Show must go on (part 3 and a half)

“The miners united, will never be defeated”

Hearing this short sound-bite whilst watching the film ‘Brassed-Off’ eleven years after the end of the miners strike opened up feelings of sadness and hopelessness within me that I had forgotten existed. These words poured over my body like a wave, I suddenly felt cold and a shiver ran through me, the memory of an inexplicably empty hole of disappointment and disillusion reopened.   The scene is of miners’ wives picketing outside the fictional colliery of Grimley (Grimethorp in real life) and they are chanting these six words, over and over again.

For a brief moment I was a child sitting in a car that was driving past and slowing down to view through a rain splattered window a picket line outside my hometown colliery; a group of men were gathered warming themselves by a flaming brazier, tatty banners flapping lazily in the wind behind them. I don’t even remember if they were chanting, but regardless they were the physical reality that accompanied the visions of the protests at other mines in other districts that appeared on my television every night. My nine year old eyes widening at the violent images of battle between miners and policemen on horseback and from the safety and comfort of our front room I was seeing for the first time a different, dark side to the world that I was growing up in. To the same repetitive soundtrack.

“The miners united, will never be defeated”

I’ve just watched the film again and had the same reaction, although set in a period long after the miners strike it demonstrates the futility of the time, and the frustrations and pessimism that persisted in the mining communities. If you haven’t seen it, it’s a great film; a story about a dreadful time, with a good bit of brass band music and a little bit of a love story and some dodgy Yorkshire accents all thrown in, and Pete Postlethwaite is magnificent in it. You can watch it here in its entirety for free on YouTube.

During the time of the strike I remember jealously viewing many of my friends at school receiving extra-large servings of school meals. Portions that were so ludicrously piled high in sloppy pyramids on their plates they were far larger than could possibly be consumed during the dinner hour. I didn’t at the time realise that perhaps this would be the only food they would receive that day, or understand that those carefully doled out helpings by the kindly dinner ladies demonstrated and symbolised  an understanding and a sympathy that reflected the support and feeling towards the miners and their families throughout all sections of society in our community.

My father was a teacher my mother was a nurse, so my family most definitely didn’t personally feel the debilitating effects of the strike. However many of my friends’ fathers and many of my father’s friends were miners, and due to the twelve months of industrial action they and their families were forced to survive for a whole year with practically no money coming into their homes. This was devastating, not only for them but also for our community, many of whom relied on their income for the continuation of their own businesses.

To be a miner was (and still is) a noble profession, a dangerous and difficult job that for a long time was providing the base ingredient to the power of the whole country. The miners were on strike because they had no alternative, many of them came from generations of mining families, it was expected that a fair few of their children, my peers, would also head underground when the time came. These miners were trained for nothing else, to them mining was a lifetime career, a proud choice of career and they were unskilled in any other vocation. They had no other option but to strike, their futures and the futures of their family’s where at stake.

As it turned out when the mines closed (as they did of course, Mrs T. won the strike hands down) those miners did have absolutely nothing to go to. I guess a few “got on their bikes” as Norman Tebbit had recommended, but many of those miners were of the age where starting a new career, even if one were available (which they weren’t) was completely impossible, literally within the space of a year, whole communities were decimated. Many of those made unemployed were never to find work ever again.

I remember viewing a playground scuffle at school one day, nothing unusual there, we were scrapping all the time, but through the chants of “FIGHT, FIGHT, FIGHT” I heard some of the older children who were probably ten years old chanting the word “SCAB” over and over again as well. The poor boy that was being beaten, and then subsequently rescued from the affray by the teachers seemed to spend a lot of playtimes after that sat inside on his own, colouring in or something. His father was one of the miners that attempted (and perhaps was successful, not all were) to return to work, perhaps he disagreed with the strike, or perhaps the pressure to maintain the health and survival of his family grew too much, whatever his reasons for trying to cross the picket line, he was titled a SCAB, and if he is alive today will be considered by some to be still be a SCAB.

Families were torn apart in the mining communities all over the north of England, Scotland and Wales during that strike. Those that crossed the picket lines, or voted for the redundancy pay-offs were ostracised from their families and communities and in many cases those bonds destroyed have never been repaired.

As a bright young bar man, one afternoon (eight years after the end of the strike) serving the only customer I’d seen for hours I was passing the time of day with him chatting as one does whilst trying to look busy, polishing pumps and the like until a group of men appeared in the doorway of the pub, fresh from a day at the races. My spirits lifted, hoping to God that the nags had been kind to them and they would tip well, rather than fight, as they tended to do when they had lost heavily. They approached the bar, observed myself and glared at my solitary customer, collectively they turned on their heels and marched out. The only words spoken “We don’t drink in SCAB’s pubs.”

In almost a blink of an eye small yet economically strong communities were transformed into some of the poorest areas of the UK and Europe; and they still are to this day. In total nearly half a million jobs have been lost to the mining industry since 1984. And on top of that whole communities, families and lifelong friendships decimated beyond repair. And that is only the tip of the iceberg, almost two million jobs have been lost in the manufacturing industry since that date, for the same reasons and those similarly located communities are suffering in exactly the same way.

Because coal could be purchased from overseas, from far flung places such as Poland for less than it cost to mine here and also because the whole industry was subsidised by the public purse (as all nationalized industries were) it didn’t fit in with Mrs.T’s ‘laissez faire’ idealisms of the market. She was about to deregulate the stock exchange with the expected result of a massive economic benefit for the city of London, and the south of England in general, and the subsequent huge boom (the big bang) of 1986  was considered a sufficient windfall to offset the consequences of high unemployment caused by the destruction of the manufacturing and extraction industries in the areas slightly further north than London.

Mrs T. also had to somehow reduce the power of the unions. This ‘strike fever’ known in Europe as the British Disease is cleverly parodied in the 1971 Carry-On film ‘Carry on at your Convenience’, and having hokey-cokeyed their way through the last two decades bringing  down both conservative and labour governments the unions maintained an incredible hold over the country through the threat of strike action. If the country was to ‘flourish’ Mrs T. had to shake it all about, and had to attack the unions as they would interfere with her plans to downsize and destroy the manufacturing industry, the ship building, the steel industry and countless others. And shake it all about she did.  Britain didn’t need to keep pumping money into these dinosaurs of industry any more; there was a new far more exciting way to keep the country afloat and the country was about to experience an economical boom that had not been seen since the industrial revolution, and of course after privatisation things would never be the same again anyway.  Well the rest is history, the miners’ strike failed, the unions were decimated and as these industries were picked apart one by one and systematically destroyed, the nationalized industries sold off and the decades of working class contribution to the economy of the UK came to a pathetic end.

In 1937 George Orwell wrote of the miners in his book ‘The road to Wigan Pier”:

I am not a manual labourer and please God I never shall be one, but there are some kinds of manual work that I could do if I had to. At a pitch I could be a tolerable road-sweeper or an inefficient gardener or even a tenth-rate farm hand. But by no conceivable amount of effort or training could I become a coal-miner, the work would kill me in a few weeks.

In a way it is even humiliating to watch coal-miners working. It raises in you a momentary doubt about your own status as an ‘intellectual’ and a superior person generally. For it is brought home to you, at least while you are watching, that it is only because miners sweat their guts out that superior persons can remain superior. You and I and the editor of the Times Lit. Supp., and the poets and the Archbishop of Canterbury and Comrade X, author of Marxism for Infants–all of us really owe the comparative decency of our lives to poor drudges underground, blackened to the eyes, with their throats full of coal dust, driving their shovels forward with arms and belly muscles of steel.

Of course coal mining was a whole different ball game when he went down the collieries of the north of England to see miners at work, but it was still a dangerous and difficult way to earn a living to support your family in the 1980’s. However Mrs T. had found a much better and effective way of maintaining the British economy, a more efficient way that “superior persons could remain superior” and it didn’t involve the extraction of raw materials from the earth and it didn’t involve the production of anything really. It involved numbers and more specifically it involved London, and a lot of money, sums of money so large that they would definitely cover the huge cost to the country caused by the massive unemployment that was created and of of course it was anticipated that there would be a fair bit left over for Champagne. What could possibly go wrong?

With Winston Churchill’s words ringing in her ears:

 “You don’t make the poor richer by making the rich poorer”

She successfully masterminded one of  the biggest changes ever to occur to the economy of Britain, whilst simultaneously declaring war on the north of England, and on the working class of the whole of Great Britain.

The “Trickle-down effect” was to be our saviour and our future, it seems now in hindsight that this trickle never materialised, in fact as the rich got richer, the poor got poorer. The trickle turned out to be the equivalent of being pissed on from a great height…

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