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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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis