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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Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 is by turns rewarding and maddening – just like life

Auster’s epic new novel of immigration, politics and consciousness is rich but imperfect.

It’s a cliché, or a joke: the immigrant who arrives in the New World from the Old Country, to be greeted by an official who promptly renames him, mishearing the strange tongue that the arrival speaks. Paul Auster’s new novel begins: “According to family legend, Ferguson’s grandfather departed on foot from his native city of Minsk with one hundred rubles sewn into the lining of his jacket, travelled west to Hamburg through Warsaw and Berlin, and then booked passage on a ship called the Empress of China, which crossed the Atlantic in rough winter storms and sailed into New York Harbor on the first day of the twentieth century.”

Ferguson’s grandfather is called Isaac Reznikoff. Another Russian Jew advises him that it will be wiser to give his name as “Rockefeller” to the official. “You can’t go wrong with that.” But when it is his turn, “the weary immigrant blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson.”

A joke or a fable: the way that so many stories begin in America, the stories of those who sailed past the Statue of Liberty and the words inscribed on its base, words to welcome the tired, the poor, those masses yearning to breathe free. And so Auster, in his first novel in seven years, presents the reader with an Everyman, Ferguson-who-is-not-Ferguson, not the man who stepped off the Empress of China but his grandson, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the cranky protagonist and hero of this tale.

Ichabod begat Stanley and Stanley begat Archie, who was born, like his creator, in Newark, New Jersey, in 1947. This nearly 900-page epic is a Bildungsroman, though it would be more accurate to call it a Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungsroman, because Archie’s story is told not once but four times. There are that many versions of the protagonist: in each version, his life takes a different turn, and so everything that follows is altered.

Auster is something of a prophet in exile in his own land. His brand of existentialist postmodernism – in which characters with the author’s name might appear, in which texts loop back on themselves to question the act of writing, in which the music of chance can be heard loud and clear – has sometimes found greater favour in Europe than it has in his native United States. For example, City of Glass, the 1985 meta-detective novel that forms part of The New York Trilogy, will be adapted for the stage here this year.

But City of Glass, like all of Auster’s previous books, is a slender novel. The New York Trilogy as a whole comes in at just over 300 pages. Where much of Auster’s work is elliptical, 4 3 2 1 can be overwhelming, but that is precisely the point. The author creates a vast portrait of the turbulent mid-20th century by giving his protagonist this series of lives. The book is divided into sections that clearly mark which Ferguson we are getting: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 or 1.4.

Yet there is nothing supernatural about this journey lived and relived, as there was in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. The only magic involved is the magic of the novelist’s imagination, which allows both writer and reader to juggle realities as if they were balls in the air.

However, it is not as if one Ferguson is midshipman and another a circus performer, or one a loudmouth and another shy and retiring. The strength of this novel is that Ferguson remains himself while events shift around him, changing the course of his life. Ferguson’s father dies, or Ferguson’s father lives but divorces his mother, Rose. What happens then? Rose is a talented photographer; does she continue her work when Stanley prospers and they move to the suburbs, or does she take up golf and bridge? Ferguson is a good student, always a writer: does he go to Princeton or Columbia? What’s the difference between translating poetry in a Paris attic and working as a journalist for the Rochester Times-Union?

At its best, 4 3 2 1 is a full immersion in Ferguson’s consciousness, which, perhaps, is a consciousness not too far removed from Auster’s. His protagonist’s youth is wonderfully, vividly conveyed. Even if you don’t care about baseball, you’ll come to care about it because Ferguson does. The details of the young Ferguson’s life are carefully and lovingly created: the powder-blue Pontiac that his mother drives, the pot roast and cheese blintzes served at the Claremont Diner in Montclair, New Jersey – and  the floorboards in an old house that creak when two young lovers make their way between their separate rooms in the middle of the night. Auster builds a world of heartfelt, lived-in detail.

But this is a novel of politics, too. Ferguson is a young man during the tumult of the late 1960s, when dozens were killed and hundreds injured during riots in Newark in 1967; when students at Columbia occupied the campus in protest over the war in Vietnam; when young men such as Ferguson could be drafted to fight in that war.

It is in this last third of the novel that the book flags a little, as lists of events tumble on to the page: one paragraph contains the My Lai massacre, the killing of the Black Panther Fred Hampton and the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. At times, history lessons threaten to overwhelm the narrative, and Ferguson’s story/stories lose the texture and particularity that have made them so compelling. And its ending is abrupt, a tying-up of loose ends that fragments on the final page.

But then lives – real lives – have strange, abrupt endings, too. This is a rich, imperfect book, often rewarding, occasionally maddening. Again, like life, or at least if we’re lucky.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster is published by Faber & Faber (880pp, £20)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era