STRIKE by Sarah Wimbush
Sunday, 14 July 2024 02:30

STRIKE by Sarah Wimbush

Published in Poetry

While in the belly of England
the strike to end all strikes erupts.

Whether Churchill or Göring said it first, the adage goes that history is written by the victors. And yet certain dates that denote calamitous defeat remain and will not go gently, even though what actually took place and the reasons for it happening are contested and chewed over for ever after. 1819, 1916, and 1926 are examples – and the Miners’ Strike of 1984/5 is another.

At the time, it was difficult to get a truthful and accurate handle on day-to-day events. There was no internet or social media. News of what was taking place across the UK was tightly controlled. Coming from a coal mining community in Fife, I heard firsthand from family on the picket line what was happening and which wasn’t being reported nationally.

The instigator of it all, Thatcher, was not about to reveal publicly her true fanatical intent – to obliterate the coal mining industry and the NUM, sacrificing jobs and communities in the process to serve her class hatred and a selfish, ideologically-driven political goal. The extent to which the various police forces, the judiciary, the right-wing media, were in on the planning of the jamboree was debatable but in a sense irrelevant. This was about who would control Britain in the future – and the “enemy within” had to be silenced, whatever the price.

The BBC’s manipulation of the truth

Back then most folk got their news from BBC/ITV. A constant argument that continually misses the point is whether the BBC is biased toward the right or the left. The BBC, as it has been since the days of its first director, John Reith, is committed heart and soul to upholding the British Union. It was formed under royal charter to be an arm of an undivided, one nation state, a dumbed-down One Show imposing from the capital an establishment myth from Land’s End to John o’ Groats, from Jarrow to Derry, that recognized no diversity of ethnicity, religion, culture, social class or nationality. As is still the case, some in the BBC believed arrogantly that in any national identity crisis they could simply ignore facts and set a fictitious agenda, rather than report what was actually going on. Thus footage was reversed, and Orgreave became a story of nasty football hooligans knocking off policemen’s helmets.

As in 1926, among the ranks of left-wing politicians there was division and shoe-gazing. Kinnock, the Labour Party leader, behaved throughout like a shifty cross between Pontius Pilate and Judas Iscariot. Many miners themselves were unsure about what to do in the face of Thatcher’s intensifying provocation. Arthur Scargill, the NUM leader, although a rousing and crowd-carrying speaker, did not enjoy full support across all the regional coalfields, and many questioned his tactical nous and sudden rise to leadership. But how best to save an industry, the jobs, the communities, in the face of disunity, implacable media bias and the might and resources of the British state?

Miners picketing

Photographer: © Ken Wilkinson, image courtesy of the National Coal Mining Museum, England

40 years after Orgreave, the Miners’ Strike has been rewritten, altered, edited, twisted, deleted and lied about in a continual process of often fake recollection and interpretation. That is why successive Tory governments have denied the opportunity for an independent inquiry into Orgreave – they, out of all involved, have the most to hide. To its credit, the Scottish government initiated an independent review of policing in Scotland during the Miners’ Strike. As a result, some truth was allowed to surface, and wrongly convicted miners were pardoned. All sides were given their say, but the important thing was that those victims who had been marginalized and kept silent for almost 40 years could finally tell their story. I sat through some of these meetings and the outpouring of joy, grief and sheer released frustration was something to behold.

At the time the conflict was taking place the deliberately murky and misconstrued reporting enabled some to be equivocal in their support of the miners, while others were diverted by it from comprehending the enormity of what was at stake. In Alan Hull’s words: a line of freedom or a line of kings. The wrong side won, and we’ve had to pay dearly for that ever since.

Poems and photographs combined

STRIKE by Sarah Wimbush is an important published piece of testimony – an accurate witness account providing evidence from pen and camera, a scrupulous forensic inquiry and work of art, put together through the lens of hindsight and poetry. 

The photographs from the time are an immediate shock. This is what it really looked like! It all comes back – the horrible eighties fashions, the poverty, the vandalized streets, the surprise of seeing booted, helmeted police bullying and strutting in a supposedly democratic country. A frozen second of the zeitgeist, a visual trigger.  As soon as I saw these images I was taken right back to ’84 and was forced to reconsider all that had changed in our society since and to realize why the Miners' Strike was such a tipping point. Accompanying each photograph is a poem; an interpretation of the meaning and significance of the adjacent image.

Easington under occupation resized

Easington Village under occupation. 1984. © Keith Pattison

The photographs have been collated from various sources that include: The National Coal Mining Museum England; Amgu Cymrueddfa – Museum Wales; the National Mining Museum Scotland; Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners, the Guardian and many other sources. A broad body of evidence that when put together confront us as a stark reminder of all that was done in malice and spite against a helpless section of British society, a scattered underground tribe with its unique language and culture. Miners, wives and bairns were targeted for who they were by a vengeful state. Individually the photographs function like stills from a black and white film, with each providing a backstory, an insight into defiance, endurance, betrayal, bewilderment, hunger, violence, laughter, solidarity, recrimination, resentment.

Sarah Wimbush is a poet of intelligence and insight but with an understanding of how poetry works and with the technical skills, the hawk-like eye for detail, the brevity and compression to back it all up. Her words and images are incisive, precise, concise, vivid and telling. They go deep and resonate with meaning, allusion and association. She makes a seemingly off the cuff metaphor do the work of an entire back shift of words. She takes an oft-shouted slogan and reveals its irony.

This works very effectively with photographs of the protagonists. You are taken from the image into minds and thoughts, you go further into the DNA that shapes the personalities and their decisions:

Here’s Kinnock:

Some say he is a funeral mute: a man compressed
between left and left.
Some shall say he was father to Blair.

Here’s Scargill:

The dictionary is his Bible. Full stop.
He points at the dole-not- coal paddy train,
it will arrive shortly at the Platform Do-or-dinosaur.

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Gwent Food Fund poster 1984/5. By permission of Amgueddfa Cymru – Museum Wales.

Here’s Thatcher:

No milk monitor here; eyes sapphire
and Caligula,
Hoarder of bituminous and DSS payments.

There is no sentimental bias here either. The poet gives it straight to us, from every side. This is something more than literal description: it gets into the emotional truth of things. As does BASTARD NACODS SCABS, accompanied by a picture of graffiti daubed on an outbuilding at The Lady Windsor/Abercynon pit:

The pal who leaves a bus ticket
on the collection plate

says he’ll see his kids Friday
then dumps them for a date,

roars like a lion
but acts like a mouse,

bald as a brick
and part of the house.

On one level this can be construed as an unfair, loaded, unobjective portrayal yet it perfectly expresses the visceral feelings of betrayal that many miners and their families felt when isolated by those around them who had taken their trust.

In This is the BBC we are given a sense of what it is like to be victimized and ambushed while all the while being presented as the one to blame:

Record. Rewind. Reverse.
We walk through open gates,
A thud of hooves behind us.

Or The NUM:

I am here
In your breast pocket,

The size of a bus pass
And the Magna Carta -

been sacked for
been starved for.

Humour and resilience are demonstrated in Our Lady of the Pit Canteen, and throughout the collection there is a grim, reductive and ironic gallows humour in the banter-like word play that anyone brought up in a coal mining community would recognize – the stoic attitude and familiarity with everyday struggle, danger, and tragedy, all turned into a cryptic observation:

You may have jacked and packed pit props
on the roadways to hell,
and raised 14,000 tons week on week
ruled by the bell,
and rode a ghost train through the muck
a fun fair would be proud of….
and thanked the Mother Mary
every time the pit cage docked.
......
but I’ll ’ave tha guts for garters
If them dishes aren’t brought back!

The colloquial tone – honest, funny, no bullshit – sums up a unique community who instead of being valued and included in our society were hunted down, victimized, kettled, and left on reservations of cultural and material poverty that are still there. The poet captures all this in her words without condescension. The values and spirit have been maintained in the face of all that was inflicted, as in Miners Leaning Forwards:

Mortal. Men cropped and cast
Into grey corners

There is no sentiment or pretense that coal mining was a glamorous occupation and the miners themselves were all working-class heroes. One of the finest poems is the elegiac and intensely sad Markham Main:

Afternoons they meet up
on street corners
like old youths planning revolution.

Gaffers, fathers, brothers -
an hour at the club with a pint.
Go over the end again, and again.

How they were the last by three days
To stay out in Yorkshire.
How they’d ‘gu back tomorra’.

After school, they take the grand-kids
to the Pit Top Playground, look forward
to the night shift at Ikea. Together.

This poem is the answer to those who have forgotten or never knew – who say glib and stupid things like “coal mining would have died out anyway”, “it wasn’t a green industry” or “we needed someone like Thatcher.” These hypocritical, ill-informed mantras can still be heard.

Like a baton on the back of your head

Yet quoting piecemeal in this way does not do justice to the cumulative effect of the poems and pictures together. As photograph and poem are linked symbiotically, the inexorable gravitas of poem on poem and image on image hits you with the weight of a ton of imported coal or even a policeman’s baton on the back of the head. By the end, even though I knew what the tragic conclusion was, I was moved to anger, sorrow, pity, and yes, recrimination. A spontaneous overflow of emotions that Wordsworth would have been delighted to conjure.

I began this review with a cliche, so here’s another: L.P. Hartley wrote that “the past is a foreign country”. I thank Sarah Wimbush for providing me with a passport and a means of transport even if the destination I arrived at was depressingly similar to the one I live in now.  40 years down the depressing line Britain is like a rudderless boat in the North Sea. A country of inequality and disunity, of foodbanks, homelessness, drugs, anti-union/freedom legislation. If this is what Thatcher meant by “trickle-down economics” then well done…

In a frightening, collapsing world of conflicts, wars and genocide in Gazza, Ukraine, Yemen, Myanmar, and the Sudan, it is easy to feel powerless and unable to change things. It is also possible to stick your head in the sand and believe that we are, in the big scheme, fortunate that we live in Britain. STRIKE reminds us of two things.

Firstly, that the British state has never been averse to ruthlessly stamping out, by illegal and forceful means if needed, anything it perceives to be a domestic threat or challenge to its corrupt Westminster hegemony. It was Thatcher and her allies who did the striking – at individual and collective freedoms, at the very folk they were charged to protect.

Secondly, there was a time forty years ago when it was possible to take a side and change things for a positive future. Back then, most of us failed abjectly, against The Enemy:

Enemy waving tenners
Enemy raking it in
Enemy living next door
Enemy as kin
Enemy ditch their epaulettes
Enemy waits for dawn
Enemy cries
casus belli
Enemy bends every law

As the anniversary documentaries appear on our screens, the memoirs are published, the justifications, denials and excuses are aired, we desperately need books like STRIKE that are able to realign us with the objective truth of history. In STRIKE the combination of contemporary photography with metaphor and word imagery provides the reader with the big sociological picture. The enormity and significance and causes of the last Miners’ Strike are revealed vividly. We shouldn’t forget again. History cannot be changed but the future can. What the book proves is that “Our language still exists” if nothing else.

I'll end with some verses from Death by Strike:

Strike is a black lily
falling through the air
like a broken house brick.

Strike is the pressure
of a coal wagon
on a picket line at Ferrybridge.

Strike is a caber
tossed onto a Ford Cortina
inside a concrete block.

STRIKE by Sarah Wimbush, Stairwell Books, ISBN 978-1-913432-80-5, £15. Available here or a signed copy by request on X @SarahWimbush 

The Way: confused resistance rather than class consciousness, in a muddled mix of genres
Sunday, 14 July 2024 02:30

The Way: confused resistance rather than class consciousness, in a muddled mix of genres

Dennis Broe reviews The Way. Above image: Owen brandishing King Arthur’s sword - Mandalorian much?

“I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore,” about-to-be-fired news anchor Howard Beale screams in a television rant, urging everyone to go to the window and yell the same thing.

This scene from the film Network, much honored and claimed to be prescient, in fact represents simply mindless, ungrounded fear, vaguely articulated, not drawn from the specific material aspects of people’s lives and thus open to a kind of manipulation that can easily be converted into simple resentment and will become the basis of today’s populism.

Unfortunately, these ungrounded impulses, now 45 years on in the aftermath of the devastation wrought by Reagan, Thatcher et al.’s austerity and neoliberalism, are the basis of the BBC series The Way. Documentary filmmaker Adam Curtis helped conceptualize the three-part series, and there’s evidence of his strengths (eg in tracing advertising industry manipulation in The Century of the Self) but also his glaring weaknesses (eg in the more recent anti-revolutionary, rabidly anti-populist documentary Can’t Get You Out of My Head).

The Way blends a loosely constructed family fiction around the Welsh steel and former mining town of Port Talbot with documentary footage of the 1984 Miners’ Strike, and a mythical otherworldly aspect that summons King Arthur’s pulling the sword from the stone, the lifting of the series title phrase “The Way” from the Star Wars’ Mandalorian code of conduct, and Scottish folklore of a proselytizing Red Monk who kickstarts a town rebellion.  

Picture4

Howard Beale’s populist rant in Network 

Into this soup of inluences is thrown the actual condition of the steelworks, with an Indian owner, in the series Japanese, who is always on the verge of closing the plant. The problem – and this is a Curtis mainstay – is that the characters are utterly deceived by a passive mediatized lifestyle. Owen, the lead character, who “can’t remember the last time I felt anything,” is, as his love interest describes, “a drug addict in recovery dealing drugs” to which her response is “I don’t care, it’s not my business.”

This passivity and foolishness influences their actions, as workers in the town strike the plant before it can close, though no immediate closing is threatened. Owen tosses a lead pipe which ignites the carnage with the police, which of course echoes the bone thrown across the ages in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Only this time it signals the utter breakdown of civilization rather than its terrifying advance, as in Kubrick’s film.

Wales is sealed off from “Britain”, and thus episode two begins with the family’s own odyssey as they attempt to march to safety in a now open police state. In the series, much hostility is summoned but it remains vague (“The British don’t revolt, they gripe”) with the actual problems of deindustrialization and a devastated economy expressed in generalized slogans.

These slogans do not directly confront the power structure and the massive redistribution of wealth that began in 1980 with the launching of the neoliberal era, just after Network premiered. In that film, people start throwing their televisions out the window, when they mighthave done better by storming the television station and taking over the means of production of the media.

Writers Guild of America 2023 writers strike rev

The 2023 Writers' Guild strike 

The ungrounded populism expressed in both Network and The Way does accurately convey the very real grievances felt by the population – but behind each lies the firm conviction that workers are too coddled and deceived by omnipresent media to be able to do more than threaten irrational action. But this mindset was just recently disproved by the massive strikes in the entertainment and service industry in Los Angeles, and which continue throughout the U.S.

These campaigns and strikes in the U.S. have specific demands, and represent a growing understanding and awareness by workers, not only of their situation but of how to use today’s media for their own purposes. This understanding is not present in The Way.

If the Port Talbot steel plant, along with another plant closes, Britain will only be fashioning steel from scraps and leftovers, rather than making it. The Way, with its muddled mix of genres and its deceived chaotic individuals is also fashioned from scraps – that is, the leftovers and the detritus of the entertainment industry and the subjectivity of its victims, who in this telling offer only confused resistance.  

Labyrinths of Austerity
Sunday, 14 July 2024 02:30

Labyrinths of Austerity

Published in Life Writing

Writer-director Brett Gregory on his bleak, moving, semi-autobiographical feature film, Nobody Loves You and You Don’t Deserve to Exist’, which tackles austerity, class, and mental health. Images are taken from the film. An interview with Brett is here.

Although I was born on an RAF base in Buckinghamshire, I was raised on a run-down council estate in a Nottinghamshire mining town from the mid-1970s to the early 1990s. After my alcoholic stepdad was arrested for assault for the umpteenth time, my mum became a single parent on benefits with three children. We had no money: we ate salad cream sandwiches, we used the local newspaper as toilet roll and I could only afford to go to the cinema once over this period, and that was to watch ‘Tron’ at the ABC Cinema in 1982 for my 11th birthday.

Film Still 1

Every other movie I watched was either on a black and white portable television in my bedroom or on pirated VHS tapes on the colour television in the living room downstairs.As a result, I have no spiritual affinity with cinema-going or any of its mystical rituals like many other filmmakers claim to have. With television however it’s a different story. For example, in 1982 I also grew aware of the power of the British State by following Newsnight reports about the Falklands Conflict throughout the spring. This was far removed from reading about World War I or World War II in history books; this was seemingly happening in the present tense right before my very eyes.

It was around this time as well when I became fascinated by a puzzle book called ‘Masquerade’. The author, Kit Williams, had buried a bejewelled golden pendant in the shape of a hare somewhere in England, and in the book – which told the story of Jack Hare – he’d hidden textual and pictorial clues to pinpoint the pendant’s exact location. I never solved the puzzle, and the treasure was discovered by way of fraud in 1988. The 2009 BBC documentary ‘The Man Behind the Masquerade’ tells the story.

In 1984 the Miners' Strike broke out and, as hundreds of working-class communities were torn apart across the Midlands and the North, I then became aware that the British State would attack its own citizens just as readily as it would foreign entities. Watch video footage of ‘The Battle of Orgreave’ online and you’ll see what I mean.

Film Still 5

Such familicidal tendencies were further demonstrated in the mid-1980s when Margaret Thatcher’s Tory government launched a completely unhinged and homophobic public health campaign using the slogan: ‘AIDS: Don't Die of Ignorance’ which infected an entire generation of adolescents with paranoia, distrust and self-doubt. The original leaflet is archived by the Wellcome Trust.

Surrounded by all this new knowledge and real life horror, it’s no surprise that by this point I’d started to read Stephen King novels and Clive Barker’s ‘Books of Blood’. In turn, I’d also begun to take the family’s Jack Russell, Shandy, on three hour long walks across farmers’ fields and to a nearby forest, as faraway from civilisation as possible.

I wasn’t a monk however, and would lead a double life by hanging around the front of the shops on the estate with older teenage lads in the evening: learning how to smoke, how to spit, how to swear, how to be angry and how to tell stories ‘that had better be fucking funny!’ When everyone eventually wandered home, I’d then return to my bedroom and switch on the Acorn Electron personal computer which my mum had bought on hire purchase to keep me quiet.

Film Still 2

Interestingly, if you wanted to play ‘free’ DIY games like ‘Tomb Hunter’ or ‘Spy Raider’ on a personal computer you had to type in hundreds of lines of BASIC code which were published in magazines like ‘Electron User’. However, if you made one single error – missed out a number or a letter or typed a colon instead of a semi-colon – then the game wouldn’t work. Little did I know at the time but this painstaking transcription process taught me extremely close reading skills and these would later prove very useful when I studied literary theory and literary criticism as a part of my BA and MA degrees in English Literature in the 1990s and, in turn, when I began to write, direct and edit short films in the 2000s.

In 1988, while writing a crappy ‘Twilight Zone’-style short story on a second-hand Olivetti typewriter in the kitchen, I noticed that Thatcher’s Tory government had now begun to mute all television broadcasts that featured representatives of Sinn Féin, a practice that would only end in 1994. It was at this very moment when it was confirmed for me that I didn’t live in a free society, and I probably never had.

Why was I was being denied access to this information? Why was I being denied the opportunity to make up my own mind about things, or gauge how I felt about such things? Or consider how I should or should not react to them? Or even learn from them? Furthermore, what other information was being withheld from me? What else didn’t I know? And why?

Naturally, as a young man desperate for answers which he was never going to receive, I grew frustrated and started searching out alternatives to the mainstream like I was on some sort of survival mission. I began to read the work of ‘troublemakers’ like George Orwell, Edgar Allen Poe, Jack Kerouac and Oscar Wilde, as well as whatever biographies I could lay my hands on at the local library in town.

In turn, I also started watching Moviedrome on BBC 2. A late-night television series which started in 1988, it was basically film school for poor people. Subversive film director Alex Cox (‘Repo Man’, ‘Sid and Nancy’) was the presenter. He would enthusiastically discuss the origin, production, style and themes of films which I’d never heard of. These films would then be screened, and I’d suddenly feel my imagination expand, feeling a little less insane and a little less alone. Science fiction classics like ‘X: The Man with X-Ray Eyes’, ‘The Incredible Shrinking Man’ or ‘The Fly’ (with Vincent Price), and newer experimental fare like ‘The Man Who Fell to Earth’. Rugged 1970s films like ‘Five Easy Pieces’, ‘Point Blank’, ‘Badlands’ and ‘The Parallax View’.

What this four-year study programme of ‘cult’ films taught me, as well as the literary books I was now rifling through on a regular basis, was that it wasn’t simply what you thought that mattered but, if you desired to feel vaguely like yourself on your own terms, then how you thought was just as necessary.

After finishing my BA and MA about eight years later I started claiming housing benefit for this damp, solitary bedsit I was confined to while I worked part-time at the library at the University of Derby for the next six years. The main reason for this was so I could have free access to all the books which I’d never had the opportunity to read while in formal education. I gorged myself on Jorge Luis Borges, Dante Alighieri, Leo Tolstoy, Charles Bukowski, Gustav Meyrink, Jean Genet, Umberto Eco, James Joyce, Knut Hamsun, Joris-Karl Huysmans, Primo Levi, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Alasdair Gray and Franz Kafka.

After watching the attacks on the World Trade Centre on television on September 11, 2001, I realised that the human race and its leaders were never going to improve during my lifetime, and so I decided I might as well study to be a teacher, sharing what I’d learned, before it was too late. In 2003 I then managed to secure a job teaching A Level Film Studies and A Level Cultural Studies at a college in Manchester.

These recollections of my early personal and cultural life form the basis of my aesthetic approach in ‘Nobody Loves You and You Don’t Deserve to Exist’. For example, as well as the myth of Sisyphus and Hieronymus Bosch’s ‘The Garden of Earthly Delights’, the narrative structure is loosely based on Virginia Woolf’s ‘To the Lighthouse’, and the Lacanian phallocentric ‘I’ - which is associated with this novel’s subtext. In the film, Young Jack even points to the Stoodley Pike monument at one stage and exclaims, “And that big tower looks like a lighthouse, dunnit?”

Film Still 4

In turn, different types of storytelling are addressed to try and understand how and why these represent, and even help to construct, who we think we are. For example, there are numerous ‘storytellers’ present throughout, but who is telling the truth? What about gossip, rumour, poor memory or falsehoods? Who should we trust? The dominant third-person narrator; the newsreaders on the mobile phone; Boris Johnson; the Granny’s voicemails; the female interviewees’ recollections; the protagonist as a boy, as a youth or as a man; Brett Gregory the screenwriter or Brett Gregory the director?

A copy of Kit Williams’ ‘Masquerade’ appears in one of the opening scenes as an intertextual prompt. The characters Young Jack, Jack and Old Jack each tell the audience that they’re looking for their missing dog, Shandy, who keeps getting lost while chasing rabbits. So all three ‘Jacks’ are chasing an invisible ‘Jack’ Russell who, in turn, is chasing the fictional ‘Jack’ Hare from ‘Masquerade’ in the hope that this will ultimately lead to… what? Treasure? The Truth? The Prelapsarian Past? This idea of losing oneself within oneself is also flagged up in the opening Borges’ quote from ‘Labyrinths’ and reiterated in the print of M.C. Escher’s ‘Relativity’ which appears on one of the doors in the protagonist’s flat.

The monologues delivered throughout were written to function as the characters’ streams-of-consciousness, rather than spoken words, since what they’re saying and how they’re saying it is far too complicated to be deemed to be a part of the social realist genre.

In these ways then the film is structured like a working-class modernist novella and, I suppose, this is why a general audience finds it difficult to understand. If my name was David Lynch, I presume people would be inclined to put more effort in.

This said, I have great faith that the film will find a wider audience over time. Co-producer, Jack Clarke, who’s around twenty-five years younger than me, has promised to make sure the film is still available to audiences long after I’m gone.

‘Nobody Loves You and You Don’t Deserve to Exist’ is currently available here on Amazon Prime in the UK and the US.

This article originally appeared in Strange Exiles in June 2023.

Laurel Strip resized

Wonderland
Sunday, 14 July 2024 02:30

Wonderland

Published in Theatre

Ross Bradshaw reviews a recent play at the Nottingham Playhouse about the 1984 Miners' Strike.

Wonderland, written by Beth Steel, was the first play of the new artistic director at Nottingham Playhouse, Adam Penford. It ended with a full house and an almost completely standing ovation. It was, I gather, not the first ovation during the run.

Wonderland was set during the lead up to and throughout the year of the miners' strike of 84/85. Much of the play was set underground with a terrific set by Morgan Large which gave you both the sense of grandeur in some of the big halls underground, and the claustrophobia of the lifts taking miners to the coal face.

Like many in the audience, I was around during the strike in Notts., and knew how it ended, but the play's and the strike's turning points still kept me tense. In fact knowing what would happen created more tension, such as when the police waved pickets through to Orgreave. We all know now it was an ambush. There were people in the audience last night who had been at Orgreave on the day.

The whole play was well acted. The Tory wet, Peter Walker, conflicted over doing a job he only half believed in was, perhaps, the stand out. But the group of miners, from hardened men with their pension in sight to new, nervous recruits, played so well. I had not picked up in advance they had to sing and dance, at the same time as looking like they were people who worked hard, smeared in filth. Naomi Said, the Movement Director, deserves credit for the choreography on stage.

The creepy David Hart was, perhaps, played too much for laughs and being identified as a Jew (which he was not, other than by his father's family history and his experience of anti-Semitism at Eton)
made me uncomfortable. But yes, he was creepy like that in real life and, like the incoming "butcher" NCB director Ian MacGregor - and the working Notts miners, for that matter - he was considered expendable in the end by Margaret Thatcher.

Being Notts., of course, most NUM members did not strike, and some who did were starved back before the end. The arguments on the picket line were intense, and you felt for the young lad who'd had to kill his dog because he could no longer afford to feed it. Eleven months in, people had sold everything they could sell.

The play was not all grim. Pit humour was good. The best laugh was when a car load of pickets were stopped and, knowing they would not get through anyway, and said to the police they were Morris dancers. At the end, the cast individually mentioned some of the stories - of those who had died during the strike, including the three children who'd lost their lives scavenging for coal. The three miners who had committed suicide. The taxi driver who was killed taking a scab to work. The striker David Jones, killed at Ollerton on the picket line. The devastation of the communities left behind.

The audience rose and saluted the cast, and they dropped down Welbeck NUM banner, where the writer's dad had been a miner. As I stood I was thinking of loyal NUM members I know like Eric Eaton, Keith Stanley and Brian Walker, who died a few weeks back, and others I'd met in what is now the Notts Retired and Ex-Miners group. And four women, active in the strike, all now dead - Liz Hollis (who killed herself during that year), Pat Paris, Ida Hackett and Joan Witham.

In discussion with friends, it is the absence of women that comes up. There is power play between Hart, Walker, MacGregor and the ideologue, Nicholas Ridley. Underground, and later on the picket line, there is the traditional miners' camaraderie, a brutal reminder from the experienced "Bobbo", played by Tony Bell, that every miner watches each other's back (the symbolism of that statement is not lost) and a moving, even loving scene when the miners washed each others back, in the shower after a shift. This was a play about men, and men's relationships. Yet women, in Notts and elsewhere, were visible in the strike, in the soup kitchens, on platforms and on the picket lines. At Welbeck as much as anywhere. A few lines in the play reflected this, but it would have been quite easy to include women on the picket lines without needing to change the nature of the production.

Still, a fantastic effort by the whole ensemble.

Wonderland has now finished at the Nottingham Playhouse, but may be touring elsewhere. For a short film which puts the role of women in the miners' strike centre stage, see here.

Outdoor Ghost Lab at the Utopia Festival, Somerset House, London, 2016
Sunday, 14 July 2024 02:30

Social haunting in the Brexit coalfields

Published in Education

Dr Geoff Bright introduces a fascinating arts-based educational project, concerned with remembering, re-imagining and re-enacting alternative community futures in the abandoned, de-industrialised pit communities in the North of England.

Over this last three years I’ve enjoyed bringing together a team of academics, artists, community trade unionists and activists in what is effectively a kind of community ghost hunt! We are now beginning the third of three related Arts and Humanities Research Council funded projects that have steadily refined a unique arts-based approach to researching what we’re calling the ‘social haunting’ of deindustrialised communities. The current project Song Lines: Creating Living Knowledge through Working with Social Haunting builds on two earlier AHRC ‘Connected Communities’ investigations: Working with a Social Haunting, which worked in the South Yorkshire coalfield and Rochdale area in Lancashire during 2015; and Opening the ‘Unclosed Space’, which hunted social ghosts in the North Staffordshire coalfield and was showcased at the Utopia Festival at Somerset House, London, on the very first weekend after the Brexit vote.

Basically, all three of these projects grew out of research work that I did after a good proportion of a working lifetime spent in the UK coalfields of Derbyshire and South Yorkshire: growing up in a pit family, as a railway trade union activist who was heavly involved in the 1984-85 miners’ strike and, from the 90s on, as someone who worked as a community activist/educator in that area. My doctoral study – which focussed on pit village youngsters who were being excluded from school and was completed in 2013 – suggested that the 84-85 strike and its aftermath were far from being matters of merely historical interest but remained, rather, a continuing – if, more often than not, unspoken – context for the lived, cultural experience of people, young and old.

Fieldwork that I did revealed a complex, intergenerational transmission process - a “kind of haunting” - as some of my research participants called it - whereby a web of feelings relating to the conflicted culture of the coalfields continued to shape cultural identity in a form of knowing without knowing that is more than mere tacit knowledge, habitus, or embodied collective memory and that persists even though the material impetus for those feelings has, to all intents and purposes, disappeared.

More than a decade after that research commenced, the situation is essentially the same. Occult affective intensities still speak through the absent present of the coal industry in multiple ways. To name but a few routes: there are redundant architectures of extraction - the run-down villages that have no reason, now, for being where they are. There are invented landscapes of what we might call regenerative erasure - the faux rural of pit tips made into ‘country parks’. There are inscriptions on, and inside, bodies, named as ‘white’ finger or ‘black’ lung, a residual chiascuro of industrial injury and disability. And there are gendered affective practices of repetition and reversal, where the men still work remembered coal seams in half-empty Welfare clubs, while the women staff the new precariat.

In a nutshell, the strike is now over thirty years past, the coal industry gone, and coal has been firmly re-positioned as the bete noir of the Anthropocene, rather than the celebrated ‘black diamond” of industrialisation that it once was. Nevertheless, the conflicted and ‘sticky’ affects generated by coal’s conflicted past have far from disappeared. The spontaneous “Thatcher funerals’ that celebrated the death of former PM Margaret Thatcher in 2012 were perhaps the most striking and visible examples of these latent forces, but the widespread Brexit vote across the coalfields is probably their most complex and far reaching manifestation.

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A social haunting

Following Avery Gordon’s remarkable insights in her 1997 book Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination, we’ve used the idea of a ‘social haunting’ to think about these phenomena and have tried to put into practice a mode of research capable of getting in touch with social ghosts. How have we approached that? Well, working with a social haunting is about working with the hidden, so we thought, first, about how we might look beyond the ‘blind field’ (as Avery calls it) of the conventional social research disciplines. Secondly, a haunting indicates a troubled social field. It is a communal socio-political-psychological state that “…registers the harm inflicted or the loss sustained by a social violence done in the past or in the present” and is evident at that moment when “disturbed feelings cannot be put away”.

So we knew that we would be working with trouble as well. A participatory arts-based inquiry delivered with high regard to the best of adult community education practice, but playfully, seemed to offer the best approach. However, and this is key to our work, we also wanted to respond to something else that Avery Gordon had particularly emphasised: the fact that a social haunting carries a political imperative. It is always an indication that “something else, something different from before, seems like it must be done”. Hence, we devised our Ghost Lab approach.

Song lines

The Ghost Labs – essentially a semi-improvised, art/activist “event-space” (in cultural philosopher Brian Massumi’s words) – create a space in which to re-imagine how difficult affective meanings carried into the present from contested pasts might, rather than narrowing the scope of imaginable futures, actually be harnessed as energies for benevolent change. The Ghost Labs’ success thus far has been rooted in their capacity to allow participants to reflect on subjugated community histories using collective poetry, playback theatre, and comic strip, for example, as modes of re-imagining and enacting alternative community futures in a way that is enjoyable and remarkably peaceable, even when those communities have suffered divisive traumatic change.

As one of our participants from our first project said: "We had a laugh, did something different, got to know each other and ourselves a bit better...It felt good to try to express myself through unusual means - for me - like poetry or even drawing. Doing it together created a powerful and lasting feeling...".

Working again with our key community partners Unite Community; the Co-op College, the Song Lines project will use the newest tool from the Ghost Lab’s repertoire of arts-based ‘ghost hunting’ tools: the ‘Community Tarot’. The Community Tarot is just one of the repertoire of arts based methods that the Labs employ. It is designed around individual readings, divided into past, present and future, using a pack of cards produced from images and words collected from our partner communities. So it offers a simple, playful, but richly productive device with which to bring to light contradictory and troubling aspects of what academic social psychologist Valerie Walkerdine has called “communal being-ness”.

As individual readings are collected together as community readings, a kind of living cultural lexicon of community imagination begins to assemble itself, and hidden themes becoming increasingly clear and available for reflection and renewed action.

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The new project aims specifically to address feelings around Brexit and will see the Community Tarot technique rolled out in five new communities: three in the NE of England – Sunderland, Seaham, and Horden on the Durham coalfield – and two in the NW – Rochdale and Hyde, Tameside. The creative materials generated through those Community Tarot readings will stimulate the creation of a set of contemporary ‘video ballads’ that ally with local traditions of dissenting song and will be specially written and recorded by our partner folk musicians, Ribbon Road. The video ballads will be used to initiate “song lines” of living knowledge outwards from, and back into, the originating communities as they circulate through a series of interactive public engagement and dissemination channels that will reach new audiences in marginalised and de-industrialised communities in the UK, the Basque Country, Slovenia, US, Hungary, Haiti and Malawi through the channel of community radio.

The culmination of our project will be a practitioner and policy maker conference - and not-to-be-missed live performance by Ribbon Road - at the People’s History Museum, Manchester, on November 8th, 2107. We’ll also be at the Unite Community stall at the Durham Miners’ Gala and Great Yorkshire Show and at the Wigan Diggers’ Festival during summer 2017. Listen out for the beautiful voice of Ribbon Road’s, Brenda Heslop! Get a taste of it here: Ribbon Road. Try listening to Daddy for You, Eddie’s Tattoo Studio, or The Numbered Streets and you’ll see what our work is getting at.