The miners’ hymns

Ed Miliband’s appearance at The Durham Miners’ Gala tapped into a powerful seam of social solidarity.

The Durham Miners’ Gala, known locally as “The Big Meeting”, is the annual celebration of the Durham coalfield’s heritage and trade unionism. First held in 1871, with unions marching into the city, the Gala has gradually developed an elaborate socialist iconography. Banners and brass bands are marched to the old racecourse where political speeches are made before a miners’ service at Durham Cathedral with the blessing of new banners. 
 
Last weekend Ed Miliband addressed the 128th Gala, becoming the first Labour Party leader to do so since Neil Kinnock in 1989. In front of a crowd of over 100,000, Miliband praised the “great north east tradition”, placing the forgotten institution squarely back into the mainstream. It was both an attempt to reach out to the party’s heartland, long resentful of neglect by the leadership in London, as well as exploiting a potent symbol of community pride. It was also a move questioned by the media, with many commentators pointing to how crucial union members were to Miliband in the Labour leadership election. 
 
Dave Hopper, secretary of the Durham Miners’ Association, said: “The whole of the trade union movement are rallying behind the meeting. The struggles of the public sector today are the same as those the miners faced. Credit to our communities who have refused to let it die. More banners have been commissioned this year and there will be no more spectacular sight than all of them and the brass bands. It’s a hell of a show”. 
 
At this point it’s worth thinking beyond political speeches, about how these pre-speech events, that “hell of a show” shot through with regional politics and pride, make the Gala so unique - the bands, banners, and songs all coming together as reminders of north-eastern working-class history. It could not be further away from the rarerified atmosphere of Westminster.
 
With the unions stripped of their bargaining power by Mrs Thatcher, and with the failure of public sector strikes last year demonstrating how comparatively little clout they now wield, what does the Gala mean today? One way of looking at this is to examine how the event has been reimagined as a potent repackaging of working-class nostalgia and industrial pride.
 
This cultural nostalgia was manifest last year when experimental filmmaker Bill Morrison was commissioned to produce The Miners’ Hymns – a marriage of archive footage celebrating Durham’s coal-mining culture with a transcendental, ambient score from Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson. Morrison’s collage presented a reminder of a regional tradition, its footage exploring the trade unions, the Gala and the fierce battles of the miners' strike of 1984-85.
 
But above all, it was most obviously a celebration of the Gala’s carnival atmosphere – its massed singing and brass band music brought to the extreme by Jóhannsson’s score, and premiered in a live performance at Durham Cathedral. Jóhannsson’s music was particularly inspired by the colliery brass bands and especially the wordless hymn “Gresford”, written to commemorate a 1930s mining disaster. Jóhannsson’s electro-acoustic experiments have often been defined by a philosophical relationship with obsolete technology – a previous project used reel tape recordings of a 1960s IBM mainframe. I interviewed him last year: “When my father worked for IBM in the 60s, there was an understanding that the job was there for life. Now the focus is on growth and consumption, with little regard to the cost in natural resources or workers’ conditions”.
 
Significantly, The Miners’ Hymns was not the only 2011 release dealing with the Gala. The music label NMC also issued a full remastering of the composer David Lumsdaine’s tape-collage composition, Big Meeting – an “electronic poem” created from recordings of the 1971 Gala. Again it displayed a similar interest in exploring geography and memory.
 
The ways in which these projects deal with the "Big Meeting" slot into a wider nostalgic project in British music over the past year, celebrating a new pastoralism. 2012 has already seen British steampunk electronica duo Grasscut release their sophomore album Unearth, a hipster’s exploration of the British landscape with references ranging from TS Eliot to Tennyson, as well as folk fiddle player Gerry Diver’s Speech Project premiere, a patchwork of spoken-word recordings from the fabric of the folk tradition intertwined with Diver’s minimalist and explicitly nostalgic score. Folk music’s path through the 21st century has been difficult, with it repeatedly being accused of parochialism, despite its radical history. Like The Miners Hymns, such movements proclaiming heritage within a context of experimental music are deeply interesting. Is it simply about finding certainty in the past?
 
The surrounding of the Gala by ritual – its bands and singing - are what make the Big Meeting so much more than a playground for political rhetoric. Miliband’s appearance there was more than oratory - it tapped into a potent thread of social solidarity.
Durham miners (photo: Getty Images).

En Liang Khong is an arts writer and cellist.

Follow on twitter @en_khong

SAMUEL COURTAULD TRUST
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The paintings designed to better sculpture

In Pieter Bruegel’s hands, even black and white paintings can be full of colour, as a new exhibition at the Courtauld Gallery shows.

Grisailles – monochrome images usually painted in shades of grey and white – have a long tradition. Early examples appeared in the 14th century as miniatures or manuscript illuminations and then later on the outside of the folding panels of altarpieces, where they imitated sepulchre statues and offered a stark contrast to the bright colour of the paintings inside. With their minimal palette, grisailles also offered painters a chance both to show off their skill and to add their bit to the age-old artistic debate about paragone: which was superior – sculpture, with its ability to show a figure in three dimensions, or painting, with its powers of illusion? By pretending to be sculpture, grisailles could better it.

The first artist to paint grisailles as independent works for private enjoyment and contemplation was the Netherlander Pieter Bruegel the Elder (circa 1525-69), whose folk scenes of peasants carousing or of hunters in a snowy landscape have long been staples of art’s quotidian, earthy strand. Only about 40 works by him are now known and of those, just three are grisailles (not a term he would have recognised; he referred to the pictures simply as “painted in black and white”). This trio of survivors has been reunited for the first time, at the Courtauld Gallery, with an accompanying selection of copies and engravings – a mere ten pictures in all – for a fascinating one-room exhibition.

The grisailles show a deeper and more intellectual artist than the sometimes slapstick figure who would dress as a peasant in order to gatecrash weddings in the Brabant countryside and record the drunken and playful goings-on in his pictures. They reflect the position of the Low Countries in Bruegel’s time, caught between the Catholicism of their Spanish overlords and the emerging Protestantism that had been sparked by Martin Luther only eight years before Bruegel’s birth. These tensions soon erupted in the Eighty Years War.

Of the three paintings, two show religious subjects – The Death of the Virgin (1562-65) and Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery (1565) – and one is a scene that would have been familiar in the streets around him, Three Soldiers (1568). This last, lent by the Frick Collection in New York, shows a drummer, a piper and a standard-bearer in the elaborately slashed uniforms of German Landsknechte mercenaries. Such groupings featured often in German prints and Bruegel’s small picture is a clever visual game: painting could imitate not only sculpture, but prints, too. What’s more, the gorgeously coloured uniforms (mercenaries were exempt from the sumptuary laws that restricted clothing to sedate colours) could be shown to be just as arresting even in black and white.

If this is a painting about painting, the ­religious works have, it seems, added layers of meaning – although it is always difficult with Bruegel to work out what that meaning is and how personal it might be. The Courtauld’s Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery shows Jesus stooping in front of the Pharisees and saving the accused woman from stoning by writing in the dust, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” That he spells out the words in Dutch rather than Hebrew, which was more usual in other images of the scene (and which he uses on the tunic of one of the learned men observing the mute play), suggests that this picture – a plea for clemency – was intended to serve as a call for religious tolerance amid mounting sectarian antagonism. While the gaping faces of the onlookers recall those of Hieronymus Bosch, the flickering calligraphic touches and passages of great delicacy are all his own.

The picture stayed with Bruegel until his death, so it had a personal meaning for him; more than 20 copies were subsequently made. Included in the exhibition are the copies painted by his sons, Jan and Pieter the Younger (a coloured version), as well as the earliest known print after it, from 1579, by Pieter Perret, which shows some of the detail in the crowd around the central figures that has been lost in the discoloured panel.

If the sombre tones of grisaille are suited to the pared-down faith advocated by Luther, the death of the Virgin was a familiar topic in Catholic and Orthodox iconography. Bruegel’s picture, from Upton House in Warwickshire, depicts an episode that doesn’t actually appear in the Bible. A group of Apostles and mourners has gathered around the Virgin’s bed, the scene lit by the heavenly light emanating from the dying woman and the five flames from the candles and the hearth that correspond to the five wounds suffered by her son on the cross. Domestic items litter the room – a slice of orange, slippers, a dozing cat – and there is a sleeping attendant, unaware of the miracle of Assumption that will shortly unfold. Here is a moving nocturne in which the mysteries of religion emerge from and disappear back into the shadows.

While Bruegel’s peasant works display a delight in physical pleasure, these three bravura works, painted for humanist connoisseurs and for himself, portray the sober, spiritual concerns that come to the fore once the last drop has been drunk. 

The exhibition runs until 8 May. For more details, go to: courtauld.ac.uk

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle