Born in ’84

There are three voices that I drop everything for when I hear them on the radio: Will Self, Brian Clough and Dennis Skinner. Will Self because he is eloquent and articulate and because he sounds like he’s swallowed a dictionary. The ever quotable Brian Clough because he’s arrogant and charismatic and a hack’s wet dream. And the beast of Bolsover because he’s so passionate. I had the pleasure of hearing the latter give a tub thumping speech at The Winding Wheel in Chesterfield on Saturday 8 March to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Miners’ Strike.

Skinner got a standing ovation, although at one point I thought he was going to keel over as he breathed fire into the ears of the attendant miners. I don’t necessarily buy into all of his arguments but l respect him because he stands for something, a rarity in today’s focus-led politics. He talked about the devastating effects of pit closures on local communities and believes that this is the reason for many of our current ills. He rightly stated that pits were a source of employment for ordinary folk who didn’t want to go and study, and that there aren’t jobs for people like this to go into, now that the manufacturing base has been destroyed. He also linked the closure of pits with the spread of hard drugs across estates.

I was ten in 1984 and had a very different experience of the strikes growing up in a pit village south of Nottingham called Cotgrave. It was full of drunken, angry men and violence was rife, particularly among my age group. Teenagers would actually come and knock on your front door and offer you out (fight). The population was largely Geordie, many of whom had relocated here in the early 1970s on account of Nottinghamshire pits being the second highest payers in the country. So there was already factions and tribes before the coppers moved in and families became divided on account of whether they scabbed or not. Then there were the skinheads who took over the local community centre and overturned the car of a social worker employed to keep them entertained. This happened more or less around the time that a disabled pit worker had their car over turned when trying to get to work. But my enduring memory was visiting one friend’s house who had no carpets and an old pop crate for a seat. I remember asking if he’d just moved in and he went quiet. It’s only now, 30 years on, as I read about the strike and visit events like this that the reality of his situation hits home. He was from a family of strikers.

When the artist Jeremy Deller introduced his Battle of Orgreave film a miner behind me moaned ‘these artists making money out of miners. It’s disgusting’. It did make me smile. Deller then confessed he went to a public school and was, of course, from London. But they knew he wasn’t one of their own and appreciated his honesty.

I spoke to Deller afterwards and he seemed like a well-intentioned and decent guy. I told him about my experiences of pit life and that based on this I imagined the re-enactment would have been really cathartic for the people involved.  The last thing they needed was a documentary analysing the fight. This was a lived experience. For this reason it was good to see the inclusion of a copper’s perspective and how over time he had come to realise things weren’t quite so black and white.

All of which brings me on to a book. I’m currently reading Look Back in Anger by Harry Paterson which is published by Five Leaves Press and thanks to the acute editing of Ross Bradshaw it delivers fact after fact about the strike, avoiding a ‘Mills and Boon meets Trotsky’ over simplification. There is no need to over describe what the police did or the effects it had on communities or why Thatcher is the anti-Christ. The raw facts are enough on their own and bleed out over the page. I’m hoping to interview Harry Paterson for the June issues of LeftLion and have a great idea for a topical front cover but more of this closer to the time.

Jeremy Deller’s All That is Solid Melts into Air is at Nottingham Castle until 21 April2014

Harry Paterson Look Back in Anger: The Miners’ Strike in Nottinghamshire 30 Years On, Five Leaves, £9.99



Richard Parker

ArthurGordonPym-illustrationThe Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (1838) is Edgar Allan Poe’s only complete novel and tells the fateful tale of a young stowaway. After a heavy session on the beer, the young teenager and his friend Augustus set out on the whaling ship Ariel but when the weather turns for the worst they are forced to escape on a dinghy.

The whole experience seems to ignite a thirst for adventure in Pym and so the two set out to sea again, this time aboard the Gampus, which is commanded by Augustus’ father. On this adventure Pym has to hide below deck and takes his pet dog Tiger with him as a companion. The conditions are cramped and he’s reliant on Augustus to bring him food and water. When this does not materialise Pym becomes delirious. He considers coming out of hiding but is fearful as he discovers a letter written in blood attached to his dog warning that he must remain hidden.

When Augustus finally returns he explains there has been a mutiny and half the crew have been slaughtered. His father, the captain, has escaped in a small boat. As nobody knows about Pym’s presence, he is able to convince the superstitious sailors he’s a ghost and the two friends, along with another crew member, are able to wrestle back control of the mutinous ship. The remaining sailors are disposed of or thrown overboard except one, Richard Parker.

This victory is short lived and as you’d expect from Poe, there isn’t a happy ending. A terrible storm ravages the boat and set adrift and starving, the remaining crew are forced to follow the Custom of the Sea. The young cabin boy Richard Parker draws the short straw and ends up as lunch.

life-pi-richard-parker-Suraj-SharmaI recently came across Richard Parker again in Leviathan, the Samuel Johnson Prize winning book by Philip Hoare. In this, Hoare reveals an eerie real life story of cannibalism that happened forty years later from Poe’s story when the survivors of a shipwrecked yacht sailing from Southampton to Australia were also forced into extreme measures and ate the cabin boy. “By remarkable coincidence, his name was also Richard Parker, and his memorial in the local churchyard, close to where I grew up, forever fascinated me with its ghoulish epitaph: Though he slay me yet will I trust in him.

My favourite book of all time is Yann Martel’s Booker-winning The Life of Pi (2001). In this story a zoo owner in Pondicherry, India transports his family and their zoo across the Pacific to Canada to embark on a new life. But on the way it sinks and the young boy Pi survives 227 days stranded on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. It’s never made explicit whether the tiger is a figment of his imagination, a traumatic reaction to the tragic loss of his family, or whether the event really happened. This is a clever metaphor as ultimately it is down to individuals what they choose to believe or how they interpret the ‘same’ facts.

It’s hard to think of a more significant name in literature than Richard Parker and a great example of the power of intertexuality to bring a magical dimension to story telling. The fact that Pym’s pet dog is called Tiger in the Poe tale makes Martel’s choice of name and animal even more relevant. Whether Richard Parker’s destiny was an unfortunate coincidence or an example of synchronicity is something that we’ll never know. But the story we choose to believe, as Martel has so cleverly highlighted, reveals more about the reader than it does the author.