as I write. It is hot, amber and fragranced differently from any wine; nor does it have wine’s capacity to soften and blur. I’ve never understood how the great drunks of literature, Ernest Hemingway, F Scott Fitzgerald and their like, ever put anything on the page more worthwhile than a self-involved howl, though even Hemingway apparently finished the day’s writing before beginning the day’s drinking.

Tea is more kindly, or so I’d always thought. Those aromatic leaves, black or green, rolled and dried and oxidised, have some of wine’s artistry but none of its danger. Even their exoticism has waned, from a Chinese rarity (“froth of the liquid jade”), for which 17th-century English traders were made to pay in solid silver, to a product that can be found dirt cheap on supermarket shelves.

There are even home-grown teas now. The Tregothnan estate in Cornwall has supplemented its ornamental rhododendrons and camellias with their relative camellia sinensis, the tea plant, while Dalreoch in the Scottish Highlands grows a white (that is, lightly oxidised) tea, which is smoked using wood from the surrounding birch plantations. Tellingly, this local version is priced as steeply as the imported rarity once was.

I enjoy a simple, solitary mug, but I also appreciate communal tea-drinking – the delicate tea warmed with water at 85°C (a little higher for sturdier black blends), the teapot and china, the pourer volunteering to be “mother”, as if this were a liquid that could nurture. But in reality, tea is not so gentle.

Those long-ago English traders disliked haemorrhaging silver, so they started exporting opium to China from India and paying with that. This was a fabulous success, unless you happened to be Chinese. In 1839, a commissioner attempted to clamp down on the illegal and harmful trade, and the result was the Opium Wars, which the Chinese lost. “Gunboat diplomacy” – a phrase that surely constitutes froth of a different kind – won England a great deal of silver, a 150-year lease on Hong Kong and an open tea market. China received a potful of humiliation that may eventually have helped spark the Communist Revolution. As many of us have recently realised, there is nothing like economic mortification to galvanise a nation to kick its leaders.

Later, the tea bush was planted in India, Ceylon and elsewhere, and the fragrant but bitter brew for the upper classes became a ubiquitous fuel. But not an entirely sweet one: just as the opium trade ensured our tea’s arrival in the pot, the slave trade sweetened it in the cup. Even today, conditions for tea workers in places such as Assam in north-east India are often appalling.

Scott Fitzgerald also had tea trouble. When invited round by Edith Wharton, he frothed the liquid jade so assiduously with booze beforehand and risqué conversation during (a story about an American tourist couple staying unawares in a Paris bordello) that he was nearly as badly humiliated as those 19th-century Chinese. Wharton, unshocked, merely wondered aloud what the couple had done in the bordello and afterwards pronounced the entire occasion “awful”.

Some would blame his alcoholic preliminaries, but I’m not so sure. Tea has started wars and ruined lives; we should be wary of its consolations. On that sober note, I reach for the corkscrew and allow the subject to drive me softly, beguilingly, to drink.

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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