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

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

BBC
Show Hide image

Would the BBC's Nazi drama SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago?

This alternate history is freighted with meaning now we're facing the wurst-case scenario. 

Would SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago? Though the clever-after-the-fact Nostradamus types out there might disagree, I can’t believe that it would. When it comes to the Second World War, after all, the present has helpfully stepped in where memory is just beginning to leave off. The EU, in the process of fragmenting, is now more than ever powerless to act in the matter of rogue states, even among its own membership. In case you hadn’t noticed, Hungary, for instance, is already operating as a kind of proto-fascist state, led by Viktor Orbán, a man whom Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, jokingly likes to call “the dictator” – and where it goes, doubtless others will soon follow.

The series (Sundays, 9pm), adapted from Len Deighton’s novel, is set in 1941 in a Britain under Nazi occupation; Winston Churchill has been executed and the resistance is struggling to hold on to its last strongholds in the countryside. Sam Riley plays Douglas Archer, a detective at Scotland Yard, now under the control of the SS, and a character who appears in almost every scene. Riley has, for an actor, a somewhat unexpressive face, beautiful but unreadable. Here, however, his downturned mouth and impassive cheekbones are perfect: Archer, after all, operates (by which I mean, barely operates) in a world in which no one wants to give their true feelings away, whether to their landlady, their lover, or their boss, newly arrived from Himmler’s office and as Protestant as all hell (he hasn’t used the word “degenerate” yet, but he will, he will).

Archer is, of course, an ambiguous figure, neither (at present) a member of the resistance nor (we gather) a fully committed collaborator. He is – or so he tells himself – merely doing his job, biding his time until those braver or more foolhardy do something to restore the old order. Widowed, he has a small boy to bring up. Yet how long he can inhabit this dubious middle ground remains to be seen. Oskar Huth (Lars Eidinger), the new boss, is keen to finish off the resistance; the resistance, in turn, is determined to persuade Archer to join its cause.

It’s hard to find fault with the series; for the next month, I am going to look forward to Sunday nights mightily. I would, I suppose, have hoped for a slightly more charismatic actress than Kate Bosworth to play Barbara Barga, the American journalist who may or may not be involved with the British resistance. But everything else seems pretty perfect to me. London looks suitably dirty and its inhabitants’ meals suitably exiguous. Happiness is an extra egg for tea, smoking is practically a profession, and
the likes of Archer wear thick, white vests.

Swastikas adorn everything from the Palace of Westminster to Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace is half ruined, a memorial to what the Germans regard as Churchill’s folly, and the CGI is good enough for the sight of all these things to induce your heart to ache briefly. Nazi brutality is depicted here as almost quotidian – and doubtless it once was to some. Huth’s determination to have four new telephone lines installed in his office within the hour is at one end of this horrible ordinariness. At the other is the box in which Archer’s mutinous secretary Sylvia (Maeve Dermody) furiously stubs out her fag, full to the brim with yellow stars.

When I first heard about The Kettering Incident (Tuesdays, 12.20am; repeated Wednesdays, 10pm) I thought someone must have found out about that thing that happened one time I was driving north on the M1 with a more-than-usually terrible hangover. Turns out it’s a new Australian drama, which comes to us on Sky Atlantic. Anna (Elizabeth Debicki), a doctor working in London, pitches up back in Tasmania many years after her teenage friend Gillian disappeared into its Kettering forest, having seen a load of mysterious bright lights. Was Gillian abducted by aliens or was she, as some local people believe, murdered by Anna? To be honest, she could be working as a roadie for Kylie, for all I care. This ponderous, derivative show is what happens when a writer sacrifices character on the altar of plot. The more the plot thickens, the more jaw-achingly tedious it becomes.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit