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.