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