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WRITING AND THE MINERS' STRIKE 1984-5

by Sammy Palfrey
from WCML Bulletin #12


"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."
(p.31)

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 strike.

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 writing.

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 occurred.

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 states

"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 movement.

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 working-class readership.

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."

Notes

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 Closures, 1984.

Barnsley Women - Women Against Pit Closures, Vol. 2, Barnsley Women Against Pit Closures, 1984.

Butterfield, Madeleine, Striking Thoughts, Royston Drift Branch WAPC, Barnsley, 1984.

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, London, 1985.

Soup Kitchen Authors, Snippets Of A Strike 1984-5, Northern College, Barnsley, 1985.

Worsbrough Community Group The Heart And Soul Of It, Worsbrough Community Group and Bannerworks, Yorkshire 1985.

SECONDARY TEXTS

Callinicos, Alex, and Simons, Mike The Great Strike, Bookmarks, London, 1985.

Jones, David, Ed., Media Hits The Pits, Campaign for Press Freedom, London, 1984.

Samuel, Raphael, Bloomfield, Barbara, and Boanas, Guy, The Enemy Within: Pit Villages and The Miners' Strike 1984-5, Routledge, Kegan and Paul, London, 1986.

PERIODICALS

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.


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