"I'm fighting for you son; look back on this day,
Your right is to work lad but also to play.
You mam's counting pennies and precious black coal,
So we'll stand up and fight lad, your future's our goal."
Placing the writing: its value is recognised by the community
The Miners' Strike of 1984-5 turned out to be the longest major strike in
British history, and has resulted not surprisingly in many academic works from
sociological surveys to historical analysis. No less surprising in the long
history of the neglect and negation of the working-class writer, there has been
far less published commercially by writers from the mining communities
themselves about the strike. In The Heart And Soul Of It, a documentation of
how the strike affected the people from the pit village of Worsbrough, one of
the writers noted in the introduction that "Whilst looking into local history
for certain information about the 1926 Miners' Strike, it became apparent that
too little was recorded about the people most affected by the strike".
Yet writing was an intrinsic part of the 1984-5 strike, both collectively as
published documentation and poetry, broadsheets of poems sold in pubs and at
fund-raising events, and privately in the form of diaries and letters. It was
recognised by the striking community as an important contribution, as valuable
as the other activities, because they all shared a common function; to win the
strike and save the mining communities. Jean Gittins, from the group North
Yorkshire Women against Pit Closures (WAPC), who had a book of twenty poems
published during the strike stated "Those that could write, wrote; those that
could cook did the cooking. It was all part of the whole fight". No-one was
excluded from any activity, people fell into comfortable roles, or ventured
into new ones. All activities were given equal status and validity, being seen
as part of the whole fight.
Misrepresentation by the Media: a defensive literature develops
'Community under Siege' became the collective feeling of the mining
communities and their supporters during the year-long strike. Their fight
became not just a fight to save their whole way of life, which would be
destroyed alongside the closure of the mines, but ultimately a fight against
the government, the police and the media for the very right to strike. They
were horrified at the behaviour of the police and disillusioned with the media,
which Betty Heathfield from Sheffield WAPC stated in her introduction to Media
Hits The Pits, raged "a remorseless campaign of prejudice, distortion and lies
instigated by the Government and pushed relentlessly through the mass media".
It was this misrepresentation which was often the initial factor for leading
people to write down their story of what the strike was about, and what was
really going on in the striking communities; reaction was so strong that it
stimulated many to write creatively for the first time since leaving school. As
Mike Coburn from Hatfield Main Colliery, Doncaster, put it
"Not being a man of words I find it hard to do an article, but I feel
nevertheless that it is something I must do. To put over my side, point of view
and feelings, so others may see." ('The Way I Saw It', in A Year In Our Lives)
It was this defensive nature of the strike that led to the feelings of
solidarity and a sense of power which in their turn created a confidence that
nurtured all kinds of creative talents.
Many miners were angered by Margaret Thatcher's description of them as "The
Enemy Within" (which she had appropriated from Enoch Powells "Rivers of Blood"
speech), a tag eagerly taken up by the media and which prompted an outraged
response in the writing. Dave Douglas, a miner from Hatfield Main Colliery,
writes in the book Tell Us Lies About The Miners, how "Miners have always known
that the media was biased, pro-boss, but never realised it could be used as a
tool of oppression, a deliberate set-up to mould public opinion" (p.5). This
misrepresentation was the subject of poetry too; Jean Gittins in her "Yorkshire
Picket Song" asks
"Ah'm a picket
A Yorkshire picket
'Appen some of you've seen me on TV
Ah'm a picket
A Yorkshire picket
Do you believe exactly what you see?"
Women's support groups: an empowering experience
Women were angered by the impression the media tried to give, that miners'
wives were against the strike, and this led to the formation of local women's
support groups, the first being Barnsley Women Against Pit Closures. Local WAPC
groups then linked up to become a national organisation. It was the solidarity
and democratic structure of these groups, and security from the strong sense of
community they created, that gave the women self-confidence. This confidence
led many of them to discover themselves for the first time; it gave them a
sense of power and belief in their own value. It was this aspect of the groups
that in part empowered women to write, often for the first time, and in greater
numbers than the men. Also wives and mothers found themselves with more time to
be creative as in turn the men whilst on strike had more time to share with
childcare and housework, when not out picketing.
So women found themselves not just with an urge to write as a response to the
media and a catharsis for their anger but because they received encouragement
and support form others who valued their creative abilities. As Madeleine
Butterfield, another poet whose book Striking Thoughts as published at the end
of the strike felt "The strike was an opportunity for everyone to discover what
their talents and capabilities were and to put them into practice". Madeleine,
like so many working-class people, was brought up with the idea that "If
working class wrote poetry they were just mimicking their betters", but found
that during the strike "The impulse to write was there in your head all the
time". When she wrote her first poem and took it along to her local womens'
support group she pretended it was someone else's until certain that people
liked it. It was through the group's encouragement that her collection was
later published by the group themselves.
Miner poets and the Yorkshire Miner
Even though there were less men than women writing, many men took the
opportunity of having more 'above ground' time to be creative. Although there
have been miner poets since the first shafts were sunk the elevated status that
culture achieved during the strike made it a more acceptable activity, and
miners like Bill Ross, who had previously kept his poetry a secret, was able to
'come out'. Some of his poems were featured in the 'Poets Corner' of the
Yorkshire Miner, the Yorkshire edition of the national weekly paper of the
National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), including one called 'Echoing Footsteps',
about the sound of the ghosts of miners killed in past mining accidents and was
a tribute to David Jones who was killed on the picket line during the strike.
There has always been a tradition of publishing poems in the Miner, which is
published regionally but during the strike it was inundated with poems from
miners and their families, So much so that despite having double-page spreads
in some issues of the Yorkshire Miner they still represented only a small
minority of all those submitted. Many poems that were finally published in
anthologies and community books of the strike were first featured in the Miner.
Indeed the NUM with the help from the local WEA writing workshops' organiser
put out an anthology of poems from the Miner entitled Against All The Odds.
This featured many poets such as Barbara Bookes whose poem 'Orgreave', an
account of police violence at the now renowned Battle of Orgreave that occurred
outside the Orgreave coking plant, also demonstrates the fierce loyalty felt
towards the NUM leader, Arthur Scargill, which was echoed in many other poems
despite efforts by the media to discredit him. In one of the verses she recounts
"Arthur, standing his ground
Pouring strength of will and body into the gathering force,
With them, of them, for them.
The blue ranks parting like the Red Sea,
To let the cavalry through,
Hooves, truncheon and baton
Against bone and flesh."
Publication during the strike: its function and use
Publishing during the strike was not just a means of spreading the
word. Its other important function, and providing just as much impetus to
write, was its role as a fund-raiser and therefore its important part in
helping to win the struggle. All of the pamphlets and books published provided
valuable funds towards the mining community during and after the strike.
Profits went either straight to the organisations that had produced them, such
as local women's support groups, or most often into the Miners' Solidarity
Fund, and after the return to work, into the Miner's Victimisation Fund.
Money to produce the publications came mostly from donations. These came from
individual supporters but also various groups such as the London Co-operative
Political Committee and local labour party groups. Some small publishers such
as Canary Press, London, published a book at cost price. Community publishers
such as Yorkshire Art Circus, who along with others like Artisan and
Bannerworks of Huddersfield, not only gave valuable help and advice to people
publishing their own books, but also brought out their own publications of the
The ease with which people were able to get their writing published during the
strike was rare for any working-class writer let alone people writing for the
first time and was another boost to the confidence of would-be writers. As poet
Jean Gittins said "We were definitely flavour of the month!". Writers were
given such open encouragement and status that their creative abilities
blossomed, something that for many had been repressed or unrealised for most of
their lives, and this influenced others into going off to try their hand at
The cultural consciousness is raised: how it spreads
Outside support for this writing was invaluable and the response of local
organisations was quick. Northern College, Barnsley (a Labour College running
part-time courses that have strong links with the trade union movement) put on
extra courses during the strike including, like the local WEA, writers'
workshops. Because of the dramatic change in their day to day lives for that
year and the influx of outside supporters into the mining areas, who came from
different backgrounds and with different experiences, many people from the
communities sought wider horizons in terms of educational and creative
developments. The increase in writing workshops drew not just mining people but
other locals, so that the urge to be creative spilled out of the strike into
the local population at large. Maurice Jones, editor of The Miner said in his
foreword to Against All The Odds
"Rarely, if ever, can a dispute have released upon the world such a flood of
talent as the miners' strike of '84. it is as though a dam has burst, bathing
and enriching the land in the waters of creativity".
One such man, who was not from the mining industry itself but lived in the
locality, was Geoff Hattersley. He joined one of the workshops set up during
the strike, wrote his first poem in support of the miners' cause, and is now
editor of The Wide Skirt one of Britain's most widely distributed poetry
magazines. As Ray Hearne, tutor organiser for the Yorkshire WEA told me
"A mass of activities emerged around the strike. People's cultural
consciousnesses were raised. Whereas six months before the strike we were
forced to abandon a poetry event at half-time that we'ed held at a Miners'
Welfare, one year later we performed a similar event there to a packed hall".
Evenings like this during the strike were fund-raising events for the Miners'
Solidarity Fund so people were keen to support them, but Ray also realised that
the kind of poetry being read during the strike (including many people reciting
their own work "from the floor") was more relevant to their present
experiences; that they could now relate to poetry in a way they couldn't
before. Jean Gittins found herself in quite a demand to do readings of her
poetry during the strike and in her book Striking Stuff, wonders jokingly at
the end of the strike
"I ask you
Where do I go now it's over?
You've robbed me of my only chance of fame
I'll have to find another purpose in my life
But nothing will quite ever be the same."
A literary education: beginners and development
Not all the writers were directly involved in the writing workshops or poetry
events during the strike; some joined writing groups after the strike, or took
on more extensive forms of study to further their literary education, which for
many began in the strike. One such person was Iris Preston, a miner's wife who
decided to keep a journal not realising how long the strike would last; it grew
to 25,000 words. After the strike she attended
various writing courses and is currently studying for an English Literature
degree at Sussex University. Iris had been writing since a child but had never
shown it to anyone before. Her writing grew from "A need to be something, to
belong somewhere. You write because it's your rainbow". It was the confidence
that came from her involvement in the activities of the strike that led her to
decide on a university education.
In the opening to her journal, Iris talks about the "Round Table Conferences"
that she held with her family during the strike in order to share concerns and
worries, "Although to the boys it was an excuse for a bloody good nosh up". At
one "conference" held at the beginning of the strike, she sums up her initial
feelings of impotence and ignorance
"Lance opened the conversation between mouthfuls of roast tater and Yorkshire
pudding, putting concisely the case for striking. 'We're out and we're staying
out until pit closures policy of the NCB are scrapped, and the Plan for Coal is
accepted'. I didn't understand either of these two policies." ('A Strike Diary'
in The Enemy Within p.101)
Writing as an outlet for frustrations
Unlike Iris Preston many women felt unable to share their anxieties and fears
about the strike with their striking husbands, as they knew their husbands were
themselves worried, and they didn't want to add to their burden. As Mel Dukes a
headmistress from a school in a mining village near Griethorpe put it "The
miners and their wives were subject to all kinds of pressures and frustrations
that remained unrecognised or unreported in national terms". The picket line
was an obvious outlet for some of these frustrations, but writing provided
another kind of catharsis.
Humour: its importance in pit life and during the strike
Some of the poems written during the strike were parodies such as 'The Charge
of The Mines Brigade' which are a traditional form in mining poetry that goes
back to the early nineteenth century. Parodies such as 'The Ten Commandments'
were produced alongside political pamphlets and leaflets when literacy was
spreading amongst miners. Humour was present in the different forms of writing
that occurred during the strike whether poetry, autobiographical accounts or
diaries, and its frequent expression reflects its importance in both the
struggle of mining communities during the strike and in mining life in general.
Whilst being interviewed, some of the miners and their wives recalled humorous
anecdotes from the strike and explained that although writing had not been a
prominent part of their culture, telling a good story, particularly a funny
one, was a way that many miners eased the burden of long shifts underground.
Every picket line and support group has its own humorous tale to tell, a quite
common theme being the vast and unusual contingents of food sent by comrades
from abroad, such as from the accounts by Rose from Featherstone about
distributing food parcels, in Strike 84-5
"A lot of the stuff has that Russian writing on the side. Even when you
read it through the mirror it doesn't get any better! I just say to the lads,
'If you know what it is, pick it up'. One of the lads said 'Throw it in, our
lass'll find her way round it".
Or as Iris Preston recalled the time when a lorry-load of pasta arrive from
comrades in Italy,
"There was every conceivable shape and colour and size. No-one knew what
to do with it, we were falling about laughing over suggestions. Next day,
doctor's surgery was packing with women - they weren't sick, but they knew his
wife had been on holiday to Italy so thought she might have some recipes".
These tales are included in the poetry and prose of the books put together by
various organisations and groups, enabling readers outside of the mining
families to appreciate how important seeing the funny side of things is to
their culture, though as Betty Wedgewood says in 'Memories of a Year', from
Snippets From The Strike, not all of them were suitable for publication
"Ee, but ar remember t'strike
T'struggle, t'borrerin and t'like
Laughs an' all we'ed them as well
Some a bit too brarn to tell".
Dialect such as Betty Wedgewood uses is not common in the writing from the
Miners' Strike though Jean Gittins writes in it for many of hers. Some writers
claimed it was difficult to put it down adequately on paper - it was not
something they had been taught how to do at school. It occurs mostly in the
humorous writing, where writers tell the need to be clearly understood was not
so crucial as when writing about more serious topics.
Writers tried to give clear accounts of the strike, even when they had found
writing a struggle and it is the least experienced that often give a perceptive
and illuminating insight from an honest if subjective point of view. Raymond
Williams describes this kind of writing as descriptive and subjective as
opposed to the ideologically-charged manipulative language used by many
professional writers and journalists, keen to fit their account into a
particular ideology or politics. Without the experience of using the written
word to make a political point people who believed whole-heartedly in the
strike nevertheless revealed some of the contradictions and ironies which
One such account came from Bob Hume in A Year Of Our Lives, exploding the
somewhat mythical views of working-class solidarity on the picket lines. He
"Ninety percent (of the pickets) were fully in support of the strike, but the
others were driven into the picket line by Thatcher in order to get a bit to
eat, where sandwiches were being provided - single lads were driven to go
picketing because they got no financial help whatsoever". (no page numbers)
Elaine Robe in 'Hatfield Main Women's Support Group', from the same book, shows
some of the internal conflicts that existed
"Our pit was solid, but like a lot of places there were only a minority of
activists who gave everything that they had for twelve months .... There were
men who could only offer opinions, especially against women. Many women felt
hurt and angry listening to complaints".
The power of language: a question of ownership
The manipulative use of language was one of the weapons that the media used
against strikers. Descriptions of them as pit mobs and pit head thugs as
opposed to "heroic working miners" suggests, says Dave Douglas, in A Year In
Our Lives, that it is the public who were being most effectively manipulated by
the media, not the miners by Arthur Scargill as the media was claiming.
Pit language, the language of the mining communities, is present in their
writing. Madeleine Butterfield in Striking Thoughts, refers to the habit of
some wives "wearing the window out" whilst watching for their husbands to come
home safely from the pit in her poem 'Waiting'. It was an expression she
remembered her mother using. In another poem, she uses the expression
"yarning", a local term used for the way men with advanced pneumoconiosis
stretch their necks to help their breathing. But the right for people to use
their own language went as far as becoming a legal issue. Words such as "scab"
are part and parcel of a striker's language and was first given this use in
1792, yet it was banned from the picket lines in Nottingham by the "pigs"
(police). Several people were actually arrested for using it though as one
woman recalls in Here We Go - Women's Memories of the 1984 Strike, a judge
overturned one case, stating "This word is not abusive, it is part of the
English language, and you are allowed to use it" (p.56). Frustration at this
restriction led to many poems and articles about "scabs" both in the context of
the strike and in the way they are seen as traitors to the working-class
Making the writing accessible: how it strengthened the struggle
Chris Searle in the journal Race and Class talks about the kind of language
used in the writing from the Miners' Strike in his review of Against All The
Odds. He states
"Reading the poems...is like reading again the poems of the Chartists in their
journals and broadsheets. There is the same mass indignation put in the
simplest and most accessible forms, the same rhythms of struggle and underlying
humour, the same direct and popular language immediately understood by all
those taking part in the struggle and those whose solidarity and empathy goes
out towards them".
As Marylyn Butler states in her introduction to Romantics, Rebels And
Reactionaries "Poetry in a popular style might be dangerous if it became an
ideological weapon in the popular cause" (p.5). Thomas Paine who had worked in
a Rotherham pit became notorious for his Rights Of Man, not just because of its
content but also because he sought to write in a direct language for a
So whilst the early aims of the defensive writing as a counter-attack against
media lies may have achieved little nationally, it developed into a collective
oppositional literature written in accessible language, that both strengthened
the solidarity of people involved during a year long struggle, and provided a
lasting account of the strike by the people themselves. Like the Chartist
movement, the striking community made no distinction between culture and
politics, and in assessing the status of the writers it should be remembered
that they were most often some of the main activists in the strike. But in the
end as many writers remind us all those mining families who took part in the
struggle should be remembered
"Let not their glories be forgotten
when taking stock this day.
So you might work tomorrow
they gave blood and 12 months pay."
1 Butterfield, Madeleine, 'Memories' from Striking Thoughts, Royston Drift
Branch WAPC, 1985.
2 Gittins, Jean, 'Yorkshire Picket Song' in Yorkshire Miner, September 1984.
3 Gittins, Jean, 'What Next' in Striking Stuff, p. 18, 1 in 12 (Publications)
Collective), Bradford, 1985.
4 Searle, Chris, in Race And Class, p. 85 Vol. 26, No. 4, Spring 1985.
5 Barnsley Women Against Pit Closures, Barnsley Women Volume 2, back page,
Barnsley Women Against Pit Closures, Yorkshire, 1985.BIBLIOGRAPHY
PUBLICATIONS FROM THE STRIKE
Against All The Odds, National Union of Mineworkers, Sheffield, 1984.
Barnsley Women - Women Against Pit Closures, Barnsley Women Against Pit
Barnsley Women - Women Against Pit Closures, Vol. 2, Barnsley Women Against Pit
Butterfield, Madeleine, Striking Thoughts, Royston Drift Branch WAPC, Barnsley,
Douglass, Dave, Ed., A Year In Our Lives, Hooligan Press, London, 1985.
Douglass, Dave, Tell Us Lies About The Miners - The Role Of The Media, Dave
Douglass and Others, Yorkshire, 1985.
Gittins, Jean, Striking Stuff, 1 in 12 (Publishing) Collective, Bradford, 1985.
North Women Against Pit Closures Strike 84-5, North Yorkshire Women Against Pit
Closures, Yorkshire, 1985.
Salt, Chrys, and Layzell, Jim, Here we Go - Women's Memories Of The 1984/5
Miners Strike, London Political Committee, Co-Operative Retail Services,
Soup Kitchen Authors, Snippets Of A Strike 1984-5, Northern College, Barnsley,
Worsbrough Community Group The Heart And Soul Of It, Worsbrough Community Group
and Bannerworks, Yorkshire 1985.
Callinicos, Alex, and Simons, Mike The Great Strike, Bookmarks, London, 1985.
Jones, David, Ed., Media Hits The Pits, Campaign for Press Freedom, London,
Samuel, Raphael, Bloomfield, Barbara, and Boanas, Guy, The Enemy Within: Pit
Villages and The Miners' Strike 1984-5, Routledge, Kegan and Paul, London, 1986.
Searle, Chris, 'Book Review: Against All The Odds' in Race And Class Vol. 26
No. 4 Spring 1985, Institute of Race Relations, London.
Yorkshire Miner, all copies between March 1984 to February 1985.