Buried deep in this summer’s Latitude Festival line up was a curious outpost from a very different cultural moment. The three-day event’s insufferable up-from-London-middle-classness is a well worn riff for compares. But among the up-and-coming performance poets who provide the mainstay of the ‘poetry-tent’ program, was a celebration of verse written by coal miners and their families during the 1984-5 strike.
It was curated by Dr Katy Shaw (at the microphone – left), a University of Brighton academic who has made a study of the colliers’ couplets. “Poetry was very important to the struggle,” she said and called the strike “a spectre that haunts contemporary events”. She was joined on the stage by Michael Rosen, Luke Wright, Jemima Foxtrot, Atilla The Stockbroker, Andy Bennett and others.
It was a mixed bag – poetically speaking. Much of the miners’ verse was simple stuff. I admire anyone who crafts economic and rhythmic expressions of their feelings; and with the benefit of distance their verse provides illuminating period testimony. In a strict, technical sense, however, most of their rhyme-rich poesy was unexceptional. Here is the anonymous work of a striker at the Leeds pit Ledston Luck.
As the strike grows longer
Our resolve grows stronger
Maggie thought she’d starve us back
But she couldn’t be wronger
There were some genuinely strong poems, for example those by Jean Gittins, a selection of whose work can be found here.
More intriguing was that the event took place and that it attracted one of the poetry tent’s largest audiences. Wright was two at the time of the strike, Foxtrot was surely born after its conclusion and Shaw looked too young to have squared up on an NUM picket line. Plenty of events in the intervening period have done more to shape our lives for good and ill: the collapse of communism, the end of the Cold War and 9/11 to name three. Significant anniversaries of all three have passed without Latitude’s poets doffing their caps.
It seems doubly odd to me because, for all that at the time the strike seemed both personal and seismic, I have reflected little on it in recent years.
My grandfather worked at Morton Colliery in Derbyshire, my mother was at grammar school with Dennis Skinner. Skinner took the unusual step for a successful eleven-plusser of joining his father down the pit – my mother went to art school. Nevertheless, her sympathies remained resolutely with the miners. I watched the ’72 and ’74 strikes on television with her to explain to me which side we were on. I remember discussing with her Arthur Scargill’s prospects of leading his union relatively early in his tenure as President of the Yorkshire NUM.
It’s hard to believe now that the later action had schools as well as factories on a three-day week as the lights went out.
Evidence of the big strike, when it came, was everywhere in Leeds and Bradford. All available wall space was covered in posters encouraging support for the strikers. There were daily bucket collections in the city centres. Several times I took the bus to Pontefract, Castleford and elsewhere to join the pickets. I marched, I collected money, I went to endless speaker meetings and donated food.
There is nothing unusual about my experiences, particularly for those of us with deep-seam progressive sentiments. On reflection, though, I am slightly surprised that I could still offer an informed opinion about the role of NACODS in the dispute, ponder Scargill being wrong-footed by the pit-head coal stocks, and name half-a-dozen then members of the NUM’s national executive.
This odd intertwining was underlined for me with the release of the feature film ‘Pride’. It is a charming, Richard-Curtisesque telling of the story of the ‘Lesbian And Gay Support The Miners’ group that raised money from their own community for the strikers. The script is based, in part, on a contemporary, rather DIY, documentary about the group. Watching this – whose existence I was unaware or, I was amazed to find a short interview with my late friend Graham Nicholas, who unbeknownst to me, was an active member of this support group. I should have guessed. One of my fondest memories of him was a discussion, not long before he died, about our shared admiration for the Scottish miners’ leader, Mick McGahey. Does anyone today converse about the relative merits of trades union leaders?
We have much still to learn about the unacceptable, probably illegal ploys that were used to undermine the strikers – that is why the Orgreave Truth And Justice Campaign is so important. However, Michael Rosen and Attilla The Stockbroker called on the Latitude crowd to ‘ never forget the lessons of the miners’ strike’. It is apt, therefore, to reflect on what these actually were?
Attilla favours rhyme over profundity…
…our once mighty, proud labour movement
Is shackled, and timid, and tame
But this poet will always remember
All the brave men and women I met
We will carry on fighting for justice –
And we’ll never, no never, forget.
But Rosen couldn’t contain his inner sectarian, lustily denouncing Neil Kinnock as the traitor who forsook his class. Notwithstanding that, though, he told the crowd that the strike was “to some extents a victory – because of the solidarity”.
It would be tempting to think this true – but solidarity is an ethereal commodity when compared to an industry that has all but disappeared, a union reduced to a husk and scores of communities devastated.
Some clearly continue to believe that Scargill took capitalism to the brink; that if only every union had acted in solidarity; and that if the Labour party’ leadership had not nuanced its support for the NUM, then Thatcher might have fallen – and then, who knows?
On balance, I thought that was a fantasy then, and still do. With the benefit of hindsight, the miners’ strike was very nearly the full stop in the period of industrial militancy that stretched from the early 1960s and throughout the 1970s. The tactical lessons of the miners’ catastrophic, sick-making defeat to me are these. Trades unions should pick their fights carefully. Whatever syndicalist dreams fill your head, the state, with its bottomless resources, is always going to be a formidable opponent. And there are few things quite so dangerous as a leader in thrall to their own rhetoric.
More loftily, it would be refreshing if, as a movement at least, some of our drape-around mythology was the stuff of unequivocal victories? Who knows, a triumphant narrative might even lift our poetry to new heights?