Crisp sandwiches and pickets

In tracing his ancestry to Yorkshire miners, David Peace unearthed a community bound by socialism an

I was born and raised in Yorkshire. Now I live in a foreign country. In Japan, people do things differently. Japan has no state religion. The traditional culture combines Shinto and Buddhism. Most Japanese homes have butsudans - small Buddhist shrines to dead relatives. Anniversaries are marked on the 49th day and then the first, third and seventh years after death. Families make regular pilgrimages to their ancestors' graves. National holidays are set aside so people can pay their respects. During the summer festival of O-bon, streets are adorned with lanterns so that the dead might find their way home for three days - an occasion to be celebrated, not feared.

Three years ago, I could not have told you when my grandparents died. I could not have told you whether they had been buried or cremated. I could not have told you whether there were gravestones or plaques to commemorate their lives or mark their deaths. I could not have told you the names of their parents. Their brothers or sisters. Their jobs. Their hopes.

Three years ago, I began to research and write GB84, a novel about the miners' strike of 1984-85. Three years ago, I began to meet the men and women from both sides, read the books and newspapers from both sides. Three years ago I also went with my father and my son to the National Coal Mining Museum for England at Caphouse Colliery, Wakefield.

At Caphouse Colliery I found the names of my great-great-uncles on a monument to the 139 miners who died in the Thornhill Colliery disaster of 1893 - I did not know that my great-great-uncles and their father and their sons had been miners. I had forgotten that there had even been a Thornhill pit disaster - or a New Hartley Colliery disaster. An Oaks disaster. A Cadeby Main. A Lofthouse.

I had forgotten that men died on the picket lines during the 1984-85 miners' strike. That young boys had died coal-picking. I had forgotten so much; so much that had happened - on my own doorstep, in my own county, in my own country.

During the strike, I had been living in Wakefield, West Yorkshire. I had been doing my A-levels at Wakefield District College. I had been singing in a band; I had been having the time of my life.

Three years ago, I still remembered odd things about the strike - who wouldn't? The plastic buckets and the pub fights. The yellow "Coal not Dole" stickers and the Redskins. The Wakefield Gala and Orgreave. The kids in my class whose dads were on strike, and how they had crisp sandwiches for lunch - then butter sandwiches, then just bread. How two years after the strike, bailiffs were still taking their furniture away.

Yes, I knew there had been violence. Murder even. That there had been mistakes. But I had not known that there had been such sacrifice, such selflessness - that miners in good pits on good money would give up their wages, their savings, even their houses, for men in threatened pits with no future. That these miners and their families would give up all this for other men and their families, people they had never met and never would. That they would organise in order to protect and to fight for the security of another man's job. Defending those jobs, those families, those communities, that culture and that heritage was extended to defending those jobs, those families, those communities, that culture and that heritage against monetarism, deregulation, privatisation, market forces and the trickle down.

Sacrifice and selflessness versus brutality and bribery, fear and greed. And we all know who won. And we all know who lost - their jobs, their families, their communities, their culture, their heritage - 150 years of socialist heritage. British heritage, not nostalgia. Not romanticism. A heritage of sacrifice, of selflessness. A sacrifice and a selflessness born out of compassion and empathy - qualities that cannot be bought or stolen from you. That cannot be won on a TV show or found fake, off the back of a lorry, three-for-two or all-you-can-eat.

Yes, there was violence in 1984. Yes, there were mistakes. And there is still violence today in 2004. And there are still mistakes - but where is the sacrifice? Where is the selflessness?

I can't remember the last thing I gave up. Drink or drugs? Gambling or pornography? God or socialism? The last thing I gave up for someone else? The last time I even thought of someone else? Someone outside of my family? My friends? Someone I had never met?

The last time I thought about someone else's job? Their family? The place where they live? The people they live with? Their history? Their hopes? Their fears?

Twenty years ago, there was sacrifice. Twenty years ago, there was selflessness. Not in a novel. Not in a film. But in Great Britain. In this country. In 1984 . . . In Great Britain, in 1984, people might have done things differently, but the past is not a foreign country. The people who lived and died there are not strangers. They are our people, us, and it is our country. Then and now, right or wrong.

We are shoulder to shoulder.

David Peace's GB84 is published by Faber & Faber (£12.99)

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