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

THOM ATKINSON
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Lionel Shriver's new novel creates a whole world – but can't quite grasp its inhabitats

Like Shriver's previous offerings, The Mandibles: a Family – 2029-2047 takes on a difficult topic: this time, American debt.

If your son takes a bow-and-arrow set to school and kills nine of his classmates, how do you know how much responsibility you bear for his actions, if any? If you have been living frugally for decades so that you can retire early to a tropical island and, just before you do so, your wife is diagnosed with aggressive and terminal cancer, do you have an obligation to spend your entire savings to prolong her life by a couple of months? If your brother is morbidly obese and the best chance he has of losing the 200-odd pounds that will save his life is for you to leave your husband and teenage stepchildren and to live with him, monitoring every calorie he ingests, should you do so?

These questions are at the centre of three of Lionel Shriver’s previous novels, namely: We Need to Talk About Kevin (her eighth, which brought her worldwide fame in 2003 after nearly two decades of writing in obscurity), So Much for That (2010) and Big Brother (2013). Shriver is fascinated by how we make sense of our responsibilities to and for those around us. She explores this theme through the psyches of her main characters as they confront extreme personal circumstances that chime with contemporary American socio-political issues: mass shootings, the health-care system, the obesity epidemic.

In The Mandibles, she takes on the US economy (Shriver is an American, although she lives in England). The book opens 13 years in the future, with the collapse of the dollar and America defaulting on its national debt. The president – the country’s first Latino head of state – forbids capital over $100 leaving the country and citizens are required to hand over to the government any gold they own, down to their wedding rings. This all takes place against a background of environmental change, an ageing population, racial tension and widespread unemployment, which is caused, in part, by the ability of robots to do what used to be human work.

Shriver’s powers of invention are considerable and, combined with a dark sense of humour, have often provided relief from the bleak subjects to which she is drawn. In So Much for That, for example, the cancer-battling wife renames the drugs she is prescribed: marzipan for lorazepam, Attaboy for Ativan, and so on.

The future setting of The Mandibles allows Shriver’s inventiveness full rein. “Awesome” and “cool” are out of date; the kids say “malicious” and “careless” instead. No one uses smartphones any more; they use “fleXes”, a device that can be folded to any size and is “so thin that, before the distinctive bright colours of its second generation, some folks had thrown theirs away, mistaking the wads in their pockets for tissues”. No one reads novels any more, either, but a post-crisis economic treatise called The Corrections gets a lot of attention. (Perhaps unsurprisingly, the state of the publishing industry is one of the most fully imagined aspects of Shriver’s future.)

Most members of the Mandible family aren’t prepared for how quickly – and how much – the economic crisis will change their lives. They have all been assuming that when their 97-year-old patriarch, Douglas, dies, the family fortune would filter down to his son and daughter and then to his son’s children and grandchildren. But the crisis wipes out the Mandible money and Douglas and his dementia-suffering second wife are forced to move out of their high-end care home and in with his son, Carter.

Carter’s two daughters struggle with the situation in their own ways. The richer of the two, Avery, has to adjust to no longer being able to afford extra-virgin olive oil, while Florence, for whom olive oil has long been a luxury, resigns herself to feeding her family cabbage and rice for every meal. She does the weekly shopping as soon as she is paid: as a result of hyperinflation, prices can rise steeply in a single day. When both Avery and her husband lose their jobs, they have to leave their house and take up residence with their teenage children in Florence’s already overcrowded home.

The Mandibles asks us to consider how we know what we owe to our family and our community and what counts as fair when all of the structures around which we have built our lives become unstable. There is an impressive thoroughness to Shriver’s imagining of the consequences of full-scale economic collapse. This thoroughness, however, makes the novel feel psychologically flat.

The character to whom she devotes most time is Florence’s son Willing, a teenager at the beginning of the book. An economics autodidact, he has a preternatural ability to judge just how things will get worse and to prepare accordingly.

Another Mandible insists that things will get back to normal. Another gets involved in the black market. Another reinvents herself as a model of altruism. Different characters react to catastrophe differently but the way in which Shriver moves between so many of them and has them make so many difficult decisions in difficult circumstances makes her engagement with each feel cursory. She creates a whole world but not quite whole human beings. 

The Mandibles: a Family – 2029-2047 by Lionel Shriver is published by Borough Press (400pp, £16.99)

This article first appeared in the 19 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Huckster