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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Why Richard T Kelly's The Knives is such a painful read

It is well known that Stendhal compared politics in a novel to a gunshot in the middle of a concert  this novel of modern British politcs is more like a mirror being shot at.

It is well known that Stendhal compared politics in a novel to a gunshot in the middle of a concert: a noise harsh but not dynamic, and with no resemblance to any instrument in the orchestra. What is often forgotten is that his enduring soundbite started life on the losing side of an argument. In The Red and the Black, Stendhal says that he is tempted to present a page of dots rather than subject the reader to an interlude of dreadful speechifying. His fictional publisher replies by asking him to square that with his earlier description of a novel as “a mirror going along a main road”. If your characters don’t talk politics, the publisher concludes – in a scene that does some damage in its own right to Stendhal’s realist aspirations – then your novel will fail to provide an honest reflection of Frenchmen in the year 1830.

Richard T Kelly’s new novel bets everything on this position. Kelly wants to show that a political novel – even one with characters who give political speeches and conduct discussions about policy – doesn’t need to be an ear-bashing polemic or a scuzzy piece of genre writing, but can succeed as a work of realism no less than the story of a provincial dentist’s mid-life crisis, or an extended family crumbling at Christmas.

Kelly is more a descendant of Trollope and Dickens than of Stendhal. His first novel, Crusaders (2008), a consciously neo-Victorian portrait of Newcastle in the 1990s, featured a Labour MP, Martin Pallister. The Knives is a sequel of sorts – a long, dense novel about a Conservative home secretary (Pallister is his shadow) which arrives at a moment when we are thinking about domestic politics, political process, Westminster bartering and backstabbing, and the role of the home secretary.

Kelly begins with a note explaining that The Knives is “a work of fiction . . . make-believe”, and it is true that any resemblance between David Blaylock and the real-life recent occupant of his post is scuppered in the prologue – a long gun battle in the Bosnian countryside with virtually no resemblance to Theresa May’s tenure at the Association for Payment Clearing Services. Yet the novel contains plenty of allusive nudging. Kelly’s member for Teesside may not be standing in for the member for Maidenhead, but a prime minister who is “primus inter pares” of a group of “university contemporaries and schoolmates” rings some bells. There are also borrowings from Robert Peel and Tony Blair, as well as a quotation from Trollope and a discussion of Coriolanus (“He wouldn’t last five minutes”).

As the novel begins, Blaylock is widely respected, has even been named Politician of the Year, but he is also surrounded by possible pitfalls: the presence in Britain of foreign nationals with charge sheets, the proliferation of radical Muslim clerics, the debate over ID cards, mounting questions over his record on unemployment, immigration, human rights. There is also an ex-wife whose work as a barrister converges on Home Office business. The Knives is a full-bodied account of Blaylock’s day-to-day business, in which the relationship between journalism and realism, research and description, is generally fruitful. Kelly’s mirror travels through meeting halls and community centres, down “the plum carpet of the long corridor to the cabinet anteroom”. The problem is that Kelly is too effective – too diligent – and the book is detailed to a fault, at times to the point of mania.

His habits in general tend towards overkill. As well as his note to the reader, he introduces the book with a trio of epigraphs (Joseph Conrad, Norman Mailer, Norman Lewis) and a not-inviting list of dramatis personae – 60 names over two and a half pages, in some cases with their ages and nicknames. Virtually all of these figures are then described fully in the novel proper. One character is compared to a thinker, a dancer, a Roman and a pallbearer in the space of a single paragraph.

Stendhal took his publisher’s advice but did not ignore his own instincts: having accepted that politics might have a place in a realist novel set in Paris in 1830, he is careful to give us an extract from Julien’s 26 pages of minutes. Kelly gives us the minutes. But it isn’t only world-building that detains him. Early in the book, out jogging, Blaylock passes “a young blonde” who is “wand-like from behind”: yet only by virtue of “a conjuror’s trick – a stunning trompe l’oeil – for from the front she was bulgingly pregnant, to the point of capsizing”. Almost every sentence carries a couple of excess words.

In Kelly’s universe, hubbubs emanate and autumn insinuates and people get irked by periodic postal admonishments. At one point, we read: “The likelihood that they worsened the purported grievances of said enemy was not a matter one could afford to countenance.” In a dinner scene, “brisket” is served by the “briskest” of waiters. There are tautological similes, dangling modifiers (“A vicar’s daughter, Geraldine’s manner was impeccable”), truisms (“The law was complex”), fiddly phrases (“such as it was”, “all things considered”), Latin tags and derivations, and every conceivable shade of adverb. When Kelly’s phrasing reaches for the mock-heroic, it often comes back to Earth with too great a thud: “Blaylock, tired of the joust, accepted the black ring-binder.” All this verbiage obscures the novel’s function of bringing the news – or rather, the truth behind the news – and the cumulative effect is grating, even painful, like a mirror being shot at.

Leo Robson is the New Statesman’s lead fiction critic

The Knives by Richard T Kelly is published by Faber & Faber (475pp, £12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 18 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s revenge