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

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Scot of the South Seas: Robert Louis Stevenson in Samoa

Story of author's time with his family in the island nation details a political awakening.

A contemporary once saw Louis and Fanny Stevenson, with Fanny’s son Lloyd, strolling barefoot along a Samoan beach. With their shawls and shells, floppy hats, pyjama suits and banjo, they could have been 1960s hippies. Indeed, the writer mistook the trio for wandering players. But Stevenson was already the famous author of Treasure Island and The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. He was wealthy, too. An only child, he had recently inherited from his father, despite the elder Stevenson’s alarm at his son’s lifestyle and choice of spouse: the older, divorced mother of three, Frances Van de Grift Osbourne.

As is well known, Stevenson settled in Samoa, surrounded by what we might now call a “blended” family. Even his mother joined in, travelling from the douce Victorian Edinburgh, tolerating the Samoan sun in her heavy skirts and widow’s cap.

That was in 1890. Samoa was in the midst of a grievous colonial push and shove. Because of its strategic position in the South Pacific, the UK, Germany and the US all maintained an aggressive interest in the archipelago. Joseph Farrell writes in his account of the writer’s four years on the island:

The 1880s were a decade of war and rumours of war, the raising of banners, the gathering of forces, the issuing of indignant notes, the summoning of assemblies and councils on Samoa, and of exchanges of diplomatic missives between Washington, London and Berlin.

In 1885, Samoan chiefs asked to become part of the British empire, to the Germans’ annoyance, but the request was declined. Gunboats were a common sight in Samoan harbours. Sometimes they fired at villages. Despite, or because of pressures from without, Samoan society was descending into inter-clan war.

As a rich white man, Stevenson surely benefited from the imperial adventure. Sailing by, he liked what he saw and decided to return, buy land, build a home and hire servants. Having done that, he could have remained aloof, but instead he soon came to identify with the Samoan people and their cause. He became a champion and activist. It is this change that primarily interests Farrell, and his book examines the effect that Samoa had on Stevenson the writer in the few short years he had left to live. Farrell explores how he responded to the politics of empire-building, as he witnessed it at the sharp end.

To their colonial meddlers, the Samoans were backward savages, inhabiting an imagined utopia of fruitful nudity and ease. But Stevenson soon felt his way into Samoan culture. Even his acknowledgement that they had a culture at all set him at an angle to the imperialists. He found the Samoan people admirable. He wrote, “They are easy, merry, and pleasure-loving” – but also given to warfare.

Having decided to integrate, Stevenson set about learning the Samoan language and, as a way of understanding the situation he encountered on the island, he identified parallels with Scotland. Stevenson may have been a Lowlander and a conservative but, like many Scots, he was seduced by the romance of the Jacobites, and the Scottish Highlands fuelled his imagination. He could feel for the situation in Samoa by referring to the Highlands after the failure of the Jacobite Risings. Both societies had clan systems. In both cases, the indigenous people faced the occupation of their land and suppression of their culture. But the Jacobite times were over and romanticised, not least by Stevenson, and the Samoan situation was happening in front of his eyes.

Taking the Samoan name “Tusitala” – “writer of tales” – Stevenson sought out local stories (chieftains and their families became guests at his house), but he could give as good as he got. He not only recorded Samoan legends, as an anthropologist might, but he offered Scottish stories in return. Farrell writes that he used weird tales of brownies, kelpies and the like to win Samoan friends. The story that became “The Bottle Imp” was told to him in the South Seas.

As Stevenson’s knowledge of Samoa and its problems grew, Farrell identifies in him a new frustration as a writer. It was no longer sufficient to be a romancer. He experienced a desire to address and influence political issues, right from the hot spot. He quickly became the annoying activist, lecturer, reporter and agitator, firing off letters to the Times, ambivalent about missionaries, a friend to Samoan chieftains. As well as championing the islanders abroad, he apparently felt himself “entitled to plunge head-first on arrival into the political affairs of Samoa”.

Farrell clearly believes that the writer’s interventions were right, even heroic. “Injustices casually perpetrated in Samoa, like similar acts of oppression on native peoples in far-off lands, would have passed unobserved… had they not aroused the indignation of this man.” Stevenson’s A Footnote to History appeared in 1892. It’s a poor title, but the subtitle – “Eight Years of Trouble in Samoa” – sets out its intention. In today’s parlance, it is a micro-history. Though the book is little known now, Farrell believes that Footnote can take its place alongside Heart of Darkness as “a radical, deeply felt critique of foreign intrusion and dominance”.

Farrell believes that had Stevenson known the term “racist”, he would have employed it, as it was “an attitude RLS abominated instinctively”. Nonetheless, he felt able to lecture the Samoans, too. Pyjama suits notwithstanding, Stevenson was a Calvinist to the last. Although Samoa had been settled for 3,000 years, at a public meeting he told the Samoans that he deplored their “indolence” and that the remedy to the loss of their land and dignity lay in “hard work”.

Stevenson wrote an estimated 700,000 words during his years on Samoa. He may have become engagé (Farrell’s word) but his imagination still resided in Scotland: it was there he wrote Catriona and began Weir of Hermiston. Although his routine was constantly disrupted by visitors, events and ill health (his own and Fanny’s), his mornings were spent writing in bed, with afternoons and evenings a never-ending round of parties, visits, horse rides, dressing for dinner and good wines. Farrell is careful to explain Samoan political complexities that Stevenson despaired of expressing; the glimpses of domestic life at
Vailima offer light relief.

It came to a sudden end. A note on the effect of Stevenson’s early death on his family and household, especially Fanny, would have been welcome, but these topics are well covered in other books. As it is, the book closes with the cerebral haemorrhage that killed him and the bearing of his body to its hilltop grave.

Farrell declines to speculate how Stevenson might have developed had he lived another 20 years on Samoa. We might remember a different kind of writer: fewer tales and old-time romances, more investigative journalism. Or perhaps he might have combined both by developing a more realistic fiction. He had embarked on that direction by completing “The Beach of Falesà”, which, Farrell writes, “exposes exploitative behaviour… The villains are white, their behaviour towards the islanders reprehensible and contemptible.” Stevenson called it “the first realistic South Sea story”, the first to tell it like it was.

Robert Louis Stevenson in Samoa
Joseph Farrell
MacLehose Press, 352pp, £20

Kathleen Jamie’s poetry collections include “The Bonniest Companie” (Picador)

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear