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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.

Child support: a march in Northumberland at the end of the miners's strike, 1985. Photo: Rex Features
Child support: a march in Northumberland at the end of the miners's strike, 1985. Photo: Rex Features

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